Our favourite 20 films of 2016
2016 may not have been a vintage year in terms of movies, with the summer blockbuster season in particular being one to forget, but there were some gems among the disappointments. The year got off to a great start, for instance, with the likes of Spotlight and The Revenant, while even the early summer hits some great heights with Zootropolis, Captain America: Civil War and The Nice Guys entertaining in spades.
As the autumn rolled round, the next crop of awards contenders began to reveal themselves, with Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi stunner Arrival and Clint Eastwood’s Sully: Miracle on the Hudson standing out. So, which films made our list of the favourites of the year?
20) The Infiltrator
What’s the story? The true story of the federal agent who successfully infiltrated Pablo Escobar’s drugs cartel at the height of its power.
Why so good?: Overall, The Infiltrator is a smartly constructed, emotionally involving, character-driven drama that lifts the lid on a fascinating chapter on America’s war against drugs. It’s essential viewing and an ideal companion piece for anyone currently addicted to Netflix TV series Narcos.
19) Pete’s Dragon
What’s the story? Two-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in a car crash with his parents and left alone in the woods, where he immediately befriends a dragon he names Elliott. Six years later, Pete is found by kindly park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and taken into her family, leaving Elliott to search for his friend while evading the attention of some loggers led by Grace’s husband’s brother (Karl Urban). But as Pete begins to adjust to life without Elliott, matters come to a head once the dragon becomes captured.
Why so good?: Just as he beguiled with his debut feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, so David Lowery now enchants with his take on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. A remake of the part animated 1977 film of the same name, this completely live action version re-imagines the story and emerges as a film capable of captivating both children and adults alike. There’s a playfulness that’s infectious as well as an emotional connection that’s as uplifting as it can be heart-breaking.
18) Midnight Special
What’s the story? An eight-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is on the run with his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and partner-in-crime Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The boy in question has other-worldly powers and is wanted by both the religious cult that view him as their salvation and the US government that want to understand and exploit his abilities. But just where these powers come from remains the story’s big question, coupled with whether or not he will be able to fulfil his destiny in time.
Why so good?: Serving as both a tribute to 80s sci-fi classics Starman and Close Encounters of The Third Kind and an intimate father-son tale, Midnight Special touches the heart while dazzling the brain. Jeff Nicholls has long been the kind of director who could teach most blockbuster filmmakers a thing or two about how story and character can co-exist with visual style, and Midnight Special offers another masterclass in how to do so.
17) Triple 9
What’s the story? A crew of dirty cops and ex-soldiers (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and including Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul and Clifton Collins Jr) are forced into pulling off a seemingly impossible heist by a Russian Mob boss (Kate Winslet). In order to increase their chances of success, the crew plan to manufacture a 999 call, the US police code for ‘officer down’, by shooting one of their own and creating a diversion. But while Mackie’s idealistic new partner (Casey Affleck) seems like the obvious contender to take the fall, circumstances soon complicate matters for everyone involved.
Why so good?: Triple 9 may take its cues from a wide range of genre classics, from Michael Mann’s Heat to Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day via Scorsese’s duplicitous The Departed to TV’s The Wire, but it still retains an identity of its own, thanks to Hillcoat’s smart handling of the material (which often rises above some of the more trashy elements). It is powerhouse filmmaking: gritty, pulse-pounding, intelligent and viscerally thrilling. Genre fans should have a blast.
16) 10 Cloverfield Lane
What’s the story? Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has just decided to leave her boyfriend when she is involved in a terrible accident. When she awakes, she finds herself locked in a cellar with Howard (John Goodman), a Doomsday fanatic who tells her that the world outside is now uninhabitable and that he is her only means of survival. Locked in with these two is another man, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who tells Michelle he wanted to be there, but who also seems wary of Howard’s true intentions and volatile mood swings. It’s not long before Michelle decides she needs to escape.
