2016 was a huge year for The Reel Bits, not least of which because we started regularly filing reviews again after a long hiatus. Miss us? Either way, this is yet another end-of-year list of the “best” films that have been released theatrically in the last 12 months. What that means in reality is our favourite films we’ve seen at the cinema in the calendar year. It’s subjective, which means that if that film you like isn’t on the list, either we haven’t seen it or you’re wrong. We definitely think it’s probably the former. You can check out all of our reviews on the site.
FILMS WE DIDN’T GET TO SEE
The essential disclaimer. In Australia, films are often late. The “award winning” films tend to get released here the following January/February, as is the case with award-buzzy entries like MOONLIGHT and LOVING. We have no idea if they are any good, but they seem to be turning up on everyone else’s lists. Likewise, The Hateful Eight came out in Australia in January 2016, but it received all its (very worthy) accolades at the end of 2015. So without any further ado or self-reflection…
OUR FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2016
Beautiful, violent and cutting, Tom Ford’s second feature is the cinematic equivalent of a turducken: a decadent feast for the eyes and soul that’s a Cormac McCarthy novel wrapped inside a Hitchcockian thriller. Filled with mirror imagery and a captivating performance by Amy Adams, the audience is invited to question what it means to be a viewer. With NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, Ford might still be finding out who he is as a filmmaker – wearing influences from Alfred Hitchcock to Brian De Palma on his well-tailored sleeve – but he unquestionably solidifies his reputation as a stylish and thoughtful creator with a strong narrative voice. Read Full Review >>
THE NEON DEMON
The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles has never looked so divine, in what can only be described as Showgirls if it was conceived by David Lynch. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The words belong to the film’s seedy fashion designer, but they could just as easily be describing the film. THE NEON DEMON shows that there might be something more beneath the surface when it comes to beauty, but when it looks this gorgeous, it really is the only thing that counts. Read Full Review >>
Ivan Sen’s follow-up to Mystery Road is grander and more intensely exploratory than its predecessor, and it made it’s debut in June’s Sydney Film Festival. Local cinema has struggled to comes to terms with another fine line, between what constitutes an “Australian film” and the commercial aspects of a “genre” film. GOLDSTONE is proof that it can be wholly both, without compromising an iota of either. Filled with plenty of nods to Sen’s beloved Western genre, there a few moment in this film where the stakes feel anything less than high. Slick, darkly comic, and always thrilling, this is the best of what cinema has to offer. Read Full Review >>
Rarely does a film so effortlessly break your heart and lift your soul as LOVESONG does. A bittersweet love story that defies convention, focusing on the intimate moments between two strong female leads. The entire film is a microcosm of Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy’s (Jena Malone) changing relationship, being an all-too brief series of tender moments that aren’t destined to last. It does, after all, share a title with a Cure record. It doesn’t always provide us with the expected happy endings of such narratives, but nevertheless serve as a testament to the notion of enduring love. It’s just a shame it didn’t get a theatrical release beyond the festival circuit (but it will in 2017!) Read Full Review >>
Often over-the-top, but also gorgeously shot and erotic to the point of parody. In other words, it’s the latest masterpiece from Park Chan-wook. Straddling the fine line between pointed satire and male fantasy, it also embraces its comic outlandishness at every opportunity. Park’s relocation of the Sarah Waters’ book to 1930s Korea ensures that commentary on class structures and female empowerment remain firmly intact in the translation. So too does Park’s penchant for a ripping vengeance yarn. At times completely insane, THE HANDMAIDEN is a true cinematic experience. Read Full Review >>
I, DANIEL BLAKE
While it might be fun to point out that the title of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film is an anagram for “I Nailed Bleak” (and it is fun to!), it’s more rewarding to consider what the film (written by Paul Laverty) says about the nature of humanity. The tale of one man ground down by the mindless bureaucracy of the system is also filled with the best people, who selflessly help because they see another person in need. A meticulously researched film that is disturbingly close to reality, it may send you in the direction of your nearest volunteer office.
