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

paterson

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

hell-or-high-water

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

jackie

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

la-la-land

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

kubo-and-the-two-strings

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

nocturnal-animals

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

sing-street

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

silence

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

i-daniel-blake

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

arrival

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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Top 10 Films of 2015

It’s the end of January now so I thought I should finally get round to compiling by obligatory Top Ten list of the year. The reason I’ve waited a month to do this rather than make one at the end of 2015 is (partly) because I’ve fallen behind on my reviews and have been trying to catch up with them all month while also working on my dissertation which is due in two weeks. Another reason though is because I live in the UK which means that many of the American movies that turn out to be the biggest awards contenders don’t get a general release here until January and February so I wanted to give myself a chance to see some of them. I’m glad that I have now because a good number of them have ended up making my list. Overall 2015 was an exciting year. It was a year where franchises were reinvented, old hands came back and showed that they’ve still got it, and where the best films of the year were able to distinguish themselves by their sheer diversity. Regrettably there are always going to be a few films that I’ve missed or that haven’t reached the UK yet but I’m content with the list I’ve put together. Here are my ten favourite (and five least favourite) films of the year.

 

10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams

The Force Awakens

Probably my most highly anticipated film of the year, I am so incredibly pleased that this film turned out to be as great as it did. Returning to this universe was like seeing an old friend again and it pleases me to know that the magic is still there. Seeing the old faces was a real treat but what really sold me on this film was the new characters. Rey, Finn, BB-8, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren were all names that I enjoyed becoming acquainted with and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better in the sequels. The starship fights and lightsaber duels were as exhilarating as they’ve ever been and were executed to stunning effect. The sets and the landscapes were spectacular and blended well with this universe, feeling both new and familiar at the same time. Everything about this movie looks and feels like a Star Wars film and it is good to have this franchise back on top form once again. Review here.

9. Creed – Ryan Coogler

Creed

Definitely one of the biggest surprises of the year, this is a franchise reboot of a very different kind. What I liked about Creed though was how barebones it was. It wasn’t trying to outdo any of the Rocky films nor did it try to exploit the franchise’s success. Instead it tries to tell its own story with its own character in its own way. Adonis is a compelling character in his journey to prove that he has what it takes to be a great fighter and to do so on his own terms. Tessa Thompson is a welcome addition as a character who does not begin and end as a love interest. She is her own character with her own story and her own life to live. Sylvester Stallone’s return as the iconic Rocky Balboa is a triumph as he delivers the strongest performance of his entire career. Creed is a dynamic film packed with astounding character moments and stupendously choreographed fight scenes. Review here.

8. Steve Jobs – Danny Boyle

Steve Jobs

For me this was the single most compelling character study of the entire year. The film’s format allowed for a thorough examination of this tortured genius’ psyche by showing him at work and interacting with others at three different stages of his life. The entire ensemble shines in this film but Fassbender is still able to stand out as the tyrannical, egotistical mastermind at the centre of it all. As Jobs he commands an extraordinary on-screen presence and drives the entire film with an intensely bombastic performance throughout. Sorkin’s dialogue is fast, sharp and incredibly intelligent, allowing each character to interact on a highly creative and intellectual level and to keep this film moving forward with each second. This is a film that never stops moving and that commands your immediate attention from beginning to end. Review here.

7. The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight

This film is a Tarantino blend of John Carpenter and Agatha Christie set in the West with eight fascinatingly nefarious characters driving it. What’s not to love? The interactions between these characters are wildly entertaining and utterly compelling as they face a tense and unnerving situation together in their own twisted and aggressive ways. Character is king as Tarantino allows this situation to simply play out with each exchange of dialogue and each monologue until things finally come to a head. Every part is perfectly cast as each actor completely inhabits their character and employs a fluid command of Tarantino’s stylised dialogue. This film runs for three hours and at no point did I ever feel bored or wearied. I was completely invested and thoroughly entertained through it all and wouldn’t change a single scene. Review here.

6. Spotlight – Tom McCarthy

Spotlight

In terms of plot alone this was perhaps the most compelling film of the year. The uncovering of a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover up widespread instances of child molestation in Boston makes for a complex, challenging and significant story and not a single second is wasted in its telling. There is an intricacy and a methodicalness to the shaping of this film as each scene carries it forward with a purpose. Not one step is glossed over and not one element is overlooked. The audience is able to become invested in this story through the characters who are confounded and challenged by what it is they discover. Each character is fully rounded and is portrayed with a naturalism and authenticity that keeps the film grounded. The drama in this film is never overplayed or exaggerated but instead remains firmly genuine and honest. Thus every single moment of drama this film conveys is completely real and completely earned. Review here.

