When you’re as bitchy as I am, it’s so much easier to rail on bad films. Despite this trend towards cynicism, it’s only fair to recognize the good, so without further ado, here are the best films of 2016.
Let’s bitch it out…
I tend to struggle when starting lists and originally I struggled to identify more than a few films worthy of acknowledgement. Then after some reflection on my film screenings at the Toronto Film Festival (which gave me unprecedented access to tons of films), here are the best of the year, arranged alphabetically.
The rules: Films on the list were either released in 2016 or they went wide this year after a limited run in 2015.
Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016)
Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve makes intelligent films that respect his audience. Arrival is his most accessible, high-profile film since Prisoners: a big budget sci-fi film about the arrival of alien visitors who expose our humanity through unification and division. Anchored by an understated, emotionally complex performance by Amy Adams, the film eschews genre trappings that have dominated science-fiction of late in favour of a measured contemplation on language, diplomacy and memory that feels brutally on point considering the political state of the world in 2016. The ending packs an emotional wallop, but most importantly feels hopeful, which is a quality we could all do with more of.
- Confession: If forced to admit under duress, this is my #1 film of the year
- Best scene: The team’s first entry into the spaceship is a masterful combination of music, direction and performance
- Read our TIFF review
Autopsy of Jane Doe (Øvredal, 2016)
A near perfect marriage of jump scares and character actors (Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch) at the top of their game make this haunted house film a winner. A father/son team of morticians are called on to perform a last minute autopsy of the titular Jane Doe and the deeper they go, the more strange occurrences occur. Øvredal has complete control of the film’s tone and atmosphere, wringing maximum tension and suspense with his use of lighting, blocking and minimalist special effects. Autopsy of Jane Doe isn’t groundbreaking, but in Øvredal, Cox and Hirsch’s capable hands, it’s a great little scary flick.
- Best scene: The sloooow approach of an entity in the darkness during an escape attempt in an uncooperative elevator
- Read our TIFF Midnight Madness review (via Bloody Disgusting)
Closet Monster (Dunn, 2015)
The first of two Canadian features on this year’s list, Closet Monster is the relatively straightforward tale of closeted teen Oscar (Connor Jessup, who will also turn up on the Best TV list). After witnessing a horrific gay sexual assault as a boy, Oscar refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality as a teen, equating his desire for a new co-worker with physical manifestations of pain. The plot follows Oscar throughout the summer as he attempts to navigate his coming out, his parents’ disintegrating marriage and life in his small town. The film benefits from a relaxed observational filmmaking style and a comedic voice performance from Isabella Rossellini as Oscar’s opinionated hamster, but the film lives and dies with Jessup, whose powerful performance is a revelation.
- Best scene: Oscar dresses up in a wolf costume and nearly ODs at a party in the film’s trippiest, most stylized sequence
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Who would have thought that the director of horror films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister had the ability to produce something like Doctor Strange? Derrickson is the latest in a long line of assured Marvel debuts, but Strange is something special. Not unlike last year’s Ant-Men, the film introduces a key player in the shared universe, but this cosmic intergalactic time-traveling mystic brings with him substantially greater responsibility in the form of crazy special effects. Sure, we can could just say that Benedict Cumberbatch is great (he is) and that Tilda Swinton brings surprising depth to a secondary character (she does) and that Mads Mikkelsen is a great villain (um…well…he’s a bit stock actually), but in truth, it’s all about Doctor Strange‘s mega trippy visuals. Hands down the best superhero film of the year.
- Best scene: The chase scene through the city before The Ancient One falls
Don’t Breathe (Alvarez, 2016)
Fans of 2013’s revamped Evil Dead probably had an inkling what they were in store for, but the general public was caught off-guard by the intensity of director Fede Alvarez’s summer thriller about three teens who break into a blind man’s home and immediately find themselves at his mercy. Perfectly balancing scares and slow-burn sequences with a controlled use of space and technical elements (light, sound, slow-motion), Alvarez created the year’s must-see thriller. In our theatre the audience was on the edge of their seats, so much so that the temperature noticeably spiked throughout the film’s run-time.
- Best scene: Tie – Alex’s attempt to get off the skylight before it breaks / The infared basement chase sequence
Elle (Verhoeven, 2016)
By now it is clear that Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, has completely abandoned Hollywood and, if critical reviews of Black Book (2006) and Elle are any indication, he’s never made a smarter creative decision. Elle is easily the most divisive, controversial film I saw this year. That’s no surprise considering its subject: the film opens with Michèle (played by France’s national treasure, Isabelle Huppert) being sexually assaulted (off-screen) in her Paris home. Michèle doesn’t cry, or retreat – she actively seeks out her assailant, and engages him, both in discussion and sexually.
