Best Films of 2016

Time for my annual movie round-up. This year I am going to do a Top 30. Yes, there were that many good movies and since I did not want to lose some of them, a Top 30 it will be. Even with that, I feel sad to leave out some good ones like Don’t Breathe, Kapoor and Sons, Room, the effervescent The Nice Guys and the ever pleasing Florence Foster Jenkins. Before launching into the list I just want to remind one and all that it is just that, a list. My best films of the year may not cater to the tastes of the mainstream and as far as possible I have already explained why I like them and why they deserved to be on my Top 30. These are films that opened here in 2016.

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30 Anomalisa
The first half of the movie is a masterpiece. It nails the loneliness and social disconnect so well. Then of course there is the infamous sex act that feels so real and poignant. Sadly, after that it derailed but not to its detriment.

29 Neerja
This is a celebration of the indelible human spirit of one individual who wants to live it big rather than to live it long. A superbly intense biopic of an extraordinary woman that defies normal conventions.

28 Pete’s Dragon
The initial tone is spellbindingly sweet, and the magic was that it maintained that balance to the end. You really need to see this through the eyes of a kid. This might just become this decade’s E.T.

27 Train to Busan
Love the creative ideas and the economical character setups. No need for too much heavy top-down moralization. This is a straight-up disaster flick with zombies coming in swarms from all directions. Putting 80% of the action on a bullet train didn’t constrain the wealth of inventive ideas one bit as the commuters escape the crazy zombies from car to car. The momentum is terrific and I kept marveling at all creative problem-solving.

26 I am a Hero
The moment the zombie epidemic starts, it careens into one giddy blood-soaked adrenaline rush. The film doesn’t push the zombie genre to new directions, but it takes the established tropes and gives it a fresh twist and out comes one sicko and satisfying monster-tainer. In Hideo, we get a fascinating character – a pacifist in the cutthroat world of running zombies.

25 Midnight Special
This is writer-director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature film and his most adventurous. This one pulses in a vein of inventiveness and risks, and it is a film that refuses to be like any other films out there. It has plot-holes the size of craters but a slew of empathetic performances with nary a wrong note smooths it out for me. In the end, I still had many questions left unanswered but they never tarnished what is one of the most audacious chase genre films I have ever seen – a riveting blend of thrills, dazzle and mystery.

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24 The Big Short
I finally learned the meaning of big high-finance words like synthetic CDOs, MBS, shorting, sub-primes, hedge funds, bonds and so on. Cognitive thoughts flew in my face at the speed of light and big high-finance words bombarded me at Mach3. This is scathingly funny, whip smart, surprisingly intelligible to laymen and a crackerjack of a movie and the best part is it actually has a conscience beating at its centre.

23 The Witch
Robert Eggers’ debut film focuses on themes rather than on the usual tropes and plot to drive the story. It is a marvel of minimalism and a wonder of unnerving terror. His meticulous construction of historical details is spellbinding. The sense of dread is so overwhelming and enveloping that you can’t breathe. The film has coffin-loads of atmosphere, and the horror is so real that it borders on pure torment.

22 After the Storm
With Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film we get a story simple in design, but brilliant in architecture and sublime in closure. Zen, is a feeling I get when I am blessed by Koreeda’s sured hands. Under his minimalist approach, the essence of familial life and couplehood is distilled into abstract thoughts lingering like warm tendrils wrapped around your mind.

21 Zootopia
The world of Zootopia is meticulously designed with its own logic that mirrors our societies. I came out feeling that it is a world that is built on metaphors and it is a real place. The emotional beats are spot on and pitch perfect. Thematically, this is strong. Its themes of empowerment and the dangers of stereotyping so timely and so effortlessly delivered.

20 Everybody Wants Some!!
Linklater works the anthropological angle and had the 80s down pat. The energy is affable and effervescent. You will laugh yourself silly at the crazy antics and when the movie is long done you will suddenly realise its wisdom surreptitiously sneaking up onto you.

19 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Unlike A Force Awakens, I had no déjà vu with this standalone Star Wars story, episode 3.5. The initial expositions are a little clunky, but once it got going I didn’t want the inevitable to happen. I even had to wipe a tear away at a crucial point.

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18 Eye in the Sky
This is a white-knuckled heart-parked-in-your-mouth “tick tock” suspense thriller. Hardly an ounce of fats lined a lean and mean explosive storyline, and this one is going to hit the “career reset” button for Gavin Hood. The movie is superbly cerebral and morally thought-provoking; a suspense thriller for intelligent people. It is impossible to come out of this 102-minute film and not have your soul shattered in some way.

