I can’t believe that it is already that time of the year again. The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and as always, I release my annual list of the Best Films of the Year. The reason for releasing this list, which covers the 2016 year of cinema, at the end of February is a simple one – I don’t get the opportunity to see everything I want and need to see by the end of the year, and since the Academy Awards are taking place now, its understandable to release the list now.
Now there’s a big change – the previous years, I’ve always listen ten films and five honorable mentions. But 2016 was such an incredible year for film, I’m increasing both – for the first time ever, there will be seven honorable mentions and fifteen films on the list of the best of the year. 2016 was such a diverse and fascinating year for cinema, it would be wrong to not recognize the very best.
Also new this year is for each film on the final list, I choose one moment that I feel defines the film and makes it amongst the year’s best, and the scene that I feel represents the brilliance of the film as a whole.
As always, the rankings on this list have nothing to do with the actual scores given to each film, but rather are a reflection of the films I liked the best this year.
The Fifteen Best Films of 2016
#15 – The Edge of Seventeen
John Hughes made films that defined a generation, and still continue to resonate to this day. Teen comedies can sometimes be dreadful, but very often they can be utterly inspired and brilliant. The Edge of Seventeen is one of those rare teen films that manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking, and not only does it stand out as a brilliant homage to the films of John Hughes, it stands as being just as brilliant, innovative and utterly incredible as the best of his films. Kelly Fremon Craig has a fascinating career ahead of her, and along with the extraordinary leading performance from Hailee Steinfeld, and wonderful supporting performances from Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner and the incomparable Woody Harrelson, The Edge of Seventeen is just simply extraordinary.
Defining Moment: Really any moment where Steinfeld is on screen, but personally, her passionate breakdown towards the end is just beyond extraordinary, and solidifies her as one of the best young actresses working today.
#14 – Arrival
I adore Denis Villeneuve, and I believe him to be one of the best directors working today. Proving himself to be far more than a one-trick pony, he crafted Arrival, one of the most cerebral and intellectually-challenging science fiction films ever made. Not having the complexities of the films of Darren Aronofsky or the pretentious meandering of the films of Christopher Nolan, Arrival is layered and very well-constructed. It is far more intelligent than many films, and it shows that science fiction can also be incredibly realist and grounded as well. Featuring the greatest performance Amy Adams has ever given, and a script that is as heartbreaking as it is mentally stimulating, Arrival is exactly what cinema should be – something that challenges you, and makes you feel something much deeper than what we normally feel.
Defining Moment: There are so many incredible moments, but I have to say the first contact with the extraterrestrials is thrilling and terrifying at the same time
#13 – Sing Street
Have you ever gone into a film nearly completely blind, not knowing anything about it, and come out completely shocked at how brilliant it was? For me, Sing Street didn’t seem that interesting – and not having been a fan of John Carney’s previous films Once and Begin Again, I was reluctant. However, I found myself gasping in awe much of the time, shocked at the absolute brilliance of this film – the incredible heart, the unbelievable soul and the way in which it tells its story so honestly. The music was absolutely incredible (forget La La Land, this film had the best original songs of the year), and the performances, particularly from the young cast of unknowns, were absolutely spell-binding. This is what good, honest and heartfelt cinema looks like.
Defining Moment: The music defines Sing Street (as the title would suggest), so I would have to go with the musical number, “Drive It Like You Stole It”, a sequence so brilliant, that it culminated in a round of applause from the audience I watched it with.
#12 – Elle
Isabelle Huppert is the greatest actress in the world, without the shadow of a doubt. She can make any film amazing. In Elle, she gives her greatest performance (or at least one of her very best), and while there are so many brilliant aspects of this film, it is all about Huppert – she works so well with the material, creating a character that is complex and wonderfully independent. Huppert is the reason why Elle is so acclaimed, because without her performance, the film wouldn’t be nearly as good. However, it is also wonderful to see Paul Verhoeven back on form, because when it comes to dark and brooding psychological thrillers, Verhoeven does it incredibly well.
Defining Moment: The moment in Elle that really moved me was when Huppert goes to see her dead father’s body and screams at him, in resentment for ruining her life and turning her into the person that she is, with the reputation that one gain from having a serial killer as a father.
