2016 is shite, or so goes the meme. I mean, it is fairly terrible, but so was 1939 and people have mostly stopped complaining about that. And even that year had Stagecoach and Ninotchka. For films, 2016 has been absolutely astounding and full of variety, invention, boundless creativity, and intelligence, except from Hollywood. Whilst the major multiplexes are largely still churning out the same crap on superheroes and Star Wars, clogging up and blocking off space that could be used for quality filmmaking—and contrary to the belief of distributors, audiences are interested in seeing such films, it’s just that those films aren’t given the time or space to be seen—it has been an incredible year for independent cinema; excellent releases from up-and-coming filmmakers, and plenty of good stuff from established ones too. Only one or two films on this list come from anything approaching the Hollywood studio system. It’s also been an exceptionally strong year for horror too; four of my top ten films are horrors. So, if you’re feeling down, track down some of these films and remind yourself that in times like these, the human condition has a habit of fighting back harder than ever. 2016 has been an excellent year for cinema.
Notes on selection: not all of these films are strictly 2016 lists. Many of them were first released in 2015 elsewhere and have this year made it to release in the UK in 2016. In effect, any newly-released film in cinemas that I watched is eligible for this list (hence the presence of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi which had a limited release in 2015 in the UK, but only made it to my cinema in 2016), as are any titles released through other means such as Netflix (13th for example, had a tiny run of maybe one or two cinemas this year, but has attained mass distribution thanks to the streaming service giant).
So, here are the top 25.
- Don’t Breathe – Fede Alvarez, USA
An expertly crafted home invasion horror by Fede Alvarez, the twist being that this time the killer is the blind victim being burgled by a trio of out-of-their-depth teens.
- Wiener-Dog – Todd Solondz, USA
Solondz brings his trademark bleak humour to this anthology film of one particularly unlucky daschsund unable to find an owner adult enough to care for it.
- Embrace of the Serpent – Ciro Guerra, Colombia
Taking all the white-men-in-the-jungle films of the last century of cinema’s history and flipping them on their head, Guerra has birthed a visually exquisite film, heavy with acidic imagery and intellectual poignancy.
- Rams – Grímur Hákornarson, Iceland
A real underrated surprise of the year, Rams tells the story of two Icelandic shepherd brothers who’ve not spoken to each other in years. At turns moving, funny, and wonderfully unpredictable, it deserves to be seen.
- Spotlight – Thomas McCarthy, USA
Men-children the world over cried when Leo DiCaprio shitting in the mud for two hours was not enough for The Revenant to win the Best Picture Oscar. Whilst Spotlight was not the strongest film in the Oscar batch this year, it nevertheless remains an eloquent drama brimming with strong performances and detail, and a fine winner nevertheless.
- Gimme Danger – Jim Jarmusch, USA
Jim Jarmusch has had a busy year, releasing two feature length films. The first of these is a fantastic documentary on The Stooges, one of the greatest and most influential bands of all time. With Iggy Pop as our guide recalling tales of drugs, hedonism and rock ‘n’ roll with lucidity, Gimme Danger is extremely watchable.
- Everybody Wants Some! – Richard Linklater, USA
Linklater’s spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused is another of the director’s relaxed hang-out films, all bromances, good tunes, and good times.
- Julieta – Pedro Almodóvar, Spain
After the lightweight comic farce of I’m so Excited, Pedro Almodóvar returns to form with this exquisite melodrama about a woman attempting to deal with the trauma of her past. This is prime 21st century Almodóvar with all the trappings: ravishing visuals, subtle drama, and fantastic performances.
- Hail, Caesar! – Joel and Ethan Coen, USA
The Coens have a habit of following up their ‘serious’ films with their more ostensibly funny ‘comic’ films, although in the Coens’ world, the line between tragedy and comedy has always been hairline thin. Nevertheless, that contrast has hardly ever been more clear than in Hail, Caesar! As relaxed and as funny as the brothers have ever been, the film benefits from a more than a few absolutely show-stopping scenes, including of course, Ralph Fiennes and Aiden Ehrenreich battling it out over how to say “would that it were so simple”.
- Paterson – Jim Jarmusch, USA
Jarmusch’s second feature of the year is a beautiful, almost escapist paean to normality and peace. Starring Adam Driver as a bus driver called Paterson in the city of Paterson, Paterson depicts the calm of being fulfilled with humble means. Paterson is a poet with a very loving wife, and despite their relatively stripped-down lifestyle, they are happy together. In these unstable times, what could be more hopeful than that?
- The Club – Pablo Larraín, Chile
Larraín has been on a major roll the last year-and-a-half or so. The New Year should see his Oscar-tipped biopic Jackie and his Chilean biopic of poet/activist Neruda appear on UK shores, but for now, The Club will do. A finely-calibrated story of abusive Catholic priests hidden away on the far shores of Chile, the film thunders with underlying anger and the trauma of pasts hidden. Watch it now before Jackie steals all the glory.
- Tangerine – Sean Baker, USA
Shot entirely on iPhones, Tangerine may seem like a gimmick at first, but make no mistake, this is one of the year’s funniest and most endearing films. Telling the story of two trans women, destitute on the streets of LA, Tangerine is a riot from start to finish, brimming with love and compassion for its characters, no matter how fucked-up or damaged they may be. This is the kind of film we need more of.
- High-Rise – Ben Wheatley, UK
Ben Wheatley is amongst the most exciting of filmmakers working in the UK today, and his adaptation of JG Ballard’s magnificent High-Rise is an excellent showcase of what he can do with a bigger budget and bigger names. Taking a nigh-inadaptable book and making it a success is no mean feat. Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Jeremy Irons are the immediate stars, but it’s Luke Evans who steals the show with the bristling damaged machismo of Richard Wilder.
- The Neon Demon – Nicholas Winding Refn, USA/Denmark/France
Pointless, superficial, and vapid; this is just some of the misconstrued praise aimed at Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon this year. Taking the emptiness and shallowness of the fashion industry and using its tropes against it, Refn creates one of the year’s most hypnotic and divisive pieces of purely visual cinema.
- Taxi – Jafar Panahi, Iran
Making his third film since being placed under house arrest and banned from filmmaking in Iran, Jafar Panahi once again makes a work of startling cinematic power and purity, this time filming exclusively (and secretly) from the inside of his car as a would-be taxi driver in Tehran. On the basis of this film, he’s certainly a better filmmaker than taxi driver, annoying customers with his lack of directional sense. Yet in such simplicity, Panahi finds incredible power and humanity; this is a fiercely critical and engaging film even under such restrictive circumstances. A filmmaker to the bone.
- Bone Tomahawk – S. Craig Zahler, USA
There are plentiful flaws in Bone Tomahawk, especially its dull cinematography and occasionally baggy editing. But this, not Tarantino’s overlong The Hateful Eight, is the year’s best Western. Zahler’s debut feature is a film of character and depth, taking its time with to build up a relationship between its protagonists before unleashing…well…you’ll have to find out won’t you?
- One More Time With Feeling – Andrew Dominik, UK
The tragedy that looms over this film, and Nick Cave’s latest album Skeleton Tree (coincidentally the best album of the year, although I have not kept up with music so much for the time being, something I plan on changing in the New Year), was always going to cast a dark shadow over proceedings, even though Cave himself discourages such readings of his work here. Dominik doesn’t quite do his subject justice—he’s a fine director but he is no documentarian and the last Cave doc 20,000 Days on Earth is the better film— but Nick Cave himself is a more than engaging enough subject to lift the film into the year’s top ten territory.
