Favourite films of 2016

Happy New Year and all the best for 2017; I hope it’s a better one than 2016 in terms of blockbusters, at least, but as I cast my over a list of films that finished just outside my top 50 (below) I think overall it’s been pretty good, once again. Before I list that top 50, though, I just want to say thanks as always to anyone who has regularly or irregularly stopped by this blog for a brief or long read during the past twelve months. There have been some changes and I’ve not been able to write any reviews of a decent length for a few months now, but it’s still ticking along.

As always the usual caveats and points need to be made about a list like this. First of all, as I seem to say every year, it’s completely pointless, other than for being a way for me to make some sense of all the new releases I caught during 2016. As such, this list only includes films that came out on general release in the UK or were released on VOD/streaming services in 2016. That means there’s no Moonlight, no Toni Erdmann, no La La Land, no Manchester By The Sea, no Certain Women and no Elle, to list but a few well-received examples that will be released in the UK in 2017. And that also means there are films such as The Revenant and Room listed here: these were 2015 releases in some countries but January 2016 releases in the UK.

Just to reiterate, this is a list of my favourite films of the year of the ones that I’ve seen, and in no way am I suggesting it as a definitive ‘Best of’.

Here goes…

Feature Films, Top 50

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The Edge Of Seventeen

50. The Edge of Seventeen: ‘Smartly written teen coming-of-age film with a very good central performance by Hailee Steinfeld and a rather amusing turn by Woody Harrelson as a sarcastic teacher. Don’t love it as much as others seem to, but I did like it.’

49. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: ‘The plot is neither here nor there. What’s more important is that the performances (and lyrics) will keep most audiences chuckling away throughout. Popstar manages to effectively saritise modern American pop music and everyone associated with it – artists, managers, crew, fans, hangers-on – without ever being nasty or overly-caustic about anyone in particular. The targets are obvious, and the delivery is often right on the nose, but the hit rate is good and the regular, absurd flights of fancy work really well.’

48. The Club: ‘Larraín – who relies heavily on the production design of his films – opts for a washed-out colour palette, and the gloomy look suits the downbeat nature of The Club. It’s a gripping, well-written and superbly-acted drama; this is a filmmaker who appears to be going from strength to strength, and I hope that continues whatever country he makes his work in.’

47. Green Room: ‘It’s fairly frenetic, with the odd spot of gruesome violence, and it’s as thrilling as it is tense. Green Room’s also a lot of fun as a result, and although it’s not quite in the same class as Saulnier’s previous film, I enjoyed it.’

46. Nocturnal Animals: ‘Despite all of the effort made the transitions between pulpy thriller and psychological drama are a little too jittery, and whenever the action shifts from Shannon and Gyllenhaal to the subtler, Susan-led drama the film seems to lose some of its forward momentum… Adams is perfectly suited… the actress slowly reveals her character’s inner torment and sadness with real aplomb.’

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Anomalisa

45. Anomalisa: ‘The flights of fancy and strange occurrences are Kaufman’s invitations to try and figure out exactly what he is getting at, though he remains equally adept with the more straightforward, crowdpleasing stuff, incorporating humour that’s actually funny and penning convincing relationships, too. He’s still one of the most intriguing writers working today.’

44. Journey To The Shore: ‘It is a ghost tale, but it shares more common ground with the quiet, character-focused dramas of fellow successful exports Kawase and Koreeda than it does with your typical scary movie… If you like the strand of slow, intimate Japanese cinema that clearly has its roots in the work of Ozu and Mizoguchi then you’ll probably enjoy this.’

43. When Marnie Was There:When Marnie Was There is a quiet, measured treat from start to finish. It’s a Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli – probably not its last, as the studio’s use of the term ‘hiatus’ suggests future projects will be developed – that explores loneliness, unhappiness, deep-rooted family issues and a sense of belonging. Marnie addresses these themes in a way that is considered, intelligent and not in the least bit patronising towards children. It looks as good as you’d expect, and it’s a lovely way for Ghibli to temporarily sign-off.’

42. Youth: ‘There are problems – the way in which Sorrentino has the Miss World character intellectually besting Dano’s actor, for example, which is a transparent attempt to compensate for the way she is shot/subjected to the male gaze during the rest of the film, and the Paloma Faith bit is just silly – but overall it’s an interesting, moving and quirky piece that both challenges and accepts different widely-held ideas about aging and creativity.’

41. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: ‘While there are elements of this Star Wars standalone movie that I absolutely adored, there are also other bits that I disliked as much as anything that appeared in George Lucas’s much-maligned CGI-heavy prequels. Overall I think it’s a good job by Gareth Edwards (and Tony Gilroy, assuming the reports of his heavy involvement in reshoots are accurate) and a pretty impressive action film, which generally forges links successfully with the films that sit before it and after it in the Star Wars timeline.’

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Under The Shadow

40. Under The Shadow:Under The Shadow is one of those horror films where – like Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-set movies – the real-life threat is greater than the supernatural menace. The djinn is scary, sure, and Anvari has a talent for spooking the audience, but is it as frightening a concept as a genuine unexploded missile hanging delicately over the lounge? Is it as scary as the armed soldiers or the hardline cleric Shideh encounters as she flees the apartment in the wake of one terrifying episode? The film straddles these twin threats – one very real, one possibly real – with ease and subtlety, and its writer-director is certainly worth watching over the coming years; this is a confidently-made debut, for sure.’

39. Kubo And The Two Strings: ‘This is a beautiful stop-motion film by Laika (American-made, but set in Japan), with a lovely story and fine voice acting, particularly from Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, playing a kick-ass monkey and a Samurai warrior-beetle respectively. It’s imaginative, funny, moving and occasionally quite dark.’

38. Dheepan: ‘For the most part Dheepan is an impressive piece of work, with fine performances from the three Sri Lankan cast members. Eponine Momenceau’s photography mixes wide shots of the banlieues with handheld cameras, used within the corridors, rooms and stairwells, while she has an impressive, deliberately rough-looking style of framing that I quite like, occasionally using foreground objects and walls to partly obscure the faces of the characters. Nicolas Jaar’s score, meanwhile, is atmospheric, and it changes to complement the shifts in Audiard’s material successfully. Pretty good, even if it doesn’t quite match the heights of the director’s best work.’

37. Chronic: ‘A stripped-back drama about a palliative care nurse (Tim Roth in his best performance in some years) whose dedication to his patients perhaps masks some kind of obsessive/stalkerish tendency, or is perhaps reflective of an addiction to grief or death, or it may even be a source of sexual pleasure; it’s not initially clear, but director Michel Franco gives us subtle clues in several well-constructed scenes that show Roth’s character at work – gradually shutting out his patients’ families – or awkwardly dealing with people during his own down-time.’

36. Truman: ‘I really enjoyed this well-scripted Spanish drama, in which Ricardo Darín’s 50-something actor – who has terminal cancer and has decided to refuse further treatment – straightens out his relationships, searches for a new home for his dog and sorts out other affairs, all with the help of his best friend (Javier Cámara), who has flown from Canada to Madrid to see his dying best friend for the last time.’

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Midnight Special

35. Midnight Special: ‘It’s very much a character-driven film, as opposed to a sci-fi feature that’s propelled by attention-grabbing visual effects and action, and its notable that Nichols ends with a series of brief epilogues that feature most of the major players and little else; these, in keeping with the rest of the film, manage to shed light on some of the inherent mysteries, but they also feed the viewer some new questions that will presumably remain unanswered.’

34. Queen Of Earth: ‘The scenario serves as a solid and intriguing foundation, on which Perry builds a tightly-wound, Persona-esque psychological drama, hinting at fluid identities, schizophrenia, breakdowns and mirrored reality (not least via the constant and slightly unnerving shots of watery reflections). Strangeness seeps into the film as it progresses and the soundtrack constantly forewarns of trouble to come, but the true nature of the movie isn’t fully revealed until the final scene (and indeed the haunting, creepy final shot, when Perry freezes the action on the face of one of the characters). Grainy, slightly de-saturated film stock helps to cement the links to Bergman’s most productive period, and there’s some lovely photography of the location, mainly in terms of the exterior shots. I much prefer it to the director’s previous film, and Moss continues to impress; this is the best cinematic performance I’ve seen by her yet, and the best she has been since her long-running turn as Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.’

33. I, Daniel Blake: ‘Ultimately the film is a force for good, despite the overall bleakness and sadness that envelops it, particularly during the final stages. This is a stirring, moving work of protest that – in its own quiet, dignified way – angrily rejects the notion of benefits claimants being scroungers and layabouts and cheats that has long been peddled by governments and right-wing newspapers in the UK, and I’m all for it. Just as importantly, I, Daniel Blake highlights the fact that a welfare and benefits system originally designed with the intention of helping people who need help (many of whom, like Daniel, have paid into it for years while working) has become impenetrable for some by deliberate and cruel design.’

