Look at social media, any social media and you’ll see memes aplenty confirming the same opinion. From the loss of Bowie, Prince, Cohen, Wilder (to name but a few) to the rise of Trump and the despicable so-called ‘alt-right’ (a media normalisation that’s as troubling as anything else this year), 2016 has seemed like a broad case of can-go-wrong, will-go-wrong. And here in the UK we have the clusterfuck of Brexit to contend with; an act of democratic tomfoolery which looks likely to cast a shadow over our lives for years, even decades to come. It’s hard not to agree. 2016 sucked and sucked hard.
But still there were great movies. There have been bad ones too, granted. But as usual the titles that shone, shone brightly enough to make up for the dregs. And there were surprises. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters – following a lot of whining – proved one of the best comedies of the year while Bad Moms was another largely shining example of why it’s foolhardy to underestimate funny women right now. Oculus director Mike Flanagan reversed the fortunes of Michael Bay’s latest Hasbro connect Ouija for superior sequel Origin Of Evil. Disney showed significant progression with animated hit Zootopia (released as Zootropolis over here) and then arguably bettered it with Moana, while Jon Favreau managed to reverse the fortunes of their ‘live action’ reboots with his fine realisation of The Jungle Book.
Everyone loves pleasant surprises. And in that spirit this year’s list is even bigger than usual. Five extra great movies split over today and tomorrow, four of which I haven’t previously talked about. Here, then, is the first part of my personal countdown of the best films released in the UK in 2016.
25. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
In A Sentence: Government agencies chase after a man who has abducted his own paranormally gifted son from a religious commune in order to take him to a specific place at a specific time.
At The Time: Midnight Special underscores the incredible connection between parents and their children. Roy is consumed with his mission to protect and aid Alton. It is all that he is. Where does such an all-encompassing sense of drive and dedication come from? How much love is there in a person for another? Approaching these questions invites sentimentalism, but Nichols holds his own, wise enough to ask but not answer. (April 9th)
And Now?: Beholden to John Carpenter’s Starman, certainly, but you could riff on worse. Midnight Special continues Nichols’ unbroken run of fine, delicately measured films. Michael Shannon is the film’s controlled centre, but there’s a wealth of great supporting work here from the likes of Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver. See it knowing as little as you can.
24. The Big Short (Adam McKay)
In A Sentence: An angry and comedic look at the events that caused the collapse of the housing market in 2007 and the people who exploited it for their own gains.
At The Time: McKay might just have been one of the best people to hand this one to. He takes a subject which is liable to induce exasperation and boredom and packages it in a way that allows the audience to process the information and, most importantly, have fun with it. As inappropriate as that sounds considering this little story saw the financial ruin of millions. (January 22nd)
And Now?: January feels like a long time ago now, so it would’ve been easy to forget about The Big Short… except McKay made it surprisingly difficult to forget about The Big Short. Similar in tone to Scorsese’s hit The Wolf Of Wall Street, while this financial fandango skirts close to condescending its audience, it also acknowledges that this is a dense topic that could do with some unpacking. And then there’s Steve Carell in what remains one of the blowhard male performances of the year, perhaps only rivaled by Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash.
23. The Conjuring 2 (James Wan)
In A Sentence: Having made a reputation for themselves, church-advocated paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren travel to England to investigate a series of unexplained and sinister events in a house in an Enfield terrace.
At The Time: The Conjuring 2 is certainly built for mass consumption, with its strong values, life lessons and credible time spent underlining the importance of family. But’s also out – first and foremost – to entertain. Assembled like an expensive ghost train ride, Wan deploys every trick in the book. His is a pretty thick book at this point, so we’re treated to ghouls with carnival make-up jobs (incredibly reminiscent of those seen in the Insidious films), jump-scares, crashing jolts on the soundtrack and plenty of crucifixes clutched in frightened fists. (June 14th)
And Now?: A genuinely superior sequel, The Conjuring 2 rekindles the sense of adventure of films like Poltergeist and attempts (largely with great success) to apply it to the ‘horror epic’ template of old. That trick bag might be familiar, but it’s rare for a modern Hollywood horror to implement its contents so effectively. Roll on film three.
22. Lemonade (Kahlil Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter)
In A Sentence: The ‘visual album’ accompaniment to Beyoncé’s latest record charts the pop star’s soul-searching as she details the stresses on her marriage and explores her roots.
At The Time: Not previously reviewed.
And Now?: Kelsey McKinney recently wrote a piece for Vanity Fair expounding the legitimacy of considering Lemonade one of the films of the year, and I echo all of these sentiments. In a media landscape with increasingly blurred boundaries, the ‘rules’ feel more like excuses. This is an artistic vision, expanding on the source material (the album runs to around 45 minutes; Lemonade the film is 20 minutes longer), book-ending songs and sometimes cutting them up entirely, the additional material part-diary, part-musing on what it means to be a black woman in America. Instead of viewing this piece narrowly as 12 interconnected music videos, Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph ask that it be considered as a whole. In the process they offer us something that feels like an MTV special directed by Terrence Malick. Lemonade celebrates film as a collaborative art form; dynamic, varied, multifaceted and goddamn beautiful throughout. Doesn’t hurt that the songs are nearly all killer.
21. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
In A Sentence: When rumours of their promiscuity reach their conservative adopted parents, five Turkish sisters are confined to their home as plans are formed to wed them as they come of age in a series of arranged marriages, unless the girls can intervene.
At The Time: When we’re exposed to images of young women being scrutinised like cattle for any signs of sexual interference when their word is ignored, one truly senses the indignation behind the camera. Ergüven hopes for Turkey to evolve. While that need not necessarily mean throwing tradition away, with Mustang, she makes a strong argument for the need for adaptability. Sometimes you can’t rush the speed of change, but you can give it a forceful nudge. (May 23rd)
And Now?: This sun dappled film is light as air and angry as hell. Openly channeling fond memories of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, Ergüven here demonstrates she is another female director to keep an eye on. That’s a growing list, and its apt that a film such as this one should exemplify her standing. Mustang is funny and fierce, tender and strong.
20. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards)
In A Sentence: Before the events of A New Hope, an unlikely band of rebels forge a plan to steal the plans for the Death Star in an effort to rekindle hope in the resistance forces.
At The Time: Usually this is the bit where I link back to something I wrote when the film was out and I had initially reviewed it, but that time is now. Rogue One has scrappily fought its way into this end of year list. Edwards’ film isn’t the easiest Star Wars film to love – more pointedly steeped in darkness and death – but from its rough and inhospitable beginnings a goliath war movie rises. Some of the more laboured references to past glories were lost on me, staking this out as maybe the Star Wars for people who don’t like Star Wars. But in a year in which Hollywood’s blockbuster action movies have conspicuously failed to deliver, here is a film likely to last beyond 2016’s fast approaching sell-by date.
And Now?: Still settling, but I suspect this one’s a keeper.
19. Our Little Sister (Hirozaku Koreeda)
In A Sentence: A grown family of sisters are introduced to a new member among them when their father dies, taking in their thirteen year-old half-sibling and learning how to live together anew.
At The Time: Not previously reviewed.
And Now?: For one reason or another I never got around to singing the praises of this beautiful little film earlier in the year, when it’s by far one of the great highlights of 2016. Performances across the board are note perfect in this gentle giant. It’s an unhurried, calming experience. Director Koreeda tips the hat heavily to the great Yasujiro Ozu – the preoccupation with familial minutiae which typified Japan’s great master is evident throughout here – yet still Our Little Sister has a modernity to it, an aura of contemporary Japan that allows it to flourish and not get caged by nostalgia. It may not be quite as formally distinctive as Ozu’s finer pictures, but Koreeda has still managed to capture a sense of honesty and beauty in his subject matter. This modest film is worth taking the time to discover, and worth having on hand to dip back into.
