Concrete Playground's Top Ten Movies of 2016
From moody South Korean thrillers to whimsical Hollywood musicals, these are our favourite films of the year.
2016: what a year. We saw powerful figures do battle on more than one occasion, witnessed pop culture figures return (and unexpectedly flourish), explored multiculturalism in several western nations, examined the impact of unforgiving and inflexible government bureaucracy, and watched a fascist try to dispense with naysayers — and that's just in the realm of film. Many a superhero flick, plenty of remakes and sequels, and the likes of The Hateful Eight, Goldstone, I, Daniel Blake and Green Room can attest to that.
We also experienced everything from alien attacks to bear maulings to ghosts needing busting, and we've still only just scratched the surface of the last year at the cinema. In short, it was a great year to be a movie buff. So what's worth watching? Well, Concrete Playground's film critics have been hard at work staring at screens for the past 12 months watching an insane amount of cinema. So here's our picks for the best films of the year — if you only have time to watch ten films this holiday season, be sure to choose these ones.
As directed by Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights' Andrea Arnold, American Honey takes an almost three-hour road trip through the vast, bewildering, heartbreaking disparity between the have and have nots in American society. A streetwise teen looking for a different life proves our guide after she crosses paths with a smooth-talking travelling magazine salesman with an epic rat tail. The latter is the best work of Shia LaBeouf's career, however it's the revelatory efforts of first-timer Sasha Lane as the former — and Arnold's ability to make her film feel as wide-ranging as its roaming narrative, and as intimate as its boxed-in imagery — that packs the strongest punch. Well, that and the eclectic yet expressive mixtape-like soundtrack. — Sarah Ward
Dripping with sex, Park Chan-wook's adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith is a pulpy, stylish delight. Transplanting the story from Victorian era England to 1930s Korea, the film follows a maid out to steal her mistress's fortune, only for the pair to end up falling in love. Of course there's a lot more to it than that, with the director of Stoker and Oldboy taking viewers on a ride that is both ludicrous and utterly compelling. Aesthetically speaking, every single frame feels perfectly considered, while the twisting narrative will keep you guessing until the end. — Tom Clift
It's been a great year for showing affection for sci-fi from years gone by — and, before Stranger Things set '80s-loving, TV fans' hearts aflutter, Midnight Special did the same in the cinema. The fourth film from Take Shelter and Mud director Jeff Nichols not only marks his fourth collaboration with the oh-so-great Michael Shannon — and his latest exploration of folks trusting in something bigger than themselves — but also offers an awe-filled, ambitious effort that's also a road movie, a chase thriller, an intimate drama and an otherworldly adventure. — SW
Director Nicholas Wending Refn turns his lens on the LA fashion scene with extremely unsettling, occasionally nauseating results. Bringing the same sleek, detached style (punctuated with violence, of course) that he did to his previous films including Drive and Only God Forgives, the Danish provocateur intentionally apes the aesthetic of the world his film inhabits, in order to expose the ugliness underneath. The Neon Demon has its detractors, and understandably so — the last act especially seems designed to test the audience's boundaries. But even those who despise the film would be hard pressed to deny its artistry. — TC
As an actor skilled at bringing complex roles to life, Cate Blanchett just keeps getting better. As a filmmaker fascinated by stories of yearning for a more fulfilling existence, Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes does too. Combine the two with Patricia Highsmith's ahead-of-its-time 1952 novel The Price of Salt, add a disarmingly delicate performance by Rooney Mara as a shy shopgirl instantly smitten witg Blanchett's glamorous but conflicted older woman, and slow-building romance doesn't get much emotionally resonant and visually radiant than this. — SW
Although tragically underseen in cinemas, writer-director Abe Forsythe's pitch black comedy set around the Cronulla riots is one of funniest and most insightful Australian films of the decade so far. A satire in the vein of Team America and Four Lions in which the stupidity of the protagonists belies the film's hidden intelligence, Down Under holds a mirror up to the ugly parts of Australian society, while painting bigots and racists as the idiots they so clearly are. Hysterically funny one moment and deeply troubling the next, it's a must see film that feels distressingly relevant today. — TC
LA LA LAND
It starts with sunshine, colour and song, then often lurks in moody bars and clubs. It spirits aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and avid jazz enthusiast Seb (Ryan Gosling) on a rollercoaster-like romance, and yet doesn't shy away from the pain and heartbreak of both following your passion and falling for someone. It references '50s musicals and '80s pop, but turns its influences into its own tale, proving nostalgic, celebratory and knowing all at once. Yes, Whiplash director Damien Chazelle's La La Land does many things, including bewitch audiences with its block-coloured, big crooning, bittersweet dream about life and love. The film has already been released overseas, but will officially hit cinemas here on Boxing Day. — SW
Somehow outdoing his previous effort, the sidesplitting vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi delivered one of the funniest and most charming films of the year with Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Carried on the shoulders of veteran actor Sam Neill and his talented young costar Julian Dennison, this heartwarming indie about a pre-teen delinquent and his foster father on the run from the authorities in the New Zealand wilderness delivers big laughs and an even bigger emotional payoff, and will endear itself to you even further on second, third, fourth and fifth viewings. — TC
Films about cops chasing killers are common. Movies about brutal murders and sinister forces with potentially supernatural elements aren't all that uncommon either. And yet, South Korean effort The Wailing well and truly stands alone within a crowded field — and not just because the slow-burn horror effort clocks in at two and a half hours. It takes its time and still proves packed with everything from gorgeously moody landscapes to an increasingly dark atmosphere, plus the undead, exorcisms, ghosts and the kind of nods to genre greats that most scary movies only wish that they could manage. — SW
While it may strike some as a lesser entry in the Coen Brothers canon — lacking the obvious dramatic heft of something like No Country for Old Men or Inside Llewellyn Davis — this seemingly silly comedy about a blackmail plot in 1950s Hollywood is as ingenious and subversive as anything the siblings have ever made. Ostensibly a love letter to the golden age of movie-making, Hail, Caesar! is in fact a barbed satire about misplaced faith in artificial institutions, from politics to religion to tinsel town itself. Throw in an A-list cast hamming it up and having a ball, and you'd be absolutely screwy not to give it a watch. — TC
These are our favourite films of 2016, but we've also put together a list of the best films hardly anyone saw this year — y'know, the ones that sort of went in and out of cinemas without much fanfare but definitely deserve a watch.
Co-written by Sarah Ward and Tom Clift.
Published on December 16, 2016 by Sarah Ward