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Favourite Films of 2016

Chris Campbell

It started with the cool and carefully-constructed story of a young woman dealing with paranoia and witchcraft (The Witch) and ended with a young man returning home to help his mother as she struggled with cancer (Other People). Films I love are well-crafted and connect on an empathetic and emotional level and make me think. I hope that you discover some new things to see as you look through my list.

It was a great year for films with solid work throughout the year and the usual burst of festival films near the end of the year rounding things out. In terms of watching I made a strong and conscious effort to watch more films directed by women and took the 52 Films by Women challenge. I also was able to avoid superhero films and this was a better use of my time. In the top 20 there are 10 films directed by men and 10 directed (or codirected) by women which is probably a result of watching more films directed by women.

Letterboxd has become an essential part of how I keep track of films and it's also a great way to collect and analyze data about the films watched. My Year in Review page breaks down all sorts of interesting statistics about the 460 films that I viewed last year (down from 512 in 2016). My most-watched directors were Agnès Varda (11 films), Chantal Akerman (8 films), Werner Herzog (6 films), and the Coen brothers (5 films). It's the second year in a row with Varda and Akerman in the top spots for directing. The actors I watched the most were John Goodman (in 7 films) and 5 films each for Mathieu Amalric, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Aurore Clément, and Denis Levant.

The rule that I follow making this list is that I have seen them during the calendar year, so there are a few key films that may be on other lists that I didn't get to see. Here are my favourite films from last year.

Things to Come

Understated and beautifully shot, Things To Come has Mia Hansen-Løve almost completing a trilogy after her two previous films about a young woman and first love (Goodbye, First Love), and a man in his 20s in the electronic music scene (Eden). This time she has made a film that tells the story of a philosophy teacher who deals with changes in her relationships and life. With a strong and nuanced performance from Isabelle Huppert, it's a complex and episodic film as we see moments as we see her become someone else and embrace the changes surrounding her. It's about life and stubbornly resists cliche and Hollywood conventions as things unfold.

The Witch

The first film added to my list early in the year, The Witch is cool, understated, and unnerving. Building a world out of the struggles of a family in a harsh wilderness, it cleverly sets up the story and the characters and we watch as it all slowly falls apart. With masterful framing and a haunting and evocative score, The Witch is an impressive debut feature that shows that the precise, almost clinical approach that Stanley Kubrick took with his films can still work well in the right hands.

Moonlight

Gorgeous cinema and a pleasant surprise to me as I went in not knowing anything about Moonlight when I saw it at the Atlantic Film Festival. With a triptych structure showing three key moments in the life of a young man coming to terms with who he is, it's stunningly shot and acted and is a wonderful and beautiful film. Stylistically bold in casting three different actors in the three different times, the film zooms by as it casts a spell as we watch someone grow up and become who they really are.

Maggie's Plan

In Maggie's Plan, Greta Gerwig plays another variant of the persona that she has developed and makes what could be a standard romantic comedy a whole lot more. Rebecca Miller is operating in similar territory as Woody Allen in telling the story of more well-to-do white people in New York, but she grounds everything in reality with characters that have depth and a story that takes unexpected directions. In an early scene key to the film, Gerwig tells a bit of her personal history and the scene effortlessly goes from quirky to something more moving as she talks about her late mother. It could have been a screwball comedy, but Miller wisely keeps it all restrained and does allow for a few over-the-top moments, but manages to bring it all back to earth in a way that skillfully reworked my romantic comedy expectations.

Toni Erdmann

Another film that I knew little about before seeing it at the Atlantic Film Festival, Toni Erdmann is an odd gem from director Maren Ade that tells the story of the relationship between a father and daughter. With a long running time and locations in Germany and Romania, it's a strange and delightful pairing of German manners with some of the elements of the Romanian New Wave along with some surreal elements thrown in. The film takes time to set everything up and then it all gets increasingly absurd as it builds to a touching and beautiful conclusion. A unique film that does things in a confident and determined way that works remarkably well.

