Film Inquiry’s Favourite Films Of 2016
2016 was a great year for film. Our Film Inquiry writers submitted their top ten lists, along with their pick for best film of the year.
For the Film Inquiry team, compiling a list of the best films of 2016 isn’t as easy as it sounds. We have writers located in different continents, some of which have to wait until the early months of 2017 before they even get to see some of 2016’s most acclaimed films. So it would be unfair for us to compile a best of list until everybody has had the chance to see the most talked about films of the year. Now that Oscar season is up and running, our writers have finally got together to reveal their favourite films of the last year.
Like our Best films of the 21st Century list a few months back, we have decided to list our own separate top tens, instead of compiling one list. The results have revealed that there isn’t a single consensus favourite, with no film appearing on all the lists. This means that instead of praising just a handful of movies, the team’s eclectic tastes ensure we can recommend more films than your average best of list – and in an Oscar season that tends to be dominated by roughly three movies, that couldn’t be more refreshing.
Alistair Ryder: Arrival
Arrival is the perfect science fiction film for our times – a deeply hopeful story told in the deceptively emotionally detached style that is becoming increasingly synonymous with Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve. Released in US cinemas three days after the presidential election, the film’s portrayal of an international effort to communicate with extra terrestrial travellers slowly taking a fear-mongering, xenophobic turn adopted a brand new poignance after an election campaign that aimed to sow the seeds of division and distrust worldwide.
Arrival’s masterstroke is conveying the most realistic alien invasion in cinematic history, capturing a very realistic paranoia that is amped up significantly by the disorienting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. This mounting paranoia turns out to be a red herring. As soon as our linguistic heroine Louise Banks, played by a never better Amy Adams, arrives on board the spaceship with the mission to communicate with the aliens, she soon finds out it is her terrified military superiors and their international equivalents who are quick to jump to conclusions based on a lack of understanding that gets lost in translation. Like Villeneuve’s previous film Sicario, this is yet another tale of a strong woman who has been chosen to be part of a government scheme and ends up having to fight against superiors who are hesitant to give her more optimistic ideals the time of day.
Arrival feels like an arthouse science fiction movie, due to Villeneuve’s pronounced style. Despite this, it is one of the most emotionally affecting films in recent memory – reflecting the fear felt by millions the world over and still managing to project a more hopeful future lying ahead, if we just take the time to understand each other.
Arlin Golden: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
2016, despite being utter shit, was a banner year for documentaries in a strong year for film in general. Non-fiction directors continued to ensure that the uglier but neglected elements in America and abroad would receive heightened attention, and the year brought many new entrants into the canon of all-time documentary greats, more than this list is able to acknowledge. But it was an elder statesman of the form who, in not looking only at the present, but also the past and future of the most ubiquitous and visible, yet little understood institutions of the modern day, produced the most arresting film of the year. It’s reasonable to assume I’m talking about racism, but I’m referring to the Internet.
Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World feels at times like a dream structured as a religious experience, floating from one node of the web to another in an effort to understand this still new medium and its existential implications for our species. An ethereal score compliments the patiently kinetic cinematography in both revealing and abating anxieties about our interconnected society. Individual segments run the emotional spectrum from hilarious to heartbreaking, and taken in whole demystify new technologies, stripping away most of the pomp and self-importance for which the industry is often lampooned.
Herzog, an admitted digital neophyte, offers us an opportunity to reexamine what we’ve all decided is normal and see it as authentically bizarre. In doing so we remember that these things are that way only because we made them so, in our own image, reflecting our hopes and desires, and thus sharing our troubled peculiarities. Some harbor fears that super-robots will one day improve upon and surpass humanity, but Lo and Behold leaves one with the impression that their chances are about as good as ours.
Benjamin Wang: Paterson
Last year saw new releases and restorations of several difficult-to-find masterpieces, including some of my own all-time favorites: A Brighter Summer Day, Only Yesterday, and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. But imagine my surprise that last year also gave us new films that fascinated me almost as much as those gems. Out of my top 5 2016 releases, Silence is the most harrowing, Elle is the most daring, Cameraperson is the most astounding, and Toni Erdmann is the funniest. Placing Paterson at number 1 wasn’t easy, but nothing else felt quite right. Because Paterson is the most flexible. It’s maybe the most relaxing movie I’ve ever seen; it’s possible to watch it and not think about the future at all. And yet, the state of calm it creates allows you to think with such clarity that you can see everything from the tiniest, most satisfying little details to cracks in the world that could widen if not addressed.
