Whenever it comes time to write the annual top ten best and worst film of the year blogs, the Movie Quibble annual tradition going back literally years (i.e one year more than one year) and which no self-professed cinephile could possibly live without, there is a tendency to jabber on about the state of the world and the reasons why films are better than it. Rarely is there much reference to the films themselves, or the cinematic landscape in terms of business or relevance as contemporary art form – aside from when I highlight the lack of reference, like now.
I have no witty insights on 2016, and little to say about cinema other than that it is essential to my sanity, which means it’s a good thing I work at one. As always the films in this list are based on UK release dates, because the US are all of sudden a heckuva lot less willing to release their hostages than they were last year #WaterboardingWorks. Oh no! I’ve shoehorned in a vague and irrelevant allusion to current political upheaval in an attempt to seem in the loop. A Wookie mistake, as an insufferable pundit discussing editing blunders in the latest Star Wars release might say during their review.
Before the list begins, some honourable mentions… Hail, Caesar!, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Green Room, Gimme Danger, Hell or High Water, Tale of Tales, Love and Friendship, and I, Daniel Blake. Now onto the top ten:
10. The Nice Guys – Shane Black
Shane Black basically invented the now overly familiar bad cop-worse cop buddy movie with his script for Lethal Weapon. Finally, after several entries in the genre, he has perfected the formula with this, his third feature as director. A sexy 1970s L.A backdrop, snappy writing, and a lethal comedic turn from Ryan Gosling are the most memorable components of Black’s best film yet.
Oscar Nominations: Zero. Not a surprise: The academy don’t really go in for action comedies about the criminal underbelly of the porn industry.
9. Bone Tomahawk – S. Craig Zahler
Bone Tomahawk is a supremely bold directorial debut from S. Craig Zahler (don’t ask me what the S stands for) who also wrote the screenplay. Will he be to the Horror-Western movie what Tarantino was to the Non-Linear Gangster flick? That has yet to be seen, but whatever he puts out next Movie Quibble will be sitting front and centre. In Bone Tomahawk, Kurt Russell plays a gritty Old West lawman who assists a crippled husband (Patrick Wilson) in rescuing his captured wife (Lili Simmons) from the ‘troglodytes’, an ancient tribe of neolithic cave dwelling savages. Horseback rides and cosy campfire storytelling eventually descend into mayhem, and we are bombarded with some truly sickening acts of violence as the civilised townsmen clash with the beasts that are their counterpart.
Oscar Nominations: None.Too under the radar. And far, far too gruesome.
8. Mustang – Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Another spectacular debut, this one from writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, about five sisters from Turkey who are subjected to the undignified oppression of their village’s ultra-conservative traditions. When they are sighted innocently mingling with boys at the beach, a scandal of their supposed promiscuity spreads through the town. As a result the parents bar up the house, turning it into a prison compound. Freedom is snuffed out as the girls’ family home becomes a wife factory and the process of arranged marriages begins in earnest.
Longing for a return to the way that things were, the sisters look to each other for strength. The cast are a fantastic set of newcomers, who give invested performances which make their actions wholly believable. The youngest sister, Lale (Gunes Sensoy), shines brightest of all, and her ingenious methods of battling the oppressive regime are a delight.
Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film from last year’s Oscars; did not win.
7. The Neon Demon – Nicolas Winding Refn
“I have a very dark side unfortunately, and I exorcise that in my films” – NWR
Danish maverick director Nicolas Winding Refn is a man of specific taste, and he indulges both heavily and frequently. Hyper-sexualised violence, Electronica, Kraut Rock, and of course neon are his most prominent hallmarks – no picture of his would be complete without them. The Neon Demon features all of these staples and at points plays out like a showreel made to prove what the auteur can do with a nice camera and a few pretty red lights. Some shots look more like art installations than movie scenes, and in this way it’s reminiscent of Jonathan Glazer’s stunning sci-fi Under the Skin from 2013.
The story is not all that complicated: Beautiful girl (Elle Fanning) comes to Tinseltown to be a fashion model; she becomes a sought after fashion model; the other models are jealous. In a way the plot of Neon Demon is like some ultra modern fairy-tale, featuring witches and vampires and prowling monsters, with a lonely princess stuck right in the middle. Like most traditional fairy-tales, the outcome is not a happy one.
