It wouldn't be a Top 10 list of mine without a few witches, teenage girls, angry women, femme fatales, women in corsets and hoop skirts, sometimes bleeding into each other. Here's my Top 10 of 2016. Some of them will have listed release dates as 2015 but as I saw them in cinemas in 2016, they still count as 2016 releases.
Edited Jan 19 2017: I got to see Moonlight and it is far and away in my Top 5 of 2016 had I actually seen it in 2016. I have included it in my Letterboxd list for 2016.
10. GIRL ASLEEP, Rosemary Myers, Australia
Starring: Bethany Whitmore, Harrison Feldman
Girl Asleep won the People's Choice Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2016 (MIFF) this year, earned an extra screening and had an after party of roller-skating. Unfortunately I missed it at MIFF what with my schedule packed with work and Asian films, but when I finally got to see it for myself, it was obvious why it was so popular. It's an absolutely enchanting film, and ridiculously sincere. The story follows shy and introverted Greta, whose imagination turns into a surreal magical dreamscape as a way of coping with her struggles to hold on to her childhood on her 15th birthday. Bethany Whitmore is a Judy Blume character come to life, and the rest of the cast are hilarious, in particular Harrison Feldman, as Elliott, Greta's new best friend. Myers' embracing of all of the colors and styles of the 70s while infusing it with her own quirk and charm makes this film a complete joy to watch.
9. HAPPY HOUR, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan
Starring: Sachie Tanaka, Hazuki Kikuchi, Rira Kawamura, Maiko Mihara
This five hour long exploration of the friendships, relationships and marriages of four best friends in their late 30s is exhausting, but in a good way. When Jun (Rira Kawamura) files for divorce from her unwilling husband, her decision causes ripples that reverberate through the entire group and their marriages and relationships. In a conservative society where women are expected to be dutiful wives and mothers, Jun's decision and her own husband's unwillingness to release her from the marriage, plus her determination to leave the marriage that even leads her to lie in court is a quiet rebellion. Even when Jun declares that her husband killed her through his neglect, we are already seeing the slow deaths of art curator Fumi's (Maiko Mihara) relationship with her husband and submissive housewife Sakurako's (Hazuki Kikuchi) identity. It could only be Japanese cinema to explore the intricacies of female friendship, personal identity and the slow breakdown of marriages in a quiet, everyday manner that makes it all the more devastating in the end. One wonders where and how Hamaguchi conceived this gargantuan script and conceptualized the material. He has truly created a modern masterpiece with this film.
Spiritual film cousins: Scenes from a Marriage (1973), A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
8. THE LOVE WITCH, Anna Biller, USA
Starring: Samantha Robinson
The Love Witch is a labor of love by Anna Biller, who wrote, directed and worked on pretty much every aspect of the film right down to the making of the costumes. The film explores the latent potential of the witch in narrative fiction. Elaine (Samantha Robinson in a fantastic debut performance) is a young woman (and witch!) who desires to find the perfect man for her to lavish all her love on and to love her back. Shot on 35mm and lit and designed to look like technicolor films of the 50s and 60s, the film is lush, beautiful and a feast for the senses. The film is blackly comic, but also sad and honest in its commentary of the relationships between men and women and women with themselves and other women. Elaine is also a fascinating character--- narcissistic, manipulative but also compromised by the patriarchal values of our society. The film's conclusion is a perfect one, and the only possible one I could imagine for Elaine.
7. YOUR NAME, Makoto Shinkai, Japan
Starring: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi
For years Makoto Shinkai has been quietly carving himself his own niche in anime films with his signature brand of capturing the intricacies of human emotions and relationships and blending them with his own whimsical take on sci-fi. Garden of Words, 5 Centimeters Per Second are some of his works you need to check out after seeing this. Your Name, however, exceeded all expectations and is now one of the highest grossing movies of all-time in Japan and has done very well in Asia. It's not hard to see why given that it is a film that Shinkai's entire career has led up to. It is by far his most polished and accomplished film, and the most beautiful. Sincerity is a word and a quality I realized I have been looking for more and more and this film is it. The body swapping and non-linear timeline are devices I usually hate in stories because they are never used with real purpose, in the sense that it is never more than a gimmick. In this story, it is used as a way for both characters to truly live and learn to live and connect with each other. The non linear timeline is used to save each other and an entire town. It's easy to write off this film as just another shoujo esque anime film, but it really isn't, and nobody can quite tug at the heartstrings and show you love and hope defying time and space quite like Makoto Shinkai.
6. THINGS TO COME, Mia Hansen-Løve, France
Starring: Isabelle Huppert
Things To Come is an artistic collaboration of both Mia Hansen-Løve's capabilities as a writer-director and Isabelle Huppert's skill as an actress. Huppert herself is having a banner year in 2016 with two high profile films, a possible Oscar nomination and a packed 2017 with films from Haneke, Hong Sang Soo and more. In Mia Hansen-Løve's Things To Come, Huppert is a capable teacher of philosophy who finds out her husband is having an affair and plans to leave her. Unlike most stories that go this way, Huppert's character instead goes about her life as best as she can, unflappable and with wry humor. More like a Japanese slice of life drama than anything, Things To Come is the sort of film that makes you wish the film would not end, just for the general pleasantness and calm wonder of the film as well as the privilege of watching the greatest actress working together do her thing without any overblown dramatics.
