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The 25 best films of 2016

Our annual rundown of the year’s finest new releases, featuring Paterson, Love & Friendship, Rogue One and more.

We’ve decided to break from tradition with this year’s Top 20 by adding five more titles to the list, partly because we couldn’t decide which ones to cut but mainly because we just wanted to spread the love. As ever, this definitive scientific* ranking includes only new films that received a theatrical release in either the UK or US at any point during this calendar year. How many have you seen? Share your personal list with us @LWLies

25. The BFG

What we said: “The BFG’s greatest strength is its simplicity. This is a film built for children that delights with fantastical details while gently pushing a heartfelt message about the power of dreams. It isn’t a total fantasy. There is a big friendly giant blowing dreams into people’s heads.”

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24. High-Rise

What we said: “High-Rise also stands on its own as a macabre mythologisation of the libertine excesses to be found in both the human heart and the free market – of any era. Watching it is like seeing a multi-storied classic richly unravelling before, during and after its proper time.”

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23. Hail, Caesar!

What we said: “The Coens give us scene after scene of transcendent screen craft, whether it’s Channing Tatum executing an era-perfect sailor-themed dance number in the apocryphal MGM-like musical, Swingin’ Dinghy, Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle practicing his lasso skills in the street, or Clooney intoning a floorboard-rattling speech for the climactic reel of Hail, Caesar!”

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22. Fire at Sea

What we said: “Rosi films a refugee cataloguing the abuses he’s endured in the form of a rousing prayer-chant, and it’s a scene which succinctly captures the horrifying context of the so-called “migrant crisis” while criticising the mis-directed indignation of the west.”

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21. The Neon Demon

What we said: “It would be remiss to reject The Neon Demon as a work of empty provocation. Because as you start to digest the visceral images streaming forth from Refn’s subconscious onto the screen, whether you’re aroused or repulsed (and these responses are by no means mutually exclusive), there’s never the sense that he is out purely to satisfy his own impulses.”

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20. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

What we said: “It’s often said that history is written by the victors, but in Rogue One, triumph and tragedy are separated by the slimmest margins. As we scramble our way across multiple star systems, navigating a scrappy, slow-burn plot that builds towards a truly awesome third act showdown, even the most mundane details, such as a glitching hologram or a jammed spaceship door, are imbued with armrest-gripping gravity.”

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19. Cosmos

What we said: “Not by any means for the faint of heart, Cosmos is nonetheless a juddering cloudburst of pure visual and aural energy, a rare instance of deep intellectual enquiry buoyed by unexpected jolts of pulsing emotion.”

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18. Anomalisa

What we said: “Watching Anomalisa is like watching a mind trying to escape its own tedious corridors, searching for the sweet release of a meaningful voice next door.”

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17. Kate Plays Christine

What we said: “Greene’s humane form of inside-out documentary isn’t just interested in technical questions about the medium – it offers a whispered reminder that we’re all out there on our own, and perhaps we should try and embrace that.”

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16. Son of Saul

What we said: “The Holocaust movie as a genre is about reconciling the personal with the historical, seeking understanding by projecting small stories against the wider sociopolitical narrative. In eschewing this approach, Nemes is able to locate the harrowing essence of the Holocaust – the degradation and destruction of human beings.”

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15. Further Beyond

What we said: “A charming, surprising and wholly original movie which politely asks viewers to be mindful of the movies they’re watching and the “facts” they’re blindly accepting.”

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14. No Home Movie

What we said: “Those of us who watch No Home Movie now will see a completely different film to those who saw it before she passed away. It feels like a fitting final statement from a filmmaker who always poured herself into her work and shared so much of her life and experience with us. ”

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13. Things to Come

What we said: “The magic of Hansen-Løve’s cinema is that she doesn’t so much tell stories as she carefully collates details and understands how they are able to enhance one another when placed together. A scene in which Nathalie’s husband admits to his extra-marital hanky panky is entirely stripped of melodrama. Savage blows are dealt with a featherlight sense of diplomacy. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so sad.”

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12. Chi-Raq

What we said: “Not since 2000’s Bamboozled has Lee zeroed in on the root cause of a deep-seated social problem with such raw focus. Crucially his latest satirical polemic, which could best be described as a hip hop musical with a socially-conscious beat, doesn’t force the issue either. And while gun culture and gang violence are often taken as uniquely American concerns, the film’s scope is ultimately much broader than its title suggests.”

