So 2016 was not such a good year for the vastly superior form of human being we call ‘the celebrity’ – a lot of them died. And to be honest, from what I have seen, there has been better years for the world of film too. Not that I have seen a huge body of work this year (I’m still catching up) but contrary to previous years, I found myself repulsed by a lot of ‘art’ films that were released (see Elle and The Neon Demon) and more endeared by the mainstream offerings (see Sing Street and The Jungle Book). I even became impressed by some forms of CGI effects (having said that, never will I get behind CGI re-imaginings through full-on cartoon renderings of dead actors!). The nostalgia-surge continued unabated in 2016, with writers and directors abandoning any ounce of originality in their work and just taking on whatever was handed to them and reworking and moulding it into their own form, or the form that was dictated by some dickhead with a twitter account. Not that it was all bad – see The Lobster and Green Room for a distinct originality in filmmaking. And believe me, there are lots of highly-recommended films that I intend to watch from this year, which indeed could have made it on to this list too (I, Daniel Blake, Anomalisa, Arrival, Your Name, Paterson and The Club to name a few), and if anyone has any other suggestions or comments, please feel free to share them below.
Films to dispense with down the sink
As Quentin Tarantino continues to fade into the confines of his own asshole, the studios continue to feed his relentless self-referential ego by gladly producing his mush uncensored for the screen, as witnessed quite vividly in his latest tasteless manurepiece, The Hateful Eight. Not only the studios, the actors too continue to lend their support to the guy’s ‘vision’ by willingly putting themselves in any which position for his scenes, be it massacred by bullets, strung up by a noosed rope or poisoned by something that causes a violent oral discharge of blood. And for what? For shits and giggles? His loyal fans will no doubt disagree but it appears to me that Tarantino inhabits some parallel universe whereby acknowledging and persistently paying homage to the great (and not-so-great) directors of cinema history will somehow endear him to everyone, to film lovers, to critics, to people inside the industry, to the public at large. His continuing attempts to cross the line, as he does to the utmost ill-effect here, has been his undoing at every corner in his film career. The Hateful Eight really was a horrible experience, not least for the treatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character. It is not one that I would recommend people to source out, ever.
Then there is the deeply unsettling rape film, Elle by Paul Verhoeven. Not really sure where Verhoeven was going here (and his subsequent comments do not reassure anyone) but one thing is clear: he would never be let down by casting Isabelle Huppert, a superb actress who seemingly can handle any challenging, divisive material with ease and make it somewhat interesting (see The Piano Teacher). Not that Verhoeven is a stranger to creating divisive material. He has been to Hollywood, coming from the Netherlands, and he has made profitable films for Hollywood studios by directing the most gratuitous scenes of sex and violence imaginable in mainstream films (see Robocop, Basic Instinct or Showgirls). And so his presence as a director here is very troubling, because although it’s not exactly designed to be an attainable mainstream film, it still has a direct, and fairly odd, outlook on rape and sexual violence. My question is: why would we want to know what this guy thinks about it? Absolute disgrace that he was allowed to do a film like this if you ask me.
More divisive material in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Even more, it is a showy piece of ‘arty’ fucking nonsense. Indeed, Refn had ‘something’ in a previous stylish offering with Drive only to lose his way with the repulsive Only God Forgives. He does seem to be totally adrift with this latest one, which has something to do with the fashion industry and female sexuality. Again, why do we need to know what this guy thinks about female sexuality? Whereas Drive had a narrative, this joke seems to have ‘nothing’ going on – there’s a cougar that sounds like a lion, there’s some unexplained bloody lesbian scenes, Keanu Reeves turns up once again to not act, there’s an eyeball and someone has a fetish about dead bodies. What an absolute waste of 2 hours!
I was not so keen on Hail, Cesar by the Coen Brothers either. It was a misfire at Hollywood satire in the same way that Intolerable Cruelty was a misfire at romantic comedy. Sometimes these things happens to geniuses! In fairness, there are enough Coen-esque quips in there to make it watchable but don’t go out of your way. High-Rise by Ben Wheatley was also a let-down this year. His other films in recent years have all been assuredly unique and satisfyingly dark for this reviewer’s tastes (Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers), but there was something missing from High-Rise. Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, it is notably manic and, some would say, insane at times but in terms of dealing with that content visually, Wheatley seems to let it out of his grasp. I also seen the generally unfunny ‘comedy’ Special Correspondents by ‘comedian’ Ricky Gervais this year. It was made available almost immediately after being released on Netflix which I suppose is a fairly non-greedy approach to film promotion. Still though, not worth the watch in the end.
Films you should have an oul’ gawk at
Thankfully no Daniel Radcliffe to be seen in the vastly talked-about blockbuster Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates), only a supremely talented Eddie Redmayne and a range of CGI thingamajigs, fresh from the imagination of J.K. Rowling. Of course, there is more to the movie than this but how I wish there was even more. The characters don’t extend too far out of their comfort zone and at times, the story was all a bit needlessly complicated. Enjoyable stuff nevertheless. We can definitely expect more on this front in the coming years no doubt. Then there was Ghostbusters by Bridesmaids director, Paul Feig. Another enjoyable lark with an admirable comedic cast and, who knows, the beginning of a new wave of mainstream female-led action films at long last. There were elements here that ‘needed’ to be part of the formula to make the film sellable worldwide, which I do find quite annoying, but having stated this, who cares? Seeing Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones kicking some ghost ass was probably the best scene from any film this year.
