A year late – but what’s a year between friends? – I am happy to present the first incarnation of Alternate Ending’s replacement for the now-defunct Antagonist Awards for Excellence in Filmmaking: the Altie Awards for Filmmaking Excellence
Below, a celebration of the films of 2016. The Alties for the 2017 movie year will be coming shortly.
The Red Turtle
The film’s silent fable is by no means new, nor is the hybrid animation form used to tell it; but the combined whole is so shockingly confident in execution. The whole thing feels like a dream, a painting, a living scroll, and it all builds to the most emotionally potent moment of the year.
1st Runner-Up: Toni Erdmann
Proof that European art cinema, social politics, and a hilariously dry sense of humor can all co-exist, this is at once 2016’s sharpest movie, and also it’s most aggressively dopey.
-For a thorough recuperation of the Oscarbait biopic as a multi-faceted character study
Knight of Cups
-For making a good-faith attempt to find a new way to structure a film, both in story and image
-For being the year’s most nasty-minded black comedy, but also a heartfelt romance
Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle
An act of purely visual storytelling with characters defined so simply that they can’t be counted on for clear emotional cues, the film lives and dies on the precision with which the director guides pacing, posing, composition, and the overall feeling of free-floating magical realism.
1st Runner-Up: Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann
Managing two such disparate lead performances couldn’t have been easy, but doing so in a film whose combination of tones is so wildly erratic is nothing less than a miracle.
Kirsten Johnson, Cameraperson
-For revealing the subjectivity inherent in all film images, converting journalism to memoir
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
-For keeping his cast on a particularly weird and wobbly line, and for the sterile beauty of the compsitions
Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups
-For diving into the deep end and not ever coming up for air
Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann
The most hackneyed arc imaginable – uptight businesswoman learns to have fun – has never seemed more fresh, or honest, than when Hüller builds it on a foundation of humiliation, frustration, boredom, and a little bit of flabbergasted confusion. Plus, that peerless karaoke scene.
1st Runner-Up: Isabelle Huppert, Things to Come & Elle
Two variations on one incredible theme: a character defined primarily in terms of how little we get to see inside her, a series of ellipses strung together by the sheer force of Huppert’s will.
Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship
-For treating the catty barbs as more than just wit, but also the symptoms of a bruised soul
Natalie Portman, Jackie
-For a high-wire act of mimicry that leads into a piercing and complex description of grief
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
-For playing so much self-doubt, bravery, and mortal terror as indistinguishable facets of personality, and doing it in basically her first big-screen performance
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
A bottomless well of agony and suffering, tempered by almost nothing else. The result is arguably a little on the suffocating side, but I can hardly imagine a more perfect version of cinematic tragedy, in which human existence is a matter of boundless pain, looking for any possible way to escape itself.
1st Runner-Up: Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
The madcap clown is an easy part to overplay, so three cheers to Simonischek for having so much fun with his goofy part, while never making him seem like anything else than a concerned father. If there’s such a thing as subdued slapstick, here it is.
Misha Gomiashvili, The President
-For finding a sympathetic way into an unsympathetic monster, without attempting to apologise for him
Ralph Ineson, The Witch
-For finding a sympathetic way into a sympathetic monster, letting us see the fear inside an authoritarian
Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Dheepan
-For grounding the film’s florid developments with his steady, serious face, despite being a novelist who doesn’t act
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis, Fences
Making the best use of all her experience with one of the great roles in American theater, Davis’s role as a suffering wife and mother works in all directions, as support for her co-stars, and as a full depiction of Rose’s awareness of what she has given up along the way. Heartbreaking and enormously full.
1st Runner-Up: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
In just one showstopper scene, she meets her co-star’s overwhelming sadness and deepens it, challenges it, and presents an entire film’s worth of wants and losses.
Cate Blanchett, Knight of Cups
-For bringing such humanity to a film that doesn’t ask for it, and giving it just enough warmth to become something truly special
Kate Dickie, The Witch
-For letting us peer into the mind of a woman frozen in terror, letting us see the currents below
Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake
-For bringing great specificity to a stock role, fire and humilation and dignity all jumbling together
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!
