31 December 2016

12 Underappreciated Movies Of 2016

At the end of a year like this, it feels futile to do the traditional worst of the year list. 2016 has been the fucking pits and mere bad movies, like Dirty Grandpa, London Has Fallen and most of the films featuring Batman, pale in comparison to the really bad things about this year, like global instability, celebrity deaths and The Great British Bake Off moving to Channel 4.

The year has given me plenty to rant about in the cinema, but after such a rubbish year, what's the point of railing against the "why did you say that name?!" scene or blasting the bit where Tom Hanks forgot what coffee was, or completing my long-gestating essay on why the Dad's Army reboot is Brexit-made-cinema?*

* Not everyone who voted Leave liked the film, but everyone who liked it voted Leave.

Let's be positive instead. While the bad films generated the most discussion and made the most noise, as always, there were plenty of hidden gems in this year of movies and that's what I'd rather write about at the end of a terrible year. There'll be a couple of other overlooked good'uns in my top 10 (come back tomorrow!) but these aren't all best of the year material as much as films that deserve more kudos than they got for one reason or another.

While events of the last 12 months may well have hastened our route to oblivion, here's an alphabetical rundown of great and/or entertaining films you might have overlooked in 2016.

Adult Life Skills
Rachel Tunnard // 15 // 96 mins // UK
Based on Tunnard's short film Emotional Fusebox, Adult Life Skills charts the malaise of Anna, a 29-year-old woman who draws spacemen on her thumbs and makes short films about their doomed mission to the sun in her bedroom-nee-mam's shed. It's as quirky as it sounds, but its homespun melancholy is of a set with films like Son Of Rambow, with a gorgeously eccentric take on grief and immaturity that is entirely its own.

Its use of Whitesnake's endlessly versatile Here I Go Again (even in this film, it is soundtrack to both triumph and disaster) makes it a winner by itself, but the excellent star turns by the incredible Jodie Whittaker and BIFA award-winning Brett "SuperBob" Goldstein elevate it to the next level. Two thumbs up, both with smiley faces drawn on them.

Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders
Rick Morales // PG // 78 mins // USA
This extended 50th anniversary episode of the Batman TV series brought back Adam West and Burt Ward, in animated form, just when we needed them most. Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and The Killing Joke are three of the worst Batman movies ever made and they've all been released in the last 12 months, so this Bat-state of the union, from the version of the character to which we owe it all, could not be more timely.

Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders is certainly an affectionate tribute to the cliffhanger-driven adventure show that was my first Batman, but it quickly transcends its own nostalgia kick and turns into a very funny and inventive satire of grim-dark superhero movies. It's so successful because it understands both how hilarious and how upsetting it is to see West's Batman don Bat knuckle-dusters or leave a room without saying goodbye. It didn't have to be great to best the rest of the Bat-dreck in cinemas this year, but it is anyway.

The Brand New Testament
Jaco Von Dormael // 15 // 101 mins // Belgium/France/Luxembourg
God exists. He lives in Belgium. In a year as bad as this one has been it's really not hard to credit Benoît Poelvoorde's portrayal of the almighty as a sadistic and unholy troll sitting at a computer in his old-timey home office. The joy of The Brand New Testament is in watching him fall afoul of every cruel whim he's ever inflicted upon creation from the moment he sets foot in it, chasing after Jesus' kid sister Ea.

From beginning to end, the high concept heresy of this super-Belgian satire never fails to entertain, even though the weight of Ea's divine intervention leads to a couple of tonally difficult scenes that stick out like sore thumbs. Its surrealism is blended with a genuine life-affirming message, like the gospel according to Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michel Gondry and Douglas Adams.

The Edge Of Seventeen
Kelly Fremon Craig // 15 // 104 mins // USA
Some time after her Oscar nominated breakout role in 2010's True Grit, The Edge Of Seventeen finally gives the formidable Hailee Steinfeld a leading role worthy of her talents. Fremon Craig's painfully honest script is entirely OK with teenage girls being dickheads sometime and Steinfeld plays the surly and stubborn collection of self-contradictions to a tee, opposite a similarly frank Woody Harrelson as her teacher.

