Dec 31, 2016

2016 in Review: 24FPS' Top 10 Films of 2016

Note: Potential spoilers for all listed films.

This list is composed of films that premièred theatrically or on home formats in the UK in 2016, and films that screened at UK festivals in 2016, but which currently have no UK distribution in place.

10: Chevalier
Athina Rachel Tsangarai's brutally funny satire of male insecurity was a hit on 2015's festival circuit, but only opened in the UK this year.  The film is confined to a boat where six men, ranging in age from mid 30s to mid 60s, are taking a short holiday. Bored one night, they decide to play a game to discover which of them is 'the best'. Each man must set a challenge and the results of those, along with points awarded for any number of arbitrary reasons - from the position someone sleeps in to their hairline - will determine the victor.

Tsangarai's first feature film was called Attenberg, a deliberate mispelling of the naturalist David Attenborough's name and, like that film, this one applies something like his sense of curiosity at the observation of the animal kingdom to people. These men could almost be seen as creatures in the wild, each competing to lead their pack. Tsangarai and co-writer Efthymis Filippou (also the co-writer of The Lobster) skewer their subjects in brutally funny style, satirising the way that as the men get more and more determined to assert their dominance they become ever more pathetic and seem ever weaker, more insecure and, ultimately, sillier.

This is both hilarious and sometimes uncomfortable to watch, as it's likely that many of us will see things reflected back at us that we really wish we didn't recognise. The jokes range from the puerile to the satirical to one wonderfully incongruous, almost surreal, sequence set to Minnie Ripperton's Loving You. All of it is played with admirably straight faces by the cast, all of whom are outstanding. Chevalier, though, is ultimately Athina Rachel Tsangarai's show, as it marks her out as one of the most original and articulate writer/directors when it comes to analysing people, rather than merely using them to facilitate a plot.

9: Starless Dreams
I'm not the biggest fan of documentary as a cinematic form. I often find myself saying of even the most compelling that, good as they may be, they seem to me to inherently belong on television. That's not untrue of Starless Dreams, but this is a film urgent and enveloping enough to warrant being seen anywhere possible.

The film is set in an Iranian prison for young women. Their crimes aren't always discussed, but the ones we hear about range from drug possession and prostitution to murder. I went in to Starless Dreams expecting it to be tough to watch, and it is, but not for the reasons I expected. I was expecting this to be a tough critique of a harsh regime, but we see little evidence of that. Instead what we glimpse is largely a self-sustaining society; the young inmates supporting each other and forming a sort of family. This is perhaps because, from what we hear, few of them had any sort of normal family life on the outside.

Some scenes are endearing, even funny. One when two girls interview each other in a parody of sorts of director Mehrdad Oskouei begins this way, but this and other moments of lightness often give way to devastating moments. The 'interview' strikes a heartbreaking balance; the girls' bright tone and laughter set against the abuse, addiction and suffering they discuss.  Other moments don't have even this chink of light. One girl, asked what she wants most, says "Death". Another is under that sentence, having killed the father who 'bothered' her (a euphemism we hear a lot). For some there may be hope, for others, notably one girl we see released, sent back to a family who will likely treat her much worse than the one she's leaving, there seems not to be.

Starless Dreams is a crushingly sad piece of work, but it's also a rare, valuable and surprising insight into a place and an experience few of us will have even thought about before. If that's not what documentary does at it's best then I don't know what is.

8: Burn Burn Burn
Burn Burn Burn took some time to emerge from the festival circuit, finally landing on our screens just over a year after it premiered at 2015's London Film Festival (which was where I first saw it). 

This story of Seph and Alex two friends (Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie) taking the ashes of their mutual friend Dan (Jack Farthing) who has recently died from cancer on a road trip, so they can scatter him in 4 places that meant something to him, could have been just one more in a recent line of hideously treacly movies to use cancer as a plot point. Happily, the film dispels this fear with its very first line, which sets out the dry, darkly funny, tone perfectly.

The tonal balancing act here is a very delicate one, and it's executed perfectly by the cast as well as by screenwriter Charlie Covell and director Chanya Button. The film's emotional scenes, especially one where Dan berates his friends from beyond the grave, hit hard, but a laugh is never far behind, and neither the drama nor the comedy feel unearned. The film is perhaps at its best when it combines its comedic and dramatic sides, particularly as Pirrie delivers Alex's most emotionally fraught speech while standing in the middle of one of the film's best visual gags.

Burn Burn Burn is an odd film; a feelgood film in which of the main characters dies a premature death before the story starts, but it works. Whatever sentimental moments it has come out of honest character writing, not out of the plot turning the screws to make you cry, and even if you are crying, you'll probably be laughing in the same moment.

