04 Jan The ten best films of 2016
2016. The year the world seemingly lost its damn mind. Natural disasters; terrorist disasters; and even election disasters. Losing brilliant entertainer after brilliant entertainer – most far too soon. Every single week, there seemed to be a fresh punch to the stomach, especially as the year drew to a close. My escapism from the madness of this world has always been (and will always be) the world of film. When life gives me lemons, I flee to the cinema. Thankfully, the cinema was always there this year, and cinema gave us one of the best years we’ve had in a long while.
Smart, entertaining popcorn blockbusters. Moving, poignant independent cinema. Dazzling and powerful animated masterpieces. Thought-provoking and eye-opening documentaries. Drama. Comedy. Horror. Action. Sci-fi. Even an old-school musical. It has been a monumental and overwhelmingly delightful year, across all genres of film.
Was it all great? Well, of course not. It is Hollywood, after all. 2016 was again loaded with far too many unnecessary sequels, remakes and reboots that nobody asked for. The desperate obsession to create a tentpole franchise out of practically nothing is painfully obvious, and it seems audiences are catching on. Judging by the tepid box-office results for most of them, perhaps the message will finally get through to studio execs.
Original content actually managed to break through this year; something we haven’t seen for years now. While the highest-grossing films may not reflect this (there’s only two wholly-original films in the top 10 worldwide), if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see startling success for original cinema. In a year devoid of hope in so many other aspects of life, that is one ray of sunshine for me to cling to.
On a side note, I think it’s valid to give an insight into just how these ten films were determined worthy of inclusion in this year’s list. In all honesty, I don’t like using the term “best” when comparing and describing an artform like cinema, so the title of this article is a little misleading. By its very definition, the word “best” implies one thing is “better” than another. While all ten films could be considered “better” than 95% of the drivel released this year, that’s not necessarily how they found themselves on this list.
These tens films are simply those which affected me more than any other this year, each in vastly different ways. Some dazzled me with their originality. Some showcased genres in an entirely new way. Some made me smile. Some made me laugh. Some made me cry. Some simply gave me pure entertainment. And one disturbed me like nothing else this year. Most importantly, every single one of them made an impact.
But above all else, these are the ten films I consider to be the best examples and reminders of why I love and cherish film in the first place.
It’s a cliche I use every year, but chopping down this stellar year into just ten films has been exhaustively difficult. Just looking at the films left to fall into my honourable mentions showcases this. Leaving them out pains me, but alas, rules are rules.
One final note for any non-Australian readers; here in the land of Oz, we can be a little behind sometimes, so you won’t find films like Moonlight, Jackie, Loving or Manchester By The Sea on my list, as we’re still awaiting those apparent gems to be released here. Similarly, a few honourable mentions may have been 2015 releases elsewhere, but find themselves dropped into 2016 over here.
So without further ado, I present The Jam Report’s ten best films of 2016.
10. O.J.: Made in America
Now before anyone starts hollering about this being a television series, let me clarifiy. O.J.: Made in America was screened theatrically in the U.S. and the Academy have shortlisted it for Documentary Feature at the Oscars. Therefore, I feel it can be included here too.
After the brilliance that was American Crime Story – The People vs O.J. Simpson, you’d think we’d had our fill of O.J. for one year. But there is so much more to his story than just the murder trial. That story is brilliantly showcased in this epic documentary. At 7.5 hours, it sounds terribly exhausting, but somehow this series is utterly riveting from start to finish. Filled with moments that are surprising, unsettling, disturbing, tragic, angering, and ultimately captivating, this is captivating viewing, particularly for those not well-versed with Simpson’s history outside a courtroom.
Given its runtime, the depth this documentary is able to cover is remarkable, touching on everything from the absurdity of celebrity, racial issues still prevalent in America today, and, of course, the terrible failures of the American criminal justice system. When the film stretches outside of just Simpson’s story, it really shines. Providing an insight into how the racial tension of early-90s Los Angeles and the rise of the 24-hour news cycle combined to provide the perfect storm for Simpson’s legal team to twist to his advantage is both compelling and troubling to watch.
By utilising frank and honest interviews with those closest to Simpson including childhood friends of both Simpson and wife Nicole, failed prosecutor Marcia Clark, crucified policeman Mark Fuhrman, and tragic-figure Fred Goldman, father of somewhat-forgotten murder victim Ron, the documentary provides an insightful and eye-opening look at the fall of an American god, and maybe even the fall of America itself.
