2016 was such a clusterfuck of a year that I spent most of it seeking refuge in films. After a brilliant Christopher Lee retrospective at the Brussels Cinematek, a fantastic season of Ozu at Flagey arrived just in time to keep me calm over the whole Referendum travesty, which I just knew was going to turn out badly. Did I care? Yes, desperately, but I managed to put those feelings on hold by submerging myself into the gentler, kinder, more humane world of Japanese family life, the Luna Bar (where Ozu’s male characters repeatedly go to get drunk and talk too much) and beautiful, minimal, pulse-soothing camerawork – film-making so sublime and exquisite it restores your faith in humanity. And god knows I needed that.
By the time the Referendum votes were counted, I’d already started gathering the relevant papers to take Belgian citizenship (which came through in January 2017 – hurrah!). After half the British voters were dumb enough to vote for Brexit, I just knew the Americans were going to cut their own throats too – and everyone else’s – by voting a proven racist, misogynist, pathological liar with Alzheimer’s into office, thus threatening NATO, the Paris Agreement, and pretty much peace on earth. And lo, it came to pass.
It was a good year for cinema though. Anyone who disagrees clearly wasn’t paying attention, or was simply unable to countenance any kind of cinema other than superhero movies or blockbusters, most of which were even more rubbish than usual in 2016. (And I write as someone who enjoys blockbusters.)
Here are some of the films that played in 2016 at my Paradise Plaza, my perfect imaginary cinema, where talking and texting and noisy refreshments are banned, where the film is always in focus, the sound system is competently regulated, and the front row (where I always prefer to sit) is the perfect distance from the screen.
THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER aka FEBRUARY
Oz Perkins’s directing debut was still known as February when I saw it at Amsterdam’s Imagine Film Festival in April of 2016, but the title was later changed to The Blackcoat’s Daughter. I’m not fond of either title, but the film itself was the most disturbing and discomfiting horror movie of the year. I’m always a sucker for stories set in girls’ schools, and this was a doozy, featuring stonking great performances from Keirnan Shipka and Emma Roberts (an actress I normally find annoying). It’s probably too slow and oblique for mainstream horror audiences, but it chilled me to the bone. Creepy as hell.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s surreal arthouse fantasy is a beguiling mélange of SF and body-horror set by the sea, where young Nicholas (Max Brebant) thinks he sees the corpse of a boy in the water. He lives in a coastal community which seemingly consists of no-one but mothers, their sons, and the nurses at a sinister hospital where bizarre surgeries are performed on the boys. Can Nicholas escape his destiny? And what lies in store for him and the other boys anyway? Best just to go with the flow, and lap up the unsettling imagery and creepy symbolism of a strange and beautifully realised dreamworld.
On the face of it, François Ozon’s delicate black and white fable looks set to be about redemption, the mourning process and a German family who lost their son Frantz in World War I and who assuage their grief – much to the disgust of their neighbours – by embracing a young French ex-soldier called Adrien, who claims to have known Frantz in pre-war Paris.
But the central character is Anna, the dead man’s fiancée, played by Paula Beer in one of the year’s best and subtlest performances; her face contains multitudes. Just when I thought I had the story all figured out, it veered off into an agreeably unexpected direction. The title might be Frantz, but the film is about a young woman’s hopes and dreams – All About Anna.
The Coen brothers’ love letter to 1950s Hollywood was seen as a mere bagatelle in many quarters, a fitfully amusing spoof of movie-making styles – its divas, temperamental creative talent and behind-the-scenes crises – but shallow, without a strong story or theme to hold it together. I disagree. It’s structured around a life in the day (sic) of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he strides through his job as the studio “fixer”, almost single-handedly saving the dream factory from grinding to a halt with an expert blend of cajolery, skullduggery, hard graft and sheer good luck as he juggles kidnapped actors, Commie screenwriters, western movie stars miscast as lounge lizards, pregnant actresses and hawkish gossip columnists.
The real Eddie Mannix was reportedly a much nastier piece of work (Bob Hoskins played him in Hollywoodland as the sort of tough guy you would not want to cross) but as portrayed by Brolin, he’s affable, albeit ruthless – a guy whose chief loyalty is to the studio, and keeping their productions running smoothly. With a cracking ensemble cast (including cherishable contributions from the likes of Channing Tatum, George Clooney, Scarlet Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton), the film is about nothing less than the magic of Hollywood itself, and the process by which tackiness and fakery is transformed by intangible alchemy into something sublime. In the words of Noël Coward, “It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music can be.” I found Hail, Caesar! not just silly and funny, but also poignant, a bit melancholy, and strangely moving. It’s shallow only if you think dreams, magic and the movies themselves are shallow.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
There’s nothing I enjoy more than a Preposterous Thriller, but nowadays there seems to be a dearth of crime stories for grown-ups, featuring characters and motivations that are even halfway credible, action that doesn’t involve green screen and physically implausible stunts, and violence that isn’t hip or jokey but which has real consequences. David Mackenzie’s modern noir, with a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, roots its story in economically stricken West Texas. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who hatch a desperate scheme to save the family ranch from the clutches of the Texas Midland Bank – by robbing it, and other banks, which earns them a certain Robin Hood status in the depressed community. On their tail is a veteran Ranger played by Jeff Bridges, more sensitive and less ornery than you’d think from his incessant racist baiting of his half Mexican, half Native American partner.
