2016 has been the year that saw Neo-Liberalism finally implode like a dying star. Its death throes vomited forth a Donald Trump presidency and the bitter divisions of Brexit, post truth politics and an escalation in terrorist attacks, thus compounding a sense of deep personal loss, fueled by a social media grieving contest when ordinary people learned of celebrity deaths, including Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. Perhaps that’s why my list feels decidedly nihilistic this year.
My list of Top Ten films for 2016 is presented in no particular order, but before engaging with my list, read my favourite quote about film critics by the essential Pauline Kael.
The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity; enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.
1. The Wailing
The Wailing is a bombastic, absurd and ultimately terrifying essay on the nature of evil. A small mountain village is plagued by a mysterious sickness that turns its victims into homicidal maniacs before drifting into a catatonic state. Old Korean prejudices surface, as an aging Japanese tourist becomes the chief suspect. As the bodies pile up, Officer Jong-goo becomes hopelessly out of his depth, a rural Inspector Clouseau haunted by creeping visions that gradually seep into reality when his own daughter falls foul of the insidious evil. Na’s epic horror film debates whether evil seeks us out deliberately or do we stumble upon it accidently. Either way you’ll hear The Wailing howling through your windows and into your nightmares.
2. Deadpool and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Technically two for the price of one here but it’s impossible to separate Deadpool and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as they neatly bracket 2016 and zap some much needed adrenaline into each of their respective (I’d say artistically ailing) franchises. Ryan Reynolds’ signature turn as Deadpool is a dastardly deconstruction of the super hero movie, retaining much of the arch pop-culture irreverence that made the Deadpool Comic such a relief from the cosmic drama comic books of the 1990s. The thrilling and moving Rogue One: A Star wars Story not only compliments the original Star Wars (do we really need to call it A New Hope?) but surpasses it and all the other movies in the series apart from The Empire Strikes Back. This is a blockbuster that has the courage of its convictions to see through the dark, gritty, guys on a (suicide) mission narrative to its heart breaking, logical conclusion.
3. The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of the outrageous fashion satire The Neon Demon, is colour blind. The colours and tones he inflicts on his audience are ultra high contrast, as if the warning signs are bleeding through the images because we think we’re too cool, too media savvy to take notice. We know how the fashion business manipulates us, but like sartorial sadomasochists we dish out and receive the pain with alarming regularity. Every click, swipe or like feeds The Neon Demon, every airbrushed detail, every deleted photo, every two-fingered smile erases the contours of our soul and imprints our digital self, our nuclear shadow stamped online, code for flesh. The Neon Demon is too beautiful to look at; the sheen of good-looking is so thoroughly polished that to watch for so long is a sin. Even the Swastikas emblazoned on a chic bathroom are gorgeous as after all, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
4. Train to Busan
Zombies are the allegorical gift to global cinema that keeps on giving. They are in perpetual motion, always shambling or racing forward, the unread children of progress heralding the new world order from America, Great Britain, and now, South Korea. The walking dead’s own unique breed of disaster capitalism is freshly served in Yeon Sang-ho’s hyperactive, sling-shot of a movie Train To Busan, a fast food joint we’re all going to have to try and take a bite out of as it speeds past at 190mph. Train To Busan is not only a brilliantly effective horror film but it analyses the rigorous class divide in South Korea and the obsession with a brutally competitive education system which has led to the horrifically high suicide rate in young people between the ages of 10 and 30.
The first of two films on this list that deal with the rise of neo-Nazis in America, Imperium boasts a vital and mature performance from Daniel Radcliffe as FBI agent Nate Foster. Daniel Ragussis’ debut film seized the zeitgeist of Obama’s twilight months in office. When Obama was elected in 2008 the real story wasn’t America’s first black president but rather how America would react to their first black president and who would succeed him. The dreadful, quasi civil war that has raged (and still rages) in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election said it all. And now that Trump is almost in office, we can only fear worse to come. In Imperium, the chillingly urbane and erudite racist Gerry Conway explains to Nate how working in Africa radicalized him, “If you ever have any doubt white men created civilization, take a look at how they live.” Ragussis undermines Conway’s argument with a bleak selection of colonial art depicting genocide. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to thwart Trump and his white-supremacist cronies.
