Granted I still need to see De Palma and Hell or High Water, but the lack of American films on my list of best movies of 2016 so far is glaring. Consumed with the remakes, reboots, and sequels, American cinema this year has been boring for me. I’m praying the next few months provide films with some oomph. So far in 2016 the only English-speaking film that is of any genius is Krisha (and to think it’s made by a first-time director). International cinema this year produced masterpieces. They are films that contemplate time, existence, dreams, and love. The majority of the best movies so far can be found via numerous streaming services. That should be cause of a celebration. Below are my picks for the best films so far this year listed alphabetically, along with a few runner-ups.
Aferim! Directed by Radu Jude
Presented in gorgeous black and white images, Aferim! exudes evidence of having fully inherited the characteristics of a fleeting dream, or of a fabled legend passed down from many generations. It is a remarkable film, and its sole purpose is to present to us a journey and the unalterable impact that journey has on the father and his son. (Read my full review.)
Cemetery of Splendor Directed Apitchatpong Weerasethakul
Mr. Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor is in that rare category of films that have an effortless innate quality to adequately summon a dream-like state in its narrative. The story of nurses intently monitoring soldiers who have been plagued with an unknown sleeping illness should not be this hypnotic.
Dheepan Directed by Jacques Audiard
Winner of the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, Jacques Audiard’s immigration tale is a poetic meditation on what it takes to integrate into a foreign society and the multiple obstacles of attempting to unhinge from one’s past. Dheepan, at heart, is a contemporary Western that’s as sad and violent as any film in that genre. Focusing on a Sri Lankan family and set in the housing projects of France, Audiard’s film is eerily timely.
Embrace of the Serpent Directed by Ciro Guerra
What a brave film this is. Ciro Guerra impresses with his uncanny ability to evoke an atmosphere that is akin to those found in sacred texts. That alone is a major accomplishment, but he does not stop there as he crafts an unforgettably unique fable. Filmed in the Amazonia region of Colombia, Embrace of the Serpent follows two narratives, both involving scientists in search of a rare healing plant. Separated by 40 years, the two scientists are connected by Karamakate, the last surviving member of his tribe. It is a narrative that knows no boundaries, exploring the religious to the psychedelic.
Everybody Wants Some!! Directed by Richard Linklater
The difficulty of conveying the transition of boys turning into men has eluded Richard Linklater. He is a wizard of replicating a specific time and place, a specific age and a specific relationship. His newest film, Everybody Wants Some!!, encapsulates all of this. By focusing on a college baseball team and the few days leading up to the first day of college, Linklater has captured the essence of life. Enjoy this one.
Krisha Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Violently emerging onto the cinematic scene is Mr. Shults, a first-time director who seems to have a raw vision similar to that of independent director John Cassavetes. Like Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence Shults’ Krisha immerses viewers in the life of Krisha, and what a scary life it is. She is a recovering alcoholic attempting to interact with her family again after some years of absence. The film takes place on Thanksgiving and watching the erosion occur, slowly, makes you realize that we are witnessing a director in complete control because of his acute vision.
Louder than Bombs Directed by Joachim Trier
How this film is told is why it is on this list. The subject matter of Louder than Bombs seems like run-of-the-mill, but how it is conveyed isn’t. A fractious family, two sons and their father, is coping with the death of their mother/wife. She was a renowned photographer, but her family knew little about her. When the family attempts to piece together revealing information about her, it proves to be too much. Communication between the father and his two sons is lost. Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier injects so much life into this story, thanks to brilliant directorial decisions, that we forget we are watching a melodrama and relish the opportunity of watching a creative force at work in his first English speaking film.
Mountains May Depart Directed by Jia Zhangke
By the time the opening credits appear on the screen Mountains May Depart is nearly 45 minutes into its running time. It is astonishing because they appear at a crucial time in the film and the results are devastating. Director Jia Zhangke may have crafted his most emotional film yet. It is an epic movie about love that spans a couple of generations. Depicting the first spark of a romance and the last of it, Zhangke manages to tell a ferocious love story between two men and a woman. Decisions between the three are made and they haunt decades after. The result is a beautiful movie that sustains its heartache throughout.
Neon Bull Directed by Gabriel Mascaro
Iremar spends his days in Brazil working at a rodeo. Cleaning and feeding the bulls he finds this work somewhat sustaining, but realizes his squandering away his true potential. He has an underlying devotion to fashion design. To satisfy this urge he designs creative, sexy costumes for his friend who is an exotic dancer. Director Gabriel Mascaro follows Iremar’s passion and the mandatory adjustments he must make in his life in order to realize his dreams. Dissecting the role environment plays in the lives of individuals and its unbreakable hold it can possess, Neon Bull is a powerful film perfectly portraying the angst Iremar has to break free.
Rams Directed by Grimur Hakonarson
One pleasure I derive from watching lots of films is being exposed to and then transported to a land I never thought existed before. This is exactly what Icelandic film director Hakonarson accomplishes with Rams. He depicts two brothers living in a gorgeous vast remote village in Iceland. Both are sheep herders. Neither have spoken to each other in over forty years. When a plague attacks one of the brother’s flock chaos ensues. Cheating, lying, and reconciling all occur. A wonderful examination of life and family is executed. It is a miraculous accomplishment that a film like this exists.
Other films worth mentioning: Jason Bourne, Knight of Cups, The Lobster, Love and Friendship, Mustang, The Phenom, Sunset Song, The Treasure, The Wave, The Witch.