Was 2016 a good year for cinema or a bad one? Your answer may depend on how deeply you jumped down the rabbit hole. Everyone gets to hear about the major blockbuster releases months in advance as their marketing campaigns become bigger and more ubiquitous each year, but there are always so many films for which you have to do research to discover.
Cinema has become like a giant cake: on the surface you have all the brightly coloured visual decorations enticing you in; they are enjoyable but you wouldn’t want to make them your full diet, just like the blockbusters. Underneath the surface is the substance, the cake itself, not as well advertised but (arguably) more satisfying than the stuff on the surface.
In any given year, there is an eclectic array of films released from all the over world. Given the fast-paced, work orientated, leisure time-light lifestyles we are all living now, there are more (potentially) excellent films released in a year than days available to watch them. Considering the fast turnover of films in cinemas – the less mainstream only get a few weeks release, sometimes in selected cinemas – the films might have finished their run before people have found the time to seek them out. Still, hearing about them is half the battle. To stay in touch with quality cinema, you have to do some research. Read the magazines, listen to podcasts, and of course, read the blogs.
2016 had some great films, you just had to do your homework to find some of them. The end of year lists always help. The great thing about these lists is that like the films, they all reflect rather different tastes. Shuffling and reshuffling them into an acceptable order gave me such a headache as ranking films is a flawed system. All I can be certain of is, these are some of the films that left a distinct impression on me in 2016. I hope it was a good year in cinema for you too.
Director Jeff Nichols took an inventive approach to the idea of superpowers, portraying the idea of being born with extra supernatural abilities as more of a burden than a gift. The film explored the age-old familiar comic book story arc in an entirely new way, as a boy with powers he cannot control was chaperoned across country by his father, (another great performance by Michael Shannon) as the government try to track down his son. Such a fresh approach to the idea of powers created a lively plot that retained mysteries right up until the unorthodox and entirely unforeseeable finale. The lack of heroism of the boy and considerable vulnerability left director Jeff Nichols to explore alternative plot strands, particularly how a boy with supernatural capabilities may begin to develop a religious following in those awaiting a new prophet. The film had an old-school, seventies style use of special effects which was pleasing. The ending may have proven divisive and anti-climatic for some but for others, it was a bold idea way ahead of its time.
Fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford handled the complex ‘story within a story’ narrative of Austin Wright’s 1993 story, Tony and Susan, really well in this unusual and thought-provoking thriller. The film from the very start pulsated with tension aided by a really effective score. Moody and atmospheric, the film had a focal point for the uneasy emotional tone through Amy Adams’ superb performance. Amy played Susan, an upper class Manhattan artist, who is compelled to do some reflection and soul-searching when she reads the visceral novel delivered by her ex-husband, whom she coldly ditched some years prior. Both elements of the story – the physical violence of the novel Susan is reading, along with the emotional trauma stirred by the novel within – were completely mesmerizing and involving. The film had a lot to say about how dormant feelings for long-finished relationships can be stirred up years later. Nocturnal Animals was emotionally provocative and creatively presented.
23.Train to Busan
The South Koreans jumped on the unstoppable zombie train, with a story about unstoppable zombies, err, on a train. What it lacked in originality it made up for in character development as a range of social types, who seemed thinly sketched out at the start, slowly grew into characters who seemed so real and well-developed that you couldn’t help but will them to an unlikely survival. The depiction of the zombies upped the ante, considerably – the fluidity of movement, as thousands of zombies hurtled towards the characters, created the impression of a tsunami of the racing dead. It was so visceral, ferocious and intense, that it made crowds of shuffling zombies from classic zombie films look almost as quaint as old ladies shuffling around a tea room by comparison. There was depth to the narrative too, with an engaging socio-political commentary riffing on capitalist politics, Asian class hierarchies and how setting yourself up with ruthless self-survival instincts may not be preferable to group un-dead combat, when faced with the zombie apocalypse. The class politics stuff gave it more in common with Snowpiercer than just an unstoppable train.
As DC badly stumbled with the turgid Batman V Superman, Deadpool breezed in with a likable, snarky energy, setting himself up as the comic book answer to a detached anarchist. Ryan Rynolds relished
the role, delivering more quick-witted one-liners in a few minutes than you would get in an entire mainstream Marvel movie. The film was absolutely brimming with wry humour and invention, the title sequence alone raised a movie’s worth of belly-laughs as the film made a claim to be a much-needed satirist of the conventions of the comic book movie. Director Tim Miller delivered wild R-rated fun, with a colorful screenplay that was deliriously enjoyable. Deadpool was deadpan, dead-on, dead dry and dead good.
