Best Movies of 2016

I might be a bit late but here’s my top 20 best films of 2016:


  1. Paterson
  2. Toni Erdmann
  3. Fire at Sea
  4. Cemetery of Splendor
  5. Cameraperson
  6. The Death of Louis XIV
  7. Aquarius
  8. No Home Movie
  9. Sunset Song
  10. Everybody Wants Some!!
  11. Speaking is Difficult 
  12. Elle
  13. Certain Women
  14. Moonlight
  15. Don’t Think Twice
  16. Mountains May Depart
  17. Love and Friendship
  18. Sin Alas
  19. Cosmos
  20. Weiner-Dog

Homeward Bound

The 27th Dusty Film & Animation Festival



(Disclosure notice)

Before reading this, I must warn the reader about a few things: First, I graduated from SVA May of 2015 and due to my great sympathy towards SVA’s class of 2016, my ability to objectively look at the Dustys is tainted by my own bias. Second, I personally know all of the filmmakers I’ll mention in this piece, some of them are even my closest friends and I have nothing but admiration towards them. Lastly, I couldn’t see all of the films this year due to scheduling conflicts. However, I’m not here to promote these films, my commitment to an honest look at this year’s Dustys is my foremost priority. Hopefully, you’ll read this more as an insider’s look at SVA’s finest work in film this year rather than a strictly journalistic approach.

For the past 27 years, the School of Visual Arts has organized a film and animation festival showcasing their student’s thesis films required to complete SVA’s film and animation BFA program. After 4 years of short-filmmaking, PAing on professional sets, a scarce number of film history classes and a few overnight/nightmare shoots, the students are rewarded with the opportunity to screen their thesis project at the state-of-the-art SVA Theater in Chelsea. The 27th Dusty Film & Animation Festival lasted three days with a little over 100 shorts and a couple of feature length films screened one after another alternating between the theater’s two screening rooms. Such a large number of shorts are both overwhelming yet inevitably diverse. This year, diversity in culture, style and form was part of the festival’s strength. However, despite the cultural diversity, I found that thematic links bridged the films together and harmonized any national divergence between them. Many of the young filmmakers showed some very personal yearnings of returning home. Intricate sibling dynamics, loneliness and inter-family dramas graced the screens of the SVA Theater from May 7th to May 9th. Here are some of the films I saw this year.



The big opener was Aurora Alänge’s sincerely sweet Syskon (siblings). Shot entirely in Alänge’s hometown in Sweden, Alänge dishes out some personal and intimate ideas about brother-sister quarrels with gorgeously tidy cinematography courtesy of Brooklyn-based DP and frequent collaborator Anthony Carella. Yet Syskon is not just a pleasure to look at, it’s also blessed with an exhilarating soundtrack composed by the wonderful Victor Crusher (Alänge’s old friend). The soundtrack is smoothly integrated into the film’s sound design by SVA’s very own sound guru Sven Rethemeier. 

Syskon’s story is straightforward: a brother and sister in their mid-teens are left home alone while the unseen parents leave to solve some marital issues. The somewhat older brother spends his time playing guitar, hanging out with his friends and watching movies while his younger sister bonds with her recently acquired kitten. Even though they both coexist in the same house (often meeting in the bathroom while they brush their teeth as some sort of awkward daily check-in) and even though their age difference is not great, there’s an ocean of unsolved rivalry between them. His vexation with her presence is matched by her desire to bond with him. Perhaps a parallel of what the parents must be going thorough in trying to solve their relationship, the audience is left to see how the siblings resole theirs. And while Alänge is subtle in letting us know what goes on between them, she frames her actors straightforwardly allowing their riveting performances play out naturally on screen.

Mixing some darling animation, liberating slow-motion and aesthetically pleasing landscape shots of Sweden’s traditional Midsummer Festival, Alänge draws a lovely personal picture of her homeland. But behind Alänge’s gorgeous picture, issues between the siblings are left unsaid and the sister’s feeling of marginal isolation can be heartbreaking. The beautiful stark images that hide such loneliness are not unheard of in Swedish cinema (or is it perhaps a general Scandinavian thing? I can only assume).

