There were some great films that came out in 2016, but whereas some were box office hits, others may have played Philadelphia exactly once at a film festival or other special screening. Here are the ten titles (in alphabetical order) that most impressed me this year.
Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
This absorbing Brazilian film has Clara (Sonia Braga), a retired music critic trying to hold on to her family apartment and stave off the real estate developers who want it. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s leisurely film allows viewers to get into the rhythm of her life in Recife — her friends, family, and the memories she has. It’s a beautiful, powerful film that benefits in no small part from Braga’s extraordinary performance.
Chevalier (dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Six men on a yacht in Greece have contests with each other about who does what best. They judge each other on everything from how they walk, sleep and eat to what they wear and how they appear, and more. The one-upmanship is darkly funny as the men’s insecurities are exposed and they critique each other quite nastily. Chevalier played one night in Philly, but it deserves to be sought out and seen.
Don’t Breathe (dir. Fede Alvarez)
In the economically depressed Detroit, three friends plan to break into a house to rob a blind man (Stephen Lang) who is sitting on a pile of cash. Of course, they get more than they bargained for as their intended victim is handy with a gun and has a few surprises for the intruders. It would spoil Don’t Breathe to say more, but Fede Alvarez’s breathtaking horror film has some scary moments as well as some satisfying ones — most notably when revenge is had involving a turkey baster full of semen.
Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Isabelle Huppert’s take-no-prisoners performance as a rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was certainly attention-getting, but the film was oddly hilarious as Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc resolves the personal and professional problems that besiege her while also turning the tables on her attacker.
Hail, Caesar! (dir. Coen Brothers)
The Coen Brothers’ Hollywood piffle (far more amusing than their other Hollywood outing, Barton Fink), was a pastiche of homages to genres. From the scene of the effete Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) trying to get cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to say a line right to Burt Gurney’s (Channing Tatum) fabulous “No Dames” dance sequence, to a hilarious sight gag involving editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand), Hail, Caesar! never hit a false note.
Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)
This extremely satisfying crime/western benefits from great performances by Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger and Ben Foster as a criminal as well as a wicked sense of humor. The film’s scene of a waitress asking Bridges and his partner “what don’t you want” is destined to be a classic.
Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick’s dreamy visual poem about a writer (Christian Bale) in Hollywood was as hypnotic as any of the director’s films. And he captures pure emotion in the shiny, glossy surfaces and water imagery.
Les Cowboys (dir. Thomas Bidegain)
This remarkable French film (a reimagining of The Searchers) played only a week in Philly, but it was one of the best films of the year. When a young girl disappears, her father and brother try to find her with emotionally devastating consequences.
Maggie’s Plan (dir. Rebecca Miller)
Rebecca Miller’s witty, urbane comedy was one of the sleepers of the year. In this funny screwball romance, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) tries to reunite her lover John (Ethan Hawke) with his ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore). And of course, things go awry. Miller’s observations about love — that someone in the relationship is the gardener tending to the rose — are astute, and some of the film’s one-liners are absolutely hilarious.
Presenting Princess Shaw (dir. Ido Haar)
I saw this inspirational documentary no less than three times this year, as I was so taken with its charismatic star and the film’s points about sharing culture in this age of YouTube. While the film shows Princess Shaw’s struggles with self-doubt, her indomitable spirit is infectious, and her music is fabulous.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.