The 10 Best Films of 2016

Well…2016 was certainly something. As far as years go, it was by and large an unpopular one for a number of reasons, but many films still entered the ether, and it has at least been a pretty good year on that front. Below I have put together my ten favourites, eligible by UK release dates, for your perusal. Since it was a pretty strong year, shout outs must go to the likes of Taika Watiti’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which didn’t quite make the list, and Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, which also only just missed out. Nevertheless, these ten films were all gems, so join me as we delve in to them:

10. ‘Notes on Blindness’

In the summer of 1983, theologian, writer and university professor John Hull lost his sight. To try and come to terms with it, Hull kept an audio diary cataloguing his thoughts and experiences with blindness, and what he felt about it on any given day. This docudrama by Pete Middleton and James Spinney takes those tapes and uses actors to bring them to life, the actors lip syncing along to the tapes while Middleton and Spinney provide a visual depiction of the places Hull had to go to for life and work, and the things he did with his wife and his family. It’s a touching, innovative and philosophical film that blurs the line between fact and fiction while capturing the essence of the process that Hull went through in his attempts to understand and live with his blindness.

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9. ‘Life, Animated’

The second documentary in a row on the list, Life, Animated tells the story of autistic boy Owen Suskind, and the way Disney animations helped him to interact with the outside world and connect with his family again. Director Roger Ross Williams uses old home video footage, interview accounts and rich, hand drawn animation to bring out the different aspects of Owen’s life, and his relationship to his family. We also get a candid look at him in the present, and an insight in to how he’s evolved as a person over the years, aided throughout by the likes of Peter Pan and Iago, the mischievous parrot from Aladdin. It’s an ode to the power of cinema, and how it can help people come out of their shell and understand their surroundings a bit better.

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8. ‘Arrival’

 

Denis Villeneuve’s latest film channels Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, providing a thoughtful and provocative film that delves deep in to its themes and seeks to engage the mind, providing a thorough examination of the nature of communication and the way we go about interacting with the ‘radical other’, here in the form of Cephalopod-style aliens that are treated throughout with contempt and suspicion by almost everyone but Amy Adams’ central character, linguist Dr Louise Banks. It’s not just about the aliens though, it’s also a personal story about Louise and her personal struggle with great loss. Bolstered by a great score by Jóhann Jóhannsson , Arrival is another example of Villeneuve’s directorial prowess following last year’s Sicario and bodes well for the upcoming much anticipated Blade Runner sequel, as he has shown he can master intelligent science fiction here.

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7. ‘Hell or High Water’

Writer Taylor Sheridan wrote Villeneuve’s Sicario, and he returned to pen this film, which is helmed by David Mackenzie. Hell or High Water is a down to earth modern Western that doesn’t hark back to the glamour of some of its predecessors, but revels in its strong characterisation and excellent writing. A perfectly paced film that with a simple premise, it follows bank robber brothers Toby, played by Chris Pine and Tanner, played by Ben Foster as they traverse across West Texas hitting branches of Texas Midlands Bank in well-planned robberies that are somewhat hindered by Tanner’s volatile nature. On their case is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and what follows is an old-fashioned game of cat and mouse brought in to the modern era, with tales of reverse mortgages and ranch foreclosures. Excellent cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and an atmospheric, stripped back score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis helps to make this a taut, gripping tale that modernises a genre often stuck in the past.

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6. ‘Under the Shadow’

Babak Anvari’s debut film is a chilling portrayal of life during wartime, with a nice sprinkling of the supernatural on the side. His tale of a young child haunted by a Djinn, or evil spirit, calls to mind Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook with the added backdrop of the tumultuous Iran-Iraq war and its effect on Iran’s capital Tehran, which provides the added sense of dread and the underlying tension in the story, the upheaval of the revolution in Iran also coming through to create a volatile atmosphere. Narges Rashidi excels in the central role as Shideh, a woman who is not able to continue her studies as a medical student due to her past involvement in political activities that have since become unacceptable to the new regime. Trapped at home, her husband Iraj is then called by the military and assigned to an area of heavy conflict, and she is left to take care of their daughter Dorsa. Mother and daughter’s trials and tribulations only get worse from there, as the situation escalates and there seems to be some sort of link between her daughter’s doll Kimia and this haunting spirit that appears to terrorise them from that point, all amidst the backdrop of missile bombardments that one by one convince Shideh’s neighbours to leave the capital. An intelligent and powerful, tense horror film that makes use of every second of its runtime.

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5. ‘Spotlight’

We go back to the start of the year for Tom McCarthy’s incredibly important tale of how Boston Globe uncovered the systemic child abuse by Catholic priests in Boston and the various trials and tribulations they had to go through in order to get to the seemingly all-powerful Catholic Church. McCarthy approaches the story with a deft touch, allowing the importance of the story to come to the fore, and coaxing excellent performances out of all of his talented cast members, most particularly Mark Ruffalo whose portrayal of Michael Rezendes is thoroughly believable and extremely powerful.