But Alänge was not the only foreign-born filmmaker to go home at this year’s festival, Scottish Phillipa Fort and Trinidadian Maya Cozier both offer intimate looks at their homeland. Even though they’re drastically different films, both show familiarity and draw personal love letters to their respective native lands. While Cozier’s compelling Short Drop constructs a simple story about a lonely old man who is mistaken for a cab driver while driving around the bustling streets of Port of Spain. Hesitant at first, he takes the passenger along with variety of wonderfully thought-out characters during the course of a day. Cozier’s story is strong and minimal and DP Jackson W. Lewis’ cinematography is brutally honest. Lewis photographs the car scenes directly, not aspiring pretension just focusing on what’s in front allowing the characters to exist naturally. Fort, on the other hand, turns the camera onto herself in a montage of home movie footage, stop-motion animation and poetic imagery. Fort’s film is calculated and wonderfully edited. It owes it’s precision to stylish and heavily operated imagery (shot by the versatile filmmaker/cinematographer Alex Echevarria) and it owes its free dream-like meditation to almost perfect editing (courtesy of the multi-talented Miwa Sakulrat)



A highlight of the Dusty Film and Animation festival is Tomasa. Argentinean filmmaker Juana Hodari also goes back home for her feature debut Tomasa, a beautiful documentary that focuses on a family of women of Scottish decent that own an estate in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Hodari shows how these women work their inherited land in a world that had/is been commonly populated by men. Tomasa is just as much a riveting documentary of agricultural politics as it is a family drama. The film captures brutally intimate moments between these women, gliding between grand-scale themes of animal rights, the effects of capitalism on farming and the more underlying complexity of family dynamics. Because of this, the film can often be emotionally overwhelming.

The way Hodari frames these women is striking—allowing the viewer such an intimate look into their private lives we feel we’re not supposed to be watching. But as we follow the sisters, we get to know them in a familiar and personal way through their daily activities and their cultured conversations about work, love life, family disputes and of course, their mother (the rightful matriarch whose character borders on the classical authority figure).



Speaking of family dynamics, the other highlight film at the festival is Justin Amorim’s Leviano, a film about three beautiful sisters, their mother and the men who love them. It sounds like a fairytale (that’s because it is). Similar to Tomasa’s sisters, the Leviano girls are bourgeois. But contrary to the vintage hard-working women in Tomasa, Leviano’s  sisters  exist in a modern material fantasy.

Leviano benefited greatly from its screening at the 18×34 foot screen in the Silas Theater. The Portuguese-Canadian filmmaker’s succulent feature debut is a sexy thrill ride. But Leviano is more than just a visual feast, Amorim’s lush imagery subtly conceals the great complexity of a proper high-class family dysfunction as well as a tragic secret. Along with DP Edward Herrera, Amorim frames beautiful bodies in a world where everything is saturated with color, sex and kitsch materialism leaving the audience to piece together the puzzle that is this family. Playing off the troupes of the upper-class melodrama, Amorim sets his feature in the southern Portuguese region of Algarve somewhere in the mid-90s but what’s truly unique about Leviano is that Amorim is not at all interested in representing either historical accuracy or realistic verisimilitude, but rather to create a timeless world that exists solely in both Amorim’s imagination and the audience’s fantasy.


Awful Dreams

Last but undoubtably not least, the very last film I saw at the festival is the trance-inducing Awful Dreams by São Paulo-born filmmaker Francisco Fontes.  Fontes’ awe-filled film is located somewhere in upstate New York where a lonely older woman lives in a house. The woman lives a simple life. Her days consist of reading, watching Swedish films and cooking. The woman is played by Fontes’ mother who offers a captivating presence. The woman’s solitude is disrupted by a winged traveler (embodied by Fontes himself). Even though they are never seen together, their presence are mutually felt. 

