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150 of the Best Chinese-Language Films of All-Time

I’ve been doing some cataloguing lately, trying to organize my books and movies and make some kind of plan for how I’m going to attack the Chinese Cinema over the next year or so. Three and a half years ago, I started a chronological Johnnie To project that, by design, immediately ballooned into a comprehensive exploration of Chinese-language film. In that time, I’ve made it seven films into To’s career and 327 films into China in general. It’s increasingly absurd to consider it To-specific, and I’d love to rename it (I never liked the name anyway) but the prospect of renaming and tagging all those old posts is daunting. Anyway, I’m hoping to spend this year taking a long look at Shanghai cinema of the 1920s-40s (at least as much as is available) and Hong Kong films of the 1950s. As well I’d like to catch up with the rest of the films I haven’t seen from Filipe Furtado’s letterboxd list of Favorite Hong Kong Films, which has served as an essential guide for me since the Summer of Sammo. And as I was thinking about where to go next, I thought it might be useful to sum up where I’ve been, and so here’s a list of 150 great Chinese films. The list is ordered chronologically.

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This Week in Rankings

Since the last update I made several end of the year lists for 2016: of The Best Older Films I Saw, The Best Books I Read, and The Best Films of the Year (via conventional chronology), along with a collection of pictures I took of passages from books I read throughout the year. I also announced the nominees for this year’s Endy Awards and wrote about the first two of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China movies. Over at Seattle Screen Scene I wrote about Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, the Jackie Chan vehicle Railroad Tigers, Cheng Er’s The Wasted Times, and Derek Yee’s The Sword Master.

Also at SSS, we had the results of our annual year-end poll of local critics, programmers and directors, along with a fourpart roundtable discussion of the year in film among regular SSS contributors. I wrote about Oliver Stone’s JFK for Movie Mezzanine, contributed some Double Features to Mubi’s year-end collection, wrote about Toni Erdmann and Zhao Tao for InReview Online, voted in Movie Mezzanine’s end of the year poll and wrote about the Best Chinese Films of the Year and my Film Discoveries of 2016 for them. I also recapped the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival for Offscreen.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (Tsui Hark) – 5, 1980
When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner) – 8, 1989
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark) – 5, 1991
JFK (Oliver Stone) – 12, 1991
Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark) – 10, 1992

Once Upon a Time in China III (Tsui Hark) – 50, 1993
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondō) – 3, 1995
Resident Evil (Paul WS Anderson) – 18, 2002
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Alexander Witt) – 34, 2004
Resident Evil: Extinction (Russell Mulcahy) – 14, 2007

Missing (Tsui Hark) – 28, 2008
All About Women (Tsui Hark) – 32, 2008
Resident Evil: Afterlife (Paul WS Anderson) – 11, 2010
Wishful Drinking – 51, 2010
Resident Evil: Retribution (Paul WS Anderson) – 13, 2012

Pompeii (Paul WS Anderson) – 27, 2014
The LEGO Movie (Chris Miller & Phil Lord) – 63, 2014
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) – 59, 2015
A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino) – 108, 2015
Silence (Martin Scorsese) – 5, 2016

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) – 9, 2016
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul WS Anderson) – 14, 2016
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Karan Johar) – 19, 2016
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig) – 25, 2016
Tower (Keith Maitland) – 30, 2016

The Wasted Times (Cheng Er) – 31, 2016
Rogue One (Gareth Edwards) – 32, 2016
Train to Busan (Yeon Sangho) – 36, 2016
Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) – 38, 2016
Let Your Heart Be Light (Sophy Romvari) – 39, 2016
Split (M. Night Shyamalan) – 45, 2016

Garfunkel & Oates: Trying to be Special (Riki Lindhome & Jeremy Konner) – 65, 2016
The Wailing (Na Hongjin) – 67, 2016
🌲🌲🌲 (Various) – 76, 2016
13th (Ava DuVernay) – 82, 2016
Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng) – 85, 2016

Sword Master (Derek Yee) – 88, 2016
Allied (Robert Zemeckis) – 89, 2016
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) – 92, 2016
Sing (Garth Jennings) – 95, 2016
Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin) – 108, 2016

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2016 Endy Awards

These are the 2016 Endy Awards, wherein I pretend to give out maneki-neko statues to the best in that year in film. Awards for many other years can be found in the Rankings & Awards Index. Eligibility is determined by imdb date and by whether or not I’ve seen the movie in question. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order and the winners will be announced live on Oscar night. And the Endy goes to. . .

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Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark, 1992)

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“When we are young, we learn the myths. And we interpret them as we get older. After all, we see they are just myths.” – Lu Haodong

“Gods are useless. You must rely on yourself.” – Wong Fei-hung

“Vigorous when facing the beatings of ten thousand heavy waves
Ardent just like the rays of the red sun
Having courage like forged iron and bones as hard as refined steel
Having lofty aspirations and excellent foresight
I worked extremely hard, aspiring to be a strong and courageous man
In order to become a hero, One should strive to become stronger everyday
An ardent man shines brighter than the sun

Allowing the sky and sea to amass energy for me
To split heaven and part the earth, to fight for my aspirations
Watching the stature and grandure of jade-coloured waves
at the same time watching the vast jade-coloured sky, let our noble spirit soar

I am a man and I must strive to strengthen myself.
Walking in firm steps and standing upright let us all aspire to be a pillar of the society, and to be a hero
Using our hundredfold warmth, to bring forth a thousandfold brilliance
Be a hero
Being ardent and with strong courage
Shine brighter than the sun” – “A Man Should Strengthen Himself

In some quarters seen as superior to the first film, perhaps because of its tighter focus (only a few main characters, including a recognizable to the West historical figure in Sun Yat-sen), specific historical moment (set in September 1895 at the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion, as opposed to the vague late 19th century of the first film), and the presence of Donnie Yen (his second attempt at stardom, after supporting roles in a handful of films in the late 80s). I appreciate the grander sprawl of the first film, however.

