Unlike most publications, this blog only reveals its year-end favourites at the actual end of the year. Otherwise, how does one account for Monster Trucks? (Spoiler. Monster Trucks does not feature in this count down)
Without further delay, and in reverse order, here are my favourite 20 films that were released in the UK in 2016:
20. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee transposed Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to modern day Chicago in order to protest against American gun-laws, inner city violence, and to spread a message of global love. Teyonah Parris (a statement performance) plays the titular character organising a sex-strike by the women of Southside Chicago until the male gangbangers stop killing each other. The movement spreads nationwide, and eventually, worldwide. By adapting Aristophanes fairly faithfully (all dialogue is in verse, and comedic strokes are broad), Lee is able to approach and satirise large issues head-on without his film feeling overly worthy or too on-the-nose. Theatre has been using classical and renaissance drama to such effect for centuries, it is about time cinema caught on. The vibrant music, jokes, anger, and eroticism is all Lee though.
19. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
Kaufman and Johnson’s existential stop motion puppetry animation saw apathetic Michael (David Thewlis) on a bleak business trip to Cincinnati. Because Michael hears (almost) every other character speak with the same voice (Tom Noonan) and that in one scene we literally see the mask of his puppet fall off suggests that Anomalisa was the portrait of a breakdown. As with all of Kaufman’s work, part of the pleasure of Anomalisa is that it is open to many readings. My preferred analysis is that by rejecting the universal voice of Tom Noonan (that insists that it loves Michael), and by fleeing the scene of his mask slippage, Michael averts a breakthrough. Hence, in the film’s closing scenes we see him unchanged by his experience, still depressed and stuck.
18. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
Having paid tribute to Fellini in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino channels Luchino Visconti and Thomas Mann (think the concerns of ageing, beauty, and art of Death in Venice in the setting of The Magic Mountain) in Youth. He gives us two Aschenbach-esque figures (whilst omitting the paedophilia) in composer Fred (Michael Caine) and film director Mick (Harvey Keitel). Fred is forced to revisit his youth due to a request to conduct an old piece for Prince Phillip(!), whilst Fred actively seeks his by attempting to workshop a new script with a think tank of young writers, all the while dreaming of his old leading ladies. Like Death in Venice, Youth is an extraordinarily melancholy work that effectively explores aesthetic beauty by being itself beautiful, and mortality by showing death. The result of this is that whichever way the you appreciate it, you cannot help but contend with its key themes. I would be tempted to have this higher on the list if it were not for an utterly horrendous cameo by Paloma Faith playing herself…
17. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
If Kore-eda’s After the Storm was somewhat disappointing, we can all draw comfort in casting our minds back to late Spring (ahem) when he truly delivered with Our Little Sister, a story of three young women looking after their recently orphaned half-sister. Our Little Sister is proof that Kore-eda is at his best when he does not try too much, or goes high-concept (Air Doll remains his worst film by a distance (ahem)). Here he allows individual scenes and images the time to express their own quiet poetry. This leads to moments of ecstasy such as the bike ride through the blossom (see above), or the fireside sparkler scene. Our Little Sister lands gently, yet matures in the mind of the viewer over time.
16. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
The best of all Isabelle Huppert’s excellent performances in 2016. Her philosophy professor seeks a way to overcome the breakup of her marriage whilst looking after her sick mother and contending with several setbacks in her academic career. This is a film that looks for a new way of living and fails to find it. Nathalie’s (Huppert) middle class existence may be a frozen facade but the alternative communal living proffered by her anarchist former student Fabien (Roman Kolinka), is no better (except for all the Woody Guthrie music). With the aid of a typically evocative and well-chosen soundtrack, Hansen-Løve offers a narrative with no easy conclusions: endurance as a form of catharsis. Things to Come also has surely the most authentic representation of the academic publishing industry ever committed to screen.
15. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)
I’ve written about Under the Shadow previously. In short, what I like about this film is that it references enough horror classic to make the audience comfortable before challenging us with a unique setting. Horror has always allowed filmmakers to make metaphorical allusions. Anvari finds it an ideal genre to say something about gender in Iran.
14. Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle)
I am always a little suspicious of biopics. The oscar baiting paint-by-numbers flab of films such as Trumbo and The Danish Girl has become my most loathed type of filmmaking. This is why Don Cheadle’s passion project about Miles Davis was so refreshing. Cheadle sneers at the concept of narrative truth, deciding instead to invent a completely bogus gangster story about stolen master tapes. This was narrative as jazz, formed around a central theme but with audacious improvised solos and flourishes. It helps that Cheadle gives such a charismatic performance as Davis. The music is predictably superb (almost as good as Radwimps’ Your Name soundtrack). My colleague Jordan Brooks’ review is well worth reading.
