Here is a list of my 50 favorite feature films to first play Chicago in 2016. Films that had press screenings here but won’t officially open ’til next year (e.g., Toni Erdmann and Silence) aren’t eligible but may make my Best of 2017 list. I’m also disqualifying two of my favorite films to first play Chicago this year because they were directed by friends and colleagues; although I’m not listing them below, I couldn’t recommend Rob Christopher’s Pause of the Clock and Frank Ross’ Bloomin Mud Shuffle more highly. Next to each title I’ve also linked to my original reviews where applicable and I’ve written new capsule reviews for The Illinois Parables, Aquarius and Kate Plays Christine. Enjoy!
The Top 10:
10. The Illinois Parables (Stratman, USA)
Deborah Stratman’s amazing film is neither pure documentary nor pure experimental film but rather one that combines both modes in order to investigate, in 11 precise chapters, the secret history of my great state. Origin myths abound: Much of the focus is on the fascinating but too-little-known histories of minority groups in Illinois that were either forced into exile (e.g., the Cherokee Nation, the Mormons) or that dissolved due to in-fighting (the Icarians) as the territory was still “constructing itself” during the 19th century. Plus, lots of landscape shots, letters from Alexis de Tocqueville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the assassination of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton, the story of the first nuclear reactor in the Midwest, and a delightful disaster montage. The last of these sequences shows off Stratman’s masterful sound design as archival aerial footage of the state is accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack in which a gospel song, an Emergency Broadcast warning and audio interviews with Tornado Eyewitnesses are all woven into a dense and heady mix. One of the most Illinois-centric films ever made. Go Cubs!
9. Aquarius (Mendonca, Brazil)
I saw Kleber Mendonca Filho’s second feature well before November 8 but must confess I didn’t fully appreciate its greatness until reflecting on it after Trump’s election. The plot centers on Clara (Sonia Braga), a 60-something-year-old music critic and recent widow who stubbornly refuses to sell her condo to the large and powerful corporation that has already snapped up every other unit in her building. In its depiction of how corporate-capitalism can steamroll over the rights of individuals, it serves as a potent allegory for the recent political tumult in Brazil but I would also argue that, as a political statement, it has more to say about similar problems in the United States than any American film I saw this year. It’s also a much more effective political movie than the more widely seen I, Daniel Blake; where Ken Loach’s simplistic bromide has a one-track mind (i.e., nothing happens in it on a narrative level that doesn’t serve the explicit purpose of showing what an ineffective and bureaucratic nightmare the British welfare system is), Mendonca’s more leisurely paced film gives a satisfying portrait of a woman’s life in full: among other things, we learn about Clara’s battle with cancer, her sex life, her love of music, her relationships with her children, etc. Mendonca’s real masterstroke though was to cast the legendary Braga in the role of Clara. It’s a career-capping performance and a great example of the kind of purposeful “star casting” that one can seemingly no longer find in Hollywood movies.
8. Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK)
My favorite American film of the year. Discussed at length with Pam Powell on Episode 13 of my podcast here.
7. Elle (Verhoeven, France)
This didn’t make the Best Foreign Film Oscar shortlist? WTFIU? Discussed at length on Episode 15 of my podcast with David Fowlie and Ian Simmons here. My capsule review at Time Out here.
6. Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece)
Tsangari > Lanthimos. Discussed at length with Scott Pfeiffer on Episode 10 of my podcast here. My capsule review at Time Out here.
5. Arabian Nights Vol. 1 – 3 (Gomes, Portugal)
Maren Ade’s boyfriend is a great filmmaker too! A longer version of the capsule I originally wrote for Time Out can be found here.
4. No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium)
Chantal Akerman R.I.P.! Some thoughts on her passing here. Discussed at length with Scott Pfeiffer on Episode 10 of my podcast here. My capsule review at Time Out here.
3. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, S. Korea)
Hong Sang-Soo forever. My capsule review at Time Out here.
2. Malgre la nuit (Grandrieux, France)
The year’s best undistributed film fortunately turned up for a single screening at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center with director Philippe Grandrieux in attendance. Some thoughts at Time Out here. My interview with Grandrieux at Offscreen here.
1. A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK/USA)
My favorite film of the year is also my favorite Terence Davies film since The Long Day Closes nearly a quarter of a century ago. Discussed at length on Episode 15 of my podcast with David Fowlie and Ian Simmons here. My capsule review at Time Out here.
The 40 runners-up:
11. Cosmos (Zulawski, France/Portugal)
12. The Wailing (Na, S. Korea)
13. Moonlight (Jenkins, USA) My capsule review at Time Out here. My interview with director Barry Jenkins on this blog here.
