2016 was a great year for films, granted we had to slog it through a crushingly disappointing summer of one mediocre blockbuster after another (with a few bright spots that I’ll address later) and several outright disasters. But leave it to the indies, foreign movies and awards contenders to pick up the slack and deliver some truly exceptional entries in the cinematic year. We saw new talents like Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins cement themselves as voices to watch out for, while directors like Denis Villeneuve and Jim Jarmusch proved they are still at the height of their creative powers. There was even room for a few old masters like Scorsese himself to prove his best days are far from behind him. But before all that, as ever I have to name a few honourable mentions and for this year in particular there are a great deal to recognise.
I saw a few films that were, for better or worse so completely committed to their bold and unique style that I have to praise them for that. ‘High-Rise’ by Ben Wheatley and ‘Swiss Army Man’ by The Daniels both mark their makers out as creative forces to watch out for. As does Taika Waititi’s oddly endearing ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, especially as the New Zealand director will be moving to the lofty heights of Marvel Studios nest year. ‘Tower’ tackled its subject with such an innovative style that I can imagine numerous imitators following soon.
We saw many strikingly magnificent horror films this year as well, almost restoring my faith that modern horror movies can be artful and brilliant once more. ‘Under the Shadow’ and ‘The Witch’ were terrifically unnerving and carried social weight with them, but for pure and utter chaos executed to perfection one cannot overlook ‘Green Room’, which stands as one of the last entries in a career tragically cut short but at least Anton Yelchin’s oeuvre speaks for itself.
Every year Cannes delivers a group of films that are more than worthy of praise. While you are likely to see a few entries from the festival later in this list, for now I will shine a light on ‘Julieta’ and ‘Toni Erdmann’ which stand on complete opposite ends of the scale of emotive resonance but are both equally impactful.
But of course there is also the entertainment factor. While I had great enjoyment with ‘Deadpool’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ and ‘Rogue One’ I have to say that the movie that brought me the most joy, the film that I have re-watched the most and enjoyed it just as much every time I’ve seen it is Shane Black’s ‘The Nice Guys’, criminally underrated at the box office but praised by virtually all who saw it, ‘The Nice Guys’ is a callback to classic comedy capers and low budget action films all polished with Black’s usual brilliance.
Grand Jury Prize - ‘O.J: Made in America’
It is still disputed whether or not ‘O.J: Made in America’ counts as a movie or a miniseries. Though it was made with the intention of being a seven hour long movie and was shown in that format in a few selected cinemas many people (including myself) saw it in its serialised format. So rather than make up my mind I’m leaving it here with a special mention. But even if I could decide what it was, is almost seems unfair to rank ordinary movies against something like ‘O.J: Made in America’. What director Ezra Edelman has achieved here is not just a hauntingly complex character study that so intricately sows the seeds for its subject’s path to self-destruction that it feels like a Shakespearean tragedy. What he achieved with this film was to capture an entire chapter of American culture, for its triumphs, failings and conflicts that all coincided with the downfall of one damaged individual. It analyses everything from a factual standpoint but once you have finished watching it you feel as if it’s asking whether Simpson was the product of his environment, or did he shape his own environment. They seem so intertwined that it has to be one or the other.
10: The Edge of Seventeen
Many have compared the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig to the work of John Hughes and though that may be a worthy comparison I want to briefly look at the film in its own light. Craig’s film is painfully hilarious portrayal of high school life and its hardships, cutting through the falseness of other teen comedies to create something much more truthful and more poignant as a result. But for all its teachings on what it means to be young it also offers a broader statement on grief and loss that can resonate with anyone. The script renders its characters as fully realised individuals and embraces them for their faults as well as their attributes. Boasting a career best performance from Hailee Steinfeld and a wonderful supporting role by Woody Harrelson, it never fails to feel authentic and truthful. But at the same time that never stops it from being wondrously profound and humorous.
9: Manchester by the Sea
The most emotionally draining, soul crushing, heart-breaking and exhausting film of the year. Make no mistake when I say ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is not an easy film to watch, but where Kenneth Lonergam succeeds so brilliantly is how he takes those moments of anguish and weaves them into a continuously flowing story that balances its humour, character moments and heartfelt drama perfectly. Its characters are full bodied and excellently realised by the superb cast with Casey Affleck delivering a truly remarkable performance. Affleck takes an emotionally despondent character and turns him into one of the most empathetic sights of the year, always maintaining an internal performance but never leaving you at a loss for what he is feeling. The supporting cast of Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler are equally brilliant, making excellent components that make ‘Manchester by the Sea’ worth far more than just the sum of its parts.
There is beauty within simplicity, and few filmmakers understand that more than Jim Jarmusch. At a glance his latest film ‘Paterson’ lacks all plot and meaning, but therein lies both its plot and meaning. It is a film concerned with celebrating the simplicity of average lives, the daily routines its titular character undergoes and how much joy it brings him. Without even realising it, we too are absorbed into this perfectly average world, gradually picking up on the patterns and poetry that surround Paterson and his bus journey every day. In the lead role Adam Driver is simply superb, bringing a performance that matches the film perfectly, quietly existential and keenly observant, but also inspiringly poignant when it wants to be and somehow knowing on a deep level. When you add Jarmusch’s keen eye for visual splendour then ‘Paterson’ becomes a delight.
It feels as if there is little to say about Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ that has not been said already following its universal acclaim. I can say that it is unique in almost every aspect of its construction, its screenplay, style and subject matter are all innovative and ground breaking works of art. It is a film that speaks volumes about how our environments shape us while acting as an intriguingly staged character study, that becomes astonishingly intimate through its story told in three chapters. Of course this is all well and good but the strongest aspect of ‘Moonlight’ may well be its brilliant performances. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are all equally terrific but for very different reasons as the lead character at three different stages of his life, along with great supporting roles from Naomi Harris and Mahershala Ali.
Every year I have to write the same sentence about how Denis Villeneuve has further cemented his reputation as quite possibly the finest director of this decade. I could place ‘Arrival’ on this list for its ambition and scope alone, the way it tackled huge existential questions and never supplied easy answers for its audience. But at the same time its epic scale is anchored by its intimately drawn characters, a plot that revolves around simple communication and heavily emotional undertones. Amy Adams turns in a brilliant performance that ensures that for all its stunning set pieces, existential minefields and visual eye candy the film has a beating and deeply emotional heart. Ranking Villeneuve’s filmography is an exercise in futility, they are all masterworks. But for what it is worth with ‘Arrival’ he has delivered a science fiction masterpiece for the ages.
The subject of faith has long been a thematic anchor of Martin Scorsese’s career, driving his characters and their decisions for decades on the silver screen. It should come as no surprise that ‘Silence’ embraces that theme as well, but what is surprising is just how committed Scorsese is to realising his epic vision on the screen while also taking his themes to unexplored territory, pushing them further than he ever has before. It examines how much someone can endure in the name of their faith and questions whether their unwavering belief is the salvation or detriment of them. As ever Scorsese is surrounded by a hugely talented cast in the form of Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson. ‘Silence’ bears the unmistakable mark of a master filmmaker working at the height of his creative talent, a truly monumental piece of cinema.
4: The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’ is a rare film that seems to become all the more intriguing and remarkable the more I watch it. Its structure and intricately layered plot may seem meditative at first, but as the story spirals out of control it establishes, subverts and outright destroys your expectations several times over. It is tense and thrilling put also quiet and artful all at once. The plot is structured to intrigue the viewer and then emotionally involve them in such a way that you will find yourself increasingly desperate to know where the plot will turn next. But hopefully the viewer will not overlook Chan-wook’s exquisite production design that is gorgeously detailed. His impeccable compositions and synchronistic framing gives the isolated environments a sense of entrapment that can reflect his characters own personal issues. ‘The Handmaiden’ is viscerally unnerving but also quietly moving as well as absolutely enthralling.
Leave it to Paul Veerhoven to make a film of such extremes that it has to be brilliant. ‘Elle’ is a layered and complex piece of cinema that does not shy away from the brutally disturbing aspects of its story, becoming an intricate study of abuse and obsession as well as delicate character study. It examines why we tolerate abuse in a society, why we take so long to heal from it and how projecting abuse onto others can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle that destroys can lives, and even more tragically, define them. The titular character is so brilliantly realised by Isabelle Huppert, creating what I can say without doubt is the best performance of the year. Huppert displays such an intense range in the film with the ability to be helpless, powerful, manipulative, terrifying and even funny at various points throughout the narrative, but always with an underlying sense of consistency that never makes you doubt that you’re watching the same strong character. ‘Elle’ is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
2: La La Land
Movies like ‘La La Land’ are why I love movies. It is empathetic, complex, thoughtful, artistic and wonderfully entertaining. Damien Chazelle revives the movie musical so brilliantly and thoroughly, with each musical set piece enforcing the characters and story, reinforcing the films substance at ever turn. Chazelle’s direction is equally fantastic though, with his camera moving in such an active and vibrant way that invigorates the whole film with a pulsating energy, but then when it is time for a quitter and more intimate moment Chazelle masters that as well. It is a dazzling spectacle to behold, but what makes it even more engaging are the brilliant performances being turned in by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who are equally magnificent when together and when separate. It is a love letter to classic cinema, but also to life itself for all its wonder and joy, its pain and heartbreak, its hopes and dreams.
1: Nocturnal Animals
My favourite film of 2016 is perhaps the boldest, most intricately crafted and stunningly realised feature of them all, Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’. Some have deemed the film too cold and clinical, but the boldest of cinema demands empathy, not sympathy. The beating heart of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a visceral, awe inspiring one that weaves themes of grief, guilt, fear, revenge and loss. It frames a story of literal revenge within a story of symbolic revenge, contrasting the sleek world of high class L.A and the rustic brutality of the Texan landscape. Ford merges each layer masterfully, creating a tale of awe inspiring complexity and deep thematic layers. Its ensemble cast are all terrific, from Amy Adams icy observer, Michael Shannon’s cold eeriness and Aaron Taylor Johnson untapped insanity with Jake Gyllenhaal handling two separate roles excellently. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is evocative and challenging, but also inspiring in its construction, a masterwork of layered storytelling and exquisite direction that will enthral anyone from start to finish.