By Roderick Heath
Around the middle of this year, I found myself awake late at night watching the oldest films ever made on YouTube—that place where everything resides now, the whole memory of the technological age of art. I watched Thomas Edison’s first stuttering shorts with their subjects dancing or fighting or simply being, against depthless black backgrounds. It felt like an act of cabalism, looking beyond the fringe of living memory at people recalled from the dead, hovering in a void. By comparison the Lumiere brothers’ escape into the light and discovery of the world at large was like returning to the land of the living. What genius of the day it took to create such an art form. What genius lets me watch it today with a click of a button.
Around the same time, I went to a cinema to see Suicide Squad. The experience was an ordeal, from the film itself, a work that might have been fun but which had been rendered close to intolerable by poor editing and witless handling, to the multiple irritations of the screening itself–the overly dark picture, the teenage jerks in front of me insisting on filming part of the movie and uploading it to the vague interest of their friends. It was hard not to feel like I’d stumbled upon cinema’s death throes, done in by an age in which the idea of a movie has devolved into a series of delivery systems, feeding fragments of incoherent but striking information to be channelled into instant iconography, detached from any pleasure of narrative or shared experience. But by year’s end I had also had radically different filmgoing experiences: regardless of what I thought of the movies in question, I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds watching the likes of Rogue One and La La Land that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.
Make no mistake—2016 has been a rough year, that’s for sure. Cultural heroes have departed us with dismaying regularity, and the less said about certain political twists the better. Hollywood definitely hasn’t been immune. The US summer blockbuster season saw film after film ring big loud gongs both critically and at the box office, and the laziest assumptions of filmmaking’s Mecca seemed set to be ransacked right at a time when it can least afford it. Apart from Disney and its many octopoidal limbs, it’s hard to shake the feeling much of Hollywood has almost forgotten what its business is. But what seemed like a train-wreck in July steadily resolved instead into a phase of quiet strength and achievement and signs of a shifting pop zeitgeist; audiences hungry for fresher, sharper thrills have been gravitating towards mid-budget thrillers, and for attentive cinephiles there’s been a constant flow of fascinating, worthwhile movies. Which is, of course, not to say that the age of franchise filmmaking is at an end, not when Marvel and Lucasfilm are raking in cash hand over fist. We still want great sagas and epics. But we want them done well, and finally audiences seem to be voting with their feet more effectively.
Suitably, a certain battered, whatever-it-takes terseness has defined many protagonists this year, with most keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The themes of besiegement, whether literal or spiritual or psychological, and of the fraught gathering of tribes only to find their axis has broken, have been obsessively touched upon. Following last year’s parade of collapsing systems, this year was all about getting through. A few mighty drama queens still made their presences felt, a la the damaged, frenetically needy mothers of the homecoming diptych Krisha and Little Sister, Ralph Fiennes’ gabby, sybaritic rogue in A Bigger Splash, and, more quietly but perhaps the most insistent of the lot, Toni Erdmann’s insinuating farceur father. But the year belonged more to the soldiers of extreme necessity, even in the year’s big, “fun” films. Roland Emmerich’s would-be throwback to ’90s pop jauntiness Independence Day: Resurgence, emphasised the damage and premature gravitas imbued by survival. The Star Wars franchise dug more deeply into the die-or-die grimness of the war film, offering up damaged and doomed heroes who finish up as backstory to someone else’s triumph. The very last scenes, a madcap, enthralling depiction of self-sacrifice whilst Darth Vader returned to his rightful place in the collective unconscious as emblem of marauding evil, came loaded with such symbolic and imagistic power that it seemed to capture something undefined about the year’s mood of dread. The Legend of Tarzan presented its never particularly talkative hero in battle with historical evil and deeply personal threat. Marvel came close to its finest moment in pitting its roguish gallery of heroes not against a great enemy but against each other, in Captain America: Civil War, which dramatized the very process of larkish venture shading into bleak and hateful interpersonal combat over deeply personal definitions of pain and history. The clash of titans in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice employed the same motif but with a different slant, presenting a battle of id and superego allowing ego to run rampant—a motif relevant in its own way. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room managed in a few quick, dense cinematic ideograms to sum up the extreme poles of political and civic discourse this year: idealistic but clueless hipsters, convinced a few blunt “fuck offs” to their enemies would dispel all opposition and carefully cultivate their dissident status, run headlong into potent, eagerly violent Nazis, whose downfall is that they’re not half as smart as they think they are.
Tom Hanks’ eponymous hero of Sully was the epitome of the year’s heroes, a professional who brings utter cool and a cellular-level marriage of craft and intuition to a high-pressure situation, only visited with doubt under the scrutiny of a scourging public eye. Meanwhile the pilgrims of Paths of the Soul engaged in their arduous, infinitely repetitive journey to try to redeem the whole world. The couple at the heart of a pivot in law and culture in Loving stayed loyal and true in the midst of the world’s cacophony. Chris Pine’s heroes in The Finest Hours and Hell or High Water dealt with life’s storms with stern resolve, counterbalancing Ben Foster’s part in the latter, as the man who brings his own storms. Pine and his familiar compatriots of Star Trek Beyond couldn’t mourn their own defeat and the loss of their ship, instead forced to keep moving by any means possible to keep up the fight. The patriots of Anthropoid set out to kill a monster with the fixated nihilism of the intensely dedicated; those of Allied found themselves forced to question whether the profoundest loyalty is political or personal. The hero of Hacksaw Ridge endures ostracism, disdain, and finally war at its most savage without protection. Nat Turner offered himself as incantatory engine of revenge in The Birth of a Nation whilst Free State of Jones came under the domain of Matthew McConaughey’s glowing-eyed honky beneficence. Elle’s elegantly untraditional heroine refused to be reduced to victimhood, instead entrapping her rapist’s desire and perversity within her own until it is shrunken enough to conquer. The certain women of Certain Women coolly and patiently waited out the gnawing winters of the heart and the hapless Little Sister and her family fronted up to things that could be changed and things that couldn’t, its heroine fulfilling both sides of her titular role on the field of care and responsibility by any means on hand. The inhabitants of the Cemetery of Splendour contended with randomly cruel illnesses and multiple zones of reality. Amy Adams’ epitome of the human race in Arrival even had to put up with having her brain rewired and her future mapped out in excruciating detail, and learned to accept it.
Perhaps it’s apt that the western has been sputtering to life this year, evinced in Hell Or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, The Magnificent Seven, and Jane Got a Gun, being as it is a genre where hard-bitten, squinting antiheroes live wild and die free. Results differed. Hell or High Water, a Texas excursion for Scots director David Mackenzie, who has been making the sort of vexing films that illustrate the maxim “good is the enemy of great” for over a decade now, was a Peckinpah-esque exploration of the legacies of dispossession and violence past and present. The film struggled to find its feet with (sometimes literal) big signs announcing its themes and some familiar chestnuts of the Euro-director-goes-US mode, but the last half-hour sang with its eruptions of violence and genuinely ambivalent coda. In a Valley of Violence brought a similar blend of referential exactitude and shrewd dissection of the tropes of its chosen genre that defined Ti West’s earlier horror films, restaging the basic revenge drama in many a western as tale of mirroring misanthropy and brutal reckoning. The result was foiled only by West’s already familiar tendency to take refuge in formula when his ideas run out. Antoine Fuqua’s visit to the trail blazed by Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges occasionally caught the breeze of straightforward, cheery, bloodthirsty entertainment that once made the western so popular, giving Chris Pratt a death scene to die for. But Fuqua’s lead-footed filmmaking squelched any hope this film could live up to its models—that, and a fascinating refusal to engage with the same themes of class and race so important to those predecessors. Jane Got a Gun tried to bring a feminist tilt to the table, but failed to also offer an effective story or any pulse of excitement, playing out on all levels with strenuous inevitability. Suicide Squad was the grunge-tinted, contemporary variant on The Magnificent Seven, as a mob of variously low-rent, half-mad villains were pressganged to fight for…well, something or other. Whatever potential the film had was lost in a shit-storm of studio second-guessing and tired “fun” gimmickry.
