2016 has been a strange year of film viewing for me (partly on account of getting married, which it turns out takes up a lot of time and energy.) I’m yet to watch a number of essentials (Toni Erdmann, Paterson, Sieranevada, I Am Not Your Negro, Elle), but I’ve also been plesantly suprised by films I might otherwise have missed. Here are the films that left an impression on me in this craziest of years.
1) ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, UK/FRANCE)
Of all the films I saw in 2016, none was more mesmerising than Andrew Dominik’s documentary following the recording process of Nick Cave’s excellent album Skeleton Tree. The film captures a terribly troubling time for the Cave family, following the loss of 15 year old Arthur Cave and this runs through the film making it feel like a painfully private affair. It is a testament to Dominik’s handling of the situation that the Cave family were willing to release the film and it is also the director’s best film next to sprawling epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
2) THE QUEEN OF KATWE (DIR. MIRA NAIR, USA)
Mira Nair’s The Queen of Katwe is a film that sneaks up on you with an emotional undercurrent that pays off extraordinary well by the final sequence. Telling the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Mira Nair casts newcomer Madina Nalwanga in the central role and surrounds her with established talent David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as numerous child actors. A potentially challenging production from Disney – shot on location with many non-actors – it succeeds thanks to the director’s talent for straddling different worlds of production. A big hearted film for all audiences.
3) INTO THE INFERNO (DIR. WERNER HERZOG, UK/GERMANY/CANADA)
Of the two documentaries released by Werner Herzog in 2016 (the other being internet doc Lo and Behold), Into The Inferno was the most cinematic and most truly Herzogian. In Inferno Herzog tackles volcanoes, not a new subject for him (see 1977’s La Soufrière), but here he expands the subject to explore North Korea, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Iceland. Along the way Herzog discovers some amazing civilisations and wonderfully eccentric characters, particularly the larger than life Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White. Herzog’s recent drone footage, as well as the archive of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft make for majestic, frightening scenes.
4) CHI-RAQ (DIR. SPIKE LEE, USA)
One hell of a Spike Lee joint! Chi-Raq is an adaptation co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott, based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Classical Greek play in which women withhold sex from their husbands as punishment for fighting. While the film was criticised by some (including Samuel L. Jackson at the Dubai Film Festival) for not dealing with America’s gun violence in a direct fashion, it is none-the-less one that frequently represents Lee at the height of his polemical powers. Teyonah Parris is a forceful presence as Lysistrata and appearances from Sam Jackson & Wesley Snipes are welcome, alongside John Cusack as a fiery white pastor.
5) ALI, THE GOAT AND IBRAHIM (DIR. SHERIF EL BENDARY, EGYPT/FRANCE)
One of the most refreshing films I saw this year was this tragicomic feature debut from emerging Egyptian director Sherif El Bendary. Set in contemporary Egypt and telling the story of two friends with different afflictions (one loves a goat, the other hears excruciating noises), Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim takes us across Egypt to its major water bodies as the characters attempt to remedy their problems. What exactly the film says about life in contemporary Egypt is hard to define, but its mischievous absurdity is pitch perfect for this most unusual of years.
6) NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (DIR. TOM FORD, USA)
For those in doubt of Tom Ford’s credentials as a film director, Nocturnal Animals goes some way towards quelling those feelings. This is a meta thriller, which makes fantastic use of Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon, to explore a failed relationship (the main thread) through a violent fictional narrative written by Adams’ character. I am rarely a fan of duel narratives such as these – as often the intended effect simply falls flat – but in this case Ford creates a compelling, disturbing tapestry which is thoroughly gripping and emotionally complete.
7) A UNITED KINGDOM (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, USA/UK/CZECH REPUBLIC)
Amma Asante’s follow up to 2013’s excellent Belle is a very moving rendering of the true story of Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) – the first president of Botswana – and his English wife Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike), as they struggled with family, apartheid and the British empire to assume power after Botswana’s independence. Although the supporting characters are more swiftly sketched in, the film finds power in two highly impressive, emotionally engaging central performances by Oyelowo and Pike. With carefully crafted period visuals – contrasting a moody noir-esque London with the sun-kissed plains of Botswana – the film is a pleasure to watch, making Asante’s next film Where Hands Touch highly anticipated viewing.
8) HIGH-RISE (DIR. BEN WHEATLEY, UK/BELGIUM)
Ben Wheatley’s most ambitious film so far is one that – once again – harks back to the psychedelic British cinema of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, perhaps more overtly than any other he has made. Taking JG Ballard’s original text and adapting it into a relatively plotless, decadent extravaganza, Wheatley gives us a film of surreal delights in which Tom James Bond Hiddlestone glides through sequences that would look at home in the films of Russell and Fellini. Wheatley’s body of work is one that feels organic, developing, never perfect, but always alive; more please.
9) THE HATEFUL EIGHT (DIR. QUENTIN TARANTINO, USA)
A troubling film. When I emerged from watching The Hateful Eight at the start of 2016, I didn’t know what to think, but I certainly felt pretty dirty. A parlour game in which nefarious characters engage with one another in the most base of terms; the film is an old style exploitation flick and Sergio Corbucci would surely be proud. Each scene plays out at a snails pace, the drama brimming with racism and women hating. It is the most disturbing film of Tarantino’s career. Now at the end of 2016 – having witnessing the politics of the last 12 months – I think I understand The Hateful Eight a bit more and I still feel dirty.
10) ONLY MEN GO TO THE GRAVE (DIR. ABDULLA AL KAABI, UAE/IRAN)
An intriguing discovery from the 2016 Dubai Film Festival: Abdulla Al Kaabi’s arthouse melodrama Only Men Go To The Grave is a film that evokes the genre works of Almodovar, Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk (a big influence on the Emirati director.) Telling the story of a group of women, struggling to deal with an undisclosed secret of their late mother, Al Kaabi uses the film as a vehicle to deal with taboos present in his culture and unite unlikely artistic collaborators from Iran, Iraq & the UAE. The film’s constantly inventive shooting style and compelling acting signpost Al Kaabi as a talent to watch in 2017.