9. Hell or High Water
Each year, a film finds itself on this list by simply being a damn fine, solidly made, and gripping piece of cinema. This film may not necessarily do anything new, but it certain does everything right. And sometimes, that’s all that matters. Last year, that was Sicario. This year, it’s Hell or High Water. And funnily enough, they both share the same screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan.
From its jarring opening sequence to its dramatic conclusion, Hell or High Water demands your attention with every single frame. Much like Sicario, this is tense cinema of the highest order, mixed with perfectly executed moments across the genres of drama, comedy, and an old-fashioned shoot-em-up Western. Cemented by the wonderful performances of its two leads, Chris Pine (who knew?) and a career-best Ben Foster, the film really shines with another stellar performance from Jeff Bridges, taking things to another level and showing them both how it’s really done.
Blurring the lines between good and evil with its socially aware and highly timely plot, you will find yourself conflicted as to who to cheer for – the bank-robbing brothers desperately trying to save the family farm or the old-timer Texas Ranger chasing them down? The violence will shock you. The tension will have you on the edge of your seat. The comedic banter will make you laugh. But overall, this film will truly grab you from start to finish.
2016’s biggest surprise package, and one if its biggest triumphs. Sure, the signs were there. The trailer was a triumph. The source material of comicbooks were a goldmine for any screenwriter. And after being in pre-production hell for almost a decade, anticipation was high, maybe even too high. Yet no one expected the wonderful breath of fresh air Deadpool provided.
After the comic-book movie exhaustion we’ve all suffered through the last few years, it seems this film struck its chord at just the right time. This genre really had it coming. We’ve been beleaguered with far too many oh-so-serious superhero films lately. It was time something brought them down a peg or two. Enter Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool, with his delicious tongue-in-cheek, fourth wall-breaking and self-deprecating humour. Enter a new wise-cracking hero for the ages. And enter a new style of superhero film for the ages.
From its brilliantly-crass opening credits, to the refrains of “Angel of the Morning”, you knew you were in for something entirely unique and staggeringly bold. When have you ever seen a film directed by “some douchebag”? Or its leading stars referred to as “god’s perfect idiot” and “some hot chick”? Breaking with the traditional stifling and constricting PG-13 rating (M15 here in Australia), and giving us a Marvel film with realistic blood, violence, naughty language, and sex, turns out to be a stroke of genius. This ain’t no kids movie, and nor should it be. The stunning box-office result speaks to the appeal and ultimate success of an adult film like this.
Loaded with the most delicious jabs at practically every aspect of the superhero film industry, particularly Reynolds’ monumental failure as Green Lantern, nothing is sacred in this film. Therein lies its brilliance.
What a year for animation. In all honesty, I was tempted to create an entirely separate top 10 list just for animated films. Walt Disney Animation Studios continued its incredible run of recent years with yet another remarkable triumph. If Frozen broke the mould on what a female-centric Disney film should be, Moana shatters it even further.
Witness a Disney Princess without a love interest, or any desire to find a love interest, for that matter. Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is not searching for a Prince, but rather searching for herself and her place in her world. And while she may battle coconut pirates, a giant crab (fabulously voiced by Jemaine Clement), and a fire-breathing lava god, the toughest opponent Moana must overcome is her own self-doubt. What a bold statement that is for any young girl (or boy, for that matter) to take in.
While the film is visually stunning, with some of the most gorgeous landscape and character design work Disney has ever delivered, it truly soars thanks to its beautiful score and musical pieces, particularly “How Far I’ll Go” – a worthy successor to the earworm that was Frozen‘s “Let It Go”. No surprise really, considering the pedigree of the composers, Lin Manuel-Miranda (aka the man behind Broadway phenomenon Hamilton) and Mark Mancina (aka the man behind Disney’s criminally-underrated Tarzan).
But it’s when Moana meets demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, in delightful form) the film really comes to life. Watching brave, selfless Moana take on brash, selfish Maui is true cinematic entertainment. Their banter is a sight to behold, and their evolving relationship is the film’s true heart.
Sure, the film features many typical Disney trademarks (the physical and emotional journey of its heroine, the cute animal sidekicks, the “all hope seems lost” moment), but Moana sets itself apart by delivering a strong, intelligent, independent character children can and should truly hold as an aspirational figure.
