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Some Favorite Movies of 2016

I thought it’d be fun to run down some of my favorite movies watched in 2016. These are not all new releases; in fact, this will be a pretty heavy non-2016-release list.

These are more or less in the order I saw them this year (as well as memory serves). I’m only recording films that I saw for the first time in 2016.

tree

Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

This is cinema at its most maximalist and self-indulgent. Yeah, it’s a little too long, it’s got a little too much weirdo/mystical shit going on, but Malick does create a imagistic language and visual grammar all his own (and which has already been transparently ripped off). And he does a pretty good job turning the Book of Job into a cinematic fable for our times while also cutting in a good deal of the scientific explanation of all existence. So, it should be experienced.

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Paths of the Soul by Zhang Yang

This is a feature movie with documentary aspects following a group of Tibetan villagers making a 1200-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa. Not only do they walk the entire way, they do so kowtowing, which means that they throw themselves onto the ground roughly ever 5th step. This is an incredible thing that people actually do, and it takes months (if not more) to complete a pilgrimage, turning the journey into a way of life itself. A remarkable story and a well-made film that takes you into a completely different way of life.

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Embrace of the Serpent by Ciro Guerra

This feature by Colombian director Guerra was one of the most visually and psychologically shocking movies I’ve seen this year. It tells twinned narratives, one about a sick explorer being led through the jungle by an Amazonian shaman to retrieve a life-saving substance; the other occurs roughly 30 years later, when the same shaman is used by a scientist as a guide. Elements of Werner Herzog, 2001, Apocalypse Now . . . this is a must-see.

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Alice in the Cities in Wim Wenders

This early feature (1974) may be my favorite Wenders movie yet. It’s about this European journalist who has been given a trip through the U.S. to write a magazine story but who gets so existentially dislocated by the source material that he ends up writing nothing. Told to return to Germany by his irate editor, he ends up shepherding a young girl who has been abandoned by her mother. Wenders’s outsider’s view on the U.S. is profound (particularly its mediation), and the movie has a strange texture all its own.

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Chimes at Midnight by Orson Welles

Welles playing Falstaff! What else needs be said? This is Welles’s cinematic adaptation of Henry IV, and it’s a pretty staggering film. The famed war scene is worth the price of admission, as is the moment when the newly crowned King Henry V turns his back on the old man. Welles plays this material for a nostalgic, elegiac reading of Shakespeare’s famed play.

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Hitchcock/Truffaut by Kent Jones

Documentary based on the famed book of the same title. There’s a lot of candid Hitch in this one (Jones makes heavy use of the original recordings of the conversations between Hitchcock and Truffaut), as well as lots of homages to what the book has meant for the generations of filmmakers after it. Good fun.

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Ixcanul by Jayro Bustamante

17-year-old Kaqchikel-Guatemalan María is going to be married off to a wealthy, middle-aged farm-owner. This doesn’t go over too well with her, and she tries to run away with a ne’er-do-well her own age who’s going to the U.S. But instead ends up pregnant and alone. A very beautifully shot, moving film, and one that takes you deeply into the culture of indigenous Guatemalans.

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Lola Montès by Max Ophüls

Late Ophüls! This is the director’s last completed movie, and it’s incredibly strange. Based on a real-life Irish dancer and courtesan and affaired with Franz Lizst and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, climbed to the heights of European society, and then ended up lost and abandoned in Gold Rush California where she dramatized her own bizarre life in a surreal circus show. (The movie takes place in New Orleans.) This movie is visually stunning and incredibly provocative on subjects including fame, media, the male gaze, and the representation of femininity and the female.

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Voyage of Time by Terrence Malick

This should be experienced as an IMAX just to know what it feels like. As a spectacle dedicated to the cosmological/mystical explanation of all life and being, it’s pretty intense, and it’s also an incredibly beautiful thing to witness.

moonlight

Moonlight by Barry Jenkins

One of the best new releases of 2016, hands down. This is a triptych based around the life of African-American Floridian Chiron—three different actors play him as a child, adolescent, and young man, and in each 35-minute vignette we get insight into the person he is at the time and the circumstances that are shaping him. It’s a very nuanced portrait of a life, one that treats identity and male homosexuality with a degree of subtlety and complexity that I have rarely (if ever) seen in a motion picture.

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Los Angeles Plays Itself by Thom Andersen

A cinematic essay (and a pretty long one at that) about all the ways that Los Angeles has been depicted or otherwise used in films. It reminded me in some very good ways of Chris Marker and Mike Davis, and it also revealed a lot to me about film, famous locations in Los Angeles, and the ways that place-identity is constructed in movies. This is a fun one just to watch, but also one you can think about pretty in-depth.



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Malick’s way too heteronormative for my taste, give me João Pedro Rodrigues any time (do check his latest – O Ornitólogo – it certainly marked my year).

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