Sunday, 1 January 2017

Films of the Year 2016

The films I most responded to in 2016 mainly featured one of two themes: isolation (whether voluntary or not) or ideological conflict. These run throughout the year's releases and nicely reflect the political struggles and upheavals of the year. 

As usual this is a personal look back at this year's releases, so this is not necessarily a list of the greatest movies of the past twelve months, but a collection of my recommendations. As usual any feedback and discussion is welcome.

Disclaimer! - Many other films of the year lists will contain films yet to be released in the UK. I don't include these in mine, even if I've seen them at preview screenings. We usually get these films in January and February, so there's lots to look forward to early in the year. This year those films include "Silence" (1st January), "La La Land" (13th January), "Manchester by the Sea" (13th January) "Hacksaw Ridge" (27th January), "Moonlight" (17th February), "Certain Women" (3rd March), "Elle"(10th March)"The Handmaiden" (TBA)

This year's trends - isolation, ideological differences, wilderness, escaping society

10. Deadpool/Captain America: Civil War

As my yearly cheat, I've included both Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War at number 10. For me, they represent this year's best examples of the superhero format, which get right what most of the current glut get wrong.  Deadpool is as violent and wise-cracking as its titular anti-hero, which is exactly how it should be. The story isn't groundbreaking, but it's refreshing to watch a film that doesn't spend its time setting up a sequel or building to a global threat. 

Civil War meanwhile succeeds with an incredibly difficult balancing act, packing Marvel's current stable of heroes into a crowd-pleasing but thought provoking blockbuster. The ideological differences that come to the fore mirror DC's Batman v Superman, but Marvel's fleshed out characters and greater nuance better convey the conflict. The end, whilst action packed, is not a giant battle pitting our heroes against numerous generic enemies, but a smaller more personal one. On top of all this, they seamlessly introduce to the main Marvel Universe the best on-screen depiction of Spider-man yet, revitalising a long stagnant franchise. 

Both available to stream on NowTV (at the time of writing) and Deadpool is available to rent.

9. Captain Fantastic


Captain Fantastic features the always compelling Viggo Mortensen as the patriarch of an oddball family living outside society, deep in the woods. When a tragic event forces the family to rejoin the wider world, the characters are forced to reevaluate their place within society. The film asks many questions of its characters and audience, on parenting, education, philosophy and societal structure, but its great strength is how it frames the answers. These conclusions constantly shift, allowing for a layered thoughtful approach missing from most films.

Not available for streaming rental at the time of writing.

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Another gem from Taika Waititi, who follows up his hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows with this Roald Dahl-esque tale of adventure. The story begins when an inner city trouble-maker Ricky (Julian Dennison in a breakout role) is relocated to live with a foster family in the New Zealand wilderness, but many twists and turns lead to a mayhem-filled finale far from the intended quiet life. Great characters (including a delightfully grumpy Sam Neil) and Waititi's spot on comic timing, create a laugh-out-loud, fun romp. Despite this, the thing that truly elevates the film are its quieter elements, the sombre moments that pull at the heart strings and ground the more outlandish plot developments and characters. 

Available to rent from Youtube and Google Play.

7. Nocturnal Animals

After a long seven year wait, Tom Ford returns with his first film since the pretty great A Single Man.  Ford's Nocturnal Animals is just as stylish as its predecessor, bringing a lavish beauty to the screen that few modern directors achieve. A Bernard Herrmann-esque score gives it a Hitchcockian feel, and a bold opening sequence invokes the strange darkness of David Lynch.  Shifts in time and location disorient and build tension, with parallel stories shedding more light on the central narrative. It's another interesting look at the politics of love and how our actions can impact upon other's lives for years to come. 

Not available to online rental at the time of writing.

6. Room

A dark drama with strong emotional punch, Room works so well thanks to the brilliant performances of its two central performers.  Brie Larsson rightly won an Oscar for her kidnapped and entrapped mother, but Jacob Tremblay may overshadow her with his brilliant portrayal of a child bought up in captivity. His acting is naturally child-like, full of wonder and innocence unlike the type of precocious child actor who often seem older than their years. Director Lenny Abrahamson must also be given credit for his deft handling of the subject matter and making the most of the cramped environment, much like his characters.

Available to stream on Amazon Prime (at the time of writing) and available for streaming rental. 

