As difficult as it’s been to narrow down my favourite films of 2016 to a top 20 (and an additional 20 special mentions), it’s been a real joy remembering so many special highlights, including some films that I saw more than a year (and countless films) ago.
There are a number of different ways film reviewers / lovers can choose to classify which films can count towards a given calendar year. My parameters are: I generally choose films that either had an Australian (general or limited) release in 2016 or screened at film festival in Australia in this period. The exceptions are: a handful of films that were available through streaming or other legal services this year, plus one that screened on Australian TV.
I left out a number of excellent films that I saw in 2016, but won’t have their Australian general releases until early 2017. The highlight of these is Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, which opens on Jan 12th.
Special mentions go to 20 films that I loved, but didn’t make my top 20 favourites. So here (in alphabetical order) the rest of the films that round out my top 40 for 2016:
Aquarius, Being 17, The Big Short, Certain Women, Destination Arnold, Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, Elvis & Nixon, Everything is Copy, Julieta, Life, Animated, The Love Witch, Mahana, Remembering the Man, Room, Sing Street, Son of Saul, Sonita, Weiner, Winter at Westbath and Zach’s Ceremony.
A number of these are hidden gems that I wouldn’t have been able to experience were it not for the excellent choices available at various film festivals this year – especially the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) and Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).
And here are my top 20 ….
#20. Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Basically, we have a group of half a dozen Greek blokes engaged in a pissing competition at sea. In trying to ascertain who’s the best, they compete over categories such as the best coffee drinker, the best sleeper, and yes: who has the biggest dick. There’s some terrific and absurd black humour. The more ridiculous the challenges get, the funnier it is.
#19. 13th (Ava DuVernay)
Here we see the devastating history of the US criminal justice system with regards to race. It’s a shocking examination of the links between the history of slavery and the current mass incarceration of African American citizens. A group of experts examine the horrific cycle of oppression, including the worrying trend towards for-profit private prisons. DuVernay presents complex information in such a vital and lucid way that it’s impossible not to be moved and outraged by these truths.
#18. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee)
This film has such a clever premise: a 21st century re-telling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the classical Greek comedy in which women withhold sex from their men as punishment for their involvement in war. Lee brings us a wonderful mix of comedy, musical and drama, set in modern-day Chicago. Teyohan Parris is fantastic as the leader of the women. I’d previously only seen Parris in a small, recurring role of secretary Dawn in Mad Men. She’s such a great talent, I was glad to see her in such a commanding leading role. And what a genius move it was for Spike Lee to cast Samuel L. Jackson in a Greek Chorus type-role. He’s just terrific in it.
#17. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
This film is a great example of a really strong ensemble drama. It tells the story of historic systemic child sex abuse by numerous Boston Catholic priests. The performances are universally excellent. I particularly loved Mark Ruffalo’s work. The true story is compelling, and particularly heartbreaking and maddening, given how many people (via willful ignorance, turning a blind – and in many cases complicit – eye, or outright abhorrent criminal behaviour) contributed to the ruining of childrens’ lives. It went on to win Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture earlier this year.
#16. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)
Another heartbreaker. Loach’s Palme d’Or winner is a sobering social realist drama that’s a damning indictment of Britain’s welfare system. There are so many moving scenes, but two in particular got really stood out for me. One takes place at a food bank, and highlights the quiet, devastating desperation of a young mother doing her best to look after her children in impossible circumstances. The other scene that really got to me was when the titular Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is on the phone to the welfare service’s help desk (and I use the word help loosely), and he’s experiencing a Kafkaesque nightmare of extreme proportions. My own frustrations dealing with call centres and help desks when trying to sort out internet access, incorrect phone bills and the like seem (and are) so petty when compared with Daniel’s Catch-22 situation. It’s a literal matter of life and death. He can’t get welfare payments unless he gets a job: but he has paperwork from doctors stating that, due to his heart condition, if he does work, he may die.