6. Green Room
Back in 2005, Neil Marshall’s masterful horror film The Descent showed just how fragile the human body is when subjected to extremes. The tension was as excruciating as the pain when bones snapped and skin ripped, leaving his audience digging their nails into their palms. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room has the same effect as box cutters disembowel and machetes sever hands. A punk band are booked to play a neo-Nazi bar but are soon held hostage after witnessing a murder. Saulnier rips up the rulebook and constantly wrong foots the audience as the Nazis storm the bar. Both sides are amateurs, and the violence is often outrageous and unexpected as a result. Green Room updates The Hills Have Eyes by way of Southern Comfort for the imminent Trump Presidency and it isn’t pretty, “This is a movement, not a party,” warns the neo-Nazi leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart, excellent against type). Later Pat, the band’s bassist, holds Darcy at gunpoint and we have a shred of hope, “Funny, you were so scary at night.”
Paul Verhoeven’s psychological drama Elle was the darling of Cannes this year but has been passed over by the Oscars. If Hollywood rejected the production of the film in the first place, then they are unlikely to lavish praise and awards on it come February. Based upon the French novel Oh… by Philippe Dijan, we follow divorced businesswoman Michèle (a fearless and peerless performance by Isabelle Huppert) through her rape in her Parisian apartment and then her complex reactions to her horrific assault. Michèle’s absolute refusal to conform to the Hollywood logic of a rape revenge narrative whilst simultaneously marshaling her dysfunctional family (sometimes hilariously) is a jarring experience. It’s her tangled web of contradictions that makes her such a compelling character, a woman who refuses to play the victim for all the dubious men in her life, least of all to the man who raped her.
8. The Hateful Eight
Only Quentin Tarantino would have the brass balls to film his Alpine Western The Hateful Eight in stunning 70mm and then confine the action to a roadhouse snowed in by a vicious storm. Then again, when you’ve got a set of actors as accomplished as Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Lee, Tim Roth, Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Dern, only 70mm can capture their towering egos as they shed their blood and guts on the wooden floor of Minnie’s Haberdashery. Tarantino loves writing himself into a corner and his neo-Shakespearian dialogue has never been better or more brutal when rebuking contemporary America, “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed. And this letter, had the desired effect of disarming white folks.” The Hateful Eight is Agatha Christie meets The Thing via The Great Silence plus a hatful of movie references most of us will never even recognize. Tarantino has said that he wants to go out like a prizefighter at the top of his game, and on this evidence he could retire world champion tomorrow.
9. Hell or High Water
If there is such a thing as the austerity heist movie, Hell or High Water certainly fits the bill. David Mackenzie’s follow up to his muscular prison drama Starred Up sees Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the Howard brothers, who rob small, local banks in West Texas to secure their dead mother’s ranch and the oil recently found under it. Mackenzie paints West Texas as a series of widescreen ghost towns haunted by debt and poverty, sucked dry by the moneymen who show not a shred of class or decency since being bailed out by George Bush in 2008 or populated by gun-toting locals who are itching for a gunfight. During their final confrontation, Chris Pine’s (a career high) Toby Howard shuts down Jeff Bridges’ taciturn, racist of a Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton with the chilling truth about neo-liberalism, “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”
10. Nocturnal Animals
We’re back in West Texas for (at least part of) Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s mesmerizing adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan. Amy Adams’ (surely the best actress working today) Susan is the doyenne of the L.A. art world, successful but dead behind the eyes, like a heroine in a Bret Easton Ellis story. Out of the blue, her first husband Edward sends her his latest manuscript, Nocturnal Animals, a violent tale of revenge featuring the character of Tony, a family man who witnesses a horrific attack on his wife and daughter. Susan becomes so entranced by Edward’s book that the blending of reality and fiction are machine tooled expertly by Ford with a series of symbolic match cuts and images that stray from one narrative to the other. The fact that Jake Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and Tony only further enhances Ford’s film as a psychological thriller on par with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or David Lynch’s Lost Highway.