Fontes frames his mom meticulously doing house chores (she chops some apples, cooks rice and beans) in a way that would make the late great Chantal Akerman proud. But it’s really fellow Portuguese-speaker Miguel Gomes’ Tabu that’s influenced Fontes with its bleak black and white, contemplating pace and just the right amount of biblical allegory. 

For some people, going home can be an emotionally hard thing to do. But the stakes are higher when you go back home with a full crew, a proper budget and a personal screenplay. The films I saw at the 27th Dusty Film & Animation Festival were all in some way or another, about returning to a uncomfortably familiar place. They all explored the pains and anxieties of growing older and leaving your childhood behind. And the films, just like the filmmakers themselves, return to that comfort/discomfort revealing those pains and anxieties in the most remarkable way. 

(I wish the best of luck to those filmmakers mentioned in this piece and congratulations to the class of 2016 for their achievements.)

The Imaginary Conversations

Where I’d Like to Take Some of My Favorite Filmmakers Out in New York

As he usually does, my father flew from Barcelona to check in on me a couple of years ago. I’ve been living in New York since 2010— he came in May of 2012 during the end of my sophomore year at the School of Visual Arts. My dad was familiar with the city since he’d lived in New York sometime in the mid-80s when he was in his 20s and has since developed a nostalgia for lower Manhattan, always insisting we tour Soho, TriBeCa and Bowery looking for a New York that no longer exists. Even though I seldom wander these now lavish neighborhoods by myself, I enjoy my dad’s remembrances of a time where junkies, artists and yuppies inhabited the area long before it became the East Coast version of Beverly Hills that it is today. Since I couldn’t accommodate him (nor would he want to) in my micro-apartment in Brooklyn, he decided to rent an apartment on Franklin and Church St for about a week.

As every college student knows, one of the perks of having one of your parents visit is eating for free. In one of our dinners, after feasting on steak frites at The Dutch, we went for one of our digestive walks and began talking about cinema and food. The conversation then turned from “What filmmaker would you have dinner with?” to “Where would you take your favorite filmmakers?”. After naming a few examples, the game increasingly became more specific, we asked each other, “Does it have to be food?”, “Does the filmmaker have to be alive?”. We added some rules to make it more stimulating. We decided that the filmmaker has to be alive and the place needs to be in New York City but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a meal. We made a list of examples, argued our reasons and laughed over it. For whatever reasons, the conversation became fixed in my memory as one of the best times I’ve intimately shared with my dad. Eventually, I wrote about this in a previous post in this blog. The thought came back to me recently and I decided to recover this conversation and reopen the list. Perhaps because I was nostalgic about that particular conversation with my dad as I remember it as a good father-son moment. But more likely because it’s fun to imagine silly things like that.

Here are the new rules of the game:

  1. The filmmaker has to be alive.
  2. The “dinner” doesn’t have to be centered on food.
  3. The “dinner” should have nothing to do with the nationality of the filmmaker or their movies, it should relate to their character and artistic sensibility.
  4. The intention of this imaginary “dinner” is to have an in depth conversation about anything you want while enjoying food and/or drinks.
  5. The place must be in New York City.

Here’s my list:


Pierogis with David Lynch at Veselka’s in the East Village.


Baked goods and a lemonade with Todd Haynes at the backyard of Bakeri Brooklyn in Williamsburg.


Sushi and sake with Apichatpong Weerasethakul at Momo Sushi Shack in Bushwick.


Cheap beer and a brawl with Werner Herzog at the Sly Fox in the East Village.


A sour or dry gin-based cocktail with Alex Ross Perry at The Narrows in Bushwick.


Live music and party with the Duplass brothers at Our Wicked Lady in Bushwick.


Cortados and a shave at Parlor Cofee in the back of Persons of Interest Barbershop with Abbas Kiarostami in Williamsburg.


Grilled cactus and enchiladas with Gabriel Mascaro at Mesa Coyoacan in East Williamsburg.


A glass of Merlot and a cheese platter with Jia Zhangke at Tuffet in East Williamsburg.