17 Sully
Running at a lean and spry 96min, Clint Eastwood’s latest isn’t so much a clinical bio-pic in the traditional sense, but an absorbing showcase of a man’s extraordinary professionalism in the face of danger. This may feel like a straight-forward story but the use of Rashomon-resque plot manipulation transcends the film above the usual biopics that you would forget after a night’s sleep. I didn’t forget this one the next day, or even now.

16 Lion
The first half of the film is simply the best Hindi film I have seen this year that didn’t hail from Bollywood. In fact, there were no Hindi movie I have seen this year that could surpass this. Love how the city is portrayed like a lurking monster with different terrifying elements out to devour the innocent children. There is also an air of mysticism about it. At the end of the movie I felt my soul displace and move to a different place.

15 Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford is not just a fashion icon, he has a great eye for narratives. Three distinct but symbiotic narratives are deftly interwoven with Amy Adams as the anchor. It is highly stylised but it never strays into pretentious kitsch. This is also emotionally devastating and it is the equivalent of exploding a grenade in a person’s heart and then trying to reconstitute it back into a whole again – there’s no way the person will ever be the same.

14 Green Room
Like Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier gives the “fight for survival” genre flick a big fricking kick up the backside. The dialogue is sharply written and the characters don’t do stupid things to push the plot forward. The thrills are killer and it is such a fun movie to watch. This is definitely not a disposable genre flick.

13 Sing Street
Once will forever be one of my desert island films, but Sing Street comes really close. Together with Begin Again, John Carney has made an amazing trilogy of ‘music’ films that beat with warm hearts of gold. This has a rather simple storyline but the execution is bliss. Carney knows music and he uses it to bridge relationships and incidents in the characters’ lives, and it is about getting the girl. It is also about “finding the happiness in sadness” that transcends us to a new level, and “no woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins”. I will remember that one.

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12 Captain Fantastic
The film is superbly written, acted, musically scored, shot and directed. It is suffused with social commentary on the education system, parenting techniques, societal norms and the handling of grief. Writer-director Matt Ross never pushes one agenda over another, allowing a scene to play out nicely. It takes a lot of restraint to present both sides of the argument without screaming in your face what you should do. In so doing I start to question the different ways of upbringing and which side of the fence I will sit on.

11 Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This is such a cool piece of filmmaking. Superbly rounded characters, hilarious dialogue and such affecting honesty. This has a tone of Wes Anderson but without that off-kilter falseness. It swells with such sweetness and has a big heart. It is impossible not to smile at the end of the film.

10 Soul Mate
The story couldn’t be more cloying and overly familiar, but this one is buoyed by two towering performances. This film lives or dies at the hands of these two actresses and both of them made it soar higher than it would want to admit. Love the bittersweet twist that gave the story new levels.

9 Kubo and the Two Strings
Steeped in Japanese history, traditional practices and mythology, the level of storytelling here is right up there in the highest of reaches. It is definitely ambitious, dense and complex. The stop-motion animation is gorgeous and it serves the dream-like story so well. Thematically rich, genuine and in equal measure, magical.

8 Spotlight
The spotlight is on Spotlight, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States and its investigation into the widespread child sex abuse cases in the Boston area. The ensemble acting is pitch-perfect. The talent on hand is amazing. No one one-ups another in any scene and I didn’t get the feeling these are accomplished actors doing a job. They look and feel like real journalists. The film may be a talkie but it has the rhythm and pacing of an intelligent thriller. The dialogue cuts right down to the bone and I am surprised there is no fluff and zero fats lined the bone.

7 Hell or High Water
The film involves elements of a crime thriller and the chase but it is essentially character studies of not one but two pairs of mismatched relationships. Their arcs intertwined so seamlessly that I wasn’t just rooting for the brothers to get away, I was also hoping the Rangers catch them! I can’t remember the last time I was rooting for both polar-opposite gun-toting parties in a movie. The film is a masterful meditation and evocation of time, place, character, moral stakes, immoral choices and brotherly love.

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6 The Wailing
This is a stupendous and sustained piece of masterful storytelling. It is loaded with frightful incidents and stuffed with mystifying characters. On top of that, it is genuinely terrifying as it preys on the goodness of ordinary people. The movie has a punishing runtime of 156 minutes not because of poor pacing, but because of the intricacies of the plot. There are plenty of bloody scenes for the gore-hounds but they are never ladled out to pump up a sagging plot. This is a film that is impossible for you to stay shut-up and have everything explained in a few by-lines. This is a film that will never leave your head long after it is done, and when you least expect it the tendrils of the narrative will rise up and wrap around your consciousness like tentacles.