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Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark, 1991)

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Tsui Hark is the John Ford of Chinese cinema, and Once Upon a Time in China is his Stagecoach. Not only does it redefine a genre on the cusp of its rebirth (in this case the period martial arts film, which had lain dormant through the late 80s much as the Western had been relegated to cheap serials through the 1930s), but it expresses a total historical vision entirely through archetypes, which are by turns deepened and confounded. Much has been made of the film’s nationalism, an apparent sharp turn from the more scathing works of Tsui’s New Wave films, but like Ford Tsui’s patriotism is more complex than it appears on the surface.

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A Top 50 Films of 2016, More or Less

As I did last year and the year before, I’m making a Best of the Year list following the conventional system for what counts as a 2016 film, mainly the nonsensical and ahistorical system that decrees that critics may only consider movies to have existed once they have played for a week in a commercial venue in New York City, or, in a new twist this year, on a television or streaming service in New York. This is the system that claims my favorite film of 2013 (La última película), which played for a week in Seattle in 2014, can only be considered a 2015 film because that is when it finally got a New York release, although it played Los Angeles for the first time in 2016. Not to mention the absurdity that my favorite film from 1991, Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, qualifies for this list, along with a 30 year old Edward Yang movie and an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie I saw in Vancouver in 2012. But alas, we all must bow to convention, however silly, every once in awhile.

My 2016 list of course will never be finalized, as there’s no such thing as a final list here at The End: there are always more new movies to discover and old movies to reevaluate. But in a couple of weeks I’ll have the nominations up for the 2016 Endy Awards, with the winners to be announced during the Academy Awards ceremony. This list is a snapshot of my favorites of 2016 as they stand now, on the last day of the year.

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1. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata)

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2. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

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3. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

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4. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

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5. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)

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6. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

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7. Lemonade (Beyoncé Knowles & Kahlil Joseph)

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8. Things to Come Mia Hansen-Løve)

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9. SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang)

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10. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

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11. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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12. Sully (Clint Eastwood)

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13. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)

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14. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)

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15. The Terrorizers (Edward Yang)

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16. Three (Johnnie To)

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17. Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)

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18. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo)

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19. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

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20. The Mermaid (Stephen Chow)

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21. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Karan Johar)

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22. The Age of Shadows (Kim Ji-woon)

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23. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

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24. The Thoughts that Once We Had (Thom Andersen)

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25. Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

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26. Hail, Caesar! (The Coen Brothers)

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27. Crosscurrent (Yang Chao)

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28. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)

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29. I Am Not Madame Bovary (Feng Xiaogang)

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30. The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra)

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31. Tower (Keith Maitland)

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32. Rogue One (Gareth Edwards)

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33. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)

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34. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

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35. Train to Busan (Yeon Sangho)

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36. OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

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37. De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)

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38. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

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39. Short Stay (Ted Fendt)

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40. Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

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41. The Witch (Robert Eggers)

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42. My Beloved Bodyguard (Sammo Hung)

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43. A Train Arrives at the Station (Thom Andersen)

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44. The Wasted Times (Cheng Er)

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45. One Night Only (Matt Wu)

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46. Indefinite Pitch (James Kienitz Wilkins)

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47. SoulMate (Derek Tsang)

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48. Call of Heroes (Benny Chan)

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49. Garfunkel and Oates: Trying to Be Special (Riki Lindhome & Jeremy Konner)

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50. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

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Books of 2016

2016 was the first time since I started writing about movies on the internet that I averaged less than one film watched per day, with somewhere around 320 movies seen over the course of the year. Some of that is schedule-related: my kids are at such an age that watching a single movie in one sitting is difficult, let alone the two or three per day I could squeeze in when they were less ambulatory. But some of that is also a shifting of priorities: I read (and finished) more books this year than I had in all my five plus years of parenthood put together. And since this is the end of the year, and since I love to make lists, here is a ranked list of all the books I read (and finished) in 2016:

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1. Where I Was From – Joan Didion

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2. Slouching Towards Bethlehem – Joan Didion

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3. A Death in the Family – James Agee

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4. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

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5. Annals of the Former World – John McPhee

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6. The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

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7. The Proud Tower – Barbara Tuchman

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8. Harmonium – Wallace Stevens

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9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

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10. Lyrical Ballads – William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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11. The White Album – Joan Didion

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12. White Teeth – Zadie Smith

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13. The Souls of Black Folk – WEB DuBois

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14. Eminent Victorians – Lytton Strachey

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15. A Collection of Essays – George Orwell

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16. Meditations in an Emergency – Frank O’Hara

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17. Lady Susan – Jane Austen

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18. Salvador – Joan Didion

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19. Justine – Lawrence Durrell

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20. Violet Energy Ingots – Hoa Nguyen

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21. Kora in Hell : Improvisations – William Carlos Williams

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22. 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed – Eric Cline

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23. Love & Friendship – Whit Stillman

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24. The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

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25. A Galaxy Not So Far Away – Glenn Kenny, et al