Why so good?: Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is that rare kind of surprise: an event movie that delights by virtue of its smallness, its ingenuity and the fact that you’ll know very little about it going in. Described as “a spiritual successor” or “blood relative” to JJ Abrams’ found footage creature feature Cloverfield, this stand-alone chapter is, by turns, achingly tense, grimly macabre, darkly amusing and refreshingly intelligent.
15) Jason Bourne
What’s the story? Jason Bourne is attempting to stay off the grid in Greece while wrestling with his past demons by indulging in bare knuckle brawling. He’s lured back into the game, however, when former sympathiser/collaborator Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the CIA and uncovers some alarming home truths about his past, prompting the CIA to renew their efforts to take him down. Hence, Bourne must once again dust off his old skills to both elude a new assassin (Vincent Cassel) with a very personal agenda, shadowy CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and ambitious analyst and potential new ally Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander).
Why so good?: It may have taken nine years to lure Matt Damon back to the iconic role of Jason Bourne but the wait proves more than worth it with his belated return to the superior action series. Jason Bourne, which reunites the A-team of Damon and director Paul Greengrass, effortlessly succeeds in recapturing the intensity and exhilaration of the first three films in the saga… Simply put, it’s great to have this franchise back and firing on all cylinders.
What’s the story? A young woman, Ma (Brie Larson), and her young son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), as they are forced to live in a tiny room. The woman, we learn, has been abducted seven years earlier, while her son has recently turned five. The boy, for his part, understands very little about the circumstances of his existence. Rather, thanks to his mum, his world is Room and she shields him from the inherent horrors that occur on an almost nightly basis. But the mum yearns for escape, if not for herself then at least for her son. So, when an opportunity presents itself…
Why so good?: Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is an incredible film in so many ways. In part, a horrific tale inspired by some truly terrifying headlines, it’s also a heartfelt mother-son relationship drama that genuinely touches the heart. Hence, while certainly not easy to watch given its proximity to real events such as Austria’s Elizabeth Fritzl case [of 2008], it does provide an emotional connection that is difficult to shake off.
13) Deepwater Horizon
What’s the story? The 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico remains the biggest ecological disaster in US history. This is the story of the events as they unfolded.
Why so good?: Peter Berg’s new film serves as a tribute to the men and women who lost their lives as well as the bravery of some survivors. But it’s also a damning indictment of the corporate greed that contributed fully to the disaster in the first place. As such, it’s something of an emotional rollercoaster; a film just as capable of making you angry as it is sad. It’s also a technical marvel, capable of capturing the full intensity of the hell on Earth as it unfolded.
12) Green Room
What’s the story? When down-on-their-luck punk band The Ain’t Rights are offered a paid gig at a remote club in backwoods Oregon, they have little choice but to accept. But the bar in question is run by neo Nazis and it’s The Ain’t Rights bad luck to stumble upon a fresh murder scene. What ensues is a tense stand-off between band and Nazis that’s punctuated by bursts of extreme violence and tense negotiations designed to buy time or give one side the upper hand.
Why so good?: If the premise – punk rockers vs neo-Nazis – suggests B-movie schlock, the execution of the events surrounding Green Room is anything but. Rather, in the hands of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, this is a powerhouse piece of indie cinema: tense, gripping, intelligent and gut wrenchingly violent. It’s a raw, gritty, witty, sometimes sickening, continually pulse-quickening thriller that holds you tightly in its grip from start to finish.
11) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson
What’s the story? On January 15, 2009, Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger took off from New York’s Laguardia Airport on a routine flight with 155 souls on board. Moments later, his engines were knocked out by a flock of birds, sending the plane into free fall. In the ensuing seconds and minutes, Sully decided to try and land the plane on the Hudson River. The successful landing without a single fatality (and only minor injuries) was immediately hailed as a miracle, with Sully held up as a hero. But in the days and weeks after the landing, Sully was subjected to an intense investigation by the aviation authorities, who questioned whether his decision to attempt a water landing was legitimate.
