2016 has been far from kind to us – we’ve lost musical geniuses and legends of cinema at an almost unprecedented rate, and we’ve had to suffer an increasing creep towards fascism in the global political landscape – but one thing that 2016 has gifted us is a rather long list of films that will go down as classics of the art form in years to come. Sure, there have been plenty of box office and critical bombs in the Blockbuster sphere – Ben Hur, Independence Day: Resurgence, etc. – but it has become more and more difficult to distinguish ‘top’ films from those that are simply ‘very good’ in other, often more independent, sectors of the industry. As the editor of The Film Magazine I am, of course, introduced to many of the latest and greatest releases, specifically those that have originated in the West, whether that’s for pleasure, for work, or while editing a fellow team-member’s review. Some of you may have noticed that I also have a fondness for offering my favourite selections in my ‘Editor’s Picks’ section of this website’s homepage, something I do to highlight relevant articles for your viewing pleasure. It was this section of the site and my enjoyment in organising it that led me to introducing this piece, my own selection of the Top 10 Films of 2016.
Disclaimer: This list is by no means representative of the team here at The Film Magazine and is, of course, compiled exclusively from the long list of films I’ve seen in 2016 (which isn’t necessarily all of the greatest films released in this calendar year). Every film outlined on this list was released theatrically in 2016 in the UK, meaning films like ‘Moonlight’ and ‘La La Land’ (due for release on Feb 2017 & 13th Jan 2017 respectively) will not be included despite their critical success and inclusions on similar lists elsewhere.
So, without any further ado…
10 – Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water was perhaps the sleeper hit of 2016. Released at the beginning of September and without much attention, David Mackenzie’s crime drama combined the tense nature of its subject matter – brother bank robbers trying to out-wit and out-run the police – with a subtle analysis of contemporary culture and post-recession America that was as thought-provoking as it was visually stunning. Starring superstar actors Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and the film-stealing Ben Foster, this smartly constructed genre film felt like as much of a Western as we’ve been treated to in years and, through its exploration of its characters and their similar yet opposing ideologies regarding what is ‘right’, was a tense tale that was beautifully shot, terrifically acted and ultimately worth the investment. Already nominated for two Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Hell or High Water may be a surprise inclusion in one or two categories at the Oscars in 2017 and certainly deserves the accolade.
Honourable Mention: Swiss Army Man
Daniels, the movie’s directorial partnership, managed to present an interesting and above all individualistic dark comedy that was fantastically performed by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, artistically shot by the directorial duo and wonderfully scored by Andy Hull. Swiss Army Man only missed out on the list courtesy of its divisive nature.
9 – The Nice Guys
Every now and then a film comes along that takes the mutated themes and ideas behind a famous genre and returns said themes to their original starting points. This is exactly what Shane Black did with his buddy-cop movie The Nice Guys. Set in a 70s version of Los Angeles (the screenwriter-directors way of instantly removing the wild and often unnecessarily gimmicky expectations of the audience brought about by superhero films and the like), The Nice Guys was… simply… a funny buddy-cop movie from one of the all-time greats of the genre – need I mention that Black was one of the creative minds behind the Lethal Weapon franchise and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?
Featuring the always reliable and quietly funny Russell Crowe alongside perhaps the most likeable and certainly the most funny version of Ryan Gosling we’ve ever seen, The Nice Guys managed to provide moments of quiet sniggers as well as the type of moment that has you spitting your drink out of your mouth, making for one of the funniest and most enjoyable movies of the year that could lead to a sort of renaissance for the sub-genre (fingers crossed).
Captain America: Civil War was perhaps the greatest of all of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe movies to date and was a shining light amongst mostly average and drab blockbuster movies in the 2016 calendar year. Starring almost the entire cast of Marvel’s Avengers, as well as some new and interesting characters – Spider-Man and Black Panther to name but a few – Civil War’s directors Anthony and Joe Russo built on the success of their Winter Soldier movie to great fanfare. It was the movie’s inclusion of best-ever fight choreography that looked far more real and impactful than in any other MCU movie, and the tense disintegration of Earth’s mightiest heroes that grabbed my attention, but it was in the movie’s quiet moral questioning of its blockbuster sized audience that this movie was above and beyond every film in the franchise in my opinion, and certainly a blockbuster to remember from 2016.
The first spin-off from Disney’s Star Wars universe landed in December and it was the blockbuster of the year in my opinion. Its combination of effects driven sequences and true character development/arcs, as well as its true-to-life presentation of the destruction of war, was above and beyond many of the blockbusters released since the turn of the century, and its mixture of this ‘real-stakes’ attitude with satisfying fan service really pushed Rogue One over the edge as one of the best movies in the franchise. Doing all of this with a cast almost entirely absent of white American males, Rogue One also took an important step in helping to normalise other races, nationalities and genders as leaders of huge franchise movies, making for a more universally accessible and relatable film. Politics aside, Gareth Edwards’ movie was fantastically fun and a true testament to just how good blockbuster franchise movies can be when they’re made with care and affection.
