Films just wanna have fun, oh, films just wanna have…
Hold tight, folks. Today is the day and this is the article. For the past 3 days we have been counting down My Top 20 Films of 2016, a year that may have been a waking nightmare that couldn’t even be bothered to take Christmas off but was at least a quietly great one for movies. On Wednesday, we counted down #20 to #11, and on Thursday, we counted down #10 to #6. If you missed those pieces or need a refresher, you can get your fill of both at the links provided. Before we move on, however, I want to make a quick note about the Top 2 entries: I toyed for almost a full week with putting them both at joint 1st. They’re not only near-identical in raw quality, they’re also surprisingly complimentary films that play as a wonderful catharsis to the year we have just had. Basically nothing separates them, but in the end, for the sanctity of the Top list, I put them in the positions you will eventually see them in. This was the closest year ever for my whole Top 5, and I just wanted that on record.
Right, that’s done. No more mucking about. The Top 5 begins now with AAAAH-WHAM BAM, THANK YOU, MAM!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Dirs: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Star: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan (voices)
I come up with a lot of weird comparisons and similes in my various critiques and writings, as long-time followers of my work will be able to attest. I have called the Shrek series pop punk, wrote a line in my Third Year Short Film project where a character negatively compared the protagonist to Amy Poehler in Sisters, but my personal favourite is when I called Anomalisa the Pinkerton of movies. Yes, Weezer’s classic 1996 album Pinkerton. Let me explain. Pinkerton is a really uncomfortable and oftentimes creepy listen, a dive into the worst most barely-repressed-misogynistic and glorifying-Orientalist elements of a young Rivers Cuomo’s brain. But, and this is what makes the album excellent (in addition to it being loaded with killer hooks and great songwriting), it’s never anything less than brutally honest. It doesn’t glorify, it doesn’t excuse – even the album’s centrepiece emotional breakthrough, “Across the Sea,” feels like a justified anger yet one that is never capitalised on by Cuomo, hence how he ends the album alone again due to not learning from his prior mistakes – it mostly just presents.
Because, the fact is, and this may actually reveal more about me than it does anyone else – and get ready for a lot of that in the next set of entries since we’ve hit that part of the countdown – these sorts of thoughts are not solely the domain of Rivers Cuomo. Many of us feel an aching, painful loneliness, an inability to form strong connections with anybody, and some manifest that loneliness in self-destructive and unpleasant ways that create a vicious self-fulfilling cycle. This is something that I have been guilty of doing throughout the years, particularly as a result of my crippling anxiety and depression, of moving through life on somewhat friendly terms with most of the people that I interact with but feeling at a distance from them to some degree, longing for a connection that never seems to come. And we are all guilty to some degree of idolising those we do find a connection with, particularly if they are separated from us for great periods of time or if we never physically met them in the first place. We wipe away or forget their flaws and foibles and build them up as some kind of model of exceptionalism for reasons we can never fully articulate but believe in the moment to be true.
Now, in the wrong hands, this kind of material can go horrifically wrong. There’s an impulse in many writers and filmmakers to have their characters learn something by the end, or to make us sympathise with people like Michael Stone, to the detriment of the story being told; in this case, turning the film into a romantic tragedy that treats Sad White Man Midlife Crisis as a perfectly normal and acceptable thing that is romanticised in some way. Charlie Kaufman, however, has always been smarter than that. He’s built his career on walking this fine line, of depicting complex and often cruel emotions without ever endorsing or asking us to sympathise with those experiencing them, and Anomalisa, based on his 2005 play of the same name, may be his crowning achievement in that field. Anomalisa is a major yet quietly uncomfortable watch, a deep-dive into the brain of an incredibly lonely and depressed man incapable of connecting with anybody (least of all his own wife and son) that hits raw emotional nerves and resonances that we don’t like to acknowledge are a part of us, yet asks us to neither sympathise with or pity him. For whilst we may understand his behaviour, that does not excuse it.