But the film also shows how a keen eye can channel its observations into something new. Perhaps most importantly, it does this with an emphasis on solidarity: each of the most content characters finds contentment because they can connect their observations of the world to what they can share with others. The movie is full of Deleuzian repetition: you can sense, on a basic level, that the events, people, and things it depicts are all somehow related, but also that each one of them is absolutely irreplaceable. It does, for me, something immeasurably valuable: it stays down-to-earth, in close contact with reality, while also engendering a sense of infinite possibility.
Daniel Palmer: The Childhood of a Leader
A mood of presentiment and import prevails in The Childhood of a Leader like few other films made this century. Brady Corbet and Mona Fastvold have disavowed the dominant flippancy and solipsism of so much indie cinema in favour of twentieth-century European solemnity, and the results are astounding. One is left awestruck by the Wellesian ambition of Corbet‘s vision. Lol Crawley‘s stunning 35mm photography uses natural light and candlelight to create a sensation of darkness slowly encroaching and enveloping the frame, managing to be simultaneously sensuous and unsettling. Also integral is its score from the legendary Scott Walker; a bracing, atonal sonic barrage which stands alongside Jonny Greenwood‘s work on There Will Be Blood in its jagged majesty.
Corbet skilfully guides his young lead, Tom Sweet, through a complex and demanding role. Sweet‘s performance is preternaturally good, showing the novice actor to have impeccable instincts. Bérénice Bejo evinces the spiritual strain of a mother who instinctively knows what she has wrought upon the world; Liam Cunningham is baleful as the remote father, a man buffeted on the winds of history who shares none of his pious wife’s certainty; while Robert Pattinson‘s small but significant role further underlines his maturation into a fine character actor.
Corbet and Fastvold have created a parallel history which is ‘metaphysically linked’ to the events of the twentieth century; culminating in a dizzying, bravura climax which haunts the memory. They lay bare the errant spirit of a Europe which is still reeling at the realisation of its own barbarity. The Childhood of a Leader is a film rich with biblical and historical symbolism, as well as relevance to the predicament of contemporary Europe. It poses the question: are dictators created or made?
(The rest of Daniel’s Top Ten; Embrace of the Serpent, Paterson, Weiner, Mustang, Anomalisa, High Rise, Midnight Special, Chevalier, Things to Come. Although Anomalisa and Mustang were 2015 releases in the US, they weren’t released in the UK, where Daniel lives, until long after last year’s awards season, hence their inclusion.)
Dave Fontana: Loving
Loving isn’t the only great movie from 2016, but it’s one of the only ones that genuinely moved me. From director Jeff Nichols, renowned for his uniquely intimate style, the film is an underrated work of poetic beauty.
Loving is the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), an interracial couple whose outlawed marriage in the state of Virginia was the catalyst for public change. Bringing their case to the Supreme Court in the form of Loving v. Virginia in 1967, their marriage (and interracial marriage in general) was eventually legitimized under U.S. law.
Interestingly, though, Loving focuses little on the actual court case. Though we see the major turning points, the film instead focuses on the quiet, in-between moments in the Lovings’ lives. Nichols delights in these moments, whether it’s seeing the Lovings building and adding to their house, quietly watching their children play in their backyard, or simply sitting next to one another and enjoying each others’ company. So much is expressed in simply a passing glance between the two or a warm embrace; Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga should be praised for their ability to emote with little to no dialogue to back them.
By weaving together these moments, the underlying message of Loving becomes distinctly clear: these are two reserved country people, who love each other and have built a life together. At the same time, they just happen to be of different races. By presenting their unembellished lives side-by-side, one has to question just what legitimate law could exist that would make their being together an actual crime.
Loving is an understated, remarkable film, warmly acted by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, and with a beautifully minimalist style by Jeff Nichols. It is not one to be missed.
(The rest of Dave’s Top 10; Silence, Arrival, American Honey, A Monster Calls, The Handmaiden, Moonlight, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, The Wailing, The Witch)
Emily Wheeler: The Lobster
Words like satire and absurdist get thrown around a lot, but Yorgos Lanthimos is a true master of these dark arts. My maniacal laughter filled the theater as I took in The Lobster, and while its brand of deadpan humor and biting social commentary isn’t for everyone, the film is a delight for those who revel in awkward dancing and random background camels.
