Like a lot of other things these past twelve months, 2016 in film wasn’t at its greatest. It was a year of disappointments and mediocrity for the most part, and then a lot of the really great films didn’t find an audience and died at the box office. But now’s a chance to redeem the year. As I traditionally do, collected here are all my favourite films from the past twelve months, ordered by how much I personally enjoyed them. This isn’t me telling you which films are technically best or did the most to further the craft. This is me relaying to you which films impacted me the most, and why I think you should give them a watch if you haven’t already. So, without further preamble, let’s get started!
Everybody Wants Some!!
Eye in the Sky
Florence Foster Jenkins
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
25. The Witch
A surreal and wholly original horror film, The Witch may not be to everyone’s taste but, if you like your scares subtle and haunting rather big and gory, then it’s definetely one to check out. The film’s grim and beleaguered atmosphere, combined with the strict attention to historical detail, creates an distinctively uncomfortable environment and makes you question whether these horrid events are feats of the supernatural or just paranoid insanity. Anchoring the film is the tremendous lead performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, and if this and Split are any indication then we may have a new scream queen for the ages on our hands.
24. The Conjuring 2
Making an effective horror sequel is damn tricky, but James Wan has managed to do just that with The Conjuring 2. In many ways it is the same film as its predecessor, but by changing up enough like the setting, the character dynamics, and the nature of the haunting, it balances that line between being an original film and connecting itself back to the first movie just right. The scares are solidly crafted, aided by expert cinematography for the right amount of tense atmosphere, but the characters are detailed and likable too; when’s the last time you could say that about a horror movie? If Wan and company plan to keep going with the adventures of the Warrens, I’m all for it.
23. Hell or High Water
Probably the best contemporary Western of its kind since No Country for Old Men, Hell or High Water takes a fascinating look at oft-forgotten Middle America and explores the desperation measures two brothers will take to ensure their family’s future. Chris Pine and Ben Foster give career-best performances as our bank robbers out to fight the system, and Jeff Bridges’ role as a sort-of mash-up between Rooster Cogburn and Samuel Gerard makes for a compelling and sympathetic opposing force. It’s a film that feels more necessary than ever in our current financial state, and will maybe even make you understand why that part of the world is as bitter towards the coastal states as they are.
22. The Jungle Book
Disney’s experiment of remaking their classic animation library into live-action adventures not only finally produced a genuinely good movie, but one that is perhaps even better than the film that inspired it. The Jungle Book is a marvellous movie that can be appreciated purely for its technical excellence in combing live action with CGI, perhaps even surpassing Avatar in terms of seamlessness, but it also manages to make a coherent story out of what used to be a series of vignettes. Neel Sethi is an amazing discovery as our lead Baloo, and the fantastic supporting cast from Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley to Idris Elba and Christopher Walken are equally excellent. Now it’s all up to Beauty and the Beast to prove whether this was just a fluke or a new beginning for this series of sorts.
21. Sausage Party
Seth Rogen and company take a hilarious stab at parodying the Disney/Pixar classics in this raunchy but surprisingly deep animated comedy. The best film of its kind since Team America: World Police, Sausage Party doesn’t pull any punches with its humour and manages to make some valid points about religious belief and the hard choice between the easy lie and the harsh truth. The animation itself may not be the most polished but its comedic ambitions more than make up for it, and that penultimate scene would easily be the most graphic thing ever put on cinema screens if it weren’t all just a bunch of cartoon food.
20. Star Trek Beyond
Learning from all the missteps of Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond tells a new and exciting tale for the crew of the Enterprise that finally manages to find the perfect balance between classic Trek social commentary and new-school action blockbuster. Justin Lin injects the film with his Fast & Furious flavour without at all diluting the traditional sci-fi experience, and the entire returning crew is as fantastic as ever along with exciting newcomers like Idris Elba and Sofia Boutella. It’s fun, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s a fitting tribute to both the entire series for its 50th anniversary and to the late Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin.
19. Manchester by the Sea
One of the more simple and authentic stories on this list, Manchester by the Sea is a film purely about human drama and it wrings out every possible ounce it can. Casey Affleck has never been better as a dangerously depressed man placed in the last position he wants to be in, but he’s also ably supported by a star-making turn from Lucas Hedges and a small but powerful turn by Michelle Williams. It’s a relatable and sombre tale about loss and rebuilding that doesn’t necessarily agree with the notion that all wounds heal, but even amidst the bleakest darkness lies a glimmer of light.
18. Doctor Strange
The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand into more of its crazier dimensions, and Doctor Strange managed to make all of its mystical madness accessible whilst delivering one of best standalone stories in the franchise thus far. The trippy visuals alone make it one of the most spectacular cinema experiences of the year, perfectly capturing the psychedelic artwork of co-creator Steve Ditko, but it was also strengthened by a simple but well-crafted story and a stellar cast led by a wonderfully arrogant turn by Benedict Cumberbatch. After now introducing magic into this series, how much weirder can the Marvel movies get? Oh, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has Kurt Russell playing a literal planet? OK, it can get weirder!
