In my tendency to occasionally write about subjects that aren’t directly related to places I’ve been, I’ve had people say to me, “Brendan, you have a travel blog – focus on travel!” But watching a film is a form of travel. I love movies, always have, always will, because of their power to transport us someplace else. So I hope you’ll take this journey with me into the top 16 films of 2016 – and what an amazing year it was!
1. La La Land
Yes, I am fully on board the La La Land train. Why is La La Land so great? Quite simply, it’s everything a movie should be. It’s a love story, a story of two people’s dreams, a story almost all of us can relate to and, oh, it’s a musical! Despite it’s somewhat controversial ending, La La Land is the inspirational, yet smart, kind of film that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. After La La Land’s success, that looks likely to change.
2. Sing Street
Switching gears from a movie that has received its share of recognition to one that hasn’t, I give you Sing Street. On the surface, Sing Street and La La Land are actually quite similar. Both are inspiring tales of following your dreams, both are love stories, and both feature music rather prominently (just look at the title). The difference? Sing Street feels more organic and less Hollywood (probably because it isn’t Hollywood – it’s Irish). The story of a boy who starts a band simply in order to impress a girl he likes, Sing Street is blessed with the writing and directing talent of John Carney, a Best Song Oscar winner in 2008 for the great Once. The music in Sing Street is as fantastic as the music in that film and will leave you humming for weeks afterwards. If there’s a film on this list guaranteed to appeal to everyone, it’s this one.
3. O.J.: Made in America
Away now from the land of inspiring, fantastic musicals to the dark, gritty reality of race relations in America. O.J.: Made in America is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s so good, and, at 467 minutes, so all encompassing, that I was very tempted to put it at number one (and probably would have if it was a musical). If you’re an American, you’re likely aware of some of the details surrounding the notorious O.J. Simpson murder trial that defined the 90’s and courtroom thrillers forever. But that doesn’t matter. O.J.: Made in America is a master class in, not just Simpson, but in the atmosphere of the country that created him. Is it long? Hell yes – but you’ll be left begging for more when it’s over.
4. The Wailing
There is nothing more terrifying to me than a mysterious disease that leaves corpses in its wake. I read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (about the initial appearance of the Ebola virus) as a kid and it left an indelible mark on me – not to mention haunted me with many, many nightmares. But while The Wailing is a terrifying story about a mysterious sickness that infects a small village in South Korea, it’s also probably the best biblical allegory I’ve ever seen, and while I’m not religious, I do love those. With a chubby, bumbling policeman at its center, it’s also surprisingly funny. And no, while I can’t pronounce the name of it’s writer/director (it’s “Hong-jin Na” if you’d like to give it a try), there’s no doubt that I’ll be rushing out to see whatever it is he does next.
5. Toni Erdmann
If politics don’t tip the votes toward Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, this delightful German comedy is likely to walk away with the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this weekend (no – The Wailing wasn’t nominated). A 2 hour 40 minute long comedy? Yes, and one that manages to be consistently hilarious throughout! Of all 2016’s great films, this one has the year’s single best scene – at a naked dinner party, though that doesn’t even begin to sum up the hilarity. Actress Sandra Hüller turns in a spectacular performance as the tightly wound, overly stressed German we imagine them all to be, and Peter Simonischek is hilarious as the practical joker father trying to win her back. Toni Erdmann will make you laugh like no other movie last year could.
6. Love & Friendship
This slot is reserved for my Downton Abbey pick of the year. Yes, I do have a soft spot for English period romances and Love & Friendship is an English period romance with a twist. Based on a Jane Austen short story I’d never heard of before, Love & Friendship is a hilarious tale of a widow’s pursuit of a wealthy man to marry. The widow in question is so charmingly played by Kate Beckinsale she’ll have you wishing you were a wealthy English gentleman. Love & Friendship reminded me of Dangerous Liaisons crossed with, well, any Jane Austen adaptation you’ve ever seen. I’m in love.
This is a sad, devastating film about a young black man growing up in Miami. I’m not talking about white sand beaches and luxury resorts, but the part of Miami that tourists never see. Divided into three parts, the first tells the story of Chiron (or “Little”) as a boy and his relationship with Juan, a drug dealer who is indirectly responsible for Chiron’s family problems. The second part deals with Chiron’s adolescence and struggle to fit in as a gay teenager at an inner city high-school. The third part deals with Chiron, now a drug dealer himself, as he reconnects with a friend from the past. Moonlight features five incredible performances, and Mahershala Ali will almost certainly win for his portrayal of Juan, if for no other reason than the scene where he teaches Little, played by Alex Hibbert, how to swim is cinematic gold.
