The best films of 2016

As film lovers, there is not much that we all unanimously agree on but I think it is safe to say that we all feel that this year has been a terrible one in terms of events, moments we never thought would happen and people we never thought we would lose. For me personally I have had a very hard year, a bout of prolonged illness is something I am not used to and don’t want to get used to and there may be some of admissions from my list which may have made it had I had chance to see them (apologies to Anomolisa, Under the Shadow, Son of Saul and Mustang to name a few and Rogue One which I am seeing next week). However the films that I did see this year reaffirmed my feelings about cinema, that through tough times, they can transport you, that when you are feeling down, they can give you the voice you don’t feel you have and when you think the world is a lost cause, they can show you the beauty that you have lost sight of and the things that you should be grateful for. So here are the films this year, that for different reasons, gave me goose bumps, gave me thrills and gave me my one constant thing in a topsy turvy time, my love of cinema.

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15) The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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A film that feels fresh yet harks back to the buddy movies of bygone years, The Nice Guys gave us the deliciously mischievous pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two immoral and incompetent private detectives in 1970s LA.  Assigned to investigate the mystery surrounding the death of a porn actress (which plays out in the opening sequence in OTT fashion) Shane Black’s neo noir comedy thriller plunges the bumbling duo deep into a sleazy world of corruption, sex and murder that is more slapstick than hardboiled. Mixing the crime pulp of Chinatown with the seedy sauce of Boogie Nights and coming off like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s goofier cousin, Black proves he still has the smarts at combining whip sharp dialogue and burly action sequences and gives us a chalk and cheese combo that we never knew we wanted but are so glad that we experienced. As Jackson Healy, the portly muscle for hire, Crowe appears to have shaken off some of his pretentious aura and is having a hoot while Gosling is groovy as the hapless Holland March who wants to be the cool dude, like the roles Gosling usually plays, but is inept and accident prone with a shrill scream that frequently makes itself known.  The pair are clearly having a blast and making the most of starring in a film that is the type of ramshackle freewheeling genre blender that rarely makes it to the screen these days and which sadly failed to find its audience the box office. Perhaps it will find its feet in the steaming world where its late night stylistics and witty one liners will feel right at home.

14) Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler)

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Though The Revenant garnered all the headlines with its brutal bear attack, the most grisly scene of the year came courtesy of S.Craig Zehler’s underrated gem of a western.  For those who have seen the film will know exactly what I am talking about and for those who haven’t yet, prepare yourself for something truly jaw dropping nasty. But the film is much more than just a gruesome end for one of its characters; it is one of the best films of recent years in its genre and the better film this year to star Kurt Russell and his magnificent handlebar moustache.  A motley crew of town folk, including Russell’s sturdy Sheriff and Patrick Wilson’s determined every-man set off into the dusty plains to rescue their kin from a bunch of truly terrifying cave dwellers, turning the film into a tense mission with flashes of extreme violence.  All the cast fill their characters with well-played stereotypes but the real surprise of the bunch is Matthew Fox as a well educated enigma named Brooder, in a role so full of charisma and screen presence that it leaves you wondering why he has been left floundering in the cinematic wilderness  after his Lost heydays. His turn alone should give people reason to seek out Bone Tomahawk, a film that will truly stay with you, for better or worse.

13) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)

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Following on from the best comedy of 2015 What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi returns with a contender for best comedy of this year with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an action adventure with its roots deeply planted in the New Zealand outback. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled teen (his crimes including spitting, kicking and stuff) who is sent to a new home in the middle of no-where, where he finds temporary happiness. But through tragedy and a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, he ends up on the run with Sam Neill’s gruff foster uncle Hec and the scene is set for an oddball romp as a national manhunt begins for the unlikely duo. As you would expect from a Waititi joint, the film is peppered with eccentric characters and quirky curveballs to the narrative and features perhaps the song of the year (Ricky Baker it’s your birthday!) yet whilst it has all the trademarks of the director’s previous outings, at times Hunt for the Wilderpeople veers too close to homage territory particularly of the Wes Anderson ilk. But if you are going to riff on another director there are worse ones to pick than Wes and it doesn’t stop the film from being one of the grin inducing gems of the year and a runaway smash in its native New Zealand. Newcomer Julian Dennison is a quotable hero for a new generation and Sam Neill is the best he has been in ages, clearly having a ball and flexing his comedic chops that are rarely seen on screen  and there is also the inevitable scene stealing cameo from Rhys Darby. If Waititi can inject half the fun from the Wilderpeople into his next gig as director of Thor Rangorak then we are in for something really special.

12) Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)

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Tom Ford follows up his beguiling debut A Single Man with an equally stylish yet jet black fable, which mixes two interweaving narratives into an absorbing, disturbing concoction. Based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, the film opens on art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) who’s seemingly perfect life is concealing her real feelings of discontent and a deeply unhappy marriage.  Out of the blue she is sent a manuscript from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she left in a callous brutal fashion and who has dedicated the novel to her. Fuelled by intrigue, Susan begins reading the novel and the film then intertwines between the two narrative strands, from Susan in the real world to the fictitious world she is imagining as she reads and to which she has cast Edward as the lead protagonist. Ford’s film flips between melodrama and brutal thriller, and manages to make both elements engrossing; the common thread of revenge binds them together. Edward’s novel pierces Susan’s conscious, taunting the idea that she previously had of him as weak and someone who would never succeed as a writer, whilst the novel’s theme horrifies her and in turn the audience, playing out with tense violence that recalls the fearful isolation of films such Duel and Breakdown. Nocturnal Animals is not an easy watch, some will be alienated by its coldness but it is intentionally glacial, it is a film of ugliness, of misjudged decisions and internal regret. It is perforated throughout with impeccable performances from the entire cast, with the (almost) inevitable scene stealing from Michael Shannon and an impressively cold cameo from Laura Linney, whilst the score evokes the feeling of a Hitchcockian romantic psycho drama and the clinical art world that Susan inhabits juxtaposes with the raw outback of Texas to create a queasy rigid imbalance. Those who travel into Ford’s gloriously overwrought Meta mystery may find themselves also experiencing a sleepless night.

11) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

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David Mackenzie’s neo Western arrived with little fanfare at the box office but steadily grew recognition in end of the year polls and whose themes are ever present in modern society. Whilst The Big Short gave us the broader, showier themes of how banks are bad, Hell or High Water took the more intimate approach, focusing on one family’s battle with corrupt corporations. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) carry out a series of robberies on the bank that is trying to rob them of their family farm whilst Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is close to retirement, is closing in on their plans. Though there are familiar tropes within the film, it still manages to feel fresh, a modern Western with a quiet elegance and complex characters and a moral compass that wavers, leaving you questioning whose side you are on. Pine turns out one of his best performances so far and Foster continues to corner the market in live wire unpredictability, his Tanner always threatening to scupper his brother’s plan with his restless and reckless energy. Meanwhile Jeff Bridges excels as the Ranger who can’t quite quit, his world weary stance clashes with his dog with a bone need to solve the crime, with a performance that should be attracting awards attention. Mackenzie’s film is shot with harsh beauty, the baron landscapes interlaced with the devastation of modern times affecting the livelihood of a way of life that is being made obsolete whilst the final frames take you back to the feel of the wild west, where the man of the law will never rest.

10) Spotlight ( Tom McCarthy)

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Though the title refers to the team who uncovered the crime at the heart of the narrative, the way that the film plays out is the antithesis of the usual loud bombastic Oscar baiting type pictures that are based on true life stories. Todd McCarthy’s film goes about its job with a quiet dignity, as the Boston Globe discovers the abuse of many teenage boys at the hands of the catholic priests that were there to look after and guide them, never playing the scandal for cheap shock factor but simply retelling the story.  It is the type of film that rarely gets made these days, a proper grown up film for grown-ups, informative yet not preachy, where words are king but the film is no less gripping for this, it serves as the voice for the victims which they were denied at the time and whose story deserves to be told. Spotlight’s strength also lies in its cast, who all uniformly excellent, particularly Rachel McAdams who is carving a career away from the chick flick love interest and is all the better for it and Mark Ruffalo whose journalist Michael Renzendes is the slow building heart of the film, his simmering anxiety of the injustice he is part of uncovering culminates in one of the most powerful scenes as they realise the harrowing extent of the abuse. It may have been the surprise winner of Best Picture, under the radar of its flashier counterparts but it was no less deserving and proved that good old fashioned (real life) storytelling still deserves its place on the big screen.

9) Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)

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‘One girl, one city, one shot’ read the tagline for Sebastian Schipper’s virtuoso drama Victoria, a film that may on the surface appear gimmicky but uses its idea to maximum cinematic effect. Shot entirely in one take, the film follows a young Spanish girl Victoria (Laia Costa) over the course of one night in the city of Berlin as she visits a night club and meets a group of local young men and how her simple and innocent flirtation with one of the gang, sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to an irreversible situation.  By creating a film of fluidity with no cuts, as the audience you are positioned right in the centre of the narrative, it is as if you are one of the party, a bystander unable to stop the unfolding action (and there are times when you may be crying out at the screen to stop the inevitable catastrophe) yet also complicit to the crime.  By the time the credits roll, you feel like you have been through the wringer, almost hungover from the frantic and frenetic speed as the film gathers momentum and then spits you out into the cold light of day, reeling from the initial ecstasy to the abrupt sobering agony. Whilst you question some of her ill- advised decisions, Costa makes Victoria a continually engaging and sympathetic character, a girl whose early doors meet cute with a handsome stranger leads her down a dangerous path and whose youthful naivety is destroyed within the final frame. Schipper’s film evokes the spirit of the New Wave, a feeling of freewheeling cinema where directors use the technology available to them to push the conventions of cinema and where anything is possible and anything can happen.

8) 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Tratchtenberg) 

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Award worthy/boundary pushing/ revolutionary cinema is what we film lovers live for but sometimes we just want a darn good fun night out at the pictures. And that is what 10 Cloverfield Lane delivered in spades, a rollicking entertaining tightly wound chamber piece that maximises its narrative capacity and never drops a beat during its running time. Originally titled The Cellar with low key details, the film then revealed itself as the semi spiritual sequel to J. J. Abrams monster mash Cloverfield, as a potential fallout threat leads to life in a bunker for a trio of characters. Lead by paranoid parental figure Howard (John Goodman) who has crafted an insulated home for an inevitable catastrophe he has foreseen, he is joined by Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) and Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) the woman he saved/captured in a road side accident creating an uncomfortable family unit who are never sure about their host’s intentions. Goodman is on stellar form, playing on the blue collar worker he portrayed in Roseanne, though this time there is something slightly off, he is an unpredictable character whom Emmett and Michelle emotionally and physically tiptoe around, trying not to set him off. Mary Elizabeth Winstead proves to be his match, our heroine of the picture who is resourceful and determined, she may be planted initially as the victim but refuses to play the part and uses every tactic she can to keep fighting against her situation.  The atmosphere is tense, peppered with Hitchcockian touches, a Herrmann-esque score and dashes of humour to lighten the suspenseful air, director Dan Trachtenberg keeps the audience in the dark, teasing pieces of information slowly to disorientate where we stand. Equally we were in the dark about 10 Cloverfield Lane upon its arrival, it was a rare and dying breed when it came to the cinema, a film that we didn’t know much about and was all the better for it. It often feels like we have seen all the best bits of a film by the time it reaches the big screen, from the teasers to the multiple trailers so to go into a film fresh was an absolute treat and 10 Cloverfield Lane is an absolute blast.

7) Room ( Lenny Abrahamson)

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Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel was brought to the big screen this year which resulted in a faithful and emotional adaptation with aplomb. Lenny Abrahamson steered the ship but the film was anchored by the performances of Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack. Larson cleaned up all the acting awards for her portrayal as the Fritzlesque captive who was snatched as a teen and forced to live in the 10ft x 10ft room of the title, she is a haunting screen presence, a bruised and battered figure who manages to retain a steely determination through a mothers love for her son.  Tremblay meanwhile achieves the seldom seen act of being a child actor that isn’t annoying (even when his character is troublesome), he is our eyes and our ears, our vision of the world he is only ever known and to the world that he discovers and that we rediscover through him. The narrative takes us to some very dark places with the human spirit being pushed to its breaking point and Abrahamson creates one of the most nail biting scenes of the year as Jacob tries to execute the escape plan that Ma has created. It also follows the book’s lead of a non-Hollywood happy resolution once Ma and Jacob have escaped Room, the reality of their adjustment to life post capture is shown in its troubling form, that the nightmare is over yet the scars have taken their toll. Yet for all the distressing subject matter the film manages to be an uplifting experience, carving a new sense of appreciation for what we have, the human spirit may have been pushed but as a wise man once said ‘life finds a way’.

6) Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) 

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Director Jeremy Saulnier follows up his 2013 lean taut thriller Blue Ruin with another colour coded film that is laced with vicious threat and grisly ends. Punk band The Ain’t Rights are coasting from gig to gig when they hastily make an ill judged decision to play at a backwater dive that turns out to be populated by Neo Nazis and when one of the band members stumbles into a murder scene, things become very very nasty. The film then becomes a tense game of (Nazi) cats and mice as the band are holed up in the green room of the title while the red laced thugs try to force their way in, resulting in some shocking moments of violence that defy the conventions of standard horror, where no one appears to be the one that will get away and which makes the narrative more unsettling. Anton Yelchin as band guitarist Pat, who sadly passed away just after Green Room was released, shows why he was one of the great actors of his generation and what promise he still had to give to cinema, a charismatic presence with soul and verve. Imogen Poots also impresses and is less damsel in distress than dangerous with a boxcutter while Patrick Stewart plays against type as the cold calculating leader of the red laces, his efficiency at cleaning up the ‘mess’ is chillingly callous. Between the bursts of mayhem, Saulnier finds glints of black humour so in between hiding behind your hands you may find yourself wondering what you desert island band will be, but whether you will sleep well that night is another matter as Green Room will (guitar) shred your nerves.

5) The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

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So much has been documented about The Revenant, the stories of the arduous filming conditions, THAT bear scene, and Leo’s Oscar win, which launched a thousand memes, that the film itself has almost been overshadowed, lost in the mix of Awards buzz and folklore tales with shades of Coppola’s apocalyptic shoot. But whatever you may think about Iñárritu’s methods (and as him as a person) you cannot deny the astonishing results of his, and the crew/casts, labour, producing a timeless epic revenge piece that plays out like the most intense survival guide committed to celluloid, one that would make Bear Grylls curl up and hide. Choosing to film in only natural light and with the aid of stunning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the landscape becomes its own character, breath-taking in every sense of the word as DiCaprio’s wronged fur trapper Hugh Glass battles first bears then the elements on a one man quest for vengeance, clawing and crawling his way to Oscar glory, his punishing pursuit is agonising to watch.  Credit must also go to Tom Hardy, every ones favourite guy, who turns in a thoroughly nasty performance and creates a character so dastardly that you are waiting on tenterhooks throughout the film, praying for his comeuppance. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto chimes the whole journey with a sense of momentum and impending flashes of violence and threat, the beating heart of Glass’ reason to continue his quest. The whole experience is visceral, captivating, jaw dropping cinema, proving the mantra that you really suffer for your art.

4) American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

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Andrea Arnold has already mastered the portrayal of modern Britain, in all its bleak poverty and harsh actions and reactions and now has turned her eye to the dissection of the American Dream, where the blissful ignorance of youth clashes with the dirt poor reality of many of its vast wastelands.  Newcomer Sasha Lane blazes onto the screen, a fireball of unpredictable behaviour as Star, a young girl who abandons her poverty stricken, abusive home to hit the road with a rag tag crew, including Shia LeBeouf’s rat tailed Jake, who travel round America selling magazine subscriptions. What follows is an archaic road trip, as the gang deploy many different tactics to gain subscriptions, running from one city to the next, partying hard and bestowing harsh ritual forfeits for those that fail to gather the most sales. The film is glazed in a wash of stunning cinematography, every campfire scene looks like a party you want to be at but equally every desolate town is swamped in stark imagery you would want to avoid; the cross country narrative is captured in all its beauty and baroness. American Honey creates a restless energy that is hard to do without feeling forced but here it soars from every crevice whilst always flirting with disaster that comes from a lifestyle that cannot be sustained forever, that time is on the coattails of these delinquents and they must seize this moment with every inch of gusto.  The sentiment of the film is beautifully realised in Rhianna’s ‘We found love’ which becomes the anthem for the travelling crew and encapsulates the ecstasy between the ruins of the Promised Land.

3) Swiss Army Man (Daniels)

