Here it finally is. It took me longer than I would have liked, but I still wanted to publish a best of the year list. I always find narrowing down my favourites to be a very fun/stressful exercise. 2016 was a strange year film-wise. The first six months felt pretty dire, but the latter half of the year, as well films via non-traditional forms of distribution, meant that in the end it was tough to keep this to 10(ish). Usual rules apply, these are films that had their first wide release in Aus in 2016 (i.e. generally no festival films) and the ish refers to a few trends from the year that captured multiple films.
As always there were plenty of films I loved that didn’t quite make my final list. It was the best year for comedy in a long time. Usually I’m lucky if there are a couple of mainstream comedies I like, but this year I dug Bad Moms, Zoolander 2, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and hell I even liked The Boss a lot. The highest grossing film in Chinese history, The Mermaid, also got a 2016 cinema release in Australia and it was a dose of absurdity quite unlike anything else. On the biopic front, the trend of the genre not totally sucking continued, with Barry and Steve Jobs both giving unique takes on the lives of two men we’ve already heard too much about. It is great to see artistic choices and thoughtful writing being used to bring these true live tales to life. There were a number of drama films that told a real variety of stories in affecting ways, specifically The Divines, The Meddler, Tehran Taxi and the romance Echo Park which finally popped up in these parts.
There was a lot of talk about how great a year it was for horror, though some of the year’s most beloved efforts didn’t quite blow me away. That said there are horror films on the list below, and the Netflix original Hush was exceptionally close to making the list too. It’s one of the best home invasion films I’ve ever seen. Another genre focused Netflix original I was a big fan of is the sci-fi flick Arq which re-imagined some pretty tired storytelling tropes nicely. Again there are a couple of docos below and I’d add Jennifer Peedom’s exceptional Sherpa and Tig (which I think was a 2016 release here) as very different, must watch films. Perhaps along with comedies, quality was highest in the realm of family films. Though a couple of the major animated films I either missed or didn’t like, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Red Turtle and The BFG are all films I look forward to showing my son someday. Finally it was a crap year for the blockbuster, one of the worst in a long time. But Shin Godzilla was an excellent reboot, whilst I utterly utterly adored both Ghostbusters and The Magnificent Seven, the last two films to drop off my final list.
10. The Witch
Religion is something that a huge number of horror films like to invoke and engage with. But a vast majority of them do it in a way that is simply surface level, or often downright dumb. Robert Eggers’ The Witch engages with religion in a terrifying and unique way, perhaps achieving this better than any film since the The Exorcist (1973). The beliefs of the characters are fully weaved into what is frightening in this world. The horror is situated in the isolation of the American frontier, with elements of that brought out by the score as well as the performances. A uniquely terrifying horror film.
9. Point Break
To some, the good-bad movie does not exist. I do not fall into this camp, and watching this film was perhaps the most enjoyable film experience I had all year. In time, I believe this will sit alongside hall of fame good-bad movies, it is that good, it is Troll 2 good. The dialogue in this film is the worst I’ve ever witnessed, making it genuinely hilarious. If a can of red bull ever gained sentience and wrote a film, this would be it. Bursting at the seams with extreme sports for very little narrative reason and the clunkiest, most third-rate spiritual musings. A couple of beers and this film is a recipe for a great night in.
8. J is for Justice
My son’s favourite book is the incredible “A is for Activist” where J stands for Justice. These two quite incredible documentaries zone in on two despicable cases of injustice, wrought by two countries who would like to posture that they are above this kind of thing.
Eva Orner’s Chasing Asylum looks at the chilling pride that a succession of Australian Governments have taken in locking up legitimate refugees in squalid prison conditions. The film makes every Australian complicit in these human rights abuses, both through allowing these prideful politicians to prosper, and in allowing our money to be spent in the millions upon millions on these grievous acts. The film takes a while to get going, but once it does, it’s incredibly strong. It helpfully offers the view from Indonesia to give a fuller account of the system that results in people smuggling. It also lays bare our country’s betrayal, as we have shifted from looking after people, to ‘deterrence’.
I generally don’t like to use the word perfect when describing a film. But Ava DuVernay’s 13th is in many ways a perfect documentary. It lays out the explosion in the American prison population, punctuated by an incredible hip-hop soundtrack and reserved but powerful use of graphics. At times it plays like a thriller, and it hits you in a borderline physical way. The central thesis, that slavery essentially continues in the USA due to a loophole in the 13th amendment to the constitution, is brilliantly and interestingly articulated by an incredible selection of talking heads. The result is a country where “crime stands in for race”. A simple fact that should make every American as angry as the film above made me.
7. Auteurs Unfiltered
Queen of the Desert
A lot of the general narrative around film is that it’s all done by committee these days and originality is punished. Whilst there is no denying that is often the case, it is also worth celebrating that this year a number of auteurs released films that whilst certainly imperfect, were undeniably original and worth seeking out to be challenged by. It felt like there was a direct line from what these filmmakers had in mind, unfiltered by interference (for better or worse you could argue), right onto the screen.
Perhaps more than the other three, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert has the most issues. But it was great to see the veteran German director is clearly still interested in telling original and engaging fictional stories and, at least for now, has the clout to get them made. It verges on failure at times. But in attempting to be a grand throwback in cinematic storytelling terms, it somehow manages to feel fresh. Nicole Kidman gives an excellent performance and is ably supported throughout, whilst the score is an intriguing mix of traditional Hollywood and Middle Eastern instrumentation. The film has a lot to say about colonialism too, even though I’m not totally sure it’s all intentional.