The result feels like a definitive coming-of-age movie for the 2010s, eluding the usual comparisons to last decade's Mean Girls. It's neither blasé nor downbeat, and it isn't faking by cobbling together a character from stereotypes and social media - for what feels like the first time in forever, it's a teen movie that doesn't have a viral video sub-plot in sight. Instead, it engages with the current generation of teens on their own level, with sharp wit and prickly honesty.

The Girl With All The Gifts
Colm McCarthy // 12 // 111 mins // UK/USA
Given how the source material is a young adult novel, this is the best entry into that genre for many years, if not "the best British zombie film since 28 Days Later"- don't go forgetting Shaun Of The Dead now. In any case, as an ambitious UK genre flick, it's in a class of its own, thanks to a superb cast and an unrelenting atmosphere of dread, in which McCarthy maintains a suffocating level of claustrophobia even as the story gets more room to breathe.

Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine are reliably good as ideological counterpoints in a country overrun by zombies- a teacher and a soldier- who travel along with Melanie, the one "hungry" whose gifts might change things for the better. Sennia Nanua makes an enthralling breakthrough as Melanie, but never moreso than when she's opposite the terrifyingly good Glenn Close as an amoral scientist.

Paul Feig // 12 // 116 mins // USA/Australia
Look out! G-G-G-GIRLS! I'm not even a particularly big fan of Feig's comedies, but to give credit where it's due, Ghostbusters 2016 is hecka fun. If you've been holding off on watching it, you've now got more distance from the online screaming competition than is necessary, because it turned out to be completely dickhead proof. Certainly, it doffs its hat to the original as much as any reboot, but does its own thing even while the old favourites line up around the block to endorse it- if bustin' ghosts has ever made you feel good, it's hard to imagine that you won't at least be charmed by it.

It starts with the impeccable casting, with Kristen Wiig as the comic foil that wraps up Melissa McCarthy's Stantz-like nerddom, Leslie Jones' incredulous everywoman and Kate McKinnon's star-making puckishness. It's thanks to their infectious enthusiasm that it's so much fun- it's a 3 star film that leaves you with a 4 star grin on your face. In the parallel reality where Ed Miliband is PM and Hillary is POTUS, my most anticipated movie might be a Ghostbusters II with all of these people, but here in the darkest timeline, 2016 gonna 2016.

Pete's Dragon
David Lowery // PG // 103 mins // USA
Along with Steven Spielberg's The BFG, it feels like utter insanity for Disney to have released Pete's Dragon in a summer absolutely rammed with bigger, noisier fare, when it could have been a huge word of mouth hit if there were fewer films wasting all the oxygen. This is by far the best of the recent live-action remakes out of the House Of Mouse, and the first to fully depart from the source material- in this case, the badly dated 1977 caper starring Jim Dale and Mickey Rooney.

Lowery's take is a moving and majestic hybrid of influences from Spielberg to Studio Ghibli, backed up by the performing power of Oakes Fegley as a fearless Pete, Robert Redford's twinkly eyed storyteller and Bryce Dallas Howard's warm and caring park ranger. The absolute sincerity on show here is a tonic for cynical times and your heart soars along with the adorable Elliott.

Popstar- Never Stop Never Stopping
Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone // 15 // 87 mins // USA

If you've known me for any short amount of time, I will have tried to press Walk Hard- The Dewey Cox Story into your hands and if you pair it with Popstar- Never Stop Never Stopping, you have the best musical comedy double bill you've never even heard of. With Andy Samberg's Bieber-esque Conner4Real, The Lonely Island do for the stage-managed pop doc what Judd Apatow and John C. Reilly did for the worthy music biopic and it's fucking glorious.

