So, goodbye and good riddance to 2016. A pretty ghastly year...albeit with some pretty darn good movies.
And here are my favourite flicks of the year. As always I don't claim them as the best films but simply the ones I personally enjoyed the most and that have made the strongest connection to me for many reasons, chief of which being the striking of a powerful emotional chord. My number one priority with a film is to be entertained and never bored. Closely followed by moved, then informed and also possibly inspired. If a film can do all those then you can get something pretty damn special.
Anyway, on with it...
20 The Mermaid
From China The Mermaid is the latest zany live action cartoon from the genius who is Stephen Chow. It may not be his best work (see Kung Fu Hustle) but this crazy/silly/sweet comedy-romance about mer-people trying to halt the human destruction of their undersea home is utterly bonkers, visually impressive, laugh out loud funny in places and also warm hearted and sweet with an important ecological message at its heart. Very silly but very fun and charming.
19 Our Little Sister
From Japan Hirokazu Koreeda's Our Little Sister is a simple story about three twenty-something sisters Sachi, Yoshino and Chika discovering they have a fourth half-sister – 14 year old Suzu who is now an orphan after their estranged father dies. The three sisters who all live together in an old family house decide to take in their new sibling and care for her. What follows is a gentle and lovely story about love, loss and familial bonds. Never sentimental Our Little Sister is just spot on and leaves you wishing we could all be so lucky as to share such close ties. Delightful.
18 10 Cloverfield Lane
Dan Trachtenberg's film is partly the usual JJ Abrams' (who produced) mystery box while also serving as a sort of continuation of 2008's Cloverfield brand. But thankfully the mystery box is not all this film has going for it. Not by a long shot. With a smart screenplay, taught direction from Trachetneberg and excellent performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tense layered thriller which builds its tension and its characters along with its mystery until the intense climax. A brilliant example of a well made drama/thriller which keeps you pinned to your seat and willing our winning lead on to (hopeful) victory.
17 Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is the 14th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a franchise which shows no sign of growing stale or getting boring if DS is anything to go by. Okay, so Scott Derrickson's film of the titular Marvel hero follows the standard superhero origin formula and Stephen Strange is a rather similar character type to Tony Stark – an arrogant, self obsessed jerk whose personal tragedy opens his eyes to the bigger picture and his own potential to make the world a better place. But an infusion of the bizarre and visually trippy mystical into the MCU along with a solid script which emphasises smarts and cleverness over smash bang wallop and a terrific lead actor in BennyBatch makes MCU 14 a highly entertaining entry that opens all new weirdly wonderful avenues for the franchise to explore.
Not much needs to be said about this labour of love by star Ryan Reynolds, director Tim Miller and millions of loyal fans who together with Reynolds and Miller convinced FOX to green light and make this modest budgeted cheeky, vulgar, violent, sweary, meta Marvel superhero flick. And boy did it pay off. In spades. A critical hit and commercial smash ($50m budget vs. $760m haul) Deadpool enjoys showing other superhero movies his cheeky bare arse before turning around and poking them in the eyes. Hilarious, exciting, violent, oddly moving and tons of fun, the Merc with a Mouth hit big this year. Bring on Deadpool 2.
15 Sing Street
John Carney's effortlessly fun, lively feel good ode to young love, living your dreams and 80's pop music is a delightful coming of age story set in 1980's Dublin where fourteen year old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) falls for older aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and decides to impress her by forming a band and filming music videos of which she will be the star. Carney's film captures a place and time in the mid-80's where Ireland is seen by its young as drab and done with many of them looking to get across the sea to England which is viewed as a land of colour, excitement and opportunity, especially in its vibrant world leading music and pop culture scene. The two leads are great as are all the supporting performances including Maria Doyle Kennedy, Aidan Gillen and Jack Treynor. And there is a fantasy music number at a school dance directly inspired by Back to the Future which should get your foot tapping and put a big ol' smile on your face. Just charming, grin inducing fun all the way through. Brill.
