The Best & Worst of 2016

I watched so many films in 2016 that I’d forgotten I saw some of them so recently. Going back over the list, there were films I watched as late as March that I was amazed weren’t things I’d seen a couple of years ago. I don’t know what this signifies, really, other than that watching almost 200 films in a year has warped my perspective.

Anyway, it’s now time to consider the quality of that viewing: which films were the worst? Which the best? And what did I miss?

So without further ado…



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016

This year I saw some films so bad that Home on the Range hasn’t made my bottom five! In alphabetical order, they were…

300: Rise of an Empire300: Rise of an Empire
300 was hardly the height of cinematic class, but this makes it look like an accomplished work of auteurism (though, considering how Zack Snyder has continued down a similar aesthetic path, perhaps it always was). It’s just poorly made, with flat performances, cheap direction, aimless violence, and CGI that wouldn’t look great in a computer game.

Cool WorldCool World
Maybe if director Ralph Bakshi had got his way Cool World would be a masterpiece. Maybe not, too. Torn between conflicting interests (it’s a kid-friendly movie with adult content) and with distractingly poor technical aspects (the animation and live action often seem mismatched), it’s an unappealing mess.

HomeHome
DreamWorks’ animated movies never quite achieve the crossover acclaim that greets almost anything Pixar spit out, which is sometimes a shame… and sometimes it really isn’t, like with this irritating movie about an irritating alien and his irritating human friend. Pixar have never made anything this annoying. Not even Cars.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp AgainThe Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
“Is this even worse [than The Rocky Horror Glee Show]? Well, that’s a bit like someone forcing you to eat a dog shit and a cat shit before asking you which tasted nicer.” Most accurate review I’ve ever written.


The Twilight Saga: New MoonThe Twilight Saga: New Moon
New Moon contains the single funniest scene in any movie I’ve seen this year. Unfortunately, New Moon is not a comedy (not deliberately, anyway) and that scene is not a comedy interlude (not deliberately, anyway). For all the Twilight saga’s other sins, I will forever love it for giving us Face Punch. (Oh, but the rest of the film is pretty terrible.)



The Twenty Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016

Last year I commemorated the fact I’d doubled my titular target by also doubling the size of my top ten, joking about having never done a percentage increase before. But that got me thinking: what if I did? So from now on my “top 10” will be a “top 10%” — which this year means it’s a top 20 again.

My guiding principle when ranking this year’s picks became films that excited me — not in the adrenaline-pumping sense of having fantastic action sequences, but in the sense of films which left me feeling thrilled by their cinematic achievements. Not that I’m saying every film here is some wonder of Cinema, just that the notion guided some of my choices. It’s ended up with some very good, perhaps even better, films slipping down the chart. But never mind: as is usually the case with lists like this, it’s only a snapshot of my thinking right now.

Finally: as always, this list is created from the movies I watched for the first time this year, not just new releases. However, I did watch 38 films that had their UK release in 2016, and six of them are in my top twenty, so I’ve noted their ‘2016 rank’ too.

An intelligent, considered sci-fi movie that ponders artificial intelligence and its potential right to life, but also a gripping psychological thriller about three individuals locked in a bunker. And there’s Oscar Isaac’s dance scene too.

Sion Sono’s comic book epic mixes battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, into possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen. Is it trash or art? It can be two things.

Wes Anderson described his typically-idiosyncratic young-love adventure as “an autobiography about something that didn’t happen”, which is possibly my favourite description of a film ever. A movie for the romantic adventurer in every childhood bookworm.

The best comedy or musical of 2015 is neither of those things, but it is one in a pleasing run of intelligent sci-fi movies Hollywood is offering these days. Trust Ridley Scott and Matt Damon to make a movie about using science to grow potatoes into a gripping adventure.

An underrated le Carré thriller starring Sean Connery as a book publisher coerced into helping MI6 and the CIA bring over a defector, alongside Michelle Pfeiffer as his Russian contact. Strong performances enliven a typically le Carré plot: grounded, plausible, unguessable, with a surprising conclusion.

2016 #6 A neo-noir crime thriller about racism featuring nudism and drug abuse… from Disney! It’s still a kid-friendly animated comedy, of course, but one that functions particularly well — arguably even better — for adult fans.

It looks like such a boilerplate indie movie that I kinda expected to hate this, but it caught me off guard with characters I related to and a story that I found affecting without being saccharine. Probably the most emotional a movie has made me feel this year.

Famed for Daniel Day-Lewis’ awards-scooping performance that is arguably one of the greatest of all time, there’s actually much more to Spielberg’s biopic. Playing like a gorgeously-shot period version of The West Wing, if you like men politicking in gaslit rooms, this is heaven.