#15. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
I loved this film. I was quite moved by its loving nods to Old Hollywood, and loved the combination of colourful, joyous folly and underlying melancholy. Given my love of the Golden Age Hollywood classics (see here for my thoughts on a number of these wonderful films), I’m the target audience for La La Land. I do, however, understand that the film isn’t for everyone – and I’m perplexed by the current ‘us versus them’ that’s going on between some lovers of the film and some of its detractors. I know that it’s sometimes difficult to genuinely understand what someone sees in a film you hate, and that conversely it’s sometimes disappointing to hear that someone can’t see anything redeeming in a film that you love and means a lot to you: but it’s certainly not a character flaw to not be moved by a particular film. Some of the best and most illuminating film-related conversations can happen when those who disagree on a film talk to each other about what they love or hate about the particular film. I always learn more when discussing a film with someone who disagrees with me than I do when it’s a mutual love-fest or bitch-fest about a film (as fun as those can be!).
… But I digress … I veered off traffic somewhat. Back to our regular programming ….
#14. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
So much to love here. It’s a clever, cerebral, thoughtful, at times profound, and often super-tense sci-fi film. There’s a gorgeously understated, subtle and deeply internal performance from Amy Adams. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but suffice to say there are some wonderful mind fucks. It’s a film that I couldn’t stop thinking about for a long while after seeing it.
#13. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
What a beautiful, graceful film from Jarmusch. It’s so lovingly detailed. It’s measured and calm. Such beauty in the routine and mundane. And I love the whole Adam Driver playing a Driver who’s called Paterson and lives in Paterson thing.
#12. Paris 05:59 (Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau)
For a film set in real time over the course of only an hour and a half, the two lead characters go on such profound emotional journey. I found the film incredibly moving, and loved the contrast between locations: particularly when the loud, intense sex club is followed by the quiet, almost empty streets. All the biggies are either experienced or discussed – including love, sex and death. The performances are beautifully nuanced. It was a real pleasure to see this film with a full house on the MIFF closing night.
#11. The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit)
This beautiful, almost wordless animated film really blew me way. It’s absolutely mesmerising. The musical score is exquisite, as is the animation – especially the gorgeous depiction of light. The story is a simple, yet deep fable. The film also has a great sense of humour. Especially delightful are the recurring trio of tiny, cheeky crabs.
#10. The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
This brutal and confronting film had me utterly captivated. I’d heard a lot of hype about it before I saw it, but didn’t have super-high expectations, given that I didn’t feel the Birdman love the year before. Di Caprio’s performance was astonishing, and I was happy for him when he won his Best Actor Oscar this year (though I still think his career-best performance was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, back when he was a teenager). But the real highlight of this film for me is the cinematography. Master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s work here is just magnificent.
#9. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
I had the pleasure of seeing this film in 70mm, and it was wonderful. It was also an extra treat to have Tarantino and cast members Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell in attendance. It’s one of those rare three hours-plus films that actually felt about forty minutes long. I loved the way the film was structured into chaptered sections. The performance that impressed me the most was Jennifer Jason Leigh’s. Her ballsy, grinning powerhouse Daisy was a wonder to behold.
#8. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
I know, I know! There’s a lot of debate as to how O.J.: Made in America should be classified (TV series, multi-part documentary or stand-alone 7.5 hour documentary film) – which has implications regarding its eligibility for awards contention, among other things. I’ve chosen to put these debates aside, and I’m looking at is as a very long (and magnificent) documentary, which is how it felt to me. I watched it in five parts on TV, but it felt to me like one cohesive unit, rather than five separate themed sections or parts. Basically, it was among the best things I saw this year, and I want to acknowledge its greatness. I lived through the events described in this documentary, and remember them clearly, but at the time I didn’t understand or recognise many of the issues highlighted here in Eldeman’s impressive work. Though the excellent dramatised TV series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was unrelated to O.J.: Made in America, they make great companion pieces (and the latter reminds us just how spot-on the casting was in the former).
#7 Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
This exquisite, beautifully shot film was one of my big highlights from this year’s SFF. Its moving (and at times most disturbing) story revolves around five young Turkish sisters, and the attitudes and behaviours they’re up against in their conservative society. They’re simultaneously sexualised by their society and told that just about everything they do (even their participation in innocent games) is sexual, and therefore unacceptable. Most of the actors playing the five sisters made their acting debuts Mustang. Their mature, nuanced performances are universally excellent. Particularly impressive is Günes Sensoy, who plays the youngest sister Lale.
