Regardless of continent or country, 2016 was a tumultuous time, and cinematic escapism has never been more important. We’ve had a year absolutely filled with unique forms of entertainment, as well as some huge studio bombs, while the divide between cinematic blockbuster and independent movies gets ever bigger.
And because I live in the UK, this is UK releases only.
10. Swiss Army Man
More than just the rote taglines that innumerable reviews have given it, The Daniels’ Swiss Army Man is a giddily funny and charming buddy adventure movie that lends contemplative pause to the themes of depression and loneliness with a curiously unique twist. Paul Dano is expectedly hypnotic, continuing his decade-long reign of magnetic performances that started in 2006 with Little Miss Sunshine, and Daniel Radcliffe, as the jabbering, sincere Manny, has never been better. Their chemistry – though perhaps fantastical in nature – is unquestionable, and this alone could have carried the movie, but thankfully Kwan and Schienert’s script took a candid route to Hank’s (Dano) solitude, expertly balancing the absurd premise with a real emotional centre, some ingenious Be Kind Rewind style remakes and slowly enlightening tête-à-tête that involved vulgar conversation on masturbation, pop-culture references (“If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit”) and amusingly intimate adoption of body parts as tools. It’s a joyously unique film in both design and practice in an industry that’s seemingly fine with passable, generic blockbuster entertainment, with its inimitability of ideas, Swiss Army Man is one of the most original films on this list. It doesn’t get a pass purely for this uniqueness, though, it’s also very good.
Original review here.
9. The Childhood of a Leader
Despite it having one of the most irritatingly abstruse endings of everything I saw in 2016, Brady Corbett’s directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinatingly distinctive insight into the fated uprising of a tyrannical dictator. In a small French village in 1919, aloof 10-year old Prescott (Tom Sweet) throws rocks at churchgoers, runs circles around the village, and generally causes a nuisance out of boredom. Growing up in a wealthy authoritarian family led by American diplomat father (played by Liam Cunningham), Prescott has a very strict routine of homeschooling and church weaved with nightly family interactions of which he has very little interest in. His disinterest manifests into literally signposted ‘tantrums’, each with a more sinister bed of aggression than the last. Sweet is fantastic at conveying these outbursts with a genuine venom, and his sparring with his gloomy Mother (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) or sudden awareness of how manipulation can work in his favour are a real joy to watch. As well as it’s rich cast and superb directing, the film succeeds in multiple other aspects: Lol Crawley’s gorgeous cinematography breathing life into the drab surroundings with a perfectly restrained use of in situ lighting, and Scott Walkers booming, often threatening overtures give the film even more ominous foundations. If the last 5 minutes had been reigned in, The Childhood of a Leader would be higher in this list, but as debut films go it’s a truly impressive start from the American polymath, whose arthouse influences are used to excellent effect.
Original review here.
8. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Between the time of announcement and the film’s release, only two months had passed. Little was known about 10 Cloverfield Lane, but, in that small time-frame speculation was massive. Was it a sequel to the 2008 monster mash Cloverfield? Was it a prequel? Were the cast related to those in the original? After the credits rolled, the answer was never more obvious: no. 10 Cloverfield Lane is its predecessor in no more than name. Ripping Mary Elizabeth Winstead from her homestead within the scene, we wake up with her in the confines of a desolate bunker, sporting a broken leg and the after-effects of concussion. Winstead has been taken captive by John Goodman’s Howard: a doomsday prepper convinced that the outside world has been contaminated by a fatal poison, persuading both his captive and the audience that this is an unquestionable truth. There’s definitely the expectation of a twist or two, but fortunately, Dan Trachtenberg’s script smartly avoids the obvious, taking pleasure in dangling truths and untruths at the same level so we too are clueless as to the reality of the situation. The way in which Trachtenberg frames these confrontations within the claustrophobic walls of the bunker is unfeasibly tense: there are no real ‘surprises’ as such, we know that there’ll be heated arguments, attempted escapes and duplicitous character motivations, but that satisfaction is in how they occur and, more importantly, where, that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane nothing short of thrilling. If it weren’t for #3 on my list, this would have been the finest single-location thriller of the year.
