By the time Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher had passed away within 24 hours of each other most of us were already wringing our hands of 2016. A terrible year and that’s before we even get to the future political implications of key events that seemingly darkened the skies above us. Nevertheless, a look back does at least show another stellar year for cinema with plenty to recommend. So here it is, my top ten films of 2016!
10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Part of me wasn’t at all surprised by the mixed reception the latest entry into the Star Wars universe received. This is a far darker and more substantial film than almost anything else in the series as a new group of heroes attempt to steal the plans for the Death Star. The direct prequel – finishing literally minutes before the opening scene of A New Hope – by British director Gareth Edwards is a superb parable on the Syrian Civil War dressed up as a space opera.
Continuing the commitment to the truly diverse casting of The Force Awakens, Rogue One outshines its tangential predecessor with a gritty and hefty storyline. If all you want is a few cool but inconsequential lightsaber fights you will be disappointed, however if you want truly intelligent, mainstream science fiction, this is almost, as good as it gets.
9. Eye in the Sky
A taut and timely political thriller by director Gavin Hood on the advancement of technology, espionage and the War on Terror. In an age where good editing is in short supply, it is nice to see a film that does what it needs to do and get the hell outta there in 100 minutes. Helen Mirren exudes authority as usual, as a Colonel heading up an operation aimed to capture or assassinate a group of militants in Nairobi.
Aaron Paul is excellent as a conflicted drone pilot, wrestling with the consequences of collateral damage and the late Alan Rickman, in his final performance reminds of his special talent, balancing seriousness with some refreshing and cutting satire.
8. When Marnie was There
A beautiful, poignant and fitting farewell from Studio Ghibli adapting the Joan G. Robinson novel. It took two years for this film to reach us from Japan but it was worth the wait. A stellar adaptation reminds us why Studio Ghibli is so wonderfully unique. A magical story about identity, the end of childhood innocence and loneliness just makes the whole world seem so much brighter.
Considering how this year has been, it’s a tonic we could all use right now.
7. The Witch
A brilliant, brooding, psychological horror from Robert Eggers. For a director’s debut feature this is a surprisingly mature flick that reminds us of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Everything is precise and paced perfectly with the aid of sumptuous cinematography from Jarin Blaschke, helping to bring forth the haunting, supernatural power of the wilderness, and creating doubt over everything you see.
The performances, particularly those of Kate Dickie and Anya Taylor-Joy tie everything together and create an oppressive sense of fear that chills your bones.
6. Green Room
Apologies in advance, as the next two films on this list are so tough you probably won’t be able to watch more than once but I do mean that in the most positive way possible. First up, at number 6, is Jeremy Saulnier’s follow up to the equally tough Blue Ruin. Green Room is a breathtaking, brutal thriller which recalls the gritty violence of 70’s grind house cinema but with a high concept aesthetic.
The performances are superb, from the late Anton Yelchin’s punk band member, Patrick Stewart’s chilling Neo Nazi and Imogen Poots’ nihilistic Amber; with dark outlook on everything but determined to carve and blast her way out of a hopeless situation. The sheer ferocity of this film is almost overpowering but makes for something very special.
5. Son of Saul
First time director Laszlo Nemes captured the ‘Grand Prix’ award at Cannes in 2015 – before being distributed for general release last year – for this harrowing Holocaust story told through the eyes of Sonkerkommando, Hungarian Jew, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig). This is a film that shows us, in the starkest manner possible, the unimaginable horrors of the Nazi Genocide but without being a cheap piece of exploitation.
It handles an extremely sensitive subject deftly and with class ably assisted with excellent cinematography, a truly superb soundtrack and an outstanding central performance from Rohrig. In the same manner as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, this film is bleakly intense and unforgiving and a film you may only be able to stomach once. Nevertheless, it is an extremely important and moreover brilliant film that should be seen by all, especially in such precarious political times.
Daylight robbery took place at 2016’s Academy Awards when Lenny Abrhamson’s adaptation of the wonderful Emma Donahue novel was beaten to the Best Picture award by the good but far inferior, Spotlight. It was a no contest as far as I’m concerned. Despite its seemingly harsh surface subject matter, this is actually a beautiful story about mothers and their children and how the power of that bond can survive and endure the darkest times.
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay genuinely look and feel like a real-life mother and son such is the wonderful chemistry they have. Abrahamson’s direction is marvellous and draws the best out of his two leads for a beautiful melodrama. One of the more underrated films of 2016.
Should the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049 film be as good as we all hope, years from now we may well look back on this period in Denis Villeneuve’s career as being one of those rare hot streaks. Five or more films in a row that are genuinely excellent: Incendies; Prisoners; Enemy; Sicario and now Arrival. Villeneuve’s entry into Science Fiction is truly stunning.
Amy Adams continues to show us all why she is one of, if not the best actress in the world with a magnificent lead performance which explores love, loss and the connections made in language and communication. It just happens to have an alien invasion in the background. A word to, to Michael Stuhlbarg who delivers an excellent support performance as a menacing government agent.
2. Embrace of the Serpent
A dark and brooding drama from Ciro Guerra unlike anything I have ever seen. A real one off piece of cinema. A film loosely based on the diaries of two explorers from the first half of the twentieth century who went deep into the Colombian Amazon. However, the brilliance comes in from the story being told from the point of you of the native people, centered on shaman Karamakate – the last of his people – at two points in his life (Nilbio Torres & Antonio Bolivar).
The use of black and white cinematography instead of color removes the exoticism of the Amazon and what we are left with is the damage the white man has wrought. A powerful and poignant film with horror and wonder alike. A must-see film which will stay with you for life.
1. Sing Street
A friend of mine (himself a director) on seeing this film enthused about how John Carney has the ability to make films that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. He wasn’t wrong, Sing Street is truly a feel good film. It’s had a lasting emotional impact on me in ways, I’m only grasping after several viewings.
The performances are excellent, with several young stars surely being made and Carney’s direction has an innate understanding of the relationship between music and emotion with a brilliant soundtrack. I laughed, I cried, I came out of the cinema with a big smile on my face. My number 1 halfway through 2016, was still one of the best films at the end of it.