Sunday, January 08, 2017

My films of 2016

With inevitability.  And a little late.  And, as ever, possibly including a film or two from 2015.

10.   The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

A wonderfully odd movie, this, of the sort that runs on its own screwy set of rules in such a matter-of-fact way that it all seems perfectly reasonable when you’re watching it.  Taking place in a weird future/alternate-present Britain where finding a romantic partner is a legal requirement, Colin Farrell's nebbish sadsack David, whose wife has just left him, is taken to a hotel that acts as a matchmaking arena.  Fail to find a partner in forty-five days, and you’re turned into an animal (hence the title: David’s choice of animal should he be transformed is a lobster).  You can extend your time to find a match by capturing loners – people without partners who live hidden in the woods surrounding the hotel. 
   The bizarre set-up is presented in a deadpan, understated style that would win plaudits from Beckett or Pinter.  It’s all very restrained and grey, which makes the shocking moments (and there are a few) wring some black laughs out of you.  In presenting romance as a legal obligation rather than a worthwhile pursuit, it neatly satirises societal norms – until David finds himself among the loners, who prove just as stubborn and nasty as the couples, and a genuine love story starts to emerge.  There’s nothing else really like it.

9. Hail, Caesar! (dirs. Ethan & Joel Coen)

Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a mishmash of a film, feeling like various sketches sewn together (not always that well) into a roughly coherent final product.  It’s a testament to those sketches that it’s still an absolute delight.  Josh Brolin is real-life character Eddie Mannix, a fixer in ‘50s Hollywood, running around defusing fires.  There’s a famous actress/swimmer (Scarlett Johansson), who’s secretly pregnant.   There’s a veteran English director (Ralph Fiennes) who’s been pushed into casting a cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) in his new period piece and isn’t happy about it.  There’s a pair of twin sister gossip columnists (both Tilda Swinton) on the hunt for juicy titbits.  And there’s a dimwit matinee idol (George Clooney) who’s been kidnapped by Communists.
   It’s a whirlwind of incident, simultaneously parodying and glorifying old-school Hollywood.  And the starry cast (as well as the above, you’ve got Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Christopher Lambert and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Dolph Lundgren lurking in there) are clearly having a ball trying to outsteal the movie from each other (Hill gets close with his two scenes, but in the end Ehrenreich walks off with it – you can see how he got the job of playing the young Han Solo).  There are sight gags, there’s whipcrack dialogue, there’s a genuinely delightful song-and-dance number.  It may not hang together that well, but it’s easily one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

8. Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller)

2016 was very possibly the year we hit Peak Superhero.  There were fine efforts from Marvel’s corner with Doctor Strange and Captain America: Civil War, but the middling-at-best reception for Warner’s DC movies and a general feeling of “yep, seen this” makes me wonder if that great long list of upcoming DC and Marvel movies will actually all get made.  Happily, the first of the year’s two X-Men movies (see?  Excessive superheroics) proved that a) when the genre is tackled with thought and love, it’s still a delight and b) the endless push for that 12A sweet spot may well be part of the issue.
   The unloosening of the restrictions caused by the 15 certificate is an important place to start.  While the capacity for extra gore and naughty words could have given the film a tiresome, sniggering adolescent feel, it instead makes the action scenes that much more visceral and the script that much wittier and inventive.  And, surprisingly, the jokey sex montage is one of the best examples of a healthy, happy sexual relationship I can remember seeing from a Hollywood movie in years.  Who knew?  The fact that Deadpool is, famously, a fictional character who knows he’s a fictional character helps here too, allowing him Ryan Reynolds to poke fun at the X-Men films’ increasingly tortured timeline, Marvel films’ love of superfluous cameos and Reynolds’ own, not always successful, history of superhero films.  (Admittedly some of the humour is heavily dependent on surprise value – the scene where Deadpool attempts to beat up Colossus and only ends up hurting himself had me curled up with laughter in the cinema but only raised a wry grin when re-watching at home.)
   But what’s important is you could strip away the viscera, the f-bombs and the self-awareness and it’d still be a good movie.  Starting off with a fully powered-up, costume-wearing Deadpool and then splicing the origin story into discrete chunks through the first half of the movie is such a self-evidently excellent bit of structure you wonder why all superhero movies don’t do it.  The characters are well-rounded enough to make you properly interested and invested in them, and it’s genuinely refreshing to see a comic book movie where the climax isn’t The Fate Of The World As We Know It.  Now, about that sequel...Ron Perlman for Cable, y/y?

