Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2016 Film & TV: A Year in Review


Yeah, this is going to be a long one. I won't waste time talking here about what this post is meant to achieve because, frankly, it's pretty self-explanatory. So here is the best, worst and weirdest that film and TV in 2016 had to offer.

And, be warned, there will be spoilers.


Film

Best Film - Arrival - Arrival could have come across as pretentious. It could have blown its final act with exposition or sloppy misunderstandings. But it doesn't. It just nails it. Arrival already had me under its spell before it dropped its game changing twist, but that was what sealed the deal. Well, "twist" isn't even the right word. With expert direction and editing, Arrival doesn't just put out a plot twist, it slowly unfolds its astonishing reveal in a steady and confident manner that both sets a new path for all still to come and changes our perspective on all that's come before. It's a thrilling film in countless ways, but none more so than in how it turns expectations against you to form something monumentally moving. When I first saw Arrival, I was speechless. That isn't just a phrase here. If I tried to talk about the film, I would have burst into tears. Arrival worked its way deep into both my head and my heart at the same time, and it's still yet to resurface from either.


Worst Film - Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice - Sure, this seems like the obvious choice, but good God is this just a bad film. In fact, it's an almost uniformly terrible one. 80% of the performances come across as brain dead, the script is hopeless at locating any form of characterisation or emotion, the story is plodding and dull, the visual effects are so overwrought that even the spectacle goes down the drain...the list just goes on. Zack Snyder's Man of Steel follow-up could have been terrific. It could have been wild and epic and awesome, but instead it's a total mess in each and every aspect. Jesse Eisenberg and Amy Adams...you're better than this.

Most Surprising Film - Don't Breathe - In a year where "potential" was the most dangerous thing a film could have, here came Don't Breathe. Not only does it fulfil its promise of being an almost sickeningly intense piece of cinema, but it even manages to up the ante every time we think it has peaked by dropping in new twists and developments (which we'll come to later). There is not one false scare in this film. There are no fake-outs, no dull moments, no chance, in fact, to even stop and consider whether what you're watching is good cinema or not. Don't Breathe has flaws, but when a film can stun you senseless for ninety minutes, it's hardly worth thinking about them.


Most Disappointing Film - Deadpool - Look, I really wanted to like Deadpool. More than that, I wanted to love it, but the film has one significant flaw (as well as countless other minor ones) and it completely prohibits me from enjoying it. Deadpool, a film all about being stupid and silly and goofy, refuses to make fun of itself. This would normally be forgivable, but the film curses this even more with the fact that Deadpool himself breaks the fourth wall. And it still won't joke about itself. It follows the same painful formula as every other superhero origin story, and never jokes about it. It is seemingly clueless of how unoriginal and lazy it's being. There was a chance here for Marvel to have a bit of fun and poke a few jabs at them self, but they refuse. It's tough to laugh at a film that is so intent on acting smug when it's really rather dumb. Marvel had a chance to utilise something completely different, and they threw it all away on sex jokes and swear words.

Best Film Performance - Amy Adams (Arrival) - I've already talked about why Arrival is the best film of the year, now I get to talk about one of the people who made that possible: Amy Adams. Louise Banks is not an easy character to portray. On your initial viewing it's probably easy to be indifferent towards Adams' performance during the first half of the film, but the nature of its endgame turns that against you: the second viewing is where you come to realise Adams' brilliance in Arrival. Her loneliness in the opening scene, her confusion over the "flashbacks", her interactions with her daughter in her memories. It all changes on the second viewing, and the way Adams tells Louise's confusion and emotional fragility on her face and with her words is mesmerising. Arrival features spaceships the size of towers and aliens unlike any cinema has seen before, but it's the human face we come away remembering.

Best Film Character - Moana Waialiki (Moana) - I'm not a massive lover of Disney and their pantheon of "Princess Films", but Moana is one that truly stands out from the crowd. It's a pretty spectacular film for a number of reasons, but none more so than its title character. Moana herself is a complex, thoughtful individual who carries an entire journey on her shoulders in a powerful and deeply moving way. She is torn between a life of tradition that she finds great joy and pride in, or the chance of returning her beloved island to its roots that she happens to connect with. Moana is not your standard misunderstood child, she is deeply loved and respected and she enjoys her life, which makes her thoughts and decisions infinitely more interesting and complex. She wants to learn and become a more well rounded person, but for the sake of independence and self-fulfilment rather than pleasing a family or forming an identity - she has both of those already. Moana as a film would fall apart without Moana as a character, and that's exactly what a good story should be.