5. Arrival

One of the few works of proper science-fiction to come out this year, Denis Villeneuve has created a thoughtful, inspirational and beautiful movie. Amy Adam's expert linguist is tasked with finding a way to communicate with strange octopus-like aliens whose spacecraft hover majestically above seemingly random locations across the Earth. Tensions rise around the world as the unknown intentions of the aliens cause unrest, with the fear of the "other" neatly reflecting the darker moments of 2016. The exploration of these central themes of inter-cultural communication take precedence over explosions and bombast, using science-fiction to explore humanity, as all the best sci-fi does. This film offers great hope for Villeneuve's next project, the sequel to Ridley Scott's classic Bladerunner.

Still (just about) in cinemas at the time of writing

4. Swiss Army Man

Joyfully absurd, creepy yet heart-warming, Swiss Army Man is a true one off. Famously featuring Daniel Radcliffe as a re-animated corpse, the film takes its dark premise and runs with it at full speed. The storytelling is inventive throughout as Paul Dano's suicidal loner finds his soul mate in Radcliffe's multi-purpose corpse.  While some of the more juvenile humour may act as a deterrent to some, it's worth persevering with as there's much more to it than flatulence. The fact that the tone works is something of a marvel, somehow managing to keep you on board despite walking a very thin tightrope with its dark, sometimes unpleasant themes meshing with high concept, outlandish humour. Against all the odds, this might be one of the must uplifting films of the year.

Not available for streaming rental at the time of writing.
3. Spotlight

The best way I can describe Spotlight is that it's a "proper film". It's meticulous, well acted and gripping in a riveting yet completely un-flashy way. It hearkens back to the conspiracy thriller movies of the seventies and is all the better for it.
Dealing with the Boston Globe's investigation into child abuse within the Catholic church, the journalistic style of film-making is truly befitting of the subject matter. The way the brilliant ensemble cast lead us through the investigation is utterly compelling and emotionally resonant. Amongst the top notch performances a particular highlight is Lieb Shreiber's editor-in-chief, who conveys a wonderful world worn weariness. It's a worthy Oscar winner which has only impressed me more on repeat viewings.

Available to stream on Amazon Prime (at the time of writing) and available for streaming rental.
2. Green Room

Wonderfully tense, this film will grip you like few others. A young touring punk band find themselves trapped in the green room of a neo-Nazi run bar in Jeremy Saulnier's vicious follow up to Blue Ruin.  Saulnier uses his experiences as young man in the Washington DC hardcore punk scene to create a lived-in world, full of detail and well-rounded characters. One of his greatest strengths is creating films where characters act believably, ensuring his films are character rather than plot-driven.  This gives the cast a chance to fully explore their roles, with the members of the band conveying a real bond throughout. This connects us to their struggle and makes the menace they face seem ever present. Their Nazi attackers are lead by Patrick Stewart's Darcy, who is all the more threatening thanks to Stewart's low-key un-theatrical performance.   

The tragic death of the Anton Yelchin also adds a touch of melancholy to this film, it's a huge shame to lose such a talented performer at such a young age.

Available to stream on Netflix (at the time of writing) and available for streaming rental.

 1. Anomalisa

It's amazing that a film utilising animated puppets can achieve a reflection of humanity greater than any other film this year. The film centres on an emotionally withdrawn customer service specialist, perfectly voiced by David Thewlis, as he attends a convention to promote his latest book. His distance from others is such that he views them all with identical faces and voices. This unnerving representation makes his discovery of a person he can view as a true individual, Lisa, softly voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, have all the more impact. The development of their relationship is so touching that it's easy to forget we're watching an animated creation. Their awkward, fumbling sex scene is a wonderfully true, human scene (although it is difficult to avoid comparisons to the sex scene in Team America: World Police, despite this film's greater subtlety). Charlie Kaufman is such a gifted and unique storyteller that it's always a pleasure to enter his world, despite it often leaving you filled with morose melancholy. This is no exception, with the story proving as heartbreaking as you might expect. While it didn't leave me as emotionally shattered as his previous film, Synedoche, New York, it still made a profound impact on me in a way few other directors can. 
Duke Johnson, Kaufman's co-director, must also be praised as this is a visually stunning movie, with its use of lighting and expressive animation a real treat for the eyes. The nightmare sequence makes full use of the animated medium and the film is almost worth watching for that alone. A film not to be missed.

Available to stream on Netflix (at the time of writing) and available for streaming rental.

Worthy Mentions
Not quite on the main list...

