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It's been clear for some time that the major Hollywood studios have basically gotten out of the high-quality serious film business, but this year offers the most conclusive evidence yet: Of the 19 films I consider the year's best, just one, Silence, enjoyed the backing of a big studio, and only then because “Marty” had paid enough commercial dues to finally make a dream project dating back 26 years. Yet even then, 20 — count 'em, 20 — producers and executive producers were needed to cobble together the financing.
The result of this paucity of Hollywood prestige projects is an open field for independents, foreign directors, documentarians and otherwise little-known filmmakers to grab the spotlight in a way unimaginable just a few years back. Put another way, if, a year ago, a crystal ball had revealed that front-runners for top awards in 2016 would include names like Barry Jenkins, Raoul Peck, Ezra Edelman and Maren Ade, most locals would have reacted with blank stares.
On the flip side, if anyone had told you ten months ago that Nate Parker and his The Birth of a Nation would be in contention for precisely no awards, you'd have called them crazy. In my three decades of attending the Sundance Film Festival, I had never witnessed a reception for any film as rapturous as the one accorded this one, which scored a zeitgeist bull's-eye and looked poised to march all the way to the Dolby Theater on February 26. Well, we all know what happened there, as Birth became a non-film no one wants to talk or even think about.
Of my 19 picks, all but one (the late-arriving Silence) debuted on the festival circuit (six in Cannes, four at Sundance), four are documentaries, four were directed by women and only one (La La Land) was actually shot in Hollywood. The two best films I saw at festivals this year that have yet to be released domestically were Cristian Mungiu's Graduation (Bacalaureat), due out early next year, and my Sundance 2016 favorite, German director Nicolette Krebitz's Wild, which seemingly remains without a U.S. distributor.
O.J.: Made in America
Who would have thought that, 22 years after the most scrutinized murders in Los Angeles history, and arriving at the same time as the riveting FX miniseries, there would be anything more to learn about O.J. Simpson and the so-called trial of the century? Ezra Edelman decisively answers that with this staggering eight-hour documentary that places the crimes against the sorry historical backdrop of LAPD/black community relations over the decades.
La La Land
An original musical set in modern-day Hollywood? What could be more unlikely? (Well, perhaps a black-and-white silent movie from France in 2011, and look what happened there.) Damien Chazelle, just 31, unexpectedly resuscitated a moribund genre by relocating its potential for grace, beauty and romance and setting it in a Los Angeles that once again looks like a city of dreams.
After her dramatic directorial breakthrough with Selma, Ava DuVernay shifted to documentary work because an urgent matter needed her, and the public's, attention. Via a careful reading of history and a roll-call of eloquent voices, she offers a meticulous analysis of how the freeing of slaves by the 13th Amendment was replaced by other institutional practices designed to keep African-Americans down, right up to the present.
Shot through with head-on collisions of comedy and drama, wild lurches between sophistication and embarrassment and surprises that upend conventional expectations, this is that rarest of birds: a German comedy of manners, in which director Maren Ade gets mirthful mileage out of women in business, painful father-daughter relationships and other subjects you'd never expect would offer such fertile ground for comedy.
I Am Not Your Negro
Yet a third documentary on aspects of the black experience in the United States to rate among the year's best, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's invigorating work serves the excellent purpose of reminding viewers of, or introducing them to, the far-reaching mind of the late James Baldwin. Both an insider — to which his reminiscences of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers attest — and a perennial outsider, Baldwin astonishes with his unfailingly articulate commentaries collected here.
After a decade in the wilderness, Paul Verhoeven proves himself to be just as sly and impudent in his 70s as Luis Bunuel was in this wickedly impertinent thriller about a sophisticated Parisian woman's unusual reaction to being raped. Even with the director at the top of his form, the film would count for little without the imperishable Isabelle Huppert, who gives the performance of the year as a woman of constantly surprising, and often witty, resourcefulness.
Manchester by the Sea
After delivering many good things and hinting at more in his previous film work, Kenneth Lonergan finally put it all together in this yarn of devastating tragedy and acute sadness. His playwriting background leads him to supply more character depth and complexity than one usually finds in American screenplays, and the performances from Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, for starters, hit bedrock.
So hyper-exquisite as to nearly induce an aesthetic overdose, Park Chan-wook's diabolical drama centered on shifting personal and erotic power in rarified Korean and Japanese circles in the 1930s may also be the perviest “mainstream” film I've ever seen; all bets are off during the film's jaw-dropping second half. It's a cinematic and erotic feast, to be sure, as Park serves as a consummately confident puppet-master of his characters and the audience.
It's not perfect, as this single-minded work operates within quite a narrow dramatic range, but Martin Scorsese has still pulled off something impressive and admirable with this deeply personal investigation of faith and God's frustrating elusiveness. Working in a classical, rather than hyper-active, style, Scorsese steadily builds the story to its crushing yet illuminating conclusion. Not all dream projects come out well, but this one just about does.
Hell or High Water
Although neither a great nor major film, this drama about some desperate men nonetheless accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and does so with understated confidence. Taylor Sheridan's tart, economical script inspires the actors to roll the words around in delicious ways, while director David Mackenzie's take on the modern West has an early '70s feel, which is meant as a high compliment.
Nine Other Worthy Films
Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky, Kelly Fremon Craig's The Edge of Seventeen, Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, Roger Ross Williams' Life, Animated, Kleber Mendonca Filho's Aquarius, Richard Tanne's Southside With You, Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and Terence Davies' Sunset Song.
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