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MyCinemaParadiso’s Best of 2016

Another year has passed, leaving us with a number of films that we loved, hated, or had absolutely no feelings about. One of many pleasures of writing a blog is having an opportunity to share the personal favorites and discoveries with anyone willing to read about them. So, here is MyCinemaParadiso’s Best of 2016 list.

I have always been a big supporter of end-of-the-year lists, both as a way of sharing one’s thoughts about what was great and worthwhile, and as a means of starting a constructive conversation with others, or even inspiring someone to see something he or she missed. It’s pure fun that can also be educational and pretty informative. And that’s always a good thing.

In 2016 my first child was born, a daughter, Olivia, my inspiration in everything I do now, thus it was a bit difficult to see as many films as I did in previous years. I couldn’t include on my list many acclaimed projects (Moonlight, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea) as well as some of the most hyped ones (Rogue One, Snowden). But all in all, I’ve seen enough to consider it another solid year in the history of film.

Without further ado, here are my personal favorites and discoveries.
(Disclaimer: the list includes films from 2014, 2015 and 2016 I have seen for the first time).

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The characters seeing the alien written language for the first time, still from "Arrival"

Still from “Arrival”

BEST FEATURE FILM:

Arrival

I know that many people didn’t ‘buy’ the whole premise and plot of Arrival. I also realize that under closer scrutiny Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi tale (which is not that sci-after all) would probably show some cracks. And I seriously don’t care. Here is an exquisitely shot and narrated film which effortlessly blends intellect with emotions, hard science with broken humanity, philosophical questions and moral ambiguities with the fleetingness of everything that is the best, and worst, in life. I laughed, I cried, I wondered, I pondered, but above all, I felt I had left the screening room a different man. And no, it’s not a film about aliens, it’s rather a tale of how alien we, people, can be to each other, and the language(s) that may encourage us to change that.

Hell or High Water

I can’t say I’m original in my picks, David Mackenzie’s second American feature being one of the most loved and acknowledged films of 2016, but I found this tale of noble criminals and hard-edged lawmen one of the most surprising of the whole year. Mainly because on paper it looks as yet another neo-western with predictable plot line and obvious characterization, whereas it’s really a moral treatise bordering on a classic tragedy and served as a mix between a heist movie and a buddy movie. A film in which there are no heroes or villains, just a bunch of people struggling with their fate, with the mournful images of the once-impressive West Texas providing the silently oppressive background that speaks of the characters’ actions louder than any words.

Spotlight

What got me instantly hooked to Spotlight is – for the lack of a better word – its honesty. Not only in depiction of the whole horrifying ‘pedophiles in the Catholic Church’ case, but also in describing the journalists’ life and work, the ethos, without the glamor it would get in a lesser film. Tom McCarthy’s solemn drama is best when it delves in the main characters’ mundane process of researching, calling, discussing, interviewing, verifying – you know, all the things a real journalist should be doing whilst being provided with enough time and space and encouragement to make the story matter. In the age of cheap online tricks, clickbaits et al, this is how it should work in a perfect world. Because ours is not perfect, it never was and never will be, it’s good to have such reminders.

The Last Family

You may have not heard about this one, it’s a Polish film with a handful of festival awards and modest box-office results in mostly European cinemas. But if you ever have a chance to see it, don’t hesitate for a second. Jan P. Matuszyński’s feature debut tells a story of the Beksiński family – Zdzisław the famous painter who inspired Guillermo del Toro and many others, Zofia the educated housewife, Tomasz the fragile film and music journalist – only to use it as a cinematic canvas for something much grander and yet intimate. This is a film about what it means to be a part of a family, a never-ending struggle of negotiating your past, present and future with people closest to you who can sometimes feel as total strangers, and not knowing who you really are until it’s too late.