Now we move into my Top Ten. Yeah, I know it’s #12, but I really thought these two would make it. I guess they’re kinda =10th, then; though that would be cheating… Anyway: I hadn’t even heard of this movie before this year, but the coincidence of a blog post and a Blu-ray release led me to purchase it and I was so glad I did. It’s Rear Windscreen meets Duel Down Under in a superb Ozploitation thriller.

2016 #5 Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal rarely-seen comic talent as a pair of not-actually-that-nice guys who nonetheless have some morals in Shane Black’s spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This has just as convoluted a plot, and it matters just as little — its major asset is that it’s frequently hilarious.

2016 #4 Yes, really. And, just so we’re clear on what’s going on here, neither Civil War nor Doctor Strange are in my Top 9. Is BvS ‘better’ than anything Marvel Studios put out this year? Hm. But is it a more interesting movie? I thought so. Zack Snyder made a dark, morally ambiguous, imperfect movie that reflects the dark, morally ambiguous, imperfect days we live in. Perhaps it’s just too timely for its own good? People don’t seem to want a movie that questions our heroes and our relationship towards them in a world where real-life heroes feel in short supply. It’s clearly not the movie a lot of people think they need, but maybe it’s the one they deserve right now.

Of all the films on this list, Cold in July has arguably the most surprising plot: it takes sharp right-angle turns at several points, never breaking the style and genre it sets itself in, but instead shuttling the viewer off in entirely different directions than expected. By the time it reaches its action-packed climax, you have no idea quite what it’s going to do — and how better to end a neo-noir thriller than that?

2016 #3 This may be all the way down in 8th place, but in some respects it’s #1: I’m not sure I’ve had more pure fun watching a movie this year than I did during Deadpool (The Nice Guys would be closest). Okay, so it’s a little puerile really, but the humour comes thick and fast, and the regular fourth-wall breaking undercuts not just the film but the whole superhero genre. Having talked about the excitement of great Cinema at the start, this isn’t that, but it is a fantastically good time.

Steven Soderbergh transforms a pretty straightforward revenge story into an elliptical narrative that has you constantly questioning what you’re watching — is it flashback, flash-forward, a dream, a plan, a fantasy…? In the end it’s probably none of those things, but Soderbergh’s unusual editing techniques create an arthouse/mainstream mash-up that is a uniquely querying, mystifying, yet satisfying experience.

2016 #2 In an era when Hollywood considers “science-fiction” a byword for “action-adventure”, it’s all the more remarkable that an intelligent, adult drama like this was backed by a major studio. It’s partly a timely message about the need for mankind to understand each other across nations and work together, but it’s also a thoughtful meditation on the human condition — what it means to be human, what it costs us, and if it’s worth it. Director Denis Villeneuve paces events sublimely, imbuing the alien spacecraft with a wonder and fascination that you’d’ve thought lost in modern “anything is possible” cinema, but the film really belongs to Amy Adams and her layered, affectingly real performance.

Another thought-provoking science-fiction movie (for those not keeping count, it’s the fourth in this list), Predestination has been less heralded but deserves to be better known. Adapted from a short story by genre giant Robert A. Heinlein, it’s satisfying both as a tangled time travel mystery (with some great twists, whether you guess them or not) and as a consideration of human and historical issues about things like identity and feminism.

2016 #1 I’m as surprised as anyone by how much I liked The Revenant, having not been particularly enamoured of the previous Alejandro G. Iñárritu films I’d seen, but this gruelling survival-story Western oozes excellence from every frame. Leo’s pretty good, as are the rest of the cast, but Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is the highlight: appropriately crisp depictions of wintery nature, an incredible use of natural light, and single-shot sequences that blow Birdman out of the water. By telling the story primarily with these visuals, Iñárritu has created a work of true cinema.

Like Lincoln, this is a beautifully-shot biopic about people stood around in rooms talking. The big gun it has in its corner, however, is an actual West Wing writer — its creator, no less — Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin’s screenplay is a precisely constructed marvel, brought to the screen by a quality cast capable of wrapping their tongues around his magnificent dialogue, and in Danny Boyle a director with the right visual sensibilities to make the material sing. What could have just been an Apple fanboy’s wet dream is instead a gripping character drama with a surprising corporate thriller vibe at times.

An orange to The Raid’s apple, this sequel is bigger and grander in every conceivable aspect. A sprawling crime epic, spanning many years, many locations, and many characters, it’s the antithesis of the tightly-focused first film — but all the better for it. Even with the more intricate plot, there’s still plenty of time for elaborate action sequences, crafted with even greater skill and inventiveness than the first movie. It’s surely one of the greatest action movies ever made.

