Thursday, January 12, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

10. Like for Likes (dir. Park Hyeon-Jin)

Like for Likes is a South Korean romantic comedy about old people using Facebook and I thought it was pretty alright? Which is a strong enough recommendation for me I think.

9. The Boy (dir. William Brent Bell)

As someone who has no love for doll horror (with the exception of mannequins in giallo, maybe), The Boy looked like a real boring shitshow. And having finally watched (at least some of) James Wan's Dead Silence this year, I was especially primed to be completely uninterested in this movie; if someone as good as Wan was unable to even give me an example of this genre that really worked, who the hell is William Brent Bell to do it? The answer, as it turns out, is that he's nobody I particularly care about, and this movie didn't change my predilections at all. What it does do is have a really dope house, and a really stupid conclusion that I really liked.

The basic premise is that a couple hires a woman to nanny for them, but the boy she's nannying is a doll. But the doll seems like it's alive. But then, spoilers, it isn't. This is the only possible good twist for a movie with this plot, which is points. The real appeal, though, is the pretty darkness within the frame (literal; the color palette looks nice) and the way that the movie refuses to half-step. It's nowhere near the final shot of [rec], but it's close enough to mention that movie, if that makes sense. Not necessarily in terms of visual effects but in terms of turning a relatively dull genre film with a good eye into something genuinely memorable and exciting to have watched.

8. The Mermaid (dir. Stephen Chow)

I hope you know who Stephen Chow is, and I hope you've seen The Mermaid. It's not the best movie ever, and it hardly sticks (with me at least). But come on. This fucking movie.

7. A Violent Prosecutor (dir. Lee Il-Hyung)

Lee Il-Hyung's directorial debut is mostly a tight political thriller about the justice system, from the perspective of a wronged asshole prosecutor who gets put in prison. The broad strokes of the film, and the way in which they are played out, are pretty good, albeit not all that memorable or exciting.

The thing that puts A Violent Prosecutor on this list is the inciting event; a protest against development of, as Wikipedia puts it, "ecologically significant land." The way the whole movie hinges on the events of a few protestors squatting on some land that capital wants to develop is a pretty fucking cool hinge, and how that minor, failed action radiates through politics at the level of the criminal justice system and the electoral system is super fascinating, if in a somewhat utopian way.

6. Phantom Detective (dir. Jo Sung-Hee)

Phantom Detective is a movie whose main character is the Korean Robin Hood (Hong Gil-Dong; a different story but one with similarities) that does So Much. It does entirely too much, really; it feels like it runs five hours and contains a half dozen discrete films, and doesn't bother to glue them together in a way that feels holistic. It's a complete shitshow, in other words, and I can't possibly recommend watching it. Except it's also the best.

5. SORI: Voice from the Heart (dir. Lee Ho-Jae)

SORI: Voice from the Heart is a film about an artificially intelligent satellite that crash lands onto Earth, and a man who lost his daughter a decade ago who forms a relationship to the robot when it offers to help him find her. It's a film about American imperialism and how it manifests both in endless war and the flexing of soft power, and about grief and bonds in ways that leverage sentimentality without concluding within it.

SORI is Lee Ho-Jae's first film since 2009's The Scam, which itself was a movie about day traders at a hell of a time to make a movie about the stock market. It's maybe a stretch to call either movie out and out leftist -- both are mostly concerned with individuals and their own paths of redemption, primarily -- but not out of the realm of possibility, which is nice.

To be completely honest, SORI is a movie that I thought at the time had neat moments but was largely unremarkable; it's only in the months since I watched it that it has made a real impression on me. What I thought would be the stuff that washed out the rest ended up ebbing itself, leaving only the moments of strong visuals and the exciting turns that moved it away from its own liberalism. I don't know that it's a great movie to watch, but I think it's a great movie to have seen, which I value a lot.

4. Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (dir. Lee Joon-Ik)

Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet is a black and white biopic about Yun Dong-ju, a leftist poet from Korea who went to university in Japan and was locked up there -- and died -- before his work was published. The film largely concerns the poet and his friend, who is more directly involved in leftist resistance against the Imperial Japanese Army and capitalism, and their attempts to live within those acts of resistance. It is a beautiful film, full of contemplative moments and petty ones, and it uses the lack of color well.

Mostly, though, it is beautiful in its serious consideration of a life of resistance.

3. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

The scene where the young punks play "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" to a room full of Nazis somehow manages to be poignant and energizing, rather than as cringe-worthy as I assumed it would be going in. Add to that little miracle the tight camera work, Patrick Stewart, dead Nazis, and some pleasing kitsch about punks and you've got a pretty fucking cool movie.

2. The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-Wook)

The Handmaiden is, and I suppose you'll know this if you're familiar at all with the film, a movie about sex. It is about sex as intimacy and transformative power, and it is about sex as control and prurient fantasy. It is parts of Salò and parts of Teorema in one movie, brought together well.

From the perspective of a Park Chan-Wook film, it is more Stoker than Vengeance trilogy, but with hints of I'm A Cyborg, but That's OK. And that's not to say it's without a feeling of continuity from Lady Vengeance, specifically. It is, in other words, a continuation of the style he has been developing for some time now, and that he is very, very good at.

The Handmaiden is, I think, one of Park Chan-Wook's most accomplished films. I think it's also something I'm not in love with, or at least wasn't after seeing it once. It might well gain only on further viewings. And starting at one of the strongest films from one of the best contemporary directors, that should feel impossible.

1. Spirits' Homecoming (dir. Cho Jung-Rae)

Spirits' Homecoming is a film about comfort women. It is one that ranges between near-explicit depictions of the systematized abduction and rapes they experienced, and a sentimentality and melodrama about their lives that puts it in the realm of a very well-funded and well made Hallmark Channel or Lifetime film. It is also couched in a frame narrative about ghosts that works, at least in my memory, extraordinarily well. It's the kind of ghost/spirit story that is in many ways a very transparent, hokey narrative device, but that invests itself with such seriousness and materiality that it pushes through those things to become something truly remarkable.

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