2016; a year that will long be a stain in the past for a lot of the world’s population. It’s seen a couple of highs, some catastrophic lows and one of the biggest beloved person deaths list in recent memory. Thankfully, 2016 has produced some wonderful films to transport the masses away from such tragedies happening around them, and after a fierce session of whittling down dozens of exceptional pieces of work this year, I’ve pulled together the best highlights of this year’s cinema that resonated with me the most.
So as we reach 2016’s sunset, here is my selection of the year’s greatest highlights in film. I have not seen every film of the year, and many may disagree, but these films gave me my most memorable viewing experience.
- “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
It feels so good to be able to feature “Rogue One” on this year’s best of, the first of Disney’s more experimental Star Wars anthology films helmed by Godzilla’s Gareth Edwards. Pitched as a war film from the get go, dogged by troubled production rumors, the end result proved to be a marvellous concoction. Thrust into a world in the ever tightening grip of the supremacist Empire, Edwards brought us along to tell a story of underdeveloped yet wholly likeably rag-tag rebel group to act out the first paragraph of “A New Hope’s” opening crawl. Staggering set pieces, solid performances, staying true to the war aesthetic whilst not forgetting it’s space opera routes, “Rogue One” did this Star Wars fan a solid service. Worth seeing for a certain bad guy in a corridor alone.
- ‘Hell or High Water’
“Hell or High Water” was the chance to throw audiences back to how the Western genre was handled at its peak, and knocked me flat out. Director David Mackenzie strapped up and put his characters in for the long haul to ensure his pacing was met, and the film didn’t succumb to quick diversion into shooty action set pieces. The three main characters here played by Jeff Bridges (one of his finest performances in many years), Chris Pine and Ben Foster are enriched in their own personal backstory that’s carefully interwoven into their dialogue and infused with the story as it progresses across dusty and bleak western American towns. When the shoot outs go down at the end, they hit hard, because you’re caring. Straightforward but well-intentioned and expertly crafted.
- ‘I, Daniel Blake’
As a British citizen, Ken Loach’s remarkably powerful “I, Daniel Blake” hit me hard. There’s been fierce debate in various political forums on how accurate to true life situations this is – a man in Newcastle suffering a heart attack, deemed unfit for work but forced to apply for job seekers allowance – but even without all the political subtext, as a sheer narrative force this film pulls no punches. Loach tells this story from the perfect distance, knowing when to pull out and give the characters their space and when to close in to make the right beats shine. There are two outstanding performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires as two people ground into the floor by a horrible system, with a standout scene set in a foodbank that is one of the most upsetting, but perfectly pitches scenes I’ve seen in a cinema.
“Zootopia” is the film that everyone needs at this time. A staggeringly beautiful animation with loveable characters set in a gorgeous world that is endlessly inventive, but at the same time, it has a beautiful and uplifting message of inclusion, acceptance and diversity that adults can appreciate. Disney Animation Studios are upping their game considerably.
- ‘High Rise’
The phrase “unfilmable” will soon be redundant. Like “Life of Pi” before it, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel set in a high-rise flat block in the 1970s that sees its inhabitants descend into tribal warfare, is an explosion in a factory of delirium. The film is – for want of a better word – bat-shit crazy. But it’s how this craziness is handled and displayed that makes for such a thrill ride. People here eat dogs, beat each other up for looking wrong, fight over a space in the rubbish shoot, ride horses through corridors, and lead charges to drive an upper class banquet out of a swimming pool. Within this, Wheatley finds ways to bring out the comedy of the situation – there are genuine moments of delicious black comedy that hit the right notes. The more I watch it, the more it wraps me up.
- ‘Captain America: Civil War’
Marvel likes to get bigger and bigger, and “Captain America: Civil War” felt like their test for what Infinity War could shape up to be in 2018. On that basis, fans need not worry, Civil War was an all-out satisfying blast. Whilst the marketing drive mainly focussed on the epic throw down of superheroes and the clashing of ideologies, the film didn’t forget to be a Captain America film. There was great resolution to his three film arc, clever twists and some shattering revelations that could really pick at your moral compass, with it all being layered with a sugery coating of superhero action, famous faces and jovial banter. Whilst stuffed to the brim, nothing feels too out of place and everyone got given their own thing to do without it being a distraction. A courageous and succulent slice of super powered Hollywood.
- ‘The Edge of Seventeen’
A sleeper hit for this year, “The Edge of Seventeen” was a wonderfully genuine coming of age genre without a cliché in sight. Being a man in my early 20s the teenage high school years still feel fairly recent in my memory, and this film highlights many of the struggles of coming to terms with life and the many things it throws at you from early on. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig perfectly tells a story of the angst, awkwardness and hardships of a young person finding their place in their environment, with high school crushes, friendships and family life being shown in such a naturalistic as genuine manner that I believe any man, woman, boy or girl can relate to this film and appreciate its honesty. Leading teen Hailee Steinfeld and supporting grumpy teacher Woody Harrelson are joys to watch as their story plays out predictably, but are so recognisable from real experiences.
The thinking person’s sci-fi taken to new heights. “Arrival” presents itself as an alien-invasion film, and while that is technically true, it subverts all expectations and transforms into something on a much grander psychological scale entirely. I’m a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve’s previous works Prisoners and Sicario, where tension and suspense were the key ingredients. “Arrival” however is completely new ground for him, but he delivers as if he’s been doing this for decades. Questions about morality, interactions, world collaboration and conformity play their hand, but what ultimately surfaces are the issues of our life, and the journey we have, and the importance of our language in our lives. A revelation in the final act produces a whole new film out of the first two thirds, making it an essential film to view multiple times. Amy Adams is sure to pick up nominations for which she is long overdue a win for her lead, it’s a remarkable performance where she is at first overwhelmed, awestruck, intrigued to full blown steel through perseverance.
- ‘Hacksaw Ridge’
There was a point where it looked all over for Mel Gibson. There was no way of knowing if he could come back from some of the obscene comments and choices he made. “Hacksaw Ridge” quite literally blows that fear away. The story of a Second World War medic Desmond Doss, who famously refused to carry a firearm, is for the first half a tale of extremely commendable morality and persistence of a man who has made a choice and will not sway, but is still determined to serve his country, and the second half thrusting this morality into the horrors of the war with the Axis powers on the Pacific Island. Gibson doesn’t shy away from the moral dilemmas or the brutality of war, but mashes them together that at times comes off as heavy handed, but at its core is a blazing sledgehammer that deals devastating blows.
- ‘Nocturnal Animals’
Tom Ford’s intoxicating and delicious cinematic craft is a joy to behold. Everything in “Nocturnal Animals” just commands beauty – the vigorous performances, including some of the best work Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon have ever done, the grandeur of the cinematography and graphic use of colours and close-ups, and the fact that it can pack essentially three films into one. It’s brutal, glorious and utterly captivating in all aspects. Certainly not for the faint of heart; it features some beautifully haunting imagery and an unbearably white-knuckle roadside confrontation, but if endured, the rewards are rich and enthralling. Tom Ford is a cinematic necromancer, admittedly a divisive one, but his palette has gusto.