#11 – 20th Century Women
I watched this just in the nick of time. Everything about this film is extraordinary – the brilliant performances from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, the hilarious and heartfelt script, the assured direction and the beautiful cinematography. Boundlessly moving, it is the rare kind of bildungsroman that fully immerses the audience in the story of the lead characters, and the fact that this film is based in reality makes it even better – it contains truths that many of us feel but hardly ever are able to articulate, and while it may have some narrative flaws, it is just a calm, assured and honest depiction of what it is like to grow up, with a beautiful sense of melancholy and a lot of heart.
Defining Moment: This film ends with a tragically beautiful account of the future, where each character describes what happens to them in the subsequent years, which makes one smile at their happy futures, but also very sad that none of them really achieve what they thought they would.
#10 – Gimme Danger
Of all the documentaries I watched this year, it came down to three – the foolishly surreal Tickled (which has an honorable mention), and the modern Shakespearean political chronicle Weiner. However, it was the third one that really captivated me. I adore Iggy Pop, and his music has always been a continuous source of joy in my life. I also adore the films of Jim Jarmusch for his nihilistic and deadpan sense of humour. Both those elements collide beautifully in Gimme Danger, a loving ode to the greatest and most influential band of all time, told by the band members themselves, who are a rag-tag group of misfits that helped define punk and influence music of the future through their innovation, which Jarmusch chronicles beautifully.
Defining Moment: There are so many moments, but I have to say I really loved seeing the segment where The Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, bringing their career full circle and recognizing them as the icons that they are.
#9 – Swiss Army Man
If there is one thing I love in cinema, it is when someone takes a risk – and when the directors of Swiss Army Man decided they would make a film about farting corpse, I was beyond intrigued. What I was expecting to be a surreal and silly exploration of strange filmmaking and narrative actually turned into one of the most audacious and unbelievably heartfelt films about loneliness I have ever seen. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are incredible, and the film as a whole is just deeply moving and most of all, hilarious. In a world governed by sequel, remakes and reboots, something truly original is rare – but Swiss Army Man is as original as it comes, and I found it just spectacularly wonderful.
Defining Moment: Towards the beginning of the film, there’s a memorable scene where Dano rides Radcliffe’s dead body like a boat, with the body’s flatulence propelling it forward – it was at that moment I knew I was watching a unique film.
#8 – A Bigger Splash
There is just so much about A Bigger Splash to love – the incredible cast, the guilty pleasure that is the story, the dark tone the film takes towards the end, and most of all, the utterly unique sense of humour this film has. It is a seamless blend of different nationalities and generations, all thrown into one very dark and sometimes hilariously silly film about two couples spending time together. The film is filled with so many moments of utter beauty, in terms of the story and the cinematography. And it has Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. Nothing with those two can ever not be utterly brilliant.
Defining Moment: Ralph Fiennes gives one of his best performances ever here, and there is a memorable scene where he dances to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” – a joyful, hilarious and beautifully shot moment that fits the arbitrary tone of this film beautifully and elevates it, and foreshadows the dark turn the film will end up taking.
#7 – I, Daniel Blake
Sometimes the simplest stories, told in a very nihilistic manner, are the most effective. I, Daniel Blake, made me more emotional than any film in history. So simple, yet so complex, the themes of poverty and individuals trying their very best to make lives for themselves despite the circumstances is told so beautifully in this film, which features some of the saddest moments in any film. It is a film that will make you weep, and most importantly, motivate you to try and do your part to make the world a better place. Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are just incredible in this film as well, and Ken Loach proves himself to be a true master.
Defining Moment: There is a heartbreaking moment where Hayley Squires’ character goes to a food bank, and so overcome by hunger after not eating to give her children the chance to eat, and tears open a can of food, and tearfully eats the contents, one of the saddest moments I’ve ever seen in any film.
Richard Linklater is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and despite a misstep with Boyhood in my eyes, he returns with another brilliant slacker comedy, taking place during the 1980s. Hilarious, with great performances and an extraordinarily well-selected soundtrack, Linklater takes us into the lives of a group of people who aren’t particularly interesting or special, but the sense of nihilism and minimalism in this story gives rise to some incredible comedy and some very well-composed moments, where everything just comes together perfectly to create a film as funny as it is simple, and with a cast of some wonderfully talented actors, you can’t go wrong (if you would have told me two years ago that Blake Jenner, an actor best known for Glee, would be featured in two films on my list of the best films of the year, I would’ve laughed in complete disbelief).