32. Notes On Blindness: ‘Developed from an Emmy award-winning short film of the same name, Notes On Blindness is a moving account of theologian and professor John Hull’s struggles and thoughts during the 1980’s, as he adapted to / came to terms with his blindness. It uses original audio recordings from an archive made by Hull and his family at the time, which subsequently served as a basis for the academic’s acclaimed books on blindness, and these aural snippets are combined with visual reconstructions that feature actors lip-syncing the dialogue. In that sense it’s one of those pieces that could be described as a work of fiction (albeit one that’s heavily based on fact) and as a documentary, no doubt annoying anyone who thinks that a film should only ever be one or t’other. But regardless of that, it’s beautifully shot, with darkness, shallow depth-of-field and soft focus used to enhance our empathy with Hull’s visual disconnection from the world, and the loss of clarity he experiences with regard to his memories.’

31. The Witch: ‘Despite the supernatural presence in the woods, The Witch is at its most engrossing when it plays with the idea of parents abandoning – or no longer protecting – their children, and the scenes in which family members turn on one another and accusations fly linger in the memory longer than the occultish chills. For a first-timer working with a tiny budget Eggers has crafted a remarkably assured film; it’s possible to read it as a tale about environmental revenge, but regardless of interpretation it convinces as a straight period drama, as well as a scary movie.’

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Our Little Sister

30. Our Little Sister: ‘Koreeda’s latest is well-acted, and beautifully-shot at times, but the real draw of Our Little Sister is how honest and free-of-cynicism it is, choosing not to dazzle you with wit or incident but instead concentrating on realistic characters adapting to a realisitc but life-changing scenario. Quiet, yes, but extremely effective and a measured take on loss and readjustment in the wake of a death.’

29. Little Men: ‘Both of the younger actors give terrific performances, the highlight undoubtedly being Barbieri’s scene in an acting class, during which he is forced to rapidly trade lines with the teacher, though it’s Taplitz who really shines during the film’s final and most poignant moments, which seem to offer a resigned shrug about class divides in modern New York. Little Men has one of the strongest ensemble pieces I’ve seen this year; Sachs is clearly able to coax consistent, unshowy but solidly-impressive work out of his actors, and he continues to prove himself as a talented purveyor of low-key, likeable, modern New York stories.’

28. Room: ‘Larson is utterly convincing while she is held captive and conveys Joy’s emotional turmoil with great skill. I was completely convinced by her acting and I’m pleased to see her hit a career high; it’s exciting to ponder where she will go from here. The same can be said for Tremblay, who is a real find, and a precocious talent; it’s harder for child actors to sustain their careers and many fail to equal their early peaks, but I hope he succeeds. Credit must also go to Abrahamson for his direction of the pair, which is sound; the interviews in which he has discussed his methods (particularly regarding his direction of Tremblay) show plenty of planning and care on his part, and have been illuminating. Thanks largely to the acting and writing I felt emotionally-drained by the end, which is as it should be when you watch a story about such grim material, but Room is an uplifting experience nonetheless.’

27. Your Name: ‘A terrific anime that drew me in much more than I was expecting it to; in fact, unlike many other animated films, I find myself still thinking about it a couple of days later. It’s witty, thoughtful, moving and subtle in its consideration of (or oblique references to) man-made and natural disasters that Japan has suffered, namely the devastation of Fukushima and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.’

26. Sully: ‘The actual landing on the river – which, as we know, all passengers and crew survived – is shown a couple of times (with the director subtly shifting the perspective), and it’s a testament to Eastwood’s skill that it makes for gripping, big-screen drama each time, despite the fact the outcome is well known (and I think plenty of kudos is due to editor Blu Murray for helping to make these sequences so thrilling). This being Clint, he (rightly) celebrates the quick response by those working in the emergency services and others in New York that day, and then maddeningly sets up the government’s NTSB investigation panel as villains, which hasn’t gone down too well with anyone concerned with factual accuracy (or indeed the real-life investigators themselves). Overall, though, it’s a very solid piece and – as with last year’s Bridge Of Spies – sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy a couple of old hands drawing on every bit of their experience and making it all look so damn easy.’

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Everybody Wants Some!!

25. Everybody Wants Some!!: ‘Like Dazed And Confused it’s the little details that help to creat a sense of time and place: the lingering, lusty shots of cars, the sighting of a Reagan/Bush banner, the brief discussions about or references to bands of the era, the vinyl, and the clothes and physical features of the characters, which make some of them look as though they’ve just stepped off an early-80s gay porn shoot. In fact there’s an in-the-closet undercurrent throughout the film, manifest through the way some of the characters initiate awkward physical contact, and also the fact that one or two are clearly trying to cover-up their sexuality by over-emphasising their (fabricated) experiences with women.’

