Top 20 Films of 2016 (10-1)

(This list is based on UK release dates.)

To read my Top 20 Films of 2016 (20-11), click here.

10. THE WITCH

“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” And so begins The Witch, a film that from its very first few moments makes it clear how committed it is to portraying New England folktales of witchcraft in all its grotesque detail. The film uses these notions of evil magic as means to threaten a disgraced family cast into exile. After losing their youngest child, the madness and paranoia of the family escalates, leading to a crazed, unpredictable final act full of disturbing scenes. This is a film intended to be watched with one eye hidden behind the covers: there’s an unbearable sense of unease present throughout the film, created by the dulled palette of the cinematography, the droning score and  some magnificently creepy shots of animals. Accompanied by some magnificent portrayals of characters each complex, sympathetic and deranged, The Witch is 2016’s greatest horror film, a simmering exercise in losing control that’s packed with lasting imagery.

9. HIGH-RISE

One of the year’s most divisive films, High-Rise is an unapologetically blunt and brash satirical thriller, adapted from J.G.Ballard’s novella. Unsurprisingly, director Ben Wheatley is a perfect match for the material, crafting a dangerous and delirious film with the off-kilter mania he’s known for, and in turn producing his best work yet. The film uses a high-concept building as both its setting and its main character: it’s the symbol of progression into regression the film bases its sparse plot around. Within it, the screen is bloated with bold colours and flashy editing, a cacophony of noise and violence. Luke Evans’ Wilder embodies this spirit, giving a wild and menacing performance that has to go down as one of the year’s best. The film belongs to him, despite it following Hiddlestone’s Dr. Robert Laing instead, a more quietly dangerous figure without the sensibilities we would assume of him at first glance. As he and each other character loosens their grip on perception and judgement, the film tightens its grip on its audience, and we can only watch on, and, fascinatingly, enjoy the absence of morality put forth on screen. High-Rise is a film that deserves high praise.

8. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

It’s very difficult to pin down a genre for Nocturnal Animals. In one instance, it’s a satire, and then it’s a thriller, and then it’s a romance, and then it’s a western, and then… you get the idea. It’s an ever-changing, twisting film, laced with an unpredictable danger, with one key theme at its core: revenge. Amy Adams’ Susan is the target, and the delivery of a typescript to her from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a damning review of Susan’s actions disguised as an irresistible gift. The film then digresses into a wonderful tonal boiling pot of guns and decor, shaped exactly as you’d expect from a fashion designer-turned director, Tom Ford. It’s an uneasy and treacherous traversal through the mind of a man who feels betrayed, his emotions discerned through powerful imagery and unmissable parallels: the close-up of Susan’s piercing eyes, the naked bodies strewn across a couch. These ideas aren’t repressed by Ford but allowed to burst at the seams, getting the message across in a magnificently melodramatic manner, and crescendoing towards a brutal finale that’s every bit as brutal as it is inevitable.

To read my review on Nocturnal Animals, click here.

7. ARRIVAL

2016 may not have been sci-fi’s strongest year (Arrival is the only film of the genre that appears on this list), but it did have its seemingly-annual groundbreaker in the form of Arrival. An alien flick but not really, the film is a powerful cry for humanity’s togetherness, conveyed via an intellectually stimulating and thoughtful character piece. The character in question is Amy Adam’s Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist challenged with interpreting and understanding alien dialect before the threat of war against the extra-terrestrial creatures is realised. It’s intense and tinged with uncertainty, the film appearing as a standard, if interesting and absorbing, fare, before pulling the rug from under you and laying bare its central themes. This is a film directed by Villeneuve without his usual flair, instead sensibly allowing the script to unfold. And what an astonishing script it is! It’s imaginative and heartfelt and bubbling with ideas and sociopolitical statements. As far as sci-fi goes, Arrival is a welcome, er, arrival in a genre that’s continuously evolving and changing with each passing year.

To read my review on Arrival, click here.

6. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

I’m hardly Tarantino’s biggest fan, and I struggle to enjoy Westerns (Hell or High Water and Westworld both falling victim to that preference), so The Hateful Eight had the makings of a film that I’d find easy to hate. What a welcome surprise, then, to find a film as downright enjoyable as this. The film is a largely contained western thriller set in one shack, where eight characters have to stay the night and try to get along. Obviously, this all goes pear-shaped, and despite the restrained setting, what follows is an unbridled showdown of guns and mayhem. It’s a first and second act of palpable tension, magnificently constructed by Tarantino, and a third act of balls-to-the-wall violence. Using segments voiced over tongue-in-cheek by narrator Tarantino, there’s a distinct sense of fun cast over the narrative, managing to make the most despicable crimes incredibly enjoyable to watch unfold. That’s not mentioning how technically astounding The Hateful Eight is. Ennio Morricone’s score is a sweeping melody deserving of its Oscar, packing a sinister tone and helping the film maintain its tension. The visuals are stark and cold when focusing on the shack’s surroundings, and warm and cosy on the inside, cleverly juxtaposing the gunslinging brutality on screen. And the camerawork is kinetic and alive, intent on capturing each character’s demise in all their gory detail. It may have been released in January, but The Hateful Eight is still vivid in my mind.

5. ANOMALISA

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is my favourite film of all time. We’ve had to wait 8 years for his sophomoric effort, and it doesn’t disappoint. The film is a stop-motion animation that follows David Thewlis’ Michael Stone, a customer service expert who finds it much easier to tell other people how to talk to humans than do it himself. Like every one of Kaufman’s central protagonists, he’s a flawed character, insecure, cynical and controlling, but also deeply sympathetic. The choice of stop-motion isn’t a gimmick but integral to the plot, conveying the film’s themes of loneliness, human connection, and the Fregoli delusion in interesting, wholly unique ways. Despite its obvious animated appearance, Anomalisa is one of the most realistically human films of the year, precisely capturing conversations and mannerisms in a beautifully relatable way. It’s stop-motion like you’ve never seen it before: the camera moves in and out of rooms as if it were live action, focusing on a rainy window pane or the butt of a cigarette. It’s much less grand than Synecdoche, and much more personal, managing to carry a substantial amount of emotional heft in its short runtime; there’s no film-maker out there able to capture the human condition as deftly as Kaufman can.

4. NOTES ON BLINDNESS

Films are built around senses, and Notes on Blindness is no different. The smell of rain. The noise of a tape whirring. The image of a wave engulfing a supermarket aisle. It is the latter sense, sight, that has been taken away from John Hull, a theologian whose life is explored in this docu-drama. Over the course of his life after being diagnosed as blind, he taped several recordings talking about his affliction, how he was dealing with it, and what it meant to him. Notes on Blindness takes these soundbites and incorporates it into reenactments of certain scenes described, often metaphorically. It’s an unassuming film: there’s no grand, half-baked statements on philosophy and religion. They each play a part in Hull coming to terms with his loss of sight, but don’t overcrowd the film’s poignant simplicity. Funnily enough, despite focusing on the absence of images, the film’s cinematography is excellent, depicting powerful moments – the smile of a child, or a wife’s glance frozen in time – with significant attention, highlighting the gravitas of the accompanying narration. Make no mistake: Notes on Blindness may be small-scale at first glance, but it’s not slight. It’s an ambitious examination on what it means to be blind, demonstrated with irresistible emotional weight.

3. SWISS ARMY MAN

Swiss Army Man may very well be the greatest farting corpse movie I’ve ever seen. Director duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), best known for their crazed, surrealist music videos, give themselves a challenging task for their first effort at making a feature film: they hate acapella, survival storylines and fart jokes, and Swiss Army Man contains all that and more. It’s a film that caused walkouts at Sundance and spurred The Guardian to award it one star and five stars in separate reviews. The film is a philosophical adventure following Paul Dano’s Hank as he’s stranded on an island, and Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny as his Rigor Mortis-rescuer. As the title suggests, Manny is a dead body seemingly possessed with supernatural powers, able to talk, or use his boner as a compass, or to fart across water like a jetski. These crude and objectively weird moments is one of the messages the movie is trying to make: why is there such stigma against the weird and wacky? Instead of looking down on the quirks of others, we should embrace each person for who they are. This message, along with themes of isolation and yearning to be cared for, are portrayed with the Sundance-y flair of someone who knows their craft without being conditioned to adhere to strict filmmaking practice. As the film industry becomes increasingly saturated with schlocky flicks barely worth paying attention to, amid the guff, it’s refreshing to see a completely original, hilarious and heartfelt drama with not a bone in its body borrowed from another director’s methods. Like Manny, Swiss Army Man has a voice of its own.

2. EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

Embrace of the Serpent plays out like a fever dream. Taking two narratives, 30 years apart, both following an explorer looking for a rare plant with the aid of an Amazonian tribesman, and intertwining them to a satisfying whole, the film is a ferocious, pioneering exploration of contrasting ideologies. There’s no absolute truth the film presents, leaving us to decide for ourselves who’s in the right, if there even is indeed a ‘right’ in the first place. It’s a maddening expedition in both narratives, depicting child abuse, sickness and false Messiahs in interesting and often heart-breaking ways. There is a definite sadness to the story, and a political undercurrent too. We grow to understand tribesman Karamakate’s way of thinking, and empathise with his loss of connection with the surrounding jungle later in his life. He’s played in his youth with wonderful angry petulance by Nilbio Torres, an actual Amazon native, and his interactions with German explorer Theo von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) form the heart of the movie’s statements on colonialism and materialism. Meanwhile, the narrative of the movie that takes place 30 years later functions moreso as an aching for the past, and as an understanding and acceptance of change. Much like Swiss Army ManEmbrace of the Serpent is a film unlike anything you’ve seen before; a psychedelic, searing portrayal of two cultures both clashing and attempting to understand one another.

1. A BIGGER SPLASH

To state what A Bigger Splash is about presents a demanding challenge. On its surface level, it’s a film about four rich figures living in a villa together on a holiday glittering with sunshine, two of whom are increasingly unwelcome. On its second level, it’s a contained drama about change, and refusal to accept change, leading to inescapable sexual tension that threatens to separate the foursome. And on its third level, it’s a subtle example of escapism, the sunny holiday setting and expensive, expansive villa a way to ignore fame, loneliness, and the more troublesome affairs of the modern world. Brilliantly, the villa is also their trapping. The four characters in question are Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a famous singer who’s impermanently lost her voice, both literally and metaphorically, her husband Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a reserved, enigmatic figure, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a restive and exotic old flame of Lane’s, and Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the troubled and troublesome (probable) daughter of Harry. Each of these four characters are wonderfully complex, despicable yet irresistible, pervaded with poignancy. There’s the obvious character interactions of Harry attempting to rekindle the flame with Marianne, but less explainable mannerisms, such as the tricky actions of Penelope throughout the film. Simply put, the film is so interesting, and not just because of the characters. Director Luca Guadagnino approaches A Bigger Splash as a scientific experiment, overflowing with quirky edits and jittering camerawork, using sensual zooms in on peeled fruit or shimmering water to transport the audience to the film’s location, while simultaneously using fourth-wall breaks that somehow work in context of how much fun the film is. But it’s fun laced with venom and melancholy, and as the credits roll, there is an unmistakable sadness that accompanies the overwhelming delight of watching 2016’s best film.

-Gus Edgar

Top 20 Films of 2016 (20-11)

(This list is based on UK release dates)

We’ve survived 2016. Amid celebrity deaths, Trump, Brexit and Toblerones, the year has hardly been a happy one. At least there’s a silver lining to be found in the wonderful array of films 2016 has to offer, right? Well, yes and no. Blockbusters and high-profile sequels haven’t given us much to cheer about: Star Trek Beyond, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, Jason Bourne, The Magnificent Seven, and, from my own more personal viewpoint, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book and Rogue One were all met with a shrug. Batman v SupermanSuicide SquadIndependence Day: Resurgence and X-Men: Apocalypse fared even worse. But, if you scour the year’s filmography and dig deep, there’s some daring, exciting, extraordinary films worth watching amid the insufferable commercialised safety of big-brand blockbuster.

Inevitably, I didn’t manage to see every single film available this year. There are many films that may have made this list had I had the chance to see them. These films include Things to Come, The Childhood of a Leader, The Valley of Love, The Assassin, Son of Saul, Lemonade, Your Name and Julieta.

As always, a Top 20 doesn’t leave room for all of the great films on display this year. Some fell just short of making the list, but deserve a mention all the same. The Invitation is a thriller involving a gathering that’s, on the surface, a dinner party, managing to create more tension than any film this year despite a rather meagre payoff. 10 Cloverfield Lane is similar in the sense that it takes place in a contained area, the plot unwinding in a gripping, unpredictable fashion as we realise whether John Goodman’s character’s talk of aliens is true or a symptom of his obviously unhinged state. The Club is a drama that gives insight towards paedophilia and preisthood. It’s a disturbing, morally-muddied take on the subject, culminating in a brutal finale.

American Honey is an intentionally meandering mood-piece on America’s wistful youth, using first-time actors and improvising its scenes in order to emphasise its gorgeous, sun-soaked realism. Always Shine is a fierce, faux-horror study on jealousy between actors and the female role in an inherently sexist Hollywood, shimmering with style and brutality. And Hail, Caesar! is a delightful offering from the Coen Brothers, following Josh Brolin’s character as he deals with a selection of barmy, interlinking affairs in an atypical few days of 50s Hollywood.