Nonetheless, the superhero genre is definitely the modern-dress version of the western, following very similar templates—heroes with an edge over ordinary folk forced to answer their questions of the nature of justice and the meaning of community whilst fighting variations of the same essential moral dramas over and over. Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with merciless brickbats for trying to expand and deepen the superhero film’s palette. Whilst it did deserve some of the criticism, Snyder’s superior director’s cut restored heft and solidity, as well as a truly epic gravitas. And yet for all the huffing and puffing, the movie it wanted to be still only finally emerges in the last few fleeting minutes. Dawn of Justice isn’t the only one of this year’s whipping boys for which I found a little fondness. Independence Day: Resurgence was interminable when trying to outdo the original’s wholesale destruction porn, but curiously likeable elsewhere, particularly as it gave old pros Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner a chance to make me chuckle and offered Maika Monroe one of the year’s better action heroine roles. David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan was weighed down by an extremely lazy chase plot and a script that seemed determined to foil all its own impending climaxes. And yet Yates’ eye for epic filmmaking was evident, and his film offered an intelligently revisionist approach to its hero. Yates’ other film for the year, an extension of J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, renewed the franchise by backtracking. The result was at its best when simply having larkish fun and fell flat with the big picture game. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was doomed to languish in its shadow as its frizz-haired auteur tried his hand at juvenile franchise cultivation. Burton couldn’t break out of the bland rhythms of slickly CGI-crusted Harry Potter wannabes, but his strong imagery, furtive understanding of adolescent proto-eroticism, and episodes of slyly nasty humour (like introducing Judi Dench only to feed her to a monster) made it a reasonably honourable discursion.
Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ entry of the now rapidly expanding Star Wars mythos, was only serviceable on a dramatic level, but was jolted to life by the force of Edwards’ visuals and the sheer whatever-it-takes verve of his and his filmmaking team’s love of the material. Eternal rival Star Trek also had an entry this year: Star Trek Beyond was a similarly mixed bag but ranked as one of the year’s better FX blockbusters. The script, co-written by cast member Simon Pegg, actually understood how to pace and shape an adventure story and grasped the essence of the Trek brand, particularly as it pitched its heroes into amusingly generic Trekian locations. But it was also weighed down by a plot that bashed together concepts from the last four Trek films, including yet another quasi-terrorist villain with a grudge against the Federation. Justin Lin’s direction embodied the schism, drinking in scifi spectacle with an eye that easily dwarfed that of J.J. Abrams, but also offered jarringly hard-to-read action scenes. The film’s weak box office was undeserved but perhaps inevitable given how much air Abrams had let out of the tyre. X-Men: Apocalypse’s weak box office was, on the other hand, entirely deserved. Rarely has a once-noble franchise come to such an underpowered, apathetically written, acted, and directed turn, lumbering through the motions of killing off Magneto’s family yet again, and setting up Oscar Isaac as a villain of cosmic menace only to have him stand around waiting for the big gang-up finale—a sequence that did finally deliver some entertainment, but not sufficiently to redeem it. Marvel rival Doctor Strange was a splashy but entirely hacky entry in the superhero stakes from Scott Derrickson. The film was dotted with moments of cleverness, some vivid visuals and fun performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, but it foundered on its derivative and tony annexation of a more mystical wing of the Marvel realm, and failed that most basic of tests for this genre: it’s not in the slightest bit exciting. Tim Miller’s Deadpool, meanwhile, aimed at upending all familiar rules for this filmmaking mode, offering up a potty-mouthed antiheroic jerkwad as protagonist and making sport of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s self-seriousness. And yet it was the kind of curative that hurts more than the disease, a wad of collected internet memes passed off as antic cool.
Horror and thriller cinema proved extremely lively this year, benefiting from the disenchantment with the laborious parade of “big” movies. The second instalment of James Wan’s happily ridiculous The Conjuring series maintained the brand’s defining contrast between the loving, lively, generous impulses of its heroic, central married couple, and their line of work, which brings them into contact with forces of cosmic nihilism, this time around with a great supporting turn from Madison Wolfe as the victim of a demon’s possessive streak. Fede Alvarerz’s Don’t Breathe was a tolerable but trite and mechanical entry, depicting a home invasion with a nasty twist. Don’t Breathe desperately needed some of the hallucinatory gusto of the late Wes Craven’s similar The People Under the Stairs, but was faintly redeemed by its coal-black sarcasm in handling the idea of identity as fate—who could forget the turkey baster of doom? Jason Zada’s The Forest had an interesting setting, the “suicide” forest of Aokigahara by Mount Fuji, and a cool star, Natalie Dormer, but misused both in a half-hearted spookfest. Karyn Kusama bounced back from lacklustre blockbuster experiences to make the tense and smart The Invitation, which imagined the touchy-feely precepts of La La Land encounter culture as prelude to cathartic mass carnage. Perhaps the film I most anticipated this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and it became conversely perhaps my biggest disappointment, though I still liked it in some ways. Refn’s craft, at once languorously aestheticized and patiently nasty, managed to tether together a raft of referential peccadilloes—classic Hollywood’s imperial egotisms and the mythology of its sacrificial young, the horny, id-welling chic of ’70s Euro-horror, the totemic force of Greek legend and the airy gloss of high-class consumer culture—into a heady stew replete with magnificent images. But it went on far, far too long and went down so many blind alleys before reaching its true reckoning that much of its minatory power evaporated.
Although more thriller than horror movie and technically really not even that, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals touched on similar territory to The Neon Demon in studying LA’s exalted spheres (and sharing cast member Jena Malone) counterpointed with harsh and menacing evocations of ambition falling foul of the nation’s dark heart. Ford evinced surprising gifts for generating suspense and envisioning pivots of horror to a degree that suggests he might eventually make a good noir director. But whereas Refn’s quotes of fashion art were satiric, Ford’s are merely displays of brand affectation, and his better work here dissolves amidst dumb ideas, like a pair of murdered bodies rhymed with a couple in bed, and a finale when revenge literally costs an eye for an eye, before the narrative cuts off in a place that reduces the whole affair to a sick joke. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow was similar to 2014’s The Bababook in portraying a mother’s claustrophobic haunting by a demon, set not in anodyne suburbia, but in Tehran during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and its stifling, paranoid, reactionary zeitgeist: Anvari’s cool direction only occasionally let slip visions of strangeness, sustained an eerie mood right to the end, and held its own metaphorical inferences tightly leashed until nearly the end. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers’ The Witch gained plaudits as a horror film that took on the foundational struggles of European colonisation in America and its lingering credos. For myself, I’m still not sure how much I like it. Eggers’ eye is undoubtedly excellent, some of his images sear, and his sustained mood of dread was deeply effective. But the film’s supposedly radical tilt is actually pretty familiar for horror fans.
One of the year’s more surprising winners was Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, triangulating scifi and psychological thriller, sustaining a genuinely intense and unsettling note of dislocation and apocalyptic mystery until nearly the end, whilst maintaining a gloss of pop cinema fun. Terrific performances from the perpetually underrated John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead helped. And I can’t help but admit a little, sneaky enjoyment of one of the year’s bigger critical and commercial failures, Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a work that tried to combine Regency manners and Romero splatter with a certain clunky, goofy zest. Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin didn’t quite live up to its hype for me even as it marked an interesting debut, returned with the superb Green Room, a film with a genuinely Carpenter-esque sense of efficiency and drive. On top of its political inferences, it’s a film that offers sympathy for everyone by the end and actually manages to restore some of the fear of death and mutilation to a genre that too often treats both as playful pyrotechnics. Kudos in particular to the late Anton Yelchin and the marvellous Imogen Poots.
