My Top 10 Films of 2016

It’s been quite a year in film, with blockbusters competing for space with terrifying ferocity. There’s still quite a few films to come in the last month of the year as the Oscar race heats up (and beyond- can’t wait for La La Land!), so whilst some may have made it here, for now here’s what I’ve enjoyed most over the last year. It’s highly unlikely you’ll agree with all/any of my choices, but this is a very personal list – I make no apologies.

It’s worth stating before the list that in the rush of completing a degree, moving cities and starting a new job, there were a few films that I regret missing and still need to see. In particular, those titles are: I, Daniel Blake, American Honey, Love & Friendship, Eddie The Eagle and Genius. Promise I’ll get to them. Anyway…

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Click on the movie screencaps to watch the trailers!

10. Kung Fu Panda 3

Yep, it’s a controversial choice for the first one, but like my undying belief in Shia LaBeouf as an actor and my complete adoration for the Mission Impossible movies, the Kung Fu Panda series charms my socks off. Although the characters stay the same, the lessons it teaches kids (and adults), the new plot ideas influenced by classic stories and the breathtaking animation all combine to make a treat. This sequel lost none of that. Sure, when the next one comes out, you’ll be surrounded by families, but otherwise what you’ll miss is some true movie magic.

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9. 10 Cloverfield Lane

This was definitely a surprising one for me. I went along to see the film on the back of some unexpected positive reviews – after all, the original Cloverfield hadn’t really been anything special. However, what I got was a great mix of horror and psychological thriller, that only slightly dropped the ball at the end. I’m not sure I even caught my breath for 90 minutes. Can you blame me? My first experience of John Goodman was as Fred Flintstone in that terrible live action movie. Now I no longer see him as cuddly.

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8. Swiss Army Man

With my eternal obsession with geniunely-nicest-actor-on-earth Daniel Radcliffe and my more recent obsession with the adorable Paul Dano, I knew I wanted to see this one when it first hit the film festival scene. Combine that with the fact that one of the main actors plays a flatulent corpse and I didn’t know what to think. What I got was a strangely sweet, bizarre and reflective film on life and loneliness, with a great acapella score created almost entirely by Dano and Radcliffe. And you know, a few fart jokes. Also, in one of my favourite trivia finds of the year, Dano said that he took on the film instantly after one of the directors described the plot as ‘the first fart makes you laugh and the last fart makes you cry.’ That’s about right.

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7. Arrival

You’ll notice as the list goes on that I tend to focus on films from the last three months or so. That’s because the summer really sucked unless you wanted to watch mediocre superhero blockbusters, and so when the autumn rolled around, almost everything felt like a breath of fresh air. Arrival was one of those, a fantastic science fiction that deserved the hype. I also loved that instead of the formulas and calculations that often take centre stage in sci-fi, this film focused instead on the beauty of language and communication.

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6. Nocturnal Animals

Whenever someone mentions this film to me, or asks what I thought of it, my answer is always the same – ‘Well, I wept at this film more than I have at a film in two years, and it shook me to the point of an emotional meltdown. I’ll be traumatised for a long time… It was amazing though!’ Funnily enough they never seem very convinced by my last assertion. Yet it was a stunning film, reaching emotional pains and creating something that is both stylish and hideously brutal. I can’t really say much more, you just have to watch it.

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5. The Light Between Oceans – full review

Period dramas are taking over my life currently so this became essential viewing. It was stunningly beautiful though, presenting a painful dilemma with empathy for both sides. Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender really did excel themselves in portraying the central couple and everything was sufficiently epic in visuals. Also, Alexandre Desplat did the score, which is an instant benefit.

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4. Bridget Jones’ Baby

I fully expected this film to be terrible, having read all the books and loved the previous movies for years and years. In fact, the original Bridget Jones’ Diary had an appearance in my undergrad dissertation and it has been a sad day cheer-up essential. Shockingly however, Bridget Jones’ Baby was amazing, a definite treat for established fans of the series and side-splittingly funny. Renee Zellweger was as adorable as she’s always been and Colin was Colin (which is to say, perfect).

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3. A Bigger Splash – full review

It’s all indie films from hereon, and A Bigger Splash is a tense one, capable of wrapping you up into a beautiful world that is poisoned from the inside. Masterfully shot, it has a top set of actors who are perfectly cast for each of their roles. Tilda Swinton once again proves just how good she can be, even if you remove 99% of her lines, by playing a mute rockstar whilst Ralph Fiennes taps into his more comedic side with a man who still bristles with seething rage under a mask of bravado. Matthias Schoenaerts also utilises his power as an actor where understatement becomes a strength, and they all set each other off in a way that captivating to witness.

