Oh 2016, you terrible year. What general miserableness was foisted upon us these past 12 months. Providing a light in the gloom were movies released this year; a great selection from which it was difficult to draw a top 10. But, we managed it and proudly present what we regard as the year’s best releases.
Before we get to that list, firstly a shout-out to those films that skirted the Top 10 but which didn’t make it in. Ironically, we couldn’t find room for Room, Green Room, or The Keeping Room. Captain America: Civil War was the only summer blockbuster worth bothering with, but again didn’t make the grade. Elvis & Nixon, The Nice Guys, Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, Creed. We salute you, but there were still 10 movies we placed above them.
Here they are – in reverse order as is custom with these things.
10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Why can’t Andy Samberg catch a big screen break? Popstar is the year’s finest comedy, yet it flopped Stateside and vanished from most UK cinemas after barely a week. Shame then, as this is a spot-on skewering of boyband blanditude, rampant rock star egotism, and celebrity sell-outs. With a generous serving of exposed genitalia, sick turtles and killer bees. The comedy songs are first rate pastiches of the self-important dirge churned out by the Biebers of the world, given voice by Samberg’s hilariously, idiotically monikered Conner 4 Real (real name: Conner Friel). Popstar is ripe for discovery now on Blu-Ray, DVD, digital download, TVOD streaming, retinal scan, (sheesh, it was a lot easier when you could just say home video).
The most Marmite movie in our Top 10, Nicolas Wingding Refn’s darkly sexual and violent foray into the world of fashion dazzles in much the same way as his Drive or Only God Forgives. Elle Fanning is fearless as a small-town ingénue whose naïvely positive body image makes her a figure of revulsion and fascination in a size zero world. Blackly comic, the laughter grows more nervous in the unhinged final thirty minutes, Refn continuing his mission to thrill and goad audiences in equal measure. David Lynch by way of Dario Argento provides an indication of what’s in store… but little can prepare you for Keanu Reeves’ psycho motel manager.
8. Miss Hokusai
2016 has been a good year for anime releases – Studio Ghibli’s swansong When Marnie Was There and a re-release of their 1991 film Only Yesterday, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, the classic Akira back on the big screen. But, our pick for the Top 10 is this animated biopic of O-Ei, whose father created the wood block print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Adapted from Hinako Suguira’s 1980s comic, this is an irresistible account of a talented woman overshadowed by her more famous dad. Director Keiichi Hara brings 19th century Edo (today’s Tokyo) colourfully to screen, blending scenes of domestic drama, artistic creation and kinetic fantasy. Most beautiful animated film of the year – really.
7. Rogue One
We’re so happy this is the second year running a Star Wars movie has made our Top 10. Godzilla director Gareth Edwards does a guys-on-a-mission movie in a galaxy far, far away, producing the best action movie of the year. Brimming with excitement, humour and genuine stakes, the depiction of the operation to steal the Death Star plans once again proves the Star Wars universe is in good hands with the new generation. Talks of reshoots sounded ominous (and the above teaser has footage not in the finished film), but happily Rogue One continues the good work begun with The Force Awakens. See it in 2D, as the gloomy 3D robs the first hour of all its pace.
Matteo Garrone is best known for the gangster epic Gomorrah, but scores big with this stunning adaptation of fanciful tales from the 16th century poet Giambattista Basile. Weaving different stories into one imaginative whole, Garrone’s film resembles the phantasmagoria Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro would deliver if they ever teamed up. Sea monsters, giant fleas, giant men, imperilled princesses, kindly crones and a dash of magic are all crammed into an adult fairy tale that casts quite a spell.
5. Under the Shadow
Horror cinema is a versatile beast. Iranian born British based writer-director Babak Anvari employs it expertly in this 1988 set story of the Iran-Iraq war. In Tehran, an independent mother cares for her young daughter when her husband is conscripted for military service. As the missile attacks intensify, the little girl becomes convinced a malevolent spirit called a djinn is out to get them both. Anvari uses restless spirits and changelings as a smart allegory for the psychic toll warfare exacts on the tenants of one tower block. But, the day-to-day life of women under Sharia law is depicted as equally menacing, the mother arrested for being underdressed when she flees her apartment with her terrified girl. Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi are wholly believable as a tetchy mother/daughter duo living under intense pressure, targeted by foreign enemies and oppressed from within. This year’s The Babadook, which is high praise indeed.
The Office is 14 episodes of perfect telly. The concluding Christmas specials provided an earned happy ending and gave Brent back his soul. So how do you get material for a movie, particularly when none of the series regulars make an appearance? The answer is to make a kind-of alternate ending to the series, with Ricky Gervais’ hapless manager turned sales rep still chasing fame and lost in delusion. Gervais scores big laughs as Brent takes session musicians on the road to tour his cringeworthy compositions. But it is the story of a man realising the fame he craves will most likely elude him that makes this unexpectedly profound.
3. Hell or High Water
The Texan plains are a grand stage for this gripping, topical thriller. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are brothers on a state-wide bank robbing spree to save the family ranch. Jeff Bridges’ grizzled lawman and his reluctant partner Gil Birmingham doggedly pursue the two across an economic wasteland. Starred Up director David McKenzie and Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan are interested in more than simple Western shoot-outs. This is a timely tale of haves and have-nots, the cost of beating the system and the desperation of forgotten communities. Watch this and you’ll see why Trump got in (the tragic irony being he’s exactly the kind of white collar gangster forcing the brothers to go outside the law).
Winner of the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, Spotlight’s fierce intellect, and sober, compassionate treatment of explosive subject demands a place high in our Top 10. Recounting the true story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into child abuse within the Catholic Church, it is a shattering condemnation of institutions protecting institutions (law firms, businesses, schools and the media itself were all complicit in the cover-up). Plus, a clarion call to old-fashioned journalism, at risk in today’s culture of echo chamber opinion mongering. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams may have got the Oscar noms as journos on the case, but none of the expansive cast, including Michael Keaton, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci or Billy Crudup, put a foot wrong.
1. The Witch
Upon seeing The Witch at the 2015 London Film Festival we knew it was a strong contender for best UK release of 2016. That it has placed number 1 is testament to the lasting power of Robert Eggers’ outstanding debut. Even after multiple viewings Eggers’ tale of a religious 17th century farming family persecuted by demons maybe diabolical, maybe psychological remains potent stuff. Sexual awakenings, religious mania and nightmarish imagery sear into the brain, complemented by pitch perfect performances from old hands Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie and newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw. The family’s goat is called Black Phillip. Which is just… creepy.
How does 2016’s Top 10 compare to previous years?