A perfect star-is-born moment inside a parody of exactly such a cliché. Few actors have ever demonstrated such an intuitive connection to the Coen’s strange characters, situations, and dialogues, and he does it all while injecting a substantial amount of straightforward feeling into his character.
1st Runner-Up: Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
An exaggeration of Boomer mortality and ego and sensuality, done without a lick of self-consciousness or restraint. One of the highlights of this actor’s recent upswing, and a standout even in a cast that includes Tilda Swinton.
Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
-For demonstrating how much layering can go into a charming idiot role
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
-For being pricklier, more nervous than the part seems to indicate, and almost taking the film as his own
Trevonte Rhodes, Moonlight
-For the quietest and most feeling-intense third of the film’s divided protagonist, communicating all in silences and stares
Presenting a generational evolution of one character and the people in his sphere of influence, the extraordinary ensemble is tasked with keeping a sense of continuity while letting us see things change, and they had to do it with hardly any time to prepare. Special praise for three actors playing the main character, nuanced versions of each other made without any interaction between the stars.
1st Runner-Up: American Honey
A cluster of figures dancing at the edge of a cliff, blithely ignoring the danger. The mixture of first-timers and actors are all in perfect sync, creating a community that’s defined by both mutual affection and a throughline of viciousness.
-For slickly falling in line with one of the most rhythmically unusual Coen films ever
-For embodying the broken, clipped inhumanity of the film’s vision
Love & Friendship
-For finding every different way to luxuriate in the script’s words, and for making these ossified types seem like livign people
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Lobster, by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Magical realism at its best: a ludicrous concept played without an ounce of irony. The central questions it asks about how we move through the world and what value we place on romance are interesting, but not as interesting as the impeccable command of comic tone.
1st Runner-Up: Toni Erdmann, by Maren Ade
Full of whip-smart observations on society, and the ways that people are battered by it, as well as being a sweet and sour family drama. Smart and funny and surprisingly emotional.
Hail, Caesar!, by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
-For marrying whip-smart inside humor with the year’s best treatise on Catholic guilt
Kubo and the Two Strings, by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler and Sharon Tindle
-For being the best story about storytelling in a very long time
Neruda, by Guillermo Calderón
-For its unforced, unstressed meta-narrative game, exploring the conventions of both its genres with with snazzy wit
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman
Maybe the finest screenplay ever derived from Jane Austen, with snappy dialogue, well-built characters, and a sturdier plot arc than is present in the material. Certainly 2016’s most literary film, but not to its detriment as a piece of cinema. Also possesses, pound for pound, the best one-liners of the year.
1st Runner-Up: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, by Taika Waititi
A terrific character study hiding just inside a terrific children’s adventure story. Written with an incredible amount of love and sympathy for its characters and their world.
Elle, by David Birke (trans. Harold Manning)
-For finding a way around the bomb in the center of the story, and for alluring opacity
Embrace of the Serpent, by Ciro Guerra
-For making a complicated, busy structure seem as natural as breathing
The Handmaiden, by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung
-For continually surprising, while always seeming inevitably derived from charater
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE not cited under Best Feature
A melange of history, fiction, documentary, drama, Europe, Russia, all swirled into a stream-of-consciousness discursion into the ways that museums shape our sense of the past, both as a curated experience and a necessarily curtailed one. Pretentious as all hell, but is that not part of the appeal of foreign-language cinea?
1st Runner-Up: Neruda
A work of national history, a biopic, a genre study, an acting showcase, a thriller. There’s not much that the film can’t or won’t do, and all if it is done superlatively well. One of the year’s great low-key surprises.
-For marrying incompatible genres and topping them all with a human bow
-For provoking with intent, and for making way for a great character study
Embrace of the Serpent
-For telling a crackling yarn while also providing an earnest political discussion
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Red Turtle
A film that could only have been made on computers, but which evokes the textures and fussiness of hand-drawn art. It’s the perfect hybrid form in an era when attempts to recapture something pre-digital using digital tools have grown ever more sophisticated.