AMERICAN HONEY is a rare kind of gem that comes at you in its own leisurely way, takes you off in an unexpected direction, and leaves you with a powerful feeling of affirmation by its conclusion. Star Sasha Lane is an amazing find, carrying almost every scene in the film and transfixing our gaze on a type of innocence that breaks through the darkness. Meanwhile, Shia LaBeouf is at his charmingly douchey best. A startlingly original and completely enveloping coming-of-age road movie about finding purpose (and love) in a hopeless place. Read Full Review >>
Far more than just a ’80s throwback, John Carney’s latest is another focused character piece that gives the music its own star billing. Coming from Ireland, it’s hard to escape the spectre of Roddy Doyle and The Commitments. It certainly shares a similar story arc, although SING STREET is a film of unabashed optimism and dream pursuit. Shot through a series of increasingly proficient music videos, there’s a proper fantasy sequence that pulls on Back to the Future and 1950s proms as the ultimate form of escapism. It foreshadows the film’s ultimate resolution, almost the antithesis of The Graduate‘s bittersweet ambiguity, and might just encourage the audience to stick to their own dreams. Read Full Review >>
Disney have been going from strength to strength in the last few years, and ZOOTOPIA is one of the most gorgeously animated pieces of adventure fun in ages. It harks back to the grand tradition of anthropomorphic animals, and takes a leaf out of their own history of films like the fox-led Robin Hood. There’s more than a tiny current of noir to the bigger story as well, and the combination of animal protagonists and old-world charm is reminiscent of Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido superb graphic novel series, Blacksad. This is Disney at its finest, combining brilliant visual storytelling, and a top-notch voice cast, with a positive message of tolerance and self-realisation. Read Full Review >>
EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
Just like the white winged dove, sings a song sounds like she’s singin’! A descendent of the John Hughes films of the 1980s, this teen dramedy never feels derivative of those classic, but rather updates the concept for some fresher and more emotionally honest. Kelly Fremon Craig, in her directorial debut, masterfully helms this often hilarious and occasionally heartbreaking coming-of-age piece. Hailee Steinfeld makes good on the promise of her True Grit performance, and Woody Harrelson is at his surly best. Read Full Review >>
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
Kind of the antithesis of the male-centric jock films, or the over-the-top frat madness of the more modern (Bad) Neigbours, Richard Linklater’s spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused follows the members of a baseball team all living and hunting for sex together. The deceptively punctuated title belies the measured pacing of the film, one that spends long stretches following the boys singing songs in cars, competing in household games, picking up (or not) in bars, and generally not playing much baseball. An authentic coming-of-age film that is infused with music and fashion of an era, but could be set in any time or place. Read Full Review >>
IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD
Despite those infamous Cannes reactions, this slow burn film puts the close-up on subtle character moments. Writer/director Xavier Dolan doesn’t make it easy for us to get close to his characters, with Mommy cinematographer André Turpin using close-ups almost exclusively, focusing on the monologues. Yet these are all simply tools to keep us at arm’s length, with the tension coming from the anticipation of what’s not being said. Dolan ensures that we feel the same disconnect from these people that Louis feels for a family that, for him at least, is effectively a collection of fragmented memories. Read Full Review >>
Kelly Reichardt’s deliberate pace emphasises the strength of the characters in this measured study. Following vignettes of four women, Reichardt’s film simply lays out these stories in a row as lasered character studies. Unlike hyperlinked films, the film exposes connections between seemingly disparate people but never using them to unveil a universal truth or heavy-handed meaning. She once again leaves us with no conclusive answers to her character’s dilemmas, and like all things she does, allows us to come to our own conclusions at a distinct pace. Read Full Review >>
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
It’s a delightful, hilarious, surreal and heartfelt journey through the New Zealand wilderness, bro. Rapidly becoming the Antipodean Wes Anderson, Waititi’s script is a wonderful mixture of deadpan, surrealism, impromptu ditties, and genuine heart. From subtle film references to more overt ones, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is a laugh-out-loud romp from start to finish. Now try and get the Happy Birthday Ricky Baker song out of your head, even if it isn’t your birthday and your name is not Ricky Baker. Read Full Review >>
“AND THE REST…” (HONOURABLE MENTIONS)
It’s been a big year, despite the prognostications of doom that “cinema is dead.” Other than Goldstone (above), Australia had an incredibly strong showing: GIRL ASLEEP brings a touch of magical realism to Australian sensibilities, blending theatre and film effortlessly, while JOE CINQUE’S CONSOLATION gave us a focused examination of a troubling human tragedy.
DOCTOR STRANGE, with its mind-bending visuals and solidification of Benedict Cumberbatch as a star, was one of the standouts in the superhero stakes this year, a year that also included the wonderfully meta DEADPOOL. Yet it was CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR that was the champion, finally reuniting Spider-Man with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Russo Brothers showing other franchise team films how it’s done. Speaking of captains, Matt Ross’ CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is a film that lives up to its title, and one that may cause you to reconsider where you are spending your life energies.
On the documentary front, the political shitstorm that was WEINER is essential viewing in the current climate, while UNDER THE SUN is a glimpse behind the curtain of how dictatorships work. Might come in handy over the next 4 to 8 years.
We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention KUBO & THE TWO STRINGS, Japan’s AFTER THE STORM, HELL OR HIGH WATER, and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Have we now mentioned everything we saw this year? Not a chance: according to our Letterboxed account, we’ve seen well over 170 new releases this year!