14. Things to Come (Hansen-Love, France)
15. Everybody Wants Some!! (Linklater, USA)
16. Kaili Blues (Bi, China)
17. Kate Plays Christine (Greene, USA)
I didn’t review Robert Greene’s superb provocation earlier because I felt like there was a proverbial “conflict of interest.” I knew I’d be interviewing him following its Chicago premiere and I’d also programmed his previous film, Actress, at my Pop-Up Film Fest last year. But with each week that’s passed since I first saw it, I’ve become more convinced that Kate Plays Christine is a genuinely groundbreaking work; how else to account for the not just divisive but schizoid critical reaction? Kate Sheil (aka the American Isabelle Huppert) surely deserves an award for her astonishing “performance” in this non-fiction film where she plays not only Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who notoriously committed suicide on air in 1974, but also herself, and deliberately dissolves the line between traditional notions of “good” and “bad” acting in the process. This is nowhere more apparent than in the film’s controversial final scene — a thematically complex moment of extended self-reflexivity that can be read at least three different ways at once: Sheil, who has been flirting with co-auteur status all along, finally assumes full ownership of the project by addressing the camera and criticizing not just Greene but the T.V. audience within the movie and the audience of the movie itself. Misguided critics — some of whom actually included Kate Plays Christine on their “Worst of the Year”(!) lists — have accused the filmmakers of being “exploitative” and “self-serving.” Perhaps only a film that so thoroughly does the opposite (i.e., questions its own motives and generously invites viewers into a meaningful dialogue about the process of both making and consuming images) could inspire such a misreading.
18. Krisha (Shults, USA)
19. Creepy (Kurosawa, Japan)
20. The Other Side (Minervini, Italy/France)
21. Staying Vertical (Guiraudie, France) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
22. The Love Witch (Biller, USA) My capsule review at Time Out here.
23. Viaje (Fabrega, Costa Rica) My capsule review at Time Out here.
24. The Handmaiden (Park, S. Korea)
25. Hail, Caesar! (Coen/Coen, USA)
26. The Measure of a Man (Brize, France) Discussed with Scott Pfeiffer on Episode 10 of my podcast here.
27. Tower (Maitland, USA) – Music Box
28. L’Attesa (Messina, Italy/France) – Siskel Center. My interview with Juliette Binoche here.
29. Sully (Eastwood, USA)
30. In Transit (Maysles/True/Usui/Walker/Wu, USA) My capsule review at Time Out here.
31. Long Way North (Maye, Denmark/France) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
32. Fire at Sea (Rosi, Italy)
33. Born to Be Blue (Budreau, Canada) My review on this blog here.
34. Three (To, Hong Kong) My review on this blog here.
35. Paterson (Jarmusch, USA)
36. Sweet Dreams (Bellocchio, Italy) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
37. The Fits (Holmer, USA)
38. Harmonium (Fukada, Japan) My capsule review at Cine-File here.
39. Beyonce: Lemonade (Joseph/Knowles, USA)
40. Cameraperson (Johnson, USA)
41. Under the Shadow (Anvari, UK/Iran)
42. Embrace of the Serpent (Guerra, Colombia)
43. Sunset Song (Davies, UK)
44. The Arbalest (Pinney, USA)
45. Malaria (Shahbazi, Iran)
I was fortunate to be able to host a screening of this and participate in a Q&A with writer/director Parviz Shahbazi, one of Iran’s most important filmmakers (even if he’s not as well known on these shores as some of his colleagues), at Oakton Community College several months before the film had its official U.S. premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. This harrowing drama about inter-generational conflict in contemporary Tehran, provocatively set against the backdrop of the celebrations following the “Iran nuclear deal,” couldn’t be timelier and deserves to be much more widely seen.
46. The Conjuring 2 (Wan, USA/UK) Discussed on Episode 13 of my podcast with Pam Powell here. My review on this blog here.
47. Being 17 (Techine, France)
48. O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, USA)
49. Mad (Putka, USA)
50. The Academy of Muses (Guerin, Spain)
December 29th, 2016 at 12:06 pm
Great list! What did you think of Manchester by the Sea, Knight of Cups, and Certain Women? Also if you were to add Toni Erdmann, what spot would you place it atDaniel, pretty sure it was Scott Pfeiffer. I think we were the only three who saw it!?
December 29th, 2016 at 1:24 pm
Thanks for reading.
I liked MANCHESTER BY THE SEA for its great central performance and a few powerful scenes but I also think there aspects of it that don’t ring true and I think it’s been overrated by most critics.
