PART ONE: The Films
For a quick rundown of the nominees, see The Scenealotoffilms Movie Awards 2016: The Nominees. Where I’ve written about films elsewhere I’ve kept the write ups below brief, but you’ll find links to the original articles.
Best film: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a stunning feat, combining a ceaselessly entertaining adventurous spirit with some pretty dark social commentary, as well as virtuoso cinematography and choreography (for more on this see Music of the Movies: Leonard Cohen). Like Room’s Jacob Tremblay, lead Julian Dennison is an instant star, owning the role, capturing sympathies and providing many, many laughs along the way. The film’s influence on me has been so strong that since watching I now habitually refer to hot water bottles as ‘hotties’, just like Ricky Baker’s lovely foster mother. Hunt for the Wilderpeople has recently been added to UK Netflix so if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?
The rest of the competition on this list is so fierce that I still often think about them, some almost daily. I was really pleased to see Mustang nominated for the best film not in the English language BAFTA, along with I, Daniel Blake’s Hayley Squires for best supporting actress.
Best director: Spike Lee, Chi-Raq
Runners up: Brady Corbet, The Childhood of a Leader; Gareth Edwards, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Jim Jarmusch, Paterson; Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
This year, Brady Corbet delivered an astonishing debut. The Childhood of a Leader, though achingly pretentious, is clearly the work of an extremely knowledgeable veteran of film. It gets a little lost in its own ambiguity but is pretty awe-inspiring to behold nonetheless. Unfortunately it was somewhat buried by a limited release.
Gareth Edwards has made my favourite Star Wars movie ever (yes, really). Dispensing with the operatic optimism and hero-building of previous instalments (yes, even the original trilogy, sorry) Edwards took things to a darker and deeper level. To use a Harry Potter analogy, it was like seeing the franchise graduate from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuaron. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is structurally and tonally a grand tragedy, yet it is not without hope, and thankfully Edwards knew better than to omit robot wisecracking.
Both Jarmusch and McCarthy delivered two very different yet superlative examples of expert understated filmmaking. Spotlight bears one unfortunate stumble, Mark Ruffalo’s shouty monologue, which may have cost it my best film gong.
Spike Lee triumphs with a work of startling originality, despite its origins in a classical Greek play. Chi-Raq, like Baz Luhrmann’s ever-overrated Romeo + Juliet, combines verse dialogue (written by Lee rather than directly from the source in this case) and a modern aesthetic, to much greater effect than the earlier film. Best of all, this wildly entertaining tour de force is an eloquent, enraged diatribe on the USA’s gun culture, and it couldn’t be more timely or necessary.
Best screenplay: Adult Life Skills
Runners up: Arrival; Eye in the Sky; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Little Men; Maggie’s Plan; Paterson; Sing Street; Spotlight
Adult Life Skills has a whip-smart, ultra-realistic script which flies from the screen, particularly in scenes between Jodie Whittaker’s Anna and her friend Fiona (Rachael Deering). Their “teenage night out” takes me back for all the wrong reasons but is nonetheless hilarious. Ultimately though, the film is grounded by arcs of emotion and healing, relating not only to the tragedy in Anna’s past but also to the experiences of Clint (Ozzy Myers), the little boy next door. Whittaker and Myers create a bittersweet, sometimes antagonistic but ultimately endearing cross-generational relationship comparable to that portrayed by Dennison and Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
I loved Eye in the Sky and Little Men (also now on Netflix) for their complex exploration of very different ethical issues, and Arrival for its innovation within the scifi genre; it’s not often you see a female-fronted scifi featuring language rather than technology as a character. Although Arrival does have huge global stakes built into its narrative, the really engaging arc was the emotional development expertly played by Amy Adams in a performance that provided stark contrast to her necessarily colder turn in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals.
It was a teary year for me in the cinema, with Arrival, Sing Street and Spotlight provoking the tear ducts.
Best foreign film: Mustang
Runners up: Holding the Man; Our Little Sister
Mustang is the clear winner for me here. The somewhat odd combination of a terrifying issue with hilarious set pieces, all brought to life by an excellent group of young actors who aptly convey sisterhood, was completely entrancing. Mustang intelligently shines a spotlight on an important issue, without sacrificing the joyful entertainment films should provide.
Best British film: Adult Life Skills
As well as an emotive, wickedly funny and well-plotted script and spot-on casting, Rachel Tunnard’s Adult Life Skills is the best example of independent film marketing I saw in 2016. Tunnard and team tirelessly toured the UK, taking Adult Life Skills to a wide range of venues and festivals, and maximised the potential of Twitter to spread word of mouth.
Best documentary: 13th
Runners up: Tickled; Kate Plays Christine
2016 was a great year for documentaries in the cinema.
Tickled, in the vein of the more populist offering from presenter Louis Theroux and director John Dower, My Scientology Movie, is as much about the (often thwarted) process of making a documentary as it is about ostensible subject matter. Tickled, though, had the benefit of being released a couple of months earlier, making Dower’s film look comparatively tired in its approach. (For more meta-documentary, see Houston, We Have a Problem, which played at the London Film Festival). It also helped that Tickled is far more entertaining, less self-indulgent, and has a much stronger argument and narrative thrust than My Scientology Movie, despite the similar wild-goose-chase nature of researching each doc.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th is an astonishingly well-argued film, laying out what could be called a conspiracy theory, but doing it with confidence and subtle historical contextualisation, and ultimately bringing to light an overwhelming body of evidence that is utterly convincing. Kudos to Netflix for giving this important message a widely accessible platform, though I would have loved to see it play in more theatres, where its sleek and impactful graphic design and illuminating soundtrack would have shone even more. It would make a great double bill with Lee’s Chi-Raq.
2016 turkey: Our Kind of Traitor
When the credits rolled on Our Kind of Traitor I questioned why I had bothered to stay to the end. Perhaps its arrival on the silver screen directly following the airing of the BBC’s The Night Manager (both are John Le Carré adaptations) made it look even worse than it is, but further testament to its low quality is my inability to recall the details of character and plot. I remember an exhaustingly boring visual style exclusively featuring shades of grey, terrible and clichéd European accents, and a lank-locked, unconvincing and woefully miscast Ewan McGregor.
400 Days was a similarly frustrating experience; I spent much of the runtime believing promising seeds would actually go somewhere. They didn’t.
Against all evidence I refused to believe Freeheld, starring personal favourites Ellen Page and Julianne Moore, could be bad. How wrong I was.
Most overrated film: Love and Friendship
Runners up: The Danish Girl; Everybody Wants Some!!; Trumbo
Both Love and Friendship and Everybody Wants Some!! have been given far too much credit for cleverness that I just don’t see. Everybody Wants Some!! is a relatively entertaining homosocial college romp, and that’s the charitable interpretation that sees the misogyny as a part of the characters’ world rather than part of the film’s own aesthetic.
In the case of Love and Friendship, all of the film’s joys and successes come from “Lady Susan”, the unfinished Jane Austen novella on which it is based. Whit Stillman’s adaptation neither improves nor lives up to the source, or adds anything to the period drama genre he works within, and to some extent satirises. Chloё Sevigny’s character is merely a clumsy device that allows Stillman to translate the novella’s epistolary form to the screen; Sevigny is cursed with standing around reacting to Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) issue witticisms to which Austen wrote her no response. Stillman could have helped here.
Despite the gift of such an unconventional and controversial character, Love and Friendship’s edges are softened by easy-option adherence to period drama conventions – the music and aesthetic is completely unoriginal.