I’m fortunate to know a group of people as passionate about film as I am. They make every effort to see as many movies as possible through the course of any given year. They’re students, programmers, filmmakers, screenwriters, bloggers, critics, and journalists. In this space, when I reference people I know whose opinions I respect (and who often hold positions contrary to my own), that’s who I’m talking about. The debates and conversations are always enriching.
As the year is wrapping up, I’ve invited them to contribute to Flaw In The Iris, and a few have kindly taken me up on it.
These are the questions I asked:
1 ) What are five features you enjoyed in 2016?
2) Name a film that was under-appreciated or under-seen, and why it deserves to have a higher profile.
3) If there was something you didn’t see enough of in 2016, what would you like to see more of in films in 2017? Or maybe a filmmaker who you miss? A cinematic wish for next year.
The first to respond, via email, were Nick Malbeuf and Hillary West.
Malbeuf is a cinephile studying political science and film studies at the University of King’s College. He aspires to become a film critic, programmer, or curator, volunteers at Carbon Arc Cinema, and occasionally writes for their blog. His personal writing on film can be found at Letterboxd.
He started with five favourite films from 2016:
In between her Best Picture Oscar nominee Selma and her upcoming adaptation of the classic A Wrinkle in Time for Disney, Ava DuVernay quietly made 13th, a documentary that uses the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution as a starting point for deconstructing the ways in which American culture and politics continue to neglect, devalue, and destroy black lives. It is an essay film that provides a crucial primer on political corruption and racism that puts a human face on statistics that some may already be familiar with. It is powerful viewing, made easily accessible by its straight-to-Netflix release.
4. Toni Erdmann
A transnational story of fading political idealism, human disconnect, and dad jokes, Maren Ade’s 162-minute German drama-comedy Toni Erdmann takes a discreet filmmaking approach to a hilariously unique narrative. It’s an intimate epic with brains, heart, and laughter that deserves all the critical acclaim being heaped upon it on the festival circuit throughout the year.
3. The Love Witch
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch refers to Elaine, a beautiful woman with her heart set on casting a spell over the man who will finally bring her the sexual balance she needs. It’s a feminist fairy tale bringing a female gaze, while playing with retro-filmmaking techniques, including affected acting and gorgeous cinematography that evokes classic Technicolor films, transforming the old-school familiar into something wildly original. Analyzing (cis-) gender psychology, performativity, and heterosexual romance, it often feels like a comedy, but is ultimately a tragedy; the story of a woman whose self-worth has been defined by patriarchal values, unable to find the love she seeks, left only with her fantasies. Not to mention that Biller has taken auteurism to a new level; she was responsible for writing, direction, production, editing, costume design, production design, and music on the film.
In Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson, a long-time, uh, cameraperson, reassembles years of footage she captured in the personal and professional field into a memoir film. The footage, which crosses borders from boxers in Brooklyn, midwives in Nigeria, a family in Bosnia, and beyond may seem unrelated, but a deeply layered experience arises out of these seemingly disparate clips, investigating the importance of the human presence behind a camera, film’s ability to create empathy, and a recurring preoccupation with motherhood. It’s a celebration of cinema and the human experience conveying immense amounts of wisdom without any didacticism; an accomplishment rarely seen in documentary.
Moonlight is an emotional powerhouse. It’s a film made of intimate moments, captured in striking images with an achingly beautiful score. Many of these images hurt; a self-loathing young boy meets the camera’s gaze as he stares at his reflection, his drug-addicted mother screaming at him, a lover turned against him violently. However, it’s the small moments of joy and release in which Moonlight finds its beauty; the same boy dancing in front of a mirror, a mentor teaching him to float in the ocean, the boy’s hand grasping at sand during his first sexual experience. It’s a deeply humanistic film informed by the identity politics of race, gender, and sexuality. It’s about the struggle to define one’s self and will make your heart ache. Words simply don’t do the movie justice.
Honourable mentions: Things to Come, Chevalier, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, Queen of Katwe, The Witch, Green Room, The Fits, Sonita, Finding Dory, High-Rise
My one underappreciated film pick is Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Although it’s probably actually more widely known than any of my five main picks, as a “visual album” it didn’t seem to accrue the same cultural clout within cinephile circles as the others. But make no mistake, this letter to America from a scorned lover is one of the most interesting film experiments of the year. Mixing music video chic aesthetics with spoken word intellect and black power politics, turning head-bobbing and booty-twerking into a warrior dance, Beyoncé has weaved a tapestry of joy and anger, celebrating black women’s beauty and decrying their marginalization and mistreatment.
A cornrowed Beyoncé staring down the camera singing “I am the dragon breathing fire” is more intense and powerful than any moment in the history of action films, and this heroine is fierce enough to rival 2015’s mainstream cinematic feminist icon Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Forget HBO slots, Lemonade deserved to be screened in IMAX and sent to the Oscars.
What was missing in 2016
Diversity both behind and in front of the camera was sorely missed in 2016. Don’t get me wrong; as my list of favourite films from the year reflects, women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ -identified people brought it this year. However, it’s not the quality that’s missing, it’s the quantity. Most of these filmmakers are having to settle as independents, with major studios not backing many of their projects at all. A few exceptions do come to mind, especially Disney’s underappreciated Queen of Katwe, featuring a delightful Lupita Nyong’o.
And people of colour directed some of the only decent major studio releases: Star Trek Beyond, The Conjuring 2, and The Magnificent Seven.