- I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach, UK
A justified Palme D’or winner, despite the fact that critics almost universally lauded Toni Erdmann as the rightful winner. That film will be out in Britain in the New Year, although the fact that Sight & Sound have named a German comedy as the year’s best film goes some way to showing what a crazy year 2016 has been. I, Daniel Blake however, is proper drama. It is rough-around-the-edges and raw, but it is staggering emotive art, taking a serious subject—the war on the poor by the Conservative government—and making a real call-to-arms, raising awareness and enacting change in the way only art can.
- 13th – Ava DuVernay, USA
Perhaps it feels a bit disingenuous to ‘rank’ 13th amongst other films of the year: this is, after all, an incredible documentary about a very difficult and very serious subject, the mass incarceration and institutionalised racism still prevalent in the USA and much of Western society. Ava DuVernay tackles the issue with such a clear argumental through-line and focus that it is difficult not to be swayed, unless you’re a basement dwelling-neckbeard. Essential viewing.
- Green Room – Jeremy Saulnier, USA
You’d think a film in which Neo-Nazis get their bloody guts sprayed all over the walls plentifully would be a gloriously entertaining piece of work in such a politically ugly year. But nope. Jeremy Saulnier’s punks-in-Assault-on-Precint-13 piece is an endlessly bleak treatise on the implicit dangers of white privilege, because it is exactly that which allows the young cash-strapped protagonists to play in a Neo-Nazi bar, and it is exactly that acceptance that lands them in the shitter. Cue one of the ugliest, nastiest films of the year, and add one utterly chilling Patrick Stewart performance and you have one hell of a ride.
- The Girl With All the Gifts – Colm McCarthy, UK
Zombie films, especially good ones, have a habit of taking the temperature, if you will, of the society in which they are made in at the time. As so, with Brexit, the rise in hate crimes, and a new authoritarian xenophobic Prime Minister leading the UK, The Girl With all the Gifts makes for a mighty fine thermometer. This is a zombie film all about social exclusion, about mistreatment of people deemed ‘Other’ and about progress, the evolution of the human race, the next turn in our development. It is one of the year’s unsung and overlooked masterpieces.
- The Witch – Roberg Eggers, USA/UK
In any other year, The Witch would have been by far the scariest film. There is such a rich and well-attuned atmosphere in Eggers’ film that nightmares are almost a safe haven comparatively. The archaic language, the heightened, theatrical performances, and the sinister, malevolent imagery combine to make this one of the best horrors of the 21st century so far. And yet, it’s not even the best horror of the year.
- Room – Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland/Canada
The best of the bunch at this year’s Oscar Nominations, Abrahamson’s Room is an incredibly moving and powerful tearjerker, bearing (thankfully) no relation to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Abrahamson has been making quality films for a while now, but it has been with Room that he’s really ascended to a peak. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay make for two of the most incredible performances this year, shouldering the incredible emotional burden of the film with ease.
- Cemetery of Splendour – Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand
Weerasethaskul’s (or just Joe for short) latest film is one of his best. A simple, beautiful, peaceful film with an unexpected political charge underneath, musing on big questions in the most unassuming of ways. Cemetery of Splendour is like water, a film so light and soft that one can barely feel it, yet in the hours and days after watching it, one can’t help but feel its grip tightening, an essential piece of cinema traversing one’s thoughts, an echo repeating endlessly.
- Under the Shadow – Babak Anvari, Iran/UK
Reaching out and grasping the audience’s spine with an icy, cold grasp, Under the Shadow isn’t just the year’s best horror, but the year’s best film too. Running in at less than 90 minutes, it still manages to build a wonderful human relationship, which means you scare because you care; it still manages to locate genuine subtext within its structures, be it the modern apartment building as a loci of modern anxieties and fears (leading on from a tradition which Polanski and Hitchcock have a great deal to do with), or the way war damages family units, or the way women build social networks amongst themselves; it still manages to be utterly shit-scaringly-oh-my-dear-lord-hold-me-terrifying. That this is all the work of a first-time feature director is perhaps the scariest thing of all. Babak Anvari is a brilliant young voice. Watch this film now.