I want to write about all the good films that we’ve had already in the first few weeks of 2017 but I still need to put a line underneath 2016. As such here are my top ten films of last year, a by no means definitive list but hopefully a good representation of the quality year of cinema we had while the rest of the world burned.
If there’s one conclusion to be drawn from these films it is that women suffer and men cause nothing but trouble.
10: Notes on Blindness
In order to look suitably cultured it was important for me to include a documentary on this list and no other non-fiction film last year was so cinematic and immersive. The film takes the audio diaries of writer and theologian John Hull that he made as he lost his sight in the 1980s and put his words into the mouth of Dan Renton Skinner. The result is a surprisingly visual journey through the loss of vision as John philosophises about his changing world as his family grows and his senses reduce to four. A beautiful, dreamlike documentary.
The first in a tragic triptych running through this list is a Turkish drama about five sisters who innocently flirt with a group of local boys and find themselves imprisoned in their home. Their family decides that homeschooling and arranged marriages will help to preserve the girls’ purity away from the temptation lying in the outside world. Trapped inside the girls fill their days by lounging around the house, making each other laugh, and plotting their brief escapes. Throughout the film we see the girls’ spirits slowly decline as they gradually accept their fates or give up entirely. Much like Sofia Coppola’s comparable Virgin Suicides this is a beautifully shot film about the tragedy of young girls’ lives being restricted as they blossom into women.
8: 10 Cloverfield Lane
Sticking with women in captivity we have Dan Trachtenberg’s genre-ambiguous bunker-dwelling marvel. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is this film’s hero who we meet chained up in a bomb shelter. Upon regaining consciousness Winstead meets her host, John Goodman, who she must try to decipher and identify as either her captor or her saviour. 10 Cloverfield Lane plays its card close to its chest and the result is a taut, tense, and tantalising puzzle that dials things up to 11 before revealing there’s a whole other set of gears. Marvellous fun.
7: Hell or High Water
It is rare for a crime drama to allow the audience to develop equal sympathy for both the criminals and the police who pursue them but in David Mackenzie’s modern Western both sides of the coin are given equal weight. We experience the thrills of two brothers robbing banks to save their family land and share the slow jovial investigations of the local Texas Rangers who patiently track their exploits. When the sides finally collide with unglamorous, brutal violence it is hard to know what side to choose and whether to cheer or cry. A timeless drama of crime and punishment.
6: A Bigger Splash
Luca Guadagnino’s English language interpretation of La Piscine came and went without much fanfare last year but when I saw it I adored it. A drama filled with sun, sex, and jealousy as a quartet of characters spend a few weeks on a small Italian island. Tilda Swinton is as captivating in her silent role as recovering rock star as Ralph Fiennes is as a bombastic, occasionally naked, dad-dancer. A big, bold, brash drama that really delivers.
I still need to rewatch this idea-driven piece of science fiction as the true workings of the tale are only clear at the film’s ends. Watched for the first time the film is teetering at the high end of very good but would surely shoot up to great given a second viewing. Aliens land and they do not attack, instead they want to talk. It is up to Amy Adam’s linguist to figure out a method of communication before the army do what they do best and attack the interplanetary immigrants. A film for the mind and the heart assembled with beauty and brains.
Though painstakingly made in stop-motion animation this human drama is not for kids; this is full frontal animation. Michael Stone is a walking mid-life crisis who is a big fish in the small pond of customer service. Staying at a hotel while he gives a keynote speech at a conference he picks the scab of an old love, contemplates a new love, and tries to ignore the love he has waiting for him at home. Michael is not a sympathetic man but he feels incredibly real despite his detachable face. The film as a whole is surreal and charming with a lot to say about the human condition.
3: Green Room
The sadly departed Anton Yelchin gave one of his final performances in this relentlessly nerve-shredding horror about a punk band trapped in a neo-Nazi club. Without hesitation this near perfect feature pulls its protagonists from one excruciating situation to another as their numbers slowly dwindle. The joy of the film is in its execution. An execution that holds nothing back and constantly surprises and horrifies. I gasped, I groaned, and I hid my face.
2: The Witch
Another horror here in the top three with a god-fearing family in 17th century New England being terrorised by a neighbouring witch. Forget broomsticks and cauldrons and instead think of old hags grinding the bones of a baby and you’re closer to the bone-deep terror that The Witch has to offer. The Witch is a pure, gimmick-free piece of cinema. It is delightfully terrifying and filled with an air of unrelenting fear and genuine horror. Don’t expect any sudden jumps just a consistent feeling that all is not well. It certainly isn’t.
My personal favourite film of 2016 is not the most enjoyable to watch. At numerous positions on this list are women being persecuted and none more so than Joy as portrayed by Brie Larson. For years Joy is kept in captivity; initially alone and then with the gift and curse of a young son to keep her company. Room has affected me in numerous ways each time I have watched it, with three different types of tear running down my face. Often with films containing this level of bleakness the work is admirable but hard to actually recommend anyone see. Room is different. Room is an easy film to recommend. Room is devastating and uplifting and finally brought the talents of Brie Larson to the world’s attention. I could watch this film countless times and no doubt I will.