‘It’s a sad and beautiful world’ – Jim Jarmusch
Here we are at the end of what has been a hugely exciting year for film. I feel as though some of the best were saved until last, but from beginning to end there have been some real gems this year, and what pleases me most is how original and distinctive those films are; both from new, and more seasoned filmmakers. I picked out my ten favourites from the year, so here comes the usual disclaimer that this list is purely based on personal preference and I’m sure it’ll differ from other people’s (but that’s why making these lists is fun, right?). Additionally, some of these are technically classed as 2015 films, but I’m including them on the basis that they were released here in the UK in 2016.
All of these films stood out to me for a multitude of reasons, some deeply affecting me on an emotional level, others impressing me with their creative narratives, incredible visuals and memorable performances. I’m interested to know how other lists like this will differ from mine, and whether these particular films resonate as much with other people as they did with me. Please let me know what your favourites of the year are, and which of the films on this list feature in your own Top 10, if any!
Whilst reflecting on 2016 in film, I must also mention my friend, Elliot Coen (the third Coen brother, perhaps?), and his brilliant YouTube channel which he launched earlier in the year. If you’re interested in insightful reviews and Blu-ray hauls, it’s definitely worth taking a look at. Also, I launched this very blog in 2016! It’s been a total joy having an outlet to write reviews and film pieces, so long may it continue. Without further ado, here are my ten favourite films from the past year.
10 – The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers)
Robert Eggers made his directorial debut in 2016 with intelligent and stripped-back horror film, The Witch, which acted as a tonic for the more formulaic additions to the genre this year. A film as divisive as it is unnerving, its reception amongst audiences was largely unpredictable, with many hailing it a suspenseful masterpiece of horror cinema, and others dismissing it for its staggered pace and reliance on audience curiosity as opposed to explicit exposition. I am very much in the camp of people who have nothing but praise for the film. Set in 17th century England and drawing upon themes of witchcraft and religion, The Witch is an absolute must-see for slow-burn horror fans. Rather than high action or unnecessary jump scares, the frightening aspect of the film stems from its excellent editing, sound design and unsettling scenes, culminating in a truly chilling piece of cinema with a creative premise.
9 – American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold)
Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold has proven herself in the past as being hugely skilled when it comes to writing films about struggling young women from socioeconomically-deprived backgrounds, and her latest release, American Honey, is no exception. What truly amazed me about American Honey was Arnold’s ability to elicit the most authentic and understated of performances from Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf, the film’s two leads, which when combined with the naturalistic dialogue and cinematography, creates something completely enrapturing. The camera often lingers on the most minute details of characters’ faces and their surroundings, which ultimately heightens the vivid exploration of life, dreams and self-acceptance the film delivers. (My full thoughts on the film can be found here).
8 – Swiss Army Man (dir. Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)
Swiss Army Man was perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me. I was intrigued by its bizarre concept and my admiration for Paul Dano, but left having embarked on an experience of genuine personal poignancy. Directing duo, ‘The Daniels’, create the perfect balance between lowbrow comedy and unexpected emotional weight, touching on the idea of being an outsider and highlighting some of our collective flaws as a society. For a film whose plot centres around the protagonist, Hank’s discovery of a flatulent corpse as a means of escaping a desert island he is stranded on, it boasts some exceptional characterisation. It’s impossible not to mention its beautiful and innovative visual style as well, with both the vibrant colour palette and cinematography still clear in my mind long after having seen the film. Swiss Army Man served as a welcome reminder that originality is very much alive and thriving in cinema. (You can read more of my thoughts on it here).
7 – Hunt For The Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)
Much like the aforementioned Swiss Army Man, the seventh film in this list, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, straddles the line between heartache and comedic levity excellently, and cements Taika Waititi as an extremely imaginative and accomplished filmmaker. Starring Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison as miscreant youth and his reluctant foster father respectively, the film’s humour was masterfully created, with the duo excelling in terms of both physical and verbal comedy, which didn’t let up from start to finish. Viewing Hunt For The Wilderpeople was easily the most feel-good cinema experience I’ve had this year, yet this wasn’t to the detriment of the film’s technical prowess. Where many comedies falter in compromising on other elements in favour of easy laughs, I couldn’t help but marvel at the way its emotionally-engaging screenplay, astonishing cinematography and subtle humour worked so harmoniously. (Once again, my full review can be read here).
6 – Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a film I didn’t review after I saw it, as its unbelievably affecting and relevant message and the sheer perfection of its narrative structure felt too overwhelming to even begin to put into any kind of cohesive piece of writing. Starring Amy Adams in one of her two exceptional appearances this year, the film follows a linguist’s attempt to communicate with and interpret the ‘language’ of other-worldly creatures who descend upon Earth from some unknown origin in the universe. This is a science fiction film which speaks far more about the human experience than extra-terrestrial life itself. Villeneuve slowly builds the audience’s expectations, employing masterful suspense to create a palpable feeling of tension, and then begins to unfold the answers to the questions which appear in the film’s rich and complex narrative in a wholly unprecedented way. Thematically this film bears real-world significance, and is one I truly believe will be discussed for decades to come.
5 – Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
Entering the top five is one of 2016’s earliest releases. Room, based on the 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue. It’s a film which completely flouted my expectations and is best seen without knowing too much about the premise, so I’ll keep this as plot-free as possible for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. It saw Brie Larson receive her first Academy Award for Best Actress, and it is indeed hers and onscreen son Jacob Tremblay’s breathtaking performances which make this film such a triumph. I sobbed from beginning to end, and this is a true testament to how tenderly this film deals with such unpleasant subject matter and makes it into something far deeper and more resonant than one might expect.
4 – Nocturnal Animals (dir. Tom Ford)
One of my film highlights of 2016 was attending a recent screening of A Single Man director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, based on Austin Wright’s original novel, Tony and Susan. The stylish neo-noir thriller features not just one, but several incredible performances from Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, as they multiple versions of themselves across three interlinking narratives. It’s difficult to believe that this is only Tom Ford’s second directorial effort, with his striking aesthetic, exceptional screenwriting and structural creativity combining to create a film which demands a great deal more from its viewers than passive spectatorship. The way in which these narratives intertwine is fantastically inventive, and propelled to even greater heights by the direction which clearly elicited some career-defining performances from the its cast. (I wrote a full review of Nocturnal Animals, which you can find here).
3 – Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Ironically, Paterson is a film whose beauty I struggle to sum up in words, unlike its titular protagonist whose poetic prowess provides much of the film’s charm. Paterson was one of my most anticipated releases in 2016, due to my love for Jim Jarmusch and his previous work, namely Broken Flowers and Only Lovers Left Alive to name just a few. His latest film features a very minimalistic plot, following Paterson (Adam Driver) in a week of his peaceful, meandering life with girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), as a bus driver and aspiring poet. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Adam Driver starring in Paterson, with his tranquil voice providing a perfect backdrop for the indulgently serene and ethereal pace that separates the film from reality so distinctively. I could’ve lived in his world forever. Its beautiful poems, understated script and exquisite visuals made it a film which truly inspired me more than any other film I saw this year.
2 – One More Time With Feeling (dir. Andrew Dominik)
This is the second year running in which a music documentary has taken second place in my ‘Top 10’ list, with Cobain: Montage of Heck featuring last year. This is a testament to how impressive the last few years have been in terms of music biopics and documentaries, which in some cases do leave a lot to be desired in terms of creative filmmaking. Andrew Dominik’s fantastically-shot documentary One More Time With Feeling looks at Nick Cave in perhaps the darkest era of both his life, and his musical career, following the tragic death of his son in 2015. It also happens to be one of the few films I have seen in recent years which has warranted 3D viewing, which I felt created an utterly immersive journey into the production and recording of Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ newest album. The editing, style and interviews in One More Time With Feeling are utterly astounding and moved me to the point of speechlessness upon leaving the cinema. It truly is one of 2016’s gems and is not to be missed, regardless of how well-acquainted you are with Nick Cave’s music. (My full review of the documentary can be found here).
1 – Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)
The film which stood out for me the most this year, or rather hit me the hardest, was Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece, Anomalisa. What’s special about this film is how differently it can be interpreted, from person to person, or by the same person on different viewings. As usual, Kaufman’s appreciation and understanding of the anguish and apathy of the human condition shines through in his writing, channeled in truly breathtaking stop-motion animation, which adds another layer to the ideas of depersonalisation and mental illness which underpin this film. It isn’t an easy watch, and touches on some deeply relatable but unpleasant truths about humanity which are rarely explored in such a cynical yet sympathetic way. It is certainly one of the most unique films of the year and most definitely won’t be liked by all, but it’s films like Anomalisa which remind us of the heights film can reach in illuminating our most damaging flaws, deepest yearnings and most potent fears as human beings, and very few writers achieve that the way Kaufman consistently does. (Here are my full thoughts on Anomalisa).
I hope you enjoyed my rundown of why I thought these films were so great, and here’s to lots more inspired filmmaking in 2017!