31 December 2016

The Mad Prophet's Top 10 Films Of 2016

On some level, every film is a time capsule from the year in which it was released, so it's fitting that 2016 was full of disappointments when it came to the really big films. But aside from the worst summer for blockbusters since the turn of the century and the greatest number of unnecessary sequels since the 1980s heyday of Weekend At Bernie's II, last year was very good for smaller films, as detailed in my previous post.

Plus, aside from every single other way that 2016 felt like a historical turning point, we'll probably come to look back on last year as the point where Disney finally started absorbing the whole box office. After another decade of movies from Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and their own animation studio, they might as well acquire Batman, James Bond and Minions too and have done with it. More importantly though, they've had a better year than any other studio because the films they distributed in the last 12 months (with the notable exception of Alice Through The Looking Glass) have all been blindingly good.

One of their films features in my top ten list, which is ordered alphabetically again, for two reasons. It's partly because there's a film beginning with A and a film beginning with Z, but it's mostly because these are all favourites for me and in previous years, I've changed my mind about the order of a countdown about 20 minutes after hitting "Publish", and then every 20 minutes after that for about six months.

As always, this is based on UK release dates, so 2015 films that came out here in January or February are eligible, but 2016 films that are still upcoming such as La La Land or Silence are not. On top of that, all favourites are very subjective, though you understand that I'm also very right.

Arrival
Denis Villeneuve // 12 // 116 mins // USA
"Now that's a proper introduction."

Well, of course the studio system that gave us Independence Day: Resurgence's Spaceball and Now You See Me 2's evil Woody Harrelson twin wasn't going to give us a film like Arrival last year. Before Villeneuve moved onto this year's Blade Runner sequel, he gave us this modestly budgeted but staggering sci-fi drama about the importance of communication between races both foreign and domestic. Amy Adams is magnificent as bereaved linguist Louise Banks, who's brought in to parlay with aliens upon first contact and figure out what they mean by "SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT."

With an actress as expressive and sympathetic as Adams at the fore, its heartfelt plea for understanding, in which the intention behind language and the exchange of information is paramount, rather than which side has the good guys and/or the best laser guns. In keeping with that theme, the film only gets better the more you understand its own creative use of cinematic language, and the result is intelligent and spellbinding.

Bone Tomahawk
S. Craig Zahler // 18 // 132 mins // USA/UK
"This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots."

The other Kurt Russell western from last year just missed out on my top ten, but while The Hateful Eight draws inspiration from anything up to Agatha Christie and John Carpenter, Bone Tomahawk is the mondo-movie remount of The Searchers that you didn't know you were after. Four frontiersmen go on a mission to rescue one of the men's wives from what they think are savage natives, but might just turn out to be actual monsters.

Like Tarantino, Zahler takes his time over building characters and having them interact, but the bones of the story are rock solid and you're easily sucked in. Zahler nails the masculine innuendo of the time, but the bravado is far more fragile than you might expect. Everyone in it is brilliant, from Russell and Patrick Wilson to the nigh-unrecognisable pairing of Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox, but the thumping sound design is superb too, with every footfall and shriek beating down the path to hell.

Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier // 18 // 95 mins // USA
"What's your desert island band?"

Tragically, we lost Anton Yelchin last year and we were reminded of how quietly brilliant he was in both Star Trek Beyond and Green Room, the latter of which sees him take a much larger role as the frontman of a punk band that gets trapped in a world of hurt when they perform at an "alt-right" venue. In a year when even the news coddled actual neo-Nazis, this film takes the altogether more satisfying route of screaming Dead Kennedys covers at them and fighting back with everything it's got.

As it turns out, Saulnier's latest has more of  Red State than of his previous film, Blue Ruin- it's certainly as intense and brutal as you've heard, but only every once in a while. This film isn't a blunt object, but a torture instrument, defiantly ratcheting up the tension no matter what bit of hilarious dark comedy might otherwise leaven it. Patrick Stewart is truly frightening as the Big Bad, but if you're a performer of any kind, the most terrifyingly real character will be the dipshit promoter who sets the wheels in motion- we all know one or two of them...

Hail, Caesar!
Joel & Ethan Coen // 15 // 106 mins // UK/USA/Japan
"Would that it were so simple."

If the Coen brothers were ever going to hit the "quality TV" ramp that many of their peers in the industry have taken in recent years, their cable comedy pilot might look a lot like Hail, Caesar! Of course, this gleefully silly conclusion to their "numbskulls" trilogy strings together nods to the classic production-line western, the Busby Berkeley musical number and the Esther Williams aquamusical to make a joyous throwback to the post theatre break-up era of Hollywood.

But the Coens know better than to constrain themselves to nostalgia-fuelled pageantry, and the tale of Josh Brolin's fictionalised fixer Eddie Mannix has a fully worked-through parallel about faith, as he tries to get his studio's beleaguered biblical epic back on track. Despite scene-stealing turns from George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Alden "young Han Solo" Ehrenreich, it's testament to the script and Brolin's performance that you actually care about what happens to him. While it could have been the greatest HBO pilot ever, this rambling and hilarious story is too steeped in cinema to have come through as strongly in another medium.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi // 12 // 101 mins // New Zealand
"Shit. Just. Got. Real."

