The best films of 2016
We needed films in 2016, just look at the news, but we were constantly told by clickbait headlines from outlets angered by under-performing blockbusters that cinema was on life-support. I adored how many films proved this sentiment wrong as if they were eavesdropping on the horrid conversation going on in pop culture. This list represents the films that pushed back in 2016.
Now for the criteria spiel. Selection is based on new releases I saw in 2016, at a film festival, or new to VOD during the year. I am based in Australia so there will be a few films from the U.S 2015 release schedule that made it onto the list because they were delayed a release here (and a few for 2016 that don’t feature because they are under embargo for a release in Australia in 2017, it’s complicated, I know). Documentaries will feature in a separate list.
Thank you for your support if you’ve dropped by The Popcorn Junkie this year, and now, here are the best films of 2016.
23. Green Room
“Remember: it’s not a party, it’s a movement”, the leader of a group of skinheads, Darcy (Sir Patrick Stewart), tells a mosh pit as he clears people out of a bar in the middle rural Portland so his gang can dispose of a punk band (Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner) being held hostage after witnessing a murder. Green Room mashed a siege thriller with a slasher but Darcy’s warning was the point of difference. So often, we’re used to delighting in the punishment boogeymen exact on teenagers for their freedoms (pre-marital sex, partying, you know the drill) and a bloodlust develops. Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier diffused any chance of solidarity with the villains with Darcy’s reminder because the movement he’s talking about involves neo-Nazi skinheads. And we’re not talking about punching bag Nazis from an Indiana Jones caper; Darcy’s crew were the real deal. Who would of thought we needed reminding of the horrors of these extreme views in 2016? Nazis took to wearing tailored suits and calling themselves the “alt-right”. They even got themselves a White House, damn.
22. Kubo and the Two Strings
A tale about how immortality is attained through storytelling. It not only sets the imagination ablaze but causes a beautiful inferno with the the handcrafted artistry of Laika. A tribute to how we record stories in speech, on paper and in music. It’s also a cracking adventure with gnarly monsters, magical weapons and a fierce guitar pick.
21. The Invitation
Alternate views thrive in pockets, they can’t be mainstream views, can they? The Invitation was an early highlight in 2016, which was a blessing, because I needed the whole year to recover from THAT ending. A magnificent comeback for director, Karyn Kusama, who put you in the headspace of a man on the edge of sanity and then thrust you into a world gone mad. The Invitation did for dinner parties what Jaws did for beaches.
20. The Fits
Teenagers (tweens, too) will turn anything into a social marker, even a mysterious viral outbreak that causes fits. Director Anna Rose Holmer put Toni (Royalty Hightower, remember the name, a breakout performance) between two worlds; boxing and dancing; the two sports sharing many similarities but with different modulating levels of femininity and masculinity. Within this space Toni finds her own identity while trying to fit in with the ‘fit kids’ who are afflicted by a mysterious environmental illness that causes them to hallucinate and spasm. Holmer is immaculate with every detail of The Fits while putting a dreamy haze of a youngster’s point of view on everything. One of the most beautifully shot films of the year with outstanding work from cinematographer, Paul Yee.
A mother and daughter bicker over whether it’s necessary to buy a cheap gift from an airport store. A father, son and their buddy rush through a terminal to so they don’t miss their flight to a golfing weekend. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) asks for a sandwich recommendation from a store clerk. These are scenes from the morning of 15 January 2009; the day US Airways flight 1549 struck birds on takeoff and was forced to land in the Hudson River. These rotating perspectives were dramatised throughout Sully, some only lasting seconds, to stamp ‘I was here’ on civilian lives that would be nothing more than collateral damage in any other movie. But these folks lived thanks to their pilot and the variety of witnesses and emergency responders who diffused the incident in less than 30 minutes, each person playing a vital role. In New York City it takes a village to rescue a downed aircraft. A soulful comeback for director Clint Eastwood about good deeds and the rebirth of a city.
18. Free Fire
Hot heads, hot lead and a blazing wit; Free Fire is a riot. I’ve never seen a movie shootout like this before. Forget ‘Chekhov’s gun’, ‘Ben Wheatley’s guns’ is the new wild standard for the bedlam the reveal of a gun, a lot of guns. So. Many. Guns. Free Fire doesn’t follow the conventions of flashy Hollywood gun play, it slowly bleeds out, grinding its way through each nasty surprise while juggling a nutty group of characters brought to life by an astounding ensemble.
17. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
A genius parody of the indulgent modern pop music documentary (Katy Perry: Part of Me, One Direction: This is Us and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never). The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) show the absurdities of the entertainment business – the TMZ parody, CMZ, is brilliant – and the disconnect of fame. I was in tears of laugher from the moment Conner4real’s (Samberg) debut album is revealed to have the title Thriller, Also and the cackling never stopped (never stopping). It’s This Spinal Tap for the 21st century. The Lonely Island have now made two of the best American studio comedies in the last two decades, here’s hoping for a third.
16. The Neon Demon
A teen model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), bounces on a diving board above an empty pool, musing on beauty overlooking the cityscape of Los Angeles in The Neon Demon. She’s hovering over the deep end but the layering of this shot suggests she’s set to plummet into the shallows of professional modelling in Hollywood. The Neon Demon, co-written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, tackled vanity and superficiality with the heavy hand of a body-positive commercial parodying the industry but there’s a ferocity to it that feLT like you were getting mauled by a diamond encrusted hyena.
15. The Jungle Book
A storybook come to life with the essence of old school Disney—the film opens with a hand-drawn version of the Disney logo that’s completely disarming to anyone familiar with those wondrous hand-drawn fireworks. And that’s the tussle that occured in The Jungle Book, Disney have forever been masters of wholesome entertainment with a sinister corporation lurking beneath the waves of goodwill—buy the toys, the bed sheets and the Mickey Mouse condominium—but The Jungle Book forced us to confront skepticism and be swept away by special kind of cinematic enchantment again.
14. Sing Street
Teenagers emulate their idols while scraping together their own identity. Sing Street captured what happens when teens filter through their inspirations and begin to craft a voice of their own, in this case, music. I adored how Sing Street worked through a jukebox soundtrack of 80s music as it left its mark on each character in pure moments of discovery. At the heart of it was a wonderful tale of two brothers. I still can’t get the songs from Sing Street out of my head and I am glad.
13. Steve Jobs
How to make a dent in the universe and alienate people. Danny Boyle proved he can reinvigorate any film genre, this time, it was the biopic’s turn. Boyle, with the help of Aaron Sorkins dynamite screenplay, dramatised four key moments of Apple founder Steve Job’s life with the intensity that fuelled the development of world changing technology. Sorkin’s script treads the find line between manipulation and sincerity; it’s so murky yet it elevates Jobs’ story into an allegory with impact. Ruthlessness is required to change the world and living with the sacrifices is the burden that must be carried, negotiated and endured.
Parent, creator of worlds. I was struck by the power of Room and how it portrayed the intimate relationship between a mother and child. An adult can create a system of beliefs for their child as a way to process their plight, in this case, being held against their will by a captor. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay were sublime, I needed a paternity test to prove they weren’t related.
11. Hell or High Water
Weary eyes, empty hearts, everybody loses. Another stunning portrait of American decay and the limits people are pushed to by systems stacked against them. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay was perfect and Chris Pine showed his stoic side with a career best performance along with the always reliable Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster. Capitalist America has forsaken its cowboys. I could not shake the image of a horse hitched to a metal pole at a gas station as an imported muscle car rolls in with electronic music blaring; stunning work from director Ben Mackenzie.
We’ve been conditioned by films to be terrified of perfection, sometimes depicted as paradise, a concept so entrancing on the surface with something usually rotting beneath the surface. In Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (based on the novel by J. G. Ballard) a group of people live in a state-of-the-art apartment block where the predominately wealthy population have everything they need; they only leave because of their pesky day jobs. Inside the building is a supermarket – the rich can’t be fraternising in a regular market – where the camera pans across stacked trays of peaches, all appears fine, until the lower trays are glimpsed to reveal mould has consumed the fruits. There’s an unease to the purity of High-Rise, an extreme reminder of our status as savages in suits restrained by social decorum but prone to breaking at any moment.
9. The Love Witch
After seeing The Love Witch it got better with every new film I saw. I grew to appreciate it more because there was nothing else like it in 2016. A genuine, one of a kind film with the artisan approach of writer, director, composer, production designer, editor and costume designer, Anna Biller. A seductive satire of gender norms flooded with light by cinematographer, M. David Mullen. Samantha Robinson gave one of the breakout performances of the year and should be at the top of every casting director’s list for 2017 and beyond.
