If you read the news on a daily basis, you’re likely to believe that 2016 is the worst year of our lifetimes so far. But if you have spent as much time as I have submerged into a cinema this year, you’ll also be aware that there have been plenty of masterful films to escape into. 2016 may be acknowledged by the mainstream as one of the all time worst years for blockbusters, but outside of disappointing franchise movies and endless streams of reboots, this was a quietly remarkable year for original cinema. That said, after compiling a top 20 in 2014 and a top 25 last year, I’ve decided to impose more strict list making this year and keep it at a simple top ten.
As I’m based in the UK, many of the biggest awards season contenders (including La La Land, Silence and Manchester by the Sea) haven’t opened here yet, so can’t be included. That said, awards season contenders I have managed to see at festivals, or films that were released widely internationally in 2016 without a UK release date, will be included in this list. Films from last year’s awards season were included in my hastily compiled best of 2015 list, so won’t be included here despite January-March UK release dates earlier this year. This means The Hateful Eight and Son of Saul have been robbed of a place in my chart- ditto The Lobster, a 2015 UK release which would have risen from number 7 to number 3 if counted as a 2016 release, which it has been in the US.
Confused about my criteria? We’re only just getting started. My best of list starts…. now!
What I said: “With each new movie, Studio Laika’s brand of stop-motion animation becomes more visually accomplished and jaw droppingly stunning, whilst the bigger the budgets get, the more artistically uncompromising their form of storytelling becomes. Kubo and the Two Strings is not a film that any other Western animation studio would ever dream of creating. In fact, the deeply philosophical tale told here is far closer to Studio Ghibli than anything Pixar, a team of well-known Miyazaki obsessives, would be able to come up with. Pixar have long held the monopoly on emotional complexities in what on first glance appear to be simplistic family films. Here, Laika have not only beaten them at their own game, but they now appear to be the natural successors to the recently out-of-operation Ghibli”.
What I said: “Not the best film of the year, but certainly the most essential- in these turbulent times, there is no doubt that it’s the lock for the Best Documentary Oscar too. Ava Duvernay remains one of the most intelligent and compassionate filmmakers working today; she’s righteously angry about the injustices in society, but she never lets that get in the way of a coherent and incisive probing into how it got this way. I wish I could review this masterful piece of filmmaking at an extended length- but I’m never going to have the first hand insight into the injustices heaped upon Black America on a daily basis, meaning that my two cents on 13th are all but irrelevant”.
What I said: “Like Boyhood, I imagine director Jim Jarmusch’s film will be derided by many as not containing any narrative to speak of- although like Richard Linklater’s masterwork, this is a stunningly dense look at everyday life, obscured by an all-American realism. Seeing the everyday through the perspective of a creative mind helps to transform a low key character study into something more akin to magical realism, with the end result being nothing short of utterly joyous. In the space of a week, Paterson’s life accumulates hope, happiness, tragedy and the most unexpected brick joke I’ve seen all year. After so many social realist dramas depicting the bleak side of life that have emerged recently, Jarmusch’s film is a welcome reminder that a working class hero is something to be. He may be divorced from his trademark style, but this is undoubtably the best film in Jarmusch’s back catalogue- and without a doubt one of the finest works of the year”.
7. Your Name
What I said: “Your Name is one of the most inventive animated films in recent memory. It undeniably feels like a singular work, even as it picks up influences from countless different sources; director Makoto Shinkai has singled out various pieces of Japanese manga and literature as inspirations for his work. Yet for a Western audience, Your Name feels like the result of taking the body swapping social awkwardness of Freaky Friday, the chronology skewering mind-bending sci-fi of Arrival, the keenly observed adolescent woes of John Hughes’ films and the breathtaking animation of Hayao Miyazaki and throwing it all into a blender. There are plenty of cinematic touchstones for which Your Name is comparable, but the end result still feels like the rarest find of all- a truly original work of mainstream cinema”.
What I said: “Moonlight could never fully live up to the widespread acclaim and hype- but the fact it manages to get close to cinematic perfection is a true testament to how strong the film is. This is utterly absorbing drama, as well as a universal treatise on finding your identity in an era of widespread adversity. If that wasn’t enough, it has the best hand job scene in cinema history too”.
5. The Witch
What I said: “Even as the film culminated in a ridiculous final sequence that moved from religion to folklore without a blink of an eye, I was fully enraptured, possessed by this unusual film. I’m not a religious person, yet I have no explanation for any of the events that unfolded within- and as they are based on real tales, it is hard to not desire an explanation for the satanic occurrences. No horror movie based on religious anxieties has ever made me think this way- no wonder it has gained the seal of approval from the satanic church”.
What I said: “Although the film will do nothing to calm doubts that he prioritises style over substance, the strength of the ensemble should highlight that Tom Ford knows how to work with actors. I personally found substance buried beneath this meticulously created oddball world of pulp thanks to the strong performances, but many others will find nothing more than cinematic artifice. Nocturnal Animals is as enjoyable as an arthouse movie can be; perfect for the Saturday night popcorn crowds and midweek, introspective cineaste audiences alike. Ford is no stranger to creating fashion statements- and here on the big screen, he’s delivered his most striking one yet”.
What I said: “Fans of source novel “Fingersmith” will likely be left as in the dark about the twists and turns in this narrative as those who are seeing this adaptation with no frame of reference. Although broadly similar initially, director Park Chan-Wook slowly transforms the story into one of his trademark revenge tales. The result is Park’s best directorial effort since Oldboy, a near perfect blend of awesome visual style and engaging narrative that will keep you on your toes for the entire running time. With his love of shocking narratives and twisty narratives, Park is a fully deserved heir to Hitchcock’s Master of Suspense title”.
What I said: “Marrying the hard boiled flavour of the pulpiest film noir with some of the goofiest and most violent slapstick ever committed to celluloid, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is the bad taste comedy of my dreams. Shocking bloodlust has really never been this funny- imagine a strange mashup of L.A Confidential and Itchy and Scratchy and you are halfway towards the offbeat brilliance here. But the real power in the movie is how, underneath the shocking laughs that fly faster and more frequent than any other recent comedy, he actually makes you emotionally invested in the characters, without ever redeeming them. It goes without saying that the title is ironic- these are the two biggest cinematic assholes in recent memory and boy, is the film all the better for it”.
What I said: “Arrival is director Denis Villeneuve’s first big budget blockbuster, yet it feels like one of the most arthouse science fiction films to arrive in the mainstream since 2001: A Space Odyssey 49 years ago. If Star Wars had never existed, you can bet your bottom dollar all sci-fi movies would be this intelligent. Sadly, in this reality, Arrival exists in a league of its own- a masterpiece of the genre that will continue to endure for years to come”.
So there you have it, my favourite films of the year. Thank you to everybody who has read my reviews in 2016; whether you’ve followed my blog or my Letterboxd (where you can find a fully ranked list of all 2016 movies I’ve seen) or checked out my articles at Film Inquiry and Cut Print Film, I’m incredibly grateful.
In 2017, I aim to make more video reviews after a positive response from my “trial” video back in November, which I will keep putting links to right here on the blog. Subscribe to my Youtube channel and in 2017 you should have regular reviews and Vlogs popping up in your subscriptions bar!
I also am over the moon to say that I’m now a Rotten Tomatoes certified film critic, thanks to writing for Film Inquiry- I’m already affecting the Tomatometer, as I’m currently one of only four critics who thought Toni Erdmann was a bit shit. Hopefully, the RT connection will lead to bigger and better things for my movie writing career in 2017 and I would love to take you all on the ride with me.
Thank you for reading and have a fantastic new year.