January 13, 2017

Top 10 films of 2016

This is a top 10 list with a pretty big caveat. I simply do not get the time to go to the cinema with anywhere near the kind of frequency with which I used to manage. In total I have managed to see just 27 films first released in 2016, and that really is not any kind of list from which to assemble a legitimate top 10. That said, the 10 I enjoyed the most are all films that I would enthusiastically recommend to others. My recommendation is to view this not as a proper "Top 10" - there are almost certainly films I have not yet seen that would supplant others on this list - but simply as a list of 10 films released last year that I think are well worth viewing.

The list got delayed by about a week because I took a while to successfully see Moana, and given my opinions on other Walt Disney animated features, it seemed a likely bet for a top 10 slot. Let's count them down from #10 to #1, and see if it made the list.

#10: Star Trek Beyond
Paramount. Directed by Justin Lin. Starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.
To be honest, Star Trek's 50th anniversary was pretty much balled-up thanks to a nightmare legal scenario where CBS owns the television rights, Paramount own the film rights, and one cannot release a production at the same time as the other. In the end it was this third feature film in J.J. Abrams' reboot series that held the celebratory fort - and it was pretty great: easily the best of the reboot films, and to my mind the strongest Star Trek movie since The Undiscovered Country back in 1991. In my review, I wrote: 'Critically, the film is funny. It draws a phenomenal amount of humour out of pairing off characters, particularly McCoy and Spock. It is so satisfying to see the relationship built so effectively by Kelley and Leonard Nimoy continues on in the hands of Urban and Quinto. The funniest moments are actually reserved for the film's climax - I do not think I have ever laughed so hard at a Star Trek film.' (review)

#9: Destruction Babies
Tokyo Theatres. Directed by Tetsuya Mariko. Starring Yuya Yagira and Nijiro Murakami.
Easily the hardest-going film on my list, this bluntly violent and dark satire of Japanese culture initially looks like an endless series of fist-fights, but winds up lingering in the mind long after you have stopped watching the film. It screened in Australia as part of this year's Japanese Film Festival, and is a powerful and innovative independent film. In my review at the time, I wrote: 'Destruction Babies is cold and violent journey to a very bleak place. I have a fairly high threshold for on-screen violence, however Destruction Babies repeatedly made me flinch. It is not an outlandish action film replete with machine gun fire, sword fights or elaborate martial arts sequences. Instead it is a quite disturbed drama about the failure of Japanese society.' (review)

#8: The Nice Guys
Warner Bros. Directed by Shane Black. Starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.
Writer/director Shane Black does seem to have a familiar cadence to his films, and in that light The Nice Guys does come across at times like a re-hash of his earlier and possibly slightly stronger comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That said, this film consistently made me laugh out loud, is anchored by two great performances, and evokes a nostalgic view of a dirty, grimy 1970s Los Angeles that is wonderful to see. Going back to the original review: 'The film's best asset, however, is Crowe and Gosling. The relationship between their two characters pretty much the funniest thing I have seen all year. Shane Black pretty much invented the 'buddy cop' comedy genre with Lethal Weapon, and this is a pitch-perfect example of the format. They play the humour of their roles brilliantly.' (review)

#7: Ghostbusters
Sony. Directed by Paul Feig. Starring Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy.
In my review of this Ghostbusters remake, I wrote that 'after all of the shouting, the sabotage attempts, and the widespread angst and anticipation, Ghostbusters turns out to be pretty great. It is not as good as its namesake, but that is not a surprise. What it is is a very funny, rather stylish variation on a 1980s classic, one that holds up very well by comparison and stands by itself as a tremendously enjoyable blend of horror and comedy.' I have watched the film a couple of times since then, because while it's story is a little weak and its structure a little flabby, it was for me the funniest movie of the year. A lot of that comes down to Kate McKinnon's star-making turn as Holtzmann, but to be honest all five leads actors were excellent. Who knew Chris Hemsworth had such a talent for comedy? (review)

#6: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Disney. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring Felicity Young and Diego Luna.
There is one major caveat to Rogue One, which is that no matter the quality of its writing, production or acting, it never quite shakes the problem that the film does not have a compelling reason to exist. That in mind, director Gareth Edwards and Lucasfilm throw an entire chest of toys at the screen, creating a film that manages to straddle the line between rampant child-like nostalgia and a darker and more grounded view of a galaxy far, far away. From my review: ' This is not a film about Jedi and individual heroes saving the galaxy, but rather an ensemble piece in which small victories are treasured and success comes with a significant body count. Despite the science fiction setting I did get a sense films like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and even The Magnificent Seven while I watched it: all of them films about a disparate group of fighters working towards a cause in an almost-unwinnable context.' On top of all of that, the film has finally given Donnie Yen an avenue to Hollywood: he deserves one. (review)