13. Son of Saul (László Nemes)
Unlike Sebastian Schipper’s one-take Victoria, Son of Saul backed up its cinematographic ‘gimmick’ with a brilliant rationale. How do artists represent the holocaust? Straight dramatic efforts either fail (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) or are problematic (Schnidler’s List). More successful attempts approach the trauma at a distance. Art Spigelman used anthropomorphic animals in his graphic novel Maus and Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah consists solely of talking head interviews. Nemes does present us with a realistic concentration camp setting. But he, and DP Mátyás Erdél, use tight framings and close-ups of Saul (Géza Röhrig) combined with shallow focus so that for much of the film we only see Saul’s impassive face or the back of his head. This allows us to ‘not see’ the horrors we can tell are occurring just off screen or in the background. The only way to survive this horror (and the film does drift into The Wicker Man-esque horror at times) is to not see it, suggests Nemes.
12. Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
2016 will be remembered for Brexit, Trump, and celebrity deaths. The most serious global event was without question the refugee crisis. Along with Chasing Asylum, Fire at Sea was one of two timely documentaries on the subject. Rosi finds a simple dichotomy by presenting the plight of refugees attempting the lethal crossing from Tunisia to Lampedusa alongside normal life for the islanders, the two becoming difficult to separate. This was at once a highly upsetting film, but also renewed one’s hope in human capacity for goodness. The Italians shown in the film, whilst feeling increasingly hopeless, are doing all they can to help. To see such sympathy from those in closest proximity to the events was uplifting, and a riposte to those such as Farage and May who turned their backs on the crisis.
11. When Marnie Was There (Hiroshi Yonebayashi)
Eventually arriving in the UK after a two year wait, When Marnie Was There provided a fitting (possibly) swan song for Studio Ghibli. Yonebayashi’s gothic romance transported to rural Japan culminated in a deeply moving treatise on loneliness and memory. The melancholy in Marnie is at times unbearable, yet is ultimately released in a rush of cathartic nostalgia. The design of the film, particularly the marsh and the ghost mansion, is spectacular. This ranks alongside Spirited Away and Whisper of the Heart as one of the venerable animation house’s best works.
10. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)Knight of Cups was given a cursory release in the UK and received polarising reviews from critics, audiences, and academics. For me, this is Malick’s best film since Days of Heaven in 1978. What most people object to is being asked to follow a rich and privileged white man as he wanders around LA in a daze. Well, Rick (Christian Bale) was supposed to be a vacuous dullard. This rich, white screenwriter was the emptiest vessel Malick could imagine. The point of the film is can he be filled? Can his life contain meaning? Hence we get an episodic series of encounters, each offering a new possible escape route. This is matched by DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s experimentation with form. He is on a parallel expedition to find the right way to film this journey. This reading accounts for the melange of mystic and religious texts referenced (Pilgrim’s Progress, Tarot, Suhrawardi). Each proffers a key to meaning, each is ultimately insufficient. The strip club scene is the best use of Burial’s music since Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake.
9. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)
Guadagnino’s remake of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine gets better on every viewing. The sun dappled beauty of the landscape, erotic skin surfaces, and simmering menace were always apparent. A re-watch reveals the humour, the dazzling camera work, and the backdrop of asylum seekers (much more prominent than I realised at first). Placing the psychodrama of these wealthy burnouts at leisure next to the liminal existence of immigrants living in Pantelleria holding camps gives the film an ironic double edge. Tilda Swinton is fantastic, but Ralph Fiennes’ Harry is one of the greatest of cinematic creations. His Rolling Stones monologue and dance is one of the greatest scenes of all time.
8. The VVitch (Robert Eggers)
Eggers’ fantastic horror film referenced The Crucible, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General, and included a feminist denouement that sees it surpass all of those texts. A puritan family seeks splendid isolation in 17th century New England. Unfortunately, they set up home next to a forest containing satanic female forces out to challenge the tyrannical patriarchy. Heavy on mud and dread, The VVitch was one of the most atmospheric films of recent times. Black Phillip is bettered only by Harry from A Bigger Splash as my favourite character of the year. The ending has divided opinion. I am firmly of the belief that it offers a positive view of feminine sexuality and independence.
