The Best Films of 2016
It’s that time again. Time to look back over one’s top picks of the year, complain about how few masterpieces there were, how much The Franchise Movie seems to be taking over Hollywood, and wonder what on earth Spotlight was about (that film from early 2016 which received 5 stars from me and rave reviews all round).
Herewith, the best films of 2016 as rated by one reviewer in one newspaper in one small country of the film-viewing world. Having been lambasted occasionally for “simply giving her opinion”, it may be timely to remind readers that yes, film criticism is just one person’s view, but that the role entails watching hundreds of films every year and thus building a fairly solid context for judgement. I’ve tried to counter my gut-reaction (Did I feel something? Did I start thinking about dinner? Could the film have done anything better?) with more objective musings about quality of performances/diligence of production aspects/socio-political relevance of narrative. One of my critics (we all have them) pointed out he knows he’s going to think the polar opposite of any opinion I give – but the critic’s role as barometer against which the viewer can make his own decisions is arguably what it’s all about.
Due to space constraints, this is just a Top 20 (although arguably any list of notables is dilluted the longer it goes) so these represent only the 5- and 4.5- star films of my 2016. The absence of other popular critical contenders (La La Land, Arrival, Hell or High Water) is purely down to their having been not quite as strong as the Top 20. And one small confession: the absence from this list of the superb I, Daniel Blake was purely an oversight, having seen it when I was off-duty and not reviewing.
So take with a pinch of salt, or queue these up on Netflix: here are my top 20 flicks of the past year (plus I, Daniel Blake).
- Green Room
A bunch of punk-rock musicians take on the murderous might of a skinhead gang led by a disarming Patrick Stewart. So well-written! So breath-holding! So violent! So good I saw it twice just to check my initial proclamations that it would wind up being my Film of the Year. It did.
- The Revenant
Actually, until Green Room, I thought Leo’s dedicated performance (snow-trekking, bear-mauling, beard-growing) as a fur trapper caught up in Alejandro Iñárritu’s long tracking shots was going to take top prize. It’s still the most visually stunning and viscerally compelling film of 2016, and deservedly won three of the year’s top Oscars.
Harrowing and mesmerising in equal measure, Brie Larson indisputably earned her Oscar alongside a preternaturally talented 9-year old, playing a mother and son held captive in one room for several years. As well as being a terrific thriller, the story provoked some fascinating thoughts about how we take our understanding of the world around us for granted.
This animated children’s movie proved far too clever for adults to avoid, with its brilliantly-written subtext of racial profiling and human intolerance. An amazing script, great characterisation (including a plucky bunny who becomes the first female police officer in the titular city) and more cinematic in-jokes than you could spill your popcorn at, Zootopia delivered a timely message with great wit.
- Doctor Strange
Initially wary that Marvel would simply churn out another elongated fight scene of a movie, I should of course have known that Doctor Strange would have me at “Benedict Cumberbatch”. As the misanthropic uber-surgeon brought to his knees by his own hubris, the Brit went subtly American and considerably more spiritual in order to fight the evils of the dark world. A fabulous supporting cast, enormous wit, an excitingly elongated final fight scene – who could ask for anything more?
An awfully long time ago (February, in fact), Spotlight also won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay of its depiction of the Boston Globe’s investigation into child abuse allegations which overturned the Catholic Church. This wasn’t just a “worthy” movie – it was lauded for doing what the paper’s award-winning journalists achieved by telling an important story with strong performances and a gripping script.
Proving that fantastic films don’t need to be flashy, director Jim Jarmusch’s gentle love story of a bus-driving poet (the chameleonic Adam Driver) and his dream-seeking girlfriend living the simple life in New Jersey won accolades and proved that, after a helluva year like 2016, sometimes all we need is love.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
One of only two films this year I have unreservedly recommended to everyone I know, Wilderpeople unconditionally delighted New Zealand audiences with its odd-couple story of a foster child (break-out star Julian Dennison) and his reluctant guardian (an hilariously gruff Sam Neill) who go on the run from authorities through native bush. Scored to perfection by the Phoenix Foundation and a host of classic pop hits, and directed by Godzone’s beloved Taika “Thor” Waititi, we fell in love with local cinema all over again.
