This list takes the American year of release. The Oscar slate of films only sees Irish shores in January. For this reason and others, there are some films I haven’t seen that might well have made this list. These include but are not limited to: Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Toni Erdmann, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Nocturnal Animals.
Ted Chiang is one of the darlings of the written science fiction world and this adaptation of his award-winning short story is an outstanding achievement and one that gives us hope for director Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 Blade Runner sequel. This aims for something on the scope of Nolan’s Interstellar and delivers with a high concept first contact blockbuster about the nature of language and time. Amy Adams gives a standout performance in the lead role, but was snubbed for a nomination ahead of this year’s Oscars. Huge credit must go to Eric Heisserer who adapted the screenplay from Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”. Heisserer details his process and the challenges of adapting the story here. Heisserer and Villeneuve managed to capture the feeling of Chiang’s writing perfectly and this could well take the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Arrival is moving, entertaining, and life-affirming.
The best traditional length documentary of the year. Ava DuVernay’s 13th looks at America’s history of racism towards black people by looking at the prison system in the United States and how the actions taken by a succession of politicians has led to a culture of systemic racism where incarceration is allied with slavery. Unflinching clips, bombastic music, and very effective talking head interviews create an excellent documentary that details the culminating racial tension in the United States. This is not an anti-establishment doc in the vein of Michael Moore, it’s a tight and focused case study where every clip, however short, feels necessary. A brave release for Netflix and one that will definitely receive more attention as the United States returns to the good old days.
3. La La Land
A love letter to the golden age of Hollywood musicals that entertains, delights, and crushes the audience all in one sitting. La La Land is a musical trapped within a Los Angeles love story where songs break out early and at the climax to frame Chazelle’s story. It’s not a bad musical, it’s just not as much of a musical as the classics were. Gosling and Stone have a lyrical chemistry in their dialogue which makes their musical scenes together flow naturally. I don’t know much about musicals or the history of the genre, but I know that this is good.
4. Your Name
Another exploration of loss and longing in Makoto Shinkai’s finest work to date. Lighting up the box office in Japan, Shinkai’s anime presents a small-town girl and a Tokyo boy who intermittently swap bodies. However, this is less Freaky Friday and more Donnie Darko. The comet that destroyed the girl’s small town becomes the link between the two as they explore their initial differences and ultimate similarities as they bleed into each other’s lives. Like the discovery made in Arrival, linear time becomes a malleable concept and beginnings and endings collapse as the director makes the case that the two characters were always linked, through forces cosmic and natural.
5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
A highly entertaining return to the Harry Potter universe with more excellently crafted characters in JK Rowling’s first complete screenplay. Eddie Redmayne embodies Newt Scamander perfectly to bring a fantastically weird half-tracker half-Buster Keaton to life. His accomplice Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) provides a complimentary kind of weird that fits into Rowling’s new universe. The CGI in this film in on par with The Jungle Book and is amongst the best we’ve ever seen which bodes well for the future of this 5-film franchise. Redmayne already appears to have mastered the art of the green screen too. This film was the first major release after Trump’s election win in 2016 too. A welcome escape for many.
6. Hell or High Water
A plaintive tale of two brothers robbing banks throughout an endless Texas. It’s another grim presentation of the Lone Star State where there doesn’t appear to be any way out. There’s moments of respite and humour, but like the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, the destiny of what’s coming can’t be stopped. It’s another screenplay from Taylor Sheridan who already has Sicario under his belt and is showing promise as one of the best script-writers in the game.
7. The Jungle Book
The best CGI of the year (probably ever) and the probable winner of the Best Visual Effects Oscar, The Jungle Book is an exceptional remake of an already excellent film. Dark in places and brilliantly light in others, the film takes a traditional Disney family musical by naturally weaving in two songs from the original, while restoring Rudyard Kipling’s original story and poem about the law of the jungle. Neel Sethi is immensely watchable as Mowgli and his scenes with the real-life Baloo Bill Murray are some of the best of the year. An unexpected classic.
8. The Young Offenders
The pairing of Chris Walley and Alex Murphy provide a hilarious taste of Cork as they go on a journey from the city to the countryside to make it rich. There’s a real chemistry between the two that works in any language and suggests we might see more of this pairing. It explores darker themes prevalent in some Irish households and the state of life for some adolescents in the city. It’s been well-received in the UK too it seems. Pure daycent like.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane
John Goodman plays the creep of the year in Dan Trachtenberg’s claustrophobic thriller. Whether or not the film is connected to the original Cloverfield matters little here as the material works in any universe. Trachtenberg is a young Hitchcock in the making, but one who seems to be concerned with the SF/Fantasy side of things. He went on to direct a standout episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror following this release. A good film from a promising director.
10. Doctor Strange
A quasi-Buddhist entry into the Marvel universe with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. It includes the most left field visuals you’re going to get in Marvel’s canon. There’s some good humour throughout too which fits right in there with the likes of Marvel’s Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy which continue to serve as a remedy to the dark realism of DC’s most recent Batman trilogy. A superhero who wears his Eastern influences on his sleeve (or neck), Doctor Strange is fun pop psychedelia that likens Tibetan-style teaching to powerful magic – kinda like The Matrix without the guns.
Note: O.J.: Made in America was released in some cinemas in the US for it be considered as a documentary film. Google says it’s a mini-series, IMDB calls it a documentary film. Seeing as it’s a multi-part 8 hour doc I won’t consider it in this list. This point needs to be made as it was probably the best thing put on screens in 2016.