Top 10 Films of 2016

Now that January has ended and I’ve had a chance to see some of the USA’s awards contenders, I’m ready to publish my Top 10 list. The sad truth is that I haven’t had a chance to watch every film I wanted to see this year and there are some, like Moonlight, that haven’t even had a nation-wide release in the UK yet. Still, I’ve seen enough great films this year to make a list with which I’m happy. One trend I’ve noticed with these films is that many of them display an element of nostalgia, harkening back to lost eras and happier, simpler times. Many of these films also carry messages of hope and inspiration, entreating people to try harder and to dream bigger and to believe in greater possibilities. Still, there are some dark and brutal movies in there as well; the kind which remind us that life isn’t some fairy-tale musical. 2016 was a frightful and terrible year for many people and it’s just as important for art to reflect that as it is to counteract it. So, without further ado, here are my ten favourite (and five least favourite) films of 2016.

10. Paterson – Jim Jarmusch

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Paterson is a film that feels both authentic and fantastic at once. Like the poetry that inspired it, Paterson isn’t trying to tell a story, it’s trying to capture a tone, a feeling. It is a subdued and contemplative film that finds beauty and profundity in the ordinary and mundane. Like poetry, Paterson is shaped less by its plot and characters than it is by its mood and structure. The film flows beautifully and there is a remarkable air of tranquillity that is seldom seen in movies. There is no obstacle that must be overcome, no foe to be defeated and no arc that must be fulfilled. It’s just a glimpse of life in a small town with a rich history and culture and an observation of the everyday things that become the subjects of Paterson’s poems. The poems are simple, plainspoken and honest, and so is this film. Review here.

9. Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie

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Like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, Hell or High Water is a Western set a long, long time after the Western era came to an end. It has the usual tropes of the classic cowboy films, the bank robberies, the shootouts, the men with badges, but none of the romance or mythos. The age of the cowboy is long gone and the old Texan way of life is either dead or dying. What we have here is just a couple of brothers trying to steal just enough to pay off their late-mother’s mortgage and a grizzled ranger getting one last job done before settling down to a dull, aimless life of retirement. Each character, from the main roles to the background players, is memorable. The rustic landscape is shot beautifully. The screenplay brings a wealth of life and colour to an otherwise familiar concept and amounts to a thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating film. Review here.

8. Jackie – Pablo Lerraín

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This film is both a compelling character study of a brave, remarkable woman going through an unimaginable crisis and a moving portrait of grief, loneliness and loss. The First Lady must confront the sorrow, anguish and pain she feels over the trauma that has been inflicted upon her and must reconcile her own private feelings towards her husband with that of the nation. After dedicating her entire life towards her husband’s work and calling, Jackie has no idea who she is supposed to be now that he’s gone. Even without him in her life, she cannot be her own person. She has a duty to perform, a promise to keep and a legacy to define and preserve. This complicated mixture of sorrow, anger, ambivalence, shock, uncertainty, isolation and endurance is captured by Portman in an exceptionally heartbreaking performance. After a life of being defined by her husband, Jackie is a film that seeks to view Jacqueline Kennedy on her own terms and it does an excellent job of doing so. Review here.

7. La La Land – Damien Chazelle

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Made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musicals, La La Land is a film that captures that same sensation previously encapsulated by the likes of Gene Kelly and Astaire & Rogers. The look of the film is gorgeous, the style is irresistible and the musical numbers are spectacular. The movie is a fantasy set in a whimsical city of dreamers where two romantic idealists find love. There is so much charm, glamour and bravado to this film that it isn’t hard to understand why it has become the smash hit that it is. Much of this is creditable to Chazelle whose inventive and dynamic direction gave the film its fervent energy and masterful command over different styles and genres. Also essential were Gosling and Stone who, despite not being particularly great singers, brought so much heart to their performances that their voices didn’t really matter all that much. It isn’t my favourite film (or even musical) of the year but, if it does sweep the Oscars like it almost certainly will, it won’t be unearned. Review here.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings – Travis Knight

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2016 was a strong year for animation but, for me, Kubo and the Two Strings was easily the best of them. The animation is stupendous (as confirmed by a well-deserved Oscar nomination for visual effects), the characters are wonderful and the story is both exciting and affective. Like all the best children’s films, Kubo takes it audience seriously and seeks to both challenge and astound them. The movie is dark, scary and complex, but it is also silly, moving and thrilling. At its heart is the most classic of all stories, the hero’s journey, that unfolds into an epic tale of love, loss, melancholy, courage, resilience and salvation. It is a film that believes in the power of stories to move, commemorate and redeem and ends on a staggeringly profound note. This film is a landmark achievement not just for Laika but for animation as a genre. Review here.

5. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford

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No other film this year has confounded me the way Nocturnal Animals has. It is sinister, yet beautiful. It is unbearable, yet captivating. It is a difficult film to categorise because it has no clear resolution and is constantly jumping between different stories and genres. At times it is a melancholic tale of misery and regret. Sometimes it is twisted fable of vengeance with elements of the Western mixed in. At other times it is a melodramatic story of an idealistic but doomed romance. The film is meticulously crafted and exquisitely shot, making expert use of its colours, staging and music. The film also makes excellent use of its ensemble, featuring particularly great performances from Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon and an unrecognisable Taylor-Johnson. Nocturnal Animals is a gut-wrenching and at times downright unpleasant film to watch, but not once does it cease to be fascinating. Review here.

4. Sing Street – John Carney

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Sing Street does not have the incredible production value, the gorgeous style or the frantic energy of La La Land, and yet it is still my favourite movie musical of the year. This is because, for me at least, Sing Street had more heart to it. It shares similar ideas of love, dreams and fantasy, but it also has a layer of kitchen-sink realism that I feel lends it more authenticity. This coming-of-age story about an Irish lad starting his own band to win the heart of a pretty, young model is just teeming with tenderness, sorrow and humour. The moments of sadness hit hard, which means that the moments of joy and triumph are all the more elated and earned. The film also boasts of a marvellous soundtrack and that it wasn’t even nominated in the Oscar category for Best Song is a crime. Review here.

3. Silence – Martin Scorsese

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Few directors, especially living directors, can claim to have crafted a body of work as consistent, as influential and as brilliant as Martin Scorsese and Silence is one of his finest. Decades in the making and quite clearly a passion project for him; the film underscores many of the themes featured throughout Scorsese’s filmography such as sin, perdition and deliverance. Two Jesuit priests come to feudal Japan in search of their lost mentor and are subjected to unendurable forms of pain, anguish and despair. One could suspect that Scorsese did some soul-searching in the making of this film as he raises challenging questions that cannot possibly be answered. How much suffering can a man endure for his faith and how much should he have to endure? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others suffer or to renounce it to save them? However cruel and brutal their methods, are the Japanese right to view Christianity as corruptive to their culture? Silence is an utterly gut-wrenching yet profoundly enigmatic work of cinema crafted by one of the great masters of our time. Review here.

2. I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach

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Ken Loach has demonstrated better than any other British filmmaker film’s power as a political and social vehicle. With I, Daniel Blake he has continued his crusade for the downtrodden and forgotten underdogs of the UK by highlighting a system of “conscious cruelty” in action. Daniel Blake, a man who has been deemed physically unfit to work, is forced to meet a series of inane, superfluous regulations in order to qualify for a benefit, only to be confounded at every turn by a pitiless system that cares only for the bottom line. Whether or not you agree with Loach’s politics or whether the benefits system really is as cruel as it portrayed is inconsequential. This is a great film because it succeeds brilliantly in conveying the desperation and frustration of Daniel’s dilemma, as well as the misery and helplessness of Katie’s situation, to the extent that it feels gut-wrenchingly authentic. Review here.

1. Arrival – Denis Villeneuve

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For me, this was the most stimulating, fulfilling and moving film of the year. The characters of Arrival are faced with an ambiguous and potentially foreboding situation that could spell doom if handled negligently or indelicately. And yet, with the threat of global war hanging in the balance, it is thought, empathy and cooperation that triumph. It is a masterfully crafted film with an astounding, thought-provoking story that raises compelling questions about time, language and humanity. Villeneuve’s wonderfully skilled and subtle direction is matched only by Adams’ stunning performance as a linguist seeking to form a connection with an alien people and finding that her very perception of reality has been altered. No other film this year has captivated, astounded and inspired me the way this one has. I hope to see more films in the future that can match Arrival in its sophistication, depth and optimism. Review here.

Now here are my five least favourite films of the year.

5. Mother’s Day – Another entry in the series of holiday films characterised by weak jokes, cheap morals and wasted talent. The movie is bland, forgettable and has absolutely nothing of value to offer on the subject of motherhood. Review here.

4. Independence Day: Resurgence – There is no reason for this film to exist. It had no momentum, no pull and no purpose. Just another stale attempt to cash in on an old favourite. Review here.

