(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 Superman, Suicide Squad, Independence 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.
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.
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 Club, Spotlight 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.
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.