Giles Nuttgens’s cinematography is unfailingly elegant without glamorising the desolation of the locations, the camera movements are purposeful, even the walk-on characters seem to have properly thought-out backstories, and there is often a lot more going on than immediately meets the eye, most notably in the final scenes. Above all, Mackenzie makes the bullets count. There’s one death here which is genuinely shocking and upsetting.
I went into Julieta knowing next to nothing about it, but it wasn’t long before I found myself immersed in a masterful piece of storytelling, with Pedro Almodóvar spinning his most enthralling yarn in years, and spinning it in expert style. Emma Suárez plays Julieta, whose encounter with a friend of her daughter on a street in Madrid sets the plot in motion. Most of it is related in flashback, with Adriana Ugarte playing the younger Julieta. It’s a melodrama about men and women, mothers and daughters, sex and death, guilt and forgiveness – the whole of human life, in fact – and full of surprises I prefer not to give away here. I’ll just say that Almodóvar is operating at the height of his powers as a film-maker, and Rossy De Palma is a hoot as a stern housekeeper.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
At last! Whit Stillman’s utterly delightful adaptation of a lesser-known Jane Austen novella (Lady Susan) allows Kate Beckinsale to swap the tight leather catsuit of the dreary Underworld films for an 18th century corset, and remind us she’s a dab hand at delivering reams of aperçu-laden dialogue and finely tuned insult while cunningly manipulating both friends and enemies and, somehow, managing to keep us, the audience, on her side – despite her thoroughly despicable behaviour.
The widowed Lady Susan Vernon is the smartest person in the room, and also the bitchiest, but what’s a 18th century lady to do when her options are limited? Wonderful stuff, with lovely backup from Tom Bennett as possibly the stupidest person in Georgian England. Stillman + Austen + Beckinsale = a match made in movie heaven.
From a comment I posted on someone else’s blog:
Weird thing is, I watched Nocturnal Animals knowing next to nothing about it as I’d deliberately avoided trailers and reviews. At no point during the film did it raise my feminist hackles – apart from the obligatory bit of “Oh no not kidnapped and fridged women AGAIN,” which I feel about once a week since it’s a trope I seem to encounter in every other American film that gets released – though it never usually draws this amount of condemnation from critics and/or audiences.
Even though those scenes were horrible and upsetting, I appreciate that they WERE horrible and upsetting, as opposed to some cypher-like wife or girlfriend getting kidnapped and cleanly rescued without any apparent trauma resulting from the experience, which is what usually seems to happen in thrillers and action movies. Moreover the “fridging” in Nocturnal Animals is presented as a fictional construct by the male character who has written the story. It’s presented BY HIM as something that is done TO HIM. He doesn’t present it as the women’s tragedy but as HIS.
Just writing this to emphasise how surprised I was afterwards to read all the comments accusing the film of misogyny, both for those scenes and for Amy Adams’s character supposedly getting “punished” for having an abortion and dumping Jake Gyllenhaal’s character. I didn’t see it like that at all but as a character study of a woman who has made some awful choices in her life, primarily the decision to stop making art in favour of curating art by others. She has subsequently deleted everything from her life that doesn’t fit her grand design, and is now paying the price by finding her existence is nothing but hollow perfection. But this isn’t “punishment” for her supposed “sins”, as many people are saying – simply the logical result of the choices she has made.
Most of all, I’m baffled that people see misogyny in a film which has a complicated, flawed female character at its centre. Yes, she suffers, but as Nietzsche said (something like) “To live is to suffer.” I’m wondering if these critics see the films of, say, Sirk or Fassbinder as misogynistic (I already know what they think of Hitchcock). I can’t help feeling they’re shooting themselves in the foot by wanting heroines who are feminist role models who learn from their mistakes, triumph over their flaws and round things off with an inspirational speech that sends everyone home in an upbeat mood. There’s room for films like this, but Nocturnal Animals isn’t one of them – it’s the flaws in her character which make her interesting, and which turn this film into a tragedy.
THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR
Unusually for a horror franchise these days, The Purge films (this is the third to date) are unapologetically political, and this one, coinciding as it did with the 2016 United States presidential election, is even more pointedly so. Dependable tough guy Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes, assigned to protect Senator Roan, a female presidential candidate who has campaigned on a promise to end the Purge – one night every year when the population is given carte blanche to indulge in lawbreaking and murder with no legal repercussions, which generally mean that gun nuts and other psychos act out their most reprehensibly violent fantasies at the expense of the more peaceful, weaker and more innocent segments of the population. As a high-concept, it’s daft as a brush, but within the context of the movies, it works beautifully as a political allegory, a comment on law and order, and an excuse for masses of carnage.
