2016 might have been a car crash of a year, but at least there were some good films. Here are my top ten.
10. Embrace of the Serpent
A haunting eulogy to a dying people and a savage indictment of Western exploitation,
Embrace of the Serpent is a film that is at once ethereal and tactile. We follow Amazonian shaman Karamakate at two points in his life, thirty years apart, as he guides two travellers down the river in search of a rare flower. There are echoes of Heart of Darkness, but with the focus shifted from the effects of the jungle on Westerners to the effects of Westerners on the jungle. Sumptuous black and white photography captures the mystery and foreboding of the rainforest, while also giving it an almost banal feeling, as if this is really someone’s home, if only for now. A final sequence of 2001-esque hallucinations ensures that this is a film that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Crikey O’Reilly, was this a joy to watch. In a year whose blockbusters were tinged with disappointment (Superman v Batman, Warcraft, Suicide Squad), it was such a delight to watch a film that was really just fun from beginning to end. The Harry Potter spin-off has just the right amount of references to everybody’s favourite magic school, while also introducing us to the idiosyncrasies of the American wizarding community. Eddie Redmayne is likeably quirky as beast finder Newt Scamander, but it’s the supporting cast who really shines here, especially Dan Fogler’s bumbling no-mag (re: muggle) Jacob Kowalski. And I want all the beasts. All of them. Oh hell, I’m just going to say it: this was better than all the Harry Potter films.
8. Under the Shadow
A genuinely frightening horror film with shades of The Babadook and The Devil’s Backbone. Set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, the film follows a mother and daughter whose apartment block is hit by an unexploded missile. Superstitious neighbours claim that the missile has brought with it a djinn, and then things start to get weird. As the mother becomes increasingly terrified of and for her own child, we’re left wondering just how much of what’s going on is just going on in her head. Director Babak Anvari weaves political and gender issues into what was already a remarkably well told horror story. The djinn itself is a terrifying presence, accompanied by the constant moaning of wind in what is a brilliant piece of sound design. I don’t mind telling you that I had trouble getting to sleep after watching this one.
7. The Neon Demon
This is a film which needs to be seen to be believed. Nicolas Winding Refn’s lurid latest is a blacker-than-black satire of the fashion industry that morphs into…well, something else. Style abounds over substance in this tale of a young model eaten alive by the fashion world. There’s a lion in a motel room, knife fellatio, a bizarre nod to 2001: A Space Oddity; and that’s before proceedings take a turn for the mental. I can give no greater recommendation than this: a man walked out of the cinema in disgust during a particular scene. Now you have to watch this, don’t you?
6. The Witch
A refreshingly unconventional horror film. Fashioned out of real testimonies from the New England witchhunts of the 1600s, The Witch tells the story of a family who out-puritan the Puritans and are forced into exile outside the creepy New World forest. After their newborn baby disappears, each family member begins to suspect that any of the others could be in league with the devil. Director Robert Eggers forgoes the usual horror conventions of jumpscares and buckets of blood in favour of ratcheting up the atmosphere. Just how much of what happens really happens, and how much is hallucination or religious fervor/fever, is left up to the audience. Either way, The Witch is one of the best horror films in years.
5. Midnight Special
Midnight Special is a sci-fi thriller that isn’t really a sci-fi thriller. Instead, it’s a story about fatherhood. It tells the tale of a boy with special powers, the cult who thinks the boy is their prophet, the government agents who want to know what the boy can do, and the father who just wants to keep his son safe. The boy’s powers, while mysterious, aren’t the focus here; it’s the relationship between father and son that drives Jeff Nichols’ film. The climax throws a curveball, taking us in an unexpected direction with a beautiful display of imaginative visual effects. And, without spoiling anything, the final shot is as heart-wrenching, and at the same time, uplifting as anything else I’ve seen this year.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika are the Pixar of stop-motion. The studio’s latest is an exquisitely crafted love letter to Japanese mythology, and far and away the best animated film of the year. Watching Kubo and the Two Strings, it’s difficult to tell if it is a small film made large, or a large film made small. The truth is, it’s both. Laika have a way of distilling epic themes into the relationships between a handful of characters; and turning small character beats into emotional setpieces. No amount of praise could do justice to the talent, artistry and effort that Laika put into their films. A mid-credits timelapse sequence shows the work that went into what is apparently the largest stop-motion character ever constructed, and it is jaw-dropping. Even if Kubo’s story was half as good as it is (and it’s damn good), this would still be in my top ten, because it’s Laika, it’s stop-motion. And it’s beautiful.
Room is not about a mother and her son held captive. It is about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. It is about the power, and sometimes powerlessness, of imagination. It is about finding joy and wonder in the mundane. Brie Larson absolutely deserved her Oscar for Best Actress, but Jacob Tremblay steals the show as six year old Jack. It’s through his eyes that we see the mundane fantasy of Room, and later the fantastical mundanity of the outside world. Lenny Abrahamson didn’t make a film about a mother and her son held captive. He made a film about everything.
The cynic could call Spotlight Oscar bait, but there’s more going on here than the likes of The King’s Speech or The Artist. Spotlight is an important and relevant film which also happens to be a riveting journalist procedural. The story of the Boston journalists who uncovered the child abuse cover-up in the Catholic church features an ensemble of actors at the top of their game. Tom McCarthy’s direction is unassuming; there are no stylistic embellishments or panache here. What there is, though, is a relentless energy, a narrative momentum that carries us all the way to the end without letting up. Though I already knew how the story ended, when the credits rolled I realised that I’d been tensed up, almost literally holding my breath. Now that’s good filmmaking.
Arrival is many things. It’s the best science fiction film in years. It’s an expertly crafted puzzle with a killer twist. It’s an achingly relevant story about communication and about how the way we choose to communicate can affect our meaning. Everything about Arrival is superb. The acting, especially from Amy Adams, is great. The visual effects are subtle for the most part, mind-bending when they need to be. The music is fittingly alien and atonal. The reveal at first seems bleak, almost Lovecraftian in its dismissal of human agency. Except then it becomes a moving tribute to that same agency. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, the aliens are brilliant. Is Arrival a human drama masquerading as science fiction? Or is it science fiction masquerading as a human drama? Is it both? It doesn’t matter. What Arrival is, is the best film of 2016.
And there you go, my top ten films of 2016. Feel free to loudly disagree with me in the comments.