Picking a favourite film from an entire year is generally a tricky task. But this time around, the job was a relatively simple one thanks to Hungarian director László Nemes’s superlative debut feature, Son of Saul.
The film follows a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz desperately searching for the body of his dead son. With the camera trained close up on the haunted face of Saul – played beautifully by Géza Röhrig – for much of the running time, the horrors of the death camp surround him, and by extension the viewer, in an immersive and devastating way. It’s not a comfortable viewing experience, but it is an essential one.
Pablo Larraín’s The Club was equally, if not more, upsetting than Son of Saul. The Chilean is one of the finest directors working in cinema today and this one could be his best so far. A group of priests who are living together in a grim coastal town, having been ostracised by the Church, are forced to face up to their past sins when a deranged stranger arrives on their doorstep. Larraín conjures up a grey and morally ambiguous world, and the tale he tells is by turns odd, angry and compassionate.
A singular type of light relief was provided by Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion tragi-comedy about a motivational speaker stuck in a hellish hotel. It’s a work of quiet genius that manages to make loneliness and alienation seem very funny indeed.
Arrival continued the fine tradition of cerebral science fiction, bringing complex linguistic theory and profound observations about the human condition to its time-bending story of alien encounters.
The best documentary I saw was Weiner, which followed the politician Anthony Weiner’s disastrous attempt to become New York mayor in 2013. Two years earlier he resigned as congressman after revelations of lewd behaviour online. After assuring voters, and his wife Huma Abedin (a high-profile aide to Hillary Clinton), that he was a changed man, Weiner attempted to resurrect his career. It wasn’t long before his dodgy digital escapades were, ahem, exposed once again.
For some unfathomable reason, he and Abedin allowed the cameras to continue rolling throughout the whole débâcle, and the film that emerges is a jaw-dropping study of desperate political ambition and monstrous egomania.
Another documentary worthy of mention is One More Time With Feeling, which documented the making of Skeleton Tree, the latest album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. What began as a standard rock-doc shifted irrevocably when Cave’s young son died during the making of the record. The resulting film, shot in black and white, is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
As it’s Christmas, I should probably offer up a turkey for your delectation, and the biggest of the lot this year was undoubtedly the mega-budget new version of Ben-Hur. As many have suggested, a lot of bad things have happened in 2016: this idiotic film could be its nadir.
This article first appeared in the December 16 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here