24. Cemetery Of Splendor: ‘It’s quiet, slow-paced and duly filled with long takes, yet suddenly out of nowhere Apichatpong finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, be it the hypnotically-whirring fans and water wheels that repeatedly appear or the brightly-lit montage of street scenes that match the changing colours of the therapeutic light sticks used on the hospital ward. Cemetery Of Splendor is a relaxing watch, and it reminds me of that brief, strange state we sometimes experience when we’re no longer dreaming but haven’t quite woken up, and the difference between what is real/what is not real is not immediately obvious.’

23. Things To Come: ‘Huppert, who is on-screen for the vast majority of the running time, is excellent. The camera stays with Nathalie throughout, tracking her as she walks along the street or as she moves through buildings, only ever letting her wander off within her own apartment at the very end, when a kind of domestic peace washes over the film. (There is a certain energy to the camerawork one might not expect, given the subject matter and slow pace.) And Hansen-Løve – who won the Silver Bear for directing at this year’s Berlin Film Festival – has once again crafted a story with a fascinating central character and a world – intellectual circles in Paris and its environs – that seems entirely believable and fully understood. Confident, accomplished filmmaking.

22. The Childhood Of A Leader:Corbet’s debut as a director, The Childhood Of A Leader, is a cold, dark and distant film, with cameras that constantly back away apologetically from the action, or that seem to linger without emotion or fascination on the characters at the end of some scenes (in order to emphasise the importance of what is happening, however unpalatable it may be). The film’s superb, atmospheric soundtrack, by Scott Walker, has jarring strings and occasional, strange electronic outbursts, which means that it too seems to fit with the dissonance between the characters on screen, of which few (if any) are sympathetic. It’s a film with a distinct look and feel that one would have every right not to expect from such a young director.

21. Hell Or High Water: ‘This is an entertaining crime film, set largely in West Texas, an area notable for its wide, open plains, long, straight roads and dusty small towns. You’ve seen these spaces (and the men and women on the right and wrong sides of the law who inhabit them) many times before – Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men, Lone Star, etc. – but if you’re prepared to look closely you’ll see that it looks different today, in 2016; there opening shot reveals graffiti on a walls that has been scrawled by a disenfranchised Army veteran, and the roadside billboards seen throughout are reflective of America’s wider economic woes. And, slowly but surely, this astute and well-made film directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) gradually reveals itself to be about the economy, and the very land that we see throughout, or rather the value of land and the property that has been built upon it.’

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After Love

20. After Love:I’ve seen three films starring Bérénice Bejo this year, and she has delivered two very impressive performances (in this, and in Brady Corbet’s moody The Childhood Of A Leader). Here she plays Marie, whose 15-year-old marriage to Boris (Cédric Kahn) has broken down, with a divorce settlement imminent; the only stumbling block, though, is how the proceeds of the sale of their house will be divided (and not, for example, who gets custody of their two young girls). The film details their fractious relationship while they continue to live together under the same roof, with sympathies regularly shifting from one person to another (both are shown to be unreasonable and arguably vindictive at different points), and it’s a well-performed, excellently-scripted French drama that intelligently addresses marital break-up and the effect it has on everyone.

19. Wiener-Dog: ‘I really liked it, but you have to buy into Solondz’s humour and the way that works in tandem with his jaundiced, poisonous worldview, or it’ll be a very long hour-and-a-half. Wiener-Dog is wilfully difficult and self-indulgent, and its downbeat, defeatist nature makes it the absolute antithesis of this current (or any) anodyne blockbuster season, but it’s great fun if you can get on board.’

18. The Wailing: ‘This could be an allegory for Korean racism, or Korean attitudes to Japanese people in particular, and weirdly there also seems to be an implicit criticism of specific Japanese technology and the fetishisation of certain products; it becomes apparent, though, that something much more sinister is afoot, though I won’t say any more on that here. Na – who also wrote the story – constantly wrong-foots the viewer and even manages to keep the mystery going until the very end of the film, with various revelations ensuring you’ll probably want to go back and watch The Wailing again for earlier clues in the narrative. It’s beautifully shot by Hong Kyung-pyo, who has captured many luscious images of South Korea’s mountainous landscape, and superbly edited by Kim Sun-min, with a couple of standout sequences that cross-cut between various locations in a superb, frenetic fashion. It feels a touch derivative during the first half an hour, but eventually this becomes a bold, unsettling horror that will stay with you.’

17. Rams: ‘Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography is naturally informed by the landscape’s shades of green, brown and blue, which gives way to the white of snow and the black of volcanic rock as winter takes hold; the Icelandic countryside filmed is as spectacular as it is bleak. Natural light is relied upon for the scenes set indoors, and there’s something enjoyable about watching the men rattle around in their homes, which are cluttered with all manner of useful farming tools and objects. With sure-handed direction, a suitably morose soundtrack by Atli Örvarsson, a well-written screenplay and some fine acting, particularly by Sigurjónsson, who has the bigger role, Rams is well worth your time.’

16. Hail, Caesar!: ‘There’s more to Hail, Caesar! than warm-hearted nostalgia: there are as many broad swipes at religion and capitalism as there are jokey barbs at the expense of the movie business and its practices, and the character of Mannix is more than a mere go-between – his more dubious qualities have even alerted the defence contractor Lockheed Martin. However the truth is your enjoyment will likely derive more from the charming way in which the Coens celebrate the business of show, even though they also draw back the curtain on studio productions and reveal a range of problems occurring across the lot. But any doubts you may have as to how the Coens feel about Hollywood are quashed by the glimpses of one film – the Hobie Doyle-starring Lazy Ol’ Moon – premiering to a rapturous response.’

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Arrival

15. Arrival: For anyone still reading, I’m not going to quote a para from my review of this one, as it seems fairly lukewarm now as I read it back (though I did praise the score, cinematography, performances and the general bigness of it all – Villeneuve is a director whose films are as ‘must-see’ on the big screen as anyone else I can think of working today). Anyway, Arrival has continued to grow in my estimation since I watched it, and while it hasn’t quite cracked the top ten, it’s one of my favourite blockbusters of the year.

14. Love & Friendship: ‘Stillman’s film doesn’t sag at any point, the focus very much remaining on smart women who have the measure of their husbands, partners or male relatives; Lady Susan herself is a fantastic character, constantly deflecting any criticism and twisting the words and deeds of others to her own benefit, and if Beckinsale has delivered a better performance then I haven’t seen it. There are some nice formal touches, too: characters and residences are introduced by way of brief pen pictures, while the text of some letters appears on screen as characters read aloud, which strengthens one or two jokes that might otherwise be missed. Very good, and I say that as someone who often avoids period drama like the plague.’

13. Suburra: ‘On paper Stefan Sollima’s Suburra doesn’t really offer anything new: it’s a sprawling epic about gangsters and organised crime in Italy, and it details the way in which the influence of different crime families and gangs spreads all the way up to the highest echelons of society, noting that there is a point where the movers and shakers of the underworld interact with the movers and shakers of the business world (or, as is the case here, high-ranking politicians and those holding the purse strings in the Vatican). Yet this is a film that is executed with such grace and style it’s difficult to withhold admiration for its pizzazz, or to resist its pulpy, neon-heavy charms. The two-hour running time fizzes by thanks to a strong, multi-threaded story incorporating a range of well-drawn characters, there’s a relentlessness in the way that it moves toward a seemingly-unavoidable crescendo, and it’s all helped along by sporadic action scenes that are as tense as anything I’ve seen this year.’

12. Chevalier: ‘Set almost exclusively onboard a luxury yacht, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s droll dramedy examines masculinity and the competitive male nature in a brilliantly acerbic fashion, and it benefits a lot from one of the year’s most well-observed screenplays. The script is terrific, the cast is excellent and I urge you to check this one out: it’s one of the highlights of 2016.’

11. The Revenant: ‘Iñárritu is a fine establisher of mood and a director who is skilled at employing a tonal consistency. It’s problematic for some that his films are so serious and relentlessly downbeat, but not for me, and I like this almost as much as I like earlier works such as Amores Perros and Biutiful. For a number of reasons watching DiCaprio slowly make his way across the terrain is quite engrossing, and thanks to Lubezki’s photography – sorry, but it bears repeating, there are some truly magnificent shots here – it remains visually stimulating throughout. I’m less enamoured by the film’s mystical bells and whistles, but that does at least raise some intriguing questions about the physical state of the main character, particularly at the end.’

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Evolution

10. Evolution: ‘The second film by Lucile Hadžihalilović is an odd blend of different genres, successfully serving as minimalist sci-fi, ethereal seaside folk tale and unsettling body horror (though it’s worth stressing at this early stage that Evolution beguiles and intrigues much more than it repulses)… What a fine film this is: weird, but not self-consciously so, lyrical, beautiful, unsettling and – eventually – as haunting as Zacarías M. de la Riva’s score. It offers interesting riffs on rights of passage, motherhood and bonding.’

