Three films which ran Aquarius very close were Hell or High Water, Someone to Talk To and Certain Women. They would take 11-13 places on the list, naturally. 14th would go to Peter Berg's Patriots Day, mind, so you can take my recommendations with a pinch of salt.
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s slow-burner, about a 60-something retired music critic who is subjected to all manner of passive-aggressive intimidation tactics to try to get her to vacate an apartment block, doesn’t sound like a thriller on paper. But led by a magnetic Sonia Braga (who, in a fine stroke of serendipity, I happened to come across the same week I saw Aquarius when re-watching season 4 of Sex and the City!), who imbues our flawed but fascinating heroine Clara with such depths and layers of backstory, it completely won me over.
Aquarius works on several levels: as a political allegory (an indictment of the corruption of the Brazilian government), a David vs Goliath tale set in the real estate world, and finally, a celebration of one woman, and how the strength of her convictions and life experiences that have filled her with grit, will not take a shady hotel magnate’s attempt to oust her, lying down.
09. I, Daniel Blake
Watched purely in isolation, this blistering tale of one man’s attempts to get his life back on track after an injury takes him out of the workforce and the Kafkain obstacles that prevent him from doing so, probably deserves to be higher than ninth on my list. The familiar British backdrop, the heart-pulling and topical themes of austerity, and especially Hayley Squires’ devastating performance in the ineffably sad food bank scene, are top-tier.
What a shame, then, that the film’s director, Ken Loach, had to go and ruin it all by lecturing the audience at the BAFTAs when he won Best British Film about something completely disparate from the topic of his film. I don’t fault his intentions, but his execution was extremely sloppy, bordering on self-important. As I be hella shady and petty, I decided to artificially drop I, Daniel Blake a few places on the list as penance for that.
When aliens try to make contact with Earth but their messages are unclear, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, is enlisted by the army to try to make sense of their communications. She herself, is carrying a heavy burden of a loss that she cannot shake off, and, over the course of the film, as the aliens' intentions become clearer, they help her cope with her own inexplicable weight.
Amy Adams is just luminous as the empathetic and intelligent female lead (her big blue eyes have never been more expressive) and Denis Villeneuve, director of the upcoming Blade Runner 2, has a tight grip on the high-concept story and creates a sci-fi film that cleverly transcends and bends the genre. Arrival is cerebral and riveting, and the big reveal, which features a breathtakingly effective usage of Max Richter’s ‘The Nature of Daylight’, is one of the most understatedly emotional sequences in film.
07. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika Films’ Stop motion animation’s ornately crafted picture is a simple but powerful story of a boy, blind in one eye from an evil grandfather, and his mission to find a piece of armour and escape his evil aunts. Surprisingly dark for a PG-rated film, I was both gripped by his quest, amused by his bickering sidekicks (a no-nonsense monkey and a dim-witted origami soldier) and absolutely terrified by the creepy aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) who stalk him.
Despite being a children’s film, Kubo and the Two Strings has a universal message about coping with loss that, like I, Daniel Blake moved me to a puddle of tears. There is no shortage of visual mastery to marvel at on the screen; the stop-motion perfectly complements the story and earned Kubo a deserved Visual Effects Oscar nomination (unusual for an animated film). As Regina Spektor’s cover of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' came on over the credits, I sat mesmerised by the spectacle that I had just seen.
06. Café Society
Whilst La La Land danced (more like misstepped) its way to 6 Oscars, I was far more taken with an altogether more subtle tale of romance and the movies. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a young man who takes a job with his director uncle (Steve Carrell), only to fall for his uncle’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who just so happens to be having an affair with his uncle.
Although regarded by most as one of Woody Allen’s more frivolous works, there was something in the bittersweet tone, and the lingering romantic confusion between Stewart and Eisenberg’s characters, that really resonated with me. Jesse Eisenberg, in fairly untested waters for him as the romantic lead, does one of the most convincing (and least irksome. Hi Kenneth Branagh) Woody Allen impressions, and nails Bobby’s character arc. At the start of the film, he is all neurosis and wide-eyed bewilderment, yet he also impressively conveys how Bobby's experiences of working in film have helped him grow in stature, such that when he cockily woos the beautiful Blake Lively towards the end, you think nothing of it.
The fact that Lively's character is also called Vonnie is a salient nod to the how even if we've ostensibly moved on, a former flame still haunts us occasionally. And the film's melancholic coda, of the dreamy looks on Bobby and Vonnie’s faces as they think of each other, captured all of the longing in the entire ‘what if’ montage of La La Land, and then some.
And because I’m a shady cow, here are 5 2016 films that I strongly recommend you avoid…
Ben Wheatley’s unpleasant, scabrous tale of anarchy in a high-rise building is choc-a-bloc full of dislikeable characters (the worst being Luke Evans (Gaston in Beauty and the Beast)’s grabby film director), pretentious as they come and downright unwatchable. There was no way I was going to subject myself to the equally bloated-looking Free-Fire after that.
02. The Light Between Oceans
Felicia Vikander can pretend to be in love with Michael Fassbender all she wants in press conferences, but on screen, they generate about as much heat as Olaf from Frozen.
03. The Boss
An unfunny, tired and cliche-ridden ‘comedy’ that employs cheap gag upon cheap gag (such as making fun of dwarves) and completely wastes Melissa McCarthy’s comedic talents.
Even Gal Gadot and Amy Adams, actresses with alliterative names playing characters with alliterative names (and easily the two best things about the film) can’t rescue Zack Snyder’s boring, murky mess, that wears its toxic masculinity like a breast plate.
It brings me no joy to speak ill of my fellow countrymen, but Kris Wu and Liu Yifei cannot act to save their lives, and their chemistry was so poor that the BBFC read one of their flirtation sequences as rapey, giving the film a 15 as a result (the same rating given to films like High-Rise, Sausage Party, The Revenant and Logan). Just saying.
1-4 on this rubbish list feature couples who worked together on it (Ben Wheatley directed High-Rise and his wife Amy Jump wrote it, as is the case with Free-Fire (hence why I'm not watching that), Felicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender are in a PR romance, Ben Falcone directed Melissa McCarthy in The Boss and Zack Snyder's missus Deborah Snyder exec produced BvS.)
Not hating, just observing.
Actors in the good and bad lists: Amy Adams and Jesse Eisenberg.
Actors in more than one bad film: Jeremy Irons. #Humbertneedsanewagent