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A Savagely Partial Look At The Films Of 2016

December 30, 2016

Welcome, adventurer, to another round-up of every film released in 2016 that I, an aging body with a mounting pile of reasons not to watch films all year, nevertheless managed to see. There’s loads of stuff missing! It’s difficult to see why either of us are here. But what are we going to do, stop?


The year opened as it always does – awash with Oscars overflow, a pack of movies which really belong to 2015 and which have already been celebrated or semi-forgotten long before lists like this have been written. Joy looked like a lot of hard work in service to making a mop-themed Movie Of The Week, taken seriously because of the people in it and the names they have, while The Hateful Eight was what we can presumably expect from Tarantino forever now, a sort of edit-yourself-a-film kit which comes with plenty of exciting materials but without a single decision in the box. More actively objectionable was The Revenant, a grand act of self-fellatio upon the altar of male suffering which looked particularly preposterous when stacked up against something like Room, a bare and powerful look at the unmthyologised effects of male violence that should have won Best Picture. It didn’t, though – Spotlight did, for a fine, firmly traditional bit of quality drama-ing about child abuse in the Catholic church and the importance of steadfast journalism in holding power to account (a premise which, from where we stand at the end of 2016, looks quaint, bordering on prehistoric). The Big Short took a more irreverent approach to big issue filmmaking, and in so doing ended up like a lesson on capitalism from that one cool lecturer who wears a bow tie, and maybe the bow tie spins, and then Creed was a film about punching men and second chances, and that was absolutely fine.


februaryFebruary saw the release of Dad’s Army, Point Break and Zoolander 2, all films which I had the opportunity to watch on flights this year, but decided not to, in favour of staring at a blank screen. I did watch Goosebumps, a fond simultaneous CG speed-read of all RL Stine’s teen horrors at once, and Deadpool, a superhero film lauded as the future of the genre because it features swearing but which – even though Ryan Reynolds saying fuck is fun – seems more like an early sign of the cycle’s eventual decline. I love both Casey Affleck and John Hillcoat but all I can remember of Triple 9 is that it felt like a joke – “How many men can you fit in a generic crime thriller?” – that ended without a punchline, although that means it’s still funnier than Sacha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby, which is like a feature adaptation of Fat Les’ England football suicide note Vindaloo and exactly as relevant as that sounds, a classist satire of twenty year-old cultural phenomena that insists on both vilifying and celebrating the worst stereotypes of the English working class. The Forest was an icy, alienating horror about a young woman looking for her twin in myth-shrouded Japanese woods that was promising for 45 minutes and then not, and How To Be Single was an occasionally touching, occasionally funny comedy about young women in New York that it would be easy to describe as “slight” but which I would rather consider as having been “enough.”


marchMarch brought us London Has Fallen, so fuck March. The film is a giddy, irresponsible gunwank featuring Gerard Butler’s presidential bodyguard saving the commander in chief from pop-up extremists who’ve levelled London with shit special effects. While I have high tolerance for Coen brothers whimsy even I struggled to see the point of Hail, Cesar!, a farce powered by their love of old Hollywood, but not very far. Much sharper was 10 Cloverfield Lane, a locked-house thriller about domestic abuse and its reliance on enforced truths that, in the end, had its reality and ate it. I saw a preview of High-Rise last year, which is lucky because Ballard’s gluttonous concrete dystopia would have felt a bit bloody much in 2016, a year in need of no satirical shadow. Speaking of -topias, Disney’s Zootropolis is known as Zootopia in the US and indeed in the sky between here and there, where I saw it, and either way it’s a both a pointed commentary on the ridiculousness of anthropomorphised animation and a really funny film about talking animals. Lastly, there was Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and yes it was a bit shit – overburdened with grunting, testosterone-heavy meaning like a man with an enormous cock who’s grumpy about having to lug it around – but it also embraced the preposterousness of DC, a world full of superpowered beings who pass as humans, and it filled Metropolis with art deco grandeur and ideas of gods and men.