At the top of the year, the film Room, made by Irishman Lenny Abrahamson with the help of the Irish Film Board’s money and based on a novel by an Irish-Canadian, Emma Donoghue, prompted a wave of public empathy, coming in the wake as it was of similar real-life storylines of unprovoked human kidnappings and sustained captivity. The thing here was that I thought it was a satisfactory film but not great. Not only was the kid really annoying, the story was stick-a-fork-in-me done halfway through and sort of lost its way after that. Sorry fellow Irish people! The less challenging Blood Father (Jean Francois Richet), pitched as the return of Mel Gibson to the leading action man role, actually came through for this reviewer as more enjoyable than expected. The grizzled Gibson can still grunt and grimace and carry (or motorbike) a mediocre film on its back as far as it can go. He’s got the knack for this. Remember Mad Max and Lethal Weapon? Just don’t engage him in a discussion about religion or history and we will all be the better for it!
Speaking of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black who authored those scripts, was back on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang form with a new style of male buddy flick in The Nice Guys. The usually weird Ryan Gosling was pretty hilarious and Russell Crowe was, well, Russell Crowe with a few pounds added. It was, however, a male buddy flick so you know, plenty of misogyny and female stereotypes abound. Which leads us to The Witch, a historical fictional film by a man, Robert Eggers. As supernatural horrors go, this was definitely not generic and was actually really well structured and beautifully photographed with natural light. The whole puritan/evil thing was certainly a key cog in the wheel of the storyline but I thought the idea of ‘the witch’ could have been better managed to form, I don’t know, a more substantial message about the male-dominated world that the US was in its genesis and still is today. Ah well…
With Carrie Fisher having passed away a few days ago, most Star Wars fans will mourn a truly important fragment of modern popular culture, and I think we can rejoice that The Force Awakens was made before this tragic event so that yes, in fact, we could see her as the legitimate Princess Leia again. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story gave us a glimpse of what now is to be offered yearly by the Disney/Lucasfilm collaboration in this franchise, and to be honest with yas, it is not at all that bad. Visually spectacular (I would go as far to say that this is the epitome of visual effects in movie history, non?), directed by a Brit, Gareth Edwards (see Monsters if you haven’t), and filled with the most diverse, un-American cast for a Hollywood movie, I reckon, in history. Rogue One is an enjoyable but slightly fatalistic intergalactic romp. I think it stands out from The Force Awakens by not totally pandering to the nostalgia of the original films. It does get a bit too ‘peow peow’ (my attempt at the sound of a blaster) towards the end but its subliminal alignment with current geopolitical thunderstorms is something to admire.
Another CGI extravaganza to admire this year (I don’t say that often) was Disney’s latest take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. The racist undertones of Kipling’s material aside, I think Favreau did manage to connect the story in a unique way that makes it fun as well as educational – basically stand up to the bullying tiger and respect your elders, even if they are wolves, bears and a giant black panther!
Films that made the top grade
The first one to mention here is The Lobster by the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Who would have thought? A mundanely-set dystopia filmed in Dublin and Galway (I think!). A bonkers plot but a rewarding treat nevertheless. Think of Battle Royale without the annoying teenagers. The characters (led by Farrell and Weisz) are stymied by the world in which they have found themselves a part of. They appear to be lobotomised but there is just enough heart available to them that hope is within their grasp. I think this is what makes the film most engaging – see too Lanthimos’s other similar masterpiece Dogtooth.
There was also the Best Film at the Oscars, Spotlight by Tom McCarthy, which indeed was a top class piece of work. More, it was a solid journalistic-focused story on a topic that’s topical right now: the exposure of horrific child abuse in the Catholic Church. Heavy stuff but still an essential watch. Mark Ruffalo makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck with his heartfelt comments. Enough said.
But not enough can be said about Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. If you haven’t seen Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin, then do! It provides a good build-up to this impressive modern horror film. And don’t get too put off by my generalised term of horror there – it’s much more than that. The horror protagonists are fairly true-to-life monsters – neo-Nazis running a punk-metal club in the woods of Middle America (Trump supporters anyone?). And to add a cherry to the set-up, the club is led by Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, who gives a vicious (and viciously good) performance. It’s violent and bloody but in a better-than-most way that Saulnier is now ably crafting in the genre.
Borrowing in many ways from the success of Dublin-based, 80s-set, musical film The Commitments, John Carney’s Sing Street is a cute Dublin –based, 80s set, mus…well, actually that’s unfair. There is a well-crafted story about youth at the heart of this crowd-pleaser and it is much funnier than The Commitments. Although doused in a fair share of nostalgia, the soundtrack of Duran Duran, The Cure and A-ha makes for a delightful escapism trip. I wasn’t born until the mid-80s and I am not from Dublin so I guess all of this was a kind of faux-nostalgia and this is probably the reason why I liked it so much.
While we are on about comedies, and bloody hell, did we not need to laugh to get through that year, eh? Probably my favourite film of the year was the whimsical and hilarious Hunt for the Wilderpeople by the brilliant Taika Waititi of New Zealand. When you can take the piss out of your own culture while simultaneously making a point about how that culture is negatively approached by others is something I have to commend Waititi for. Perhaps this is just an innocuous sub-text to a fairly straight-forward comedy, but I understand that the director, whose father is Maori, wanted this sub-text to be prominent. And it is. The boy, played by Julian Dennison, is described as a ‘bad egg’ by authorities, even though he was abandoned by his teenage mother and really just wants to have a normal life and listen to Tupac! It is a most lovable film and one that I earnestly recommend above to beat away the New Year’s blues with.
*See also my detailed treatise on The Revenant by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which was in fact probably the best film overall I watched this year.