3. The Huntsman: Winter’s War – This film has even less reason to exist because its predecessor wasn’t even that popular to begin with. This was a film without appeal or focus; it had absolutely nothing to offer whatsoever. Review here.

2. Alice Through the Looking Glass – The continuation of a butchering of a classic. This film, just like the one before it, misses everything that was strange and wonderful about the Lewis Carroll books and instead turned in something banal and dull. Review here.

1. Dirty Grandpa – It wasn’t even close. This is one of the vilest, most hateful films I’ve ever had the displeasure to see. The mere thought of its despicable humour, vile characters and debasement of a cinematic legend still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Review here.

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Arrival

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Eric Heisserer


One of the lesser cinematic experiences I had this year came from watching Independence Day: Resurgence, a shameless crash grab that was stupid, dull and nonsensical. Now, as we approach the end of 2016, comes the movie’s perfect antithesis. Arrival, also a movie about aliens coming to Earth (whether or not it’s an invasion is unclear), is everything that Resurgence is not. I don’t only mean this in terms of quality, although it is to be sure a superior movie in every way. I also mean this in how the film chooses to approach its subject. While Resurgence follows the typical Hollywood formula of casting the aliens as generic, faceless baddies who are defeated in the end through force and might, Arrival is a film that celebrates reason, thought and empathy. Rather than having the American military leading the charge and saving the day, the solution is instead found in science and communication and is implemented through the careful and challenging process of collaboration. This is a great film with a great message and I am so glad it came out this year.

When twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts appear all around Earth, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), one of the Earth’s foremost experts in linguistics, is enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the US military. Working with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, she must establish a system of communication with the aliens and find out who they are, where they come from, and why they are here. When they enter the craft they are greeted by two squid-like aliens whom they christen Abbott and Costello (whose most famous sketch is appropriately about a linguistic miscommunication). Banks discovers that the aliens have a written language in the form of circular symbols and uses them to establish a basic vocabulary. As she becomes more versed in the language Banks starts having vivid dreams, most of them about her daughter whose tragic death is a source of great pain and sorrow. As the perception of the alien threat grows and draws humanity closer to declaring an all-out war, Banks and her team must take a desperate chance in order to find the answers that they seek.

Arrival is a thinking man’s sci-fi that stimulates and astounds as it challenges its viewers with deep and thought-provoking questions. We are invited to consider the psychology of thought, reason and morality, the philosophy of faith, knowledge and meaning, and the very natures of time, language and the human mind. It approaches its story with the utmost sophistication as the characters set out to meet this ambiguous presence with logic and caution. While the apprehensive Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) would prefer to know straight up who these aliens are and what they want, Banks explains that such questions are useless without an understanding of how these beings think. Do they have a concept of purpose and intent? Do they consider themselves as individuals or as a collective? Do they even understand what a question is? Such questions are paramount when the risk of even the slightest miscommunication could have disastrous global consequences.

In this role Adams continues to prove why she is one of the best actresses in Hollywood today. In Banks she conveys a quiet yet strong sense of fascination and determination that becomes more potent as her search for knowledge and understanding intensifies. The more she learns about the alien language, the more it affects her way of thinking and perception of reality. There is also an affective emotional core tying her to this task as her work evokes tragic memories of her daughter. Villeneuve does a particularly good job of representing the distortive state of Banks’ mind as her present, memories and dreams all seem to blend into one another. His use of CGI is modest, allowing the film to feel all the more authentic, and his handling of the suspense is expert (with one particularly explosive scene that no doubt would have impressed Hitchcock).

Arrival is a smart, layered and moving film with echoes of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that thrills, stimulates and inspires. It is a subdued and contemplative form of science-fiction of a calibre that we only get to see one or two times per year (Midnight Special is the other one). The moment when this film truly shines is in the climax following a revelation which turns our very perception of the plot upside down. This is a film that will certainly benefit from multiple viewings and I suspect it is one that will be studied by students of the social sciences as well as film students for a long time to come. Furthermore Arrival is a film that encapsulates the intrinsic values of knowledge, compassion, faith, cooperation and understanding, ideals that seem more distant with each passing day. It raises many challenging and important questions but does not try to answer them all because otherwise there’d be no room for contemplation. This film believes in humanity’s ability to change and adapt, something we can only do if we are willing to listen, consider, and be challenged. This is a great film that came out at a time when it was most needed.

★★★★★