Top 10 Films of 2016 - Part 1: 10 to 6

Year on year, 2016 has been a varied, if not, sparse time for tent-pole movies.

Where big budget studio promises (Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad) and over-hyped sequels (Independence Day: Resurrection) have failed to capture the imagination of commercial audiences over the summer, as prospective attendees have been happy enough to wait for DVD and Video-On-Demand (VOD) releases. Still chomping at the bit are the streaming services of Netflix and Amazon Prime, whose continuation to plough millions into high-grade television series (Stranger Things, The Crown) and original films(Crouching Tiger 2), exclusive to their platforms, have provided casual filmgoers with a get-out clause to remain in their houses.

In comparison to last year, where Star Wars dominated in it's return leg, alongside a strong performance of a mediocre Bond, the remainder of the year saw an increase in VOD releasing and smaller cinema chains now taking a risk in less-commercial products, which shone through. Though, perhaps, this broadening of range bit the industry's hand in 2015 and may be a reason as to why 2016's content feels stagnant, and ultimately, a disappointment.

My picks for this year have been based, as always, on pure enjoyment and for that I'm unapologetic; where even the critically divisive films have made some form of impact at the time of viewing or the subsequent days after. I have excluded any films (bar one) which were in the awards contention for 2016 and have not counted the brilliant features from the 2016 festival circuit (Elle, Personal Shopper and Manchester By The Sea - y'all would have made it!). I have also only counted films that have been on UK release up until December 16th - so no pre-release Oscar-contenders, whose promotional campaigns get enough attention anyway.

Due to poor distribution and the reluctance of large cinema chains, documentaries have been sadly lacking in my film diet.

A wealth of poorly made, sensationalist documentaries are in abundance on streaming platforms and, by consequence, many well-received titles have been exiled to festivals and limited show times. The UK's Picturehouse Group gets a big shout-out here for their continuation to drive 'Discover Tuesdays', more often than not, showcasing important documentaries at a discounted fee to keep the strand at the forefront of cinema-going, and going into 2017, it would be wonderful to see some of the larger cinema chains pick up more varied selections to provide an alternative to cheap comedy fillers and straight-to-video junk (Friend Request).

It has been yet another good year for proto-feminist film, but not so much for other under-represented groups, especially in light of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign at the beginning of 2016.

I am positive this will all change in a few weeks.

Nate Parker's hollow passion-project, The Birth Of A Nation (review HERE), was championed from the festival circuit but fell into disrepute over personal allegations against its director (where the media's consensus to muddle one's art with reality is viewed as acceptable - hello Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, etc), but in its wake, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight has emerged, which has been wowing audiences and award voters alike with its triptych tale of a gay black man in Miami.

For comparison, and due to the website being reasonably new, here are the last two years worth of Top 10s, all of which I still stand by and have stood their brief test of time.

Top 10s from 2014-5
  2014   2015
1 Under The Skin   The Clouds Of Sils Maria
2 Boyhood   The Duke Of Burgundy
3 Ida   The Falling
4 The Grand Budapest Hotel   Carol
5 Maps To The Stars   Whiplash
6 Nightcrawler   The Voices
7 Calvary   Unfriended
8 Frank   A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence
9 Pride   45 Years
10 Gone Girl   Catch Me Daddy

Without further ado, here are my choices for 10-6:

10. UNDER THE SHADOW
(d. Babek Anvari)

Iranian films are few and far between, and in recent years, Asghar Faradi has had reasonable directorial success as a national champion of cinema with a series of his films studying quotidian life in his home country starting with About Elly. In 2015, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,  by second generation Iranian American, Ana Lily Amirpour, took the horror genre to the hijab and crossed it with a thick slice of Americana.

It was with great delight that Under The Shadow came to the fore through a British-funded production which doesn't lay its cards on the table from the get-go. It is a slow burn horror which plucks notes from Farhadi's A Separation and Amirpour's A Girl... set in Tehran during the early 80's conflict where evacuation to neighbouring cities becomes a necessity, a mother and daughter are left alone in a tower block to fend for themselves. Crossing streams with 2014's The Babadook, this maternally-driven chiller is imagined and realised through manifestations and creeping paranoia in a tightly-packed 84 minute curio of hyperrealised dreams and tangible horror.

A well written and directed debut by Babak Anvari mixed with two convincing unknown leads made this claustrophobic spine-tingler a late but worthy entry into the top 10.