Defining Moment: The scene where the characters drive around, singing along to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”
Animation seems to be dominated by Disney and Pixar – and even though both studios had huge films out this year, it was satisfying to see them beaten by Laika, a small stop-motion animation studio, with their magnum opus, Kubo and the Two Strings, a film that had what both studios have somewhat lost sight of – heart and soul. The film had a simple story but an extraordinary execution, and it was highly original and just so damn impressive. It was a marvel of animation, and proves that smaller studios may not have the budgets or the recognizable brand, but they are still able to topple industry giants with their originality, vision and utter brilliance.
Defining Moment: Pretty much the entire film, but I especially adored the scene near the beginning where Kubo brings his origami to life with his magical shamisen, creating one of the most dazzling cinematic moments of the year.
For quite a while, Manchester by the Sea was my favorite film of the year. It wasn’t fair how a film could be so well-written, beautifully filmed and incredibly acted, and also just elicit such raw emotion. It is a film about love and loss, and most importantly, about family. The themes within this film are honest and frank, and grounded by the heartbreakingly amazing performance from Casey Affleck and star-making turn from Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea is a film that soars, thanks to the incredible story and the beautiful script written by Kenneth Lonergan, who proves himself as a filmmaker as well, directing this film to perfection.
Defining Moment: I absolutely adored the final scene between Affleck and Hedges, where they realize that despite having to part, they are still closer than ever before, and that Hedges will always have a home with Affleck’s character, in a brutally moving and incredibly well-composed scene that ends the film on a sad but hopeful note.
#3 – Toni Erdmann
A nearly three-hour long German dark comedy about an old man playing pranks on his daughter – what isn’t to love? Maren Ade composes a film with characters that we are forced to care about, because they are so real and so well-written. Peter Simonischek is incredible as Winfried and his titular persona, and Sandra Hüller is simply extraordinary. The script is realistic and honest, and for those that are willing to brace the film’s extreme running time, it is ultimately worth it, because it pays off in the most spectacular way. It is a film that will make you laugh and cry, and inspire you to make connections with your loved ones before it is too late.
Defining Moment: Proving that a film like this can’t be made in mainstream Hollywood, Toni Erdmann has a scene where there is a birthday party, conducted in the nude, and rather than being shocking, it is one of the most inspired and audacious moments of the year in cinema.
#2 – La La Land
There is a reason so many people call this the best film of the year – it is utterly original, while still paying tribute to films that inspired it. It is well-made, by cinematic wunderkind Damien Chazelle, and the performances are so charismatic and brilliant. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling stretch themselves as performers here, and contribute to a film that will go down as one of the most extraordinarily meaningful and beautifully made films of the twenty first century. It is extravagant, but not soulless, and it is fun, but still very meaningful. It is simply extraordinary in so many ways, and I loved it.
Defining Moment: Any of the musical performances, but I particularly loved the “A Lovely Night” number, which gave Stone and Gosling the opportunity to play on their incredible chemistry and charisma, and show all the effort they put into being passable singers and dancers, and while they might not be the best at it, they did try, and that counts for something. But literally any moment in this film is extraordinary.
#1 – Paterson
The fact that Paterson is seemingly so underseen bothers me. It is everything someone could want in this kind of film – it has a moving story, dedicated performances and a rare sense of artistic hope that is lost in many mainstream films. Of course, it is also directed by Jim Jarmusch, who is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Adam Driver and Goldshifteh Farahani are utterly superb in the lead roles, and as a whole, it is such a simple and moving film. It may not be very showy, but it makes up for its simplicity in the fact that no other film this year is as beautifully meaningful as Paterson.
It is because of this that I am so happy to name Paterson as the best film of the year, without any shadow of a doubt, because it is just so incredible. Interestingly, Jim Jarmusch is now officially the first director ever to have more than one film on my list of the best films of the year – a previously impossible feat (mostly because not many filmmakers make more than one film a year), but if someone can achieve that, its Jarmusch.
Defining Moment: I’m not going to choose one moment, because the entire film is just one long, beautifully composed ode to what it means to be human, and what makes us who were are. Films with meaning are the best kind, and while it may be slow and simple, it is utterly extraordinary.
In conclusion, I’ll just re-iterate what I said previously – 2016 was an amazing year for films. I can name a dozen other excellent films released last year that were wonderful, audacious and unique. Here’s hoping that 2017 will keep up that level of quality, because it has a lot to live up to if this past year has anything to say about it.