Best Films of 2016

Simon Wardell, of the Guardian, has kindly written his best of list for 2016. Agree or disagree, we’d love to hear what you think. Get in touch in all the usual ways.

There have been plenty of good films in cinemas this year but, with one notable exception, none that seemed like classics in the making. In fact, when I was compiling my annual just-for-fun list of favourites, I was tempted to put in a couple of restorations: Akira Kurosawa’s epic King Lear adaptation Ran and Abel Gance’s equally epic 1927 silent picture Napoleon. Happily, my top 10 new releases did come together fairly quickly, though in the many years I’ve been doing this I’ve yet to get it down to an actual 10 – this year I gave up at 12.

If there’s an overriding theme to my selections it may be ‘lives in extremis’. The film that should have won the best picture Oscar, The Revenant, is a near-wordless paean to bloody single-mindedness and the general awesomeness of nature, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s hunter survives an assault (bearly) and everything winter can throw at him to gain revenge on his betrayer. Brie Larson’s kidnapped young mother in Room is also a survivor, bringing a painfully earned semblance of normality to her unknowing son’s life in captivity. Director Lenny Abrahamson gives visual variety to their four-walled world but it’s down to Larson to make it work, which she does superbly.

Strangers in strange lands feature in Embrace of the Serpent and The Witch – from European explorers out of their depth in the Amazon rainforest in Ciro Guerra’s black-and-white quest adventure to English Christian settlers struggling to keep the faith and their sanity in spooky 1630s New England. While both sets of protagonists have mystical experiences, the outcomes couldn’t be more different.

Gentler pleasures are to be found in Paterson and Our Little Sister, with master film-makers Jim Jarmusch and Hirokazu Kore-eda letting the little things in life answer some of our bigger questions about relationships and family. Whit Stillman, with his charming period comedy Love & Friendship, co-opts Jane Austen to do his heavy lifting in that department and it’s a marriage of perfect convenience.

More contemporary troubles give weight to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, with Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers adjusting to new realities in deprived, urban France, though its ending slightly dissipates the subject matter’s impact. Ken Loach is rarely accused of soft-soaping his stories, and I, Daniel Blake is a heart-rending, justifiably angry attack on the government’s treatment of the poor, “hard-working” or otherwise. And in an ostensibly straightforward genre piece, the quietly observant modern-day western Hell or High Water, another British director, David Mackenzie, hints at the economic failures that drive his two American brothers to their bank-robbing escapades.

The last two choices ponder how the past can inform the present. Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader patiently, even clinically, shows how a future fascist dictator is born, following a few months in the life of an American diplomat’s young son in 1918 France as his behaviour displays warning signs of a corrupted personality.

My movie of the year, and probably many a year, is Son of Saul. The first fiction film to take us deep inside the horror that was Auschwitz concentration camp in the second world war without diminishing the reality of what happened, László Nemes’s almost unbearable masterpiece maintains an intense, close-up focus on Géza Röhrig’s Jewish prisoner as he strives to give a dead boy (is it his own son?) a proper burial in a living nightmare of a world. It’s a film you’ll never forget, just as the events it depicts should never be forgotten.

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