Werewolf

Ashley McKenzie's first feature, Werewolf, is a naturalistic story about a couple trying to break the cycle of drug addiction in Cape Breton. While it's shot in a understated and almost documentary style, the frames are carefully composed and the elliptical narrative is heartbreaking and utterly compelling. It's an almost voyeuristic glimpse into relationships and challenges faced by people on the edge of society as they struggle to survive and make it through another day. An impressive feature and an encouraging sign for the future of filmmaking by those outside of the more commercial mainstream cinema. Demanding at times, but definitely worth the effort.

No Home Movie

Chantal Akerman's final film, No Home Movie, is the culmination of much of her work. Constructed mainly out of a series of static frames in and around her mother's house, it shows elements of all of her work. We hear conversations between Akerman and her mother and others within the house and through video calls. It's understated, frustrating, and fascinating. A sad and beautiful final film that preserves a relationship and provides more context on the life and work of a remarkable filmmaker.

It's Only the End of the World

An adaptation of a play where Xavier Dolan takes a counterintuitive approach and moves the camera in close to the faces of the actors, It's Only the End of the World is intense and almost overwhelming on the big screen. It feels as if you are in arguments with the characters which makes the whole thing a much more immersive experience than more traditional adaptations. Working within those constraints allows Dolan to channel his energy into the performances of the actors and without a number of his visual virtuoso set pieces (with the exception of a truly breathtaking final sequence) it's superb filmmaking with a great cast at the peak of their power.

Spectres of Shortwave

I'd known about the project for a while and even participated in some of the crowdfunding for the film, but seeing Spectres of Shortwave was a truly wonderful experience. The shortwave towers that were outside of Sackville, New Brunswick were a landmark and touchstone for me for decades as I would drive by and a few times I stopped in and saw them up close. Beautifully shot on 35mm film and with an experimental and immersive approach to sound, Amanda Dawn Christie creates a remarkable and melancholy portrait of objects, locations, and a time as people share stories about the towers and what they meant to them as we watch the towers on the Tantramar Marsh and witness them going away. It's a haunting and beautiful film that exemplifies how cinema can transport and move you.

Paterson

Jarmusch at his understated best, Paterson works in strange and beautiful ways. Understated and enigmatic with a sensitive performance by Adam Driver at the core, it's a film that stuck with me. Each film by Jim Jarmusch is a collection of things that he's thinking about with music, literature, and art all mixed together. But they're also about memorable characters and how everything surrounding them makes them who they are. The film washes over you like a nice, warm bath immersing you in this world filled with details. It's confident and idiosyncratic filmmaking where the parts emerge and interact and create a unique and intricate world where we make connections and speculate about what led to what we see on the screen. It's also, like all of Jarmusch's films, a deeply collaborative enterprise with so many skills and talents on display that results in the discovery of so many other things to explore too.

10 Cloverfield Land

A precisely constructed thriller that constantly shifts gears and undermines expectations, 10 Cloverfield Lane wouldn't work without the great performances of the three lead who ground and add humanity to the proceedings. The uncertainty at the heart of the film keeps things interesting as we see the characters interact and figure out what they need to do to survive and live with each other. Some great editing and cinematography elevate the film above the interesting premise into something that works on the level of Hitchcock at his best.

Window Horses

An animated feature from Ann Marie Fleming, Window Horses is an ambitious film that tells the story of Rosie Ming, a poet invited to a poetry festival in Iran and learns about her own history along the way. It's a collaborative effort with segments done by different animators which is all integrated together seamlessly. Filled with wonderful moments and beautiful poetry, it's a film that explores identity in a delightful and complex way.

The Light Between Oceans

Balancing elements of his intimate Blue Valentine with his sprawling The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance balances it all out with the adaptation of The Light Between Oceans. The historical framework provides great visuals and context to establish things, but at the core of the film is Michael Fassbender's war veteran lighthouse keeper and a love story that is probably won't have a happy ending. It's more old-school filmmaking than his previous films, but I was drawn in to the melodrama and enjoyed being within the world the film created.

Midnight Special

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols' 80s style family-on-the run movie that perfectly encapsulates elements of Spielberg with a more complex family drama. Featuring a fantastic opening sequence laying out the situation and throwing us right into the middle of the story, it becomes more touching as it goes on as the science fiction elements and metaphorical aspects blend together seamlessly. The cast is fantastic with young and old all giving sensitive and complex performances that elevate the film to something more than simply a genre exercise.