7. When Marnie Was There (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

A bit of Studio Ghibli history here, the first movie they’ve released where neither Hayao Miyazaki nor Isao Takahata had anything to do with the production process.  (Beyond Miyazaki introducing the source novel to director Yonebayashi, that is.)  And possibly a second bit, as the studio’s got no movies lined up for the foreseeable future so this may prove to be the company’s final feature-length offering.  And should that be the case, they’ve gone out not on one of their highest points, but certainly a respectable finale.
   Yonebayashi’s second movie as director is also his second to take a British children’s classic as its source and relocate it to present-day Japan, following 2010’s decent updating of The Borrowers into Arrietty.  It’s the sort of plot that’s very mid-20th century children’s literature – an introverted girl goes to stay with distant relatives in the country for her health and makes a mysterious friend.  In this case the girl is an asthmatic aspiring artist named Anna and the mysterious friend is the titular Marnie, who lives in a grand old house across the marsh and may or may not be a ghost.
   The plot is filled with twists and turns, and peopled by believable characters – Anna’s almost violently insular nature means she’s not the most likeable lead at first, and that works well, making you feel sympathy for her constant self-sabotage and recognising her abrupt mood swings as the growing pains of adolescence even as her rude, aggressive behaviour irritates you.  Marnie, meanwhile, hides enough quiet sadness behind her floaty pixie dream girl persona to keep your attention.
   Arrietty was arguably Ghibli’s prettiest movie (no mean feat), but its status has just about been superseded here.  Marnie is simply gorgeous to look at, thanks to the efforts of animation director Masashi Ando (more from him later in this list). It’s enough to make you despair if Ghibli never produce another movie – but fear not, for I’ve just discovered that a bunch of ex-Ghibli staffers have set up a new studio, Studio Ponoc, and their first movie is a Yonebayashi-directed effort based on a British children’s novel.  The dream lives on!

6. Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle)

Nope, no idea what this movie’s about.  Good, though.  Aaron Sorkin’s script may be characteristically a bit pleased with itself, but it’s still superbly written, with its distinctive three-act, three-product structure working well.  Michael Fassbender’s excellent, although Kate Winslet walks off with the movie even if her accent is odd at best.

5. The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black)

Veteran screenwriter Black’s third movie as director is so much of a throwback it comes around again and feels fresh and new.  In a franchise-led, effects-saturated marketplace, this ‘70s-set buddy-comedy action-thriller is a delightful change of pace.
   Ryan Gosling is not-especially-effective private eye Holland March, hired by a woman who claims to have seen her niece, a porn star killed in a car crash, alive and well after the crash.  He crosses paths with Russell Crowe’s enforcer for hire Jackson Healy (you’re not allowed to have a proper first name in this movie), who’s been hired to get March off the scent by Amelia, an associate of the possibly-not-dead porn star.  When Amelia vanishes and a pair of suspicious thugs turn up looking for her, March and Healy reluctantly team up to find her first.   
   The film would make a very nice double-bill with Inherent Vice, seen lurking on my list last year, what with both flicks’ 70s’ period trappings and slightly incompetent protagonists.  Black coaxes great performances out of Crowe and Gosling – the latter, especially, is a revelation.  I’d only ever seen him in brooding serious roles like Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines, so his comic timing and willingness to squeal in fear like a small girl are a delight.  The scene where Crowe catches him on the toilet and he attempts to cover his crotch, keep the stall door open and keep a gun trained on Crowe simultaneously is probably the best bit of physical comedy I saw in the cinema this year. 