5. Ex Machina – Alex Garland

Ex Machina

A stimulating film that raises fascinating questions about the human consciousness. This film depicts a man who crosses paths with a being who looks, sounds, feels, moves and behaves like a human being. He knows that she (or rather it) is a machine but cannot deny or ignore the feelings he has developed for her (it). With those feelings comes the uncertainty and the inevitable questions. Is this being capable of real thought and emotion? How does one tell if those thoughts and emotions are real or artificial? Is there a difference? Does this being understand the difference? The questions and themes are discussed and debated throughout this film in an intelligent and captivating way as the mystery surrounding this character subtly unfolds. The character itself is astonishingly designed, utilising some of the best us of CGI on a single character in any film, and is portrayed superbly by Alicia Vikander. Definitely one of the most absorbing and thought-provoking films of the year. Review here.

4. Room – Lenny Abrahamson

Room

Room is an emotionally profound film that manages to turn something dark and twisted into something moving and beautiful. Told and seen from a child’s perspective, there is an innocence and a heart to this film that both warms and breaks your heart. Tremblay could very well be the greatest surprise of the year with a stunning performance that beggars belief. The journey his character embarks upon is an extraordinary one and it is his performance that carries the entire film. The way that this film managed to place its characters in such a despairing situation but to then focus instead on the positive and hopeful part of their lives without diminishing their confinement cannot be understated. This film is a remarkable achievement in its portrayal of the human condition and is one of the most touching and poignant films of the year. Review here.

3. Inside Out – Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen

Inside Out

Films like this are the reason why we should never underestimate children’s films. Through ingenious storytelling, amazing characters and superb animation Pixar has constructed one of the most intelligent, entertaining and profound films of the entire year. The film’s exploration of the emotional spectrum is able to be clever and creative while still being simple enough for children and adults to follow. The themes of growing up and of being in touch with one’s emotions are universal and are presented with astonishing insight and maturity. This is a film that challenges its audience without alienating them and is able to make the viewer laugh as soon as it makes them cry. There are grown-up films that wish they could be as smart, as enjoyable and as emotional as Inside Out, a children’s masterpiece. Review here.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller

Mad Max Fury Road

The most intense, action-packed, exhilarating film of the year, hands down! Going to see Fury Road in the cinema was more than a viewing, it was an experience that left me out of breath by the time the credits rolled. What makes this film so intriguing however is that there is actually a compelling story taking place beneath all the carnage that goes largely unspoken. It is a story of survival and about retaining or even regaining one’s humanity. It’s also a surprisingly feminist film that has cleverly disguised itself as a Man Movie. Each character is given a personality and a distinctive story-arc. Furiosa in particular has distinguished herself as the heroine of the year, proving herself to be just as compelling and as badass (if not more so) as any other action hero. The car chase however is what makes this film as it boasts of some of the most incredible action ever put on screen. Fury Road is a perfect action movie and that is not a declaration I make lightly. Review here.

1. Carol – Todd Haynes

Carol

The most beautiful, stunning, immaculately crafted film that I’ve seen this year. Of all the films I’ve seen in 2015 Carol is my favourite for two reasons. Firstly is the artistry that went into its creation. Every single frame of this film looks like a photograph and everything, from the angles to the colours to the lighting, is employed to create a tranquil mood and to enhance the story. Secondly is the relationship between Carol and Therese which is portrayed with such passion and tenderness that you cannot help but be drawn in. There is a transcendent beauty to the love they share but also a deep sorrow to the circumstances keeping them apart. This film is perfectly written, acted, designed and directed to tell an intimate and passionate tale of love and no other film this year has moved me in the way Carol has. It is a marvellous achievement in art, romance and cinema and it is my favourite film of 2015. Review here.

Honourable Mentions: The Big Short, Bridge of SpiesBrooklyn, Far from the Madding CrowdMacbethThe Martian, The RevenantStraight Outta ComptonThe WalkYouth

Now here are my five least favourite films of 2015.

5. Fifty Shades of Grey – A stupid story based on a trashy book that tried to turn itself into a serious romance. This film never had a chance due to the dull protagonist, the silly writing and the lack of anything resembling a compelling romance. Review here.

4. Pan – A film that has fundamentally misunderstood the story upon which it is based and failed to capture any semblance of the magic. This film is a cliché-ridden misadventure with some truly bizarre ideas thrown in. Review here.

3. Boy Next Door – This film has absolutely no reason to exist. It is a tired story with tired characters relying on tired clichés that fails to offer anything of actual substance. Review here.

2. Jupiter Ascending – A space opera that offers drab exposition, pointless action and sci-fi rip-offs in place of character, spectacle and emotion. The film’s only redeeming feature is that much of it is laughable. Review here (although I should note that my thoughts on the film have since become much more negative).

1. Terminator Genisys – I hate everything about this film from its butchering of the iconic characters to the grossly nonsensical story to the utterly diluted tone and action. This is so much more than a bad film, this is an insultingly bad film. Review here.