There is no film I’ve thought about more since seeing it than Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It is a very challenging watch, in part because it refuses to buy into the storytelling and thematic conventions we are so used to. Often, I think rather clumsily, referred to as a rape-comedy, the film rather examines sexual assault from a viewpoint we’ve never seen before. It perhaps never quite comes together, but it is always engaging. The film re-purposes horror tropes in a wholly unique way and Isabelle Huppert gives one of the performances of the year. It’s also one of the best couple of directed films of the year.
The Handmaiden, from Korean maestro Chan-wook Park, is one of the year’s most divisive films. And I can see why. An erotic lesbian thriller with a non-linear labyrinthine plot and a dash of torture thrown in, this is a strange concoction. It frustrated me at time, often too oblique. But once it reveals what it is going for on the narrative front, I was really taken by it. Artfully staged with performances that suck you into the world of the film. This is a wild, occasionally silly ride that feels like a truly singular take.
The name Ivan Sen may not be as immediately recognisable as the three directors above. But given he wrote, directed, scored and edited Goldstone, I think he has earned his auteur badge. Add to that the fact that he is making crime stories like no one else working today and they have so much to say about the state of my country. Aaron Pederson returns as Detective Jay Swan, or rather the shell of him. This film really ramps up the Western elements of its predecessor Mystery Road (2013). The first two acts are perhaps a little in the shadow of the third. However I think Sen is the best crafter of third acts in the world right now, here it’s a pitch perfect crescendo of violence and thematic resolution.
6. Girl Asleep
How refreshing to see films like this being made in Australia, or indeed anywhere. Perfectly invokes the anxieties of being a teenager. A fun period piece, with the set design and costuming brilliantly capturing a certain type of Aussie suburbia that many of us will recognise. The film is as stylish as any on the list. Perfectly framed and shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, the style never overwhelms the story or emotion. It’s not easy to make a film that will resonate emotionally with teens and 30 year olds like me. But Matthew Whittet, adapting his own play, achieves that really well. The film takes risks with its approach too. There is an extended fantasy sequence that in less assured hands would have stood out as totally unnecessary, but here serves to deepen the themes the whole film is about. A really charming film.
5. Midnight Special
I’ve always sort of pushed back on the notion that parenthood fundamentally changes the moviegoing experience (though there are no doubts the change in worldview has some impact). But without a doubt this film impacted me very differently now that I am a father than it would have beforehand. It is certainly the most powerful film about parenthood I’ve seen since entering that stage of my life. It is an allegory for the time that a child spends with you, for how to manage that time, what is important in it and how that will hold you in good stead when the time says to say goodbye for the good of the child. The film also captures the experience of non-traditional forms of parenting, such as fostering, situating them in the grander scope of parenthood as a whole. All of this is not to say that the film is only for parents. Even just as a sci-fi film, it works really well, melding in adventure, mystery and road film elements. Plus the performances are great all round from the likes of Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon and Adam Driver. The cherry on the top is the spooky and melodic score, which was one of the best of the year.
I usually shy away from films like this. All too often a best picture Oscar is a badge of mediocrity more than anything else. But this is the best straight drama film in a long time. Simultaneously very specific to Boston (particularly in its focus on the problematic ties between the church and numerous aspects of the community), but depressingly becoming more and more universal. It is also a film that makes us realise what we have lost with the (almost) death of investigative journalism. The incredible ensemble cast brings to life a tale of meticulous research and persistence, as they build the case against the city’s pedophile priests in a way I fear would not happen today. It is a swirling build of an investigation that is captured with clarity through the script and direction. Everyone is brilliant as is the score (I’m actually listening to it as I write this piece).
Have you ever tried to describe what love is to someone? Now imagine trying to accurately render that in a film. Todd Haynes’ Carol does it as well as any film ever. It is achingly beautiful in it’s shooting, evocative of 50s New York. It is remarkable what the script, direction and performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett (both of whom simply could not be better) are able to achieve, drawing the viewer into their relationship and giving it a depth truly reflective of real-life love. The film also stands apart from most film romances in that there is not a hint of contrivance, somehow managing to feel totally unmanufactured, despite the director not skimping on the style. A quite simple film that pins down something intangible in a beautiful way.
2. Train to Busan
My favourite zombie film ever. No film this year built the tension and events of its narrative quite like this one. Escalation is hard to get right, but this film brings you up and down in a way that is relentless, yet with the odd moment to breathe. Character moments at the start which I was not sure about, by the end resulted in tears as the emotional weight of the events took hold upon the characters we’d rode alongside. The restricted train location results in some excellently staged set-pieces. They somehow manage to be utterly intense, without the over-the-top manic nature of many zombie battles and the action is always clear. The performances are creepy and the whole film is just brilliantly designed and realised. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, this is the one I am most keen to sit down and revisit.
1. I, Daniel Blake
It is undeniable that there is a creeping tide of conservatism fucking up life for all of us, but especially the most vulnerable in our societies. Leave it to Ken Loach then to viscerally lay bare the class war conservatives are happily carrying out. But this is not my favourite film of the year because of it’s politics, but rather its power. This is heart-wrenchingly good, focusing on a couple of personal stories to both anger and inspire the audience. These stories show how the state humiliates and dehumanises those less fortunate. The acting, from close to unknowns, is stellar and the storytelling is straightforward, clear and acutely well judged. And all the while Loach is always empathetic to his characters and the real life people they reflect. Crushing, infuriating and quietly devastating viewing.