Let’s start with the ten best of the year, as I submitted to RogerEbert.com. In preferential order, I will admit. The stuff I reviewed is linked to; the stuff I didn't is commented on, mostly.
1) Cosmos (Andrzej Zulawzki)
Not reviewed by me, although I did do the booklet essay for the Kino Lorber home video release. Which I obviously recommend that you buy. But as I do not want to be withholding, here is an excerpt from my essay, which I very much thank R. Emmett Sweeney:
[W]hile [Witold] Gombrowicz [the Polish literary giant from whose novel this film was adapted] was among other things one of the great modernists of 20th century culture, his Cosmos, for all of its sardonic tone and mode of reader address, concerns itself with realism in a relatively realistic fashion. But Zulawski’s film is a mechanically constructed dream of the novel that could be taking this very passage from the novel as a provocation: “I wasn’t present. Isn’t it true (I thought), that one is almost never present, or rather never fully present, and that’s because we have only a half-hearted, chaotic and slipshod, disgraceful and vile relationship with our surroundings; and, what’s more, people who take part in social games, in an excursion for example (I figured) are not even ten percent present.” Because the dynamism of the film, the spectacularly alert quality of André Szankowski’s camera, the exhilarating forward (and occasionally backward) motion of Julia Gregory’s editing, the lush/syrupy music score by Andrzej Korzynski (which truly sounds like something you’d hear in a 1990s romantic comedy from Hong Kong) and the bravura work by the entire cast, with Sabine Azéma’s manic-to-the-point-of-paralysis Madame Woytis arguably first among equals, creates an absolutely committed relationship to the film’s surroundings, characters and to the quintessential Zulawski themes it finds embedded in Gombrowicz’s work. Although there is no sex scene in the film, and Witold’s object of desire, Lena (the exceptional Victória Guerra), is only seen nude fleetingly, through a window—neither circumstance being particularly common in Zulawski’s oeuvre—the movie is steeped in eroticism, and the mouth-obsession and particularly the lipstick play near the end hark back to past Zulawski imagery (see “The Italian” smearing lipstick on her own mother’s mouth in Szamanka). But even as he calls forth his obsessions (there is a doppelganger for one of the characters in the last quarter of the film), evokes those of Gombrowicz, and pushes them forward with inexorable mastery, he also pokes holes in their ostensible ontology, reveling in revealing their contrivance. A creature believed dead is seen once again haunting a staircase. The movie’s happy ending plays out several times, in different ways, with Witold [the lead character, named for the author of the source material[ content to be by himself, or with Witold coming to terms with having gotten what he wanted. And so it goes, right into he movie’s dryly exuberant gag reel, playing out over the film’s final credits. […] Cosmos is finally a dream of, yes, cosmic comedy. The funniest film Zulawski ever made, and a key to the humor in his past films...
2) Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Did not review, and am kind of glad, because I’d still be working on the damn notice even now and torturing myself. Some salient points: 1) The style that Scorsese forged for this film is astonishing. There’s the self-evident affinity to Last Temptation, of course. But he also incorporates lessons learned from all three of Schrader’s transcendental style bosses, and from Tarkovsky, and Powell as well. But I say “incorporates lessons learned” rather than citing echoes of these filmmakers, because there really aren’t any as such. It doesn’t quote. It stays devotionally grounded in its story and unique mood. 2) Andrew Garfield does take a little getting used to, but once you understand that his character really is, his incredible resilience aside, also in some ways kind of callow, the performance completely comes together. 3) I wonder if they might have had an easier time getting this made had they offered the pitch “It’s Bridge on the River Kwai, only with priests.” But seriously: one of the most moving and thoughtful American pictures of the last fifty years. The only reason the Zulawski is above it is in honor of that director’s swan song and stuff.
3) Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
4) Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
I found this appealing and funny and major not only for the father-daughter stuff but also for Ade’s really dead-on portrayal of gender dynamics in multi-national corporate horror settings. So. I was having lunch the other day with some old friends, one of whom mentioned he missed the blog, and observing that he enjoyed it much in the past, except when I ragged on other critics. I agreed with him and said that ragging on other critics was a sign of emotional immaturity that I was still contending with on a certain level, but was making good progress with. So I’m not going to unload here on the critic who compared this to Patch Adams, or the anti-intellectual clever-clever tendency among certain film writers to try to take down a good picture by inventing an affinity between it and a bad picture. I’m really not going to. In the meantime, see this, it’s good, and nothing like Patch Adams.
5) The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
6) Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
I find it heartening that a movie so poetic and unhurried is getting an audience, and the awards consideration I’m normally unmoved by.
7) The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer), written about at Venice for Ebert
8) Things to Come (Mia Hanson-Løve)
Hanson-Løve has yet to do wrong in my book. Her writing is both delicate and fiercely direct in its point of view, and her direction has both grace and tension, sometimes contained in the same shot. Her study of an academic—Isabelle Huppert, impeccable again—facing a number of life upheavals as she wades out of middle age and into old is a marvelous depiction of how someone stays in the world even as that world seems intent on leaving her behind.
9) Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)
10) Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilović) tied with Baden Baden (Rachel Lang) (Baden Baden obviously counts as an eleventh film on the list entire, but as it's TIED, it won't RANK as an eleventh film. Keep this in mind as we go down the list, which ends at 49, even though fifty are contained. Thanks for your patience.)
And here’s another ten, in no particular order:
11) Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
12) Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
Among other things, one of the best-edited American films of the year, moving with a relaxed but purposeful gait, like a batter who’s hit it out of the park rounds third base to come home. (I know some might want me to talk about jocks, about how awful and unwoke they are, and about how this movie obscures the fact that they are all rapists. I am not going to talk about that.)
13) High Rise (Ben Wheatley)
14) Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
I did not see this so much as a “rape movie” than an ultramodern career-woman picture in which the situations the protagonist had to contend with were turned up to eleven in the dicey department. In other words, a Paul Verhoeven picture. Young filmmakers who go “too far” are sometimes credited with audacity; Verhoeven has nursed his own filmmaking character into a not-unreflective-perversity. He and Isabelle Huppert find near-perfect partners in crime with each other.
15) Creepy (Kiroshi Kurosawa)
The second-best Kurosawa returns to horror with an initially convoluted-seeming tale that turns out to be as simple, and grim, as death. The surreal touches are genuinely unnerving and the ending is one of the most satisfying, in a movie-movie way, I’ve experienced in quite some time.
16) Sully (Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood’s man-at-work tale is one of the most terse and convincing of his late late works.
17) No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Of course Akerman’s movie about the illness and death of her mother, and her subsequent deeply felt absence, hit me hard in 2015, a few months after I lost my own mom. And then we lost Chantal Akerman.
18) Love And Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Stillman’s first period film (I know, I know; Last Days of Disco was set in the past, but this one goes back centuries, not a couple decades) is his most antic and laugh-out-loud funny.
19) The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet)
I was, for multiple reasons, skeptical of this. The fact that Scott Walker (the real Scott Walker, not the undead politician who’s been soiling his name) deigned to do the score raised my eyebrow in a good way, and the movie itself is a very well-calibrated, often galvanic, psycho-political trip that turns out, unfortunately, to be Relevant To Our World Today. Brady Corbet done good.
20) April and the Extraordinary World (Franck Ekinci, Christian Desmares)
Fifteen more, in little particular order:
21) The Other Side (Roberto Minervini)
22) Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
Kate Lynn Shiel is the co-author here, and even if you do not agree entirely with the implications of her conclusion, this film about representation, death, and feminism, is mightily provocative.
