Films I saw in 2016

Here’s my annual lists of films I saw at the theatre (I don’t watch them on TV.)  I saw a very interesting series of Seijun Suzuki films at Harvard.  He inspired people like Quentin Tarantino.  “Branded to Kill” is probably the one to see if you are a Tarantino fan.

2016 Films

Dekalog 3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10 (Poland, 1989) 3.9 A series of 10 one hour made for TV Polish films by Krzysztof Kieslowski, often regarded as one of the greatest film series of all time. I saw the extended versions of #5 and #6, “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love”. I liked this even better than the more polished films he made after coming to the West (Red, White, Blue, etc.)

The Asphalt Jungle (US, 1950) 3.9 A near perfect film noir, directed by John Huston. Features a very young and radiant Marilyn Monroe. And the legendary Sterling Hayden.

The Wailing (Korea) 3.9 A near perfect horror film. Great films are usually outstanding for reasons unrelated to the specific genre they fall into. Think how Vertigo (thriller), 2001 (sci-fi), Apocalypse Now (war), The Shining (horror), etc., transcend their genre. (And yes, The Shining doesn’t quite belong with the other three, but you get my point.) The Wailing isn’t as original as these films, or even as original as the Korean horror film Oldboy, but it steals from the best and puts it all together brilliantly.

In a Lonely Place (US, 1950) 3.8 My all-time favorite film noir. People talk about Bogart and Bergman, or Bogart and Bacall, but Gloria Graham and Bogart are perfect in this film. They seem to be acting on a different plane of reality from everyone else. Or maybe they don’t seem to be acting at all. Heartbreaking.

Happy Hour (Japan) 3.8 A five and a half hour film about four Japanese women who are in their late 30s, just the point where disillusionment with life is setting in. The director gave a talk afterwards. One of the actresses (who won an award at Locarno) was sitting in the same row as me.)  What if the 2 hour film is a giant mistake?  Maybe all films should either be an hour (short stories) or 5 hours (novels).

Mountains May Depart (China) 3.8   Loved this film. A very intelligent and emotionally powerful vision from Zhangke Jia. I don’t know if it’s his best, but it’s certainly my favorite. Reminded me a bit of the Taiwanese film Three Times, in the effective way it used pop music in a film encompassing three periods of time.

The Handmaiden (Korea) 3.7 A return to form by Park Chan-wook. Not as original as Oldboy, but otherwise a beautifully made film.

The Forbidden Room (Canada) 3.7   This one really should be seen on the big screen. Strongly influenced by silent film, but otherwise kind of indescribable. This is the sort of film that differentiates cinema from TV.

Eyes Wide Shut (US, 1999) 3.6 Kubrick’s final film seems slightly better the second time around, maybe because I was paying more attention to the style than the story. He slipped a bit late in his career, but not very much. (I love the last word of his final film.) Unfortunately it was screened in digital, which looks awful.

Cemetery of Splendour (Thai) 3.6 Made by perhaps the most interesting director in the world today, but I found it more difficult to follow than his other films, maybe because it referred to political/cultural events in Thailand on which I am not well informed.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand) 3.6 Very nicely done, especially the two lead actors, as well as one other who appeared early in the film.

Arrival (US) 3.6 Basically a 2-hour plea to reject the politics of Donald Trump. The aliens seemed like a mix of octopus and elephant, while their spaceship seemed like a giant whale. All three animals have a reputation as being quite intelligent. A very moving film, although two hours later you might feel like you were conned.

Our Little Sister (Japan) 3.6 Koreeda has great ability to see the good in different types of people. This is a beautiful understated film, very skillfully made. You don’t leave feeling like you’ve been emotionally beaten with a rubber hose (which is how I feel after the typical Hollywood tearjerker.) This sort of film almost makes me want to move to Japan—but I’m too dumb to learn foreign languages. My brain is wired for visual images, a trait that seems . . . well, sort of Japanese.

Moonlight (U.S.) 3.6  I didn’t like this quite as much as I expected, given the reviews, but on the other hand I found it more likable than I expected. Easier to watch.

The Wasted Times (Chinese) 3.5 This was panned by the critics, and there are certainly flaws. But I enjoyed the film, which was strikingly shot. Zhang Ziyi was superb, and still looks quite young. The director is much better at creating individual scenes than an overall coherent film.

Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia) 3.5 Engrossing Amazon adventure story, influenced by Apocalypse Now, 2001 A Space Odyssey, etc.

Love and Friendship (US/British) 3.5 I’m not the biggest Jane Austin fan (stories about society go over my head), but Whit Stillman did a very nice job with this lesser known novella.

