Why are there 16 films in this list? Could it be because it’s the year 2016?
I mean, yes! Can we pretend that it was deliberate? Look, it was just a really great year for cinema and I wanted to include all these titles. Sixteen films and I still don’t have space for Oscar Best Picture winner Spotlight.
No room for Suicide Squad either, but that’s because it was terrible. Completely preposterous and hideously executed. Anyway, this isn’t about that. Let’s get talking about the good ‘uns! Here are my sixteen favourite films released in UK cinemas this year…
- 10 Cloverfield Lane (d. Josh Trachtenberg)
Practically a poster child for studio interference, this film is a perfect example of why we can’t have nice things. 10 Cloverfield Lane made it almost all the way through production as an independent film, and what a fantastic film it is: a lean, taut thriller with an unnerving central conceit, stand-out performances and a wonderfully unsettling atmosphere. It even has the perfect ending. All that’s left is a smash cut to credits and this little indie has made it. But no, what’s happening? The film continues. What’s happening now? WHAT IS THIS PIECE OF SHIT ENDING? Oh that’s right, J J Abrams got his grubby franchise hands on the film before they could wrap and turned it into a fucking sequel. Great job, J J. What’s sad is that he didn’t think the film would make any money without some existing branding and a horrendous, narrative-destroying ending that would connect the dots. What’s sadder is that he was probably right. Still, hack the last ten minutes off and it’s a near perfect genre film.
- Rogue One (d. Gareth Edwards)
This is the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. It gets plenty of things wrong: an uneven tone, thin characterisation, an unnecessarily convoluted plot. Oh, and terribly judged video-game-esque CGI resurrections of old characters that will look appalling to an audience a decade from now. Yet after last year’s entertaining but ultimately flimsy The Force Awakens, Rogue One has a real depth and gravitas that makes it far more satisfying. This is the first film to embrace the word war: it’s gritty and grimy and morally ambivalent. The world building is far more immersive and realistic than The Force Awakens; both the Imperials and the Rebels bicker internally while the new worlds show for the first time a galaxy under the heel of the Emperor. It’s slow to get going, which is no bad thing, and when it finally reaches its payoff, it’s the best action Star Wars has ever seen. Dark, thrilling and wryly funny (is this the first of the franchise that manages not to be corny?), Rogue One is the prequel of which adult Star Wars fans have always dreamed. It also has the best space battle of the series. Fuck yeah.
- Victoria (d. Sebastian Schipper)
Victoria is built on the mother of all gimmicks: an entire near-two-and-a-half-hour movie consisting of one uninterrupted shot with no cuts, no edits and no fakery to stitch takes together. It’s hard to oversell the scale of the technical achievement on display here; it’s an absolutely insane undertaking, especially as the film ramps up, shifting from location to location, through buildings and non-stationary vehicles, and morphing into a kinetic thriller that requires multiple actors, significant camera movement and precise choreography. As film-making goes, this is pure bravado and deserves to be celebrated on this alone. Which is why it’s so gratifying that it doesn’t rest on its laurels, instead crafting a tense, atmospheric thriller that’s well acted, well scripted and well paced. The first half is stronger than the second, and the slow descent from realistic drama into less believable action may have been driven more by the need to show off than by the needs of the narrative itself. Nevertheless, this is an engaging, clever film in its own right, and by the end, you’ve almost forgotten the gimmick’s still there.
- Moana (d. John Musker, Ron Clements)
Before he hit the big-time with the musical phenomenon Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote the songs for this new Disney offering. They’re as endlessly hummable, beautiful and multi-layered as one could hope for, resulting in perhaps the best Disney soundtrack since, arguably, The Lion King, or even Beauty and the Beast. The film around it is equally strong, replete with humour, a solid comfortable moral, a hilarious chicken sidekick and by far Disney’s most gorgeous animation yet. There’s a thoroughly progressive princess as well, who carries the film with spunk, wit and nary a love interest in sight. With Pixar’s recent dip in form, Disney’s own studio is fighting hard to be the standard bearer for American animation. Now if only they were brave enough to sever cartoons’ false dependency on children, and branch animation out into a more grown-up market.
