Top films of 2016

Lists, lists… so invidious when it comes down to it, but there were three films on general release in the UK in 2016 that really stood out for me.

Hard to believe it’s only a year ago since SPOTLIGHT (Tom McCarthy), which was to go on to win Best picture and Best Screenplay Oscars. It’s the sober and engrossing story of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of decades of abuse by priests in that most catholic of American cities. Performances are stunning throughout (Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber in particular) and an intelligent screenplay by the director and Josh Singer couldn’t be more different from the thriller-style excitement of All the President’s Men, previously seen as a benchmark of this genre. The pursuit is just as all-consuming to watch, but these are truly real, ordinary people, grafters, determined and inspired by the increasing enormity of what they are finding, with emotional costs and no triumphalism.

As Spotlight opened the year, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve brought it to a conclusion with ARRIVAL, a sci-fi story with a difference, with the peerless Amy Adams as an academic brought in to communicate with aliens whose intentions are opaque. Despite, to be honest, bamboozling us with science, in this case linguistics, as shamelessly as any 50s sci-fi, its intelligence and spirituality and the sheer credibility of its protagonists combine to make it a potent reflection on time and humanity.

And perhaps the film I enjoyed most all year was HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie). Subtle, melancholy use of the Western form gives us a bleak critique of American society, and it holds your attention from start to devastating finish, as involving as any thriller, with unexpectedly comic moments. A rebirth for an old-timer of a genre. Stellar performances throughout from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and, naturally, Jeff Bridges, right down to veteran Margaret Bowman’s 2 minutes of uppity waitress.

As for documentaries, the stand-out was NOTES ON BLINDNESS (Peter Middleton, James Spinney), a totally original, moving and exciting adaptation of theologian John Hull’s increasing then total blindness, using his own recorded diaries and conversations lip-synched by actors. Images and sounds are often stunning, and as well as giving a unique glimpse (you might say) of quite what it might feel like to be blind, it also has a lot to say about quite what it feels like to be human, too.

Highlights included:

Most joyous – Channing Tatum leading the 50s-style pastiche Hollywood sailors’ dance in HAIL CAESAR (Coens), which otherwise didn’t quite hit the mark.

Most excruciatingly enjoyable – Ralph Fiennes’ gob-smacking poolside capering in A BIGGER SPLASH (Luca Guadagnino), an entertaining film with more seriousness than it generally got credit for.

Most adrenaline-stoking – VICTORIA (Sebastian Schipper), 138 miraculous minutes of one hand-held continuous shot of young people over a night that went horribly wrong.

Best comic turn – Tom Bennett’s hilarious, graceful, innocent daffiness in LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP (Whit Stillman), a brilliant recreation of Jane Austen which is also totally contemporary.

Scariest – UNDER THE SHADOW (Babak Anvari), Iranian ghost story (directed by a woman) where mother and daughter protagonists are assailed by bombs from above; one of the creepiest spirits since Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You from within; and fundamentalism from all around. A true feminist fable. And one of the few sub-titled films to appear at many multiplexes around the country.

Most moving performance – Hayley Squires‘ shame in the food bank scene in I DANIEL BLAKE, a film that tops many people’s lists. While I honestly can’t place it there in mine – some aspects of plot and dialogue just didn’t ring true for me – it is a truly powerful and moving film, a grim picture of today’s Britain, and it must be applauded for its enormous social effect. It’s a small point, but the fact that a film’s influence can be visible at the most ground-roots level – in the appearance of sanitary towels at Tesco’s food bank donation points – shows just how potent its effect has been.

Unexpected pleasure – STEVE JOBS – Danny Boyle’s unashamedly theatrical stylised portrait of megalomaniac /geek Jobs was much more impressive than I expected, with its taut construction and crackling dialogue, and great playing by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, absolutely engrossing.

Things to come…

Two films seen at festivals which should be coming to UK screens this year are a treat worth looking out for. Cristi Puiu’s SIERANEVADA, at nearly 3 hours long and mostly set inside a small flat, is a masterpiece of cinematography that never loses its fascination as it tracks the bumpy progress of a family wake. Funny and melancholy, despairing and life-affirming, it’s an amazing marriage of Chekhov and Bunuel.

Quite a different kettle of fish is Olivier Assayas’ PERSONAL SHOPPER, with Kristen Stewart as the eponymous American in Paris, mourning the death of her twin brother while acting as dogsbody shopper for a self-centred celebrity. The supernatural, questions of identity, danger and gorgeous cinematography join together for a film that is as delightful and troubling to watch as anything out of France for some time.

Others of interest include SCARRED HEARTS by Romanian director Radu Jude, who directed one of the best films screened in the UK last year, Aferim! This is very different, as enclosed as that film was expansive, as we follow the truth-based story from late-30s Romania of a young writer confined to bed in a sanatorium, where youthful spirits simmer under a claustrophobic sense of doom, as the young die and the world outside descends into chaos. It’s demanding and maybe overlong but a truly interesting film from this always surprising director.

Oh, and La La Land looks delicious! Watch this space.

But don’t forget, ‘In the end it’s just a matter of opinion…   ‘     Mark Kermode

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