(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.
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.
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.
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 Man, Embrace 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.