21. The Neon Demon
Blood and glitter made for a heady and intoxicating mix in this scabrous LA-set thriller. Promising indie director Nicolas Winding Refn found a new way to satirize the soulless and callous nature of the fashion industry, twisting the glitz and the glam until it resembled something really quite sinister. His use of shiny bright colours in one of the most darkly enchanting films of the year, was nothing short of mesmerising. His style lent a great debt to Dario Argento. The Italian horror auteur always found a way of assaulting the senses with vivid colors; Refyn brought the style into the 21st century, disorientating and unsettling the audiences with an effectively garish visual style. The palpable atmosphere of the film was so terrifically over-stylized that it began to take on a ethereal fairy tale quality. Some of the characters, so all-consumed by their own perception of beauty, were so twisted that they almost resembled monsters in fairy tales. If the Evil Queen from Snow White had granddaughters, they may look something like those in The Neon Demon. Vapidity has rarely been this threatening.
20. Eddie the Eagle
Eddie the Eagle became a household name in the UK after his legendary heroics at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. People of Britain love a trier as much as a champion, but it was good to see that filmmaker Dexter Fletcher understood that mentality and stayed true to Eddie’s story, with a film that captured the spirit and tenacity of the character, but didn’t shy away from the reality of his ambition. For those who don’t know, Eddie the Eagle harboured a dream to become a Winter Olympian, in the daunting event of ski-jumping. However, he seemingly didn’t possess any natural athleticism and the British Olympic organisation were reluctant to let him compete due to fear of international humiliation. The film captured the heart and determination that Eddie had to allow him to work on his dream. Taron Egerton, had clearly studied his subject – he nailed the mannerisms, the jutting chin, the West country accent, it was all uncanny. To the approval of Eddie himself, he infused him with a likable charm and earnest will to succeed. Despite being a fictional character, Hugh Jackman’s mentor was a great addition to the story. It was Jackman’s expressive face that provided the drama and intensity as Eddie – in hair-raising, dramatic scenes – flew down the slopes. It was wonderful to see one of Britain’s most talked about Olympians become one of the feel-good films of the year. Nearly thirty years after he won the hearts of Britain, it was uplifting to see The Eddie the Eagle story take flight again.
19. The Nice Guys
The marketing posters featuring the film’s stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe made Shane Black’s new film look as if it was in the mold of his Leathal Weapon series. Actually, The Nice Guys was much closer to his sharply scripted, inventive noir thrillers like The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Darkly comic in tone, Shane Black’s latest was a creative seventies styled Hollywood set crime drama with a memorable story and a witty script. Exploring the seedy crime underbelly of L.A’s Hollywood glamour industries is something that Shane Black has always done well, and in The Nice Guys he had another thrilling, gripping and riotously funny crime drama that subverted the image of show business and had some wrly comic crime drama play out in Hollywood parties. Ryan Gosling, in one of his most comedic and charismatic roles to date, gave a funny and expressive performance that seemed to be partly inspired by the antics of Hollywood’s silent comedians. Crowe proved to be a good sparring partner for Gosling in one of the most inventive, funniest and criminally underrated films of the year.
18. Captain America: Civil War
Superheroes fighting each other was a running comic book movie theme in 2016, but Marvel’s attempt to engineer conflict between their most heroic icons was a lot more convincing than DC’s. What made the conflict so engrossing and believable in this film was that it captured how a difference of opinion can escalate into a full blown stand-off and eventual war. That gave the film a message that far transcended the limited fantasy world of the Marvel Universe, giving it real relevance to the political and domestic issues of the day. This wasn’t the forced punch-up designed to cynically generate box office revenue that it initially appeared to be. Nor was it the standard good versus megalomaniac bad guy, as seen in other blockbusters this year, most notably the archaic X-Men movie. There was a complexity in the narrative that addressed how the wanton destruction of the previous Avengers’ outings, had led them to be as big a threat to world security as the foes they claim to be protecting humanity from. The fracturing of the relationship between Iron Man and Captain America was essentially very political in nature. In an ironic shift in perspective, technology mogul Tony Stark approved of government monitoring of The Avengers. Meanwhile, former super soldier Captain America, was believably distrustful of authority given his experiences in previous episodes, his anti-government stance was understandable. Polarizing the two chief characters’ perspectives, was fascinating, as neither of them were wrong, which made the conflict all the more edgy. Essentially, directors Anthony and Joe Russo managed to distill an age old political debate between the public and private sector into a terrific action movie, without the kids even suspecting anything. The film earned the right to its mouth-watering smackdown. It was like an Avengers-themed Royal of Rumble with a quick-witted Spiderman and equally sharp Antman, keeping things breezy and fun. Captain America: Civil War managed to simultaneously be one of the most politically stimulating films and enjoyable action movies of the year, that was quite the achievement. As for the bigger fight in 2016, DC are face down on the canvas, and Marvel are rocking around the ring, punching the air like Rocky Balboa.