And so begins the Top 20…

20. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING

2016 has been a fantastic year for comedy. Sure, we’ve had the odd Bad Santa 2, but we also had Neighbours 2, and despite being savaged by critics, I thought both Grimsby and Zoolander 2 were hilarious. And another reason for this brilliant comedic year comes in the form of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, detailing the rise and inevitable fall of ‘Conner4Real’ (Andy Samberg) following his break-up from a previous boyband. It’s a satirical riff on celebrity culture and egotism, acted and directed by The Lonely Island, a trio of comedy-musicians that became internet sensations with such nuanced work as Jizz in My Pants. So the humour is vulgar and immature, right? Well, yes, while also being both clever and hilarious. Popstar‘s true feat is that, in the face of dick jokes and Seal getting attacked by a pack of wolves, it manages to craft an emotionally rewarding and satisfying tale of friendship. No, seriously.  Despite the laugh-a-minute approach of the film, there’s genuine heart to be found, the film finding an impressive balance between the crude, the cutting, and the charming.

19. THE NEON DEMON

Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous two films, Drive and Only God Forgives, are two of my favourite films of this decade. The Neon Demon may not reach those heights, but it certainly maintains Refn’s penchant for bloody violence and stylish set-pieces. Following model-in-training Jesse as she rises up the ranks of the fashion industry, the film explores beauty standards, vanity and jealousy, the shelf-life of models and their bloodthirsty pursuit of obtaining youth, and, er, occults. It’s a hodgepodge of venomous and surreal ideas gloriously realised by Natasha Braier’s glitzy cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s electrifying score. The film glides along with an underlying sense of dread before veering off in a totally unexpected manner that ramps up the shock factor – unexpected even when considering Refn’s track record. And the shock factor has a place rather than used just for the sake of it, propelling and fleshing out Refn’s deranged method of symbolism and meaning. The Neon Demon makes it very clear, in gloriously polished fashion, that beauty is ugly.

18. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Animation company Laika have found a niche in making grotesque and unsettling flicks palatable for a younger audience. Each of their films – from Coraline to Paranorman deal with mature themes in a careful and inspiring manner, often integrating creepy set-production and character design that would give even an older audience the jitters, and Kubo and the Two Strings is no different. Kubo focuses on loss and how it provokes the titular character to fulfil a quest very similar to a story he tells the village-folk as a way of busking. It’s a sweet, sentimental story that’s involving enough. But in truth, the story only serves as a vehicle for the film’s greatest strength: it’s wonderful animation. Astonishingly hand-crafted rather than digital, there hasn’t been a more beautiful stop-motion animation in the history of cinema (though a film appearing higher up on this list does run it close). As Kubo and his oddball sidekicks journey through caves and deep in the ocean, we are introduced to a wide variety of eye-popping visuals. Elevated by an impressive, suitably-strumming score, Kubo is an absolute joy to watch.

17. PATERSON

Paterson is a story about a man called Paterson who lives in Paterson, who’s a bus driver played by Adam Driver. This is fitting – the film takes on a subtly surreal tone where everything Paterson does seems to fit in place with a prior event: A painting of a waterfall, the name of a poet. A more appropriate way of describing Paterson would be that it’s less of a story and more an ordinary segment of his life, following Driver’s character for a week, fixating on his routine. He’s an aspiring poet, an affectionate boyfriend, an inquisitive bus-driver. There’s nothing much more to the film; much like Boyhood, the film revels in its delightful simplicity, rather than opting to manufacture drama. The film’s not heart-pulsing or action-packed, nor does it have to be – the camera lingering on a matchbox or eavesdropping on a conversation between two passengers is riveting enough. The film is simply a lovely two hours of cinema that functions as an ode to the creative mind.

16. SPOTLIGHT

Last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight, crept up on us. With The Revenant expected to be awarded the prize, Spotlight began picking up awards at an increasing pace, until it was thrust into the, er, spotlight (sorry), and received the attention that it deserves. Likewise, the film itself is an unassuming investigative piece that creeps up on you, shedding light on paedophilia in the church and how knowledge of it was hushed and swept under the rug rather than condemned. Unlike this year’s The ClubSpotlight takes a less personal approach and a more objective viewpoint, allowing the audience to develop their own sentiments of rage and indignation. Aside from fumbling a fleeting moment of outburst from Mark Ruffalo’s journalist, the film isn’t showy or heavy-handed. While its nearest competitor, The Revenant, was praised for sweeping camera movements and sumptuous visual effects, there’s nothing of the sort on display here. Rather, Spotlight adopts a minimalist approach, the camera held steady and the score barely noticeable. In that sense, it’s technically perfect: it allows a potent script and believable acting to flourish, leaving the audience with a devastating ending without drawing attention to itself.

