Ten films released in 2016 that were the most significant aesthetically, historically or culturally.
Everybody Wants Some!! | dir. Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his magnum opus Boyhood is a film that might not boast of the grand production time and philosophy of either Boyhood or the Before trilogy or even Dazed and Confused, but is just as profound in its depiction of the human condition as any of his earlier works. Taking its title from a Van Halen song, the film is a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, depicting the lazy, party-filled days of a group of college baseball players right before the start of the new semester. As we go along having fun with the guys, we might not notice the gentle sense of foreboding that creeps up on us as we are reminded every once in a while that these days are not going to last forever.
American Honey | dir. Andrea Arnold
This time titled after a song by Lady Antebellum, American Honey tells the story of a band of misfits who travel across America acting as door-to-door salesmen. Mostly teenagers and young adults, they party hard and break laws, and yet they are a self-sufficient microcosm who have found a way of existing outside a society that has no place for them. In its depiction of young love in a land that is shown as almost apocalyptic, the film seems to suggest the possibility of alternative modes of society, a fact best summarized in the lyrics of the song “We Found Love” that features prominently in the soundtrack.
Elle | dir. Paul Verhoeven
A significant film on contemporary feminism, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is the story of a woman, played by Isabelle Huppert, who is brutally raped in her own home, and the choices she makes in its aftermath. Verhoeven is a master of satire and subversion, and in Elle he tells a thematically and emotionally complex story that is often shocking and always enthralling. However, it is Isabelle Huppert’s brilliant performance that holds the film together and gives credence to its subversive and bold story.
Snowden | dir. Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone, the finest political filmmaker of our time, takes on a subject whose life story seems tailor-made to be an Oliver Stone film. Coming close on the heels of Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, Snowden is a conventionally told biopic, with its fair share of drama and thrills, about a very unconventional man who was forced to turn against his own government for ethical reasons. “Nationalism” being a major component of our present public discourse, Snowden is a timely film that puts across the argument that “nationalism” and “patriotism” may not always mean the same thing.
The Handmaiden | dir. Park Chan-wook
The Handmaiden is a South Korean “erotic psychological thriller” film by Park Chan-wook based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, the setting changed from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese occupation. With its astounding cinematography by Park Chan-wook’s regular collaborator Chung Chung-hoon, and plenty of plot twists built into its dark humor, The Handmaiden is a delicious watch from beginning till end, not to mention the fact that the film has one of the most memorable lovemaking scenes in recent times.
Hell or High Water | dir. David Mackenzie
Two brothers go on a bank-robbing spree in West Texas and Jeff Bridges is a ranger close on their trail. A “neo-Western”/heist thriller, Hell or High Water combines the best of both these genres in a tightly-woven plot by writer Taylor Sheridan who also wrote the excellent thriller Sicario. The film is a fresh, almost post-modern (and somewhat nihilistic) take on the myth of the Wild West. Among other things, it touches upon the subject of the historically unfair depiction of Native Americans in classic Westerns via the character of Jeff Bridges’ partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham. However, at its core, it is a film about values, and about how far one would go for one’s family. And as always, Jeff Bridges is a delight to watch as the aging ranger looking for one last big bust before retirement.
Sing Street | dir. John Carney
Set in Dublin in the 1980s, Sing Street is the story of a teenage boy who starts a band in order to impress a girl. Essentially a coming-of-age film, the film takes an endearingly poignant view on surviving the demons of teenage that every one of us has to face. Bolstered by an adolescent-spirit fuelled pop soundtrack that is rebellious and sentimental in equal measures, the film, a heartfelt ode to 80s music, is filled with numerous references to that era in the form of visual and aural gags. A strong contender for the feel-good film of the year, Sing Street is an emotionally turbulent yet satisfying film that is a perfect merging of the genres of teen comedy, social realism as well as rock musical.
Udta Punjab | dir. Abhishek Chaubey
Udta Punjab is one of the better examples of the “new wave” of Hindi cinema that we have witnessed in recent years. On one level it is a very topical film dealing with the issue of drug trade in Punjab, and on another level it is a top-notch thriller with a tight, engaging plot. All the actors give great performances, but special mention must be made of Alia Bhatt who is as convincing as a laborer trapped in the jaws of the drug mafia as she is in any of her other more glamorous roles. The soundtrack by Amit Trivedi is a delightful mix of house music, soulful ballads and Punjabi folk, and acts as a driving narrative force by itself. In its treatment of all conceivable aspects related to a thriving drug trade, Udta Punjab evokes comparison to Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece Traffic, but is much less complex morally. Indeed, one might wonder why a film as blatantly anti-drug as Udta Punjab had to go through the censorship issues that it did.
Hail, Caesar! | dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Along with Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers are arguably America’s greatest living filmmakers. One of their more obviously comedic efforts (along the lines of The Ladykillers and the brilliant but underrated Burn After Reading), Hail, Caesar! has them paying affectionate tribute to the 1950s Hollywood. Led by George Clooney and Josh Brolin, the cast boasts of a dizzying list of stars who would have come together only for a Coen brothers film. Not among their best works by a long shot, it is still a hugely entertaining film that contains all the trademarks of a Coen brothers’ comedy.
*The Night Of | created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian
Created by veteran writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, The Night Of is an HBO miniseries (a small cheat here) about a young Pakistani-American man who is accused of the murder of a white girl. An in-depth examination of legal institutions and race relations in America, the show is also an excellent crime thriller as well as courtroom drama, supported by the strong performances of all the actors. Richard Price was a writer on the great HBO series The Wire, and its influence on this show is evident in its unbiased and unflinching look at society, and also in its sheer artistic quality. The Night Of can also be seen as a 21st-century update on the classic courtroom dramas 12 Angry Men and Anatomy of a Murder in terms of themes and subject matter.