Hold up, other films don’t love you like these do.
2016 did not have a Mad Max: Fury Road. It did not have a Carol, it did not have a Magic Mike XXL, it did not have a Sicario, and it certainly did not have an Inside Out. This year in Film did not have a film or set of films that stood head-and-shoulders above the rest as instant, tangible classics of the medium. It wasn’t that kind of year, and not just because my mind was on things other than Film for the vast majority of it. Instead, 2016 provided something far better than a film that stood head-and-shoulders above all the others: consistency. Big mainstream multiplex fare mostly did suck as badly as the year itself did, but Film by and large this year was quietly great, albeit if you knew where to look – which means that we are long past due a serious talk about the state of film distribution and multiplex-stockings, but that’s one we’ll need to have in the new year.
For much of the year, I had two beliefs about where the best of the year’s films were coming from, and those mostly held true when it came time for me to finally finalise the list. The first was that the year’s best films were primarily of the sort of mid-budget, smaller-scale, slightly-adult-leaning fare, often of the Thriller variety, that studios like Warner Bros. have been threatening to kill off making entirely in favour of relying exclusively on Too Big To Fail tentpole franchises. Of the 20 films on my list, only 3 have budgets that stretch into triple-figures and almost every film on this list is intimate in some way. The second was that this was the definition of a banner year for Animation which, even with films like The Angry Birds Movie and Top Cat Begins clogging up the place, has been on a superlative hot-streak as of late. A quarter of my list consists of animated films.
In fact, remember how last year I struggled to fill up my Top 20, resorting to stuffing the last 4 slots with films I really liked rather than loved? This year, I had to cut films. No joke, a Top 20 list was still somehow not enough room for me to talk about all of the films that I this year. There was one film that sat in the 20th place slot until 12 hours ago (at time of writing), when I realised that I had totally forgotten to list a film that I sincerely believe is one of my very favouritest of the year due to my not paying full attention when scanning through my list of films seen this year, so what was no. 20 got booted. I saw 167 new release films this year, 145 when you take out the awards-season holdovers or the 2015 films that just took forever to get to the UK for whatever reason, which is less than last year – primarily down to the last 6 months being weird, I’ll talk about that later this week – but I feel like I saw more quality films than last year. They didn’t all announce their greatness with a Fury Road-sized bullhorn, but they sure stuck with me.
Before we get started on this endurance run, then, the usual rules. This list is restricted in the now-standard three ways. Rule the 1st: any film that has been released in America this year but doesn’t make it to the UK until next year is ineligible on account of my either not having seen it (La La Land, Toni Erdmann, Moonlight) or, thanks to my having gone to the London Film Festival this year, it not being out here until next year (Nocturama, Elle, The Handmaiden, Christine). Rule the 2nd: if a film was released in America last year but didn’t make it to the UK until this year, for whatever reason, then it is also disqualified because I am sick of this bullshit. Creed, The Big Short, and even The Hateful Eight all may have wormed their way into this list without this rule, but the rules are absolute for a reason. (There is one major exception, but we’ll address that when the time comes.) Finally, Rule the 3rd: I have seen a load of films, but I haven’t seen all of the films, and some of the ones missing from the list are ones I simply haven’t seen in time (A Bigger Splash, Embrace of the Serpent, Ethel & Ernest which is even on BBC One tonight dammit) or didn’t re-watch in time to give them their proper due on this list (most of the Honourable Mentions, Finding Dory, Paterson, Keanu).
Finally, I did say that I have some Honourable Mentions, and it would be remiss of me as a shit Davina McCall to not artificially pad out the runtime by listing them all. In no particular order, and just missing out on the list: Nerve, Kate Plays Christine, The VVitch, Chasing Asylum, Green Room, American Honey, and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. Right, that’s the formalities dealt with. Today, we speed through numbers 20 to 11. Tomorrow, numbers 10 to 6. And then on Friday, the Top 5. So, with no further delays, put on your red shoes and dance the blues…
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
20] The Little Prince
Dir: Mark Osborne
Star: Jeff Bridges, Mackenzie Foy, Riley Osborne (voices)
Stories about stories can often make the eyes of more seasoned film lovers roll over in condescension, since going meta and talking about the power of your own existence is a fast track to insufferable self-aggrandisement, whilst Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic children’s novel arguably doesn’t need any additional futzing to make an effective big-screen translation. But, improbably, The Little Prince makes it work by attaching the novel’s anxieties of the concepts of adulthood – conceitedness, delusions of grandeur, a total lack of joy replaced by a desire to own – to a wrap-around story that feeds into and enhances those aforementioned themes with additional fears of conformity, death, and a society that railroads and breeds a generation of children who need to start working from the day they are born for some nebulous end goal of… who even knows. It’s also one of the year’s best looking films, both obviously in the gorgeous stop-motion dramatizations of The Little Prince itself, and in the CG wrap-arounds with clever usages of angles and stiffness to communicate the stifling nature of The Little Girl’s world.