In a top twenty filled with crime thrillers (see: #15, #11, #9, #7, #2), gorgeously-shot movies (see: #13, #6, #4, #3), and remarkable female leads (see: #20, #15, #6, #5), it’s only fitting that a film which does all of these so skilfully should top my list. Emily Blunt is the powerhouse FBI agent who finds herself out of her depth in a complex cross-agency investigation that leads her, and us, to some dark and morally questionable places. It’s all incredibly shot by the reliably amazing Roger Deakins. Between this and his other entry in my top ten, I think Denis Villeneuve has marked himself out as one of the most exciting directors working right now.


I always want to include this section of my post, but sometimes I’m not quite sure what to put in it — if it was just some more ranked films, I’d’ve included them above. But this year I have something concrete to begin with, because there were several films that I surprised myself by not including in my top twenty. They were films that I really liked — and, perhaps even more so, lots of other people really liked and include in their lists — but which, for some reason, when I was sorting through my options, fell by the wayside in favour of… well, in favour of the films that did make it in. I’m talking about films like Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (maybe that’s not on many other lists, but I really enjoyed it), The Iron Giant… and, of course, Rogue One. My already mixed feelings about the latest Star Wars movie were massaged by happening to read Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes and Film Crit Hulk’s dissection of the film while preparing this list, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything they have to say, between them they managed to clarify and illuminate some problems I already had with the movie, and that kinda put me off its inclusion.

A shout out, too, for those less-widely-loved films that I really, really liked but couldn’t quite justify being in this top twenty — films like Crimson Peak, Dragon (Wu Xia), The Good Dinosaur, Grand Piano, Lost River, Pan, and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. And despite all those Shaw Brothers movies I watched, none ended up charting — but One-Armed Swordsman came close.

Finally, I can’t end this without mentioning the 26 films that earned 5-star ratings this year — especially as I haven’t actually published reviews for nine of them yet! So, 15 made it into the top twenty, but as they’re spread throughout the list I’ll name them again: Arrival, Cold in July, Deadpool, Ex Machina, The Limey, Lincoln, The Martian, The Nice Guys, Predestination, The Raid 2, The Revenant, Road Games, The Russia House, Sicario, and Steve Jobs. The other 11 were: 12 Years a Slave, Barry Lyndon, Hamlet, The Iron Giant, Macbeth, Napoleon, The Pianist, Spotlight, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Witness for the Prosecution, and Wuthering Heights. Additionally, short film The Present also got full marks.


During 2016 I watched 38 movies that were released in 2016, but of course that means there were plenty I missed. As usual, then, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films that are listed as 2016 on IMDb (unless IMDb got it glaringly wrong) that I’ve not yet seen.

They’re chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety — though I’ve decided to not include any more bloody Ice Age films on these lists, because they keep making them, they keep doing pretty well at the box office, and I keep not watching them.

The BFG
Ghostbusters
The Jungle Book
La La Land
Moonlight
Nocturnal Animals
Finding Dory
The Handmaiden
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
The Neon Demon
Silence
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Allied
Assassin’s Creed
Ben-Hur
The BFG
Blair Witch
Bridget Jones’s Baby
Don’t Breathe
Eddie the Eagle
Everybody Wants Some!!
Finding Dory
Ghostbusters
The Girl on the Train
Gods of Egypt
Hail, Caesar!
The Handmaiden
Hell or High Water
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I, Daniel Blake
Independence Day: Resurgence
Inferno
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
La La Land
The Legend of Tarzan
Live by Night
London Has Fallen
The Magnificent Seven
Manchester by the Sea
Me Before You
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Moana
A Monster Calls
Moonlight
The Neon Demon
Nocturnal Animals
Now You See Me 2
Passengers
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Sausage Party
The Secret Life of Pets
Silence
Sing
Sing Street
Sully: Miracle on the Hudson
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Warcraft: The Beginning
Your Name

…and many more.


And that’s 2016 over… apart from the 36 reviews I still have to post, of course. I think that’s one of my worst ever. That’s what comes of not doing my advent calendar.

It’s also the end of 100 Films’ first decade, which I intend to make even more of a fuss about than I already have when the official birthday rolls around at the end of February. I’m thinking lists, and probably statistics. Any excuse for some statistics.

But, for now, all that remains is for me to thank you for reading and wish you all the best with your own film-watching endeavours. Let’s hope 2017 is a better one for us all.

