Following on from my earlier blog – which covered the 187 movies (and 9 TV seasons) I watched in 2016 – this post delves a little deeper into the very best of that particular bunch. As per my previous disclaimer, I haven’t been able to watch every theatrical release of 2016, so there may be (probably are) films which should be here but I haven’t seen yet.
After I cover my Top 10 of the Year I’ll also hook into the Top 10 best films I saw in 2016 but were released in a previous year. We all, generally speaking, catch films at various points of their release cycles – be it at the cinema, on DVD, streaming or TV – so it’s best to read what follows with this in mind: consider them the joyous ramblings of a cinephile excitedly sharing and writing about the things he loved best these past 12 months. Hope you enjoy!
Top 10 of 2016
10. Kubo and The Two Strings
Laika Studios continues to fly the flag for stop-motion animation with this immediate classic. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, and invoking a Ghibli-esque tone of magic and wonder, Kubo is simultaneously charming and unafraid to go proper dark. Like the best fairy tales, it has some genuinely scary moments which will rock you back on your heels, but is all the better for it.
9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
After a decade of disappointments (c’mon, admit it: even The Force Awakens fell slightly short of your expectations) Gareth Edwards delivered the first Star Wars film which can comfortably sit alongside the original trilogy. If there were some slight wobbles in the first half, the final 40 minutes more than made up for it with the most emotional climatic SW battle since Jedi. So good, it actually makes A New Hope better by adding weight to Lucas’ froth.
8. Starless Dreams
Little seen Iranian doc about girls within an “Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre”, director Mehrdad Oskouei let his subjects speak for themselves about crimes committed and abuse survived. Though the subject matter is grim there are moments of tenderness and humanity glimmering through. Totally worth seeking out.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane
The coup of the year was when producer JJ Abrams announced a “spiritual” sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, director Dan Trachtenberg delivered an uber-tense, Hitchcockian thriller with a wild denouement which divided audiences but blew minds with its full-throated audacity.
6. Captain America: Civil War
Proof positive that superheroes hitting each other can be nuanced, moving and actually fun, Civil War delivered another MCU high-point helmed by the Russo Brothers (following 2014’s The Winter Solider). With a runway full of iconic moments – and a low-key, heart-felt final act – this is a comic book movie done right.
Director Lucile Hadzilhalilovic delivers a surreal body horror that would make Cronenberg shiver. Set on an island populated only by young boys and their “mothers”, it’s claustrophobic, psycho-sexual and properly unsettling.
4. Son of Saul
László Nemes won the Best Foreign Language Oscar last year for this masterful and restrained Holocaust drama. By keeping the frame tightly focused on the eponymous Saul (Géza Röhrig) as he navigates the horrors of Auschwitz, we see nothing but hear everything. What could have been a technical quirk instead invites the audience to imagine the unimaginable, and be shaken afresh to the core by its subject matter.
Denis Villeneuve follows up 2015’s Sicario with this mournful, elegiac sci-fi which successfully mixed hope and heartache. Amy Adam’s excels as a linguistics professor tasked with establishing first contact with newly arrived aliens, but it’s the journey into the human soul which will haunt you long after the credits roll.
2. Love and Friendship
Whit Stillman’s acerbic retelling of Austen’s Lady Susan is a hilarious slap to the face. Kate Beckinsale captivates as a widow who strings along a procession of potential suitors, including Tom Bennett’s bumbling toff (who effortlessly steals every scene). Catty, charismatic and slyly feminist in its perspective of a woman surviving – and thriving- in a patriarchal system.
1. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier followed up and topped his Blue Ruin with this hard-boiled siege movie. Anton Yelchin (in one of his last performances) heads a punk band roped into performing for Patrick Stewart’s neo-Nazis: it’s bloody, tense and shockingly violent, but also seasoned with transcendent grace notes that elevate proceedings beyond the sum of its parts. A nigh on perfect genre movie, and sadly topical in its portrayal of people unexpectedly battling the far right.
Top 10 Films seen in 2016… but released in another year
10. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
One of Studio Ghibli’s last masterpieces before the legendary Japanese animation house (sort of) closed their doors, Kaguya is a sublime, dream-like retelling of a folk story about a princess who emerges from a flowering bamboo stalk and is adopted by a childless elderly couple. Using the brush-strokes and water colours of classic Japanese art, director Isao Takahata paints proceedings with a delicate, strange and elegiac air. Stunning.
9. The Look of Silence (2014)
Following on from his 2012 The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer revisited the same topic of the Indonesian genocide to pick up his second Oscar nomination. This time his documentary zeroes in on travelling optician Adi Rukun, who journeys around the country offering eye tests and gently interviewing the killers responsible for his brother’s murder. Utterly chilling in its portrayal of the banality of evil.
8. Rams (2015)
Scandi-drama set on the Icelandic tundra, focussing on two estranged sheep-farming brothers who have remained neighbours, despite having not spoken for 40 years. Grímur Hákonarso’s film is darkly funny, but with a deep chord of melancholic aching which thrums below the surface with increasing resonance, before breaking out in the final act.
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Its premise sounds bonkers: a hijab-wearing vampire skateboards around an Iranian city at night, munching on bad guys and listening to synth pop, before falling in love with a hopelessly romantic boy. Blending horror, Western and 80s teen-flick into a sweet, sexy soup, Ana Lily Amirpour’s Farsi-language movie is a true original. Time to get excited about her upcoming cannibal love story The Bad Batch.
6. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Ryan Coogler’s debut won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. Recounting the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant – a young black man who was shot and killed by Police in San Francisco in 2009 – the film bristles with righteous rage. Michael B. Jordan grips with a magnetism reminiscent of early De Niro, his prison meeting with Octavia Spencer (playing Oscar’s mum Wanda) being one of the best scenes I saw all year.
5. Brooklyn (2015)
Saoirse Ronan stars as an Irish immigrant in New York caught between two loves on separate continents in this adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel. Where it could have been mawkish or saccharine, director John Crowley instead delivered a deeply affecting story of displacement and belonging. Beautifully photographed by Yves Bélanger, it’s a wonderful, heartfelt film without being sentimental.
4. Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Another film dealing with displacement, here Toby Jones stars as a British Foley artist unwittingly employed to do the sound effects for an Italian giallo movie. Director Peter Strickland gradually racks up the tension through aural dread: as Jones stabs cabbages and mixes screams, his mind becomes gently unhinged. In a bravura final third the film transcends, going full Lynch as Jones – and the audience – detach from reality and spiral into a surrealist abyss. Breathtakingly bold.
3. The Babadook (2014)
Described by Exorcist director William Friedkin as “the scariest film I’ve ever seen”, The Babadook is much more than a horror movie. Essie Davies (perfect) plays a bereaved widow with repressed grief and a disturbed son: so when the titular Babadook – a spectral creature from her son’s bed time story – comes a haunting her mind starts to crack. Jennifer Kent’s stunning debut deals in weighty themes of mental health, emotional honesty, mother/child guilt, and ultimately facing your fears. And it’s utterly, utterly brilliant.
2. The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen (1973 / 2000)
I first saw The Exorcist when it was re-released in UK cinemas in 1998, and found it a profoundly comforting movie. Revisiting it in 2016 – the first time watching The Version You’ve Never Seen director’s cut – I was heartened to see my initial impressions substantiated. Although the scenes of Regan MacNeil’s possession remain challenging, the real power of The Exorcist is not the moments of vulgarity but in its robust spiritual conviction. A profoundly moral, pro-faith film that looks evil in the eye and affirms the ultimate victory of good, it remains a majestic piece of work.
1. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
When German auteur F.W. Murnau was invited to the US by William Fox (he of 20th Century fame), he was given complete creative control to translate his Expressionist style to Hollywood. The result is widely – and rightly – considered one of the greatest films ever made. A silent movie low on inter-titles, high on pioneering camera work, it trades in universal themes communicated deftly by its central performances. George O’Brien stars as an unhappily married man who is convinced by his mistress to murder wife Janet Gaynor (sublime), and thus free himself to move to the city and follow his dreams. But when he comes to the act, the film shifts genre unexpectedly. By turns thriller, romance, comedy and drama, it is weighty yet light, grave yet whimsical. Sunrise blew me away, and has gone straight into my top 10 films of all time.
Other excellent films I saw in 2016 for the first time…
Take Shelter; Ran; Princess Mononoke; Kingsman-The Secret Service; The Fog (1980); Blackfish; Pi; Creed; The Way of the Gun; Midnight Special
…And favourites I re-watched in 2016
Big Trouble in Little China; Die Hard; Captain America – The Winter Solider; Labyrinth; Safety Last! ; Mad Max – Fury Road; Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire; Toy Story; Aliens; The Raid 2; A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; The Transformers -The Movie (1986)
Well, that’s all folks. In 2017 I’ll be keeping an online journal of my watching habits on Letterboxd, so feel free to follow me at https://letterboxd.com/fatscoleman/films/diary/
In the meantime, here’s wishing us all a joyful year adventuring further through this strange magic called cinema: may we all come away in twelve months time, richer for the treasures we’ve discovered.