4. The Girl with all the Gifts (dir. Colm McCarthy)    

Or, The Last of Us: The Movie.  Glib, and possibly unfair (the source novel was published exactly a year after Naughty Dog’s game launched so it’s entirely possible that a lot of the similarities are coincidence), but surely the same thought was in everyone’s mind.  Fungal zombies?  Check.  Young girl?  Check.  Delicate balance of horror and philosophical reflection on humankind’s place in the wider natural world?  Check.   Regardless, it’s a fantastic movie.
   Set in a post-apocalyptic Britain that has been reduced to rubble by a fungus-spread zombification disease, it focuses on Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who, along with her classmates, is kept under lock and key both inside and outside her underground school.  The reason?  She’s part of a second generation of humans that have bonded symbiotically with the fungus, and the remnants of the military and scientific community are studying her and her peers to investigate the possibility of a cure.  When the base is breached and overrun, a handful of scientists and soldiers escape, including Melanie’s teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who insists on bringing her star pupil on the trek to another base near London.
   While all the standard zombie tropes are present and correct (and, since these are not the classical zombies, sometimes spiced up with new rules or variations of behaviour), this is a more melancholic, thoughtful offering than your average face-chewer.  The best zombie movies all use their shufflers as a metaphor for something (Dawn of the Dead = consumerism, Shaun of the Dead = the soul-killing dangers of getting caught in an ennui-filled suburban life, 28 Days Later... = mindless anger, etc) and here it’s the inevitability of every generation eventually killing off and replacing their predecessors, and said predecessors not always going quietly.  The result gives it a philosophical bent and by the end you’re kind of on the zombies’ side: don’t they have a right to fungus-based life, after all?
   Having said that, it does also have the year’s best action sequence, an astonishing seemingly-one-take effort covering the base’s breach from Melanie’s perspective as she runs from her underground prison out into the light and into a whirling maelstrom of chaos, zombies, soldiers and vehicles all hurtling around her in such a way to make you genuinely concerned for the actors’ safety.

3. Your Name (dir. Makoto Shinkai)

Here’s a lovely surprise.  Shinkai is the sort of name known to anime freaks and hardcore tedious cineastes, but I never thought I’d get to see one of his films on the big screen a few miles from my home town.  But then Your Name proceeded to give the Japanese box office a damn good thrashing (at the time of writing it’s Japan’s fourth-biggest box office draw of all time and the second most successful anime ever) and wouldn’t you know it, a British release followed.
   One of the reasons I was so delighted to snag a cinema viewing is Shinkai’s known for an almost comical level of beauty in his films.  Every frame is utterly stunning and demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.  The film’s two main settings – Tokyo and the fictional country town of Itomori – both highlight the artistry on show, as shepherded by supervising animator Masashi Ando (told you he’d pop up again). 
   These settings are inhabited by Taki, a schoolboy and aspiring architect living an exhausting, high-paced life in Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a bored and frustrated girl feeling she’s rotting away in the backwater of Itomori.  On random days, they find themselves waking up in each other’s bodies.  As you do.  As they attempt to navigate very different lives, while leaving notes on each other’s phones, they form a sort of disassociated, irritable friendship.  So far, so ‘80s teen comedy.  But then the plot suddenly swerves off in a direction that I won’t spoil, but it genuinely made me gasp and cover my mouth with my hands, like I was a bad GIF. 
   My only previous knowledge of Shinkai came from his slow, thoughtful, bittersweet romances 5 Centimetres per Second and The Garden of Words, so the boisterous, bright, poppy energy of Your Name was a bit of a surprise (although there’s a sequence near the end that heavily recalls the final moments of 5 Centimetres, and in a neat touch that I missed until I read it on the Internet later, one of Garden of Words’ protagonists makes a cameo as Taki’s teacher).  The delightful soundtrack from Japanese band Radwimps (best worst name or worst best name?) helps as well, and the film’s got enough chutzpah to throw out its endless scenery porn at one point and present a key scene in delicate pastels and chalks.  It’s actually maybe a little long – a brilliantly daft thing to be saying about a Shinkai film, given that getting over an hour’s runtime out of him is a bit of a triumph – but it’s so utterly enjoyable that you can see why it’s smashing all those records in its home country.  There’s talk of it being a dark horse for next year’s Best Animated Picture at the Oscars.  Here’s hoping.

2. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)

A world away from Your Name’s gorgeously animated fantasy, Spotlight is a resolutely low-key film about a real-life horrific cover-up and the dedicated journalists wrenching the truth to light.
   Set in early 2000s Boston, it follows the titular Spotlight team of the Boston Globe, who specialise in lengthy, well-researched investigations.   In 2001, they start digging into a priest convicted of paedophilia who was shuffled around the Massachusetts area repeatedly rather than dismissed, and to their unfolding astonishment realise that said priest is one of many and the Catholic Church essentially has a system in place to get child abusers off the hook.
   It’s one of those movies that just screams Oscar bait, but it’s so resolutely excellent that it doesn’t matter (and yes, it won Oscars).  The time period is something of an accidental blessing: because these events happened just before the Internet achieved its current ubiquity, it means the film’s essentially a paean to old-fashioned journalistic legwork and a spiritual successor to All the President’s Men.  Piles of paper swamp characters’ desks; a genuinely nail-biting sequence follows Mark Ruffalo’s attempt to photocopy some key evidence before the office with the photocopier closes for the night.  The film never tries to be clever or fancy because it’s just not needed.  Sometimes all you need is good actors playing a good script straight.

1.       The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Having said that, there’s nowt wrong with baroque violence and grandiloquent speechifying if you can make it entertaining.  (Side note: Word’s spellcheck is fine with “speechifying” but draws the line at “nowt”.)  And the master of making those two things very entertaining indeed is Tarantino, back here with an impishly button-pushing could-be-a-sequel to Django Unchained. 
   Kurt Russell is the efficient but reasonably decent bounty hunter John Ruth (and I’ve just now realised his name is probably a play on “ruthless”), transporting fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, stealing the movie and loving it) via stagecoach to the town of Red Rock, where she’ll be hanged.  They pick up another bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man claiming to be Red Rock’s new sheriff (Walton Goggins) en route before a vicious blizzard forces them to stop off at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge.  They’re joined there by four more travellers of varying degrees of suspiciousness, setting the stage for bloodletting.
   Famously, this was Tarantino’s attempt to revive old-fashioned “roadshow” showings seen in the ‘50s and ‘60s, using the rarely-used 70mm ultra-widescreen format and including a 15-minute interval.  I saw it with the interval, and I suspect it helped – as well as giving a break, it came in a narratively interesting moment, so the audience could discuss possible theories about what had just happened and where it was going next.
   The film’s aggressively controversial in its examination of America’s fraught racial history (side note 2: given his love of onscreen violence, what if Tarantino were to examine his country’s unsettling obsession with guns next?), with its setting just after the close of the American Civil War allowing the script to prod a subject seemingly more ubiquitous than ever.  But above and beyond that, it’s a shamelessly entertaining, over-the-top mystery-cum-thriller Western that relishes elaborate, well-crafted dialogue, has a wicked vein of pitch-black humour and is visually sumptuous – the intense, heightened whiteout the characters occasionally venture into feels a hell of a lot colder and more atmospheric than The Revenant’s greyer, more realistic milieu.  I got the film on Blu-ray for my birthday and I’m actually a little worried about watching it, for fear that the masterful cinema experience won’t translate well to the small screen.  Here’s hoping it does – this was the second film I saw in 2016 and it’s never quite been toppled off my “best of the year” mental list.  It’s quite good, you know.


