Friday, 30 December 2016

My 16 best films of 2016

16. 10 Cloverfield Lane

A sort-of sequel to 2008's Cloverfield, this Dan Trachtenberg-directed potboiler came as something of a surprise when its true title was suddenly announced in February. Sharing DNA, rather than clear narrative continuity, with its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane makes much of its deliberately obscure plot and restrictive location, the story of a young woman held captive by John Goodman's hearty survivalist switching direction with maximum impact.  

In spite of his small cast, Trachtenberg manages to craft a film that comes off as less claustrophobic than first signs suggest. Its mix of genre hallmarks purrs as Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr riff on the palpable paranoia that lurks menacingly at the edges. With a finale that belongs somewhere else, yet satisfies nonetheless, this finds its identity in unexpected places.

15. Anthropoid

This depiction of the events surrounding the assassination of SS bigwig Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during the height of World War Two initially registers as a routine period actioner, but there is, in fact, much more beneath the surface. Driven on by an atmosphere of foreboding that sees its leads (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) never more than a single misstep away from their own destruction, Anthropoid is occasionally beautiful, slickly drawn and tightly executed.

The brilliant concluding stanza, a firefight that tears through the sanctified confines of a grand cathedral, sees both actors come into their own. Themes of courage and mortality are weighty, no doubt, yet director Sean Ellis handles these deftly, imbuing the finale with an emotional heft that feels truly profound.

14. Everybody Wants Some!!

Sprouting from the same ground as his woozy calling card, Dazed and ConfusedEverybody Wants Some!! is Richard Linklater's return to the campus genre, a spiritual sequel to the former work and his more recent masterpiece, Boyhood. As Dazed and Confused played out over the final day of high school, so does Everybody Wants Some!! capture the halcyon days of the last weekend before college begins.

Set in a fictional Texan university, testosterone-filled members of a college baseball team traverse the student ecosystem, each as brash, insecure and arrogant as the next. Crucially, though, none is particularly unlikable and to witness their ambling progress is nothing short of a joy. That Linklater manages to stage something so incredibly watchable, in spite of an almost non-existent plot, is a testament to our unchecked fondness for cool music, period nostalgia and the sweetness of summer. 

13. Eye in the Sky

The ambivalent complexities of the War on Terror abound in this taut drama directed by South African helmer Gavin Hood and boasting Helen Mirren on mesmerising, iron-willed form. Its plot spans the globe, but the details are etched in vivid human colours, torturous decisions of life and death punctuating a hodgepodge of action tropes, political scheming, human conflict and even sly comedy. Eye in the Sky should be a mess. It is quite the opposite.

Given the provocative subject matter, Hood could be suspected of seeking to editorialise on the efficacy of the West's crusade against militant Islam. He never goes quite that far, however, weaving instead a morality play that observes rather than comments. Along with Mirren, the late, great Alan Rickman gives his final onscreen performance. His cerebral and upstanding army officer attempts to hold it all together as bureaucrats and politicians squirm under the weight of their terrible responsibilities. 

12. The Jungle Book

Somewhat different from the mature update presented by its pre-release materials (Scarlett Johansson's sinister, molten-toned Kaa barely features), Jon Favreau's take on the Disney opus is, nevertheless, an assured spin on a classic, every inch the spectacular it intends to be. Given the turgid state of 2016's tent-pole blockbusters, it seems pleasantly fitting that the House of Mouse, faithful and reliable as it is, should exceed in reviving something so familiar to so many.

The film's strengths are undeniable. Cutting-edge and photorealistic CGI combines with a stellar cast, generating a vision both joyful to behold and worthy of digestion. From Neel Sethi's uninhibited offering as "man cub" Mowgli to Idris Elba charging Shere Khan with a level of cunning and darkness not obviously aimed at pre-teens, this peddles undistilled wonder like few others.

11. Kubo and the Two Strings

The outstanding animation of 2016 came not from Disney or Dreamworks, but from stop-motion house Laika, the brains behind Boxtrolls and Coraline. Tackling ancient Japanese folklore, director Travis Knight infuses this wondrous adventure with a sense of scale and profound emotional resonance. Few stories of childhood abandonment will have been pulled off with such elan. 

Putting a talented voice cast (Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes and Game of Thrones alum Art Parkinson) to work, Kubo and the Two Strings builds itself around cutting-edge stop motion that few can rival. A sophisticated plot elevates this above childish diversion, flowing freely and confidently towards a graceful conclusion.

10. Green Room

The sudden death of Anton Yelchin threw a tragic focus upon summer blockbuster Star Trek Beyond, but it would be another project that played out as a fitting tribute to his gifts. While Green Room's unusual premise undermined its mass appeal, this bleak effort turned out to be one of the year's nastiest surprises.

Catapulting Yelchin's punk bassist and his youthful bandmates into the middle of a murderous Nazi drinking den in rural Oregon, director Jeremy Saulnier ratchets up the tension with a potent brew of killer dogs, Trump voters and Patrick Stewart as the establishment's bespectacled owner, Darcy. A film that veers off in grisly and unwanted directions, Yelchin's unexpectedly heroic performance is especially impressive. 