6. Rogue One – A Star Wars Story
If last year’s Star Wars – The Force Awakens helped fade memory of those god-awful Episode I-III prequels, Rogue One – A Star Wars Story completely obliterates all traces, with the arrive of the prequel Star Wars fans have always yearned for. While the first Star Wars “side story” utilises liberal lashings of nostalgic references and franchise cameos (particularly in its applause-inducing finale), it manages to deftly stand on its own feet as a brilliantly entertaining stand-alone piece of cinema.
Even those outside the fandom will be delighted by the never-ending thrills and spectacle this film serves up. You need no previous franchise knowledge to enjoy this thrill ride, largely thanks to a smart and astute screenplay, coupled with the wonderful performances from a whole host of characters, particularly our new heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and the latest scene-stealing and genuinely hilarious droid, K-2SO (the voiceover genius that is Alan Tudyk). But it’s the film’s decidedly darker plot-tones that really set it apart from everything else in the franchise. We finally have a Star Wars film made exclusively for grown-ups.The sacrificial nature of the rebellion’s mission to capture the plans of the Death Star is not only deeply moving, it’s also incredibly inspiring.
While the every-man can adore this film, for those within the fandom, Rogue One – A Star Wars Story is the stuff of dreams, and ultimately ends up working on an entirely different level. Franchise questions are finally answered (especially one involving the Death Star which has plagued fans for decades). Connections between the films are made, without ever feeling forced or cheesy. Glorious references are dotted throughout. Old friends (and foes) return. New friends are made (and lost). But most of all, the magic you felt when you first saw the masterpiece that is Star Wars for the very first time will overwhelmingly return.
5. The Witch
The horror genre may truly be the most difficult type of film in which to create something genuinely special. Terror is a very personal emotion, so eliciting fear from an audience is no easy task. But in recent years, brilliant films like The Conjuring, It Follows and The Babadook have re-ignited faith in the horror genre, though they were all outdone this year by a film that seemingly came out of nowhere, The Witch.
While the film may follow the lead of many familiar horror tales, it ultimately takes the genre into new and down-right disturbing territory. A simple tale of a close-knit family, forced to start over after banishment from a New England settlement in 1630, slowly diverges into an absolute nightmare, as the family spirals into a hellish ordeal when baby Samuel goes missing. The family dynamic, as each struggles with grief, blame and confusion over Samuel’s disappearance, is agonising to watch.
But it’s when the ominous supernatural undertones, which the audience has felt since the family’s arrival at their new woods-surrounded home, start to takeover this film really grabs you. And it does so by refusing to fall to well-worn horror clichés. There are no cheap jump scares here. Every scare is earned entirely. No twist-ending to make you groan with frustration. No cheap explanation to neatly summarise the film’s events. We don’t even get a happy ending. This is pure, unsettling dread from the outset which leads to a conclusion that is equally upsetting as it is horrifying.
It’s bleak, tense tone makes for genuinely uncomfortable viewing from start to finish, but therein lies its power. This is precisely how a horror film is supposed to make you feel. And with glorious, slow-burn filmmaking like this, you’ll feel it to your very core for days to come. Fair warning – you may never look at a goat the same way again…”wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
While 2016 was a stellar year for animation, one filmed shined above them all – the sublime Zootopia. Breaking further away from its acquired (and once industry-leading) cousin, Pixar Animation Studios, the Walt Disney animation second renaissance continues with their finest 3D-animation achievement yet (yes, even better than Frozen).
Zootopia rightly takes a leaf out of Pixar’s handbook on crafting an animated film that is humourous and entertaining, while masking a deeply important social message; something other animation studios attempt but fall well short of. It’s not every day you get a “children’s film” that dares to tackle issues like racial prejudice, gender inequality and social xenophobia. With its inspiring “never give up” plot, which encourages us all to break stereotypes, accept those around us, believe in ourselves, and, as the film’s theme song suggests, to “Try Everything”, Zootopia may just be the most socially relevant film of the year. Even more so, now we’re in a post-election/President Trump world.
But parents, fear not. Your littlest ones likely won’t even see this side, or at least not consciously. They’ll be too delighted by the stunning animation design, thrilling sequences, and the glorious and instantly-iconic characters, namely due to the enchanting voice-over work throughout. Lead by the genius pairing of adorable Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy Hopps and slick Jason Bateman as Nick Wilde, their evolving friendship is beautiful to behold, and delivers one of the film’s most powerful messages – never judge a book by its cover. Ultimately, this dichotomous reaction to the film is the mark of a truly great animated film; one that works successfully for both young and old alike, for a multitude of different reasons.