Naturally, Roan is betrayed by her own security forces and she and Barnes go on the run through an increasingly dangerous cityscape, eventually teaming up with other fugitives like themselves. Lunkhead exploitation meets in-your-face allegory meets racism meets surrealism (some of the Purge tableaux and creepy costumes, incorporating classic American iconography, are genuinely unsettling) while unprincipled founding fathers (not a million miles from the shower currently occupying the White House) stop at nothing to preserve the status quo.
It’s just a pity the real election didn’t end more like the movie. Where’s Leo Barnes when we need him?
TRAIN TO BUSAN
Every time you think you’ve had it up to here with bloody zombie movies, another one pops it to show there’s plenty of life in the undead yet. Yeon Sang-ho’s pedal-to-the-metal zombies on a train (travelling from Seoul to Busan) is a blast from start to finish, fleshes out its stereotypes, delivers all the requisite thrills and gore, and works hard to earn its tear-jerkingly sentimental elements as well. I saw it in a packed multiplex in Paris and can attest that it’s also a terrific audience pic.
If Train to Busan is a straight-arrow Korean thrill ride, Na Hong-jin’s supernatural serial-killer thriller, set in a remote village in the mountains of South Korea, couldn’t be more different: it’s messy, baffling, creepy and too unwieldy to be slotted tidily into any one compartment (as I’ve tried to do here). At 156 minutes, it’s also very long, but they’re 156 minutes well-spent trying to wrap your head around the film’s multiple mysteries: a strange illness, a Japanese hermit in the woods, a rock-star shaman, demons and zombies galore.
It’s also, at times, quite grim, as you’d expect from the film-maker who gave us the grim-but-gripping The Chaser and The Yellow Sea (top contender for the stabbiest film of all time). Kwak Do-won plays the local cop who is investigating outbreaks of an eerie disease which seems to be turning law-abiding folk into crazed murderers, and ends trying to protect his own family from perils he (and we) can only barely understand.
Some honourable mentions:
Green Room (punks versus Nazis in a fight to the death, starring the late lamented Anton Yelchin in survivalist mode)
The Revenant (I especially liked the spectacularly choreographed raid at the start)
Embrace of the Serpent (Heart of Darkness, but from the point-of-view of an Amazonian shaman)
The Conjuring 2 (by-the-numbers but effective audience-goosing horror in which a North London family is menaced by everything but the kitchen sink. Fun, but loses marks for its use of London Calling by The Clash to announce its characters arriving in – yes! – London. Yawn.)
Liza, the Fox-Fairy (an inventive Hungarian black comedy I watched with Dutch subtitles – most of which I understood! Hurrah! I’m making progress.)
Florence Foster Jenkins (for Hugh Grant’s moving performance)
Toni Erdmann (for Sandra Hüller’s performance)
Ouija: Origin of Evil (Mike Flanagan is one of the most reliable horror directors around)
Certain Women (for the heart-breaking segment with Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart)
Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa creeps us out, again)
De Palma (my favourite documentary of 2016, and a must-see for fans of the director. I could happily have watched another couple of hours of De Palma talking about his films)
Meanwhile, screening in HELL MULTIPLEX, to audiences full of texters, talkers, noisy popcorn-guzzlers and sweet-wrapping rustlers…
Burnt (I was on Omar Sy’s character’s side, not Bradley Cooper’s – a pity the film wasn’t about Sy)
The Hateful Eight (for its misogyny – Jennifer Jason Leigh gets slapped around and finally meets an agonising end, and she isn’t even allowed to be the Major Villain)
The Girl on the Train (dumb, despite Emily Blunt’s best efforts. Might have been marginally more convincing if they’d kept the novel’s English setting)
Suicide Squad (nice posters, shame about the film. A farrago of underwritten characters, indistinguishable male actors and endless on-the-nose music choices, alleviated only by the performances of Margot Robbie and Viola Davis. Jared Leto’s Joker is a particular low point. The stupidity culminates in a terrible case of sexydancing.)
X-Men: Apocalypse (dumb as a boxful of bricks)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (bombastic, joyless, stupid and not one but two female characters get kidnapped to serve the macho plot)
Mother’s Day (naff)
Now You See Me 2 (even naffer)
Star Trek: Beyond (naff-a-go-go, incorporating gratuitous female-character-strips-to-undies scene)
ETA: It has been pointed out to me that I’ve got Star Trek: Beyond confused with Star Trek: Into Darkness. Sorry about that. Beyond was a bit more fun than its predecessor (partly because, I think, Justin Lin is a better director than J.J. Abrams, who can’t direct action for toffee) and so probably doesn’t deserve to be on this list.
But it’s probably symptomatic of the all-round blah-ness of the rebooted Trek formula that I got the two films confused. Either that, or a senior moment on my part. (For the record, I’m a STTNG fan, and my favourites among the films are Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country and First Contact, none of which I have ever got remotely confused with one another.)