My Favourite Films of 2016
Even though 2016 was an absolute cluster-turd of a year, it still produced a slew of great movies. Listed below are my ten favourites, but first, the honourable mentions:
Captain America: Civil War – The Captain America Movies have always been Marvel’s strongest offerings and this third entry into the star spangled soldier’s saga only reinforces that. Full of the superhero soap opera we’ve come to expect, it cements Cap as the heart and soul of the Marvel universe, and introduced to the world a brand new Spidey. The Airport brawl just might be the best thing Marvel has done.
Star Trek Beyond – Miraculously made me care for this version of this universe and these characters after the abysmal Star Trek Into Darkness. Justin Lin takes over directing duties and brings a cohesion and stability to the narrative that previous entries have sorely lacked. Extra points for the fist pumping usage of The Beastie Boys.
Room – A mother and son’s whole world is the one room their Fritzel-like captor is keeping them in. In an inspired choice, much of the story is told from the young son’s point of view, who experiences this nightmarish life much like a fairytale. This prevents things from becoming overbearingly grim, but the fantastic performances from both leads never let us escape the reality of the situation.
Train To Busan – A zombie (of the fast variety) outbreak works its way from carriage to carriage on a speeding train as a father attempts to get his estranged daughter home to her mother. As you’d hope from any Zombie flick worth its salt, there are brains to go along with its bite, offering bloody dollops of social satire in between the gutting and the gouging.
The Witch – As much period familial drama as horror, The Witch is none the less a chilling tale about one family’s struggle with faith, and the Witch that comes to terrorise them. Black Philip, the family’s goat, might just be the most intimidating character of the year. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously” indeed.
And now onto the top ten:
10. PETE’S DRAGON
Light on plot but rich with feeling, Pete’s Dragon is a delightful little film that they don’t really seem to make any more. At its heart, a boy and his dog story, except here the dog is a colossal fire breathing dragon. Named Elliot, after a Pete’s favourite book, the dragon is a wonderful creation, its eyes full of life and emotion. The relationship between Pete and Elliot is the whole movie. Most of the film’s runtime is comprised of Pete and Elliot just hanging out, enjoying nature and each other’s company. Then, of course, “civilised” society stumble upon them and their lives are thrown into chaos. Pete’s Dragon is a touching family film with the most heart warming friendship of the year.
9. THE LOBSTER
A ruthless look at modern relationships that is as hilarious as it is quietly devastating. In The Lobster’s world being single is against the law. A single person has 45 days after a break up in which to find a new partner. If they fail to do so they are turned into an animal. In David’s (Colin Farrell) case, a lobster. The characters in The Lobster are almost all lost and confused, lonely, depressed, desperate, and completely defeated. The performances are all purposefully flat, and come across like children impersonating adult behaviour. Romantic partners’ compatibility is seemingly decided by surface similarities rather than chemistry, such as both needing to have lisps or limps. This satirical quirk pays off at the movie’s end, resulting in a scene both bleak and yet cautiously optimistic. The Lobster is a true oddity and like no other romantic comedy I’ve seen.
8. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
This technically got released in 2015 in the States, but didn’t get released here until January so it counts. Some may be surprised to see this on the list as I know a few people who loathe this movie. It is three hours trapped in a room with eight vile, racist, violent, cruel, and yes, hateful people who you wouldn’t really want to spend three minutes with. But it is also a powerful, important movie about society’s ills and the fact that racism is still very much alive and thriving. We’d like to think we’ve moved on from the attitudes of the 1800’s but have we really moved all that far? Tarantino posits we haven’t. This is still a world where a violent racist can become the law, acting on his prejudices in the name of justice. The characters may all be despicable but the performances are top notch, with Samuel L Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh in particular doing some of their best work. The script, as you’d expect from Tarantino, is razor sharp, and the heightened dialogue is fantastic. This may be a bleak, difficult film and it is undoubtedly ugly, but if 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that the truth is ugly.
7. GREEN ROOM
A punk band inadvertently end up performing for a bunch of Neo-Nazis and after witnessing something they wish they didn’t, they are forced into taking refuge in the green room of the club. Essentially a siege movie, Green Room is a tight, taut, tense, gruesome little movie with a punk rock heart and a chilling performance from Sir Patrick Stewart as the head Nazi. What this film does so well, and what so many siege movies often fail to do, is keep the central characters acting and not reacting. The punk band may be the ones trapped but they are driving the action. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is so important to this film’s success. Every decision they make reveals character. It tells us something more about them, helps us identify, and ultimately put ourselves in their shoes. It creates empathy for those characters. Which means when they are put through the wringer, we are too. When they are in pain (and holy hell they are in pain. This film is grim), we are too. Green Room is so well put together that it seems easy, but this is high level craft. Plus it has the best last line of the year.
6. SWISS ARMY MAN
Who would have thought that a movie featuring a farting corpse being used as a jet-ski would also be one of the most emotionally affecting films of the year? Not me. But I was wrong, because Swiss Army Man is a bizarre, wonderful, bat shit insane entreaty for loving one’s self no matter how strange we may be. Paul Dano’s Hank is stranded on an island, about to kill himself when he sees a body (Daniel Radcliffe) has washed up on shore. That body, later named Manny, saves Hank’s life repeatedly and in more ways than one. He becomes a life raft, a canteen, a compass, a machine gun, and so much more. Manny represents every emotion, desire, need, and bodily function every single human being on the planet goes through, and yet we tell ourselves we cannot talk about. And until we come to love ourselves, even those parts of ourselves, then we can never be happy. The fact that this film manages to probe so deeply into depression and overcoming it, or at least learning to live with it, that it so ably examines what it means to be human, whilst remaining so singularly weird is an absolute miracle. It is fantastic. And quick side note, Daniel Radcliffe is a treasure, his post-Potter career is full of these offbeat indie projects. He’s just doing whatever he finds interesting and I thank him for it.
