2016 was a pretty strong year for film, especially in more off-the-cuff independent affair.
I had so many great films written down as ‘maybes’ that I almost made another list to talk about them rather than exacerbating this one! But I made my point in the previous article about honourable mentions, and I stick by that ethos. These were (in this critic’s humble opinion) the best films of 2016.
Before we start off, Room, Forbidden Room, Dheepan, 100 Yen Love, Reality, Men & Chicken and Heaven Knows What would likely have made this list if their release was in 2016. Silence was also technically a 2016 release in Ireland and, again, had I seen it within the year it’d have a place here.
No more looking at regrets, onwards to:
Best Movies of 2016
36. No Home Movie
This is an achingly intimate portrait of a daughter’s relationship to her aging mother, who is an agoraphobic Holocaust survivor. What really works about this movie is probably what will make a lot of people hate it; its pace. There are long, unbroken and still images of just seeing the corner of the house, or the mother walking across the room, but they so accurately reflect on a real portrait of a life not often shown on film. Chantal Akerman has a very open and fun relationship with her mother Nataliaand the scene where she talks about her past is quite upsetting. This isn’t for everyone, and it truly is a film that values patience, but it breaks the conventions of staged home films to give us a rather fleeting portrayal of a long life marked by tragedy, made even more poignant that both mother and daughter would be gone a year and a half after shooting.
35. American Honey
Well, this one was a grower on me! Again, not a movie for the impatient, it focuses on a troubled impoverished teenager that gets wrapped up in this sleazy pyramid-esque business of selling magazine subscriptions. Based on the director’s personal observations of this practice, it’s more a mood piece of a generation lost in difficult circumstances coasting along different adventures to make the most of life. The cinematography is stunning, capturing a world both inviting but also quite unpredictable, and the cast really connect with the material, particularly the main stars Sasha Lane and a surprisingly great turn from Shia LaBeouf. It may not be the trip you sign on for, but it certainly explores America in a way you may not have seen it before.
This was an absolute blast, and a precise and deeply brutal cutting down of the oftentimes-thankless job of being an independent filmmaker. Based largely on the director’s own frustrations with the industry, it looks at a woman forced to compromise on the vision of her next film over and over and over again in an almost fruitless attempt to get it made. It’s a wonderful showcase of low-budget filmmaking, never feeling cheap or rushed and wonderfully shot. The lead is both hilarious and quite sympathetic in her predicament, complimented by an excellent script that never makes her feel either too whiny or put upon, and a wonderful performance by Nic Lamount, who really sells her character’s direction at the end. It’s funny, incisive, and buzzing with creativity, and a good watch for anybody with unrealistic expectations of the world of filmmaking.
33. Nasty Baby
Sebastian Silva is one of the most interesting filmmakers out there, and while not all of his movies entirely work for me, he certainly has an eye for what’s not being said in cinema. His latest film is a rather dark and cynical approach to the gentrification of New York and modern day sensibilities clashing with more traditional ones. None of the characters are particularly likeable, but are well-drawn and have relatable issues and struggles. I just love that this movie doesn’t really have a lens-none of them are glorified, even when the plot hinges on the lead being a constant source of homophobic abuse. It looks great and has a dark undercurrent running throughout, leading up to a rather devastating and morally grey conclusion. I love movies that take a different approach to things, and Silva (who also stars) has quite a fascinating vision.
32. The Brand New Testament
This one is just an absolute blast from start to finish and, provided you can move passed the rather overt religious criticisms, can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone. A hilariously imaginative takedown of Christian doctrine, God lives in an apartment in Brussels and gleefully mistreats his wife and daughter whilst writing ridiculous and arbitrary ‘laws’ to torture people, causing his daughter (with the advice of her brother ‘JC’ who appears to her in a Crucifixion statue), breaks into his computer, tells everyone on Earth via text exactly when they’ll die, and escapes the apartment to find new Apostles to write a Brand New Testament (roll credits!) to fix her father’s mess. This all happens within the first 15-20 minutes. While it mostly targets Christianity, they could have used any religion as the story is essentially about letting the arbitrary guidelines of life dictate how you live when it’s better to let go of that attitude. It’s not the subtlest of movies, but it’s charming and funny, managing to create well-drawn characters in a funny world where people live without the burdens and anxieties of the ‘rules’.
So. Paul Verhoeven made a movie this year.
