Now in the second year of combining my long-standing end-of-year list (dating back to 2006) of favourite “nightmare movies” with favourites from other genres, this merger returns my critic’s so-called “best of” selection back to when I first started as a professional film critic (admittedly, “pro” doesn’t quite carry the same weight it used to back in 1993).
I re-iterate, each year, a couple of caveats. Firstly, that I use the word “favourites” instead of “best of”, simply because no matter how savvy, witty, or insightful you are as a film critic, at the end of the day, your e-o-y list is really just a list of what movies tickled your fancy. Of course, the film snobs want to rant on about how dreadful one of the plethora of superhero movies is, or wax lyrical about the brilliance of a particular concentration camp perspective, but, really, one person’s trash is another’s treasure.
The other admonition is that as a film critic I see many movies in advance of their commercial release. As such, there are a few films not on my list for 2016, because I saw them in 2015. My favourites list is made up of movies I saw either at film festivals, or during their Australian theatrical or, if they were denied a cinema release, then their respective BD/DVD/VOD release in Australia. Admittedly, there are a number of movies I had hoped to see, but missed, for whatever reason. Two stand-outs that slipped through the net this year were Raw and Train to Busan, two horror movies that, by all accounts, were amazing.
This year I ended up with a long short list, and as such it was difficult to make the cut off. As has been the case for the past four years, since becoming a father, it has been harder to find the time to review all the movies I want to. This year, I didn’t even get around to reviewing the movie that took out my top spot! I had fully intended to watch the film a second time on the giant IMAX screen in Darling Harbour (sadly, now gone), but I missed my opportunity. I will remedy that in the new year, and post a review.
If it's not on this list, it’s because either I haven’t seen it yet, I saw it and didn’t like it, or I saw it, but didn’t like it quite enough. Pretty simple.
So, without further adieu, here are my favourites from the past year.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s tale of frontier survival is a searing, uncompromising study of violence and retribution, that also happens to be one of the most beautifully filmed of the past twenty years. It is gruelling, but utterly mesmerising, savage, but profoundly poetic. A monumental piece of rugged, sensory cinema.
Karyn Kasuma’s nightmarish thriller is a steadily darkening, slow-burn study of deception and duplicity that takes the best elements of Polanski, and combines them with the mysterious malevolence of Lynch. A top-notch, relatively unknown, ensemble cast all delivering excellent performances within the assured direction of a superb screenplay.
Richard Bates Jr.’s third feature is a pitch-black comedy of relationships that eventually twists into a kind of perverse horror movie. It’s an exceptional hybrid; a romance on the wrong side of bittersweet, and some deep, unsolved family issues, sporting some of the wittiest dialogue all year. Adam Grenier gets my pick for surprise favourite performance.
David MacKenzie delivers the best contemporary Western in twenty years or more. Outstanding work from the three leads, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges. It’s one of those movies where there’s nothing new on the screen, but everything is done just right. A blistering script, cracking dialogue - an instant classic indeed.
This is the action flick of the year, hands down. Whilst The Revenant is more of an expressionist nightmare, Frenchman Jean-François Richet takes the vengeful, protective American spirit by the horns and drives the beast full tilt down the highway. Mel Gibson delivers the kind of authentic intensity and believability not seen since his work in the early 80s, while Michael Parks almost steals the show.
A slick, modern Italian gangster movie with more brazen sensuality and visceral brutality than you can shake an olive branch at. Director Sefano Sollima knows his shit, and he takes no prisoners. A provocative, sumptuous, tenebrous affair with enough tension and betrayal for even the most jaded mob movie lover, plus a most handsome and gorgeous cast.
Forget what the haters say, this is a sensational movie with a brilliant central performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and great support from John Goodman. It’s a chamber piece, with a kick-arse (controversial) twist. If you run with the rug pull, as you should, it’s the best piece of late 70s/early 80s-style shock cinema.
Aoteoroan Taika Waititi delivers the feel-good flick of the year. It’s a term I loathe to use, but I can’t help but apply it here. Based on legendary bushman Barry Crump’s adventures it features a career performance from Sam Neill, upstaged by Julian Dennison as the hilariously cheeky young Ricky, and riddled with enough Kiwi references to warrant instant cult status.
