Let’s be clear: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is not to be found here — Peter Jackson has officially gone off the rails. My top choice is a no-brainer, Blue is the Warmest Color, for which I’m glad both lead actresses (not just the director) were acknowledged at Cannes.
1. Blue is the Warmest Color. 5 stars. It’s a bit sad that this has gained notoriety for the graphic lesbian scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself, and seeing herself, in wildly adolescent terms. The film isn’t about sex, but the searing power of love which becomes destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. After the break up Emma is able to forgive, and Adele obtain at least some measure of closure. The film is three hours long but I wanted it to go longer.
2. Europa Report. 4 ½ stars. This was obviously a good year for outer-space dramas, and don’t be put off by rumors of Europa’s quasi-documentary approach. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a film like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon, and to hell with the radiation levels.
3. Before Midnight. 4 ½ stars. I love these conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine. They first met in Before Sunrise (1995) and then found each other again in Before Sunset (2004). Now they’ve been in a relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed, are just as compelling, and so organically delivered by Hawke and Delpy it’s dazzling. Here they arrive at a hotel and have a nasty argument, fearing their direction in life, entertaining break-up, and as twice before the conclusion is the right amount of open-ended.
4. The Day of the Doctor. 4 ½ stars. This counts as a film because it had a theatrical run. Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special is a grand multi-Doctor special, and though it relies on a reset button there’s enough moral cost to compensate. The Doctor has been drowning in guilt over his war crimes for seven seasons now, and that’s a long time for us to be without Gallifrey. When he finally undoes his decision, the solution is shrewd, and it’s not as if everything is magically restored as it should be. We still don’t know where Gallifrey is, and the three Doctors forget their group-effort reset as soon as they resume their timelines. The interactions between Tennant, Smith, and the surprise incarnation of John Hurt are splendid. See my full review.
5. The Impossible. 4 ½ stars. If you really want to see what a tsunami does to people, watch this scene from the film. Tsunamis are chaotic, filthy brown, relentless forces of mass destruction, and this is the first movie to portray one with such upsetting accuracy. This is based on a true account of an English family vacationing in Thailand in 2004, when the Indian Ocean earthquake struck. The tsunami separates the family, and the mother (played by Naomi Watts) barely survives. It’s a harrowing film to watch, but the ending is uplifting and well earned.
6. Gravity. 4 ½ stars. I’m not a fan of 3D, but Gravity is a film that demands the format. It effected me the way I wanted Apollo 13 to back in the ’90s. If it doesn’t carry the power of being a true story, it’s the better for eventually isolating a single lone survivor. It underscores the deathly beautiful silence of outer space, punctuated with assaults of flying shrapnel and horrifying mechanical failures at the right moments. It’s a visually perfect film.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street. 4 stars. This is no Scorsese masterpiece, but it is a guilty pleasure of his indulgences gone wild. It examines the life of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played by Leo DiCaprio) and his worship of money, chauvinistic womanizing, and drug addiction. As always in a Scorsese film, the dialogue alone is a roller-coaster. (By now everyone and their mother knows that it broke the record for having the most F-bombs in any movie.) The characters are entirely unsympathetic, which is much the point, but unlike Goodfellas which did the same thing, Wolf doesn’t allow us any empathetic entry at all into the characters
8. Passion. 4 stars. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Brian DePalma since, well, forever, so I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s about an advertising exec dominating her subordinate through sexual humiliation, which generates a convoluted trail of retaliation in which nothing is as it seems — or perhaps too obvious after all. The main character is handled well, and sympathetic enough that I didn’t know what to believe (or what I wanted to believe). The twisted side plots add to the weirdness, especially her secretary’s attempt to sexually blackmail her, which I didn’t see coming.
9. We Are What We Are. 4 stars. This is better than the Mexican version for many reasons. First, it’s not one of those horror remakes done just for the sake of gutting an original and putting it in English (like Let Me In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Ring, etc). It really does remake the story and do interesting things with it, which in my view are improvements. The Mexican version was driven by socio-political themes of alienation resulting from poverty, where this one is devoid of that, and given a fundamentalist backdrop which is less satirical and far more creepy. The setting of the Catskill Mountains in New York is also more ominous than Mexico City, and is somehow is what you’d imagine for a family of Christian cannibals.
10. The East. 4 stars. This is from the same director of The Sound of My Voice (2011), which was about a pair of documentary filmmakers who joined a cult in order to expose its charismatic leader. Similar group dynamics are on display in The East, as an investigator for a corporate form joins an eco-terrorist group to spy on its members. Ellen Page plays Izzy, an uncompromising anarchist who is the daughter of a petrochemical CEO; she forces him to bathe in the waterway he’s been using as a toxic dumping site. It’s obviously the perfect role for Page, who thrives on such radical causes in real life. The eco-terrorists get in some nasty payback, and it’s huge fun. But it’s Batmanglij’s acute understanding of fringe-group dynamics that make this film so good.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)