It’s that time of year again, when critics struggle valiantly to put together lists of the best films released in the preceding year. Show the rest of this post…
My own list comes with the usual caveat that, as a part-time critic, there are a lot of films I haven’t seen. I still haven’t caught up with critical darlings such as Room, Son of Saul and Spotlight, and am sad to say that I’m yet to see, among others, Embrace of the Serpent, Hell or High Water and Julieta. There are also two Japanese animations – When Marnie Was There and Your Name – that are high on my list of must-sees.
But even without those titles, 2016 has been a strong year, and I was reminded, looking back, of how varied and unpredictable a year it has been. The list was difficult to assemble and I wrestled with some titles that, even now, I’m not quite sure deserve to be left out. The strength and variety of 2016 is summed up by the ‘honourable mentions’ list at the bottom of this article, which in itself represents a high-quality watch list of 2016.
The top 10 below, presented in alphabetical order, is comprised of the best 10 films I saw in 2016. Enjoy it, and be sure to catch up on these if you haven’t already.
A smart, touching sci-fi from Denis Villeneuve, who is currently on a strong run of form that bodes well for next year’s Blade Runner 2049. Amy Adams, who will appear again on this list, stars as a linguistics expert called in to help the US military communicate with a mysterious race of aliens who appear without warning or explanation, hovering in giant egg-shaped ships above the Earth. Jóhan Johansson’s eerie score – reminiscent of Mica Levi’s work on Under the Skin – and Villeneuve’s restrained direction combine with strong central performances for a sci-fi that is intriguing, thrilling and ultimately rewarding.
S Craig Zahler’s directorial debut is one of those films that surprises and entertains in equal measure. Considering it was Zahler’s first feature, it’s remarkable how Bone Tomahawk manages to shine on so many levels. It’s a gritty Western at heart, and a convincing one, but Mahler’s script is infused with playful black comedy that really hits home, artfully shifting the tone as we follow a posse, lead by Kurt Russell’s sheriff, through the desert on a mission to rescue kidnapped townsfolk from the terrifying Troglodytes – a tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals. The central performances are terrific; the action nerve racking; and there are moments of genuine horror that will shake you to the core.
The Hateful Eight
It’s been a good year for Kurt Russell. His second appearance on my list sees him playing another sheriff – this time John Ruth in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a taut Western over half of which takes place in a single room. Tarantino’s decision to shoot an enclosed location in super widescreen 70mm format initially raised a few eyebrows, but watching the film it makes complete sense. The haberdashery in which the action unfolds is shot in such a way as to make it feel like a landscape, a microcosm of the US, and a playground for the actors to spar with Tarantino’s crackling script. It may not be perfect, and like a lot of Tarantino’s work it does have moments of indulgence, but its a thrilling ride.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This offbeat coming-of-age comedy from Taika Waititi, in which juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is placed in the foster care of a new family and ends up lost in the woods with Hec (Sam Neill), was an unexpected gem in 2016. Newcomer Dennison’s performance is so good that Ricky Baker is sure to become a cult hero, and his chemistry with Neill’s grouchy Hec is a winning combo. The film has heart and laughs and, just when it begins to look like it might be running out of steam, Rhys Darby shows up in a hilarious cameo to help carry the film to its conclusion.
I, Daniel Blake
Treasured British director Ken Loach may now be 80, but I, Daniel Blake is charged with the same political fury that has powered much of Loach’s career. This Newcastle-set drama, which depicts a man’s struggle with the UK welfare state, is thoroughly convincing in its portrayal of stultifying bureaucracy, and will frustrate and charm in equal measure. Dave Johns is excellent in the title role, and opposite him Hayley Squires, as a young single mum trapped in the same system, is equally good. The film proved too polemical for some, but the lives it depicts ring true, and the relationships are entirely believable. Loach and his team did significant research for the film and most of what we see is founded in truth. An important work not to be ignored.
The Neon Demon
After the misstep that was Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn made a triumphant return this year with The Neon Demon, a twisted fairytale set in the fashion world of Los Angeles. Starring Elle Fanning as a beautiful young model who immediately makes an impact on the LA scene – and in doing so inspires jealousy in her older, more sculpted peers – The Neon Demon immediately establishes a brooding atmosphere and runs with it right up until the inevitable exploitation trappings of the final act. The cast are on great form, fitting beautifully into Refn’s hyperreal sensibilities, and the technical aspects are a delight; visually and sonically, the film is totally absorbing.
Tom Ford’s second feature came seven years after his first, but was very much worth the wait. This adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, in which a woman’s ex-husband sends her a manuscript of a novel he’s written depicting thinly-disguised versions of their younger selves, masterfully juxtaposes the present day with dramatisations of the novel itself. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent in the lead roles; the rest of the cast provides winning support; and Ford successfully blurs together time periods while holding the emotion core of the film intact, right up to the beautifully judged ending.
A beautifully reserved tonal piece by Jim Jarmusch starring an understated Adam Driver as Paterson, a poetry-writing bus driver living in the town that shares his name. We follow Paterson through seven days of his life, most of which is entirely ordinary and for the most part uneventful. The drama in Jarmusch’s touching film comes not from big statements but in the gentle depiction of a man’s thoughts as he goes through life. It’s a lovely film that captures something profound in the everyday.
Few films in 2016 made me as happy as John Carney’s Sing Street. I grinned practically all the way through it, shed a tear or two, and wished the projectionist would start it up again. Starring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor, a down-on-his-luck kid who starts a rock band to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton), the film is full of laughs, catchy tunes, touching teen romance and the odd splash of kitchen sink realism. Walsh-Peelo and Boynton are great, and their chemistry effortlessly ushers the film through its drama and musical sequences. A real treat.
Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to the much garlanded The Great Beauty didn’t receive quite the same level of critical acclaim, but Youth, which stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as 70-plus best friends staying at a luxury retreat in the Swiss Alps, has a strange and profound magic. It isn’t perfect and takes a while to settle down, but once it does, the impressive cast (including Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano) and Sorrentino’s magical storytelling blend into something truly memorable. The emotional conclusion is one of the most rousing sequences of the year.
Anomalisa, The Big Short, Captain America: Civil War, Green Room, Love and Friendship, Under the Shadow, The Witch, Zootropolis