I seem to say this every year, but I’ll say it again: Despite a pretty poor summer season (almost brought to its knees by the crap that was Suicide Squad), this year has been great for film. I’ve missed out on so much that will need to be caught up on next year, but I made sure to get my backside in a cinema seat wherever possible and so still struggled to whittle this list down to ten.
I should make mention that I have not included films seen at festivals which have not yet received a UK release.
I should also mention that there are three westerns in this list. That gives 2016 a gold medal just for showing up. Here comes the list:
It has to be said that the MCU approach was starting to look a little samey. There were far too many third act build ups with portals opening in the sky and wave after wave of faceless goons being wiped out. Doctor Strange, then, was a breath of fresh air; visually striking, tonally unique, and sporting a hero who had to put a city back together to save the day rather than smash it up. It is a feast for the eyes, and seen in IMAX 3D was an experience to be remembered.
After Frank, director Lenny Abrahamson was always going to get a free pass in my book. But even I was sceptical about the viability of translating Room from its book form into a piece of cinema. Taking pace largely in a tiny space and relying heavily on the talents of a young child actor to carry the themes of the story seemed a recipe for disaster. But Abrahamson and crew delivered and then some. It was a joy to see how a masterful director can manage a confined space and make it seem claustrophobic when it needs to, and yet expansive when seen through the eyes of a child. Truly masterful.
When I first saw Tarantino’s latest in January I was a little disappointed. I loved the look, the performances, the music, the feel. But the story seemed all wrong. I surmised that if all the characters are villains then there can’t be any real tension because nobody is worth rooting for. And then I watched it a second time, and a third, and a fourth and now I’m in love with it. The interplay of dialogue and the theatrical staging, captured in that massive 70mm lens, its simply brilliant. The irony now is that I can’t decide which of the characters I like the most.
Charlie Kaufman was back in 2016, and he delivered a stop-motion film with more humanity than anything else this year. Walking us through the banality of everyday life, Kaufman revealed yet more of his razor sharp observations on love, and what it is to be loved, as well as the hopeless struggle to find something meaningful in our lives. As I said in my original review: If you’ve ever found yourself desperately lonely then Anomalisa is for you. If you’ve ever had an existential crisis, Anomalisa is for you. If you’ve ever wanted to shut the door and lock the world out to hide yourself from it and all the crappy mistakes you’ve made, Anomalisa is for you. In other words, if you’re a human being, Anomalisa is for you.
I’m starting to develop an unhealthy love for Taika Waititi. He gets life the way Charlie Kaufman gets life, but he tells his stories through the best kind of comedic lens, and Wilderpeople may be his best exploration of life yet. It’s a simple setup; boy gets fostered, foster mum dies, dad and boy go into the woods and have an adventure. But what happens within is magic. There’s so much absurdist comedy and yet all of it is grounded. There’s also the best dismount of a horse in history.
AKA the biggest surprise of 2016. This is the kind of film you don’t see coming. Even after watching the trailers I was thinking it just looked okay. But I was wrong. Hell or High Water is like all the greats of cinema; it has stakes, it has characters you care about greatly, it has a story worth telling and it leaves you stunned as the credits roll. The performances are all awards worthy, and it is great to see Ben Foster given a leading roll of the calibre he so thoroughly deserves. A modern western with all the trappings of the classics.
If the best films are the ones that have a lasting effect, then Spotlight holds a special place indeed. I was writhing with anger and sadness for days afterwards. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I had to keep talking about it and writing about it. I realise that this isn’t just taking the film on its own terms, but is also due to Spotlight tapping into the wider issues surrounding historical abuse at the hands of the catholic church. But the way the film conveys its point, the subtlety of the performances and the intimacy of its setting just amplifies how horrendous the real-life situations (across the globe) were/are. Spotlight is not easy to watch, but it is essential viewing.
I waited so long to see Bone Tomahawk. It played across the US for months at festivals before having a wider release, and for a while it looked like we may never see it in the UK. Thankfully I managed to catch it at the wonderful Ilkley Film Festival ahead of a small scale distribution on our shores, and it blew me away. It is most famous for having a horrifying third act (and it does; one of the most horrifying you’re likely to see), but what makes this a true standout is the character development. Following the four heroes (led by a stellar Kurt Russell) as they trek to rescue a kidnapped woman, we get to know everything. We feel their pain, their paranoia, the weight of each man’s world as their histories are brought to the fore. In a year peppered with great westerns, this was the greatest.
Animation studio Laika are going from strength to strength. Not only are they helping to keep stop-motion animation alive, but they are doing so whilst also delivering some truly iconic cinema. Amazingly, Kubo is their best yet. It is their masterpiece. It is a tale in the truest sense of the word; feeling like an old legend passed down through hundreds of ears and eyes to arrive fully formed. It is a story about the importance of stories, and more than that, the importance of memory. I watched the film in an empty cinema (empty aside from me of course) and that only aided the special moment I had seeing it unfold before me. It was so close to being my number one choice for the year, if it hadn’t been for…
If you haven’t seen Creed you may be wondering what the hell is going on. If you have seen it you’ll know. Director Ryan Coogler (following from the amazing Fruitvale Station) took on the seemingly impossible task of reinvigorating the Rocky franchise with a new protagonist (in the form of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis), and did so in glorious fashion. It feels at once a fitting tribute to its predecessors, whilst simultaneously becoming such its own thing as to be wholly original.
It feels real. That’s what affected me most. The world of Creed is the world we live in now. Rocky himself is older and feels left behind by the people that once held him up on their shoulders. And Adonis is ever weighed down by living in the grand shadow of his father. The key is for each man to find the authentic reason to fight. Not just to fight for the sake of fighting, but to make it mean something, and this they do.
The fights themselves are hugely impressive. Coogler employs innovative camera techniques and stages the bouts so that they feel at once cinematic and filled with real-world grit. The important thing is the amount of empathy and nervous tension this creates. We are behind Adonis as if the world depends on his victory, and its a rare thing to be so supercharged by a film anymore. Funnily enough, the last film that had me so pumped up was Mad Max: Fury Road, another film that took elements of a historic franchise and updated them in such a way as to turn them into something greater.
It is true adrenaline cinema; mercilessly playing your emotions without being obvious, and dragging you to the edge of your seat as you are swept along in the slipstream of Adonis’ rise to emerge as a new champion.