2016 has been largely disappointing in Hollywood terms. Two Oscar frontrunners – Arrival and Manchester by the Sea – go down as two of the poorest films I’ve seen in a while. Thank fuck then for those independently-funded films, free from the leprous touch of studio execs with corporate agendas to push and money-making A-listers to cast. Here’s my top five of the year.
The Handmaiden is a glorious erotic tale of conniving duplicity set during the Japanese colonial era in Korea. Every fucker (and fucking there is) in the film is dressed to the nines in their waviest early 20th century garms, as cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung bathes sensual washroom escapades in stunningly milky steam, or permits uncle’s brutal beastly basement the dankness it deserves. After 2013’s mildly disappointing Stoker, Park-chan Wook jumps right back in with his old bedmate ‘revenge’ to deliver the most peverted bit of high-brow stylishness you’ll see all year. This film is twisted – in more ways than one – and is well-worth a watch on general release in the UK this spring.
Let’s travel back to the heady pre-Brexit/Trump days of early spring 2016 for this stop-motion creation from Charlie Kaufman that desconstructs human bonds and relationships with unflinchingly depressing honesty. Heady days indeed! Anomalisa utilises its puppets to brilliant effect by creating a rain-ridden Cincinnati in which British customer-service expert Michael perceives everyone – including his wife and son – as an identically looking and sounding white American man. All except for one anomalous individual. This perception-error can be viewed as a metaphor for depression, or, if you’re feeling really positive, a metaphor for the overwhelming sameness of our mundane existences. Regardless of how you feel about this upbeat symbolism, Anomalisa has the most realistic sex scene you’ll see, ever. Check it out on Netflix now for that alone.
There’s two ways to view Jim Jarmusch’s latest slice of quirk, Paterson. One of them entails reflecting on the ease with which marginal satisfaction can stumble slowly into the abyss. But you’ve just read about Anomalisa and are about to read about United States of Love, so we’ll stick with the other interpretation. At its core, Paterson is about Adam Driver’s superbly-nuanced poet Paterson, who drives a bus in the New Jersey town Paterson. It’s a gentle slow-burner of a film in which we observe seven continuous days of Paterson’s life. He drives the same bus route every day, listens to the same kookily unrealistic dreams of his girlfriend when he returns and takes her dog for the same walk with a handy bar-stop every evening. As patterns repeat, the audience settles in and joins Paterson in a neat meditation on the beauty of the routine and the everyday.
United States of Love
Do you like greyness? If so, you’ve come to the right place with Tomasz Wasilewski’s latest and most accomplished offering, United States of Love. His earlier works, In A Bedroom (2012) and Floating Skyscrapers (2013) are both laden with listlessly empty relationships. In this achingly soul-destroying masterpiece, Wasilewski develops his driving theme further to deliver a bleak dissection of four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society. The film is set in 1990, shortly after Poland’s independence from communism, and can be understood as a critique of an emergent predatory capitalism that disconnects state from society and individuals from each other. However, the mute howls of piercing despondency that intersperse each character’s story have a universal existential truth to them. To top it all off, Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu expertly brushes every scene with a sparse palette of washed-out bluish monochrome. It’s 50 shades of grey, but not as you know it.
If you thought you knew how to organise a teambuilding brunch reception, think again. Toni Erdmann is a rare Bulgarian evil-spirit cleansing costume of a film, a tragi-comedy that dons a full suit of absurdity and then slowly strips it off to reveal a remarkably naked pathos. The film revolves around father Winfried’s unexpected visit to his daughter Ines at her workplace and residence in Bucharest. Winfried leaves after a few awkward days, but his titular ‘friend’ remains. A sequence of unfathomable cringe unfolds across the rest of the trip, in which Toni pushes Ines beyond all appropriate boundaries with the hope that she might swap her unwavering seriousness for a more life-affirming happiness. In a spectacularly unique move, director Maren Ade also manages that precious feat of writing a German comedy that is genuinely hilarious. The joke’s on us now – catch this one on the big screen and take your dad with you too.