I didn’t get to see as many films this year as I’d hoped, but it turned out to be a pretty good year. After a few years where the blockbusters have been uniformly awful, this year’s batch contained some movies that finally understood their role as entertainment (Thor, Wonder Woman) and even had people discussing narrative structures (Dunkirk). Either side of these were films that, like my book choices, couldn’t be divorced from the current climate.
Many of the films that follow were officially released in 2016, but I’m going on when they got a cinema release in the UK. So, here’s my top ten, because who doesn’t love a list:
- The Handmaiden – Chan-wook Park takes Sarah Waters’ sublime LGBT-erotica-meets-Oliver-Twist novel, Fingersmith (also in my top reads of the year), and relocates it from London to 1930s Korea. He ramps up the sensuality and drama (from a pretty high starting point) to create a sumptuous, beautiful, twisting film that’s like eating all your food from a Belgian chocolate fountain. It’s also a lesson in how to do book adaptation, retaining the central core narrative elements, and more importantly the tone of the book, while creating something wholly its own.
- Get Out – like They Live or The People Under The Stairs, (or even The Night of the Living Dead), good horror can be an effective social commentator and in Jordan Peele’s claustrophobic tale of white control and liberal appropriation of black values, this movie was so 2017. Sometimes horror that wants to be an allegory forgets to serve its primary focus of being a horror, but Peele’s film spins both plates effortlessly – it’s both straight up terrifying and also a scathing social metaphor.
- Baby Driver – whereas La La Land was meant to instil you with a joie de vivre, it all seemed too forced, as if accountants had researched the jazz scene. But the joy in Baby Driver is not in life so much but in cinema itself. Every scene seems to be declaring “isn’t this shit great??”
- Dunkirk – I didn’t rate Nolan’s World War 2 epic as highly as some (I mean how many times can the same guy nearly drown?), but it had plenty to recommend it, in Hans Zimmer’s score, the cycling narrative timeline and the realistic portrayal of air battles. It was a film that made people appreciate the cinematic experience and that’s always worth acknowledging.
- Raw – I loved Julia Ducournau’s French extremism take on social conformity, family secrets, coming of age, and yes, quite a bit of cannibalism. While the furore focused on people passing out in the cinema (have they never seen any French extremity cinema?) this overlooked what a beautifully shot film it is, with bold use of colour and modernist, painterly structured scenes. Ducournau is a talent to be reckoned with.
- Lady Macbeth – this bleak tale of Katherine forced into an oppressive marriage in 19th Century rural England is a slow, grinding build to an amoral climax, that makes the viewer complicit in the final act.
- Wonder Woman – Patty Jenkins’ interpretation of the comic book format was nigh on perfect. Gadot stormed to prominence as easily the best superhero around, the pacing was like an exact 4/4 rhythm, and the tone provided a welcome return to enjoyment away from the Nietzschean angst of the dire comic book adaptations that have gone before.
- My Life as a Courgette – while the studio Ghibli metaphysical magic realism tale The Red Turtle gained all the plaudits, if I’m to include an animation, I’d opt for this Swiss/French stop-motion tale of redemption in an orphanage. It starts with the eponymous Courgette accidentally killing his abusive, alcoholic mother. I mean, that sounds like a fun movie, right? But it’s incredibly sweet, with a definite, unique visual style.
- Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci’s hilarious take on the final days of Stalin finds its way to truth by coming at it indirectly. The actors speak in their native accents, but there’s a strange veracity in, for example, Jason Isaacs gruff northerner portrayal of Georgy Zhukov, that an accurate depiction would not capture. It’s a hoot.
- For the last selection, choose your preferred one from The Battle of the Sexes, The Beguiled, The Big Sick, Thor Ragnarok, I am not Madame Bovary or Toni Erdmann. Yes, that’s a cop out, but while I liked all of these, none of them particularly clamours to merit the last spot.
As a horror fan the revisiting of It was enjoyable, prosaic post apocalytptic movies had a bit of a run with It comes at night and The Survivalist, and there were some inventive low budget productions such as I am the pretty thing that lives in the house, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, A Dark Song and Devils Candy..
Overall it was a good, but not great year. Perhaps the most noteworthy trend is the growth of decent female representation both as central characters and directors. Nowhere was this more evident than with a comparison of the two films to feature Wonder Woman. Whereas Jenkins’ film was a delight, Snyder’s was ponderous and mediocre. Of the films mentioned above I think Wonder Woman, Raw and Get Out are the ones that will have staying power.