Films of 2016: The Criminally Overlooked Films
Court is in session. On trial are the critics and audiences who gave short shrift to these great films. The plaintiffs range from overlooked gems (A Bigger Splash), to misunderstood oddities (Nasty Baby), to maligned blockbusters (Ghostbusters)
Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Despite a starry cast and 60s classic La Piscine as its loose inspiration, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash never quite broke out at the UK box office as it might have. A bold, erotic anti-thriller, it’s a sumptuous and sweaty affair on an aptly volcanic island beneath the Italian sun.
Guadagnino re-teams with Tilda Swinton after the blistering I Am Love and she is as magnetic as ever as an iconic rock star. However, Ralph Fiennes sweeps in like a whirlwind to steal the show, all gaudy and hilarious music-industry machismo. Their entangled relationship make for a veritable melange of tension, humour, and undeniable cool. [Ben Nicholson]
April and the Extraordinary World
Dir. Franck Ekinci, Christian Desmares
One of the year’s best animated releases, which went down a storm at February’s Glasgow Film Festival, was sadly snuck out straight to DVD by its UK distributor, StudioCanal. It’s already a shame that 2D animation on the big screen has become increasingly rare, yet alone something as visually inventive as April and the Extraordinary World.
Based on a French comic by Jacques Tardi, April is a witty, morally grey adventure that presents a steampunk story of an alternate, fantastical 1941. In design and tone, it’s an enjoyable mishmash of Tintin, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. [Josh Slater-Williams]
Dir. S Craig Zahler
The last decade has seen the western come back with a vengeance, returning from its years in the wilderness more grizzled and less glamorous than in its heyday but not a bit less powerful. S Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is the Old West tale of the good people stolen by savages and the collection of brave misfits assembled to strike out into the wild and bring them home.
Its nighttime scenes build tight-breathed tension like a true horror, then it morphes back into dark, snarling comedy as the sun rises and Kurt Russell and co return to trading barbs with an almost nihilistic stoicism. [Ross McIndoe]
Born to be Blue
Dir. Robert Budreau
The second of 2016's two jazz legend biopics, following Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead, Born to be Blue uses the life of Chet Baker to pose complicated questions about artistry and addiction. While the meta-biopic framework is a little shaky, Robert Budreau's film is anchored by understated and moving performances from Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo, and by a narrative that grows more complex and interesting the deeper it delves into Baker's story.
It all comes to a head in a climactic sequence that stands as one of the year's most brilliantly sustained pieces of filmmaking. All of Baker's passions and demons collide here, and the film closes with a powerful emotional punch. [Philip Concannon]
Dir. Stephen Dunn
This superb coming-of-ager was the LGBT film of the year. It follows Oscar, a talented young FX artist struggling to come out as gay, the chief obstacles being his casually homophobic father and the horrific memory of a hate crime he witnessed when he was a young boy.
The joy of Stephen Dunn’s film is that we’re let in on Oscar’s rich imagination, which includes conversations with his pet hamster Buffy (delightfully voiced by Isabella Rossellini) and several fantasy sequences, both dark and delirious. Dunn remembers that poetic realism is just as palpable as the gritty kind, and despite Closet Monster’s flight of fancy, Oscar's growing pains remain painfully relatable. [Jamie Dunn]
Dir. Simon Stone
Everyone in The Daughter is guarding a secret, and the manner in which writer/director Simon Stone teases out these revelations ensures it is an engrossing experience. His adaptation of Ibsen's The Wild Duck develops a tension that simmers quietly as we are introduced to the film's characters, and we see the familial bonds that are about to be shattered by a few catastrophic decisions.
The Daughter boasts a terrific ensemble, but it's the least recognisable among them whose performances stand out; as the father and daughter at the centre of this drama, Ewen Leslie and Odessa Young share a late scene together that will break your heart. [PC]
The End of the Tour
Dir. James Ponsoldt
On the page, this adaptation of David Lipsky’s memoir hardly sounds like it’s going to be a hoot and a holler, and yet it makes for surprisingly good company, even though you know from the off that one of the protagonists isn’t going to make it to the final reel.
