The 10 Best Movies of 2016
From a Japanese animation to a hilarious German comedy, Nicholas Barber looks back at the most enjoyable movies of the year.
1. La La Land
These days, hardly anyone makes film musicals that aren’t adapted from hit stage shows, but Damien Chazelle, the writer-director of Whiplash, makes it look easy. All you have to do, it seems, is cast two goofily charming actors (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), write them some well-honed songs and spiky romantic banter, embrace them in a rainbow of bright colours, and make the whole enterprise a sincere tribute to the glamorous Golden Age of Hollywood and jazz. The result is one of the most delightful films in years. As buoyant and nostalgic as La La Land is, however, it’s more than a pastiche. It won’t let us forget that life doesn’t always turn out the way it does in the movies.
Anomalisa was directed and co-written by Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And, in its modest way, his latest film is as surreal, ingenious, heartbreaking and hilarious as either of them. An unsettling commentary on loneliness, depression and the ease with which we can fall in and out of love, Anomalisa uses stop-motion animation to tell the strange tale of Michael (David Thewlis), a customer-service guru who is so sick of the human race that, to him, everybody sounds as if they have the same voice (Tom Noonan’s voice, to be precise).
The one exception is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fan he meets in a Cincinnati hotel. Anomalisa was written as a play to be performed by three actors on a bare stage, and yet the animated figurines are so integral to its mood and themes that it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
3. Nocturnal Animals
For a film about a woman (Amy Adams) sitting quietly at home and reading a novel, Nocturnal Animals is ridiculously entertaining. Tom Ford’s second offering as a writer-director is a waspish satire of Los Angeles’s glitzy art scene, a poignant tale of youthful romance, and a nightmarish western that pits a mild-mannered family man (Jake Gyllenhaal) against the redneck from hell (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). All three sections are ferociously acted and dripping with style; together, they add up to a proudly nasty treatise on fiction and revenge. You can admire the film’s cleverly intertwining structure and still be absolutely terrified.
Not long after the Independence Day sequel came and went, lovers of monsters-from-outer-space movies were treated to a far more resonant take on the same scenario, one that replaced ray guns and explosions with the question of how we are supposed to communicate with creatures from another world.
Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction mind-bender isn’t short of awe-inspiring spectacle or eerie atmosphere, but it’s essentially a small, intimate chamber piece that showcases Amy Adams’ unique balance of toughness and fragility. Then comes That Twist, which raises the film to another level. What’s so satisfying about the final revelation apart from how moving it is is that it’s nearly impossible to guess in advance, but all the clues are there.
5. Toni Erdmann
No other comedy in 2016 matched Maren Ade’s third feature for side-splitting set-pieces, which is inconvenient for anyone who believes that Germans don’t have a sense of humour. It isn’t just the year’s funniest film, though. With its unsparing depiction of soulless, globalised corporate life, Toni Erdmann is one of the year’s saddest and most insightful films, too.
Peter Simonischek is wonderful as an ageing music teacher who finds it so difficult to connect with his careerist daughter, Sandra Hüller, that he resorts to desperate measures: he puts on a cheap wig and a cheaper suit, and turns up at her offices in Bucharest, claiming to be a life coach and/or ambassador. From there, Ade keeps taking her characters to ever more daring and unpredictable places for two-and-three-quarter hours.
6. The Founder
The Keatonnaissance continues. Following his leading roles in two Oscar winners, Birdman and Spotlight, Michael Keaton picks another ideal home for his jittery charisma. The Founder is a balanced, snappy docudrama about Ray Kroc, the travelling salesman who stopped at a roadside burger joint run by two brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and knew at once that he could turn it into a coast-to-coast franchise: McDonald’s. There’s plenty here to chew on. John Lee Hancock’s fascinating film may be set 60 years ago, but its competing visions of all-American industry – family businesses versus cost-cutting corporations could scarcely be more relevant today.
7. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergen has been the writer-director of only three films in 16 years You Can Count on Me, Margaret, and now Manchester by the Sea but they’ve all been intensely humane triumphs. His new slow-burning drama stars Casey Affleck as a laconic janitor who returns to the eponymous coastal town in Massachussets when his brother dies, but who has his own reasons for wanting to leave again as soon as he can.
Lonergen doesn’t give his characters grandstanding speeches about the tragedies in their past; he just shows us their daily routines and quiet conversations in such credible and often very funny detail that we feel as if we’ve lived through everything they have.
8. The Distinguished Citizen
The Argentinian entry for Best Foreign Language film at February’s Oscars, The Distinguished Citizen stars Oscar Martinez as a suave author who has turned down every honour since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but who decides to accept a tin-pot award from his own home village, 40 years after he left it to find fame in Europe. Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s wry, perfectly performed comedy drama strolls breezily from mischievous jokes about provincial incompetence to rigorous debates about the purpose of culture, covering a vast amount of territory in between.
9. Florence Foster Jenkins
In Stephen Frears’ sparkling comedy drama, Meryl Streep is predictably glorious as a New York grande dame who can afford to stage lavish opera recitals in the 1940s – never mind that she has the voice of a dying parrot. But it’s Hugh Grant, as her husband and enabler, who steals the show.
Grant hasn’t always chosen the most challenging material, but in Florence Foster Jenkins he fulfils his potential, injecting his richest ever role with anguished energy and conviction. Thanks to his committed performance and Nicholas Martin’s complex script, the unbelievable true story deepens from a delightful farce to a mature and touching portrait of an unconventional marriage.
10. Your Name
Makoto Shinkai’s Japanese smash hit is dazzling in more ways than one. The range of lighting effects and painterly panoramas makes it the most spectacular cartoon of the year, and the plotting gets weirder and more apocalyptic as it goes along: Your Name starts as a high-school comedy about a country girl and a city boy who switch identities every few days, and then it grows into a mystical, time-travelling disaster movie. But amid all the visual and narrative fireworks, it never loses sight of the tender coming-of-age story at its heart, as its young protagonists realise that they may never meet their soulmates.