1. Happy Hour (Rysuke Hamaguchi / Japan)
A film that combines Edward Yang’s novelistic sweep, Jacques Rivette’s love of actors, Jean Eustache’s confessional filmmaking and meticulous care on the art of dialogue. Sounds too good to be true, eh? But that’s exactly what Rysuke Hamaguchi’s five-hour melodrama epic Happy Hour manages to be: in short, a masterpiece. Hamaguchi’s film is every cinephile’s dream; but especially for me, a film that brings back Eustache’s spirit is always a winner. This gang of four from Kobe have been haunting me ever since I first met them in September, and will continue to do so for the next few years. Hats off to MoMA for giving Happy Hour a two-week theatrical run.
2. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade / Germany, Austria)
John Cassavetes meets Howard Hawks’s madcap screwball? No, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is much more than that, both in its ambition and aesthetic inventiveness. Not only has Ade proven herself to be one of the most original visionaries working in cinema today, but she’s also destroyed our age-old stereotype about the “humorless Germans.” Strangely enough, what makes Toni Erdmann so funny is this endearing sadness that quietly pervades the entire film; I am reminded of Truffaut’s wise words that truly wonderful films are funny and sad at the same time. While I’m usually skeptical of A. O. Scott, I have to agree with him on this: “If a single movie were enough to silence reports of the death of cinema, it would be this one.” Do not miss Toni Erdmann!
3. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman / Belgium, France)
Chantal Akerman’s last words: “I don’t belong anywhere!” Her last film is called No Home Movie, but she spent her 47-year career building one magnificent home for thousands of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles from all over the world—her films. At times almost unbearably devastating, No Home Movie is one of the greatest “cine-portraits” ever, right up there with Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason. Chantal’s life-long obsession and inspiration, her mother Natalia Akerman (who died shortly after shooting had ended) receives a deservingly beautiful coda in this film. Most importantly though, Chantal desperately holds onto the ever-so-quickly fading memories of the Auschwitz (her mother was a survivor). Je vous salue, Chantal!
4. Elle (Paul Verhoeven / France)
Paul Verhoeven’s glorious return to filmmaking, and his partner in crime is no less than the greatest actress working today, Isabelle Huppert. Highly polarized reactions to Elle are far from surprising; any film that explicitly deals with rape and female victimhood is bound to enrage some people. I wholeheartedly agree with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on that Elle “takes for granted that rape and sexual harassment are about power, not desire.” And its protagonist’s absolute rejection of victimhood comes across to me as more of ultimate feminist dignity than conformist cop-out. Politics aside, however, we can probably all agree that Verhoeven’s latest is one of the most viscerally powerful film experiences we could ask for this year.
5. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso / Argentina)
For some, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is another one of those pretentious, plotless arthouse meanderings. For others, it’s a masterwork of mystical poetry and pure cinematic magic. Timo Salminen’s remarkable cinematography, which is reminiscent of Lumière brothers’ early autochrome color photography, beautifully captures the strange and wonderful landscapes of Patagonia. The possibility of “Bressonian Western” that was hinted at in Lancelot du lac comes fully into life in Jauja. Have some patience, and let yourself be taken over by Alonso’s uniquely absurdist Western (in fact, its plot development bears some resemblance to that of John Ford’s The Searchers).
6. Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo / South Korea)
In 2015, Hong Sang-soo made his latest masterpiece Right Now, Wrong Then (probably his greatest film since The Day He Arrives), and even achieved a moderate commercial success in his native country. While the three films that precede the 2015 release (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Our Sunhi, and Hill of Freedom) were by no means mediocre (in fact, they’re all good movies), Hong appeared to have fallen into a mannerist trap. Perhaps that’s why Right Now, Wrong Then came across to some fans as something of a return to form, and I am happy to report that Hong’s recent stroke of inspiration continues in Yourself and Yours. It is, in my opinion, Hong’s most Buñuelian film to date, especially in its handling of desire, fantasy, identity and struggle for liberty. Moreover, a certain aesthetic shift in Hong’s filmmaking that was first hinted in Right Now, Wrong Then becomes more ostensible in this one. Whether Yourself and Yours is a masterpiece or not is debatable, but it certainly reinforces Hong’s status as one of the very best filmmaker working today anywhere.