It follows Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg in a slightly less neurotic mode than usual – but still fairly neurotic) as he interviews David Foster Wallace (a standout turn from the usually comic Jason Segel) about his critically lauded novel Infinite Jest. Over the course of five days, the pair discuss the book, the act of writing, and life the universe and everything. The flippant way of pitching this would be to call it Before Sunset for the bromance crowd. Which would be, in almost equal amounts, both unfair and pretty accurate.
It’s smart, witty and engaging, and very much dialogue-driven. But it’s more melancholy and believable than Richard Linklater’s first Before film. Hopefully The End of the Tour's cult status will grow, just as Wallace's literary reputation has. [Tom Charles]
Dir. Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy
Might the Desperate Optimists (aka writing-directing team Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy) be the best filmmakers working in the UK just now? They’re certainly the most original. With two bracing unconventional feature films under their belts (Helen and Mister John), as well as a string of stunning, community made shorts, they deliver their most experimental work yet: Further Beyond.
It’s an essay film musing on the nature of filmmaking and immigration while juxtaposing the lives of two very different Irish nationals: Ambrose O’Higgins, an Irishman who became Governor of Chile in the 18th century and whom the Desperate Optimists proport to be making a biopic about, and Lawlor’s mother, whose seemingly ordinary life was no less fascinating. Like all of their films, this is playful as a puppy and slippery as an eel. [JD]
Dir. Paul Feig
Achieving the unenviable honour of being “the most hated YouTube trailer of all time,” no film has been as unfairly judged before its release than Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters. The announcement of the film’s all-female cast led to an internet backlash and, for a brief moment, it felt like a “no girls allowed” sign had been plastered on to the Hollywood sign and it was up to Feig to remove it. Thankfully the film was in safe hands, combining Feig’s subversive humour with the mischievous spirit of the original 80s film to create this year's most enjoyable blockbuster. [PG]
A Good American
Dir. Friedrich Moser
We originally wrote about the importance of Austrian documentary filmmaker Friedrich Moser's A Good American when the looming spectre of a Trump presidency was an obscene, almost unbelievable prospect on the horizon.
Now the President-elect has decidedly ushered in an age of unprecedented post-truth and an unimaginable precedent for the shrugging off of all and any level of accountability, Moser’s shocking account on how one man’s meta-data system was perverted into illegal worldwide surveillance – brought about by a climate of near total lack of accountability for baffling incompetence in America’s intelligence agencies – is more pressing than ever. [Rachel Bowles]
Dir. Josh Mond
For whatever reason, Soda Pictures’ late acquisition of 2015 festival hit James White didn’t extend to a theatrical run in UK cinemas. It’s an unfortunate fate for a film that thrives on so many extended sequences of claustrophobic, raw emotion; all the more intense when you can’t pause it to look up how many episodes of Girls that star Christopher Abbott was in before he quit.
Abbott's blazing, brutal performance as the eponymous lead, as well as that of Cynthia Nixon as his cancer-ridden mother, squash any doubts of this being the sort of Sundance landfill that a cursory glance of its logline might indicate. [JS-W]
The Little Prince
Dir. Mark Osborne
Although best known for the first Kung Fu Panda film, over the last 18 months Mark Osborne has been slowly releasing – round most of the world (if not quite all of it) – the film that he ought to be remembered for in the years to come: the latest, sort-of, adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved tale The Little Prince.
Rather than simply retell it, which for some would be unnecessary – no one is going to be a better Fox than Gene Wilder in the 1974 adaptation – he dips into the original tale briefly (via the questionable recollections of a retired pilot) only to then take the source material and imbue it with new life when the Little Girl, as our heroine is billed, is launched into a world she believed to be nothing more than a fairy tale. The images that Osborne conjures up – including one unforgettable sequence with cascading stars flooding a bare night sky – are genuinely magical. [TC]
Dir. Sebastian Silva
It’s not surprising Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby disappeared from UK screens without much fanfare. It’s a tough film to sell. Ostensibly another twee indie about self-absorbed millennials, this tale of a woman’s attempts to have a baby with her gay friends is actually a psychological thriller in disguise.
Silva’s twisted sense of humour and fondness for misdirection leads to an unexpected, and quite shocking twist, transforming this benign comedy into a remarkably self-aware movie about those marginalised by the sprawl of urban gentrification. A timely piece of ‘shock cinema’, Nasty Baby succeeded in leaving audiences angry, confused and very uncomfortable. [PG]
Dir. David Lowery
Disney’s current obsession with live-action revisionist spins or remakes of their animated back catalogue hasn’t exactly produced a wealth of treasures, nor does the immediate future look too promising. But there’s one notable exception among the lot, and it’s one that hardly has much to do with its source material, an only partially-animated film that isn’t widely admired beyond mere nostalgia.
Of course, Pete’s Dragon has been the lowest-grossing of the bunch, though David Lowery’s (surprising) follow-up to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was at least a modestly-budgeted affair, and the modesty extends to its storytelling. Lowery retains only the basic premise of the original (boy named Peter befriends a dragon), and uses it to create a nuanced, understated tearjerker that taps into genuine raw emotion. [JS-W]
A Poem is a Naked Person
Dir. Les Blank
Shot between 1972 and 1974, but unreleased until this year, this free-associative documentary by the late Les Blank follows the atmosphere around the late Leon Russell’s recording studio in Oklahoma. Lakes, fans, roadies, eccentrics, lots of great music and a crazy scene with a snake – this evokes a time and a mood that’s long-past, and riveting beyond explanation. [Ian Mantgani]
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Dir. Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer
“Conner, we've talked about this. Thirty Seconds to Mars is the name of a band. It's not a fact.” This sublimely silly satire of contemporary pop flopped at the box office but it will almost certainly develop a strong cult following in years to come.
Andy Samberg's Conner4Real is the vapid, Bieber-esque star at the centre of the film, but the best moments come from unexpected quarters: Justin Timberlake as a chef with a dream; Seal revealing the secret behind his scars; an escalating set-piece missed because the camera was turned off. Not all of Popstar's jokes land, but this is still the funniest spoof since the similarly undervalued Walk Hard. [PC]
Rattle the Cage
Dir. Majid Al Ansari
Vibrating with a coked-up verve from the very start, Rattle the Cage’s opening scene swoops in to the interior of a run-down police station with two men in the cells and one officer to mind them. The grimy grindhouse ascetic looks ripped from a graphic novel, dialogue is fired back and forth like an automatic weapon and Majid Al Ansari’s camera swaggers through the movie like the guy who knows he’s got the biggest gun in the room. The humour is black, the blood is red and everywhere, and altogether Rattle the Cage makes for one of the best Tarantino films Tarantino didn’t make. [RM]
Dir. Omer Fast
Omer Fast's heady adaptation of Tom McCarthy's cult novel Remainder is swirling with ideas, from the allusive nature of memory to the insidiousness of inner-city gentrification. The mind-bending tale follows an amnesic (Tom Sturridge) who’s obsessing over the few recollections he’s retained since he lost his memory in a freak accident.
Synecdoche, New York-style, he begins to reenact these memories in slavish detail. Fast’s hazy visuals, formed of discombobulating edits and dissolves, convincingly put us inside his heroes damaged psyche, while his expressive use of London as a backdrop gives the film a firm footing in our contemporary world. This is one of the most innovative British films of the year and marks Israeli-born, Berlin-based video artist Fast out as a fascinating new voice in cinema. [JD]
Dir. Ava DuVernay
Oscar-nominated Selma director Ava DuVernay has probably made one of the most important documentaries of the 21st century in 13th. The film takes an in-depth socioeconomic look into how one short clause in the 13th Amendment has allowed for the imprisonment and practical enslavement of African Americans for political and monetary gain, effectively “correcting” the Abolition of slavery, and allowing its ongoing practice today. 13th’s argument, backed up by mind-blowing statistics, is comprehensive and thoroughly engaging, outlining the stark reality of what “tough on crime” really means for millions of Americans. [RB]