I nearly didn’t put this on my list, and you can pretty much thank Isabelle Huppert for why it’s here. This is without question the best performance from an actress I have seen all year-daring, uncompromising, with a dignified sense of psychopathy behind the eyes of a cold and brilliant woman. This is a career-defining performance, but it’s not the only reason this is worth watching. If you thought Nasty Baby was daring commentary, you ain’t seen nothing yet; it’s a rape revenge flick where the victim is shown to be possibly more mentally unhinged than her attacker. While it’s certainly more subdued and character driven than Verhoeven’s other work, it has his same penchant for social satire. It looks at rape culture and generally how our society compartmentalises the violence that surrounds us, and asks how we derive almost a sense of empowerment and drive from life’s uncaring cruelty and apathy. This is not always the easiest watch, as its purposeful nihilism can really weigh down how engaging and darkly comedic it can be, but it’s an excellently told story of gaining power in an unconventional way which also manages to be darkly comical and deliver an excellent ending. Watch, and enjoy, if you dare.
This is fun! And exciting, and poignant, and sweet, and culturally diverse, and perfect Disney. The exploration of Polynesian culture is fascinating and important (while obviously Disneyfied, don’t expect it to be incredibly accurate), but it’s also a great little adventure with an extremely loveable cast. Moana and Maui are a great double act, helped by the excellent chemistry between voice actors Auli’i Cravalho and the always awesome Dwayne ‘Rock’ Johnson. The animation is typically breathtaking and incredibly detailed, and the music is just infectious and will never leave your psyche. While everybody fell over themselves to praise Zootopia (also a very good movie), I fell in love with this flick. I don’t expect any less from the genius of Ron Clements and John Musker, the guys behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. It’s a excellently made, incredibly watchable film showing how diversity and exploration can really make your life fulfilled.
I am a diehard fan of the Rocky franchise, and when I heard this movie was being made focusing on Apollo Creed’s son with Sly back to play his trainer, I…was not on board. Then I found out the director was Ryan Coogler and got really excited. And man, did it live up to this newfound excitement! Not only is it a really fitting continuation of the Rocky saga, it takes it in an entirely new and interesting direction without losing what made the series great and giving Sly a lot to do. He was completely robbed the Oscar, actually, as his performance of Rocky Balboa is emotional, powerful, and just fits the guy like an old glove. He’s just never better when he plays this part. Not to be outdone, Michael B. Jordan proves once again to be a phenomenal actor really coming into his own (speaking of Oscars, should have been nominated, fyi), If they make a continuation of this, and he’s the new face of the franchise, colour me excited as hell. This is an exciting take on the series and probably the best Rocky movie since the original, giving it a similar grounded sensibility while it being entirely Creed’s story.
28. Fire at Sea
This Oscar-nominated documentary looks at the life of a boy living on an island off the coast of Italy frequently inhabited by refugees. Right off the back of the 2015 refugee crisis, while the framing device may not seem to match up that well, there is a distinct contrast between the lives of the islanders and that of the refugees, and how their lives have been altered because of what is happening. Subtly powerful and amazingly well shot, there’s a great use of sound design with alarms and signals playing in the background, seeing our lead use his imagination to frame what’s going on in his own innocent way. Great storytelling and important filmmaking, giving us an intimate look at a crisis people sometimes refuse to humanise.
One of the best films of the year is a coming-of-age romance dramedy focused on…slash fiction. We are truly entering into a new age.
In all seriousness, where Slash works is just how earnest and human it is. Its two leads feel achingly, tragically real, helped through a wonderful and witty script. It’s insanely quotable, but also makes these teenagers feel and act like real teenagers. There’s no bullshit or really painful attempts at understanding the teen experience; they’re characters and that’s how they’re written. I especially love how sexuality is displayed here-it’s surprisingly daring and very real as to how people that age realise who they are. Outside of it being a really touching and engaging story, it’s funny as hell too! It’s so obvious that the crew love the world of slash fic, and have a lot of nuances and little touches that truly make this world feel real. The convention scenes are full of stuff like this-anybody who’s stepped into these alternative cultures can vouch for it. It’s a clever, heartfelt and really modern teen flick, and it’s really great to explore worlds and ideas that are a lot more commonplace than people likely believe.
Here is a movie that had the unique opportunity to explore a civilisation untouched by technology and advancement, and they jumped at the opportunity. Taking a story from their history, the cast are made up of the village’s inhabitants, most of whom had never even seen a camera before. And they are legitimately great actors, capturing this story in a really authentic way. I love how the tale they tell reflects on the ways they’ve had to change their traditions in the face of opposing views, and it’s centered on a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story that doesn’t feel contrived or too maudlin. These guys are really sweet together and it’s not hard to root for them. I love the camerawork in this, too-whether this was conscious or done out of necessity, the camera never appears in a way that wouldn’t be possible without extra equipment, giving the cinematography a real lived in, documentary quality. I love stories that explore different worlds and how they function, and you don’t get more ‘new’ than a place which previously didn’t have a camera put in its face.