9. AMERICAN HONEY
 (d. Andrea Arnold)

Andrea Arnold’s successful take on forgotten American delinquency is a hypnotic, spiritual, rude awakening for the uninitiated. Getting inside its lead character’s head with ease, Arnold creates a world that captures the freedom and frivolity of youth, framed in a prison created by the rest of society.

Propped up by assured hands of professional actors, Shia Le Boeuf and Riley Keough, is a hand-hold enough for newcomer Sasha Lane to take notes and throw her amateur hat in the ring to astounding effect.

The mixture of both pro and amateurs in this 150-minute odyssey emboss the small scenes of improvisation and bring sufficient realism, gilding Arnold’s perceptive vision of what it is like to be part of an abandoned subset of society, with a banging soundtrack to boot.

Our full review can be read here: FilmSeekers American Honey Review

 

8. QUEEN OF KATWE
(d. Mira Nair)

Progressive in every way possible, and typically, buried by its champions, Disney's Queen Of Katwe was a bold gambit in bringing an all-black cast to their stable. The story of a shanty-town child, whose untapped ability to play chess and becoming a national sensation, is an incredibly life-affirming film without the slosh of sentimentality that you'll find in other Disney live-action stories.

Directed with gusto by Indian director, Mira Nair, Katwe plays out how you'd expect, but the ride is fun and tinged with good humour, a displaced world and very challenging concepts (teen prostitution, etc) with its PG sticker intact. I lauded it for the way in which it speaks to its audience rather than patronises or condescends, presenting its story in way that commands respect and not flooded with the tears of a Westerner's pity.

Our full review: FilmSeekers Review Queen Of Katwe

7. ARRIVAL
(d. Denis Villeneuve)

I first came across Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve's Incendies on a whim through the festival circuit. A brutal adaptation of a stage play into a crushing timeline of belief, affirmation and destruction, and what struck me was the way in which Villeneuve managed to capture the magnitude of where his characters sat. The physical world constructed around the narrative was beautiful, favouring many a wide shot to overwhelm and place insignifcance on our very being. Having believed this to be the start of an ascendence to better things, visiting his earlier works such as Polytechnique and Maelstrom, I realised he was already on the way.

A few minor hits (including the criminally under-viewed Enemy), and Denis is at the top of the pile - an auteurist director knocking out distinctive blockbusters one-by-one, of which, Arrival was no exception.

Amy Adams is a linguist brought in to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings, a template we've seen in some form or other elsewhere, but Arrival differs through what it doesn't tell us, plotting its denouement from the start right before our dumbfounded eyes. Adams brings a clarity and force to a character who is not sired with the woes of womanhood. In its place is a perceptive and diligent character whose emotions are not bound by gender, but by species, as she traverses time to find meaning in the language of the seemingly indecipherable.

An allegory for our times.

6. ZOOTROPOLIS
(d. Byron Howard & Rich Moore)

I was all but ready to write off Zootropolis (AKA Zootopia in the USA and ZooMania in Germanyas another smart-arse Disney vehicle with the eye-popping visuals we've all become accustomed to, and yet, I was wrong.

Zootropolis stilll does all of the above, and manages to filter its parallel ages with target audience jokes and slapstick but its cine-literacy and cohesive through-line that would make a non-animated film blush. The voice talents of Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, and in particular Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy Hopps, make this film feel special as they go above and beyond to put flesh to wire-frame bones in fully realising this film noir.

While the DMV sloths appealed to the younger members of the audience in the screening I attended, it was the transgressions into Hannibal Lecter pastiches and the Breaking Bad 'drug' subplot which caught my attention, and as with Queen Of Katwe, it was able to bring in more adult themes in a manner that was never superfluous to the pacing of the plot or for the sake of injecting humour. A memorable highlight was a rampage through a microcosm of rodents, who lived in this imagined world alongside the larger animals of Zootropolis, in a manner reminscent of Richard Scarry's drawings.

I've yet to view Zootropolis again, and not for lack of wanting, but I'll hazard a guess that the minutiae attention to detail and sight gags I spied first time around were just the tip of the iceberg for another joyful exercursion into the anthropomorphic.

Honorable mentions to films which missed the grade by a hair's breadth: I, Daniel Blake, A Bigger Splash, Ghostbusters 2016, The Neon Demon, The Survivalist, Swiss Army Man, Julieta, Deadpool, Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them, The Invitation, Kubo and the Two Strings, Evolution, Tale Of Tales, Love & Friendship, Dheepan, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hell Or High Water.

Part 2 of our countdown is HERE.



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Neil Ramjee

Head honcho of FilmSeekers.
Film Reviewer.
Condiment Enthusiast.

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