Take a moment to breathe because the blockbusters are coming.
2015 was the biggest year in box office history with three films grossing over a billion dollars (Star Wars VII, Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Fast and The Furious 7). 2016 became the year where the studios exhaled for a moment. Almost all the major film franchises of the last decade had the year off. But look what looms on the horizon. Here’s a handful of whats to come in 2017:
The Fate of the Furious, Star Wars Episode VIII, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight, Wonder Woman, Alien Covenant, Kong: Skull Island, Blade Runner 2047, Trainspotting 2, Spider-man: Home Coming, Despicable Me 3, Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok
That’s a lot of high profile movies! Some of them are going to make crazy bank at the box office (hint: Star Wars). Others are going to be spectacular flops. It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.
But looking back on 2016, it was quite a refreshing year for film where creativity flourished. When I look at the list of my favourite films, there isn’t a single sequel, remake or licensed film on there. One of the few franchise films I had on my long list – 10 Cloverfield Lane – is a terrific low key thriller with an excellent performance from John Goodman that has virtually nothing to do with the original Cloverfield.
It was a fantastic year for international films outside the Hollywood studio system making a name for themselves too. Check out Your Name, Sing Street, The Handmaiden, The Train to Busan amongst others if you haven’t had a chance yet.
Also, 2016 was a year for outstanding animated films. There is a record twenty seven – yep, twenty seven – animated films are being long-listed for Academy Award recognition. I’m a big fan of the films produced by Dream Works, Pixar and Disney but they are all films that are cut from a similar cloth in terms of look and feel. To enjoy the full breadth and range of different styles possible in animation, you’d be remiss to overlook the likes of Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince and The Red Turtle.
2016 gave us plenty of fantastic films spanning a massive range of genres. Narrowing it down to a list of ten was tough!
With that said, here it is, my ten favourite films of 2016.
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writer: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton
“Squint against the grandeur!”
Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brother’s love letter to the Hollywood studio system of the Fifties. Told from the perspective of studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix – a guy who’s job it is to keep the production on schedule by roping in wayward actors – the film sprawls from one hilarious set piece to the next, lampooning topics as far reaching as communism, religion, American exceptionalism and Hollywood itself.
The film crams in just about every Golden age Hollywood cinema spectacle you could hope to see in this sort of picture. There’s a biblical epic with George Clooney. A song and dance routine with Channing Tatum and a dozen navy cadets. A mermaid synchronised swimming act with Scarlett Johansson. This film left me hungry for a full blown Coen Brothers musical production.
Best of all, the film is consistently and raucously funny. The Coen Brothers have occasionally had some patchy films when making comedies but this is some of their finest work, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski.
Director: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Writer: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jennifer Slate
“Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go.”
One of the best animated films of the year was Disney’s Zootopia, a noir inspired crime caper starring bunny cop Judy Hopps who grows up on a small farm before moving to the big smoke – Zootopia – where she gets assigned to a case involving a missing otter. Hopps’ earnest and naive world view puts her on the backfoot in the hustle and bustle of Zootopia. She meets a street smart fox named Nick Wilde who might be able to help crack the case but the true nature of the mystery threatens to shatter the truce that the predator and prey animals have in Zootopia.
Zootopia has all the hallmarks one would expect from Disney Animation Studios. The quality of the visual effects is world class. The voice acting talent second to none. And the gags come in thick and fast and have a broad appeal. What’s not as expected is how politically charged Disney would make the story line. The attitudes of the police officers and the profiling of the predators animals make some pretty clear parallels with recent events in America. That’s right, in 2016 Disney made a Black Lives Matter parable.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Film of the Year
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison
“I didn’t choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me.”
Taika Waititi is the hottest thing going out of the New Zealand film industry and if he isn’t a household name already, he will be next year with the release of his biggest film to date – Thor: Ragnarok. But it wasn’t with action blockbusters that Waititi made his name. It was with charming, coming of age films like Boy and this year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a wayward kid who gets kicked out of one too many foster homes and is given a last chance at avoiding juvenile detention by staying at the farm of retirees Hec and Bella. One disaster leads to another and soon Ricky and Hec find themselves in the New Zealand rain forest and on the run from the law.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen in years. I laughed out loud a dozen times in just the opening ten minutes. Sam Neil and Julian Dennison have a natural chemistry together and their characters are vividly brought to life by Waititi’s script.
