The top fifteen of Tamil cinema 2016 – by that I mean, those that impressed in some way or the other – listed out in alphabetical order…

– Mani Prabhu

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For setting the benchmark for sci-fi in Kollywood, pretty high. For demonstrating with conviction that star vehicles can be extremely inventive, while still managing to celebrate the lead man. For not dumbing down things under the pretext that the audience won’t understand.

Aandavan Kattalai

For the simple, yet super-engaging script executed almost flawlessly by a film-maker in his element. For making the social undercurrents flow through the narrative like a well-orchestrated concert, never at any moment, letting them stick out like a sore thumb. For giving Tamil cinema, the cinematic equivalent of that warm hug, when it needed it the most.

Ammani

For Lakshmi Ramakrishnan’s layered writing, and the way she stages it organically on-screen. For bursting our comfort zones by bringing characters that we had chosen to view from a distance into the disturbingly real space. For being made with such integrity in the first place, when you could easily sit back and complain about your earlier film not getting the due it deserved.

Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru

For striving to redefine the now-formulaic Kollywood ‘murder-mystery’ space with an almost air-tight, distraction-free narrative. For debutant Karthick Naren’s attention to detail and prowess at ‘thinking’ film.  For a fitting demonstration of what’s possible when you believe in your craft, while not giving in to mainstream movie-making myths.

Iraivi

For being the compelling film that had two groups tying themselves in knots about whether it’s brilliant or just randomly good. For Karthik’s obstinate refusal to stop experimenting with his character motives and reactions, and the way it intrigues us. For trying to put forward a fascinating character study of the sexes that speaks more to the heart than the brain.

Irudhi Suttru

For Sudha Kongara, who showed the art of making the affecting sports drama that had long eluded Tamil cinema, by resolutely sticking to the basics of the craft and resisting the urge to gloss things up. For giving us a multi-dimensional female lead that’s not a card-board caricature for once. For Rithika Singh, who lives the character in flesh and blood, kicking ass and spewing fire like nothing we had seen in the recent past.

Joker

For being the film Raju Murugan could be proud of.  For that magical rustic romance, breathing atmosphere and loads of likeability in every frame.  For giving us Guru Somasundaram as the main protagonist, who with his signature touches effortlessly brings to screen one of the most charming yet twisted character of 2016, more or less managing to sell even the pervading preachiness.

Kaadhalum Kadandhu Pogum

For being that unhurried, mature, unconventional and yet swanky romantic dramedy – something almost non-existent in our cinematic atmosphere. For nailing the complex dynamics between a boy and a girl, who like each other, but don’t want to tag their relationship under the confines of a single particular emotion.  For giving Vijay Sethupathi an opportunity to open in his home ground with the fielding restrictions on. For that lovely climax.

Kabali

For Ranjith in trying to narrate a drama, rooted in foreign territory, replete with a striking local flavour and an eye for the minutest of details. For choosing to believe in his craft, albeit with a little hesitancy, than the star-power of Asia’s second highest paid actor for a major portion of the film. For giving us vintage Rajinikanth, making my open letter come true, in whatever capacity he could.

Kutramey Thandanai

For Manikandan’s decision to make this genre-defying dark dramatic thriller as a follow-up to his heart-warmingly layered Kaaka Muttai. For choosing to explore the grey areas of social morality and for challenging the notion that every sin would beget a clearly identifiable penalty.  For putting forward the argument “When faced with the choice of saving your dignity or saving your soul, what would you rather choose?” through an absolutely arresting knot. For using a rare medical condition to forward the drama with unbelievable poise and authenticity.

Oru Naal Koothu

With existential films based on life and retribution all around, for being a film centered on the existential repercussions of something as complex and yet as common-place as a wedlock. For Nelson, for writing not one but three superbly rounded romantic arcs. For giving a film, that on the surface seemed to casually look at human relationships, but in reality, made incredibly profound observations about social stigmas and the escalating pressure for legal companionship.

Sethupathi

For Arun, in making a jaw-droppingly smooth transition from his poignant debut to a no-holds barred ‘commercial’ cop-action movie. For its relatable emotional trajectories, scenes that constantly defy the ‘mass-class’ dichotomy and its effective utilization of the screen-presence of its main lead.  For that delightfully staged romantic subplot that never sticks out as a sore thumb. For blending the celebration of the actor in the star and vice versa, with nonchalant ease.

Uriyadi 

For the story-telling finesse of debutant Vijay Kumar, who talks dirty politics and caste tensions through a breath-takingly gritty screenplay.  For that riveting interval block that sends shivers down your spine. For staying away from any sort of mainstream flab citing commercial reasons.  For proving yet again that the script is the real hero. For being the film of the year…  almost!

Vetrivel 

For Vasantha Mani’s solid writing and his mellow handling of a rural dramatic conflict. For showing that you need not necessarily be innovative to come up with an engaging film. For twisting typical fare stitched out of Kollywood formula cloth ingeniously enough to keep us watching. For not pawning its narrative flow for celebrating its hero with a capital H, despite having Sasi Kumar and all the ripe opportunities to do so.

Visaranai

For keeping off all things our industry presumes the majority of our audiences care about, and in the process, not only making the original more hard-hitting, but also giving it a whole new dimension . For chilling yet irresistible depictions of bleak despotism, egotism and rampant exploitation.  For Vetrimaaran, who instead of sugar-coating his pill, directly goes for the jugular. For taking Tamil cinema to the Oscars.

And apart from these, here are the films that managed to catch eyeballs for some reason, but couldn’t, however, make the cut to this top 15:

Chennai 600028 – 2nd innings (How I wish I could have somehow pushed this breezy bit of nostalgia into the list), Metro (brilliant premise and confident handling of it), Jil Jung Juk (quirky, almost), Pichaikkaran, Thozha, Zero (A horror-drama with a difference till the climax ruined things), and Dharmadurai.