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Emory film experts select the top 10 films of 2016

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VIDEO: Emory University’s Department of Film and Media Studies’ film experts have once again surveyed the theatrical releases of the past year and rendered their verdict on the best.

Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies’ film experts have once again surveyed the theatrical releases of the past year and rendered their verdict on the best. The choices are based on films that have played in Atlanta theaters or elsewhere as of Dec. 15 (eagerly awaited titles such as “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” are not included). Many of the titles below are current in theaters, streaming online or available on Blu-Ray or DVD. The films are listed in alphabetical order. 

Emory reviewers include Tanine Allison (TA), Rob Barracano (RB), Matthew H. Bernstein (MHB), Ryan Cook (RC), Eddy von Mueller (EVM), and James Steffen (JS).


From Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) comes this clear-eyed, deeply disturbing Netflix documentary that examines the flourishing of the American prison industrial complex, (including government, law enforcement, lobbyists and the private prison industry) which has grown from housing 196,441 inmates in 1970 to almost 2.3 million now. In our country, a white male has a 1 in 17 chance of being incarcerated; for a black male it is 1 in 3.  DuVernay swiftly traces this injustice’s development from slavery and the 13th amendment’s loophole for imprisoning criminals, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement to the “war on crime” inaugurated by Nixon but carried to fulfilment in the Reagan and Clinton eras’ bipartisan “War on Drugs,” the fruits of which are evident in the omnipresent police brutality against African-Americans and the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign. Full of passionate music, incisive commentary from diverse major historians, politicians and activists (such as Brian Stevenson), the film’s calmly outraged call for justice is must viewing for every American. (MHB)


Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” has been compared to “Interstellar” as a thinking-person’s science fiction film, but this film displays far more intelligence and emotional depth and should hold up better over time. It is adapted from the 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. The film expands significantly on the novella’s basic premise and offers more in the way of conventional spectacle. Even so, it preserves the psychologically based, non-linear temporal structure, which recalls the Alain Resnais film “Je t’aime, Je t’aime” (1968). Amy Adams certainly deserves an Oscar nomination for her nuanced performance, and the film’s special effects are absolutely convincing. Highlights include a main character who is a college professor—a linguist—and a narrative more focused on intellectual discovery than on action sequences in the usual sense. It is a compelling and moving experience. (JS)

The Handmaiden

This period piece from director Park Chan-wook adapts a novel set in Victorian England to 1930s colonial Korea. Park combines baroque violence and explicit eroticism with exacting structure, as if taking a cue from his film’s male protagonist. The plot is a complex tangle of criminal posturing. A caricatured villain, whose favor among Japanese authorities permits a lavish existence of aesthetic indulgence, collects rare Japanese erotic books and exploits women in the service of his erotic manias. His kept niece and her handmaiden plot against him, and a steamy lesbian romance unfolds. The fraught history of Japanese imperialism and collaboration (recently a popular subject in Korean cinema) receives irreverent treatment: the Victorian Gothic plotting is destabilizing, but the film also invokes 1930s Japanese fiction, notably the lurid detective novels of Poe-inspired Edogawa Ranpo. The film is heavy on style but refreshingly replaces overwrought historical melodrama with seductive fun. (RC)

Les Innocentes (The Innocents)

The long, many-barbed tail of war coils through this atmospheric French mystery drama set in a Polish border town in 1945, where an idealistic young doctor (Lou de Laage) working with the Red Cross discovers an outbreak of pregnancies – at the local Benedictine convent. Agata Lukesza, star of the Oscar-winning “Ida,” portrays a very different character, the strict Reverend Mother. Director Anne Fontaine’s treatment of the story, based on actual events during and after the brutal “liberation” campaigns of Stalin’s Red Army, plays pretty hard on heartstrings without lapsing into melodrama, and provides a poignant, and all-too-rare look at war through the eyes of the women who endure it. (EVM)

La La Land

Musicals are not for everyone, but the critics’ rapture over this film is well-earned. Damien Chazelle (director of “Whiplash”) has crafted a resolutely contemporary candy-colored, magical tribute to Hollywood’s golden age with appealing songs and often elaborate choreography (the opening sequence in a L.A. traffic jam alone is worth the price of admission). Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have real chemistry and they sing and dance surprisingly well. But another key influence are the bittersweet musicals of Jacques Demy (most notably “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), whose narrative twists and alternately comic, lyric and melancholy tones Chazelle has down to a tee. (MHB)