A 4-course tasting menu with Whit Stillman at Le Bernadin in the Theater District.


Party all night with Leos Carax at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg.


Tapas and wine with Jane Campion at El Born in Greenpoint.


A reuben sandwich with Woody Allen at Eisenberg’s Sandwitch Shop near the Flatiron.


Oysters with Noah Baumbach at Marlow and Sons in Williamsburg.


Drinks and a poetry slam with Olivier Assayas at Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village.


Beer, Jazz and a game of foosball with Michel Gondry at Fat Cat in the West Village.


A ham and cheese sandwich with Claire Denis at Campbell Cheese and Grocery in East Williamsburg.

A Brief Look at Neon Bull


One of the most exciting things about Brazil’s versatile and colorful culture is how art, sport, dance, music and other disciplines seem to all melt together in the most electrifying fashion. This is what visual artist and filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro’s Boi Neon (Neon Bull) so accurately captures in his follow-up to the beautiful and meditative Ventos de Agosto (August Winds). Mascaro’s latest drama uncovers sexuality in all its bluntness in unexpected places.

The film takes place in rural Brazil, where handsome, working-class Iremar works at the local vaquejada, (Brazil’s own version of a rodeo) where ‘cowboys’ overpower bulls by pulling their tails, making them collapse. While it might be a bit hard to watch how the men treat these animals, there’s a strong connection between these two species blurring the lines between animal and human. Iremar is in charge of sanding the bull’s tails but in his free time, he dreams of designing exotic clothes for women. His muse is Galega, an exotic dancer and a single mom who along with her daughter, Cacá, lives near the ranch where Iremar works.


While the film’s visually lush and subtle photography is one of its most satisfying feats, the film also places importance on other sensory responses such as scent. Taboos like excrement and semen are not concealed but rather celebrated as natural elements in a world where beauty and tenderness emerge unannounced. As sensual as it may be, sex is never exploited or glamorized in Neon Bull, but is instead portrayed candidly and naturally. For Iremar however, the body is not sexually desired—he sees it more as his canvas. This is particularly obvious in a scene where Iremar picks up his co-worker’s porn magazine to draw designs on the nude models. That is not to say that Iremar’s sexuality is ignored in the film—in one of the most extraordinarily beautiful scenes, he has sex with a pregnant perfume saleswoman in a garment factory (a perfect combination of circumstances for Iremar). Mascaro explicitly portrays the two prominent female characters as mothers, exploring their sexuality in tandem with their maternal roles—something that is often overlooked or avoided in our culture.

As low-key as the narrative might seem, Neon Bull manages to bewilder us by democratizing sex and beauty, providing the opportunity for the audience to place its perspective in someone like Iremar. In the film, all that is both tasteless and luscious harmoniously contradicts each other and converge at the same time, corresponding perhaps to Brazil’s strongest and most powerful cultural trait.

Now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. A Kino Lorber release.

The Case Against Iñarritu


The Revenant

On the occasion of tonight’s Academy Awards Ceremony and seeing that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest: The Revenant is expected to take away a substantial amount of wins in major categories including the Best Picture award (this would be his second consecutive win), I’d like to just take a moment to further understand how a filmmaker like Iñarritu managed to position himself at the very top of Hollywood’s hierarchy.

There’s little dispute that the Mexican-born director is a skillful and competent filmmaker. I remember distinctly discovering his films at a young age before going to see Babel (06) at the movies. I was in that delicate period of my life where I was beginning to familiarize myself with the art of filmmaking and like every cinephile at that age, devoured movie after movie. I was slowly forming a critical perspective on movies and was developing a personal taste. Although I was only 13 at the time, Babel was still a hard film to swallow. The third installment of his devastating ‘Death Trilogy’ narrates four tragically interconnected stories in four separate countries drawing a geo-emotional map of ill-fated characters and a series of bizarre turn of events. After seeing several of his films, I was excited to discover a trend of heavy maximalist themes in his work. I took Iñarritu as a fresh voice in my then narrow understanding of cinema and it took some years to make up my mind about his films. Now, nearly a decade later, The Revenant is the talk of the town and I’m still not quite convinced. Even at that time, when Iñarritu was perhaps not the powerhouse Hollywood director he is now, Babel’s cast already included some significant Hollywood personalities including Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael García Bernal (whom Iñarritu had previously worked with in Amores Perros). It was due to this ‘trilogy’ that Iñarritu was allowed to enter Hollywood with full force, capitalizing on his momentum and establish himself as a director within the American movie industry.