Lanthimos’ critique of relationship-obsessed societies is no less smart than it is entertaining, and its narrative makes a point to call out the aggressively single along with the aggressively paired. What slowly forms is an argument for honest, naturally occurring relationships, and the example we get is rivetingly tenuous and fragile.
The Lobster is a film that balances comedy and romance with an arch tone, and that’s a massive feat of filmmaking. The script and acting are easy highlights to point out, but this film is a package deal; if any element had faltered, it would’ve crumbled under its own ambition. Luckily, its immaculate construction allows the audience to get lost in its strange world. If you happen to have a problem with The Lobster, then raise your hand and we’ll assign you some children. That usually helps.
(The Lobster was included in Film Inquiry’s Best films of 2015 as it was released in the UK and Australia back then – it wasn’t released until May 2016 in the US, hence its second annual inclusion).
Jay Ledbetter: La La Land
The backlash towards La La Land has picked up in the last few weeks. I admit it, my confidence in it as my pick for favorite film of the year has wavered, as I have heard some of the criticisms my peers have purveyed upon it. However, when the time came to finalize my list, it could only be Damien Chazelle’s La La Land at the top. It is an experience unlike any other I had at a cinema this year and there is something to be said for that alone. But beyond that, it is a film that has a lot to say about sacrificing for your art, prioritizing your relationships, and the explorations of the “could-have-beens” in your life.
As writers, we obviously have artistic ambitions. I would posit that most of us would rather be creating films than writing about them. To do that, though, I would have to drop every comfort and source of stability in my life to seek after a dream. The reality of Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s lives rip them away from the whimsical, musical, wonderful world of the honeymoon phase of their relationship. La La Land is not the non-stop fun film that many people claim it to be. There are hints of Inside Llewyn Davis and even Blue Valentine. The film’s finale sequence, a bittersweet ode to love and classic Hollywood, is one of the most remarkable pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen, and left me with just the bittersweet feeling Damien Chazelle wanted.
Our lives are ones of gives and takes. There are moments of fun and fancy freedom and there are moments of deep sadness. La La Land is the rare Hollywood film that dares to show their coexistence.
Jo Bradley: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
With the remakes and reboots that have plagued our cinemas recently, finding an original, witty script with great comedic performances was an absolute highlight of the year. New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s wacky adventure comedy has both humour and heart. Faced with an unloving foster system, Ricky Baker (a scene-stealing Julian Dennison) chooses instead to elope into the wilderness, accompanied by his foster-dad Hec, a curmudgeonly Sam Neill.
Their escapades through the bush are comic gold, exhibiting a distinctly New Zealander sense of humour. Stunning shots of the New Zealand wilderness are complemented by a wicked soundtrack. Waititi writes and directs with an exceeding amount of wit, winning the award for the best director cameo of the year. The script is endlessly quotable, and the performers nail every punch line with understated skill.
Dennison thrives as the badass youth (#skuxlife), and has great chemistry with ‘Uncle’ Neill. Rima Te Wiata and Rachel House have some strong moments, while Rhys Darby almost steals the show in his brief turn as ‘Psycho Sam’. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is such an entertaining film that I now have plans to visit all of Taika Waititi’s work. Although I’m not a superhero film person, I am now pretty excited to see Thor: Ragnarok, which recently wrapped up filming here in Australia and will be hitting cinemas in 2017.
Basically, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a funny and heartwarming story about family and adventure, better than a predictable Hollywood comedy any day.
Julia Smith: Florence Foster Jenkins
It feels strange, even to me, that such a small, and good-natured film as Florence Foster Jenkins would be my film of the year. However, I can honestly say that not only does it fill the criteria for a great film, but it honestly resonated with me. I originally went to see the film on instinct; the story of the famously bad opera singer, Florence, brought to the screen by a handful of excellent actors, and directed by the brilliant Stephen Frears; it sounded ‘nice’ if nothing else. But this film is more than ‘nice’ and ‘small’ and ‘good-natured’, it is a real life lesson.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a trier, more than that she is kind. Her kindness and compassion spreads to those around her, and in turn makes them better people. This is seen most acutely in the way pianist Cosme grows to love and understand Florence and the passion she has for music, and it is to the credit of both Simon Helberg’s and Meryl Streep’s performances that the relationship between the two is so warm and touching. Overall, Florence Foster Jenkins is an incredibly well made film, with devotion to the original story, a stunning production that fools the eye of the watcher into believing modern Manchester, England is actually 1920’s New York, and excellent performances and direction that combine both comedy and real heart.