Elle is distinctly uninterested in keeping the rapist’s identity secret (he’s unmasked halfway through the film). Instead Verhoeven keeps his camera and the narrative trained on Michèle and all of her complexities: the ball-busting female boss of a misogynistic, youth-skewing video game production company, the sexually active single woman in her sixties, the daughter of a notorious father whose criminal actions still haunt her. The resulting film is unlike anything Hollywood is producing: it is uncomfortable, confronting, and shocking. It is also highly entertaining, exceedingly well made and features one hell of a star performance from Huppert.
- Best scene: Any time Michèle dresses down one of the smug assholes at work
- Read our TIFF review
Hell or High Water (Mackenzie, 2016)
It’s aggravating how misleading the trailer above is because it makes this neo-Western look like a simplistic heist film. In truth Hell or High Water is a carefully crafted character study on the impact of poverty in the Southern United States. As brothers who rob the very banks that threatens to foreclose on their family ranch, Chris Pine and Ben Foster are outstanding. The true standout, however, is Jeff Bridges’ laconic Texas Ranger who is hot on their trail in the dying days of his career. That Bridges’ manages to make his performance Oscar worthy instead of a clichéd stereotypical is truly a marvel. Great writing, direction and performances make Hell or High Water a must-see film, even for those (like me) who don’t particularly care for Westerns.
- Best scene: The denouement at the farm, which perfectly encapsulates the entire film in just a few minutes
Julieta (Almodóvar, 2016)
Almodóvar has a keen insight into femininity so it’s no surprise that his most acclaimed films are the ones that feature women as protagonists. Julieta is a double-threat because it features two female leads: a single character split across two timelines. The film follows Julieta as she matures from a single graduate student to a wife and mother before losing both titles when her husband dies and her daughter abandons her without saying goodbye. Structured like an emotional mystery, scenes from the past are bracketed by the present day as Julieta reminisces about a series of bad decisions that cost her everything. Julieta is emotional, honest and exceedingly well-acted by both young (Adriana Ugarte) and older (Emma Suárez) actresses. A strong return to form for Almodóvar.
- Best scene: The simple, elegant visual that the director uses to swap one Julieta for the other when the timelines converge
- Read our TIFF review
La La Land (Chazelle, 2016)
Possibly the most lauded film of the year (expect loads of Oscars in February), La La Land is director Damien Chazelle’s old-school musical follow-up to Whiplash. By casting talented, charismatic actors with chemistry to spare – that would be Ryan Gosling (his first of two appearances on this list) and Emma Stone – it’s easy to invest in this formulaic story about two kids trying to make it big in the city of angels. Sebastian wants to open a Jazz club, while Mia wants to be an actress; together they’ll rise and fall (as a couple and in song). Not unlike Boogie Nights, this film starts with a bang, peaks at the height of the relationship and grows dim during the ensuing turmoil, but there’s a whimsy, heart and joy to both the production and the love affair that’s undeniably uplifting. The finale is overwhelming in all of the right ways, carrying the audience out the door on a cloud of love and hope.
- Best scene: Tie – The party musical number / The extended fantasy sequence near the end
Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)
There’s an inherent danger when describing Moonlight‘s affect: overhype. At this point whenever I describe the experience of screening the film, I’m constantly aware of how affective and intimate the film is and how my grandiose description may overwhelm others’ expectations. So let’s put it at this: this is the tale of a queer black boy growing up in South Florida. The film casts a lens on three periods of his life and in each he goes by a different name: as a pre-teen he is Little, as a troubled teen he is Chiron and when he’s an adult he nicknames himself Black. The three actors who play each iteration of this man are exceptional, but what’s most exceptional about Moonlight is how it is filled with think piece commentary about race, sexuality, poverty, and addiction but never compromises its intimate, emotional connection with the audience. Powerful and raw, Moonlight is La La Land‘s greatest Oscar challenger and a true must-see.
- Best scene: The clandestine beach “date”
Paris 05:59: Theo & Hugo (Ducastel, Martineau, 2016)
What begins as an 18 minute explicit sex scene between two gay men turns into a romantic all-night date that’s reminiscent of Linklater’s Before films. Perfectly capturing the intermission between satiated lust and excited first date, Paris 05:59 is the kind of queer film that could only have been made in the last decade (Theo and Hugo’s sexuality is normalized, but many of their encounters speak to the history and reality of gay people). Part of the film’s novelty is simply how exciting it is to watch two men fall in love over the course of a single long night.
- Best scene: The guys catch the first train of the morning filled with unassuming people heading to work
Raw (Ducournau, 2016)
This is the notorious French cannibal film that sent an audience member to hospital following a fainting spell at Midnight Madness. That incident likely raised horror audiences expectations unreasonably high; in fact Raw is better described as an art-house horror film in the vein of Let The Right One In with a flourish of French horror extremism. 16 year old Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives at veterinary school a devout vegetarian, but an early hazing ritual involving rabbit kidneys sets her down a dark path. Alternately darkly hilarious and squirm-inducing, Raw is as much a coming of age film as it is a horror film, though queasy viewers may want to steer clear. After all, we don’t want any more viewing incidents.
