Stories about young women coming of age all over the world and horror dominate the back half of my Top 20 films of 2016. Just like 2015, which delivered Brooklyn, Mustang, Girlhood, The Falling, The Sisterhood of the Night and Respire, this year was also a strong one for stories of teenage girls to be taken seriously in world cinema.
20. OUR HUFF & PUFF JOURNEY, Daigo Matsui, Japan
Starring: Sonoko Inoue, Reika Oozeki, Saku Mayama, Toko Miura
Daigo Matsui has his pulse on today's youth culture. He weaves pop culture, music and social media in his films to enhance the film and characters' emotional journeys, and never in a gimmicky fashion the way most films do, and never in a condescending manner. The story follows four best friends from Fukuoka who embark on a road trip to Tokyo to see their favorite band Creepyhyp in concert. The film is bright, vibrant and bubbly, but it isn't afraid to delve into the fears, hysteria, insecurities and ennui of teenage girlhood. As the girls hold on to the last days of their girlhood, the love they have for each other, brought together by the love for a band, rings loud, bold and beautiful. So it is all the more painful and bittersweet when we watch them fight and fragment and reconcile over the course of the film. Their fears and insecurities are so raw and real and Matsui never treats them as frivolous. This is teenage girlhood and teenage girl friendship celebrated and treated with the respect it deserves.
Spiritual film cousins: Girlhood (2015), Sunny (2011), Take Care of My Cat (2001)
19. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, Nicolas Pesce, USA
Starring: Kika Magalhaes, Diana Agostini, Paul Nazak
At a trim 77 minutes, Nicolas Pesce's debut film is one of the most exciting debuts in recent years. Told in black and white, The Eyes of My Mother is a stunning, haunting Gothic fable that tells the creation of a girl monster. Instead of a princess emerging from the woods, this is the origin story of the witch or stepmother of those stories. There are some who have called this film "an origin of evil" and it is only that minimally, and more of how trauma and environment shapes a person. Francisca and her parents live on an isolated farm, where her mother, a trained surgeon, passes her her skills. A violent and horrible tragedy forever changes Francisca and her surgical skills are put to use as the hunter becomes the prey. While Francisca commits horrific and disturbing acts throughout the film, Kika Magalhaes' heartbreaking performance and Nicolas Pesce's direction and choice to distance the audience from the graphic nature of Francisca's acts, merely showing the grisly aftermath helps to keep Francisca as a sympathetic monster. Pesce's decision to keep the film at its 77 minutes length, and its abrupt, disarming ending both feel like incredibly smart choices. And of course, THE highlight of the film is its incredibly effective black and white cinematography, shot by Zach Kuperstein. Every frame of this film is beautifully composed, and juxtaposes the horrors of the film with the banality of its pastoral environment, lending itself to be called a "Gothic fable" so well.
Spiritual film cousin: The White Ribbon (2009)
18. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, Travis Knight, USA
Starring: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara
After the disappointing The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings is a return to form for Laika Studios. The Japanese influenced story and its themes of grief, loss and death will definitely have people comparing it to Studio Ghibli's work, and for good reason. There are bones to be picked with the film's all-white casting instead of choosing actors of Asian descent, but the film is so enchanting and endearing that I was eventually won over. Although not nearly as good as Paranorman!, which I maintain is Laika's best film for its exacting combination of sincerity, humor, warmth and weirdness, I suspect that if Laika keeps this up, it will very much be like Ghibli, where every one will have their own favorite film of the studio's.
Spiritual film cousins: Paranorman (2012), Spirited Away (2001)
17. THE NEON DEMON, Nicolas Winding Refn, USA
Starring: Elle Fanning, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee
Empty, glossy and utterly devoid of any deeper meaning beyond its jumble of surreal, saturated and increasingly weird imagery, The Neon Demon does exactly what it set out to do. Which is pure, unadulterated nothingness besides its surface. There is a loose plot of a completely conventional story of a young girl trying to make it in Hollywood with her looks, but who really cares? The only quibble was it could have done with more weirdness, more nonsensical surrealism. Thinking or even attempting to analyze this film would be a true violation of what it is. Live your best trashy saturated self, NWR!
Spiritual film cousin: Helter Skelter (2012)
16. TRAIN TO BUSAN, Yeon Sang Ho, South Korea
Starring: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu Mi, Ma Dong Seok
South Korean cinema has produced some truly great horror films, from ghosts, vampires to serial killings, but it has never taken on the zombie genre, until now. And it pretty much blasted every other zombie film to come out in the past 10 years out of the water on its first try (the last great zombie film was 28 Days Later). Far from being a perfect film with an over reliance of big set pieces and explosions during its climax, Train To Busan is nevertheless a harrowing, incredibly tense zombie film that shows incredible skill from its director Yeon Sang Ho, who was previously only known for his nihilistic animated films. Train To Busan contains much of Yeon's usual cynicism about society and people, but his decision to give the film heart is what makes it special. This film is the definition of being "on the edge of your seat", but it will also make you cry, which is just so typical of South Korean cinema.
