10. THE MONSTER
Similar to what happened with Richard Bates Jr., I fell madly in love with director Bryan Bertino's directorial debut “The Strangers”. It was a perfectly paced, suspense filled, gory home invasion thriller. However, his second film, “Mockingbird”, I absolutely loathed. I hated it with an absolute passion and could not believe that the same director made both films. This October saw Bertino's third film, “The Monster” released and once again I loved it. This was the kind of talent I saw in the guy who made “The Strangers”. The story in “The Monster” is a very simple one as it is about a mother and daughter who are driving to the girl's father's place but along the way in an area surrounded by forest, they are involved in an accident that renders their car useless and the mother's wrist broken. Whilst waiting for an ambulance to attend to them, they soon realise that they are not alone and that a vicious monster is hunting them down. While this is the crux of the story, there is so much more going on in this film. Firstly, the mother / daughter relationship is not a good one and the reason for them to be out on this trip is because the young girl wants to now live with her father. While there is a “real” monster in this film, the main “monster” is the mother's addiction to drugs and alcohol that she just cant break. Her addictions make her a horrible mother, with her daughter looking more after her than the way it should be. The journey they make on this rainy night ends up being a night of redemption for the mother as she realises just what is most important in her life and to fight for it. The whole thing is quite an emotional story but “The Monster” also works equally well as a straight horror film. It starts off slowly and builds its atmosphere, but when the monster finally does attack, it is incredibly brutal and vicious and Bertino is not afraid to not hold back on these scenes. You feel the ferocity in the attacks and the whole thing becomes very bloody. Zoe Kazan plays the mother, and she is an actress I normally do not like at all, but she is magnificent here and does an excellent job of portraying a woman with a lot of faults but one who is also worthy of redemption. Ella Ballentine plays her young daughter and it is a performance full of strength; she doesn't come across as a little girl, as you get the feeling that she has had to fend for herself most of her life, but you can also tell that this is a girl that just wants to be loved by her mum. In regards to the monster, I really loved his design and the fact that he was all black. I also appreciated that he was done via practical effects but I rolled my eyes a little when the monster turned out to be afraid of the light which is something of a cliché these days. I loved this film; its dark, vicious, and gory but it also has the biggest heart too. It is also beautifully shot by cinematographer Julie Kirkwood.
9. PETE'S DRAGON
I have already mentioned, in my “most underrated” section of this list, my enormous love for this film and I am going to reiterate it again here. This is the best children's/family film that I have seen since “Tangled” came out in 2010. This is another emotional journey about family and love and it has been very sensitively made by everyone involved. All of the performances are beautiful and subtle, without any grandstanding and I was particularly impressed by the father/daughter relationship between Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford's character, and the relationship they both had had with Elliot the dragon in the past (with Redford's character having seen the dragon when he was younger, and then later in life telling the story of it as a bedtime story to his daughter when she was little). Behind the scenes, director David Lowery shows that he can paint a story with a gentle hand, and I loved the look of the film with it being bathed in different colours of green, the colour of Elliot. Elliot himself, whilst CGI, its beautifully designed with his soft green fur giving him a cuddly look so you can see why Pete would trust and fall in love with a dragon so easily. I should briefly mention that I have never seen the original film that this version is based on, but from all reports this is a much greater film, even if it does stray a bit from the original storyline. I recommend this film wholeheartedly whether you have kids or not, it really is that good and deserves to be seen by as large an audience as possible.
Jeff Nichols had a busy 2016 with two of his films being released. Earlier in the year his sci-fi film “Midnight Special” was released to limited fanfare, whilst in November his true tale of love between an interracial couple living in Virginia during the 1950's entitled “Loving” also came out. If you had asked me at the start of the year which of these two would be on my end of year list I definitely would've chosen “Midnight Special” before “Loving” but the opposite deemed to be true. I was particularly impressed by the low key nature of the film. Even though this was a film about a court case that ended up changing the constitution of the United States of America, the story was told through the eyes of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple at the centre of the court case who had no intention of trying to change history nor the world, all they wanted was to be able to live with the person that they loved. Staying true to this spirit, Nichols does not over-sensationalise the “big” dramatic moments. In fact at the end when the big ruling of the courts is given, we are not even witness to it, instead all we see is Richard and Mildred working on their farm, acknowledging that its finally over. It is a quiet film and that is also a good way to describe the performances. Joel Edgerton in particular gives quite an internal performance, keeping everything inside him, which is much different than in anything else I have ever seen from him. Ruth Negga, as Mildred, is a revelation. I do not believe I have seen her in anything before this, but she is amazing and incredibly beautiful too. It is a quiet performance, but it is also weighty and has a strength behind it. This was a woman that was going to fight to the end to be with the man she loved. It was also good that Nicols was able to find a small role for Michael Shannon to keep their working streak alive. Once again, Jeff Nicols proves just how great a director he is with this beautiful film about true love. I must say that I also love the simple title; originally I thought it was very awkward sounding but then finding out that the subjects of the film had the surname of Loving, well it is just perfect.