9. The Neon Demon: ‘Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is an arch critique of the fashion industry – a target that you might well describe as low-hanging fruit – as well as being a brooding post-modern fairy tale that eventually descends into bad-trip-blood-curdling horror. It’s also a significant improvement on the messy pomposity of his previous film Only God Forgives, a work that looked great but struggled with its own sense of self-importance for an hour before eventually disappearing up its own backside… Refn benefits once again from an imaginative, stirring electro score by Cliff Ramirez, and the sound design and editing is excellent throughout. At times it’s pulpy, at times it’s camp, at times it’s exploitative, at times Refn’s will to shock the audience and break taboos just seems faintly ludicrous, and it constantly lures you into assuming there’s a lot of style and very little substance, but in actual fact The Neon Demon has been put together with considerable skill, and to my surprise it’s one of the more enjoyable and memorable films that I’ve seen recently.’

8. Paterson: ‘A lovely film of rhythms and patterns, and a typical celebration of the quotidian from a director whose work is always worth watching.’

7. Julieta: ‘Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play older and younger versions of the title character respectively, and part of the joy of the film is seeing how their two performances blend together so seamlessly; the back-and-forth tranisitions between the character at different stages of her life are also helped no end by the editor José Salcedo, the cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu and some creative touches that I must assume came from the director himself. As an older woman Madridista Julieta reflects on a non-existent relationship with daughter Antía, and through flashbacks we see how this has come to pass. The screenplay is first-rate, I was hooked throughout and the main performances are excellent; it’s also nice to see Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma on form, here going completely against her real-life public image by playing an unglamorous cleaner.’

6. A Bigger Splash: ‘Watching the plot unfold is a delight… Guadagnino smartly cajoles the story along in tandem with changes to the symbolic, portentous weather: the sirocco arrives from north Africa just after Harry arrives on the island; rain is used at the end to cleanse the dusty land and buildings, while the draining of the pool also suggests a fresh start. The director focuses on other sources of water, too, foreshadowing the big splash of the title and the opening of emotional floodgates.’

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Mustang

5. Mustang: ‘It’s beautifully shot by David Chizallet and Ersin Gok, with the stiflingly-hot, early summer shoot and setting ensuring that blinding sunlight creeps into the frame repeatedly; you can feel the stickiness of the heat. With Lale in particular the film has a focus, a fearless girl whose acts of rebellion grow in tandem with her own determination to be independent and free. I hope the character and the film more generally inspire young women who are subjected to similar treatment, if of course they’re lucky enough to be able to see Mustang or are able to contribute to change within their own society. Ergüven’s film is a damning indictment of a culture in which young women are bartered and exchanged like cattle, but it’s also a force for good, and confidently-made.’

4. Spotlight: ‘McCarthy’s screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, has been celebrated for its damning indictment of a number of complicit parties: religious, political, scholastic, legal and other institutions are all caught up in the cover-up. Even the Boston Globe does not escape criticism, despite the film being a celebration of its work, though naturally the focus is largely on the disgraceful actions of the Catholic Church at the time. Its presence is felt throughout the city: churches loom in the background of a number of shots, standing next to houses in working class districts or beside other temples of wealth slap bang in the middle of the business district. At one point a victim of abuse points out the proximity of a church to a nearby children’s playground. McCarthy gradually reveals the risk involved in taking on the Church, detailing the way it bought a certain degree of high-level protection in Boston, and relying on our own knowledge that within that city above all others in the USA it had the money and the influence to make things hard for the local newspaper and its reporting team; as such the film serves to remind us just how important it is that our news sources remain impartial and stay strong in the face of severe pressure from powerful insitutions. These real-life reporters were fearless, though the people who came forward that were subjected to abuse are obviously the truly courageous parties to this story. One of the reasons I think Spotlight is a very good film – arguably a great film, if I’m to allow myself a moment of hyperbole – is that it sensitively approaches the suffering of these victims while also doing justice to those who pieced together and broke the story. It doesn’t constantly demand your attention or attempt to wow you, unlike several other recent high-profile releases, but Spotlight is a gripping and well-acted procedural that will stand the test of time.’

3. Embrace Of The Serpent: ‘Guerra develops many interesting themes – the effects of colonialism, the western desire to ‘teach’ and ‘educate’ without necessarily being open to teachers and educators themselves, the process of aging and reflecting on life that has been lived, the concept of knowledge and how it is affected by memory, the differences between cultures that write things down and those that pass on information and stories verbally – but the real skill is in the way that he weaves them all together (this within a film that – amongst other things – is often very tense and gripping). It’s filmed in black-and-white, although a psychedelic, colourful end sequence appears which is in-step with the mythology presented during the film (Karamakate believes his ancestors were carried to Earth by a giant anaconda, and that in some ways taking the yakruna plant allows one to return to ‘the embrace of the serpent’). The cinematography – by David Gallego – is magnificent, and I haven’t yet seen a film that looks better than this one in 2016. In short it’s a fascinating, weighty and beautifully-rendered triumph.’