I haven’t yet seen KNIGHT OF CUPS (I’m kind of a lapsed Malick fan – in the sense that people say they are “lapsed Catholics”).
I know I’m in the minority on this but the only part of CERTAIN WOMEN I really enjoyed was the last section with K-Stew and Lily Gladstone.
If I added TONI ERDMANN it would take the top spot!
December 30th, 2016 at 12:06 pm
Great list. Am making a couple of notes from it, hoping some of the films show up at the Sarasota Film Fest. Can’t agree with Kate Plays Christine, however. I did see it at last year’s SFF, with the director and cast present. None of them impressed me, though perhaps they were all too giddy from the opening night attention.
December 30th, 2016 at 1:29 pm
Thanks for reading, Suzi. KPC has certainly proven to be a divisive film (as I noted in my capsule). I had the good fortune to interview the director following the Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center and found him to be unusually smart, thoughtful and articulate.
January 4th, 2017 at 11:23 pm
[…] CLICK HERE TO READ MICHAEL’S FULL LIST! […]
January 12th, 2017 at 4:25 pm
[…] and Daniel Nava and I was able to stream it at home just in time for it to make my list of my Top 50 Films of 2016. I recently interviewed Putka about the film via […]
January 15th, 2017 at 5:26 pm
[…] healthy home viewership: I was able to stream it at home just in time for it to make my list of my Top 50 Films of 2016. I recently interviewed Putka about the film via […]
January 17th, 2017 at 8:48 pm
I love your top 50 films. It reflects the taste of someone who seen more than just Moonlight or Arrival. Now I’ve got to revise my own list!
My top 8 (so far…)
2. The Wailing
3. Hail, Caesar!
4. American Honey
5. The Witch
6. Green Room
7. The Lobster
8. OJ Simpson: Made in America
January 18th, 2017 at 8:17 am
Nice list, Julian. I still haven’t caught up with JACKIE yet but I loved THE WAILING and HAIL, CAESAR! and liked most of the other films on your list (even if they didn’t make my top 50).
January 23rd, 2017 at 10:28 am
[…] Erdmann was by far the best movie I saw last year (I did not include it in my Top 50 Films of 2016 list because it only screened for the press in Chicago in December and does not open at local […]
December 21st, 2017 at 3:37 pm
[…] likely to touch. One case in point is Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which made my year-end best-of list when Grasshopper released it theatrically in 2016 and has now been followed up with this splendid […]
July 16th, 2019 at 1:33 pm
I think the film Aquarius is a brilliant interpretation of Global Cinema while being political allegory not only applicable to Brazil but for the United States as well. Through the use of Clara, played by one of my favorite Sex and the City cameos, Sonia Braga she is able to show women empowerment by standing her ground, enjoying her sex life, and being a force to be reckoned with. Kleber Mendonca Filho uses the character study of Clara and her determination to not leave her apartment while exposing the tactics of a large development company trying to force her out. Relating this to the political circumstances in Brazil of the impeachment of the democratically elected female president who had been ultimately forced out of office. Additionally, throughout the film it addresses racial discrimination by discussing the maid, who had darker skin, had previously stolen from Clara’s mother, but having a frank conversation with her family, when her sister-in-law acknowledges that “we exploit them”, as well as Clara’s nephew lightening his baby photo on his cell phone. I think this film is relatable to not only America but countries around the world, where female power is still controversial and endings are still unknown.
July 17th, 2019 at 12:27 pm
July 16th, 2019 at 6:36 pm
I was quite fond of the film Aquarius by Kleber Mendoca Filho. I found the film to be full of entertaining and fun characters, as well as it contained a subtle intensity and a hefty amount of symbolism. Sonia Braga as the main character Clara was wonderful to watch in this film. Clara was quite a memorable character and Braga’s acting was very impressive. The way the film portrayed Clara’s life and past was powerful and I felt many of the things she experienced felt realistic to a degree. I think Clara’s actions and experiences are also amplified by the inclusion of three distinct parts titled; Clara’s Hair, Clara’s Love, and Clara’s Cancer. I think the first part of the film is Hair as she is shown as having short hair at the beginning of the film. When time jumps to the present, she of course has extremely long hair. I think the real theme of this part is supposed to be her past and the hair is very symbolic in regards to where she has been in that time. As for Part Two: Clara’s Love, I definitely believe that the title is initially supposed to be a Red Herring to convince the audience that she will maybe fall in love. Instead I think that the love the title refers to is the love she has for her family and friends as they are a large focus to the last half or so of this section of the movie. Part Three: Clara’s Cancer, which feels shorter than the others, has a reference to Clara’s actual cancer she had in the past in the form of a dream, however, I feel like the cancer they are really talking about is the construction company she is fighting against for her home. To a certain extent the termites are also the cancer, but they are, of course, brought in by the construction company. Overall, the film also has a lot to say about the world in other regards as well. The film’s parallel’s with Brazil’s own politics is also extremely easy to recognize and connect to the film. The way in which the construction company functions is similar to a corrupt government. Their tactics when they don’t get their way become more and more intense and cruel. I think that because of this conflict between Clara and the construction company, this film in comparison to the others we have watched in class, has a distinct feeling of good versus evil. In many of the other films we have watched, evil sometimes lacks a face, but in this film it’s generally Diego or the company. I believe that this gives the film more power to make an impact statement in regards to politics. There are clear sides fighting and both sides are very distinct and different for one another. It also allows Clara’s actions at the end of the film in the conference room to be even more dramatic.
