Every film buff can relate to the anxiety one gets from continuously updating one's 'films to see' list. As I write this article, there are still lots of films I have yet to see. However, Oscar season is drawing near so I feel as though a reflection on last year's 'filmscape' is rather necessary. 2016 was an amazing year for film - particularly for independent film. I noticed a general movement towards simpler everyday stories that are told in the most beautiful way through honest yet restrained acting, natural yet well-composed cinematography and haunting yet heart-rending music scores. The films below are memorable pieces of moving visual art - they create an indelible sense of time and place as well as a strong relation to the characters involved. The films are listed in no particular order.
1. 20th Century Women
20th Century Women was a true piece of nostalgic 'dramedy'. The film, set in 1979 Santa Barbara, features particularly stunning performances from Annette Benning (I'm surprised the Academy didn't nominate her for Best Actress this year), Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig. What I loved most about the film was the nostalgic romanticisation of burgeoning adulthood in an earlier and simpler time - a time untouched by intrusive technology and excessive consumerism. That being said, Mike Mills cleverly stages sunny Santa Barbara as a backdrop to the prevalent social issues at the time in addition to portraying the intimate and evolving personal relationships between mother and son and between friends. The light-hearted but memorable film has a strong sense of time and place and creates a mesmerising visual escape for a good two hours.
Moonlight is undeniably one of the most moving films of the year, as it tells a story that is rarely told - one that skilfully and unapologetically brings together themes of race, sexuality and poverty. Barry Jenkins ensures that each scene has a purpose and expresses the multi-dimensionality of the main character. What's even more impressive is that Mr. Jenkins assembles an all black cast, but one would not even realise this when watching the film - the depth of the characters creates a universal resonance with viewers that arguably transcends race. Moonlight's music score, composed by Nicholas Brittel, is not merely an accompaniment to the well-executed scenes but also gives the film an essential life of its own.
Jackie did for me this year what Carol did for me a year ago. Jackie tells the story of Jackie Kennedy around the time of her husband's assassination, and is quite simply a film of elegance and poise. Pablo Larraín effortlessly transforms violence and fear into beauty and creates scenes that are so well composed, which when combined with Stéphane Fontaine's radiant cinematography creates a graceful quality. Natalie Portman delivers a truly remarkable performance - one that does not seek to imitate Jackie Kennedy but rather attempts to internalise her emotions and mannerisms at the time. I do hope Natalie Portman wins Best Actress this year - she definitely deserves it. Also, the grand music score, composed by Mica Levi, was unsettling but poignant.
4. Little Men
Little Men didn't get any of the Oscar buzz this year but it remains one of my favourite pieces of realist cinema. The film is centred on the friendship of two young boys whose lives are made complicated when a feud arises between their respective parents. The film is a coming of age drama that highlights themes of class, gentrification and friendship. Probably one of Ira Sachs' best films so far, Little Men lets us know that things don't always turn out how one expects and that one loses friends along the complex journey that is life.
5. Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea is a very heavy film indeed but a rewardingly beautiful film nonetheless. Firstly, Casey Affleck's captivating but restrained performance was the most memorable part of the entire film (and for that I think he deserves the Best Actor award). The film treads on very dreary subject matter and this is reflected in the town's grey weather, the spooky music score and the predisposition of all characters to sadness. Interestingly, I noticed how the tense dramatic scenes were interrupted by well-composed, silent and motionless shots of Manchester town and its surroundings. It's as if Kenneth Lonergan was trying to communicate the idea of the earth's indifference to our daily toils. Manchester by the Sea is a piece of work that stays with you days after watching it, and that quality alone merits it a position on this list.
6. Things to Come
Things to Come is a subtle French drama that closely examines a retired teacher's middle age crisis. The film is a study of what freedom really is. Are we truly free when we are free of all commitments? Even then, do we feel truly fulfilled? The film is a fine piece of stimulating French cinema and features a rich performance by Isabelle Huppert (who was nominated for Best Actress, but for Elle). Huppert's character is a philosophy teacher so the film also has a slight philosophical bent as it contains casual discussions on moral and social philosophy. Typical of French cinema, the film, under the direction of Mia Hansen-Løve, takes on a very realist feel.
Other film favourites include Paterson, Nocturnal Animals, Elle and The Handmaiden.