Best Films of 2016
This was a great year for film. In the Top 10 below I found at least 3 instant classics, with only one of them obscure enough to qualify as a quirk of personal taste (Heart of a Dog).
My criteria were really very simple: a) did it entertain me? and b) did it provide food for thought? If the answer to both was yes then you’ll see them appearing at the top end of my list. If they marked highly on either aspect alone then you’ll see them lower down, although it must be said that entertainment is generally of greater value to me (exceptions: Son of Saul, 13th, Fire at Sea).
List-making is a little bit silly – can anyone plausibly state that Deadpool is a more worthwhile film than Spotlight? I believe so myself, upon comparison within their respective genres, although pitting them against each other is still a daft game indeed.
But we like daft games, don’t we? And why not? In the next few weeks Oscars buzz will help to drive up profits for challenging motion pictures that would never have found funding otherwise. The Academy’s list-making will therefore have real world consequences for both professional filmmakers and the open-minded public.
So my reason for this list is hopefully to introduce you to some new films, and to assure you of the quality of others that you may well have heard of (Bad Neighbours 2 really is worth a look-in).
My only credentials for offering these up to you is a lifelong, undying fascination with the medium of film and a hunger for keeping up with all of the major new releases that places me, I humbly suggest, above the level of average moviegoer in terms of knowledge and experience.
But the worth of my opinion undoubtedly ranks below that of a professional critic – time and money are always an impediment. So although I do my best, it’s simply impossible to keep up with everything, and for that reason I heartily welcome any of your recommendations from this year’s crop. And because I’m certain that I’ve missed a few, this list is likely to evolve and change over the years – who knows if there isn’t another film lurking out there, like Leo’s dreaded bear, to replace my current number one?
Director’s names are listed in brackets and links to my reviews are provided where they exist. This list is compiled based on films released in UK cinemas in 2016.
1: The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
I hope this doesn’t go down in history just as the film that won Leo the Oscar, because it’s so much more than that. The true triumph is Iñárritu’s, who along with (cinematographer) Emmanuel Lubezki mounts not just the most visually spectacular and exciting action film of recent times, but shoots it through with an emotional rigour that never lets you forget the terrible, lasting damage that animals can wreck upon one another. Nature’s heart of darkness hasn’t been so vividly exposed since Apocalypse Now or Deliverance.
2: Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)
Laurie Anderson’s tribute to the passing of her beloved pet terrier Lolabelle is a documentary of unusually personal poignancy. Suffused with a warmth that can only be described as love, it tries to understand death with the aid of Buddhist philosophy and cyber-technology – which are more closely related than you might think. Still, you don’t need to be spiritual, or care remotely about our digital era, to be profoundly moved.
3: Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)
An adult animation about depression, mental illness, romantic disillusionment, and the struggle to relate and communicate? That is also very funny? This film is as anomalous as its hero believes himself to be. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before it, this Kaufman weird-out has its moments of freakish romanticism – but be warned, there’s a cynical sting to this particular tale.
4: American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
Teenagers travel across the American Midwest selling magazines and jiving to hip-hop in this daringly epic drama from the UK’s Andrea Arnold. Amongst their number is newcomer Sasha Lane and a pony-tailed Shia LaBoeuf, who kindle the kind of romance that is as fractious as the film’s narrative and as fucked-up as life is for these poverty-stricken youths. Arnold has crafted a Grapes of Wrath for displaced millennials everywhere, and it’s to her considerable credit that the result is less harrowing than serenely beautiful.
5: Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams)
That comma is where this documentary lies: somewhere between life and animation. Its subject, autistic young adult Owen Suskind, uses Disney movies to learn how to talk, cope with bullying, and later to try and understand the world. Believe what you want about the influence of big business upon art: just witness first-hand the impact that the biggest of animation studios has had upon one man’s life.
6: Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
Not only is this a major attempt to empathise with the plight of refugees, its look at a Sri Lankan family united not by blood but fake passports prompts fascinating questions about how easily the bonds between us can be faked/performed. It derails spectacularly in the final act, true, but the overall effect is too enlightening to ignore.
7: Little Men (Ira Sachs)
This sweet, tough, and tender little (85 mins) indie drama details the destruction wrought by financial disputes in a struggling Brooklyn community. The friendship of two boys in particular is put under strain as the ‘adult’ world of their parent’s debt, economic insecurity, and fear of failure intrudes upon them. The film (and cast) may be little, but its heart is large.
8: Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
Encouragingly, here is yet another strong debut from a female director, the Turkish-born Ergüven. A sign that decades of outspoken feminism is finally having an impact on a stubbornly male-dominated industry? I hope so, just as this film offers a hopeful take on the uprising of young women in Turkish society. Their degradation through arranged marriages is unflinchingly portrayed, which only makes their moments of liberation shine all the more brightly.
9: Your Name (Makoto Shinkai)
Animes have such disregard for the physical world’s rules that they can leave one agape like a child. As this body-swap comedy mutates into a cosmic disaster movie it’s hard for anyone acquainted with Japanimation to be surprised, yet equally hard not to be totally disoriented and compelled. A sensation in Japan, this is destined for legendary cult status here.
