Here are my Top 10 Films of 2016!
To check out my preview of this article (which lists all the films I watched last year) click HERE.
10. The Witch
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Not your usual horror fare, The Witch (AKA The VVitch) is dark, brooding and unsettling. It’s all about the performances with this one, as the various members of the family deal with growing suspicion and paranoia, increasingly struggling against each other with accusations and their own guilt of sin in equal measure.
Some viewers may consider it too much of a slow burn for them, but if you allow yourself to be absorbed in the authentic period setting and dialogue, you will be in for a real atmospheric treat. Is there something genuinely evil afoot? Or is it just a case of mass hysteria and/or paranoid delusions and hallucinations manifesting themselves gradually as this isolated family unit starts to crumble?
With creepy downbeat scares, a gradual descent into madness and a thick atmosphere of dread, The Witch comes recommended. Anya Taylor-Joy is also excellent in the lead role and has a great future ahead of her.
Favourite Bit: The eerie ending sequence.
9. Green Room
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart
The untimely death of young star Anton Yelchin earlier this year makes watching this feel all the more poignant, but the film itself is still great on its own merits. Green Room is dark, violent and vicious, with believable characters and performances throughout.
The gritty, lo-fi punk aesthetic perfectly fits the mood and music of the film, and the tension is cranked to unbearable levels as things gradually escalate from pretty bad to an insane nightmare. Yelchin is great as always and there is strong support all round; Patrick Stewart is interesting playing against type as an understated villain having to act out of necessity and Imogen Poots is almost unrecognisable as the punk chick caught in the middle. Intense scenes, great music, practical gore effects and unpredictable trajectory makes this a thrill to watch for those who like to be disturbed.
Favourite Bit: You hold your breath when the band decides to open their gig with a cover of the Dead Kennedys ‘Nazi Punks F*ck Off’… to a room full of neo-nazi skinheads.
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton
Marvel Studios seem increasingly confident in moving forward with surprising properties. For example, Iron Man, Ant-Man and Guardian’s of the Galaxy were not the most popular or well known franchises/characters until after Marvel decided to make films of them. Now they are huge properties. In the near future we have Black Panther and The Inhumans movies to look forward to, but for now the next step: Doctor Strange - whose cape is filled with an equal amount of confidence by our very own Benedict Cumberbatch.
Despite his initially somewhat distracting American accent, Cumberbatch seems comfortable playing the lead in a big budget superhero movie, and as this is his origin story, we are introduced to the concepts of magic and mysticism (something that has not really been tackled in the MCU up until now) gently in tandem with his own character arc.
Mads Mikklesen is a decently imposing yet largely functional villain (although he is given some empathy in one particular scene), and Chiwetel Ejiofor looks to be having fun lending a Shakespearean delivery to his fair share of silly lines. The standout though is Tilda Swinton as the mysterious ‘Ancient One’ - who is simultaneously bad-ass, wise, meek and even gets to throw out the occasional zinger.
The real stars of the show, however, are the special effects. From the folding, clockwork cities, to combat with glowing energy weapons to astral projecting through the mystical realm – the big screen is where these stunning achievements (in real-life technical sorcery) are best appreciated.
It seems Marvel Studios has yet to put a foot wrong and while not even being the best of its output to be released this year, Doctor Strange is entertaining, surprisingly humorous and inventive in its set pieces.
Favourite Bit: The first time Steven Strange astral projects to showcase a lengthy and thrilling hallucinogenic sequence. “Have you ever seen that in a gift shop?”
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote
Perhaps the most polarising film on this list – to the point where even some Winding Refn fans have admittedly been put off when seeing this one.
Whether you can get any enjoyment from the story at all (about a young girl naively making her first steps into the ruthless world of LA fashion modelling) is almost a minor issue – such is the level of artistry on show here in terms of the images that NWR shoots.
Everything and everyone is both pristine and darkly predatory. The frames and rooms (and people) are often vacuous and the use of darkness and light, shadow and neon is stunning, almost like watching a slick music video whilst on a bad trip – especially when combined with Cliff Martinez’s pulsing synth score. The pace is occasionally achingly slow but always deliberate. A film that you can get lost in as it increasingly descends into madness and depravity.
