Above (L-R): Stills from The Fits, Green Room, Chi-Raq, American Honey, Queen of Katwe, and San Junipero
If something was made evident by the films of 2016, it was the power of coincidence. A film is not only a document of time intentionally – through subject matter, writing, and inspiration – but unintentionally. The world changes in an instant, and by the time a film is seen, whatever was made in the previous environment can either look more meaningful, or possibly insulting. A lot became more meaningful following that day two months ago, a lot of films more urgent or indicative of problems like greed and injustice and disconnection, benefitting from that thing called hindsight. In May, Green Room, where a punk band (lead by the late Anton Yelchin) attempts to escape a group of Neo-Nazis in the Oregon woods, was just an expertly made, terrifying lightning bolt of a horror movie. By December, it seemed like a prophecy of what was to come. Arrival‘s resolution of reconciliation seemed positively like a fairy tale, and Moonlight became more essential than ever. What we watch is received at the whims of the passage of time, destined to be viewed in new, moving ways with each revisit. Who knows what is listed below will look like in ten years, either enriched or diminished by what is about to come, but for now, this is the best of what I saw last year.
Note: there’s a few films on here that I’d add performances from to my previously published Best Performances List, including the ensemble from Moonlight, Teyonah Parris in Chi-Raq, and Natalie Portman in Jackie
American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson
But whether Arnold is following an aspiring teenage hip hop dancer desperate to go beyond the life she’s trapped in, or a mother of three young children reuniting with a former flame for an afternoon; she refuses to pass judgement. In a world of cynicism and division, Arnold’s tendency to humanise and sympathise instead of judge is unsettling. This is reality, but there is no venomous spirit, no pointing and laughing here.
The Big Short
A Bigger Splash
As The Rolling Stones blasts over the sound system and Harry tells his story with a glint in his eye, you can’t help but feel that this is what filmmakers and audiences alike wish to bottle with the onslaught of classic rock admiration. It’s messy, unapologetic passion and fun, a simpler time with shared memories that are far enough into the distance to only be remembered independent from reality.
But while Lanthimos takes pleasure in incorporating humanity’s inherently violent nature in his allegories of modern society, Tsangari refreshingly keeps the games and her dissection of fragile masculinity mundane and personal and the competition something that naturally occurs.
Darkness is Your Candle (episode 3 of The Get Down)
Edge of Seventeen
John Hughes wasn’t afraid of the darkness either, remembered with affection now because of his flair for individualism and imperfection (the film’s also produced by Say Anything powerhouse Gracie Films, which is another throwback in itself) . His characters were their own people – messy, impulsive people that ran on the adrenaline of emotion – rather than be stable and put together like their parents wanted them to be, who mended friendships and learnt from their mistakes. Writer and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig uses Nadine’s voice to tell the story. Her screenplay divests with perfection, cliches, or something even emotionally predictable (Harrelson’s scenes have the most chuckles, but the tears are just around the corner), putting itself squarely in the complex, funny, smart, and depressed brain of Nadine (the difficult role is expertly played by Hailee Steinfeld). It’s quick to assert Nadine, Krista, Darian and co as vivid individuals, not stand-ins for all teenagers. It shows her fully, empathises with her but doesn’t shy away from when she’s too abrupt and when she loses control. It’s refreshing in a genre that’s all too used to telling its stories in another, older, wiser voice, one that’s mocking and unsympathetic to those struggles that are forgotten with age.
Episodes 2 & 8 (season 5, Call the Midwife)
Myers brings this cacophony of excitement and fear to life with an infectious energy helped by the theatrical flourishes retained from the play. Party guests make their synchronised entrance to disco classic Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) as multi-coloured light globes flash, leaving Greta standing dumbfounded before she joins in momentarily.
The concept of big-budget, strange independent cinema is a concept that went out with the global financial crisis, something that makes the existence of Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, Kill-List)’s High-Rise nothing sort of a miracle. It’s a sense of daring excitement that permeates the whole film, a handsomely designed and hilarious mindfuck that will make one either rise from their seat either from excitement or en route to the door.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
If I Were a Bell (season 3, episode 8 of Transparent)
Kubo and the Two Strings
By the time the true emotional weight of the film is revealed, with a character uttering “You are my quest. You always have been,”, Kubo will have long worked its enchanting spell. One remembers a line from Monsieur Lazhar that speaks to the power of the memory of a loved one -“the dead stay in our heads because we loved them”. They are the stories that make us who we are.