Much of the talk surrounding The Revenant has concerned the film’s unusually harsh production. After years of planning and months of rehearsals, Iñarritu’s team began shooting on location in the Canadian wilderness attempting to capture the natural harshness of their environment. Much of the film’s promotional campaign is tied into that effort of achieving a certain level of authenticity. On one hand, the film mixes raw elements like natural light, extreme locations and performances that at times can be both physically and emotionally draining and at others, hyperbolic garble (Tom Hardy’s constant unintelligible mumbling and grunting particularly comes to mind). On the other hand, scenes where the ghost of Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character) wife appears floating on top of him might come across not just as fake but as stylistically out of place. Other CGI-heavy scenes include DiCaprio falling off a cliff with his computer-generated horse onto a digital tree which looks like it was pulled straight out a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Overall, the mixture of technically masterful camerawork with these artificial elements might sometimes cancel out that immersive experience the filmmakers were striving for. And the brutal authenticity that the film is notorious for gets lost on screen.

The Revenant’s virtuoso, DP Emmanuel Lubezki (aka “El Chivo”), who was a collaborator on Iñarritu’s previous Birdman (’14), is facing his potential third Oscar win in a row after winning Best Cinematography last year for Birdman and the year before for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (’13). His work in both The Revenant and Birdman is undoubtably impressive and often overwhelming. But like his work in Gravity, technical skill and visual effects are most of what his work is about. It’s the cinematography equivalent of acrobatics: incredible and impressive but often not very thought-provoking. Just like his previous film, this is perhaps The Revenant’s most prominent and consistent flaw. In a film that is so much about defying death and survival, instead of emotionally captivating, the effect can be desensitizing and plays more like show-off rather than an ambitious ‘Fitzcarraldo-esque’ fever dream.



As a director who is careful and calculated in constructing distress and is capable of portraying raw emotional violence, Iñarritu has made a long career out of it. For example, his 2010 exhausting melodrama Biutiful depicts the long, slow death of a single dad convincingly portrayed by Javier Bardem. Like most of his films, Biutiful offers compelling emotionally draining performances. At that particular time, Iñarritu was still emerging in today’s mainstream world where the international festival landscape unfairly accepts Latin American directors on the condition that the films must address misery, poverty or violence in their own countries. It seems like Iñarritu has found success in making films that manipulate us into feeling terrible. And even though most times he’s done so successfully, after a while it gets very boring.




“North Korea has always been above me” said Soon-Mi Yoo last Friday night while introducing her first feature film Songs From the North at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. The South Korean-born, U.S-based filmmaker and artist explained how the enigma of North Korea—not exactly the elephant in the room but still awkwardly present—has lingered around the back of South Korea’s mind for generations. Yoo grew up with unclear notions and a vague portrait of what the North really was. The seclusion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), its constant tension with South Korea and the cultural and economic sanctions and travel restrictions enforced by most of the world positioned the North at a distant and abstract territory  for Yoo. However, due to Yoo’s recent acquisition of a U.S. passport, she ironically had the freedom to fly to the DPRK on three different occasions to complete her film. But it was primarily the overwhelming amount of propaganda, misinformation and a sense of mystery that has not only distorted but reduced North Korea to a mere notion

Yoo’s brief introduction insightfully provided a fair amount of historical context on the political relationships between the two Koreas, past and present and their relationship with rest of the world, emphasizing the role of foreign intervention in the segregation of these two nations, the U.S.’s in particular. More than a historical inquiry about the subject of North Korea, the film plays as a poetic and lyrical examination of Yoo’s own thoughts on this subject. And more than a documentary, it is the careful selection of images of faces, bodies, landscapes, architectural spaces and spectacle that make Songs from the North just beautiful to look at, a well-crafted exploration both unique and subtly subversive.