At times it feels like Spike Lee is preaching to the congregation with Chi-raq but it inhabits an exact moment in time with precision. References to real events, names and places still fresh in the news cycle will have most reaching for Google if it’s screened anytime beyond 2016. Chi-Raq doesn’t live in the moment: it is the moment. And it’s this energy that makes it feel like Lee’s film will break the banks of a nodding, agreeable audience and find its way to the people who need to see this film for the sake of being enlightened about this emergency. Lee throws a big, colourful, attention-grabbing tantrum with Chi-Raq.
So often, sci-fi gets lost in the stars or wrapped up in clever concepts it can’t properly comprehend but Arrival managed to transcend its genre elements and get to the heart of our existence. Our time on Earth measured in pain and joy, not minutes and seconds.
6. Manchester by the Sea
The broken hearts club. Writer and director, Kenneth Lonergan, showed how it’s nearly impossible to put the shards back together, you can only let the pieces trickle through your fingers and it will always be that way. I marvelled at Lonergan’s economy, nothing is overwrought, four words culminate in an emotionally charged moment or a simple side shot of three picture frames on a nightstand evokes loss and empathy. Lonergan is a master of simplicity but none of it feels like shorthand. He keeps his wits sharp throughout this tale of grief in the way humour is used to diffuse dark times and it lends itself to authenticity at play throughout this film. The ensemble is outstanding. I can’t write anymore or I’ll start crying, again.
5. Swiss Army Man
When you’re broken enough, you’ll find meaning in anything, even flatulence. A wild tale to match the absurdity of life with flatulent pathos and beauty.
4. The Hateful Eight
As Hell (America) freezes over in the wake of the Civil War, Quentin Tarantino shook the hornet’s nest of race, gender, justice and the politics of patriotism in The Hateful Eight, and there’s a sense of gratitude that a troublemaker filmmaker of Tarantino’s acumen exists. The Hateful Eight was the right kind of trouble in 2016.
Real artists have day jobs. This statement is something I’ve been grappling with all this year because the authenticity of a body of work is usually tied to a career or getting paid for what you do; if not, it’s just a hobby. Plus I’m not really sure what a “real artist” is, do you get a certificate in the mail? And then Paterson comes along to show how inspiration occurs in the cracks of daily routines and the act of creating is valid regardless of what your bank account or job title says. Our artistic expression is an act of processing experiences and it comes in different forms: it can be impulsive, humble, directionless or way to relive pressure. The act of ‘doing’ is what matters most. Writer and director, Jim Jarmusch, creates a world where communities begin to form as Paterson (Adam Driver) finds likeminded souls as a reminder to keep writing poetry when he’s not driving a bus around New Jersey. We’re also in the company of Marine returning home and getting used to life as a veteran (Driver himself a real-life Marine) which bubbles subtly below the surface. Turns out real artists do have day jobs, after all.
2. American Honey
The view from the trash is beautiful. Writer and director, Andrea Arnold, shifts between the gorgeous and the grotesque aspects of America from the point-of-view of young people trying to break out of the poverty cycle from within a system that’s exploiting them. And there’s a level of self-awareness to these characters who how to revel in a moment to forget about their woes; a car singalong, a dance party in a supermarket or the company of kind strangers. It’s the little things. Parts of America feel mystical but can turn hellish in a heartbeat; the line dancing scene is terrifying. Sasha Lane anchors it like a veteran but this is her first film; a remarkable discovery by Arnold.
If history is written by the winners, then the survivors are the guardians of the legacy. Jackie is history unfolding itself to remind us of how different narratives shape what we remember and how we remember it. We see a documentary of a tour of the White house being made; a journalist gets the story of JFKs assassination from the first lady and we see how it’s edited for the desired outcome of Mrs. Kennedy. As Jackie smokes throughout the interview, she reminds the reporter, “By the way, I don’t smoke”. During one of the darkest times in American history, director, Pablo Larrain, shows Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman in transcendent form) looking for a way for her husband’s presidency to endure while looking for a reason to keep living. The quote from the musical Hamilton came to mind, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. I live in Melbourne, Australia. Before writing this piece I was walking through a park thinking about Jackie and I needed a moment to sit down, so, I found a nearby bench. I was sitting in a beautiful landscaped area with a pond and fountains. I looked around and discovered I was sitting in an area that was dedicated to President John F. Kennedy; a headstone with an inscription and dedication sat only meters away from my seat. Melbourne is 16,370 kilometres from where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, but a part of their memory sits in a park, in another country, on the other side of the world. The legacy is rock solid.
The Popcorn Junkie