The Last Year – Downsize’s Top 20 films of 2016

[Due to release schedules for the UK, Downsize Media’s reviews of the year will run from 1 February 2016 – 31 January 2017. Notable movies that missed the cut include: Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hidden Figures and Split]

[Due to release schedules for the UK, Downsize Media’s reviews of the year will run from 1 February 2016 – 31 January 2017. Notable movies that missed the cut include: Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences, Hidden Figures and Split]

 

20

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Wiener Dog

A film that decided against adhering to traditional structure, Wiener Dog uses its little brown mascot to connect a series of vignettes. Essentially four short films, the film is a melancholic look at relationships, spanning across generational divides. The stories are all connected by a dark humour, whether through their criticism of the mundanity of everyday life or the ridiculousness of the art world, the film finds something to laugh at in each bleak world. Wiener Dog boasts a great ensemble cast with performances that ooze a deadpan charisma.

19

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Zootopia

Disney and Pixar have been merged for a few years now but this is the first example where a Disney branded film takes on the guise of a Pixar film. The film manages to remain cutesy and fun while not patronising its young viewers and still addressing themes of racial profiling and news media. The film boasts stunningly detailed creature designs and manages to remain funny for everyone. Kids won’t get the Breaking Bad meth lab scene, but they’ll still laugh at the Lamb in the yellow hazmat suit.

18

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Eye in the Sky

Pivoting on the Breaking Bad segue, let’s talk about something pretty un-Disney. Eye in the Sky is a film about drone strikes on terrorist cells. What impressed me most about Eye in the Sky was how level headed it was about such a heavy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to be endorsing or criticising the methods but instead using drone strikes as a vehicle to explore career politics and public relations in government. The characters of the story are taken more from The Thick of It rather than Syriana.

17

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10 Cloverfield Lane

A strangely titled film, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s story has nothing to do with Cloverfield. Instead of an Alien Invasion film it is a prison thriller set in a fallout shelter. If Cloverfield could be considered as a mirror for the opening invasion from War of the Worlds then 10 Cloverfield Lane is Ogilvy’s hideout. With John Goodman at the helm embodying a terrifyingly unstable but well-meaning psychopath, the film is a collection of cushion clutching tension and a testament to claustrophobic fear.

16

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Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols has a good thing going, he makes small films, gets Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon to star and he refines his storytelling. Midnight Special is not his strongest venture yet it still manages to capture something special. There is something so impressive about Nichols’ tight control of his world, his ability to speak with visuals and create intrigue makes Midnight Special one of the most fascinating films of the year.

15

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Deadpool

Superhero movies are getting old, it’s been 17 years since X-Men began the trend and now it’s at full speed. In 2017 we will see:

  • The Justice League
  • Wonder Woman
  • Lego Batman
  • Logan
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2
  • Spider Man: Homecoming
  • Thor: Ragnorok

It’s exhausting, and there’s no apparent end in sight. Yet with popularity comes parody and thank god that Deadpool came along to break up the monotony. Now that the tropes have been established on the big screen Deadpool is finally free to come along and laugh at them. The film’s humour is not the most advanced but its R rated fun is indicative of superhero films being able to do something different.

14

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Moana

Disney is back on top, having bought out the competition it is now reaping the rewards of its monopoly. Moana displays some of the best-looking animation I have ever seen, and it combines modern animation style with flat animation and cut out style sequences. Held together by a terrific soundtrack the world of Moana is a brilliantly realised introduction to an unfamiliar mythology in a way that Disney has not done so well since Hercules.

13

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Embrace of the Serpent

Having not yet seen The Handmaiden, or Toni Erdmann this is the only foreign language film on this list. Embrace of the Serpent is a Colombian film about an Amazonian shaman leading two different scientists, forty years apart, through the rainforest. Shot in black and white the Amazon looks like an alien planet and the tribal people that lurk represent a constant danger. The film is calming and considerate for the most part yet finds time for bat shit insanity and trippy visuals.

12

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Silence

Scorsese knows what film is, he knows how to titillate better than anyone working today. In Silence he takes a side step from titillation and into contemplation. He ponders the meaning and compatibility of religion, delves into ideas of martyrdom instead of success and creates a dark descent of a narrative. Despite this there is still room for the expected Scorsese touch of dynamic violence and brutal barbarism.

11

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Green Room

Green Room doesn’t waste time, it’s villains are neo Nazis, murderers who own attack dogs and bowie knives, they’re the villains and the aim of the film is to get away from them. The film features some brutal gory visuals and unpolished action, if I was to use one word to sum up the film it would be ‘grimy.’ Condensation sweats off the walls and lights flicker dimly. The film is a real time journey into desperation, characters are developed so as to show their vulnerabilities and their strengths, then they are placed into the fray for the next hour. It’s an entertaining spectacle weighed down with a nervy realism, a low-key action film were the stakes are real. I don’t want to draw too many comparisons to Die Hard but it’s kind of like Die Hard in that respect.

10

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Hell or High Water

Western movies have fallen out of fashion in the last… 40 years? So it’s always nice to see something honour the memory of something that fell out fashion a long time ago. Hell or High Water is a modern western, following bandit brothers on a bank robbing spree through Texas. The two are pursued by the human embodiment of a past his prime cowboy, Jeff Bridges. The film is an exciting crime caper with a side order of social commentary, nicely filmed and endlessly gripping it is brought together by great performances on all sides.

9

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La La Land

Films about films, aren’t they self-indulgent? Yes. Yes they are.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still dazzle and amaze with fantastic cinematography, lighting and set pieces. The technical aspect of La La Land and design is beyond amazing. Aside from the sheer level of escapism that La La Land offers there is an even deeper level of sincere passion from the filmmaker. This is a film made from love and it shines through in the writing. Fans of Whiplash will know that Chazelle is crazy for jazz and here he cuts through the chaff and essentially tells viewers that he needs more people to love it too. The film moves from one cinematic set piece to the next, breaks conventions and fourth walls like crazy. It unfolds like a stage play, skipping ahead to the interesting parts of the story. The film suffers in the middle when the music dries up but it just makes the moment when it comes back all the more impacting.

8

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The Nice Guys

Is there a sub-genre that has persisted as well as the Buddy Cop movie? Find two stars and give them a mystery to solve. Simple. The Nice Guys is one of those rare films were everything just slips nicely into place, the chemistry between the two leads is immediately funny and the setting of LA in the ‘Golden Age of Porn’ is the perfect backdrop for the convoluted neo noir story behind it. The writing is sharp and layered with hidden jokes, subtle cues and even moments of the surreal humour. The biggest thing The Nice Guys has going for it is that each actor brings exactly what they need to the table and because of it there isn’t a single scene that falls flat.

7

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Stop motion animation is an art that is getting less and less exposure as time goes on, as 3D rendering has become more widely available stop motion has fell behind as an overly time consuming, outdated method. Which is a shame because there is an overwhelming presence to stop motion, it’s shadows are not simulations, each frame is crafted. It’s art, creation and effort down to its core. Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the most beautifully crafted movies in recent years, Laika studios has pulled out all the stops to make a film, specifically for kids which takes no shortcuts. It’s message is spiritual and philosophical, its design is stunning and its exciting and filled with genuine stakes. Kubo is a one eyed, parentless child whose remaining family is conspiring to kill him, the film does not coddle its protagonist, it puts him through the wringer and sees him endure actual troubles. This is a film that every child should see and anyone who appreciates craft will be stunned by the design.

6

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Strangely titled and delightfully charming, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople unfolds like a children’s story. The story of Ricky Baker the troublesome orphan escalates quickly and commits itself to the muted ridiculousness of its story. Then it goes a bit further. Segmented into ten chapters it’s a joyful experience that hops about without losing site of the central focus of the film. It’s heartfelt, sweetly funny and weird. Having written parts of Disney’s Moana and with a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows in the works it seems as if we’ll be seeing more of Waititi’s kiwi wit in the future.