There are a few lengthy trippy sequences and it all gets totally bonkers towards the end, involving murder, corpses and cannibalism. But Winding Refn remains a fascinating auteur and continues to entice and shock in equal measure with his films. The best looking film of the year in my opinion.
Favourite Bit: A prolonged catwalk sequence in the middle of the film is alien, dreamlike, beautiful and nightmarish at the same time. You’ll know if you are on board at all or not at that point.
Directed by: Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Following on from his debut A Single Man, fashion designer Tom Ford’s next movie is a languidly paced revenge drama that layers a few different narratives together simultaneously. It broadly concerns a woman who receives a copy of her ex-husband’s latest novel to read – but to what end? The less you know about it the better.
Amy Adams is excellent in the lead, and most of her best moments come from when she isn’t even speaking – it’s often just her eyes that deliver up a great performance. Elsewhere, Jake Gyllenhaal is dependable as always (here playing dual roles), Michael Shannon also impresses and even Aaron Taylor-Johnson manages to transform into a terrifying psychopath (eons away from the weedy Dave Lizewski from Kick-Ass).
The prolonged sequences of tension that occur in the story-within-the-story may lose some of their lustre on repeat viewing (as you know of the eventual outcome), but there is still plenty to enjoy on repeat viewings: the layered storytelling, spotting the parrallels in the different narratives, not to mention ogling Ford’s great sense of style and composition. There is also a bizarre title credits sequence and a jump scare that no-one will see coming – just to mix things up a bit too.
Also features the best original score of the year by Abel Korzeniowski – soaring and sublime.
Favourite Bit: For me the very last scene is perfection. You may not see it coming but it makes perfect sense given the story.
Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson
Despite being the third entry in the Captain America series, Civil War plays out much like Avengers 2.5 – so similarly accomplishes a crazy-good juggling act of balancing multiple characters, their actions and interactions without getting too bogged down in its scope and ambition.
Rather than once again having a huge boss to beat down whilst also dealing with the looming threat of the destruction of a city for its climax, it's nice to see a different kind of villain here instead - someone quietly pulling the strings from behind the scenes, in order to fracture The Avengers team from within.
Though the main focus is still on Steve Rogers and Bucky’s relationship (following on from the excellent The Winter Soldier), it’s fun to see everyone else back in action too, trying to determine who will join whose side – all culminating in that epic airport battle scene.
Although there are some notable absences (Hulk: currently AWOL, Thor: taking care of things back home in Asgard) most Avengers are present here (plus some other returning surprise guests). But there are also new characters that rise to the challenge – the charismatic Black Panther (makes me interested for his forthcoming solo outing) and also a new version of Spidey (his own reboot film also coming soon).
Not only do the Russo brothers succeed in preventing the film from buckling under the weight of all these larger than life characters all crowded together – the end result is spectacular fun and for me, ranks up there amongst the very best that Marvel Studio have produced to date.
Favourite Bit: The Airport showdown is great, but my favourite is the scene with Cap and the helicopter. Surprising, true to his character and just plain bad-ass!
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk
Rogue One is by no means a perfect movie. There are many flaws that are to sure to surface in any even-handed look at the film. Minimal character development, human CGI characters that succumb to the uncanny valley, too much location hopping near the beginning, an almost unholy amount of fan service, Forest Whitaker with a such strange dialogue delivery you question whether or not he is in the right movie… etc.
But there is so much to love here - doubly so for a Star Wars fan. But more specifically for an adult one who grew up watching the originals.
There are no Jedi, lightsabers or use of the force in Rogue One (for the most part). It’s definitely set in the world of Star Wars, but doesn't really feel like a Star Wars film, which may be a bone of contention to some. But this shift in tone is largely a good thing, especially for a standalone story, as it allows the filmmakers to explore new avenues and stories – without feeling it has to adhere to a more traditional formula (one of the main criticisms levelled at last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens). They know where they have to end up - the start of Episode IV: A New Hope) – it’s just a matter of how they get there.
