The “2016 sucked, but at least the culture was good” sentiment was played out even before the narcissist-in-chief became the U.S. Commander-in-Chief; a man so comically awful that the story behind his rise to power won’t stop being a tragedy about the fall of humanity until long after humanity has fallen.
In fact when you think about it, the idea that we are blaming 2016 for the sadness and nastiness of our species is a bit weird. Everything that occurred didn’t just occur in 2016, it occurred in January, November, June, probably August because there was almost nothing that didn’t go wrong. It happened on Wednesdays, Sundays, and Fridays. And it’ll keep happening because, as one of the films on this list will show, time doesn’t just happen in a linear continuum. It’s not in fact, divided into logical chunks that make it easier to catalogue: good, bad, landmark, unimportant, uneventful, triumphant, despairing.
Fuck the guy who wrote that, Carrie Fisher is dead now, have some bloody respect for people’s feelings.
Jesus you’re a dick when you’re striving to to be profound, who do you think you are Matt Healy?
Yes 2016 was full of hard and horrible days, and that won’t end with the year’s turnover; if anything 2017 may just be worse, if we can hold onto our shock and anger, rather than being numbed to it. And yet, here I am insisting that it does make sense to catalogue by time in the moment is our culture, because fuck everything I say. Films at their best, whether as top-shelf entertainment, daring indie debuts, shocking documentaries, or offbeat and unique takes on established genres by auteurs, usually come packaged with the ability to refresh our faith in humanity and each other. Even the easily dismiss-able blockbuster, derided in both good and bad years, is a perfect vehicle for theme and big statements – and when these vehicles are functioning at 100%, the results can often be awe-inspiring, long after the lights go up and we emerge from the screening room.
With all that in mind, here are my 15 favourite films of 2016. There were more than a few completely worthy entries that didn’t make the cut (which you’ll find at the end); furthermore, because this is my list, I’ve bent the rules a bit. Any film released in 2016, whether in cinemas or on VOD, is eligible. And since I’ve spent the past three months in Spain, any films released here but not in the UK in 2016 are also eligible, because I saw them.
Now then, without further ado…
The only documentary on this list (because I saw shockingly few this year) is a hell of a story, one that gets surprising from about five minutes in and doesn’t stop getting weird. When New Zealand journalist David Farrier sees a video of competitive tickling,
he thinks that it’d be perfect for an end of broadcast fluff piece. Until he gets a response from the representatives of Jane O’Brien media, who organised the videos.
While the grand conspiratorial nature of the story does eventually get smaller and more personal, rather than expanding into some absurd Illuminati web, it’s arguably more scary for it. Touching on prejudice, manipulation, the social taboos that we fear, and how that fear can be used against us, it’s an incredible story, unfolding as we follow Farrier in his investigation. Incredibly unsettling and excellently edited, it really has to be seen to be believed.
14. White Girl
One of the best debuts , and best directed films of the yea
r, comes from Elizabeth Wood. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of privilege, parties, and the social-power dynamics in New York, and by extension America. Morgan Saylor is astonishing as the titular Leah, a college student working an internship at a magazine in the city, living in “like Queens” for the summer. She falls for the dangerous aura around the charming Blue (Brian Marc, who steals the show), and for the drugs he can get them. But after one night of excessive partying, Leah goes to extreme lengths to right the wrongs.
This is a tricky balancing act for the director and star – making the protagonist compelling and sympathetic, no matter her obvious ignorance and more selfish impulses. Leah is an extraordinary character, who revels in her new environment whilst being very much unaware of where she is. Some of the beats that she goes through are sure to be controversial, yet it’s really amazing how it never feels like a form of just punishment, nor like Leah’s being let off easily – and when you think it’s all over, Wood turns it back on for one final gut-punch that absolutely destroyed me. The film would be an astounding debut if it was just this expertly balanced story and script; what sets it apart is the formal confidence of Wood, unafraid to use colour and light in more obvious and dramatic ways, and a constantly engaging cinematography, that never lets us forget what we’re seeing, and the control being wielded.