18. Arrival (Dennis Villeneuve)
In A Sentence: When an alien life form makes contact at 12 sites across the globe, a linguistics expert is brought in to help decipher their language in an attempt to learn their motives.
At The Time: Where previously (Villeneuve) has alternated between pop cinema presentations and more personal, experimental films, Arrival sees him successfully combining both sensibilities. In short, it makes Arrival a very satisfying experience. A big budget movie that openly asks it’s audience to both think and feel. (November 12th)
And Now?: It’s still fresh in the mind, but this critical and commercial hit seems set to be one of 2016’s most fondly thought of films. Adams gives a full and empathic performance, but the show is Villeneuve’s as he carefully sculpts a story that feels at once personal and globally relevant.
17. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
In A Sentence: A depressed motivational speaker for telephone customer services representatives dances with the prospect of infidelity while staying in a hotel for a conference when he meets a shy woman named Lisa who stands out from the sea of nondescript faces.
At The Time: Kaufman can’t be Kaufman without maddening complexity, and so this comes to bear in the film’s virtuoso execution. As a storytelling choice it makes a degree of sense; the perception that everyone has the same face and voice was only ever going to be produced through costly effects of some description, so why not build the entire world to accommodate it? Then there’s also, perhaps, the control element. It’s as if Kaufman has turned himself into Caden Cotard from Synecdoche, New York; Anomalisa is his tiny elaborate play version of the world. (March 15th)
And Now?: Trust Charlie Kaufman to turn a stop motion romantic comedy into the year’s finest feel-bad movie, but wait! Though Anomalisa quite cuttingly subverts expectations of what to expect from an animated film – and from a romantic comedy – Kaufman has nevertheless gifted us another heartbreakingly honest insight into our own fragile humanity. This doomed endeavour is funny, sad, wise and weird. It’s a Kaufman flick through and through.
16. High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)
In A Sentence: In the 1970’s, a pioneering architect constructs a revolutionary apartment block on the bank of the Thames which caters for it’s inhabitants’ every need, but, as an atmosphere of decadence takes hold, the tower divides into classes, shuts it’s doors, and starts tearing itself apart…
At The Time: An unusual and caustic film (one which boasts a fantastic soundtrack; see Portishead’s cover of ‘S.O.S’ by ABBA), audience members expecting conventional narrative traits such as resolution might find the film’s trajectory a little aimless. Characters disappear wholesale. Questions go unanswered. That is the nature of the piece. Wheatley is presenting us a hemmed-in vision of society reshaping itself. The end game is constantly mutating. (March 19th)
And Now?: J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is one of my favourite novels, and this is about as good an adaptation as we are ever likely to get. Wheatley returns from the confusion of A Field In England with a renewed sense of showmanship here. This is a supremely confident picture, displaying its gorgeous images of degradation with justifiable pride. High-Rise is a collage from the past which reveals how forward-thinking it’s creator was, making Wheatley a perfect fit to bring it into the present.
15. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
In A Sentence: A week spent with poetry-writing bus driver who lives a comfortable life with his creative girlfriend.
At The Time: Driver seems to relish the opportunity to mine deep into an introverted character, while a host of supporting players add genuine value and flavour to their scenes, even if appearing only once (see Method Man). By and large Paterson is a love letter to the everyday and the humdrum, but it also acknowledges the exemplary and mysterious. (December 8th)
And Now?: Paterson hasn’t had enough time to settle. Films released at the end of the year often get a tough break. Last year’s Carol landed in 2015’s list at #14; now I’d place it in that year’s top 3. With that in mind I wonder whether Jarmusch’s latest will swell given more time. It already feels bigger in the mind than it did in the cinema; an unfurling experience that it’s creator has gifted us.
14. The Assassin (Hsiao-Hsien Hou)
In A Sentence: In 8th century China, a trainee assassin is set a test and returns to the temple of her youth to assassinate a political leader who is also an old acquaintance.