6 – Arrival
Denis Villeneuve is quickly proving himself as one of the great directors of our time, and ‘Arrival’ has finally brought him the attention his truly excellent work has deserved. The movie, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, was a tour-de-force of emotion that never lost touch with its truly human story, even within the science fiction world in which it was set, and worked in every aspect to assert this with unmissable conviction. The layered performance of Amy Adams was fantastic, and Villeneuve’s suspenseful presentation pleasantly allied itself with the fantastic score of Jóhann Jóhannsson whose deep and drone-like sounds helped to create one of the more atmospheric pieces of the year and certainly one of science fiction’s better original movies this decade. Nominated for two Golden Globes – Best Actress in a Drama; Best Original Score – Arrival has jumped into territory not often found by films of its type, something I believe is of true testament to the picture’s truly unique vision and overall quality.
Alejandro Iñárritu won ‘Best Director’ for a second year in a row for his work on ‘The Revenant’, and with good reason. The filmmaker’s combination with Emmanuel Lubezki – probably the best cinematographer on the planet – birthed one of the most beautifully shot movies you’ll ever see and was so good in its moments of tension and threat that it has undoubtedly worked to alter how other filmmakers look at shooting action sequences. Perhaps best remembered as the movie that finally won Leonardo DiCaprio his Oscar, The Revenant also features a powerful performance from Tom Hardy who lends himself to the film’s overriding intensity that is unrelenting for the entire movie. At 2 hours and 36 minutes, Iñárritu was perhaps asking too much of his audience to exert themselves for the entire run-time which is why The Revenant isn’t higher on this list.
4 – The Big Short
Another film that made 2016’s Oscars list, The Big Short’s quality was almost a complete shock to me after years of following Adam McKay’s otherwise comedy-filled career. The screenwriter-director’s work won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and a nomination for Best Director, which upon viewing The Big Short was clearly deserved due to how McKay managed to present the information-heavy film in a pseudo-documentary style that was a completely fresh means of storytelling in American cinema. Starring an ensemble of talent including Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling, this true-to-life story of the recession hit home in ways that will only increase in relevance as the years go on, making this an instant classic of the 2016 calendar year.
Tom Ford’s dictatorial presence over Nocturnal Animals made for an almost machine-like crispness and quality to the film’s presentation that was simply an undeniable visual masterpiece that expertly presented its intricate and often challenging story. Featuring a surprisingly great career-defining performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and strong performances from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and particularly Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals was an absolute masterpiece that paid homage to the likes of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock with true class and sophistication. Surely a front-runner for 2017’s Oscars, Nocturnal Animals is only number 3 in this list due to the overwhelming quality of the top 2.
If ever there was a story that needed to be told on film, this was it. The true story of a Boston newspaper uncovering rampant paedophilia in the Boston Catholic Church, Spotlight was a timeless classic that was excellent in every aspect of its presentation from the way it was presented visually with a simplicity that put focus on its story, to the outstanding level of performance from its stellar cast that included Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo. Its combination of respect, humility and passion in all sectors made it one of the movies of the decade and a true modern classic of film storytelling that is sure to stand the test of time and evoke a tear or two; the sort of emotional response that hits you only a few times per year (if that).
It’s hard to put into words quite how important Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was to many in the UK in 2016, but it would be apt to summarise it as being a life-altering and perhaps politics altering movie that offered a voice to the otherwise voiceless in a time of desperate need. ‘This is our quiet rage’, I wrote in my original review of the movie back in October; a view shared by the masses of people that went to see it in the cinema and the political movement it sparked amongst the United Kingdom’s left-wing. #WeAreAllDanielBlake is now a universal phrase for supporters of governmental aid, and the story of the movie’s central characters Daniel and Katie has become an often referenced tale in opposing prejudice and discrimination. More than that, I, Daniel Blake is a fantastic film. A deserved Palme d’Or winner, the movie grabs you emotionally and takes you on a truly relatable journey of struggle and strife, with Ken Loach offering subtle juxtaposition as a means of sensational storytelling in a poetic but still down-to-earth and realistic film that has transcended cinema screens.
So there you have it: my selection of the greatest films from 2016. With plenty to look forward to in the coming year, I hope to be back at this point in 12 months with even more life-changing classics to choose from.
My final thought is this: support cinema. Go to your local independent theatre and watch something out of the ordinary. Don’t dismiss the big budget blockbusters, of course, but make room for smaller and/or foreign language films. Buy that independent movie you’ve been debating purchasing because that could be part of the reason that filmmaker makes more films, or more films of its kind can be made in the future. It’s vital to the success of the art-form to hear an increasingly diverse group of voices across all genres and in all languages, and to support those who need funding to get their voices heard. Support cinema in 2017 and we’ll all be better off for it.