7. The Arabian Nights Volumes I – III (Miguel Gomes)
Perhaps I am cheating by treating all three parts of Gomes’ epic Arabian Nights trilogy as one but they were shot back-to-back and are intended as a single work. This was political cinema at its finest. Gomes attacked austerity politics in Portugal with savage humour, toilet humour satire, exotic fantasy, and a soundtrack including Lionel Richie and Lee Hazlewood. I challenge anyone not to be moved by the ‘Say You, Say Me’ scene from volume II, or to not feel the stirring impact of the delayed opening credits of volume I set to Phyllis Dylan’s ‘Perfidia’.
6. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
Guerra’s beautifully monochrome Amazon adventure coiled two temporarily disparate narratives around each other. Both are Conradian excursions into a dark continent. The earlier narrative even includes a Kurtz-esque figure gathering a cult around his messianic delusions. Embrace of the Serpent explores shamanic lore, tribal spirituality, and hallucinogenic drugs. It treats these subjects with curiosity and respect and asks: who are we to think we know what lies within the jungle?
5. Kimi no Na Wa [Your Name] (Makoto Shinkai)
Makoto’s record breaking anime is thoroughly daft, often baffling, and incredibly sentimental. Whilst I love it for all those reasons, it is also visually breathtaking and features the best music of any film this year courtesy of J-rock/pop band Radwimps. I think Makoto’s true masterpiece is still ahead of him, and the exposure and financial success of Your Name keeps Toho happy and hopefully allows him to continue to perfect his style. This was one of the most overwhelmingly emotional experiences I have ever had in a cinema. It is a film I will revisit again and again.
4. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
Andrea Arnold resisted the attraction of shooting the American South in widescreen, sticking instead to the 4:3 boxy aspect ratio she used in her previous films. This gives American Honey a verticality similar to Kelly Reichhardt’s pioneer drama Meek’s Cutoff. The sky is endless (and is perhaps the limit…). First time performer Sasha Lane gave us a character for the ages in Star. Shia LeBeouf and Riley Keough marshalled the rest of a merry band of misfit youngsters, bussing around the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Those extended mini-bus sequences, mainly consisting of hip-hop singalongs presented a vision of freedom that was missing from the restricted and/or threatening domestic locations in the film. American Honey is nearly 3 hours long; I could have watched it for twice that length. It made me feel young again.
3. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Yet another beguiling meditation of mortality and memory from Thai master Weerasethakul. In all of his masterpieces, reincarnation, the existence of ghosts, and transcendental memory are taken as normality. This allows him to descend, without the need for explanation or revelation, into alternative planes of being. Thus the film can explore consciousness on deeper levels such as dreaming, and even death states. Time is at least circular, if not non-existent. One can resolve one’s unfinished business, or heal from trauma, even after death. As expected, Cemetery of Splendour contains extraordinary visual poetry (see the ‘light therapy’ for soldiers struck with sleeping sickness in the image above) and sound design. Weerasethakul had a good year. His enormous video installation Primitive is now part of the permanent collection in the tanks at the Tate Modern.
2. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Released in the UK right at the start of 2016, The Assassin was number 1 in this list until about 2 weeks ago. It remains an incredible achievement, a difficult film that requires a degree of work on the part of the viewer. Hou took a Chinese folktale (not particularly well known I am told) and abstracted the narrative to the extent that many audiences were baffled by the absence of exposition and frequent ellipses. The film was never intended to be about narrative progression. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a kind of Hamlet, delaying action whilst she questions the futility of action. Victor Fan discusses being and non-being in The Assassin in greater depth, and with more expertise that I am able to. Whether or not you were put off by narrative obscurity, The Assassin remains one of the most beautiful films ever made. To simply consume it as a visual object is time well spent.
1. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
As I left the cinema having watched Paterson I thought: ‘that was quite good’. About 20 minutes later I realised the film was having a profound effect on me. I felt happy about everything I encountered on my way home. My bus ride (fittingly) was delightful. Everything was so satisfyingly ok. Without ever resorting to any semblance of narrative development or didacticism, Paterson tells us that there is poetry in our mundane routines, and that creative expression need not be for anyone but ourselves. Change your perspective on your life and even the most repetitive schedule can become infinitely varied. Nor is this film advocating just putting up with our lot. Paterson’s (Adam Driver) wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is a whirlwind of creative and exhibiting impulses. She is equally as content as he. No other film this year had such a radical effect on how I view life. For that reason, Paterson is my favourite of 2016.
As everyone knows January is a soul raking month of unmitigated bleakness. Keep watching Paterson, American Honey, and Your Name and you will make it through unscathed.