Thor: Ragnarok promises to be the battiest Marvel Studios movie to date, thanks to director Taika Waititi, who just happened to make two of the best and funniest comedies of their respective years in What We Do In The Shadows and now, Hunt For The Wilderpeople. There were a few underappreciated films last year, but the breakout success of this weird and wonderful one-off is heartening.

Sam Neill is on career-best form as cantankerous bushman Hec, but he generously supports a star-making turn by young Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker, the outlaw foster kid with whom he goes on the run in rural New Zealand. For a film that's as laugh-out-loud funny as this, its emotional range is very impressive too, taking sad and serious moments in its stride and still managing to squeeze in the now obligatory scene-stealing turn by Rhys Darby. In a year like this, the sheer warmth that radiates off of this film makes it unmissable.

The Nice Guys
Shane Black // 15 // 116 mins // USA
"You're the world's worst detectives."

Ryan Gosling is winning awards for the wrong LA nostalgia movie. He's fine in La La Land, an over-hyped feel good film that made me feel approximately nowt, but he's a revelation in The Nice Guys, the latest offering from Shane Black. Paired with Russell Crowe as Baloo in enforcer mode, Gosling is Holland March, the clueless but endlessly fortunate private dick who gets press-ganged into solving a confusing missing persons case.

But the key to unlocking this particularly Black joint is Angourie Rice as March's daughter. The noirish plot is intentionally inscrutable, as the bad guys wreck America for future generations but it's the efforts of Rice, representing the next one, that are worth more than the fumbling, grumbling grown-ups, whose confidence far exceeds their actual ability. All that, and the amazing slapstick bit where Gosling tries to point a gun at Crowe while smoking and sitting on the toilet - it's a winner.

Room
Lenny Abrahamson // 15 // 118 mins // Ireland/UK/USA/Canada
"When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I'm five, I know everything!"

This was a 2015 release in the States, but we got it in January and its impact has stayed with me all year long. Room is the story of a mother and her five-year-old son, and the pretence of a world within four walls, designed to keep the younger captive from realising the true horror of their situation. Anchored by an incredible performance by Jacob Tremblay, the film looks at the world as young Jack sees it, and the result is harrowing but utterly spellbinding.

Brie Larson won a much deserved Oscar for her turn as Ma, holding up the other end of the film and tipping the older audience off to the wrongness of the situation with her tremulous resolve, both vulnerable and steely in equal measure. This is just one of the ways in which director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue (who adapted her own novel) show us a picture bigger than our point of view character can necessarily process. But it's still Jack's perspective that turns the film into something fantastical and life-affirming, even if it had me sobbing and gasping through my first viewing.

Sing Street
John Carney // 12 // 106 mins // Ireland/UK/USA

"Rock and roll is a risk. You risk being ridiculed."

It's only a little unfair to point out that John Carney (Once, Begin Again) only really makes films about people who escape unsatisfactory lives through the virtue of being really, really, really ridiculously good at singing and songwriting, but Sing Street is by far his best. In this case, Irish teen Conor escapes the misery of Catholic school by courting the mysterious and beautiful Raphina to be in music videos for his band, the only problem being that he doesn't yet have a band.

It's undoubtedly a teen fantasy of the kind they don't really make any more, as evidenced in the incredible Back To The Future-inspired music video scene above, and what it lacks in authenticity, it more than makes up for in affection, both given and earned. The young cast are astonishingly good, ably supported by Jack Reynor as Conor's jaded and vicarious big brother/font of all wisdom, and the original songs leave you tapping your toes for weeks and months afterwards.

Victoria
Sebastian Schipper // 15 // 138 mins // Germany
"You know, when I was 12, I can remember I was like an old lady..."

Not to be confused with the right royal Clara Oswald vehicle on ITV, Victoria has a straightforward but irresistible gimmick. In a single 138 minute take, the film charts a Spanish girl's tumultuous night out in Berlin, as Victoria is swept along with a group of young men who have more pressing matters on their mind.

In real time, we see the hour before and the hour after a fateful robbery, performed and partially improvised by the cast in a way that feels like Before Sunrise with an added dollop of impending disaster. At points, it's almost like they're showing off as they get into a car or a lift or literally play the piano perfectly and still haven't cut, but it's a completely singular experience with its own emotional rewards.

Zootropolis
Byron Howard & Rich Moore // PG // 108 mins // USA
"Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common."

We needed this when it came out back in March, and we sure as shit need it now. Disney's 55th animated film is their funniest in years, fully dispensing with human characters to create a mammalian melting pot of predator and prey across different habitats in one massive city of Zootropolis (or Zootopia in the States.) The scene in which bunny cop Judy Hopps arrives in the city and sees the massive spread of the city is one of the very best scenes of the year and the adjustments in scale throughout make it a visual feast.

Even if it weren't so endlessly imaginative, it's an incredibly timely film from a studio that has always prized timeless stories. As bleak as the future looks, here's a reminder that we have far more in common than certain political fuckfaces might like to admit, packaged in a relentlessly funny escapade that the whole family can enjoy. And even if all of that weren't true, it has the bit with the sloths. It may look like the best film DreamWorks never made, but it turns out to be Disney's best film since Beauty & The Beast.
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Well, that seems like as good a place as any to finish. If you need to catch up on some of these films, Bone Tomahawk, Green Room, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Sing Street and Victoria are all currently streaming on Netflix UK and except for Arrival, (which comes home on March 20th) the rest are all available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD.

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 December, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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