If you know me at all, you’ll know that it’s no secret that I love lists – ranking things, comparing things, enumerating things not meant for enumeration. I get all the complaints about list-making – the unnecessary hierarchy, the posturing, the clumsy attempts to grasp at canonisation – but, dammit, I just love putting the things I love in order.
Which brings me to my list of my top films of 2016. Which, curiously, it’s taken me some time to get to. Typically I’ll bash this baby out late December, yet here we are in January – after the Golden Globes, even! – and my website is only just playing host to my annual list. I could blame laziness, or holiday hangovers, but the real reason is that I’m a lot less enthusiastic about this list than previous years’.
This is not a reflection on the quality of the films I’m about to list, but rather the general shittiness of the year that was. 2016 was a terrible year, heralding the rise of Brexit and Trump and global temperatures. Personally and professional, it wasn’t too bad for me, but as I’m a member of white male middle-class, that’s not too much of a surprise: life is quickly becoming easier for people who look like me and harder for everybody else.
My first attempt at this list was in the style of last year, finding common themes across my 20 favourite films and speaking to each of them, making an attempt to locate meaning in a largely disconnect set of movies. But barely a thousand words in, I couldn’t bring myself to fully reflect on the ramifications of the films that spoke to me: it was simply too depressing. This is not to say that these films themselves are depressing – though some of them are – but simply that the reason they resonated was, in most cases, how acutely they spoke to the dire straits the world finds itself in.
There are light, delightful films in the mix that aren’t along these lines, naturally: films like Love & Friendship and La La Land whose pleasures are largely quarantined from last year’s political turmoil. (Though my list has, for the first time in a while, no major blockbuster films – it was a rough year for tentpoles, give or take a Civil War.) But the majority of these films examine aspects of our society that predict and presage the litany of failures we faced last year.
The films that follow speak to the challenges of resisting the cultural destruction born of neoliberal capitalism (Aquarius, Sherpa, In Jackson Heights) or how apathetic reluctance to resist breeds extremism (Green Room). Films like The Idealist, Spotlight and I, Daniel Blake explore the failures of institutions – institutions intended to serve but irredeemably corrupted. (In the wake of the recent Centrelink controversy, the latter packs a particular punch.) Films documenting the suffering wrought by racism (13th), classism (The World of Us), rape culture (Elle) and the idle rich (A Bigger Splash). Excellent films, all, many invigorating and exciting to watch, but depressing in their implications.
Without further ado:
My Top 20 Films of 2016 (Australian Release Dates)
20. A Bigger Splash
18. Swiss Army Man
17. The Idealist
15. Wednesday, May 9
12. In Jackson Heights
11. The World of Us
8. Lost and Beautiful
7. The Childhood of a Leader
3. Green Room
1. La La Land
3. Manchester by the Sea
Best “New to Me” Films of 2016
10. Branded to Kill
9. Lessons of Darkness
8. The Exterminating Angel
6. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
5. Blue Steel
3. Rabid Dogs
2. Stop Making Sense
1. All I Desire
Best Performances of 2016
Taraneh Alidoosti (The Salesman)
Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship)
Sonia Braga (Aquarius)
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper)
Emma Stone (La La Land)
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane)
Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys)
David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe)
Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann)
Anton Yelchin (Green Room)
Lily Gladstone (Certain Women)
Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash)
Riley Keogh (American Honey)
Kirin Kiki (After the Storm)
Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys)
Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake)
Tom Bennett (Love & Friendship)
Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)
Shia Le Beouf (American Honey)
Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash)
Makis Papadimitriou (Suntan, Chevalier)
Hayden Szeto (The Edge of Seventeen)
Honorary Mentions from ccpopculture Contributors
Moana is one of those films that strips away the dark cinema surrounding you and completely immerses you in the world on screen; in this case, the South Pacific. From stunning animation of lush islands and hypnotising blue oceans to Disney’s trademark characters that are full of heart, Moana delights and inspires audiences with a Polynesian twist. The cultural theme mixed with an engaging narrative and stand out soundtrack, featuring original songs from Hamilton creator, Lin Manuel Miranda, makes Moana the perfect summer escape for families of all types.
How do we communicate with those who do not understand us? If we knew how our lives are going to turn out, would we do it all again? These are just a couple of the big questions raised in Arrival; a sci-fi film the world so desperately needs right now. Focusing on humanity’s attempt to make contact with aliens who have arrived at twelve locations here on Earth, Arrival tells a story of language, perceptions and most of all, the resilient human spirit. Both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner deliver exceptional performances in a film that will leave you breathless and thinking about the bigger picture in life.
“It’s just how life is. I’m gonna try and accept this and get on with it, and make some art.”
Life can be hard. There’s bullying, parental negligence and separation, bigoted authoritarianism, regrets and unlived potential, economic woes, and the tough lessons of young love – but thankfully there’s music to help get you through it. Likewise, Sing Street is an impossibly charming escape from life’s harsh realities, framed as a nostalgic ode to 80s music and performed with memorable original songs. Sing Street doesn’t wallow in the circumstances it establishes, instead reminding us of life’s little wonders: the bond of brotherhood, the intoxication of dreaming big, the exciting discoveries of adolescence, and – most importantly – the healing effect of music through it all. This little Irish musical is a delightful distraction that leaves you with the affirmation that life is good.
“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”
There’s no black or white in Hell or High Water. Its protagonists are thieves, but they’re determined to create better lives for their children, no matter the cost, and seek vengeance against the system that failed them. The banks are the bad guys, but they’re faceless and within the law. Even the law enforcers are rendered as mostly powerless, constantly faced with grey judgements. With Coen brother-esque dialogue and careful, crisp cinematography, Hell or High Water paints a bleak picture of lower-middle class America. Sure, there’s some heavy-handedness but it’s the kind of message that needs some transparency in this current climate, especially pertinent given the circumstances of Trump’s recent election win. Hell or High Water is the ideal modern Western: a story of cowboys and cops with potent topical relevance.
The Russo brothers’ superb Captain America: Winter Soldier made them the heirs apparent to Joss Whedon’s Avengers series within the MCU. Any concerns they may not be up to the task were absolutely smashed by Captain America: Civil War. 2016’s best comic book movie turns a much maligned book arc into a completely natural story of clashing personalities and powers, and the airport scene alone is worth the price of admission. Even more impressive, the stakes are conspicuously small – when Cap, Iron Man and Bucky fight at the film’s end, there’s no more at stake than the fierce anger and sorrow of three men who can’t find their words. Bring on the next two Avengers films.
Last year’s Ghostbusters reboot was one of those rare films where the quality of the film actually mattered less than the fact that the movie existed in the first place. An instant feminist icon, the film was good without being exceptional, but the mere presence of 4 fantastically funny women comedians, in lead roles in an action-comedy, made it worth seeing. I caught it nearly 5 weeks after release, and even then young women with their families were still attending, obviously keen to see themselves represented on the big screen. A star-making turn from Kate McKinnon notwithstanding, the film probably won’t get the cult following of the original, but it’ll always have a special place in cinematic history.