13. Sausage Party
Here’s one of the first genuinely subversive films on this list, that also manages to be everything and more of what you’d expect from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. After 2013’s This Is The End made self-satirical jabs at Hollywood, as well as depicting a vivid biblical apocalypse (not so funny now!), the writing pair returned (ceding directorial duties to Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon) for this preposterous parody of both Pixar animations’ “What are pizza boxes thinking about?” method of story conceptualizing, that then follows through to the bonkers end without once losing its thematic footing.
Seth Rogen voices Frank, a hot dog in a supermarket pining to fill Kristen Wiig’s Brenda the Bun. But they can’t touch until they have been chosen by the Gods to leave the store, and go to The Great Beyond. In an opening Alan Menken musical number that leaves few stereotypes untouched, the stage is set, and what follows can best be described as the most laugh-filled time I’ve spent in a cinema in the last five years, quite possible ever. Mining every scenario for genital, toilet, racial, satirical, political, physical, and outright weird humour, Sausage Party is a bitingly smart and gloriously silly film, whose outright anti-theist sentiments make it probably the boldest American animation in years. And did I mention it’s fucking hysterical?
12. Green Room
I’ve probably been accused a fair few times of reading too much into films that otherwise didn’t deserve it (wait till I tell you my theory about the underrated Idris Elba actioner Bastille Day); it’s refreshing however when a film really doesn’t need to have a larger thematic discussion at play to be incredible. Green Room is a perfectly structured film about rather aimless punk rocker youths (band “The Ain’t Rights”) that fall into hot water, when they realise all too late that the Neo-Nazis they’ve decided to play for in order to acquire easy cash, really are as bad as the N-word would imply.
Boasting not one, but three outright brilliant performances in Imogen Poots’ tough-as-nails ex-Nazi girlfriend who gets thrown in with the group in their eponymous backstage hold-up, Patrick Stewart’s quietly menacing, almost bored Nazi leader, and the late Anton Yelchin, possibly never better as the nervy front-man of the band who can’t decide on his desert island disks. This is a brutal and often disgustingly horrific film, yet remains a realistic and all the more thrilling film.
11. Pete’s Dragon
The measure of a good adventure and blockbuster is how greatly it affects you in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and how long it takes for that effect to deteriorate. Pete’s Dragon – a more quiet, intimate, and touching summer movie we haven’t seen all year – inspired me as I was walking home after the film to such a degree that I looked for and found the shapes of dragons in every cloud, every wisp I saw in the sky. This was the best summer adventure of the year, and no-one went to see it, opting instead it seems, for the more recognisable (and also excellent) The Jungle Book.
The plot sees a young boy (Pete, played by Oakes Fegley) discovered in a U.S. National Park by Bryce Dallas Howard’s Park Ranger Grace. Pete has been missing for six years, after a car accident killed his parents; this prompts questions of how a boy could possible survive for so long. The answer is in the title: a great, furry green dragon named Elliot, a creature of whom Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) has long told stories. Director David Lowery clearly has a lot to say about growing up, nostalgia, family, and imagination; his film is completely sincere and utterly captivating, especially considering that the only real action sequence of major stakes doesn’t occur until the very last act.
For the second year in a row, a Michael Keaton starring film won the Oscar for Best Picture, but this was the one which really deserved it. Spotlight is a far more formally restrained film than Birdman, but its subtler camerawork is easily as masterfu. Nearly two straight hours of journalists investigating, interviewing, and debating with each other about a story we already know the outcome to, and it couldn’t be more compelling.
Following the The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team investigation in 2001 of a systemic cover-up of child molesting priests by the Catholic Church and local politicians and law firms. Part of what makes the story so engaging is the acting: Liev Schreiber in particular impresses as Marty Baron, the newly arrived editor-in-chief, while the aforementioned Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James all convince as the unfolding story begin to take its toll. I actually saw this first in December 2015: while the inherent subtlety of the form required to tell a story about solid investigative work certainly makes it less overtly memorable, it’s one of few films that hasn’t depreciated at all in the long time since I first saw it.
9. Love & Friendship
The poster for Love & Friendship, along with perhaps the worst and most inaccurate title of the year, made Whit Stilman’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan look like the least interesting version that this material could be possible. When in reality, this is a delicious, bitter, hilarious, and devious work of reinvention, fitting of the main character.
Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow who has landed herself in hot water when accused of improper behaviour with a Lord Manwaring. Relocating to her brother-in-law’s home with her shy daughter Frederica, she sets about manipulating everyone around her to ensure her family some security, not to mention for the pure fun of it all. Whit Stilman brings a great deal of subversion to genre conventions, with portrait and descriptive title introductions to nearly every character, no matter how minor, but it’s the editing that makes this Love & Friendship quite so delightfully mercurial (in how just enough information is left off-screen to leave the audience gossiping for detail as much as the characters), and the performances that make it a riot. Beckinsale has never been better as the almost villainous Susan, the MVP for the sheer amount of bad behaviour she has to pull off without tipping into complete parody. Tom Bennett meanwhile, is scene-stealing, possibly year stealing, as Sir James Martin, the biggest fool of the bunch.
8. Everybody Wants Some!!
Everybody Wants Some!! would be a borderline inappropriate movie to make in any other year, but in this one, when one of the most vile advocates of stereotypical masculine behaviours has ripped apart the United States, emboldening misogynists and racists everywhere, where a famous video of one such jocular meathead bro screaming “Build that wall… TRUMP!” has by now become a go-to representation of such sub-human toxicity? Yeah, it’d be outright horrific to see a team of baseball players goofing off together and pursuing women with all the persistency of dogs.
But if Richard Linklater makes that movie, you don’t simply get a seductive take on something so toxic, a la Entourage. Instead you get the masculine, without the toxic. Charting the last week of freedom before the start of college for a baseball team, as seen through the eyes of freshman Jake (Blake Jenner), everything about this film skews masculine and heteronormative: the men are all insanely athletic, display little academic intelligence, and seem to exist for the sole purpose of drinking, partying, dancing, pranking, and fucking; the girls, barring Zoey Deutch’s Beverly, exist for much the same, entirely consensual activities. Yet from a soundtrack that’s joyous from the first second, to the subtle varieties of charisma and character offered by Blake Jenner, Wyatt Russell, Tyler Hoechlin, J. Quinton Johnson, and Glen Powell, to the intentionally homoerotic gaze applied to the male form, to the laidback coherency of the whole film, as it explores identity, masculinity, love, music, and all the power of those moments in between life’s big moments, this might actually be the greatest “Fuck you!” to Trumpism’s central thesis of dumb male rage.
The second feature-debut on this list, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is the new masterpiece of modern horror films. Eschewing the more modern horrors of It Follows‘ as seen through notalgia, or The Babadook’s cold and singular take on depression, Eggers goes as old-school as anyone else has, in mining New England folklore and legends, filling his film with historical detail from set design, script, to its very lighting. The horrific question at its heart is more than “What is lurking in the woods?”; for Anya Taylor-Joy’s growing Thomasin, the question’s “Is it worse out here?”. Although, there was something about “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”, come to think of it.
In the 1630s, after being ejected from their puritan New England settlement for the father’s (Ralph Inerson) insults of accusations of impurity towards the leadership, a family settles near a foreboding woods several miles from civilisation. But when the baby is stolen by a witch (that the family do not see), the family slowly tears itself apart through stress, suspicion, and the changes that young Thomasin and her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) are undergoing. The Witch is nasty and cruel, oozing dread from every frame and out of every performance. The very end is one of the most daring closing statements I’ve seen in a horror film, as evil as it is triumphant.