City of Gold (US) 3.4 A very enjoyable documentary about the food critic for the LA Times, who ends up carrying the film.

Only Yesterday. (Japan) 3.4 An animated film from 1991 that was finally released in the US.

Hieronymus Bosch, Touched By the Devil (Dutch) 3.4 Interesting documentary about a painter that is hard to see in real life, especially the all-important tiny details. For that alone the film was worthwhile. I’m not sure if Bosch is viewed as a surrealist, but if he is then he is surely the greatest painter in that genre.

Stage Sisters (China) 3.4 A beautifully restored print of a classic Chinese film from 1964. Interesting as a historical document, and for what it (implicitly) tells us about the Cultural Revolution that followed (when the film was banned.)

Tianyun Mountain (China) 3.4 A 1980 film by the same director as Stage Sisters. As a pair, they form a fascinating history of China from the 1930s to 1980. From turmoil to a happy (revolutionary) ending in the first film, and then from the happy post-revolution period to the nightmares of 1958-76, to a somber recovery in the second film.

Kaili Blues (China) 3.3 The first film made by a director from the Miao minority in China. It brought back pleasant memories of my trip through China in 1994, and it showed a lot of technical sophistication. But in the end it seemed a bit too similar to other “art films” made by East Asian directors (and also Sokurov.) Still it showed a lot of promise and I look forward to the director’s next film.

Night Train to Munich (Britain, 1940) 3.3 An enjoyable Carol Reed film that is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”. Made before WWII got really serious, and it shows.

The Fall of the House of Usher (French) 3.3 A 1927 silent film by Epstein, shown with a shorter film.

Killer’s Kiss/Fear of Desire. (US) 3.3 Kubrick’s first two films, and the only ones I had never seen before.

Dying of the Light/Out of Print (US) 3.2 Two documentaries on the sad decline of film, which is rapidly being replaced by digital.

Francofonia (Russian/French) 3.2 A documentary on the Louvre, by the Russian director Sokurov. The documentary actually had relatively little to say about the Louvre itself, and instead focused on the collaboration between a German officer and the director of the Louvre, in trying to save French art during WWII. In the end the film was too ambitious, trying to do too many things, but Sokurov is always worth watching.

Manchester-by-the-Sea (US) 3.2 I’m not a big fan of this sort of Hollywood actor-driven film, but I do like Casey Affleck, and enjoyed seeing places that I’m familiar with visiting.

Hail Caesar! (US) 3.1 Scene by scene it was well directed, but somehow fell flat. The Coen brothers need to think about what made their early films so successful.

Jason Bourne (US) 3.0   Skillfully directed, but by now I’ve lost interest in the plot. Too many ridiculous car chases. The first Bourne film was a sort of breakthrough, which influenced the Bond series. They should have quit while they were ahead. Still a reasonably suspenseful 2 hours—not a bad film.

Café Society (US) 3.0   Scene by scene it was well directed, but somehow fell flat. Woody Allen needs to think about what made his early films so successful.

Searching for Mr. Right, Pt. 2 (China) 3.0 Thank God it had nothing to do with Pt. 1, which I missed! A Chinese romcom that was sort of entertaining, and sort of interesting in a sociological sense (which is often the case with Chinese films, given the pace of cultural change). As is often the case, lots of the puns were lost in translation. After speaking with my wife, I realized the film was actually much wittier than it seemed to this westerner.

Miss Hokusai (Japan) 2.7 Watching this uninspired animated film just made me want to look at Hokusai art instead.

The Crimson Kimono (US, 1959) 1.5 A film noir with an awful screenplay and wooden acting. I guess the interracial romance was considered shocking in 1959, and they didn’t see a need to do anything more.

Mermaid (Chinese) 1.5 I missed a lot of the humor, which involved hard to translate Chinese puns. But even so, I doubt I would have liked it.

Seijun Suzuki Festival:

Gates of Flesh (Japan, 1964) 3.7 I’m stunned that Japan was making films like this in 1964. Hollywood? Not so much, even today.

Ziguernerweisen (Japan, 1980) 3.7   Voted best Japanese film of the 1980s, by the Japanese film critics. Makes Taisho era Japan seem mysterious and seductive.

Branded to Kill (Japan, 1967) 3.6 Finally, a cult movie worthy of the name. Imagine if Tarantino and a French New Wave director had collaborated on a black and white 1967 Japanese film about hired killers.

Story of a Prostitute (Japan, 1965) 3.5 Same actress as Gates of Flesh, and equally riveting performance. Sukuzi has a great eye.

