Top 10 Films of 2016

The time has come round again to put together the list of the year’s best films.  2016 has been an exceptionally good year for films, especially in the Foreign language Film category.

Here are my BEST 10 of 2016 in order, with  short description of each.

by Gilbert Seah

1. TONY ERDMANN (Germany 2016) Directed by Maren Ade

Touted too as the BEST FILM of 2016 by the SIGHT & SOUND International Critics Poll, this 160-minute lengthy German comedy (the Germans are not known for comedy) is a satire by director/writer Ade on her German countryfolk.  Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a retired piano teacher, a divorcee who delights in persistent pranks and impersonations that alienate (and occasionally alarm) everyone in his German suburb.  He pays an unexpected visit to his corporate executive daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), playing parks and showing up whenever she least expects.  A brilliant piece of drama and comedy and culminates with Huller singing the full song “The Greatest Love of All” which got a standing ovation midway during the film’s creeping at Cannes.  He teaches Ines again how to laugh and love again while the audience gets a subtle message of what life is all about.   (This film opens January in Toronto.)

2. JULIETA (Spain 2016) Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Almodovar’s talky film based on three short stories from the book Runaway by Alice Munro with homage to Patricia Highsmith.   JULIETA stars Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as older and younger versions of the film’s protagonist, Julieta, alongside Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Darío Grandinetti, Michelle Jenner and his favourite Rossy de Palma playing a nosy maid, who has one eye larger than the other.  The film is marked by Almodovar’s touches like his brilliant use of colour.  JULIETA is a very controlled film, absorbing from start to finish with a very brilliant ending.

3. L’AVENIR (THINGS TO COME) (France/Germany 2016) Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve 

Director Hansen-Løve’s protagonist undergoes a major change in life in the midst of the movie.  Nathalie (another excellent performance by Isabelle Huppert) is a dedicated and demanding teacher, wife, and mother whose life is jolted when her husband of many years leaves her for another woman.  As her life slowly crumbles (she loses her publications as well), Nathalie slowly adapts using her background in philosophy.  Nathalie is not as assured and confident as she is in the past.  Her black, obsess cat, Pandora stands also as a metaphor for her life.  But Nathalie, at least finds an unlikely friend in a former student, the radical young communist Fabien (Roman Kolinka).   The musical score ranging from classical (Schubert) to folk (Woody Guthrie) is marvellous.  As in all of Hansen-Løve’s films, L’AVENIR is an intelligent, handsomely mounted production that is an entertaining and insightful look on life and living.

4. ZOOTOPIA (USA 2016) Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

ZOOTOPIA follows the dentures of a bunny cop as she save her animal world.  The film works on many levels so that both kids and adults can relate to the movie.  The film also reflects on major issues in America such as racism and the police system.  But most important of all, the filmmakers have a keen sense of humour that is reflected in a very smart and hilarious film.  The animation is also superb.

5. IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (Kraftidioten) (Norway/Sweden/Denmark 2014)

Directed by Hans Petter Moland

This is my rare pick – a Scandinavian commercial thriller that is a cross between TAKEN and FARGO.  This is a very dark violent comedy thriller that asks the question:  Can an ordinary man kill a drug lord?  The answer is ‘yes’, if (he is) pushed beyond the limit.  Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) is a snow plough driver somewhere in Norway.  He learns that his son, Ingvar has died, supposedly of a heroin overdose.   Nils knows his son was no addict (his wife believes otherwise, though) and starts his own personal private investigation after his beaten up son’s friend confesses to Nils that his son was unknowingly involved in a drug delivery.   Soon Nils finds out the local drug lord, known as ‘The Count’ (Pal Sverre Hagen) is behind the crime.  Director Moland spends screen time on both Nils and the villain.  The segment where the count and his ex-wife argue over their son’s custody and eating of ‘fruit loops’ is priceless.  I have watched the segment five times and still love it.  A very, very dark thriller like the winter of Norway when the film is set.

6. INDIGNATION (USA 2015) Directed by James Schamus

The pleasure of the film is not in the plot but in the writing.   Based on the Philip Roth novel, excellence can only be expected.  A working class Jewish student, Marcus (Logan Lerman), leaves Newark, New Jersey to attend a small college in Ohio. There, he experiences a sexual awakening after meeting the elegant and wealthy Olivia (Sarah Gadon). Later he ends up confronting the school’s dean (Tracy Letts) over the role of religion in academic life.  Logan Lerman displays acting capability and eloquence as in the film’s best scene with Dean Caudwell debating Bertrand Russell’s Christianity.   Shamus has now proven himself as a superb writer and director.  INDIGNATION is a thinking man’s film that is smart, entertaining and funny. 

