5) Certain Women
Kelly Reichardt’s latest is a complete masterpiece, and while it’s been celebrated on year-end lists, the complexities of this film take time to unpack, meaning that it will likely become increasingly loved in years to come. The film operates very loosely as a triptych about three women in small-town America, whose lives only vaguely and superficially intersect. Laura Dern plays a lawyer who can’t seem to shrug off a disgruntled former client (Jared Harris) who doesn’t understand his case is a no-go; Michelle Williams plays a mother/wife who tries to kindly buy some unused rocks from an old man (René Auberjonois) with ambivalent results; and Kristen Stewart plays the crush to Lily Gladstone, a newcomer who pretty much sealed the “Best Supporting Actress” award of the year for many critics’ year-end lists. There isn’t much in the way f surface-level similarities between the three stories, though the first and second do feature clueless men taking advantage of the socially conditioned kindness women display even among strangers. But what glues the stories together is an overriding inability for communication for the simplest of things and actions, and Reichardt knows how to spin conversations and exchanges into a poetic image of womanhood that is fraught with expectation, with things that are left unsaid, continuous frustrations expressed in the most subtle forms of communication, and glances that exchange so much more than any words in human language can convey. — Tina Hassannia
3) Manchester by the Sea
The two crucial scenes in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea involve objects failing people. The first features a faulty gurney loading a devastated woman into an ambulance, and the second entails packages of frozen chicken slipping out of a freezer as a young boy tries to pack them back in. Neither the stretcher nor the frozen chicken exists in the emotional orbit of the people that surround them, people who are contending with the slow, unceasing burn of long-term grief or trauma. They fail them not out of malice, but out of sheer indifference to the world, the way inanimate objects do even on the best of days. Pain, in all of its manifestations, doesn’t exist in a vacuum; instead, it pushes up against the ordinariness of mundane daily life, rendering it humorous and tragic in equal measure.
That’s the milieu of Manchester by the Sea, a feature-length rebuke against the wholly American idea that people can overcome anything with just a little fortitude. Aided by his acute ear for the nuances of speech and his expansive empathy for people amidst life-long struggles, Lonergan devises a powerful dramaturgical dynamic between a reclusive handyman (Casey Affleck, giving a powerhouse internal performance) and his well-adjusted teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) as they struggle to complete the arrangements following a sudden family death. While most of the literal plot involves mundane logistics, Manchester primarily concerns itself with the small moments when people try to reach out, to provide comfort, to seek solace, and coming up just a little bit short. This is a movie for anyone who couldn’t beat it and wondered why there wasn’t a story for them. — Vikram Murthi
Many year-end roundups will cite Cameraperson as the best first feature of 2016, but such a distinction is a bit of a misnomer (and it’s perhaps a potent reminder to rethink the way we conceptualize authorship in cinema). Director Kirsten Johnson made her career as an accomplished documentary cinematographer, working with the likes of Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11). In Cameraperson, Johnson has compiled an astounding visual essay featuring decades of b-roll and unused footage from these and other projects. Johnson’s cinematographic body of work spans the globe, and with Cameraperson, she weaves threads through locales like Bosnia, Nigeria, Colombia, Myanmar, Washington, Brooklyn, and Rwanda, interspersed with her own home movies.
What makes Cameraperson an indelible experience is Johnson’s tacit acknowledgement that she and her camera aren’t merely present, but act upon the environments they find themselves in simply by occupying the space. A stand-out sequence features Johnson’s camera observing a young child toying with an axe—the tension is palpable, as some ineffable quality of Johnson’s gaze is poised between passive observation and wrestling with an impulse to wrench the blade away from the boy’s hand. Cameraperson is both a deeply affecting memoir chronicling a life spent behind the camera, and a thoughtful consideration of the documentary camera as interloper. — Mallory Andrews
The eponymous main character of Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, could be said to be a departure from the legendary iconoclast’s usual focus on outsiders and eccentrics. On the surface, there isn’t much to Paterson, a bus driver living in a relatively humdrum New Jersey town, except his love of his poetry, which he writes on the side. And yet, though he may be the most “normal” of his cinematic protagonists, Paterson is still very much a Jarmusch film through and through: in its repetitive narrative structure (with habit just as important to Paterson as it was to the Lone Man in his underappreciated The Limits of Control), in Paterson’s emotional restraint, in its multicultural gallery of supporting characters, in its wide-ranging cultural references. Even more than being wholly characteristic of its auteur, though, Paterson is one of Jarmusch’s most quietly profound works. One can glean a philosophical statement of sorts in this chronicle of a week in the life of this utterly ordinary man: Here, in direct and unadorned form, is Jarmusch’s belief in the power of art to illuminate even the most seemingly modest of life’s corners, to enhance a life, to give it meaning and purpose. It’s a truly soulful film about people trying to hang onto ways to keep their own souls filled. — Kenji Fujishima