July 17th, 2019 at 12:27 pm
July 16th, 2019 at 10:43 pm
In my opinion by watching this movie “Aquarius” I think it was totally not my type of movie like I found a little boring just in my opinion I am not against the movie it just my opinion. well Aquarius is very like controversial and political type of film made in Brazilian directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. Aquarius film was basically name of the building where the character lives the whole movie is based on all this building named Aquarius this movie main character is Clare Sonia braga iconic beauty fearlessly independent quality she has in her character the movie is based on political crisis is realistic corporation. she represents art and importance of perceiving thriller in slow motion thou the movie was very slow and not my type but I really liked her character a very positive beautiful strong women who was ready to fight for her own rights. she showed emotions which was related to her apartment where she lives. she enjoyed every bit of her life in fact she had a breast cancer she enjoyed her sex life her family her friends aspect of her life she wants to die in the apartment as it represents her whole life her every special moment she had with her family was stuck with this apartment and she couldn’t let go away like that .she was forced to go out from the apartment by the huge company dealers who wants to buy this apartment as well as Diego’s philistinic obsession with location, modernity and profit. he is just into this whole sale the apartment he is like way to selfish kinda a person. however Clare didn’t lose her hope she did her best whatever she think would work to win this battle of this corruption of this company and she did very well in the end I would say well diego was very evil and plus the ending was very ambiguous ending I would the movie had 3 parts I really like this concept like first about her life then her love and then her cancer it was really good. she played the role very well the movie was filled with this amazing music I really enjoyed every part of the music it represents every part of the scene very nicely. well this movie also shows us the discrimination of darker color also like the maid who had a darker skin and also scene where the guy was like editing his photo to darker to lighter I mean really this showed us reality discrimination of color caste and state. this movie I would recommend to those who really into politics and all this kind of controversial stuff. I’m not into all of this thou but If I would wanna watch this movie is because of Clare character because in the whole film I just loved her character. because in the end she showed those losers what they deserve and smack them of like a boss. she did a great job women power wins.
July 17th, 2019 at 12:27 pm
July 17th, 2019 at 11:06 am
The film Aquarius was an interesting film to watch. Although it was not one of my favorites, I truly enjoying the character of Clara playing by Sonia Braga. She is a beautiful and intriguing actress. The aesthetics of this film is was I appreciated the most in this film. The color tone, music, apartment settings, and the overall beauty of each shot were greatly put together by Kleber Mendonça Filho. I enjoyed the storyline but the pace of the film was a bit slow, in my opinion. Clara’s representation of feminism is a great example of a global problem we face even today. Her determination in standing her ground was remarkable! Clara didn’t have support from her family in the beginning but she didn’t allow all that negativity to alter her view on life. At the end of the film we don’t find out what happens with Clara and her apartment but we know that she ended with a big bang! She was a woman of dignity and she was not going to allow anyone to treat her otherwise.
July 17th, 2019 at 12:27 pm
July 17th, 2019 at 11:51 am
I quite enjoyed Aquarius. I felt that the characters in it such as the main character Clara are people that you would probably meet in real life. This is in contrast to many Hollywood movies that are coming out recently, while some are relatable I never feel like they could be a real person. I think that the reason for this is that recently characters from movies that come out of Hollywood don’t have their characters explored enough in terms of how they live.
Also knowing about what was happening in Brazil at the time this movie was made I can definitely see how this was a political message. Comparing Clara to the Female president of Brazil that was really interesting especially since it was done in a rather subtle way. The subtle comparisons to the government interested me greatly. One last thing, the movie is also a incredible character study as we see how Clara deals with her situation and how the construction company tries to force her out in increasingly extreme ways until the ending scene which I won’t go into in case someone reads this and wants to watch the movie because of it (wow I just sounded rather vain). In conclusion this was a interesting movie and one that should be seen by more people.