#5: Moana
Disney. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Starring Dwayne Johnson.
The directors who gave Disney The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and The Princess and the Frog returned to give the studio a film that very well may be the best of the lot. It is hard to say for sure - I've seen in once and positively adored it - but even attempting to leaven my opinions Moana still feels like it ranks as an equal to The Little Mermaid and Aladdin at the least. It was an absolute joy to experience, and I want to experience it again soon. From my review: 'It contains the rather earnest and gracefully constructed quest storyline of Treasure Planet, the humorous mentor/sidekick of Hercules, the top-notch music and songs of The Little Mermaid, and the sharp pop culture-savvy humour of Aladdin. While the film gets a fresh and distinctive aesthetic and content via its Polynesian setting and mythology, structurally and tonally it is a classic Renaissance-style Disney film through and through.' (review)

#4: Spotlight
Directed by Tom McCarthy. Starring Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams.
I have yet to write up my thoughts on this film into a review. Technically it is a 2015 film, but was released in Australia last January. In keeping with this blog's standard practice, since I myself am writing this from Australia, that makes it a 2017 release. This drama, based on the true story of the Boston Globe's investigation into the Catholic Church's cover-up of paedophile priests, is a superbly plotted and immaculately acted piece. Director Tom McCarthy keeps the emotional state on a slow boil for the whole film, which is not only commendable but necessary. Even as dry as it is, knowing these events actually happened makes this a profoundly upsetting and confrontational film. I am not surprised it won Best Picture at the Oscars last year. It is a remarkable and effective film.

#3: The Handmaiden
CJ Entertainment. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Starring Kim Min-hee and Ha Jung-woo.
A pickpocket is hired to assist a con artist in seducing a rich heiress, only for the plan to go awry when the heiress falls in love with the pickpocket instead. Park Chan-wook's adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith relocated the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, and in the process creates one of the most unexpectedly brilliant films of the year. It is lavishly designed and costumed, with a snake-like narrative that refuses to settle down. In my review I wrote: 'This film is a genuine surprise, in fact it is one of those films best viewed with as little knowledge about its storyline as possible. What I can say is that it is one of the best films I have seen this year, and showcases one of the world's most talented directors at the height of his powers.' (review)

#2: Train to Busan
Next World Entertainment. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho. Starring Gong Yoo and Ma Dong-seok.
Korean cinema lives on hyperbole and melodrama, which can sometimes make its individual films seem ridiculous or farcical. Often they work really well, and just occasionally they result in something truly remarkable. Train to Busan is a zombie movie set on a high-speed train travelling across the Korean countryside. It takes advantage of its confined setting to create a hugely entertaining and constantly inventive take on what has been of late an over-played and exhausted style of horror. In my review, I asked: 'So what does Yeon contribute to these pre-existing tropes? For one thing he brings a distinctly Korean sensibility to the genre, which means over-the-top emotion and anguish, as well as a pretty severe taste in which characters should die and in which order. There are a few characters whose archetypes are clearly out of bounds for a populist horror movie, but beyond that it really does feel like open season.' (review)

#1: Personal Shopper
Les Films du Losange. Directed by Oliver Assayas. Starring Kristen Stewart and Lars Eidinger.
Let us pause for a moment just to marvel at the career renaissance of Kristen Stewart. After making a few promising appearances in Hollywood films, she seemed to derail her reputation overnight with a starring role in the widely derided Twilight movies followed by a visibly bored turn in Snow White and the Huntsman. What a surprise, then, to see her deliver such astonishing performances for French director Oliver Assayas, first in The Clouds of Sils Maria and now front-and-centre in Personal Shopper. It was an easy choice for my favourite film of the year. It surprised me regularly, often got my on the edge of my seat, and consistently defied my expectations in terms of genre and plot. Back when it screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I wrote: 'There are a lot of layers interweaved throughout the film, combining all kinds of thrillers together: some supernatural, some psychological, some erotic, and all mixed in and out until it's difficult to tease out precisely what is happening. Some viewers are going to find the ambiguity infuriating: I thought it was one of the film's greatest strengths.' The film has continued to dwell in my mind ever since. It's a remarkably strong and entrancing work of cinema. (review)

There were a few films in 2016 that I did really enjoy, but which did not quite make it to the Top 10. It's worth noting Captain America: Civil War, Shin Godzilla, 10 Cloverfield Lane and the decidedly odd but memorable Where Are You Going?

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