Eye in the Sky

I am not a particular fan of director Gavin Hood’s Hollywood work, which might have lead me to one of the biggest mistakes of the year – if it hadn’t been for Eye in the Sky landing in Poland on DVD, I wouldn’t have seen this terrifying and heartbreaking gem of a film. The plot is fairly simple – there’s an anti-terrorist mission in Africa that is being supervised by means of the latest technology from Great Britain and America. But at an early stage, a certain decision has to be made which results in bureaucratical, ethical, military and technological nightmare for all involved, also innocent children. It’s a gripping thriller which can make you feel sick with the level of tension and everything that is happening on and off-screen. It should be talked about as much as possible.

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Rock Hudson standing before a mirror

Rock Hudson, still from “Seconds”

BEST CLASSIC FILM:

Seconds

I feel I’ve already shared enough of words and reflections and emotions on John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece in my other post, but I’m sure I will be endorsing this film for years to come. Let me now just say this – rarely have I seen a film more powerful in both cinematic and philosophical way. Seconds is an existential horror of words, ideas and imagery that will haunt you for months.

The Train

I will soon write more about this John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, but now I just wanted to say that The Train is one of the most impressive action films I have ever seen. It’s not only about that, obviously, as it engages the viewer in a dialogue about the value of art and asks a couple of unsettling questions. Though it could be watched only as an action film and that would be enough.

White Dog

Samuel Fuller’s White Dog is possibly the best cinematic expression of what racism is and how it creeps into one’s mind that I have ever seen. Shot by a true master filmmaker at the top of his game, full of emotional and memorable scenes that can be at times hard to watch, the film’s everlasting power is becoming more apparent with each new year the humanity tries to degrade a part of itself.

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A computer-rendered head of Marlon Brando, still from "Listen to Me Marlon"

Still from “Listen to Me Marlon”

BEST DOCUMENTARY:

Listen to Me Marlon

I find a number of recent documentaries delving into the lives and minds of famous artists long deceased crossing the line of what’s moral and ethical. It’s different with Stevan Riley’s audiovisual memoir of Marlon Brando’s life, his highs and lows, his attitudes and eccentricities. I feel that through the great actor’s own voice the director presented to me who Marlon Brando really was as a man, while simultaneously making a wonderful and poignant tribute to the legend.

The Look of Silence

It’s not as gut-wrenching as The Act of Killing, in the sense that in this Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary one does not have to avert eyes from the screen, but no less powerful. Maybe even more as the protagonist’s path to forgiving the murderers and monsters that made his family’s life miserable is ultimately far more meaningful. The lesson is simple: let us not forget about the sins of the past, but at the same we cannot permit them to take over our present and future.

Communion

Yet another film that I have already wrote about in detail (in this post), but I believe it deserves every kind of a promotional push. This tale of a fourteen-year-old girl forced to grow up prematurely and take responsibility for her dysfunctional family has the emotional intensity of a great feature film. At the same time it’s a subtle, intimate documentary portrait of people who just cannot find a way to cope with their lives and the institutions that failed them.

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Ralph Fiennes smiling ominously in a still from "A Bigger Splash"

Ralph Fiennes, still from “A Bigger Splash”

BEST ACTOR:

Ralph Fiennes

I always knew Ralph Fiennes had a great comedic talent, even before Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that seems to have altered the distinguished actor’s career path. But I was not prepared for Fiennes’s hedonistic music producer/emotional vampire Harry Hawkes. By any means, this should be an unlikable, vile character but in Fiennes’s interpretation he becomes something else entirely; a force of nature that fascinates as much as baffles. And makes you grin like a madman.

Michael Fassbender

Commanding, I think that is the right word to describe Michael Fassbender’s acting and presence in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. He may not look like the late businessman’s doppelganger but as a film character he gets everything right: the voice, the gestures, the body language, the essence of the man Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin saw in Jobs. Fassbender is hypnotic, physical, startlingly detached, proving what I already knew – that he is one of the best actors working today.