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If ever there was a contender for the most Marmite movie, it would be perhaps look and sound exactly like Swiss Army Man. It is either a film you are going to go with or you are going to be baffled by and dismiss it, and all this will probably be determined within the first ten minutes of its running time. Personally I fell into the former camp, bemused by its arresting opening gambit, embracing its unapologetic flights of whimsy and finally succumbing to its unique charms, hook, line and stinker. Swiss Army Man has been rejected by many who see it as puerile humour, a one note fart gag or (as some of the harsher internet comments suggest) a gay necrophilia comedy however it is much more than the sum of its flatulent parts.  It is a film that manages to wring genuine emotion and depth from its admittedly ridiculous synopsis as Paul Dano’s stranded Hank uses Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse as a means to navigate his way home, Radcliffe’s Manny becomes the Swiss Army Man of the title as his body is utilised for various tasks which creates eye catching visuals. But it is where Hank begins to teach Manny about that the life that he has forgotten that the film really finds its emotional groove, a montage of inventive images collide in a giddy, joyous fashion that ignite Manny with purpose and in turn fuel Hank’s journey back to a society where he himself might find wonder to behold in the world that previously alluded him. Swiss Army man is a film that doesn’t work well on paper but has to be seen to be believed and if you open yourself up to its oddities, you will experience one of the most marvellously strange and original films you are ever likely to see.  Like Weekend at Bernies directed by Michel Gondry, hummed to the theme from Jurassic Park. On second thoughts who wouldn’t want to see that?

2) Arrival ( Denis Villeneuve)

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Bold, intelligent and beautiful science fiction this year came in the form of Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral stunner. Rejecting the tired old notion that extraterrestrials come here to blow up first and think later (yes Emmerich I am talking about you) Arrival takes a different approach to the invasion narrative and manages to do what Interstellar couldn’t, combining high concept ideas with emotional resonance. Amy Adams plays linguistics expert Dr Louise Bank who is drafted in by the government when a dozen spaceships appear in different locations around the globe and the need to translate the alien’s language is of rapid importance before a global war breaks out. And so begins a race against time to decipher the visitor’s message and to make a form of contact, however the film doesn’t take the usual tropes that the genre can befall; it carves a path of its own, creating an atmosphere of supernatural intrigue and analytical endeavour. The contact with the aliens is presented with an air of stylistic eeriness; the conceptual design makes the most of this with its disorientating and claustrophobic ambience heightened by Johann Johannsson’s masterful otherworldly score. But at the heart it all, and what makes it work when it goes to some, potentially alienating, places is Adams who injects the film with a sense of vulnerability but also steely determination, she is our guide and the connection to solving the mysteries within its cryptic plot. And when the revelation comes and the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, it is seeped with the heartfelt emotion that Adams has carried and that we have invested in, creating a beautiful and never more resonant message about the necessity and the magnitude that communication can have. If this is Villeneuve’s calling card for his gig on the Blade Runner sequel then we may have hope after all because he has produced a gloriously audacious slice of sci fi which is one of the years greatest.

  1. Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross)

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Ironically for something that sounds like a superhero film, Captain Fantastic turned out to be the perfect antidote to the post summer blockbuster binge that often leaves many deflated and fatigued and provided cinema with a soulful, original punch that it was crying out for. In a role that was made for his otherworldly survivalist presence and in one that he has never been better, Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, the head of a family who has raised his children in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, cultivating their own microcosm society which is built upon physical and intellectual learning. But events force them to (re)enter the world and Ben’s methods of parenting become challenged by those around him and also by himself. Beautifully shot with a heartfelt narrative, Captain Fantastic is peppered with moments of humour but also a very human sense of poignancy, it asks tough questions about the nature of parenthood and mental illness, how no matter how much you try, you may not be able to override someone’s devastating internal disorder. It is a bitter pill to swallow but garners respect for its brave realisation, rather than the Hollywood approach where something or someone can easily eradicate a mental illness (as played out in Silver Linings Playbook).

There are note perfect performances from all its cast, every member of the family plays their part without any precocious child mannerisms,  they add their world view of each age bracket they inhabit and their actions and reactions to how they have been raised . But the heart of the film belongs to Mortensen, shrouded in fitting facial hair and an array of knitwear, his patriarchal figure manages to traverse a myriad of attributes from arrogance to anger, from warm to caring, his grief ridden but loving father shows every emotion etched on his face with a subtle grace.

Captain Fantastic now occupies the same space in my heart that Little Miss Sunshine does, it is that film that is bittersweet but still manages to give me the warm fuzzies, it makes me want to live my life and love my life, that times will not always be perfect and you may lose your way but that family will always be your guide home. I laughed and I cried and fist pumped the air that original films like this still make it to the big screen and it is something to be thankful for as this Captain is something truly special.

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One comment on “The best films of 2016

  1. All excellent choices (although haven’t seen Nocturnal Animals I’m sure it’s worthy of its place in the list as A Single Man was excellent and I trust your judgement :).

    Another brilliantly well written and insightful piece, stands up against LWL and Guardian articles for sure.

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