After a literal month of deliberating, debating and just plain getting frustrated, I’ve finally landed upon my top 10 of this year in the movie-verse. As I mentioned in my earlier countdown this year has been a treasure trove of nuanced, interesting and just damn awesome films. Cinema is dead my arse!! Now this top 10 is actually a top 11, as I had a slight cheat with a mid list tie. I didn’t want to, in a sea of lists and countdowns I’ve always found having a jointly placed selection to be a weak and thoroughly cowardly option, but in this instance it was my own memory that allowed this. After publishing my 25-11 list, and honing down on my top 10 I realised a key film was missing. One that I thoroughly loved but which came out within a tidal wave of other great films, ones that are included in this very list, resulting in it blurring into my memory banks to my immense frustrations. Anyway, here are the films that gave me the biggest hangover in 2016:
10. Kubo and the Two Strings
I cannot believe I ever doubted that the studio behind the stop-motion masterpiece Coraline, and the very very good Boxtrolls and ParaNorman, were onto a dud with Kubo. The animation of course looked gorgeous, Laika once again delivering a sea of detailed lovingly crafted images but the story itself seemed confusing and uninspired. How wrong I was!! The best animation film of this year captivates from the off with a gob-smackingly beautiful sequence during an immense storm, but what grips even more is the characters at the heart of it all. A Eastern flavoured fable that encompasses grief, love and family with a deft touch and some of the finest characterisation seen this year. Young Kubo is an endearing presence, voiced with a naive strength by Game of Thrones’s Art Parkinson, and aided by some considerable older talent. Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron deliver warm, funny and effective performances, so much a fan the both of them were of the script that they took paycuts to take part. Like all the best kid stories it has scenes of intense fear, grand themes delivered in a subtle moving way, and a whipcrack pace that thrills with not a pause for breath. Kubo is a masterpiece.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Appearing out of the ether with barely a whisper came this spiritual sequel to the JJ Abrams produced Cloverfield. It is a sign of JJ’s skill as a showman that he could take a film with barest the hint of a connection to the 2009 monster movie, and retcon it into something that doesn’t explicitly tie in but in an almost Twilight Zone way feel very much a part of the same fantastical universe. The fact a third film in this loosely linked anthology series will land this Oct (God Particle) is proof that there is a lot of mileage in this idea. But what of the film itself? Surprisingly 10 Cloverfield Lane is the stronger film as it doesn’t reveal its true nature until the unexpected final act. The first two acts are a delightful 3-way between John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. After an almost Hitchcock style opener, in which we immediately know the situation Winstead’s Michelle is running away from with little more than a few brief images and a fragmented voicemail, before a brutally shocking car accident forces her off the road. It is a dizzying opening scene and a witty tease of the tension to come. Waking up chained and alone in an empty basement Michelle is introduced to Goodman’s not quite trustworthy Howard. Goodman is a wicked concoction here, lurching from hesitant father figure to monstrous beast in the barest of breaths. It is one of his best performances but Winstead matches him. Vulnerable but with an unexpected core of steel. She is a hugely watchable lead and you are left willing her to get out of all this madness alive. A claustrophobic, sweat inducing, and witty film that picks you up and spits you out 90mins later exhausted and a little bit exhilarated.
=9. The Girl with all the Gifts
The film I unexpectedly forgot when building my list is an utterly mesmerising British gem. Sadly underseen on release it is a terrifically realised horror movie. Opening quiet on its central heroine, the eponymous Girl (played with a nuanced grace by newcomer Sennia Nenua) is a gentle humble child. Friendly and warm to all her come into contact with her, sadly those people happen to be clothed in Army gear and lock her in a cell each night. It is a hugely effective opening and one that showcases the innate confidence director Colm McCarthy brings to the table. As we move further away from the confines of the Girl’s home we get to glimpse a phenomenally realised Britain post virus apocalypse. Basically a live action Last of Us, the PS3 masterpiece, it is a world of earthy greens and empty cities. As nature has taken back the urban areas that so encroached on it, we are treated to some beautiful production design that belies the relatively small budget. A capable cast of strong character actors, Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close provide the meat amongst the heavy themes of consequence and sacrifice. The ending is by far one of the most morally murky and brave endings of any film this year. One that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Seek it out!!
