Best of the Year: Top 20 Films of 2016

We count down the best films of 2016, from Denis Villeneuve's Arrival to Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.

For a variety of reasons, 2016 will be remembered as a difficult year, whether it be the political issues that have divided nations or the deaths of many beloved icons in pop culture. The year in cinema however, was mostly like any other: a mixed bag of big budget disappointments, small scale surprises and everything in between.

As ever, in compiling the list of the year’s best films, the only real criteria I stuck to is release date: the films had to be released in the UK in 2016, either in cinemas or on demand. So as ever, that means no festival screenings that haven’t been released yet and doesn’t include some of the awards contenders that have been released in the US but not in the UK yet, so no Moonlight, La La Land or Manchester By the Sea.

So, with the criteria out of the way, read the full list below and feel free to let me know which films I missed and which ones I shouldn’t have included.

20. The Neon Demon

A dark and twisted fairytale set in the vampiric world of LA’s fashion scene, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest is a thin satire of the fashion industry but the Dane’s uncompromising vision provides some of the year’s most memorable visuals, as well as some of its most bizarre moments.

19. Mustang

Focused on five boisterous sisters in a staunchly religious Turkish town, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s vibrant debut mixes a sharp sense of humour and moments of youthful joy with the frank and startling realities of life as a young woman in communities where a woman’s only value is as a wife or mother.

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18. Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s cold, cruel and immaculately designed psychological thriller ambitiously mixes three stories to form one startling exploration of love, loss, regret and revenge, with a typically brilliant Amy Adams at the center of it all as a woman forced to relive the mistakes of her past.

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17. Hell or High Water

David McKenzie’s neo-Western is both a richly textured cops-and-robbers story and an exploration of economic desperation in a rural area still reeling from the recession, with Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges both relishing the script’s chewy dialogue and dark humour as a conflicted bank robber and a last-day-on-the-job cop respectively.

16. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The Lonely Island’s latest big screen endeavour is a music mockumentary with This Is Spinal Tap levels of cult appeal, puncturing the pop industry and modern celebrity with sharp gags and spot-on parody, though its goofy charm ensures it never becomes mean-spirited.

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15. Life, Animated

Roger Ross Williams’ unbelievably moving documentary is a heart-warming testament to the power of both family and cinema, using a mix of beautiful animation and engaging interviews to chart the coming-of-age of Owen Suskind, a young autistic man who learned to navigate life through a love of Disney’s animated classics.

14. Chi-raq

This ambitious satire finds Spike Lee at his most provocative and wildly entertaining, delivering a raucous blend of hip-hop, comedy and ancient Greek verse that hits out at the rampant gun violence currently gripping Chicago.

13. The Big Short

Applying his comic energy to the very serious topic of the economic crash of 2008, Adam McKay’s manages to convey the details of this tricky topic through rapid-fire editing, whip-smart comedy and inspired fourth-wall breaking cameos, not to mention brilliant turns from Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell and Christian Bale.

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12. I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach takes an exasperated look at the bureaucratic nightmare that is Britain’s failing welfare system and the vulnerable people who are most affected by it, with excellent turns from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires conveying the harsh realities of poverty in modern Britain.

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11. The Edge of Seventeen

Hailee Steinfeld delivers one of the year’s best lead performances in this sharp teen comedy from debut writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, who captures the heightened emotions of high school life in a fresh, insightful way.

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10. Captain Fantastic

The directorial debut of actor Matt Ross, this touching dramedy manages to skewer both the emptiness and narcissism of modern life that his protagonist (Viggo Mortensen) shields his six children from, and the kind of unrealistic idealism that leads him to build a sheltered, dangerous and unsustainable life in the woods. At the centre of this thoughtful portrait of an unconventional family is a tough but tender performance by Mortensen, who is as good as he’s ever been.

9. American Honey

Clocking in at almost three hours long, Andrea Arnold’s sprawling road trip across middle America is as meandering and messy as it is beautiful and affecting. Depicting the lives of a group of wayward teens travelling the country selling magazine subscriptions, the film overflows with energy and life, beautifully capturing the transient lives of these kids who are trying to find their place in a world that may not have a place for them.

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8. Creed

Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler proved the perfect person to take on the Rocky franchise, giving the series a new hero in Adonis Creed – powerfully played by Michael B Jordan – and nailing all the usual Rocky elements in a way that’s more technically impressive and emotionally resonant than the series has been in a long time. One of the best studio films in at least a decade.

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7. Swiss Army Man

With this oddball indie, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – collectively known as Daniels – delivered some scenes that are genuinely like nothing that’s ever been done before, including but not limited to Paul Dano’s suicidal wash-up riding Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse like a jetski across the ocean. Yes, it’s the ‘Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie’ and it definitely revels in its puerile – but very funny – humour, but it’s also a unique and richly rewarding exploration of love, loneliness, hope and the need for human connection.

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6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Evoking a sense of nostalgia for the family films of the 80s and 90s but with a Kiwi twist courtesy of writer/director Taika Waititi, this New Zealand-set comedy is both riotously funny, surprisingly heartwarming and utterly beguiling. Waititi’s unique voice and off-kilter sensibilities behind the camera enliven this story of a hip-hop obsessed teen who winds up on an adventure with his grizzled uncle, with newcomer Julian Dennison and Sam Neill sharing an excellent chemistry as the reluctant companions.