Songs from the North plays as a very personal meditation. Yoo contrasts images of the Korean war, her own recoded footage, and Korean propaganda movies and some outrageous Korean television specials. The outcome becomes a clashing portrait of a society: their collective dreams of reunification, their nightmares, their government-injected hatred towards the U.S.—the disturbing shots at the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities is particularly disturbing in many ways—and of course their paternal worshiping of the Kim dynasty, whose cult of personality is approaching seventy years in a three-generation lineage.

If we read film as collective memory, or as a recording of collective conciousness, Songs from the North in a way recalls the opening sequence of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, but instead of dealing with the trauma of atomic annihilation, here Yoo deals with people’s trauma of a nation divided by a scarred political and metaphysical border. For many North Koreans, separation was an aggression inflicted by the U.S government. For them, post-war Germany was a cautionary tale and they dreamt of one day reuniting their divided nation.

Yoo’s curiosity about North Korea originates from her father’s own post-war experiences as a left-wing sympathizing student at Seoul National University. She interviews her father —he is the only person formally interviewed in the film—who unlike his Communist colleagues, didn’t migrate North.

After the film, Yoo came out again for a Q&A. A woman in the audience pointed out that there are no interviews with local Koreans and that the film still holds a very Western perspective. In any other case, this would be a valid point to make but I think the mistake was to see the film as a political documentary instead of more of a personal diary and reflection. The film’s strength lies precisely in that it doesn’t force a political assertion. But is it even possible to make a film about North Korea and not have some sort of a political statement? Or is Yoo just asking how should we even portray such a society? Questions still remain on how to deal with North Korea not just culturally or geopolitically— but artistically as well.

Godard says goodbye, we say hello


Godard has come a long way from his jazzy, upbeat and sexy Nouvelle Vague films. Now he amuses himself with today’s digital mediums and forms. Nonetheless, he continues to this day to flirt with left-wing politics and poetry.

Goodbye to Language is a spectacle of the most interestingly visual uses of 3D since Wim Wender’s “Pina” a couple of years ago. While Godard says goodbye, we say hello to what hopefully is the beginning of a legitimate and clever use of 3D in movies. I wonder if other filmmakers will follow Godard and Wender’s footsteps. Perhaps younger generations of filmmakers will begin to think of 3D differently. A use of 3D that is not just a box office gimmick or perhaps that is what Godard would call naive optimism. Maybe we should take the Godard attitude and be cynical.

In Goodbye to Language there is a dog, a woman and a man, all three of them are naked (except for the dog who “is not naked because he is always naked”). The images are arbitrary and beautiful. We see shots of a boat arriving on a deck, a dog doing dog stuff, a couple in a house where there seems to always be an old Hollywood movie playing in the background.

We begin the film with a quote “those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality”. We can read this as a commentary on cinema itself as a way of showing a truer truth than reality. Cinema is not one’s refuge from reality but perhaps reality is for those who can’t handle cinematic fiction.

The naked man empties out his bowels while he speaks of equality. The naked woman who is significantly younger than him stands in front of him as he does his business. They speak of equality: we are all naked and we all shit.

Godard uses 3D to show us images in one eye while showing us another image in our other eye. The juxtaposition of these images is perhaps what Godard has been trying to achieve even in his earlier films. I think of his less narrative films and more visual essay-like films, films like “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her”, “La Chinoise”, the more political films like “Tout Va Bien” and his recent “Film Socialisme” and “Histoire(s) du cinema”. These films all try in some way or another to combine images, juxtapose them, combining titles and words and essentially playing with them to try and create some political or poetic idea in our mind. And 3D seems to be a perfect form for this.

After watching Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” I immediately wondered why Godard hasn’t tried to do this sooner. I can’t imagine him going back to 2D now.