Creed - A brilliant re-invention of the Rocky series, it was incredibly close to making my main list. Great performances all round, only slightly let down by occasional video-gamesque fight sequences.
Zootopia - A very funny top-notch family-oriented animation with a deftly conveyed strong central message. Lots of lovely details, with the sloths a particular highlight. Also close to making the main list.
10 Cloverfield Lane - A taut thriller with plenty of surprises anchored by the brilliantly creepy John Goodman.
Victoria - Filmed all in one shot, this is a gripping technical marvel. However, the lack of editing can make some parts of the story drag.
Kubo and the Two Strings - An incredibly beautiful film let down by a slightly weaker narrative.
Rams - A touching tale of two brothers in conflict.
Hell or High Water - A modern western in the style of No Country for Old Men, it has a compelling tale of modern rural America.
Paterson - A slow but delightful slice-of-life drama from Jim Jarmusch with an excellent central performance from the always watchable Adam Driver.
Sing Street - Another heart warmer from the director of Once. As you'd expect from John Carney, it has great music, with original songs bringing the sounds of the 1980s to life.

Worth a Watch
Films worth a look -

The Assassin (incredibly beautiful, but obtuse), Hail Caesar!, The Hateful Eight, High Rise, Neon Demon, The Nice Guys, The Revenant, Tale of Tales, Wiener dog, Doctor Strange, Ghostbusters (for Kate McKinnon), Tickled, Midnight Special, Sisters (the second half, the first forty minutes are awful), The Big Short, The Girl with All the Gifts, Star Trek: Beyond, Joy, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, The Jungle Book (far better than I expected, a lot of fun),
I, Daniel Blake (for content)

Merely Okay
Magnificent Seven

Rogue One - Going somewhat against public opinion, I'm not a fan. It may be a very handsome movie indeed, but I don't feel it adds enough to the Star Wars mythos to warrant a whole movie. One two minute scene is utterly awesome however (you'll know when you see see it). 
I, Daniel Blake - While I'm fully behind its message, it felt quite heavy-handed and clunky, more like a feature length episode of mid-afternoon soap "Doctors" than a Palme d'Or winner, which is a real shame.
Gimme Danger - Lacking the anarchic energy of The Stooges.
Midnight Special - A wonderful premise, with a great opening sequence, but the world-building is muddled and the ending doesn't quite work.
Sisters (1st half) - A train wreck that's hard to watch, with a horribly miscast Tina Fey the main culprit. The second half, however, improves dramatically.
Doctor Strange - Disappointingly formulaic (albeit with some astonishing visuals) after Marvel claimed they were finished with generic origin stories.
X-Men Apocalypse - A messy, forgettable waste of a promising villain. Time for the X-men to reboot.
Batman v Superman- Beautiful and stylised in a way that only Zack Snyder can produce, nasty and ideologically muddled in a way that only Zack Snyder can produce. Wonder Woman was awesome though.
Suicide Squad - A complete mess, best avoided.
Jason Bourne - Surprisingly boring and behind the times. None of the old urgency or movie magic remains.
Zoolander 2 - The promising start fizzles out into a flaccid, unfunny sequel to the much loved original.
My Scientology Movie - A missed opportunity from the usually excellent Louis Theroux. More a movie about not being able to make a movie.
Hail Caesar! - While I enjoyed the film, I had hopes that it would be a Coen brothers classic and it felt like one of their more minor works.The Channing Tatum dance sequence is fantastic though.
The ones that got away...
In an ideal world, I would have seen these too (main regrets in bold) -

American honey, The BFG, A Bigger Splash, Dheepan, Everybody wants Some!!, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Light Between Oceans, Love and Friendship, Maggie's Plan, Miles Ahead, Son of Saul, Moana, The Witch, Toni Erdmann, Julieta, Finding Dory, Sully, Bone Tomahawk, Sausage Party, Neighbours 2, The Shallows, Secret Life of Pets, Girl on the Train
Hope you enjoyed reading my breakdown, Happy New Year!

2015 Update
The ones I caught up with that I missed last year...

I liked... Love & Mercy, Furious 7, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, , The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Wolfpack, Trainwreck, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, Dear White People

I wasn't so keen on... The Walk (perhaps because I love the documentary Man on Wire)

The ones I didn't...
Clouds of Sils Maria, Welcome to Me, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, The Wonders, Hard to be a God, 45 Years, Amy, Sicario, Wild Tales, The End of the Tour, Beasts of No Nation, Wild, The Theory of Everything

Last Years Top Ten 
10. The Duke of Burgundy
09. The Martian
08. Ant-Man
07. Inherent Vice 
06. While we're Young/Mistress America
05. Force Majeure
04. Inside Out
03. Ex-Machina
02. The Lobster
01. Whiplash

1 comment:

  1. This is so good Tom! There is a lot there that I haven't seen (and I really should've) but you have really whetted my appetite, so I'll start ticking them off one by one in the next few months. One of the films I have seen, however, is Anomalisa and I totally agree with you, it's incredible and totally immersive. Great list! - Serafima