Now that the sun has set on 2016, Taste of Cinema offers up our favorites from the exciting year that was. Admittedly, I was somewhat under the impression that 2016 had been a modest, even disappointing year for cinema. But, even a cursory glance down the list, and seeing such a miscellany of approaches, particularly in the top ten choices, is very promising.
To anyone of the opinion that 2016 was a mediocre year at the multiplex, you just weren’t looking hard enough. Even just narrowing the titles down to a workable 30 titles was no small feat – I cringe at the many worthy films that didn’t make the cut.
The films on this list show a wide-ranging assortment including auteur-driven films, populist fare, plentiful arthouse gems, genre films, and many magnificent female-led projects, too. May this be a refreshing and restorative sign of things to come.
One quick note, and this is bound to cause a bit of a stir but yet it’s an important relation that needs addressing. Two films in particular, each highly acclaimed, have been omitted from this list for rather consequential reasons.
Both Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and, to a lesser extent (and this no doubt owing to Casey Affleck’s white male privilege) Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, have both met much critical adoration while simultaneously courting controversy stemming from gross acts of misconduct and sexual assault from key creators of these respective projects.
The details to these scandals are easily found in an online search, the specifics of which are terribly distressing, and since the victims and/or their families deserve whatever allowance and assurance can be allotted them, I’ll not be mentioning these films again on this list.
Without further ado, let the roundup commence, shall we?
30. Another Evil
Another Evil, the debut feature from writer-director Carson Mell, is an eccentric, original, and gut-busting horror-comedy. Shot on a micro-budget this low-key comedy unravels like a mumblecore Ghostbusters.
After encountering a pair of gross J-horror-inspired ghosts in their cottage, a married California couple, Dan (Steve Zissis) and Mary (Jennifer Irwin) along with their teenage son, Jazz (Dax Flame) take action the only way they can.
They track down a supposed expert on ghosts, an odd exorcist named Os Bijourn (Mark Proksch). Soon Dan and Os are doing really wild things to rid the entities and all the while Os seems determined to overshare his inner desires, grooming a reluctant Dan to be his new BFF.
The cast, particularly Dan Bakkendahl and Proksch, are hilarious, and Another Evil presents a steady stream of awkward laughs, creepy kicks, and heaps of droll subtlety. If you like cringe-y uncomfortable comedy combined with your horror, Another Evil is all you need.
29. Hell or High Water
A deliberately listless West Texas setting is ideal for director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan’s (Sons of Anarchy, Sicario) neo-Western crime-spree thriller. Jeff Bridges is in fine form as a worn out Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, hot on the heels of small-time bank robbing brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster).
An elegiac and intricate character study, marvellously buttressed by solid performances and stunning cinematography from Giles Nuttgens (The Deep End, God Help the Girl), Hell or High Water is a fatalistic tale of sincerity, mishap, and, ultimately, atonement.
28. Love & Friendship
Cultured satirist Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) offers perhaps his highest endeavor yet, and arguably one of the greatest Jane Austen adjustments ever with this adaptation of her 1774 epistolary novel, “Lady Susan”. A period comedy full to burst with Stillman’s signature wordplay, this period comedy is a greathearted gift for lovers of witty dialogue and playful verbal sparring.
Reuniting with his intelligent leads from 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny are perfectly at home in Austen’s world of liaisons, misleads, and manipulations. As the scheming, sardonic and manipulative Lady Susan Vernon, Beckinsale is note-perfect, fleecing even her bestie, the rather unsophisticated American Alicia Johnson (Sevigny),
if it means assuring her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) find the right wealthy suitor. That’s an oversimplification, to be sure, as the large ensemble cast and many twists and unveilings reap numerous whoops and poetic rewards. Innuendo, argument, and conniving is rarely so entertaining. Bonus points to a comic turn from Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin that all but steals the show.
Love & Friendship is a warm and witty comic romp that’s as clever as it is quick, and an absolute pleasure for language lovers and catnip for Austen fanatics alike (who am I kidding, they’re often the same crowd!).
27. The Eyes of My Mother
From its opening frames through to its bleak finish, Nicolas Pesce’s directorial debut The Eyes of My Mother is perhaps the most disturbingly formidable horror film of the year.
Pesce, who also wrote and edited the film, sustains a precise and extremely well-defined narrative clarity throughout even though he regularly strives for and achieves a nightmare logic that would make the likes of David Lynch drool with approval (and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography from DP Zach Kuperstein adds to this otherworldly effect).
Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) has a thorough understanding of human anatomy thanks to her mother, formerly a surgeon in Portugal, as well as a rather laissez-faire attitude towards death due to this discomfiting upbringing. After a particularly tragic event shatters her bucolic family life, Francisca grows up more than a little fucked up, disconnecting from the world in astonishing ways.
The disquieting journey that Francisca takes the audience on attains a strange plateau between American Gothic and German Expressionism with shards of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy in there, too. This is a startling and unforgettable film that signals the start of an impressive career from Pesce, and from the fearless Magalhaes as well.
26. The Girl with All the Gifts
Colm McCarthy, of Peaky Blinders fame, offers up a tense, intelligent, chillingly provocative, and exciting British horror film in The Girl With All The Gifts.
