We conclude our series of year end reviews of 2016 in cinema with our 10 favourite films of the year – let us know if you agree in the comments!
Thanks for reading and we’ll be back with more reviews in 2017!
An exhilarating road movie from Andrea Arnold that encapsulates the beauty of youth, in all it’s carefree naivety, ‘American Honey‘ follows Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage girl who gets involved with a group of young adults who travel around the country selling magazine subscriptions. It’s a film all about moments and less about plot, and the joy of ‘American Honey‘ comes from living and breathing alongside these characters (not to mention a superb rap soundtrack). Conventionally, ‘American Honey‘ is a coming of age story, but in Arnold’s hands and with a magnetic breakout performance from Sasha Lane, this film rises above that genre description to something far greater.
Films about robbing banks are not uncommon, but what sets ‘Hell or High Water‘ apart is the bigger picture it’s trying to explore through it’s narrative approach. The film is ostensibly a thriller about a pair of brothers carrying out bank heists and the attempts to catch them, but this premise merely forms the backdrop for a film with a lot more to say about its themes and America today as a whole in the aftermath of the financial crisis. One of last year’s finest films, ‘99 Homes‘ (3rd on our list), explored the effect on ordinary Americans through housing, and ‘Hell or High Water‘ shares similarities in how it shows the lengths people can be driven too by circumstances outwith their direct control.
It’s a rare film that’s virtually note perfect in everything it sets out to do, but ‘Hell or High Water‘ really is, from David Mackenzie’s outstanding direction to Taylor Sheridan’s complex and intelligent script, to the central performances from Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster who imbue archetypes with humanity, and this is one of the year’s finest movies.
Tarantino’s latest film has been one of the more divisive of his recent efforts, with some put off by the film’s length and style, which ramps up the dialogue and dials down the action for the most part. I was fortunate enough to see the roadshow version at a local independent (Filmhouse) and it felt like a real experience, and I really enjoyed the film. The premise of the film focuses on a group of eight people (hence the title), who find themselves holed up in a stagecoach stopover to seek refuge from a blizzard. From the outset it’s clear that none of these characters are to be trusted and part of the film’s enjoyment comes from immersing yourself in the dialogue and their back stories and trying to figure out what is truth and what is fiction.
‘The Hateful Eight‘ does take the idea of the slow burn to the extreme and I can understand why people would get bored before the action really begins (the opening carriage ride must be around 45 minutes of purely dialogue), but I found Tarantino’s dialogue so rich and the character’s so interesting that I was immersed from the outset and could forgive the lengthy running time. His direction really ramps up the tension as the paranoia increases amongst the characters and I was thrilled watching everything unfold, particularly once he starts to show his hand.
It’s not for everyone, but I thought ‘The Hateful Eight‘ was a superb movie.
Another film from the early part of the year, and another likely to have been seen by a smaller number of people (at least within the UK). I’m a big fan of foreign cinema, often finding it more intelligent and ambitious than the films we see regularly churned out by the US and (to a lesser extent) UK filmmaking industry, and Danish cinema has been on a particularly stellar run, with the likes of ‘The Hunt‘, ‘A Royal Affair‘ and ‘A Hijacking‘, from the same director as ‘A War‘ all some of my favourites of recent years.
Continuing this trend, ‘A War’ is a superb moral thriller focusing on the dubious actions of a commander during a mission in Afghanistan, and the impact that has on his family back home. The film explores the murky territory of war and the blurred lines between right and wrong when soldiers are put into extremely difficult situations, with our viewpoint into this through our protagonist Claus (Pilou Asbæk), a commander in the Danish military who makes a decision whilst under heavy Taliban fire that leads to him being accused of committing a war crime. The first half of the film is a war drama, the second half a legal thriller. Both are nailbiting and tense in their own ways.
What I loved about ‘A War‘ is the way in which it presents its story in a non judgmental way, merely laying out the facts and showing the consequences whilst allowing the audience to form their own opinions. Director Tobias Lindholm directed the aforementioned ‘A Hijacking‘ and wrote ‘The Hunt‘, and both of those films are deeply moral thrillers that challenge their audience to think about what they’re watching and consider how they’d react in a similar situation. Intelligent films of this nature are not as common as I’d like, and ‘A War‘ is an excellent film.
In a year with very few genuinely funny movies, ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘ felt like a genuine breath of fresh air and I absolutely loved this offbeat, quirky comedy from New Zealand. It primarily follows a young troublemaker (Julian Dennison) who ends up hiding out in the bush with his ‘Uncle’ (Sam Neill) after running away from his foster home; as they’re forming a father-son bond, the authorities think he’s been kidnapped, and the way this plays out is very entertaining.
‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘ is very funny, well written and features two superb performances from Neill and Dennison who start to form a touching bond over time, and if it sneaked under your radar, you should rectify this and see it now.
‘Eye in the Sky‘ is a gripping military thriller that focuses on one particular operation from the point of view of several key people, emphasising the number of people involved in drone warfare and the difficulty in making the ‘right’ decision given the potential consequences. Gavin Hood’s film carefully navigates this territory as the characters weigh up the potential outcomes from their decisions whilst considering the legal, moral and political implications of their action.
