Hello 2017! I can’t wait to get stuck into your cinematic offer, but before then, let’s look back at 2016; a healthy year for film-watching as far as I’m concerned. I watched a total of 293 feature films; the closest I’ve come to my yearly goal of 365. Of those 293, 236 were new to me and 103 were new releases – a huge jump from 70 last year … the festival life was good to me in 2016. I also watched an additional 175 short films, so I would say with confidence, this is the most I’ve watched ever in any given year.
I learnt a few things about myself and how I consume films this year through things such as ‘52 Films By Women‘, which I completed, and through the various happenings in a more-than-ever complex industry. I hope to write a little bit about my learnings in a separate post, but one thing that feels worth mentioning here, is that I’ve realised the “top 15” might still not be the tool I need/want for my end of year round-up. I went from 10 to 15 a couple of years ago to try to make room for more smaller titles or things that might have gone under the radar and it is somewhat working, however, I still feel it doesn’t give me the space I want to highlight certain films that may not be perfect but really should be experienced nonetheless. So this particular top 15, in this particular format, may be the last of its kind. Next year might be a blurb-less top 15 with an additional section focused on highlights of the year. It might sound like it doesn’t make sense, but it does to me. 2016 was also the last year I used star-rating for films. I don’t mention star-rating here, but I’ve always tried to score films and again, this isn’t working for me anymore. Letterboxd allows me to record film entries without scoring them which is fantastic.
Now, with all of the above out of the way, we’re almost good to go for my favourite films of 2016. Just two things left and then we’re off: firstly, my list includes festival titles not yet out in the UK. This is because my memory is terrible and also because sometimes, films get stuck in distribution hell. Whenever possible, I’ve noted the estimated UK release date so you can watch out for them. And secondly, I would like to highlight two titles that aren’t in the top 15 but have been important in my cinematic journey this year: David Farrier & Dylan Reeve’s Tickled, which I am too emotionally attached to to be able to rank amongst others; and Beyoncé’s Lemonade which I was also unable to rank amongst the rest but have adored as a video piece. Two prime examples of why this “top 15” business isn’t working out anymore, but, for now, here are my favourite films of 2016…
15) Anomalisa // Dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
“I wanted to slap Kaufman in the face and tell him to go f*ck himself, and ugly cry in his arms all at the same time” … this was my original review for Anomalisa. The film is flawed but it also hit home a bunch of times in portraying the depths of depression (or at least, my personal dealings of it). A truly original animation featuring one of the most realistic (if cringe-worthy) sex scenes ever.
14) Embrace of the Serpent // Dir. Ciro Guerra
This is one of those films that swept me away completely into another world. I thought I was there, by the river and in the jungle, and it was beautiful.
13) The Transfiguration // Dir. Michael O’Shea
Part teen drama, part coming-of-age, part horror, Michael O’Shea’s tale of a teenager who believes he may well be a vampire is one to watch for in 2017. Many critics have said it is inferior to the cult vampire films it references, I wholeheartedly disagree. It does something else with its references, and even through its imperfections, manages to deliver something I hadn’t seen before. I must state, however, that I have not seen Romero’s Martin which has often been cited as a major influence for this film. Currently scheduled for an April release in the UK.
12) The Handmaiden // Dir. Park Chan-Wook
No film has looked more beautiful than The Handmaiden in 2016. And despite the questionable length and gaze used for the film’s sex scenes, The Handmaiden remains one of the most delectable pleasures I experienced on screen this year. I still remember the WTF gasp Cannes’ packed Grand Théâtre Lumière let out at the end of the first act. Expected UK release is also April and in the meantime, please enjoy one of the best trailers of the year.
11) The Invitation // Dir. Karyn Kusama
It’s better to go into The Invitation without knowing a lot about it. Karyn Kusama’s dinner party thriller is an intense, complex, slow-burn, claustrophobic jewel in the genre landscape, and it is fantastic.
10) Room // Dir. Lenny Abrahamson
The last Oscar race was boring as hell. Only Room remains, but it really is beautiful.