- I, Daniel Blake (d. Ken Loach)
I kid you not, I spent twenty minutes sitting in Chicken Cottage crying to myself after watching this film. Ken Loach makes angry, polemic stories, and rightly so – why should cinema not be political? Great art often is. Amidst an onslaught of hate-filled media and reactionary faux-populist politics, this film is a desperately important reminder of our common humanity. It’s a crushing, soul-destroying expose of the systems we have built, and the ways in which they divide and weaken us. Frankly, saying a big Fuck You to the current parliamentary and journalistic establishments is barely a political stance; it’s the only way to not be evil.
- Midnight Special (d. Jeff Nichols)
One of a number of sci-fi films on this list, perhaps I’m showing my weakness for the genre. It’s just such a great playground for ideas, granting film-makers more freedom and fewer boundaries than straight drama, but holding them accountable to more rigour of thought than fantasy. Midnight Special is a simpler offering than most, but uses its premise wisely to explore themes of family, community and loyalty. The acting is engaging and immersive, the script is impressively understated, and there are some dazzling visual flourishes along the way. Unlike many commentators, I found the payoff both coherent and satisfying, creating a complete narrative arc whilst leaving a level of ambiguity and provocation to which all sci-fi should aspire.
- Anomalisa (d. Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)
Charlie Kaufman clearly felt that his previous script, Synecdoche New York, was too upbeat, with its focus on loss and longing and inevitable death. But what could be more depressing than death? The answer: middle class ennui told through the medium of stop motion animation. Anomalisa barely even has a story: it’s a businessman – played by a puppet, mind – who spends a weekend in a generic corporate hotel in order to attend a conference. It simply has no right to tell truths about the human condition. Yet here it is, awash with raw humanity, surreal dream sequences, flawed miserable characters and a terrible vein of unavoidable truth. Not to mention an exquisite and squirm-inducingly accurate sex sequence (remember, it’s all puppets). Charlie Kaufman remains a twisted genius and Anomalisa is perfect evidence that we should continue to fund him to do whatever the hell he wants, no matter how seemingly bizarre or banal.
- Nocturnal Animals (d. Tom Ford)
Nocturnal Animals is a classic example of style over substance, not particularly because it lacks substance, but just because it oozes so much style. Director and fashion designer Tom Ford is obsessed with the detail; every frame, every shot is lovingly crafted and calibrated precisely. The formality of the composition is unsettling and contributes to the coldness of the picture – this is a movie to admire more than to love. That sense of unease is deliberate though: the film is creepy and intense, and induces a slow-burning feeling of dread. Likely to reward on repeat viewings, Nocturnal Animals has a satisfying clarity of theme, in which nothing is out of place or irrelevant. It’s also a deeply unnerving psycho-thriller that will play on your mind for days.
- Room (d. Lenny Abrahamson)
The moment when I ended up loving Room was about half-way through the film, after a thrilling, unbearably tense sequence, when the pace slowed and the music swelled into the key theme from the British film Monsters, a gorgeous refrain composed by Jon Hopkins. For some reason it doesn’t appear in the film’s track list but I remain convinced that I definitely heard it and am not insane. Gareth Edwards’ debut feature, Monsters, is simultaneously an engrossing original sci-fi and a wistful love story, with a haunting soundtrack and soft indie cinematography. Shot on a micro-budget, it’s an astonishing… Wait, was I supposed to be writing about Room? Shit, Room is great. Impeccably acted, heartfelt, inspiring and deftly melancholic. But Monsters. Man, do I love Monsters.
- American Honey (d. Andrea Arnold)
A lot of people said American Honey was in need of a good editor. Superficially they may appear to be correct: it’s almost three hours long and has virtually no plot. It meanders here and there and back again, before finally ending up nowhere in particular. Then again, that’s mostly the point. Shot in 4:3 for an almost oppressive intimacy, this is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road for a new generation, a road trip movie that seeks to capture tone and mood much more than plot. Both stylistically and thematically, it’s about the journey, not the destination. And what a journey: simultaneously uplifting and downbeat, pulsing with music and frantic with hormones, this is an adrenalin-fuelled but ultimately sober reflection of a certain type of American working class life. It never rushes and it never drags, while its ending is perhaps more conclusive and resolute than it may immediately appear. The more one thinks about it, the more it seems that it’s pretty much edited exactly right.