17. Son of Saul
Haunting, hard-hitting and utterly harrowing Son of Saul told a holocaust story from a new perspective resulting in an utterly devastating piece of cinema. Set in a Nazi death camp in Auschwitz in 1944, the film was seen almost entirely from the vantage point of Saul, a Hungarian Jew who is part of a group granted special status as workers in the death camps. The group labelled Sonderkommando by the Nazis were given an extra few months to live in order to complete the daily tasks of cleaning up the death camps after industrial scale mass murder had been routinely carried out. Mass scale chamber death became blurred out background noise as the workers who kept this hellish system running had become so accustomed to death on a daily basis that it had become totally devoid of drama to them. Their lack of reaction, and the lack of drama was what made the film so unsettling. In Son of Saul, mass murder became an efficient industrial machine; the characters’ detachment was all the more horrifying to us watching afresh from the relative comfort of our chairs. There was almost no ray of hope to emerge from the oppressive grimness; the only shred coming from Saul’s secret quest, not to save his son from his fate, but to give him a dignified burial. It would be way too upsetting for most people’s tastes as it features at least two of the most shocking scenes of the year, and a tone of unrelenting misery, but, this is a film about what the Nazis did to the Jews, so it needs to be bleak. Few films have captured the unspeakable horror of the holocaust quite as powerfully as Son of Saul. It had the power to haunt all those who saw it for days after viewing.
16. Kubo and the two Strings
Laika, The animation studio who brought us Coraline, A Corpse Bride, Paranorman and Box Trolls, made it five excellent features out of five, delivering their most immersive cinematic world to date. Japanese mythology is so vibrant that it works spectacularly well in animated form, but it was unusual to see a film made about Japanese customs that wasn’t made by one of their big studios. Kubo and the Two Strings told an enchanting story that paid reverent homage to Japanese culture and folklore in a yarn that was kooky, fun and spiritual. The level of beauty in the animation was nothing short of breath-taking, but the tone was quite dramatically dark and unnerving in places. What’s so refreshing about this studio is that they seem to be actively trying to create a niche for themselves as an alternative family option. As a result, they are giving their filmmakers a creative licence to be as weird, strange and off-beat as they want to. The characters in Kubo were memorably unconventional, from Kubo, a hero with just one eye, to an amnesia-suffering Samurai beetle, the characters were all brilliantly imaginative. The boldly imagined story had the bewitching dark magic seemingly inspired by the old-school Disney films, think the evil queen from Snow White. The combination of a story which was a beautifully romantic celebration of the ancestor worship prevalent in Asian cultures as well a lucid nightmarish fantasy, made Kubo and the Two Strings one of the best animated features of the year.
In modern films, frequently the editor is the unsung hero of the production; for the production of Victoria, the editor must have found themselves with very little to do, as extraordinarily, this two-hour and twenty minute production was shot in one uninterrupted, continuous take. However, audiences who saw it become so quickly immersed in the natural vibe between a female Spanish cafe worker living in Berlin and a group of male German clubbers, that the film’s audacious stunt soon had the desired effect of making you forget that you were actually watching a film at all. The first hour drifted by in a leisurely, free-wheeling style as the group moved from clubs to bars on a night out in Berlin. It worked because the two leads had chemistry and rapport and it all felt natural because it was unfolding in real time, in an improvised style. The transition to crime drama was all the more thrilling because of just how innocuously the film shifted into an entirely different genre. Suddenly, our group of likeable party-goers seemed way out of their depth to deal with the challenges ahead as they seemed more like real everyday people rather than crime players. The shocking third act gained all the more intensity for the one take strategy meant that the actors were going through the motions in real time. How they managed to cue up the enthralling third act, which shifts to several locations is mind-boggling. You won’t see a more realistic heist because they actually did it virtually for real in this audacious film.