Sicario (2015)

2016 #126
Denis Villeneuve | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

SicarioFighting a losing war against Mexican drug cartels in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is keen to be enlisted to an interagency task force run by Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Taken along for the ride but kept in the dark, Macer becomes increasingly concerned that all is not as it seems — especially when it comes to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious task force member whose motives seem to be a big secret…

Much like his previous film, Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve here takes a storyline that could fuel a run-of-the-mill genre picture (a war-on-drugs action-thriller) and instead turns it into something altogether classier. In this regard, I’m tempted to invoke the work of directors like Hitchcock and Fincher. Sicario isn’t necessarily a film I could picture either of them making (maybe Fincher), but the way it takes a “genre movie” and elevates it artistically has a certain similarity. That said, like those directors at their best, Villeneuve here works primarily with tension and suspense — words I’m about to thoroughly overuse in this review, but they encapsulate the feeling of watching Sicario so well.

Any viewers seeking simple action thrills will not be satisfied with the sequences offered here, but the way the scenes rely on suspense rather than bullet choreography makes for a supremely tense movie; one that can grip you like a vice and only occasionally let up, letting you catch your breath before it doubles down. As viewers, we’re positioned alongside Macer, kept out of the loop and so unsure who to trust and what exactly is going on for much of the movie. In that respect the plot demands a certain level of attention, because it isn’t always spelled out in nice bitesize chunks of exposition.

Arguably, the film loses its way a little when it does reach that point. Answers are forthcoming eventually, and the third act occasionally abandons the conflicted and complex world that came before it for more straightforward and satisfying turns of events. Fortunately, the film survives such wobbles thanks to the strengths it’s already established, and with an even deeper dive into moral greyness even while it seems to be offering a simplistically fulfilling climax.

Blunt is excellent as Macer, an outwardly tough-as-nails tactical specialist who is hiding a less assured core. If that sounds almost trite then it doesn’t play that way, afforded greater subtlety by Blunt and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Macer is a capable agent, but is she capable of operating in Graver’s world? The only other character and performance that really stands beside Blunt is Del Toro’s Alejandro. Around 90% of Alejandro’s dialogue was cut by Del Toro and Villeneuve before shooting began, and it works to everyone’s favour. He’s an unreadable presence in his silence, seeming both brooding and almost bored, like he’s fed up waiting for the task force’s duties to get him where he wants to be. His silence is threatening, even after his demonstrated skill-set is (to Macer, anyway) a kind of comfort. It’s only fitting that the final scene — the real climax of the movie, hitting hard on its emotional arcs even after the plot is done — is a two-hander between Blunt and Del Toro, loaded with as much tension and suspense as any other part of the movie.

Brolin may be a headline lead alongside those two, but his character is given little to work with beyond being a son-of-a-bitch who keeps Macer onside with (deceitful) charm. He’s fine but unremarkable in that role. Perhaps the sequel will give him more to work with. More memorable is Daniel Kaluuya as Macer’s FBI partner, Reggie Wayne. More time spent with Macer and Wayne working together wouldn’t go amiss. Jon ‘the Punisher’ Bernthal also pops up in a small part, imbuing what could’ve been a sketchy plot-driver with more believability.

The film’s other real stars are behind-the-scenes. First, the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins. I must admit I was a little underwhelmed at first, as the film starts in the flatly-lit daytime world of the Southern US / Mexico region. Not that it’s poorly shot, just that very little of it struck me as particularly remarkable. As the film transitions to more nighttime settings, however, Deakins’ work comes vibrantly to life, starting with some majestic golden-hour shots of ominous cloud-darkened skies, which seem to visually overwhelm Macer as she begins to realise she’s out of her depth. Later, the task force descend into tunnels, and the film presents a mixture of ‘regular’ photography — so dark that only certain things can be glimpsed in the patches of light — and both thermal- and night-vision shots. I guess it’s a cliche to say the use of headcam-type footage puts the viewer there with the characters, but here it really does. Most extraordinary are the thermal shots: captured for real with a thermal vision camera, rather than a post-production special effect, they look like some heightened-reality video game, their eeriness only adding to the tension.

Tension is definitely the name of the game when it comes Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, which was also Oscar nominated. Dominated by elongated, heavy strings and pacey, heartbeat-emulating percussion, it makes the threats lurking in every corner feel tangible; makes the sense that everything is doomed and liable to go south at any moment palpable. It’s a major contributor to the film’s mood.

It may have familiar genre building-blocks at heart, but between Sheridan’s focus on character, Blunt and Del Toro’s nuanced performances, Deakins’ fantastic imagery, Jóhannsson’s intense music, and Villeneuve’s skilful orchestration of every aspect, Sicario emerges as a film that exceeds the artistic and emotional effect you’d typically expect from a “genre movie” without sacrificing the thrills that should be inherent.

5 out of 5

Sicario is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

It placed 1st on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.