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5. Room

Lenny Abrahamson’s devastating drama manages to be both completely wrenching but ultimately very hopeful, telling the story of a young woman held captive in a garden shed with her five year-old son who has never seen the outside world. With a thrilling escape scene midway through, the film shifts the action from the hopelessness of the room to the sprawling possibilities of the outside world, a place that reminds the mother of all she has missed and overwhelms the son with so much that he can’t comprehend. As mother and son, Brie Larson’s raw, honest performance won her an Oscar and young Jacob Tremblay delivers one of the best child performances in cinema history.

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4. Spotlight

A resolutely unfussy and old-fashioned film, Tom McCarthy’s gripping Best Picture winner is an ode to real journalism and what hard-working, committed journalists can accomplish, following the team of Boston Globe reporters who lifted the lid on the systemic problem of child abuse in the Catholic church. Everything in the film is in service to its hugely important and powerful story, from the restrained direction and naturalistic dialogue, to the quietly excellent performances from an excellent ensemble that includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber.

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3. Sing Street

Combining the raw emotion of his debut Once with the shiny pop sensibilities of his sophomore effort Begin Again, John Carney’s third film as writer/director is a warm, endearing coming-of-age story that follows a band of high-schoolers in 1980s Ireland. Carney and songwriter Gary Clark come up with some brilliantly catchy tunes, riffing on the bands of the time – from Duran Duran to The Cure – and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is both a brilliant frontman and lead actor, equally adept at belting out tunes as he is pining for an older girl or dealing with his parents’ crumbling marriage. There are big laughs and catchy tunes here but Carney also hits on the pain of teenage life, particularly in a place that offers very few opportunities, building you up with cheery pop tracks before crushing you with the harsh realities facing these kids.

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2. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s latest is a science fiction film that uses its sci-fi elements to tell a truly human story, focusing on a linguist – beautifully underplayed by Amy Adams – who has to come to terms with a personal tragedy while deciphering an alien language. The film handles an alien invasion in a grounded, realistic way and extols the virtues of listening and communicating over violence and fighting, which is a message that resonates powerfully at this particular moment in time. As the puzzle at the centre of the film slowly reveals itself, the conclusion is ultimately as hopeful and life-affirming as it is completely devastating, engages both heart and brain in equal measure.

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1. Paterson

This cosy little gem from Jim Jarmusch is the kind of film that invites you to just sink into its quiet rhythms, forgoing things like plot and action to focus on the peaceful daily routine of a bus driver/amateur poet in Paterson, New Jersey and the loving relationship he shares with his wife. Adam Driver is sublime as the watchful, level-headed working class guy who doesn’t seek fame, fortune or even any kind of recognition for his art, he just does it because he enjoys it. Jarmusch punctures the notion that art is only for the upper classes, depicting it as something that anyone can enjoy and experiment with, regardless of their place in society. The steady pace and lack of stakes might be off-putting to some but from its opening scene, this well-observed portrait of an ordinary life and a loving relationship is so charming and engrossing that you wish you could spend more time in its world and hang out with its characters just a little bit longer.

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Honourable Mentions

Narrowing down the year’s best films to only twenty is never easy and this year was no different. Just missing out this year: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s poignant stop-motion animation Anomalisa; Ava DuVernay’s searing documentary The 13th, which finds the through line from slavery to mass incarceration; Robert Budreau’s unconventional Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue, featuring a brilliant turn from Ethan Hawke; wrenching drama James White from writer/director Josh Mond; Jeff Nichols’ low-key sci-fi family drama Midnight Special; Ira Sachs’ beautifully observed drama Little Men; Richard Linklater’s insightful bro-comedy Everbody Wants Some!!; Clint Eastwood’s surprisingly affecting Sully: Miracle on the Hudson; Shane Black’s hilarious 70s-set buddy comedy The Nice Guys; and Gavin Hood’s gripping real-time drone thriller Eye in the Sky.

This summer was one of the worst in recent memory in terms of blockbusters, with only Paul Feig’s controversial Ghostbusters remake, Marvel’s massive superhero extravaganza Captain America: Civil War, Ryan Reynolds’ successful reinvention of Deadpool, Justin Lin’s fast-paced Star Trek Beyond and Gareth Edwards’ Star Wars spin-off Rogue One rising above a weak pack. It was family film that really excelled this year, with the likes of Pete’s Dragon, Finding Dory, Zootropolis and The Jungle Book all proving more impressive than they could have been.

Other highlights include Ben Wheatley’s wild satire High-Rise, Derek Cianfrance’s handsome melodrama The Light Between the Oceans, Brady Corbet’s assured debut The Childhood of a Leader, Karyn Kusama’s gripping horror The Invitation, the Coen brothers’ Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar!, James Pondoldt’s David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour, Nate Parker’s flawed but powerful The Birth of a Nation and Jacques Audiard’s immigration thriller Dheepan.

Any films I’ve missed? Any films I’ve included that I really shouldn’t have? Let me know in the comments below or follow Seensome on Twitter.