The DC Universe finally lightens up and makes an enjoyable film

Wonder Woman stands out amongst previous DC films like a Pterodactyl in a backyard aviary.

One of my favourite aspects of film reviewing is that rarest of feelings, It is the slow creeping realisation that a film of which you had no interest in actually begins to show signs of quality.

It starts with a few reluctant admissions to yourself; “alright, that was kind of cool, I’ll give it that,” progresses to some slight admiration; “that’s a nicely framed shot,” “This actually feels like a different world,” eventually the film has got a hold of you. You find yourself smiling like an idiot while you watch Amazonian women flipping off of horses and firing arrows. You’re having a good time that you didn’t expect to have. Two hours that you had set aside to watch a film to form an opinion on becomes two hours of enjoyment and engagement that you were not prepared for. It’s like gaining time, it’s a liberating, exciting feeling that reminds you of why cinema is so important.

This is not to say that Wonder Woman is the best film I’ve ever seen but it is so far and above other DC fare that I am having a hard time keeping a sense of perspective in my discussion of the film. Even the smoggy air of a Shanghai industrial estate will taste like the sweetest breath to a man who was close to drowning.

Wonder Woman starts exactly as it should, with the briefest possible connection to the larger DC Universe: here’s modern day Diana Prince, she gets sent an old picture of herself by Bruce Wayne, the old photograph starts a flashback and we hear nothing more of Zach Snyder’s modern day disasterpiece. The film stands alone as a film about Wonder Woman and her exploits in the early twentieth century. The film does not fall in to the usual Super Hero movie trap of clinging to a desperate relevance to the larger cinematic universe.

And it is not just temporally that the film separates itself from its feeble forebears, the film also adjusts its tone to suit the subject. The film has fantastical elements in the form of its hero’s origin and so it fully commits to making this world appear realised, and incredibly fun.

Diana Prince, here is more Superman than the Man of Steel, she is an alien to this world she wants to save, she is naively optimistic and unflinchingly heroic. She does not sit around brooding about the morality of what she needs to do, she simply acts on her simple principles and impulses and saves any lives she can.

A major issue I had with Batman Vs Superman and Man of Steel is that the titular heroes damage the world much more than they fix it. In this case Wonder Woman has been placed into a broken world and goes to work helping anywhere she can. She acts like a hero. People in war torn villagers cheer her, soldiers in the trenches look up to her, young girls and boys can watch the film, be entertained and be inspired. It may sound saccharine to say but, to be fair, this is a character named Wonder Woman we’re talking about here.

The film does not bog itself down in politics, there are no scenes in supreme courts with wheelchair suicide bombers. There is no faux-philosophising villain with mixed motivations, there are distinctly evil villains with whacked out faces and undeniably good heroes with perfect jawlines fighting against evil. There is colour in the costumes, there is fun and lightheartedness in the writing without resorting to Marvel style pop culture references (Remember when Wong listened to All the Single Ladies in Dr Strange?). Where DC films have revelled in grey morals and grey scenery Wonder Woman is crisp and clear, funny in a simple fish out of water way and not trying too hard.

The characters of the movie are exactly that. Characters. They have clear motivations and are understandable in the way they act. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine both assign their respective characters hearts and flaws, their performances are well matched and charismatic. There is something so cinematic about this movie, its classic Hero’s journey structure, its simple romantic sub plot (in which the man is the object of affection) and its unambiguous villains make it endlessly appealing. The film could entertain children, which should be the first box each superhero movie ticks. It has a great soundtrack which is teased throughout the film. It is paced and structured like a film with an end goal, actions lead into each other, it’s an enjoyable and simple film. It could be criticised for being overly simplistic, but superhero films have been missing that clarity as of late, not every super hero movie should try to be as meaningful as The Watchmen, sometimes it just needs to be as fun as The Rocketeer.

Many articles have been written about the power of the feminist ideals that Wonder Woman represents, the truth is that there is hardly any overt feminist ideology in the script. Wonder Woman’s presence as a badass role model for girls is enough of a statement on its own. The film seems to understand that it needn’t bash people over the head with its cause to have an effect.

 

Recommendation

Wonder Woman is head and shoulders above any other DC film since Chris Nolan had control and taps into that superheroic niche in a way that Marvel has been failing to do lately.

Fight scenes are well choreographed and varied and it is one of those epically rare films that uses slow-mo effectively. The villains are fantastically villainous and the heroes brilliantly heroic. It looks the part all the way and embraces its separatism from the DC universe to become a single cohesive story.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is still goofy fun, it’s just a lot shallower

Isn’t nice to have a sequel that is just called 2? No faffing around with words like revengeance or requiem. It’s just the second instalment of a series, there’s still a galaxy to guard so they’re going to do it. Twice.

How do you follow up a wildly successful, critically acclaimed surprise hit? Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s wild card, a strange mish-mash of sci-fi and superhero tropes with an ensemble cast of oddities in a comedic world. It was a film that found a significant cohesion between the comedy and action, held together by performances and an incredible soundtrack. It stood on its own, as a film set in a faraway galaxy, it was free from the tie-ins of the Marvel cinematic universe. That meant it was able to bore its own path, set its own tone that needn’t adhere to previous Marvel fare. It was colourful, light hearted and other worldly in a way that Marvel films haven’t been since Iron Man.

The film, which I still maintain is the best Marvel movie to date, was always going to be a tough act to follow and Vol 2 has displayed the issues that face sequels to highly popular movies. The first half of the original followed the traditional Marvel route, with the first half dedicated to the establishing of the team, but instead of an origin story detailing how a person became a superhero, Guardians followed a group of superheroes forming a team, it was fresh and different to other franchise starters. Vol 2 faces the problem of having to come up with a first half to its story and this is where the issues begin.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has more of a Star Trek feel to it than a movie, its structure is more that of a TV show, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it makes the whole first half of the film feel limp and directionless. The real threat of the film is not revealed until over an hour in and at that point the film has been spinning its wheels, making jokes and reintroducing you to characters you never forgot about.

It’s enjoyable, I will never refuse it that, the jokes are funny and the characters are as likeable as ever. Though the humour is enjoyable in the way a Big Mac is, you know what to expect and you get it, but when you think about it, it’s hard not to taste how manufactured it all is. Baby Groot is an unashamedly obvious example of this. People who saw this teaser poster may have had their suspicions that the movie would shoe horn the little devil in as much as possible and compromise the final product. The first scene of the movie is a perfect example of this, a long CGI ridden, tracking shot of Groot dancing while everyone else fights in the background, it’s funny and cute for the first few seconds but drags on for minutes and adds no new layers to the joke. The film is giving people what they want and only what they want, adding nothing new to the universe in favour of playing it ‘safe.’

In a sense the film is a pandering hodgepodge of elements that made the first film great. Take Drax for example, Drax’s character was a great strength of the first movie. His deadpan delivery of his lines and slow discovery of what irony is was a great introduction to the character. He was a brooding and serious laughing stock. This contrast was what made him so fun to watch. In the return, he is nothing but a joke machine, all his lines are comical to the point where the contrast which made the character great has entirely dissipated.

The film as a whole, is treated as such. All the contrast is gone, it is filled with crowd-pleasing moments that Mary-Sue our characters into unbelievable territory. Any and all possible moments for character development are squashed by badly overwritten dialogue that smashes you over the head with its meaning. Subtext is missing and brought to the foreground, characters make each emotion they feel plainly obvious and then feel the need to say it again. This feels like a film that was heavily dumbed down to appeal to a larger audience, from the complete lack of subtlety, the abundance of the one-note Baby Groot and to the morals of the story which amount to nothing more than “we’re a family and a family sticks together” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 feels too much like teen fiction.

In addition to all this, the ending of the movie is a transparent attempt to force viewers to invest in a new group of characters that have no real impact on the story, just so that there is some anticipation for the latest MCU tie in, which stars these characters no one has heard about.

