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Damien Chazelle's La La Land is a wonderful throwback to the golden age of Hollywood musicals.

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Indignation is a beacon of elegance for those in search of grown-up, dialogue-driven fare.

BT_20161223_GEFILMS23N87D_2656895.jpg
Doctor Strange may be a bottom-shelf superhero in the Marvel line-up but there's plenty to admire in it.
BEST OF 2016 - BEST FILMS

Ending the year on a high note

It was theatening to be a so-so 2016 at the movies but the stand-out musical La La Land has led a late-season power surge.
Dec 23, 2016 5:50 AM

THEY don't make them like they used to - until of course, someone did. It was going to be a so-so 2016 for the movies but then came a late-season power surge and earlier disappointments can now be forgiven (if not entirely forgotten). As a result, the year in film will end on a high note, thanks primarily to La La Land, Damien Chazelle's wonderful throwback to the golden age of Hollywood musicals.

It was the stand-out film among assorted sequels, prequels, musicals, comedies, biopics, period dramas, noir thrillers and indie coming-of-age tales that - along with the usual low-budget horror flicks and inevitable offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe - competed for our attention.

Many didn't live up to the hype but despite pronouncements from some quarters bemoaning cinema's impending demise, the enduring appeal of the medium and the ability of films to surprise, impress and innovate - or simply entertain - will ensure that year-end lists like this one will be compiled for some time. If the movies can survive The Huntsman: Winter's War, The Brothers Grimsby and Suicide Squad, they can survive anything.

BT's picks for the 10 best films of the year are:

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La La Land

This riff on the old-fashioned musical romance stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as wannabes in the City of Stars: she's an aspiring actress (that is, a waitress) and he's a jazz purist (forced to play commercial fluff to make a living). At first they don't see eye-to-eye but of course they end up dancing cheek-to-cheek - until their respective career goals get in the way. The singing and dancing isn't up there with Fred and Ginger but the acting is excellent and the modern-day sensibility, together with Chazelle's impeccable instincts, make this movie a winner.

Hell or High Water

This thinking man's modern Western, directed by David Mackenzie, is a slow-brew that ends up being a pretty good cuppa, tasty and perfectly in tune with its small-town setting and the Stetson-wearing cowpokes it portrays. It's both a chase film and a morality tale, but the line between the good and bad guys isn't always crystal clear - which makes it a lot more interesting. Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as two bank-robbing brothers with different motivations and wildly different personalities. Jeff Bridges does his thing as the soon-to-retire Texas Ranger on their trail.

Nocturnal Animals

We all know Tom Ford is an A-list fashion designer; now his standing as a notable filmmaker is confirmed by Nocturnal Animals, a provocative, disturbing tale of rejection and revenge that artfully blends real and imagined worlds. Amy Adams stars as Susan, a disaffected art gallery owner whose previous relationship comes back to haunt her in the form of a devastating novel, delivered by the ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) she once spurned. As Susan starts to read, the story grabs her attention and the characters - a family with an uncanny resemblance to her own - spring to life.

Indignation

Indignation was a late-summer arrival and a beacon of elegance for those in search of grown-up, dialogue-driven fare. For his directorial debut, James Schamus adapted a period novel by Philip Roth about death and dating, religion and rebellion - among other things. Logan Lerman is impressive as a quietly intense Jew who's intellectually curious and eager to escape the stifling influence of parents. At college, he meets a girl (Sarah Gadon) whose free-spiritedness intrigues him. "If you survive the square-ness of this place you'll have a sterling future," she tells him. How could he not fall for her?

Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep is the acting equivalent of the Energizer Bunny: she just keeps on going and going - with no discernible drop in quality either. In this frothy bio directed by Stephen Frears, she gives another command performance as a wealthy socialite with a passion for singing opera and a dream of playing Carnegie Hall. The problem is, she has a terrible singing voice. Fortunately, she has a doting husband (Hugh Grant): a fierce protector who prevents the realities of life from infringing on her aspirations. When you're living in a world of your own, being tone-deaf doesn't much matter.

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange may be a bottom-shelf superhero in the ever-expanding Marvel line-up but there's plenty to admire in this entertaining iteration, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Scott Derrickson. The film is an origins story about an egotistical surgeon who is crippled in a car accident and heads east in search of salvation from a divine source. Eastern mysticism, spiritual awakenings and eye-popping special effects feature prominently. His transformation from a desperate soul to a potential Sorcerer Supreme is a wild and mostly enjoyable ride.

Sing Street

Some people have a way with words. John Carney has a way with a tune and no-frills bittersweet stories. After Once (Dublin busker connects with a piano-playing immigrant) and Begin Again (down-and-out music manager spots raw talent at an open mike session and says: "I can make you a star"), Sing Street taps into 1980s Brit Pop and schoolboy sensibilities. A teenager (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has the hots for cool neighbourhood chick Raphina (Lucy Boynton), so he forms a band and gets her to star in a low-tech music video. When you're young and idealistic, no one will blame you for wanting to rule the world.

The Handmaiden

Seduction and deception are uneasy bedfellows in The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook's deliciously wicked, beautifully-crafted period piece about a con man, a pickpocket and a poor little rich girl. Adapted from the crime novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, this Japanese- and Korean-language film features lush scenery, impeccable aesthetics and heavily stylised scenes. There are some dizzying reversals of fortune but this erotic thriller, seen from three different perspectives, is compelling from start to finish.

Dheepan

Equal parts immigrant tale, social drama and crime thriller, Dheepan is directed by Jacques Audiard, and takes place mostly in a grim Paris suburb, with dialogue that's almost entirely in Tamil. A former Tamil Tiger flees Sri Lanka with a woman and a nine-year-old girl posing as his family members: all three are strangers but need each other to secure immigration approval. The eponymous protagonist (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) struggles to achieve a sense of belonging, but the past catches up just as he settles in - he will need to fight for the peace he desperately needs.

10 Cloverfield Lane

It may be mere coincidence that moviemaker-of-the-moment Chazelle was behind the rewrite of 10 Cloverfield Lane and was even set to direct it at one time (pre-Whiplash), but chances are the La La Land director knows a good project when he sees it. In the end, this well-paced chamber piece, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, won viewers over with strong performances and smart storytelling. The film, about a young woman and the man who either rescued or abducted her, stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman and takes place in an underground bunker. There's no scenery to speak of, just two people in a cramped space, playing high-stakes mind games.

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