Best of 2016: Music

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Solange

Writing or talking about music has never been one of my strong suits. So instead, I present a series of video/audio links to an arbitrary number of songs (61) from 51 musical artists (more than that if you include featured artists on particular tracks). It surprised the hell out of me too that Drake makes three appearances on my 2016 playlist.

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Jenny Hval

Keep in mind that just because an artist appears in the general 2016 playlist but not on the list of LPs below doesn’t mean I didn’t care for it as a whole; often it means I didn’t listen to it as a whole. These are just the start-to-finish albums that left the strongest impact on me during 2016 (in no particular order). Among the albums, you’ll find: a concept album about menstruation (Blood Bitch), the second LP from a band who renamed themselves following cries of racial/historical insensitivity (Preoccupations, formerly known as Viet Cong), an album a friend of mine described best as a “lost 4AD album from the ’80s” (Will), a famously-dark-as-night musician finding a new layer of grim, foreboding sound following the death of his teenage son (Skeleton Tree), and an album that impeccably captured the zeitgeist of the political, racial, and cultural environment that defined 2016 from an artist unfairly living in the shadow of her superstar sibling (A Seat at the Table).

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Preoccupations

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Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama

In terms of film scores, two stood out among the rest: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s for Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion feature Arrival and Bertrand Bonello’s for his own controversial terrorist flick Nocturama (which would have made my best of 2016 list had I seen it in time). Jóhannsson’s score was annoyingly disqualified from this year’s Academy Awards, though his previous, brilliant collaboration with Villeneuve (Sicario) was at least nominated. Bonello adds to Nocturama‘s slick veneer with a haunting, pulsating electronic score. Having studied music in school, Bonello has composed music for nearly all of his films. With each one, he seems to be slightly amping up the importance the score itself in relation to the film, though borrowed songs, like Lee Moses’ “Bad Girl” and The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” in House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close), have always played a major role in his work. For Nocturama, which Bonello titled after the 2003 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, he memorably uses songs from the likes of Blondie and Willow Smith.

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Frank Ocean

Without further adieu, here are a bunch of songs I loved in 2016. Again, here’s the Spotify playlist link, which is now updated with Andy Stott‘s “New Romantic,” which only showed up on the streaming service in the U.S. last week (if you were wondering about the +1). If you know of a better way to share playlists, please let me know. The songs are in no particular order, though my favorites tend to gravitate toward the top of the list and the duplicate artist tracks are at the bottom. Happy listening.

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Julianna Barwick

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Rihanna & Drake

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Bat for Lashes

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Gold Panda

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PJ Harvey

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Angel Olsen

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Best of 2016: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

20thcenturyw-13-copy20th Century Women. Mike Mills. USA.

Trying to spend the majority of every December consuming as many films from the given year as I possibly can is always a futile endeavor, as I never get the chance to see as many as I’d like to (whether due to time constraints or inaccessibility). Inevitably I end up seeing films in the early months of the following year that would have cracked my Top 10 if I had caught them sooner. When December approaches, I always plan to revise all my annual lists by placing the films in their proper year (The Lobster, A Bigger Splash, and Cemetery of Splendor technically premiered in 2015; I also saw some of my 2015 favorites, like Neon Bull, show up on some 2016 lists considering it was released theatrically in spring 2016). That too seems hopeless as I tend to question my own liking of certain films after a few years (bad memory or advancements in taste? Who knows?).

20thcenturyw-14I caught Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women last weekend when it opened in Chicago after an award-qualifying run in New York City and Los Angeles late last month, and had I caught the film prior to making my 2016 list, it certainly would have slipped into the Top 10. I’m not going to bother myself with where it would have fallen or what would have fallen off the current list, as I don’t really have any interest in keeping a running hierarchy of all the 2016 films I’ve seen. In truth, I could probably rearrange the list every other week based on my wavering, sometimes unpredictable feelings. So instead, I’ll just amend my honorable mentions, as I felt compelled to write something about how truly exquisite and deeply moving I found the film to be.

20thcenturyw-02In essence, 20th Century Women functions as the companion piece to the director’s previous feature, 2010’s Beginners, which featured Ewan McGregor as a melancholic illustrator whose father (played by Christopher Plummer, who took home a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance) comes out of the closet a few years before dying of cancer. Both deeply personal works of fiction, 20th Century Women and Beginners function as eloquent tributes to the director’s eccentric parents. Making specific, recognizable visual and narrative choices for two closely related films doesn’t always succeed (see Lars von Trier’s Dogville and its vastly inferior “sequel,” Manderlay), but shaping and mapping 20th Century Women and Beginners along the same lines—with their narration, cultural asides and montages, and nonlinear story structure—actually works in both films’ favor, creating a warm familiarity to each (I’ve rewatched Beginners since seeing 20th Century Women).

20thcenturyw-09As its title suggests, the scope of 20th Century Women expands beyond Beginners, with a healthier mix of characters and a broader window of time. The film is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, surrounding the inhabitants of a beautiful old Victorian home owned by Dorothea (Annette Bening), who lives with her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the handyman, William, who is helping her rehab the property (Billy Crudup), and a young twentysomething, Abbie, who rents a room upstairs (Greta Gerwig). Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), also uses the home as a refuge from her complicated home life. The film hovers around the home itself and finds its direction when Dorothea asks Abbie and Julie to help her raise and keep an eye on Jamie following an unsettling stint in the hospital after horsing around with his friends.

20thcenturyw-08Like Beginners, 20th Century Women is admittedly kind of a mess; it’s really a spliced-together portrait of a time and characters, comprised of memorable scenes and lofty ideas… which occasionally appears to lack any real focus. But for all its messiness, it’s glorious and extremely affecting. The three lead actresses—the younger of which I’ve had conflicting feelings toward in other films—deliver the best performances of their careers, and for Bening, that’s a major claim. Bening is magnetic, and her enthusiasm is wholly contagious. Like Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Bening brings her complicated, fascinating character to life in such a compelling way that you just want to watch her thrown into every possible scenario and setting just to witness her response.

20thcenturyw-01Perhaps the forever-in-repair Victorian, which looks a bit like a construction zone in certain areas but has enough usable space in the common areas for Dorothea to host her own birthday parties and intellectual gatherings, provides the most effective visual representation of the film itself, beyond just providing a fabulous set piece. Now that’s he’s completed his father and mother pictures, I’m anxious and excited to see what Mills has in store next.

20thcenturyw-1120th Century Women premiered at the New York Film Festival in October and was released theatrically by A24 Films at the end of December; it’s currently making its way around the U.S. It will be released in the U.K. and France this spring by Entertainment One and Mars Distribution, respectively.

With: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Alia Shawkat, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson

Best of ’16, Honorable Mention: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

happiest-day-0001The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies). Juho Kuosmanen. Finland/Sweden/Germany.

Still to this day, you can’t make a black-and-white boxing drama without immediately calling to mind Martin Scorsese’s revered Raging Bull. For an American film, you’d be betting against yourself, but for a Finnish feature debut with only a superficial connection to the 1980 Oscar winner, those expectations end up highlighting all the ways in which The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki becomes the antithesis of the tired American sports docudrama… perhaps in the same ways Scorsese tried to differentiate Raging Bull from that other beloved Hollywood boxing picture, Rocky.

happiest3-05Winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes and Finland’s official submission for the Foreign-Language Academy Award (it, like my #1 film of 2016, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, unfortunately did not make the shortlist), this loose biopic follows the most famous boxer in Finland during the early 1960s, Olli Mäki (played with remarkable ease by Jarkko Lahti), who was shot into the national media spotlight when he was given the chance to fight against an undefeated American featherweight champion. With its familiar setup, the film manages to turn the ordinary and the mundane into poetry… instead of into the expected, nauseating brand of “inspirational” or “extraordinary.”

happiest-day-0002As an athlete, Mäki, a quiet and simple man, has gone through several low periods in his career, and there’s never a moment in the film where boxing ever feels like his great passion or even a low-hanging dream. In fact, he’d much rather spend his time outside of the ring riding bikes and goofing around with his girlfriend (Oona Airola). When attention from the media starts to mount, we start to see the mutual disinterest that’s shared between Mäki and Finland’s high society. He provides them with a bit of fanfare as the toast of the town, but they seem as indifferent to Mäki as a person as he is with their cameras and parties.

happiest3-04At its core, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is an unexpectedly spirited, bittersweet portrait of an ordinary man in love, dressed up as an underdog sports biopic of a little-known figure in Finnish history books. In just his first feature, Kuosmanen shows enormous promise behind the camera; there’s an effervescence to the stripped-down realism, captured magnificently on 16mm film, that recalls one of my other favorites of 2016, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.

happiest2-01The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released in the U.S. and the U.K. by MUBI later this spring.

