'Aferim!', Big Screen Berkeley's favorite film of 2016
Aferim!, Big Screen Berkeley’s favorite film of 2016
, Big Screen Berkeley’s favorite film of 2016

2016 has, thankfully, almost run its course, which means that it’s time for film critics coast-to-coast to compile their end-of-the-year lists. Unlike others, however, I can’t profess to know what the year’s ‘best films’ were, because I haven’t seen enough of the contenders. With time to take in only 500 or so films a year — many being older films I’m catching up on (or revisiting, such as The Battle of Algiers) — it would be an insult to my readers’ intelligence to suggest I really know what’s best.

So, as usual, this is a list of my favorite films from the past 12 months. Enjoy!

1. Aferim! Absence apparently does make the heart grow fonder, as I reviewed this way back in the mists of January. Aferim’s impressive black-and-white photography, well-crafted script, and intriguing tale of middle European slavery and racism deeply impressed me. A genuine work of art, and a film I suspect will one day be considered a ‘classic’.

2. The People vs. Fritz Bauer This outstanding post-Holocaust drama of West German legal intrigue is worth seeing for star Burghart Klaussner’s performance alone.

3. Old Stone Glowingly reviewed by yours truly only last week, this was one of the pleasantest surprises of the year.

Le tout nouveau testament: opens Friday in Berkeley

4. Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament) opens on Friday, Dec. 16 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas and would ordinarily garner a full review if not for the timing of its release. It’s a film about God — a grumpy middle-aged man in a dressing gown who lives in Brussels — and his 10-year old daughter, who doesn’t like him very much. Jesus Christ also makes a cameo appearance in this Belgian feature from Jaco Van Dormael, whose 1995 Toto the Hero offered similar musings on the meaning of life and death. Wry, literate, and ultimately quite moving, The Brand New Testament brings to mind the films of Gondry, Jeunet, and Bunuel – especially when Bunuel’s occasional muse Catherine Deneuve plunges into a serious relationship with a gorilla.

5. The Incident Nobody really uses the adjective skew-whiff any more, but that was the word I thought of as I recently reflected upon this film. I’m always keen on the slightly surreal, and The Incident‘s moebius-strip narrative and ‘Twilight Zone’ pretensions were right in my wheelhouse.

6. The Love Witch I absolutely adored this campy tribute to 1970s cinema – the most fun I had at the cinema this year.

7. Train to Busan I overlooked this during its summertime run at the Elmwood, finally catching up on it just before Halloween. If you like zombie movies, this is one of the best of recent years, and, unlike so many other genre films, it neither winks at its audience nor goes for laughs. Train to Busan is good, honest gut-munching action for those who prefer George Romero’s ‘Dead’ trilogy to zom-coms such as Shaun of the Dead and Cooties.

8. Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt My top-ranked documentary of 2016, and I didn’t review it for Berkeleyside. Shameful! For anyone interested in the legendary German-born thinker (or anyone interested in Zionism, Palestine, refugees, stateless people, and totalitarianism), this is essential viewing. Look for Cal luminary Judith Butler among the talking heads.

9. Krisha Whether or not you consider it a ‘home movie’, this small-scale drama of family crisis features a breakout performance from cinematic newcomer Krisha Fairchild.

10. Bleak Street Bleak is the word. The feel-bad movie of the year, Arturo Ripstein’s tale of life on the wrong side of the tracks was a beautiful bummer.

11. High-Rise Though far from perfect, this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel was a welcome attempt at something different. Impressive to look at, High-Rise also benefits from an excellent cast, including Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans.

12Captain Fantastic This would have edged into the top 10 if not for its rather ridiculous final act.

13. Pushing Dead The film with the most likable characters of the year? Quite possibly.

14. Chevalier The film with the least likable characters of the year? Quite possibly.

15Tower This striking and unique documentary about a mass shooting in Texas hits hardest during its final 20 minutes.

16. Hail, Caesar! When a movie opens in February and is already playing on airplanes in July, you know it was a box-office flop. This Coen Brothers comedy set during Hollywood’s Golden Age certainly isn’t one of their best, but it deserved a better fate, if only for featuring the year’s funniest scene  – a hilarious set piece in which a group of clergy (including a rabbi) discuss a forthcoming cinematic depiction of Jesus with studio bigwig Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin).

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...