Top 10 Movie Discoveries of 2016
The last few years, I’ve taken to compiling a running list of the films I’m watching, both for the first time and my re-watches. At the end of the year, I take my favourite 10 or so older films that I saw for the first time and write a few thoughts on them here. The beauty of film, and art in general, is that it can open viewers up to broader experiences and perspectives from around the world and throughout time.
And while I understand the notion that some people, often the casual film-goer, look to movies as entertaining escapism and nothing more. I've seen often on Facebook, elsewhere online, or in person, people scoff at others discussing the merits of films or being critical if a movie was a letdown. "It's a movie, don't get worked up." Often, we're not getting worked up...we're expressing an experience and movies can be more than explosions and car chases (though, those are pretty wonderful). Movies don't always have to be lowest common denominator, or easy entertainment. I think it's useful to watch challenging, difficult movies. It's the realization that sometimes it's beneficial to work to figure out what a movie is telling you, that interpretation and unlocking subtext can be enlightening that really pushes some movies to another stratosphere for me.
That’s not to say these movies have to be stuffy or self-important. I think many of the movies on this year’s list are fun, breezy, and endlessly entertaining. Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive terms, and while not all of these movies may be familiar, that doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible, dense, or purely intellectual exercises. Consider this a springboard to new experiences. And, please, share your thoughts on those you’ve seen or whenever you do manage to see those you haven’t.
For posterity, here are the lists from 2014 and 2015. One rule I apply every year is that no movie from the most recent five years is eligible. I have considered extending that to 10 years, but it’s a rough guideline at best. I often try to catch up on recent movies I’ve missed in a given year and I think this list is better suited for older titles. It is presented in alphabetical order.
Beauty and the Beast (1946) dir. Jean Cocteau
Those familiar with the Disney version of the classic fairy tale might be hesitant to watch a black and white French version from 70 years ago. It doesn’t feature the singing or dancing Lumiere or Cogsworth, but it’s still an incredibly otherworldly affair. The real treat is found in the sets within the Beast’s castle. As soon as Belle’s father enters the Beast’s realm, which leads to Belle’s capture, it is truly alien. The furniture is alive, complete with faces, and the overwhelming sense that magic is everywhere is realized beautifully.
Perhaps enhanced by the relatively primitive technology of the time, the tactile nature of the sets and the effects adds an odd layer of realism to the high fantasy. This won’t supplant the Disney movie, necessarily, but it is a darker (the ending in particular) movie that has so much charm that it needs to be on your watchlist.
Breaking the Waves (1996) dir. Lars von Trier
The most recent movie on the list. I’ve struggled at times to get on Trier’s wavelength as his films can often feel like constant streams of exploitative misery where his characters have heaping doses of suffering for little reason beyond the wallowing in the hopelessness of it all. This is occasionally intriguing – the minimalist form of Dogville helped elevate the oppressiveness and Anti-Christ is delightfully insane in its discomfort – but is more often tiresome.
Breaking the Waves is not void of suffering, in fact Bess and Jan (Emily Watson & Stellan Skarsgard) are physically and mentally tortured to various degrees by their situations. Jan is an outsider in Bess’ small Scottish, teetotal community when they get married. His is brash, rogue, and likes to drink with the boys. He works offshore, away from Bess, and he is paralyzed by an accident on the rig partway through the film. This ignites a bizarre, martyr-like path for Bess. The difference is the resilient feeling of hope that pumps through the heart of the film. Watson imbues the film with this quality, her expressive eyes accentuating the innocence of her character. It’s a meditation on religion and religious hypocrisy (sacrificing caring for judgment), but also the extreme trials that can challenge love. It’s Trier’s best film because it’s his most human.
Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) dir. Otto Preminger
One of my favourite things about living in Toronto is the amount of classic films the Toronto International Film Festival screens throughout the year. They have various themes and retrospectives from director-based (Brian de Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, etc.) and others that may be loosely connected to those, or new prints for old classics. I saw Bunny Lake is Missing at TIFF’s Bell Lightbox in April and knew it’d be appearing on this list immediately. It has the perfect set-up. A young woman and her daughter move to London from the United States. She takes her daughter to school for her first day. The school is busy, the teachers distracted, and she leaves her daughter in the care of the school’s cook. When she goes to pick her daughter up at the end of the day, the girl is gone. The cook never actually saw the girl, only had the mother’s word for it. Eventually, police begin to suspect the girl is a fabrication and the mother’s sanity is brought into question.
How this isn’t a more widely regarded film is beyond me. The plot machinations are tight, and both scenarios, at times, feel plausible. Maybe the opening scenes of the woman with her daughter were imagined…in her head. Or maybe, something more sinister is afoot. Thematically, it is a film that explores the stress and difficulties of being a single mother (and 50 years ago at that) and it would be an effective half of a double-feature with the recent Australian horror movie, The Babadook because of its thematic similarity. It also works as a straightforward thriller that holds up with the procedurals of today. It also has one of the best opening credits sequences of its era, designed by the inimitable Saul Bass.
California Split (1974) dir. Robert Altman
Altman is probably my favourite American filmmaker of the 1970s. This is a bit of a shock to me to realize, because Francis Ford Coppola made four legitimate masterpieces in four tries and Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver and The Last Waltz while Sidney Lumet made Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. In recent years, Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) has woven its way into my go-to answer when someone asks me what my favourite movie of all time is, and his 70s work is varied, exciting, and extensive (he made 13 movies in 10 years). I haven’t seen them all, and a few probably don’t live up to the rest, but the highs help discount the lows.
California Split was one I had coveted for quite a while. It’s difficult to find. DVDs are out of print – apparently because of music rights and other issues – so the version I saw, on Crackle, did not feature the best video or sound quality. That’s hardly important when the content shines beyond its shortcomings. On the surface, it’s a comedy about two degenerate gamblers looking for the next score. The poker scenes, including the opening sequence, are some of the most authentic card playing scenes I’ve seen in film. And the comedy is among the funniest in any Altman film (“Goddamnit lady! You don’t throw oranges on an escalator!”).
But it’s more than that. It’s a perceptive and feeling look at the toll gambling (or, if you extrapolate it to be more far-reaching, addiction in general) can take. The highs are thrilling, but the lows are punches to gut…sometimes literal. Elliott Gould and George Segal are perfect, and I sincerely hope it gets a proper release on Blu-Ray in the near
Children of Paradise (1945) dir. Marcel Carne
One of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. It’s an epic tale of the intricacies of love within the backdrop of French aristocracy and the world of theatre. Garance is an actress in the early-mid 1800s and Children of Paradise follows her general affairs, career aspirations, and difficulties with the men in her life. It’s interesting to consider how risqué this may have seemed in North America at the time it came out (and in the context of its setting) as Garance is fairly open sexually and sensually.
A long film at three hours, it earns every second. While novelistic is a term casually thrown around, this movie moves at a pace with details far more reminiscent of a novel than what you might expect of a film. It’s deliberately paced without feeling slow, and if three hours is too much of a commitment, it is broken into two parts fairly cleanly, allowing access in two sections. One technical aspect that surprised me was how mobile the camera was. 1945 was still fairly early in the life of cinema, and cameras were still often stationary. Children of Paradise is absorbing, and deserves its classic status…cited as one of the greatest French films of all time.
Chimes at Midnight (1965) dir. Orson Welles
Also screening at TIFF, and later released on a wonderful Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, Chimes at Midnight was one of the rare films from Welles’ catalog I hadn’t had the pleasure of experiencing. Bootlegs existed and I patiently waited for a better transfer to be put together. It was worth the wait. I’m not especially familiar with Shakespeare’s plays of Henry IV or Henry V, so perhaps fans of those works would get even more out of the material, but the film is shown mostly from the character Falstaff’s perspective.
