My Best Films of 2016*
It hasn’t been a vintage year but there were still some gems. All but one of the films in my list I’ve seen just once, but I’m looking forward to seeing them again. Also of note, I think, is the manner in which I saw them: five were streamed at home and five I saw in the cinema, but of those five only one was an actual film projection. A subject for another blog perhaps.
* officially released in the UK in 2016
I’m a sucker for films about middle class bohemian types living it up in remote, exotic locations (wishful thinking on my part I expect). A Bigger Splash is loosely inspired by La Piscine (1969), which was remade once before, memorably, as Swimming Pool, by François Ozon in 2003. In all versions, the plot centres on passions swirling beneath a placid surface - hence the swimming pool motif. A Bigger Splash is, as the title suggests, a much more raucous affair than its glacial predecessors, with a dialed up to eleven Ralph Fiennes facing off against a literally muted Tilda Swinton.
A compelling hybrid of Oliver Stone and Michael Mann but with a much lighter touch than either of those heavyweights. The film pushes its need to make us sympathise with the protagonists a little too far towards the end, but up until that point this is a blistering takedown of the circumstances behind the 2008 financial crash which is as entertaining as it is disturbing. We can only hope there’s never a sequel.
A moving two hander filmed in just one week without a conventional script (there was a ten page story outline by leading man Mark Duplass), featuring my favourite performance of the year, by Sarah Paulson. It’s a simple but richly nuanced story about two former high school sweethearts who meet again by chance after many years and wind up reminiscing about innocent times together and the unfortunate circumstances in which they ended. A beautiful film that aches with regret for all of its 85 minutes.
Café Society is, not atypically for Allen, a melancholy film drenched in longing for a lost golden age. However, whilst thematically consistent with his oeuvre - particularly his 1987 masterpiece, Radio Days - this film is something of an aesthetic departure for Allen. Working with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for the first time, its saturated colour palette resembles a Bernardo Bertolucci film at times. This stylistic discord is compounded further by the director’s migration to shooting digitally, thanks to the influence of Storaro who has since gone on to shoot Allen’s next film. If even Woody Allen - bastion of analogue nostalgia - has abandoned celluloid, then this truly is the end of an era.
More striking and memorable than the technically superior and engrossing Hitchcock/Truffaut (also released this year), partly due to its eschewing of that film’s more highbrow cinephile aesthetic. By stripping away the artifice Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s fanboy enthusiasm revels in the minutiae of the subject, revealed here in all his sardonic charm. It’s also a striking reminder that his best work belongs on the big screen - most notably Casualties of War and Carlito's Way.
After a series of geographically expansive films, Tarantino returns to his roots with a non-linear homosocial mystery-thriller set in one room (although there are some truly epic exterior scenes at the start). As with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino avoids staginess via precise and inventive mise en scène in the mould of his heroes, Brian De Palma and Sergio Leone (with a dash of John Carpenter), expertly photographed by Robert Richardson in 70mm Ultra-Panavision. Many reviewers were left cold by the rampant nihilism but it feels to me to be quite a moral film - by Tarantino standards - thanks to a touching, if twisted, finale that acts as an earnest plea for racial harmony amidst all of the bigotry and bloodshed. Perhaps if the film had been released after the recent US election it might have struck a chord.
The best directed horror film I’ve seen since The House of the Devil (2009), anchored by a brilliantly understated performance by unfairly maligned ‘Tom Hardy lookalike’, Logan Marshall-Green. After an excruciatingly tense and gripping slow burn, the explosive last act isn’t quite as satisfying, despite a striking apocalyptic coda.
By staying true to Austen’s voice, avoiding the error of previous adaptations which overplay the romance and sentimentalise gentility, Stillman’s film is a reminder of the literary origins of his own voice: parlour-based social satire. Stillman’s elliptical narratives foreground conversation over so-called ‘action’ (bar the occasional dance), a potentially uncinematic approach made captivating by the charisma of his cast - in this case led by Kate Beckinsale, who it has to be said has been greatly missed.
A variable but mostly enjoyable romp set in an impeccably recreated 70s L.A., featuring Russell Crowe’s most amiable performance since State of Play (2009). There’s much to enjoy about the love-hate buddy routine between Crowe and Ryan Gosling’s ill-matched detectives, but the true star of the film is Angourie Rice as the latter’s daughter. After The Last Boy Scout and Last Action Hero, dysfunctional father-daughter relationships are something of a Shane Black speciality, but as a result of Black directing his own material it’s more tonally resonant here, as the notion of a deadbeat dad redeemed by his daughter is one he evidently cares deeply about.
This subtle road movie is another two hander set in a remote location. Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert play a divorced couple reunited in tragic circumstances after the suicide of their son, who has left mysterious instructions for them to follow in Death Valley. There’s a general tendency to over-complicate the medium but this is cinema in its purest form: two actors on a car journey, their great faces juxtaposed against an epic backdrop. No other art form can do this.
My Best of 2015 (for comparison)
Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
The Gift (Joel Edgerton)
Irrational Man (Woody Allen)
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
Manglehorn (David Gordon Green)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)