The Best Video Essays of 2016

As with last year, we polled esteemed video essay creators, scholars, programmers, and devoted followers of the form to highlight the best video essays of the year. Each year it becomes more necessary to crowdsource this task, for in the words of notable video essayist David Verdeure / Filmscalpel, “It has become impossible to keep up with all video essays that are made, with the form proliferating in both academic and film fan circles.” These poll results might offer some help in sorting out the standouts of the genre. Videos mentioned most frequently in this poll are embedded below, along with the individual lists.

Luis Azevedo, Beyond the Frame
My favorite this year is Holy Motors: Man Without a Movie Camera by Kyle Kallgren (Brows Held High). It uses film analysis to reach interesting conclusions about the current state of cinema and media. It’s deeply researched. Stylistically, it’s very interesting, with a well-written and especially well-performed voice-over, and interesting editing. It was also conceived with a very deliberate “narrative arc,” making every piece fit to reach an overall conclusion.

Conor Bateman, Fandor
– Adaptation.’s Anomalies – Jason Mittell
– A Theory of Film Music – Dan Golding
Do Pay Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain – Mariska Graveland
– Elegy for a Lost Film – Dana Linssen, Jan Pieter Ekker and Menno Kooistra
Fear Freezes the Soul – Filmscalpel
Strange Adventures in Film Language – Tope Ogundare
The Thinking Machine: Death-Drive – Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
– Un/Contained: A Video Essay on Andrea Arnold’s 2009 Film Fish Tank  – Catherine Grant
Who Deserves the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture? – Kevin B. Lee
– Why Aliens Is the Mother of All Action Movies – Leigh Singer

Philip Brubaker, Fandor

– When Words Fail – Filmscalpel
– Cinematic Smiles – Jose Rico
– Martin Scorsese’s Close-Ups – Jose Luengo Ruiz
– 100 Years/100 Shots – Jacob T. Swinney
– Pasolini’s Eye Contact – Daniel McIlwraith
– Radiohead: The Secrets of Daydreaming – Rishi Kaneria
– 100 Faces of Isabelle Huppert – Candice Drouet
– Andrea Arnold’s Women in Landscapes – Jessica McGoff
– Emoji-ing the Century’s Best Films – Kevin B. Lee

Nelson Carvajal, video essayist
– Barbaric Poetry: Can We Really Film the Holocaust? – Leigh Singer
A diligent survey of Holocaust cinema, pondering whether a piece honors, exploits, or adds any value to the historical event, from the stance of film art.
– The Dark Knight — Creating the Ultimate Antagonist – Michael Tucker
As overwrought and over-saturated in the online-cinephile discussion as a film like The Dark Knight may be, this video’s effectiveness comes in its thorough commitment to the text of the script, and to the elements of what makes a narrative compelling.
– Hitchcock & De Palma Split Screen Bloodbath – Peet Gelderblom
A strong example of when a video essay becomes a wholly entertaining film in and of itself.
– Paul Verhoeven’s Mass Media – LJ Frezza
A smart meta-use of mass media’s depiction and interpretation in Verhoeven’s canon; “meta” in that it too is a depiction/ commentary on how we now ingest and digest social media videos: sometimes silent, with all the text/messaging literally spelled out to us on screen.
– The Unloved – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – Scout Tafoya
Tafoya’s poise as a voiceover narrator persists here; there is genuine empathy and affection that he conveys for these passion films; TWIN PEAKS is another potent title
– How Jason Bourne Changed Film Fighting – Kevin B. Lee
A terrific cross-section of a single scene’s anatomy; Lee continues to be a trailblazer in the video essay arena.

Andris and Monta Damburs, 35 MM: A Group for Cinephiles
1. Joel & Ethan Coen – Shot | Reverse Shot – Tony Zhou
2. How Does an Editor Think and Feel? – Tony Zhou
3. When Words Fail in Movies – Filmscalpel
4. The Revenant / A World Unseen – Eliot Rausch
5. References to 70-80’s Movies in Stranger Things – Ulysse Thevenon
6. Film Meets Art – Vugar Efendi
7. Everything is a Remix: The Force Awakens – Kirby Ferguson
8. Color Psychology – Lilly Mtz-Seara
9. Radiohead: The Secrets Of Daydreaming – Rishi Kaneria
10. The 25 Best Films of 2016: A Video Countdown – David Ehrlich

My list also does not necessarily compile the essays that provided the most enlightening insights (although all of these examples are works of astute observation). I’ve listed the video essays that, in my opinion, made exceptional use of the format and explored the potential of this audiovisual practice. These are models not so much for what the video essay should do, but for how it can do that. In no particular order, here are some video essays that stayed with me (and why they did).
– Fritz Lang – Guillermo Triguero
For the way, it uses fictional lies to reveal biographical untruths.
– A Theory of Film Music – Dan Golding
For starting up a truly audiovisual debate instead of reverting to words in this reply to the video essay The Marvel Symphonic Universe by Every Frame a Painting.
– The Maze of Susan Lowell – Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
For this way, it uses a typical cinematic form (the trailer) as a research strategy.
– Radiohead: The Secrets Of Daydreaming – Rishi Kaneria
For its unapologetic and egalitarian embrace of fan culture and fan theories, balancing extravagant over-interpretation with a soft-spoken nonassertiveness.
– Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine – Allison de Fren
For its sweeping use of the essay form, placing Ex Machina within a larger framework of film and art history, AI and computer science, and cultural critique.
– Which Way Did He Go? Lateral Character Movement in Film (Now You See It)
For the way, it translates an academic study (by Cleveland State University) into a resourceful and democratic audiovisual essay.
– Gestos do realismo – Margarida Leitão
For its evocative use of the side-by-side form: in this wistful edit two very different films subtly comment on each other.
– Los Olvidados / Lazarus – Catherine Grant
For the way, it connects cinematic art and pop culture, and for being an instantaneous, almost instinctive audiovisual response to Bowie’s death.
– Why Is Cinema – Cameron Carpenter
For his hilarious parodies of the video essay form, mocking everything from underresearched assertions to academic namedropping.

Daniel Clarkson Fisher, filmmaker, and video essayist
Wake Up: Spike Lee’s Vital ‘Chi-Raq'” – Passionate and personal in ways that are rare for video essays, this resplendently made specimen has really stayed with me. It was the first title I thought of.
– (TIE) Terrence Malick’s City Symphony by Conor Bateman & No More Parties in L.A.: The Modern City in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups by Jack Gracie and James Slaymaker
Two excellent, but stylistically opposing essays that take on a very rich subject in Malick’s singular view of Los Angeles in Knight of Cups.
Who Deserves the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture? – Kevin B. Lee
As someone who loves essay films, this was a favorite of mine from the past year. It’s also been really useful in explaining to my friends what essay films are. Wonderful job!
The Marvel Symphonic Universe – Tony Zhou
Of course.
The Radical Beauty of Tangerine – LJ Frezza
Tangerine gets the essay treatment it so richly deserves with this beautifully crafted video “on creating beauty from a position of marginalization and limited means.”
Carnival of Souls: The Art of Herk Harvey – Philip Brubaker
Short, sweet, and to the point, this essay is a testament to the deep and longstanding influence of a film that deserves way more recognition than it tends to get.
The Unloved – Knight of Cups – Scout Tafoya
Brilliantly articulated, convincingly argued defense of a film that…yeah, shouldn’t need defending.
Let Me In | The Films of Noah Baumbach – Fernando Andrés
Insightful, affecting supercut/tribute to the work of Baumbach.
Michael Clayton | The Tortured Path to Redemption – Must-See Films
A deep dive into an example of first-rate Hollywood storytelling, with special emphasis on the script and its translation to screen.
The Hateful Thing – KINO
A very simple but elegant little essay that underlines obvious (and less obvious) tributes to Carpenter’s The Thing in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

Chloé Galibert-Laîné, video essayist
– Right Now Then Wrong – Kevin B. Lee
– The Place of Voiceover in Academic Audiovisual Film and Television Criticism – Ian Garwood
– Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine – Allison de Fren
Reflections of HAL and Samantha – Tillman Ohm
The Marvel Symphonic Universe – Tony Zhou
Queer Godard – Cristina Alvarez López and Adrian Martin
– Rudy Giuliani Can’t Keep His Hands To Himself – Super Deluxe
– Poetry and Propaganda – Filmscalpel
– Fabrice Mathieu – Vador aux trousses

Ian Garwood, University of Glasgow
– Stereotowns by Miriam Ross – for its spectacular (in)sights
– Sound Unseen: The Acousmatic Jeanne Dielman by Filmscalpel – for its quotidian sounds
– Fembot in a Red Dress by Allison de Fren – for its critical dexterity
– Feminist Film or Exploitation? Takashi Miike’s Audition by Jessica McGoff – for its critical concision
– The Semantics of Adventureland’s Mixtape by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez – for its critical compilation
– A Homeless Ghost: The Moving Camera and Its Analogies by Patrick Keating – for its communication of historical research
– Right Now Then Wrong by Kevin B. Lee – for its combination of grounded film analysis and formal innovation
– Los Olvidados/Lazarus by Catherine Grant – for its effect
– Adaptation.’s Anomalies by Jason Mittell – for its ending

Catherine Grant, [in]Transition
It was a great year for the audiovisual essay. As co-editor of [in]Transition and as a curator of an audiovisual essay section at NECSUS, I was able to publish many, many video essays I loved. Leaving all of these aside, here’s a list of my favorite thirteen makers this year, and their best one or two videos (in my opinion):
1.     Cristina Alvarez López and Adrian Martin – Haunted Memory: The Cinema of Víctor Erice and Roman Polanski: A Cinema of Invasion
2.     Davide Rapp – The Elevator
3.     Louisa Stein – Lulu’s Descent
4.     Christian Keathley (on Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More) – What It Really Is and FOR VICTOR PERKINS (also on Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love)
5.     Alex Clayton – Spin the Wheel: For Victor (on Johnny Guitar)
6.     David Verdeure/Filmscalpel – Sound Unseen: The Acousmatic Jeanne Dielman and Regarding the Pain of Jeanne Dielman
7.     Kevin B. Lee – Kiarostami: The Anti-Supercut Artist and Right Now Then Wrong 
8.     Leigh Singer – Why Aliens Is the Mother of All Action Movies
9.     Jessica McGoff – Feminist Film or Exploitation? Takashi Miike’s Audition
10.  Drew Morton – 100 Years of Movies from Comics
11.  Petrick – The Revenant by Tarkovsky
12.  Joel Bocko – Black/White – Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl
13.  Melanie Kohnen Muder Husbands: Queerness, Violence & Cinematic History

H. Perry Horton, Film School Rejects
I watched literally hundreds of video essays, montages, mash-ups, compilations, and supercuts in 2016, and I feel this year the work turned personal for a lot of essayists, challenged as they were by external factors including copyright issues, an ever-crowding field, and the general cultural, social, and political climates.

As a result, we saw topical and touching essays like Candice Drouet’s Rainbow Flag of Film: A Tribute to LGBTQ Cinema and Nelson Carvajal’s Wake Up: Spike Lee’s Vital Chi-Raq.

Then there were the personalities, the distinct and erudite essayists who are presenting not only their ideas but also themselves as brands of cinematic expertise. Among these, the standouts were:
– Lewis Bond of Channel Criswell, whose essay Stanley Kubrick – The Cinematic Experience is the definitive on its subject.
– Michael Tucker of Lessons from the Screenplay, who comes at film from the page up in work like The Dark Knight – Creating the Ultimate Antagonist
– Luiza Liz of Art Regard, who offers a more aesthetic, artistic kind of insight through essays such as Roman Polanski and Intersubjectivity.

And no list is complete without a montage that appeals to our emotions and gets us all caught up in the power of filmmaking. For my money, the best of that subset this year was HBO: The Rise of TV as Film by Fernando Andres, which managed to chart the network’s decades-in-the-making ascent using clips from its illustrious history.

While I think it’s safe to say we’re no longer in the infancy phase of the video essay, it’s still very much a nascent form, which is exciting because that means it’s yet to be defined and still ripe for exploration. These are some of the folks and some of the work I think is leading the way.

Rishi Kaneria, Video essayist
Everything Is A Remix: The Force Awakens by Kirby Ferguson, for its pacing.
Composition In Storytelling by Channel Criswell, for its beauty.
The Marvel Symphonic Universe by Tony Zhou, for its insights. 
The Epidemic of Passable Movies by The Nerdwriter, for its wit.
Superman – The Golden Age Of Animation by Kaptain Kristian, for its style.
100 Years/100 Shots by Jacob T. Swinney, for teaching and inspiring without ever saying a word.

Jonathan Kiefer, Fandor
When Words Fail – Filmscalpel
How Pop Culture Ruined “Hallelujah” – Kevin B. Lee
12 Essential Women Cinematographers – Jacob Swinney
Cats Die Funny, Dogs Die Sad – Jacob Swinney
Male Love Through Female Eyes – Tope Ogundare
Queer Godard – Cristina Alvarez López and Adrian Martin
Barbaric Poetry: Can We Really Film the Holocaust? – Leigh Singer
Gestos do realismo – Mararida Leitão and The Revenant by Tarkovsky – Petrick
– Any given Cameron Carpenter video and any given Kentucker Audley video
– Radiohead: The Secrets of Daydreaming – Rishi Kaneria

Kevin B. Lee, Fandor
This year I had to manage the production of literally hundreds of video essays at a virtually inhuman rate of efficiency and optimization for social media. Perhaps for those reasons, my list of favorites share two significant qualities. Each in their own way addresses the issue of “programming”: How do film and media program us to see and behave in certain ways? (In this light, the video essay serves one of its most vital functions as “counter-programming.”) They also strike me as deeply invested works that reflect a lot of time and care spent by their makers, to the point that the effort on display becomes moving in itself. In both cases, it’s about how the video essay can redeem media from its dehumanizing tendencies, and get us back in touch with the human.

Debra Paget, for Example – Mark Rappaport
The leading veteran of video essays delivers once more with a deeply affecting investigation into the strange career and lasting legacy of a 1950s sex symbol.
– Elegy for a Lost Film – Dana Linssen, Jan Pieter Ekker and Menno Kooistra
The year’s best account of the contradictory nature of contemporary cinephile culture, with its promises of limitless accessibility, belied by imminent disappearances.
– Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine – Allison de Fren
Between this and “Fembot in a Red Dress,” no video essayist explores the uncanny valley of technology, humanity, and sexuality better than Allison de Fren.
Fritz Lang – Guillermo Triguero
A lie told by a great director is proven to be “true” through a lifetime of images he filmed. A fascinating reflection of the power of personal myth-making through words and images.
– Holy Motors: Man Without a Movie Camera – Kyle Kallgren (Brows Held High)
The best of what I call the “Filmsplaining” strain of video essays (you know, the ones where a dude talks at you for several minutes about how movies work), this one does a great job navigating the complex world of contemporary “post-cinema” in a manner both plain-spoken and profound.
– A Homeless Ghost: The Moving Camera and Its Analogies – Patrick Keating
An extraordinary example of how scholarship achieves poetry. Impressive, eye-opening historic research speaks through a vivid range of metaphors.
How Guns are Advertised  – Julian Palmer (The Discarded Image)
A brilliant critique of how the gun industry uses movie imagery to sell fear and self-confidence through weaponry.

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