- Toni Erdmann
- The Salesman
- A Quiet Passion
- Manchester By The Sea
- 20th Century Women
- Things To Come
Manchester By The Sea is a symphony of elements conducted beautifully by Kenneth Lonergan, its moments of tearjerking sorrow counterpointed to perfection by frequent blasts of humor and coming from New England stock character types who are celebrated but never exploited. The centre of this pleasure is the performance by Casey Affleck as the downtrodden janitor pulled into the guardianship of his teenage nephew after the death of his brother. The subtlety with which Affleck manages his character’s sarcasm is remarkable for how little attention he seems to call to himself every time he delivers a zinger, a pair of glassy, beer-soaked eyes letting pain set up shop somewhere in the background while his mouth shoots off defensive jokes for an ultimately painful, but incredibly satisfying, result.
It’s the least surprising thing in the world if I of all people pick Isabelle Huppert for this category, but how can you resist the rewards that 2016 brought her and all her fans? She was never one to phone it in, but after a few years of directors hiring her to do the sort of thing she does best without challenging either her or the audience (I’m looking at you, Joachim Trier), she released three films that showed her off in ways that hadn’t been seen in a while. In Paul Verhoeven’s masterful Elle, she matches his stylish, provocative thriller’s sharp cuts and take-no-prisoners style with a command of both the trauma and humour that the story demands. Mia Hansen-Love’s deeply satisfying Things To Come has her exploring her intellectual side as both cerebral and lively presence in a tale about a philosophy professor dealing with life’s tumultous changes. The least known of the three, as it only played film festivals in 2016, Souvenir by Bavo Duferne features the great lady playing a failed Eurovision contestant who gets a second chance with a young lover; Huppert’s singing skills won’t win her any prizes, but her deftness with comedy and the indelible sweetness that she projects on screen makes for another opportunity to enjoy her radiance.
The two priests in Martin Scorsese’s Silence entering seventeenth-century Japan have to be so careful to avoid anti-Christian sentiment that they are literally smuggled in before joining the few fearful believers who practice their religion in secret. When the two visitors are exposed and come before a grand inquisitor played by Issei Ogata, the groundwork describing the nation’s intolerance of western religion has been laid strong enough for him to terrify us, but Scorsese is not satisfied to present a simplistic version of abusive authority. Ogata’s Inoue is a ruthless man who lacks no confidence about bringing Japan back in line with its tradition, but he is also a mercurial figure who reaches almost trickster levels in the way he lets his victims feel like he might be softening up before he delivers his blows. With an unmistakable voice and physical presence, Ogata veritably steals the show in what is Scorsese’s richest and most complex work in years.
Plays on film are dangerous territory, particularly when the actor is reprising their role from the stage version; watch Shirley Booth’s Oscar winning performance in Come Back Little Sheba or Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed to see actors who are asked to do little more than preserve their stage work on film forever. That’s why it is more than exciting to see Viola Davis in Denzel Washington’s riveting adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences; we witness an actor who has already proven a command of the screen inform us about what we missed in not seeing her do it live while also giving a dynamic performance that feels appropriate to film. Davis doesn’t miss a beat dealing with her husband’s tempestuous personality, both sweetening up his happier moments while standing firm in the winds that blow when he rages. The structure of this piece is that of a man in the centre of a group of supporting players, but her presence lingers longest in memory when it is over, probably because she is so formidable that it is clear that, unless he does right by her, he is not worth a thing.
To create moments that feel natural, and to create humorous sequences that play with an unplanned ease, are remarkable feats in themselves, but to create a film that is three hours of perpetually spontaneous human interactions that are funny and deep at the same time? At this point I’m prepared to announce after seeing Toni Erdmann that Maren Ade is a veritable wizard. She rounds up a perfect cast to enact her devastating scenarios concerning a straight-laced corporate daughter who is never able to reconcile her relationship with her exasperating prankster of a father. Even more impressive, Ade takes a plot with simplest description (a man surprises his daughter by visiting her in Bucharest where she is working temporarily) and turns it into an endlessly watchable hurtle from one increasingly crazy sequence to the next. There are moments that play with the kind of madcap flavour you’d expect from a Marx Brothers movie, but always with the kind of love and frustration that only family members can provide.