Top 10 Alternative Films of 2016

John Preston

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

With Vada‘s top 10 alternative movies of the year, I attempt to look beyond the usual superheroes and wizards to provide an alternative to the blockbuster parade.

Julieta

Julieta is instantly recognisable as a Pedro Almodóvar film in its opening shot. The colours, the abstraction, the score – if it wasn’t the work of the iconic Spanish auteur then it could only be that of an imposter. The surprise comes as the narrative moves forward and the realisation strikes that Almodóvar is playing it as straight as he is ever going to.

I saw this film on a weekday afternoon which suited the experience tremendously. This film has the feel of a long-lost melodrama discovered on a TV channel whilst flicking idly through scripted reality shows and looking for old-school comfort and tears. It has one comic turn with a glorious cameo from his most underused ‘regular’ Rossy de Palma.

is a welcome addition to Almodóvar’s ouvre and one of his most simple and serious tales of female resolve and sadness.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

I’m pre-internet and so will always be a little in awe of the online connection and the world and opportunities that that it has opened up. I will always have another experience to compare it to, and the things that both trouble and excite me about it will forever be rooted in the question ‘what if the internet had never had happened?’

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is avant garde filmmaker Werner Herzog’s documentary which offers a history of the internet based around the people it has most profoundly effected. It begins by looking at the enormous, rattling tower of a computer that made that first, initial connection to contemplating a future world where humans relationships will no longer be necessary. Herzog presents the facts, the forecasts and his interviewees with humour, sensitivity and passion.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

Alfred Hitchcock is still the filmmaker’s filmmaker. There are, of course, problems with the late director and his constant portrayal of the ‘woman in trouble’, troubles which often result in violence or death but his skill of producing ‘pure cinema’ can’t be denied.

This fascinating documentary is an audio of the interview between the director and the French filmmaker Francois Truffaut in 1962 intercut with talking heads of some of contemporary cinema’s most revered directors. Taking a peek in Hitchcock’s psyche is like unravelling the sexual politics of possibly his most-loved film VertigoGone Girl director David Fincher calls it odd, perverse and almost poetic and he could be referring to both man and movie. It’s a shame, but maybe unsurprising, that there are no women commentators featured, Camille Paglia for example is a massive fan, but Hitchcock’s influence lives on and can still be seen everywhere.

Nocturnal Animals

I hated Tom Ford’s debut film A Single Man so much that I couldn’t finish it – breathtakingly self-conscious, constant plagiarising and utterly hollow. Nocturnal Animals, then, could only be an improvement.

Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhall and Michael Shannon are all superb and confirm Ford’s accomplishments as a sensitive and precise director. The things that you may expect him to do well are present and correct with one image in particular that is utterly horrifying, exquisitely beautiful and quietly moving, quite a trick to pull off. He is less good with the road movie aspect of the film and this, along with the unexpected surreality, are both confirmation of Ford’s close study of David Lynch.

There is at least one laugh out loud moment here, and the film’s ending is classically poignant movie-telling. Tom Ford surprised me with this and I’m delighted.

Room

Room was coated in the kind of light Hollywood glaze which rendered it too slick and ultimately unbelievable. Although the situation the protagonist and her young child find themselves is plausible and reports of this nature occasionally and sensationally come through American, usually, news media, the film was perhaps a little too sophisticated for its own good. This doesn’t mean that Room wasn’t wildly entertaining, suspenseful and moving; it’s all of this things.

I cried more whilst watching this film than any other this year, and I rooted for characters in that very physical way where I almost started to shout at the screen – and I saw this in a cinema. Brie Larson’s intense and brilliant performance rightly won the academy award for best actress and Room, however flawed, was the kind of film that you couldn’t wait to share with others.

The Witch

Sadly the only horror film on the list, The Witch may be economical with its money shots, but when they come (the magic balm, the crow, the barn) they leave an imprint that will remain for days. Set in 17th Century New England, director Robert Eggers creates a near impenetrable world with hard to understand period language and many scenes lit only by candlelight or oppressive grey sky. But this is not a tale that needs much dialogue or special effects to communicate its message of evil goat, Black Philip, and the fantastically eerie young twins who seem to be able to communicate with him.

The threat to them all appears to be the family’s oldest daughter, Thomasin, who realises and denounces the potential harm amongst them. The Witch‘s final act could be seen as a fuck-you to misogyny and the first joyous and celebratory days of feminism in full flight!

Valley of Love

Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu play once-married versions of themselves in the setting of the stifling heat of Death Valley. Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love won’t be for everyone. It is an, eventually, mystical and supernatural exploration into grief and guilt and includes one surreal scene which is possibly a dream sequence but is played as reality. These elements are incorporated alongside Huppert and Depardieu’s bickering, and possible ongoing love for one another, bringing them together following letters received, impossibly, from their gay, dead son requesting that they meet him one last time in the desert.

Valley of Love is often very funny and has a cynical eye for celebrity culture and somehow the various elements add up to a film that, mainly due to Huppert and Depardieu’s irrepressible chemistry, is provocative and moving.

10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane was the most audacious film I saw this year. The tension and the suspense at not quite knowing what you were watching and then, finally, the movie’s ultimate payoff (that ending!) was an exhilarating and unbelievable white-knuckle ride. Dan Trachtenberg’s second instalment of three in the Cloverfield series was an improvement on its predecessor, a rare occurrence, with John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead proving to be inspired casting – both delivering high octane but subtle performances.

I was one of the lucky ones who had no idea as to the authenticity of the predicament that Winstead’s character finds herself in and therefore saw events through her eyes – a clever trick. This is big budget cinema at its most imaginative.

The Childhood of a Leader

The actor Brady Corbet’s disorientating and fascinating directional debut was an overwhelming success. The Childhood of a Leader is the story of how a fascist is made and the age old argument of nature versus nature and parental leads. It’s meant to be fictional but it’s final, and most adventurous chapter, could leave you pondering the real identity of its protagonist.

Bombastic movie-making at its most visceral, The Childhood of a Leader is told using three different languages, an original score by Scott Walker that is without question a leading character its own right and Robert Pattison playing two, very different characters. But yet this is an entertaining and adrenaline-propelled delight that is accessible and unlike anything else I’ve seen this year. I can’t wait to see what Corbet has in store for us next.

Pursuit of Silence

2016 has been a tremendous year for film documentaries and although In Pursuit of Silence is one of the less showy entries, in fact that’s probably the point of it, it is definitely worth an hour or so of anyone’s time, it. Patrick Shen could have followed the example of John Cage and his experimental and perplexing track 4’33’, which is explored early on and extensively in this film, but then I’m not certain whether 80 minutes of a film that was utterly mute and motionless would have been that instructive. And that is the point of Shen’s film, he brings examples of an alternative way of being and spending time, for the majority at least – one that is switched off and without noise.

Never have we lived in a more noise-polluted culture and that comes with its own consequences – ones that you have the choice to do something about.