Making account of this year’s bad and mediocre films does require some time and effort. Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur broke my personal record for turning off a film, when its opening frames insisted on taking me to the start of the chariot race, with Morgan Freeman’s stentorian voice delivering nonsensical narration, and the actors playing Judah and Messalah swapping lines of dialogue with all the conviction of two high schoolers who get involved with theatre club to meet girls. Jack Huston, one of those actors, has been a promising talent, but probably won’t get another leading role until 2033. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was another fascinating example in how, if one can master certain arts of high-pressuring an audience through relentless use of editing and audio stunts, one can be taken as a genius even if the raw material of one’s art is tepid schlock. The climactic scene of a Chinese general explaining the plot by way of a supposedly casual encounter remembered/foreseen by its heroine was the stuff of broad lampooning, whilst the movie as a whole bested Interstellar for reducing the apparatus of cosmic awe to the meal of TV melodrama. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, a real display of Disney’s regal force of production values. But although it was entertaining, there was something pleasantly trite about its glossy, photorealistic but essentially nondescript CGI animals, duly solid depiction of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasia, and half-hearted annexation of the 1964 film’s musical aspect. Also the attempts to beef up the mythic and heroic side of Kipling’s story proved awkward, as in the finale when young Mowgli, marked for death by intolerant Shere Khan for his kind’s carelessly destructive ways, proves his point by behaving in a carelessly destructive way—but he’s the hero, so it’s okay.
Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War trod arduously through their mythic-heroic guff composed of utterly flavourless drama and purely rote, appropriated scenes. Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t entirely escape the air of enervation that hovered around so much of this stuff this year. Although his The BFG was clearly personal and intriguingly muted, it felt weirdly flimsy and miscalculated, a gigantic project couched in intimate whimsy that desperately lacked a meaty story and compelling, detailed characters. Whilst by no means bad, it stands as the director’s biggest bust since the not-so-dissimilar Hook. The year’s most disgraceful entry from a major director was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, a staggeringly bad romp through a fantasy realm carefully wrought to evoke the computer game it was based on whilst obeying no laws of aesthetics, physical logic, or storytelling sense. Far from legitimising such adaptations, Warcraft instead described just about everything wrong with modern filmmaking, from pulverising its good cast into a lump of indistinguishable blandness to failing utterly to convey any feel for fantasy cinema, offering something more like a gamer convention promo reel gone berserk. Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters, meanwhile, became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. For all the hype and hate, the actual movie proved about as thrilling as a bucket of warm spit, a total failure of wit and invention sporting an array of tepid pseudo-improv comedy, weak heroes and villains, and empty, characterless special effects. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth did more for the film than it did for them. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows started intriguingly as a gap-year take on Jaws with an emphasis on minimalist menace, promising a rock-solid thrill ride. But it quickly sank amidst clichés and contrivances before revealing itself as the most elaborate game of hot lava ever played, with added Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appeal. Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen was the shit-smeared caboose of the long post-Die Hard action movie train.
J. Blakeson, whose debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, was so impressive a few years ago, returned at last, helming the eye-twistingly silly YA actioner The 5th Wave. The Divergent series went belly-up with the incident-free Allegiant, proving you can push the “let’s split the last book in two” adaptation process way too far. Tate Taylor, who at the moment is a serious candidate for the worst director in Hollywood, took on this year’s bestselling blockbuster adaptation, The Girl on the Train, and managed to waste Emily Blunt’s customarily good lead performance by shooting a supposedly creepy and intense thriller with all the propulsion and authority of a feminine hygiene commercial. There was some real bullshit amongst the year’s well-reviewed, classy fare too. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was Suicide Squad for people frustrated they never went to Oxford. Jeff Nichols’ first of two films for the year, Midnight Special, was an initially intriguing attempt to blend Nichols’ moody, big-things-happen-to-small-people motif first mooted on Take Shelter with tributes to ’80s Spielberg and Carpenter, but finished up boring me silly with its fuzzy, hole-ridden plot, unearned emotional ploys, and banal visualisations of the miraculous: the finale offered a magic, invisible city that looked disturbingly like the one in Tomorrowland, a place no one should have to return to. Rufus Norris’ London Road was an intriguing, radical-sounding project, adapted from a stage musical that used real interviews of the inhabitants of the title street where a serial killer lived as the libretto for its stuttering tunes, but the result was revealing only in how little such heavy lifting achieved. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s return to profitable stomping grounds, Jason Bourne, had one fine set-piece, a chase staged in the midst of an Athens riot, but proved so listless and unoriginal as a whole that it didn’t just bore me, but also made me wonder if I’d actually enjoyed the earlier films in the series.
Ben Stiller also tried to revive a beloved character engaged in international assassinations and conspiracy for Zoolander 2, and blimey if I didn’t get a few chuckles out of the resulting stew, even if it lacked the blindsiding nerve that made the original memorable, instead memorialising its own formula. On the other hand, Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army revived the loveable old TV show but expended a perfect cast on hoary shenanigans and made the canonical mistake of such revivals by imposing an unfunny major character and resulting new dynamics on the classic template. Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows exasperated me last year, returned with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a tribute to bygone days of New Zealand’s comic outlaw movies and the wider pantheon of ’80s genre film: here Waititi’s true chops emerged, adroitly mixing authentic sentiment and pop culture-inflected waggishness. Abe Forsyth’s Down Under took on a disturbing major event of recent Australian history, the ethnically charged 2005 Cronulla Riots, and offered shots of effectively weird humour, but its attempt to segue from broad, caricatured satire to violent, darkly telling parable was ultimately laboured. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man tried to mate hipster philosophical concerns—the nature of life and how to meet girls—with body humour, and got a surprisingly long way on that odd mixture, only to fall foul of a near-inevitable exhaustion of inspiration well before it ended. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s Sausage Party tackled a similar mixture of authentically heady themes and raunchy humour and worked rather better, in part because as well as a spicy parable in favour of hedonism and against prescribed blinkering, it was also a much-needed burlesque of the now well-worn Pixar animation formula.
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was doomed to be cited as the kind of great nonspecial-effect-driven film everybody claims to want more of but then doesn’t go to see, as, in spite of its top-line cast and strong reviews and crowd-pleasing tilt, it bombed hard at the box office. For me, Black’s raucous blend of black humour and retro action was often great fun and enabled an array of terrific performances from stars familiar (Russell Crowe), maturing (Ryan Gosling), and fresh (Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, Yaya DaCosta). But it also played the same hand one or two times too many, and wasn’t always so sharp at telling its great ideas from the ordinary. Gosling also featured in the film that will probably win all of this year’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film that seeks to wrap its audience in a fervent recreation of musical aesthetics past whilst telling a mildly bittersweet tale about love going awry whilst careers catch fire. The pretty photography and Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone distracted from the fact it’s a neutered New York, New York (1977) knock-off that does precious little that’s genuinely creative or incisive, littered with utterly forgettable songs and choreography. Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle blended drollery and bloodletting but in a very different fashion to The Nice Guys, applying the fuzzily realist aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to a Civil War-era tale of two brothers sent along different paths with the thesis that people back then were just as confused, listless, and hapless as we are today—only the tides pushing them around were stronger. Jim Jarmusch’s charming, ambling Paterson was an ode to creativity as a life-force for ordinary people, couched in typically timeless, oddball terms by its writer-director and littered with lovely performances. But as a whole I didn’t enjoy it as much as its immediate predecessor Only Lovers Left Alive, for whilst Jarmusch’s feel for neurasthenic cool is undeniable, I doubt he could find actual normality with a road map.
Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice was a film about comedy and the kinds of people who create it, exploring the tension between public artistic idealism and private expectation that eventually it had better start paying off: the film’s rueful portrait of the resulting crisis was affecting but never really proved as compelling, or funny, or insightful, as it wanted us to find it. Robert Edwards’ One More Time also depicted the pleasures and pains of a life in show business, offering Christopher Walken and Amber Heard a diverting if unmemorable vehicle as a waned crooner and his shambolic wannabe daughter. Two entries in the very familiar indie film subgenre depicting tense reunions of dysfunctional families gained strong plaudits this year. Zach Clark’s Little Sister was the lighter in spite of dealing with suicidal tendencies and gruesome disfigurement, whilst Trey Edward Shults’ stylistically harder-edged Krisha portrayed the fallout of addiction. Both films revolved around the impact of a self-destructive mother steeped in countercultural cool but now just a wash-up with ironically square kids (a theme also echoed in Toni Erdmann). Clark’s film offered rather too many cute ironies left insufficiently explored, and political themes that never came into focus beyond indicting the smugness of the bourgeois lefty style many felt the Trumpista victory was comeuppance for. But it had a fine touch for the ways people who love each other find ways both oblique and direct to make contact.
Krisha, by contrast, came on strong but also blunt, laying on pathos and cinematic manipulation with a trowel, held together mostly by the deeply convincing portrait of fraying human will at its heart: its suggestion that some people can’t help laying waste to everything even when they don’t want to was fittingly cruel, but Shults’ tricky direction kept bad faith with the audience and struck one note for 80-odd minutes. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash sprawled out with glorious energy and eccentric humour with underlying menace for its first two-thirds as it explored the lives of the variously careless and rapaciously sensual, but then, after segueing into a fateful act of violence, left itself painfully beached without any idea where to go next. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was rapturously received by many. I liked it, although I can’t quite see what the big deal here is—stepping back from the genuinely original, cryptic indie-noir of Night Moves, Reichardt here offered a triptych of suggestive portraits where all the details feel as a carefully arranged as your grandmother’s crystal collection. Excellent performances and a great last 20 minutes did make the film worthy, however. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, on the other hand, gripped from the get-go with its enigmatic but almost physically exciting portrait of isolation within community, taking up a conceit similar to last year’s The Falling but more effectively, respecting the mystery it invoked but clearly understanding the unruly heart of youth.
Simon Stone’s The Daughter likewise revolved around the power and fragility of youth on the cusp, transposing Henryk Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Tasmania’s drizzly heartland with respectable if sometimes heavy-footed results, swapping Ibsen’s cool tragedy for soap operatics on occasion, but retaining an architectural solidity. I preferred it all in all to the film that overshadowed it on Aussie award nights, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That film was a big, bristling, very broad tribute to the clichés of war films past and a celebration of Gibson’s overwrought but curiously compulsive worldview, his happily boldfaced, confessional purging, his storytelling savvy, and his love of thrilling butchery—all peculiarly enjoyable when taken as pure theatre. Allied saw Robert Zemeckis similarly delving into classic movie lore with a less personal but more peculiar, intriguing bent, starting off with obvious touchstones—a spy romance set initially in Casablanca, of all places, replete with we-saw-Inglourious Basterds-isms—before turning into a darkly romantic portrait of marital distrust and sacrifice in the context of onerous official duty and collective paranoia, spiralling in towards intimate reckoning rather than explosive theatrics. It could well be Zemeckis’s best film, and certainly his determination to unmask the mobile orgy the war obliged might count as a historical duty. Another director who started, like Zemeckis, as a screenwriter in the heady days of New Wave Hollywood, is Terrence Malick. Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, received an indifferent reception upon release early in the year. Understandable, I suppose—after all, it was just another magnificently shot, feverishly edited, astonishingly acted visionary confession-cum-tone-poem exploring a deeply personal zone of experience through a universalised lens.
As usual, the major yardstick for would-be seriousness in this year’s high-end fare was a basis in some suitable real-life tale. That most esteemed of Hollywood veterans, Clint Eastwood, returned with Sully, another study in the ambivalence of myth-making as backdrop to the reality of valour. Few films of recent years have been so efficient, so concerted, and even the somewhat overworked bureaucrat bashing aspect was kept contained by Eastwood’s complex yet entirely lucid assemblage. Meanwhile eternal try-hard Peter Berg released two based-on-a-true-story fob-jobs this year, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Deepwater Horizon was the only one I saw: bolstered by a strong supporting performance from Kurt Russell, who proved he still commands the screen like an ageing but still ornery beast of the veldt, this one built to an impressive but curiously, cumulatively pointless recreation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Good thing dramatic niceties and a nick-of-time fade-out relieved the film of the responsibility of noting one of the worst environmental catastrophes of all time resulted from these events, which were all apparently the fault of nasty, weirdly accented John Malkovich. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a similarly pumped-up take on recent headlines, inflating controversial events that cost the life of a US diplomat and military personnel as a kind of neo-Alamo, but at least Bay’s showmanship was sufficiently madcap to serve as an end in itself. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, unlike Berg and Bay’s films, was not officially based on a true story but lightly fictionalised some familiar aspects of the War on Terror and its strange new battlefields into the texture of its drama for the purpose of introducing the audience to the simultaneously detached and nightmarishly intimate world of drone warfare. Whilst not quite wielding the same bleak and alien power, it could be counted as a modern-day take on something like Fail-Safe (1964) as a chamber drama of conscience versus necessity.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa returned to the kind of preposterous yet fact-based story they cut their teeth on with I Love You, Phillip J. Morris in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film that offered Tina Fey and Martin Freeman welcome breaks from their more familiar parts, playing nerds transformed into wild cards in the midst of Afghanistan war reporting, but the film which could have been the MASH of the ’10s proved rather a few swear words away from being Private Benjamin instead. Natalie Portman had a much better time impersonating Jacqueline Kennedy and finding a lode of determination under her bob and Nob Hill accent in Jackie, the first of a superlative one-two punch from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, the other being Neruda, an inspired poetic twist on the usual hagiography. Don Cheadle suggested some real directorial chops in the snappy, colourful frames of Miles Ahead, a portrait-biography of Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s impersonation of the jazz great was suitably exact. But the facetious script eventually proved the opposite of Sully in that its showy structure led nowhere whilst its insights remained skin-deep. Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, depicting the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the heroically futile battle for survival by his patriot killers, confused recreating scenes from generations of spy thrillers for noble filmmaking, and the results just serviceable. Mick Jackson’s Denial explored a moment of subtle but consequential import in the history of history, depicting the slow skewering of Holocaust denier David Irving, but David Hare’s script proved a textbook for study of now-familiar screenwriting tricks for this sort of thing—convenient conflict here! contrived misunderstanding there!—and Rachel Weisz’s annoyingly broad lead performance didn’t help matters. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert depicted the life of Gertrude Bell, architect of nations and fool of fortune. Although generally dismissed and dumped on the home viewing market, I found this one quietly rapturous in recreating the brand of stoic, yet often blindingly intense romanticism at the crux of war, peace, man, woman, east and west: only James Franco’s miscasting proved a drag.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation looked set to be one of the films of the year, with director-star Parker receiving ovations at Sundance with his project which, in theory, sounded inspired—recounting the tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and stealing the title of D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying epic, aiming to angry up the blood. But something went wrong: Parker’s dubious past became, perhaps unfairly, a sticking point for easy acceptance. More to the point, the film was a troubling chimera, with its best traits, a sense of moral torpor and lurking unease blooming into outright horror, owing too much to 12 Years a Slave (2013), and its lesser to a well-thumbed playbook of righteous avenger movies resolving in clumsily staged action scenes whilst suggesting, dismayingly, that laundered, manipulative history was the answer to the same. Jeff Nichols’ Loving ventured to explore the marrow-deep malignity of racist legacies and the challenge to it via the experiences of the so-aptly named Lovings and their consequential victory for marriage freedom in the late 1960s. Nichols’ feel for place and lifestyle was truly evocative here, but as it went along, the usual lapses of Nichols’ style manifested, particularly over-length, whilst the central, essential portrayal of the couple strained to celebrate them as quiet and decent but proved on closer inspection sentimentalised and vacant instead, offering plaster saints rather than real people, with the cumulative effect of locking all potential dramatic power in amber. Still, Ruth Negga, who also gave Warcraft its sole flicker of life, maintained dignity. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures played a more populist key in recounting the stories of black women mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: there’s a more serious and memorable movie lurking somewhere within, but the one around it has its moments.
Radu Jude’s Aferim! trod a sneakier path towards a truer depiction of human absurdity and cruelty as it roamed around historical Romania, a place hovering on the threshold of modernity’s transformations whilst still subsisting in a medieval past, showing how we all learn to acquiesce to wrong and injustice when it’s painted as eternal truth and if our paycheque depends on it. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes winner from last year, Dheepan, finally surfaced this year in English-speaking markets. Audiard’s usually riveting gifts for blending raw sociology and dramatic daring with genre filmmaking proclivities here failed to fuse properly, but the result was still intriguing in its depiction of total personal and social dislocation and the peculiar malleability of identity, trying to wedge itself into the grey zone between Kafka and De Palma’s Scarface. Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden, which appeared at this year’s festival, was much hailed as a lush and loopy transposition of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Korea in the 1930s. This was another one everyone seems to have loved but me: I find Park’s filmmaking, eager as it is to claim the mantle of great cinematic sensualists and impresarios, to be a big hollow gong, his themes announced in unmistakeable brass booms, his eroticism slick and cold even (or especially) when it’s trying to be celebratory. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s follow-up to her great Attenberg was Chevalier, a would-be droll parable lampooning male anxieties and power games with a hint of political inference: some of its arrows landed deep and true and some images were sharp and funny. But the film, like its characters, kept going long after it had forgotten what the point was, if there ever was one.
Tsangari’s fellow Greek tyro Gyorgos Lanthimos made his English-language debut with The Lobster, one of the year’s arthouse hits. Offering a twisted exacerbation of contemporary life’s obsession with sex and coupling as a retro-futurist dystopia, Lanthimos mixed comedy, horror, even romanticism in his stylised, deliberately (?) stilted context. At its best, it was jarring and disturbing in confronting human nature, but on other levels it was also just an inflated Monty Python sketch, and I absorbed it more in dazed fascination than real enjoyment or deep contemplation. Meanwhile in Germany, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann found general acclaim blending chilly realism and deadpan absurdity in depicting a mischievous father trying to prod his grown daughter, a serf to corporate life, to make some needed displays of undisciplined behaviour. Although the film had its fitful comic coups, and in spite of a nearly three-hour running time, it remained evasive in its characterisations and hackneyed in its supposedly biting critique of high capitalist behaviour, dressing up what was essentially an inflated Neil Simon three-act in the full regalia of Euro-cinema provocation. By comparison with such fastidious quirk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour was so delicate and sublimely well-fashioned, it barely seemed to be there, and yet it accumulated like summer mist on leaves until the finest patina of brilliance appeared as it drifted through ages and states of being with wry and melancholy grace. Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul, the first mainland Chinese film to deal with Tibetan Buddhism, engaged in spiritual themes in a more worldly yet no less mesmeric fashion, lifting the spirits by studying the unyielding dedication of the truly faithful and its more secular celebration of teamwork and trust. Way over in France, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved a tour de force for the filmmaker even as he ceded so much of its intent and effect to star Isabelle Huppert, who responded by giving a performance made of vulcanised rubber. The harder she was hit, the faster and straighter she flew.
Performances of Note:
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Luke Evans, High-Rise
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Taissa Farmiga, In A Valley of Violence
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Sienna Guillory, High-Rise
Tom Hanks, Sully
Amber Heard, One More Time
Royalty Hightower, The Fits
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon
Ruth Negga, Loving
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Daughter
Chris Pine, The Finest Hours; Hell or High Water
Jenjira Pongpas, Cemetery of Splendour
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Addison Timlin, Little Sister
John Travolta, In a Valley of Violence
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2
Odessa Young, The Daughter
Ensemble: Knight of Cups
Ensemble: Paths of the Soul
Favourite Films of 2016
Aferim! (Radu Jude)
A blackly comic yet casually tragic journey through Romanian history, Aferim! viewed the past through black and white photography to present a remembrance that refused to offer monochrome morality, an attempt to diagnose national ills and deliver a finale that succeeds as sad pivot for a young man’s maturation and a study of the blend of arbitrary human constructs we call reality.
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul’s latest was nominally slighter and even less overtly fantastical compared to his earlier work, but his vision has arguably never been more lucid or imaginative. When so many films struggle to pinion us in our seats with vistas of soporific spectacle, Weerasethakul here evokes multiple planes and states of being with pure language of mouth and eye, and, like the hospital that is his film’s setting, provides an islet of enigma and contemplation in the midst of a modern world bellowing in our faces.
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Signalling that Verhoeven’s cinema has become cooler and more insidiously methodical in his late phase, Elle shows he’s lost none of his characteristic provocation, the taste of arsenic under the heady aroma of this stew. Isabelle Huppert’s effortlessly commanding performance is the linchpin of a study that both totally fulfils and makes ruthless sport of the cultural grail that is the Strong Female Character, portraying a heroine who refuses to be judged by anyone’s standards but her own.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
Sparse, cryptic, finally ecstatic, an American descendent of such bastions of European social cinema as The 400 Blows and the Dardennes that nonetheless feels original, this study in a young black girl’s desire for acceptance and communal identity amidst a mysterious outbreak of paroxysms amongst a team of talented dancers provided one of the best portraits of inner-city life ever put on screen.
The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie)
Nobody but me seemed to like this, but I found this throwback to an old-fashioned kind of adventure film a tonic amongst so many lumbering, bludgeoning big movie misfires, unabashedly corny but heartfelt and ravishingly shot. With its populace of hearty seafarers and flinty New Englanders, it was like an old Saturday Evening Post cover brought to life, and more successfully Spielbergian than the real Spielberg film of this year.
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Straddling zones of horror, thriller, even western, Green Room quickly proved that Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier has his ear to the ground in ways I couldn’t anticipate, depicting the political schisms manifest this year in the manner of all great genre cinema—by enacting them at wild extremes. The result was hard, fast, and beautiful in the precision of its ugliness.
High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)
A portrait of Western civilisation’s crack-up as viewed through a lens of retro perversion, High Rise is the companion piece to Green Room’s diagram of 2016’s grotesqueness, contemplating the breakdown of a human and technological system that lays bare the workings of the social organism and suggests the strange, hideous, thrilling things that might take place.
Jackie / Neruda (Pablo Larrain)
A tawdry wing of current prestige cinema, the week-in-the-life biopic, is annexed by Latin America’s most dynamic current talent and transformed into something thrilling in Jackie, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her President husband’s assassination. The result is intelligent, investigative, and pungently unsentimental in its portrait of both intense personal horror and grief, and the construction of political mythology. Meanwhile, companion piece Neruda more quietly but just as radically dissects the role of the artist in society. Both films encompass the process turning life into fiction and fiction into the template of a new reality.
Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
Knight of Cups offered the third and least celebrated of Malick’s unofficial trilogy exploring the state of modern life, coming on like a natural force in the relentlessness of its images and associations, replete with wide-eyed good humour as well as tragic force and fatalistic awe in its consideration of the manifold ways of humans being. Someday, it will be counted as a great shame no one was interested when such filmmaking was still being made.
Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang)
The first Chinese film to deal with contemporary Buddhist faith blends documentary with gentle drama for a hypnotic experiential work depicting the quest of a small band of the faithful from a small Tibetan town who undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, kowtowing all the way, for the sake of not just their own souls but the whole world. In a year of massive shows of wilful ignorance and collective sparring, this experience made me sad for wondering whether we are worth such dedication.
Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)
Another dismissed artefact by an ageing auteur, Queen of the Desert set out to be the anti-Lawrence of Arabia in style and substance, its lensing immediate rather than grandiose, desert surveys dusty and grey rather than radiantly expansive, its depictions of people and cultures intimate rather than mythic. Apt, for a tale that envisions the life of its heroine Gertrude Bell as moments of fleeting grace and escape and the desert an ocean of peace but only a respite from civilisation’s perversities. The result is that most contradictory of propositions: a romantic Werner Herzog movie.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:
Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
Sully (Clint Eastwood)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Rough Gems & The Underrated
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Captain America: Civil War (Anthony & Joe Russo)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Fences (Denzel Washington)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
In a Valley of Violence (Ti West)
Little Sister (Zach Clark)
The Lobster (Gyorgos Lanthimos)
Men Go To Battle (Zachary Treitz)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
Rogue One (Gareth Edwards)
Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)
Disappointing, Overrated, & Underwhelming
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
Deadpool (Tim Miller)
Free State of Jones (Gary Ross)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Passengers (Morten Tyldum)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson)
Ghostbusters (Paul Feig)
The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
20th Century Women ∙ Captain Fantastic ∙ Christine ∙ Cosmos ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ Indignation ∙ Julieta ∙ Louder Than Bombs ∙ The Mermaid ∙ Neon Bull ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ The Treasure ∙ A War ∙
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2016:
Bird of Paradise (King Vidor)
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento)
The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)
A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinneman)
Marooned (John Sturges)
Nazarin / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
Outrage (Ida Lupino)
Phantasm (Don Coscarelli)
Rapture (John Guillermin)
Road Games (Richard Franklin)
Rodan / Mothra (Ishiro Honda)
They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray)
Transylvania (Tony Gatlif)
The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman)
The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)
20 thoughts on “Confessions of a Film Freak 2016”
“…I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds…that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.”
Only in a few instances have more honest words been said about this year on the Internet.
Both personally and professionally, the first half of 2016 had more “blooming promises” for me than the second half. We had faith things would get better, but then the lagoons turned out to be empty mirages in the wasteland – the rudest awakening of all. A lot of us, myself included, had our preconceived opinions on the sciences and arts turned upside down, in the most depressingly accelerated manner imaginable. Which is why it’s been incredibly hard for me to relax and enjoy mainstream cinema for what it is, now that I know way too much about the socioeconomic background behind contemporary mythology. It doesn’t connect the dots, and it doesn’t connect with me.
I agree with you wholeheartedly that “the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead”, but I don’t agree on the mechanisms of realizing that dream. I don’t think working-class audiences will continue to support centralized, elitist, manipulative Hollywood mythmaking, especially after the exposure of Western media’s informational and moral hypocrisies during coverage of political events. And as enthusiastic as I am about alternatives to Occicentric storytelling in Second, Third, and Fourth cinemas (particularly in science fiction), I’m not confident that they are a major priority among these folk right now. In the wake of the disastrously vicious election cycles in America and Europe, people could care less about whatever pseudo-progressive messages are in the “hottest” pop culture molehill (one of the reasons I ditched Twitter after nine months); they want universal health care, universal education, and decolonization of land and legislation first. And given the commercial failure of 3D and virtual reality to capture young “customers”, they aren’t looking for other cultural avenues for escape, and aren’t able to afford it anyway.
If something catches my eye, I’ll still note it and critique its aspects, but I’m just not as invested in cinema as I used to be. The blooming promises of communal dreams are elsewhere.
BEST FILMS I WATCHED IN 2016
Blood and Black Lace (1964; Italy/France/West Germany; dir. Mario Bava)
Jun Togawa & Yapoos: Tour Live ’85-’86 (1986; Japan; dir. Hiroyuki Nakano)
Meet the Feebles (1989; New Zealand; dir. Peter Jackson)
How to Talk Minnesotan (1993; USA; dir. John Whitehead)
Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea (2000; Japan/South Korea; dir. Kazuki Akane)
Suicide Circle (2001; Japan; dir. Sion Sono)
The Borrower Arrietty (2010; Japan; dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
1913: Seeds of Conflict (2015; USA; dir. Ben Loeterman)
WORST FILMS I WATCHED IN 2016
Red Fox Story: The Fox in the Quest of the Northern Sun (1976; Japan; dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara)
House (1977; Japan; dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)
Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction (2014, TV; UK; series dir. John Dias & Ben Southwell)
Hypernormalization (2016; UK; dir. Adam Curtis) [Man, fuck this stupid movie. My review at https://sympanreviews.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/mini-review-adam-curtis-ruins-everything/.%5D
Hi Jason and Rod – I share the more optimistic view of moviegoers that Rod does, as I don’t think the vast majority of people will be mobilized to give up their Saturday night at the movies to resist the propaganda system on which they were weaned. I believe that if they do walk away, it will be because they are, as Rod says, voting with their feet for better fare.
Rod – I generally think your critiques are spot-on, though I did not see a lot of the movies you mention. I think you’re a little off the mark on The Fits, which doesn’t read inner-city to me – I’m not even sure what that means – but rather the world of girls. Many of us are tomboys who then suddenly become “young ladies,” and I, too, liked the mystery of that transformation being preserved in the film.
I think you’re a little hard on La La Land. There is something so right about a musical that is as heartbroken about a failed future as the millennial generation it depicts. Its more serious problem is that it’s another film about specifically white angst that isn’t committed to the total failure of its characters. It could have been the The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but it opted for a might-have-been montage that discounts how fulfilled Seb and Mia are in the present.
Moonlight is the only film that knocked my socks off, but at least the films seemed to have improved upon the tepid offerings of last year, though Hidden Figures was to me this year’s The Danish Girl.
I’ll keep watching films, but the lack of conversation on this blog about them has been a major deterrent to writing about them.
Hear that, readers? Don’t come here and read and then just walk away. What good is this art form if it doesn’t encourage the communal existence of sharing ideas in a space specifically dedicated to it?
That’s unfortunate about World of Warcraft.
Friend & myself both had a very good time with that, & it kept ta cinema magic ex that i look for (& usually get) when i go. I would give it a solid 8-8.5
The characters were all very inconic, & had little depth beyond their Type which would be established not long after meeting them, which gave alot of general predictability about the film. And the film lost it’s rhythm & tone in the near end section reveal of it’s big bad. That said, there was alot to like about WoW.
Expansive fantasy world story telling, it was excellent in this way. Related to this, it held alot of intrigue in what exactly it was about or where it was going. The nature of the world had alot of exploratory coolness & unique cultural sophistication. The character types although lacking depth, had a cheesy bold type of cliché fun about them also, example like the main hero was essentially a cross between a Aragorn & a Han Solo, nothing new but a well played & fun ‘rara’ to that, the perfunctory elements offset by the wide sweep of the intrigue associated with the world going on. The first melee battle was great in particular also, very fresh.
Timur Bekmambetov had a great niche with the daywatch/nightwatch films, so much could be done with that cinematic world & it’s uniquely enjoyable collision of elements & styles. Admittedly, it helps to read the wiki to understand what is going on for the films better & those type of narratives (whether intentional or not) would suit booklet type blurbs with the movies themselves in such a way, anyhow, so it goes.
Marilyn – Apologies if I depressed you with my nihilistic take on the future of pop cinema. I also apologize if I’ve been hesitant to comment on recent posts; I know how it feels to have your good work ignored, given the lack of traffic on my own blogs and my resulting hesitancy to publish more posts (I’m still going to keep on writing). Additionally, I’ve been so overworked and worried this year, I haven’t had much spare time to watch titles you and Rod have reviewed. After all, one should always know what they’re talking about, right? When I get to them, and if I have something that hasn’t already been said, I’ll comment ASAP. 🙂
Hoggle – Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to side with the “consensus”; Warcraft was a bloated and quite ugly slog that wasted much of its potential, and Timur Bekmambetov’s filmography is predominantly monotonous action cliches.