aprilIt also had roughly the same story as April’s Captain America: Civil War (something something, restraints on superpowers) and even though I’m in actual love with Chris Evans’ Avenger I couldn’t get over the fact that Marvel is expanding like an endlessly self-replicating chain of radioactive fucking Wimpys and this film felt like a sad rich kid with too many toys and not enough time to play with them all. Once you’ve scaled up it’s quite hard, Marvel’s films are showing, to scale down again, and constant climax is impossible. Elsewhere the month gave us Midnight Special, a film I expected to enjoy more than I did, a Spielbergian tale of renegade kids and faceless authorities that fell just on the “fuck this” side of harrowing, and Eye In The Sky, an intelligent cross-examination of the impossible morality of war, and a chance to savour a final look at Alan Rickman.


mayFor my birthday in May I got Bad Neighbours 2, which mostly made me feel uncomfortable about how attractive Zac Efron has become, and Green Room, which made me uncomfortable because it’s tight like a cord around your fucking neck. Our Kind Of Traitor was a muted Le Carré adaptation that smacked of a kind of Travelodge mediocrity, while Money Monster was mediocre in an entirely different way, a stagey, zeitgeist-catching statement about showbiz and capitalism that came up with an empty net. I enjoyed Sing Street, a tour through 1980s music and adolescence, in the same warm way that I also enjoyed Whisky Tango Foxtrot and Everybody Wants Some – in a way that means I will probably never think about them again starting… now. X-Men Apocalypse was two hours of people suspended on rigs against green screens doing powers, idiotic for dozens of specific reasons but empty in a way that’s almost unique, while Warcraft had the tang of real fiasco about it, a long shot made into an inevitability by technical constraints and commercial concerns, and a finished product of purest nothing in particular that was marched out to please nobody.


juneJune got off to an excellent start with The Nice Guys, a snappy Altman-ish comedy which pulled off the fairly spectacular double of making me enjoy both LA and Russell Crowe at the same time. It was definitely better than The Boss, which I liked anyway because Melissa McCarthy can carry pretty much anything, and because her films remind me of the second-string SNL spin-offs I devoured from the video rental shop as a kid. Gods Of Egypt reminded me almost perfectly of nothing – an action film made of unreal fabric that makes physical contact an impossibility – while Independence Day: Resurgence reminded me of the first Independence Day but limping and hapless, a once-lithe athlete desperate to hear the roar of the crowd one last time, before realising that the crowd are telling him to fuck off. Following this it was a relief to watch something straightforwardly stupid in the shape of Bastille Day, which was a bit like Luther in France with extra punching, and to sink into the well-observed, measured self-awareness of The Secret Life Of Pets, which conjured a beautiful version of New York that put me in mind of One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ metropolitan angularity. That’s what the kids love. Metropolitan angularity.


julyThen July arrived and FUCKING HELL it was stupid. The Legend Of Tarzan seemed convinced it could make colonialism not-racist on the grounds that Lord Greystoke is the one white guy who, like, really gets Africa, while Star Trek Beyond was a contrived mess of motorbikes and Beastie Boys that looked as though it was pinned together by enthusiastic Blue Peter viewers. King of stupid, though, was The Neon Demon, a film which borrows the two interesting things it has to say from David Lynch and reveals the ultimate, empty misogyny of Nicolas Winding Refn, whose men fight and kill and fuck, and whose women, we now know, pose and bleed and die. If profundity lies just a stroke from absurdity, directing a scene where a woman wanks on top of a corpse or floods a room with menstrual blood under a full moon has nothing to do with either, and makes you a fucking idiot.


The rest of July was much less ridiculous. Ghostbusters weirdly didn’t trigger a totalitarian matriarchy but was a funny film about ghosts, Keanu was also funny and, with its joking-not-joking celebration of George Michael, has now become more relevant than it really deserves to be, and The BFG captured something wonderful in the quiet uncertainty of Mark Rylance’s performance, but otherwise seemed like an expensive quest to rediscover the scrappy simplicity of Quentin Blake’s unsurpassable illustrations. The month ended with two comebacks – Jason Bourne, who looks increasingly like a man overtaken by the technology that once gave his stories such electricity, state surveillance now a matter of daily truth not fast-cutting fiction, and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, in which everybody looks a little old to be doing this sort of thing any more, but they’re doing it anyway and it’s loads of fun.