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11. The Assassin

What we said: “The level of precision is even more mind-boggling considering that the director shot nearly 500,000 feet of 35mm film for this 90-minute work. Still, the tautness of The Assassin doesn’t come off as the achievement of clever editing alone; there are dozens of moments of languorous, low-angled shots, such as one following the movements of torch-carrying palace servants that slowly drifts downward towards some well water and lands on an ominous effigy.”

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10. Heaven Knows What

What we said: “Much celluloid has been expended on the subject of living with addiction, but this is a rare case of a work in which addiction is a context rather than a subject. It’s not trying to act as an exposé of a social sub-stratum or even a behavioural study – it just offers a bit time in the company of real, fragile, uncommunicative, self-destructive people who are trapped between worlds.”

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9. Midnight Special

What we said: “Midnight Special is a spectacular reminder that the best films are able to stimulate our imagination while leaving room for a little introspection. The question that provokes the most telling response comes courtesy of Adam Driver’s sympathetic government stooge: is this kid a weapon or a saviour?”

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8. Arabian Nights

What we said: “Like the phantom crocodile at the beginning of Gomes’ 2012 masterpiece, Tabu, this is a sad and melancholic film, though it is not a maudlin one. Its content oscillates between the absurd and the arcane, focusing as much on minor-scale rebellion as it does on the bittersweet decimation of a rich cultural heritage.”

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7. Sully

What we said: “Considering the two terms of his presidency sit neatly between the week of the ‘Miracle’ and the film’s release, it’s hard not to see the film in its compact form as a corrective to the bloated tentpole Hollywood product that’s sadly defined Obama-era American cinema.”

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6. Love & Friendship

What we said: “Stillman’s work has often favoured building up characters and wrapping a loose-weave narrative around their eccentric travails, though Love & Friendship is plotted to intricate perfection, with staging, choreography, timing and geography all paramount to the subtle mechanics of the comedy.”

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5. Knight of Cups

What we said: “A game of second-guessing Terrence Malick’s thematic motives is an exercise in pure-brewed futility. That’s not to say Knight of Cups isn’t an inclusive film – it is just that. It wants you to build theories, engineer conspiracies, link together fragments of information as a way to decipher Rick’s vague but poignant predicament.”

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4. Paterson

What we said: “Driver’s performance cements his status as an actor whose physical command matches his ability to telegraph inner life. It’s a cliché to say that the greatest actors make the smallest actions magnetic, but it’s true of Driver who makes the non-demonstrative act of listening feel like it means the world.”

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3. Embrace of the Serpent

What we said: “With the help of screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, Guerra crafts a rich thematic allegory on the effects of colonialism. It takes the form of a serpentine dance through time, sounding a series of echoes beyond the immediate horrors borne of its Conradian heart of darkness. And horrors there are plenty, not least in scenes at an orphanage populated by sadistic missionaries and a Colonel Kurtz-like demagogue in each respective timeframe. ”

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2. Julieta

What we said: “If movies had cheeks, this one would be imprinted with a veritable roadmap of winding, mascara-caked tear stains. Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta is a hot red swoon. Its lips pursed, its face unreadable until the devastating yet revelatory closing frames, it softly veers between a hand-selected inventory of themes and emotions, handling each with the utmost of care and caution.”

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1. Everybody Wants Some!!

What we said: “This is also a film that confounds expectation, brilliantly challenging the cliché that scholarly life is governed by a rigid cultural caste system. Indeed, it practices what it preaches, showing how easy it is for punks to mix with jocks, jocks with thesps, freshmen with seniors, and everyone with a self-important, goggle-eyed dingus named Jay Niles (Juston Street). Life, it seems, is one big circle-pit of nostalgic bonhomie. Political antagonism is just a state of mind. This film is a flower in the gun barrel of conservative bigotry and arrogance. It’s about the simple joy of making connections.”

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What are your favourite films of 2016? Share your personal top ranking with us @LWLies

Published 16 Dec 2016

Tags: Adam Driver Ben Wheatley Chantal Akerman Charlie Kaufman Clint Eastwood Coen brothers Gareth Edwards Isabelle Huppert Jeff Nichols Jim Jarmusch Mia Hansen-Løve Miguel Gomes Nicolas Winding Refn Pedro Almodóvar Richard Linklater Rogue One Spike Lee Star Wars Steven Spielberg Terrence Malick Tom Hiddleston

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Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, LWLies has been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

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