Hi guys. Here we go again!
Jason; I’ve really gone out of the oracular business after this year, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. Suffice to say, my own year’s been just as rough and disappointing as yours, so I’ll raise a glass in fellowship to you. I fully agree with your praise of Blood and Black Lace and your dislike of House, which a lot of cineastes went nuts for when got a new release about 6-7 years ago but which I found utterly soporific.
Marilyn; whilst the lack of engagement is discouraging, I still find there’s some good reason to write about current stuff. I’ve had the greatest hits ever at This Island Rod this year for stuff like Warcraft and Suicide Squad. Therein lies the problem – that’s for films that are already very well-known and not very good, but still folks out there seem eager to find reviews that take their interests half-way seriously.
As to The Fits, by inner city I mean, well, inner city. Perhaps that means something more evocative to someone like me who spent some time as a kid growing up in similar environs and then moved far out of it. The roaring, rushing trains, the often blasted-looking and boxed-up public spaces, the shoulder-jostling closeness of much of the human activity and the faint feeling of exposed paranoia you have as a kid in such places, hovering on the edges of things you don’t quite get, the simultaneous sense of threat and huddling community. The film threw me right back into that time. That said I also fully agree with your description.
“Hidden Figures was to me this year’s The Danish Girl.”
Ouch. And yes. I could all but diagram the dialogue before watching. As I said, I constantly sensed a better, cooler, headier version of the same film under the surface, desperately trying to get out.
I wish I could say I liked La La Land, but frankly I found it a bit of an ordeal. As far as the theme of millennial disappointment goes, whilst I didn’t like Don’t Think Twice greatly superior, it tackles the same theme more directly and honestly, insofar as it dared to show characters actually failing and being forced to find other ways to make life meaningful. Both Sebastian and Mia ultimately got everything worldly they wanted, just not each-other. Frankly, I don’t see Sebastian and Mia as particularly millennial at all. All their touchstones are historic and they could be characters from any era. And it certainly doesn’t reinvigorate or push the genre into a new place as so many are trying say it does. That said, I thought one thing it tried to get at that was authentic and interesting was trying to make a general audience aspects of the showbiz life – the extremely long, enforced time apart that often ruins seemingly very happy couples, the chagrin of mastering an art but having to purvey it according to the tastes of others, etc. If it had more to say about that sort of thing, I think it would’ve been more memorable.
Hoggle; I’m sorry but…no. No. No. No. No.
I’m a regular reader, an infrequent commenter. Marilyn – I just don’t see the movies you write about. I live in multiplex land, not art house land, so mostly I’m seeing the mainstream movies Rod writes about. And he catches them, mostly, weeks before I do, so by the time I’ve seen them commenting time seems past. Plus he’s so thorough that I mostly can’t think of anything to add.
A couple of brief comments on the past year – The Lobster was one of the critical darlings, but I walked out of it with maybe 20 minutes to go, and I never do that. Those bizarre characters, the weird world they lived in, just too much for me.
I liked Arrival quite a bit more than Rod did, liked the seriousness it treated the subject with, conveying just how alien the aliens were. I could quibble a bit with how the geopolitical elements played out in the movie versus how I think they would have played out in reality, but overall I thought it first rate.
I didn’t actually dislike Superman vs. Batman, seeing it on DVD well after the critical dismissal was in, so had no expectations for it. The final battle thing did go on too long, which is a complaint of mine about nearly all of the superhero movies these days. Did not like the X Men or the Captain America thing, during the action scene in that one I just felt like saying – wake me when this part is over. People who are indestructible fighting each other is just tedious, and the ending of these scenes seems almost arbitrary. Maybe the director wants to show people tossing cars and trucks and people around, then after a certain period needs to end things. I have superhero movie fatigue, basically.
Patrick – Thanks for your readership. It’s important to me. I understand what you’re saying, and from the inception of this blog, I felt it was my responsibility to see and write about films that people like you just didn’t have a chance to catch so you’d know they were out there and could seek them out in other formats. I don’t write just about new films, though, so there is an opportunity to chat regardless of where you live. DVDs and streaming makes accessing these films much easier than it used to be. Affordability may be a problem, but it is possible to get reasonably priced DVDs and streaming services.
And thanks for talking to Rod. He works hard on these Confessions.
I wish I could give you a definitive answer as to whether you did the right thing on walking out of The Lobster, Patrick, but I readily admit that’s the type of film for which the phrase “mileage may vary” was coined.
And I’m very well aware of the layers of privilege attached to how, when, and where one gets to see movies today. It’s better today in many ways, but in others I really worry. The loss of video stores meant an end to at least some form of curation and presentation.
I did finally borrow the DVD of The Lobster and flip to the end, and yes, I made the right decision. I don’t know if I’m just too literal for such a movie, but to me the characters were too stripped of normal human emotions and behaviors to really identify with any part of the movie. I suggested to someone else who liked it that the characters had no sense of humor, very little to no self awareness, like a movie made where everyone had Asperger’s. They agreed but got something out of it’s social commentary. I didn’t.
A few I liked –
Hell or High Water
The Nice Guys
Kind of neutral on, maybe a bit too glib or slick –
One that was stupid –
The best movie I saw all year was one from the tail end of last year – Spotlight, first rate in every way.
Excellent year-end essay, as always.
I am laughing at your description of the songs in LALA LAND as “utterly forgettable” – I’ve had two of those songs stuck stubbornly – and pleasantly – in my head for the more than two weeks since I saw it. I loved LALA LAND, but am not surprised to find we disagree on the year’s big musical; we have done so before.
Glad to see the appreciation for LITTLE SISTER, a film I very much liked.
I have seen few of your ‘top ten’ list, but will be adding many of those of title to my ever-growing queue.
Have a happy 2017, Rod (and Marilyn)!
Pat, I can’t for the life of me remember two notes from the La La Land soundtrack except for a vague impression of that ditty Gosling warbles on the pier. John Legend’s number reminded me of the disco “One Night Only” scene in Dreamgirls insofar as it was the supposedly bad piece that was more enjoyable than everything around it. And yes, I do admit to retaining my suspicion of these Great White Musical Hypes that roll around now and then. Everyone goes nuts for them, says they’re going to bring back the musical, and then six months later they’re mostly entirely forgotten. At least I can give La La Land praise I can’t give some of those others – formally, it pays attention to staging, if not enough to what’s actually being staged.
And yeah, a little love for Little Sister. I didn’t want to oversell it, because it left some of its better ideas undeveloped, but it has real woozy humanity to it. Plus who can dislike a movie where Barbara Crampton plays a Mother Superior?
Anyway, happy new year right back to you and yours, Pat.
I always look fwd to Rod’s dense and incisive year-end posts. I try to mine them for clues on what to watch – since I always wait for the DVD. Of course, I don’t always agree – we enjoyed Gods of Egypt, even though it is objectively terrible, and we’ll probably enjoy WoW when we see it.
But we were going to skip Green Room and now it is in my queue, based on just the few words Rod wrote about it. Also, Chris Pine.
Happy New Yrear!
Hi Bev. Good luck with Warcraft. I gave up half-way through. I did make it through Gods of Egypt. I readily admit there were some aspects of that which were promising – every now and then it promised to go totally insane – but by the end I couldn’t even call it a guilty pleasure, not after suffering through CGI Transformer-God Butler battling Paycheck-Coster-Waldau. Anyway, enjoy Green Room (although Chris Pine’s not in that one) and happy new year!
A great end of year post as usual, thank you!
Two quick notes:
I would encourage you to watch “Toni Erdmann” again and maybe (if you haven’t already) “Everyone Else”, as it might elucidate what Aden is trying to do here.