5. ELLE, Paul Verhoeven, France
Starring: Isabelle Huppert
It was really challenging trying to figure out which Isabelle Huppert film went where on this list, and they kept switching places, so honestly the order of the two films doesn't really matter. Elle is once again, another masterclass in Acting By Isabelle Huppert, but on quite the other end of the spectrum from the calmness in Things To Come. The insanity of the plot in Elle, the twisted cruelty of Michele, the pitch black humor and the story's complete unwillingness to paint Huppert's Michele as a victim, and focuses everything from her often opaque and twisted point of view makes her a frustrating, fascinating and completely unforgettable character. It is impossible to take your eyes off Huppert in this, as well as puzzle out Michele's actions and psychology.
4. AFTER THE STORM, Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan
Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Kirin Kiki, Yoko Maki
Like Hong Sang Soo who also appears in the Top 20, Koreeda is another filmmaker who frequently produces a film every year revolving around similar themes and yet always manages to make it fresh and new and an utter joy to watch. With After the Storm, Koreeda once again touches on the subject of fragmented families and parent-child relationships across generations. After the Storm follows the POV of an errant father and son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) as he struggles with his role as son to his mother (Kirin Kiki) after his own absentee father passes away, and as a father to his son who looks up to him even after the divorce from his wife (Yoko Maki). A huge storm brings all of them together to bond and pick at the intricacies and complex nature of everyone's relationships with each other, past and present. In signature Koreeda fashion, all of this is handled with little melodrama, humor, delicacy and honesty that makes all his films so poignant and stirring.
3. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, Whit Stillman, Ireland/France/Netherlands
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Just like how Taiwanese born Ang Lee was such an unexpected yet perfect choice to adapt an Austen novel and in particular Sense & Sensibility, American Whit Stillman of The Last Days of Disco would be a perfect fit for the story of Lady Susan, an early incomplete novel written in epistolary form. The film adaptation follows Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), recently widowed, very disreputable and very driven in finding good matches for her and her daughter through the most manipulative means. She is often aided in her schemes by her friend, American-born Lady Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny). The characters are Austen at her most unforgiving and her most forgiving--- Lady Susan would easily have been a villain in her other stories but here she is painted in an almost affectionate way and gets away with most of her schemes and manipulations. Kate Beckinsale delivers a career best performance here as Lady Susan, in one of the funniest and wickedly charming performances of the year. She should have been the favorite to win the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Comedy, not snubbed out altogether. This is easily one of the funniest films of the year, and the kind of film that will fly by in a blink of an eye--- and leave you wanting more.
2. A QUIET PASSION, Terrence Davies, UK
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle
Might be a bit much to include two Terrence Davies films in the top 10 but both of his films were absolutely stunning. I'd been anticipating A Quiet Passion when I heard about it as it is about the life of the poet Emily Dickinson. The attention to detail, composition, lighting to create mood, atmosphere and use space to create tension and tell the emotional arcs and relationships between characters is present here more than ever than in any Davies film that came before. Much of this film takes place in the Dickinson family house, but the film is by no means boring. It is one of the most emotionally raw and compelling films of the year. Cynthia Nixon is extraordinary as Emily Dickinson and supported by the highly underrated Jennifer Ehle who plays her sister and both actresses should be in serious consideration for awards if the film was more seen. This film is a wonderful portrait of a woman and beloved poet, the kind of film that all biopics wish they were. Worth noting that I cried so much watching it.
1. THE HANDMAIDEN, Park Chan Wook, South Korea
Starring: Kim Min Hee, Kim Tae Ri, Ha Jung Woo
It was always going to be The Handmaiden. There was never really any competition the moment I laid eyes on it (well, if Nocturnal Animals didn't turn out so poorly and so utterly male...). Director Park Chan Wook returns to South Korea to deliver an even more Gothic and even more fantastically female film than both Stoker and Thirst were. MVP of the year Kim Min Hee (also in Hong Sang Soo's Right Now, Wrong Then) is Lady Hideko, the wilting flower of every Gothic tale while newcomer Kim Tae Ri plays her handmaiden, the street smart Sookee. The delightfully convoluted plot is reflected in every aspect of the film, from the nesting doll personality of Lady Hideko and Kim Min Hee's performance, the Japanese meets Victorian architecture of the manor, and the ripe to the point of rotten baroque interiors. Director Park has always been a masterful technician, and The Handmaiden is easily his best looking and most well shot film, coupled with a suitably melodramatic (in the right way!) score. His writing has also improved as he understands the heart of the story is the emotional journey of both Hideko and Sookee as individuals and as a couple. This is the Gothic romance and thriller for the 21st century, with all its gaslighting, feminine rage and terrible men in all its glory.