10: Deadpool (Tim Miller)
Moronic. Offensive. Childish. Blasphemous. Cheap. Crude. Hyperviolent. OTT. 1D. Low-tech. Overhyped. Mildly psychotic. Obvious. Cynical. Cash-in. Stupid. Stupid. Very, very stupid. Oh, how I love it.
11: Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
12: Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (Eva Husson)
13: Son of Saul (László Nemes)
14: Zootropolis (Byron Howard, Rich Moore)
16: Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)
17: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
18: The Little Prince (Mark Osborne)
19: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
20: The Big Short (Adam McKay)
21: Bridget Jones’s Baby (Sharon Maguire)
22: Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier)
23: Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
24: Moana (Ron Clements, John Musker)
25: My Scientology Movie (John Dower)
26: Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears)
27: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (Ron Howard)
28: Café Society (Woody Allen)
29: Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
30: Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
31: Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen)
32: Ghostbusters (Paul Feig)
33: Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
34: Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton)
35: Bad Neighbours 2 (Nicholas Stoller)
36: Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)
37: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates)
38: Eddie the Eagle (Dexter Fletcher)
39: The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Best TV Shows of 2016
This list is a little more off-the-cuff than the above and probably less useful as a result. TV shows are such a big time commitment that I only really start one if I expect that I’m going to love it, and tend to jump ship quickly if I find it disengaging. Which is probably my loss, as I’ve been assured that Mr. Robot and Westworld are much better than their opening episodes which caused me to give up. Here are 10 that do carry my seal of approval, for what it’s worth, the picks that I can safely say are as brilliant as any of the films that I’ve seen all year. The most useful point of reference here is probably the network/channel/online service, so I’ve put these in brackets. Links to reviews also provided.
1: O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)
This 8 hour documentary, exhaustive yet never less than compulsive viewing, about O.J.’s rise and fall has the arc of a great tragedy and the venomous aftershock of knowledge that it’s all terribly real. Better on the complexities of race and O.J.’s persona than FX’s fictional miniseries (see below), it never lets us forget how a nation’s emotional involvement would come to overtake cold hard evidence in the Trial of the Century. As such, it’s essential.
2: Stranger Things (Netflix)
The kind of quirky joy that pops up and makes your Netflix subscription worth it every once in a while. The unnaturally gifted cast of pre-teens giving their all combine to make this essential viewing alone. Yet it’s the melding of supernatural elements and the very human fear of loss that keeps you hooked.
3: Orange is the New Black: Season 4 (Netflix)
Netflix have also gifted us TV’s best current ensemble comedy, which hit its peak by tackling a nation’s racial fault lines head-on. The final, eruptive, frightening scene is a better summation of where we’ve arrived at in 2016 than anything I’ve seen – with only one difference. The white man is still holding the gun.
4: The Night Of (HBO)
Another show to inform us all about the flaws in the American criminal justice system, with defence and prosecution taking turns to throw stories at the jury until one of them sticks. We know the story involves a Pakistani-American student who awakens to discover his one-night-stand brutally murdered. But like the jury, we are left to work out the rest for ourselves, and to ask how far our shifting assumptions come to bear on any comprehension of the ‘facts’.
5: Planet Earth II (BBC)
More popular than The X Factor? Hell to the yeah – though its creation of pocket-stories is just as manipulative in its own way, and its tricks of tension and release are nearly as old-fashioned. Who cares? To deny its beauty and staying power would be to show little interest in our planet – which to any human with a love for being alive would be ridiculous.
6: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
An important addition to the O.J. saga because it takes a calm, unsensationalist approach and lets us see how misogyny might just run deeper than racism in America’s heart. So a case that should have been about the appalling abuse of Nicole at the hands of her husband, superstar or not, turned into a referendum on the LAPD – a debate worth having, though not in the courtroom of a suspected murderer. Also made clear is how an angry male lawyer (Johnnie Cochran) became a media celebrity, whilst an angry female lawyer (Marcia Clark) was chastised and subjected to moronic critiques about her appearance. We need to be reminded of these double standards, which course through society to this day. And though Cuba Gooding Jr. struggles to convey the charisma that made O.J. so dangerous, outstanding performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance in particular, combined with excitable camerawork and a sharp attention to detail, help to make the case for the People behind the media circus behind the most infamous of all court cases.
7: The Crown (Netflix)
Leave your prejudices at the palace gates and you’ll most likely enjoy Netflix’s priciest drama. The focus is on the weight of the crown, with a recently coronated Elizabeth beginning to realise how her royal duties might come to impede her personal life. Yet clashes with Churchill, a tempestuous Margaret, and a caddish Philip, amongst others, bring enough intrigue to ensure that The Crown is never a burden to its viewers as well.
8: The Get Down (Netflix)
A bit of a mess – a clash of disparate styles much like hip-hop itself (though less disciplined), I nevertheless have high hopes for this show’s future. Baz Luhrmann’s opening episode is his strongest showing since Moulin Rouge!, wildly kinetic and with a lust for urban street life. It captures the excitement of the dawning of a new, authentically working class cultural wave.
9: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2 (Netflix)
Endless optimism should get boring fast. Not when you’ve got Tina Fey on writing duties.
10: War and Peace (BBC)
Sexed-up Tolstoy turns out just fine, perhaps because Tolstoy was authentically sexed-up himself in the early years. That it comes from the BBC is more of a surprise; an interesting sign that their period dramas are moving both forwards and backwards.