I have had an exceptionally hard time wittling down my list of the ten best films of 2016. So this year it has to be twelve.
Some terrific films – including The Witch, The Assassin, The Girl with All the Gifts, Anthropoid, American Honey, Nocturnal Animals, Mustang, Julieta, The Jungle Book and Hell or High Water – have been casualties of the shortlisting process. I am particularly miffed to omit Kubo and the Two Strings which I might as well state came in at number 13.
However, here is the top twelve:
12. Son of Saul
Describing this descent into the hell of the Holocaust as harrowing is woefully redundant. Merciless, claustrophobic but restrained direction from Lazlo Nemes and an astonishingly subtle central performance from Geza Rohrig make this necessarily horrible experience all the more essential beyond the box-ticking of making sure one has seen the best foreign language Oscar winner of 2016.
What I said then: “It might well be a film only a critic could love, but it is nonetheless a vital addition to the must-see-once list.”
What I say now: As impossible to ignore as it is impossible to forget.
Lenny Abrahamson’s riveting abduction drama might lose momentum in the second half, but the first half alone – culminating in a sequence that had me in absolute floods of tears – assures it a place in this list.
What I said then: “You’d have to have the emotional range of a concrete breezeblock not to be moved by Room.”
What I say now: Brie Larson thoroughly deserved that Oscar.
10. The Revenant
Alejandro G Iñárritu’s intensely harsh survival drama bagged an Oscar for DiCaprio, but for me the real star of the film was Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, showcasing those icy locations in all their terrifying, shivering bleakness and beauty, using only natural light.
What I said then: “Gives new meaning to adjectives like immersive, visceral and gruelling.”
What I say now: Completely exhausting but completely essential.
9. The BFG
There’s magic to spare in Steven Spielberg and the late, great Melissa Mathison’s charming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel. No-one in America seemed to care, but the film proved a sizeable hit elsewhere in the world.
What I said then: “Made me feel seven years old again.”
What I say now: America made a few inexplicable decisions in 2016. Ignoring The BFG was one.
8. Rogue One
Gareth Edwards’s stand-alone adventure in a galaxy far, far away about the suicide mission to nick the Death Star plans has a tough, gritty, Dirty Dozen war movie vibe, whilst unquestionably still belonging to the Star Wars universe. Felicity Jones shines, and there are fan-pleasing cameos and Easter eggs galore.
What I said then: “Proves the franchise has cinematic life outside of the Skywalker saga.”
What I say now: The absolutely brilliant third act has both genuine thrills and emotional resonance in spades.
7. Captain America: Civil War
Marvel show DC how a superhero smackdown movie is really done, as Cap and Iron Man go head to head after disagreeing over controversial government legislation regarding superheroes being forced to accept UN oversight. The airport set piece is a standout, and special kudos to the Russo brothers for actually following through on the bold premise.
What I said then: “Has wit, charm, genuinely exciting action sequences and even a modicum of political and moral food for thought.”
What I say now: In retrospect, I really ought to have included The Winter Soldier in my 2014 top ten. Not making that mistake with Civil War.
6. Your Name
Makoto Shinkai’s teen body swap anime is a breathtakingly beautiful, mysterious, melancholy, metaphysical masterpiece that deserves to be mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. One almost unbearably poignant shot, involving trains, doesn’t so much tug at heartstrings as tear at them.
What I said then: “I know some people can’t abide Japanese anime, but when I see a film as stunningly drawn, emotionally arresting and powerfully haunting as this, I simply pity them.”
What I say now: Hands down, my favourite animated film of 2016.
Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent, thoughtful and moving science fiction drama concerns a communication problem during a worldwide alien landing. However, a terrific central performance by from Amy Adams and a hugely effective emotional rug-pull ending takes this beyond the realms of mere first-rate science fiction into something quite remarkable, dare I say transcendent.
What I said then: “A slow burning but gripping piece with plenty to arrest the eye, ear and brain.”
What I say now: Several weeks on, that ending is still rattling around my mind.
4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
For reasons too hilariously convoluted and farcical to explain, a troubled foster kid and a farmer end up on the run from the authorities in the New Zealand Bush. The two form an odd-couple bond in Taika Waititi’s quirky, offbeat, darkly comic and strangely touching film.
What I said then: “You’ll leave the cinema with a big smile on your face.”
What I say now: You’ll leave your DVD/Blu Ray/download with a big smile on your face.
3. Under the Shadow
In a very strong year for horror movies, Babak Anvari’s extraordinary debut, set during the Iran/Iraq war, succeeds simultaneously as bone-chilling ghost story and feminist critique of fundamentalist Islam. That ninety degree angle shot of Shideh on her bed, getting up and “falling” is possibly the single most memorable image of my cinematic year.
What I said then: “A genuinely unsettling, must-see genre treat for all with nerves of steel.”
What I say now: Never has a floating veil been more terrifying.
2. Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s short story Lady Susan features a superb central performance from Kate Beckinsale in a deliciously manipulative role. Romance is present and correct, but takes a back seat to sophisticated, subtle but cynical and surprisingly racy machinations (despite a U certificate).
What I said then: “An absolute delight; a witty gem of a film.”
What I say now: I still think Kate Beckinsale deserves an Oscar nomination.
My favourite film of 2016 by some distance owes as much if not more credit to cinematographer Sturla Brandth, as it does to director Sebastian Schipper, for the sheer audacity of shooting a two hour twenty minute film on multiple Berlin locations in the early hours of the morning, in one single, genuinely unbroken shot. Yet this is not merely an outstanding technical achievement. By living through the actions of the protagonists in real time – as they move from pulsing nightclub to talky Linklater-esque drama, love story, nail-biting heist and full blown melodramatic tragedy – the viewer undergoes an emotional rollercoaster.
What I said then: “A vital, vibrant, cinematic out-of-body experience.”
What I say now: Repeat viewings confirm this as an extraordinarily singular, gripping and gut-wrenching piece of moviemaking.
Despite the above list, I must point out that I have yet to see Passengers, the Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt sci-fi romance due out on Boxing Day. But if that film somehow causes a reshuffle in the above top ten, I will return to this article and update it accordingly.
Plenty to look forward to next year, with Oscar contenders La La Land, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge on the near horizon. The usual glut of big superhero movies also beckon, with Spiderman: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Logan, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman, Justice League and The Lego Batman Movie, not to mention other potential blockbuster sequels/prequels in the form of Kong: Skull Island, Alien: Covenant and War of the Planet of the Apes. Unlikelier sequels to look out for include T2: Trainspotting 2 and Blade Runner 2049, and other upcoming highlights include Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated Dunkirk as well as the eighth episode of a certain franchise with a stellar prefix.
It only remains for me to wish you all a very Merry Christmas.
Simon Dillon December 2016.