July 17th, 2019 at 12:28 pm
July 17th, 2019 at 12:21 pm
Aquarius begins at aunt Lucia’s birthday party with everyone trading stories of her living life her own way and despite being 70 years old maintaining her youth. Even though her family loves her and her youthful spirit I think this movie shows that this is a young persons world and life will eventually pass you by. Clara’s children have left her behind for their own lives, the young reporter quotes her out of context for her article to appeal to young readers and now she is being pushed out of her apartment by a young contractor. she watches young love flourish between her nephew and his girlfriend Julia, she watches her grandson grow up and she turns down an older gentleman from the club but flirts with the young lifeguard showing that she is envious of youth. Her apartment is full of the memories of her life as well as her life’s collection of LP’s but no one else cares. They tell her that she is too old to live in a place like this alone but Clara is holding on to the last thing that is truly hers. While this movie is a clear allegory for government and big businesses pushing their agenda on people who cannot compete with them I think its also showing an older woman fighting for the life she loves in a young persons world.
July 17th, 2019 at 12:28 pm
July 17th, 2019 at 12:23 pm
When watching Aquarius I was a bit confused in how the story was being told. The story was broken into parts similar to the Tabu. The movie starts with Lucia, it focus on Lucia until the see a scene where we find an older Clara. When Clara is being interviewed about whether she likes mp3 files she describes how physical copies have a special meaning. She isn’t against music
files, but music files do not have the same meaning as the music records she has in her house. Clara tells the reporter how one music record has meaning because it has a newspaper clipping of John Lennon talking about future plans before he committed suicide. In today’s age when just about everything can be digital there are some physical objects that have a meaning to the user.
If I didn’t know the movie was a political movie I would have missed it entirely. One part of the movie that I felt strongly about is when Clara tells off Diego saying even though he is rich, he has no manners. Another time is when Clara’s sister talks about a maid they used to have when they were younger that stole from their mother and grandmother. The sister replies, it is inevitable, we exploit them, so they steal from us here and there. Both of these moments in the movie talks about the higher class people who believe they have the right to act however they wish because their money and status allow them to act in such a way. Diego acts condensing to Clara saying how hard it must be for her being of darker skin to make it in life, he admires that. In general people in position power exploit people lower than them because they feel they can get away with it, which speaks to a lot of corporations today in America and anywhere else in the world.
July 17th, 2019 at 12:29 pm
July 17th, 2019 at 12:58 pm
While I was watching the beginning of the film, I was thought that I will like the movie, but after the film progresses, I was not impressed with the film. The only reasons I didn’t like the film was because the pace of the story-line was going slow, but at the same time, I don’t think I would like it if the film went at a faster rate than it did. Even though I wasn’t impressed by the film, but I enjoyed the ending of it. I think the ending kept the audience wondering about what was going to happen. To ending reminded me of a real-life situation, because you don’t know what the outcome of a certain decision would be but you have faith in yourself and make that decision. The film also showed color-ism, when some on the phone is trying to lighten their skin color on their childhood photo. I wouldn’t have thought this film was about politics until you mentioned about the 2016 Democratic election in Brazil. I think Sonia Braga, an amazing job on portraying the character of Clara. Clara’s everyday life tells a lot about who she is. The design of the apartment itself tells a lot about her character. By just looking at the music records and the speakers in the room you can tell that she is someone who values things from history, ancestors and little things that build up her life. Even though she is famous she doesn’t show it and still values things from before. Her action portrays her as a strong human being.
July 17th, 2019 at 1:28 pm
I really liked the movie, although I’ll admit that the plot was very slow and sometimes I wished it would be faster. At the same time I feel that because the plot was so slow, it made the movie a lot more realistic. The themes brought up in the movie are very serious but in some cases I thought them to be comedic. I make reference to how sex is portrayed in the movie. At the beginning when Aunt Lucia is reminiscing of the great sex she had while her great nephew’s and nieces are giving a birthday speech for her and the talk of sex at the girl’s night out Clara went out to, the way Clara reacted to the orgy that she witnessed happening in the apartment above hers. I do think that the attempts to chase her out of her apartment and the way it affected her life as well as her relationships was heart wrenching. In the end I just want to say that considering the political nature behind this movie, I really appreciated the ending of the movie, how it’s ambiguous whether the company wins and chases Clara out or rather Clara wins and the company stop their project. I liked it because it was realistic instead of imposing a fake good ending just because people want Clara to win, in reality sadly, no one knows what happens in these kinds of situations.