The urge is understandable to avoid a retrospective of the year 2016. Not since Lot’s wife decided to take a cheeky glance back at Sodom has looking back at something been more likely to produce misery and misfortune the way this year has, but that only makes it all the more important to go back over the few bright spots, particularly for movie lovers. 2016 was undoubtedly a great year for Irish cinema, with 9 Oscar nominations and two wins, Irish films showing prominently in festivals around the globe, major stars and filmmakers coming to film on the island and some eye-catching box office success. Of course, 2016 is a year that will always stand out to the writers at Film In Dublin, as this was the year that the site launched and since mid-July we’ve worked hard to show you the positives and the pitfalls of navigating through the fair city of cinema.
With the year almost over, our writers have compiled a list of some of this year’s cinematic highlights. Balloting every member for their own top picks of the year, a consensus was more or less reached on ten outstanding films, cinema that provided a welcome distraction from the horrors of the last twelve months, helped sharpen our focus from the lessons to be learned from the year, or both. We’re sure to have left out some of your favourites; in keeping the list to the very best of the best we’ve had to omit some of our own best loved choices so we’re more than open to suggestions on what else could have been considered. Here though, are Film In Dublin’s picks for the top 10 films of 2016.
10. Embrace of the Serpent
For this little-seen Colombian film to exist in the form it does is one of the most impressive accomplishments of recent cinema on its own. Shooting film in the jungle is usually a tricky prospect, but director Ciro Guerra and his crew managed to shoot on location in the Amazonian rainforest with seemingly little trouble, providing a beautiful guide along the Amazon River as Embrace of the Serpent‘s trippy two-timeline tale is told. Set in the 1800s and several, ambiguous decades later, the last member of his tribe Karamakate guides the German ethnologist Theo and the American botanist Evan respectively through the rainforest in search of the elusive yakurna orchid and its incredible restorative power. In the process, the film explores the legacy of imperialism and Christian indoctrination, how both slowly but surely choked local life to death. The lack of oxygen that comes from such suffocation can only lead to madness, and so madness poisons the river and the self-interested, self-justifying travelers through it.
Karamakate, played with equal excellence by Nilbio Torres as a younger man and Antonio Bolívar Salvador (himself the last of his tribe in real life) when elderly, is a tragic figure, a proud man powerless to stop the march of history as decided by the West. From the perspectives of Theo and Evan, their journeys are both like guilt-induced imperial nightmares. Calling a film ‘dreamlike’ is always a cliché, but it certainly applies here, considering the focus on dreams, their spiritual meaning and the significance placed on even being able to have them or not. It has the unusual structure and evocative visuals of a dream, even as the clear historical and political messages of the people behind the camera give it a focus that works with the dreamlike label don’t always have. With shades of Tartakovsky, Herzog and Coppola in this mostly monochrome film, Embrace of the Serpent is not a crowdpleaser for non-cinephiles. Yet Guerra’s skill with imagery, best shown in an astonishing pan across the Amazon from one timeline to another, ensures that Embrace of the Serpent is unforgettable for the few in Ireland that saw it in 2016. [Luke Dunne]
9. Hail, Caesar!
As with any film, whether or not you enjoy Hail, Caesar! depends entirely on what you enjoy in a film. If visuals are your thing, if you get swept up in the warm embrace of the Hollywood Blockbuster and can’t get enough of snappy dialogue and fast-paced vignettes, you will love this film. When faced with all the washed out, forgettable films that have filled theatres lately, I’d pick Hail, Caesar! any day.
Eddie Mannix (played fantastically by Josh Brolin) is the voice of reason for a film studio during the heyday of Hollywood. His job is essentially to babysit all of the big personalities in the biz and keep things ticking over. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) gets kidnapped, Eddie’s already complicated job goes off the rails altogether. The film offers a smorgasbord of funny vignettes, including a full dance number from Channing Tatum and company complete with sailor suits, Ralph Fiennes as foppish director Laurence Laurentz trying to shoehorn cowboy Hobie Doyle into a swanky drama and Baird deciding that this communism thing ain’t so bad.
We get to rediscover the beauty of Classic Hollywood, warts and all, through Mannix. Even though he’s going through a crisis of faith, he appreciates the business that’s like no other. Hail, Caesar!‘s main issue is that in following so many vignettes, it has too many plates spinning to conclude everything satisfactorily. That being said, everything Hail, Caesar! does, it does well. If its only flaws are the things it does not do, then the Coens have done pretty well for themselves. [Jessica Dunne]
8. The Nice Guys
Cynics among us could argue that Shane Black just keeps making the same movie repeatedly. There is no denying that buddy comedies set at Christmas time is defiantly in the man’s wheelhouse, but if they continue to be as fun and hilarious as The Nice Guys then the man can do no wrong. Set in ugly smog filled 70’s LA; on the surface, The Nice Guys is a fast, funny caper about two private investigators investigating a missing woman set to the backdrop of porn, politics and the auto industry.