25. Suite Armoricaine
From being lost in an entirely unexplored civilisation to being lost in the shitty town you grew up in that you spent years trying to escape. It’s honestly kind of hard for me to describe Suite Armoricaine in any justifiable way; it’s just great filmmaking. The characters’ lives are explored in really compelling ways, it’s never boring or too blandly shot, the two leads’ stories contrast in excellent ways both thematically and how they’re told, despite being slightly out of order it never gets exasperating or confusing, and the subtleties and nuanced elements of this woman’s life and how a student at a university she teaches at are really impactful and help characterise everything going on. The funny thing is I usually hate these really slowly paced and uneventful character dramas as they tend to reflect a lot but say little (it’s why I wasn’t as sold on the similarly tempered Things to Come, though still a worthwhile film to look into). But any idea can make a good movie, and by hooking this on clever structuring and interesting character exploration which knows when to reveal what to keep the audience interested, it’s completely won me over and I look forward to more French naval gazing on the big screen.
24. My Beautiful Broken Brain
(note: I originally wrote the title as ‘My Beautiful Broken Mind’ as my brain clearly kept connecting the title to A Beautiful Mind. Considering the movie is about consciousness, its functions and how little we understand them, I found this to be quite amusing and worth pointing out)
Here’s one of the most brilliantly framed and compelling documentaries of the year, and sadly not a lot of people are talking about it. Focusing on co-director Lotje Sodderland after she suffered a debilitating stroke, it explores her attempts to regain basic functioning skills she had lost while also keeping a video diary tracking her progress. This is a wonderfully vivid and quite striking look at a woman trying to regain her life back while gaining an entirely new perspective of the world because of her experience. I love the way she takes this horrible thing that happened to her and creates something wholly positive and inspiring with it, and the great mix of descriptive visuals with documentary footage really actualises these concepts Quite a strong little mind trip even before David Lynch’s involvement!
Spike Lee goes back to his roots of savvy social commentary on the struggles of black America just when he needs to, and damn if he doesn’t do a full ass job on it. Returning to similar themes from Do the Right Thing, but with over 20 years of experience under his belt, the always outspoken and provocative filmmaker frames the gangland issues of Chicago via an ancient Greek comedy. Tackling issues of gang violence and BLM, characters routinely rhyme, sometimes do dance numbers, have Samuel L. Jackson narrate what’s going on, focus the plot on sexual repression and women taking back their power by forcing men to choose killing themselves or sex-it’s an absolute madhouse. And yet it still manages to say powerful, relevant, satirical and incredibly necessary. Lee finds the perfect balance of turning the absurd into the profound and real, and not a lot of movies stood proud for the racial issues in America like this one did. An absolute joy that chooses to spit venom by offering theatrical honey.
This may actually be one of the most insane horror films I’ve seen all year, and I absolutely loved it. Outside of it being a really clever subtle deconstruction of the clique cultures via the inane cesspool that is college life, and how people on the ‘outside’ are forced to ‘embrace’ who they are in forced unnatural ways. Outside of it also being a really clever metaphor for repression and how easy it is to break down that wall and let these feelings break out in pretty dire ways. It’s simply just an absolute mad shitshow that is gory and uncomfortable as all living hell, and you get such a visceral reaction out of every step this movie takes. I even love how it’s shot and framed as such an ordinary coming of age story until it takes that turn-it’s really a great film to go in blind. And with that, I think I’ll stop fawning over it. If it sounds interesting, go see it. Enjoy.
Also props to the two lead actresses-they really do feel like they’re sisters.
21. Almost Holy
A powerful character study on a man trying his best to be good in a world that seems to consistently lose its goodness. Gennadiy Mokhnenko, or ‘Pastor Crocodile’, is a man from Mariupol, Ukraine, who works to help drug addicted homeless children while also taking on vigilante means to try to resolve the drug issues in his city. While the ethics of his actions can be brought into question (and the documentary does bring them up), his heart is undeniable, and he’s such a quirky and warm person that you cannot help but like him. His actions may be questionable and hard to stomach, but it’s definitely easy to feel his frustrations and trying to resolve the places where the law has failed. It’s also fitted perfectly with the background of what was going on in the Ukraine at the time, like its attempts to join the EU and growing tensions with Russia. I like a movie with the balls to explore tough questions without really providing any easy answers, and Almost Holy certainly gives that. It’s brutal and hard to watch a lot of the time, but it shines a light on some pretty ugly realities and shows the lengths good men (or perhaps dogmatic men) will go to right certain wrongs. Great score by Atticus Ross, too.