2. Son Of Saul: ‘Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély uses a 40mm lens throughout, and his camera is always close to Röhrig, with a shallow depth-of-field often employed; the titular character remains in focus, but anything more than a foot or so away from him is usually blurry, meaning that the viewer is constantly striving to make out details or figures in the background. As well as obfuscating events, the proximity of camera to actor works for another reason: most of the conversations between Saul and other prisoners are hushed, as a necessity, so to be tight in as they whisper and conspire makes perfect sense. It also increases the intensity of the film, though I’m not sure that any serious drama dealing with such subject matter requires such an increase. Nemes chose to present the film in the Academy ratio, too, a choice that increases the paucity of visual information and context, given that Saul’s face or upper body takes up so much of the screen space. All told it’s a remarkable piece of work, especially for a debut feature, and it features one of the best – if not the best – performances you’ll see all year. Essential viewing.’

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American Honey

1. American Honey: ‘There’s much to recommend the film, not least the two impressive central performances by Lane and LaBeouf, who overacts on a couple of occasions but ultimately turns in his best work since 2006’s A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. I’m eager to see Lane again, and will watch out for her during the next year or two; this is a performance of great strength, from an actor exhibiting the kind of judgment you wouldn’t usually expect from a debutant. Yet it’s the work overall that is most worth celebrating: American Honey has a strong, well-realised mood and tone, and as a character study it feels thorough, and genuine. As road movies go it’s modern, and romantic, without being overly-romantic. As a love story it’s intriguing enough. It’s also a visually and sonically stimulating throughout. Andrea Arnold has even managed to surpass her earlier work with this one.’

So, there you have it… American Honey is my favourite film of 2016. It seems churlish after listing a top 50 to carry on mentioning films, but what the hell: I also enjoyed the following for various reasons… A War, The Commune, The Unknown Girl, Eye In The Sky, Chi-Raq, Creepy, Train To Busan, Goodnight Mommy, The Clan, Doctor Strange, The End Of The Tour, Louder Than Bombs, Cafe Society, Valley Of Love, Moana, Sweet Bean, Summertime, Born To Be Blue, Zootopia, Maggie’s Plan, Adult Life Skills, Remainder, Sing Street, The Brand New Testament, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Victoria, Disorder, 10 Cloverfield Lane, High-Rise, Bone Tomahawk, The Assassin, The Big Short, Creed and The Hateful Eight. Perhaps best to think of those as joint 51st.

[Edits from original list after I’d caught up with certain movies: Added Paterson, deleted Eye In The Sky; added Creepy, deleted A War; added The Edge Of Seventeen, deleted Creepy; added The Wailing, deleted The Commune.]

Documentaries, Top 10

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Weiner

10. Weiner: ‘The documentary offers some insight into the way in which campaign staff struggle to contain stories or manage scandals, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage included, and it also serves as an effective critique of the media, with its appetite for salacious stories ensuring that scandals like this are seized upon and, it must be said, completely blown out of proportion. I’m not intending to absolve Weiner of his actions, and it’s no surprise that his marriage has failed as a result, but there are a lot of politicians in the US and elsewhere who have done terrible things, resulting in the losses of thousands of innocent lives, and many of them get a comparitively easy ride.’

9. Speed Sisters: ‘This fascinating documentary by Amber Fares follows the ups and downs of an all-female Palestinian car racing team over two seasons of a racing championship… It’s as interesting to see the women with their families, and to see them going about their daily lives in Palestine, as it is to see them at the race meetings, and the film offers an intriguing inside view of the region, with lots of footage illustrating the constant tension and the sporadic violent clashes that can occur. It is made clear that driving offers these trailblazing women a release, of sorts, a temporary escape from the world around them, and there are many shots of them smiling while they drive, their infectious grins captured cameras fixed in the interiors of their cars. The documentary is positive and uplifting.’

8. HyperNormalisation: ‘The various strands often come together satisfactorily, and yet the film feels loose and chock full of debatable points and train-of-thought passages all the same. Certain statements can be argued against or backed up with facts, even though Curtis’s film is so breathless he rarely stops to do so, while others will (probably) not stand up to any kind of rigorous analysis, though you’d be hard-pressed not to come away from HyperNormalisation with a slightly different perspective, or a greater knowledge of global affairs, or – at the very least – some food for thought.’

7. I Am Belfast: ‘Mark Cousins turns his creativity, energy, intelligence and boundless enthusiasm to Belfast, the city that he was born and raised in. A documentary with fictional elements, it’s as much a lesson in the art of seeing and listening as it is a potted history of the place or a study of its people; Cousins shows the beauty and drama in ‘ordinary’ street scenes and occurrences, even managing to wring tension out of a scene in which a lady accidentally leaves her shopping at a bus stop. He also interviews a couple of locals and visits a few places that, for him, seem to sum up the city in some way or other. Belfast is presented as a feminine entity, with Helena Bereen playing a (wo)manifestation of the capital, which Cousins explains away eruditely in the DVD extras.’

6. Where You’re Meant To Be: ‘A documentary that follows Aidan Moffat, former Arab Strap singer, as he seeks to reinterpret a number of traditional Scottish folk songs, bringing them up to date with lyrics about bloodied, fighting neds, text messages and so on, and mainly performing them in the unfamiliar environs of small rural clubs. He runs into opposition in the form of the late Sheila Stewart, a traditional folk singer, who fiercely defends the original songs, which she has been singing all her life and predate her by hundreds of years. It’s a thoroughly interesting documentary that pits the old against the new, tradition against modernity, and even the countryside against the city, but ultimately finds common ground between it all and plenty of life left in the old songs’.

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Behemoth

5. Behemoth: ‘This Chinese documentary/art film by Zhao Liang addresses the large-scale environmental destruction and landscape alteration that is currently taking place in Inner Mongolia, showing the work carried out at huge mines and smelting plants as well as the wide-ranging costs and effects that heavy industry is having on the area and its people. It’s a quiet, slow film – Zhao lets his striking images do the talking, for the most part – and it focuses on several different conneccted issues: first the changing of the landscape through explosions and other mining activities; second the displacement of farmers and others who have relied on the land for their livelihoods for many years; third the conditions that the workers in these giant mines must endure on a daily basis; and fourth the physical toll the work takes on them, with many young men and women eventually succumbing to respiratory illnesses and worse. The combination of stylish photography with the industrial subject matter recalls Jennifer Baichwal’s collaborative film with photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, though there is greater empathy with workers here and more of an emphasis on social issues.’

4. 13th: ‘A potent, timely documentary by Ava DuVernay that addresses the current state of the penal/criminal justice systems in the US, arguing that both of these over time have been manipulated by political powers and others in order to facilitate the large-scale incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. As well as the (mostly) intelligent and illuminating interviews with talking heads, there’s a sense of urgency created from the way that certain phrases appear on screen in block capital letters, and a rousing use of key hip-hop tracks from the past 30 or so years. The style doesn’t detract from the substance, though.’

3. OJ: Made In America: Long but never boring, Ezra Edelman’s account of OJ Simpson’s careers and subsequent downfall – which is given plenty of context throughout – is a thorough and meticulously-pieced together documentary.

2. One More Time With Feeling: ‘It’s an intimate, reflective and extremely sad film, as you would expect, but also one depicting people who are trying to make sense of their lives amid all the sorrow, and to move on and carry on with their work, as it is the only thing that can help them to remain on even keels. Cave’s analogy of feeling like he is tied to Arthur’s death by way of an elastic band, able to move away but always eventually being snapped back to the trauma, is just one illuminating moment, but at times I wondered whether I should have the right to peer in on someone’s life in this way, particularly when such a devastating event is clearly so raw for all involved. It is, though, as sensitive a film as you could hope for, and the music that has come out of all of this, in my opinion, is magnificent.’

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Fire At Sea

1. Fire At Sea: ‘This contemplative documentary by Gianfranco Rosi – a Golden Bear winner at the recent Berlin Film Festival – examines the current European migrant crisis, paying particular attention to the way that it impacts (or doesn’t impact) on the small community on Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea that is nearer to the north African coastline than it is to its own country’s mainland… In terms of the content, there are no answers presented here to the problem, and those looking to hear the opinions of Italian residents on the matter will probably be disappointed. You’ll have to look elsewhere for straight-to-camera accounts from the people who have made the journey by boat, too, but Rosi’s documentary doesn’t feel at all incomplete or lacking; it’s quite insightful about life in this remote community, which serves as an outpost of a kind of lost, old Europe, and it examines the difficult work undertaken by some Lampedusans while never neglecting to acknowledge the suffering of many of the migrants.’

[Edit: Added Where You’re Meant To Be, which knocked Author: The JT Leroy Story out of the top 10; added OJ: Made In America, whick meant Life, Animated dipped out; added One More Time With Feeling, which meant The Pearl Button was taken out.]