That time of year again! Remember, it’s my opinion and it’s all about my favourites, not what I consider the best. I missed out on some films and a bunch haven’t had UK releases yet – La La Land, The Handmaiden, Moonlight to name a few – so no nitpicking now!
10. The BFG/Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The tenth spot is allotted to two films that both generally succeeded in their aims despite major failings in structure. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the much beloved Roald Dahl novel excelled in capturing the melancholic whimsy of the story, even as it stretched a tad too long and felt aimless in its narrative. If making a story steeped in detailed effects work that could occasionally feel a tad too plastic, it helps to have the newly knighted Mark Rylance as your lead. Even as a nonsense spouting giant with ears to make an elephant jealous, he turns in a show stopping performance that acts as the perfect advertisement for combining traditional and modern film-making techniques. While some adults may find the classic Dahl wordplay grating, we can all appreciate the best farting scene since Blazing Saddles.
Rogue One is less aimless than The BFG but the glaring structural problems will be hard for some to put aside, even when the action is firing on all cylinders. With a first half that struggles to establish a sturdy plot and distinct personalities for its impeccable ensemble, the film often threatens to fall apart before the rebels’ plan can be put into action. Fortunately, once the real meat of the story starts, Gareth Edwards’ midquel finds its feet. This is a film about the personal struggles of war, and it’s at its best when it shows the results of that battle. Where The Force Awakens echoed the original trilogy in its reimagining of the hero’s journey, here the parallels lie with war movies, which offers a more somber tone for the series but also a refreshing change of pace. While fans will debate endlessly the film’s merits and place in the rankings, the thrill of Rogue One when it delivers on spectacle and personal impact is undeniable.
9. A United Kingdom.
If you need a speech delivered for maximum impact, get David Oyelowo to do it. After being robbed of awards recognition for his work in Selma, it will undoubtedly sting to see him denied much deserved acclaim for his role in Amma Asante’s romantic drama based on the true story of Botswanan King turned President Seretse Khama and his white wife Ruth (Rosamund Pike). While the film desperately needed more room to breathe – talk about a perfect story for a mini-series – Asante perfectly captured the mood of a country on the precipice of change and the people peering over the edge in uncertainty. It’s rare to see British historical dramas that fully acknowledge the effects of colonialism on the colonized, particularly from their point of view, and A United Kingdom’s balance of political with personal offers a sharp, clear eyed and achingly hopeful take on one couple’s quest for acceptance. Between this and Belle, Asante cements her reputation as a British film-maker to watch, and the much-needed voice of change the oft-tedious British historical drama needs.
Hoo boy, remember the lead-up to this one? Who would have thought the catalyst for an all-out misogynistic culture war from the right-wing neo-Nazis would be a remake of a Bill Murray film? It would be funnier if these creeps didn’t get Trump elected.
Ridiculous controversy aside, Paul Feig’s reboot of the much loved 80s comedy has benefited from some time away from the noise and fury. It’s a very funny workplace comedy featuring four incredibly smart, competent women who respect and enjoy one another’s company and never descend into clichéd cat-fights or competition over some pointless dude. It’s a film where the villain is a sad little man poisoned by entitlement and toxic masculinity who can’t accept the realities of the world. It’s got Chris Hemsworth in the role he was born to play – get that man out of bad prestige flicks and into more comedies. In a year of pain and misery, Kate MacKinnon shone as the gloriously demented engineer whose every line or tic inspired fits of giggles. Ghostbusters may have been a product of a Hollywood with little imagination but it still offered so much we never get to see in mainstream comedies. Forget the Bechdel-Wallace Test – Ghostbusters just set the bar for women in film to a new high, and we should all aspire to meet it.
7. Star Trek Beyond.
I saw very few of the major blockbusters of 2016. I skipped out on the Marvel offerings out of superhero fatigue, I avoided Batman V Superman as if my life depended on it, and I’ll never forgive myself for paying real money to see Suicide Squad. So colour me shocked when the most exciting, vibrant and purely fun film of the Summer turned out to be the new Star Trek film. After the repetitive bilge of Star Trek Into Darkness, seeing Justin Lin essentially make an intergalactic Fast & Furious film reminded me that it was okay to not take these films so seriously. There are moments of gravitas – and even under layers of prosthetics, Idris Elba can sell a cheesy alien monologue like it’s Shakespeare – but the main aim of Star Trek Beyond is sheer, unadulterated enjoyment, and it succeeded in droves. Chris Pine finally got to show the world how good a Kirk he can be, the entire cast had moments to make an impact – how delightful to see an actual ensemble film instead of the Kirk & Spock Show – and every action scene brought the thrills. Add some Beastie Boys and some classic old Trek heart, and this is the film the current series has been crying out for.
6. Hell or High Water.
I think it’s time that we acknowledge the best of the major Hollywood Chrises is Pine. Talk about a stellar year for him. Star Trek Beyond showed his classic leading man chops, while Hell or High Water, the sleeper hit of the Summer, gave him the character actor moments he’s clearly been dying for since hitting the mainstream. David MacKenzie’s thriller is a familiar formula imbued with the weary melancholy of contemporary concerns: An old school heist film for the recession era. There’s no glamour in the actions of these desperate brothers, robbing banks that seem to be the only places in Texas with any money. Pine and Ben Foster bicker and fight, unsure of how else to show their devotion to one another as the tension builds and Jeff Bridges – the best he’s been since True Grit – keeps up his chase, more out of a need to stave off retirement than any real conviction for justice. If the neo-Western is to make a comeback, this is the ideal film to herald its return.