Recommendation

Everything that you loved about the original Guardians of the Galaxy is still there, its eighties vaporware aesthetic, its charming characters and fun action scenes. It’s just all a lot bolder and a lot more obvious, in traditional sequel fashion. And in traditional Marvel fashion the villains are either too overpowered or too underpowered to the point where you lose interest.

The film constantly compromises its misfit charm for what is a safe bet. It’s a sterilised version of what we had before and there is so much going on that moments are not given time to land. It is less removed from the trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the first but for the most part it does stand up on its own. For all intents and purposes it is a fun watch and all the actors involved easily so themselves justice, but expecting it to approach the first in terms of quality is just asking to be disappointed.

Wolverine is at his most violent and vulnerable in the adventurous Logan

Logan approaches the super hero movie in a new way with varying levels of benefit

Why do people want to see Wolverine films? It always seemed strange to me that the character has had two solo films completely independent of the rest of the X-Men. The character of Wolverine is invariably a loner, but a loner thrust into the spotlight and forced to work in a team. For me as a young boy watching the X-Men animated show, I was always greatly entertained by the clashing of personalities of Wolverine and Cyclops – a dynamic leader, meticulous and measured – battling wits with a self-sufficient wild card, as skilled as he is fed up. It makes for great motivation when two people who dislike each other put aside their differences to take down future robots or ancient giants or people who are 90% head mass.

That is what Wolverine is to me, however, I am not representative of the population, and the fact that Wolverine is one of the most prolific characters in comic book history shows that the character must appeal to many people for different reasons. Yet it is still strange to me to have such a primarily straightforward antihero take the lead in three films when his character is so reluctant to perform as a hero at all.

Logan is the logical conclusion to the character that Hugh Jackman embodied first over 17 years ago in X-Men (2001). This final instalment takes place in 2029 after James Howlett/ Logan considers himself finally retired and like a thousand action stars before him is thrust back into his old lifestyle for one last job. The job is an escort mission of a young girl who shares his own characteristics, sporting matching adamantium claws and a similar violent blood lust. But the years have caught up to Logan, his face is transformed to an old man, his biceps stay in his sleeves, his beard encases his face. The Wolverine’s healing factors are weakening and he’s lumbered with the responsibility of looking after an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart this time), who is beginning to suffer from a form of an issue which is causing concentrated releases of the professor’s dangerous powers.

Structurally, the film is a simple point A to B road trip movie, it’s all pretty straight forward and is enhanced by a light seasoning of dystopia. It is the visuals that first stand out about Logan, and may be what has attracted many people to the cinema to see it. Trailers for the film were everywhere and Johnny Cash’s Hurt playing over saturated images of desert landscapes was enough to reignite interest in people who were put off by the previous two solo Wolverine films, the original trailers seemed to point towards Mad Max: Fury Road as an inspiration for Logan but unfortunately this style slowly dissipates over the two hours.

That is not to say that the film is not good looking because it is. It puts more effort into aesthetics rather than flashy CGI or imagined worlds, clearly the director of photography was given free rein to play with the potential of the American landscapes that passed them by on the trail. The film takes its time to let shots breathe and takes a more measured approach to exposition than ham-handed dialogue cues.

However, this is my indulgence and I know that people watch Wolverine to see Wolverine doing what he does best so how does the action fare in Logan?

Pretty well. Pretty damn well. With the film’s new R-rating it has acquisitioned the freedom to explore the disgusting reality of Wolverine’s adamantium claws. In the original X-Men, Wolverine let loose on an army of goons in Xavier’s mansion and it was all very exciting but nevertheless exceedingly clean. There was no blood, no guttural penetration, a cacophony of snikts and tings was all that could be heard – it was all a bit too tame. Logan goes all out on the visceral reality of the weapons, allowing blood to spatter and squirt and throats to gurgle, the final product benefits from it. The action is at an all-time high for the franchise and it used just sparingly enough to still be exciting each time it happens. This is the most real Wolverine has ever been and the movie does not shy away from the dark undercurrent that every person Wolverine has ever killed with his claws has been killed in this brutal manner, it adds to the traumatised characterisation that is so central to his conflict in the film.

