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)
6. Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece)
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)
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)