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2. Captain Fantastic

The only good movie this year to start with the title of ‘Captain’, I loved this one, not least because it handled a complex central situation in a way that was fair to all involved. Viggo Mortenson plays a father who has brought up his children in an unconventional fashion and when faced with the outside world, the extent of that upbringing causes questions and conflict. However, it’s all handled carefully and in the end, I left feeling moved. I also cried twice but I am a crier sometimes.

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1. Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Empire got to this one first in naming it as number one, but this was always going to be my choice. It’s my perfect film – touching and inventive with a dry sense of Kiwi humour. Taiki Waititi has been on my watch list since he made my favourite of 2014, What We Do In The Shadows, and he’s continuing a fantastic streak. This one is much more along the lines of Boy, a heartfelt earlier film that retains that imaginative approach, and if you like Wilderpeople, go watch that immediately.

In this movie though, Julian Dennison and Sam Neill trade great lines and Dennison is a complete star. Everything is timed to perfection and I honestly loved every second, although particular highlights include an early hunting scene with the adorable Bella and a strange vicar. Cinemas showed the movie for barely any time, which was criminal, but I intend to start fixing that by buying this movie for everyone on my Christmas list. I’m doing it an injustice really – just know that it’s the best. Go watch it.

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When did we forget the purpose of film criticism?

There’s been a distinct change in recent years in the attitude towards film reviews throughout the internet. It’s something approaching toxic, stifling the idea that reviews can hold a unique opinion and instead holding them to an invisible choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Take for example, Empire magazine’s recent reviews. On of their staff writers, Dan Jolin, gave the recent Independence Day sequel a controversial 4 stars. I say controversial – it really shouldn’t have been- but it’s indignantly mentioned in the comments as a comparison on almost every review since.

The idea that Empire could praise what was commonly regarded across Twitter, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb and the majority of critics as a bad film was instantly named as wrong. Some stated that they wouldn’t take any reviews by the magazine seriously, whilst others named potential financial motives as being the reason behind the positive rating.

What these people are forgetting is that a film review is an individual opinion. The conspiracy that Empire magazine is run as a single entity that breathes one opinion is entirely untrue- instead, it gives voice to great writers who can offer their own perspective on the latest screen releases. These reviews don’t have to echo the general opinion that the internet feels entitled to hold.

Lets look at the situation from a different angle. Everyone has their guilty pleasures – I for one, will defend a multitude of bad movies to the death, including Princess Diaries 2. Many hold the opinion that it’s a poor film, and perhaps objectively from a screenwriter’s perspective, it is. That doesn’t make me a bad critic.

So while it’s easy to laugh sarcastically and instantly dismiss the movie, if I were to review the film, my job would be to show you why I enjoy it. It would touch upon my favourite aspects, from the tiny, multi-faceted background characters that Garry Marshall peppers his films with, to the scene of screen legend Julie Andrews singing for the first time since the surgery that almost took away her voice.

That is the main goal of film criticism, to listen to a different perspective explain the quirks and features of a film. It doesn’t necessarily have to agree with the ‘common consensus’, it just needs to convince you why the writer feels the way they do, whether they enjoyed it or didn’t, and ideally in an entertaining way.

This very fact is the reason why the best film reviewers of the last few decades have had their own distinctive voice and character, from Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael to Mark Kermode. Every film reviewer needs to be proud in their opinion, know where it came from and occasionally be willing to revisit it as their own personal outlooks change. After all, film reviewing is so personal- often the watching experience will be affected by the person’s own life experiences and views.

It’s a pity then, to see people on the internet vociferously criticise magazines and reviewers for holding a view that they don’t think matches public opinion. Empire isn’t just a single entity but gives voices a place, and this applies to single film critics with their own site too. Their opinion should always be an honest one, since they shouldn’t be catering to the views of readers.

Where has this attitude come from then? My theory is the prevalence of film reviews on social media, where the ratings and opinions that shout the loudest come to be seen as the unwritten judgement on which all other reviews should be judged. There are so many opinions out there but instead of promoting a host of differing views and well written perspectives, people band together to find like-minded shouters. The worst of this is that it’s not even promoting open-minded discussions that reviews should, just back-slapping affirmation.

If I sounds grouchy, then I am. I’m tired of seeing unique opinions being shut down by the mob. If this continues, it’s going to kill film reviews and risk turning the entire industry into a crowd of parroting voices. That’s not what it’s about. Film critics, embrace your opinions. They’re not controversial and there needn’t be such a thing as a ‘general consensus’. Find your voice and be proud in your writing – we need your untarnished views.

