Most people look back on the year that was with a heavy measure of disdain, and I don’t blame them. Yet for me, on a professional and personal basis, I had so much to be thankful for. In keeping with the overall tone of 2016, most of the positives came as a surprise. This extended to the movies too.
It was a bumper year for horror, to the point where all three spots on the Honourable Mentions section are dominated by this genre. In any other year, they would’ve easily cracked my Top 10. That’s how spoilt for choice I was, especially later in the year. It’s not just the quantity that surprised me. I honestly didn’t expect to love some of the films on this list as much as I did. Others were almost foregone conclusions, and I promise you it’s not the ones you’d think. So without further ado (because this is so darn late), here is Electroshadow’s selection of the finest Cinema had to offer in 2016…
Strictly speaking, this one falls under the category of crime thriller. But “Green Room” is very much a horror. Even more so because the type of characters featured here really do exist in this world. Neo Nazis in this case, who the film portrayed with such a casual, almost mundane attitude to taking human lives that they easily qualified as one of the year’s scariest movie monsters. Cast firmly against type, Patrick Stewart made for a great villain, his fatherly demeanor and total absence of melodramatics only underscoring what an evil bastard he was.
The other actors were even better, especially those playing the trapped punk band. They really sold the desperation of their situation, from Imogen Poots to the late Anton Yelchin (another wonderful talent sadly claimed by 2016). But the real star was director Jeremy Saulnier, who cranked the intensity up to 11 while punctuating the escalating stakes with bursts of shocking violence every now and then. Destined to be a cult classic.
THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
This tiny indie somehow went unnoticed, including by most critics, and that is one of the biggest injustices of the year. Directed by Norway’s André Øvredal (of “Trollhunter” fame), this had a deeply creepy atmosphere, delightfully gory make-up effects, a pair of superb performances in Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch’s father-son coroners, as well as a tightly constructed detective-mystery structure that was used to deliver increasingly tense and macabre situations. It was let down just a tad by an overly simplified ending, but the 80-odd minutes that preceded it was a lesson in how to make the most out of an already strong premise.
Mind you, this section isn’t ranked. But of the three horror flicks here, this is probably my favourite. It took what is unquestionably the cheapest, most overused trick in the genre’s playbook — the jump scare — and turned it into a fine art. It had a terrific concept to begin with, an evil spirit that can only appear in darkness, but what it did with the concept revealed a wealth of creativity and filmmaking craft. Like the previous entry, this was made by a European (Sweden’s David F. Sandberg), but unlike the previous entry, this one happily got the all attention and acclaim it deserved. It was simply the best horror film of the year.
10 ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
This could’ve ranked higher on the list. But it had a few too many script, pacing and character issues to ignore. Still, the great thing about “Rogue One” is that it worked just as well as a war film (albeit one set in another galaxy) as it did as a “Star Wars” movie. Ultimately, that’s what won me over. It wasn’t just trying to be different for the sake of it either. There was a real need to set itself apart from the main saga of the Skywalker clan, both from a business as well as a creative standpoint, and it more than got the job done.
Through it all, Gareth Edwards stayed true to the spirit of George Lucas’ classic trilogy. He acquitted himself like a hardcore fanboy with genuine filmmaking talent given the reins to a dream project and therefore determined to not drop the ball. So it was obvious that the film was made with a deep, abiding love. Call it the world’s most expensive fan film if you will. Like any fan film, its imperfections were numerous, but even so, there were way more moments of perfection. Well, perfection in a “Star Wars” context anyway. This had hands down the most joyous closing minutes of any movie I saw this year. Was it pandering to a demographic? If by demographic it means audiences who want a damn good time at the movies, then the answer is a resounding yes.
9 THE ACCOUNTANT
One of the coolest things about Cinema as an artform is that it’s generally easy to form an opinion. Versus say, interpretive dance, where one won’t necessarily know what to make of the experience. Most people saw “Batman v Superman” as a terrible movie, I saw it as the year’s best superhero movie (considering 2016’s crop, not that big a deal). Here’s another Ben Affleck movie that critics generally dismissed. Me, I loved this one.
Am I a contrarian? Or is this down to a matter of personal taste? Well, most of the time I love the same things most other critics and film buffs do, so no I am not a contrarian. But yes, this is sometimes down to a matter of taste. It just so happened that there were things about “The Accountant” that spoke to me in a positive way. Lots of things, in fact. At the core of it all, Affleck’s performance. The role of an autistic loner with a dark side wasn’t an easy role to play, with the risk of sliding into either extreme (woodenness or clichéd physical tics) an ever-present danger. Yet he managed to let glimmers of frailty and a soul in search of a connection slip through the cracks in his stony exterior. This economical yet effective approach was also seen throughout the film, from the action to the storytelling. Some people found certain revelations too contrived. Yet those were the very things I found satisfying, even somewhat poetic.