Original review here.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings
While I did have some misgivings with Laika’s fourth feature (namely the script), the resulting whole was much better than the sum of its parts. Taking a video-game style level-to-end-boss approach with magnificent set-pieces, Kubo sets itself apart from the competition with a breathtaking visual style and a soaring, sweeping score that ties its themes of musicianship and family with rapturous success. Travis Knight and his mammoth team of animators – whom all deserve recognition where possible – have created a thoroughly lived-in universe that feels as ancient as the Japanese folk tales it draws inspiration from, with fully fledged external characters who inhabit his small village, to the sidekicks he meets on the his journey. For technique, skill, vision, sound and style, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the finest pieces of art in modern cinema.
Original review here.
6. Midnight Special
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Jeff Nichols: Take Shelter is an incredibly confident feature that allows for a slight undercurrent of science-fiction to embed itself in the familial drama, and his third – Mud – was a wonderfully old-fashioned southern gothic tale. With his fourth, Nichols takes these two motifs, doubles down on the sci-fi, and takes us on a brilliant journey that frequently surprises by renouncing typical genre tropes. Ostensibly a chase movie – though considering this as a dominant category is most certainly incorrect – Midnight Special tells the story of young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) – a boy with special powers worshipped by cults and hunted by federal investigators, as he goes on the run with his doting father Roy (Michael Shannon) in order to protect his mysterious secrets. Nichols’ vision is perfectly realised, and totally restrained: his deliberate decisions to leave audiences in the dark was one of the main things that left me with a smile: we know very little about Alton, the reasons his father and his uncle (Joel Edgerton) keep him secluded, or the threats Alton poses to those citing him as dangerous, and Nichols’ pacing allows this mystery to blossom without missing a beat. Featuring rich cinematography by Adam Stone (including a breathtaking aerial drone shot) and David Wingo’s reliably befitting soundtrack, Midnight Special is the whole package: a smart, small-scale sci-fi yarn with world-altering implications that might frustrate regular viewers seeking an action spectacle, but for everyone else, it’s a true delight.
Original review here.
5. Knight of Cups
There is absolutely no one making films quite like Terence Malick. The third part of a loosely connected trilogy, Knight of Cups takes what most didn’t like about The Tree of Life and To the Wonder and gives us more of the same: detached stories of disconnected people coming to terms with their place on Earth, with a sparing narrative and unconditionally dazzling visuals. For the past half-decade, Malick and Oscar-winning collaborator (and current personal favourite cinematographer) Emmanuel Lubezki have continued a kaleidoscopic visual style that, while regularly shifting, their mix of breathtaking metropolis and natural scenery with sudden, invasive close-up shots never feels jarring, yet paints a full picture of these lives on a pre-destined course of isolation. I understand why cinemagoers belittle the way his storytelling has purposefully distanced itself from the mainstream, as well as his own, original style but, for me, this serene blend of Ron Fricke’s Samsara, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (along with countless other audio/visual documentaries) relaxes me and transports me to a state of consciousness that few filmmakers can. It may have a wavering style, a lack of clarity and an aura of vacuity, but these make the tranquility of the story far more alluring and poetic, which is why it places so high my list.
4. Queen of Earth
Queen of Earth has been hard to shake this year for one incredibly uncomfortable scene: Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine finally snaps, spewing venomously fierce insults at her dinner guests with the thrumming expectation of physical violence. It’s as insidious and nerve-wracking as any thriller or horror this year, and it’s all down to the brilliant performances from its leads. The build up to this unnerving confrontation could have only worked as well as it did because of Moss and Katherine Waterston’s constantly raw bickering: it has a nonstop level of dread that reels you in with the expectation of true violence that never comes. Adroitly balancing backstories of familial suicide and depression, Alex Ross Perry’s intense chamber piece doesn’t capitalise on any one theme, but rather gives us a macrocosmic view into these two women’s lives, allowing us to see them through a personalised scope of depression, anxiety, and codependency. Both women aren’t as insecure as they’d like the other to believe, but their bickering belies independence and preservation in a way that they refuse to admit: their aggression bubbling until it becomes an externalised, detestable bitterness. Perry avoids cheap revelations, tacky character motivations, and blanket emotional beats, resulting in a truly haunting reflection of damaged personalities in a secluded country retreat.
