2016: A Year In Review – Movies [Theatrical]
Contrary to the opinion shared by many, we at The Arts Shelf feel that 2016 has in fact been a rather strong year in cinema.
Granted we have not seen a Pan’s Labyrinth or a There Will Be Blood, but what we have seen is a wealth of mainstream and lesser-known gems from some of the most noteworthy and exciting names in film; big directors turned in career high work and big actors turned in career-high performances.
With that in mind we now countdown our favourite films from the last 12-months.
Please Note: For inclusion on the list, all films must have received either an official UK theatrical release or UK festival screening at some point during 2016.
Notable films not yet seen: Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Moonlight, Personal Shopper
10. Embrace of the Serpent
Captured in stunning black-and-white by Cinematographer David Gallego, this third feature by Columbian filmmaker Ciro Guerra centres on Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people, and the two scientists who, over the course of 40 years, form a life-transcending friendship with him.
Inspired by the real-life diaries of Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, it is the journey of two explorers – an ethnographer and botanist, respectively – who travel deep into the heart of a Colombian Amazon ravaged with Colonialism (decades apart) in search of the rare and sacred psychedelic Yakruna plant.
It is a visually beautiful, thematically rich and deeply profound work examining the increasing loneliness and endurance of indigenous man pitted against the destructive powers of colonial invasion.
9. The Revenant
After months of physical exertion during filming, Leonardo Di Caprio finally got his hands on that prestigious Best Actor Academy Award that had been alluding him for so long for his immersive perfomance as the real-life frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass prior to and following his near-fatal bear attack in the frozen Montana and South Dakota of 1823.
Adapted from Michael Punke’s 2002 biography The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s most recent work is an absorbing, visceral and uncompromising tale of survival, revenge and human endurance, infused with copious amounts of graphic violence, beautifully shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and with Leo’s dynamic central perfomance beating at its core.
8. Certain Women
Based on a selection of the works in Maile Meloy’s short-story collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Kelly Reichardt’s delicate, skilfully composed film is an exploration of the intersecting lives of three very different women in small-town Montana.
As Jim Jarmusch does so brilliantly with Paterson, Reichart’s sixth feature film is a similarly astute and equally observant portrait of both humanity and the subtleties of day to day life.
Certain Women selects its subjects carefully and cleverly, honing in on ordinary people in everyday situations, each struggling to get by and all either under-appreciated or overlooked by those around them.
Reichart once again brings her trademark blend of contemplative, slow-burning artistry to the proceedings, using the vast Montana landscape to isolate and scrutinise the minutiae of small-town America.
With outstanding performances in both Elle and Things to Come, it is fairly safe to say that 2016 has been an absolute knock-out year for leading lady Isabelle Huppert.
Written by David Birke and based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, Paul Verhoeven’s psychological cat-and-mouse noir-thriller – his first feature since 2006’s Black Book, and his first film in the French language – stars Huppert as the CEO of a successful video game company, Michèle Leblanc, who is attacked and raped in her own home by a masked assailant and sets out to uncover the truth.
It is a truly brilliant work from Verhoeven and delivers far more than the empowering rape revenge movie it was initially billed as.
Though originally intended to be made in the US and take place in Boston, we should be thankful that Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Julianne Moore, Sharon Stone, Marion Cotillard, Diane Lane, and Carice van Houtem were all considered for and all turned down the role as Huppert (who now seems the most obvious and most capable candidate) turns in career-high work in the role.
Four years in development, Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab’s staggeringly powerful, dramatic thriller – initially planned to depict the rise of the revolution – is set just shortly after the violent political events of June 2013, which saw the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi ousted from power by the sheer force of the Egyptian army, ultimately capturing the fall and aftermath of the revolution at its most intimate and intense.
Unfolding entirely within the sweltering and unbearably claustrophobic confines of a police riot van (and shot from within – bravo cinematographer Ahmed Gabr), Diab’s surprisingly neutral film uses this ingenious concept to masterfully document the human condition, the prejudice and inhumanity in contemporary society and the lasting effects of a nation torn apart by opposing points of view. Diab makes it very clear that the events scale far beyond what we witness through the camera’s field of vision.
It is a hugely ambitious piece of pure, energetically charged cinema; brave, bold and epic in scope, yet executed with great intimacy and a remarkable sense of craft.