5

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Arrival

It’s important to remember that Sci-fi is not simply a vehicle for space battles and explosions. It’s an entire genre, and within that genre there is a multitude of options and subgenres. They can be psychological horrors (Moon), time travel thrillers (Looper) or even straight up romance (Her). When you take Sci-fi as the be all and end all you end up with generic garbage about reactor cores (Passengers).

Arrival took its sci-fi basis and used it as a tool to tell a human story about communication. Held together by a criminally overlooked performance from Amy Adams. Arrival is an intently focused story that never loses track of its ideas. It’s brilliant to see a big budget cerebral sci-fi like this and with Denis Villeneuve attached to the new Blade Runner project I have hopes that this will be a trend that picks up steam.

4

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The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have been steadily becoming more elusive and more fluorescent with each new instalment. With Only God Forgives it appeared that he took this a bit too far for general audiences. However, with his latest film, Refn has pulled back on the elusiveness and turned up the lights. The film is a fever dream of stunning colour, amazing long shots and heavily loaded dialogue. What separates The Neon Demon from other Refn flicks is the tongue in cheek attitude that seeps from every pore, it’s more ridiculous than most films you’ll have seen in 2016 and it embraces it to great effect. It’s the best looking film of the year along with having the most amazing soundtrack.

3

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Manchester by the Sea

It could so easily have been another one of those films, you know the ones that I’m talking about: The Oscar baiting, heart warming tale of misfortune and overcoming the odds. All the ingredients are there for a manipulative slog of misery but Manchester by the Sea manages to become so much more than the sum of its parts. By drawing viewers in with the mysteriously detached behaviour of Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler and a dry humour it encourages intrigue while still entertaining. It is a stunningly well crafted movie filled with intensely realised and human characters. What impressed me most was how often Manchester by the Sea left the audience to fill in the gaps, it leaves the performances to simmer by taking away dialogue at times when there would be opportunity for trailer soundbites. The film must be seen to be appreciated. The weightiest moments of the film take place without words, it is the expressions, the visuals, the build up that inspire the devastation.

2

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Nocturnal Animals

From the very first shot of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals you know it’s not going to be an easy watch, it promises uncomfortable situations and delivers on it in spades. The film is one uncomfortable moment after another. A revenge flick with an incapable protagonist, harsh, barren landscapes with a bitter love affair to hold it all together, everything in the film meshes so well together. It certainly has a dark atmosphere but it is more realised than most films and consistent in its tone. Michael Shannon makes his second appearance on the list with a deservedly Oscar nominated performance as jaded detective Andes next to a dejected and beaten down Jake Gyllenhaal. Much like 2013’s Blue Ruin, Nocturnal Animals plays out like a feature length episode of Justified. Dark, gritty and uncompromising, it’s a wild ride that will stay with you.

1

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Sing Street

After the collective misery of the previous two entries on this list it may come as a surprise to many that I do like my films to contain a little bit of escapism occasionally. Sing Street is a film all about dreaming big and getting out, with a feel good original soundtrack of 80s pastiche that has made its way to my regular rotation. (It is an absolute crime that Drive It Like You Stole it did not receive an Oscar nomination for best song, especially seeing as it unfolds along with one of the best scenes of 2016.)

Everything in Sing Street is there to enhance the music, drama unfolds to allow for the songs to be weighed down with more meaning. Our protagonist, Connor’s life revolves around music and his love interest, Raphine. The relationship between the romance and the music work perfectly in tandem, each enhancing the other. Connor has limited knowledge about what he can be, he is impressionable and limited, his band cycles through new inspirations and changes their style week by week.

Sing Street is enjoyable on a minute by minute basis, it is charming, funny, emotional, romantic aspirational, real and fantastical all at the same time. It is brilliantly written and contains one memorable moment after another. It is never boring or unpleasant, constantly engaging and entertaining for everyone.

 

Well that’s my review of 2016, let me know how wrong you think I am, let me hear your lists or give me any recommendations you have.