La La Land
But even when La La Land isn’t leaping for the heavens through song, it’s soaring emotionally and quite satisfyingly so, with a dash of cynicism and urgency that the Golden Age wouldn’t have dared. It’s Stanley Donen, but also Jacques Demy, his influence felt on more than the blue and pink saturated frames. Demy imbued more melancholia into his films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg than Hollywood would’ve dared. Mia and Sebastian exist in a world of blockbusters and pop music, where the artificial reigns supreme. Many before them have tried, and many have failed.
The Light Between Oceans
Louder Than Bombs
Manchester by the Sea
The Neon Demon
The Nice Guys
Mackenzie Davis and Lee Pace in a scene from Halt and Catch Fire 3×09
NIM + NeXT (season 3, episode 9 and 10 of Halt and Catch Fire)
Not Yet Titled (season 3, episode 7 of Mozart in the Jungle)
Our Little Sister
Lowery’s fable, like many before it, is about the loss of belief in wonder and magic that comes with adulthood. Elliott is able to make himself invisible and is therefore initially visible only to Pete, the sole believer of his existence. And of course, when he eventually reveals himself, there are people who believe he’s dangerous, a persona he briefly adopts as a result (like any Disney movie, good and evil are not ambiguous).
Queen of Katwe
But take this central need to belong in one’s history a step further. Maisha Film Lab’s motto is “if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”. Permeating the energy of Katwe is the basic need to just tell the story, and for the voices telling it to be the ones for whom it is their story too. Look at the credits, and one will see that the crew was predominantly local to where the film was shot on location in Kampala, bringing the sights and sounds and life to the city. It’s a passion and personality that makes it all the more moving. The film hums with not only the weight of Phiona’s story coming to life, but also the idea that if Nair, a tireless advocate for diversity in the film industry, turned her camera down the next street, another remarkable story would reveal itself.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
San Junipero (season 3, episode 4 of Black Mirror)
Near the end of episode four of the new season of Black Mirror, there’s a line that painfully captures everything that has come in the blissful preceding 50 minutes. It is seemingly incidental, shouted in the heat of the moment of an argument with no pause after. It’s a plea, a desperate attempt to make someone stay, a gnawing need to vocalise something after years of keeping it buried somewhere deep inside. “It’s not a trap!” Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) yells at her new wife, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The ‘it’, first and foremost, is San Junipero, a seaside party town in the near future that is replicated from neon-drenched nostalgia for 1980s, ’90s, and even 2000s. There’s a poster for The Lost Boys on a street corner, and Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place On Earth’ fills the electric air. The inhabitants of this town have their consciousness uploaded to a bank of servers after they die, allowing them to live young, wild and free for all eternity. But moreover, ‘it’ is the reality of Yorkie and Kelly’s lives. Just this once, the world is what it appears. No strings attached, no need to be afraid of what’s lurking around the corner if you’re just being yourself. Here, the neon city which never sleeps is exactly what it seems. For once, Yorkie and Kelly will turn out okay.
But Brendan’s influence in the film proves to be more than musical. Like The Commitments, Once, and Begin Again, Sing Street is about the fear to not get up and out. Carney’s strengths are still doling out the type of easy nostalgia for music-fuelled connection that are effortlessly performed by an energetic young cast, but Sing Street is more melancholic, more yearning, more mature.
Aaron Sorkin, it turns out. Steve Jobs, as penned by him and directed with trademark frenetic energy by Danny Boyle, is both a pressure-cooker character study and an origin story, a double narrative that effectively (and unapologetically) conveys Jobs’s often corrosive character as well as admitting his mark on modern technology. Here, Jobs is not just his undoubtedly intelligent but single-minded self, but also a stand-in for the evolution of the psychology of the modern consumer. Jobs is driven by first ambition, then blind spectacle, in the process becoming disconnected from everyone around him, despite the evolution of technology. It’s both a character study and a time capsule of a world on the precipice of a tectonic shift.