Why I’m boycotting superhero movies

Let me first start by saying this- I have nothing against those who enjoy the lengthy offerings by those current titans of cinema, Marvel and DC. A devoted geek of a fair few fandoms, I understand the passion that can come with complex backgrounds, memorable characters and an extensive mythology, particularly if you have a love of the original texts.

As someone with limited experience of the comics that inspire them however, I’ve become tired of the wafer thin offerings that take up a formidable 165 minutes at the cinema, accompanied by advertising that screams and the lazy performances of Hollywood elite getting the money for their latest holiday home.

It sounds harsh, I know. I’m not a complete movie snob. Some of my favourite blockbusters have included the Mission Impossible movies- unpretentious as they are, they know they’re ridiculous and they’re a snappy, fun experience. Not only that, but no one can accuse Tom Cruise of ever phoning it in, no matter how odd the guy seems outside of his work.

I think I cracked at the second Avengers movie. The film finished after what felt like hours and five minutes later I couldn’t have told you the plot. It didn’t seem to matter. Complex or not, it followed the same pattern of fight scenes intermingled with a growing cast whose names had started to escape me. What powers they had didn’t even really matter as they all became lost in increasingly ridiculous set pieces which lacked any tension.

Avengers Premiere.jpgIt’s not like the main guys were in any danger from a screen death either- Hollywood Reporter had already broken the news that Iron Man was signed on for four more years. Chris Evans looked good enough in spandex to survive at least three more movies. Jeremy Renner didn’t have much else to do really but apparently his character was fascinating enough to warrant an extended contract. Marvel had rolled out the titles of upcoming movies, spoilers in themselves, instantly ruining every kind of Game of Thrones-esque surprise (RIP Ned) that you could expect.

Without going to far into it, the issue of women also bothered me. Black Widow is still to get her own movie, despite hints in the Avengers films about an interesting background, and until Scarlet Witch came along (two women out of about ten, what luxury!), Widow had been largely on her own apart from the ones used as set-dressing for pretty kiss scenes. DC isn’t exempt either. Wonder Woman has taken an embarrassingly long time whilst the studios have lobbed money in Zach Snyder’s general direction for more critically-panned, male-centric adaptations.

We’re signed up for years more of this too. Justice League, Suicide Squad, two more Avengers films and god knows how many more films attributed to individual characters. Don’t forget though, you’ll probably still get a significant chunk of the overall cast turning up anyway- anything to persuade people there’s complex team dynamics and not just a bunch of overpaid actors paying for spousal support.

avengers 2 destructionKnowing that every film is to finish with a big set piece of increasing size doesn’t fill me with excitement, but with resignation. I see the budget spent on those set pieces and I wish that money had been spent on original projects that offer a new perspective. In the age of endless sequels, something new has never been more precious.

The issue of ‘choosing the greater good’ has been explored now by these films too, many times over. It’s a superhero cliche and it’s been forever relevant. That doesn’t mean you should rely on it as a plot device though. The decade we live in throws up new issues every day, big, small and Trump-sized, so there’s no excuse for not being inventive.

One other real problem with these studios is just how manufactured they are. I once had a director from a European country complain to me that making an American movie was a hellish experience, every idea and vision of his film stampeded over by the producers wielding the cash.  That wasn’t for a superhero film but from what I’ve managed to glean, Marvel and DC are among the worst. No wonder Edgar Wright bailed. A director using their own distinctive touch seems to be a struggle for these movies, ironically enough for adaptations of comics which exemplify creativity.

jessica jonesMy superhero boycott is movie-only, however. I really loved Jessica Jones- not only did it have some imperfect, realistic female characters in a fair ratio but it didn’t rely on dramatic fight pieces. The episodic structure of the TV show meant a break from the traditional formula whilst the fight was against Jessica’s own traumatic memories, and the terrifying presence of a man who had violated her physically, emotionally and mentally. It was dark, it handled issues more prescient than the classic ‘greater good’ dilemma and it made me think more than any of the Marvel movies had managed. I can’t wait for the next series.

For movies however, I’m done. I refuse to contribute money so Robert Downey Jnr can fill his coffers by playing himself and I’m sick of seeing distinctive directors hired only to create something that reeks of a producer’s cut. My choice at the cinema may be more limited now but at least I’m guaranteed variety. I might even read the comics with all this extra time.

Just don’t make me watch more films with spandex.