Top 20 Feature Films of 2016

21 December, 2016

The end is nigh for 2016 and it’s that marvellous time of year where we reflect back over the year’s best of the best while sipping mulled wine and shedding a nostalgic tear. As much as there have been ups and downs, I can honestly say that I’ve been mostly impressed by this year’s line-up. Even in the early months, which saw mainstream releases like “The Jungle Book” and arthouse treats like “Anomalisa” completely and unexpectedly knocking it out of the park, it was clear that this would be the year to watch out for.

When all was said and done, 2016 really did deliver. From weirdly charming indie flick “Swiss Army Man” to R-Rated superhero smash “Deadpool,” the year saw a huge range of movies gaining traction within their respective sub-genres, setting the bar high for a 2017 roster which will see a host of new reboots being released alongside highly anticipated revival movies like “Trainspotting 2” and “Blade Runner 2049.”

The following list outlines my personal favourites and it’s based solely on the new releases I was able to catch during the past 12 months. As a critic residing in the UK, the delayed release schedule has made it impossible to catch awards contenders like “La La Land” or “Moonlight” before the end of the year, although a few movies that are yet to be released on the mainstream market have slipped in due to advanced screenings and festival access. In summary, it’s all a bit of a mishmash, but a rather glorious one that I hope you enjoy. And so, without further ado, here are the Top 20 Feature Films of 2016:

1 | “Embrace of the Serpent” | Colombia | 10th June 2016

Synopsis: Within the depths of the Amazon lives Karamakate, an unwitting guide and educator for passing travellers and the sole survivor of a massacre that wiped out his entire tribe. Left to rot by greedy rubber barons, the outcast native becomes a doorway into the sour history of the region as he is left to suffer as the widower of his people.

Verdict: An intelligent and enlightening experience made for viewers who are willing to face up to the dark history of the world we live in, “Embrace of the Serpent is an innately exotic and spiritual tale captured within the landscape of a repugnant part of history.

2 | “The Handmaiden” | South Korea | 7th October 2016 (LFF)

Synopsis: Set in 1930s Korea, “The Handmaiden” tells the story of a mousy pickpocket recruited by a conman as part of an elaborate plan to steal the fortune of the wealthy Lady Hideko. While the conman attempts to build a relationship with the Japanese heiress, he finds his plan going in unexpected directions after the two women develop feelings for one another.

Verdict: “The Handmaiden” is a film that glides with its exquisite camerawork, music, and dialogue, although the most impressive elements are in the storytelling as the “Dangerous Liaisons”-style plot thickens so many times that the movie becomes rock solid before it even reaches the conclusion.

3 | “Anomalisa” | USA | 11th March 2016

Synopsis: A reclusive author who has travelled the country to deliver a speech on customer service finds his reality changing after a romantic encounter with an attractive woman. Already suffering from a severe form of emotional detachment, the man struggles to maintain his composure as the walls surrounding his already mundane life start to crumble.

Verdict: A fantastic study of everyday life seen through the eyes of a character suffering from the early stages of a mental breakdown, “Anomalisa” balances the quotidian with the bizarre as it captures and frames a perspective that both translates and transcends reality.

4 | “O.J. : Made in America” | USA | 22nd January 2016 (Sundance)

Synopsis: A documentary exploring the repugnant underbelly of American superstar culture, “O.J.: Made in America” focuses on the shifting image of football-legend-turned-Hollywood-actor O. J. Simpson who created the trial of the century after being accused of brutally murdering his ex-wife on the doorstep of her Los Angeles home. The movie was officially released as a five part miniseries but also awarded a Sundance premiere earlier this year.

Verdict: A comprehensive depiction of the ebb and flow of fame and fortune, “O.J.: Made in America” explores the issue of race relations in America with a critical eye as it chips away at the elements that led to O.J. Simpson’s infamous acquittal in 1995. Inquisitive and layered in its investigation, the film explores the elements that go into constructing the celebrity from both a detached and sympathetic perspective, peeling back the layers as it exposes the truth behind the madness.