20. Under the Shadow
Easily the best horror film this year and uses a very simple premise to explore incredibly complex ideas. Outside of how great the acting is, even from the child, it’s intense and incredibly uncomfortable all the way through. The absolutely stunning way they keep the tension alive throughout the entire runtime is commendable and it’s something that horror filmmakers could take a cue from. Outside of its technical prowess, it uses the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War to explore concepts of equality and the destructive way war alters life of a country irrevocably. The monster is a note-perfect metaphor for how the protagonist’s life is never going to be the same, both due to her being an educated woman never escaping her domestic life, seeing her daughter also lose her innocence and rights and her family and home life completely being destroyed around her. An excellently crafted, gripping film making you afraid of the preternatural and very real horrors.
19. The Hateful Eight
Man, Tarantino gets more…Tarantino-y as time goes on, doesn’t he? And frankly I’m totally okay with that.
While there’s inevitable comparisons between this and his previous outing (also happening to be a Western), Django Unchained, I really think this plays to Mr. Quentin’s strengths a lot more. By that I mean character dynamics, dialogue, great rug pull moments (usually violent) and using genre tropes to create something fascinating. It’s a great little ‘whodunnit?’ mystery with an equally great pay-off, but the focus on eight excellent actors (the man’s clout never ceases to impress). While staples like Samuel L. Jackson impress as well as Kurt Russell, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals the show, having an excellent year all around. There seems to be people tired of Tarantino, but if he continues to make movies this exciting and excellently paced set mostly in one room, I’m totally happy to watch whatever the self-indulgent, brilliant bastard has up his sleeves next.
18. Dark Night
Gonna be honest, totally wasn’t expecting what I saw. Inspired by the infamous ‘Batman Killings’ in Aurora (hence the title), this mood piece is shot in a documentary-esque style showcasing the victims and culprit of a mass shooting in a small, local cinema. What’s brilliant about this is that it doesn’t exactly make it clear who the shooter is until halfway through, but it’s compulsively watchable and compelling despite very little actually going on. A lot of effort is gone to make these characters feel as human as possible, even if there’s no real arc or structure to what’s happening outside of waiting for the inevitable. The sound design is some of the best I’ve seen from a 2016 release-every single noise and tick is emphasised and puts you in an amazing space of discomfort. I just love how prevalent the gun culture is in the background-it’s there if you’re looking for it, but doesn’t define the movie in any significant way. If you’re looking for something different but accessible, I highly recommend this. One of the more unique picks for this list, but I’d honestly recommend it to pretty much anyone with the patience to deal with this kind of experience.
17. Mon Roi
This is one of the most beautifully told and achingly real depictions of a relationship I have ever watched. Framed through a woman who broke her leg in a skiing accident, she reflects on her relationship with her now ex-husband and tries to figure out where it went wrong. Both actors give amazingly strong, nuanced and real performances, and the careful editing and wonderful mood built makes it glide like a dream. Intensely watchable despite there not being much meat to the plot, and you really connect to the leads in a significant way despite how loathsome they can sometimes be. The signs of great characters is how much you can like them or at least are compelled to watch them despite how awful their ideas and actions are. Excellent and very human drama about relationships and their oftentimes depressing finality held up by two excellent actors.
So let me just read out the set up for you. This documentary follows a New Zealand talk show host who stumbled on this professional tickling contest. Running a show that tends to target these bizarre kind of stories, he writes to the organiser of the contest to see if he can cover it. Only to get a hostile reply telling him they don’t want the sport to be associated with a gay man because it’s a heterosexual sport. Would you believe me if I told you this story goes from amusing to really dark really quickly? I don’t want to say more, as again part of what makes this movie really work is discovering everything alongside the crew, but let me just say this was one of the most fascinating, disturbing and highly, highly gripping documentaries I’ve ever watched. It’s a great story, if pretty disturbing, and an excellent display of how to create a compelling tone shift without losing your audience. Great film about the dark side of tickling.
