2016 is probably going to go down in the history books as one of the worst years of our lives. Lets look back over the last six months; the presidential race is between two of the worst humans in existence, there is a rise in racist attacks in the UK following the decision to leave the EU, financial guru’s predict another economic meltdown is imminent and to top it all off, literally every celebrity has died. If the queen were to go door to door and shit in everybody’s letterbox, you’d probably take it at face value, as that is the sort of incident that just happens in the shit show of a year we call 2016.
But there have been some pretty good movies to distract us from the pain of modern life. Here in the UK, the year began with an onslaught of Oscar-nominated gems in a variety of genres, from The Hateful Eight and Creed, to Anomalisa and Son of Saul. In the weeks to come, British audiences will be treated to the critically acclaimed likes of The Neon Demon, Finding Dory, Julietta and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which prove that great cinema can come in all shapes and sizes. I haven’t seen every great movie released this year (I’ll catch up by the year end list!), so this list is free of supposed gems like Love & Friendship, A Bigger Splash and various arthouse titles. But the ten films on this list are all pretty damn good- and all different from the last!
On the whole, Deadpool doesn’t take the superhero origin story narrative to its brutally realistic (and excessively nihilistic) conclusion in the way a film like Super does- nor does it have the genuinely subversive spectacle of the first entry in the Kick-Ass franchise. But it proves to have a heart- a dark heart, but a fully human heart nonetheless. More importantly, for a performance that could so easily be written off as cold and artificial, Ryan Reynolds does an impeccable job of making you invest in Wade Wilson’s story- one you’ve seen a million times before, but feels thrilling due to the confidence with which it is being told.
9) Eye in the Sky
Eye in the Sky may be the most timely film released this year, exploring the thorny repercussions of international foreign policy, and the cost of an innocent human life- made all the more prescient due to a stunning central performance from one of 2016’s many celebrity casualties, Alan Rickman. This year will go down in history as being defined by conflicting opinions on foreign policy in the Western world and the George R.R Martin-style numbers of celebrities who keep passing away. Eye in the Sky feels incredibly of the moment because of both these reasons, albeit accidentally. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be applauded for turning a complex issue into easily digestible popcorn blockbuster fodder that appeals to the masses.
8) Welcome to Leith
Recently I’ve become convinced that a societal apocalypse is about to happen, what with Western civilisation seemingly repeating the same mistakes it has made countless times in history and political parties with agendas beyond the centre-right gaining international traction. The bleak documentary Welcome to Leith offers some hope for humanity, as the 24 citizens of the titular nowhere town rise up against the neo-nazis moving in with the hopes of taking over the local council. As current rolling news coverage shows the general public delighting in the idea of separatism (be it “building a wall” or clamouring to leave the EU), the idea of a community coming together to ensure the biggest supporters of that ideal don’t have a say in their local identity is strangely heartwarming. You just have to sit through a lot of terrifying, bleak content before you get to a quasi-catharsis.
7) Tale of Tales
A delightfully odd collection of fairytales, the English language debut of Italian director Matteo Gorrone is as far removed from his earlier gangster movie Gomorrah as is humanly possible. A magical realist fable so insane even Terry Gilliam would suggest it needed to get sectioned, Tale of Tales combines three strange 16th century folktales into one Python-esque whole. If you’ve ever wanted to see Toby Jones fall in love with a flea, or Salma Hayek eat the heart of a sea monster, then you’ve come to the right place.
6) Hail, Caesar!
Hallucinatory mermaid dances. Homoerotic On the Town inspired musical numbers (the frontrunner for best scene of 2016, coincidentally). Channing Tatum giving a better Blue Steel than Derek Zoolander ever could. Singing cowboys. Ralph Fiennes pronouncing the phrase “rodeo clown”. Double Tilda Swinton. Christopher Lambert cameos. Would that it were sa’simple. Aloof laughing. Priests and Rabbis arguing over how to depict Christ in a movie.
The Coen Brothers latest movie has received a mixed critical reaction due to how it is clearly just various bits and pieces stuck together into an incoherent whole. But when those bits and pieces manage to be this in love with the magic of old Hollywood, whilst managing to voice criticism on religion and politics all at once, I fail to see how this isn’t deserving of a place in the higher tier of their filmography.
5) Green Room
After seeing all adulatory comments for his previous film being tempered with praise comparing him to more celebrated filmmakers, Green Room marks director Jeremy Saulnier as an essential genre filmmaker on his own terms. Refusing to step in line with narrative conventions, Green Room may be perceived as needlessly and excessively nihilistic; instead, Saulnier’s film is gloriously unpredictable, a unique thriller that rips up the rule book whilst paying deliriously gory tribute to it.
4) 10 Cloverfield Lane
I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane by myself, in a gigantic screening room where I made up 100% of the audience. For a film so tense and claustrophobic, this was the ideal way to see it; as the movie edged deeper into its third act, I just couldn’t suppress myself from repeatedly bellowing “holy shit” out loud.
With only little relation to the original Cloverfield (which I was decidedly not a fan of), this movie is a marvel of Hitchcockian suspense, peppered frequently with the subversive black comedy the cinematic master was known for. As stripped down as genre movies can possibly go and all the better for it; all future blockbuster screenwriters should take note of the effective simplicity of 10 Cloverfield Lane, frequently eschewing SF special effects in favour of good old fashioned paranoid tension.
3) Zootropolis (or Zootopia, if you live internationally)
In a political climate divorced from sanity, let alone rationality, should it really come as a surprise that the most well-thought through socio-political argument is the overwrought thesis of a Disney animated film with an intended young audience? If older minds are getting screwed up with the thoughts of building borders, Zootropolis is here to unshackle young minds and ensure that no matter what political wing you grow up to fall under, you will have the basic moral dignity to not fall into shameful bigotry older generations are aimlessly walking towards. That it manages to have an important political message without ever getting in the way of the strength of the narrative (or the plethora of winning jokes and characters) makes the film a modern animated classic.
2) The Witch
It has been a long time since I’ve seen a new horror movie that is so lovingly crafted- a technical marvel that doesn’t conceal an ugly nightmare so much as it enhances it. With found footage movies now out of favour, Robert Eggers is the director to show us that sweeping cinematic visions are even more scary than plodding attempts at faux-realism. He plays on audience expectations of horror, crafting an uncompromising work that feels both at home within the genre canon and completely singular. Bound to be divisive to modern horror fans due to the period-accurate 17th century dialogue and religious themes that are so well explored, the film was endorsed by the satanic church. Not your average horror movie- and all the better for it.
The Nice Guys
Marrying the hard boiled flavour of the pulpiest film noir with some of the goofiest and most violent slapstick ever committed to celluloid, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is the bad taste comedy of my dreams. Shocking bloodlust has really never been this funny- imagine a strange mashup of L.A Confidential and Itchy and Scratchy and you are halfway towards the offbeat brilliance here.
But the real power in the movie is how, underneath the shocking laughs that fly faster and more frequent than any other recent comedy, he actually makes you emotionally invested in the characters, without ever redeeming them. It goes without saying that the title is ironic- these are the two biggest cinematic assholes in recent memory.