April and the Extraordinary World
-For the graphic novel extravagance of that world – “extraordinary” indeed
Kubo and the Two Strings
-For blurring media to achieve the best possible combination of colors, shapes, textures, and spaces for this story
A terrific diagnostic piece on the nature of film footage: how it lies and can be manipulated versus how it must tell the truth, how it can be subjective or objective based on the application. Every film’s dog-ends and leftovers should be recycled to such splendid effect.
1st Runner-Up: Francofonia
A history of the Louvre that, for all its excessive flourishes, still gets that job done with impressive clarity and intellectual care. It’s one of the great films about a museuem you’ll ever see.
-For the intense passion and purpose of the year’s most politically galvanising doc
No Home Movie
-For the frankess and fearlessness of its self-diagnosis, and for providing a great filmmaker with a mournful swan song
Portrait of a Garden
-For capturing mood, place, and the rhythm of nature in a deeply pleasing mix
The Eyes of My Mother (Zach Kuperstein)
Silky, inky black-and-white photography, easily the most beautiful and astonishing example of that form in I don’t know how long. The film’s morbid nightmare landscapes are well-served by Kuperstein’s striking contrasts and surfaces. Painfully gorgeous to go along with it brutality.
1st Runner-Up: Knight of Cups (Emmanuel Lubezki)
You had me at the poetic, abstract use of Go-Pro cameras, Mr. Lubezki. Everything else is a lot of the typical Malick-Lubezki stuff, though the urban setting gives it a particular new edge.
Embrace of the Serpent (David Gallego)
-For the dreamy crispness of its black and white imagery
Jackie (Stéphane Fontaine)
-For unnerving shot scales, hazy color palettes, and a perfect sense of winter coming
The Neon Demon (Natasha Braier)
-For being as brazen and hard and colorful as a film with “neon” in the title demands
The Wailing (Kim Sun-min)
The cross-cut scene of two relgious rituals, one sacred and one profane, pretty much sealed this. But the whole film is an exemplar of using snug cutting to generate tension, but also for how to explore character in more subdued, domestic scenes. Plus, it’s paced beautifully well for something so damn long.
1st Runner-Up: Eye in the Sky (Megan Gill)
Endless scenes of people discussing what to do while not getting around to doing it: here, it is the stuff unbearably tense thriller filmmaking, and that’s almost entirely down to the laser-focused cutting.
Elle (Job ter Burg)
-For accentuating the ragged ends of the script, for dancing around the lead, and for that shocking opening
Neruda (Hervé Schneid)
-For its complicated play with subjectivities, making Pablo Neruda’s relationship to the world around him constantly fluctuate.
The Shallows (Joel Negron)
-For giving us exactly what we need, exactly when we need it, and wringing every last jump from the by-the-books scares
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
High-Rise (Mark Tildesley)
A film about how a building drives people to insane extremes of behavior had damned well better make sure that building can live up to its task, and Brutalist flourishes on display here make for the most distinctive, memorable, and yes, genuinely horrifying film set of the year.
1st Runner-Up: Zootopia (David Goetz, Dan Cooper)
An endlessly creative spilling-out of ideas, each more goofy and charming than the last, for how human urban spaces might be reconceived by animals. Brilliant fancy.
Green Room (Ryan Warren Smith)
-For realist precision in the smallest details, but also for creating a maze of hallways for when the killing starts
The Handmaiden (Ryu Seong-hie)
-For making opulence and depravity look indistinguishable, in a world defined by surfaces
Knight of Cups (Jack Fisk)
-For making contemporary Los Angeles look like a series of mechanistic picture boxes
The Handmaiden (Jo Sang-gyeon)
A mixture of English and Korean influences funnel into the year’s most distinctive, lavish, flat-out beautiful clothing. As a side benefit, they also provide a keen window in the lives and personalities of the characters wearing them. “Best of the year” nothing, this is in the running for best costuming of the decade.
1st Runner-Up: The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
The most noticeable example of the film’s fussy artisinal aesthetic, the costumes not only serve the parodic needs of the film, but also provide much of its baseline of color and mood.