- Best scene: A sibling bonding moment takes a dark and uncomfortable turn
- Read our TIFF Midnight Madness review (via Bloody Disgusting)
Sing Street (Carney, 2016)
Another coming of age film, this time set in Dublin in the 1980s. Main character Conor’s life isn’t great: he’s picked on at school, his parents are on the verge of divorce and the older girl he likes won’t give him the time of day. In John Carney’s musical, however, these are merely obstacles to be overcome through the power of music. With the help of a ragtag group of instrument-playing friends, Conor creates a band influenced by great rock artists imported from America in order to win over the girl of his dreams and, in the process, discover who he is. Sing Street is a charming period film with a lot of heart, filled with the same musical exuberance and heart as Carney’s Once. Great for when you feel like the world is going to shit and need a pick me up.
- Best scene: The music video shoot at the pier
Sleeping Giant (Cividino, 2015)
The second Canadian feature on the list, Sleeping Giant is notable because it features three child actors, one of which – lead Jackson Martin – is a true phenomenon. The film takes place in Ontario’s cottage country over a summer when good kid Adam is befriended by a pair of mildly bad news brothers. Sleeping Giant is mostly interested in what boys get up to when parents and other adult authority figures aren’t around, as well as how seemingly insignificant minor events can escalate and leave lasting (potentially harmful) marks. First time feature director Cividino has crafted an intimate, confident film that captures those awkward beats between childhood and adulthood when freedom and responsibility blur and the result is explosive.
- Best scene: The aftermath of the shocking climax
The Nice Guys (Black, 2016)
Shane Black knows action comedy. Several years ago he wrote and directed his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a holiday caper film featuring a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr and rising star Michelle Monaghan. It remains one of the best films of the last few decades (seriously, go check it out, I’ll wait).
The Nice Guys has the same vibe: playful action mixed with dark comedic elements. Here Ryan Gosling (in his second appearance on the list) and Russell Crowe are a mismatched PI and a paid enforcer working together to crack a conspiracy involving organized crime and Hollywood starlets. Oh and it’s set in the 70s. And Gosling has a precocious, exasperated daughter who regularly reads him the riot act. And the action is ridiculous. Essentially The Nice Guys is easy watching, but it’s put together in an effortlessly charming, chuckle-worthy way that makes it a great film to throw on and just enjoy. It’s rare to find a film that doesn’t feel desperate to please when these genres to collide. Shane Black doesn’t seem to suffer from that problem.
- Best scene: The over the top climax at the hotel
Train to Busan (Yeon, 2016)
In recent years zombie have completely proliferated the horror genre. The unfortunate result has been a distilation of what made them such iconic staples (let’s be honest: zombies haven’t really been scary for a long time). Enter South Korean director Sang-ho Yeon’s Train To Busan, which feels like a breath of fresh air for the subgenre. Deceptively simplistic, the film is literally just a bunch of passengers trapped on a high-speed train during a zombie apocalypse, but – much like Snowpiercer – the devil is in the details. The construction of the train sets mean that there are few escape routes, and passengers are required to move back or forth in straight lines through double-paned glass doors to escape the rising number of infected. This results in inventive, adrenaline spiking sequences that propel Train to Busan to the top of the list of the year’s best horror films.
- Best scene: The train station attack sequence
- Read our Toronto After Dark review (via Bloody Disgusting)
Zootopia (Bush, Howard, Moore, 2016)
In a year when division and fear of other dominated headlines (Black Lives Matter) and elections (Trump…ugh), Zootopia (plus Arrival) feel like the moral antidote. The fact that this animated gem wears its heart on its infectious little bunny sleeve is just the cherry on top. Like so many other classics, there are morals to be learned in the story of an unlikely police officer who must convince others of her worth, but even if you miss the meaty message, the lush visuals and exceptionally well-conceived living environments contained within the world of the film are sure to delight audiences both old and young.
- Best scene: A chase scene that suddenly turns tiny Judy into a giant
Other notable films:
- Captain America: Civil War (The Russo Bros, 2016): The ending goes on for far too long, but the introduction of future superheroes Black Panther and Spiderman, in addition to that 20 minute airport fight scene, make up for it.
- Deadpool (Miller, 2016): Ryan Reynolds finally finds a role worthy of his weird, infectious sense of humour in this rambunctious, filthy superhero comedy.
- The Handmaiden (Wook, 2016): The first two thirds of this twisty potboiler about a handmaiden who plots against her mistress and falls in love with her instead is quintessential Park Chan-Wook, but the final act can’t quite sustain itself. Worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and heavy sensuality.
Films I didn’t see that might have made the list:
- A Bigger Splash, Fences, Jackie, Kubo and the Two Strings, Lion, Love and Friendship, Loving, Silence, Swiss Army Man, The Lobster
Wow! Ok, that’s it for films. We’ll be back later this week for the first of four (!) rounds of TV, including:
- Worst shows of the year
- Best shows of the year
- Best episodes of the year
- Best scenes of the year
It’s going to be crazy, y’all