15. VICTORIA

Victoria is a 140-minute thriller in which its central protagonist, played wonderfully by Laia Costa, inadvertently involves herself in a robbery after a harmless night of clubbing, drinking, and smoking. The snag? It’s a single take. This obstacle doesn’t prevent Victoria from managing high ambitions, however. We follow the titular character as she joins a group of four men, talks philosophy, plays the piano, takes part in a robbery and outruns the police, all in one take. The method of filming doesn’t mask the grittiness of the situation, and provides realism and panic to stakes that we as an audience are engaged by. The film is deeply emotional, impressively action-packed, daring, unpredictable you name it. Its cinematography leads us to believe that these are real people, stuck in a real situation, and their plight is one we should be interested in, and, inevitably, devastated by.

14. THE BIG SHORT

On paper, a movie about banks is tricky business. The problem is that nobody in their right minds should care: it’s all adjustable-rate mortgages and collateralised debt organisations. However, Adam McKay, director of Anchorman, makes it look easy, birthing a film about the housing market collapse of the mid 2000s that’s not only interesting and informative, tinged with McKay’s impressive knack for eking out humour, but also ferocious in its criticism of the banking industry. Make no mistake, the slick self-aware explanations of financial jargon and the knowingly-cheesy fourth wall breaks are all bells and whistles for a serious, cutting film imbued with a political current. There’s no mistaking the fact that the final few moments of the film provide anger rather than relief, solemnity rather than celebration. It’s a study on morally grey characters: their profit is a huge amount of people’s loss, and McKay’s greatest trick is to stir the audience into celebrating along with them before realising the significance of the situation.

13. UNDER THE SHADOW

2016’s most downright terrifying film of the year goes to Under the Shadow, an Iranian-language horror with a disturbing threat that may or may not exist in the form of a Djinn. There’s a sociopolitical undercurrent to the events taking place: Narges Rashidi’s Shadeh, the central character to the film, is seen fleeing from her apartment with her daughter. Rather than being consoled, she is arrested for not covering herself up. It is made clear that Shadeh not only has to face the horrors haunting her apartment, but the horrors of the outside world. Yet these themes of sexism and intolerance in religion don’t overcrowd the simple, calculated story at the heart of Under the Shadow. Supernatural happenings occur, and with the introduction of a few marvellously unsettling dream sequences, the camera swaying with Shadeh’s movement, it’s not made immediately apparent whether the Djinn is tangible or simply a fiction created by Shadeh’s insomniac-ridden mind. Under the Shadow functions beautifully on many levels: as a statement on Iran’s sociopolitical climate, as an ode to their mythology, and as an intensely frightening horror story.

12. THE NICE GUYS

Shane Black is gradually becoming one of my go-to directors for comedy. 2013’s Iron Man 3 is my favourite movie from the Marvel Universe, and that’s because it was a comedy begging to not being taken seriously, with a comedic twist worth the ticket price alone. The Nice Guys maintains its director’s sense of riotous fun with a 70s detective caper, lead by the duo of Russell Crowe’s straight-faced Jackson and Ryan Gosling’s endearingly clueless Holland. It’s a supremely enjoyable and stylish pastiche of the 70s, complete with cheesy afros and funky house parties. There’s little discernible substance, and the film acknowledges the lack of harm the two characters go through, Gosling stating his own invincibility amid a flurry of gunfire, but there’s enormous amusement to be had listening to the protagonist’s Ritchie-esque banter and watching as they faff their way through a rather serious investigation. It’s the year’s best definitive comedy, in a year full of great comedy.

11. THE REVENANT

While The Neon Demon argues that there’s ugliness in beauty, The Revenant argues that there’s beauty to be found in ugliness. At least, that’s what the film’s cinematography suggests, often giving the appearance of a nature documentary rather than one man’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) cold-blooded tale of survival and revenge. It’s brutal film-making, realised in high definition, orchestrated with panoramic camera movements that capture blood, dirt and snow in all its gritty detail. Interspersed with floaty dream sequences, the film is elevated beyond a simple revenge tale to a study on the concept of revenge itself, the morality behind the actions you take in order to pursue it, and the marvels of human endurance. The Revenant is a visceral, spiritual journey supported by stirring performances, an unsparing tone and its juxtaposing, visually arresting imagery.

Join me next week for my Top 10 Films of 2016.