7. LA TETE HAUTE (STANDING TALL) (France 2015)

Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot

LA TETE HAUTE often has the camera stationed in a set-up in which a confrontation occurs.  The actors have their role plays and they go at it, ensemble-style.  The result is a compelling watch, with a more realistic feel as the scene looks totally unscripted, though it may not be.  The camera focuses primarily on the actors, often with closeups on the reactions of dialogue that take place.   Bercot allows the audience to root for the hot-tempered delinquent called Malony (Rod Paradot).  Bercot shows that the process of rehabilitation is long and difficult but not impossible.  Bercot (who co-wrote the script) attributes more effort by those helping the boy than put in by the boy himself.  As the adage goes: “It takes a village to rear a child.”  Besides the boy, the supporting characters are all equally interesting.  The mother, who is herself a delinquent, loses her two younger boys to social services.  The boy’s councillor was himself a delinquent, younger on and got this job believing in the system.  And there is the judge, magnificently played by Deneuve with all her regality.   The scene in which she stretches out her hand to the boy in both desperation and sympathy is the film’s most touching moment.  But director Bercot takes her film one step further.  She inserts more incidents than are normally found in a family drama.  Included is a car crash, expertly shot and a home abduction.  This is an extremely moving film about life and hardship – and how everyone faces his or her own at one time or another.

8. HELL OR HIGH WATER (USA 2016) Directed by David MacKenzie

The film begins with an exciting bank robbery.  The bank is robbed by two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and the recently out-of-jail Tanner (Ben Foster).  It is a case of Good Crook, Bad Crook variation of Good Cop, Bad Cop.  Toby, the good crook needs the money for payments on the house his children has inherited from his recently deceased mother.   The film does not have one main protagonist but three.  Toby appears to be the main one, but his volatile brother and the retiring ranger after them are also given due attention.  Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is the most interesting of the three, a wise-cracking, gruff and smart veteran who constantly cracks racist jokes at his indian deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham).   The film is well performed by everyone especially Bridges who turns out an Oscar Winning performance.  MacKenzie knows how to create excitement.  The camera is placed, for example in the getaway car, all jittery but capturing the desperation of escaping the cops.  The shootout scene at the end of the film is also meticulously staged.  The film also contains a superb climax – a verbal showdown between Toby and Marcus.  The music by Australian actor, singer song-writer Nick Cave is a pleasure, also adding atmosphere and mood to the film.  An excellent film all round.

9. HACKSAW RIDGE (USA/Australia 2016)  Directed by Mel Gibson

HACKSAW RIDGE is a true story, bravely told, inspiring as well, set in World War II featuring the most unlikely of heroes – a pacifist who refuses to carry a rifle.  Not only does the film boast inspired direction by Gibson, but it also contains perhaps the best performance of the year by a young actor, the most recent SPIDER-MAN, Andrew Garfield – if not the best performance of his career.  The true story of medic, Private Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds.  Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life — without firing a shot — to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.  The battle scenes – with heads exploding; guts pouring out; dismembered bodies and wounds infested with maggots and rats are not easy ones to watch. 

10. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (USA 2016) Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

There is an excellent segment at the start of the film that perfectly sums up the character of the protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck).  A handyman, Lee has just finished fixing the dirty toilet plumbing of one of the apartments in the building he looks after.  The woman asks if it is ok for her to give him a tip.  He thinks the tip is a form of advice she is about to give him for perhaps a mistake he did in his job instead of the monetary reward she intended.  Lee is shown here as a hard-working well meaning person with extremely low self-esteem.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s new film after a long absence since his impressive debut YOU CAN COUNT ON ME followed by MARGARET.  The new film follows Lee, a reclusive handyman who must face his painful past when he returns to his Massachusetts hometown after the sudden death of his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  The beauty of Lonergan’s film is the way his drama unfolds.  He does not rely on cheap theatrics, melodrama or dramatic monologues to get his points across.  In tandem, Affleck delivers a quiet, disciplined yet forceful performance, undoubtedly the best of his career.  The film’s best segments have the two arguing with each there.  The film alternates between sad and wonderful.   It is one of the best gut wrenching films about how a person deals with death. 

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