It’s been one hell of a year. When looking back over the events of 2016, films might be the very last thing on your mind. But amongst tragedy, political turmoil, and the ongoing collapse of Western civilisation, the cinema screens of the world have provided a few moments of much-needed respite.
Of course, not all has been entirely well in the world of celluloid. Some of the industry’s finest talents have sadly left us this year, including Alan Rickman, Guy Hamilton, Anton Yelchin, Robin Hardy, and Gene Wilder. Meanwhile, the DC Universe, for which hopes had been so high, remains floundering, facing a renewed critical mauling with every entry. And the avalanche of lacklustre sequels and reboots has continued unabated, bringing Ben-Hur, Ghostbusters, Independence Day: Resurgence, and a multitude of others too depressing to name.
Amidst all this, however, a few beacons of light continue to shine through the tumult. In May, director Whit Stillman made a triumphant return with Love and Friendship, a bitingly funny and lavishly decorated adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan. Starring Kate Beckinsale, with supporting appearances by Chloe Sevingy and Stephen Fry, Love and Friendship was a welcome surprise in the dour summer line-up, and a testament to the cinematic potential of Austen’s prose.
Summer also saw the UK release of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, a beautiful and haunting film set in the Amazon rainforest during the early twentieth century. Telling the parallel stories of two western explorers, the film is rooted in a familiar adventure narrative, owing a clear debt to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its many imitators. However, this time the focus is transposed from the outsider to the native point of view, providing an unvarnished perspective on the horrors and barbarity of colonialism. David Gallego’s monochrome photography perfectly captures the tragedy of a civilisation and a people since lost to time.
Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, was another surprising coup which left critics rightly bowled over. A gritty heist film with neo-western inflections, Hell or High Water wisely distinguishes itself with a focus on snappy, amusing dialogue and a cast of genuinely sympathetic characters. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine both provide first-class performances as two men on opposite sides of the law, but equally adrift in declining rural America. A film which reaffirms your faith in old-fashioned, character driven storytelling.
The funniest and most charming movie of the year arrived in the form of Hunt For the Wilderpeople, a distinctively New Zealand-flavoured hit. Directed by Taika Watiti, the darling of kiwi comedy, Wilderpeople pitches screen legend Sam Neill alongside newcomer Julian Dennison, both bringing superb chemistry to a script that deals in equal parts hilarity and pathos. For anyone tired of the vulgarity and excess that characterises much of the modern comedy genre, this film provides a necessarily witty antidote.
It’s also been a great year for documentaries; Ava DuVernay delivered a scathing critique of modern America’s prison-industrial complex in the made-for-Netlifx 13th, while Mat Whitecross’ Supersonic gave a visceral insight into the heights of Britpop. My pick of the bunch, however, would have to be Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s exhaustive take on the heady days of Beatlemania between 1962 and 1966. For Beatles fanatics such as myself, the film is a gratifying tour of songs and characters that have become an essential part of my brain’s wiring. For novice audiences, the heavy use of original concert footage helps to illustrate why those four musicians were such a phenomenon. It may not open your eyes to a great injustice or inspire you to change the world, but as entertainers The Beatles remain unparalleled.
As summer came to a close, films with a greater social consciousness came to the fore. I, Daniel Blake, the Palme D’Or winning drama from Ken Loach, went on general release. The film acts as an enraged indictment of the political status-quo, detailing how the country’s most vulnerable people are being condemned to a precarious and pitiful existence. Paul Laverty’s screenplay is wholly human in both its warmth and its anguish, while the central performances by Dave Johns and Hayley Squires have a painfully clear ring of authenticity. For anyone who wants to understand the impact of austerity politics beyond a series of faceless statistics, I, Daniel Blake will outrage and enlighten you.
If the dreary reality of Ken Loach’s Britain is too much for you, then Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival has an altogether more hopeful outlook. This magnificent sci-fi is imbued with a palpable sense of awe and wonder, but never loses sight of its essentially human heart, anchored to an astonishing centrepiece performance from Amy Adams. After the moribund programme of blockbusters this summer, it is a joy to see mainstream film-making that is ambitious not only in spectacle, but in ideas. Dealing in substantial themes, from personal loss to geopolitical tension, Arrival feels all-too-relevant in the growing uncertainty of today’s world, but does so with an accessible and life-affirming vigour. Villeneuve has emerged as one of the finest and most versatile directors currently working, a reassuring sign for next year’s Blade Runner sequel. You’ll be left with plenty to think about once the credits roll, leaving the cinema on a thoughtful and wholly positive note.
All things considered, then, 2016 hasn’t been a bad year for film-goers. Admittedly, I can’t pretend to have been entirely comprehensive in my praise – a student’s budget can only provide for a limited number of cinema tickets, after all. And of course, at the time of writing, some of the year’s most anticipated pictures are yet to be released, with upcoming titles including the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, and Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence. Yet, as the curtain falls on 2016 and we look forward to another year, it’s becoming increasingly risky to count on anything. As long as they keep making movies, I’ll make do with that.