Martin Scorsese moves out of his typical crime tales and gives us this harrowing tale more in the vein of his Kundun or The Last Temptation of Christ. Silence is a bold and gut-wrenching look at how far one man can take his dedication to his faith, showing both the sacrifices that must be made but also the hope it brings. It doesn’t paint either side in clear colours, and by the end you may find yourself rooting for the Japanese just so the torment can stop. With both this and a certain other film later on this list, Andrew Garfield reaffirms his place as an actor to be taken seriously with his haunting performance, and the supporting turns from Adam Driver and Liam Neeson help strengthen what is already a solid core. It’s not for everyone and I doubt I’ll see it again, but the one experience alone will last me a lifetime of thought.
Lion may essentially be the longest and most brilliant advertisement for Google Earth ever, but it also tells a heartfelt and inspiring story about an impossible search. Dev Patel, Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman all give fantastic performances, but it is newcomer Sunny Pawar who shines brightest as the young Saroo who loses his family in unbelievable fashion. It’s a beautiful film that captures the feel of India similarly to Slumdog Millionaire but with a little less whimsy, and the final moments alone make the entire journey so worth it.
15. Hidden Figures
An uplifting and inspiring true story finally brought to the forefront, Hidden Figures would have been fascinating if it had focused on the scientists behind the Space Race alone, but making it about oft-overlooked figures like Katharine G. Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn makes it all the more important. Taraji P. Henson provides a wonderful and overlooked lead performance as Johnson, alongside the equally talented Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as Vaughn and Mary Jackson respectively. The movie drives home an important message about the necessity of equality for humanity to reach its peak, and finally gives these unsung heroes the respect they deserve.
14. La La Land
Whilst not as strikingly brilliant as his debut feature Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a beautiful and welcome homage to the Hollywood musicals of old that also modernises them for the cynical age we now live in. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perfectly embody the chemistry of the classic on-screen couples but in a far more honest light, focusing more on the struggle and torment of following your dreams than the glamour of making it. It finds that rare balance between being nostalgic and realistic, crafting a film that is the cinematic definition of bittersweet but in a good way.
13. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika may continue to be unappreciated by modern audiences, but that doesn’t mean their achievements in animation should go unnoticed. Kubo and the Two Strings is a beautiful piece of filmmaking that combines all the elements of great animation, both storytelling and production-wise, to craft what may be the company’s most spectacular feat yet. The art style alone is enough to suck you into the world, but the endearing characters and sweet messages about the power of compassion and memory make it so much more than just an impressive feat of animation. If you haven’t seen it yet, pick it up and make sure this one doesn’t become forgotten.
12. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One proves Star Wars has legs outside of the core saga films, meaning we are bound to get more and more trips to the galaxy far, far away in the near future. Taking a distinctly different approach to the universe whilst still remaining quintessentially Star Wars, this is the first film in the franchise that really feels like it was made for adult fans, but the charm and humour of the series is there just enough for the young ones; see, George, this is how you do it! It doesn’t quite have the heart and character of the saga films, but it more than makes up for that with some of the best action sequences the series has ever offered and fan service done the right way. If all future spin-offs can be at least this good, I’m happy for as much Star Wars as they can manage.
11. The Nice Guys
Shane Black. Need I say more? The Nice Guys is the summation of every achievement in Black’s career, sticking to his formula dating way back to his origins creating Lethal Weapon but infuses it with both a modern filmmaking touch and a 1970s sheen of neon and excess. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are a duo worthy of the writer/director’s incredible legacy of double acts, bouncing off each other dramatically as well as comically, but newcomer Angourie Rice often steals the show from her elders in one of the best child performances in recent memory. But more than anything, The Nice Guys is just a lot of fun, and if you missed it in theatres then there is no better time to catch up than now.
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi’s comedic tale of a young delinquent and his foster father surviving in the wilderness of New Zealand is a film that could have only come from such a unique and talented voice. Julian Dennison is a revelation as the rough but lovable Ricky, and Sam Neill’s performance as his coarse guardian Hector is easily the best he’s given in years. It has a scale and confidence only hinted at in Waititi’s earlier films, as the film expands from a small-scale story to what seems like a country-wide manhunt; comedies rarely ever attempt this absurd level of scale anymore. It’s a gem I hope more people will discover over the years, and I can’t wait to see what Waititi can bring to Thor: Ragnarok this autumn.
Disney has been pushing back against their clichés in their recent animated efforts but Zootopia (or Zootropolis, whatever you want to call it) is the first to go beyond that and challenge relevant real-world problems instead of their own antiquated logic. What could have been a safe family picture gradually reveals itself as a call for socio-political re-evaluation; a message of a brighter future for kids to aspire to and adults to reflect on. The year that followed from this film only reaffirmed how much this is a real issue, but that only makes the film’s themes even stronger. On top of being funny, creative and heart-warming, Zootopia is an animated film that means something beyond just entertainment, and it’s one I can see myself revisiting over and over again.