Lenny Abrahamson's film written by Emma Donoghue and based on her novel of the same name is not the film you think it will be. Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) has been held captive for seven years after being kidnapped by a stranger who provides her with just enough to survive and who visits regularly for sex. In those seven years of captivity Joy has had a now 5 year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and together they live in a small shabby but secure shed they call Room. Jack's only knowledge of life and the world beyond is from what his mother tells him - very basic childish stories made simple for him to understand. But Joy hasn't given up on escape and is determined to try again even though Jack is emotionally attached to Room and the small simple secure world it represents. For such a grim subject the miracle of Room is that it finds joy, optimism and wonder in its story, seen almost entirely through the eyes of innocent young Jack. The direction is subtle and sensitive and the two lead performances by Larson and young Tremblay are fantastic. Room is tough and grim but also beautiful and life affirming. Quite the balance to strike.
Disney's latest in house CG animated feature film is a charming, witty, exciting, clever blast. Zootopia posits a world where intelligent animals – predators and prey – live together in relative harmony, especially in the huge titular metropolis. In to this world comes the first bunny police officer in the form of the clever, idealistic and enthusiastic Officer Judy Hopps. Soon circumstances throw Judy together with charming low level grifter fox Nick Wilde and together they must solve the case of disappearing predators and expose the dastardly conspiracy behind it. Zootopia reminded me of a Disney family animation if written and directed by Shane Black. It only missed the Xmas setting. The characters are rounded and vibrant, the story a genuine mystery with something to say about prejudice, the humour witty and clever, and the design and animation quite wonderful. The voice cast led by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are uniformly excellent as well. Another Disney winner.
12 Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi's latest is a wonderfully quirky comedy adventure which sees young kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) placed with new foster mum Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, the crotchety and disinterested Hec (Sam Neill) who live together out in the New Zealand bush. Ricky is a wannabe tough guy/gangsta but with a deep-seated need to belong and to be loved and eventually motherly Bella manages to get through his tough outer shell. However circumstances intervene which sees Ricky and cantankerous Hec taking off into the bush together which kicks off a nationwide manhunt for the pair. Hunt for the Wilderpeople has a great offbeat charm all the way through while exploring themes of family, belonging and self discovery. Dennison and Neill make for a terrific on-screen duo with Neill giving some of the best grump this side of Harrison Ford. Great stuff. Can't wait to see what Waititi does with Thor: Ragnarok.
11 Under the Shadow
Iranian-born Babak Anvari's directorial debut is a deeply creepy and unsettling feminist supernatural horror set in 80's Tehran against the backdrop of the Iran/Iraq war. When former medical student and mum Shideh's (Narges Rashadi) building is hit by an Iraqi missile which fails to detonate a superstitious neighbour suggests the missile has brought to them a malevolent spirit known as a Jinn. As more and more disturbing things begin to happen and as Shideh's young daughter Dorsa's (Avin Manshadi) behaviour becomes increasingly disturbed, Shideh starts to believe there is indeed an evil presence in the house which may be after her daughter. Under the Shadow is a terrific debut that manages to capture a strange and scary world where the roles and lives of women have been drastically changed for the worse and where the growing fear of persecution, the fear of discovery of hidden western accoutrements as well as the growing intensity of war is horribly tangible. As well as exploring these themes the film also manages to be genuinely unsettling and scary with its glimpses of things in corners of eyes, in mirrors, in TV sets as well as nerve jangling waking dreams experienced by poor Shideh. Under the Shadow is my kind of horror film. It is rich in character and is actually about something other than just making you creeped out, although it does that admirably as well.
10 The Witch
Another terrific horror but this time a 17th century folk horror set in New England. A family expelled from their settlement due to a clash of religious interpretation sets up home on the edge of a big dark forest. Soon the family's baby son disappears whilst in the care of eldest daughter Thomasin. Baby Sam is thought to have been taken by a witch who lives in the woods. But gradually suspicion and fear of each other grows amongst the family egged on by mischievous young twins Mercy & Jonas and their sinister-yet-playful relationship with the family's goat Black Philip who they claim talks to them. Eventually, after son Caleb falls ill, the finger gets pointed at Thomasin who becomes the ultimate target of the family's fervent religious terror. The Witch is terrific stuff. Deeply unsettling and strange whilst never being out and out scary it creates a period accurate portrait of life which revolves entirely around pious belief and irrational behaviours possibly brought on by that belief or perhaps by physical environmental issues. Is the titular witch real? Is it all just in their heads – a shared hallucinatory experience? Who knows. That is the beauty of the film. It can work either way. Though personally I favour the idea of collective ergot poisoning. Whatever the case debut director Robert Eggers has created a fantastic and deeply unsettling mood piece which disturbs on a very basic level and the cast are all fab especially Anna Taylor Joy as Thomasin. Spellbinding stuff.
9 Kill Zone 2
Kill Zone 2 is a sequel in name only to Kill Zone, a 2005 Hong Kong action-er which starred Donni Yen. Kill Zone 2 has nothing to do with the original which I have not seen and has an all-new cast and director. Tony Jaa is the new lead and does his rather incredible athletic Tony Jaa thing including a gob-smacking forward flying kick through the wind shield of an oncoming bus! Awesome! Basically Kill Zone 2 is a martial-arts crime noir melodrama with a convoluted plot based around kidnapping, murder, illegal organ theft/transplants, corrupt prisons, a crime boss with a dodgy heart and a sick child who desperately needs a specific bone marrow donation. It sounds nuts but the plot kinda makes sense even if it relies on far too many coincidences to work. But it does work because the overall tone is operatic and of heightened reality with a slightly magical/fantasy underpinning. Amidst all of this are some truly spectacular and brutal martial arts sequences as well as exciting chases and bloody gun fights. All very John Woo. KZ2 may not be up to the same standard as classic Woo or even the last two Raid flicks but it is still one heck of an engrossing operatic action blast which puts to shame similar movies from the west. Bring on KZ3.
8 Audrie and Daisy
Jon Shenk & Bonni Cohen's powerful documentary film provides an unflinching focus on the rape of two young teen girls in different parts of the US. Through their experiences and those of their families in dealing with the perpetrators, the authorities and their local communities the film exposes the noxious rape culture which appears to have taken root in many parts of US society where even girls as young as 13 and 14 are seen as fair game and are branded either liars or seen as being to blame for the evil done to them. The film provides a harsh and totally justified indictment of this culture of entitlement that seems to allow young men to disregard others humanity for their own ends. The thing though about Audrie and Daisy is, yes, it is dealing with a grim and tragic subject which will make any decent human being with a heart angry and tear up at times, but it also has a tenderness and strong sense of uplift and positivity which comes through in the attitude of many of the survivors who share their stories but who refuse to be victims and who dedicate themselves to helping others who are suffering from these same awful crimes. I also saw another similar doc this year about US college rape culture called The Hunting Ground which was also shocking and eye opening. Together with the fab MTV show Sweet/Vicious raising awareness and tackling the same subject head on lets hope that some positive progress can be made in making things even a little bit better.
Mustang is the feature debut of Turkish-French film-maker Deniz Gamze Ergüven and is the story of five young orphaned sisters living with their uncle and grandmother in a small village in idyllic rural Turkey. The five sisters who range in age from 12 to 18 are all fun and free spirited souls whose sense of freedom and adventure is about to collide with traditional conservative Turkish values especially after gossip and unwarranted innuendo about their behaviour gets back to their now furious uncle. As a result the girls effectively become prisoners in their home, being prepared for a traditional role and one by one being married off to 'suitable' husbands. What follows is a story of continual defiance be it in small ways or in larger more dramatic and sometimes tragic ways. Eventually the film becomes a siege/prison break drama as the remaining sisters plot and execute their plan of escape; an escape from abuse and from the restrictive and destructive life which will destroy their spirit if they fail. Mustang is beautifully shot and directed. It almost glows with an ethereal light making rural Turkey look heavenly. But that is all just a facade as what lies beneath the lovely idyll is dark and repressive and destructive especially for young women. Mustang also has a fairytale feel as well with its often ethereal look and its themes of young girls as prisoners escaping a darkly evil parental figure (the vile uncle) with the house becoming something like Rapunzel's tower or Sleeping Beauty's castle. Only here the girls have to forge their own escape as their is no handsome prince to come and save them. The five girls are a wonderful group, full of warmth, fun, life and mischief and they have a genuine chemistry. You really do feel for them and root for them to make good their escape, which leads to what is a bitter-sweet denouement. An all-round terrific film Mustang has warmth, darkness, tragedy, fun and charm.