8. Nocturnal Animals
Disappearing after firing into the world of filmmaking with A Single Man, fashion designer Tom Ford roared back to the limelight with the captivating Nocturnal Animals. Adapting the 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford once again uses perfectly composed and artfully designed images to juxtapose the vacuous nature of its central protagonist, this time a wonderfully restrained Amy Adams. A well off pretentious arty type who happens to be empty inside is nothing particularly insightful, but it is in the execution that the power of this film lies. Balancing the scenes of immaculately dressed LA denizens with a gritty violent neo-western in the film within a film featuring a grizzled vulnerable Jake Gyllenhaal. It has a measured intensely gripping tone to proceedings with a bevy of fantastic performances. Gyllenhaal and Adams are both tragically moving, with Adams managing to eke out audiences sympathies despite a brittle nature and decisions of incredible selfishness. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson add detail to a world of pain, desperation and stark bleakness. As with Ford it is impeccably designed and evocatively scored, but the film rocks you with an unexpected raw emotional power. Tom Ford has marked himself out as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
7. American Honey
Now this one disarmed me completely. Soaking up rapturous applause at festivals throughout the year I found myself wary of a 3 hr film concerning a young girl on the cusp of adulthood travelling America selling magazines, whilst screwing, drinking and generally not giving a fuck, all shot in a unusual box 4:3 ratio. After emerging dizzy and drowsy I found myself in love with not only its debut star Sasha Lane but also the film as a whole. The boxiness of the cinematography only exasperates the immense intimacy you feel towards the characters and their travelling show of wilful abandon. It drifts most certainly but with a woozy earthy effervescence that is thoroughly engaging. A scuzzy look at the desperation and wilful hope of the American dream, these teen tearaways are living in the moment but have an air of sadness that this will be perhaps their only chance at escaping the economic plight of their birthplaces. It is Sasha Lane and, in an unexpected turn of events, Shia LaBeouf that grip. Their romance is full of eroticism (this features probably two of the sexiest love scenes ever put to film), confusion, anger and euphoria. Lane in particular deserves all the accolades for a performance that ceases to be acting but living, a bewitching unpredictable and vital performance that left me deeply in love. Director Andrea Arnold has constructed a dizzyingly vibrant piece of Americana and one that, even at a bum numbing 160mins long, I could’ve happily watched for hours more. Also best use of Rihanna’s We Found Love ever!!
6. Hell or High Water
A Texan Western is not exactly a genre ripe for revisiting but director David Mackenzie, and Sicario scriptwriter extraordinaire Taylor Sheridan mine superb new graces with this thrilling, pulpy and atmospheric film. Key to the success of this lies in the effective characterisation of the foursome that make up the thrust of the story. We have the affectionate but tempestuous relationship between brothers Ben Foster and Chris Pine. Pine reminding us of how good he can be without resorting to cocky charisma and Foster a powder keg of bruised machismo with lashings of vicious violence. Then we have the pairing of Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham’s cop duo. Bridges is the best he has ever been here, full of laconic wisdom and biting wit. His warm but acutely racist banter with Mexican partner Birmingham is laced with affection and finely sketched resulting in a shocking act of violence late in the film being immensely powerful. Not to mention a chance for Bridges to deliver a moment of proper anguish. The films strength comes from a perfect amalgamation of a humour laced rich script, deftly realised performances and assured direction. It doesn’t show off with directorial ticks, just damn good craftsmanship.
5. A Monster Calls
Although technically not out for all to see until New Years Day, I couldn’t fail to include one of the most emotionally devastating films I’ve ever witnessed. Unsentimental when it could’ve been all to easy to go down that route, instead the film shakes you to the core with raw potent images of incredible grief. Many films have tried and failed to truly encapsulate the complexities of death and what it can instil in those around us, but somehow it is a film designed for the more younger audience member that has the most insightful things to say. On a technical level it is beyond par, the tree effects enrapture coupled with the dulcet tones of Liam Neeson. The storytelling scenes, in which the Tree conveys three stories of moral meaning to the grieving Connor (a multi-faceted and devastatingly vulnerable Lewis MacDougall), are wonderfully portrayed with a moody watercolour style. This filmmaking expertise filters down into the wonderful performances, from the awe-inspiring work of MacDougall to a heartbreaking Felicity Jones via Sigourney Weaver’s cold grandmother who reveals inner sorrow. No film this year has left me so debilitatingly weak from so many tears. A triumph.
4. Captain America: Civil War
Of course Marvel were going to feature in my top films of the year. I’m not averse to admitting my unabashed love for the MCU and this year they found themselves delivering possibly their crowning achievement. A culmination of 12 films worth of world building and character evolution that could have become all too overwhelming (and in the case of Iron Man 2 sometimes so) but thanks to Marvel and more specifically Kevin Feige’s knack for combining talent with material, it has paid off in a manner that few can really contemplate (see WB attempt with DC for example). Civil War had the tricky balance of being a third Captain America film, a mini Avengers film and a resetting of the universe for the future. The fact it pulled it off with such skill is down to The Russo Brothers and their confident direction alongside the succinct writing of Markus and McFeeley (who don’t get nowhere near enough attention that they should). A surprisingly sombre and quiet opening act couples some brisk action (the Russos have a great affinity for well-choreographed and geographically clear fight scenes) with subtle looks at the consequences of collateral damage. Finding time to also introduce new exciting additions to the MCU in the stoic Black Panther and the third iteration of Spider-Man. Tom Holland finding new youthful energy and a witty rapport with his fellow Avengers that offers palpable excitement for his further adventures. Now the Airport battle is by far the best action scene Marvel have concocted, a symphony of individual moments and money shots. But it is the final three-way fight that moves. Witnessing our two favourite heroes punching the hell out of each other has a power and a potency thanks to two great performances and the weight of seeing their relationship develop over 12 films. Something which made the hastily assembled Batman V Superman fall flaccid. Civil War is a studio highpoint for a company that seemingly shows no signs of slowing.