5 | “Arrival” | USA | 10th November 2016

Synopsis: A talented linguistics professor with a knack for translation finds herself in dangerous territory after a group of extra-terrestrials arrive on earth with hidden intentions. Tasked with figuring out a means of communication, the professor develops and intense connection with the aliens as she begins to erode the boundaries set by their contradicting languages.

Verdict: A film about the importance of communication and compromise in times of bitter conflict, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” sees a delightfully minimalistic approach to Sci-Fi envisioned through the lens of one of the finest directors of our era.

6 | “Eye in the Sky” | UK | 15th April 2016

Synopsis: A military officer working for a specialist anti-terrorism unit is faced with a devastating predicament after a young girl enters a mapped kill zone. On the cusp of giving the order to strike the area in a bid to wipe number of key terrorists, the officer finds herself wrapped up in an international dispute regarding the ethics of military practice.

Verdict: In a situation where there’s no perfect outcome or solution everything rests on the balance between training and instinct. “Eye in the Sky” teeters on the edge of morality, asking us to peer over a dark cliff and decide whether or not it’s safe to jump when it’s impossible to know until you take the leap of faith.

7 | “Son of Saul” | Hungary | 29th April 2016

Synopsis: A Jewish man detained in Auschwitz during WWII is assigned the role of Sonderkommando which forces him to assist in burning the bodies of fellow prisoners. After he finds the corpse of his own son, the man spends his remaining days seeking out a rabbi who can help in giving his boy an appropriate burial.

Verdict: If you were to write down every hyperbolic visual cue inserted into “Son of Saul” with lazy intentions you’d end up with nothing more than a blank piece of paper. This is a war drama that quite admirably throws a vacant expression in the direction of genocide, a movie that crafts one of the most convincing depictions of what it was actually like to live through the Holocaust that you could ever expect to see on film.

8 | “The Greasy Strangler” | USA | 7th October 2016

Synopsis: A father and son find their already dysfunctional relationship severely tested after getting mixed up in a bizarre love triangle. As tensions rise at home, the old man seeks solace in dark places by covering himself in grease and murdering the locals.

Verdict: A masterpiece of ‘bad’ cinema set in a colourful parallel universe where everyone is a B-movie enigma of chub, sag, and hair, “The Greasy Strangler” is unsightly material and yet still, in all its awfulness, a perfectly capable piece of filmmaking that’s destined to become a cult classic.

9 | “Swiss Army Man” | USA | 30th September 2016

Synopsis: A suicidal man stranded on an island finds the perfect means of escape after a bloated corpse floats ashore. Using a bizarre tactic to reach the coast, the loner realises that the body is lucid and the two strike up an intense friendship involving a number of life lessons and adventures.

Verdict: A multi-tool of a metaphor crafted with the nuance of true art and innovation, “Swiss Army Man” is a unique and surprisingly coherent depiction of strength and survival in a time where all hope is lost.

10 | “The Neon Demon” | France/Denmark/USA | 8th July 2016

Synopsis: An ambitious young girl relocates to Los Angeles in an attempt to break into the modelling industry. Seemingly parentless and cursed by her own naivety, she is soon snatched up by a number of big names in the business but it’s in the enrapturing world of unattainable beauty that she discovers the fakery and malice at the heart of high fashion.

Verdict: An instant classic that struts its way into the spotlight in a truly bold fashion, “The Neon Demon” is another unique work from Nicolas Winding Refn who proves once again that he’s a force to be reckoned with when it comes to aesthetic indulgence.

11 | “The Conjuring 2” | USA | 13th June 2016

Synopsis: After taking a break from work following the horrors of the Amityville haunting, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren find themselves drawn to London where a young girl is said to have been possessed by the soul of an elderly ex-tenant.

Verdict: With scares that keep on scaring to the point of tangibility, “The Conjuring 2” is a relentless movie as scenes play out until adrenaline is pumping through every inch of your body and yet each scare is not simply a mindless jump in the dark, it’s the crucial jigsaw piece within a bigger picture.

