Professor Dennis Broe offers his top ten films of 2016.
Two trends in the 2016 cinema. One is the continuing dominance of the television serial long form which is replacing much mid-level and indie film production, giving creators the opportunity to explore stories at length, so that the film Top Ten is becoming less important. That is why I follow my own Top Ten with the Ten Best Serial Series of 2016. The second trend is that in this year of Trump, the Brexit, and a resurgence everywhere of movements that are alternately or at the same time anti-global capital and reactionary, my Top Ten has followed suit, stressing in true Bernie Sanders fashion the progressive side of the anti-corporate critique. So in no particular order, here are the best films I saw this year, a Top Ten plus Two.
The Olive Tree - Paul Laverty may be rewarded at Oscar time for his screenplay for I Daniel Blake, but this screenplay, about a young woman who searches to restore an olive tree uprooted from her home in Andalucia in Southern Spain, to function as window dressing for a German corporation in Dusseldorf, is even more poignant and far reaching in its critique of the uneven global order in Europe between the North and South.
I, Daniel Blake – Laverty again with director Ken Loach in a film that tracks post-Thatcher-Blairite meanness and cruelty as it affects those most in need of help - a worker who has collapsed from a heart attack being harassed into returning to work early, and a mother trying to feed her family. One at the mercy of a now merciless neoliberal state, the other forced to succumb to a masculinist form of private-enterprise thinking, that registers bodies as just another form of saleable commodity.
Trumbo – Opened in the US last year, but surfaced here in France early this year. Extraordinarily complex dissection and glorification of a figure for whom ethics was not just another marketable phenomenon. Bryan Cranston shines in the role as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Trumbo who reminds the corrupt Republican Senator Parnell when they cross paths in prison that only one of them is there because they are a criminal and in a beguiling way explains to his daughter that a communist is the school kid who, when they find that others around them do not have enough, shares, rather than sells or trades, their lunch. Subversive, because mostly positive, portrait of an actual hero and perhaps Hollywood’s greatest screenwriter.
Last Train to Busan – This resplendent South Korean zombie film uses the horror form to discuss such topics as: global ecological destruction, in its opening beguiling scene of a zombie deer rising after being squashed by a truck carrying radioactive waste; the interpersonal devastation that the ultimate profit motive wrecks in a CEO’s sacrificing everyone to save himself; and the painful memory of the island’s being sacrificed as still victim of the Cold War in the approach of the survivors to the title city where a key battle was fought. Part of a resurgence in the genre as it embraces a new grounding in the social horror that everywhere marks the global landscape.
The Net – Korean director Kim Ki-duk stunned the Venice film festival with this entry about a poor North Korean fisherman who inadvertently slips over the border to the South, where he finds a land where selling is everything while upon his return to the North finds a place where blatant corruption rules the day. A eulogy that suggests both states need to start over in a reworking of relationships. The evenhanded comparison in detailing the maltreatment of the population of both Koreas is hard for Western audiences, still spoon-fed Cold War propaganda, to grasp.
Jackie – Performance of the year from Natalie Portman who from the opening portrait of an elegant woman under pressure captures the grace, haughtiness and social acuity of Jackie Kennedy’s crucial moment in her commanding presence around the funeral of Jack, refusing, for example, to change her bloodstained dress because she wanted those who created the atmosphere that made the assassination possible to feel what they had done. Chilean director Pablo Lorain, also weighing in this year with a screen bio of Neruda as a victim of Chile’s entry into the Cold War, strikes again.
Brimstone –Despised by mainstream critics and seen as simply posing, this Dutch Western with an indefatigable Dakota Fanning pursued to the ends of the earth by Guy Pierce’s perverse, sado-masochistic reverend has both a fascinating well-conceived fractured time structure that plays like four distinct episodes making it resound with the narrative intricacies of series TV and a critique of the American Puritan ethos currently projected as global violence that recalls both Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and the wonder of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Underappreciated but will eventually be recognized as a masterful late Western.
The Witch –Puritan ethic again, this time in its original guise, as once again the horror film is the vehicle for imprinting a critique of the American psyche as devastating the physical landscape of New England and the psychological landscape of female subjectivity in a way that recalls Terence Malick’s The New World in its ravaging of nature and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist in its celebration of the power of female desire to triumph over the repression that would silence it.
Sami Blood – In this year of indigenous resistance to the destruction wrecked on Native People’s by that most wretched of capitalist enterprises, the oil and gas industry, this Swedish film, which got a very quiet release in the US, details the prejudices and misunderstandings directed at the Laplanders or Sami, as told through the eyes of a woman who “escapes” her culture only to find that she is now utterly imbued in a European devaluing of her heritage that sees her people as primitive both in customs and in their non-Aryan look. A wise and timely film that deserves to find a wider audience.
Fiore – Romeo and Juliet in the slammer. This hard-bitten story of a young Milanese’ decision to adore her fellow male inmate is less romantic tale than tribute to the lead characters’ ability to find love amidst the pain of working class life in an Italy devastated by unemployment to the point where it is a marvel that this second generation thief, now mining the digital realm of stolen cell phones, can still imagine with her prison lover a place where she, the flower of the title, can still bloom amid the harshness of the life around her.
Ma Rosa –Almost similar to Fiore in its depiction of a literally Mom and Pop convenience store in one of the worst slums of Manilla where to make ends meet the female proprietress must sell drugs on the side. Brillante Mendoza’s beautiful long take film contains multiple shots of both, as it’s called, “the impasse”, the dead-end alley where the family is sheltered and the ominousness of the long walks of the police out to haunt and corrupt the streets rather than to make them safe. Quiet and for that reason more disturbing examination of the devastation of drugs in the country which includes the unfettered corruption of those engaged in this supposed war on drugs, in actuality a war on the impoverished.
Where to Invade Next – European Social Democracy is everywhere under attack from all sides but Michael Moore finds in scouring the continent rays of hope that, pre-Trump, could have been applied to the US system to humanize it. Topics include lack of student debt in Slovenia, with the exception of two American students who are there fleeing the high cost of American education; enlightened prison training, including courses in Philosophy, in Finland; and five course meals in France as the equivalent of American inner-city student lunches It’s Moore’s best work in a decade, outlining practical methods for improving American life, many of them, oddly, conceived in the US.
Julieta –Almodovar’s bittersweet remembrance of a mother’s breakup with her daughter replete with Bunuelian stunning shape-shifting of actresses is a visually gorgeous hymn to the wisdom of his female characters.
Bitter Money – 6th Generation Chinese director Wayne Bing’s documentary recounting of the lives of those from the provinces who flood not the interior but the fringes of the Chinese industrial cities where their lives and livelihood are continually at the mercy of an ownership system and a deregulated economy that casts them aside if they do not continually produce at an ever more rigorous level.
Risk – In this year of the degrading of Wikileaks, Laurie Poitras’ inside look at the systematic attempt to silence Julian Assange’s government truthtelling as well as his protégés’ exposing of corporate malfeasance is a timely follow-up to last year’s noirish telling of the Edward Snowden saga Citizen Four.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.