7. The Academy of Muses (José Luis Guerín / Spain)
The following is José Luis Guerín’s remark on The Academy of Muses: “This film is a direct result of the crisis that my country has been experiencing.” While Guerín’s latest feature is not your typical “political” film in an ordinary sense, it is certainly a “politically” made film. Instead of letting himself be restrained by the current economic nightmare that is plaguing many parts of Europe, Guerín achieved something very close to a complete freedom by stripping everything away. This is very much a “one man band” film, and it is without doubt “the film of a free man”—as Rossellini called Chaplin’s A King in New York. In essence, as Guerín himself admits, The Academy of Muses is a Lubitschian comedy that is interested in language. While not quite close to being as magical as In the City of Sylvia and Train of Shadows, it is packed with genuinely funny moments and beautiful imagery that demonstrates Guerín’s extraordinary talent as an image-maker. And of course, in the age of Donald Trump and the global far right movement, the use of langauge in our everyday discourse is more important than ever.
8. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul / Thailand)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s last film to be made in his native Thailand, Cemetery of Splendor is a beautiful mediation on dream and history from one of the world’s most origional living filmmakers. Personally, I don’t think this is among his very best work; Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century still remain his finest hours for me. If anything, Cemetery of Splendor is significantly less daring and exciting, and feels all too “safe” for a Weerasethakul film. Yet, some of the dreamlike images from the film really stuck with me, and have been haunting me ever since I first saw it earlier in March. Perhaps, after everything, Cemetery of Splendor is a fitting conclusion to a period in his career, and I am very much looking forward to his next adventure outside Thailand.
9. Little Men (Ira Sachs / United Sates)
Essentially a remake of Yasujiro Ozu’s subliminal Good Morning, Ira Sachs’s Little Men appears to be a small, innocuous, and totally unspectacular film. Yet, Sachs’s gentle family drama tackles one of the most pressing matters that affect thousands of New Yorkers at the moment: the city’s rapid gentrification. Sachs tells us that gentrification is not only an abstract socio-economic issue, but also an intensely personal matter that can ruin friendships and family ties. The most remarkable thing about Little Men, however, is Sachs’s firm refusal to antagonize or side with any of his characters. One must always have respect for people who live by Renoir’s ultimate humanitarian maxim: “The real hell of life is that everyone has their own reason.”
10. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve / France, Germany)
Could Isabelle Huppert ever go wrong at this point in her career? Although not as showy and gut-wrenching as her performance in Elle, what Huppert does in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come is even more extraordinary. Who else could play the role of a philosophy teacher this convincingly and relatable? Besides the obvious virtue of having one of the greatest actresses in film history, Hansen-Løve’s new film ruminates on a question that doesn’t get asked often enough—what does it mean to be a woman and a senior citizen? Neither Hansen-Løve nor Huppert give us an easy answer, but the journey they take throughout the film is certainly a very compelling and moving one. Perhaps Things to Come is too quiet, too precious, and too cerebral for some people, but Hansen-Løve manages to keep everything so exuberant with her sharp rhythmic sensibility, which reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu and Hou Hsia-Hsien while I was watching the film.
11. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins/ United States)
The quantum leap of Barry Jenkins between Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight is comparable to that of Spike Lee between his first three features and Do the Right Thing. Given the intense sociopolitical climate built around the recent election, Moonlight is perhaps the year’s most emotionally resonating film for thousands of Americans. Unlike Spike Lee, however, Jenkins does not bring politics on his table. Yet, the absence of any explicit political agenda is exactly what makes Moonlight a highly political film. In the age of Donald Trump’s shameless racism and xenophobia, the boldest thing a storyteller can do is to humanize the systematically marginalized demographics. At last, a tale that should have been told years ago is told with astonishing beauty and tenderness. The last 20 minutes of the film can compare to some of the best moments in Wong Kar-wai’s work.
12. 1/3 of Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt / United States)
Kelly Reichardt’s latest, Certain Women, consists of three barely-related stories, and frankly I find the first two, each starring Laura Dern and the Reichardt regular Michelle Williams respectively, totally forgettable. However, the last story with Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, completely won me over. Here, Reichardt really shows us what loneliness feels like, using Bressonian poetry. I do not recall seeing another movie in which loneliness is expressed with such succinctness and profundity in the past few years. Based on this segment alone, I think Reichardt deserves to be mentioned alongside some of cinema’s greatest poets of loneliness and isolation like Chantal Akerman and Tsai Ming-liang.