7: Wild
The third feature from writer/director Nicolette Krebitz (following her brilliant second film, The Heart is a Dark Forest) took nine years to emerge, but, like another project on this list that was gestating for years, it was well worth the extended wait.

Wild is an unusual, but ultimately hugely affecting, study of loneliness. It centres on Ania (Lilith Stangenburg), a young woman working in a soulless office job, living in a high rise in a bleak town, with few connections to speak of. One day, on her way to work, Ania locks eyes with a wolf, living wild in some woods near her building. She instantly becomes obsessed, devoting her time to tracking the wolf down, then capturing it and keeping it her home. The relationship she forms with this wild animal is at first curiously close, then becomes more and more disturbing and destructive.

Stangenburg here gives what may be the year's most fearless performance. Stripped down emotionally and often physically, she shares many of her scenes only with the wolf. The connection between them has to feel visceral, immediately the most important thing in Ania's world, and Krebitz and Stangenburg have clearly worked hard to forge a physical connection between actress and animal. There is a palpable edge of danger to many of the scenes, and your concern for the safety of Stangenburg easily bleeds over into a concern for the character of Ania. It's a great performance, expressing more with physicality than with dialogue, especially towards the end of the film, as Ania becomes more feral scene by scene.

Nicolette Krebitz' visuals are cold and stark. Ania's world is rather blank; all concrete box buildings and grey weather. It's perhaps not the most subtle way to show that, until the wolf arrives in it, her life is colourless and passing in something of a disconnected haze, but it's effective and leads to many memorable images. 

Wild is a deeply sad film that ends up being about the search for connection in a distant and anonymous society and while Ania's way of finding that connection is, to say the least, unconventional, it also ends up being oddly moving. Wild doesn't currently have UK distribution in place, I hope the German Blu Ray will be English friendly.

6: The Survivalist
Cinema has seen many apocalypses, they have been caused by zombies, disease and war among other things. The presumed apocalypse that precedes the events of writer/director Stephen Fingleton's feature début is explained only by two lines, charting the growth and then the drop in the world's oil production and its population. 

The Survivalist (Martin McCann) lives alone in a shack hidden in the woods. He grows vegetables to sustain himself and keeps a shot gun on him at all times, in case of unwelcome visitors. One morning he wakes up to find two such visitors; Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her late teenage daughter Milja (Mia Goth). They ask for food, which he warily exchanges for sex with Milja. From here a power game begins to emerge, as Kathryn and Milja become 'houseguests', working the land, but ultimately planning to take it from their reluctant host.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Survivalist is the palpable confidence with which Stephen Fingleton executes it. He gives us little background, then opens the film with twenty silent minutes of his protagonist going through his daily routines. He sets us down in this world and expects us to live in it, in much the same way as you suspect his characters were asked to, some years before the narrative begins. Once Kathryn and Milja arrive there is some dialogue, but it is minimal, and ultimately less expressive than the way Fingleton shoots the film and the silent performances of his three key cast members. 

One brilliant sequence goes from Kathryn and Milja plotting to kill their host (with him to the side of frame, unaware), to an incredibly tense sequence in which The Survivalist saves Milja from another man who is about to rape her. All of this plays out without a single word, and in an age when most cinematic action is a clusterfuck of inter-scene geography, Fingleton's use of space is not only clear, it deepens the tension.

The performances are outstanding. McCann's constant watchfulness, Fouere's just under the surface willingness to kill to survive and Goth's possibly shifting loyalties play off against each other in many quietly nailbiting moments. Each of them is also called upon to go to some tough places, both emotionally (Kathryn's realisation that things haven't gone as she'd planned) and physically (Milja's trading of her sexuality, and an unbearable attempt at self surgery). All three are excellent.

This is a truly exciting first film, I only hope that Stephen Fingleton can follow it with something similarly distinctive and gripping.

5: The Witch
It's unusual that one of the first things you should note about a horror film is its language, but The Witch is an unusual horror film. Verisimilitude seems to have been writer/director Robert Eggers' watchword here, and the film's language - authentic 17th century dialect, much of it drawn from writings of the time - is the starting point for that.

The Witch is deliberately low key in its horror. For most of its running time it deals in the horror of the everyday, the horror inherent in the conviction of religious fundamentalists. In this case that horror takes root in a family that comes to believe their teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy) has caused the family to be overcome by demons, resulting in the youngest child disappearing and their crops failing.