Anomalisa is funny one moment, deeply uncomfortable the next, strangely sweet the one after that, crushingly miserable by the end, but always brutally honest. Michael Stone does not have some kind of epiphany, he does not follow through on his plans to run away with Lisa Hesselman, and he does not manage to overcome his Fregoli Delusion – which, whilst a real mental illness, works here as more of a metaphor for general disillusionment and isolationism – and discover a new appreciation for the life, wife, and friends that he has. To do so would be to go against the character of Michael Stone, a man who has trapped himself in this spiral for over a decade and has shown no compunction to pull himself out of it in any way, preferring instead to pine over lost loves and some kind of unrealistic and quietly-misogynistic ideal of the perfect woman. His isolation is as much of his own doing as it is any outside or mental health reasons, and his inability to realise and accept that is what leads to his breakdown as the film and Kaufman watch on coldly, uncaring.
Pinkerton and Anomalisa both deal head-on with those kinds of thoughts and feelings. Both recognise that, as much as we try to deny them, they are a part of us and that that’s OK as long as we learn from and deal with them. For when we don’t, we end up like Rivers Cuomo or Michael Stone; sat, alone, in a pit of despair of our own making, deeply unpleasant.
(As to why Anomalisa is on this list despite technically being a 2015 movie: it was released in 4 theatres in America on December 30th of last year just before the weekend in order to qualify it for awards eligibility. Because of the restrictiveness of that first release, with even many opening weekend American viewers not getting to see it until the start of January, I have made this one and only exception to my usually-ironclad rules.)
04] The Edge of Seventeen
Dir: Kelly Fremon Craig
Star: Hailee Steinfeld, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick
Depression sucks. That constant crushing malaise that follows you around every day and starts making you confuse thought with feeling, bears down on your self-belief, curdles your mood into something permanently bitter, and locks you into a self-perpetuating cycle that can keep you at arm’s length from all other people despite your wishes. After all, self-loathing is one of the meanest tricks in depression’s arsenal, and living with it for long enough makes it hard to see a life without it. Depression is not all you are, but at a certain point, after living with it for so long and finding it so tied into your personality along with its many effects, you may start to believe that it is, and the idea of there being a version of you not influenced by your depression sounds alternately inconceivable or terrifying to you. Well, at least to me, anyway, since I can only talk about my personal experiences with it.
It’s even worse when you’re a teenager, the point in your life when you’re supposedly supposed to “find yourself” or some other such garbage, and it’s The Worst when you’re going through it in High School and that aforementioned self-loathing and “difficultness” is only solidifying that crushing loneliness. The Edge of Seventeen is another example of a recent crop of films and television shows – namely Christine, BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst, Anomalisa to an extent – that are trying to realise depression in honest, unflinching, but not miserablist ways, and it’s an absolute delight to watch. Bitingly witty, incredibly funny, quietly sad and melancholy, and purposefully insular, it’s a film that looks at depression in a way that is both universal and specific to the adolescent experience. That period and place in your life where social interactions really do mean the world, where friendships can break down over the pettiest of things that instead do feel like The Most Important Thing Ever, and where its seeming never-ending nature only exacerbates the problem and drives one down ever further into that pit.
But writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, like all of the best depictions of depression, recognises that whilst depression may be a reason as to why somebody acts like an arsehole, it’s not an acceptable excuse for their doing so. Craig sympathises fully with Nadine – the film is too specific in its details and many individual scenes, such as Nadine’s aborted attempts to fit in at a party or Mona’s blatant favouritism towards Damian or the absolute terror that comes from Nadine’s accidental sending of her sext to Nick, for it to not be sympathetic to its main character – but she’s also unafraid to call out Nadine on her shit. Her struggle with a deeply-rooted self-loathing, the depths of which make themselves painfully clear as she vomits out some excess alcohol during a bender with her only friend, Krista, is real and needs treating. But it also manifests itself in a combative self-absorption that, when she’s not letting the self-loathing shut down any attempts at reaching out to strangers, drives away anybody who already knows her and wants to help her, over the tiniest slight. It’s a trait that runs through the Franklin household, and their shared epiphanies during the final 15 minutes, paying off character arcs that have been running through the whole film despite varying amounts of screen-time for all 3, are some of the most cathartic cinema I’ve seen all year.
The thing is, The Edge of Seventeen walks along a very thin tightrope. It’s a film about teenage depression and self-loathing, of isolation and desire, and feelings of lovelessness and uncertainty, that grounds all of its big moments in a startling realism and believability – the entire fairground sequence with Nadine and Erwin is probably the crown-jewel of this – that I found myself effectively watching back segments of my time in Secondary School, only with the people I knew replaced by startlingly-good-looking actors and actresses (I’m pretty sure that God herself chiselled Blake Jenner’s face out of the finest marble one can acquire DEAR LORD). But it’s also set in The American High School Movie, with the aforementioned startlingly-good-looking actors and actresses, large expensive houses (lampshaded as a plot point), and the kind of ending that’s super-neat and crowdpleasing. Yet the two parts don’t end up contradicting or undercutting one another. It’s a film that sits at the intersection between “realist” and “escapist,” putting in just the right amount of the latter to not dilute the former and avoid any kind of condescension. I got to sit there and watch these recreations of my incredibly awkward and often miserable teenage years have some kind of happy ending, rather than the messy or unresolved endings I had to experience.
More than that, though, The Edge of Seventeen provided a sort of hope for my life dealing with depression going forward. I saw it shortly after I began proper treatment for my depression, just as I had one of my few breakthroughs up to now, and to watch a film that so clearly understood my condition, presented it intelligently, and then non-condescendingly told me that things will in fact get better given time and treatment… It was genuinely hopeful, because it provided the kind of escapism that’s not too removed from reality – well, excepting giant backyard swimming pools – and never felt insincere or like I was being talked down to. I plan to watch it constantly when it finally makes it to home media.
03] 10 Cloverfield Lane
Dir: Dan Trachtenberg
Star: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr.
Last October, I watched Denis Villenueve’s Sicario, an absolutely fantastic, bleak-as-hell thriller that I named my #5 Film of 2015. After watching Sicario for the first time, I left the cinema shaking uncontrollably, utterly drained, and on-edge as a result of what I had just witnessed. I basically hadn’t breathed properly for the entire two-hour runtime of that film. It was the first time in a long while that such a thing had happened to me, not even Mad Max: Fury Road managed it (albeit due to that just being too much goddamn fun), and I was confident that I wasn’t going to feel that kind of reaction again for a long while. Barely 6 months later, I walked out of the conclusion of 10 Cloverfield Lane with the exact same feeling. I was barely able to form coherent thoughts about it towards the two friends I had seen it with, mostly settling for repeating “WOW!” and “RIGHT?” over and over again like that one DJ Kool track.
10 Cloverfield Lane, much like its spiritual predecessor, is a small-scale masterwork. An unbearably tense, gripping, intelligent, claustrophobic thriller with a streak of vitally-relevant social commentary running underneath its already phenomenal surface. Dan Trachtenberg, in his debut feature no less, proves himself to be an absolute pro at crafting and slowly ratcheting up tension. Hitchcock is the name that has most obviously been bandied about the place for comparisons, but the director I found he most taps into the spirit of is that of Steven Spielberg circa War of the Worlds and even elements of Munich, and not just because that’s exactly where Bear McCreary’s score has most obviously been nicking its influences from. That same silent stylishness, that same ability to properly hem the viewer into these tight spaces and make them feel suffocated, that same ability to quietly draw your attention to the volatile elements of a scene long before they explode, and all without losing the heart of its protagonist and devolving into nothing more than a well-done technical exercise.
That heart could not have been better personified by anyone other than Mary Elizabeth Winstead, one of our finest actresses and here getting her “Sigourney Weaver in Alien” moment. What makes Michelle so exceptional a heroine is just how unexceptional she is, at the risk of sounding like I’m damning with faint praise. She’s stricken with Bystander Effect, brought upon as a result of a childhood filled with abuse, and begins the film fleeing from her relationship with her fiancé, but otherwise she’s mostly just a woman stuck in the premise of the film. What makes her a near-revelation, however, is her constant pragmatism and agency. At almost no point do we see Michelle fully and blindly accepting her fate. She’s always scheming, always questioning, always investigating, always trying to wrest control of her life (and consequently the narrative) away from Howard, since her successfully doing so will be the only time that she is genuinely safe. That kind of resistance, of dimension, in a female character is so rare in this sort of genre, yet it immediately re-energises the whole concept as a result.