Carmen From Kawachi (Japan, 1966) 3.4  The final film in his “flesh trilogy” about prostitutes with a passion for life.

Pistol Opera (Japan, 2001) 3.4 Hard to make sense of, but it contains some great visual images.

Kagero-Za (Japan, 1981) 3.4 The second film in the Taisho trilogy. Also very mysterious, but I was tired when I saw this, and 140 minutes is a long time when there’s no clear plot. I hope to see it again.

Tokyo Drifter (Japan, 1966)  3.4  A breakthrough film in terms of style.

Tales of Sadness and Sorrow (Japan, 1977) 3.1 Kind of disappointing compared to other Suzuki films, but still somewhat interesting.

Favorite comment of the year (by Anon/portly).  Great Radiohead and Bjork recommendations.

PS.  Quietus named this CD by Arabrot the best album of the year.  It’s good!  So why are there zero reviews on Amazon?  I also listened to a lot of Steve Earle this year.

Poster for Branded to Kill:

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 10.44.31 AM




26 Responses to “Films I saw in 2016”

  1. Gravatar of anon\portly anon\portly
    12. February 2017 at 11:26

    Oddly, *my* favorite blog comment(s) of the year was (were) on the subject of the Rolling Stones quality level also:

  2. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    12. February 2017 at 13:40

    The most amazing thing about George Clooney’s ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is the frank admission that communist screen writers had, in fact, been slipping propaganda into the movie scripts.

    So long, Moral High Ground, for the Hollywood Ten.

  3. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    12. February 2017 at 14:07

    I thought *Spartacus* was “frank admission that communist screen writers had, in fact, been slipping propaganda into movie scripts.” IIRC, that film really takes out the hammer and bludgeons you into proletarian-lovin’ submission. Maybe this effect is really derived from Kubrick’s sly sense of humor….

  4. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    12. February 2017 at 16:23

    Agree on Our Little Sister. Such a contrast to the sensory assault of U.S. films. I’ve probably watched it a half dozen times.

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. February 2017 at 20:06

    anon/portly, I can’t understand why Tyler rates Stephen Stills higher than the Stones, or at least Stills at his best. I just don’t hear it, but then he has much better taste in music than I do. De gustibus . . .

    Regarding the comment you like, I prefer the Stones period of Beggar’s Banquet through Exile, to the late 1970s. Not saying it’s “better”, just that I prefer that sound. But I’ll check out his links.

    Patrick, Here’s what I don’t understand. If the left likes PCism so much, then why don’t they like McCarthyism?

    anon, I haven’t seen Spartacus for a long time. Ironically I just saw Full Metal Jacket again today–my first film of 2017.

    dtoh, Yes, all his films (that I’ve seen) are excellent, with “Nobody Knows” one of my all time favs.

  6. Gravatar of Justin Justin
    12. February 2017 at 20:34

    I enjoyed Mountains May Depart, but I was put off a bit by the third act (“your real son is Google translate!”).

    Still need to see the new Weerasethakul and Kore-eda films.

  7. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    12. February 2017 at 21:20

    Actually witcant says 1978 and Some Girls or Tattoo You was their peak, but then he links mostly to things from the Mick Taylor period, around the time of Exile. I’m not up on the Stones much, but I thought it was an interesting take.

  8. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    13. February 2017 at 10:38

    I liked Cafe Society. Nothing deep. Just pleasant and delightful.

  9. Gravatar of sean sean
    13. February 2017 at 10:59

    On the bourne series. Why quit when your ahead (Artistically) when every knew film has huge profits. Keep making them till they no longer pay.

  10. Gravatar of Monday assorted links – Marginal REVOLUTION Monday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION
    13. February 2017 at 11:25

    […] Scott Sumner reviews various Asian (and other) movies, strong agreement on most of the ones I […]

  11. Gravatar of A A
    13. February 2017 at 12:34

    I’ve seen half a dozen of the biggest Chinese comedies by ticket sales, and they all featured a lot of cruelty to ancillary characters. Most American comedies feature goofy leads stumbling through a world of straight men, but Chinese comedies the main goofs are often just watching a stranger deal with the repercussions of their acts.

  12. Gravatar of pyroseed13 pyroseed13
    13. February 2017 at 14:20

    Where did you happen to attend a Seijun Suzuki film festival? I’ve always wanted to check out some of his stuff.

  13. Gravatar of pyroseed13 pyroseed13
    13. February 2017 at 14:22

    Oops I seem to have failed at reading. Disregard my last comment haha.