Shot in a tight ratio of 1.66:1, with largely natural light, the film feels grounded in the real world. It's often dark and grim, reflecting a harsh and difficult way of life as well as the darkening of the mood in this isolated house. As well as the dialogue and the visuals, the performances help the film create a sense that we're watching something real. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie make for a credible Mother and Father; loving but tough, grief stricken and perhaps motivated as much as that as by their beliefs in they way they treat Thomasin. However, their actions remain extremely disturbing.

Dread seeps into the film, paying off in the final scenes in a way that might seem a little abrupt, but is actually well seeded throughout the film. I found it flowed more naturally on a second viewing, while retaining the shock value it possessed first time round. The Witch is a great film to demonstrate that horror doesn't have to mean either gore or rote jump scares. It's so nice to have a truly intelligent and scary new voice in the genre, I only wish his next film wasn't a remake.

4: Anomalisa
I've always struggled with Charlie Kaufman's films, and especially with his third acts, which I've often felt have struggled to deliver on his brilliantly weird, but paradoxically insightful, premises. Anomalisa doesn't have that problem.

In many ways this is Kaufman's most down to Earth film; it doesn't have the sci-fi concept of Eternal Sunshine, it doesn't play the self-referential games of Adaptation. Anomalisa is simply a very human story. This is a film about loneliness, but typically of Kaufman he finds a device through which he finds a new way to express a common emotion. Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) interacts with quite a few people on his one night stopover in a hotel in a city where he's due to deliver a sales seminar, but his world has become so colourless, so isolating, that to him they all speak in the same voice (that of Tom Noonan). After a while we begin to slip in to the same kind of limbo as Michael, craving a new voice, and this is when he hears Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

I may well be the world's biggest Jennifer Jason Leigh fan, but this film showed me a new side of her in the way that it used her voice. That voice has always been a versatile instrument, but it never quite struck me as distinctive in the way that some of her character's voices (Dorothy Parker, Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy) have been. The thing is, if Lisa's voice were hugely unusual - if the character were played by Jennifer Tilly, for instance - Anomalisa would be less effective. The whole idea is that Michael hears a thing of unexpected beauty, that he can't explain why this voice, of all of them, cuts through the endless drone of the world.

The stop motion animation is beautiful; as sensitive and expressive as the vocal performances, and it's the perfect medium. If the film were live action it would take much longer to adjust to the same voice coming out of multiple people. I think we would also see that effect as something literal, rather than the singular metaphorical experience it clearly is in this form.  However, as you'd expect given the film's premise, it's the sound that is really key here, especially in the moment in which Lisa's voice is lost to the surrounding noise. When Leigh's voice is slowly replaced by Noonan's, it is one of the most devastatingly effective evocations of depression I can think of.

Despite not featuring a single human on camera, Anomalisa is one of the most painfully human films of 2016.

3: Mustang
Mustang was perhaps the surprise of the year. I had no frame of reference; no actor, writer or director I knew. I was in the increasingly rare and welcome position of knowing nothing about it, other than its glowing critical reputation, before seeing it. In a strong year for coming of age cinema (Sing Street and Everybody Wants Some would make my Top 15), this was the standout.

There is something so alive about this film, and you see it right from the opening scene, as the five sisters that the film centres on celebrate the end of a school year by playing in the sea with friends. This moment, so carefree and spontaneous, becomes the thing that traps them as their furious uncle begins to shut them in the house and start marrying them off, eldest first.

Cinema can open up worlds and ideas to us, and that's what Deniz Gamze Erguven did for me here. The idea of young girls forced into marriage, of the way that religious fundamentalists control their families, especially the women, is something I know happens, but which largely exists in the abstract. Just as Starless Dreams did, Mustang took that abstraction and made it something present and real.

The film does this through Erguven's sensitive writing and direction, but perhaps especially through the performances of her five young actresses, most of whom had never been on camera before. The casting is perfect, the girls not only look similar enough to be sisters, the dynamic works too. So much of this is found in the incidental details, such as scenes of them playing together, or the youngest, Lale (Gunes Sensoy), stealing her oldest sister's bra and playing dress up. The naturalism in the way they relate makes everything hugely affecting.

Erguven's visuals sometimes have a romanticism about them (the opening scene, Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) watching her boyfriend through the window), but she sets this against the way that the girls uncle becomes ever more controlling, and visual signs of that control creeping in to the home (the bars, the repeated imagery of tea as marriages are arranged). It's a balance that feels honest to the girls lives; yes, there are many things that are very wrong in their home, but they find little avenues of escape too.

All the girls are good, but Gunes Sensoy, who slowly emerges as the lead, is exceptional. We watch her grow up, increasing in her understanding, her fear, and ultimately her confidence scene by scene. It would be a terrible shame if this remarkable young actress didn't go on to a lot more work. 

