With the second half of 2016 well and truly upon us, it’s time to count down the best of what cinema’s had to offer so far this year. So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado: here are the best 15 films to have graced the silver screen during the first part of 2016.
Ben Wheatley’s fifth film opens with Tom Hiddleston living in acute squalor. His business suit in tatters, his face covered in paint, we see the indelible sight of The Man Who Might Be Bond chewing hungrily on the remains of a dead dog. Humanity as a species doesn’t come off all too well in this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s supposedly unfilmable book, turned into a dazzling and stylish 1970s fever-dream, in which the micro-society of a tower block collapses into anarchy. That it also features the best cinematic Abba cover since Mamma Mia! is a testament to its mad, esoteric brilliance.
14. The Nice Guys
Here’s the kind of film we rarely see these days: an entirely original film with a mid-sized budget. Neither reboot, sequel or adaptation; neither humble indie nor monstrous blockbuster. It might not quite hit the delights of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but The Nice Guys finds Shane Black in rude health, all his familiar traits present and correct: sparkly dialogue, noirish potboiling, idiosyncratic violence, black comedy (Ryan Gosling makes an unexpectedly strong case for the comic performance of the year)...and stuff. (As Gosling admonishes: “Don’t say ‘and stuff’”.)
13. Son Of Saul
There have been plenty of films that have tackled the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, so it takes a filmmaker of singular vision to place a new spin on it. Son Of Saul is no less harrowing or soul-searching than those that came before it, but it presents a tale of resistance rather than victimhood, and frames it almost entirely in a close up of Géza Röhrig’s extraordinarily emotive face.
12. The Witch
With its meticulous period setting and language, The Witch comes across as much like The Crucible as it does your average demonic possession horror. In fact, there’s really nothing average about The Witch at all: a devastating psychological ordeal that works as well taken at face value (the goat IS the Devil) as according to more complex theories. The cryptic events are never fully explained, leaving The Witch ambiguously unsettling.
11. The Big Short
Nobody was hankering for another film about financial instability – especially those of us who become instantly comatose at the sight of numbers and stocks. It was lucky, then, that Margot Robbie was on hand to explain all the difficult bits. Suddenly the mid-2000s housing collapse made a lot more sense... With Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling all delivering knockout performances, director Adam McKay’s first proper dalliance with drama remains one of the year’s best.
Sebastian Schipper’s camera first presses ‘record’ at 4am in the depths of a dingy Berlin nightclub; it doesn’t press ‘stop’ until the sun is coming up, a good two-and-a-half hours later. But what’s remarkable about Victoria is how quickly you forget about the technical achievements of its single-take gimmick. The first hour of this unique German indie is an ode to youthful late-night mischief and drunken flirting; the second half, morphing into a thriller barely without warning, is more kinetic than a jaunt down the autobahn. It's sehr gut, indeed.
Charlie Kaufman is still not particularly cheerful. Good for us, frankly, if he keeps making films like Anomalisa, another exercise in exquisitely artful miserablism, told through the medium of scarily realistic stop-motion puppets. (Team America, this ain’t.) Though his outlook may be bleak – given an extra pessimistic twang from the weary Lancashire voice work of David Thewlis – there’s something oddly hopeful, and typically witty, about this strange little tale of a man who only sees the same face and hears the same voice on everyone.
In retrospect, it’s quite amazing that Spotlight won Best Picture at the Oscars back in February. There are no extended crying scenes in this film; no grandly-delivered elegies on the cost of war; no carefully-choreographed fight scenes; no explosions. There are certainly no CGI bears. The most dramatic thing that happens is when Mark Ruffalo dashes off to get some documents photocopied. This is a film driven purely by the simplicity of its story – about journalists exposing a scandal in the Catholic Church – and a straightforward sense of moral justice. It’s a small, unshowy, angry film, which – like its heroes – seems to just diligently get on with the job at hand.
7. Green Room
There’s an inevitable bittersweet edge to watching Green Room now, being as it is one of Anton Yelchin’s final roles before his tragic and untimely death. It’s appropriate that it’s exactly the sort of film the young actor was drawn to: unique, challenging, formidable indie fare. Jeremy Saulnier’s horror-thriller pulls few punches and the violence will be too much for some tastes – the baddies are Nazis, after all – but it demands your attention.
Very much not a prequel to Green Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue centres on two exceptional performances. Brie Larson earned all the headlines, of course, for her Oscar-winning turn as the captive of a barely-seen Fritzl-esque kidnapper; but a then seven-year-old Jacob Tremblay, playing her illegitimate son, very nearly steals the show. It’s through his fairytale perspective that we experience a turbulent and traumatic set of events, turning what could be a clichéd drama into something distinctive and oddly uplifting.
There was a time when folk scoffed at the idea of a seventh film in the Rocky series: quickly dismissed as a cash-in, a desperate attempt to keep afloat an ageing and soon-to-be-forgotten boxing franchise. What a happy surprise to find this was actually one of the most thoughtfully-calibrated reboots in memory: affectionately doffing a cap to the spirit of the original, while ploughing its own muscular, confident furrow. Creed is smart, surprising, entertaining, joyful, emotional, and has important, timely, powerful things to say. More, please.
4. Love & Friendship
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an actor in possession of a good blockbuster fortune, must be in want of a critically-acclaimed indie hit. So it was with Kate Beckinsale, who had spent so much time making countless Underworld sequels that we had almost forgotten what a tremendous actress she really is. And while the corsets of 18th century England could hardly be any more comfortable for her than vampire-leather, Beckinsale’s piercing wit and sly delivery proves the indisputable highlight of Whit Stillman’s shrewd Austen adaptation. General incivility at its finest.
3. The Hateful Eight
After a couple of false starts (read: script leaks), Quentin Tarantino’s post-Civil War tale finally made it to the big screen back in January. And boy was it worth the wait. As Tarantino’s ‘orrible octet seek refuge from a blizzard in Minnie’s Haberdashery, it soon becomes clear that there’s more on the agenda than simply getting a hot cup of cocoa. As the claustrophobia sets in and the bullets start to fly, there’ll only be one question on your lips: ‘can we have your third Western now please, QT?’.
2. The Revenant
It was the movie that would finally coronate Leonardo DiCaprio with an Oscar, after five near-misses; it was the movie that become instantly legendary for that wintry Calgary shoot; it was the movie that was briefly inaccurately reported to feature a scene of bestial buggery. The benefit of time and reflection shows it for the movie that it really is: an astonishing, gut-punching piece of cinema. Admittedly, there’s not a huge amount of narrative meat on the bones – the dialogue is mostly grunts or gurgles – but Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer-in-chief Emmanuel Lubezki have crafted two hours of overwhelming visual and sensory brilliance, anchored by DiCaprio’s extraordinary, selfless, awards-hoovering lead turn. Best watched with the heating off.
1. Captain America: Civil War
The most ambitious Marvel outing to date set everyone’s favourite super-squad against each other, sending a few of them home to patch up their suits. The idea of pitching 673 superheroes (we may be slightly exaggerating) against each other was a dizzying notion, but the brothers Russo pulled it off with aplomb, introducing a unanimously crowd-pleasing baby Spidey in the process. Worried about superhero fatigue? Those fears completely vanish by the time you reach the film’s airport battle opus.