Films of 2016


Still from El Said's In the Last Days of the City, 2016
Tamer El Said/ Zero Productions
Still from El Said’s In the Last Days of the City, 2016

Lampedusa's Lost Souls
February 7, 2017
Ingrid D. Rowland

As Donald Trump denies entry to the already small number of pre-screened refugees the US had agreed to accept—among them Syrian and Iraqi families fleeing terrorism who have been carefully vetted and approved by the UN Refugee agency and by the US Department of Homeland Security—Europeans face a far more dire situation: the hundreds of thousands of desperate people from North Africa and the Middle East, who, without any UN help, are attempting to reach their shores. This is the focus of the haunting documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea).

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Iran: A Private Agony
January 25, 2017
Christopher de Bellaigue

Recently shortlisted for a Foreign Language Oscar, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is more ambitious in scope than any of his films to date. Its subject, the inviolability of women and the ways that men exercise guardianship over it, is of course a universal theme. But to my knowledge it has never been dealt with in such surgical detail by a filmmaker in Iran.

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Cairo Without End
January 17, 2017
Yasmine El Rashidi

In his quiet film In the Last Days of the City, Tamer El Said brilliantly captures a struggle I’ve had for years: how to pin down what it is about Cairo that leaves us feeling as if we exist in a no man’s land, somewhere between past and present, constantly searching, never quite there.

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When They Came from Another World
January 13, 2017
James Gleick

What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. The film Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is being marketed as an alien-contact adventure: creatures arrive in giant ovoid spaceships, and drama ensues, but it is a movie of philosophy as much as adventure. It’s really a movie about time. Time, fate, and free will.

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Prankster and Daughter
December 22, 2016
Francine Prose

It’s rare that a film can have one of its characters pose a question that so baldly states its larger philosophical concerns without seeming overly obvious or sanctimonious. But Maren Ade’s deadpan comic masterpiece Toni Erdmann gets away with it, in part because its characters are so complex and precisely drawn, and in part because the film is at once so understated, so broad, and so funny.

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The Limits of Forgiveness
December 15, 2016
Francine Prose

The friend who urged me to see Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea told me that it was the only film she’d been able to watch since the election, the only work of art that had, even briefly, distracted her from her worry about the future of our democracy. It might seem odd to describe a film about unendurable grief and sadness as a distraction—a word we more often associate with entertainment, escape and fun. But after watching Lonergan’s astonishing film, I understood what my friend meant.

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The Case of O.J. Simpson
October 16, 2016
Lorrie Moore

Martin Luther King and others have said that Sunday in America is the most segregated day of the week, but the O.J. Simpson verdict, acquittal on all charges, came in on a Tuesday. The jury, after having been sequestered for the better part of a year, took only three hours to deliberate. It knew enough and now wanted to go home.

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Auschwitz on Trial
September 28, 2016
Ian Buruma

Mick Jackson’s new film Denial, about the 2000 trial between British Holocaust denier David Irving and American academic Deborah E. Lipstadt, is best in the scenes that focus on a particular conflict, between Lipstadt’s view of herself and her legal team. At the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, for example, we see Lipstadt praying in front of the ruins of the gas chamber, while Rampton is making careful notes and asking awkward questions about the exact procedures of mass murder. On the “sacred” spot of the killing, cool analysis and a search for legal proof look like disrespect to her.

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The Sorcerer of Jazz
September 18, 2016
Adam Shatz

In 1975, Miles Davis put down his trumpet and retired. Davis was famous for his dramatic silences in performance: the notes he chose not to play were almost as meaningful as those he did. But this silence would last for nearly five years, during which he all but disappeared into his Upper West Side brownstone.

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US Cyber Weapons: Our ‘Demon Pinball’
September 8, 2016
Sue Halpern

Ninety-four minutes into Zero Days, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the American government’s expanding and largely invisible embrace of offensive cyber weaponry, the image of retired general James Cartwright appears on the screen. From 2007 to 2011 Cartwright was vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a favorite of President Obama. But when he appears in Gibney’s film, it’s not as an advocate, it’s as a potential enemy of the state, accused of leaking classified information.

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The Diva of Delusion
August 26, 2016
Martin Filler

Florence Foster Jenkins offers some marvelous set pieces, including Meryl Streep’s hilariously inept version of “The Laughing Song” from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Regrettably, the film avoids probing the degree to which money can insulate untalented artists from realizing that they are no good at what they do.

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Weiner!
June 29, 2016
Cathleen Schine

Anthony Weiner is a secret everyman. He was seen as a hero, then a fallen hero, then a hero for redeeming himself by acknowledging his weakness and getting back into the ring. He captured the political imagination of New Yorkers with this narrative. But nobody likes a fool, least of all New Yorkers, and Anthony Weiner made a fool of himself.

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Unserious Austen
May 27, 2016
Adam Thirlwell

Trying to examine Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, our definitions like adaptation or rewrite become faintly anachronistic, or clumsy. Stillman’s cinematic innovation has been to bathe cinema in a literary tone, a charmed artificiality. Now he has made an adaptation of Lady Susan—an early Jane Austen novella, unpublished until after her death.

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China's Breakthrough Film
May 19, 2016
J. Hoberman

Kaili Blues is both the most elusive and the most memorable new film that I’ve seen in quite some time—“elusive” and “memorable” being central to Bi Gan’s ambitions. As much as it is about anything, Kaili Blues is about a place.

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A Darker Jungle
April 26, 2016
Christopher Benfey

For the most part, this new Jungle Book is shockingly dark, replacing the psychological conflict and nuanced family dynamics of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories with sporadic violence and a pervasive air of menace.

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Somnolent Thailand
March 13, 2016
Gabriel Winslow-Yost

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Cemetery of Splendor, in which a group of Thai soldiers have fallen mysteriously and, it seems, permanently asleep, is a gentle, open-hearted story underlain at every moment by rage and dread.

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The Drone Dilemma
March 10, 2016
David Cole

Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, a remarkably timely and important new film about a fictional drone strike against al-Shabab, raises fundamental questions about when, if ever, such attacks are justified.

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The Passion of the Coens
February 13, 2016
Francine Prose

More than half a century after the era in which the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is set, Hollywood is still making pictures of the sort that the film parodies, but which will presumably lack the irony, the nuance, the humor—and the fun—which the Coen brothers have brought to this latest chapter in their ongoing exploration of how we live, or try to live, in the presence or absence of the divine.

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Gomes's Impossible Movie
February 3, 2016
Adam Thirlwell

Director Miguel Gomes has always enjoyed combining two separate elements in a single film, and in Arabian Nights this technique is cosmically expanded. The dream is of pure lightness (a film as fantasia) and simultaneously of pure weight (a film as witness). Or, to put this another way: How do you take political and aesthetic risks in a film’s form while dramatizing them within that film as well?

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