  14. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    13. February 2017 at 17:16

    Well, not to piss on Sumner…well, OK just to piss on this thread I’ll mention that anybody can pretend to be high-brow and watch foreign films, but are we really sure Sumner saw these films or is pretending to? For example, I downloaded (but have not watched) this noir period piece (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds sophisticated): “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki”, a Finnish film, and I will watch the Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer film flop “Pawn Sacrifice”, but that doesn’t make me sophisticated, just feigning airs (in case anybody was confused).

    I will say I did enjoy, a little bit, a French 1970s film a while ago Sumner recommended about some guys in a jungle who were like the Dirty Dozen but in the end –**spoiler alert**–everybody dies. So I will check out some of the above films. I guess I should say–though it pains me to–“thanks professor Sumner” (ouch, I’m hurting). And money is neutral, everywhere and always.

  15. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    13. February 2017 at 19:50

    “….anybody can pretend to be high-brow and watch foreign films, but are we really sure Sumner saw these films or is pretending to?”

    Ray has a good sense for the kind of thing people are likely to fake, eh? What generosity of spirit!

  16. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    13. February 2017 at 19:59

    Comments 75, 80, 94, and 102 on this thread are pretty funny. I like that Scott Aaronson responds to steaming pile #1 with good humor, but apparently two steaming piles is just one too many.

    When I’m reading a typical blog, and the blogger links to another blog, I don’t think anything of it. When The Money Illusion links to another blog, I now have to ask myself, “is this a potential hate crime?”

  17. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    13. February 2017 at 20:32

    Re: The Dekalog, Kieslowski.

    I was in a music (CD) store once when this couple came up to the counter, asking about Van Den Budenmayer. Oddly, they hadn’t been able to find any of his CD’s in the classical section. It took awhile to explain to them (and the clerk) they were looking for a fictional composer – I couldn’t think of Preisner’s name.

    This probably doesn’t happen anymore, after Google….

  18. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    14. February 2017 at 10:14

    Thinking about my own silly comment, I just discovered that if you go to amazon and type in “Van Den Budenmayer,” it takes you right to the Van Den Budenmayer soundtrack selections!

    When people talk about secular stagnation, they shouldn’t forget all the time and money saved, and in so many ways, shopping for music online!

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. February 2017 at 14:23

    Justin, His other films are also worth watching, if you haven’t seen them.

    Anon, Yes, he seems to know his Stones (better than I do.)

    Liberal, Yes, pleasant like all his other recent films.

    Anon, Scott was wise to ban Ray.

    And so they sell stuff under Budenmayer’s name? Interesting.

  20. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    16. February 2017 at 07:34

    So I finally saw anon/portly’s music comment from last year. I was quite taken aback that Scott didn’t find *anything* from the last thirty years to be even as good as the Rolling Stones, but was somewhat heartened by your appreciation of one of Bjork’s best songs (Medulla, the following album, is even better) as well as the Radiohead cover of my very favourite song ever. Also the fact that you like noise?! It seems that your musical tastes, while a bit alien, are still reachable from where I am, Scott. I mean if only three songs from the time since you stopped attending to music gets Comment of the Year, I thought, I can top that! So I got all worked up and decided to make a playlist:

    The criteria are basically standalone songs that are in the vicinity of pop/rock music, nothing too heavy, close to songform, no metal or hip hop or anything. And has to sound as good as Gimme Shelter. It’s over a hundred songs, so it will take most of a weekend to get through (just noticed that Youtube doesn’t even give you a total length for playlists you make? wtf? My desktop media player does better). But you’re guaranteed to find several things you’ll really like in there, and I feel confident that anon would also second many of the recommendations. (Might add a few more when I think of them.) Give it a listen when you have the time!

    Also, thanks for putting me on to The Waiting, it was great!

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. February 2017 at 08:16

    Saturos, Thanks for the list, I’ll check it out.

    My two all time favorite pop music acts are Dylan and the Stones, so it’s no surprise I don’t find anything more recent that measures up. But I am familiar with a good bit of the music on that list, and own many of the CDs that the songs appear on. Nothing I’ve heard is close to Gimme Shelter. But then I’d often choose different songs than you picked, for instance “The End of the World as We Know It” over “Losing My Religion”

    I do like many of the post-1980 groups you like (Radiohead, REM, Bjork, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Joy Division, etc.) I would have added My Bloody Valentine, Lucinda Williams, U2 (when not too bombastic), Sigur Ros, Steve Earle, etc.)