With: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joanna Haartti, Esko Barquero, Elma Milonoff, Leimu Leisti, Hilma Milonoff, Olli Rahkonen, John Bosco Jr.

Best of ’16, Honorable Mention: Kékszakállú

ke%c2%a6ukszaka%c2%a6ullu%c2%a6u-07Kékszakállú. Gastón Solnicki. Argentina.

The link between Kékszakállú, Argentine director Gastón Solnicki’s first fiction feature, and its source material, a turn-of-the-century one act opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók based on Charles Perrault’s La barbe bleue, is a lot less direct than Catherine Breillat’s 2009 feature Bluebeard, but it too finds a feminist footing to its tale of somber youth. Surrounding a number of young women at crucial turning points in their adolescence, Kékszakállú observes its rotating subjects with an abstract, elegantly composed eye and weaves Bartók’s music into the film in fades and bursts. The volatile pirate with a penchant for murdering wives never explicitly presents himself, but his presence is certainly felt. Kékszakállú is an unusual film, one that’s both alienating and inviting… frustrating and satisfying.

ke%c2%a6ukszaka%c2%a6ullu%c2%a6u-01Kékszakállú premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti section. It’s currently playing at a number of film festivals across the world. I don’t have any distribution information for the film.

With: Laila Maltz, Lara Tarlowski, Katia Szechtman, Denise Groesman, Pedro Trocca, Natali Maltz, María Soldi, Mabel Machado, Lucas Wasserman, Martín Wasserman, Gabriela Brietman, Alberto Groesman, Sebastian Tarlowski, Carmín Tarlowski, Mateo Tarlowski, Yanina Solnicki, Michelle Haber, Miranda Costa, Sergio Aracri

Best of ’16, Honorable Mention: The Love Witch

love-witch-01The Love Witch. Anna Biller. USA.

Some films are best described through the unusual, sometimes unlikely correlations they conjure in the mind (see my description of fellow honorable mention Tomcat). The latest feature from the multi-talented Anna Biller (she served as writer, director, editor, producer, composer, art director, and costume designer for The Love Witch) plays like an imaginary Lana del Rey biopic by Radley Metzger as re-imagined through The Wicker Man (the original, of course) with a dash of Basic Instinct/The Fourth Man and Teen Witch for good measure. Following a self-involved, beautiful witch named Elaine (an delightfully game Samantha Robinson, who shares the seductive allure and ravishing hair extensions of Ms. del Rey) as she flees San Francisco following the death of her husband, The Love Witch is a pulpy, electrifying yarn, exquisitely filmed in eye-popping 35mm.

love-witch-06Though impressive on its own accord, Biller’s first feature from 2007, a throwback to 70s sexploitation films called Viva, suffered from an overdose of kitsch, and while The Love Witch has a sizable dose of such, Biller has learned to pull it back and refine what could have been a queasy mixture of self-aware cheekiness. For all of its on-the-nose discussions of the power, temptation, and pitfalls of “love,” the film itself has more nuanced ideas that it initially leads on. The Love Witch is perhaps 20 minutes too long, but it moves at its own languid pace and emerges as more than the sum of its many influences.

love-witch-05The Love Witch premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival and was released in the U.S. by Oscilloscope Films in November. It will be released on video/digital download in April.

With: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum, Randy Evans, Clive Ashborn, Lily Holleman, Jennifer Couch, Stephen Wozniak, Elle Evans, Fair Micaela Griffin

Best of 2016: Film

elle-01At long last, I present my Top 10 Films of 2016. You have a rape comedy, two queer films directed by heterosexual men, an alien invasion flick, an Italian sex romp, a road movie across the Red States of America, the return of a beloved childhood hero, a dystopian nightmare, a journey into the spirit world, and a homoerotic retelling of the life of a Catholic saint. There’s no point in getting into the many films I didn’t get around to seeing.