#6. Brooklyn (John Crowley)
I’m particularly partial to all things Irish or Irish-related, and this lovely film is no exception. There’s an impressive central performance from Saoirse Ronan (as Eilis), supported by a strong cast, including a most charismatic Emory Cohen. It’s the moving story of a young immigrant’s journey: leaving her homeland and family in small-town Ireland for the unknown, promising world of New York. The production design, costume design and cinematography gorgeously invoke a mid-century world of both New York and Ireland. The film is nostalgic and old-fashioned, in the best possible way.
#5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
This absolute gem from New Zealand is the funniest film I’ve seen in the last year. It’s absolutely hilarious. I saw it at a critics’ screening with an audience of around 25 people, and I’ve never heard such collective laughter in that small screening room. The film is not only funny, but it has a HUGE heart. Central to its charm is teenager Julian Dennison’s performance as Ricky Baker. When we first meet Ricky, he’s just a cheeky little bugger. He’s so damn magnetic, and throughout his journey we learn more about him, and we see his other shades. His relationship with Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) makes for some great odd couple scenarios. The most poignant relationship, however, is between Ricky and his Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata). Bella’s love for Ricky is such a sweet thing to witness. One of the best (and most hilarious) moments in the film is a special birthday song she sings for Ricky. I was actually in pain from laughing so much the first time I saw this scene.
#4. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Toni Erdmann was a fantastic SFF highlight this year. It’s such a strange film, in a deliciously unique way. Its main focus is an unconventional father/daughter relationship. With every unexpected and freaky turn, we become more invested in the characters. The film is unlike anything I’d seen before. Wonderfully absurd, as well as genuinely moving. And I’ll never look at a petit fours or cheese graters in the same way again!
#3. Carol (Todd Haynes)
What an elegant, captivating thing of beauty this film is. It’s just exquisite. Haynes’ every frame is a gift. The colour palette is glorious. Goddess Blanchett is luminous and poised. Mara is extraordinary. Their poignant story of longing and torturous waiting is heartbreaking. And the costume design is swoon-worthy.
#2. Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
Oh joy joy joy! Each time I’ve watched Hail, Caesar, I’ve had a smile on my face for 106 minutes. Given my aforementioned love of Golden Age Hollywood, this film is absolute perfection to me. There are too many Hail, Caesar! highlights to mention all of them, but here are a few favourites: the gorgeous colour (all of it!), all the Capitol Pictures sets, Scarlett Johansson’s Esther Williamsesque water ballet number, Channing Tatum as a super-camp dancing sailor, and every word that comes out of Ralph Fiennes’ mouth – with the gold medal going to ‘Would that it were so simple’.
After seeing this perfect film in February, and loving it so much, I assumed nothing that would come after it could top it as my ultimate favourite of the year. Then in August I came across a film that took me by surprise and just blew me away. The two films are just about neck-and-neck in my estimation, but the August film would inch ahead by the smallest of margins ….
#1. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
It was my seventh day at this year’s MIFF, and I had four sessions lined up for the day. The first session was Cameraperson, which I didn’t know much about. I was super-tired and my brain was mush from seeing back-to-back films. I almost dropped it from my schedule, so that I could catch up on some sleep. I’m so glad I didn’t do that. It ended being my #1 highlight film at MIFF, and made it into my top 20 films of all time list.
Cameraperson is a documentary by Kirsten Johnson, who prior to this film worked for decades as a documentary cinematographer, with the likes of directors such as Laura Poitras and Michael Moore. The film includes footage Johnson shot over these decades – in multiple locations, including Nigeria, Bosnia and the US. There are biographical elements, where Johnson investigates the relationship between documentary makers and their subjects, and even scenes close to home, where she explores her own mother’s journey through the ravages of Alzheimer’s. There are scenes and themes involving birth, death, loss, love, disease, laughter, triumph, failure and more. I’m wary of using this phrase, because it’s been overused to the point of parody, but Cameraperson really is about (dare I say it? …) The Human Condition.
It’s difficult to write about this film without just entering into a total gushfest. Suffice to say, it’s magnificent, and I was profoundly affected by it.
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf