It’s the end of the year and tis the season for inventories, stock taking and making lists. And, as a black and white Liam Neeson once said in some Steven Spielberg film a long time ago, “The List is life,” (or something to that effect). So, the high command at Geek Force have tasked me with coming up with a list of the best films of 2016 and a few of the worst ones. In a spirit of full disclosure I have to admit that I haven’t seen every film released in 2016. At the time of writing I’ve seen 58 films at the cinema this year. That seems like quite a lot when each title is written down and staring back at me on a couple of sheets of notepad paper. Not so much when encapsulated in the number 58. And when you consider that some of these movies were re-issues like Sid and Nancy, Bonnie and Clyde, Andrei Rublev or Barfly, the list seems even shorter. So, inevitably a few titles that are likely to crop up on other, more official, top ten lists have slipped through my fingers (like those rebel star systems you Geek Forcers are so fond of)*. To my shame I didn’t catch Hunt For the Wilder People, Captain Fantastic, The Greasy Strangler. Arrival, Chi-Raq or Under the Shadow. So if your favourite title isn’t on my list then you can take some comfort in the fact that I might not have seen it. Or alternatively I might have seen it and not been impressed or disgusted enough to stick it on my list. You might not care either way.
Another element that determines my best and worst of the year is the fact that, unlike someone who is paid to do this for a living, I don’t have to see everything ever released and tend to be guided in my viewing choices by seeing what I actually want to see. Although I try to exercise as much eclecticism as I can stand when deciding what to watch at the cinema, ultimately the deep and strong currents of genre preference are going to exert their influence. My status as a consumer also has a particular baring on my Worst of the Year list for two reasons: a) I don’t deliberately try and see bad films, b) I obviously have the most excellent taste and generally don’t end up seeing that many truly awful movies. Naturally my Worst Of list is considerably shorter than my Best Of.
Finally, a word of warning. There is sometimes a very thin dividing line in this list between Best Of and Favourite. At least two films in my top ten technically don’t deserve to be there, but I enjoyed them so much I just can’t bring to cast them into the wilderness. I make no apologies. It’s my list and the list is life.
And so, in chronological order of their release dates, here goes…..
*Carrie Fisher might be able to say this s**t, but you try typing it.
Best of 2016
Tom McCarthy’s account of the Boston Globe’s expose of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church could have been loud and bombastic in its righteous anger. But Spotlight’s immense strength is in its restraint and economy. The film barely raises its voice and avoids every sensationalistic pitfall to deliver something intelligent, tense and coldly furious.
A horror western about four men on a rescue mission to retrieve a beautiful woman (and a not so beautiful deputy) from a tribe of unbelievably savage cannibals.
When I first saw this movie at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema it was as if the film was actually defiling the rarefied, middleclass ambience of the screening room in which it was being projected, such was the incredible nastiness of the last 35 minutes. When I saw Bone Tomahawk again, at my friend Tom’s home on DVD, my friend Tom cried out “What have you brought into my house?”
Bone Tomahawk is certainly a brutal piece of work. But what distinguishes the movie, and earns it its place in my top ten, is the slow, languorous almost Chekhovian lead up to the final series of confrontations that gives the violence its unquestionable impact. Men and women of the West talk about heaven, love poetry, manifest destiny, horses and the taste of corn chowder. Sometimes they don’t even talk at all. Then all hell breaks loose. But even then there’s room, in between eviscerations, for a beautiful monologue on flea circuses of all things.
A Puritan family in 17th Century New England is banished to the edge of a forest. The family’s youngest child disappears while in the eldest daughter’s care. A witch in the woods is to blame. The daughter is held responsible and torn between two representations of contrasting evil; her families escalating religious mania and the more liberal occult malignancy that is hiding in the woods. Poetic, intelligent, questioning folk horror that deserves its place in the canon alongside A Field in England, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and even (dare I say it?) The Wicker Man. The final reveal of the demon Black Peter is one the most subtle and unsettling scenes in any horror film I’ve seen this year.
The Neon Demon
Nicholas Winding Refn’s adult fairy tale horror movie. Elle Fanning’s innocent is preyed upon by figurative and then literal monsters as she navigates the world of LA fashion. For a Winding Refn movie The Neon Demon goes out of its way to make even less sense than usual. More than any other film this year the Neon Demon is a work of incredible sequences, first among equals being the demon dance section hypnotically scored by Julian Winding (who, to add to the Neon Demon’s overall strangeness, is actually Bridget Neilson’s son). The feeling that you’re wandering around in someone else’s dream reaches critical mass when Keanu Reeves turns up and gives a good performance. Just one question. Why do so many people hate this film?
Kubo and the Two Strings
A visually beautiful, emotionally moving stop motion animation fairy tale set in Japan in a world of talking monkeys, orphaned children, giant skeletons, creepy floating twin sisters and a samurai beetle, all skilfully voiced by the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McCaughey, Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara and Ralph Finnes (who seems to be in a competition with Liam Neeson as to who can chalk up the most gods or demi-gods on their resume before they die).