19] Love & Friendship
Dir: Whit Stillman
Star: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Between this and A Quiet Passion (which isn’t due until next year), I may finally be turning a corner on Costume Dramas, a genre that normally bores me to tears. Then again, Love & Friendship is not a drama but more of a farce, and less a farce but more of a satire of its own existence and time period. Adapted from Jane Austen’s unfinished epistolary, Lady Susan, Stillman takes great glee in ripping the absolute piss out of the stuffy, patriarchal, class-and-wealth-obsessed 18th/19th Century upper-class England that most of these sorts of stories play with dire sincerity. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale in a firebrand performance) is at once exactly the callous, manipulative, self-centred social climber others try to paint her as, and an ahead-of-her-time feminist fighting against an entrenched sexist social system to secure a decent future against difficult circumstances for herself and her daughter. Why smart women like her have to be shamed for trying to earn what dunderheads like Sir James Martin are given through nothing but their money and privilege as White Men is quite the mystery? Or maybe I’m just siding with her because she is surprisingly irresistibly cutting and witty, just like Stillman’s film itself.
18] Rogue One
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Star: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn
It is in no way perfect – the first 30-odd minutes are a mess, most of the cast are underwritten to some degree, CGI Leia needs to be banished to the depths of Hell – but Rogue One managed something that I didn’t think would ever fully happen: it sold me on Star Wars, and it sold me on Star Wars by being the film we need right now. Its message of rebellion by any means, of action and sacrifice and resilience in the face of a fascistic governmental force with a greater power than you could ever possibly hope to hold, has become shockingly relevant in the face of the past 12 months, but it’s more than that. Even without that context, it’s a film that recognises, sympathises, and even to a large degree advocates for those members of rebellion who don’t get talked about in the history books, who get their hands dirty and do the work nobody else wants to acknowledge in order to pave the path required for those bigger, less morally-grey pushes forward. It swings for the fences for the little guy, makes ten men feel like a hundred, and finds the hope amongst the seemingly hopeless. Rebellions are built on it, but Rogue One also reminds us of the action that fortifies that hope.
Dir: Ava DuVernay
13th genuinely set my teeth on edge in pure anger, at one point. That’s the mark of a political documentary that has done its job right. A furious, incendiary, yet controlled and immaculately-constructed argument about the history of Mass Incarceration and its origins as a loophole in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, DuVernay cements her status as one of the most vital filmmakers working today. It presents and paces such a large, wide-reaching topic – taking in portrayals of Blacks in early American cinema, Richard Nixon’s “Law and Order” candidacy, the War on Drugs, the role of the Clintons, amongst so many others – in a way that never feels dense nor underdeveloped. DuVernay, meanwhile, cleverly sequences and edits the film like an unfolding conversation, playing separate contributors and clips off of each other like a back-and-forth debate that slowly unfurls to demonstrate the shockingly wide-spread systemic root of this issue. Maybe not so shocking now, given the Election, but still a powerful and vital work of cinema, all the same.
Dirs: Beyoncé Knowles, Jonas Åkerlund, Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Toruso
Star: Beyoncé Knowles
A powerful paean to Black womanhood disguised as half of a breakup album, Lemonade is Black to the core, Feminist to its heart, and damn proud of both of those facts. It is stylish, it is emotional, it is defiant, it is vulnerable, it is ambitious, it is contained, it is the work of 7 fantastic directors, it is the product of one woman’s singular creative vision, it is uniquely iconic, it derives much of its iconography from reclaiming and repurposing times and scenes of oppression against Black people for itself on its own terms. It is all of these multitudes and more, and it is an absolutely intoxicating watch. “Hold Up” is the most obviously GIF-able, “6 Inch” managed to out-Nicolas Winding Refn the actual Nicolas Winding Refn film released this year, “Forward” put the women behind Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner front and centre, “All Night” beautifully communicated the power of commitment, and, of course, “Formation.” One of the most re-watchable films of the year, one of the most rewarding films of the year, and an inarguable piece of Art.