Played by Welles as a bulging, crass, buffoonish rogue, Falstaff is the older mentor of the son of a king who is rejecting his father for the life of a scoundrel. Falstaff is a tragicomic character, easy to laugh at and pity in equal measure, but he wins you over while Prince Hal slowly drifts from him. For a movie built on absurdity and theatrical silliness in many places, it hits home with an emotional climax and conclusion. It’s not the easiest movie to navigate, as the language is firmly rooted in Shakespearian English, but it’s worth the effort.
Day for Night (1973) dir. Francois Truffaut
A lot of French films made my list this year, it seems! I’ve always enjoyed Truffaut’s films from The 400 Blows to Shoot the Piano Player and more. I prefer his way of filmmaking to his contemporary, Jean-Luc Godard, which is occasionally a litmus test to where you skew as a film fan. Godard is seen as more of a form-breaker while Truffaut weaves beautiful stories within well-established constructs. Day for Night is kind of a deconstruction of his style. It’s a movie about the process of making movies. In a year where the Coen Brothers made their own love letter to cinema, the underrated Hail, Caesar!, Day for Night was a wonderful companion piece.
Not everyone enjoys movies about movies, but everything about this worked for me. It might be because it feels like Robert Altman made a French film. The ensemble is scattered, often talking over one another, and it feels simultaneously improvised and heavily scripted. This movie is candy for film lovers.
Love Streams (1984) dir. John Cassavetes
Cassavetes is a director whose films I am sadly ignorant of on the whole. This represents only the third of his movies I’ve seen. It’s also my favourite. Instead of re-hashing the specifics, I’ll direct you to my capsule review I wrote over at Letterboxd. I tend to catalog my thoughts on all movies I watch over there, and I had plenty to mull over once I finished watching this back in August. TL;DR version: it’s an emotionally devastating, adult drama that doesn’t sugar-coat the future. It also features one of the best performances in film from Gena Rowlands.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) dir. Peter Weir
This is a sleepy mystery surrounding the disappearances of several young women during a school outing. My favourite element of the movie is that very little is explained. It asks questions and leaves most of them unanswered. I don’t mean that to be a spoiler, but more as a word of warning or preparation. Watch this movie not expecting revelations related to the mysteries presented. Instead, allow the experience to wash over you and accept the unknown in its dream-like presentation.
It may not be a horror movie, but it has a tone of fear and darkness rumbling throughout. It may not be a thriller, but there is, for much of it, a countdown to a time when efforts to solve the problems is no longer possible. It may not be a straight drama, but the glimpses into the lives of each person connected, even tangentially, to the disappearance, is loaded with intrigue and stakes.
Tampopo (1985), dir. Juzo Itami
The most purely joyous and surprising movie I saw all year. It was another in the long list of TIFF restorations making its way to cinema and I knew very little about it going in beyond a short trailer I saw before another TIFF screening. Tampopo is a single mom who owns a ramen restaurant meets a pair of truckers who happen upon her place. Her ramen skills are…not great, let’s say. She enlists the help of the truckers to train her in the art of ramen, every so often recruiting another expert of some kind to give her the knowledge she needs to become a pro.
Tampopo is hilarious and constantly reinvents itself on the fly. It also deviates from the main narrative involving the ramen shop with short, humorous vignettes involving food to various capacities. This includes an old woman browsing a grocery store, aggressively handling the produce, Japanese businessmen ordering a fancy meal only for an underling to go off-script, and a recurring gangster with interesting food fetishes, among more. Instead of detracting from the whole, each vignette acts as seasoning for the main course. Tampopo is primarily about the joy of great food, after all. I’m overjoyed that this is no longer a lost film in North America.
That does it for this year! Some honorable mentions include Black Christmas (1974), Certified Copy (2010), Enter the Dragon (1973), 3 Women (1977), and Volver (2006) among others.