12 | “Finding Dory” | USA | 29th July 2016

Synopsis: Following directly on from the events in “Finding Nemo,” Pixar’s “Finding Dory” sees the beloved blue tang fish going on an adventure to find her family after she gets swept up in a rogue wave and recovers some of her lost memories.

Verdict: One part rehash of the first movie, two parts Disney’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Finding Dory” trumps the Nemo-centric original with a host of new and hilarious characters; from the uproariously incompetent Becky the bird to the so-called “septopus” Hank, a master of camouflage and thalassophobe who inadvertently gets pulled into Dory’s predicament.

13 | “Sully” | USA | 2nd December 2016

Synopsis: A retelling of the astonishing events that took place on 15th January 2009 when a pilot with over 40 years of experience used his abilities to land a severely damaged plane on the Hudson River; an achievement that saved the lives of all 155 passengers on-board.

Verdict: An accessible take on an event so unparalleled that it practically rewrote the aviation handbook, “Sully” shows us that anything is possible, even when a situation appears to be completely unsalvageable.

14 | “Don’t Breathe” | USA | 9th September 2016

Synopsis: A trio of burglars decide to rob an aging blind man with a cash fortune but their strategy leads to pandemonium after the old man proves to be a ruthless madman who will do anything to protect his property.

Verdict: “Don’t Breathe” pits bad against bad, villain against villain, as bullets ricochet in an enclosed death trap which transforms the hunters into the hunted. The movie is an unyielding backdoor thriller with a plot that does a screeching 180 turn after its criminal protagonists fall victim to the brutal resistance tactics of a blind war veteran.

15 | “Allied” | UK/USA | 25th November 2016

Synopsis: Set during the height of the Second World War, “Allied” sees an intelligence officer and a seductive French Resistance fighter carrying out a risky assassination attempt while stationed in Casablanca. Unable to resist the tug of romance, the pair surrender to their passion, only to inadvertently welcome a chain of events that will stain their lives forever.

Verdict: “Allied” is a film that takes a significant amount of restraint from writer Steven Knight who presents an emotional roller-coaster in such a composed manner that sadness and uncertainty prevail over warmth and fuzziness in a story that holds its cards close to its chest right up until the final moments.

16 | “I, Daniel Blake” | UK | 21st October 2016

Synopsis: Two impoverished worlds collide as a widowed carpenter and a stressed-out single mother cross paths while struggling to get access to state welfare. After bonding over their similar situation, the pair strike up a friendship, although they soon discover that they’ll need a lot more to survive.

Verdict: The realest of realism presented outside of the scope of luxury, “I, Daniel Blake” is a brutal yet compassionate take on a steady decline into poverty and it’s a film that leaves its audience with a heavy heart as it opens up a space to reflect on the kind of suffering that so often goes undetected in the world of today.

17 | “The Jungle Book” | USA | 15th April 2016

Synopsis: A young orphan boy raised by wolves in the heart of the jungle is forced to flee from his home after being banished by the evil tiger Shere Khan. While embarking on a journey of self-discovery, the man-cub soon decides to retrace his steps in a desperate bid to save his homeland before it’s too late.

Verdict: A fantastic rendition of a much-loved classic which takes the best bits, combs them out, and adds a few of its own unique ingredients, “The Jungle Book” is a cutie patootie of a movie composed by an SFX team who really prove themselves during an all-guns-blazing finale which’ll have you swearing that Shere Khan is real life flesh and bone.

18 | “Deepwater Horizon” | USA | 29th September 2016

Synopsis: On the 20th April 2010, a shockwave reverberated around the world as an American drilling rig collapsed off the Gulf of Mexico. Five million barrels of discharged oil later, the event and subsequent aftermath is now considered to be the biggest accidental oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry – a truth that often sidetracks the need to convey the actual feeling of experiencing such a catastrophic moment in real time.

Verdict: While it may have been created for the sole purpose of entertaining mass audiences, “Deepwater Horizon” is a ginormous display of scale and survival as explosions obliterate pressurised capsules and cranes pummel into groups of helpless offshore workers in a film that comes to represent an entire industry founded on greed and impatience.