6. The Invitation
Here’s a terrific horror that was almost overshadowed by the context in which I saw it – withdrawing from the internet on the 23rd of June at 22:00, to watch The Invitation, I finished the film two hours later with my jaw incapable of rising. And the following morning was the most politically despairing result of my lifetime, as the UK foolishly voted to leave the EU. Considering the thematic weight of director Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, it’s such a devious coincidence, it’s almost as if 2016 itself planned it.
Taking place over one night, when Will (Logan Marshall-Green), a man suffering through grief and depression, is invited by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman) to a dinner party with their old friends, the less said about the film the better. But over the first hour and a half, we follow Will as he grows increasingly suspicious, through the conversations he has with every one of the guests and hosts. You may be able to suss outwhere it’s headed, but exactly how far it’s willing to go is quite amazing, and it results in my favourite final shot of the year.
Making a good film out of ostensibly everyday life is probably one of the hardest-to-achieve cinematic ambitions there is: how can you form a story, much less a plot, out of a series of loosely (if at all) connected events, that are not so extreme as to appear out of the ordinary, nor so everyday that the experience of them leaves the audience bored and wondering what the point of it all was. But when it’s done well, it can appear so effortless that it’s easy to discount the result as either a fluke or enjoyably empty. Paterson is effortless, honest, and heartwarming.
Following seven days in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in the town of Paterson, New Jersey, and his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), Paterson is concerned with intimacy, routine, the small American town; it’s an ode to the working class, creativity and its spirit, and to the poetry in everyday events. Driver is astonishing as the title character, a poet in his spare time (whose favourite book of poetry is also named Paterson, funnily enough), though reticent about his talents and content to keep quiet. Meanwhile Farahani, in one of the year’s breakout performances, plays what feels like director Jim Jarmusch’s commentary on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, less manic now that she’s married – and Farahani’s Laura is infinitely sweeter and smarter than that description makes it seem.
The only film on this list that hasn’t yet been released in the UK, Elle is easily the darkest, most twisted, and most gleefully fucked-up film on this list. Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is the wealthy CEO of a French game development company. She works with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) whilst pursuing a sexual relationship with Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel). She’s dismissive of her foolish son (Jonas Bloquet) and his pregnant girlfriend (Alice Isaaz), cruel to her wildly inappropriate mother (Judith Magre), and in general is an all-round bitch. And at the very beginning of the film, she is raped in her own home by a masked intruder, in brutal fashion.
Over the remaining two hours of the film, Huppert and director Paul Verhoeven lead us to discover the lengths that Michèle will go to to uncover her rapist, as well as how far she’ll go to mess with the other men around her – chief amongst them her son, in probably the most hysterical sub-plot of a very funny film. This isn’t just a rape-revenge movie, it’s almost a parody of French middle-class ennui movies. Is Michèle a bitch, a sociopath, a serial killer, or just the end result of a woman in power: sick and tired of all the micro-aggressions she receives from men, deciding to push back? I don’t know, but if this provactive, possibly-feminist-possibly-not masterpiece says anything, it’s that men are seldom properly conditioned to tell the difference.
3. Captain America: Civil War
It’s difficult to say how Civil War stacks up in comparison to other top-tier superhero films; against the rest of 2016, it’s unquestionably the best, but it’s hardly a fair fight. Even compared to the rest of Marvel Studios’ production, it’s difficult to say: it’s not as much of a party as The Avengers, not quite as politically clever as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and not the weirder intergalactic fun of Guardians Of The Galaxy. But Civil War manages to be incredible because not only is it the ultimate justification for the multi-franchise continuity experiment of the pioneering studio, it’s a legitimately exciting and smart film that subtly critiques its predecessors’ destruction heavy attitudes, and the audiences themselves who line up to see superheroes fight each other.
In the destructive aftermath of a small Avengers mission in Lagos, the United Nations draw up “The Sokovia Accords” as a means of placing checks on the super-team to prevent disasters like their namesake. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) rejects these restraints, suspicious of the national and personal agendas that could drive the team in the future; Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) meanwhile, guilt-ridden over his role in Sokovia’s destruction, backs them fully. And when Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in an attack on the UN, it’s inevitable that these friends will find themselves on opposite sides of an escalating argument. Downey has never been better as Tony Stark, and both the tightly structured script and Evans’ graceful, profound goodness helps keep the film from expanding and collapsing under the weight of so many different, integral characters. The introduction of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and a new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are thrilling and excellently delivered, but whilst the mid-film airport showdown is possible the greatest superhero action scene ever, it’s the emotionally turbulent final showdown between friends that makes Civil War one of the best films of 2016.
Arrival is one of those movies that it’s very easy to talk about by only ever talking about the last act reveal. What happens, and what it means to the audience after having watched all the proceedings that led to it, is so staggering and enormous that it completely eats up the rest of the conversation about the film. Which is terrific, as it’s a genuinely bold and
ambitious sci-fi story moment, that allows the film to go from a puzzling procedural about first contact and the necessity of language and cooperation, to a truly monumental statement about language, life, and the very structures by which we observe both of these concepts. However, all that talk of the last-act reveal makes it easy to forget everything
else worth discussing.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a university professor of linguistics recruited by Forest Whitaker’s Army Colonel Weber to aid in the first contact efforts between the United States and one of 12 spaceships that have arrived at key points all around the globe. With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise works to establish communication with the heptapod aliens, and find out what they want on Earth. And from Adams’ nuanced and heart-breaking performance, to Bradford Young’s astonishing cinematography, to the continued excellence of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack work with Denis Villeneuve after Sicario, Arrival is crafted to perfection from top to bottom. It’s an adult minded drama in the sci-fi genre, that doesn’t feature explosions or action sequences in an effort to make it more easily approachable for a blockbuster crowd. This was probably the best grown-up film of 2016.
2015 might have hosted some of the more memorable franchise reboots (Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens all earning degrees of critical praise and large box office numbers), but whilst 2016 had more than its fair share of summer blockbuster misfires aiming for the same thing, the start of the year also saw possibly the best of the lot, and easily the best 7th installment in a franchise in decades. Being good on those terms would be enough to make Creed a good film, especially compared to the other
franchise reboots or legacy-sequels of the year. But director Ryan Coogler, following the stunning Fruitvale Station, made one of the year’s most crowd-pleasing movies, whilst also making a meta-commentary about the film’s very existence as a legacy movie, amidst anis unapologetically black, truly diverse film.
Adonis ‘Donnie’ Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has been fighting his whole life out of instinct: born out of an affair by legendary boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), raised in poverty initially, before the death of his mother and a stint in juvenile institutions led to Creed’s widow adopting him. But in the wealthy lifestyle of his L.A. family he can’t find anyone willing to train him, so he moves to Philadelphia to track down his father’s old rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). And from there unfolds my favourite movie of 2016: with a career-best heartbreaking turn by Stallone, the superstar charisma of Jordan, one of the year’s best scores by Ludwig Göransson, and astonishing camerwork by D.O.P. Maryse Alberti. It’s an exhilirating boxing movie, which earns every one of its beats without ever feeling cliched, and had me actually cheering and applauding in the cinema.
Honourable Mentions: Kubo and The Two Strings; Sing Street; Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping; Room; The Hateful Eight; The Big Short; The Nice Guys; Star Trek Beyond; Hail, Caesar!
The Films I didn’t see but wanted to: Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Swiss Army Man, Hell Or High Water, The Edge Of Seventeen, The Neon Demon, Weiner, Son Of Saul, Bone Tomahawk, A Bigger Splash
Thanks for reading!