The Film Year in Review
The films that made me smile
The year hasn’t even ended and I’m already tired of people lamenting how bad 2016 has been. Judging by current trajectories, 2017 is only going to be worse, so such complaints feel moot. The world is broken; for Christians that should be old news. However, even saying that, 2016 does seem to have been unusually packed with depressing stories. Perhaps in some unconscious response to this general malaise, two of my favourites this year are films that made me smile in a big, big way.
If one film this year has to take the number one spot, it is probably Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This tale of a “troubled” teenager who has been ferried around foster homes is joyous and funny from start to finish. It features one of the worst eulogies in cinematic history, stunning New Zealand scenery and a warmth towards its characters that won me over entirely. The other feel-good winner for me was Sing Street, a musical about an improbably talented school band in ‘80s Ireland. The tunes are great, the characters are beautifully drawn and its cheesy ending is entirely earned.
I also found myself smiling a lot at two wonderfully old-fashioned children’s films. The lukewarm reception of The BFG proves that we don’t value Spielberg enough. This is children’s storytelling at its most effortless and it’s a delight. Pete’s Dragon is an update of a little-loved ‘70s movie that creates a magical, earthy atmosphere and it enthrals even with a relatively slow pace.
Genre movies with ideas
2016 was a largely dismal for blockbusters, but genre cinema still had a strong showing across the board. Sci-fi fans were treated to the magnificent Arrival, a thoughtful, mesmerising twist on the alien invasion thriller. The drip-feed of information and sensory cinematography made watching this an immersive experience, while the gut-punch of a conclusion lent it real emotional weight. Mostly, I loved it because it showed me things I hadn’t seen in cinema before. Midnight Special, from one of my favourite young directors Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), also had big ideas, a whole load of religious imagery and a divisive final act that I loved. Read it as study of parental grief and it takes on a whole other level of meaning.
For the second year in a row, after 2015’s Crimson Peak, I’ve found horror cinema creeping into my list. While I failed to convince my mum that I was quite ok after watching The Witch, the images and ideas of that film have stuck with me. Few films create an atmosphere as well as Eggers’ puritan fable, although the Girl With All The Gifts came close. That British zombie movie worked wonders with a small budget, creating a convincing apocalyptic landscape on an impressive scale. See it for provocative ideas, striking cinematography and an ending that (again) divided audiences.
It wouldn’t be one of my end-of-year reviews if I didn’t mention at least one animated film. Thankfully, there were enough in 2016 to merit an entire paragraph or two. Kubo and the Two Strings from stop-motion studio Laika was a visual marvel about the power of storytelling. It says something about the state of big-budget CG destructathons that the year’s most memorable action sequences emerged in an animation that involved tiny moving puppets on hand-made sets.
When Marnie Was There was an enchanting tale of love and loss by the masters of the medium, Studio Ghibli. Japan also produced The Boy and the Beast, which received a very limited release but deserved a wider audience. Perhaps its dizzying tale of an underworld populated by ancient gods was too culturally oblique for British audiences, but it was about as exciting and imaginative as cinema can get.
Those three were my favourites, but The Red Turtle, The Little Prince and Moana all had their own unique magic.
Oh the dramas
Remember back in January when all the Oscar and BAFTA films hit cinemas? That was when two difficult but thrilling films were released – Spotlight and Room. It’s almost irrelevant to say this after both won Oscars, but they really are terrific films.
Many other dramas impressed me this year, including the Turkish film Mustang, about five school girls who find that their home is increasingly a prison. Vibrant direction from Deniz Gamze Ergüven made this serious topic come alive; while it never shied away from the harsh reality of the girls’ lives, it still captured the rebellious energy of childhood. Captain Fantastic, which followed a family of “philosopher kings” growing up in the mountains and rejecting modern life, was not quite the hipster utopian tale that trailers suggested. Sharp writing and universally strong performances made this a fascinating study of ideological grey areas and it treated all of its characters with generosity. If you’re after something even more low-key than that, the eventless Paterson is a gentle, thoughtful treat about contentment and artistic desire.
Would that it twere so simple
Almost as rare as horror films appearing on my end-of-year lists is any acknowledgment of comedy. The vast majority of pure comedies released in cinemas just aren’t particularly funny. This year, however, two films (both of which played at the excellent Glasgow Film Fest) made me bray like a donkey with laughter. Hail, Caesar! – the latest from the dependably excellent Coen Brothers – features the two best scenes of the year. The first is a song-and-dance number called No Dames and the second is an increasingly absurd scene of enunciation direction. Hail, Caesar! is a funny, deceptively emotional love letter to cinema, with a side-order of religious pondering. Love & Friendship, meanwhile, was Jane Austen as you’ve never seen it before. Cutting, perfectly paced and relentlessly hilarious, it’s the most I’ve laughed at the cinema this year.
Having less time to visit the cinema this year has meant that I’ve mercifully avoided some of its greatest stinkers. Thanks to my “friend” Paul, however, I had to endure both Gods of Egypt and American Pastoral. The latter, which is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, is inexcusably dull, an aimless meander through one family’s life without any semblance of storytelling skill. Gods of Egypt, meanwhile, has to be seen to be believed, a CG-fuelled mess so incompetently made it’s almost mythological. It’s close to being so-bad-it’s-good, but really it’s just incoherent, overlong and features effects that would have looked dated in 2001.
I also loved the documentary 13th, which is on Netflix and should be compulsory viewing before anyone talks about race in America. Unlike many documentaries with important messages, this is also really well made (it’s by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma) and its relentless pace will leave you crying out for justice. It’s probably the only film this year I would deem to be essential viewing.