Elle Fanning exudes frightful ambition as the statuesque Jesse, while fellow models and agents lust after her youth and beauty with predatory menace. Keanu Reeves also has a small but standout role as a sleazy, snarling Los Angeles motel landlord who can flick a mean cigarette. The sadism in the film is intense, as it always is with Refn, and the squeamish will suffer. Atmospherically this film is dense and there are several chilling, point perfect performances from the supporting cast, but it is Winding Refn’s expressionistic imagery and the insidious, addictive score by Cliff Martinez that really impress.
Oscar Nominations: As if. They wouldn’t touch a barge pole that had touched it using a another barge pole. Cannes liked it more: It won best soundtrack and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.
6. Under the Shadow – Babak Anvari
This Persian language spook fest was the only complete horror experience of 2016. Set in Tehran amidst the chaos of the Iran-Iraq war, a mother and daughter are left alone and defenseless to the incoming missiles falling right on their doorstep. As residents flee all around them, the pair are unable to extricate themselves from the house and the evil presence which has appeared in the absence of the father, who has been called away to arms.
Abandonment, increasing isolation, and repression engulf the audience trapped alone in a small apartment with a mother on the edge (not even Jane Fonda workout VHS tapes can console her) and her small child, who is plagued by nightmares and visions. As in The Exorcist, religious ideology and folklore forms the basis for the evil that lurks within – Islam this time – and the script treats it as if fact. When there is no ‘rational’ explanation and all involved act as though demons are a documented reality, the scares are a whole lot scarier than in a cop out like The Babadook (2014). Under the Shadow also balances clever twists on the classic jump scare along with its atmosphere of creeping terror – fear is a pheromone, and during the sold out screening I went to you could taste it in the air.
Oscar Nominations: Nothing, but got a couple of noms at the BAFTAs for Best British film and Best British Writer debut.
5. Arrival – Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve’s (Sicario, Prisoners) handling of Arrival bodes well for his upcoming Sci-Fi project, Bladerunner 2049. Hardly a long awaited sequel, because Blade Runner did not need nor did anybody even ask for one, but as it’s coming regardless at least it has a decent shot of living up to the legacy of its timeless predecessor.
An intelligent, awe-filled approach to the endlessly popular and usually brainless alien invasion blockbuster, Arrival follows Amy Adams’ world class linguist, who is brought in by the highest branches of the military to make first contact and – eventually – establish a rapport with a mysterious race of alien visitors. There’s no rushing into things with this film; the pace unfolds as it needs to, while the scope and scale of the implications of such an event appear naturalistic, as though the filmmakers know exactly how the world would react in the circumstances.
A grounded, realistic quality informs the human-alien interactions, and seen through the eyes of Amy Adams this proves a powerful and intimate experience. No White Houses need to get blown up this time. Story-wise it does go bit wishy-washy towards the end, but on the whole it satisfies, and the performances of Jeremy Renner and especially Amy Adams are without fault.
Oscar Nominations: Eight! Best Film, Best Director (deserved), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography (deserved), Production Design (deserved), Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing. Want to know the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing awards? No? Cool.
4. Embrace of the Serpent – Ciro Guerra
Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust pulled in the crowds, but their excess of grotesquties leave one empty, hungry for meaning. For the more discerning film buff who just wants a solid piece of filmmaking shot in the Amazon which opts for historical accuracy over unashamedly gross misrepresentations of an entire nation for base thrills, there is Embrace of the Serpent.
Split into two halves set decades apart but both featuring the same central character, a shaman-hermit native named Karamakate, the story tracks the efforts of two European anthropologists trekking their way through the jungle to document the lives of the remote peoples that dwell there before the West can eradicate their rich cultures forever.
Mesmerising wide shots of impenetrable forest and rippling murky waters lapping at the banks force viewers into an acceptance of the insignificance of humanity in the vast expanse of nature and even bring about a sense of peace, although the travelers’ journeys are not without peril. In one encampment we happen upon a cult with a deeply troubling agenda, led by a Colonel Kurtz white saviour sort whose spiritual teachings leave a lot to be desired. It’s real Wrath of God type stuff.
Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film, again from last year. Didn’t get it.
3. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford
Thriller of the year right here. The opening to Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is simultaneously the most appalling and mesmerising in recent memory. It comes out of nowhere and it left a room full of mouths hanging wide open in disbelief. It sums up the bloated, distorted American Dream that has snared so many. It’s a savage indictment of everything that’s the matter with us. There’s no looking away, though. It is the naked truth… and while it has little else to do with the film, it sort of says everything.