15] Sausage Party
Dirs: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan
Star: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera (voices)
Because Animation has had such a banner year, the kind of cheap, soulless, “what if [x inanimate object] had feelings?” Pixar wannabe is not as much of a timely fodder for parody as it once may have been. So, on paper, Sausage Party is already operating on the back foot. Except, as it turns out, Sausage Party appeared to have already expected that and instead utilised its premise – pushing the typical suspension-of-disbelief required to enjoy and emotionally connect with your generic animated film to absolute breaking point, and then ramping off all preconceived limits in a monster truck at 200mph a-whooping and a-hollering all the while – as more of a vehicle for a critique of religious fervour. A film that affectionately takes religion to task for stoking up arbitrary hatred and division, whilst also knocking asshole atheists who shit all over religion as a whole without coming up with a better substitute down several pegs. It’s satire and critique that can only come from writers with an actual relationship with faith, particularly its ultimate conclusion of the hope and purpose that it can provide.
Sausage Party is also the incredibly stupid and highly crass R-rated stoner comedy you probably expected it to be in the first place. That, however, is no bad thing as, much like the other big comedy on this list, Sausage Party is smart about being so very, very dumb. Every ridiculously lame pun, every potentially-offensive stereotype, even some of the rampant swearing, it’s all been studiously laboured over and designed to be as well-intentioned and look as dumb as possible. Where the only response to the image of a Mr. Grits box having sex with a box of crackers, cursing their name all the while, that one can have is that of laughter in spite of oneself. It’s a film that takes itself seriously in the art of not taking oneself seriously, that really does cast its equal-opportunities joke net over all walks of life in the communal spirit of bringing us all together in the name of laughter. In its own warped way, Sausage Party is one of the sweetest and most inclusive films of the year.
14] The Purge: Election Year
Dir: James DeMonaco
Star: Elizabeth Mitchell, Frank Grillo, Mykelti Williamson
Who would have thought that The Purge would have been too optimistic about humanity, huh? Finally going all-in on the political subtext of its golden premise, that the original film completely squandered and Anarchy attempted to at least tackle as the basis of its vignette-structure, Election Year managed to pull off what the best political B-movie cinema is capable of doing: addressing systemic injustice with both surprising nuance and blunt-force loaded imagery. It’s a film with a cast primarily composed of Blacks and Latinx’s, throwing their hopes behind a Progressive White female presidential candidate who is prepared to dismantle the White supremacist dystopia that America has turned into for both personal reasons and because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a film that explores how the rigged systemic racism of American Capitalism subconsciously turns groups of Black people against each other in order to keep the ruling White classes in power, and doesn’t fall completely on its face whilst doing so. It’s a film that critiques the way America is conducting itself in full view of the rest of the world via fanatical “murder tourists” who idolise “The American Way.”
But it’s also a film that features Crip members decimating a squad of Neo-Nazis. It’s also a film that features a governmental cabinet consisting of violence-crazed evangelicals who gain sexual pleasure from killing on Purge Night being ruthlessly gunned down by a revolutionary group made up of the same male and female minorities that have felt the brunt of their cruelty. It’s also a film that features a character running over a group of entitled rich brats with her van before picking off the stragglers with satisfying efficiency. Election Year is brutal, nasty, and utterly cathartic viewing; the culmination of The Purge and series writer-director James DeMonaco’s redemption arc, and a necessary blowing off of steam given the last 12 months. Given what lies ahead, there’s every chance that Election Year will only become more satisfying and relevant viewing as the next few years go by. Now who would have thought anyone would ever say that about an entry in The Purge series, huh?
13] Hail, Caesar!
Dirs: Joel & Ethan Coen
Star: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
I am a Film Studies graduate, I am a former History student, and I am interested in and somewhat knowledgeable about how Hollywood works. I am also a Film Critic, a big fan of The Coen Brothers, and especially a big fan of Coen comedies. Hail, Caesar! would have to have been some kind of giant disaster of cosmic proportions for me to not automatically love it. The Coens, excepting that one time, are incapable of making bad movies and Hail, Caesar! does not suddenly upend that fine tradition, in spite of it being one of their most intentionally difficult-to-love films in a good while. It’s intentionally a very insular film, purposefully lacking much in the way of a full-on plot and refusing to fill up that space with gags that an audience not consisting of film buffs can appreciate. This is something I most noticed when I went and saw the film for a second time with a friend of mine, her noting afterwards that I was laughing at stuff she couldn’t understand why was so funny.