  22. Gravatar of anon\portly anon\portly
    18. February 2017 at 10:00

    This (extremely clever) take on the Stones agrees with my own, more or less:

  23. Gravatar of anon\portly anon\portly
    18. February 2017 at 10:19

    “anon/portly, I can’t understand why Tyler rates Stephen Stills higher than the Stones, or at least Stills at his best. I just don’t hear it, but then he has much better taste in music than I do.”

    That Stills post is much less quixotic than this one, in my view:

    “And to pursue Bryan’s question, who are the five best punk rock bands? The Clash, The Sex Pistols, early XTC, Iggy Pop, and maybe The Ramones.”

    The Clash were a punk band for about the first 10% of their career; early XTC was not punk (Martin C. Strong describes their *first* – punkiest – album as “art-pop;”), Iggy Pop was around before punk, obviously a big influence but they didn’t invent the label for him, or The Stooges. That leaves the Pistols and the Ramones as true punk bands, obviously two very different types of “punk,” worlds apart in almost every way.

    And of course whereas the Clash were punk for 10% of their career, Johnny/John Rotten/Lydon was punk for about 5% of his.

    Anyway, listing one’s 5 favorite punk bands is ridiculous, because doing so, as Tyler does, just demonstrates the meaningless of the label. If Tyler actually had something to say he would have had to take a different approach, for example listing his 5 or 10 favorite punk *tracks*. That would actually have been of some interest!

    Even more quixotic: “Who even wants to listen to the fifth-best Baroque composer?” (Caplan) I have no idea why Bryan Caplan thinks this an insight, is the distribution of worthwhile Baroque compositions really (1) so top-heavy; (2) something we can all agree on; (3) all worked out?

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. February 2017 at 19:15

    Anon, Thanks for the Slate article–quite interesting.

    When people talk about top 5 lists, are they supposed to be the top in quality, or the ones you personally like best? That’s not clear to me. Thus I’d put the Beatles in the top three rock acts of the 1960s, and Picasso as a top 3 painter of the 20th century. But neither are in my top three in terms of personal preference.

  25. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    5. March 2017 at 14:32

    I have been chewing on this a little bit….

    1. “One of _the_ top 3/not one of _my_ top 3” comes awfully close to Mark Twain’s “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” remark.

    2. I think it’s easy to see that as of 1964 the Beatles were good but hardly intimidatingly good. They hadn’t done anything I’d trade for “You Really Got Me” or “House of the Rising Sun” (both 1964).

    But of course they got going; between December 1965 and August 1966 – an 8 month period – they release Rubber Soul, the Paperback Writer/Rain single and Revolver. That’s a lot of good tracks! And then the next year the Stawberry Fields/Penny Lane single and Sgt. Peppers.

    3. My favorite story about Sgt. Peppers is that David Crosby of the Byrds got a copy the day it was released (I think) and played it – at least twice through, maybe more – for fans at the hotel[*] at which he was staying. Amazingly I found a reference:

    Anyway I believe that the reverence in which this album was held has faded greatly. Today it is almost just another album, isn’t it?

    4. I would make the point that it is clearly not the best album of 1967. From Martin C. Strong’s “Great Rock Discography,” comments on two 1967 albums:

    First album. “Utilising the (then) pioneering four-track recording process, the band painstakingly pieced together ornate pieces of sonic intricacy that set new standards. It contained many classics…. Fans and critics alike made it their ‘greatest album of all time’, although many others thought it too overblown as well as overproduced.”

    Second album. “Combining sublime melodies and nihilistic noise, it featured eleven superb ahead-of-their-time classics….”

    Martin C. Strong gives them both 10 stars. I think he’s right that one (TVU&N) has “eleven” classic tracks and other (SPLHCB) has “many.” Maybe three or four….

    5. All of which is to say, sure, the Beatles were probably one of the top three bands of the 60’s, I (and you, and I’m guessing most of us) might go along with that, as some sort of general proposition that reflects their 1965-1966 position of dominance plus their influence on other bands, but that’s not really saying all that much. Saying they’re one of your three favorite acts would be much more meaningful….

    [*] By the way, definitely *not* the most well-known rock and roll story concerning said hotel:

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. March 2017 at 14:52

    anon, What impresses me about the Beatles is the list of their 100 best songs that someone put together. There are quite a few really good songs in the 50 to 100 range, which you can’t say about most groups.

    Agree that 1965-66 was an amazing period for the Beatles, also for Dylan. Then there’s Pet Sounds. I wonder if it was the drugs?

    I agree about the Velvet Underground. I don’t think there’s a single Beatles song that I like anywhere near as much as Sweet Jane (especially the live version.)

    Both good picks from 1964, I think it was the Animals song that stopped the Beatles’ 6 month reign at the top.

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