Of course, doing so was also required, since the film happens to be just as complex and respectful at handling the theme of abuse, both domestic and implied-sexual, as the actual straightforward abuse-drama that was released in the UK this year. The absolute tour-de-force performance by John Goodman – by far the best performance given by any actor or actress this year – as Howard, by turns utterly terrifying and weirdly pitiable yet always commanding and convincing, of course is the biggest part of that. But one can’t discount the work put in by the set designers for Howard’s bunker, playing up nostalgic desires to reach back to early-50s American Suburbia as quietly unsettling personifications of a regressive and oppressive familial dynamic. And it’s also there in the controversial final 20 minutes, because the spectres of abuse don’t stop chasing the victim around once they’ve escaped captivity, with the only way to attempt to banish them being to turn and fight of one’s own volition. Such a thematic undercurrent also runs in parallel to the film’s commentary on modern American fears and anxieties, much like the original Cloverfield managed – which I talked about before here, and is the reason why this entry is a bit more scattershot and surface-level than the others in this series.
The original Cloverfield is unfairly remembered more for its genius-level secrecy-filled viral marketing campaign than for the film itself. Even with its surprise announcement nature, cleverly pulling the inverse of the original film’s marketing plan, nobody is going to remember 10 Cloverfield Lane as anything other than a brilliant film in its own right. Watching it is too damn intense of an experience to forget so easily, and it’s one hell of a calling card for Dan Trachtenberg, whom I can’t wait to see bigger (and perhaps even better) things from.
Dirs: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Star: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba (voices)
Back in March, I was on an episode of The Failed Critics Podcast discussing Zootopia, which I had seen before anybody else on there due to advanced screenings. I was diving deep into the film: praising it to high Heaven for its nuanced takes on racism and discrimination, of how those in power stoke up the fires of racism through selective wording and subtle propaganda to keep minorities down, how the film references the CIA-aided Crack Epidemic of the mid-80s as a key plot point, how it is willing to examine how we are all discriminatory even if we believe that we are somehow more-enlightened than that, how it holds its protagonist firmly to account for her own bullshit repeatedly and without blinking from the consequences, how it refuses to end completely cleanly or boil down its themes to something simplistic and reductive… Really going in on this thing, basically. Near the end of the segment, Owen (co-host of the pod and editor of the site) stopped me and asked the question that almost always accompanies deep analytical discussions of family-focussed animated movies:
“OK, but will kids get any of this?”
At the time, I went off on one, because I am firmly of the belief that animated films should not only be for kids, should not be judged purely on the strength of whether kids will like them or not, and that they’re way smarter than most adults give them credit for anyway. But, with the benefit of hindsight and distance, I can understand where he was coming from, albeit from a different angle. One of the most frequent reactions that Zootopia tends to get is that of shock because, “Wait, Disney made this?!” and even with their recent absurd slightly-experimental hot streak, a film like this still seems out of the blue for them. Did Disney, Disney of all companies, really utilise the formula of a talking animal movie as a vehicle for sneaking nuanced, intelligent, and vital commentary on race relations under everyone’s noses, hopefully better educating the next generation on the true face of bigotry in the process?
Well, yeah, turns out they did. The thing is, Zootopia is a great film anyway – it is riotously funny, legitimately thrilling, has loveable characters and one of the best platonic friendships I’ve seen in Film in years, and quietly stellar and clever animation – but it’s a phenomenal film, and no exaggeration the best thing that Walt Disney Animation Studios have ever done, because it is always in control of, and never once shies away from following all the way through on, those themes of racial intolerance and discrimination. Lesser films would put this kind of thing as a subtext that you’re either not supposed to think about or that the people making the film didn’t think much about (or both in the case of The Angry Birds Movie), or would paint the discrimination as only coming from cartoonishly hateful bigots that are so unrealistic as to dilute the power and implications of racism and discrimination, or would completely ignore whatever instances in which the main protagonist slips up and resultantly end up massively hypocritical.