Once again, a marvel film has let its viewers down by churning out another run of the mill villain. Here taking the form of Richard E Grant, some guy with modern hair and a super soldier right out of the most unoriginal fan fiction ever made. All are disposable and uninteresting archetypes that offer nothing that hasn’t been seen a dozen times in the last 17 years of comic book movies.

Wolverine on cinema has often had an issue with motivation, he always needs something to force him into the story, whether it is Rogue in X-Men or leadership thrust upon him in X-Men: The Last Stand. Here the job falls to the close to senile Professor Xavier, staying in the backseat of cars whispering into Logan’s ears that he must do the right thing. This comes across as a bit too on the nose at times. However, it is preferable to the effect that the villains have at driving the plot. Logan has a lot of weaknesses, it is overlong and takes itself too serious for a movie that features dozens of claw flailing hurricanranas. The dialogue is trying to serve the long contemplative style but isn’t quite at that level where it can grip on the quality of writing alone but it is hard to hold that against it. Logan is in the minority of superhero films that attempts to incorporate new styles into the sub genre, in an era of predictability and in house style, Logan is an outlier.

Recommendation

It focuses on the character of Logan in a nice way while still allowing for the best Wolverine action ever put on film. The near future is incredibly realised and lived in and performances on all parts do the characters proud. The film is a faithful send off to a prolific character.

Logan uses the extended universe of the X-Men as flavour to enhance the drama of the story instead of abusing aspects to allow for tie-ins, sequels or prequels. Despite it being the ninth Wolverine film, Logan is far and away the most unique, stand alone movie of the bunch.

Piece by Piece: Can Superhero Movies Take Risks?

Superhero movies have exploded in popularity in the last 17 years. But is there room for serious drama?

 

There have been three different Bruce Waynes and three Peter Parkers since Hugh Jackman first adopted The Wolverine’s claws and mutton chops. Two generations of the Fantastic Four, Professor Xavier and Magneto have been reincarnated and redesigned, collided with their new selves and The Green Lantern has gone the way of the Green Hornet and decided to make fun of superheroes instead. Careers have been made by superhero movies and some have already faded into obscurity. The Marvel cinematic universe has been entirely constructed and collided into two Avengers movies with a third on the way and through all this Hugh Jackman has been Wolverine.

Seventeen years as the same character, with nine film appearances as the man is an impressive feat (Roger Moore is the most prolific Bond with seven film appearances) but there is something equally admirable about Jackman’s commitment to portraying the Canadian loner throughout his entire career. X-Men was only his third career film appearance and is what thrust him into the public eye. Jackman’s career was jump started by the very film that is responsible for the seismic shift we have seen in box office cinema and the start of superhero movies as more than childish. His career has progressed along with the popularity of the superhero movie and with him bowing out with the incredibly final Logan it is fair to look at the changing nature and development of the superhero movie.

Real stakes, fake world

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I make no secret of the fact that my favourite superhero movies are those that have fun with the concept first and foremost. It’s why Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air and why Deadpool made it into my top 20 films of the year while Dr Strange sat on the bench. It’s why I believe that Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad the worst things to come out of Hollywood in 2016. There is room for the serious in the comic book flick, yet outside of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, how many can you name that have plumbed into real darkness and serious drama. It is true that Peter Parker is spurred by the death of Uncle Ben, that Wolverine and Black Widow are the results of experimentation and that Peter Quill’s mother dies slowly at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy but with it all there is a level of detachment.

The drama is merely a background – a motivation to spur on a character – to allow for moments where the audience can pump their fists and cheer over their hero overcoming. The actual meat of the drama in superhero films invariably comes from an outside source threatening the physical world with force; an alien horde, a Machiavellian God, a Nazi invasion.

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic

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One film that comes to mind as a film motivated by more than outward force is Captain America: The Winter Soldier which disposed of the basic superhero structure in exchange for a militaristic, political framework. It applied a superhero theme to a Bourne film, it had no single villain, there was no Apocalypse tearing the world apart or horde of alien invaders, its threat was based in the reality of the situation and Captain America, had he failed, would have been the main victim of the film. Unlike the city of New York in The Avengers or Gotham in Batman Begins, the danger in The Winter Soldier was focused primarily on Steve Rogers.