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
This is the film that made me laugh the most this year. Apologies to Sausage Party, which by rights should occupy this slot. But Sausage Party didn’t have Aubrey Plaza in it, and that makes all the difference. I went into the film an Anna Kendrick fan and came out an Aubrey Plaza devotee. Forgive my ignorance but I had never seen Parks and Recreation and didn’t know who Aubrey Plaza was. She owns this film. Mike and Dave set me on a journey that led to Safety Not Guaranteed, a low budget indie time travel comedy from 2012 starring Aubrey Plaza. It’s wonderful and Plaza is sublime and as quiet and watchful in Safety as she is raucous and unselfconscious in Mike and Dave. So perhaps this is a sideways vote for the inadmissible Safety Not Guaranteed. Doesn’t matter. It’s my list. Mike and Dave stay.
Hell or High Water
A sort of modern western by the man that directed Starred Up and the feller that wrote Sicario. Two brothers rob a chain of banks that have bled the poor of West Texas dry. The outlaws are ostensibly doing it in order to save the elder brother’s farm house and provide for his estranged children. They are pursued by two Texas rangers. The Texas rangers have sympathy with the brothers but are duty bound to catch or kill them. A reluctant and bloody reckoning is inevitable. Jeff Bridges plays the older of the two lawmen. Ben Foster is the more volatile of the two outlaws. Both men have acted these kind of roles before. Neither have played them with quite this much light and shade. But the real surprise is Chris Pine as the other brother. He is far too handsome to be as convincing as he is in this movie. But anybody who saw him sing Agony in last years Into the Woods will know that the man has hidden mad skills.
The Girl With All the Gifts
So much more than the rip off of 28 Days Later the trailer suggested this film was going to be. Actually it’s a much better film than Danny Boyle’s British zombie movie that had one good idea (zombies are fast), some great scenes of metropolitan desolation (largely borrowed from the writings of John Wyndham) but was unable to sustain them into the movie’s second half. The Girl With All the Gifts takes a similar world to 28 Days Later and escalates, expands and layers it. This is the genre movie with the most surprises, twists and curveballs of the year. It has the grim courage of its Darwinian convictions so that at every point where you think “they won’t have the balls to do that”; they do it. Watch it knowing little or nothing about it. Your ignorance will be richly rewarded.
Like it or not Mel Gibson is back, looking like leathery death warmed up (and never looking better). Gibson plays a recovering alcoholic with a racist past seeking to make amends for old sins committed. No art imitating life there then? Amends takes the form of a drug addled daughter in need of protection from Mexican gangsters.
On paper this is a grungy B movie with a generic plot that has no right to be on any top ten list. But the film has lingered in my memory long after many more ostensibly ambitious action movies have faded. This is largely due to the inventive economy of its action, some terrific acting from Gibson and Erin Moriarty (as the daughter) and a wily cameo from Michael Parks as a Neo Nazi arms dealer. To its credit the film never gets above its station. The action scenes are small scale to the point of abstraction, (the finale takes place inside and around a stationary car) and obey the laws of actual body damage more than most action films care to. But it’s the partially resurrected (or fully exhumed) Mel Gibson that holds the line and drags the film into my top ten.
Three movies for the price of one. Amy Adams is rich and privileged but suffering the quite agonies of the damned over an ex-husband she has betrayed twenty years earlier. Out of the blue the ex-husband sends her a novel he has written and dedicated to her. The novel is a violent rural crime story. It is also a thinly disguised parable of their sundered marriage. The novel forms a movie within the movie. The doomed marriage is told in flashback. Jake Gyllenhall plays the ex-husband and the novel’s fictional protagonist.
Amy Adams is the great reactive actress of the moment. Michael Shannon’s fictional lawman is the force that everyone else in the movie is obliged to react to. Both are brilliant. This meticulous film is pretty bleak when you are watching it, but so much bleaker when you think about it afterwards, which you will do.
The Worst of 2016
Conjuring 2: The Enfield Haunting
Hold it flash bang wallop what a poltergeist! The earnest exorcists from The Conjuring come to London to sort out an evil spirit in the type of 1970s England that could only be imagined by a movie studio whose single act of research was to watch three or four episodes of Grange Hill: The Tucker Jenkins Years.
The normally excellent writer director team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett add nothing to the Blair Witch canon other than to physically show us what the previously invisible Blair Witch actually looks like.
She looks like a naked Big Bird.
I have a longstanding theory that a well-intentioned but badly executed art house movie is a far worse viewing experience than a badly executed commercial movie with cynical intentions.
Completely contradicts this theory.
Here’s looking forward to 2017 and the cinematic delights and atrocities it may bring!
Do you agree or disagree with Adam’s choices? Let us know which your best and worst movies of 2016 are.