23) 11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski)
I’ve seen this capital-N-Nihilist formal tour-de-force described as the worst movie of some year or other (I actually saw it in Venice in 2015, while its practically nonexistent American debut was this year), but it sure is not.
24) Bleak Street (Arturo Ripstein)
25) Paths of the Soul (Zhang Yang)Times
26) Kaili Blues (Gan Bi)
Beautiful, mysterious, lyrical, somehow relaxing in spite of its sadness and implications of dread.
27) Weiner-Dog (Todd Solondz)
I can’t believe Solondz is still teaching after this!
28) Indignation (James Schamus)
29) Miss Hokusai (Keiichi Hara)
30) Always Shine (Sophia Takal)
31) The Wailing (Na Hong-jin) Times
32) Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight) Times
33) 13th (Ava DuVernay)
Should be seen by every citizen of the United States at the very least.
34) My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
Not entirely impeccable, but as sharp and moving a portrait of the irrational splendors of young love as I’ve seen in a long time.
35) The Mermaid (Stephen Chow)Times
And finally, Honorable Mentions:
36) La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
It worked on me, particularly the Emma Stone stuff. But as someone else once said about another director, Chazelle’s signature talent is in making the difficult look difficult.
37) Bleed for This (Ben Younger) Times
38) American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
I admired this picture for a number of things, including Arnold’s disinclination to sentimentalize her protagonist. And then in the final fifth she goes and sentimentalizes her protagonist. Oh well.
39) Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford) Ebert
40) Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears)
Pretty delightful with not enough depth as it wants. Definitely made me want to take back things I used to say about Hugh Grant’s range—he’s quite remarkable here.
41) Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (Abbas Fahdel)
42) The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
A diverting entertainment, funny and just sleazy enough. Kind of a waste of Matt Bomer though.
43) DePalma (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)
I’m still uncertain as to whether “Holy mackerel!” is really Mr. De Palma’s exclamation of choice, or whether he willed it to be for the purposes of this informative exploration of his better work.
44) Joshy (Jeff Baena)
45) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Tense, atmospheric thriller that could have done with maybe twelve fewer shots of roadside signs with foreclosure messages or bankruptcy law firms’ numbers on them.
46) Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
His least edgy feature, but not without rewards
Stuff that was amazing but wasn’t made in 2015/16:
47) Belladonna of Sadness (Elichi Yamamoto)
48) Private Property (Leslie Stevens)
49) Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata)
Not seen in time for anything:
O.J. Made In America
Train to Busan
I, Daniel Blake
In conclusion I should like to add that, yes, there are more documentaries here than are customary for me and my lists and my sensibility, and this is an I think salutary side result of my working with The New York Times and getting assigned more documentaries. This hasn't quite realigned my personal views of the utility of cinema but it's certainly opened me up a little.
Also: Fuck Manchester by the Sea. Okay, maybe not fuck it, but it's not even among my honorables for several reasons. First is its unbelievably clumsy use of Ellington's "Beginning to See the Light" in the we-need-a-montage scene. Another is...well, maybe saying "uncinematic" is not fair, but you know as well as I do that the only reason Kenneth Lonergan directs his films is to keep his precious words intact. And third, the more I am asked to acknowledge the "tragedy" of a self-centered alcoholic who is offered an opportunity to be of genuine service to others, and instead opts to go back to his self-imposed sty of self pity, the less inclined I am to see it as tragedy, and more inclined I am to see it as defensive indulgence. So there. Also, there's the way the film neatly sidesteps issues of both moral and legal responsibility, the better to let the viewer experience all that emotion. My friend A.O. Scott raised some eyebrows in his Times review when he said it would be a mistake to deny that the movie had a racial dimension but it certainly does. I myself was reminded of the Lou Whitney song "Thirty Days in the Workhouse," the chorus of which goes "I got thirty days in the workhouse/now don't you shed no tears/'cause if I'd been a black man/they'd have given me thirty years." As Jerry Lee Lewis likes to say, think about it.