On the surface, Zootopia is animation storytelling at its finest, and stands tall as the best children’s film of the year. But look a little deeper, and you’ll discover one of the most surprisingly powerful films of the year. In a year of so much despair, Zootopia hits the mark at just the right time. And the genuinely-hilarious sloth sequence (easily the year’s funniest moment) is worth the price of admission alone.
Cinema based on true stories can often hit the hardest – especially when that source material is so astounding, it would be difficult to believe if it weren’t true. Case in point, Lion; the incredible tale of an Indian boy, Saroo, who finds himself lost from his mother and family, and eventually adopted and raised by an Australian couple in Tasmania. 25 years later, grown-up Saroo utilises the wonder of Google Earth, coupled with his hazy memories of his homeland and his unrelenting determination, to attempt to find his way back home to his birth mother. What follows is a superbly told, uplifting tale of love, courage, and the power of the human spirit.
Cemented by the incredibly moving and star-making performance of Dev Patel, the true story of Saroo Brierley, and his remarkable journey of self-discovery, is the year’s most emotional experience. The film truly succeeds by never feeling sappy, unrealistic or manipulative, thanks in large part to Garth Davis’ restrained direction and Luke Davies’ understated screenplay. Nicole Kidman’s role as adoptive mother, Sue, is the best thing she’s given us in a decade, with a powerfully maternal performance, clearly made all the more personal to Kidman, an adoptive mother herself. Every word she utters is delivered with such care and honesty, particularly in one of the film’s defining moments, as she recalls why she adopted Saroo in the first place.
But the real shining star here is young Sunny Pawar, in his debut performance as Saroo at age five, during the film’s deeply tragic opening chapter. Pawar, and his beautifully emotive little face, often reflects the power and emotion of his gripping scenes without ever uttering a word. This kid is astonishingly good and will genuinely break your heart, as you watch him struggle to contemplate the situations and dangers he unwittingly finds himself in.
Lion also delivers some of the year’s best cinematography, with cinematographer Greig Frasier capturing the stunning landscapes and stark contrasts of India and Australia, with some truly spectacular aerial photography. It’s rare I implore people to see a film, as reaction to a film is very personal. But this is a piece of cinema that transcends that, and will genuinely touch and affect all who see it, especially mothers and sons. A beautiful observation of family, heritage, self-discovery and the ties that bind, Lion is a profoundly moving film that will touch your heart like nothing else this year.
Sci-fi cinema of recent years, like Gravity, The Martian and Ex Machina, have all expertly showcased the human condition, even amongst their other-worldly themes and settings. That tradition continues with Denis Villeneuve’s third successive film to find its way into my top ten list, Arrival. Judging this movie on face-value (and terribly deceptive marketing) alone, this film seems like your average alien invasion action flick. Why are they here? What do they want? Are we all doomed? You’ve seen it all before, right? Nope. This is no Independence Day.
While it’s true the film’s initial plot deals with the sudden appearance of twelve alien spacecrafts, dotted randomly throughout the globe, and determining the meaning of their arrival on Earth, its real heart deals with the notion of what it is that makes us human and how connectivity, be it human-to-human or human-to-alien, is always attainable, despite the toughest of language barriers. The film’s greatest lesson may simply be to suggest its only through our connections to others do we truly learn about ourselves.
After Sicario and Prisoners, it was clear Villeneuve is the modern master of drawing an audience in slowly and irrevocably, with his distinctive slow-burn cinema style always leading to an incredibly satisfying finale. Arrival is no different, with a measured but captivating style which creates an uneasy tension with the audience, ultimately taking us to a shocking and twist-filled finale. Arrival further cements Villeneuve’s status as the most exciting filmmaker working today. Are you listening, Academy?
But a film like this lives and dies by its leading lady. Thankfully, Amy Adams is at the helm. In the hands of a lesser actor, Arrival would have easily fallen victim to its own ridiculousness. After all, this is predominantly the story of a woman interacting with a bunch of space squids, hiding behind a huge glass wall. Yet Adams brings such realism and emotion to her desperate attempts to understand these visitors, it’s impossible not to be taken along for the ride. Adding to that, her interspersed backstory with the loss of her young daughter is both beautifully touching and desperately tragic, in what is one of the best performances of Adams’ sublime career. Her transformation from soft and passive to heroic and brave showcases why she’s one of the best in the business right now. Are you listening, Academy? Sixth time’s the charm, yeah?