Ryan Gosling

There might have been a few other roles I considered better, but as an admirer of Ryan Gosling’s career and professional decisions, I was in constant awe of his comedic timing in Shane Black’s roaringly funny The Nice Guys. Whether he squeaks in terror or says something that only affirms he’s a morally compromised alcoholic, Gosling’s Holland March is a joy to watch and listen to. Having Russell Crowe on top form as his partner, Gosling waists no opportunity to entertain.

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Amy Adams looking surprised, still from "Arrival"

Amy Adams, still from “Arrival”

BEST ACTRESS:

Amy Adams

I haven’t seen Nocturnal Animals yet, for which Adams is highly praised, but as Arrival’s Louise Brooks, the woman through whose eyes we experience everything happening on the screen, the actress created one of the best female characters of the last decade. Strong-willed, passionate, open-minded, empathetic, intelligent enough to know the true power of words and language, as well as emotional, fragile, dependent on others. In Adams’s interpretation, this is a leader I would vote for.

Natalie Portman

Sure, this role isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the constant battle between pain and love that Portman surfaces in her suffering mother’s shiny eyes is mesmerizing. In her feature directing debut the lovable actress created a complex portrait of a woman who would like to be the guiding light for her son but cannot overcome the many internal and external obstacles life throws at her. I am still to watch Jackie but my 2016 wouldn’t be the same without Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness.

Agata Kulesza

I could choose other great roles but I decided to promote Polish cinema with this extraordinary turn from one of Poland’s best leading actresses. You might know Agata Kulesza from Ida and numerous other films but it was in Kinga Dębska’s These Daughters of Mine that she could fully show her enormous talent. As a woman who has to deal with a series of family tragedies Kulesza goes effortlessly through a range of emotions, never losing the character’s humanity from her sight.

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Joséphine Japy looks with admiration to Lou de Laâge, still from "Breathe"

Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge, still from “Breathe”

YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS:

I decided not to list the supporting parts this year, only for the sake of making this post as short as possible, but if the blog will still thrive in January 2018, I will add them to my list. Though I couldn’t refuse myself mentioning three young actors/actresses who made my 2016 even more memorable.

Lou de Laâge

This young French actress was very impressive in both Anne Fontaine’s Les innocentes (The Innocents), in which she played an inexperienced Red Cross doctor trying to help a group of raped and pregnant nuns, and in Mélanie Laurent’s Respire (Breathe) – in it, she was intoxicating as a manipulative girl who is all glamor on the outside only to hide her chaotic and messy inside. De Laâge made the parts her own, shining in many scenes and maturely stepping down when it was needed.

Édouard Tremblay-Grenier

Philippe Lesage’s Les démons (The Demons) was one of my biggest film surprises of 2016, a suspenseful tale of a young boy’s suburban odyssey to understand the adults’ world which includes deception, humiliation, and murder. The film is expertly told, with a handful of visually stunning scenes, but it simply would not work without this young actor at its center, capable of conquering your heart and at the same conveying the creepy confusion of a susceptible young mind.

Olivia DeJonge

I know that nowadays not many people like to show their affection for M. Night Shyamalan’s films but I still have mostly positive feelings for his work (well, apart from The Last Airbender). The Visit was a fun comedy/horror ride that pushed all the right buttons. And at the center of this unappreciated film there was Olivia DeJonge as Becca, a smart and thoughtful girl with a filmmaker’s soul who made the whole thing even more enjoyable, funny and scary. Kudos!

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The protagonist looks desperate, still from "Anomalisa"

Still from “Anomalisa”

BEST DIRECTOR:

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

Anomalisa may not be the film to win the mass audience’s hearts and minds, it’s definitely too depressing, offbeat and visually weird, but it did win mine. Charlie Kaufman always knew how to get under my skin; make me think, reflect or reconsider my stance on some of the things that I value in life. And that is precisely why I think of Anomalisa so highly. This is a rare film that made me focus on how people talk to me and what differentiates them from one another. A true gem.

