Averaging about 6 movies a month (and 75 in total), it’s fair to say I got my money’s worth out of my Cineworld Unlimited card in 2016. What’s less clear is whether I was blown away by any of them in the way I was in 2015 with Still Alice: a solid 10/10 in a way that nothing last year really came close to. (Indeed, if I were going purely by films I saw at the cinema in 2016 vs those released that year, I’d probably appoint The Force Awakens my favourite on account of seeing it again for the third time in January.)
Categories that typically shine were uncharacteristically dull: Oscar-bait drama Room was marred by a clumsy soundtrack whose every chord was calculated to dictate what the viewer should be feeling at any given moment; The Danish Girl was commendably gorgeous to look at (and shares a cinematographer with Room in Danny Cohen), but while people were divided on the subject of casting a cisgender actor in the lead role, it unquestionably denies transgender people the ability to tell their own stories by adapting David Ebershoff’s highly fictionalised retelling of Lili Elbe’s life and not her own (readily available) notes and letters. With the exception of the hilarious Deadpool, even superhero movies in 2016 were pedestrian: Marvel’s other efforts were entirely forgettable, and it’s hard to say which major DC franchise audiences hated more. (For my money, Batman v Superman was infinitely worse, but that’s hardly a compliment. You’d think Suicide Squad screenings came with a mandatory waterboarding the way people reacted, but it would be a kindness to describe it as anything beyond “watchable”.)
Adjusting the judging criteria then to films I enjoyed purely for enjoyment’s sake, it fell to a different genre entirely to pick up the slack: which is why – in ranking the movies of 2016 – I’m awarding my top pick to:
In a year of Brexits, Trumps and the statistical probability that one of your childhood heroes died in 2016 (RIP Carrie Fisher), it’s perhaps unsurprising that I found so much comfort in the escapism of animated movies. Admittedly, Moana might not be the most original entry in the Disney ouevre: a plucky outsider with an animal sidekick sings her way through a quest narrative, with echoes of (to name a few) The Little Mermaid’s cloistered princess longing for a wider world, Mulan’s (im)perfect daughter railing against familial expectations, and The Lion King’s reluctant ruler with a deceased relative spirit guide. If there’s a certain familiarity to the storyline, however, it’s executed so masterfully that you’ll soon find yourself swept along on the journey regardless. Moana eschews the archetypal lynchpins of a princess narrative (she’s perfectly capable of saving herself, and the love story is one of self-acceptance and empowerment), and while I could easily praise the beauty of the animation, its greatest strength is in the telling. It unfolds so delightfully that I laughed, smiled and, yes, cried my way through the entire thing (minus one overlong sequence involving a villainous crab) and have been singing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack on a daily basis ever since.
Runner-Up: Kubo and the Two Strings
For almost every reason I loved Moana, but with my personal kryptonite from a childhood of Ray Harryhausen movies: stop-motion animation! Bonus points for a kid’s movie that dares to go darker.
Honourable Mentions: tapping into that other outlet for escapism: mindless violence – Green Room (tense, claustrophobic, brutally droll, and unapologetically violent) and Don’t Breathe (which cost me the majority of my fingernails).
Worst: Midnight Special
Choosing the best movie might have required some thought, but the same definitely can’t be said for the worst, which goes – unequivocally – to this dreary, shambling, plotless pile of crap. With each passing minute, I became further infuriated with the complete lack of storyline masquerading as the film’s central “mystery”, and the only improvement that could have been made is if I’d gone with my gut instinct and walked out after the first half hour. Just the absolute worst.
Runner-Up: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Here partially facetiously (but also kind of not), perhaps Rogue One wasn’t the second-worst movie I saw last year, but it was definitely the biggest disappointment. Despite having two elements almost guaranteed to win me over (to wit: a female lead, and having Star Wars in the title) one could argue that Rogue One was a victim of its own self-generated hype – trying and failing to live up to the success of the blindingly impressive Episode VII – but truth be told: it’s just not very good. From the opening sequence onwards, the movie jumps with no real focus from one forgettably-named planet to another like some faceless masturbator on Chatroulette, and never really finds its footing from there. Every actor feels like they’re starring in a different movie, with special mention to Forest Whitaker who leaves no piece of scenery unchewed, and the rest of the cast so bland and forgettable that I quite literally struggled to recall anyone’s name besides Jyn’s the minute the credits rolled. Chirrut Imwe (whose name I had to google to write this) is a blind martial artist who not only feels utterly out of place in a galaxy far, far away but is a character trope so clichéd as to have his own category on TVTropes.org; and not since Jinkx Monsoon’s “Water off a duck’s back” have I been so irritated by a repetitive and monotonous catchphrase as “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me”. He’s also a victim of the script’s second worst offense, when – after having a bag placed over his head – he responds: “Are you kidding me?” [OK, that’s pretty funny] “I’m blind.” [Sigh. The writers didn’t place enough faith in the audience to assume they’d get the joke without someone spelling it out for them.] though that doesn’t even begin to compare to Darth Vader’s actual. fucking. pun. of “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director” whilst Force-choking said character. (Not for nothing: the director of Rogue One would do well to have heeded his own advice during production.)
Problems like these contribute to a movie which ultimately just doesn’t feel like it belongs in the same universe as the established movies (discounting the prequels), and the frequent parade of cameos (everyone from series mainstays R2-D2 and C-3PO, to Cantina extras Ponda Baba and Doctor Evazan) feel crammed in and tacked on to remind the viewer: “no, really – you’re watching a Star Wars film regardless of what you might be feeling.” Maybe the alarm bells should have been ringing the minute George Lucas – notably outspoken about The Force Awakens – voiced his approval of the finished product.
Even if I could have forgiven the film it’s many other faults, however, its greatest crime is reserved for the indignity it inflicts on the late Peter Cushing and (now, tragically) Carrie Fisher: with some of the most horrendously ill-conceived, suspension-of-disbelief-shattering CGI since that digital baby in the last Twilight movie. Plumbing the depths of the uncanny valley, Grand Moff Tarkin and (young) Princess Leia are resurrected so unconvincingly as to jar you out of every scene they appear in, jerking mechanically through the sets like they’ve just crawled out of the movie’s inevitable video game tie-in. With the film happy to recast Mon Mothma and – soon – Han Solo for his own tie-in movie, it’s an inexplicable choice not to have another actor play the part: not least because Cushing-alike Guy Henry not only voices Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One but provided all of the motion capture for the monstrosity which eventually appeared on screen. Equally, Princess Leia – for the one line she utters – could just as easily been shown from behind: the white robe and distinctive hair buns alone providing even the least Star Wars-knowledgeable audience members enough to gather who was speaking. Beyond just this movie, the ramifications for what it means for Episode VIII onward in Fisher’s absence is a chilling thought.
Dishonourable Mention: Storks, which I walked out of but will forgive on account of being marketed to 10-and-unders.
Here’s looking ahead with more hope for 2017!