19 | “Green Room” | USA | 13th May 2016

Synopsis: “Green Room” revolves around a series of violent incidents that take place after a murder at a music concert as the members of a struggling rock group find themselves trapped and hunted by a group of extremists who will do anything to destroy the evidence.

Verdict: A crime-thriller with a punk twist, “Green Room” is a gruesome Neo-Nazi extravaganza, meshing simplicity with brutality in order to create a wholly visceral experience which feels uncomfortably raw at times.

20 | “Nocturnal Animals” | USA | 4th November 2016

Synopsis: A wealthy art gallery owner begins to reassess her life after her ex-husband sends her a manuscript containing a clear message about their failed relationship. Tormented and confused as the story unravels, it soon becomes clear that the man she once loved has refused to forget their dark past.

Verdict: As a film about writing, and the emotion and soul-searching that goes into it, “Nocturnal Animals” is a bold and honest interpretation of the pain that goes onto paper. It’s a metaphorical whirlwind of emotion and blame, a text made with the sole purpose of speaking to the guilty party and to them alone.


Honourable Mentions:

To round things up, here are 10 recommended movies that didn’t quite make the cut this year.

1 | “A Street Cat Named Bob” | UK | 4th November 2016

An unusual twist on the phrase ‘man’s best friend,’ “A Street Cat Named Bob” is a simple but charming film about the bond shared between a struggling addict and a stray cat.

2 | “Train to Busan” | South Korea | 28th October 2016

A refreshingly heartfelt take on the zombie genre, “Train to Busan” combines standard thrills with the interwoven stories of commuters in a predictable yet effective slice of blood-thirsty horror.

3 | “A Bigger Splash” | Italy/France | 12th February 2016

A comedic sun, sea, and sand movie with a sinister edge, “A Bigger Splash” is a handsomely shot vacation piece about a dysfunctional troupe with far too much time on their hands.

4| “Deadpool” | USA | 10th February 2016

Unquestionably a showstopper for diehard Marvel fans, “Deadpool” benefits greatly from its meta-content and this unusual breed of comedy adorns the movie with the potential to reel in a more intellectual and critical audience alongside its casual viewers.

5 | “Lion” | Australia | 12th October 2016 (LFF)

Bookended by two gut-wrenching departure and arrival sequences, “Lion” is a profoundly inspiring story about one boy’s search for meaning in a life without closure. The movie’s standout talent, however, is newcomer Sunny Pawar whose high-pitched Hindi voice and adorable cherub face is just about the cutest thing you could ask for in a movie about a street kid searching for home.

6 | “The Girl with All the Gifts” | UK | 23rd September 2016

Although it might’ve been a little meatier if it had been adapted into a full-length miniseries, “The Girl with All the Gifts” is meticulous in its stripping back of the power that comes with being top of the food chain. A zombie invasion is, after all, a reshuffle of the very fabric of our society.

7 | “The Nice Guys” | USA | 3rd June 2016

Sometimes bloated, other times masterful, “The Nice Guys” is a film shot in a very new wave “L.A. Confidential” style but one that allows Ryan Gosling’s comedic talents to shine as an irrational private investigator paired with a straight-faced Russell Crowe lumbering around with a beer belly and an accent.

8 | “Keanu” | USA | 15th July 2016

Despite the fact that the world’s most adorable kitten is only an afterthought in a Key and Peele movie, the cuteness overload is strong in “Keanu,” as is the political commentary involving ebonics, gun crime, and community role models.

9 | “Colonia” | Germany/Luxembourg | 1st July 2016

A movie centred on cardigans and concerned expressions, “Colonia” is a politically condensed and unashamedly heavy-handed retelling of the events at Colonia Dignidad, but it has a lot of palpable tension, practically turning into a Tom Cruise movie by the time it reaches its suspenseful final act.

10 | “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” | USA | 26th August 2016

“Popstar: Never Stop Stopping” sees the Lonely Island crew capturing the essence of fame and fortune through the emptiness of song lyrics and synchronised dance routines in this mockumentary parody of the modern day popstar.


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