Honestly, though, that’s why I love Hail, Caesar!. It’s resolutely singular in its purpose, in its vision, and it refuses to compromise for that, refuses to throw a bone to anybody outside of its target audience with very minor exceptions. I found a genuine joy and many belly-laughs in the meticulously constructed and faithful depiction of the tail-end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the studio system, the encroaching so-called “Communist Revolution” brewing in the background, and the complex relationship with faith that runs throughout and harkens back just a little to A Serious Man. I witnessed a star-is-born turn from Alden Ehrenreich as the goofily sincere Hobie Doyle, I witnessed one of the funniest scenes in the Coens’ entire career, I saw and heard side-jokes buried in surprising layers (pay close attention every time somebody says “On Wings As Eagles”). It’s goofy, it’s anticlimactic, it’s ambling, and it’s just a pleasure to watch every single time. But, then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
12] Sing Street
Dir: John Carney
Star: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor
Sing Street is a love-letter to three things at once. It’s a love-letter to brothers, just in case you couldn’t gather that from the end title card announcing as such, it’s a love-letter to the power and possibility of music, and it’s a specific love-letter to the New Wave of the 1980s. Where Carney’s previous crowdpleasing realist musical, Begin Again, felt soulless and impersonal, Sing Street breathes soul and passion from the very core of its being. So much of this film, particularly in the early going, hits so many raw notes, despite the crowdpleasing polish that coats the whole film, that one can’t help but think of much of this story as being straight-up autobiographical. That feeling of isolation, both personally and geographically, stuck in a dead-end town with no prospects, no way out, and the very real and very teenaged fear of being in trapped in this soul-sapping purgatory for the rest of one’s life, is communicated superbly and resonates even more strongly now that I have completed university and am stuck back home.
But Sing Street is never miserablist, and not just because it’s a dramedy that doesn’t forget to bring the jokes. That adoration for music, the great vehicle for escaping the mundanity of day-to-day existence, provides the motivation and energy required to push Conor to find and accept himself, to take pride in himself, to dream of a better life. Oh, and there’s a girl, for there is always at least one girl/guy in the motivational life-story of a musician. That total sincerity and passion that Carney invests in the film is infectious, undeniable, helped by a great batch of songs (even if they are a tad overproduced for music supposedly made in the mid-80s) and an effortlessly charming cast. I tend to use the term “crowdpleaser” as a pejorative in pieces such as these, a dismissal of the film in question being simplistic and cynically calculated and unconvincing, but Sing Street is evidence of the term not necessarily having to mean those negative assumptions. It’s a crowdpleaser and winningly so.
Dir: Ben Wheatley
Star: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans
If you go into High-Rise with any expectation of what the experience will be like, what the film’s messages will be, and how it will communicate any of them, then you will come out baffled albeit with a vast appreciation for Wheatley’s spellbinding sense of style. As much as I hate using this term, for it oftentimes gets used to justify sloppily-made and incoherently-presented films with more than an air of pretentiousness around them, High-Rise really is a film that’s only truly understood upon further thinking and repeat viewings. If you actively try to keep up with the film upon first viewing, you’ll become hopelessly lost by the density of its themes and the scale of its cast. Upon that initial viewing, you need to do what Laing ultimately does and surrender yourself to a logic more powerful than reason, particularly since not doing so can rob you of so many of the film’s pleasures: its wickedly black sense of humour, its scorching Luke Evans performance, its masterful control of editing and production design.
With distance, time to reflect, and eventually repeat viewings, High-Rise reveals its many depths and complexities that appear to be hidden underneath the relentless gloss and style. High-Rise is a satire and careful dismantling of Capitalism, yes, but it also knows that labelling it as just that is reductive and does a grand disservice to the many facets that keep Capitalism running in its perpetual self-destructive loop. Classism, isolationism, sexism, societal discrimination and gang-mentality, entitlement, jealousy, and good old-fashioned human nature, the one element that Royal failed to account for in his plans for the High-Rise; they’re all vital tenants of that grander whole, and they’re all so intertwined with one another that simply taking the head off of the problem isn’t going to solve anything. Wilder may be “the sanest man in the building” but his vindictive, destructive, absolute nature means that he can’t affect any change, because the situation is far too complex and burning it all down doesn’t really do anything. All we can do is sit down, eat the rest of the dog, and wait for the collapse to spread to the next tower.
Tomorrow, we hit the first half of the Top 10.