8. The Handmaiden
The smartest, twistiest, most unforgettable movie of the year. I could explain what it’s about but that really wouldn’t be what it was about and anything more would be a spoiler. Let’s just say that it’s a psychological thriller set in 1930’s Korea and is one of the most visually stunning things you’ll ever see. Oh, and there’s a lot of lesbian sex.
9. Eye in the Sky
Like Sing Street and Love & Friendship, Eye in the Sky was largely forgotten at awards time due to its early 2016 release date. But this is an excellent, thought provoking film about the ethics of drone warfare. At the Cape Town cinema where I watched it, audience members were passionately “hear hear”-ing one or another of the characters as they made their case on screen. Would you drone a residence housing terrorists that you knew were actively planning strikes but risk killing a small girl in the process? This film examines that question. Eye in the Sky also features the last performance from the late, great Alan Rickman.
If the second half of Lion was a good as the first half, it would be the best movie of the year. Sadly though, it’s not. The second half (aside from the heartwarming conclusion) is just ho-hum. That Dev Patel was nominated and the young child actor (his first performance!) who plays Saroo in the film’s first half wasn’t just goes to show that the Academy is biased against child actors. The film’s first half is nothing short of amazing. Saroo, a young boy, is parted from his family and takes a journey that ends with him being adopted by an Australian family. The second half deals with the, now older, Saroo trying to locate his biological family using nothing more than Google Earth. As a passionate advocate of adoption, I found this real life story especially touching.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film this year, Tanna isn’t on this list because it has a great story (loosely based on Romeo & Juliet), but because of the extraordinary nature of its existence. All the performers are members of a remote tribe in the South Pacific and had never seen a camera, much less a film, before. That the end result should be as powerful and as beautiful as this is a remarkable feat.
The year’s other great documentary, the one that wasn’t even nominated, is Weiner. The timing of this documentary could not have been better, as Anthony Weiner was again implicated in another sexting scandal shortly after its release, this one resulting in his permanent split from wife (and Hillary Clinton confidant) Huma Abedin. Weiner takes an unflinching look into the one-time Congressman’s doomed New York mayoral run, and the result is like Cirque du Soleil meets House of Cards. Fascinating.
13. Long Way North
I don’t remember as good a year for animated films as 2016. Take a look at the movies nominated for Best Animated Film at this year’s Oscars. Just an embarrassment of riches. Kubo and the Two Strings? Fantastic. Moana? One of the best Disney animated films in years. The Red Turtle? Visually spectacular. Zootopia? Hilarious. And while I haven’t yet seen My Life As A Zucchini, the movie that I have to say is my favorite of the year is the one that wasn’t nominated, the French/Danish collaboration, Long Way North. Loosely based on the diary accounts of Ernest Shackleton, whose ship Endurance was trapped in ice and lost during one of Shackleton’s Antarctic voyages, Long Way North tells the story of a young 19th century Russian girl, the daughter of wealthy oligarchs, and her search for her missing grandfather, a ship captain gone missing in a quest to reach the North Pole. The animation is eye-popping and recalls 2009’s The Secret of Kells – no surprise as Long Way North’s director served as an assistant director on that feature. A story of female empowerment set in Czarist Russia that looks like a painting from a Dutch master? Yes please.
14. Hell or High Water
It’s a modern western about bank robbers. And it’s very smart. And it’s got Jeff Bridges doing his Jeff Bridges thing.
15. Captain Fantastic
Dad of the year Viggo Mortensen makes us all wish we had been so lucky. Noam Chomsky day? Free the Food? I am so in.
16. Train to Busan
It’s a zombie movie, a really, really good zombie movie – on a train! It’s also the third South Korean film to make the list. What’s in the water over there?
Notable mentions (because 16 slots just aren’t enough):
Queen of Katwe, The Jungle Book, The Wave, Julieta, Hidden Figures, Sully, Morris From America, Manchester by the Sea, Everybody Wants Some!!, City of Gold, Moana, Other People, The Invitation, Under the Shadow.