It is essentially a retro retread of Black’s excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but Guys has a lot more on its mind than just jokes. The film also acts as a sharp critique of the fall of the American auto industry and how people were too arrogant to realise it. Chemistry is key in a Shane Black film and a big part of what makes it work is the dynamic between its leads Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. They are truly polar opposites and watching them spar throughout is a real treat. Crowe gets to act as the straight man of the two but he plays the part with a simmering rage just beneath his calm exterior. Imagine Bud White from LA Confidential, only older, slower and more in control of his violent outbursts. He might not be the funniest of the pair, but his motivation to try to do the right thing, and finally give his life purpose is touching and adds extra depth to his actions.
Gosling gets the showier of the two roles and he does not disappoint. I have never been a particular fan of Gosling but it was genuinely surprising to see how funny and adept at broad comedy he is. Gosling’s incompetent detective is a really despicable scumbag and he sinks his teeth into the role with relish. The Nice Guys delivers on the action front too. Black, seemingly learning from his time on Iron Man 3 injects the shootouts with some real intensity. The chaotic final shootout is both funny and really well choreographed. Watching Gosling fall through windows and off balconies while chasing a runaway film canister is reminiscent of the opening to Temple of Doom and it is exciting to see how Black has grown as a director. It is almost criminal how overlooked the Nice Guys was on its initial release. Expertly crafted, laugh out-loud funny and incredibly bleak, it represented the type of big budget adult-oriented entertainment that is on the decline. Here’s hoping that we get a Shane Black movie on our list at least every two years. [Robert Fitzhugh]
7. Sing Street
Sing Street is one of those rare films that knows you better than you know yourself! Set in 1985’s Ireland, the movie follows a young Connor Lawlor (played impressively by a debuting Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as he starts life in a new school and forms a band in order to impress Raphina, an aspiring model. Brought to the screen with the same charm as his last two films, director John Carney delivers a hysterical, heartwarming and important comedy-drama about the issues faced when growing up, set to the songs of 80’s giants like The Cure, Duran Duran, AHA!, as well as an outstanding array of originals that could stand with the best of them. It’s easy to dismiss the idea of this film as being nothing short of a stab at nostalgia, but Sing Street is so much more than that. Instead, the film explores the idea of escaping into your fantasies and being who you really want to be, in spite of those who tell you otherwise. Dedicated to “brothers everywhere”, Carney stresses the importance of surrounding yourself with those who support you, particularly as Jack Reynor’s loveable brother guides Connor threw his wooing woes. It’s truly a major feather in the cap of Irish cinema that a film this good can be produced within our shores, and it’s an important one to support. You’ll cry, you’ll laugh, you’ll sing along, you’ll buy the soundtrack and then you’ll do it all again! [Néil Rogers]
6. Nocturnal Animals
In fashion designer Tom Ford’s second outing as a film director, audiences are treated to a stylish and thrilling neo-noir that is, quite simply, one of the best films of the year. As her once exciting life becomes more and more mundane, art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) slips into a new, exciting yet haunting world after receiving a novel manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). As Susan flicks through the pages, she falls deeper and deeper into a tale of murder, betrayal and revenge, one that her past-life may have influenced.
With a background in the fashion and art industry, Ford’s take on this world is a surprising one. Instead of highlighting its merits, he instead focusses on its faults; its insistance on style over substance, the absurdity of lavish social affairs, the vulgarity of the art forms and the shallow lives that can be found within it. The industry’s social rules and norms are juxtaposed with the lack there-of in Edward’s novel, allowing Susan to become more involved in this new world.
On a pure entertainment level, Nocturnal Animals thrills at every turn of the page and in every new scene. The performances from Adams and Gyllenhaal are what you would expect from two of the finest actors working today, but the two that really stand out are those of Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who should be handed out awards like they are goody bags at a party! On top of all this, Nocturnal Animals is simply great storytelling with a fantastic screenplay, perfect pacing, incredible direction, acute and affective editing and hauntingly stylish cinematography from our very own Seamus McGarvey. Riveting in every sense of the word, Nocturnal Animals should be on every top-10 list throughout the globe, and will hopefully pick up a few accolades for its troubles. [Néil Rogers]
5. The Witch
The attention to detail shown by writer/director Robert Eggers wasn’t just in The Witch‘s set design, or its period-perfect dialogue. The greatest detail observed by the first-time director was that there’s nothing people find scarier than each other, and how that fear leads us to make really terrible decisions, ensuring The Witch as a chilling period horror with distinctly current sensibilities. For the film’s Puritan family cast out to the edge of the woods, all life is constant fear of sin and the omnipresent terror of their own inevitable moral failings douses The Witch in its uniquely dreadful atmosphere.
It’s a film that keeps its cards pressed firmly to its chest throughout, a patient film that not only inspires debate (Is it scary? Is it feminist? Is its ending a triumph or a damnation?) but ensures its brief glimpses of the supernatural are all the more unsettling and unforgettable for being carefully spread out. Featuring a great introduction to film for rising star Anya Taylor-Joy and an undisputed Best Supporting Goat performance from Black Phillip, The Witch showed us the temptation of damnation in a year where people continuously decided that they’d like to live deliciously and damn the consequences. [Luke Dunne]
4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of a kind. What begins as an off-kilter sentimental story about a quirky foster child’s search for acceptance seamlessly transitions into a no-holds-barred adventure story. The film tackles incredibly heavy issues with such a light hand that we still have plenty of time to laugh at the hilarious dialogue and situational comedy that is typical of Taika Waititi (who also directed What We Do In The Shadows and episodes of Flight of the Conchords and will helm the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok). The way that the film showcases and ribs on life in the New Zealand bush is a strong example of the national cinema in which Waititi is becoming a major contributor.