8. Don’t Breathe
The most thrilling and gut-wrenching film of its kind since Hard Candy, Don’t Breathe shows how much promise Fede Alvarez has as a director when not shackled to the expectations of remaking Evil Dead. It’s an incredibly simple film but executed with such precision and grit; it’s like a Hitchcock or De Palma film but made with the aesthetics of early Tobe Hooper. Jane Levy cements her status as a modern scream queen, and Stephen Lang’s performance as The Blind Man quickly ranks him among the best horror villains in recent cinema. Why? Because he seems all too real. 2016 wasn’t a great year for film in general, but it was pretty good for horror and Don’t Breathe easily takes the crown amongst a crop of worthy contenders.
7. Captain America: Civil War
The Captain America films just keep getting better and Civil War is not only the finest of that sub-series so far but also one of Marvel’s best movies to date. Bringing together so many corners of the universe and yet still managing to make it a tight, character-focused story is incredibly impressive, and the film continues The Winter Soldier’s political angle with interesting contemplations on government interference in foreign conflicts, the use of emergency powers, and moral duty versus need. The introductions of Black Panther and the new-and-improved Spider-Man add whole new dimensions to the franchise going forward, and it ends on a note that once again leaves the rest of the MCU in an uncertain place. Avengers: Infinity War is going to have to try its damndest to top this, but in the hands of the Russo brothers I have all the confidence I can give.
6. Hacksaw Ridge
To quote South Park, “Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the son-of-a-bitch knows story structure!” Gibson returns to the director’s chair in what is undoubtedly a Mel Gibson film through-and-through, but one that is as heartfelt and inspiring as it is violent and harrowing. This is a classic, beautifully told story of a conscientious objector holding onto his values in the face of insurmountable odds, and the nightmarish depictions of war only Gibson could provide drive home the man’s struggle. Andrew Garfield delivers a career-best performance as Desmond Doss, holding the film on his optimistic shoulders throughout every grisly but engrossing action sequence, as well as some surprisingly strong supporting performances from the likes of Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer and Hugo Weaving. This is a movie so good, it makes Sam Worthington seem compelling; now that’s an impressive feat!
It’s hard to say a lot about Moonlight. It’s just one of those movies you have to experience to really understand the full impact. Possibly the most daring and imperative coming-of-age tale in decades, Moonlight shines a spotlight on the ugly sides of adolescence and paints a picture of a boy struggling with intense pain, confusion and denial. The lead performances of our protagonist over the years by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are all uniformly excellent, but the film is truly made powerful by the supporting turns by Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, along with the beautiful direction courtesy of Barry Jenkins. This isn’t just another self-important drama. This is era-defining cinema at its finest.
Prisoners. Enemy. Sicario. With a filmography like that, was there any doubt that Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival would be anything less than spectacular? This exploration into the nature of communication, co-operation and the concept of time is a thought-provoking and challenging experience that could not have been released at a more relevant time. Amy Adams, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination in my opinion, takes the lead in perhaps her finest performance to date, but ultimately this is Villeneuve’s film and he imbues it with so much atmosphere and tension that there is never a dull moment. That’s impressive for a movie mostly consisting of scientists communicating with aliens via flash cards and Rorschach blots.
Easily the film with the most pop culture impact of the year, Deadpool is not only a comic book fan’s wet dream come true but also one of the most original and out-there comedies of the decade. Ryan Reynolds all but vaporises our collective memories of the character’s horrendous portrayal in X-Men Origins: Wolverine within the opening credits, and the film that follows is a gag-a-minute explosion fest that lampoons the X-Men franchise, modern superhero films, and generally any target it can crack out a good joke about. But what ultimately makes Deadpool more than just a fun time is that it actually has a heart of gold underneath, with all the humour built around a bizarre but touching romance about unconditional love. I doubt any sequels will be able to top the original’s excellence, but I dare them to try.
2. Your Name
The body swap movie is hardly a new concept, but usually it’s used simply for farce. Your Name at first may just seem like a really good version of that tried-and-true formula, but give it a while and you’ll soon discover it is so much more. An examination of cultural divide, gender stereotypes and a romance that breaks the boundaries of time and space, Your Name is that rare movie that makes you experience every emotion to its fullest during its running time. Makoto Shinkai now stands alongside Mamoru Hosoda as a potential inheritor to Miyazaki’s throne as king of anime, and it’s all thanks to this poignant, beautiful film. Just please, for the love of everything, make sure you watch the Japanese dub! You’ll thank me later.
1. Sing Street
Sing Street may not be the most socially relevant or groundbreaking film of the year, but it’s got bucket loads of the one thing we all need right now: optimism. A 1980s coming-of-age rock ‘n roll fable from Once and Begin Again director John Carney, there is simply no other movie this year that uplifted me more than this charming and relatable tale of young love and dreams. The performances are all-around fantastic, particularly from Jack Reynor as our protagonist’s burnout of a brother and Lucy Boynton as the mythical girl of desire, but what ultimately seals the deal is the music. Not only are the period soundtrack choices excellent, the original music our eponymous band play are as catchy and upbeat as any 80s cheese classic; I rushed out and bought the album straight after seeing it. The film is sitting on Netflix right now, so you have absolutely no excuse to miss this. If you haven’t already, go watch Sing Street and have yourself one heck of a good time.