5. The Death of Louis XIV
Visionary Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra follows his acclaimed 2013 drama Story of My Death with another contemplative, introspective chamber piece, here turning the gaze on one of Europe’s greatest Royal figures for this sumptuous, painterly study of the final few weeks of the great Sun King, Louis XIV.
Adapted from the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, and unfolding almost entirely in the King’s candlelit Versailles bedchamber in the August of 1715, Serra’s meticulous, chiaroscuro period drama follows the ornately bewigged Monarch’s slow, agonising battle through the advancing stages of gangrene, all the while intricately scrutinised by a devoted audience of doctors and close, personal advisors.
Taking on the role of the eponymous figure is one of the true legends of French cinema, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Once the epitome of youth and Nouvelle Vague rebellion, the now 72-year old screen veteran turns in what is quite possibly his finest perfomance to date as the ailing king. Léaud’s minimalist yet expertly rendered performance perfectly conveys the gradual depletion and unavoidable decay of an indomitable and utterly determined man in heartbreaking and suitably majestic fashion.
With The Death of Louis XIV, Albert Serra has produced one of the year’s most exquisite and visually rewarding pieces of cinema, fusing magnificent opulence and searing realism in effortless style.
4. The Hateful Eight
Unfolding in the vast, wintry landscape of post-Civil War Wyoming, Quentin Tarantino’s glorious, revisionist western – stunningly lensed by Robert Richardson (on 70 mm film, using Ultra Panavision 70) and memorably scored by the legendary Ennio Morricone – stars Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern as eight enigmatic strangers holed up during a blizzard in Minnie’s Haberdashery, an isolated mountain pass stagecoach stopover.
Making up this ambiguous octet are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) (on their way to see the hangman in the town of Red Rock), Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black former union soldier turned infamous bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a southern renegade who claims to be the town’s new Sheriff, Bob (Demian Bichir), the caretaker looking after Minnie’s while the owner is away visiting her mother, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the hangman of Red Rock, cow-puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). As the storm overtakes the mountainside stopover, our travelers come to learn that they may not all make it to Red Rock after all.
Tarantino’s film is a modern masterpiece of both the western genre and American cinema in general, fused with an expectedly snappy screenplay and gorgeous production values that fully immerse the viewer in the film’s twisted and darkly comic tale.
Making a welcome return to top form, Jim Jarmusch produced arguably the finest film of his career with this profound and contemplative study of New Jersey bus driver and poet Paterson.
It is a gentle, lyrical observation of the humdrum routine of every day life; cherishing the highs, tackling the lows and drawing poetry and beauty from even the smallest of details.
Adam Driver’s shuffling, ironic perfomance further adds to what proves a tender, understated gem, and a masterful study in character and composition.
2. The Handmaiden
Loosely inspired by Sarah Waters’ 2002 Victorian crime novel Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook’s follow up to the similarly themed 2013 film Stoker is another erotic, psychological thriller from the acclaimed director, here transposing Waters’ novel to the Japanese-occupied Korea of the early 20th Century for an absorbing and visually ravishing tale of love, loss and deception.
The plot follows a young girl (and pickpocket to boot) hired by a suave con-man to be the maid to a mysterious and fragile heiress, all in a sly attempt to seize her wealth and cover all tracks in the process.
Park’s rich, explicit and magnificently crafted drama perfectly captures the sense of deception and Gothic melodrama that exudes from Waters’ novel.
With flawless period designs and one of the year’s finest film scores courtesy of Cho Young-wuk, The Handmaiden is a true feast for the eyes and ears and one of the most accomplished, elegant and polished works of recent times.
The rightful Best Picture winner at the 88th Academy Awards, Tom McCarthy’s searing look at The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into widespread child sex abuse and subsequent cover-ups within the Roman Catholic church was powerful, engrossing ensemble drama at its most effective.
Bringing together a top-notch ensemble cast led by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci, and a dynamic, authoritative screenplay co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight handles its sensitive, lurid material with exceptional control and with masterful, compelling flair.
Let us know what you think below. What were your favourite films of the year?
The best of the rest …
12. Under the Shadow
14. Toni Erdmann
15. Train to Busan
17. Hell or High Water
18. Things to Come
19. Finding Dory
20. The Wailing