Focussing more on the Star Wars universe's tech and hardware (new weapons, vehicles, new Stormtrooper variants!), it's less of a fantasy adventure and more of a dour war film, but is no less thrilling because of it. It is shot beautifully and the many vistas shown within are always stunning.
Everyone can agree on the final third being a great action set piece – with fighting on multiple fronts, the occasional tear-jerking moment and of course that Vader scene - leaving it all to end on a breathless high of nostalgia and fanboy excitement.
Whereas ‘prequel’ films often awkwardly retcon past events to fit into their timeline (looking at you X-Men series!), Rogue One actually does an interesting job of enriching the original Star Wars film, by providing a solid entry into it as well as explaining away some of its more questionable set-ups (most notably the reason for the Death Star having such a basic fatal flaw in its construction).
Whether or not Rogue One is better than The Force Awakens or indeed can be considered a true Star Wars film at all is another debate altogether – but this is an undeniable thrill to witness on the big screen. If only the character development was fleshed out a bit more this film could have packed one hell of an emotional punch given the ending - and as such just falls short of greatness.
Favourite Bit: People are sure to be repeating Donnie Yen’s mantra ‘I’m one with the Force, and the Force is with me’ for a good time to come, but for me, the Alan Tudyk voiced droid K-2SO’s scenes are a highlight. He reinvigorates the C3PO-type droid role much in the same way that BB-8 did for R2-D2 in The Force Awakens.
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill
Although this one comes from the excellent pedigree of Taika Waititi (co-director, writer and star of the hit What We Do In The Shadows), this film went largely unnoticed in its theatrical run. Even I had to be convinced by someone else that this one was essential viewing. And it absolutely is.
Telling the tale of a juvenile delinquent and a grumpy old man making their way through the Kiwi bush – Hunt For The Wilderpeople plays in part like a live action version of Pixar’s Up, except manages to be both funnier and infinitely more heart-warming.
Sam Neill is on a career high excellence as the gruff ‘Uncle’ Hec, but it is Julian Dennison as the wannabe rapper/gangster/petty criminal Ricky Baker that is a real revelation. Despite his tendency for getting into trouble we can’t help but enjoy his rebellious teenage antics, humourous self aggrandisement and penchant for haikus; and together the two have such excellent chemistry that it makes us root so hard for the pair of them when things inevitably start to go awry.
The other star of the film of course is the bush itself. The New Zealand outback is shown in all its vast beauty and portrayed with an almost mythic quality - to the point where you almost start pondering how small your own bubble feels in comparison. The romantic ideal of living off the land and making your own way through the wilderness hits home so effectively here.
In equal parts hilarious and sometimes even heartbreaking, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is the surprise entry on this list – a film that gets you right from the beginning and never really falters throughout its entire runtime. I highly recommend you track this one down immediately.
With Waititi set to direct the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, the possibilities for that are very intriguing to say the least!
Favourite Bit: It's nearly all great, but Ricky's intro to the film (with not a single word spoken) sets us up with the tone for the rest of the joyful ride.
Directed by: Travis Knight
Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey
Laika carries on its streak of great stop-motion animated movies with this, its fourth feature. Kubo tells the tale of a young boy in ancient Japan with a special gift, who finds himself unwillingly thrust into an adventure in order to confront his past.
The craft and patience gone into this film is utterly insane – especially given the high level of detail in the models and the world, facial expressions, movement and choreography - you would be forgiven if you forget at times that you aren’t actually watching a CGI animated movie – it’s just so slick and effortless. What I tend to love most about stop-motion is the texture – and here the subject matter and story setting are perfectly suited to it, adding to the richness of the world and the narrative.
Admittedly the plot does feel a bit ‘video gamey’ once it reaches the main thrust of the adventure (go here, get this item, beat this boss, repeat), but the execution and pacing is still great throughout. for every intense action scene there are also quieter heartfelt moments. It has a great Japanese fantasy feel with a nice balance of a comfortable level of westernisation whilst remaining true to its traditional oriental roots - never feeling like it has to resort to cliche.