Another movie from 2015 that was released over here this year. I love Rocky. Both the series and the character. The original film is one of the best sports movies ever made, and I genuinely think there is an argument to be made for Rocky Balboa as one of the better characters in all of film. Hyperbole? Possibly. But the series means a lot to me none the less, which is why I was apprehensive when I heard they were making a movie about Apollo Creed’s son. It seemed like a cynical cash grab, just another way of stringing out the series and rehashing the formula. But, as I so often am, I was wrong. There is nothing cynical about Creed. It feels like a labour of love, from someone who understands what makes the original work, whilst also saying something different. This is a film about legacy, about stepping out from the shadow of those that came before us and making our own mark on the world. Stallone also gives one of his finest performances as the aging Balboa. But this is Michael B. Jordan’s show and he shines as Adonis Creed. His frustration, anger, hope for his future, and need to be his own man is palpable in every scene. Great film, amazing fight sequences, and a fantastic addition to the franchise. When that theme kicks in during the final training montage, I’m not going to lied, I cried tears of joy.
4. HELL OR HIGH WATER
A modern day western about two bank robbing brothers trying to raise the cash to keep their land. A deceptively simple tale of old fashioned cops and robbers where capitalism is the true agent of doom. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fantastic as the brothers, and Jeff Bridges brings some true grit as the Texas Ranger chasing them. Pine is the stoic, reserved younger brother, whose rage is simmering just below the surface, and Foster is the hot head just along for the ride. Both have a believable brotherly chemistry that even when they are antagonising each other, still carries a strong sense of kinship. The story it’s telling may be simple, but it is far from slight. Not a scene goes by without a sly commentary on America’s economic decline, the eradication of the middle class, and the subjugation of the lower class. The action is realistic yet thrilling, and the violence comes in shocking bursts. The final scene is a subtle acting master class and reminds us that Jeff Bridges is one of the finest actors of any generation.
3. THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a bad egg. He’s disobedient, steals, spits, runs away, throws rocks, and even loiters. But to hear Ricky tell it, he didn’t choose that life, it chose him. Unfortunately, nobody else chooses him and he has bounced from foster family to orphanage to foster family. Until Bella and Hec Faulkner (Sam Neil) take him in to raise on their farm. For the first time in his young life he has a family. Sadly, it doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike and Ricky and Uncle Hec to end up on the run in the woods, subjects of a country wide manhunt. What follows is an oddball adventure following two outcasts, one a chubby, wannabe gangsta, and the other a cantankerous old man who find an unlikely kindred spirit in the other. If that all sounds a little formulaic, that’s because it is. But the film never lets sentimentality overwhelm it, and keeps a skewed sense of humour throughout. Dennison and Neil make a surprisingly effective double act, with Ricky’s misguided optimism bouncing off Hec’s grizzled demeanour. Ricky Baker might be something of a juvenile delinquent, but he’s also only of the most entertaining characters of the year. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a gem that will have you laughing one moment, and then lying about having something in your eye the next.
2. THE NICE GUYS
To quote my review from earlier in the year “The Nice Guys is the type of movie that will have you laughing one second and wincing the next. It is grim and nihilistic and yet a total joy. It acknowledges that we, as a species, are pretty much scum, but finds something to love about us anyway. The Nice Guys is convoluted and yet captivating. It’s messy, but delightfully so.” The film follows Russel Crowe’s Jackson Healy, a heavy handed enforcer who just wants to feel useful, and Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, a lying, cheater, heavy drinking PI who uses his 13 year old daughter (Angourie Rice, the film’s best character) as his driver. Over the course of the film the three of them navigate the shady world of politics, porn, and LA parties in an attempt to find a missing girl. Thematically there is a lot going on in The Nice Guys. The plot is largely about the fall of Detroit’s motor industry (and therefore in part about the death of America as a titan of industry), but the joy really comes from watching Gosling and Crowe interact. Both men are clearly relishing their characters, Crowe injecting some heart into Healy, and Gosling bringing a delightful whiny cowardice to March. It is funny but not flippant, never shying away from the violence that seems to happen to anyone who comes near these two men. “And that is the joy of The Nice Guys, it acknowledges the repugnant world we live in, and that even its heroes are damaged, but isn’t willing to completely give in. Things may never change, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to change them.”
My favourite film of the year is also an extremely timely one, dealing with xenophobia, the fear of the unknown, and the absolute paramount importance of communication. When twelve extraterrestrial spacecrafts appear at different, seemingly random points around the globe, the military comes to expert linguist professor Louise Banks (the ever excellent Amy Adams) in the hopes she can help communicate with the aliens. Surprisingly, the film’s extended discussion of semiotics isn’t dry or overly intellectual, but thrilling. Language is the most powerful tool we have, and it is fundamental in interacting with those different to us. We find common ground, an area where our experiences overlap, and we build our understanding of each other from there. But don’t be fooled into thinking Arrival is nothing more than an intellectual exercise. There is a strong beating heart beneath the film’s cold, clinical exterior. Unfortunately, to say anymore would be to spoil much of the surprise. This is a film best served going in cold. Denis Villeneuve (who made it onto last year’s list with Sicario, the dude is a talent) has crafted a sublime film with an important message, filled with stunning visuals, career best performances from Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and an emotional centre I haven’t stopped thinking about since I left the screening. The year’s best. See it now.