Best Film Scene - Louise and Costello (Arrival) - At the end of the second act of the year's best film came the year's best film sequence. After some scared soldiers have made a mess of a big situation, Louise takes it upon herself to put things right. She goes to the aliens, and they welcome her. And then, using all of the build up from the film thus far, we watch as Louise and Costello (as Ian named the creature) primitively talk together with what they know of each other's language. As well as being a brilliant spectacle in its own right (watching humanity converse with an alien species is just endlessly fascinating, and the film depicts this well), it's also the sequence that drops a number of the film's big reveals: here we learn that the Heptapods only came to Earth for help; we learn that they are able to see the future; we learn the truth as to how their language really works; and, most importantly, we get our first sign that Louise's memories aren't coming from where we think they are. Everything that follows this scene is essentially faultless, but the moment that it all begins is the one you'll never, ever forget.

Most Intense Moment - Entire Middle Act (Don't Breathe) - Don't Breathe gets off to a quick start, heading into the blind man's house within moments. Its final act is also pretty great; it may feel a little unsure of itself in its very final moments, but that dog sequence is all kinds of scary. Where Don't Breathe peaks though? The entire middle act. An hour or so of unrelenting intensity that had people around me cowering in their seat, swearing under their breath and screaming out loud. Don't Breath perfectly embodies the notion that simple stories can be the most effective, and its second act uses this to such an extent that it borders on unwatchable. I don't know how this film will hold up when watched on DVD at home in the daytime, but in a darkened cinema where you cannot escape what you're watching, this is damn effective stuff.

Saddest Moment - Improv Break-Up (Don't Think Twice) - Mike Birbiglia's second directorial feature was a lot more thoughtful than many expected it to be. It probably packs more big laughs than most mainstream comedies this year, but what pushes the film into greatness is its ability to tackle a pretty wide-ranging theme in a deeply personal way. It mostly looks at fame and how success can be sometimes damaging for those around you, and it embodies this to heartbreaking effect in the film's strongest sequence. Sam begins her group's traditional improv routine that we've seen many times across the film, but this time she's alone. While trying to tell an improvised story of being stuck in a well, she is joined on stage by her now-famous boyfriend Jack. They both know that their relationship can no longer work, and Sam essentially calls the whole thing off through her performance with him, even as he tries to change her mind. Gillian Jacobs' performance here is exceptionally delicate, turning a tricky scene into something very clever but also deeply sad.


Funniest Moment - Psycho Sam (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) - The one film of the year that does pack more laughs than Don't Think Twice, though? Hunt for the Wilderpeople. One of the year's very best, Taika Waititi's adventure-comedy is so consistently funny that it's tough to recall every joke even after multiple viewings. After a delightful opening half, the film peaks in its home stretch with Psycho Sam - a man convinced the government is spying on him, so he lives in the wilderness dressed as a bush. When the Police approach his house, knowing that Hec and Ricky are inside, he essentially goes madder than ever, charging around the place convinced he can help them when, really, he's clueless. Wait what's that? A jetpack? Oh no, he doesn't actually have a jetpack. "I've got an underground bunker!" he suddenly remembers. Oh no, he hasn't built it yet. His next suggestion? "Pretend to be dead!", before throwing himself against the floor in determination. It's utterly bonkers, but absolutely hilarious.


Weirdest Moment - Necrophilia (The Neon Demon) - In what may be the most polarising film of the year, Nicolas Winding Refn's latest feature pushed the boundaries as to what we can expect from him. Drive and Only God Forgives are both gleefully violent, but The Neon Demon dares further and aims higher. It's a visual masterclass, there's no doubting that, but when the film finds something of a fascination with dead bodies it becomes pretty weird and rather sickening indeed. Ruby, still fantasising over Jesse, goes to the morgue in which she works (at the dead of night), and has sex with the corpse lying naked on the table. It's a twisted enough scene as it is, but the way Refn uses close ups to fully show each detail of Ruby's actions push it into vulgarity, only to be brought back down to something disturbingly fascinating through its editing, lighting and that killer soundtrack. The Neon Demon is stunning to look at, and the fact that it can turn a scene of this nature into something artful is testament to its dedication to its own sick, twisted little fantasy.

