31 December 2016

Favourite 10 Films of 2016

Welcome to the list of my favourite films of 2016. Another year where fewer films than usual were watched. Another year where I struggled somewhat to compile this list. I watched plenty of very good films this year, but not many truly jumped out making me think wow, which made putting this list together harder. In the years of watching 200+ films that was never a problem, and I think the type of film on my list has changed a little over these last 2 years – maybe for the worse?

Presenting it in a different manner, "The Stand-Outs" below were 5 films that I instantly knew had to be on this list. But then I struggled. I wanted this list to be back to 10 films (last year's limiting to 5 was unsatisfying), but the next tranche of films I couldn't bring myself to say they were my favourites despite really liking them. In previous years they would have made the initial long list but would've most likely then been cut, thus categorising them here as "Nearly good enough" feels apt. At the end you will find the film I'm classing my favourite of the year, split out for good reason.

As ever, all films I watched this year can be seen here in the order viewed https://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2016-films-watched/ which in numerical form looks like:

113 - total films watched (-12% YOY)
53 - films watched at cinema (+33% YOY)
59 - films released in 2016 watched
4 - films to be released in the UK in 2017 watched
0 - films watched more than once in 2016 

So here's the list... each section is alphabetical, it's based on a 2016 UK release date, and as ever, favourite does not mean "best" – this is a subjective list of what I liked the most.



Arrival is the type of sci-fi – slow, thoughtful, low-key - that is genuinely exciting. That's not to say overblown space operas or aliens blasting everything to hell can't be fun, but that rarely matches the rich of vein of ideas and existential power that can come from deeper within the genre. Guided by the steady hand of Denis Villeneuve, the focus of Arrival is firmly on the characters rather than the fact that aliens ships have appeared. That they want to communicate with us makes this a far more interesting story, as the linguistic puzzles provide a fascinating thrust to events. As everything coalesces and the story sucker punches you, you remember why films of this nature are worthy of your time and worth getting excited about. The starkly slick visuals add a seductive layer, and Amy Adams is particularly strong in the lead – all of which add up to make this such a thoroughly good film.


So much of the superhero genre is now focused on existing in a darker milieu, and the very concept of fun seems unable to co-exist alongside it - just look at Suicide Squad's failed attempt this yearThus it's refreshing to see a film that takes this inherent darkness and twists it into something incredibly entertaining. Deadpool is a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny film thanks to a superb script and the delivery of it by Ryan Reynolds. His background in comedy and the pathos he brings pays off with the many great asides that break the fourth wall, plus the over the top violence that's simultaneously comic and excessive. Ultimately the story is entirely generic and the overt X-Men elements feel forced in, but none of this matters thanks to how much damn fun it is, and because we so rarely see films of this genre dare to be so unashamedly adult in content.

Eye In the Sky

Another year, another film about drones on my films of the year list. Last year Good Kill did a fantastic job showing the futile detachment faced by drone pilots. Eye In the Sky instead attacks the subject from all angles, telling a seemingly real time story of a drone mission in Africa. The story itself is inherently interesting, but what really grabs the viewer is how it covers all of the key players, from the drone controllers in the UK to operatives on the ground in Kenya providing live intel, all the way up to those in the echelon's of power. This leads to an extremely satisfying mixture of ethical debate by government ministers, and tense action as the window of opportunity slowly contracts. Both Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman do fine jobs as they anxiously await a decision, whilst we're left with much to ponder both during and after the film. A finely crafted drama/thriller.

Finding Dory 

The thing about animated sequels is that you can wait twelve years, and have no issues with the cast aging or not wanting to come back. But what about the audience? Pixar have found that rarified niche where that's not really a concern, as adults, children and those who loved the first film as a child all flock to their films. I fall into the first category, holding no real attachment to Finding Nemo beyond it being a film I saw at a preview in 2004 and enjoyed. Other Pixar films have done much more for me, so perhaps that's why I liked Finding Dory so much? Sure the whole concept of the story is repetitious but focusing more on the tragicomedic Dory pays off, as both sides of the character work. But it's the second half that seals the deal, where it settles into more screwball comedy and a winner of a setting that's ripe for both random and very funny moments, culminating in an emotional payoff that was second to none this year. Even though it's from Pixar, this was an unexpected treat of a film.