The Rehearsal

A New Zealand film from Alison Maclean about a group of acting students and a young actor who is searching for inspiration. Filled with grounded and soulful performances, The Rehearsal is complicated and challenging at times which is perfect to highlight the skills of the actors. The film paints a picture that has many elements and no obvious or easy answers to questions about how we treat each other as individuals and artists and how teaching in the arts works.

Further Beyond

A fascinating exploration of what a documentary can be with the story constructed in a rather ingenious way. While on the surface Further Beyond is about a man from Ireland who went to Chile in the 18th Century, it's a look at how documentaries are produced and what the nature of truth is. Entertaining, witty, and self-aware, it constantly is illustrating points about the story all while not letting you forget that it is a film that allows you to construct meaning out of what you are provided with by the filmmakers.

Other People

A personal film about a comedy writer dealing with his family as their mother struggles with cancer, Other People is a mixture of comedy and drama. With an wonderful central performance by Molly Shannon as the mother and Jesse Plemons revealing a depth and complexity that I hadn't seen in his other roles, it's a story that sucked me in. There are some beautiful intimate moments scattered throughout the film that break it out of the broader outlines of the story. Those painful and personal parts ground the film in an emotional honesty that makes it more than a typical story.

Hail, Caesar!

The Coen brothers love letter to classic Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is like most of their films in that it takes few viewings to start to appreciate what they are doing. It's about faith in filmmaking and how even in a strange system that exploits those within it, you can do some great work despite everything surrounding you. Maybe it's a commentary on their own relationship with the studios and how things work as well as some fond nostalgia for how things used to be done in the good old days.

Always Shine

Sophia Takal's take on the way that the relationship between two actresses in a confined space can cause tension. Always Shine starts to play with conventions and expectations right from the opening shot. We question what we see and what is going on and that uncertainty goes throughout the film. A showcase for Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald, it's unnerving and unsettling. Building on themes Takal explored with her debut feature Green, it feels more polished and seems like a more mainstream film which cleverly conceals the complexity and ambiguity within the film.

Tharlo

A film from Tibet about a sheep herder named Tharlo who lives a solitary life outside a village tending a herd. His life changes when he needs to go to the village to have a picture taken for his identity card. With long takes and carefully composed frames all shot in black and white, it's a meditative and deliberate film with naturalistic performances that feel like documentary. But the casual feel all slowly and carefully reveals elements of the characters as the story beautifully and subtly examines how we define ourselves and how we relate to other people.

Breaking a Streak

Chris Campbell

I broke a writing streak yesterday.

After getting 750 words done every day for two years, a slight change in my routine meant that I forgot and broke the streak of 748 days. It's a good time to reflect on this habit and routines and writing as I start again.

As I woke up this morning I realized that I hadn't written yesterday which caused a little twinge of anxiety. I remembered because I thought about the films that I had watched the day before as one of the ways that I would find things to write about every day was to write reviews of the films that I'd watched. My daily writing happens on the amazing 750 Words site where I've been a member since March 2010. There is technically no reason that I need the site to write every day or to keep track of the streaks, but there is something about it that makes me want to keep doing it, so that is where I go every day to get some words done. It's one of my favourite places online.

As I write this the longest streak I've had is 748 days, with a total of 2008 days completed since I started. On the site I've written 1,561,569 words, which is a lot. Many of those words were the basis for blog posts, reports, workshops, and journal entries. It's a fundamental part of how I share writing with myself and the world. All the first drafts begin there.

Last year I was on a sabbatical which meant that I didn't have my usual routine of getting up early, making oatmeal and coffee, and then commuting for an hour or so to the city and teaching. With control of my own schedule I would get up every morning, make some oatmeal and coffee, and then sit down and write. Every day there would be at least one review of a film to write which I would then post to Letterboxd. During the Atlantic Film Festival I wrote a number of blog posts previewing the films playing and then writing about the films I'd seen. Having a looser schedule meant that I could spend more time writing and thinking which is wonderful.

But with the return to work and the commute, the schedule and my energy shift and the writing needs to fit in to other times during the day. So the reviews continue, but with less time. There is more writing about work and keeping track of things there through journaling about what has happened in class and with things to share with my classes. But the habit is built and firmly established and continues.

