Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Film in 2016

As with most Aussie critics, I compile my list according to 2016 Australian release dates, which means it may include films that would be classified under the 2015 American cinema or awards schedule. This might create some confusion, but some of the best 2015 films were released in January and even late February 2016 here, so it would be a shame to omit them. I’ve highlighted these films with a (*). There are many films I’m yet to see from 2016 which may find their way onto this list in time to come – consider it non-definitive! I’ve written a passage on each of the top ten films and a notable commonality I discovered between the top two films on my list is that both pose difficult existential questions with bittersweet resolutions.

Of the 2016 released films I’ve seen, here are my top 25:

25. Everybody Wants Some!!

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24. Allied

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23. Green Room

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22. The Big Short*

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21. Don’t Breathe

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20. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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19. Kubo and the Two Strings

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18. 45 Years*

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17. Deepwater Horizon

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16. Zootopia

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15. Brooklyn*

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14. Elle

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13. Room*

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12. 13th

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11. Carol*

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10. Hell or High Water

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“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”

There’s no black or white in Hell or High Water. Its protagonists are thieves, but they’re determined to create better lives for their children, no matter the cost, and seek vengeance against the system that failed them. The banks are the bad guys, but they’re faceless and within the law. Even the law enforcers are rendered as mostly powerless, constantly faced with grey judgements. With Coen brother-esque dialogue and careful, crisp cinematography, Hell or High Water paints a bleak picture of lower-middle class America. Sure, there’s some heavy-handedness but it’s the kind of message that needs some transparency in this current climate, especially pertinent given the circumstances of Trump’s recent election win. Hell or High Water is the ideal modern Western: a story of cowboys and cops with potent topical relevance.
(Originally published at ccpopculture)

9. Captain America: Civil War

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What Captain America: Civil War manages to do, which no other Marvel film has, is play on an audience’s familiarity of its genre to surprise and ultimately unearth the deep-rooted emotional affairs at its core. In this regard, Civil War is a success by way of daring to wander beyond the boundaries of what has become the acceptable standard for the Marvel genre. (Read on here…)

8. Sing Street

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“It’s just how life is. I’m gonna try and accept this and get on with it, and make some art.”

Life can be hard. There’s bullying, parental negligence and separation, bigoted authoritarianism, regrets and unlived potential, economic woes, and the tough lessons of young love – but thankfully there’s music to help get you through it. Likewise, Sing Street is an impossibly charming escape from life’s harsh realities, framed as a nostalgic ode to 80s music and performed with memorable original songs. Sing Street doesn’t wallow in the circumstances it establishes, instead reminding us of life’s little wonders: the bond of brotherhood, the intoxication of dreaming big, the exciting discoveries of adolescence, and – most importantly – the healing effect of music through it all. This little Irish musical is a delightful distraction that leaves you with the affirmation that life is good.
(Originally published at ccpopculture)

7. Son of Saul*

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Even in the most dehumanising place in the world, a fragment of humanity can survive. In Auschwitz concentration camp, hundreds of lives are taken every day and for the enslaved men kept alive there, death has become routine. They’ve gradually fallen into place as part of the machinery, robotically disposing of the bodies of women and children from the gas chambers. Desensitised to the atrocities in front of them, their perspective is withdrawn and confined. The camerawork throughout Son of Saul mirrors this, muting the off-screen horrors with shallow focus and a deliberate physical and intimate attachment to Saul (Géza Röhrig). We are only spectators to the actions and emotions of this man, which humanises how we experience these inhumanities. When Saul encounters the lifeless body of his son in the gas chambers, something awakens inside of him and he’s determined to give his son a proper Jewish burial, however impossible the task. Despite his circumstances, Saul’s actions become a reminder of the value of a single life and the strength of faith; a small, bright light in an expanse of darkness.