9) Divines // Dir. Houda Benyamina
I am extremely sad not to have had the opportunity to watch this on the big screen. I missed it on the festival circuit and then Netflix bought its international rights, and although I am delighted it means more people can see it, I do feel robbed of a cinema experience. Houda Benyamina’s debut is funny, sweet, beautiful, at times brutal and heartbreaking, an absolute must-see.
8) Elle // Dir. Paul Verhoeven
This film is the one that’s grown the most on me. I remember enjoying it whilst watching it, but my love for it just kept on growing days and weeks afterwards. I haven’t watched everything Isabelle Huppert has been in, but I’d confidently say this is one of the strongest performances of her career, perhaps even, the strongest. Some will love it, some will hate it. It will certainly keep people talking for a while. I found it remarkable. Due for UK release in March 2017, but you can watch its awesome trailer in the meantime.
7) Ma Vie de Courgette // Dir. Claude Barras
COURGETTE!!! I’m sad his name has been translated to “Zucchini” for the US market, because Courgette is so much cuter. Life is hard for Courgette and he finds himself in an orphanage where he will learn again the meaning of the word “family”. This relatively short (70m) animation, is an absolute gem. It will break and mend your heart in equal measures. A delight expected on UK screens in May.
6) Adult Life Skills // Dir. Rachel Tunnard
This film completely took me by surprise. I honestly didn’t think it was for me and didn’t even go to the cinema to watch it. I only rented it on VOD recently as part of my “52 Films By Women” challenge. It follows nearly-30 Anna who is reassessing her life and living in her mum’s garden shed whilst doing so. She seems a bit stuck and it’s driving her mother insane… until an old school friend, an eight-year-old boy, and a new potential, if extremely awkward, love interest show up and shake her out of her isolation. It’s everything you don’t imagine it is and deals with so many fears I have had my entire life. Delightful, at times terribly sad and extremely funny.
5) Under the Shadow // Dir. Babak Anvari
This film is equal parts terrifying and beautiful, and incredibly smart. Set in war-torn 1980s Tehran, Under the Shadow follows Shideh and her young daughter, Dorsa, as their apartment building is hit by a missile. Superstitious neighbours also suspect something other has landed in the building, leaving one by one, until only mother and daughter are left to fight an increasing sense of paranoia and claustrophobia… It’s best to go in without reading too much about it too, much like The Invitation.
4) Manchester By the Sea // Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
It’s a little difficult to talk about this film without ruining it because I find its edit and storytelling remarkably effective. It isn’t really one of those that has spoilers as such, but the way it is built and when elements of the story are being addressed, are what makes this movie as enjoyable as it is. Grab some tissues, you will need them, but be assured it is also very funny in its grief and tragedy. Out in the UK in January.
3) Moonlight // Dir. Barry Jenkins
I had never been told this story and it touched me so profoundly despite being miles away from the world I live in, and those are my favourite kind of films. Moonlight, in its mix of sweetness and harshness, always remains incredibly kind to its main character, Chiron. Much is said through looks, much more than through actual words. It is a beauty of a film that truly must be seen. Some scenes and sequences are unforgettable. Out in the UK in February.
2) Life, Animated // Dir. Roger Ross Williams
I’ve already written a longer piece about what this film means to me and why I love it so much, so I won’t say much more here. I will say however, that I am myself surprised that it is the only documentary to make my top 15 this year, but that I have seen some great docs in 2016 and so my only picking one in this list isn’t representative of anything. I tend to mainly watch documentaries with a political or social context, so I guess perhaps I’ve enjoyed fiction a little more as a way to disconnect from what was already a difficult year in the news.
1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople // Dir. Taika Waititi
My love for Taika Waititi knows no bound and I still make it my life goal to one day befriend him. His What We Do in the Shadows, co-directed with Jemaine Clement, was my favourite film of 2014, and here he is back at number 1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the very first films I saw this year when it screened at Sundance, and it has stayed in my brain ever since. I have often called upon ‘Trifecta (Ricky Baker Song)‘ in 2016 to see me out of desperate times, and I would like to launch a campaign for it to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, so the cast can go on stage and perform it for us all. Wouldn’t that be delightful? It is so funny and sweet and sad, also. It fills my heart with so much love I can hardly bare it. Ricky Baker forever ❤️.