6 Kubo and the Two Strings
Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest stop-motion animated film from Laika who made the terrific Coraline, ParaNorman and Box Trolls. And this is their best one yet. This is a simply beautiful film in all respects from its gorgeous animation and design to its sublime storytelling to its wondrous score. The movie tells a story set in ancient Japan about a young one eyed boy called Kubo (Art Parkinson) who seems to have magical powers whenever he plays his shamisen (a stringed musical instrument). Ignoring his mother's warning to be home by dark he accidentally summons a vengeful spirit from the past and after his mother tragically dies saving him, goes on the run in order to find a mythical suit of samurai armour that once belonged to his deceased father and which will enable him to face and defeat the ancient evil that is after him. Along the way Kubo joins forces with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who help him in his quest and also to come to terms with his personal loss and to unlock his potential. A simple quest narrative provides the backbone of Kubo and the Two Strings but the incidents and characters and themes which that backbone supports are rich, complex, moving and wonderfully compelling. Dealing with loss and forging a family and fulfilling personal potential are among the themes at play. And there is also humour often of a gentle character based nature rather than quippy one liners. The film is warm and funny and exciting and gorgeous to look at and I was entranced by every minute. The best animation of the year bar none.
5 Train to Busan
If I were lazy then Yeon Sang Ho's brilliant horror thriller could simply be described in four words: zombies on a train. But that would be doing this tense, inventive, exciting, bloody, moving gem from South Korea a massive disservice. The premise is devastatingly simple. Seok-Woo is a divorced workaholic and absentee father to his young daughter, Su-an. For her birthday Su-an asks her father to bring her to the city of Busan to see her mother. Seok-Woo makes the time and together father and daughter board the train to Busan. Unfortunately their journey co-insides with a biological incident which sees the outbreak of a zombie plague across the country and very soon the enclosed environment of the speeding train becomes a potential gory death trap for Seok-Woo, his daughter and all the other passengers. Train to Busan takes its story, its characters and the situation deadly seriously. The characters are all well drawn and have their own arcs including the key passengers Seok-Woo and Su-an meet on the train. The main theme of the story is a familiar one: knowing what is really important in life and making time for those you love. But the movie explores it with genuine heart and sincerity and you really care about these people and what will become of them. And then there are the zombies. And they are awesome! They are of the speedy variety and are very animalistic acting purely on sight and sound to get their prey. If they can't see you or hear you they will not attack which leads to some truly tense sequences as passengers use their ingenuity and smarts to evade attack. The cast are all great and the film builds to an exciting and wrenching conclusion by which time you are wondering (and hoping to find out) what South Korea could do with other familiar western horror tropes. Something equally as awesome I bet. A stone cold zombie classic!
4 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Gareth Edwards Rogue One is a gritty, exciting and gorgeous looking war movie which just so happens to be set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Inspired by the first paragraph of Star Wars A New Hope's title crawl, the film explores how the Rebels got their hands on the Death Star plans which eventually found their way in to R2 D2. And it's a pretty compelling tale which hinges on a father daughter relationship and the right people coming together at the right time to do the impossible while also fighting to keep the fledgling rebellion from falling apart. Of course you can always say that the story told here is pointless as it is merely back story/set up for the original Star Wars. And you'd of course be right. But having a clever script enables new shades to be added to the colour palette of the original Star Wars meaning you now look at that film slightly differently. The story jumps around many locations before pulling its core group of characters together to embark on their seemingly hopeless mission. And what a mission. If nothing else the final act of Rogue One is worth the price of admission alone as battles rage across space and across a planet, all directed and edited with style and precision. And this is the best looking Star Wars film since the original trilogy, designed within an inch of its life while maintaining that lived in look but adding a grittiness previously absent in the series. ILM's FX are the best they have done for years with one major exception: a certain CGI character who while technically well done looks fake as anything and pulls you out of the film. I'd also have preferred a bit less fan service and cameo moments in the film which I really don't think were needed and just caused needless distractions. But those are small quibbles in what is otherwise a pretty damn great sci-fi/fantasy war movie. Oh and Michael Giacchino's score is brilliant utilising familiar themes and styles from John Williams while also adding his own new touches to the sound of Star Wars. So a great start to the SW stand-alone films then. Lets just hope the young Han Solo film can keep up the quality.
3 Captain America: Civil War
Entry number 13 in the ongoing MCU and a fantastic closer to the Captain America trilogy. The Russo Brothers return from Winter Soldier to direct with style, wit and muscle what many have called Avengers 2.5. But it really isn't. CW closes out the story begun in The First Avenger and continued with The Winter Soldier which is essentially the story of the deep friendship and brotherhood between Steve Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes. It just so happens that global politics and several of the Avengers get caught in the middle. What this film also does brilliantly is to close out the story of Tony Stark and his relationship with his parents especially his father whose shadow you have always felt he has been trying to escape yet also trying to live up to as well. Downey Jr has never been better than he is here bringing new depth to Tony and while he is still the same fun charming guy he is also deeply wounded and full of guilt over his actions in Age of Ultron (as he should be) which pushes him into arguably a mistaken course of action pitting him against his friend and colleague Steve Rogers. Speaking of... Chris Evans once again brings his innate likeability and tough vulnerability to the role of Cap cementing him as my personal favourite current Marvel character. The story of CW moves along at pace covering a lot of ground but is never shy of stopping for some quiet character moments amidst all the fighting and explosions. The action is pretty terrific especially the airport battle which is a huge rousing crowd pleaser of a sequence. But as great as the spectacle is it is the central concept of friends against friends, feelings of betrayal and of broken relationships that leaves the lasting impression. Plus it's so great to have the climax of a big superhero movie not be about saving the world or stopping the big bad guy but rather an emotional climax about two one time friends coming to blows because of their changed feelings towards each other. Steve Rogers has been the heart and soul of the MCU and his trilogy the strong emotional backbone of the franchise. I hope we get more Cap films but if we don't then Civil War was a great way to finish. Team Cap all the way.
2 The Nice Guys
Shane Black is back writing and directing a (shocker!) buddy detective neo noir comedy thriller set in 1977 LA. And nobody does it better. I love Shane Black. As should any self respecting film geek. His scripts for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boyscout, The Long Kiss Goodnight are the stuff of legend and just plain awesome. And then you get to his writing/directing with the sublime Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the excellent Iron Man 3 (screw the haters). Which brings us to this one. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a low rent tough guy forced by circumstance to team up with down on his luck private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) in order to track down the missing daughter of a high ranking official in the US Justice Department who is somehow involved in some major criminal conspiracy. To be honest the plot is not that important. What is important is watching Crowe and Gosling work together lurching from one odd and often darkly funny and violent set piece to another. They are an instant classic duo with Gosling hilarious as the hapless March. Who knew? Add in to the mix March's smart and good hearted teen daughter Holly (the excellent Angourie Rice) and a collection of memorable bad guys, what you get is an enormously fun, funny, violent, laugh out loud comedy thriller which has huge rewatchability. The most pure fun I had in 2016 watching a movie. Thanks Shane.
Denis Villeneuve, who directed the excellent Prisoners and Sicario, returns with a hard sci-fi drama about our first contact with intelligent alien life which was written by Eric Heisserer, based on the short story 'Story of your Life' by Ted Chiang. When 12 alien craft appear in various locations around the world the US government brings linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in to the team assigned to forge contact with the aliens in the vessel in Montana. What follows is a completely brilliant exploration of the mechanics of communication as well as concepts of time, the perception and knowledge of past and future events/causality and of human emotion and the need to love and be loved. Thankfully the science and big ideas explored in Arrival are never presented as dry and confusing but are instead wrapped up in an emotional and very human story concerning Louise Banks' memories and feelings concerning her life, especially her daughter who became ill and passed away while still a teenager. The film is handled with subtlety and a precise steady hand and the story of Banks' daughter is never jarring or mawkish or sentimental but is instead seamlessly woven in throughout the film and is genuinely moving forming the centre of the film's story and main theme. Technically the film is outstanding in every way. The design and execution of the alien 'heptapods' and their vessel (inside and out) feels genuinely alien and real. Also fabulous is Bradford Young's photography, the magnificent sound design and the eerie, ominous and haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Every tiny part of this film is designed to evoke a sense of otherness but also of emotional resonance and by the time the film's tense and emotional denouement kicks in to place you are completely enveloped and invested in this world and in the life, memories, feelings and choices of Louise Banks. Which brings us to the heart and soul of the film. Amy Adams. This is her film. One hundred percent. Renner provides solid support as does Forest Whitaker. But this is the story of Louise Banks and is told from her point of view. If we don't believe in her, if she doesn't pull us in to her thoughts and feelings and intelligence then the film simply would not work. But luckily Adams is such a skilled and talented actor that she has no problem investing us in Banks and making us care about this woman and her life. Adams is one of the very best actors of her generation and she proves it yet again here. I adore this film. It is incredibly smart and emotional and enlightening and makes you think and discuss and question. Denis Villeneuve is the real deal. Bring on his next - Blade Runner 2049.