While I’m glad that the independent approach probably allows these filmmakers greater freedom creatively, it also restricts their ability to get projects produced, especially if they require a significant budget. I’m desperately hoping for this to change in the coming years. Exclusion at these rates should be alarming in any industry, and especially in the business of popular culture storytelling. Even beyond the social justice aspect, it simply deprives audiences of the chance to see more great works from these industry outsiders.
Glimmers of hope are DC’s 2017 Wonder Woman by Patty Jenkins, Ryan Coogler’s 2018 Black Panther movie for Marvel, and, as I mentioned, Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time adaptation for Disney. Let’s give some more funding to projects by talented filmmakers like these. Please.
Hillary West is a filmmaking student at the NSCC working towards becoming a director. Growing up she found herself fascinated with the world of movies, believing in their reality more than she cares to admit. She is a regular volunteer with Carbon Arc Cinema, and her writing can also be found here at Letterboxd.
Here’s her five:
Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by Travis Knight
I Laika’d this movie, I Laika’d it a lot. I had to, I’m sorry. Let’s move on.
The studio Laika is only 11 years old and it’s already dominating the stop-motion animation world. With each feature (including Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Box Trolls) they get more and more impressive and Kubo is breathtaking. The first scene alone is enough to make you want to give them every accolade possible, but then you continue on and it gets better and better. Seriously, that first scene of Kubo’s mother passing through a very turbulent sea brought on by her magical family was hands down one of the best animated sequences I’ve ever watched.
From the touching story, to the score, this feature is an amazing work of art. It works for any age. Admittedly I typically laugh more than the younger audiences that are usually in the theatre with me for family movies, but I feel it was pretty equal this time. And Regina Spektor sings, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,“ which was just the icing on the cake.
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Leaving the theatre after just seeing the movie I felt like writing a novel’s length of a review. Everything about this film is absolutely gorgeous, and I want to see more of Sasha Lane who just blows you away in her breakout role as Star. I was intrigued as anybody would be when learning that the film was shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the ratio gave the narrative so much more impact than I had initially thought. This film, for me, is about creating your own story and not succumbing to an expected outcome.
A second theme jumped out at me throughout the course of the film: Are we every really free? These characters live their lives without rules or limitations, they’ve found a way to escape. Star is looking for just that, but she, like the others, all seem to be hold themselves back. The cinematography enhances this idea with shots of beautiful open landscapes lying just ahead, giving the idea of hope. The end, although quiet, was poetic—Star stands in the calm water, decides to start new and to move forward. This film also had one of the best, if not the best soundtrack of the year.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Directed by Richard Linklater
Linklater does it again! I’m a huge fan of his and of Dazed and Confused (1993) and this was the greatest “sequel” in a world where sequels are notoriously not great. I had no doubt that I would love this movie after hearing about it and watching trailers, but I REALLY loved this movie. He again took a cast of relatively lesser-known but talented actors, and made something so meaningful and hilarious. Both films are small perfect peeks into the transformative moments of the characters’ lives. We watch each incredibly complex person on the cusp of becoming who they’re going to be.
Everybody Wants Some!! already feels like it’s going to be a cult classic, it’s an amazing period piece, and although I wasn’t around for the ’80’s, nothing felt phoney to me. With each new film he creates, I feel more inclined to live in a world wearing Linklater-coloured glasses.
Swiss Army Man
Directed by Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
A movie featuring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe—as a farting corpse—guiding each other spiritually, was one of the most charming films of 2016? What? Yes. It’s absurd and moving, and I left the theatre with a huge smile on my face. What I love most about this movie is that even though these two characters seem so wildly different from myself, I still feel weirdly connected to them as they show each other how to live. The cinematography was dream-like and I really loved the work the art department did creating each “hand-crafted” element that made up their make-believe world. What also made this film so great was the casting. If it had been any other actors, the story and performances wouldn’t feel as weirdly believable.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
I have seen Moonlight three times now, and I can say confidently that I could watch it countless times more. If you haven’t had the chance yet, please go see it, it’s one of the most important films of this year. Visually it’s stunning, between the camera movements and the intimate images to the beautiful lighting and colours. Narratively it leaves you speechless. Watching Chiron live shyly and afraid in a world of issues of class, family, masculinity, and sexual orientation was heartbreaking and done so incredibly well. Jenkins brought all of these themes together brilliantly in one particular scene—during the first act when Little sits across from Juan and Teresa and confronts all of these issues for the first time. I want to cry just writing about it.
This was by far the best movie of 2016.
Underseen of 2016:
First Girl I Loved (2016)
Directed by Kerem Sanga
It goes without saying that queer cinema never gets the spotlight that it deserves, which is infuriating. I felt like this film in particular wasn’t given the recognition I was hoping it would. Dylan Gelula’s performance as high school student Anne experiencing love for the first time is sincere and real. It is an amazing coming-of-age story unlike most teenage romance movies in theatres today—it actually feels true to real life. The camera work is stunning. One of my favourite shots from 2016 is of the close-up of Anne in the bar with the soft pink light hitting her face as she dares to give into what she wants and looks for a sign from Sasha that it’s okay.
I’m really excited for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming feature Lady Bird that she is both writing and directing. Mistress America was really great, and I’m excited to watch her writing again. I have never watched anything of hers or featuring her that I haven’t loved. Not only is this a complete Gerwig project, but Saoirse Ronan is playing the lead role. She is another actress who in my book can do no wrong.
Also, sometimes Spike Jonze releases funky, fun, innovative shorts like the Kenzo World perfume ad and then doesn’t have anything else scheduled anytime soon. It makes you realize how much you love and value his work and want to watch it constantly.