Denis Villeneuve

I am a fan of Denis Villeneuve’s work therefore I wasn’t surprised that in Arrival, a rare instance of intelligent and empathetic sci-fi that isn’t about destruction but creation, he did such an astonishing job. The film includes so many examples of his thoughtful direction, which is both beautiful to watch and demanding attention from the viewer, that I am not able to name any aspect of it that speaks to me the most. This is one of those films, sci-fi or other, that will always make me gasp in awe.

Marcin Wrona

This should have been a spot for Tom McCarthy whose directorial efforts I follow since The Station Agent, but I said everything I wanted about his work in the other category and so I wanted to promote an underrated Polish drama/horror Demon. In it, the late Marcin Wrona created a sense of otherworldliness permeating an alcohol-soaked rural wedding and resulting in a surprising, if timely, metaphor for how the ghosts of the distant past can haunt both individuals and whole nations.

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Amy Adams in close-up, lit by red and blue, still from "Arrival"

Amy Adams, still from “Arrival”

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Bradford Young

Arrival yet again, but not mentioning Bradford Young’s cinematography would be a crime. From the wonderfully evocative way of using water as a metaphor for human memory to all those alluring close-ups that make you feel a part of the given character’s on-screen journey, Young’s work is the most visually arresting of 2016. And for the images of Louise walking, or jumping, into the blackest of darkness, only to come stronger on the other side, I will cherish Young for the rest of my days.

Giles Nuttgens

Hell or High Water’s sense of place and time, the almost-tangible journey through the vast emptiness of West Texas and the broken lives of the people who made it their home, is no short of miraculous. While Giles Nuttgens’s work is impressive throughout the whole film, making even the most mundane dialogue scene a joy to watch, his greatest achievement is what is in the background and makes the characters act the way they do and challenge their destinies.

Paweł Flis

There was a number of cinematographers whose work amazed me in 2016, but all in all, when it came to creating this list, one film that refused to leave my mind was Marcin Wrona’s Demon. And Paweł Flis’s evocative cinematography which helps the director to throw you into the very center of the wedding party, soak you in vodka and moral permissiveness, and make you shriek in terror when the supernatural events begin to occur. Whereas the film’s final frame is a masterpiece.

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The main character, a black kid, with a bland look, still from "The Transfiguration"

Eric Ruffin, still from “The Transfiguration”

BEST LITTLE KNOWN FILM:

Being one of Camerimage Film Festival’s programmers, I get to watch many films that somehow get lost in the flood of titles released every year. Here’s three of them that you might have not heard of but are definitely worth your time.

The Transfiguration

This film got under my skin for a surprisingly long period of time given it’s a tale of a confused boy from a broken family who tries to cope with the outside world by believing he is a vampire. Not some shiny YA vampire wandering dispiritedly from scene to scene, but a true bloodsucker that feasts on the living. The Transfiguration is a poignant drama that will leave you speechless but the scenes when the boy tries to kill for blood are raw, gritty and as unpleasant as you might imagine.

Long Way North (Tout en haut du monde)

A great animated film that is a world apart from Pixar, Disney and other American brands. Initially set in 1880s Saint Petersburg, Long Way North tells a story of an near-impossible sea expedition to the North Pole which is led by a young Russian aristocrat trying to solve a family mystery. If it sounds generic or unattractive, I am the only one to blame for this as the film is an exciting adventure with a distinct and imaginative animation that will make you beg for more.

Lady Macbeth

Last but not least, a tale of a 19th century young woman who is forced to marry a much older man, completely uninterested in emotional or spiritual connection, and thus put in a not-so-gilded cage of conventions and restrictions that quickly begin to suffocate her. Bound by the never-ending rules, the only thing the protagonist can do is to rebel. And what a rebellion it is! Violent, tragic, immoral, bitter. A tale of a victim that decided to be an oppressor, Lady Macbeth is as timely as ever.

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Like I wrote earlier, I plan to create more categories next year, as I do not want to neglect the work of production designers, screenwriters and other craftsmen and craftswomen. But for now, this is it.

Do you share some of my picks?