So yesterday I forgot and broke the streak. It bothered me, but it's a good thing as it made me more aware of what I'm doing and why I am doing it. I write to remember and to keep those muscles in shape for reflecting and thinking and sharing. This was the longest streak of writing that I had and I'm grateful for that, but also glad that a busy day gave me to the opportunity to think a bit more about what I was doing and why and how it makes me happy.

Day 8 - Atlantic Film Festival 2016

Chris Campbell

Spectres of Shortwave

Spectres of Shortwave

The final day of the 36th Atlantic Film Festival was a good one after a great week. It's the point where the long days start to catch up, but there is a burst of energy as you realize that you're seeing the last of the films for this year. One of my goals this year has been to see more films directed by women, and on the final day of the festival all three of the films that I saw were directed by women.

First up was a documentary from the NFB called Angry Inuk. Written and directed byAlethea Arnaquq-Baril it's a look at the role that the seal hunt plays in the lives of Inuit who live in the north. It's an important perspective and a personal documentary that provides context as we follow the struggle to explain and resolve a complex issue. We meet people trying to make a living and how boycotts have had a detrimental effect on the economy of communities who rely on seals for food, clothing, and their economy.

The final film that was part of the 1KWAVEATLANTIC initiative films screening at the festival this year was Koumbie's film Ariyah & Tristan’s Inevitable Breakup. A film that embraces constraints by relying on strong lead actors and clever use of a location, it's a great story that captures the essence of a relationship from start to finish. With the script cowritten by the leads and with a crew that uses the confined space of an apartment as a challenge to tell the story in an interesting way, it doesn't feel gimmicky and has some real heart of depth. While the charismatic leads could carry the story as a play, it's the clever construction of the shots and the action that elevate the film even more. It's a great example of how to make an interesting film by assembling a talented team and telling a story that feels grounded in the truth.

One of the films I had been anticipating the most and the film I chose to end the festival with as Amanda Dawn Christie's experimental documentary Spectres of Shortwave. Right from the beginning it is intriguing with a crisp and mysterious sound design and gorgeous images shot on 35mm film. It explores the idea and place where 13 shortwave transmission towers stood on the Tantramar Marshes close to Sackville, New Brunswick. With the soundtrack simulcast to the airwaves on Wave Farm Radio while the film screened, it was a magical evening exploring a vanishing broadcast method.

The towers have always fascinated me and I was lucky to visit them when they were standing. My final visit to the towers was with Amanda Dawn Christie, years before decommissioning. In her documentary she assembles stories from those who worked and lived around the towers and the strange and wonderful things that connect with them. The images, sound, and interviews are all blended together in a mesmerizing way as you are immersed in a unique world. Using contact microphones that she built herself, Christie fills the soundtrack with the sounds created by the towers. It's haunting and beautiful to have the voices of the towers accompany the images and it's emotional and heartbreaking as we see the towers falling. It's a powerful work of art that made me see that part of the world differently and transported me away from my concerns into a world between memory, history, and geography.

The festival is done for another year and I'm full of images and sounds from the films and conversations shared during the week. It's a great filmmaking and film watching community that we have here and always so great to be surrounded by it for a week every September.

Day 7 - Atlantic Film Festival 2016

Chris Campbell

Paterson

Paterson

On the penultimate day of the festival I was able to fill the afternoon and evening with screenings. So much good work up on the screen this year. In conversations before and after the films you find out about what you've missed and can share thoughts on the films you loved with others. It's good when friends see different films than you as it gives you a broader view of the films the programmers have assembled and helps in building up the list of films that you need to check out when they are available again.

My seventh day at the Atlantic Film Festival began with the New Zealand adaptation of Eleanor Catton's novel directed by Canadian Alison MacLean with the screenplay cowritten by her and Emily Perkins. Starring James Rolleston (who memorably debuted in Taika Waititi's Boy) as an acting student who chooses personal material for an acting project. It's a film about process and growing up that skillfully avoids cliches with a mainly light touch throughout. The process of becoming an actor is at the core of the film with some great scenes with the young cast interacting with established actors including New Zealand's Kerry Fox as the head of the acting school. But overall it's a drama with greater depth and more complex characters than many films that deal with similar topics. The cast shines and it's beautifully shot and edited and was a pleasant surprise as I was expecting something good and saw something that was great.