Scariest Moment - Satan's Book (The Witch) - I have always been a big believer in the less-is-more approach to horror, and no film made that style work like The Witch. The film's opening hour is almost entirely devoid of conventional scares - there are no jumps or demons or anything - yet it builds an uneasy sense of dread with its horrifying imagery. When it reaches its endgame, and Thomasin is the only member of of her family left, she comes face to face with Satan, who has been hiding amongst her family. Except, we don't get to see him. His deep, raspy voice invites Thomasin to sign his book and pledge herself to him, and the look on her face says more than any shot of Satan himself ever could. The scene is effectively little more than someone asking for an autograph, but it burrows deep under your skin in a profound way and forms something you will never forget no matter how much you might want to. It feels like watching something you shouldn't be allowed to see.


Best Soundtrack - Drive It Like You Stole It (Sing Street) - Sing Street may not pack the memorable melodies of La La Land, or the inspired nature of Moana, but this film has the advantage of its songs being diegetic. The songs actually exist within the world of the film and its characters. "Drive It Like You Stole It" is a pretty great song regardless of where it came from, but the way its sound so perfectly captures the amateurish nature of the film's teenage characters and the way they develop and grow across the film is what makes it so wonderful. It's fun and catchy and enjoyable, but just one listen to it and you get to relive that entire journey all over again across three glorious minutes.

Best Plot Twist - The Girl in the Cellar (Don't Breathe) - Like I've already said here, Don't Breathe is a terrific film. Sometimes, films with brilliant premises attempt to make themselves more than the sum of their parts (much like The Shallows) and they end up losing track of what they should really be. Don't Breathe, with a killer twist in its middle act, demonstrates just how to do this. It sets up a premise, kicks the action off, introduces an entirely new element, but then it retains the focus on the base premise without losing track of it. When the woman in the basement is revealed it has the potential to throw the whole thing off balance, but Don't Breathe understands how effective its simplicity is, and never overcomplicates itself. The twist itself evolves across the film and even comes full circle, which leads to one of the film's most horrific visuals. This little twist didn't need to be in the film, but it enriches it a whole lot.


Positive Ranking Tally

Arrival - 3
Don't Breathe - 3
Moana - 1
Don't Think Twice - 1
Hunt for the Wilderpeople - 1
The Neon Demon - 1
The Witch - 1
Sing Street - 1


Television

Best TV Series - Westworld (Season One) - Westworld really could've gone either way. The show's whole debut season hinges on the promise of more to come, and it's easy to get the impression that this is just a fraction of the story the show intends to tell. But it's just endlessly captivating. The performances are all on the money, the cinematography is perfectly calculated, the characters grow and evolve nicely and the sheer spectacle of it all is astounding. It would've been very easy for Westworld to crumble under the weight of what it wanted to achieve, but it charges through the flames with confidence. It wasn't the most action-packed season of TV, but it knew exactly what it wanted to be and had no issues in just going out and being exactly that. Westworld ended with a lot of hints that its next year will be even bigger and bolder, and if that's the case, bring it on.


Best TV Episode - San Junipero (Black Mirror) - For a show filled with morbid endings and depressing statements, a happy ending can be little more than a refreshing and gimmicky shake up. Not for Black Mirror. For Black Mirror, it means the best episode of the entire show. "San Junipero" unfolds slowly, dropping little teases and moments that don't add up, but it so effectively ropes you into the love story between Yorkie and Kelly in 1987 that you'll happily forgive its slow burn. Then, when the hints start to escalate, "San Junipero" just jumps into its reveal, and you suddenly see everything differently. Your views on characters change, your hopes for the ending are smashed. You start to think that nothing will ever be happy for these two wonderful characters. But then, everything turns out OK. Everyone is happy. Just this once, everything comes together in the nicest way. "San Junipero" offers an ending that is both heartbreaking and uplifting, and it strikes that balance perfectly. Try not to get a lump in your throat when the ending finally becomes fully clear. I dare you.


Most Surprising TV Series - The Missing (Season Two) - After a solid if uninspired first season, The Missing launched back on BBC1 just a few months ago. From the first sequence alone, it was clear that things were different this time. The cinematography was colder and harsher, the characters were more interesting and original, the story found a refreshing spin on the child abduction theme, the performances were all award worthy in their own ways. As the series developed, twists and turns were dropped in every episode while new layers were stacked up high, but it never lost focus. Wrapping in a fantastically unpredictable finale that refused to take any easy way out, The Missing's superb second season transcended every pretty average bar set by its first year and, for the first real time, there was a threat to Broadchurch's seemingly irreplaceable crown.

