I love and loathe end of year list making in equal measure. I love it because there are SO MANY great films and I get to spend many hours reminiscing about all the fantastic art I have seen on-screen over the last 12 months. I loathe it because there are SO MANY great films, and its painful to narrow my favourites down to an arbitrary number. Anyone who says it has been a bad year for film, or the even worse “film is dead”, is just not really trying. This year I went for 20 films with 15 honourable mentions. These 20 stuck above the rest for various reasons – they amused, delighted, shocked, challenged, and wowed me.
My favourite 20: 1 of the films is the only film I saw twice at the cinema this year; 6 are directed by women; 2 are directed by the same director; 2 are animated; 1 is a documentary; Adam Driver, Jeff Bridges, Michael Shannon, Samuel L Jackson, and Joel Edgerton all appear in 2 of the films each; and 7 of the films I saw for the first time at the 2016 Sydney film festival.
The obligatory list explainer: this list contains films I viewed for the first time in 2016. Due to delayed Australian release dates/being lucky enough to attend media screenings, there are a mix of 2015 & 2016 US releases on my list (some of which are 2017 releases in Australia). Some of the biggies I am yet to catch include: Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Cameraperson, Neruda, Fences, Lion, Hidden Figures, My Life as a Courgette, The Love Witch, Things to Come, and Silence. Most of these have Jan/Feb releases in Aus, while others I technically could have seen (if I had been in the right city at the right time) but I’ll have to wait for VOD as I missed them at festivals.
Honourable mentions (alphabetical order): Arrival, Being 17, The Edge of Seventeen, Elvis & Nixon, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, Girl Asleep, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I, Daniel Blake, Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids, Kubo and the Two Strings, Love & Friendship, Pete’s Dragon, Tickled, Your Name.
20. The Meddler (dir. Lorene Scafaria)
The Meddler does many things right, chief among these is casting JK Simmons as Harley-driving stud muffin. Oh boy, does it work. The story of an annoying mum and neurotic daughter isn’t new, but the characters are grounded in reality you can’t help be completely invested in their respective happiness. A scene involving a pregnancy test is one of the single funniest scenes of the year.
19. The Childhood of a Leader (dir. Brady Corbet)
Watching this film at the majestic State Theatre is one of my favourite cinema-going experiences of the year. When the film starts the confronting, military-esqe score slaps you across the face and orders you to pay attention. From there you’re swept into a world that isn’t completely unfamiliar, but is so expertly crafted and photographed, that its quite the big-screen experience. On a technical level, this film is among the best of 2016.
18. Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle)
While my #19 film excels on a technical level, this film has one of the greatest screenplays of 2016. The structure of the film (3 product launches over a 14 year period) is genius – allowing us to see Jobs at different stages of his personal and professional life, as well as seeing how his relationship with those around him has changed/evolved. The razor-sharp dialogue littered throughout is delivered expertly by the wonderful ensemble cast. Oscars Smoscars – I know, but Kate Winslet should have won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in this film.
17. Chevalier (dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Athina Rachel Tshangari’s Chevalier is effectively a movie-length pissing contest, with a painfully accurate representation of the fragile egos of men. Six men on a fishing holiday aboard a luxurious yacht invent a game to pass the time. The game formalises what the men have been doing the entire trip, and likely their entire lives, which is competing with each other – seeking validation of their manhood. I find it rather beautiful and a little poetic that a woman made this film. Easily one of the most amusing films of the year – its humour is painfully on-point.
16. Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood)
This is a modern conflict classic. Fascinating intersection of military, politics, bureaucracy & morality. It’s equal parts gripping and frustrating. I found myself willing some characters to just make a damn decision; while others I internally screamed for them to run as fast as the could. Great performances – Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman (sob), Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul – all of them were flawless. Eye in the Sky feels like something that could realistically play out over and over again in modern warfare – it really does ring true.
15. High-Rise (dir. Ben Wheatley)
I enjoyed this film so much, when it finished I pressed play and watched the entire film again. What a trip! Aside from having some of the best production design of the year, the film is spookily representative of the actual economic split between the haves and the have-nots – there’s just a little more outward mania happening here.
14. 13th (dir. Ava DuVernay)
The documentary of 2016 for me is 13th, Ava DuVernay’s exploration of the direct links between slavery and the prison industrial complex in America. This film isn’t subtle, it clearly has a point of view and it has the arsenal to drive that point home. You can’t help but feel both disgusted and dismayed when hearing the horrific prisoner statistics and how the targeting of people of colour (particularly African-Americans) has had irreparable damage on generations of people and their communities. Cleverly edited together with hard-hitting hip hop lyrics and an array of interviews, this is essential viewing.
13. The Little Prince (dir. Mark Osborne)
This movie was one of the most delightful surprises of 2016. Skipping a cinema release and heading straight to Netflix in Australia, this stunning animated adventure has flown under the radar of many film fans. Let it hide no more! This film is so beautiful, and I mean that with all my heart. A mix of animation styles weaves the story of a lonely little girl together with the fictional story of the little prince, created by her elderly neighbour. The stories are both equal part adventurous and emotional – it’s a wonderfully heart-felt film.
12. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
THE film I just can’t stop thinking about. I liked this film when I saw it back in June, but for whatever reason it keeps popping up in my thoughts, months later. It’s the small moments, the glances, the one-liners – these have stuck with me an resonated deeply. Reichardt creates such wonderful, real female characters, so much depth with such a sparse screenplay. There is a lot to say about the power of silence in this film, and perhaps that’s the real reason it has stuck with me. Reichardt encourages the audience to take the time to think about what is playing out on-screen and why – human interactions laid bare for us to interpret, for us to feel. The horse ride to the diner scene is one of the greatest moments in film this year – oh, my heart.
11. Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)
In the hands of a different director this would have been an overblown melodrama, largely set in a courtroom, with swelling music and forced emotion. In the hands of Nichols this is a subtle film, a look at the relationship between two people and how the legality of their relationship and their decision to challenge the law impacted their every day life. This is a real actors film, with Edgerton and Negga giving such measured, nuanced performances as Richard and Mildred Loving. Beautifully photographed with date-perfect production design (not to mention the fantastic costumes & hair/make-up), this is a wonderful film that left a real impression on me.
10. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
Paterson is another one of those quiet films I couldn’t stop thinking about (see #11, #12), and it’s the only film I saw twice at the cinema in 2016 (6 months apart, first at a festival and then on regular release). Mark Kermode called this film a “tone poem” in his review, and that description has really stuck with me. It’s a film about creativity and inspiration, and how people can find these things and express them in very different ways. It has a beautiful meditative quality, and while watching it I couldn’t help but feel calm and serene. This is a balm for the soul in our crazy times.
9. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)
This is a rare foreign language comedy that completely transcends language and culture, and is absolutely and utterly hilarious. Ade’s film is almost indescribable – a wonderful blend of family, loneliness, quirkiness, and just out-and-out weirdness. Anchored by two wonderful performances, this is the comedy of 2016, and if all is right in this world it will win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in February.
8. The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
From the moment the snow-covered wooden crucifix appears on the screen, and the moody Morricone score (the best score of 2016) blasts out, you know you’re in good hands. Tarantino‘s 8th feature-film is a frontier whodunnit, almost Agatha Christie-ish in the way it puts a bunch of interesting people in one place and asks you to figure out what’s going on. This script is packed with amazing one-liners, and the film has the insanely talented cast to deliver them with ease. Seeing the 70mm roadshow cut of the film with Tarantino, Russell, and Jackson in attendance is the greatest cinema-going experience I had in 2016.
7. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)
A modern-day western set in a downtrodden West Texas, Hell or High Water tells he story of a man desperate to break the cycle of poverty, and provide for his family. It’s a film where the bad guy isn’t so obviously the one with the gun, in fact we’re convinced that the banks and the economy are just as bad. Bridges, Pine, Foster, and Birmingham are wonderful, in fact this could be Pine’s best performace…ever? To top it all off, original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis reinforces the feeling that Texas is a land inhabited by outlaws.
6. Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
This film absolutely floored me. It’s a coming of age film, but not quite as we know it. The girls in this family are kept under lock and key by their uncle, their only real chance of freedom is through marriage, and of course their husband is not of their choosing. Mustang is about sisterhood, conservatism, and empowerment – an emotional story that is expertly told in such a short runtime (the power of a short(er) film shouldn’t be underestimated).
5. Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols)
To make one fantastic film in a year is an achievement, to make two is almost incomprehensible (see #11). Like Loving, Midnight Special is a disciplined, restrained film. It evokes feelings of Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but on a much smaller, subtler scale. Watching this I felt a wonderful sense of the importance of family; and despite the threat of peril, it’s quite a reassuring film in many ways. Edgerton delivers another fantastic performance here, but the whole cast is just great. Midnight Special is tense, but comforting; thrilling, but warm-hearted and caring.
4. Chi-Raq (dir. Spike Lee)
This film doesn’t know what the word ‘subtle’ means, or it just doesn’t care. It has a message, and it wants to make sure that you understand it. Lee’s Chi-Raq is a modern-day adaptation of “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes – it’s bold, ballsy, and unapologetically angry about the state of gun-violence in America. I found this film incredibly confronting, and it has stuck with me since I saw it way back in January. If you want to feel really angry, watch it as a double with 13th. In a year marked by strong female characters and powerhouse performances, Teyonah Parris (as Lysistrata) is especially memorable.
3. The Red Turtle (dir. Michaël Dudok de Wit)
It is the simplicity of The Red Turtle (a Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch co-production) that makes it so powerful. The film is dialogue-less, which serves to remove all distractions from what plays out on-screen. The utterly stunning visuals and beautiful sound design are completely transformative, and you feel as if you are there, watching on in silence. I found the restraint and straightforwardness of the depiction of the life cycle to be incredibly profound, and I was brought to tears several times.
2. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín)
Its mid-December, and just when I think I’ve seen the best that 2016 can offer, I sit down in the cinema and Pablo Larrain gives me this film. Holy hell. Where to even begin with why, and how this film is so great? In the same way the documentary miniseries OJ: Made in America does an incredible job at really conveying the mythos of the man, Jackie does so with Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman, just phenomenal), and by extension John F Kennedy. It’s grief tangled with lore – the unimaginable pain of loss and maintenance of legend. Jackie is also one of the most beautifully constructed films of the year. From its costumes and hair and make-up, to its editing and year-best cinematography (I actually gasped at how amazing some of the shots are), this film is masterful.
1. Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho)
So we have it, my favourite film of the year. It’s hard to put into words why this is my favourite, it’s really all about the feelings I had watching it, and how I’ve obsessed over it (and its soundtrack) ever since. From the second that ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ blasted out of the cinema speakers, I was in love. Clara is an inspiration – a powerful free-spirited older woman who isn’t willing to lay down without a fight. She’s passionate, angry, and an unashamed romantic. If I can live with even 1/10 of the spunk she has, I know things will be okay. Braga’s performance is magnificent, and the film lives and dies by her withering looks, and flippant dismissals of people and their blatant idiocy. Put the soundtrack on loud and tell yourself that everything will be okay.
By Sam McCosh