9. Disorder

Moving past his noble turn as Gabriel Oak in last year's Far From the Madding Crowd, Matthias Schoenaerts returns to the kind of shifty blue-collar hero that made him so watchable in Bullhead and Rust and Bone. Here he is Vincent, a traumatised soldier hired to guard the wife (Diane Kruger) of a wealthy businessman in the French Riviera. Unsurprisingly, things do not go to plan and with the vague, if very real, threat of violence hanging over them, Vincent must act.

Schoenaerts is, as ever, magnetic – that haunted visage, obscuring a core of decency, has never been more pronounced. Director Alice Winocour locates fearful intensity within the lonely luxury of the seaside location, exposing her leading man's already frayed nerves and fragile temperament to the rigours of this sumptuous, slow-burning thriller. Fascinating.

8. Creed

Just when the Rocky franchise looked dead – 2006's enjoyable, though entirely needless, Rocky Balboa could easily have served as a pleasant final round – brilliant young filmmaker Ryan Coogler arrived to come at the series from a new angle and reinvigorate a tale that had become the very essence of fond cliché. Taking on the legend may seem quite a step up from Coogler's scorching debut, Fruitvale Station, but he and that film's star, Michael B. Jordan, miss not a step in the transition from racial polemic to mainstream hit. 

Aided, of course, by Sylvester Stallone as Balboa, Coogler and Jordan soar, the latter perfectly inhabiting the character of Adonis Johnson, aspiring pugilist and illegitimate son of Rocky's late friend, Apollo Creed. Creed eschews melodrama, opting instead for a picture of genuine style and poignantly observed humanity. Taken together with Stallone's often heartbreaking portrayal, there can be no doubt that this represents something new and very special. 

7. Room

Brie Larson rightly grabbed the plaudits and the awards but the spirit of Lenny Abrahamson's delicate movie is Jacob Tremblay as the innocent at the core of this thoughtful look at life beyond a nightmare. Portraying Jack, the offspring of his captive mother and her rapist, Old Nick (the owner of Room, the four walls constituting their whole world), the precocious Tremblay conveys joy, fear, confusion and a child's determination for knowledge. His achievements are every bit the equal of Larson's.

Based on Emma Donoghue's novel of the same name, Room's effectiveness comes not just from having its central players endure and rise above their experiences, but in peeking at how life and one's future is moulded by the most terrible of circumstances. In spite of the tightness of its setting, this is film with mighty things to say.

6. The Witch

Blair Witch was the hag-centric horror movie that grabbed headlines in 2016 but for those who saw the feature debut of rising talent Robert Eggers, there can be no comparison between his film and the frenetic scares of its more famous contemporary. Never completely terrifying, The Witch instead aims at something much more subtle, a communion of stressed, angular drama and unremitting dread.

In concert, these things are equally unnerving and unsettling, the evil straining the boundaries of the Puritan homestead (overseen by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) forming a silent, watchful character in its own right. Eggers does not eschew every horror conceit and a late encounter with Satan himself borders on hypnotic, yet it is his conjuring of mood that cannot be ignored. Chilling and shot through with darkness, The Witch animates our deepest fears.

5. Spotlight 

Let not the Oscar-winning worthiness of Tom McCarthy's film blind you to its deep-seated excellence. As a chronicle of systemic institutional corruption, there can be few to challenge it, but Spotlight mines a good deal more from its source material, namely the investigation into the cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese, carried out by The Boston Globe's eponymous unit. 

Gripping, beautifully spun, wielding grace and restraint, this puts its sizzling lineup to work as serious people battling determined foes. Springing from the same well of journalists-as-crusaders that made the likes of All the Presidents Men so 

electrifying, Spotlight's triumph is to locate its heroism in truth and integrity as they appear in the real world, rather than any cloying Holywood interpretation of those qualities. 

4. Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer Tom Ford's sophomore feature appears, at first, cold and watchful, but dig down deeper and the truth of the matter is entirely different. Adapting the 1993 novel Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, Ford sports an unsurprising visual flair, one every bit as elegant and arresting as his sartorial leanings. Traversing styles and storytelling devices, Nocturnal Animals is a moody and searing psychological concoction unbound by convention. 

In Amy Adams, Ford possesses a trump card, her impressive range and place as an unwitting antagonist helping to paint every frame in murky uncertainty. The director deploys his stellar cast with aplomb, but it is the multiplicity of form – unfolding flashbacks rest effortlessly alongside a realer-than-real tale within a tale – that fuels this intoxicating, astonishing fable.

3. Hell or High Water

This magnificent heist thriller enjoyed a low-key theatrical run that belied its startling brilliance. Directed by Scottish auteur David Mackenzie and penned by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is that rarest of beasts: a spectacle that connects on many levels. With a plot that feels real, dangerous and genuinely original, it is far from the meandering arias that otherwise define the western brand. 

Jeff Bridges dominates as the grizzled Texas Ranger pursuing one last job before retirement, his homely turn of phrase never quite hiding the gimlet-eyed resolve beneath the stetson. If anything, however, the bank-robbing siblings (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who form his quarry bring a deeper, almost elegiac element to Mackenzie's film. Blasted by debt and by dust, the plains of West Texas are the arena in which they stage a reprisal against the forces that have ensnared generations of their kin, sparking chaos and justice in equal measures. 

2. Arrival

A quieter, more contemplative sci-fi epic than Christopher Nolan's towering and transcendent Interstellar, the latest picture from Dennis Villeneuve approaches its fantastical subject matter in a similarly sober manner. If Nolan sought to meditate on the nature of our species's survival, then Villeneuve has something more transformative in mind. Grand, gracious and poetic, his is a film replete with a yearning to understand.

Anchored, crucially, by Amy Adams in the metronomic central role (her arc, and not that of the mysterious visitors, dictates the narrative thrust), Arrival locates its heart firmly in mankind's potential, rather than its base instinct to exist. The fundamental tension between embracing joy and fearing unimaginable pain might seem out of place, yet as all concerned struggle to divine the outsiders' intentions, they ultimately know us better than we do ourselves.

1. The Revenant

However the Oscar race finally worked out, there should be no doubt about the identity of 2016’s finest film. The Revenant, a survival saga brought to the screen by Alejandro González Iñárritu, may have been harsh in style and apparently torrid in its behind-the-scenes travails, but the results would prove to be undeniable. An adaptation of Michael Punke’s based-on-real-life historical novel about legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), Iñárritu’s creation is extraordinary, a labour of rare power, as brutal as it is inspiring, boasting a level of originality to which we should all bear witness.

Carried on the back of DiCaprio’s awards-gobbling display, this is a striking feat of creative endeavour, intense enough to snatch the breath from your lungs. The director’s ultimate triumph in exploring the awesome scope of his ambition is to provide a bravura cinematic spectacle unlike anything witnessed before.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Assassin's Creed

Rating: 2/5

The maxim that video games make for poor filmic adaptations does not entirely hold true with the release of Assassin's Creed, a glossy and occasionally impressive new entrant in the larger canon that entertainment giant Ubisoft first unleashed nine years ago. 

Given the landscape in which it exists, the fact that Justin Kurzel's picture is not a complete disaster seems miraculous. From Super Mario Bros. to Tomb Raider (with much in between) the scale of translating console content into something which inspires more than scorn has long proved puzzlingly difficult. Looking at this latest effort, of course, it should not be forgotten that Assassin's Creed requires the acclaimed director of Macbeth and Snowtown, and a cast featuring the former's lead duo of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, to avoid outright failure. 

Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, a convicted murderer who is snatched away to a shadowy post-modern facility by the equally murky Abstergo organisation and plugged into a somewhat invasive machine, named the Animus, for the purpose of mining the recollections of his Assassin ancestor, Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender). 

Aguilar was a member of the eponymous order, which in 1492 hid the Apple of Eden – a powerful relic capable of reshaping human behaviour – from the dastardly Templars. Both groups continue to exist, with the latter, unsurprisingly, being the power behind Abstergo and its urbane head honcho, Dr Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons playing Jeremy Irons). 

Under the watchful eye of Rikkin's scientist daughter, Sophia (Cotillard), Lynch is cast back to the Spain of his forebear, the projections of his genetically coded memories forming the basis of the villains' search for their prize. 

The plot itself is not completely without smarts, though as with a lot of these things, its high-concept sheen could do with another polish. Yet, it is in the visuals and execution that Kurzel most obviously succeeds. His Inquisition-era Castile comes replete with choking smoke and a lazy sunlight that bathes proceedings in a warm amber hue. As a backdrop to the violence in the foreground (significantly toned down thanks to a money-hungry 12A rating), it is all rather beautiful. 

Playing off the games' obvious cinematic stylings (watch out for nods here and there to playable experiences), Kurzel sends his camera swooping and soaring with the golden eagle that serves as a talisman in each series entry. A selection of action scenes, inspired by the franchise's central penchant for parkour, dazzle in spurts, though there is nothing here to rival the genre leaders. That said, as abstract as they are supposed to be, these diversions feel more real than the modern setting, imbued with intrigue and spirit. The characters even converse in Spanish. 

It is unfortunate, then, that they should be so underserved. The adventures of Aguilar are treated as a science project, meant only to be observed, rather than understood; they are afforded little room to breath or expand. 

The contemporary arc, itself so irritating and intrusive an element of the games, is infinitely less interesting, yet the period strands are all geared towards tying this together. Callum's journey from clueless outcast to committed member of the Creed comes and goes in the blink of eye, reeking of cliché. Where the depths of his tale would be better explored, bombast is deployed instead. A loud finale rushes to a conclusion, eschewing the grace of its Medieval subject to establish an artificial sequel-tease of good versus evil, light and dark. If this isn't crushingly disappointing, it isn't especially engaging either. 

Fassbender embraces his duties with brio, but he can do nothing to render this essential viewing.