In the performances and in the film as a whole, Erguven balances tension, sadness and some brief chinks of light (the sequence in which the girls sneak out to go to a women only football match is joyous), making a subject that might be oppressively dark into a film that has a genuine feelgood quality, even when acknowledging its sadness.

2: Evolution
Like Wild, this has been a film I've been awaiting for a long time, without knowing anything about it until it was announced for the London Film Festival. Evolution is a perfect title as, ten years after her beautiful, beguiling, début Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilović delivered a second film that seems both a big step on from and a spiritual twin to her first.

The film asks similar questions about how the society it takes place in, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world (here an island in place of Innocence's boarding school), functions. On this island a group of women, all roughly in their mid 30s, live with their children, all of whom are boys of around 10. In a hospital on the island the boys are experimented on. There is only a loose sense of structure and story here, with Hadžihalilović sucking us into this slightly surreal world through one young boy, Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his connection with one of his nurses (Stella, played by the ethereal Roxane Duran). Evolution is fascinating because, as with Innocence, Hadžihalilović leaves many interpretations open, both at story and metaphorical levels. 

The imagery is stunning, creating distinct moods from the cold, solid, real feeling of the beaches and houses on the island, to the twin oneric worlds of the ocean (a dream) and the subterranean 'hospital' (a nightmare). With a striking focus on water and nods to, among others, Guillermo Del Toro, David Cronenberg and Andrezj Zulawski, the film serves up many memorable, beautiful and disturbing images.

Like Innocence before it, I only found that the ending of Evolution left me with more questions, wanting to dive back into the film and see if I could find new answers, or confirm the ones I had after my first viewing. I hope we don't have to wait ten more years for another glimpse into Lucile Hadžihalilović's imagination.

1: The Neon Demon
This wasn't supposed to happen, and very nearly didn't. I'm not much for Nicholas Winding Refn. I liked Drive a lot, and then I saw it a second time and found a stylish husk of a film, whose soundtrack I got a lot more from than anything else about it. I didn't need a second viewing to think the same of Only God Forgives. I wouldn't have seen this, the third in what I've taken to calling Refn's electro trilogy, had it not been for the fact that Elle Fanning - for my money the most naturally talented young actress working right now - is the lead. Still, I wasn't optimistic.

At that first screening I liked the film, cautiously and with reservations, but even by that evening I was beginning to think that I'd missed something, that this was a much better film than I had thought. I saw it twice more at the cinema, then a fourth time on Blu Ray, and with each screening it burrowed further into my brain, inching its way up this list as it did so.

The Neon Demon is the film that has been most present for me in 2016. I've been equally stuck on its big themes as I have been on some of its tiniest moments. Yes, this is at least partly to do with its style and its beauty, but even when I find myself thinking about it for those reasons that leads me back into its larger themes. Where Drive and Only God Forgives struck me as the definition of style over substance, The Neon Demon is, among other things, about style as a replacement for substance and the horror we should feel at that.

In stylistic terms, Refn here draws on many influences from fashion photography to filmmakers like Dario Argento (the lighting is often pure Suspiria) to David Cronenberg, who seems as much a thematic influence as he does a visual one. However, Refn doesn't just ape the filmmakers he's drawing on, he remixes them into something distinctly his own. The visuals feed into the film's themes. The obsessively composed frames reflect the film's and the character's concern with visual beauty and there is also much visual reference to the theme of consumption, which is a key idea here, be in Jesse's (Fanning) eventual - metaphorical - consumption by the titular Neon Demon or Jesse's fellow model Sarah (Abbey Lee) desperately licking the blood that drips from Jesse's cut hand, as if determined to ingest some of her essence, and with it her success.

For a film so concerned with the big picture, it's perhaps surprising how many of The Neon Demon's finest and most telling moments are its very smallest. Elle Fanning gives a remarkable performance, surely her best screen work to date. Every tiny adjustment, from her attempt to fiegn sexual experience in front of Sarah, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Ruby (Jena Malone), to the way she absent-mindedly rotates her foot, drawing focus as Alessandro Nivola is talking in a key scene, speaks volumes about her character and how it is shifting from naïf to manipulator. This richness of detail is also there in the other performances, be it the way Ruby watches Jesse, or the tiny twitch of Abbey Lee's lip, which gets the biggest laugh in a film that has a strong streak of pitch black humour.

I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the film; there is much to say about Keanu Reeves, amusingly overblown as an uber-sleazy motel manager and about Desmond Harrington as a cadaverous fashion photographer and about why those characters might look as they do. I'm beginning to feel like I could unpick just about every shot of this film and find something to write a paragraph about, and that, ultimately, is why it tops this list. It's the 2016 film that continues to grow in the fascination it holds for me.

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