Now that the dust has settled on 2016, I'm taking a look back. Not at the year as a whole - it's still too soon, and too damned depressing. But as far as movies go, it was pretty unusual. A year when so many a tentpole movies didn't so much outright disappoint as they didn't quite live up to expectations. For many of the biggies, it was too often a year of forgettable averageness. When it was being delivered by ostensibly the same team, why wasn’t GHOSTBUSTERS as good as THE HEAT? STAR TREK: BEYOND? Better than the last one, not quite as good as the first. X-MEN: APOCALYPSE: WTF? (okay, that was just a huge and outright disappointment).
But while only a few of the giants really
delivered, the year was peppered with
great things in small packages, which has produced two notable results: 1) it’s
been really hard to cull my list to ten favourites this year - so many of my listed honourable mentions could easily have had a spot on the final list. 2) This phenomenon has made everyone else’s lists really diverse, which is far more interesting.
As ever, there’s a long list of films that either I didn’t see, or which weren't (legally) released in this part of the world prior to Dec 31. Obviously there’s dozens of these, but off the top of my head, among some of the most popular and oft written about are:
HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS
A MONSTER CALLS
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
KUBO & THE TWO STRINGS
SWISS ARMY MAN
TRAIN TO BUSAN
THE GREASY STRANGLER
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
RED DOG: TRUE BLUE
Moving onto those which could quite easily have made my final list on a different day, it's (VERY) HONOURABLE MENTIONS:
BAD NEIGHBOURS: SORORITY RISING
POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
I, DANIEL BLAKE
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Which leaves the final list. The big enchiladas (mmm, enchiladas); my FAVOURITES FOR 2016:
Fortunately I saw this two days before the US election, so for those 48 hours I was able to enjoy the unbridled humanist optimism of Denis Villeneuve’s thoughtful sci-fi. Beautiful to look at, and – bar one tiny, niggling plothole – clever.
S. Craig Zahler’s remarkable debut horror Western not only succeeds in both genres, but constantly manages to make a virtue of its tight budget; the stillness of the camera serves to both soak up the great characterisations and, eventually, amplify the horror (which classily remains jump-scare free) with its unflinching matter-of-factness.
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
Richard Linklater’s ‘spiritual sequel’ to the brilliant DAZED & CONFUSED is a curious beast, blending meandering humdrum realism (this is all character and no plot, but in a good way) with nostalgia and a searing attention to period (in this case 1980) detail, and steadfast refusal to take shortcuts with or pigeonhole its subjects; we’re doing a lot more than simply following a bunch of ‘dumb jocks’ around for the weekend.
THE LADY IN THE VAN
I went in expecting another charming, low budget British drama starring Maggie Smith in the same sort of role she usually plays (very well, I might add). I got that, but I also finally got why Alan Bennett is so revered. With THE LADY IN THE VAN, Bennett not only writes himself, but splits his ‘character’ in two (both played superbly by THE CROWN’s Alex Jennings), laying bare some glorious insights about the writing process itself.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Tarantino promised something special with his ‘roadshow presention’ Western parlour piece, and he delivered – even if I’m not completely sure what he’d delivered by the end of it (in America, misogyny has always trumped racism? Answers on the back of a comments section, please). But whatever I continue to miss, there's plenty else to love about it: 70mm Ultra Panavision! Morricone! All the clichés about the things Tarantino does best! Etc.!
13TH / HYPERNORMALISATION
In moving away from drama and into documentary, SELMA director Ava DuVernay delivers an even more powerful indictment of institutional racism in the United States. The overlay of Trump’s dangerous campaign rhetoric onto a previously contextualised slice of BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) is a strong contender for scene of the year. Meanwhile, Adam Curtis’ BBC iPlayer-only HYPERNORMALISATION may be a near three hours of brain-scrambling complexity, but that’s exactly the point, and while some his broader observations may not be exactly revelatory, the devil is most certainly in the (often forgotten) details.
It may be becoming apparent by now that I am a sucker for a good Western, and Ivan Sen outdid himself this year with his sequel to MYSTERY ROAD. The odd moment of over-egging aside (David Wenham, I’m looking in the direction of your socks/sandals combo), Sen did a bang-up job of furthering the story of Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), while folding in some forgotten aspects of Australia’s mining past into a decidedly contemporary, real-world-familiar tale.
EYE IN THE SKY
Despite suffering from a terrible trailer and a too-tight budget (the sub-HBO production values are at times distracting), director Gavin Hood delivered one of the year’s biggest surprises with this tightly-knotted ethical thriller about drone warfare. The upside? The military can now see everything the enemy are doing. The downside? Everything is being recorded, and there are still rules of engagement; it’s fascinating (and occasionally funny) watching responsibility being kicked all around the globe by – often justifiably – nervous politicians. It’s rounded out by a great cast, and ensures the great Alan Rickman a high note sendoff.
By Christ, what a performance from Charlotte Rampling. Not to undermine Tom Courtenay’s fine work in this two-hander, but this is Rampling’s film, and she delivers a masterclass in acting with the eyes. That she didn’t win every award going (BAFTA, who failed to even nominate her, should hang their heads). The screening I attended had more than one bored walk-out, and that’s understandable if you fail to find director Andrew Haigh’s macro wavelength. Find it though, and 45 YEARS makes for quietly devastating drama.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
In a word: 'Stungray'. In a lot more words: It feels like Taika Waititi has been searching for this sweet spot for ages. BOY got very close, but had a heavy undercurrent pulling it in a more dramatic direction; WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS was funny and frivolous; but HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE manages to get it just right, walking virtually without fault the line between hilarity and pathos. The adult cast are great, but Julian Dennison is the (Southern) star of the 100 most joyous minutes of the year.