As you may have gathered, Zootopia is so good precisely because it does none of those things. Zootopia understands that all of us are in some way inherently prejudiced, because we live and have matured in a prejudiced society, and that this fact does not necessarily make us bad people. What makes a difference is how we react to being called out on that fact. Do we step back and recognise that our instinctive reaction to taking around a Fox Spray on our daily grind, or pulling our child away from the friendly lion that has done nothing more than taken a seat next to us on the tram, or how our stating “the facts of the case” does not excuse espousing the same racist rhetoric that gets Predators treated like dangerous second-class citizens and stirs up hateful resentment, is all wrong and that we need to take steps to better ourselves? Or do we try and defensively deny our wrongdoing through weak excuses that only make things worse and keep these societal constructs in place?
Given the year that we have had – with Fascism riding higher than it has in a good 5 decades, this recent large-scale intensity coming from decades of insidious, subliminal, and even accidental normalisation of less blatant forms of racism and discrimination – a film like Zootopia, with the intelligence and openness and willingness to address these issues in a mature and thoughtful manner, is more vital than ever, particularly with regards to educating the next generation. Really, we should be less shocked that Disney made this and more shocked that actual adult dramas about this stuff aren’t aiming for this level.
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Star: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
It is almost impossible for a film to deliberately compliment or contrast the state of the world when it finally gets released into theatres for the public to see. The filmmaking process, particularly any film with a budget bigger than that of a schoolgirl’s pick-n-mix allowance, is too big, too complicated, too slow, and has too many moving parts to be able to do that. But although it’s near-impossible to deliberately react to the world at large in a timely manner with the content of a film, that doesn’t mean that it does not happen. I’m not just talking about films about evergreen issues – Ava DuVernay’s 13th, for example, would be a timely and reactionary (in a good way) work regardless of when it was released, because racism is never not a vital hot-button issue – I’m talking more about films whose releases unexpectedly accompany huge shifts in the state of the world and end up inadvertently responding to that shift in a certain way. They can still be great films, but they take on a stronger resonance thanks to the specific moment in time that they were released; Rogue One is a good example of this.
I first caught Denis Villeneueve’s sci-fi masterpiece Arrival in October at the London Film Festival, a month before it was due to be released. As my dispatch from that day of the Festival can attest, I adored the hell out of it then. I found it to be a beautiful, moving, soulful film. Impeccably paced, perfectly scored, stunningly shot. Drowning in atmosphere, resolutely emotional, powered by a career-best Amy Adams performance. Intelligent, heartfelt, a masterclass in filmmaking by a director I firmly believe to be the best working today. I spent the 45 minutes between it and the next film I saw that day struggling to keep my composure in public, because I was that in awe of what I had witnessed and that moved by such an earnest, optimistic, hopeful film that somehow bettered Villenueve’s previous work, Sicario, despite that having come out just 1 year ago.
Arrival was already a stone cold classic, is what I’m getting at. A film that immediately shot into my Top 5 for the year when such a thing was just a barely-considered sketch in the back of my brain. But I expected it to not reach any higher than number 4, because that Top 3 seemed carved in stone, made up as it was of films that hit me on the kind of deep personal levels and lasting impact based on the year I’ve had that I weigh my lists by. By the time Arrival came out to the general public, the US Presidential Election had declared its results and the worst case scenario (albeit not really a surprise to me since the year had dropped plenty of warning signs) had occurred. It wasn’t just that Hate had won, it was that the exact kind of backwards oppressive “fuck you, got mine” mentality that we as a collective World and People should have gotten past had won. It was that the world had been pushed closer to the brink of a potential collapse in my lifetime thanks to the actions of a conman, built upon the foundations of a regressive nostalgia-laden lie that never once existed, whom so many people fell for. It was that, yet again, what little progress we Progressives had made in the past 8 years was about to be decimated in one fowl, decisive swoop.