  1. Elle. Paul Verhoeven. France/Germany/Belgium.
  2. American Honey. Andrea Arnold. UK/USA.
  3. A Bigger Splash. Luca Guadagnino. Italy/France.
  4. The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo). João Pedro Rodrigues. Portugal/France/Brazil.
  5. The Lobster. Yorgos Lanthimos. Greece/Ireland/Netherlands/UK/France.
  6. Cemetery of Splendor. Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Malaysia/South Korea/Mexico/USA/Norway.
  7. The Handmaiden. Park Chan-wook. South Korea.
  8. Moonlight. Barry Jenkins. USA.
  9. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. John Lee. USA.
  10. Arrival. Denis Villeneuve. USA.

happiest-day-in-the-lifeHere are the honorable mentions for the year, in no particular order. I haven’t gotten around to writing about Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies) or Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállú, but I’ll update the links once I have. NOTE: I’ve also added Anna Biller’s The Love Witch and may continue to amend the honorable mentions throughout the month… and also Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women.

aquariusAnd two additional categories:

Best of 2016: #1. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

elle2-021. Elle. Paul Verhoeven. France/Germany/Belgium.

It’s been nearly a decade since we (the cinema) last heard from Paul Verhoeven, perhaps, up until now, one of the most undervalued grand auteurs of our time. Ten years ago, he marked his departure from Hollywood, where he made a name for himself as the most daring and provocative filmmaker working in the studio system, and returned to his native Netherlands to make his WWII epic, Black Book. Ten years later, he’s made his colossal return with Elle, an adaptation of the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian and his first film produced in France, the only country that could have possibility financed such a crazy, project that by all counts should be a total disaster. But instead, he’s made the most sensational, hilarious, and thought-provoking film of 2016, if not the decade.

elle-02Elle is like nothing I’ve seen before. On paper, its tale of danger in the world of international video game development recalls Olivier Assayas’ 2002 demonlover, but that’s only one strand of its complex tapestry. Toss in the fact that it’s a rape thriller/revenge comedy about the daughter of a serial killer, who manages to juggle a robust sex life and becoming a grandmother while running a profitable company, you realize that Elle is basically nine insane movies at once… and every single one of them is nothing short of sensational. While this should be enough, Verhoeven also manages to get a career-best performance out of the world’s greatest actor, Isabelle Huppert, someone I’m pretty sure has never given a bad performance in the five decades she’s been in the business. It’s also worth noting that Elle was just one of four films released in the United States that Huppert starred in (Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (L’avenir), and Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs), and she’s the best thing about each one of them.

elle2-06Describing all of the crazy things that happen over the course of Elle‘s 130 minutes is a futile exercise as they really have to be experienced… especially since Verhoeven achieves an impossible tone with his latest work. As Michèle, Huppert fills the heels of the classic Verhoeven femme fatale. She’s determined, calculating, intimidating, sexy, self-serving, and duplicitous. Like Showgirls‘ Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), Black Book‘s Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), and Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone), Michèle commands the screen, dwarfs the men around her, and acts on impulse. In Elle, she’s the CEO of a video game company and the daughter of an infamous mass murderer, the stigma of which has never gone away. Considering that Michèle is such an dynamic figure and Huppert is such a masterful performer, Verhoeven never bothers to try to make her traditionally “likable.” You can’t help but take your eyes off her.

elle2-13What truly makes Elle the best film of 2016 though is the density of impossibility that it defies. In the hands of really any other filmmaker or any other actor, Elle would have been outrageously offensive. I don’t know that Verhoeven or Huppert could have pulled the film off without the other. How do you successfully make a film about a woman who is, perhaps, turned on by her own rape and not make it a lurid male fantasy (which coincidentally is what Verhoeven explores in his last Hollywood vehicle, Hollow Man)? Verhoeven’s films have certainly been accused of daunting things before. Gay rights groups vilified him for Basic Instinct, and Showgirls still commonly gets labeled as misogynistic (though only by people who don’t seem to recognize it’s a satire). Neither claim is true, but he’s certainly walked a delicate line of decency. It’s actually reassuring to see the praise and success Elle has received since its premiere at Cannes. Has the world caught up to Verhoeven, or is Elle such a tremendous success that it would be near-impossible to ignore?

elle2-07Riveting and unpredictable at every turn, Elle is a masterpiece, and like all of Verhoeven’s films, it only improves with every viewing. A second go-around in the theatre was an enlightening experience, which allowed me the chance to digest everything Verhoeven was throwing at me and to admire what a truly brilliant filmmaker and entertainer he is… and what a complex, marvelous feat he and Huppert pulled off against all odds.

elle2-12Elle premiered in competition at Cannes in May and was released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics in November. It’s currently making its way across the U.S.

With: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Judith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Christian Berkel, Virginie Efira, Lucas Prisor, Arthur Mazet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaël Lenglet