The Lobster

This is a great film that is easiest to frame, not in terms of other films, but in terms of the theater of the absurd; “Waiting for Godot” and most closely, Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano.” “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lobster” are both absurdist comedies about the sadness of relationships, and—in their silly way—they discuss it more articulately than famous psychotherapist Esther Perel. The film begins with an uncomfortably long shot of a woman driving a car. She gets out, the camera stays in and watches her enter a field and then shoot a cow to death. She is never seen again. The performances are at once silly and also heartbreaking. Very early on we see Colin Farell’s middle-aged belly sticking out of his pants; we see real pain in his eyes. The very beautiful Rachel Weisz has never been uglier. The score is startling, like something out of a David Lynch movie, and the story is strange, metaphoric and sometimes laugh out loud funny. In the end, what Farell does to accommodate his partner is heartbreaking. (RB)

Love and Friendship

An audacious and sardonic take on the costume drama, this adaptation of a posthumously published Jane Austen novella is not a love story. Instead, it follows the conniving but charming Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale in top form), who uses her acidic wit and masquerade of social graces to survive in English polite society. Although she is ostensibly seeking a husband for her daughter, Lady Susan really only looks out for herself, laying bare the economic realities of 18th-century women in comic form. Writer-director Whit Stillman, who visited Emory earlier this year to speak about his artistic process, has composed some of his most sparkling dialogue, all set at a pace that may be challenging to contemporary viewers, but keeps Lady Susan’s machinations humming. With hilariously acerbic comedy and a hysterical performance by Tom Bennett as a prattling fop, this little-known comedy of manners is definitely worth a look. (TA)

Manchester by the Sea

This intense yet often funny drama about unbearable loss and bare survival is utterly compelling and must viewing. A Boston area janitor (Casey Affleck) inherits most reluctantly the custody of his teen-age nephew (a wonderful Lucas Hedges) when his brother dies, and this requires him to return to the title town where he has experienced unfathomable tragedy. Affleck’s portrayal of a deeply flawed, emotionally numb man just trying to get along is always absorbing. In a late short scene of just roughly five minutes, Michelle Williams, as his ex-wife, is unforgettable. Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) once again proves his mastery of depicting fraught, intimate relationships with the greatest possible insight and compassion. (MHB)


Coming-of-age dramas are plentiful, but very, very few achieve these heights. Barry Jenkins’s absorbing drama portrays three stages in the life of a lonely, sensitive, extremely quiet south Miami African-American man—first, as a boy and then a teenager suffering through endless bullying at school and at home (from his drug-addicted single mom), and last as a 25-year-old Atlanta resident. Three relative newcomers portraying the profoundly pained Chiron are never less than fascinating; Mahershala Ali as a paradoxical drug dealer/guardian angel is a standout, but the entire cast does magnificent work. Jenkins’ pacing is alternately frantic and meditative, the imagery—in moonlight and daylight—is stunning. This deeply moving, poetic, compassionate and complex story about human frailty, vulnerability and identity is one of the most exhilarating experiences to be had in a movie theater in the past decade. (MHB)

Mountains May Depart

This 2015 Chinese film (U.S. release 2016) is acclaimed filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s latest portrait of his home province in Northern China. Jia again approaches his subject with melancholic distance. His tendency to observe everyday events with sensitivity to their unfolding in historical time is more pronounced than ever: he follows his protagonists, three friends from Shanxi separated by life and love, across three moments of the 21st century: NYE 1999, 2014, and 2025.  He also composes their lives within landscapes: the Chinese title (“landscapes once known”) evokes an aesthetic sense of lost homeland. Think of the misty mountains of Chinese landscape painting, barely defined against negative space. Painting in digital video, Jia gives similar form to contemporary China amid the haze of globalization. He also permits flights of fancy, such as the slightly sci-fi vision of deracinated existence in the near future, where Chinese children and parents who no longer speak the same language communicate by Google Translate. (RC)

Honorable Mentions: “Deadpool,” “Denial,” “Edge of Seventeen,” “Hell or High Water,” “Loving,” “Embrace of the Serpent,” “Sausage Party,” “Sully”

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