15. Kubo and the Two Strings***
This was a great year for animation, and a standout for the year is a story about stories. Laika Animation continue to impress with amazing content and gorgeous, innovative stop motion animation, and they don’t disappoint here. Sporting a massive stop motion puppet, the biggest ever constructed, they work tirelessly to create a dense and exciting world following a small boy trying to find his own story at the behest, and support, of his family. It’s fun, it’s colourful, it’s got great characters, and some amazing action moments that really set you in a world of magic and mystery. The plot may be a *tad* predictable, but it’s a small price to pay to enter a world this emotionally satisfying and well-detailed. I love the hell out of this movie and I seriously cannot wait for whatever Laika has in store for us next. This did pretty poor at the box office, and while I’m hoping its double nomination at the Oscars may give it a tad more attention, I implore you pick up a copy for your kids or even for yourself. You won’t regret entering this story where stories are king.
14. The Handmaiden
So the director of Old Boy adapted a Victorian-based novel, but moving the location to Korea. It focuses on an orphan adopted from a family of con artist hired by a conman to be handmaiden to the heiress of a wealthy Japanese family in order to gaslight her into falling in love with him so he can have her committed after and rob her family’s fortune. Only for said ‘handmaiden’ to actually fall in love with the heiress and cause this plan to unravel. Like, by the law of averages I was going to love this. The fact that it’s so lurid, shocking, exciting, genuinely unexpected in places and manages to get incredibly disturbing with unnerving sexual imagery on display. And yet, this is a really empowering story focused entirely on the love of two women battling embittered and broken men to find freedom. This was an excellent watch from start to finish, managing to be fun and horrifying while also being sweet bringing us one of the best couples of 2016.
13. Swiss Army Man
…until you come across these guys!
So Paul Dano was sold on this film when the directors gave him the pitch: The first fart will make you laugh, the last far will make you cry. I can’t really sum it up better than that. This was one of the most uniquely bizarre and yet hilarious and touching stories I have ever seen from such an odd basis. As this has gained a reputation due to the fact that Daniel Radcliffe plays a flatulent corpse, don’t write it off just based on that. Outside of how creative they use the ‘swiss army’ concept, the main focal point is on Paul Dano’s character Hank, a lonely suicidal man who finds an odd sense of purpose somehow bringing this corpse to life and realising what it can do. The score is great too, adding sound clips and motifs from the plot unfolding into this cavalcade of thematically and aesthetically pleasing music. This is such an impressive debut and I applaud their ability to take something this silly and outlandish and not only finding an internal logic, but more importantly making it human.
12. A Date for Mad Mary
Here’s another human story, but from a very different perspective. The titular Mary is a Drogheda woman who just getsreleased from prison in time to be her best friend’s maid of honour. This film is really well shot and never feels too cluttered despite two stories regarding our protagonist taking centre stage (the other one is a wonderful surprise), but where its strength really lies in how great a character study it is. Mary could easily be written off as a ‘common’ thug with no value to life (as many people do), but she puts on this rough façade to hide her desperate insecurity and sense of inadequacy put on her by years of friends and family looking down at her. She’s not always the best person, but she’s very real and very relatable no matter who you are. This is in part due to Seána Kerslake’s excellent performance, proving to be a new talent to look out for. Everything here feels real, I especially love how her best friend Charlene is characterised. This is a story about being left in one place and not being able to let go of what used to define you in order to figure out who you are, and is without a doubt the best Irish movie of 2016. Not that many people are talking about it, so I implore you to check this out.
11. The Assassin
This may come across as fairly hyperbolic, but goddammit, I could look at this movie for the rest of my life. This sports some of the best cinematography of the year, maybe in the last five!
Based (loosely) on an old Chinese story, The Assassin follows the story of Nie Yinniang, a girl once betrothed to her cousin was taken by a nun to be raised as an assassin. After failing to kill one of her charges, her master punishes her by tasking her to kill her cousin. On top of some stunning cinematography is a story of morality and how little of it can survive in dangerous political machinations. While it’s a pretty dense and not very expository film, there’s enough great action and wonderfully framed scenes to keep you going. Every moment feels grandiose in some way-it’s truly like an epic. Great acting, great action, and a great sense of weight and history in this fiery story where the trained killer may nearly be the best person in this situation. It may take several viewings to get a full grasp of the plot, but by the time the final scene plays you will absolutely be compelled to rewatch anyway.
* More discussion of Egomaniac and Raw on this Horrorthon podcast (Sunday for Ego, Friday for Raw)
** More discussion for Tanna on this IndieCork 2016 overview blog
***More discussion on Kubo and the Two Strings here