The zombie film that World War Z should have been, this film takes the overdone undead genre and resuscitates it, while also revamping a handful of well-established genre tropes––apocalypse premise, creepy kids, mad scientists––and tweaks them in eccentric, imaginative, and awesome new ways.
Newcomer Sennia Nanua is wonderful as the titular heroine, Melanie, a second generation “hungry” who could hold the key to humanity’s future. The Girl With All The Gifts is a sharp synthesis of George Romero, Children of Men and 28 Days Later with it’s own biting revelations. Genre fans rejoice!
25. Personal Shopper
Expertly told, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is an eccentric ghost story. Gauging by the polarizing reactions it’s been amassing, it’s fair to say that this film is something of a misunderstood masterpiece, destined for celebrated cult standing and probably near universal plaudits when it’s reassessed a few years down the road.
Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart, excellent) is a young American in Paris where she’s gainfully employed as a personal shopper to Kyra (Nora Von Waltstätten), a demanding fashion designer and supermodel always on the go. Maureen is also a medium, grieving the recent death of her twin brother Lewis, with whom she is resolved to contact beyond the grave and find out if he’s at peace.
Hitchcockian nods and genuflections abound, containing some genuine chills, and buoyed by a brilliant performance from Stewart, this film is an unpredictable enigma. Comparable to Assayas’ best work, this film often recalls the left field delights of Irma Vep (1996), this is an unnerving and adventurous subtlety. Pleasingly provocative and vigorously cool, Personal Shopper is something of a showpiece.
Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski, whose unmistakable brand of OTT exorbitance, as in his best known film from 1981, the extreme psychodrama Possession––where Isabelle Adjani’s hysterical meltdown and miscarriage in the subway is pure nightmare fuel––inspired film critics to coined the term “Żuławskien”, sadly shuffled off the mortal coil in February, 2016, having fought a long battle with cancer.
Cosmos, his valedictory film, is an ominous thriller that fearlessly explores desire, identity, and so much more in a surrealistic discombobulation of great beauty, even greater confusion, and bucolic poetry.
Żuławski’s screenplay, which echoes the likes of Luis Buñuel and Jacques Rivette, is based off the 1965 novel “Kosmos” by Witold Gombrowicz and kinda sorta details the happenings as two friends, Wiltold (Jonathan Genet) and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) discover mysterious items in a countryside guesthouse run by every so often paralytic Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma).
Dream logic dominates the ill-fated duo as a storm of histrionics, mental strain dominate this unclassifiable arthouse odyssey. Cosmos is a fitting, fucked up and funereal swansong from a cinematic legend.
23. Everybody Wants Some!!
Writer/director Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to his 1993 coming-of-age cult hit Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! eschews the 1970s stoner high school milieu for the Me Decade. It’s September 1980 and Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner) is a freshman and star pitcher who has just arrived at Southeast Texas University to live in residence with his teammates.
Everybody Wants Some!! (a reference to the Van Halen hit single that was released that same year) tracks Jake and his BFFs the weekend before school starts as they cruise for babes, wax nostalgic, ruminate, romance, dance, and also slyly riff on frat house comedies and Americana.
Linklater joyously meanders, navel gazes, and amuses with this amicable and sweet sidestep of relatable, realistic, and wistful film. The cast is talented, sweet-natured and engaging, with a similarly sentimental soundtrack of classic rock from the era. This likeable, light touch shaggy dog is hard to resist, so don’t even try. In the caterwaul warble of David Lee Roth; “Everybody wants some, everybody needs some…”
22. Things to Come
French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve is marvellously impressive and fully deserving of the Silver Bear for Best Director award bestowed upon her at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival for the powerful and poignant drama Things to Come. So assured is Hansen-Løve’s direction, and so profoundly pragmatic is her screenplay that she simply must be regarded as one of the most shrewd, understanding, and intelligent cinematic storytellers of her generation.
Much of the film’s sterling success must be shared with star Isabelle Huppert, who is superb as Nathalie Chazeaux, an academic philosophy professor bound back on her own unsure reserves after her husband leaves her, her adult child leaves the nest, her book deal collapses, and her high-maintenance mother passes away.
On the surface they may sound like a cheerless dirge but both Hansen-Løve and Huppert are too talented and gracious to allow such contrivance. The results are gorgeous, fine-grained heroic, and radiant. Things to Come is never maudlin, frequently funny, and never less than engaging. Not to be missed.
21. Sing Street
One of the finest feel good films of the year, Sing Street is a valentine to brothers, young love, and the power of pop music amidst a wonderfully realized Dublin in the 1980s. John Carney, writer/director of similarly charming fare such as Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013) imbues this musical comedy-drama with esprit and panache as seen through the adolescent eyes of 14-year-old Conor “Cosmo” Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who’s adjusting to his new inner-city public school, where he’s something of an outcast.
Cosmo, smitten by the stunning, “über-cool” and ultra-chic Raphina (Lucy Boynton) decides to start a band to woo her and get her to star in his music videos. From this simple premise results an irresistibly charming, light on it’s feet and anecdotal adventure, buoyed by great performances –– Jack Reynor’s turn as Cosmo’s big brother Brendan is particularly indelible –– and great music from the likes of A-ha, The Clash, the Cure, Duran Duran, and more add to the allure. If Sing Street doesn’t get you humming, chuckling, and tearing up, you might be made of stone. A delight.