It’s almost the end of the year, so it’s time for the Time Out film team to pick their best films of 2016. And it’s a varied bunch. Our list takes in Harry Potter and the Holocaust. It straddles Jane Austen and austerity Britain. It includes three documentaries, two blockbusters and one Iranian horror movie (and was compiled before we got to see 'Star Wars: Rogue One', in case you're wondering).
Do you agree with our pick of the best films of 2016? Tell us in the comments, or on Twitter @timeoutfilm.
Forget your Conjurings and your Witches, Blair or otherwise – hands down the scariest scene of 2016 was young Jacob Tremblay’s escape from the eponymous room in Lenny Abrahamson’s deeply unnerving abduction drama. Brie Larson was an Oscar shoo-in as the young woman imprisoned against her will, and the film’s crystal-clear take on trauma and its aftermath is hard to shake.
We said ‘A heart-rending exploration of the worlds that parents create with their kids.’
Queen of Katwe
Say the word Disney, and you probably think of syrupy sentiment and traditional values. But which other American studio released not one but two major blockbusters focusing squarely on the lives, loves and accomplishments of young women of colour? Just squeezing out the lovable ‘Moana’, this lightfooted drama about a Ugandan chess prodigy was an unexpected delight: sweet, unflinching and feelgood in the best sense.
We said ‘Prepare to have your heartstrings plucked.’
Captain America: Civil War
Let’s be honest, it was a crushingly disappointing summer at the multiplex, packed with inferior sequels (‘Finding Dory’, ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’) and underwhelming comic-book adaptations (‘Suicide Squad’, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’). Luckily, Marvel had snuck in early with the latest instalment of their epic superhero soap opera: this was everything you love about the Avengers series, and more: big, brash and immensely satisfying.
We said ‘Marvel at their best: a pacey, intelligent super-sized blockbuster and a roaringly fun night out.’
Tale of Tales
A king cuts the heart from a sea monster. A nobleman feeds a flea until it’s the size of a horse. A girl is married to an ogre. An old woman becomes young and beautiful by the power of magic. This ornate, grotesque, enchanting fantasy from ‘Gomorrah’ director Matteo Garrone is an authentic fairytale nightmare, deep and dark.
We said ‘Its strange spell is altogether seductive and special.’
Our Little Sister
Dependable Japanese master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda does it again, offering up another wise, scalpel-sharp child’s-eye view of the ways modern families fit together. This time our heroine is Suzu, a teenage girl who, at her father’s funeral, meets her three carefree grown-up half-sisters for the first time.
We said ‘An intimate, warm embrace of a film, it radiates joy and harmony.’
The film that launched a million bear-centric Twitter memes, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stark, brutal survival flick pulls no punches in its depiction of one man’s battle with wildlife, the elements and that most dangerous of God’s creatures, men. Alejandro and his star Leonardo DiCaprio spoke at length about the rigours of shooting in the snowy wastes. Diddums.
We said ‘Not just gruelling, but often gorgeous and quietly spiritual.'
Under the Shadow
Britain’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar is this taut, terrifying horror movie set in war-torn Iran. The focus is on an extraordinary performance from Narges Rashidi as Shideh, the alienated young mother whose rights have been stripped away following the Islamic Revolution. Politically astute, emotionally complex and genuinely scary, this deserved a much wider cinema release.
We said ‘Director Babak Anvari ratchets up the suspense beautifully.’
The Pearl Button
Following on from his extraordinary ‘Nostalgia For the Light’, Chilean documentary maker Patricio Guzman once more links scientific exploration – this time a look at water and its role in human lives – with an angry, emotional elegy for the victims of Pinochet’s cruel regime.
We said ‘The connections might be a little more diffuse than in “Nostalgia for the Light”, but their cumulative power is strong.’
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
JK Rowling swore blind it wasn’t a Harry Potter prequel – but the moment the Warner Bros logo appeared, backed by gloomy clouds and accompanied by that twinkly theme, all that went out the window. And it’s such fun to be back in the wizarding world, as Eddie Redmayne’s oddball zoologist Newt Scamander scurries around jazz-age New York unleashing funny, furry mayhem.
We said ‘Yes, the magic is still there.’
A masterclass in how to wrongfoot your audience, ‘Bone Tomahawk’ starts as a period western, left-turns into thriller territory, downshifts into breezy comedy, blindsides with shocking gore and chucks in a spot of heart-racing action for good measure. Genre-bending is rarely this much fun.
We said ‘Equal parts charming, strange, goofy, unpredictable and genuinely horrifying.’
Fire At Sea
This observational documentary may prove to be 2016’s most important film. Director Gianfranco Rosi brilliantly contrasts the day-to-day lives of ordinary people on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa with the brutal experiences of African and Syrian migrants as they struggle to reach the island.
We said ‘The point, made poetically and calmly, is that all lives are equal, and equally deserving of interest and respect.’
Ben Wheatley’s ferocious, scattergun adaptation of JG Ballard’s clinical sci-fi masterpiece divided critics, audiences and dogs right down the middle. Tom Hiddleston is awesomely cool and collected as Dr Robert Laing, who moves into a new Estuary tower block just as it begins to descend into complete social anarchy.
We said ‘An uncompromising adaptation.’
