2016 Highlights: Bert Rebhandl

The Revenant to Toni Erdmann to Elle: a look back at the year's best films

A press screening of The Revenant on 4 January proved a fine start to the film calendar of 2016. The way Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu dealt with tropes of the Western genre (blowing them up way too big for human stories to cope) also figured as a good lead for one of the leitmotifs of the year: the most interesting films were crossovers. The Revenant was an attempt to let the Western (a genre traditionally telling stories about the domestication wilderness of all kinds) be larger than life again – the beginnings of culture establishing itself in the New World, as told to an IMAX audience. González Iñárritu has made his way from highbrow arthouse movies, like his 2006 Babel, into the Hollywood system at a moment when Hollywood has finally stopped being anything like a place, instead merely a denominator for labyrinthe international investment.

The Coen Brothers, famously independent throughout most of their career, made one the best (and funniest) movies of the year, Hail, Caesar!, about the other, older Hollywood: the one we used to associate with a star review system, with movie moguls, with fabricated glamour and gossip. The work of a ‘fixer’, who cleans up after scandals, gives them a brillant opportunity to look into the mechanics of that ‘golden era’ of the studio system. It is also a farewell from afar, a take on an industry from the point of view of auteurs, by means of gently ridiculing those greatest stories ever told – Hollywood motion pictures.

Hail, Caesar!, 2016, dir. The Coen Brothers. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Hail, Caesar!, 2016, dir. The Coen Brothers. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Hail, Caesar!, 2016, dir. The Coen Brothers. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

World cinema has always oscillated between radical individualism and a perpetual longing for structure. Rare are the examples, when artists like Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany or Pedro Almodóvar in Spain, have been able to transcend their own careers and establish something like a mode of production that might potentially be viable for mainstream audiences. The career of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven fits a similar mould, having started out in the liberal Netherlands in the early 1970s, and then going on to make a few of the most titillating Hollywood movies of all time (Basic Instinct [1992], Showgirls [1995], Starship Troopers [1997]). Now back in Europe, his commercial instincts still intact, it seems he’s prepared to test the limits of any system.

Elle (due to be released in March 2017 in the UK) is a slap in the face of cultivated arthouse audiences; it is the marvellous Isabelle Huppert in the film who bears a similar violence. Huppert (Elle) is something akin to an advanced ideal of a contemporary woman: she runs a computer game start-up, leads a picture-book bourgeois lifestyle, and deals with the consequences of sexual assault with a shocking, almost perverse, calmness. With the unofficial trilogy of the recent Valley of Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’avenir (Things to Come – a great film in itself) and Elle, Isabelle Huppert has emerged as quite simply the greatest actress on the planet. Feminists of all sexes will need years to come to terms with her nonchalance, her unwillingness to be victimized, her rationality in the face of evil and petty treason.

Elle, 2016, dir. Paul Verhoeven. Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics

Elle, 2016, dir. Paul Verhoeven. Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics

Elle, 2016, dir. Paul Verhoeven. Courtesy: Sony Pictures Classics

The screen persona that Huppert has come to distribute so consistently through her characters, from the early Coup de Torchon (1981) to the radical vision of Elle, may have been of interest to German actress Sandra Hüller, who stars in another film of the year, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. The film tells the story of a female consultant working in Bucharest, trying to orchestrate a career (laying off Romanian workers) while being haunted by her estranged clownish father, who pops up at the most impossible moments. The wild two-and-a-half hour journey of Toni Erdmann is also a crossover: a fairly orthodox auteur movie bookending an almost classical comedy (or farce). One important aspect to the success of Toni Erdmann is a result of how it was made: the fulfillment of every auteur’s dream to be their own producer. Produced by Komplizen Film, the Berlin-based company is quietly becoming a small powerhouse of European cinema, with connections stretching in all directions (Miguel Gomes in Portugal, Radu Jude in Romania). It will always be too small to create its own distinct movement, and deliberately so. But Ade has shown to have an understanding, however implict, of what may be a possible type of movies of the future: half arthouse, half industry, half exploration, half entertainment, half field-trip, half karaoke. Many unequal halves made for audacious crossovers this year.

Lead image: The Revenant, 2016, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.

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