5 The Songs We Sang
Eva Tang, the director has crafted a touching love letter to this bygone era of Chinese-ed students who composed and sang songs of what they felt in a fast-changing Singapore. This is a heartwarming ode to xinyao, the zeitgeist of its time. Painstakingly curated, seamlessly edited and heartrendingly nostalgic. What is on the big screen must have been years of hard work – to get all the pioneers of the movement in front of the mic, from the original pioneers from the defunct 南洋大学 to the singer-songwriters we all know to the unsung heroes behind the scenes who gave these wet behind the ears youngsters a shot, Tang has archived this period of Singapore’s unique musical history for posterity.

4 Kimi No Na Wa (Your Name)
A massive hit in Japan and rightfully so. I was gobsmacked at every twist and turn the narrative takes which subverts all my expectations. The drawings are gorgeous and the storytelling top tier. All through this widely imaginative ride it knows where the beating heart is – the relationship between the two star-crossed lovers separated by time and space.

3 La La Land
I was enchanted by the simple story, but how the story is told is magical. Right up until the ending of the third act it is a 4/5 movie, but by golly, when it hit a bittersweet last flourish, it waltzed right into the 5/5 territory. If Whiplash announced Damien Chazelle’s name to the world, La La Land is sending him straight to the stars.

2 The Revenant
This film feels like it could easily be reduced to the usual revenge thriller platitude, but Alejandro González Iñárritu just loves his big themes – redemption, loyalty, betrayal, survival, loss and revenge. What Iñárritu does so masterfully well here is that he creates a world so real that this is the only world that matters for 2.5 hours. Then he amplifies these themes till they filled the entire canvas. This is no wrong move. Every one is calibrated to hit the right note. This is a film that above all else has a certain death rattle rhythm to it and Iñárritu’s hold on the proceedings is impeccable. He is the master. To watch misery heaping on misery and pain piling on pain for 2.5 hours do not make for easy viewing but Iñárritu’s command is absolute. This is not a movie for all tastes. In fact this is not a movie. It is an event and you are in good hands.

1 The Handmaiden
Auteur Park Chan-Wook’s latest is a superb exercise in form, structure and tone. With the latter, Park has achieved something extraordinary. If any scene were to linger a few seconds longer or he had decided to focus on a certain issue, the film would have veered off to a different territory. As it is, and with all the major characters’ kooky off-kilter portrayals, I can’t pinpoint whether I was watching something real or abstract. I was also kept in awe by the intricate and resplendent set-design which suggests something dark and Gothic is working the undercurrents. Park spins an engrossing tale that ebbs and flows with a Hitchcockian suspense; it withholds as much as it discloses; it is an erotic tale that beats with raw fervour. It is at once a love story but also a menagerie showcasing human beings in their vilest forms. Park’s finger hovers over all the buttons, teasing us gleefully but it is with the ultimate restraint that he never descends down to the usual tropes.

Worst Movies of the Year
The Mermaid
Comedy extraordinaire Stephen Chow has lost his Midas’ touch with this tediously unfunny movie that made my skin crawl.

Ghostbusters
On paper it sounds like a brilliant idea, but on screen it is flat-out stiff with zero buoyancy. Don’t touch the classic! Lesson learnt, I hope.

Independence Day: Resurgence
The script is cheesy, inane and stupid; it treats the audience like 6 year-olds. After 20 years, Roland Emmerich’s way to make the sequel is simply to expand every element that made the 1996 movie so much fun. 8 times the size of the alien space-ship, 10 times the size of the alien, 100 times the number of alien attack-crafts, 3 to 4 times the cast that barely registered a blimp in my consciousness. No surprises, all dumb and repetitive. Earth can die! I don’t care if these dudes and a gal can save it.

There is a scene in which all the human attack ships go inside the Mothership my wifey immediately asked me whom I think will survive. I pondered hard for 2-3 seconds and replied her “Only four: the black guy, Thor’s brother, his sidekick and Angelababy.” A few minutes later she announced resoundingly “Bingo!”

About 5 minutes before it ends I turned to her and said, “Aren’t we glad this is going to be over soon. WTF it better not have a part 3!” But I think Emmerich heard my thoughts and dropped da cruel sequel bomb. God knows I won’t pay good money to see how it all ends. For me, Independence Day: Resurgence ended when my wife shouted “Bingo!”

Best TV series
Signal (Korean)
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Black Mirror
Better Call Saul
Westworld
Game of Thrones
The Night Of

 

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