Hail, Caesar! (Mary Zophres)
-For playing around with our idea of classical Hollywood glamor, indulging and slightly ridiculing it
La La Land (Mary Zophres)
-For color-coding according to mood and rhythm, rather than plot; for just being so damn colorful in general
The Witch (Linda Muir)
-For making the stiff clothes of the 17th Century feel like something everyday people wore every day
BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
The Neon Demon
Fashion models with elaborate hair & makeup is a gimme, but the real genius isn’t just the stylistic extravagance per se, but the ways in which its warped and perverted into ugliness and misery by the film as it turns more and more towards horror. So much fake blood. So much (fake) real blood.
1st Runner-Up: Jackie
Jacqueline Kennedy was a most distinctive-looking woman, and failing to perfectly capture her signature appearance would have ruined the film; more than just verisimilitude, though, this gives Natalie Portman another key tool in her character-building.
-For letting every bit of dirt and sweat tell a full story about these characters’ lives
-For making people look like live-action cartoons, while never announcing that it’s doing so
The Love Witch
For capturing the smeary softness of the genre it apes, while still feeling like it reveals character
The Neon Demon (Cliff Martinez)
Nightmare electronica, but much subtler than anything I just implied. The drawn-out humming of the music leaves a sense of disquiet and dislocated horror hovering over the entire film like a shroud, and the result is rather more felt than heard, in the best possible way. A career highlight for the always-great Martinez.
1st Runner-Up: Kubo and the Two Strings (Dario Marianelli)
There is the expected Japanese-influenced instrumentation, but the influx of Western melodic styles leaves something unclassifiable, except in that it is perfect for a film in which music drives the very plot.
Jackie (Mica Levi)
-For being emotionally expressive without giving away any modernist edge
La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
-For a sweeping romanticism, and a well-applied series of motives
The Red Turtle (Laurent Perez del Mar)
-For being soothing and relaxing and providing just the right backdrop for this grown-up bedtime story
BEST SOUND MIXING
Michael Bay movies may be good for almost nothing, but that “almost” leaves just a smidgen of room for massive displays of military firepower, and his first straight-up combat movie does not disappoint in that respect: the bullet-ridden chaos that rises and falls in unsteady rhythms makes for a substantially involving action film, if it does little else.
1st Runner-Up: Eye in the Sky
The mixture of multiple spaces, all of them operating at different levels of intensity, allows for considerable tension to arise just from the jarring aural contrasts.
-For accentuating the thin walls, echoing spaces, and keeping us aware at all times of the nearness of the threat
-For, well, the silences, applied with great thoughtfulness and an ear towards greatest impact
-For the nerve-wracking combination of stillness and violence
BEST SOUND EDITING
No need to be complicated about it: the plane crash. Every clank, thump, muffled thud, whining engine, and metallic scrape filled me with an incredible sense of dread. Sometimes, it really just does take one showpiece scene to stand out.
1st Runner-Up: 13 Hours
The crisp clarity of some gunshots, contrasted with the muffled roar of others; the thinness of the air; every sound here is designed to drop us into the middle of that combat space, and it succeeds.
-For externalising an unknowable internal process in vigorous audio assaults
Kubo and the Two Strings
-For creating a plausible fantasy world made up of fur, paper, ghostly flesh, and instruments, all interacting
-For capturing something particular about the way travels through wood, through trees, through night air
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The Jungle Book
The creation of an entire alternate photorealistic world, all inside of computers, could hardly to else than to be judged the finest achievement of this or many other years. I question whether the animals have the soulfulness they need to succeed as characters, but they sure as hell triumph as animals, and there’s a lot more besides them. Looks heavenly in 3-D.
1st Runner-Up: Deepwater Horizon
Those blossoming infernos, reaching up to the heavens; the spindly metal skeleton of the rig, both before and after it enters its death spasms. This is destruction porn of the old school, and I am here for it.
-For being the first Marvel movie to finally nail the extreme colors, shapes, and spaces of a comic book
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
-For re-creating one of the most important models in SFX history as a detailed, plausible CGI location
-For making its mo-cap Orcs more plausible and relatable than its live-action humans