2016: The Year In Film


After the industry’s racial and gender inequalities came to the front last year, diversity and inclusion were the themes that prevailed in the media conversation during this one, pushed from mere factual exposition into big political vindication after the unexpected international turn to populism experienced in both sides of the Atlantic.

Sundance delivered a few of the best films of the year, our favourite among which were Kelly Reichardt’s intimate portraits of female troubles, Certain Women; Whit Stillman’s brilliant interpretation of Jane Austen’s world with Love And Friendship and Ira Sach’s tale of boys friendship against their parents’ property feud, Little Men. But the film grabbing all the headlines was Nate Parker’s ambitious debut Birth Of A Nation, a story of slaves’ revenge named after D.W. Griffith’s racist silent classic. Hailed as a strong awards contender after the Oscars so white controversy and sold to Fox for a millionaire sum, claims of the director’s earlier sexual assault later on the year wiped its chances out.

Among news of record sales and figures, boosted by Netflix and Amazon waving their big cheque books in shopping spree mode, the two digital titans continued to reshape the industry’s landscape. Amazon, following a more diverse and traditional route, by allowing their titles a theatrical window first, got involved in some of 2016 most celebrated indies: Jim Jarmusch’s excellent account of the poetry in the life of a blue collar worker, Paterson, underlined by Adam Driver’s career best performance and Kenneth Lonergan’ triumphant return ,Manchester By The Sea, which after the long and troubled delivery of Margaret went to win a couple of Academy awards, establishing the new studio as one of the season’s most formidable forces.

Exhibition models aside, the success of digital platforms remained out of question. Smaller ones such as MUBI followed on their distribution steps and released a couple of the most challenging, critically acclaimed films of 2016. Miguel Gomes’ epic, formally dazzling, trilogy about the thousand and one stories left by the financial crisis, Arabian Nights, and Edward Green’s contemporary take on the Biblical tale of the Holy Family in The Son Of Joseph.

Netflix continued to invest in some of the best documentaries around, Ava DuVernay’s timely controversial 13th and veteran Werner Herzog’s double offering Into The Inferno and Lo and Behold among them. It also expanded its production slate and later scooped Cannes’ Camera D’Or winner Divines, generating further controversy for its straight to platform strategy without any international theatrical release, despite its critical acclaim.

The company’s disregard for the films’ theatrical window fuelled ongoing fears about arthouse and world titles being pushed out of the cinemas, straight to the small screen. With arthouse audience figures shrinking and the exhibition of some of the best international titles being postponed in order to find a competitive date to fit with the average 18+ titles released every week or else going straight to VOD and DVD. The saturation of titles, the indicators on arthouse audiences getting older, and new generations not finding their voice reflected within the work of Today’s most respected auteurs all add up to a less than rosy prospect for the kind of films we love. This year alone such notable films as Jia Zhangke’s reflection on China’s past, present and future split relationship with tradition and capitalism, Mountains May Depart; Brazilian Gabriel Mascaro’s challenging the world of rodeo’s macho preconceptions in Neon Bull or US indie favourite James White could not find their way to UK screens, whereas the delayed release of such arthouse favourites as Mustang or the 2015 Palme D’or winner Dheepan may have had an impact in their tepid box-office returns, which in turn perpetuates the myth about international films not pulling local audiences anymore.

But if arthouse cinema was no short of struggles, the multiplex was booming thanks to what we could call ‘The China Syndrome’, tiresome blockbusters and sequels that were DOA at the US box-office, found a surprising resonance with Chinese audiences. The Asian tiger, now heavily invested in chains of multiplexes, seems to have an endless appetite for lower common denominator US action and fantasy, which is having a detrimental effect in the average quality of these products, already saturating the market. With new fairground attraction-like technological advances such as allowing people’s tweets on the projections or the frightening 4D, in which the viewer gets moved, shaken, rained upon or blown away mirroring the film’s storyline. One could be excused for thinking cinema going in the 21st century is not for the faint hearted.

The Berlinale was conquered by an Italian documentary about the refugee crisis, Gianfranco Rosi’s poignant Fire At Sea. It also brought the first of two Isabelle Huppert’s remarkable performances -the second being the multi-awarded Elle– in Mia Hansen-Løve’s best film to date Things To Come.

The documentary kept on expanding as a medium, in quantity, quality and groundbreaking formats. From the Oscar winning OJ: Made In America, whose length equalled that of a mini series and made it perfect for binge-watching, to Adam Curtis’ latest BBC work HyperNormalisation, the genre seems to be perfectly adapting to today’s aesthetic and technological changes. Among the most extraordinary documents of the year, legendary filmmakers such as Patricio Guzmán impressed with his account of Chilean history’s relationship with water in The Pearl Button; Kirsten Johnson compiled a sort-of career travelogue in Cameraperson, whereas two well known musicians/artists explored their recent, respective bereavements, Nick Cave’s in One More Time With Feeling and Laurie Anderson in Heart Of A Dog; Notes On Blindness, based in the recordings British academic John Hull and made to monitor his progressive loss of sight, provided a remarkable sensorial experience.

In May, Cannes brought some relief by proving the good creative health enjoyed by its A-list selection of world auteurs. Its different sections showcased the latest works by the Spanish Pedro Almodóvar (Julieta), Korean Park Chan-Wook (The Handmaiden); British Andrea Arnold (American Honey) and the first of two high profile biopics, subverting the conventions of the sub-genre, by Chilean Pablo Larraín (Neruda, Jackie) among many others. The favourite to win, though, was a refreshingly bittersweet comedy, Toni Erdmann, the third feature by Cannes debutant, German director Maren Ade, which ended up controversially empty handed. George Miller’s led jury gave the Palme D’Or to Ken Loach instead for his compassionate and fierce denounce of the cruelty UK’s austerity policies and benefits system are inflicting upon society’s most vulnerable members. I, Daniel Blake’s has been a rotund success and its social impact is still being felt. Now an octogenarian, the director’s brand of social realism has acquired an extra relevance after the events triggered by the much maligned Brexit and may set the trend for what it looks like a growing appetite for political cinema.

And if Brexit marked an upheaval in British and European life, its effects were dwarfed in comparison to the surprising victory of Donald Trump in the States. His inflammatory populism and retrograde politics have put the media and cultural industries in red alert as large swathes of American society are getting involved in politics again. Against that backdrop, Moonlight, a small budget coming of age story of a black, gay kid, arrived. His unique cinematic qualities made it the darling of the festival circuit, receiving great acclaim in both Telluride and Toronto. But it was its honest depiction of sexual, racial and class issues which inadvertently turned it into a cinematic punch in the face to Trump’s prejudice-spreading measures, ultimately leading Barry Jenkins’ second feature all the way to its gaffe-stricken Oscar victory. There is much to celebrate about it. This is the first LGBT themed film to win best picture, also the first with an all-black cast. And albeit it will always be linked to the fake announcement of the quite deserving but rather escapist musical tribute to Golden Hollywood era, La La Land, as the winner; this is one of the very rare occasions in which the king of the mainstream accolades goes to the most deserving, and indeed Rober Awards favourite, film of the year.