The second time I saw Arrival was the Friday after those results came in. I saw it with my best friend Lucy, a fellow Denis Villeneuve diehard who was also, if not as much as I was, shaken by the results of the election and just generally drained by the past year as a whole. Her expectations, like mine were upon first viewing, were astronomically high and the film managed to surpass them for her entirely, but for me the viewing took on a resonance higher than just that of watching a phenomenal film. 2016 was a year of uncertainty for me. A year of transition and loss in my personal life, and a year of constant defeat and heartbreak as somebody with an awareness of and desire for the betterment of the world around me. It was a year seemingly systematically designed to break me, yet I soldiered on regardless. Now, sitting and watching a film like Arrival, a film about unity and co-operation in the face of change and progress, a film about embracing and accepting whatever fate and time may have in store for you regardless of whether that’s good or bad, felt like a catharsis. It felt like a release, but not in the way that something like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee was delivering release. Something less angry and more positive, less energetic and more measured, more melancholy yet still devastating.
But it also felt like a re-energising of sorts. After I returned from London, I fell into a funk, to put it mildly. Much like returning home from university for the final time over the Summer, returning back home to the dead-end Nothingsville of Scunthorpe, where I have no friends or job prospects or anything approaching a life and reason for getting up out of bed each morning, after having been away playing about at “making something of myself” (or some other such phrasing) was a whiplash that I could not handle. The idea that I will always return to this dump, that all of my dalliances with friends or semi-professional film criticism or even just residing someplace more than 40 minutes away from home are fluke opportunities rather than anything substantial, is demoralising to me. Particularly with my depression and self-loathing – which has improved from this time last year, but is still a large part of me, unfortunately – this constant resetting led to a three-week period prior to this viewing where any energy and enthusiasm I had gained from the London trip was systematically drained by the same 4 suffocating walls.
That second viewing of Arrival was the release that I needed. To sit in awe of such virtuoso filmmaking, pumped full of real soul and emotion, with such a quietly beautiful and optimistic message about time and the nature of living, was exactly the sort of comfort that I needed at that moment in time. But it was also enhanced by my experiencing it with Lucy, one of the closest (if not The closest) friends that I have had throughout my life. Just her being there, despite now being primarily located even further away than before and only being back within reasonable driving distance of myself relatively rarely, as evidence that my time at university and the friends that I had made weren’t all going to magically disappear on me or sprint for the hills, was somewhat… hopeful? That doesn’t feel like the right word for the feeling, but I’ve been sat here pondering over it for the last 5 minutes and failing to come up with a better alternative. We both wandered over to a nearby pub afterwards and proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes slathering ungodly amounts of praise over the film and talking shit about random stuff, like nothing had changed from university.
The third time I saw Arrival, it was at the end of one of my Cinema Days during one of its last screenings before it got yanked away. There were no special extra circumstances, like film festivals or meeting up with a friend after a long and isolated depressive spell, and the state of the world outside of my immediate bubble had rescinded into the background. Only me and the film, and a projectionist who gave up trying to get the aspect ratio right. I still cried, as I had at both of my prior showings, I was still in pure awe of how Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer had pulled off the mix of procedural hard sci-fi and big-ideas emotional filmmaking so effortlessly, and I was still struck with a tangible feeling of hope by it. To watch this film, about a humanity that skirts right up to the line of total annihilation only to then pull back and embrace the power of unity and globalism, that responds to Others through co-operation and communication rather than violence, and where characters who can see every bit of joy and every bit of heartbreak to come in their futures choose to march forwards focussing on that joy, was to instil hope in me. Genuine, undiluted hope. Hope for the world at large, hope for myself in a weird way, in the way that only the right movie at the right time can inadvertently capitalise on.
That is why Arrival is My Film of 2016. For it was not only the best film of the past 366 days, and it was not only the right film at the right time, but it was also the film that never failed (across all 3 viewings) to provide me with the one thing that so much of this year lacked: a feeling of hope. Real hope. I welcome it.
Tomorrow, we take a break from proceedings and look back on the year that was.