The only other “You have to see…” film on my list was David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s startling documentary which began as an investigation into competitive endurance tickling (yes, that’s a thing) and descended into a bone-chilling commentary on bullying. Not many films can take you from laugh-inducing to adrenaline-pumping, but the Kiwi filmmakers nailed it, before garnering critical acclaim all over the world. If you haven’t already, “you have to see…”
- Train to Busan
I’m going to round out my Top Ten with one of the few movies I didn’t review, and went to see just for kicks: a Korean zombie movie, no less, whose plot is as straightforward as its clichéd characters are endearing. Imagine you’re setting off on a long-awaited family visit, only to find a contagious member of the walking dead has managed to mind the gap between train and platform. Amidst the chaos that ensued, Train to Busan emerged as one of the most fun movies of the year.
- The BFG
I was quite unprepared for how inveigled I would be by Steven Spielberg’s retelling of the Roald Dahl classic from my long-ago childhood. It was thanks, no doubt, to a stunning performance by thespian Mark Rylance who nailed the voice and parlance, and managed to imbue a not-entirely-CGI character with extraordinary humanity. Definitely one for children aged 4 to 104.
- The Salesman
Asghar “A Separation” Farhadi has no equal when it comes to situating heavy emotional drama in the most domestic of contexts. In The Salesman, the Iranian writer-director’s latest perfectly-pitched offering saw a couple torn apart in the wake of a mysterious assault. Keeping the audience as much in the dark as his protagonists, he yet again excelled at tightening a noose around the well-observed narrative until a third act in which we couldn’t breathe.
- A Bigger Splash
Despite being a well-cast ensemble piece, it was Ralph Fiennes who stole every scene in this rollickingly entertaining glimpse into the life of a retired rocker (Tilda Swinton again), her toyboy lover (the dishy Matthias Schoenarts) and the outlandish ex-partner who threatens to ruin their idyllic Italian holiday.
There was no way Carol wasn’t going to be impressive, given its casting of the luminous Cate Blanchett in the titular role, and director Todd Haynes’ reliably beautiful rendering of her life as a suffocated society wife in 1950s New York. As Blanchett’s languid gaze fell in love with shop assistant Rooney Mara, we were helpless to fall in love with them both.
- Nocturnal Animals
Provocative and beautifully designed thanks to its director’s artistic leanings, Tom Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man proved an adrenaline-pumping portrait of pure evil and materialistic excess. An ice-cold gallery owner (Amy Adams) read her ex-husband’s new novel as we watched the nasty narrative play out on screen, and it provided my most uncomfortably visceral cinematic experience of the year.
- Eye in the Sky
Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman headlined this fantastically gripping moral thriller which unfolded in real time as allied military commanders sought to make a Red Button-type decision which would impact civilian lives. Utterly caught up in the dilemma, the audience switched sides each time the players received new information, giving us an affecting insight into the quandaries of playing war.
- The Nice Guys
Russell Crowe showed his humorous side and Ryan Gosling rolled out the goofy charm in this violent, witty comedy of curse words. What did we love most – the 1970s LA styling? The ridiculous plot? The odd couple’s hilarious and endearing chemistry? Whatever it was – these private eyes had us smiling.
- The Lady in the Van
Lovers of Dame Maggie Smith (and frankly, I thought I’d seen enough of her) were treated to her career-defining performance as Alan Bennett’s eponymous homeless woman in this fabulously entertaining and somewhat bittersweet rendition of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre play. With a host of familiar History Boy cameos and the wonderful words of Bennett to carry it, this was an unexpected joy.
- The Girl on the Train
I hadn’t read the bestselling novel, so the film was all the better for not knowing a) that Emily Blunt’s titular girl was supposed to be in London not New York and b) what the heck was going to happen. Yikes. In a similar tone to Gone Girl, the story wove a grieving alcoholic with credibility issues (a stunning performance by the incomparable Blunt) into an unsolved missing persons mystery, and gripped me until its gruesome end.
- Whisky Tango Foxtrot
Rounding out my list: For a bit of a laugh, plenty of swearing and a few explosions, I couldn’t go past Whisky Tango Foxtrot for pure entertainment. Tina Fey was hilarious as the unlikely war correspondent thrown into the deep-end of Middle Eastern conflict, who rapidly takes a shine to life in the “Kabubble” of drinking, partying and gunfire. This adaptation of a real-life reporter’s often hilarious anecdotes was at once fascinating, exhilarating, and just what a night at the flicks should be.