augustIn August I enjoyed Childhood Of A Leader even though it felt like someone had taught themselves to make a film by taking apart The Conformist then putting it back together with several pieces left over. I also enjoyed The Lonely Island’s comedy doc Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, my affection for the group’s other work almost certainly plastering over the film’s cracks – they’re really, really good at making funny music, and it might not be a skill that means movies are a thing they should do. Movies are also a thing I’d be happy never to see Ricky Gervais do again, forever – David Brent: Life On The Road was a string of racist, sexist jokes delivered through a disavowable mouthpiece and laced with pathos that couldn’t disguise the fact they were all the substance the film had. This was still more substance than Suicide Squad, though, which wasn’t so much a film as it was a disintegration, as though all the origins movies that DC should have made before getting to this point tried to happen at once.


septamberWell done to September for including some of the best films of the year. Hell Or High Water might have been my favourite cinema trip of 2016, an Uber ride to a deserted retail park a few miles from LAX to watch a modern outlaw thriller that had that West Texan knack of being both lean and laid back at the same time. Kubo And The Two Strings was a beautiful tribute to the power of stories, an imaginative, inspirational mix of stop motion and papercraft, and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, my favourite film of the year, was a story about a tearaway kid, a grumpy old man, and not getting naked that was bursting with heart and funny as hell. Even the bad bits of the month were pretty good – The Girl With All The Gifts was a stark echo of John Wyndham with flashes of unsustained brilliance, and The Magnificent Seven was an entirely needless remake that added welcome diversity and an increasingly unsure-looking Chris Pratt to an otherwise straightforward rerun.


octoberWe are nearly done. In October I apparently saw just two films, both documentaries. Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie was a bit of a bust, the organisation remaining impenetrable and leaving Louis to feed off scraps – the reflected insight of former Church member Mark Rathbun casting and directing a fake film about Scientology head David Miscavige, unenlightening aside from the sparks it lit behind Rathbun’s eyes. And there was Supersonic, a partial look at the unlikely success of Oasis that ignores contemporaries and rivals, constructs a narrative of working class destiny instead of placing the band in any kind of cultural context, and leaves them – sensibly, as I did – at Knebworth, as if the majority of their career and music never happened. It did, though, reveal that Liam Gallagher joined a band having been hit in the head with a hammer, which explains a lot.


novemberThen it was November. Let’s start with Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, which was as much about a make-believe early twentieth century New York – a beautiful one, too – as it was JK Rowling’s world of magic, and also showed how good the Harry Potter films might have been without the necessity of all those hammy bloody kids. The rest of the month belonged to Amy Adams, first in Nocturnal Animals, a cold and atmospheric thriller that threatens to mean a great deal but packs itself away into not very much at all, and then in Arrival, which is the film I would pretend was my favourite of the year if I was trying to sound cool, a science fiction film of rare originality that did what the best speculative work does: made me feel that substantial knowledge of the universe is impossible, that language is a clumsy trap of meaning, and that everything I ever think or say is meaningless. It was great.


decAnd then there was December, which was also pretty great. Snowden was a solid, pacy biopic that was also like a manual explaining why Jason Bourne isn’t exciting any more, and Moana was definitely a Disneyfication of Pacific Islander culture designed to print money, but also featured a princess with no love interest and a key musical number sung in a combination of Samoan and Tokelauan. It’s been a long time since Aladdin. Finally, there was Rogue One, which I loved because it was a Star Wars film that wasn’t shit, and also because, at the end of this year of all years, it offered an unexpectedly astute look at the factionalism, moral uncertainty and frequent hopelessness of resistance. Cor.


And that was 2016. The things I feel stupidest for missing are The Handmaiden and Little Men, and the best time I’ve had the cinema was either Hell Or High Water, or watching Arrival in a completely empty theatre at midnight, imagining I had the biggest TV in the world. The best TV I saw this year was either all the syndicated Seinfeld I watched with my kids on holiday in California, or probably Stranger Things, the same as everybody else who watched Stranger Things, and fuck you and your superior backlash bullshit if you disagree. Also, season three of Brooklyn 99 was pretty good.

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