14. Your Name
Japanese director revitalized a well-worn Western plot device (body-swapping) in Your Name, telling a tale that started out playful and later built into a story that was deep, meaningful and heart-warming. For reasons that adhere to the laws of magic, two teens, a boy in Tokyo and a country girl in a tranquil little town, started to wonder whether the dream they were both having involving being in the other’s body, wasn’t a dream at all. The first section had some lovely playful observational humour which discovered more detail about the emotional effect that such a switch would have on your and your friends’ reactions than the body-switching device had mustered before. As the story progressed, it began to take on some mind-bending, unexpected dimensions that drew it closer to something like Donnie Darko than a generic body switch movie. It’s this dimension that draws you back into a film that became richer, and even more emotionally involving with repeat viewings. Perhaps that’s why it compelled Japanese audiences for so long, who kept the film top of the Japanese box office for an impressive three months. Hanging over the story was a comet which gave the animators such a vivid focal point for some awe-inspiring animation. The way the story shifted to bring the comet into play with the plot was ingeniously executed. There was a quintessentially Japanese sense of romanticism and the musical interludes that just wouldn’t work in a Western film provided a genuinely touching dimension to the story. Japanese animators continue to find new ways to tell stories that are simultaneously cutesy but intelligent, emotionally rich, but light-hearted, spiritual but dark. Your Name had all of these factors and is another Japanese animated classic.
13. Sing Street
Coming on like an Irish John Hughes movie, this crowd-pleasing film sent spirits soaring as audiences who had the pleasure of seeing Sing Street watched a young Irish teenager unlock his talent and musical potential via a love of eighties pop music and a romance with the object of his affection, a glamourous but troubled young girl. It was like The Commitments, if the characters in that had less tension, more understanding and original songs. Yes, the songs, some of which were penned for the film itself were so authentic, melodic and soaked in positively energized eighties styling that the film absolutely demanded a second viewing just to appreciate how well-crafted the music was. The film was an ode to the transformative effect that music and a sense of connection can have on someone. It was a genuinely delightful coming of age story, as a put upon, young teenager found his calling and morphed into a confident and assured young star. Sing Street perfectly captured how music can provide colour and life to previously dreary and downtrodden settings, offering a way out to those who choose a musical pathway, which echoed the story of practically every British band ever.
12. A Monster Calls
Sentient, talking trees have become something of a familiar sight in fantasy after Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot and, prior to that, the Tree Ents from The Lord of the Rings. Spanish director J.A Boyona took the concept of a talking tree monster and re-imagined it as something entirely different in a film that found as compelling a blend between stark social drama and riveting fantasy horror as his masterful previous film, The Orphanage. Liam Neeson lent his commanding and intimidating vocal tones to The Tree Monster, a simultaneously menacing and reassuring presence, a character with a similar ambivalent paternal instinct as the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that this owes a great debt to but it is worthy of comparison, to Guillermaro Del Toro’s Spanish masterpiece. The Tree appeared to a troubled young boy struggling to come to terms with his mum’s weakening condition after a battle with cancer and declared that he will return to tell him three stories. Those three stories were beautifully rendered in artfully abstract animated sequences which illustrated the power of ambivalence in fairy tales. The stories’ ambivalence are emblematic of the film itself. The story was a wonderful metaphor for the pathos generated from dealing with traumatic events as well as providing an insight to the therapeutic qualities of fairy tales. Beguiling, enchanting and hard-hitting, perilous and poignant, A Monster Calls worked on a beautifully allegorical level of story-telling.
11. Deepwater Horizon
The BP oil disaster of 2010 is such a recent tragedy that the damage inflicted on both the people involved and the environment itself is still painfully raw. Therefore, any attempt to turn it into a Hollywood action film had to be handled with care, to avoid turning a terrible tragedy into an exploitative blockbuster. Director Peter Berg avoided decries of it being too soon to make a film of the worst oil disaster in U.S history, by establishing a tone of seriousness and sincerity with the film and bringing an industrial, tactile and extremely realistic lived-in feel to the action. The reason why the action had an extraordinary visceral intensity is because Berg was forced to commit fully to the project and make the decision to build an oil rig from scratch. Reading the story of the production is as gripping as watching the film itself. Within the film, BP came under extraordinary scrutiny given they are a part of the untouchable oil industry, the film goes as far as to portray their reckless erroneous negligence as villainous. What’s interesting is they were just as much of a threat to the film itself. The reason why Berg had to make the decision to build a rig is because BP released an army of lawyers in an attempt to stop the director getting any access to an oil rig or experts in the field. BP clearly failed and instead improved the quality of the film as the director had to walk such a fine legal line that the attention had to be shifted to a detailed and accurate explanation of what happened. The fact that Berg made technical exchanges about engineering so engaging is something of an achievement in itself. Even the usual portrayal of brave American heroism seemed believable via Mark Whalberg’s most human performance in years. His character’s actions provided considerable emotional impact. The film tapped into a well of anti-corporate sentiment and illustrated a point that needs to be made right now: how corporate hunger for profit blinds their experts to potential catastrophe and environmental costs that could be prevented with more consideration for their workers. It earns the right to be considered one of the most realistic disaster films of all time. ‘This is the film that BP didn’t want you to see’, – that would have made one helluva poster quote. Damn you lawyers.