Ultimately though, it is a film that asks you to consider an important question; do you laugh at the triers, the people who trip and fall but never give up on what they love? Or do you instead choose to show the love and compassion that they have, and that they so freely bestow on you and the world around them? (It’s the second one, just in case you were wondering.)
(The rest of Julia’s Top 10; Son of Saul, Arrival, Midnight Special, Captain America: Civil War, Eddie the Eagle, Packed in a Trunk, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Zootopia. Son of Saul wasn’t released in the UK until the end of April, hence its inclusion in Julia’s list.)
Laura Birnbaum: The Witch
I have been waiting for this movie for a long time. As a fan of the macabre, I found myself watching The Witch in the theater, basking in the terror it beheld. Director Robert Eggers captures a kind of poetic malevolence in the film that *quite literally* shook me. I later found myself quickening the steps I took from my car to my apartment, unable to shake the darkness off me, and quite frankly, I still haven’t.
I have gathered through the conversational zeitgeist that this film looks and feels very different to people who see it based on the ‘baggage’ they bring with them. Much like the Boggart in Harry Potter’s world, The Witch seems to reflect the subconscious fears and neurosis of the viewer (myself very much included). The screen then, in a most uncomfortable and transfixing way, becomes a mirror. I mean, really, what is scarier than that?
Some have suggested that The Witch slips away from the horror genre entirely, but I would fervently express the notion that it is the epitome of such. The very nature of horror, as a genre and as a feeling, is interwoven into the plot in a way I can only describe as horrifying. Eggers’ use of folklore, history, and theology synchronize together to boldly suggest that we, when pushed, carry within us the potential for evil.
The film is a powerful allusion to the domestic horror of The Shining, the puritanical folklore in The Village, the woodsy witchery in The Blair Witch Project, and the demonic hare imagery in Antichrist (creepy little fluffy devils). As a horror enthusiast, The Witch is both exactly what I have been waiting for and precisely what I have been dreading. The true power of this film, however, lies in its ability to not only present us with the notion that people have the potential for evil, but to make us experience it.
Linsey Satterthwaite: Captain Fantastic
It may not have been the most innovative or stylistic film of the year but Captain Fantastic now occupies the same space in my heart that Little Miss Sunshine does, it is that film that is bittersweet but still manages to give me the warm fuzzies. It makes me want to live my life and love my life, to know that times will not always be perfect and you may lose your way but that family will always be your guide home. Its narrative arc of mental illness is something that I could relate to and I applaud its bravery for showing that no matter how much you try, you may not be able to override someone’s devastating internal disorder.
Captain Fantastic is a bitter pill to swallow, but garners respect for not taking the Hollywood approach where something or someone can easily eradicate a mental illness. It was also beautifully shot and acted by a universally note perfect cast. But the heart of the film belongs to Viggo Mortensen; his patriarchal figure manages to traverse a myriad of attributes, from arrogance to anger, from warm to caring, his grief ridden but loving father shows every emotion etched on his face with a subtle grace. And he also sports some amazing knitwear. This film made me laugh and cry and I fist-pumped the air that original films like this still make it to the big screen. It is something to be thankful for, as this Captain is something truly special.
(The rest of Linsey’s Top 10; La La Land, Arrival, Swiss Army Man, American Honey, Green Room, Silence, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Victoria, Hell or High Water. Victoria was released in the UK in April 2016, hence its inclusion here.)
Manon de Reeper: The Handmaiden
While I have yet to catch up on many of 2016’s prestige films, I doubt that I’m going to love any of them as much as I love Park Chan-wook‘s The Handmaiden. An intricate, unusual, and for many, controversial story, The Handmaiden is utterly extraordinary. Park shows he is still the master of the unusual – with this film, he takes you places that you could never have predicted, and the (fantastic) trailer never gave away.
Featuring stellar performances by the main four actors, Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Jo Jin-woong, The Handmaiden will leave you shifting uncomfortably in your seat, excited and elated at the unusual and forward storytelling and wowed by the extremely high production value. When you take in the film for its aesthetics, you realise each frame is a piece of art on its own, sewn together to create one magnificent whole.
Mike Daringer: Silence
Silence is a difficult film to watch and it’s even harder to discuss. It’s about apostatizing faith and conveying that act as a victory. In today’s faith-based films, evangelicalism has become synonymous with trite answers and hollow theology made for prigs. But evangelicalism used to be, and should be, about self-sacrifice for a higher calling. Silence abounds in this complexity and punishes the superficial constructs of religion for real truth and salvation.