Why so good?: Clint Eastwood has long been a fan of making films that probe the nature of heroism. Sully, his latest, follows in the flight path of American Sniper and Flags of our Fathers in examining a landmark moment in American history and uncovering the human toll it took on the perpetrator of it… It rates among Eastwood’s best movies as a director, while marking another personal acting triumph for leading man Tom Hanks.
What’s the story? Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan), the illegitimate son of late world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, is determined to make his own destiny and to right the wrongs of a misspent youth by become a boxer. He subsequently travels to Philadelphia to enlist the help of Creed’s former adversary turned friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). But while initially reluctant, Balboa agrees to train Johnson and the two form a potent partnership that eventually lands the young protégé an unlikely shot against a champion… so long as he adopts his father’s name for the bout.
Why so good?: Like the underdog story it depicts, Creed is a film that defies expectations and punches well above its weight. Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler, of the little seen but excellent Fruitvale Station, this is far more than just a mere reboot of the Rocky franchise. It’s a stirring and inspirational boxing drama that lands a fairly weighty emotional upper cut to boot.
9) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
What’s the story? A rebel group is formed to try to steal the plans for The Death Star before it can be used as a weapon to destroy planets. Heading this posse of killers, spies and chancers is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a spirited fugitive whose father (Mads Mikkelsen) is integral to the plans for said Death Star and, perhaps, its destruction.
Why so good?: If JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens deservedly restored fan faith in the cinematic power of the Force by largely remixing everyone’s favourite Star Wars elements and then opening up intriguing new possibilities, then Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story offers the first real possibility of anything really risky or different from the norm. A spin-off that exists sometime between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, Rogue One emerges as just that: a gutsy war film of sorts that gleefully eschews a lot of Star Wars tradition (no light-sabres or opening text crawl) while still respecting the key components and timelines of the main franchise.
8) The Nice Guys
What’s the story? Set in LA in 1977, the story follows the fortunes of two men: luckless private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling), who has been tasked with finding a missing girl, and world-weary enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). The two first meet when Healy is called in to beat March up in order to throw him off the scent. But they are reluctantly forced to team up when both realise they’re being played as part of the same conspiracy involving high-level corruption within the motor industry and the government, which in turn has links to the porn industry.
Why so good?: Shane Black fans are in for a real treat with The Nice Guys, a witty but tough noir thriller that offers a greatest hits compilation of the writer-director’s best work to date, as well as something a little bit new. It also boasts another great mis-matched buddy partnership at its heart thanks to the chemistry between leading men Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, as well as that all too rare ability to wrong-foot viewers at various points by virtue of its sheer audacity.
What’s the story? Ambitious small-town bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) sets about fulfilling her lifelong dream of becoming a cop by joining the big city’s Zootopia Police Department. At first reduced to being a meter maid, and forced to exist in the shadow of her towering fellow cops (comprised of rhinos and elephants), Judy nevertheless gets a shot at the big time when she begins to follow a lead on a missing person’s case (or vanished otter), subsequently enlisting the help of a con artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), to navigate the city’s various shady elements.
Why so good?: Co-directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, Zootropolis has something for everyone to enjoy, while working on many levels. For the young and innocent minded, there’s plenty of knockabout fun and slapstick humour to enjoy, coupled with a timely message about tolerance and integration, while pop culture references abound for adults and film fans to savour. What’s not to like about an animation that references both The Godfather and Breaking Bad? Zootropolis feels like the complete package: an animated film the whole family can enjoy that looks destined for instant classic status.
6) The Revenant
What’s the story? Inspired by the real-life adventures of Hugh Glass, a 19th Century Wyoming mountain expert and fur trapper who survived a bear mauling and vowed revenge on the two men who abandoned him to die.