The darling of the indie horror scene, Mickey Keating has the ability to make movies of good quality at an increased speed than most. So far all of his films are quite different from one another with the exception that all of them seem to be an homage to a certain type of film from the past. “Darling” is his riff on Roman Polanski's “Repulsion” and whilst I initially had major reservations about the film (due to being a massive fan of the Polanski original), I ended up loving every minute (almost) of it. I'm a sucker for films that deal with a mind fracturing and this is essentially what happens here. Lauren Ashley Carter gives a totally depraved performance as the titular Darling, a girl who, when we meet her even at the beginning of the film, is clearly not all there and dealing with some issues. House sitting in a residence where a suicide has taken place, Darling's mind starts to take over but it isn't until she actually leaves the house and bumps into someone from her past that her mind truly shatters in earnest, and sends her on the path for murderous redemption. Carter is brilliant at depicting a character who is always physically present in a scene, and yet you can feel behind those eyes she is just not there. To visually portray Darling's deteriorating mindset, Keating uses a number of techniques to shake up the audience including extreme rapid montages, bizarre camera angles and even strobe effects (which I am never really a fan of). The black and white photography used in “Darling” is exquisite and gives the film an older, classier feel to the film, as well as being an obvious nod to “Repulsion”. Whilst I found some of the musical choices in the film a little on the nose, the rest of the film I absolutely adored.......with the exception of the final thirty seconds which without giving anything away, removes some of the films ambiguity and in particular makes the film less about Darling having a mental breakdown and more about something else entirely. Click here to read my original review.
6. LA LA LAND
What can I say about this film that hasn't been already said? Going on just a month since being released and “La La Land” is as universally loved as can be in these non-musical times. It is currently the favourite to take home the “Best Picture” Oscar, and earlier this week took home a record seven awards at the Golden Globes. The success is well deserved because this is a phenomenally fun and inventive film celebrating music, love and happiness. Anchored by the two most charming of leads, in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the whole film explodes with energy and colour from its opening frame and doesn't let up until its brilliant “five years later” finale. Its no secret that the golden age of musicals, at least in cinema, are long gone but every now and then we get something special like “La La Land” to remind us why they are so great. My favourite moment in the film is the night time dance Gosling and Stone share together on a road, as the first flicker of love between the two of them is ignited. These two have the most wonderful chemistry and even when the two of them are not together in a scene, you can not help but be charmed by these hugely likeable stars. What I also loved about “La La Land” is that director, Damien Chazelle, made it to be enjoyed on the big screen by shooting the film in “Cinemascope” in the very wide 2.55 : 1 ratio and also on actual film to give the amazing colours of the film that bold Technicolor feel. This is old school filmmaking celebrating the wonder of happiness; its big, its beautiful, its funny, it may be a little long, but it is also worth sitting back and just letting the fun wash over you.
Paul Verhoeven's latest film is about power and control and it is the kind of story that only Verhoeven could've tackled and got away with so brilliantly. The film opens with a vicious rape of our main character, Michele. After the assault has finished, instead of being a hysterical mess, Michele essentially just picks herself up and goes about the rest of her day. This is a woman with a lot of strength and power as she is the CEO of a computer games company which she runs with an iron fist. She is hard and expects results, and thus can rub people the wrong way. Being the control freak that she is, Michele finds it very hard when she loses some of this control via her rape and goes about finding her rapist to turn the scales of power on their head, even if it means exploring the dark side of her own sexuality. For a film that begins with a rape, and from a director as masculine as Paul Verhoeven, you could assume that “Elle” may be a film filled with misogyny and you would be wrong. In fact the complete opposite is true as this is a film about female empowerment and of a woman reversing the ownership of perceived power. Being a Verhoeven film, “Elle” also has with it a level of black comedy sprinkled throughout the film, that is both very funny and shocking that the director was able to get away with it. This is a film that just could not have been made in Hollywood, as the whole thing is as un-PC as it gets. Whilst I am not blind to her immense talent, I have never been a massive Isabelle Huppert fan; she is always an actress that comes off very cold to me. Her performance in “Elle” though is simply masterful and easily my favourite of hers from her very long career. Her coldness works to her character's advantage, and yet because of this, I actually found some warmth in her playing Michele (if that makes any sense at all). This is a woman of 63 and yet comes across looking like someone no older than her mid forties. She is truly stunning in the role and thoroughly deserved her recent Golden Globe win for her performance. I am a massive Paul Verhoeven fan, and it is sad that it took ten years between this and his previous feature (and my personal favourite of his, “Black Book”) but the wait was definitely worth it. I am super impressed that he was able to go to France and shoot in French too, but I also can not think of another director aged in his seventies who still makes films with such bite and can get away with it too.
As of this writing, “February” (re-titled “The Blackcoat's Daughter” in the US) still has not received a commercial release in the United States and it is something I just can not get my head around because this film is totally brilliant. It is a film that I cannot get enough of and have already watched three times thanks to my French blu ray of the film. This is Osgood Perkins directorial debut and it is the story of three girls, all who are connected to a horrific event that takes place at their all-girls school during the holidays whilst they are stuck there by themselves (with minimal adult supervision). To go too much into plot details would be unfair, but “February” is a stunning achievement from a first time director as he shows just he masterful he is at creating and sustaining a horrific and creepy atmosphere right from the opening frame. This is a slow moving horror film, but its pace works wonderfully at exploiting the creepiness on display. I must say that my own interpretation of the events in this film seem to differ from the general consensus as to what exactly happens, as most people believe that Satan or a demon plays a significant part in “February” whereas my own take is that this is another case of mental breakdown. I have no doubt that the person suffering the breakdown believes the devil to be real, but I do not think this is reality. I'm also surprised when people claim the existence of the devil in “February” to be a certainty because I believe Perkins has left this ambiguous and deliberately so. Either interpretation does not alter the fact that “February” is brilliant and chilling. This is the third (and final) film on this list shot by Julie Kirkwood, and it is much more pared back than the previous two films. She creates a sense of isolation and uses the snow covered landscapes to perfection. I love this film with an absolute passion and will forever champion it. Whilst it may be my fourth favourite film of 2016 overall, “February” was my favourite horror film of the year, and by a long way too.
Before I write these lists, there is the process of going through all the films you have watched in a single year and then whittling them down slowly until you get to the final twenty. Then you basically put them against one another to work out the final order in which they stand. I must admit that I was stunned when “Paterson” took the number three place because until then I hadn't realised just how much I loved this film back when I saw it at MIFF. “Paterson” is the latest film from US indie veteran Jim Jarmusch and it is another stellar piece of work. The more I watch of his films, the more I realise just how much his cinematic voice talks to me. “Paterson” is actually about the beauty and poetry of everyday life, of the mundane, and of repetition. The film is set in Paterson, New Jersey and we follow a week in the life of a bus driver, whose name also happens to be Paterson, and who also moonlights as an amateur poet in every spare moment he finds. His poems are about the simple things in life such as a box of matches and he carries around his notebook full of these poems wherever he goes. Each day is essentially the same with him waking up (without an alarm), heading to work, coming home and eating with his girlfriend, before he takes the dog for a walk and stops for a quiet beer and conversation at the corner pub. Each day he meets different people and this is where the variations take place and while it sounds like it could be very boring, it is actually mesmerising. Myself, I am a person of routine and repetition and get very anxious when my routines are disrupted so I guess I was able to connect to the character of Paterson on a personal level. But then it is very easy to do so, as he is a beautiful man with not a bad bone in his body. He is respectful of everyone he meets, he is caring, and he has time for anyone looking for a chat. The performance from Adam Driver, like his character, is beautiful. It is a quietly restrained performance and very still. It is all about the little movements as opposed to big loud gestures. I must admit I was not impressed by his performance in the recent Star Wars film, but seeing him in “Paterson” was like witnessing a completely different actor. He just gets the humanity of Paterson. I was also very impressed by Jarmusch's casting of Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani in the role of Paterson's hilarious girlfriend, Laura, who has unending energy and spends all her time redesigning the couples apartment in black and white designs, while at the same time coming up with new taste sensations for dinner (which Paterson's reactions to are hilarious). I also got a kick out of seeing Masatoshi Nagase playing a Japanese poet at the end of the film, as it is the first time he and Jarmusch have worked together since “Mystery Train”. There is so much more I would love to say about this film and I regret now that I didn't write a full review of it back in August when I saw it, but I think I will stop here and just recommend “Paterson” wholeheartedly. Jim Jarmusch is a genius.