Most Disappointing TV Series - Mr Robot (Season Two) - Things started well for Mr Robot in its first year. It isn't even that the show's second season was bad (in fact, it's home to the show's two strongest episodes to date), it's just that it has no direction and meanders and stalls for so long that it becomes impossible to take seriously. Mr Robot, despite its visual quirks and fun experimentation, is a dark show at its core. To fully buy into that we need to take it seriously, and when stories show no signs of ever advancing and characters refuse to serve up information that any normal human being would, it's a pretty tough ask on behalf of the show. Flashes of greatness can't save a woefully uneven season of Mr Robot from landing nowhere near the consistent highs of the one that came before it.

Best TV Performance - Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) - Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won the Best Comedy Actress Emmy five years in a row. Coincidentally, Veep has been on air for five years. In short, she's won the award for every season of the show, and it isn't tough to understand why. Dreyfus just gets Selina Meyer. She understands her perfectly. There are other moments that define her character more intricately (see the "Mother" section coming up later), but to fully appreciate the magnificence of Dreyfus in this role you need look no further than season five's penultimate episode "Kissing Your Sister". Staging a one-episode mockumentary was a genius move for the show, and the interviews with Selina show so much more than just what's on the surface, even if that's all Selina wants to appear. Her subtle hand gestures, her expressive facial movements, her body language - everything invites so much reading as to who Selina is behind the Presidential facade, and Dreyfus does all of this with pin-point comic timing. There are simply no words for how good she is in this role.


Best TV Character - Selina Meyer (Veep) - What makes Veep such a special show in the first place is Selina Meyer as a character. She's always been a cold, ruthless woman that knows how to get things done even if her and her team fumble their way to the finish line, but the show's fifth season found ways to take us even further into her personality. We see all the biggest moments of Selina's life thus far: we watch the bizarre clash of emotions as her mother dies the same day she catches up in the election recount; we see her fight against the connotations that come with calling a woman the C-word in the aptly titled "C**tgate"; we sit by as her race for the Presidency falls apart in a day. Selina is an icy character, but the softer side to her shines through just enough for us to still like her. After losing the Presidency she accidentally stumbles across a White House tour, and the greetings from her supporters overflow her with emotion. But Selina can't show that. That's not who Selina is. She may not be the nicest character on a comedy show, but she is balanced with nuance, precision and a masterful delicacy.

Best TV Scene - King's Landing ("The Winds of Winter" - Game of Thrones) - Look, this wasn't Game of Thrones' best year. The pacing was all off, the episodes were uneven, and the characters just weren't as exciting. But, even at its worst, Game of Thrones is still riveting television, and the opening half hour of its latest season finale goes a long way to prove that. Things fall off course a bit after we leave King's Landing, but for as long as we're there, "The Winds of Winter" is exceptional. The editing, acting, visual effects, music, cinematography and pacing were on top form here - after two seasons of build up, Cersei had her moment. Wiping out a pretty hefty chunk of the show's main cast and obliterating stories in the middle of their development, Game of Thrones felt like it had momentum again. It wasn't a perfect finale, but this was a perfect scene - the best that the year had to offer.

Most Intense Moment - Phalanx ("Battle of the Bastards" - Game of Thrones) - As well as the perfection of the King's Landing sequence, Game of Thrones offered another masterful television moment in the season's penultimate episode. The Battle of the Bastards was always going to be great, but no one could really have predicted that it would be this great. The King's Landing sequence showcases Game of Thrones as intricate and methodical television, but the Phalanx sequence in "Battle of the Bastards" shows us just how exhilarating the show can be too. With Jon Snow and his army trapped inside a circular shield of enemies, his allies panic. As he tries to rally them, they charge in every direction, knocking him to the ground amid a sea of corpses. In Game of Thrones, no one is safe, and the show has never used that to its advantage better than it does here. If you managed to get one breath in while Jon Snow fought for his life in the middle of this battle, then you're probably not even human.


Saddest Moment - Maeve's Walk ("The Adversary" - Westworld) - Westworld as a show tackled countless different emotions and experiences in its first season alone, but no sequence from the show was more memorable than when Maeve walked through Westworld's tech rooms while fully conscious for the first time. She suddenly accepted that her life wasn't real, she understood everything now. The way Thandie Newton demonstrates Maeve's emotional overflow on her face is astounding, but the fact that Maeve has to act indifferent to everything in order to not give herself away breaks your heart. Her quick, subtle glances to technologies she doesn't understand, her traumatising looks towards people she's known in a whole other life. It's a devastating scene that boasts the strongest piece of acting from the show's whole freshman season. If Newton doesn't get any awards of this sequence, there is no justice in this world.

Funniest Moment - Eulogy ("Mother" - Veep) - The funniest moment that television offered in 2016 comes in a funeral. Yup, it can only be Veep. Selina's mother suffers a stroke, and she's reluctant to visit the hospital. She does though. I mean, she's the President, she kinda has to. Then her mother sadly passes away, and minutes later Selina discovers that she's gaining Electoral votes in the recount. When the funeral arrives, though, she discovers that they celebrated too soon and she's lost the Popular vote - right as she has to give her mother's eulogy. She essentially breaks down on the podium, her team sobbing in the seats before her, and the entire party watches her crying while assuming she's mourning her mother. The truth is, we don't fully know what made Selina cry. It could have been her mother, it could have been the votes, it could have been both. Whichever it is, it's hilarious. Dreyfus sells every beat as Selina slowly loses control of her emotions, and eventually just tells her daughter to "play that Tim McGraw song". It shows Veep's jet black heart at its darkest, but boy is it funny.

Weirdest Moment - Bloody Threesome ("Good and Evil Braided Be" - Penny Dreadful) - Penny Dreadful served up a bunch of weird moments across its three years, but none more so than one of the climactic (literally) scenes from season three, episode three. Dorian Gray and Lily have recruited a suffering sex worker into helping them, and their way to celebrate their success? Three way sex, with all of them (and the bed!) coated in blood. And I mean coated. Even after they're done, they just...sit up, and chat. Coated in blood. I can't really sell just how weird the whole thing was, but that was part of what made Penny Dreadful such a great series - it took on classic, classy literature, and threw it into a world where there were no limits. It was a bizarre little sequence, but a wholly captivating one.


Scariest Moment - Dracula ("The Day Tennyson Died" - Penny Dreadful) - This sequence is, in fact, kind of similar to what occupied this slot in the Film section. The Dracula reveal at the end of Penny Dreadful's third and final season premiere is played through eerie framing and dialogue from an off-screen presence. As Renfield - in a truly terrific performance from Samuel Barnett - looks up in fear at the man standing over him, we finally hear the words. "Give me your neck. Give me your throat. Give me your blood. My name, is Dracula". The horrifying simplicity of the words is astounding, coupled with the shaky camera slowly tracking towards Renfield's face as a shadow begins to rise over him. The episode cuts to black before we can see anything gruesome, but that just makes it all the more frightening. Dracula was always an inevitability for the show, but no-one predicted his arrival would be as unforgettably scary as this.

Best Soundtrack - "Light of the Seven" (Game of Thrones) - I've already given this piece of music a passing mention while discussing the best TV sequence of the year, but now we can go into detail about arguably the biggest factor in why it's such a great scene. Piano music is rarely heard in Game of Thrones - the show makes use of string instruments and horns and big crashing drums - but for the first time, composer Ramin Djawadi went for the keys. Using nothing more than a piano and some haunting wordless vocals, he crafted a piece of music that tells a story in itself. The way it repeatedly builds to a crescendo and then pulls back again, the way the tempo increases and decreases almost constantly, the way the instruments and the vocals feel separate at first but soon combine in the track's final moments. It's a hauntingly beautiful piece of music, and something that the show will - and, arguably, should - never come close to again.

Best Plot Twist - Arnold ("The Well-Tempered Clavier" - Westworld) - The mystery of who Arnold was haunted Westworld from the very first episode. All we knew is that he helped create the park, but died and left Ford to continue their work alone. Many speculated that Arnold was still alive, perhaps he was the Man in Black. Finally, in the first season's penultimate episode, Westworld dropped the truth - Arnold did indeed die right when we were told, but we've been seeing him all along. Bernard, a character who'd already been through so much stuff that we all kind of subconsciously decided his trauma was over and done with, was modelled on Bernard. Oh, and the season's early sequences of Delores talking to Bernard? Nah, she was talking to Arnold the whole time. Westworld walked a dangerously fine line with this twist, but perfectly executed it: it was shocking and entirely unpredictable, but it never feels insulting and never contradicts anything else the show has told us. It is the perfect narrative twist that both reshapes the past and starts to define a brand new future.


Positive Ranking Tally

Westworld - 3
Veep - 3
Game of Thrones - 3
Penny Dreadful - 2
Black Mirror - 1
The Missing - 1

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