Best Facial Hair

I don’t know if Kurt Russell filmed The Hateful Eight or Bone Tomahawk first, but I know his magnificent walrus moustache should have kept him doing nothing but excellent Westerns for the rest of his life.  Sadly, he seems to have shaved it off.  Bah.

Best Eyebrows

O-Ei, the titular Miss Hokusai, has a truly stupendous pair of forehead-warmers.  Imagine the hairy baby she’d have with Kurt.

Best Mental Hijacking of a Pop Song

I’ll never be able to hear “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” again without thinking of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s beautiful, quietly sorrowful rendition of it in Anomalisa.  Even if she’s technically singing the Sarah McLachlan cover version.

Best Robot

Rogue One’s K-2SO, obviously.  Blunt?  Sarcastic?  Beats up a Stormtrooper by using a second Stormtrooper as a bludgeoning instrument?  Good work, K2.

Best Shameless Way of Getting Me into the Cinema

Rogue One again.  I wasn’t that bothered about it, then they started releasing the cast list.  Felicity Jones, interested.  Mads Mikkelsen, getting there.  Alan Tudyk, smart move.  Donnie Yen as a blind monk beating up the Empire with a staff?  Why yes, you may have my money.

Best Frenchman

The moustachioed guy glimpsed on the landing calling for the police when Idris Elba’s beating up mook no. 6 in Bastille Day (or The Take, as it’s been understandably renamed)?  Clearly the best part of the year.  ‘Cos it’s my dad.  (He says Elba’s a very nice man.)

Most Infuriatingly Distracting Incidental Detail

The 1977-set The Nice Guys has the famous photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass that formed the basis of the London Calling cover on a character’s wall.  At the time I thought to myself “the album’s 1979, but the photo was obviously earlier – is that reasonable?”  It bugged me for the rest of the film and I looked it up afterwards.  The photo was taken in 1979.  For a film that revels in its period setting, it’s highly irritating.

Most Sinister Goat

Well, if you allowed TV as well, this would be a proper race, with Gravity Falls’ Gompers a strong contender (the show’s finale aired in 2016, it counts).  But as it is, in film the devilish silhouette of The Witch’s Black Phillip falls over all.

Most Inexplicable Horse

How the hell did that horse get to the rooftop garden in High-Rise?

Best Marketing

Toss-up between Deadpool and Suicide Squad.  Deadpool’s press stuff was probably stronger overall thanks to sterling work from Ryan Reynolds and the skull-emoji/poop-emoji/L poster, but Suicide Squad’s brilliant trailers made a fairly average film look like the best thing ever, which is surely the point of marketing.

Best Inevitable Bit of Soundtrack

Did Eddie the Eagle use Van Halen’s “Jump” at one point?  Yes, Eddie the Eagle used Van Halen’s “Jump” at one point.  It just wouldn’t have been right otherwise.

Best Accessorising

Doctor Strange romps home with this one.  The sentient cape the titular doc obtains would’ve won the prize as it was, but any film that gives Chiwetel Ejiofor a pair of shoes that are almost literally the Pegasus Boots from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening must be acknowledged.

Best Scene-Stealer

There was a lot of great scene-stealing this year, as I’ve mentioned in several of the films above.  But the undisputed winner was Tom Bennett in Love & Friendship.  His character of Sir James Martin, a goodnatured idiot who comes off like a dimmer version of Prince George from Blackadder, is promising enough to start with, but Bennett throws everything into his scenes.  From being delighted by his first encounter with peas to getting confused as to how many Commandments there are, he’s the funniest thing in any movie this year.

Pay Attention, This is How You Do Special Effects

Star Trek Beyond should be the manual for how to do effects in cinema.  As much onscreen stuff as possible, with some truly magnificent prosthetic work on the aliens, and CGI spared for impossible geometry and stuff you just couldn’t reasonably do practically.  That’s how it’s done.

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