Spiritual film cousin: all the Korean train films- Snowpiercer (2013), The Age of Shadows (2016)
15. WHAT'S IN THE DARKNESS?, Wang Yi Chun, China
Starring: Su Xiaotong, Liu Dan
Another debut film and from a female filmmaker from China no less, this film is Bong Joon Ho's Memories of Murder (or David Fincher if you want a more obvious reference) meets Judy Blume. Qu Jing is a bright, ordinary teenage girl who loves pop music and performing and is experiencing the first stages of teenage girlhood and puberty against the backdrop of a sleepy Northern Chinese town. Wang Yi Chun draws from her own memories and uses Qu Jing's coming of age while a serial killer of young women is on the loose in the town to explore themes of patriarchy, authoritarianism, casual internalized misogyny and teenage sexuality. This may all sound very grim but Wang is clever to balance the coming of age story and the murder mystery, as well as giving Qu Jing the role of the amateur teenage sleuth. This is a focused, exciting and promising debut and we all could use as many female filmmakers with this level of vision now.
Spiritual film cousins: Memories of Murder (2003)
14. RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN, Hong Sang Soo, South Korea
Starring: Kim Min Hee, Jung Jae Yeong
How does Hong Sang Soo do it? Every year he releases one or two films, where lonely people (usually a man and a woman) wander around (often aimlessly), talk about their lives, drink soju and generally don't do any much things of consequence. And yet, they're all a little different, explore different aspects of relationships, explore different dynamics between men and women and keep his audiences talking. Right Now, Wrong Then follows Chun Su, an arthouse film director who is in Suwon for a film screening. He meets Hee Jung, an artist, and with a day to spare they wander around Suwon and drink soju, eat sushi meet Hee Jung's friends, look at Hee Jung's paintings and talk a lot about themselves. It ends at night and then the second part is a repeat of the day, but with differences in every incident. The repetition of the same story but with differences is not a new one, often used to convey different POVs of characters, but with Right Now, Wrong Then, there is no obvious answer as to what the differences in each version of the day mean as some differences in each part of the day are so drastic and some are so minor. What it does do is leave for a healthy amount of interpretation for his audiences and look forward to his next work.
13. BRIDGET JONES'S BABY, Sharon Maguire, UK
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey
Bridget Jones is back! Although this sequel is a little belated, it retains all of its charm and one ups the level of female fantasy so needed in mainstream cinema. Female fantasy is often scoffed at by audiences and critics alike (and yet audiences will still shell out for the next Transformers movie- a male fantasy film) for being unrealistic, it just speaks of the double standards applied to male driven films and female driven films. Anyway, this follows Bridget in her 40s, after she has broken up with Mark Darcy. A one night stand with Jack and a night with Mark leaves her pregnant and unsure as to who is the father. The trio agree to help Bridget through the pregnancy and be there for her. It's a hilarious, delightful film and the most fun I had in a film in 2016, with some excellent uses of physical comedy.
12. THE WAILING, Na Hong Jin, South Korea
Starring: Kwak Do Won, Hwang Jung Min, Chun Woo Hee
Horror films are often at their best when confined to one single, focused fear and story. The Wailing doesn't do this, and whatever its imperfections are, it cannot be called anything other than being incredibly ambitious, and a true horror epic. There is literally no point of comparison for The Wailing, and its sheer scope makes current Hollywood horror look pitiful in comparison. Like a Russian nesting doll, more and more themes are unveiled and explored throughout the course of the film. Xenophobia and paranoia gives way to hysteria and suspicion, crisis of faith, sacrifice, fear and true horror. As with most Korean cinema, production values are top notch, but it is the feverish editing in the film's best scene--- an intense, frenzied shaman exorcism scene that shows the film off in its technical glory. It takes a lot for horror films to shock, to have me truly curling up in my seat and peeking through my eyes, and The Wailing did just that.
11. SUNSET SONG, TERRENCE DAVIES, UK
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan
For over two decades, Terrence Davies has been one of the most consistently excellent UK directors, but often underrated and less discussed compared to his peers like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, and I wonder if that has to do with the fact that his best films are often focused portraits of women. Sunset Song focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie as she goes from girlhood to adulthood in rural Scotland while World War I brews in the distance. Terrence Davies' direction is very classical and sure, and his compositions are so sure as he draws deeply from the beautiful Scottish landscape. And of course, he directs Agyness Deyn to deliver a truly luminous performance. I had a similar feeling watching Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song the way I did watching Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle and Beyond the Lights. I felt like I was watching a star being born. Chris goes through so much through the course of the film, surviving grief, loss, death, childbirth. But ultimately, the film is about hope, and in its last frames, Agyness shows all of what Chris has endured but also her hope and her love for her land and loved ones, and it is really something very special to watch.
Stay tuned for the Top 10 films!