Star Trek Beyond
The worthy successor to JJ Abram's 2009 Star Trek... this second sequel does a superb job of wiping clean the sour memories of Into Darkness. Star Trek Beyond is an exceptionally entertaining film that brings back the fun of the first film, playing to it's biggest strengths – it's cast. Yet again the interplay between them just works superbly as they're all so comfortable in these characters now. This sequel appears to remember that the vast universe of intriguing alien creatures and worlds needs to be mined and exploited, whilst the action sequences are big, intense and dramatic. In fact the major one that serves as the culmination of the first act is incredible to watch. Maybe watching on an IMAX screen helped, but the shifting of directorial duties to Justin Lin clearly had an impact on the general tenor of the film, arguably for the best. Beyond was probably the film I most enjoyed watching in the cinema this year.
[Read my full review here]


Hell or High Water 

Hell or High Water excels by keeping its morals ambiguous, leaving it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about the course of action taken by brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Touted as a modern western, it feels that way amidst dust bowls and sleepy towns drowned in the stark Texan sunshine. Whilst Jeff Bridges' laconic drawl is weary and hard to decipher, an almost archetypal Western lawman but for the modern setting. It's a game of cat and mouse with very well staged action scenes and a story that makes it hard not to sympathise with the bank robbing protagonists. Perhaps the societal commentary runs a little heavily, but this stops the film feeling frivolous. This is a really well staged little thriller with the three leads all doing great work offering different shades to an interesting story.

The Neon Demon

I wanted The Neon Demon to push further. This feels lesser than Nicolas Winding Refn's two previous films, but the feeling I had sat in the cinema watching it has still not totally escaped me over the preceding five months – just seeing the poster brought that back. It's cold, damaged, eerily enticing. The music works to overwhelm, the starkness of life in a vainglorious cesspool devoid of beauty makes you want to retract, but you are drawn in, you can't pull your eyes away, the simmering black hole of emptiness is entrancing. You want it to push further but it retracts. You know this could've been a better film but somehow its phantasmagoria is narcotic – that's Refn's trick. And just like Only God Forgives, it's divisive and he probably doesn't give a fuck what you think about it.

The Nice Guys

It's hard not to think of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang when thinking about The Nice Guys, because really, this feels like the seventies version of that film. And that's not necessarily a bad thing as Shane Black's directorial debut is a thoroughly enjoyable, very good film.There's a lot of love for LA in both films, and they focus on a pair of protagonists not always so happy about working together. And Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a fine pairing here, offering a nice contrast and playing off each well. This is a very funny film, mostly due to the script, but both actors, who are not necessarily known for comedy, deliver it extremely well. They're just outshined by teenager Angourie Rice. Story wise it feels like we're into well worn territory for Black, but he really is one of the best at this so you very happily go along for the ride. A very enjoyable film – nothing more, nothing less (and the second best film I saw starring Ryan Gosling behind La La Land, which is out in 2017 so not on this list!).

The Revenant

The Revenant is undoubtedly the best looking film released in the UK this year, not to mention the one in possession of probably the most achingly haunting soundtrack. It's impossible not to heap reverence on the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, pretty much the best in the business as his repeated work with Terrence Malick attests (it's a shame Knight of Cups just felt a touch too distant to make this list). He wrings such beauty out of whatever he points his camera at, making these wildernesses feel even more dramatically epic as if you're witnessing something nature wants to keep only for itself. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was right to work with him again after Birdman, and as a director knows how to make the music work so completely in such a dramatic way, that it becomes a key element rather than feeling incidental. How this can benefit a film is immeasurable. The only flaws here are dragging the story on too long, and making the bear attack just so vicious that recovery from it seems implausible with the time and means on offer. The cast are all mighty fine, even if this is not the film DiCaprio should've won an Oscar for but really it's Lubezki's show, making the most compelling case for watching film on the biggest possible screen you can find.


*Breaking my own rules – this film was watched at the London Film Festival and looks set for release in 2017, but it was the best film I saw this year and I can't in good conscious exclude it, so...


Brimstone is perhaps the most unremittingly dark film I watched all year. It's powerful, haunting and slowly suffocating. Some context – set in New England in the eighteenth century, a preacher arrives in a small settlement where a mute girl instantly fears his presence. Across four parts, the film slowly reveals her story and it's instantly gripping. Dakota Fanning is compelling as the girl, expressing so much with limited means in a superb performance. And she shines despite Guy Pearce's presence as the preacher. He is the brimstone of the title, supplicant to a strict religious fervor that surges through every fibre of his overbearing being. It's a showy role that he executes perfectly, balanced just right against Fanning's far more nuanced role. That's just one example of director Martin Koolhoven's superb craftsmanship. Every frame looks carefully crafted and beautifully shot, with a score that channels a mounting sense of dread. That feeling just builds and builds, portentous from the start, with the first part leaving you breathless. If there's any point that it starts to falter it's in the final section, which perhaps feels a little rote compared to what's preceded it. This is an extremely divisive film – that much was clear looking at social media post screening it's brutal, some may feel it's misogynistic and it is long, but it's deliberate pacing only enhances the stranglehold. There is much to discuss thematically (now is not the place), but no other film this year left me feeling quite so floored.

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