Like its protagonist, the film was easy to underestimate. An actioner that refused to be flashy, and a character drama that had too many guns to be taken seriously, it ended up one of the most underrated films of the year. It’s time someone set the record straight: “The Accountant” is awesome.
8 MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
I’ve been a fan of director Jeff Nichols’ work for a while now. He has a gift for getting right to the heart of human relationships, be they about brothers (“Mud”), couples (“Loving”), or here, fathers and sons. Which is really what enhanced the science-fiction aspects of the story. Nichols crafted an un-showy yet always gripping look at the power of paternal love, and the curious dichotomy in how a father is prepared to hurt others to protect his own. Even when your own happens to be an immeasurably powerful being who can alter reality.
The family drama at the core of it was so beautifully handled that I would’ve loved it even if there weren’t a trace of the fantastical. But it had the fantastical alright, both in concept and execution (that meteor shower is one of my favourite action sequences of the year). The 80s-flavoured synth score oozed both darkness and wonder, the cast was subtle yet engaging (Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, even Kirsten Dunst), and the writing was minimalistic but never simplistic. Best of all, the film managed the feat of being simultaneously intimate and epic at the same time.
7 EYE IN THE SKY
Here’s another film that came and went without much fanfare. If it’s being remembered for anything, it is as Alan Rickman’s final film (one more reason why people hated 2016). While the late, great British actor was watchable as usual, he wasn’t actually the highlight. It was really the intelligence and deftness in how the filmmakers handled a subject as thorny and complex as drone warfare. The film took a stance but never preached and certainly never played it safe. The ethical and political issues both for and against what is basically murder-by-remote got equal airing, and the audience was given plenty to make up its own mind.
Hats off to director Gavin Hood and his writer Guy Hibbert. They made all this brainy stuff accessible by packaging it in a highly thrilling, race-against-the-clock structure. What’s even more impressive is that most of these thrills came from scenes of people standing around in rooms making decisions. Riveting performances led by Helen Mirren rounded this up as one of the most thought-provoking dramas in recent memory.
6 HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
After seeing his brilliant vampire comedy “What We Do In The Shadows”, I knew writer-director Taika Waititi was a unique talent to look out for. He proved he was no one-trick pony with this equally brilliant follow-up. Now his brand of humour is something of an acquired taste, as is his visual style. Then there’s the distinctly Kiwi identity of his films, which could be a little mystifying for international audiences. Maybe it’s because I lived in New Zealand for quite some time, but I had zero trouble tuning into Waititi’s wavelength here. In fact, I spent most of the movie laughing my ass off.
Looking at it objectively, the film still oozed a certain provincial charm that was just so good-natured, I don’t think anyone out there (with a working heart) would fail to fall for it. Sam Neill gave a career-best performance as a grumpy old fart, and together with child actor Julian Dennison they made the year’s best odd couple. While at face value, it seemed to have all the quirks of your typical indie film, this film was anything but typical. Terrifically funny (because of/despite its cultural peculiarities), visually playful, and bursting with personality, “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” deserves to be higher on this list.
5 LA LA LAND
The thing is, 2016 happened to be such a strong year. I have to admit that I struggled long and hard before finalising my Top 5. Considering I am not into musicals, I’m surprised a musical got this far, ahead of early favourites. But make no mistake, “La La Land” is a remarkable film and very much earns its position here. Prior to watching it, I already had an idea of what to expect from the trailers, articles, and promo pieces. And still I was floored by its sheer audio-visual splendour. Me, a guy who fidgets in his seat whenever people in movies break out into song for no apparent reason.
Audio-visual splendour is supposed to be par for the course in musicals anyway, but this took it to a whole new level. Drawing inspiration from the classics, director Damien Chazelle was in full-on homage mode, paying tribute not just to an entire genre but to a bygone era. Old Hollywood. Scenes were lit like paintings, and sometimes scenes literally were paintings. Candy and pastel colours saturated practically every shot, and the lighting was dialed all the way from romantic to magical. As for the songs themselves, they were ridiculously catchy and sung with requisite class (if not full-on lung power) by leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Great chemistry between them too.
And in the middle of all the surface delights, there were wonderful themes about staying true to one’s artistic integrity, the struggles that creative people have to endure, and a beautifully bittersweet look at two souls passing each other from opposite ends of their career trajectories.
4 CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
Viggo Mortensen will probably be best known as Aragorn from “The Lord Of The Rings” saga. Which is fine albeit a wee bit of a shame, as he is an amazing actor. It’s just that he tends to disappear into and inhabit his roles, so people see the character not the actor. And that is the whole point of acting, really. You need look no further than his latest film, “Captain Fantastic” for evidence of this man’s craft.