The voice cast put in exceptionally great performances – especially Theron and McConaughey. Kubo And The Two Strings is beautiful, sometimes scary, often funny (especially McConaughey) – and surprisingly heartwarming, with great themes of family and the redemptive act of storytelling.
Favourite Bit: There are many great set pieces and plenty of spiky dialogue between the travelling companion to keep you invested. However it is the ending: though brave and unconventional in how the villain is dealt with – it perfectly fits the themes of the movie.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
The second film on this list to star Amy Adams and also the triumphant return to my top 10 lists for director Denis Villeneuve, follwing 2015’s Sicario and 2014’s Prisoners). Arrival portrays an alien invasion setup that's handled in a much more realistic and sciencey fashion, through the viewpoint of Adam’s linguistic professor as she is recruited to help establish communication with one of the landed craft.
It’s thoughtful and perfectly poised and it is key that we are witnessing all of it very much from her point of view (notice how we don't get to see the actual ships for ourselves until her initial approach via helicopter – it gives us that same sense of awe and wonder), but also becomes key to the structure and narrative of the film itself.
To say anymore would ruin the more surprising aspects of the film, but suffice to say that the running themes of time, language, communication, circularity and humanity all resonate throughout the narrative, making Arrival exquisite on a many different layers simultaneously.
Adams is great in the lead role (with decent support from Renner); and between this and Nocturnal Animals - if she doesn't bag the Oscar (or at least a nom) for either of these, I’ll eat my hat.
Villeneuve elevates Ted Chiang’s source material (A short story called Story Of Your Life), by adding a richer scope to the setting, involving the presence of other nations and their own reactions to the aliens – something that also feels very timely in today’s political climate. Although some light action sequences that stem from this may occasionally feel a bit forced (presumably they were included in order to add tension and vary the pace a bit), for the most part the experience is one of intelligent analysis and the gradual revealing of the mystery.
The music needs a shout out too, not only for the employing Max Richter’s On the Use of Daylight as its main emotive theme (a version of it is recognisable from such films as Shutter Island), but also Jóhann Jóhannsson’s inventive and highly atmospheric score which at times evokes an alien weirdness in all the right ways.
When many alien ‘invasion’ movies easily fall into the B-movie schlock category, Arrival is intelligent, atmospheric, and perhaps most importantly, full of humanity.
Favourite Bit: That uniquely special moment when the themes of the movie suddenly raise awareness of your own experience of narrative sequences within film. Then it dawns on you: ‘Oh my god, what if… (redacted for spoilers)’.
These are films that didn't quite make the Top 10 or would have been had they been released this year.
10 Cloverfield Lane – A tense mystery thriller about a girl who wakes up in a bunker with an apocalyptic event that may (or may not) have happened outside. Full of tension and great performances – may have made my list if it wasn't for the awful and unnecessarily tacked on final 20 minutes.
Creed – A Rocky sequel where the focus isn’t on Rocky! Great drama, Michael B Jordan is a born star and even Sly Stallone gets a moment or two to shine by tugging on your heartstrings.
The Nice Guys – From one of the best screenwriters around, Shane Black – a murder mystery set in 1970’s LA. Forget the convoluted plot – it's all about the zinging dialogue; and Ryan Gosling is hilarious in it.
The Revenant – An Oscar winning turn from DiCaprio and incredible natural vistas aplenty. Also, the scariest bear attack put to film.
Room – Another film about a girl locked in somewhere. It’s a movie of two separate and yet equally intriguing halves. Brie Larson deservedly won an Oscar for her lead role here – but it’s also worth watching for 9-year old Jacob Tremblay's astounding performance.
What We Do In The Shadows – A hilarious vampire comedy that homages the genre lovingly as much as it pokes fun at it. Must see! (Not included as it's from 2015)
Well, that’s it for my Top 10. Agree? Disagree? Let me hear your opinions!
Stay tuned for The Alternative Awards for 2016 films – coming soon!
You can also check out Top 10 film lists for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 by clicking the relevant date!
31st Dec 2016