At the end of each year, critics fill publications with lists of the best movies of the past year. They even list best scenes, best performances, and best feature debuts. While each of these lists purportedly shows how the critical community respects art over commerce and demonstrates stark differences with the year’s eventual Oscar nominees, there is often plenty of overlap between critics’ lists and awards show winners. Too much overlap.
The truth is that narrative matters, even to critics. If you hear that a given actor gives the best performance of the year all day long, in advertisements and on Twitter and on the front pages of the websites you visit, even if that opinion is the result of a marketing campaign or critical echo chamber, it’s hard not to be affected. The louder the narrative, the harder to ignore it, especially if it celebrates a film or performer that is genuinely good.
Instead of submitting another cookie cutter Best of 2016 list celebrating films like La La Land, Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight, which you’ll see on plenty of lists (and deservedly so), I instead offer a list of excellent films from this past year that you likely won’t see celebrated at awards shows. Some of these films flew under the radar, others were criminally underappreciated, and even others were smash hits in their home nations while garnering little attention among western domestic audiences.
These films might not be the quantifiably best films of 2016. But they are all worthwhile and represent a nice cross-section of what filmmakers could accomplish in 2016.
The Age of Shadows
If director Kim Jee-woon is South Korea’s Quentin Tarantino, then The Age of Shadows is his Inglourious Basterds. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea during the late 1920s, it follows a Korean police captain (Song Kang-ho) who infiltrates a Korean resistance group on the orders of his Japanese superiors. The remarkable opening chase scene through a remote village, where soldiers leap across wooden shingles in order to catch a resistance fighter, sets the stage for the film to follow. It’s tense, hyper violent, and visually kinetic. The Age of Shadows was largely overshadowed by Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden upon release, but there’s more than enough room in the world for two excellent 2016 thrillers set within Japan-occupied Korea. Like Kim’s earlier The Good, The Bad, The Weird, The Age of Shadows is a gonzo, genre delight.
By detailing the ways that the global ban on the seal hunt has damaged the Inuit communities in Northern Canada, director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has made as good an activist documentary as you can get. Angry Inuk is deeply personal and its argument is substantial. It gives a voice to a remote Indigenous community while also demonstrating the deep and often-insidious ways that colonialism has seeped into white social progressivism in the western world.
Born to Be Blue
A wonderful Ethan Hawke centres Robert Budreau’s biopic of the great jazz musician, Chet Baker. Set long after Baker’s initial stardom, the film charts his heroin addiction and comeback after suffering serious injury. The opening scene where Baker is a shooting a film of his own life informs the unconventional narrative that’ll follow. Born to Be Blue doesn’t purport to be factual truth, but it does capture the complex reality of Chet Baker’s life while celebrating the power of his music.
Jacques Audiard won the Palme d’Or in 2015 for his refugee tale, Dheepan, but that acclaim was quickly followed with vitriolic backlash that attacked the film’s genre pretenses and doomed it to Netflix with little-to-no theatrical or critical attention. This is a shame. Dheepan, which tells the story of a Tamil Tiger (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) who fakes his identity in order to move to France and become a janitor, is cunning in the way it demonstrates the desperation that informs so much of modern immigration. It’s a bold film—the violent final third moves the film into revenge thriller territory—but the chaos of that ending represents the moral ambiguity at the heart of so many migrant narratives.
Fede Alvarez’s home invasion thriller is as well-directed as a horror film can get. It’s also a clever flipping of the standard home invasion narrative. The three thieves robbing an old house on an empty Detroit street are our heroes, not the villains. The villain is the blind victim of their schemes. The plot twists as Alvarez uses his roaming camera to clearly lay out the geography of the house and exploit its many nooks and crannies. This film is a tension machine, that coils until its shocking (and grotesque) climax either sends you over the edge or leaves you electrified by its B-movie thrills.
Into the Inferno
A spiritual successor to Herzog’s earlier documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Inferno takes Herzog across the globe with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer to explore some of the worst’s deadliest volcanoes. Herzog has become an increasingly prolific documentarian in recent years and Into the Inferno is one of his recent best. In it, he visits Indonesia, Iceland, and North Korea of all places in order to examine humanity’s mystical connection to volcanoes. Herzog’s wry wit combines with the majesty of the footage to great effect.
The highest grossing film ever in its native China, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid is a slapstick romance hearkening back to the classics of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The film follows a mermaid who plans to assassinate the business tycoon responsible for polluting her bay, but who ends up falling in love with the tycoon instead. The Mermaid is absurd and supplies humour as broad as they come. But it’s also a masterclass in slapstick. The mermaid’s early assassination attempt of the tycoon is an instant classic.
Our Little Sister
Hirokazu Kore-eda is the most undervalued director on the planet. He constantly delivers excellent domestic comedies and dramas about life in contemporary Japan. Our Little Sister continues his remarkable streak of greatness with a gentle drama about three adult sisters who discover they have a younger half sister and invite her to live with them in their country home. The film’s deliberate rhythm and gentle humour recall the films of Yasujiro Ozu, as does Kore-eda’s exacting camera work. But Kore-eda is a great artist all his own. In Our Little Sister, he amasses a powerful emotional impact over the course of the film’s quiet dramatic moments.
Canadian films don’t come more authentic than Sleeping Giant. It follows three boys as they while away their summer days on the Sibley Peninsula of Lake Superior. Largely plotless, the film’s strength lies in its depiction of the boys’ relationships to each other as alternatingly hostile and achingly-compassionate. Director Andrew Cividino understands what it’s like to be a boy on the cusp of adolescence and combines that knowledge with exceptional craft to make one of the best recent Canadian features.
Johnnie To is the world’s most prolific auteur and its greatest action director. He pumps out at least one film per year that dazzles with its visuals and its narrative efficiency. In 2016, he gave us Three, his first action film since 2012’s Drug War. The film takes place almost entirely within a hospital ward where a police captain and doctor argue over how to treat a wounded criminal, who is bidding his time until his crew arrives to break him out. The film thrives off the ethical conundrums of the medical and law enforcement professions. But it’s the showstopping finale, where the criminal’s gang finally shows up to free him, that takes the cake. To frees the digital camera from any earthly limitations and flies it around the room to show every conceivable angle of a gunfight. It’s the year’s most dazzling action sequence, as magnificently impossible as anything in Mad Max: Fury Road.