With some of the year’s most impressive cinematography, particularly the stunning long-take aerial sequence to establish the spaceship’s landing space, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s achingly haunting score, Arrival is this generation’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The ending, with its startling twist that I dare not speak of, will demand repeat viewings, and isn’t that ultimately the mark of a truly wonderful film?
1. La La Land
As difficult as it was to narrowing 2016 down to ten films, the choice for my top spot was easy. Perhaps the easiest choice I’ve made since I started doing these top ten lists a few years ago. There was only one film that could take it out this year. There was only one film that grabbed me like no other this year. A film I have now seen three times, and would see again in an instant. A film I will truly cherish for the rest of my days. That film is the exquisite La La Land. I said this with Brooklyn last year, and it applies here too; when I love a film, and I mean really, really love a film, I genuinely find it difficult to summon the words to encapsulate that love. Speech leaves me when I attempt to describe my reaction to La La Land, but let me give it my best shot.
Right from the opening musical number, set to the sounds of the glorious tune “Another Day of Sun” and taking place right smack in the middle of a Los Angeles freeway traffic jam where our star-crossed lovers first meet, you know you’re in for something special. The sight of dozens of people, singing and dancing atop their traffic-bound cars, is utterly dazzling, and the kind of musical spectacle we haven’t seen for decades. Not is it glorious to watch, it brilliantly sets the tone for what’s to come. If you don’t like musicals, get out now. La La Land is a return to the glory of the old-fashion American musical, while still being entire fresh and contemporary.
Every single visual aspect of La La Land is an absolute triumph. From its stunning cinematography, capturing the rarely-seen beauty of Los Angeles (that sky!), to the gorgeous production and costume design, particularly every piece of clothing Emma Stone showcases. What’s so striking is how instantly iconic and memorable so many frames of La La Land are. The aforementioned freeway dance bonanza. Mia (Stone) and her glamourous actress friends, strutting their way down the street, in perfect unison. Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) dancing routines worthy of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; first high-up in the hills of Los Angeles, then amongst the stars inside the Griffith Observatory. And the “alternate reality” finale sequence is the stuff of cinematic fantasies which genuinely left me swooning in my seat.
Let’s not forget the performances of our two leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Stone is an absolute revelation, as hopeless romantic Mia, desperate to see her name up in lights. She has always been an actress you cannot take your eyes off, but she takes that to an entirely new level in this film, especially during her two audition sequences. One will break your heart. The other will make it burst with delight. Gosling is typically charming and smouldering, but with far more heart and warmth than any character portrayed before. Witnessing Sebastian’s internal battle between following his passion for jazz music or nurturing his love for Mia is heartbreaking, and spirals towards a conclusion we know is coming, but hope to somehow avoid.
I could go on and on and on. There’s so much I haven’t even expanded on; the expert use of lighting to showcase certain elements of each scene, the brilliant and instantly lovable score, the sharp and witty screenplay, the triumph that is Damien Chazelle’s direction, the genius that is Tom Cross’ editing, the soundtrack bursting with gorgeous numbers, like the hauntingly beautiful “City of Stars” or Stone’s utterly captivating “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”. There is simply too much to love about this film. They don’t make movies like this anymore, folks. La La Land is a miracle of cinema, and the best film of 2016, by far.
It would be remiss of me not to give out some honourable mentions to the films that made the short list but didn’t crack the top 10:
Bad Moms – perhaps the most underrated comedy of the year
Captain America: Civil War – the best pure popcorn entertainment of 2016
Doctor Strange – Marvel’s most original and visually stunning film to date
Everybody Wants Some!!! – pure joy, from start to finish
Finding Dory – delightfully nostalgic and incredibly entertaining
Ghostbusters – shamefully treated but surprisingly wonderful
Hacksaw Ridge – my #11 film and a sublime return-to-form for director Mel Gibson
Hail, Caesar! – a farcical riot only the Coen Brothers could achieve
Kubo and the Two Strings – a worthy challenger to Disney and Pixar’s stranglehold on animation
Nocturnal Animals – deeply disturbing and wonderfully acted, especially Amy Adams (again…)
Room – a star-making turn from Brie Larson
SING – wonderfully enjoyable with superb musical numbers
Sully – impeccable acting from Tom Hanks and wonderful direction from Clint Eastwood
The Big Short – the film that should have won Best Picture
The Jungle Book – sublime visual effects create the most wondrous journey
Trolls – utterly delightful and beautifully animated
Weiner – captivating documentary showcasing the rise and fall of an American idiot