2016 has been a torrid year for the blockbuster juggernaut films. Of the six major superhero films only two were generally well received (Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War). DC’s attempts at rivalling Marvel’s hegemony continued to unimpress and the X-Men franchise failed to live up to the heights of 2014’s Days of Future Past with the painfully mediocre Apocalypse.
Audiences were also ‘treated’ to a series of unwanted pieces of shiny nothingness that attempted to recreate the magic of a decades old favourite with minimal success. Ghostbusters, Independence Day: Resurgence, and The Magnificent Seven spring to mind.
Alongside the mediocrity however there were genuine gems offered up in 2016. Many of which I am sure I missed in a busy year of finals, lesson-planning, and political anxiety. Of the films I did catch this year these are my personal highlights:
Not to be confused with The Room (the best worst film ever made), Room tells the story of a mother and her child trapped in unimaginably horrific circumstances but becomes a genuinely warming and life-affirming film.
Cinema at its heart works when it is able to create an emotional response from the audience and no film managed that quite as significantly in 2016 as ‘Room’. From the moment of heart-shredding dread when Jack is in the truck to the tears that flow fairly consistently throughout.
The eponymous Room is shot so remarkably that it feels so much bigger than the tiny cage it really is. It feels as if there is a whole world down there, and for Jack, that’s all the world he knows.
Brie Larson’s performance as the mother is astonishing and well-deserving of her Oscar whilst Jacob Tremblay is perhaps the most convincing child actor I’ve seen in an incredibly complex role.
The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling is fast becoming one of my favourite actors. Not only does he have two films on this list (The Big Short) but his upcoming musical La La Land is one of my most anticipated films of 2017.
In The Nice Guys, Gosling stars as Holland March, an incompetent P.I. in the sleazy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles. Alongside him is Russell Crowe as the surprisingly entertaining hard man Jackson Healy.
Nice Guys is full of surreal and wacky humour performed with real intelligence in sharp contrast to the usual American 2 hour, painfully unfunny, improvisation film (looking at you Will Ferrell).
Like its spiritual predecessor Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the plot is largely unimportant. What is delightful is the relationship between the two leads. This is a first class black comedy and the funniest film of the year.
Swiss Army Man
In the opening five minutes of this film Paul Dano rides the farting corpse of Daniel Radcliffe like a jet-ski across the sea. The film gets steadily weirder from there and somehow ends up being one of the best movie experiences of my year.
Through endearing montages, fantasy sequences and a phallic compass ‘Daniels’ have created a strange, funny, and knowing look at how we relate whilst fulfilling my annual demand for fart jokes in one afternoon and really that’s all you need to say.
Arrival is the best original sci-fi film I’ve seen in many years. This is an alien invasion story where the alien invasion is secondary to the human characters at its heart. Someone once said that ‘people like movies about people who are good at their jobs’ and this is certainly one of them. Amy Adams plays an academic linguist who is needed to try to communicate with the visitors. The allure of ability without arrogance is what makes Adams’ character so likeable and she is ably supported by Jeremy Renner who surprisingly pulls off a quiet physicist.
The moment where we first enter the aliens’ craft and encounter the implications of artificial gravity was one of the most jaw-dropping scenes of the year.
Like all the best sci-fi films, Arrival isn’t about space or aliens but about how we as a people co-operate and communicate.
Arrival is a beautiful film and cements Denis Villeneuve as one of the most exciting directors around today.
An Irish feel-good, coming-of-age, musical-comedy set in the 1980s was always likely to make me smile. What I did not expect was it to make me laugh, cry, and care for the young leads with songs that are actually good pieces of music outside the context of the film.
This is also one of the great films about brotherhood and Jack Reynor’s portrayal of an older brother struggling with his own future whilst guiding his brother to have the kind of life he failed to grasp was deeply affecting.
I missed Sing Street in the cinemas but saw it on DVD a few months ago and have since watched it again at least four times with different people all of whom share my affection for the film. A future classic that will warm the heart of anyone who has ever fallen in love with music.
Hell or High Water
One thing that sticks with you after you watch Hell or High Water is the beautiful bleakness of West Texas. In many ways the land remains unchanged from that which John Wayne once prowled in murderous rage. However, despite the 150 years of development since the days of the Old West, this is a land more destitute and untamed. The towns are filled with closed down shops, foreclosed homes and at the centre, the only shiny building in town, a bank.
It is through these banks that family man Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) are progressing, attempting to raise enough funds for an initially unknown (but compelling) purpose. Pine and Foster are both excellent here but are somewhat eclipsed by the dry, curmudgeonly old ranger lived in by Jeff Bridges who tracks the brothers across the state.
The haunting score by Nick Cave adds that extra layer of depth to a world that has been left behind by time. A fact realised in the setting, the characters, and indeed the genre of the film as an old western. The realities of life in this community and the crimes Pine’s character is forced to resort to are heartbreaking and are resemblent of a society one-step from breaking point.
This may be surprising but Spotlight did come out in UK cinemas in 2016, back in the heady days of pre-Brexit, pre-Trump January. Spotlight is the true story of the journalistic team at the Boston Globe in the early 2000s who uncovered the Catholic Church sex scandal. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams all excel as reporters devoted to their task but the real star is Liev Schrieber as the sardonic outsider editor who is able to break the truth out of the tight community of Boston.
In an age of fake news, echo chambers, and information distortion, Spotlight is a film that champions a rigorous approach to the truth whilst not portraying the journalists as faultless heroes. I saw this alone one cold evening in January and I remember leaving the cinema after the film’s devastating note and walking around Cambridge for over an hour just contemplating what I had seen.
The Big Short
A black comedy about the causes of the 2008 global financial meltdown from the man who brought you Anchorman. Adam McKay did the impossible by not only making the biggest economic disaster of our generation funny, he made it comprehensible and the people at the heart of the financial system that caused the crash, likeable.
Steve Carrell’s particular brand of charming irritability really drives this film but it is the cut-aways to cameos explaining the artificially complicated financial terms of Wall St that allows the film to succeed. Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubble bath whilst explaining sub-prime loans was an inspired choice.
I never quite got the hype about Disney’s 2013 Christmas favourite Frozen. A fairly mediocre adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story with cliched characters and one very annoying song. For me Moana is the film that Frozen was to everyone else. A fantastic animated classic with a strong central lead and excellent music.
The Polynesian adventure of Moana is not only charmingly told, and beautifully animated, but actually feels like a story. As if it was a retelling of an ancient myth, such is its power. Dwayne Johnson is reliably excellent as the arrogant but sensitive demigod Maui, but the biggest laughs are reserved for Moana’s silent pet chicken.
The soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda is a delight and ‘How far I’ll go’ ranks alongside the best and most infectious songs from his triumph Hamilton.
High-Rise is the long-awaited adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s classic dystopian novel and is up there with director Ben Wheatley’s finest work. The imagery that saturates this film is arresting from the kaleidoscopic murder of the Architect to the flaying of a skull, moments in this film are unforgettable.
In the film Tom Hiddleston plays Dr. Laing who’s move into a luxury 1970s apartment block quickly descends into a nightmarish world of chaos and destruction. What is so fascinating about the descent is the speed of it. There doesn’t seem to be any causal event just suddenly it is apparent life in the high-rise has changed and no one seems to mind. No one even contemplates leaving the building such as the allure of convenience living.
The class politics of High-Rise are also well-achieved although are often a little heavy handed, but such was the nature of the source material.
Ending a dystopian film set in Britain with a child listening to a speech by Thatcher is also a sure-fire way to be one of my favourite films of the year.
Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Beyond, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Finding Dory, Hail Caesar!, The Hateful Eight.