6. Hail Caesar!

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“Our story is told through the eyes of a Roman tribute… ordinary man, sceptical at first, but who comes to a grudging respect for this swell figure from the East”

Despite the thick 1950s Hollywood and communism satire, Hail Caesar! is more concerned with religion and a playful interrogation of its constructs. In one scene, overworked studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) consults an array of leaders from different religious institutions seeking their blessing for an upcoming film titled Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. The metacommentary here is blatant and as Mannix describes the film’s narrative we can see parallels in his own story. Mannix is a God-fearing man, habitually confessing his petty sins but neglectful in his dedication to truly amend them. He faces temptation when headhunted for an easier, better paying job and undergoes a period of contemplation. Ultimately, he listens to the voice within (the voice of God according to his priest) and learns to respect that his duty is right, no matter how difficult. But the Coens flippantly handle this revelation, critical of the need for ideological systems to find the meaning of life. Instead, Hail Caesar! exhibits their devotion in worshipping the church of Hollywood, in all its chaotic and trivial splendour.

5. The Revenant*

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Visionary filmmaking and astonishing craft elevate an intense tale of survival and grit in The Revenant. Unforgettable sequences of stunning camerawork, chilling brutality and haunting poeticism create a breathtaking viewing experience. For a film of such visceral physicality, The Revenant is fundamentally spiritual; a contemplative expression of opposing ideologies regarding faith and a connection with the natural world. It’s also steadfast in deconstructing the exceptionalism of American primitive frontier myths and offering the grief Native Americans and even mother nature as additional perspective. It’s through showing the early establishment of a flawed commoditised system that The Revenant finds significance in this instance.

4. Spotlight*

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“Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark. Suddenly, a light gets turned on and there’s a fair share of blame to go around.”

As each character in Spotlight is confronted with the disturbing truths of their city and community, they are forced to reflect on their own circumstances. Could it have happened to them? Could they have done anything to prevent it? Guilt turns into blame and they watch on as responsibility is offloaded from one person or institution onto the next. Within this scramble for accountability, Spotlight demonstrates the necessity of the press in holding the right people answerable and stresses the value of investigative journalism in unearthing buried societal truths. It’s an important film with an especially potent message considering the current condition of the fourth estate. Spotlight’s story is handled with class and is as modestly depicted as the lives of the unsung heroes at its centre.

3. The Hateful Eight*

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“The good part about frontier justice is, it’s very thirst quenching”

Like a spoonful of molasses, whether The Hateful Eight goes down smooth or makes you queasy depends on your palate for unrepentance, but it’s perfect to satisfy a sweet-tooth craving for Tarantino. (Read on here…)

2. La La Land

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“How are you going to be revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”

Don’t be fooled by the song and dance, La La Land poses some difficult questions. Those expecting a romantic musical escape from the ‘real world’ might be sorely surprised. It’s undoubtedly a pleasing watch – beautifully orchestrated sequences, whimsical and imaginative – but the film isn’t satisfied with simplistic answers. Sometimes the fulfilment of our life ambitions can’t match our relationship aspirations. Reality can obstruct love’s path and following your dreams occasionally requires sacrifice. More so, our desire for success is often challenged by the interrogation of our artistic principles, whether to lower or stray from them in order to prosper in reality. This pursuit of contentment sounds cynical but La La Land is idealistic; life can’t be perfect, even in a Hollywood musical, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find fulfilment. The lead characters are privileged to do so, in their own way, and while La La Land indulges in romanticising what could have been, it shows resolve in expressing its philosophy.

1. Arrival

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“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”

*Mild spoilers*

The grand existential question posed by Arrival might not even be wholly accurate by its own canon. The question might be better framed as: how would you live your life with the knowledge of its entirety? Would we have freewill in our circumstances or would such cognisance steer our thoughts and actions like a self-fulfilling prophecy? Whatever your interpretation, Arrival is concerned with fate and learning to accept its actuality and its command. It’s an idea that resonates profoundly by the film’s reveal because of the emotional investment seeded and cultivated throughout its story. It’s devastatingly complex and hits hard once all the parts are constituted, ultimately a bittersweet symphony, but the tune is genuine and pure. Arrival admires its protagonist and how Louise (Amy Adams) chooses to act with the cards she’s been dealt. It reminds us of the value of every moment, the transcendence of love and the significance of grief and joy in forging who we become or who we were always meant to be.

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