Pedro Almodóvar adapts a trio of Alice Munro stories into a terse, emotionally restrained melodrama about a woman staring tragedy in the face without blinking. The performances are great and the decor is predictably sumptuous, but it’s Almodóvar’s unflinching direction that gives ‘Julieta’ its power.
We said ‘Extremely moving and teasingly free of easy resolution.’
After a brace of gloomy dramas, the Coen brothers got back to their goofy, wisecracking best with the part-slapstick story of a kidnapped movie star and the put-upon Hollywood ‘fixer’ hired to find him. The jokes come thick and fast, the cast are to die for and the recreation of golden-age Tinseltown is flawless. What’s not to love?
We said ‘As super-polished, mannered and slightly surreal comedies go, it feels as rare as a unicorn.’
Driving With Selvi
The tiniest film on our list, this modest but unforgettable documentary tells the simple tale of an unflappable Indian girl scarred by marriage and abuse at 14 who escapes to find a new life as a cab driver – still a rare job for a young woman. There’s something in Selvi’s journey from the darkest trauma to glorious self-actualisation that feels powerfully relevant to our times.
We said ‘Director Elisa Paloschi makes us feel privileged to share the experiences of this courageous, principled and charismatic young woman.’
Love & Friendship
With ‘Love & Friendship’, American writer-director Whit Stillman achieved the near impossible – he made Jane Austen feel new. Crisp and caustic, this thoroughly modern adaptation of Austen’s early, little-known novella ‘Lady Susan’ picks at the sumptuous veneer of traditional period drama, exposing the cold, conniving cruelty that lurks beneath the surface.
We said ‘A Jane Austen movie that’s fresh and deliciously rotten at the same time.’
A Bigger Splash
Looking to create movie magic? You could either spend millions on hi-tech digital effects and armies of extras, or just get Ralph Fiennes to dance around an Italian villa with his shirt open, lip-synching to the Rolling Stones. His giddy, motormouth performance is the jewel in this witty, intimate character comedy from ‘I Am Love’ director Luca Guadagnino.
We said ‘An endearingly loopy, occasionally half-cooked but always ambitious film about middle-aged characters touched by fame and success.’
‘Being John Malkovich’ screenwriter Charlie Kaufman made his first foray into animation with this cynical but strangely moving story of a motivational speaker who has a one-night stand in a Cincinnati hotel. The result is sad and sweet in equal measure.
We said ‘Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson quietly probe the biggies: happiness, disappointment, love, living with other people, mentally hanging on to everyday life by its threads.’
Embrace of the Serpent
This road-movie-on-the-river is a trip in all senses. In two separate time periods, Amazon tribesman Karamakate takes two European explorers up the river to search for a mysterious healing plant, along the way encountering the ghosts of colonial and Catholic cruelty. The finale is mind-expanding in the best possible way.
We said ‘The film’s influences are plain: Herzog, “Apocalypse Now” Tarkovsky and heavy psychedelics. But the result is unique and intoxicating.’
The Nice Guys
All hail Shane Black, the ‘Lethal Weapon’ screenwriter who has made an art of brisk, violent and good-natured buddy comedies. This time our hapless heroes are hefty enforcer Russell Crowe and weaselly private dick Ryan Gosling, on the trail of a missing porn star in ’70s LA. Dancing from razor-sharp satire to goofy slapstick without missing a beat, this is an instant comedy classic.
We said ‘Sharply crafted but still laid back, Black’s buddy-buddy throwback is a committed reworking of the formula he all but invented.’
I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach came out of a fairly brief retirement to direct this strident, unsubtle but deeply impactful story of real life on the Tories’ austerity breadline. Centred on a star-making performance from comedian Dave Johns, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ struck a deep chord, inspiring food drives up and down the country.
We said ‘The tragedy of the film – and its rousing point – is that in the end it’s all too much for one man, however much he takes a stand.’
A riveting, visually glorious film about young women on the cusp of grand discoveries, ‘Mustang’ follows five Turkish sisters over one hot summer trapped inside their family home after their uncle decides it’s time they were married off. Filled with wit, light and beauty, the film also seethes with outrage and an irrepressible sense of rebellion – and the young cast are magnificent.
We said ‘Raw, funny and incredibly moving.’
Perhaps the most divisive film on our list, Andrea Arnold’s grand, freewheeling American road trip split the Time Out team between those who adored its wild pioneer beauty and those who found it, well, a bit much. This is a film that stands completely alone: a vital portrait of America on the brink, a deeply felt romance and a tribute to the spunk, spirit and stupidity of youth.
We said ‘It has an in-the-moment pumped teenage energy that you’d imagine is impossible to bottle but Arnold somehow has.’
It’s not often we find ourselves in agreement with the Academy. But this was by far the worthiest Best Picture nominee on this year’s Oscar shortlist. Played as a low-key journalism procedural rather than a tub-thumping protest movie, ‘Spotlight’ explores the devastating fallout from the Catholic abuse scandal with wit, warmth and a mounting sense of outrage.
We said ‘Ruthlessly detailed, precise and gripping but never brash or overemotional.’
Son of Saul
Less a film than a total-immersion plunge into the darkest horror imaginable, ‘Son of Saul’ follows – in the most literal sense – one Auschwitz inmate, a member of the Sonderkommando whose task it is to assist in the massacre of his fellow Jews. Stark, brutal and totally unforgettable, our number-one pick is vital, devastating filmmaking.
We said ‘Cinema at its most powerful, artful and stimulating.’