Since you were talking about Huppert, I can also recommend “Things to Come”, the latest by Mia Hansen-Love.
PS. Marilyn, please don’t feel discouraged by lack of feedback – both your reviews tend to be so thorough that it seems hard to contribute anything worthwhile, and maybe discussions about film on the internet are a bit limited in general, the only place I remember hosting a somewhat interesting back and forth in the comments was Dave Kehr’s blog (and maybe the Self-Styled Siren). Anyway, I really appreciate your writing and also your focus on less accessible films.
Happy New Year to you both!
Roderick, congratulations! Great work one more time. About more or less comments: Ferdyonfilms is spectacular. See this Confessions of a film freak. It is the best synthesis of the year. I would like to ask your permission to present my list:
1 – Knight of cups
2 – Batman vs Superman – Dawn of justice
3 – Hail, Caesar!
4 – Cemetery of splendour
5 – The neon demon
6 – Wiener-dog
7 – The handmaiden
8 – Elle
9 – Everybody wants some!!
10 – American honey
11 – Zootopia
12 – Mountains may depart
13 – The nice guys
14 – Louder than bombs
15 – Café Society
16 – Loving
17 – Rogue One – A Star Wars history
18 – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
19 – Fantastic beasts and where to find them
20 – The sea of trees
Honorable mentions: The birth of a nation, Sully, War dogs, The girl on the train, Nocturnal animals, Star Trek Beyond, Don’t call me son, 13 hours – The secret soldiers of Benghazi, Alice trough the looking glass, Hacksaw ridge, Demolition, Hell or high water, The jungle book, A hologram for the king, Florence Foster Jenkins, The light between oceans, Train to busan, Suicide squad, Pete’s dragon, Warcraft, The accountant, In a valley of violence, Masterminds, Our little sister
Appreciated: Snowden, Pets, Embrace of the serpent, The legend of Tarzan, Cosmos, Kung fu panda 3, Ghostbusters, The BFG, 10 Cloverfield lane, Sing Street, Love & Friendship, Money monster, Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the wilderpeople, Miss Peregrine’s home for peculiar children, Maggie’s plan, The shallows, Captain America – Civil War, Aquarius, Kubo and two strings, Deepwater horizon, Nerve, Lights out, The lobster, X-Men: Apocalypse, Indignation
Disappointing: Arrival, Toni Erdmann, Neon bull, Don’t breathe, Julieta, The magnificent seven, Right now, wrong them, Finding Dory
Blind spots: Allied, La La Land, Lion, The great wall, Moonlight, Live by night, Silence, Voyage of time, Jackie, The salesman, Neruda, La fille inconnue, I, Daniel Blake, The treasure, Gold, Manchester by the sea, Passengers, Paterson, A monster calls, Personal shopper, Billy Lynn’s long halftime walk, The fits, Aferim!, Certain women, Queen of Katwe, The founder, Little sister, 20th century women
Happy new year, Roderick and Marilyn!
Hi Yann and Andre. Happy new year, guys.
Yann, I might just do what you advise. I just want to point out that I in no way disliked Toni Erdmann; I appreciated both its better moments of humour and its sharp undertaste of melancholy – that last shot was great, and the theme about the desire to join the new overclass of jetsetters at all costs was interesting. It’s a fine and terrifically acted film. But after all the months of hype that almost nothing could live up to, I did watch it with a demanding eye, and as I mentioned in the review, by the end I still didn’t feel like I knew these people welkl enough to believe all they did. That bit of Ines doing up her dress with a fork was so brilliant, but what followed felt strained to me. One odd connection I kept making in my mind whilst watching it was with De Palma’s Passion, which had that similar glass-and-steel aesthetic in contemplating capitalist diseases. And that film was much denser in both ideas and visuals.
Andre, a fascinating and well-mixed list there. You’ve done some major-league film viewing yourself.
I’m forced to admit that in 2016 there’s several filmmakers who I’ve decided to hold in abeyance for a while, including Allen, the Coens, Loach, and Hansen-Love (I hated Goodbye First Love so much). Perhaps coming back to them after a long break will help reset my feelings for them.
Thanks for a great recap. Particularly glad to see The Finest Hours and Knight of Cups get some love (stand outs in the year for myself). Excellent, insightful writing as always.
Thanks Eric. I feel particularly validated to have connected with another Finest Hours fan.
Geez,Rod, you spent nearly almost all of your capsule for the terrific PATERSON (Jarmusch’s best film ever by the way to these eyes and ears, but heck I may be biased as I lived very close to that city) again trashing LA LA LAND which is one of my supreme favorites of this year. But fair enough. I found ROGUE ONE monstrously bad and boring and even made the foolhardy error of blowing my New Year’s Eve seeing it. I did not like 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, ELLE nor HIGH Rise, but we are completely in agreement on JACKIE (my favorite film of the year), NERUDA and KNIGHT OF CUPS. We also appear to agree that HIDDEN FIGURES is entertaining but really nothing special.
Several on your lists I have not seen, but the same goes for you, as I’ve seen nearly all of the ones you still have yet to see. QUAND ON A 17 ANS; MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, O.J. IN AMERICA, FENCES; I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO; LITTLE SISTER; THINGS TO COME; THE GOLDEN YEARS are all I rate highly and must-sees. Also TOWER and AQUARIUS!!
I also find MOONLIGHT and THE ARRIVAL among the very best films of the year, but understand you are not with me there.
Sounds like a typical year. You and I markedly agree on a small handful, but we have a bunch we are at opposite ends on. As always your presentation is brilliant, and that is really the bottom line. 🙂
Sam, I find myself in that odd position (or an “unsexy place” as I saw another critic put it recently) where I both very much liked and admired Moonlight without thinking it nearly so great as it was cracked up to be. It’s clearly a work by a major talent, but one that reminds me of Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door?; very important, strong stuff, but I can see the working out Jenkins can do in the future. My chief problem was the Chiron was nothing more than a series of affectations for Jenkins to hang his observations on. Now he’s scared kid. Now he’s sad teen. Now he’s apparently tough (but actually scared and sad) dude; there is no real character there, and his supposedly deep inner feelings were communicated with an old canard, the longing for the sea. And yes, the film lampshaded this big time by making his identity a question, but there was so little even to be confused by. The film’s best sequence is also one of its most cliched, the one where his mother, high as a kite and out of her skull, approaches him in the yard; the use of those straight-on close-ups was unsettling, the only moment where I felt truly drawn in dramatically (okay, one other, when Chiron went into the diner and waited for Kevin to recognise him). Its worst is that final scene between Chiron and his mother, which seemed like it was glued on. Still, as I said, a real talent; there’s a lovely, embracing quality to the images, and the climactic encounter between Chiron and Kevin was fine dramaturgy.
I’ve also seen Manchester by the Sea since writing this and…meh. Great little moments and performances throughout, again, but I find Lonergan a drudge as a handler of images, and his use of music in particular is heavy-handed. Also, the theme has been tackled far, far too many times lately in “serious” American indie films (grief seems to be the only permissible state of transfixion for filmmakers to tackle today), and the film was too reminiscent of You Can Count On Me, with the roles and source traumas slightly rearranged. Still, the observational stuff about these two completely different men was strong and the comic segues surprisingly well-handled.
And Paterson, well, I found it just a little obviously a sentimental fantasy, down to the retro lunchbox our hero carries to work, to find actually persuasive as a hymn to normality as so many met it. I know part-time and amateur poets and…yeah. But I can understand your fondness for it, as indeed its strongest quality is its evocation of Paterson as a place. I kind of wished it had expanded on the similarity of his bus driving vignettes to Night on Earth and just been a string of those (admittedly then we wouldn’t have gotten Golshifteh Farahani with whom I’m in love).
Anyway. As ever Sam, thanks for reading all this and commenting with such passion. The real bottom line is it was a good year to be a cinephile.