‘Eye in the Sky’ gets every ounce of suspense from its premise and at times it’s unbearably tense, particularly when time runs out to make a rational decision. Featuring a strong cast led by Helen Mirren and containing the late Alan Rickman, ‘Eye in the Sky‘ is superbly acted and we can really feel the weight of the decisions on these people’s shoulders, and perhaps what makes the situation so difficult to judge is that every character’s point of view seems to be rational and understandable at different points as they contemplate the gravity of the situation.
I was thoroughly engrossed and ‘Eye in the Sky‘ is one of the best films I saw this year.
Viggo Mortensen is one of the finest actors of his generation, although ‘Lord of the Rings‘ apart, he’s often made more unconventional choices than his contemporaries so perhaps doesn’t get the credit he deserves. That should change with ‘Captain Fantastic‘, an outstanding movie that’s driven by his magnificent performance at its centre.
The film is about a family who live unconventionally in the middle of a forest, led by their father, Ben (Mortensen), a man who believes in books and practical skills at the expense of generally perceived standard learning approaches. Viggo Mortensen’s performance is so good to the extent it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role – he’s a loving, caring father with the utmost respect for his kids and their intelligence, but he’s also flawed and self righteous at times and his journey throughout ‘Captain Fantastic’ is one of many joys this film holds. The primary focus of the film is in exploring the merits of this approach, and the questions director Matt Ross attempts to ask are big ones, focusing on the nature of family, bringing up children and individuality vs conformity, and its credit to his writing that the discussions and conclusions feel relevant and meaningful to the world we live in today.
There’s occasionally a conflict between expanding on these weighty themes and in delivering a solid and sentimental family drama, but for the most part, ‘Captain Fantastic’ blends these two together into something both hugely entertaining and deeply provocative, and I was completely swept along by it.
I mentioned in yesterday’s post about including documentaries in the list this year whilst discussing ‘Supersonic‘, and that approach has led to one of the documentaries I saw finding itself very high up in our list. Speaking loosely, ‘Where You’re Meant to Be‘ could be billed as a travelogue as it follows the cult musician Aidan Moffat around some of the lesser seen parts of Scotland, but this documentary has hidden depths and it turns out to be so much more than it promises to be.
The overlying premise surrounds Moffat wanting to rework classic Scottish folk songs and ballads, whilst also learning more about our country and its culture along the way, and the film is about that, but it becomes something altogether more powerful and moving once Sheila Stewart, an older Scots folk singer, comes on board to challenge Moffat’s approach.
‘Where You’re Meant to Be‘ isn’t just a film about music or old ballads and the people that sing them, but a film about Scotland itself, its people and its history, and it’s incredibly effective at painting a picture of this beautiful, rich country that goes beyond the central belt, and I highly recommend it.
‘Suburra‘ is a sprawling crime epic set in Rome, a complex and sophisticated thriller that explores the links between organised crime and politics to outstanding results. The film’s primary plot focuses on the attempts of a local crime boss to turn a region of Rome into a European version of Las Vegas through negotiating deals with corrupt politicians and fellow criminals to force a bill through to allow work to begin. Those plans are thrown into disarray when an underage prostitute turns up dead in a politicians hotel room, leading to personal feelings and vendettas getting in the way of business.
The film is directed stylishly by director Stefano Sollima, who shows great ability to handle a variety of characters and a labyrinthine narrative that could easily spiral out of control in lesser hands, whilst the score comprised almost entirely of songs from the french electronic band M83 creates an evocative and immersive atmosphere. I can’t overstate how good this film is, and if it was an English language film under the control of a big name director it would be getting rave reviews and award nominations and I hope some of the people reading this take the time to seek it out!
In what’s becoming a recurring theme, my favourite film of the year is once again one released the previous January. Whether that says more about me or about the film industry approach of cramming all the ‘awards’ contenders into a 2 month spell is up for debate!
In any case, ‘The Big Short‘ is our top film of 2016. I’m a sucker for a good financial drama, particularly enjoying the likes of ‘Margin Call‘ and ‘Arbitrage‘, and I thought ‘The Big Short‘ was an entertaining, scathingly funny and sharp riposte of the financial crisis, taking aim at the financial industry and the people who worked at senior level with a wicked satirical edge that works because of how close to the truth it gets.
Beneath the style and craftsmanship at play, there’s a real story that the film never loses sight of; that of an industry that became so focused on making money and an environment where ratings agencies, regulators and the big banks were so deeply intertwined to the extent that no one could see the problems deep at the heart of the system. McKay’s background helps the film take a more comedic approach to the material but he never sugarcoats it and he portrays his characters not as knights in shining armour, but more as opportunists who saw through the bullshit and it’s never too far from the surface that real people lost out badly in this situation whilst our protagonists all made money.
I thought ‘The Big Short‘ was a great movie and the most entertaining film I saw at the cinema in 2016, and we’ll sign off for the year with that!
We’ll be back in 2017 with more reviews of the latest releases and some more classic reviews. Thanks for reading!