Backing up the fantastic direction of this film is the acting; Sam Neill plays reluctant foster Uncle and stoic ex-con simply and the way that he slowly but surely warms to Ricky (played by Julian Dennison, who has impeccable comedic timing) is truly poignant. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a confident bit of filmmaking that doesn’t feel the need to beat us over the head with its subject matter. In a summer of disappointment in mainstream cinema, this film was a welcome delight. [Jessica Dunne]
3. Hell or High Water
After debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, Hell or High Water quickly became one of the most anticipated films of 2016 after receiving universal critical acclaim. The film focuses on Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard, two brothers, as they undertake a series of bank robberies in an effort to save their family farm. But the film is much more than that as it becomes a tale of cat and mouse, with Gil Bermingham and a stellar performance from Jeff Bridges playing the chasing policemen who look to bring down the two notorious bank robbers. With Starred Up director David McKenzie at the helm, it is easy to see why the film can be regarded as one of the year’s best and was aided by a masterful script which will surely be in the reckoning come award season. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association also gave the film their nod of approval with Hell or High Water receiving three Golden Globe Nominations. [Darragh Culhane]
It’s not often a film comes along that can have such a profound impact on its viewer. Arrival is one of those films. The kind of science fiction film you always hope for but rarely get – intelligent, moving and thought provoking; filled with grand ideas and epic imagery. Despite its sci-fi trappings Director Dennis Villeneuve’s latest masterpiece is a decidedly human story – one that is thankfully confident and content enough with its ideas that it resists the temptation to devolve into mindless CGI spectacle. While Arrival is, on its surface, a film that explores the potential reality of humanity’s first contact with alien life, it is also the story of a grieving mother; a story about love, loss and embracing life; a story about communication, understanding, and above all else empathy. In a year filled with events that seemed to highlight so many of humanity’s worst tendencies, Arrival came as a breath of fresh air – a plea to our better selves, to overcome our differences and work together. More like this please. [Kelan O’Reilly]
1. Green Room
Through Murder Party, Blue Ruin and now his most accomplished (and John Carpenter-like) film Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier has established himself as a grindhouse director with a genuine eye for not only the horror of violence, but also for its ultimate tragedy, futility and often, stupidity. That might be what makes Green Room the outstanding film of 2016, as it progressed from being an exceptionally gripping thriller on its release at the end of April to being a film that represented the year’s powerless removal of the safety net more and more as the months went by. The Nazis are coming, they’re organised and if they’re given the power in a situation it’s not going to be pretty. “Nazi punks, fuck off” indeed.
Even the name of the punk band that finds themselves trapped and gradually (gruesomely) killed off after witnessing the aftermath of a murder in a rural skinhead bar has become ironic in hindsight, as Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner play members of the Ain’t Rights pitted off against the Alt-rights. It’s a pulpy premise that plays out with the director’s token practical approach; jittery witnesses versus a clean-up crew either reluctantly resigned or eager to impress, everyone’s in over their heads willing to do anything to get out on top. Yelchin, a genuine talent who died in a freak accident this June, gives an extremely empathetic performance, his nervy depiction of pure flight-or-fight reflecting that of those watching as the bodies around him start to drop. Imogen Poots as a fellow murder witness meanwhile reflects the style of the film itself, she’s a survivor with a grim sense of humour and a lack of fucks to give who will get bloody only when she has to. A prime example of the film’s own grim humour? Casting Patrick Stewart, giving a typical performance of an assured and dignified leader, except he’s leading red-laced lunatics who sick attack dogs on people’s throats. He inspires loyalty simply by giving frustrated young men a sense of structure and significance. He’d probably have a frog face emoji in his Twitter name. His command over Green Room‘s many skinheaded killers would be the most chilling thing to be seen in a film this year, if not for the actual blood-freezing violence itself.
The brutality of Green Room is used sparingly and suddenly by Saulnier to incredible effect, causing an incredible effect on the audience. It’s never grotesque but the dog attacks, shotgun blasts, rapid stabbings and slow box cutter slicings are definitely as shocking as it gets before crossing that line, where other films overplay the gore senselessly to diminishing returns, Saulnier resensitises us to violence. His sense of space and simple A-B storytelling help the film to flow visually and keep everything grounded enough that the scares are all the worse when they come. Relentless, intelligent and nasty, no film this year absolutely gripped the audience for attention quite like Green Room. As the film ends, after all the horrors they’ve gone through, one of the final survivors tells another that they’ve finally figured out their desert island band, the source of comfort they would use in a situation of isolation and dread. The response perhaps embodies both the ironic, uncaring way of our universe in 2016 and the defiant attitude to throw back at it in the year ahead.
Tell someone who gives a shit.