So that was 2016. Let’s be honest; it could’ve gone better. With Syria, Brexit, Trump and a raft of beloved celebrities shuffling down the curtain to join the choir invisible, the cosy darkness of the cinema has frequently provided a welcome refuge from reality. Humanity may not have distinguished itself all that much in 2016, but in the world of film at least a small round of applause is in order. There’s been a lot to enjoy, and often in unexpected places.
It’s been a bumper year for animation. Disney have taken major strides in conveying a positive, progressive message in the delightful ‘Zootropolis’ and the inspiring ‘Moana’, Pixar proved once again that they know precisely how to do a sequel with ‘Finding Dory’ and Laika broke new ground in so many ways with the breathtaking ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’. It’s also been interesting to see the boundaries between animation and live action continue to blur with films like the ‘Jungle Book’. One of my biggest regrets of the 2016 is not having had the opportunity to see Studio Ghibli’s ‘When Marnie was There’ or Makoto Shinkai’s ‘Your Name’; two critically lauded pieces of Japanese animation which could well have made their way onto this list.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2016 was how much it was not “the year of the superhero”. As a great fan of the golden age of superhero films in which we now live, I was childishly excited by the list of superhero titles scheduled for release this year, but as it happened almost none lived up to their promise. DC in particular failed miserably to find their feet and despite some enjoyable moments, ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’ was a mess and and ‘Suicide Squad’ was little better. ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ failed to recapture the emotional weight of ‘Days of Future Past’ and the scenes of destruction were so overblown and consequence-free that they were rendered completely insubstantial. Even ‘Captain America: Civil War’, by far the best of the colon-ridden heavy hitters, suffered from a jagged narrative and the changes it wrought in established characters left a bitter taste in the mouth. There were exceptions of course; ‘Deadpool’ was riotous fun and ‘Doctor Strange’ narrowly missed out on a place on this list, but overall the genre maybe bit off more than it could chew this year.
One encouraging reflection is the number of outstanding female leads in many of this year’s best films. There may be much work still to be done on this front, but it is gratifying to see progress being made towards equal representation of women in film, both in the quantity and quality of available roles.
Without further ado then, here it is; my top ten films of 2016, plus a few words on the absolute worst of the bunch. Please keep in mind that list is restricted to films released in the UK in 2016 which I have seen. I would love to hear your comments on any films you think should have made the cut.
Dud of the year – ‘Gods of Egypt’
This really was no contest at all. When the most convincing performance of a film is given by Gerard Butler, that’s a pretty strong indicator that something has gone terribly wrong. From the laughably bad acting across the board to the cringe-worthy whitewashing of the cast and the astonishingly half-arsed CGI, Alex Proyas’ attempted epic was a disaster of mythical proportions. Doubtless every cast member would jump at the chance to expunge this trainwreck from their IMDB pages, but it’s too late now; we all saw what you did.
10 – ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’
Wracked with tension from start to finish and boasting a chillingly inscrutable performance from John Goodman, this claustrophobic little horror flick was one of the unexpected gems of 2016. Sadly the largely pointless ‘Cloverfield’ connection robs the final twist of most of its teeth. If only the filmmakers had had the courage to drop it, this might have ended up much higher on the list.
9 – ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’
‘Rogue One’ is the best war film of 2016, it just happens to be set in space. Its sense of grit and misery provides a stark contrast with the more light-hearted entries in the saga, but the slavish attention to detail in recreating the aesthetic of the originals ensures that we never forget this is a Star Wars film we’re watching. The cast is outstanding, but the highest praise must go to the arse-kicking machine that is Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso; one of the best action heroines of recent years.
For more on ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, check out my review.
8 – ‘The Witch’
This eerie New England tale of puritanical paranoia manages to maintain a delicious sense of unease throughout, leaving the audience constantly in doubt as to whether supernatural influences are in fact at work or whether it is all a product of the characters’ fevered imagination. Complete with the creepiest goat in the history of cinema, ‘The Witch’ strides ahead as easily the best horror release of 2016.