The film’s portrayal of investigative journalism brings to mind All the President’s Men, and the painstaking process of extracting as much information as possible, often from totally unco-operative sources. It’s down to earth and doesn’t resort to glibness or flashiness to get across the work that went in to such a big and important story, instead focusing on the journalists, the process, and the emotions involved. This is aided by an excellent score from the ever reliable Howard Shore and beautifully understated camerawork by Masanobu Tagayanagi as we get a film that gives you a glimpse of what it was really like to extract this story, and to uncover such incriminating evidence against one of the biggest organisations in the world.

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4. ‘The Big Short’

Sticking with the very start of the year we come to Adam McKay’s The Big Short, and a very different way of telling a true story that’s worth hearing. McKay opts for flashy, fast-paced and comic as he sardonically tells the story of the financial crisis of 2007-8 in a way that’s engaging and gripping as well as slyly humorous and willing to forgo standard cinema conventions, breaking the fourth wall regularly to explain complex financial concepts to the audience. It’s an adventurous and intelligent film that makes it clear just how cocksure and inflexible banking bigwigs at the time were, refusing point blank to see it coming, and refusing to acknowledge that their hubris would eventually get the better of them in catastrophic style.

Great performances come from Christian Bale as the eccentric neurologist turned hedgefund manager Dr Christopher Burry who notices early on that the bubble is going to burst and bets against the market, to the consternation of his clients, and Steve Carell who shines in his role as the irritable, outspoken, obnoxious and yet principled hedgefund manager Mark Baum, a character that suits him perfectly but who he manages to bring to life with plenty of verve. The ensemble cast, which also features Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, all come to realise the crash is imminent and make sure to bet against the market, no matter how bad they feel about doing so. A worthwhile and entertaining exploration of the crisis that deserved all the awards plaudits it got last year.

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3. ‘Son of Saul’

The winner of last year’s best film in a foreign language, László Nemes’ Son of Saul is a harrowing, intense portrayal of life in the Sonderkommando, a work division of prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp. We follow Saul Ausländer, a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner who undertakes the grim tasks he has to do in a state of catatonia, seemingly numb to the horrors of day to day life in the camp. This changes when he spots his son, still breathing after the gas chambers, about to be suffocated and taken for autopsy by the doctor. Knowing full well that he cannot stop them from killing his son, he launches upon a quest to give him a proper Jewish burial, beginning a search for a rabbi who would be able to oversee it.

Nemes keeps the camera tight to Saul a lot of the time, and the horrors surrounding him are as a result often only heard, emphasising both Saul’s tunnel vision when it comes to the task at hand and the numbness he now feels towards the atrocities, as well as giving the film a kinetic energy that provides it with a sense of immediacy. It’s a tough watch, but a necessary one that leaves the true scale of the horror to the imagination as it tells Saul’s personal story in a sea of horror.

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2. ‘Nocturnal Animals’

Tom Ford’s sophomore film is a beautifully told story of betrayal and revenge that’s elegantly constructed and has the ability both to be a gut-wrenching thriller and a compelling relationship drama all in one. Boasting excellent performances from its ensemble cast featuring the likes of Amy Adams, who has really had a great year, Jake Gyllenhaal and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, it’s a rich multi-layered film that takes a story-within-story format, taking us in to the world of a novel that truly brings out the resentment and anger that is at the heart of the film’s central relationship between Adams’ Susan and Gyllenhaal’s Edward, the novelist whose words are brought to life in brutal detail, his novel bringing to light his feelings towards Susan in a visceral and violent way.

With an excellent score by Abel Korzeniowski, excellent cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, Ford is able to craft a thoroughly engaging, intelligent narrative that features one of the tensest and most brutal scenes of recent cinema, where a car is run off the road Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s thugs in the confines of the novel. He ensures that your eyes never leave the screen, glued as you are to every aspect of these characters, every aspect of their unfurling tensions and hopes and dreams, all of which are on the brink of crumbling, or have already.

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1. ’10 Cloverfield Lane’

The winner this year came from nowhere and completely astonished. Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane may be a ‘spiritual sequel’ to Cloverfield, but it’s ten times the film that was. A taut, expertly judged thriller that never lets go, it uses the close confines of its bunker setting to amazing effect, and features a trio of great performances from its main cast, whose chemistry is impeccable throughout. John Goodman is typically reliable as Howard Stambler, a man who has ‘saved’ his two companions, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle and John Gallagher Jr’s Emmett, from the apparent apocalypse that has occurred outside, though he refuses to let either of them check whether or not he is telling the truth. Stuck seemingly as Howard’s captives, Michelle tries to piece together just how much of what Howard says is the truth, but remains convinced that he is merely tricking her and Emmett in to staying with him underground. Suspenseful until the end and featuring some fantastically shot scenes that are impossible to take your eye from, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a perfect thriller by a very, very talented first-time director who is destined for many great things.

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About Sep Gohardani

Sep is an avid film and music enthusiast who takes any opportunity to verbalise his often snobbish opinions to any unlucky soul who is near him. He was editor-in-chief of independent student newspaper The Student Review from 2013-14 and is an ardent writer of reviews and feature pieces.