Disney’s formula is so familiar and comforting that I’m surprised it hasn’t been patented. The girl – usually a princess – who wants more from her life in often vague terms, the hero’s journey, the cute animal sidekick, the earworm songs, and the handsome price. It’s all so well known that it’s beyond parody, but then again, even Disney know that now.
From Enchanted onwards, the House of Mouse have been playing around with their trademark formula, putting twists on the expected tropes and seeing what changes can be made to the mould while remaining relatively honest to what makes them so beloved. While Brave started the refreshing trend of eschewing the romantic subplot in favour of personal development, Moana continues that pattern with greater success as well as some of the best animation the studio has done since making the full-time switch to CGI. Moana’s journey shows the real personal consequences of the Chosen One journey, a trope Disney has been reliant on for decades. It’s easy to accept your given quest, but sticking at it when obstacle after obstacle is tossed your way and retreat is still an option is much harder. The vibrant setting and characters of ancient Polynesia are handled deftly, and the music a loving mix of traditional and modern. There’s nothing as instantly catchy as Let It Go, although Jemaine Clements as a Tim Curry-meets-Bowie giant crab gives it a go with Shiny. Disney know if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but there’s much value and enjoyment to be had in twisting the tale now and then.
4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Never box Taika Waititi into a type. The New Zealand director, who is currently working on Thor: Ragnarok, has dipped his toes into everything from vampire mockumentary to sweet coming of age story to quirky romance, and with its latest – the highest grossing New Zealand film in its home country – he’s added his own spin to the family adventure movie.
Veering from hilariously absurd to genuinely touching, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has Waititi firing on all cylinders – the sharp one liners that fire out at a manic pace, the central pairing of sullen teen Ricky and his even gruffer foster dad turned not-kidnapper Hec, a car chase that’s equal parts Blues Brothers and Thelma & Louise, and the breathtaking scope of the New Zealand bush, populated by oddities both human and animal. It’s a bizarre mixture that could easily spiral out of control with another director at the helm, but Waititi has a firm grip on proceedings. It’s the kind of film people insist doesn’t get made anymore, and to see it in the world doing so well is a sign of real creative hope.
3. The Nice Guys.
What did Shane Black do to the world to deserve his hilarious noir comedy being so disrespectfully shunted by audiences? You would think we’d all learned from our mistakes after letting Kiss Kiss Bang Bang slip through our fingers on its cinematic release, and yet here we are.
This 70s set noir comedy-mystery mixes all the excesses of the decade – porn, crooked politicians, booze, arm breaking for hire – and lets its two stars rework Black’s much utilized buddy formula to optimum success. Who would have thought Ryan Gosling had this kind of physical comedy in him? Few things made me guffaw with laughter as much as scenes where he yelped in pain or struggled to use the bathroom with one arm in a plaster cast. Russell Crowe is clearly having the time of his life as a heavy who will beat up anyone for a price, Angourie Rice steals the show as the precocious daughter of Gosling who seems to be the most capable person on screen. It’s ridiculous and its plot barely holds together – in the tradition of the noirs it inspired – but this loving homage to the genre also provides the best laughs of the year, and frankly we needed more laughs in 2016.
On top of laughs, what 2016 greatly needed was hope. Amidst the dirge of over-serious and grim-dark superhero – and villain – movies that seemed to view gloominess as inherently compelling, Denis Villeneuve’s take on the much-celebrated Ted Chiang short story offered a breathtaking alternative to cynicism. Amy Adams – who should get an Oscar for this but sadly won’t – does her best work as the linguist brought in by the US Army to decipher the language of the alien race that has descended without warning onto Earth. While the threat of war simmers in the background, Dr Banks gets to work translating the utterly unique language of their guests that could offer something truly life changing to the world, and as her work continues, she experiences the ramifications of that work.
Arrival is sci-fi at its minimalist best – empathetic and cerebral but never condescending or cold. It’s a high-concept story with shades of our world neatly woven in. The Chiang story is a stunning piece of writing and in adaptation it’s been expanded and given details that emphasise its central message rather than mute it. This is Adams at her best, showcasing her ability to convey the spectrum of emotion with the simplest of expressions. Ultimately, it’s a movie that believes in the best of us, and our ability to build bridges and listen rather than blow them up. While the world itself often goes out of its way to refute that claim, Arrival’s unshakeable commitment offers something we desperately needed.
- Love & Friendship.
While Austen adaptations are ten a penny, particularly in the British film industry, it’s rare for us to see a take on the author’s lesser known works, including this delightfully vicious reworking of Lady Susan, a story written when she was 19 that didn’t see publication until after her death. The pairing of writer with director – Whit Stillman, the king of stories about privilege, scheming and the doomed bourgeois in love – is so perfect, I’m stunned it took this long to come to fruition.
This is Austen and Stillman at their acerbic best, launching out one liners that balance societal politeness with ego shredding precision, and capturing the smothering nature of propriety as various people find themselves unable to confront the upper class mastermind Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) as she plans her route to financial and societal security. Susan is clearly the smartest person in the room at any given time, a fact she is fully aware of and executed with supervillain levels of precision and effect. Watching her plan unfold, peppered with quips you’ll be using for years afterwards, is a level of satisfying nothing else in film reached for me in 2016. While I love a good catsuit-vampire fight, it was a marvel to see Beckinsale in this role, delivering deadly one-liners with a smile and never letting the façade drop. Tom Bennett almost walks away with the entire film as the incredibly stupid wannabe suitor to Susan’s daughter, but this is the Whit Stillman Show through and through. Sharp, stirring and stripped of sentimentality, Love and Friendship is the new standard for Austen adaptations, and the world can only hope to live up to it.