At The Time: Fortunately, while the pace might be incredibly slow, much of what occurs is elementally interesting. From the depiction of basic traditions of the time period to parables accompanied by sparse music played within scenes, The Assassin stakes itself out as a contemplative experience. It’s unhurried, hushed majesty teeters at times, but everything here feels so precise that you don’t question Hou’s intent. Even if at least half of the picture champions the invocation of it’s time and place over any narrative element. (February 21st)
And Now?: A divisive film, to say the least, but here at The Lost Highway Hotel The Assassin is by far one of the year’s most exquisite, majestic experiences. The classical framing helps imbue these perfectly judged images with reverence, while Shu Qi’s poised performance as the titular assassin is eminently fascinating to watch. Go into this expecting plentiful martial arts action and you’ll be disappointed or perplexed, but arrive expecting a considered and artful piece of work and you may be on to a winner. Rewards repeat viewings if you’ve got the constitution for it.
13. Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
In A Sentence: A Hollywood fixer has to contend with the disappearance of one of his major stars, a communist plot, a piece of doolally miscasting, a pair of gossip columnists, his own moral compass and a starlet, pregnant out of wedlock, who’s sewn into a ‘fish ass’…
At The Time: It may not be the pinnacle of their career to date, and the deja vu may grate for those unfortunate souls who aren’t enamoured with their work already, but even if Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens trusting in what they know, it’s a pleasure to see that they still know it so very, very well. (February 28th)
And Now?: Likely to land as an underrated addition to their resplendent catalogue, Hail, Caesar! forgoes the melancholy truisms that helped buoy Inside Llewyn Davis to instant classic status, but it does find the Coens celebrating Hollywood’s golden age and varying genres in terrific feel-good style. An itchy, bitty and frivolous picture, but fine comedy’s a rare and valuable thing in 2016. This will certainly do.
12. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
In A Sentence: Documentary filmmaker Robert Greene follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil through her process as she prepares to play Christine Chubbuck, a US TV newscaster who committed suicide live on air in 1974.
At The Time: Not previously reviewed.
And Now?: I’d been aware of Sheil following a handful of small but memorable appearances in the likes of You’re Next, Listen Up Philip and House Of Cards, so to see her methods was a draw here. What I discovered was an eerie essay with multiple layers to consider. Firstly there is the picking apart of the event itself and Sheil’s efforts to assemble a satisfying narrative for the actions of her subject, then there’s Greene’s examination of Sheil; her growing frustrations and increasing sense of inadequacy. Both filmmaker and performer want to do right by Chubbuck, but to do so they must understand her intentions and question their own. This opens up yet another area of inquisition about the role of the media in our lives, it’s responsibility, and how it approaches mental health. Then there’s the conspicuous fraudulence of the supposed reconstruction, picking open the voyeuristic function of mining tragedy for dramatic value. Pull a thread and several more unravel. Documentaries on filmmaking often feel like a snake devouring itself, but here Greene offers us an altogether different feast, one marked with a bitter taste but wholeheartedly worth consuming.
11. Kubo And The Two Strings (Travis Knight)
In A Sentence: A young, talented boy is sent to a strange land by his dying mother for his own protection, but once there he meets some unlikely companions who assist him on a perilous quest for bravery.
At The Time: In the wake of the travesty that is Sausage Party, Kubo And The Two Strings shows what real animation for grown-ups can be like. It’s about appreciable beauty. It’s about ideas. It’s about having something to save for when you think your children are old enough to digest it. It’s about wishing it had been there during your own childhood. (September 9th)
And Now?: Too scary for the very young, nevertheless, Kubo And The Two Strings is the animated film of the year. Gorgeously presented, wise and funny, it may not have taken the box office by storm, but give it a chance and it’ll breach your heart. That was a little cheesy, wasn’t it? Don’t care. Find it and marvel.
To be continued…