 

Manchester by the Sea is story telling at its best

The ultimate weepie speaks volumes in its silence

Awards season is always a dividing time, especially in the UK, where movies that have been lauded as ‘the best of 2016’ aren’t released until 2017 (Downsize’s review of 2016 will run from FEB-JAN). So, for a long time I have had to stew in the praise for films I haven’t been able to form an opinion on yet, meaning that any views on the film have been skewed and affected by media influence. For this reason, I attempted to approach Manchester by the Sea with a certain level of cynicism to counteract the excitement that had been conditioned into me. Not long after sitting down in the cinema all cynicism was pounded into a million little pieces as Kenneth Lonergan’s latest disarmed me with an unexpected humour. It quickly became clear that there was a reason why this film has been batting off praise from all angles.

Casey Affleck leads the charge as the emotionally unavailable Lee Chandler, who must move back home to Manchester, Massachusetts to become the sole guardian for his nephew Patrick after his brother Lee dies of a heart attack. Lee has trouble with the idea of moving back home due to his terrible associations he has with the city and he fails to be the emotional rock that the teenage Pat needs. You would not be blamed for believing that this film is nothing but award season pandering. Lee’s past is a mountain of melancholic misgivings that keeps revealing a higher peak as the clouds begin to dissipate.

Lee Chandler manages to be a frustrating character in every way while somehow still avoiding becoming a pain in the ass. Aware of the influence that this event will have on Pat, he remains oblivious of a satisfactory way to handle the situation, dragging the boy to funeral parlours, will readings and informing Pat that he must uproot his life and move to Quincy. Lee constantly asks other people what he needs to do to make things alright and his insecurities are consistent and clear throughout the viewing. He is a self-destructive man who does not trust himself to handle responsibility for another, and with good reason. He inspires sympathy in every bad decision because each mistake he makes is explainable and that is something that is difficult to instil into a character. Whilst this is mainly down to the writing of the character it cannot be understated how much Affleck’s mumbling vulnerability adds to this. Those who enjoyed his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will know that Casey Affleck can do vulnerability like no one else.

But beneath all its weighty drama, death and sadness the film finds time to give space to the little things. Lucas Hedges allows Pat to have fun as a normal teenager despite all that is going on around him. Scenes of Pat attempting to get his end away with one of his girlfriends are played like they’re straight out of a screwball comedy. The dialogue maintains a witty back and forth in almost all scenes featuring Lee and Pat and even in moments of gut wrenching sadness the film still manages to find laughs. In particular, a scene involving a midnight snack and a freezer door.

The film is a masterclass in pacing and appropriateness, taking a back seat in the life of Lee it introduces us to his dissatisfaction with life through the goofy words of the clients he serves. It holds back on revealing the true nature of Lee’s relationship with Manchester until it knows its viewers are ready for it. Gut punch follows gut punch follows gut punch but the film never becomes a slog. It hops from the miserable to the comic in refreshingly organic ways. The beginning the film takes a more documentarian approach to Lee’s life, taking a back seat and allowing the actions to speak for themselves. While the dialogue stands out it is in the silence that Manchester by the Sea truly shines. When faced with bad news Lee does not say much, he contorts his face subtly and mumbles some contraction. Affleck acts as a real life Kuleshov effect, allowing viewers to experience the news fresh through Lee’s view rather than being told what to feel. Brevity is the true hero of the piece.

Recommendation

Not everyone wants to feel sad when they go to the cinema, and to those people I say that if there was one film to break that rule for it is this. The film is not a Requiem for a Dream style journey into despair more than it is a movie about moving on. There is something positive to find in every interaction. Always something beautiful to notice.

The film is about characters, it is not spectacle heavy but does have its moments of catharsis. it’s big on laughs and sustains a surprising level of entertainment throughout. It may not be a film that you will watch multiple time but it is a film that will have an effect on anyone who isn’t a miserable cynic on a molecular level. I am trying and failing to come up with criticisms of Manchester by the Sea.