A story of a new-age hippie father whose decision to raise his kids away from modern civilization eventually causes problems, Mortensen was an utter pleasure to watch. Even when I found myself disagreeing with his character’s choices as a father, he never lost my empathy for him. The role itself was an incredibly complex and borderline unsympathetic one at times, so for him to maintain that connection with me as a viewer was pretty impressive. While this was Mortensen’s show, the rest of the cast more than held their own, colouring their characters with nuance and sensitivity.
Writer-director Matt Ross’ style was deceptively simple. With little gimmickry or embellishment, he drew me completely into this world and got me to fall in love with this family’s story. Full of warmth, wit, and keen observations about human nature, this film demonstrated that the best special effects can be a great cast led by a great storyteller.
3 A MONSTER CALLS
Sometimes though, there is a happy union of special effects and good old-fashioned storytelling. The former was undoubtedly necessary in bringing the titular monster to life, and in that regard the filmmakers succeeded brilliantly. The design of the film was also lovely, with sequences evoking a hand-painted storybook style. Appropriate, as the latter was really where the film soared.
“A Monster Calls” was not a subtle film. It shouldn’t have been anyway. The entire thing was a metaphor for dealing with the loss of a loved one, and all the highly complicated emotions that come with the territory. It was also seen through the eyes of a child, so I firmly believe that in a larger context this film can serve as a teaching tool for children regarding this very subject. Which is why it needed to be big and broad, with messages often spelt out, and emotions worn plainly on its sleeve. Having said that, the film was meant to speak to adults as well. As long as adults were willing to discard their cynicism. Those who did (like me) were rewarded with a rich, moving experience, anchored by wonderful performances by Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, and Liam Neeson. Director JA Bayona’s previous film “The Impossible” also landed on my Top 10 several years back. This one easily outranks it. It was just that good.
Nothing makes me happier when I discover a great film in my favourite genre, science-fiction. So imagine my joy at having a sci-fi this high up on my list. Because “Arrival” is a modern-day masterpiece of the genre. Heck, it’s a masterpiece regardless of genre. For one, it had that rarest of qualities: it was original. It may have been based on existing material, but that doesn’t matter. As a piece of Cinema, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. And I’ve seen a LOT of movies. Sure, the basic premise of aliens visiting Earth was something we’ve all seen countless times before. It’s what they did with the premise that was so fresh and exhilarating.
How do you communicate with a party that you have absolutely nothing in common with and when you have absolutely zero basis to start from? That was the conundrum that the film kicked off with, and that stuff in itself was already endlessly fascinating. Yet at some point, director Denis Villeneuve began to slowly lift the veil to reveal the film’s underlying ideas. That’s when the film’s true power hit me like an atom bomb. The implications were huge, the shift in perception of everything in the film was seismic, from the relationships between the characters, to the significance of scenes, down to the film’s very structure. Villeneuve pulled a masterful magic trick on us. Mind. Blown.
If you haven’t seen it, this information (vague as it is) might actually count as a spoiler, so apologies in advance. Regardless, if you enjoy intelligent movies you owe it to yourself to see this. Even if you’ve seen this, your 2nd viewing would be a radically different experience because perception is everything. This is one for the ages.
1 NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
The other films I’ve discussed came very close to hitting the Number One spot. It was a very close battle, but in the end, no other film of 2016 stayed with me as strongly as “Nocturnal Animals”. This never got a cinematic release in Malaysia thanks to our idiotic Censorship Board’s narrow-mindedness (the film features some nudity), so I actually travelled all the way to Singapore to catch it. It was way worth the trip. Fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford directed this noir thriller with all the verve and confidence of some veteran auteur. I do not say this lightly: Alfred Hitchcock would be proud.
Ford also squeezed some top-notch work out of his actors. Amy Adams had a productive year. Along with her fine work in “Arrival”, she impressed the hell out of me here with a performance full of subtleties. Then there was Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, one expectedly excellent, the other unexpectedly so. The star player however, was definitely Jake Gyllenhaal. The guy has been consistently superb in pretty much everything he’s done this decade. For the second time in three years, he’s been in my No.1 film and he’s been a significant factor for the film hitting the top.
It came as no surprise that a film by a man whose day job involves design would look stunning, but even so I was thoroughly enchanted by the visual artistry. From the sets to the lighting to the cinematography to the costumes (of course), the film was positively pulsating with style. But style without substance is an empty exercise, so to have a film that looked this good with such depth was a rare treat. Ford expertly explored themes like guilt, revenge, and emotional catharsis through one’s art, and he conveyed them all in an intensely absorbing mystery featuring parallel narratives. It was incredibly ambitious, and he made it seem effortless. I’m in awe.
In case you missed it, here’s Electroshadow’s Top 10 Worst Movies of 2016!