What makes a good movie? Ambition is admirable, yet many grounded stories told with sincerity and purpose captivate all the same. Often, character-driven narratives prove more memorable than most. But whether you prefer the independent scene or big-budget stand-offs, there is something in this list for everyone here.
While I await late releases such as Swiss Army Man and Green Room, here are ten movies that I have seen and loved in 2016.
10. Tallulah (dir. Sian Heder)
Living by the rules is not for Tallulah (Ellen Page). The young drifter believes in a free life independent of others, until she is forced to give it up and care for a neglected toddler. In her riveting directorial debut, Sian Heder makes incisive observations about the meaning and sacrifices of motherhood.
Sharply written and well-acted, the moving film takes us well beyond Tallulah’s story. We see unseen pains and unexpected loneliness in the maternal journey, through the different women she meets. All that seriousness finds reprieve in a lovable lead, who keeps spirits up with plenty of good humour.
9. A Yellow Bird (dir. K. Rajagopal)
Out of prison, Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) goes in search of forgiveness from his estranged family and along the way, uncovers the hidden pockets of society. Singaporean director K. Rajagopal presents A Yellow Bird, a provocative feature debut that explores complex topics, including race relations and the sex trade.
Through the portrayal of familial and societal rejection, the film also offers cutting commentary on the reintegration of ex-convicts in raw uncompromising terms. Pacing issues do not detract from its strong standing in local independent cinema.
8. The Magnificent Seven (dir. Antoine Fuqua)
Under siege, the town of Rose Creek finds protection in seven unlikely outlaws and societal misfits. Fans of The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai are bound to find this familiar. But thanks to rare diversity, we have a charismatic rat pack with plenty of charm to give, even if driven by a thirst for vengeance.
A dream cast meets a dream crew in director Antoine Fuqua, True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto and late composer James Horner. That is not to say there are no issues with this derivative remake. But the classic western tale more than delivers satisfying thrills and explosive entertainment as promised.
7. Busanhaeng/Train to Busan (dir. Sang-ho Yeon)
In the dawn of a zombie apocalypse, passengers on the Train to Busan must band together for survival. A potentially trite formula finds emotional resonance in its strong characterisation. The brilliant cast makes it easy to root for every one of them, all throughout the relentless trials.
Complete with skilfully-crafted action, Busanhaeng has the Korean action film scene swinging into an impressive start. Master horror filmmaker George A. Romero would be proud. (review)
6. The Witch: A New England Folktale (dir. Robert Eggers)
In the 17th century, a family is thrown into upheaval when their newborn son mysteriously vanishes. Evil at work conjures paranoia in every corner as the religious family starts to turn on each other.
Yet another impressive directorial debut on this list, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is heavy on atmosphere, veiled in chilling mystery and beautiful surrealism. Punctuated with impactful scenes of violence, the rapid descent into unadulterated madness proves absorbing in every second of its impending doom.
5. The Fundamentals of Caring (dir. Rob Burnett)
18-year-old Trevor (Craig Roberts) has muscular dystrophy. His caregiver Ben (Paul Rudd) will not let that stop them from seeing the World’s Deepest Pit. And so their road trip begins, with no excessive sentimentality as one might expect.
Stocked full of sardonic offbeat humour, their long drive shines with welcome realism and optimism. Uplifting dramedy Fundamentals of Caring succeeds in its perfect lead casting and clever screenplay, making its familiar plot line an excusable cinema sin.
4. Singing In Graveyards (dir. Bradley Liew)
A Malaysia-Philippines production, Singing in Graveyards is a sombre portrait of aged musician Pepe Smith and his latter years. Having lived all his life on passion, the blues guitarist is left with little other than solitude – and his songs.
Despite using the name of a real artist, the movie’s events are largely fictionalised. That said, the grounded narrative manages to evoke authentic emotions, without falling into obvious clichés of a comeback musician story. (review)
3. Keanu (dir. Peter Atencio)
Rell (Jordan Peele) and Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) will do anything to get their kitten Keanu back. Even if it means going up unprepared against brutal gang leader Cheddar (Method Man).
Assuming stereotypical personas, Key and Peele satirise the gang culture with their ludicrously entertaining mission to save Keanu from his vicious abductor. The amiable pair charges into danger, armed with no more than humour and George Michael on the radio – which is sometimes more than enough.
2. Apprentice (dir. Boo Junfeng)
Newly transferred to the prison facility, correctional officer Aiman (Firdaus Rahman) soon takes on apprenticeship under the seasoned chief executioner Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su). But it is more than curiosity that draws the greenhorn to the grim post of a hangman.
A polished local production, Apprentice makes a lasting impression, making an unflinching foray into the invisible lives of the men on death row. Beyond the dichotomy of crime and punishment, the layered film explores the rarely-seen emotional turmoil of the executioner, the executed and those closest to the latter. (review)
1. Divines (dir. Houda Benyamina)
Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) dream of nothing more than getting out of poverty. In a world where she sees the rewards of deception and the hopelessness of an honest life, criminal riches seems the easiest gain. A naive rebellion quickly turns into a self-destructive nightmare, not just for herself but those around her.
It takes little time for the harsh realities of the underworld to strike them. Soon, the illusion of easy riches fades. My favourite film of the year, Divines grips with its harrowing portrayal of disillusioned youth. It is a heartbreaking watch as the girls unwittingly spiral deeper into an inescapable dark – with no chance of going back.