- Swiss Army Man (d. Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)
The opening scene of Swiss Army Man ends with a marooned man riding a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter himself) across the ocean to freedom; the corpse is flatulent enough to produce an endless projection of farts that propels it through the water like a jet-ski. The corpse continues to fart throughout the film, while later on the man uses the corpse’s unexpected erections to navigate through the woods. I mean, what else is there to say? Except that it’s brilliant. Hilarious, beautifully shot and edited to within an inch of its life. Utterly absurd and magical, with a soundtrack to match. By far the most moving, thought-provoking film you’ll ever watch that involves a man using a farting corpse as a jet-ski.
- Little Men (d. Ira Sachs)
An intriguing and relevant exploration of the effects of gentrification in New York; expertly judged, measured and understated without ever feeling oblique. Devoid of melodrama and with wonderfully naturalistic performances, it has the quality of a documentary or just the unspooling of regular lives. It’s tender and bruising, but never cutting, and if that sounds too much like a skin condition, then it’s also sweet and charming and wise. It rarely tells when it can show, and even then, it rarely shows if it can imply. This ostensibly uncinematic effect is actually both effective and poetic, highlighting the gaps and the silences and the quiet, seemingly insignificant moments that add up to no less than life.
- Captain Fantastic (d. Matt Ross)
There’s a kinda weird, reverse-snobbery against this sort of film at the moment. The kooky offbeat whimsy it’s supposed to engender has become a crutch, somehow mechanical, even industrialised. An over-reliance on soft focus here, a melancholic indie soundtrack there. A meandering narrative with a semi-colon ending, sitting alongside precision-engineered thematic arcs. Pretentious, hipsterish, dull. By-the-numbers spontaneity. And now here comes a film that hits every one of these beats, full to the brim with beards and actual hippies. Well you know what, screw all you anti-snob snobs. Derived from a formula it may be, but the end product is lovely. Hilarious, heartfelt and beautiful (yes, all those words you get when The Guardian reviews indie films). Maybe it’s just my kinda film.
- The Nice Guys (d. Shane Black)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the wittiest, most unique films one could ever hope to see. Screenwriter Shane Black has presumably been trying to reproduce that magic ever since and now he’s found a way to do it. That is, basically rewrite Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Sure, the characters are different and so is the plot (technically) but essentially The Nice Guys is the same film: a surreal, violent, LA-set neo-noir about hapless detectives and enigmatic prostitutes. The same deep vein of black humour, sarcasm, slapstick and downright stupidity; the same confounding shaggy dog story that carefully maps out every cliche and then drives at right-angles through them all. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have a lightness of touch I previously suspected was beyond them; frankly, if Shane Black can keep writing scripts this good, I don’t care how similar they are.
- Arrival (d. Denis Villeneuve)
It’s so rare to get great, pure science-fiction. Screenwriters always feel the need to dilute even the best sci-fi with a more audience-friendly genre, usually action (think The Matrix) but sometimes horror (think Alien) or even romance (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Arrival skirts vaguely with the last of these, but there’s a case to be made that it’s one of the best pure sci-fi films since, well, Blade Runner. Admirably every time you think it’s going to expand, it contracts instead, digging deeper into itself and dialing down the action cliches in favour of something far more interesting, poignant and meditative. It’s elevated further by an intrusive, ethereal score and an unexpected emotional core; really the only frustrating thing is that it falls briefly at the penultimate hurdle, adding a superfluous, illogical sci-fi trope that desperately needs to be retired from modern science-fiction. By the way, Blade Runner 2 is a terrible idea, but hey, at least it’s being helmed by Denis Villeneuve – maybe there’s hope yet.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (d. Taika Waititi)
New Zealand cinema is rich, but its films don’t often travel far beyond its borders. In Taika Waititi however, they may have their first superstar director since Peter Jackson. Waititi is a singularly impressive Kiwi film-maker with a pitch-perfect ear for mixing pathos and absurdity. In a fairer world, he’d be paid to keep doing his thing: everyone talks about What We Do in the Shadows, but Boy is even better and still relatively unknown outside of New Zealand. Be thankful then that he had time to create a masterpiece before being sucked up by the Hollywood machine (Thor 3, really?). Hunt for the Wilderpeople will stand the test of time, a joyous, frantic, ludicrous, soulful coming-of-age action drama pastiche that also happens to be one of the funniest films ever made.