Top 20 Films of 2016: The Top 10

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

Additional Reading:
The Women of Park Chan Wook's films
Review and discussion of Happy Hour
Review of The Handmaiden

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. 

Top 20 Films of 2016: 11-20

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. 

Bonus Reading:
What's in the Darkness? Review
Teenage Girlhood in Asia: What's in the Darkness and Our Huff and Puff Journey

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)

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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!