Its story was driven by character principles rather than an immediate threat to the world, it just so happens that Captain America’s principles are also the same as Americas. The world of The Winter Soldier was threatened by being overrun but the specifics of the takeover were not stated, the film simply placed its viewers in Steve Roger’s state of mind.

Age of Ultron is an example where the threat demeans the drama and action at the centre of it. The general threat of the world being overrun is too large, too vague and expansive that people cannot really engage with it. Even when Ultron focuses his attack on Sokovia, it’s honestly hard to care about these nameless faces and crowds. These kids and parents in car pile ups, stuck on broken bridges are simply objects, tools to tell a story. In Civil War Scarlet Witch accidentally causes a huge accident and multiple deaths in a busy city, it is an affecting moment not because of the civilians who die in the street but because the grief is focused solely on Scarlet Witch and how she feels about it, it’s just how empathy works.

The majority of people can’t bring themselves to be emotionally invested in the trials of real world horrors because it is too far detached from them, never mind a fictional comic book country. Film is best when it is smaller in scale, Die Hard is so effective at conveying the stakes because it is John McClane and HIS wife that are in danger, the drama unfolds in real time and we feel each small inconvenience because each small inconvenience is his. No one cares about Nakatomi’s bonds or any of the office workers, not even the pregnant woman who needs to sit on a couch, even Hans Gruber cares enough about her to let her sit down, so why don’t viewers?

It is because viewers connect with who they have had time to connect with, upping the number of people in danger never ups the stakes if the people in danger are undefined. Yet comic book movies abuse this trick to no end. It’s something that they struggle to grasp time and time again. But that is not to say that comic book movies should have Man of Steel’s complete disregard for the population, forcing buildings down and levelling an entire city all for the sake of a grudge match. It is that comic book movies will benefit from delving into the personal rather than the expansive.

The Anti-Cinematic Universe

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Yet, superhero movies are exclusively a box office deal, they are designed to be spectacle cinema, to sell popcorn, to please large crowds and sell IMAX tickets. They need to amaze, to meet expectations and simultaneously subvert the expectations of myriad subsections of fans who know every possible route that can be taken with a character. The rights to these films are also owned exclusively by larger companies, and Marvel, DC and Fox are keeping their rights close to their chest, meaning that every superhero movie must be excessively vetted to ensure it makes optimal economic sense. A small-scale Batman film that doubled as a detective story would be extremely feasible to pull off, but if it diverts from the larger goal of the studio then it cannot be created. Since Iron Man’s post credits sequence the cinematic universe has become the goal, each new film must serve to that. It even makes sense for Fox to split up the X-Men franchise into three separate franchises to allow themselves the gratification of the merging of these franchises in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The movies made to serve the cinematic universe are for the most part frustratingly similar, they follow the same character moments and story beats, feature unmemorable villains and share a tone. Whether it is the glum drabness of DC or the larger than life wit of Marvel, the point stands that there is less room for risk when all the chips are kept in the same pot.

Logan is far from a perfect movie but what it is film that shows a different direction for superhero movies, it is a sign that the subgenre could become its own genre, it has already developed enough tropes, actors such as Tilda Swinton, Chitewel Efijor and Anthony Hopkins are becoming more commonplace, and styles are being developed on different ends of the spectrum. Deadpool is a comedy, Logan is a drama, The Avengers is action, Winter Soldier is a thriller and Batman Vs Superman is CSPAN. Logan shows a proliferation that can only be good for the industry, and while it follows the Marvel route of struggling to create convincing villains it has taken inroads to create a more personal story, a road trip driven by self-destruction. It is adventurous with its direction and indulgent in its message. While viewers have been standing on the tracks waiting to be hit by the Marvel train of homogenisation Logan is prepping the ground work for an alternative track.

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.

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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.

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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.