Original review here.
3. Green Room
Crunchy, grueling and seriously exhausting, Jeremey Saulnier’s return to brutal, credible violence (after the masterwork that is Blue Ruin) shows that he’s becoming one of the most important independent storytellers with his third feature Green Room which gives bursts of extreme, unflinching violence in between softly spoken, humane characterisation. Where other filmmakers would revel in these grisly acts, Saulnier takes on an almost blase attitude: these stabbings, shootings and maulings that little the litter half aren’t the focus (no matter how memorable they may be) but are used as catalysts to the unexpected survival of the protagonists, led by the ever likeable Anton Yelchin. Like Blue Ruin, Green Room pits its cast against the odds, pushing them into the deep end of an unconscionable situation they can’t fully grasp, and by giving them the chance to express their feelings through a subdued script, we’re completely in tune with their instincts to get out alive. Simply the most outright intense film of the year, Green Room burrows itself in your mind and remains there for months after.
Original review here.
Until November, there was only one film I would have considered to be in the #1 spot; and while it was just pipped it to the post, Room spent almost the entire year fighting off the rest of the competition with the most heartfelt and heartbreaking drama in recent years. The astonishing Brie Larson plays a single mother to her only son (outstanding newcomer Jacob Tremblay) as they live their lives confined to a boxed room, with only a mysterious captor to break their solitude. Lenny Abrahamson’s directing and Emma Donoghue’s writing averts giving us details of the outside world, instead feeds us the information through the curious five-year-old as he understands it: his life only exists within these walls, anything else is inconceivable and alien to him. Room shocks with an urgency and pathos that understands the conditions with which the mother and son are faced, and by feeding us the bulk through Jack’s inquisitive and bewildered eyes, we’re shown that compassion and mercy can come from the unlikeliest of sources. A film of rare beauty, Room is definitely one to revisit.
Original review here.
There is a through line with my Top 5, all of them have a sinister undercurrent: whether it’s captives against their will, threats to loved ones, or threats to the entire World. But there’s another theme that connects them all: that of hope and, in a year many see as the year hope was lost, Arrival gave us it in buckets with an outstanding science-fiction allegory that, at its most basic foundation, expresses the notion that we should all just be less shitty to each other. Denis Villeneuve has become the go-to for exciting genre-pieces working today and, though his previous films have indeed been a great example of the genre they find themselves in, it would suggest that sci-fi is where his true talents lie (no pressure Blade Runner 2049!) Based on Ted Chiang’s ‘The Story of Your Life’, Arrival invites us into its world with an emotional introduction: Louise Banks (Amy Adams) begins the story with a tale of loss and sorrow. How this story sidles its way into that of a worldwide alien invasion is nothing short of wondrous, and by dovetailing these concurrent narratives into a complete and powerfully poignant story, it swells into something much more affecting and ultimately heartbreaking. A science fiction masterpiece, with every component as strong as the next, Arrival is every bit as important and life affirming as you’d heard.
Of course, there were many that didn’t make this list that is absolutely deserving of your attention. These were either just missing out on the Top 10 because I saw them too late in the year to recognise rewatchability or staying power, or there was something that prevented it from being talked about in the same sentence as the ones that made the cut. This includes: Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman gives Kate Beckinsale the role of her life in this sharp-tongued adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’); Embrace of the Serpent (a cross-generational quest for a mythical plant is both stunning and thrilling in it’s allegorical tale of human destruction); Everybody Wants Some!! (a ludicrous bromage to the 80s featuring a superb soundtrack and attractively detailed sets and costumes); The Revenant (brutal and demanding, Leonardo DiCaprio continues to show what a consummate actor he is); Hell or High Water (a hushed, backwater neo-western with a blazing script and career-defining turns from a usually bland cast); Anomalisa (stop-motion oddity from Charlie Kaufman that has more talent puppets than the majority of Hollywood’s output).
BFSR Award illustration header by cal.con.
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