Humorous, heartfelt and bustling with creative energy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Waititi’s best film to date. He is a creative talent who will likely achieve big things now that Hollywood has come calling.
Director: Denis Villenieuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whittaker
“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”
Some films, whether they intend to or not, arrive at just the right time with just the right message. After the events of November 8th left a lot of people around the world in despair, Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral sci-fi drama arrived with a message about communication, compassion and humanity.
Although Villeneuve has been directing films since the late Nineties, it is just in the last few years that he has shot to prominence with a clutch of excellent small scale dramas including Sicario, Prisoners and Incendies. Arrival is his finest work to date, producing a career best performance out of Amy Adams who will likely be scooping up awards left and right for her turn as linguist Louise Banks.
Too many sci-fi films have big budgets, eye-catching special effects and absolutely nothing to say. Villenieuve’s Arrival is a surefooted and soulful work that released to audiences at precisely the time they needed it. Expectations are now through the roof for his next production – a long awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Hell or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
“Maybe one of these bank robbers is gonna want a gunfight and I can dodge my retirement in a blaze of glory.”
David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is a dusty, hard boiled Western set in Texas. It follows the Howard brothers, a pair of modern day Robin Hoods, who make a spate of small time bank robberies to try and save their family ranch from foreclosure. Their crime spree draws the attention of Texas rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker. Hamilton is old, conservative and nearing retirement. He has seen and done it all and before. His investigation sets in motion the chain of events that will corner the Howard brothers and bring them to justice.
Hell or High Water is a film that has a clear trajectory from its opening act but it is the journey to get there that gives the film its quality. Foster, Pine, Bridges and Birmingham all put in fine performances as the crooks and the rangers. There are a number of themes and ideas explored in Hell or High Water including generational poverty, the prospects for working class Americans and American law enforcement that are all observed in a wry, warts-and-all fashion that doesn’t feel sanctimonious or preachy.
Hell or High Water is a thought provoking film about the broken nature of the American dream. It’s sense of authenticity is made all the more surprising when one learns the director is Scottish.
Director: Jeremy Saunier
Writer: Jeremy Saunier
Cast: Imogen Poots, Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart
“Let him bleed.”
Too many wonderful and talented actors passed away in 2016. One of the most tragic was the passing of Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation) who was killed at the age of just 27 in a freak automobile accident.
Yelchin will be most recognized and remembered for his role as Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek series but he also left fans with the absolutely hellacious thriller Green Room, which seems destined to become a cult classic.
The film follows a small time punk band who turn up for a gig at a club, only to discover it’s a meeting place for white supremacists. Not one to back down, the band decide to antagonise their audience with a rendition of Dead Kennedy’s Nazi Punks Fuck Off. After the show, the band return to the green room and witness a crime they weren’t supposed to see and one that the club’s owner – the terrifying skinhead leader Darcey Banker (played by Patrick Stewart) – decides they cannot live to tell.
With that, the film turns into an absolutely nail bitting thriller that puts its cast through the proverbial meat grinder. The film is not for the feint of heart. It is gruesome, gory and unforgiving. Ninety five minutes of pulse pounding adrenaline. No film in 2016 was as visceral, cruel or bared its teeth the way Green Room did.
Swiss Army Man
Director: Dan Kwan, Daniel Sheinart
Writer: Dan Kwan, Daniel Sheinart
Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
“I’m scared because I fear if I die I might really miss you.”
God bless Daniel Radcliffe. The man could have been cruising on easy street after Harry Potter. He could be working on a big budget super hero project for Disney or Warner, or maybe popping up in some milquetoast family-friendly fare that traded on his considerable reputation.
Instead he agreed to work on Swiss Army Man, the low budget farting-boner-corpse movie where a deceased and decaying Radcliffe farts uncontrollably throughout the film, is in a constant state of arousal and in one magnificent scene, has his corpse ridden out at sea like a human jet ski by a triumphant Paul Dano.
Swiss Army Man has a ludicrous premise but despite its deeply silly trappings, the film is also a surprisingly sweet bromance about two young men talking through their feelings and trying to find their place in the world.
Rupert Grint made Thunderpants. Daniel Radcliffe did Swiss Army Man. Dare I dream that one day Emma Watson will make her own fart-themed cinematic production to complete the Harry Potter Flatulence trilogy?
Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writer: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler
Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem.”
Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth film from the animation studio Laika and is it their best work to date. Over ten years in the making and the first film to be directed by studio president Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings makes you sit up and take notice from the opening shot of the film which makes clear that it has the world class production values and confidence in story telling to rival the best works of Pixar and Dreamworks. In fact, Kubo is exactly the sort of the film that makes me wish that more studios would invest in animated features. Kubo manages to be both technically accomplished and accessible to all ages whilst retaining a clear identity of its own – it never feels like it is cribbing from any of the other major studios to tell its story.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a fable that gives its young audience a lot of credit and never condescends to them. This is a children’s tale that has the darkness and sharp edges of a Brothers Grimm or a Roald Dahl yarn. What makes Kubo and the Two Strings such a resounding success is the sure-footed direction from Travis Knight. There’s actually quite a detailed narrative for the audience to unpack but Knight has managed to let the story breathe whilst keeping room for some delightful moments of interplay between Kubo and his sidekicks Monkey and Beetle.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best cinematic adaptations of the Hero’s Journey that I have seen in years. Like the ones that did it the best – Star Wars IV: A New Hope, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Princess Bride and The Never Ending Story – this film has a great underdog hero, a likeable cast of allies and an entertaining journey filled with trials and ordeals that must be overcome in order to confront the Big Bad. One of the year’s most pleasant surprises.
Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman
Cast: Kate Beckinsdale, Chloe Sevigny
“Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such dynamic.”
One of the year’s most underappreciated gems is Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.
The film follows the fortunes of Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsdale), a calculating and conniving socialite who is looking to climb the social ladder both for herself and her daughter by finding hapless, monied idiots whom she can trick and wrap around her finger.
Upon this simple premise is a pleasing and endearing comic romp with Beckinsdale absolutely chewing up the scenery as Lady Susan. Put simply, it is a pleasure watching her act like a complete bitch to toffee-nosed dowagers who are trying their best to be civil and courteous. As with many other works by Austen, the tale gets twisted and turns in on itself as no one falls in love with the person they’re supposed to and it all descends into what I believe is referred to in period drama parlance as a ‘delightful farce’.
Clever, charming and told with a razor sharp wit, Love & Friendship deserves to be seen by more people. One of the funniest films of 2016.
La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
“This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!”
After making the brilliant Whiplash in 2014, Damien Chazelle has returned with the crowd-pleasing hit of the Academy Award season. La La Land is a retro-inspired musical that pays homage to the golden age Hollywood films of the Fifties. It has some absolutely enchanting song and dance routines from its talented leads – Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – but the whole affair is tinged with a touch of melancholy. Audience interest in jazz, musicals and the craftsmanship of old fashioned entertainment is ‘dying on the vine’ as Gosling sadly observes.
I’m right there with Chazelle. When his characters wax lyrical about Casablanca and Notorious, when they visit the observatory from Rebel Without A Cause, he’s speaking my language. I can’t understand why modern audiences don’t have an appetite for this sort of stuff either. Who knows, maybe La La Land will be the film that introduces some of its audience to the lost art its lamenting.
Although the brow-beaten narrative might surprise some of the punters lured in by the bright and colourful posters, I think audiences won’t be able to resist being charmed by Stone and Gosling once they begin to strut their stuff. The film is pretty bold at times, drawing direct parallels between Ryan Gosling and James Dean, and recreating one of the most famous scenes from Casablanca. But Chazelle pretty much gets away with it thanks to the magnetic charms of his two leads. This film is an absolute showcase for the talents of Stone and Gosling.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Despite rumours of a troubled production, Gareth Edward’s Star Wars spin-off turned out to be a fine film that tells the tale of how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the Death Star plans.
Midnight Special – a terrific sci-fi road trip thriller about two men on the run from the law who have with them a boy with unexplained special powers.
Before The Flood – Leonardo Di Caprio’s environmental documentary is an informative look at how the Earth has been impacted by climate change and how lobbyists have attempted to block any meaningful action to do something about it.
Ten Cloverfield Lane – a tightly wound thriller about a paranoid survivalist who kidnaps two people and places them in his bunker to save them from the end of the world. John Goodman is brilliant in this.
The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary is a delight for fans and includes some new never-before-seen footage of the Fab Four.
Moana – Disney’s latest animated feature Moana is a delight. The film is spoiled with talent and includes musical contributions from Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords).