A short, subjective, unreliable (but useful) list of what was great in 2016

Another year, another top ten.

As ever, a spotty list, in the sense that nothing unifies them except that I loved them. Partly for the beauty, partly for the courage and partly for the way people still come up with brilliant new ways to tell stories. If you needed more proof that film reviewing is a subjective activity, here it is. And before you ask why this film or that film isn’t included – I should tell you that I don’t see everything as it opens. I’m always behind in viewing, just like you. These are chosen from the films I have reviewed for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age throughout the year. Most of the full reviews are on this site or soon will be.

My top pick came early in the year: for those who were brave enough to catch it on release, you have my respect. Son of Saul wasn’t easy to watch, but who said that great films have to be?

It was made with unrelenting courage by first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes. He found a way to speak about the unspeakable and to film the unfilmable, adopting a camera position (usually about two feet from the protagonists’s shoulder) and lens setting that shortened depth of field enough that we could keep watching. I don’t ever want to see it again, but that’s a kind of compliment. In a sense we all have a duty to try to imagine what life in Auschwitz was like. Son of Saul made that more possible.

Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie (script by Taylor Sheridan) was towards the end of the year and it did everything right, updating the ideas of the western to a story of financial vengeance in 2008. Two brothers robbing the banks that are robbing them – that’s a great pitch line. And they’re chased by Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger. What more do you need to know to want to see that? It was thoughtful, tense, laconically played with some deadpan Texan humour, by Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the brothers. Eight million Americans lost their homes in 2008 and this is one of the best films dealing with those scars. It’s already appearing on lots of lists for the best movie of 2016 (in the US, Son of Saul was a 2015 movie).

Sunset Song: Terrence Davies in sublime form, in this lyrical Scottish drama. It was based on a very much loved Scottish novel that I had never heard of, with a new star I had never seen, and it was surprisingly frank about sexuality and gender for the period – just before the first World War. And if there was a more beautifully shot British film this year, I did not see it. Davies channelled John Ford in the way he drew a portrait of a small rural community that’s about to be torn apart by war. Who would have thought that Davies gets some of his poetics from Ford? Davies may be the best director that Britain has at the moment.

Embrace of the Serpent. A crazy Colombian went up the Amazon with a small crew and returned with this miraculous, mysterious film, set in two time periods. Ciro Guerra might never do anything this good again – but I hope he does. This film, in glorious black and white, was staggeringly beautiful and brooding, like a long dream about the appalling history of exploitation of this region. Magnificent.

La La land. Damien Chazelle shows he’s the real deal after Whiplash. I loved this for its boldness, its seriousness of intent even while maintaining a lightness of touch, its defence of the right to an artistic life, its implied criticism of a younger generation (his own) that can’t tell shit from shinola when it comes to cultural achievement – and because he showed the feet. If you are going to revive song and dance, you need to show the feet! I see statues in his future.

Spotlight. Anyone who loves newspapers would love this film about the power on investigative reporting, and I am a newspaperman (SMH copy boys, class of ‘76). I was also raised in the religion that is exposed here for its utter corruption – in this case, in covering up the sexual abuse by more than 100 priests in the Boston Catholic arch-diocese. No film made me angrier this year. The rollup at the end mentioned my hometown and many others in Australia where Catholic sexual abuse has been uncovered.

Truman – This gorgeous Spanish film by Cesc Gay was deceptively simple: a man prepares for his impending death by spending some quality time with his best friend, who now lives in another country. The reality was much different – a subtle and unsentimental film about emotional courage, with a superb cast – the great Argentine actor Ricardo Darin and the great Spanish actor Javier Camara. And a great dog actor – the Truman of the title.

Looking for Grace – The ever reliable and thoughtful Australian director Sue Brooks gave us another gem about characters in crisis, with Radha Mitchell and Richard Roxburgh as a couple trying to find their runaway daughter (Odessa Young, whose career is about to rocket). Terry Norris makes a welcome return to the big screen as an ancient private detective. Brooks (Japanese Story) has developed her own particular style of dramatic humour, tinged with ridiculousness and despair. She’s a national treasure.

Francofonia. The Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov gave us an intimate but engrossing film about an unlikely friendship that saved a lot of great art from the Nazis, in a sort of homage to the Louvre. As ever, Sokurov’s world is mysterious and internal, drenched in history and that very specific kind of Russian emotion, somewhere between regret and resignation. Intoxicating.

And finally, a film that came and went in two weeks in December – a ridiculously short season for a film this good. Mahana is a welcome return to form, and to his homeland of New Zealand for Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori. It’s a great big, sweeping family melodrama about two Maori families – rivals in every way – who make their living shearing sheep in the North Island in the middle of last century. Tamahori assembled a great cast for this and it’s superbly dirtected, with a big score and big performances from Temuera Morrison (who played Jake in Once Were Warriors) and Nancy Brunning, as the wife he stole from the leader of the other family 30 years earlier. Try and find it on DVD or one of the streaming services. It’s a gem.


So here’s that list again:

  1. Son of Saul
  2. Hell or High Water
  3. Sunset Song
  4. Embrace of the Serpent
  5. La la land
  6. Spotlight
  7. Truman
  8. Looking for Grace
  9. Francofonia
  10. Mahana

And here is a list of the ones that almost made the top ten.

  1. Brooklyn
  2. Carol
  3. The Queen of Ireland
  4. Down Under
  5. Downriver
  6. Rams
  7. A Month of Sundays
  8. A Perfect Day
  9. Sherpa
  10. American Honey

All worth checking out if you have not done so already. Happy viewing in 2017. There’s always hope.

Happy New Year.