Using the double-narrative technique of book within film, Amy Adams (fantastic once again) is a gallery director seeking an ennui cure who receives a manuscript from an ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The book itself is a suspenseful and heart-breaking crime revenge tale, and as it unfolds Adams visualises her old lover within the story. All of this takes a psychological toll, and the darkness spills over into her sleepless waking life.
Nocturnal Animals is so staggeringly different to Tom Ford’s debut, the sublime A Single Man (2009). Its classy visual aesthetic is clearly the work of the famous fashion designer, but it does not necessarily paint a flattering picture of that scene. There are subtle, hilarious take downs of the state of modern art today, and one might almost accuse Ford of shitting where he eats with his amusing depiction of the bohemian elite’s decadent schmooze and booze lifestyle. He tell us that these people – his people – are radically out of touch, removed from the real world, and that everything they do is more or less fake. Their wealth is built on facade, as are their personalities, which crumble in the face of adversity.
Tom Ford has made a complex and visually gorgeous film here and its impact on the psyche is potent. Thriller of the year guys, I’m telling you.
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor for Michael Shannon as a seen-it-all Texas detective. The overall snubbing of this film by the Academy is a real shame, though. 2 Edgy 5 them?
2. Paterson – Jim Jarmusch
One week in the life of a bus driving poet, examining the ups and downs of his ordinary human existence. Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and does pretty much the same thing every day, as does his lover, a pretentious stay at home artist who’s even more colour blind than her intolerable little bulldog. Slow paced and minimal on frills of any kind, the only obtrusive editing comes in the form of Paterson’s introspective verse overlayed across the screen.
The rhythmic nature of the lead’s routine has a powerful charm, and Paterson himself refuses to be derailed by a series of calamitous dramas which occur in his life; rather than propel him onto some heroic quest, as most writers would have him do, he chooses to incorporate these happenings into his delicate prose .Paterson is extremely pleasant to sit through and repeat viewings reap great rewards.
Short skits occur between the colourful locals on Paterson’s bus as he drives around town, which will most remind Jarmusch fans of his earlier anthology pieces like One Day on Earth and the iconic Coffee and Cigarettes. But Paterson does much more than those classic Jarmuschian jaunts. It would probably be best described as a comedy, but it’s actually a deep reflection on the infinite wonder of our being alive, and what we ought to do with it.
Oscar Nominations: Not a one, but it cinched joint Best Dog at Cannes along with two other canines, so it’s not all bad news.
1. Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman
The only animation on this list but the most real film of all. Anomalisa will resonate on a deep level with anyone that has moved on from childhood and into the horrifying world of the adult. Charlie Kaufman, Oscar winning screen-writer of mind benders like Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, New York (2008), presents a man in perpetual mid-life crisis (whole life crisis?) coasting through time and wondering where it all went wrong.
Steeped in emotions of regret and longing, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) reaches for anyone or thing that can bring him comfort when all seems to be amiss. His universe is populated by people that look the same, sound the same, do and act and the same way and say the same exact things over and over again. He cannot relate, he cannot cope. Ironically it is the predictability of his safe life and successful career that drive him to the edge.
Then Lisa comes along. Unlike all the other animated humanoids around Michael, Lisa has her own voice – that of the softly spoken Jennifer Jason Leigh -and she seems to him a life raft in a turbulent ocean of pain (of his own creation, mind). Their romance is both cute and exceptionally awkward – it is obvious that it cannot last. But it is sweet and hopeful still.
In a way Anomalisa could not work as live action film – some of the scenes, particularly those depicting identity crisis, would be nigh on impossible to emulate. Likewise, Tom Noonan’s grating tones voicing every other character in Michael’s alienated bubble world could only be effective in this animated style, while the infamous sex scene would be unbearable. Kaufman’s characters move with soul, the painstaking detail of stop motion puppetry enriching them and turning them into vital, breathing beings of immense feeling. The animation team deserve the highest credit for their work on this film, as does Kaufman for the impeccable script of this, his second term at the helm as director.
Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature Film for 2016. Did not win. For shame, Oscar!
That’s all I have to say about last year’s films. Yes, I know it is almost February and this post is late, but it took me a fair while to watch every single film which got released over an entire twelve month period. I had to sit through a lot of trash for you, y’know. Catch you next year. Do drop a comment explaining why I am idiot for not putting [insert your favourite film of 2016] in this list. See ya.