Pedro Almodovar's “Julieta” was my most anticipated film of 2016, and thankfully it did not disappoint. As I just mentioned above, some filmmakers just talk to you more than others, and Almodovar is one whose wavelength I am on almost 100%. Right from the opening frame of this film when the screen is bathed in bright, bold red, I knew I was in the hands of a master filmmaker and was just able to sit back and let the story he was about to tell wash over me. The story he does tell was a lot more low key than is usual for Almodovar, but that did not make it any less brilliant. We follow thirty years in the life of a woman named Julieta from the eighties when she was a young beautiful teacher, full of love and a vitality for life, up to the woman she is today; struggling from bouts of depression estranged from her adult daughter, and ready to leave Spain to move to Portugal with her new love. Just before she leaves though, Julieta runs into one of her daughter's friends which then forces her to look back on her life and see how she became the person she is now. The original title of the film was “Silencio” and it was a great shame to lose this title (which Almodovar gave up so as to not to cause any confusion between his and Scorsese's latest film), as this is the main theme of the film. How staying silent can cause unrepairable grief to the exact person you think you are helping by keeping quiet to. It is such a painful little story, as poor Julieta goes through a lot of heartache in her life, but there is also a lot of laughs and happiness too, in case you are thinking the film could be a bit depressing. This is another great achievement from Spain's greatest living director; a man who seems incapable of making a bad film. Click here to read my original review.
1. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
My favourite film of 2016 is none other than Tom Ford's “Nocturnal Animals”. This is a complex and very adult thriller that works on many different layers. Whilst it can be seen as a revenge film, it is also an allegory about the pain and hurt one can feel over a break-up when they end in a bad fashion. The film is about an owner of an art gallery named Susan who receives a copy of a manuscript that her ex-husband, Tony, is about to have published. It is a violent and sad tale about a man who goes out for revenge when his wife and daughter are abducted, raped and murdered. The fact that Tony dedicated the book to Susan sends chills down her spine, because theirs was a relationship that did not end in a good way and she is unsure if this is a clue that she could be in danger. “Nocturnal Animals” is an exhausting movie to watch because there is just so much going on in it, from what is happening on the screen to the subtext behind it all. It really is an amazing piece of work but it is not an easy one. This is not the kind of film you throw on in the background on a lazy Sunday afternoon, this is one you need to focus on and pay attention to to get the most out of it. I really do not want to say much more than that about the story to be honest as it is an exhilarating film to watch unfold. Technically the film is almost perfect with Seamus McGarvey's stunningly beautiful cinematography (another movie on this list shot on film) being the stand out. For such a dark film tonally, it is filled with lovely bright colours, and with Tom Ford's keen eye for visuals, nary an image goes past that isn't frame worthy. The film also has some of the best performances of the year with Amy Adams, and Jake Gyllenhaal being their regular impressive selves, but whilst it appears that Aaron Taylor-Johnson's performance is getting all the plaudits (it is after all the flashiest role in the film), my favourite was Michael Shannon's cop with a conscious who is willing to help Gyllenhaal's character out with his revenge because he knows the courts will let him down. It is a subtle role but extremely powerful and whenever he is onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off of him. Like a lot of the films on this list, I really do not want to talk too much about them in case I ruin anything, but suffice to say this is a fantastic film, my favourite of the year, but it is not for everyone. It goes to incredibly dark places story wise and in its tone, and there are scenes that are quite gruesome to watch, but for mine this was the best piece of cinema I saw in 2016.
Well there you have it, that was my round-up of the year that was 2016; hopefully you got some enjoyment out of it. Just want to make a quick note that when this list was written I had been unable to see both "Arrival" and "Rouge One: A Star Wars Story". There is no guarantee either would make this list but thought it was worth nothing. Now before I finish, lets have a brief look at the upcoming year and my most anticipated films of 2017.