7 – ‘Deadpool’
Given Ryan Reynolds’ previous superhero credentials, I was a little worried by the news that the merc with a mouth had been placed in his hands. I sit here now happy to have been proven wrong. Laden with all the filth, gore and hilarity you could ever want, this film perfectly captures the anarchic essence of Marvel’s problem child. It lampoons the superhero genre without being at all mean spirited, and while it’s not the first adult-oriented superhero movie, precious few have been this good.
6 – ‘The Jungle Book’
Disney’s recent fondness for live action remakes of animated classics has yielded mixed results, but with ‘The Jungle Book’ they have excelled themselves. With a perfectly selected cast, the film draws inspiration from both the 1967 film and the Rudyard Kipling novel to create an original and engrossing take on familiar story. The luscious realism of the animation is a thing of beauty which challenges the strict distinction between live action and animation. The songs may not work all that well, but that in no way hinders this remarkable film.
6 – ‘Hail, Caesar!’
The Coen Brothers’ terrifically dry and understated comedy simultaneously pays tribute to and pokes affectionate fun at the “golden age” of 1950s Hollywood, from the movie tropes of the time to the business’s sleazy underbelly and the ever present fear of the communist “menace”. With an outstanding ensemble cast and some unforgettable comedy moments, including a group of religious leaders heatedly debating Jesus’ divinity and Ralph Fiennes’ magnificent “would that it were so simple” routine, ‘Hail Caesar!’ is guaranteed to raise a smile.
4 – ‘Arrival’
Science fiction where the science doesn’t feel so fictional, ‘Arrival’ defies convention and takes us on a journey into the unexpected. Amy Adams’ performance perfectly captures the essence of the film; grounded in reality, deeply human and secretive to the last moment. ‘Arrival’ presents us with a bleak and all too familiar view of the human race, whose own belligerence is a far bigger barrier to communication than the complexities of language. Beneath this however is a message of hope which gives the film an uplifting, if bittersweet, payoff.
For more on ‘Arrival’, check out my review.
3 – ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’
It is in no way an exaggeration to say that ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is a strong contender for the best stop-motion animated film of all time. The ambition, intricacy and sheer beauty of the animation is a sight to behold, but alongside this is an exceptionally talented voice cast and a spellbinding story that is both funny and heartbreaking without any inconsistencies of tone. The sheer artistry of this film is astonishing. This may well prove to be Laika’s magnum opus, but in the meantime let’s hope they keep pushing towards bigger and better things,
For more on ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’, check out my review.
2 – ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’
A truly wonderful film deserving of more recognition than it received, this sympathetic retelling of the story of “the worst singer in the world” is an emotional blend of comedy and tragedy that will give your heartstrings a thorough wringing before it’s done. Meryl Streep is fabulous as ever, but the real surprise comes in the shape of Hugh Grant who gives perhaps the most nuanced and emotionally mature performance of his career as Jenkins’ fiercely devoted husband. It’s a film that could easily have been unpleasant and exploitative in different hands, but is in fact a delight.
1 – ‘Moana’
A late entry on this list, but one brilliant enough to steal the top-spot; it’s the breath of fresh air that is Disney’s Moana. For all the praise heaped on ‘Frozen’ for subverting gender stereotypes and creating positive female role models, ‘Moana’ leaves it in the dust. No princess, no “one true love”, just a confident and capable young woman using her own wits to achieve great things. Dwayne Johnson’s swaggering Maui provides some fantastic self-referential comedy and an important message about the emptiness and fragility of the stereotypical masculine ideal. Add a hilarious, if possibly brain damaged chicken, and a truly superb soundtrack and you have a glittering addition to the Disney portfolio and the cinematic highlight of 2016.
For more on ‘Moana’, check out my review.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this blog in its first four months. I promise more of the same and perhaps some exciting new stuff in the coming year. Bring on 2017!