The True Believers know where it’s at. For his third feature Gareth Edwards channels the tone of the original movie, otherwise known as Episode IV: A New Hope, and nails its distinct atmosphere and style (sans wipes). Sure, it’s packed full of nostalgia, but that’s unavoidable, what’s most important is its genuine sense of thrill and adventure, which it has in spades. Great fun.
Nicolas Winding Rein throws caution to the wind and rather than making another Drive, he makes another Only God Forgives; an enigmatic, egocentric thriller saturated in stylistics, immersed in a superb synthetic score courtesy of Cliff Martinez, with enough lurid, fragmented dream/nightmare logic to make Lynch and Argento froth uncontrollably. Ravishing stuff.
In stark contrast to Refn, but cut from the same nightmare cloth, is this monochromatic, abstract fable of loneliness and desire from Nicolas Pesce. Early David Lynch crouches in the darkened corners as inspiration, whilst an elusive American Gothic tone burns like overproof bourbon. A hypnotic, psychotic realm that lingers with intent.
UK maverick Andrea Arnold makes audacious studies of female desire, plucking a complete unknown and eliciting a stunning performance. She tackles the wild, unfettered heart of the American ingénue, with a long, rambling road movie, shot through with a gorgeous, natural (albeit unconventionally framed) eye. Itching with raw charisma, it rewards and frustrates in equal measure.
My favourite documentary of the year follows the tumultuous career of one of Britain’s pioneering figures in contemporary electronic music, James Lavelle, the founder of the legendary “Mo’ Wax” label. It’s a warts and all study of genius and ego, of the influence of hip-hop culture outside of rap music, and the double-edged sword of control vs. creativity. Fluid and compelling.
I first saw this at Sitges last year, but I was too drunk and tired to remember much of it, and after watching it again I was surprised at just how smart and succinct Jeremy Saulneir’s thriller is, a worthy follow-up to his brilliant debut Blue Ruin. It definitely requires a second viewing to fully absorb the movie’s nuances, many of which are obscured the first time by the extreme brutality.
Admittedly, I’m not familiar with Douglas Sirk’s period melodramas, but I thoroughly enjoyed this deliberately stylised romance between two women who are seemingly bound by the restrictions of their society. I’m a big fan of Rooney Mara, and, along with Cate Blanchett, they nail the intense restraint with aplomb. There was something undeniably sensual and rewarding about their sad predicament.
The Girl on the Train
It polarised the critics, but I was gripped from start to finish. Emily Blunt delivers my other favourite performance of the year, as the pathetic alcoholic who finds herself dangerously embroiled in the machinations of a troubled marriage she has observed from her daily ride to nowhere. Great work also from the two other female leads. A genuine nail-biter.
One of only three truly conventional horror movies on my list, yet this one plays with the genre’s tropes with such fervour and abandon that it ends up being the most surprising horror movie of the year. It takes a talented and bold director to deliver the first half an hour with really annoying characters and silly direction and then shove all expectation through the roof with a loud fucking banshee screech ... and and lots of dark (menstrual) blood.
Cultivating a taste so acquired you’ll probably wonder why anyone would bother attempting such absurdity, director, writer, and actor Steve Oram has captured something that almost defies description, for fear of alienation and ridicule. An extreme “study” of human behaviour, it’s a brilliant, hilarious, social satire filmed as crude, low-brow hi-jinks. Leave ALL sensibilities behind.
Norwegian director of Trollhunter goes down a much darker hole with his follow-up feature and it’s an intensely suspenseful two-hander. Great performances from Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch (but not forgetting Ophelia Lovibond as the titular corpse), entrenched in a sensationally ominous, creepy-as-fuck atmosphere. The tinkle of a small bell will never sound as innocuous again.
Basic cat-and-mouse fare made bold and memorable with striking, punchy direction, great performances, and excellent and effective use of violence. It’s Mike Flanagan’s strongest movie to date, brisk and tense as hell, co-written with and starring his wife Kate Siegel. It's the scariest home invasion flick since Ils.
A few honourable mentions:
Arrival, De Palma, Don’t Breathe, White Girl, and The Night of the Virgin.
And I want to throw The Shallows in there too ... Just because.