Another day and another world premiere of a 1KWAVEATLANTIC film with Self Portrait in May. Catherine Bussiere's personal and beautiful documentary was filmed in a compressed period of time (the month of May) with the entire project from conception to completion happening within five months. A meditation on life with a strong sense of place and family, it shows what is possible with talent and thoughtful contemplation. She shares her life and family and friends with us and it made me think about the topics as it also soothed my soul.

Jim Jarmusch is great at finding a structure for his films and then working within that to combine diverse casts and elements together to create films that are unique and beautiful. One of the most musical of directors in how he uses repetition and patterns visually, thematically, and in editing. With Paterson he adopts the formal structure of a week in the life of a bus driver and poet played to subtle perfection by Adam Driver. The glimpses of daily routine reminded me of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels in the repetition with changes, but Jarmusch takes it in his own direction.

For Jarmusch plot is just a way to assemble memorable characters together in memorable places. This time I learned a wealth of information about Paterson, New Jersey. The film is packed with great and distinctive performances with a standout being Golshifteh Farahani as Paterson's partner Laura, a woman whose style is black and white along with a love of country music. Everyone has got their thing and as we meet the residents of Paterson we learn a bit more as we go through the routine. There are the usual connections with music and other films including a delightful reunion of the leads of Moonrise Kingdom and of one of the leads from the "Far From Yokohama" segment of Mystery Train. Jarmusch's films always start me on a journey to find out more about what he shares and now I need to explore the poetry William Carlos Williams and rewatch more of his films.

The final screening of the day for me was the Nextgen Shorts program which is a showcase of upcoming filmmakers. It's great to see work from students on the big screen and the audience enjoyed the work and the filmmakers introduced their films to an appreciative crowd.

The festival is coming to an end for another year and I also now have a lot of new films on my "Best of 2016" list along with more films that I need to see based on recommendations from friends. It's my favourite time of the year.

Day 6 - Atlantic Film Festival 2016

Chris Campbell

Juste la fin du monde

Juste la fin du monde

The Atlantic Film Festival this year has been solid with a range of films and styles and approaches. It can be tiring, but seeing a great film manages to restore my energy and leaves me wanting more. So while I dove in heavily for the first part of the festival, now in the home stretch I slowed down a bit and only saw three things on Day 6, but they were good.

Up first for me was Alan Collins' short documentary My Life So Far, which was about his remarkable daughter and the journey that he and Violet Rosengarten took when they adopted Cassandre Collins in Haiti. It zips along and has footage from over a decade, so we get to see Cassandre as a child and moments with her growing up. With humour and heart we get a small glimpse into the lives of some people and how they came to be a family.

The second of the films screening that came out of the 1KWAVEATLANTIC initiative from WIFT Atlantic for female writer/directors, Singing to Myself is written and directed by Harmony Wagner. Set in PEI, it tells the story of a woman who is deaf and a developing friendship with another young woman. Taking full advantage of locations on the island, the strong cast grounds the story that has a broad dramatic range as we spend time with the characters and some of the struggles that they face. There are some lovely moments between the characters and some solid visuals as well that show a great deal of ingenuity in working on an ultra-low-budget film.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in the Tuesday night gala at the Oxford. Xavier Dolan continues to hone his style and create compelling and deeply cinematic films. With It's Only The End of the World he makes a shorter film, but one that concentrates the power of his other films in the adaptation of a play about a dysfunctional family. With relentless closeups of the actors that recall Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, it increases the intensity of the experience.

His approach suits the material perfectly and it takes a few minutes to adjust to it, but it's not unending and Dolan gives us some small, strategic breaks in the form of flashbacks accompanied by more popular music. In the dramatic sequences the score is more traditional film music which soothes us while the faces filling the screen increase our anxiety. It's Dolan also working with an fantastic cast of French actors all doing amazing and often understated work. A remarkable achievement, it's Dolan showing restraint in trimming things down to what is essential, which increases the power of what is shared with us. It was a bit exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

With only two days left, there are still many films to see and worlds to explore. I'm going to miss the days filled with films and conversations next week as I reflect on what I've seen and heard.