3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi offered a vital glimpse into the surreal and comedic mind of a token New Zealander with the snappy mockumentary What we do in the Shadows. This year he took us further deeper into that sarcastic warm humour with Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A somewhat basic story of a tough kid being taken in by a loving foster mum and a not so loving Sam Neill. But one that reveals boundless depths of charm and joy. Julian Dennison delights with his cocky yet vulnerable schtick, as does Sam Neill with his grumpy grouchy old man schtick. The fact that Waititi finds things to say in a concept that has long been overused, we can all see the old man’s barriers are going to come down in the face of this kids repeated joviality, is testament to the affection you sense the two of them have for each other. Not to mention that snarky one of a kind New Zealand humour, equal parts cynical sarcasm and surreal flights of fancy; take for example the social worker on the hunt for the missing boy who seems to think she has walked into a hard boiled cop drama. It is a film that delights the soul and lightens the heart!
Now my number 1 and 2 films have switched places more often than I care to imagine. Every time I go to make a decision I’ll remember a moment from either film, smile or cry and change my mind again. But I’m sticking with my gut and my gut tells me that Arrival will go down as a true sci-fi masterpiece. One that can sit alongside other cerebral science fiction classics like Close Encounters or 2001. Director Denis Villeneuve proves once and for all that he is one of the finest directors currently working. Sicario and Prisoners were both supremely confident powerhouse pictures. Arrival combines all the aspects that made those previous films work; great actors at peak strength, a script that can combine big ideas with intense character work and a crew of seasoned pros all delivering world class material. A simple story of alien first contact manages to contemplate ideas as diverse as communication, legacy, the ethics of scientific breakthrough and motherhood. Adapting the novel by Ted Chiang The Story of my Life, Eric Heisserer constructs a tale that surprises with its emotional kick. An alien story intercuts and merges into Amy Adams’s personal grief over a lost child, of which a wickedly powerful and superbly edited late film twist takes on an even greater level of meaning and moral uncertainty. Adams is the beating heart of the film, an internal performance for sure but one that encompasses a great many things from her, all of which she conveys with the minimalist of effort. Make no mistake though this is Villenueve’s film and he has delivered nothing less than a masterpiece, meaning the prospect of his Blade Runner sequel is salivating rather than nerve-inducing.
1. Sing Street
Of course in a year of utter misery like 2016 has been, a film that champions creativity, joy and love has got to be number one! John Carney’s Sing Street is a film that grabs you from opening scene and picks you up on a flight of great songs, heartfelt characters and terrific moments before dropping you back to reality knowing that if you just dream a little bit life just may be OK. The true genius in Carney’s writing though is that the film doesn’t offer cheap cheesy platitudes. There is real pain and darkness here. From the bickering resentful parents, to the sadness of Jack Reynor’s untapped musical potential, to Lucy Boynton (oh man I fell in love with her) as a lost dreamer wracked with self loathing. It is a truly deft hand that can write this stuff but manage to make the whole of it feel euphoric and positively smile-inducing. You have the cast of authentic wonderfully sketched young adults, all bringing a heartfelt sincerity to proceedings. It is the songs though, those lyrical fantastic songs, that stick with you the most. Capturing the sound of the 80s setting with aplomb they are wilfully catchy and deeply composed. Carney shoots each one with a different style, whether it is the 80s music video skewering Riddle of the Model, the establishment rallying cry of Brown Shoes, the ode to artistic creation as they compose the song Up or in the films standout moment the performance of Drive it like you Stole It as an American High School prom outburst. But one that stings with its cold realisation for lead hero Connor that things do not turn out as they do in the films. Although the film itself does end with a wish-fulfilment notion directly taken from one of those ‘films’ by that point Sing Street has earnt it, and under it all we suspect that the road ahead may be long and full of setbacks but if you can create, love and laugh then hope will find a way. A none more joyful message in a year where such things could be hard to find.
Let’s raise a glass to the year of 2016, and toast the arrival of 2017. To the films that have given me a hangover and the ones that will going forward!! *Hic Hic*