Why so good?: Three words best sum up Alejandro González Iñárritu’s survival thriller The Revenant: brutal, breath-taking, astonishing. The film offers a visual tour-de-force that combines stunning scenes of natural beauty with moments of bone-crunching savagery. In doing so, it also examines notions of survival, revenge and humanity: the latter point, in particular, an expansive notion in the way that it often cruelly examines mankind’s lack thereof… either to each other, especially in its depiction of the relationship between the settlers and the First Nation people, or to the landscape and its inhabitants. And it doesn’t sugar-coat nature’s terrifying capacity to hit back.
5) Captain America: Civil War
What’s the story? Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) falls out with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) over a proposed treaty to control superheroes. As both men come to loggerheads trying to win their argument, a new blow is dealt by the detonation of a bomb at the Vienna summit: the apparent blame for which lies with The Winter Soldier, aka Rogers’ former friend and ally Bucky (Sebastian Stan).
Why so good?: Thirteen films in and Marvel continue to find new ways to dazzle and amaze as they expand their superhero universe. Captain America: Civil War may have a lot to cram in but Joe and Anthony Russo, picking up where they left off with Winter Soldier, have delivered a movie that could just standout as the pinnacle of Marvel’s achievements to date… It is a stunning achievement: one that far exceeds expectations to deliver one of the most thrilling superhero experiences you are ever likely to see.
4) Eye In The Sky
What’s the story? A group of high priority terrorist targets are convening at a house in Kenya under the watchful eye of Colonel Katherine Powell (Dame Helen Mirren), who is poised to put into play a capture mission. Things quickly take a more complicated turn, however, when surveillance also reveals the presence of suicide bombers being suited up inside, changing the parameters of the mission from capture to kill. But then a young local girl, aged nine, starts selling bread outside of the house, placing her within any potential blast radius.
Why so good?: The moral and ethical complexity of modern warfare is skilfully exposed in Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky, which already rates as one of the most important films of our time… [Overall] the film rates as essential viewing: difficult, challenging, even sobering… it refuses to let the viewer off the hook. But for anyone with their own eye on current events, it explores issues that cannot and should not be ignored.
3) Hell or High Water
What’s the story? When the bank threatens to fore-close on their late mother’s farm, divorced father Toby (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) stage a series of heists against various branches of the same bank, in a bid to provide Toby’s own sons with the financial security he never had. But they are pursued by dogged Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges, who is determined to outwit the brothers before retirement forces him to hang up his hat.
Why so good?: David Mackenzie follows up his excellent prison drama Starred Up with the similarly striking heist movie Hell Or High Water. Playing like a cross between the Coens’ No Country For Old Men, for the way in which it examines contemporary morality, and classic Westerns, this is an utterly compelling tale that resonates on many levels. It’s a film that’s as thrillingly articulate as it is clever and expertly executed. And given the way that it effortlessly combines classic Western conventions with sincere contemporary resonance, it looks destined to become a modern classic – and deservedly so.
What’s the story? When giant spaceships descend on Earth in several locations, including the US, its up to a top linguistics professor, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), and a leading scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to attempt to find a common language so that the aliens’ intentions can be discovered. But for Adams’s Dr Banks, the mission unfolds from an increasingly personal perspective that seems strangely linked to a tragedy in her own life.
Why so good?: This is essentially about one woman’s journey told on an epic scale. It’s thought-provoking, eye-catching, compassionate and extremely poignant: a film big on ideas that touches the heart and mind. It’s a stunning achievement – and one that only makes you more excited to see what Villeneuve does with his next sci-fi venture, the Blade Runner sequel.
What’s the story? Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) instructs Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his Spotlight team to look into allegations of abuse involving one local priest. But as their investigation exposes a much wider problem, possibly involving global culpability within the Catholic Church, the pressure mounts on those reporting it, whether from those who would seek to bury it, or from within the journalists’ own belief systems.
Why so good?: A tricky subject matter is given the mature and highly intelligent treatment it deserves in Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s true story of the Boston journalists who uncovered widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests. Told primarily from the perspectives of the Spotlight team of journalists who reported on it, as well as the editor who oversaw them, this also remains hugely mindful of its victims as well as pointing the finger at corporative wrong-doing and collective culpability.