A passion project that overflows with, well, passion in every frame, master filmmaker Martin Scorsese‘s long gestating project is as personal as it is universal.
Set in 1600s Japan, two Jesuit priests must search in secret for their mentor who is believed to denounce the faith. So much of the film is about symbols and icons and what it means to carry them, and the possibility of desecrating them. The power of metaphors and how they govern our lives is called into question amidst the limitation of language foreign to one’s own.
Faith has never been as ambiguous. Hope has never been so distant. And love has never been more earned in a religious picture before. That it’s bombing at the box office isn’t surprising in the least. Why have one’s worldview burned through a crucible of doubt? Popcorn art provides comfortable reassurances that no matter how bad things get, at least established images will remain unchanged. Oh ye of little faith, set your mind to Scorsese‘s plight and see what true spirituality means.
Ryan Morris: Arrival
Denis Villeneuve slotted into my 2013 honourable mentions with Prisoners, and then soared to the second spot just last year with Sicario. Now, for the first time, he’s claimed the throne. Villeneuve has been floating around a masterpiece for quite some time now, and Arrival was the film to get him there. Sci-fi is arguably one of the most uneven genres on the market, but this is how it’s done. Arrival is deeply affecting and monumentally moving, but that doesn’t subtract from the gleeful excitement and uneasy horror of the alien invasion premise.
Arrival is beautifully framed and boasts first rate VFX, but they don’t take away from the delicate character work. The film is thrilling and explosive and groundbreaking, but also quiet and thoughtful and inspiring. It represents the very best of contemporary sci-fi, and the very best of the emotion and the sheer power that cinema can achieve on the whole.
Arrival will stay with you for a very long time, and in fifty years when we collectively look back at the films that helped redefine a genre that was perhaps slipping under the weight of the superhero tidal wave, this will be one of the films we have to thank.
Stephanie Archer: La La Land
Movies were born out of the desire to capture real life, depicting on screen our everyday happenings. As they evolved throughout the years, they have become a limitless medium through which a story, whether true or not, can be brought to life for all to see. Anything that the mind can conjure can find life in film – even dreams.
La La Land, brought to life from the mind of director/ writer Damien Chazelle, is an encapsulation of a movie made from those willing to dream. Musicals in today’s day and age are few and far between – success even rarer. Yet, this representation of souls foolish enough to dream not only mimics every day individuals, but also those desires within that battle reasoning to be heard. The cast, headed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, encompass this vision, their ambitions and aspirations further breathing life into the reliability of their characters.
Yet, a musical would not exist without the whimsical wonderment of a solid soundtrack to heighten the senses and resonate long after the film has ended. Having previously collaborated with Damien Chazelle on Whiplash, Justin Hurwitz brings another ingenious musical score to the core of this film – his undeniable mark raising the bar. Coupled with the lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, viewers will not only find this an irresistible film, but soundtrack as well.
Having already made history at this year’s Golden Globes, this film is expected to continue its sweep at this year’s Academy Awards. For viewers, however, La La Land is sure to entice and entrance for years to come and inspire those dreamers who feel the undeniable pull to take a leap of faith.
Tomas Trussow: Jackie
Part character study, part psychological horror film, Jackie rattles the rosy legacy of America’s beloved former First Lady—and makes her more human as a result. Natalie Portman gives a performance for the ages here, unafraid to channel her subject’s private weaknesses as she valiantly hid behind her graceful and steadfast persona in the wake of her husband’s senseless death, and yet the pain, confusion, regret and strength she expresses at different times cuts deep with raw immediacy.
But what makes this film the best of 2016 for me is its compassion for those thrown into dispossession and meaninglessness after a period of stability and contentment. It does not judge them for walking on air; rather, it gently assures them that a flame of hope never stops burning, even when the fable is finished and they must alight on unsteady ground.
It seems we are living in a purgatory similar to Jackie’s right now, and maybe it is difficult to bear at times—but it is not impossible to live on. And that’s an important feeling to have, and why this film means so much, despite examining a mere fraction of history. That’s why, to me, it is the best film of 2016.
(The rest of Tomas’s top 10: Silence Moonlight, Certain Women, Things to Come, Arrival, Elle, Manchester by the Sea, Toni Erdmann, La La Land)
These are some of Film Inquiry’s favourite films of the year – are there any great ones that we forgot to mention? Let us know in the comments!
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