While Ricky Gervais has been slinging records since the summer, off the back of his David Brent revival, here is the (4Real) funniest original soundtrack of the year, with hilarious earworms like Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song), I'm So Humble and Mona Lisa, all naturally built into a cameo-packed comedy that actually feels like Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone actually sat down and wrote it, rather than tossing it off in a series of line-o-ramas. Aside from the musical brilliance, it gets one of the year's drop-dead funniest scenes out of a blank screen and some subtitles- that's got to be worth your time.

Queen Of Katwe
Mira Nair // PG // 124 mins // USA

Disney has had a record breaking year even without Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm projects on their roster, but this belter of an underdog story slipped out with comparatively little fanfare. Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, a girl from a Kampala slum who pursued her surprising aptitude for chess to an international level, under the watchful eye of David Oyelowo's youth ministry coach.

For all of the talk of how unusual and radical it is, Queen Of Katwe is a Disney movie, right down to its bones. Where other chess-centric movies have failed to convince us of the game's stakes or cinematic qualities, this heartwarming true story is eight moves ahead of anything like it, boasting strong performances across the board and a hard-earned happy ending.

Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland // U // 87 mins // USA
Warner Animation's follow-up to The LEGO Movie looked and sounded far more generic in its trailers than it turned out to be and in an absolutely stellar year for animation, Storks was something of an also-ran. The premise is straightforward- storks have stopped delivering babies and set up an airborne Amazon-a-like online store and top flier Junior has to team up with an orphaned stowaway to make a good old-fashioned delivery from the long defunct baby factory.

On paper, it's Arthur Christmas meets Monsters Inc. But Stoller brings his Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Muppets calibre to bear on what turns out to be a weird and hyperactive family film, experimenting with the animated medium as he never has before and notably giving us the demented idea of a wolf pack that can transform themselves into all sorts while pursuing our heroes. While it lacks the thematic heft of a Zootropolis or a Kubo And The Two Strings, any comedy this funny and inventive deserves a look.

Swiss Army Man
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert // 15 // 97 mins // USA
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star, respectively, as a lost young man and the multi-purpose cadaver he befriends in this utterly unique buddy movie. Directors Kwan and Scheinert, collectively "the Daniels", introduce themselves in a feature that proves them willing to love humanity, warts and all. Both profoundly profane and profanely profound, it's the sort of thing that might have been intolerable but for the gentleness of touch and the astonishing chemistry between the leads.

On that note, all other woes aside, we live in the timeline in which you're unlikely to win an Oscar for playing a farting corpse whose boner acts as a compass, more's the pity. Radcliffe may be the third credited Daniel, but he's never been better than he is here. Despite playing a character who's unable to move of his own accord, he acts with his whole body and his haunting acapella rendition of the theme from Jurassic Park will bring a tear to your eye. There's really no other movie in which you could merely get away with this, let alone give one of the year's very best performances.

Tale Of Tales
Matteo Garrone // 15 // 133 mins // Italy/France/UK
And then there was that time Salma Hayek ate a sea monster's heart in order to get pregnant. This baroque anthology weaves three Neapolitan fairy tales into a hugely entertaining tapestry of weirdness, taking immeasurable glee in the traditional dark comedy of fables. Across the ridiculous triptych, we're treated to two old women courting a shallow and never-randier Vincent Cassel, a Prince and the Pauper-esque friendship between two identical magical siblings and King Toby Jones nursing a gargantuan pet flea.

It's gorgeously done too- from the costume design to the location work and sets, there's as much to excite the eye as to tickle your fairytale fancy. Irony drips off of it and it definitely gets nasty in places, but it has such conviction, backed up by peerless visuals and a game cast, that this is mostly part of its enveloping charm. Much like Queen Salma's seafood fertility snack, it's horrid, but delicious.

Tomorrow brings a couple of other underappreciated gems and a lot more of the year's best movies. I don't use this blog much any more, but if you can find more of my entertainment-related writings on Den of Geek and Vodzilla, or follow me on Letterboxd.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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