Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2016

I can say nothing more about the state of genre filmmaking in 2016 than that I really didn't think I'd manage to come up with ten films for this list until December rolled around.  But then, didn't I say something similar last year?  So perhaps the problem is just that I've become a miserable sod with too-high standards for fantasy and science-fiction movies.

Yeah.  Perhaps that's it.

Certainly I'm at a loss to explain the affection for some of the films showing up on similar lists I've seen.  As far as I'm concerned, Tale of Tales should have been called Tale of Rambling Anecdotes That Don't Remotely Tie Up or Go Anywhere.  And 10 Cloverfield Lane?  The moderately amusing thriller that relied for its plot development on everyone doing the most ridiculous things possible at every turn, and which ended with J J Abrams copy / pasting in the third act from an entirely different script?  Then there was The Witch, a film I watched for a solid thirty minutes before I stopped laughing long enough to realise that this was actually how someone thought people spoke at any point in history ever.

Or, again, there were the things I really wanted to be great and that resolutely refused to be, like X-Men: Apocalypse, which - well, I didn't altogether hate, I guess.  Likewise, rationally, I know that Deadpool should be on here somewhere, and yet I find that I can't work up any retrospective enthusiasm whatsoever.  And then there's my cheeky number eleven spot, which is even more of a cheat since I just claimed I had trouble making my way up to ten:

(Honourary Mention) Kubo and the Two Strings

I don't know what it is, precisely, but I just don't get on with the works of Studio Laika.  I hoped Kubo and the Two Strings would be the film to buck that trend, and ... well, here it is, not in the top ten.  Kubo looked staggeringly lovely, there's no denying that; solely in terms of visual ingenuity, it's a masterpiece.  But what was all of that luscious artistry in service of?  A fetch-quest, chosen-one plot that felt like every other kid's fantasy movie, only grafted into an Eastern setting, set apart only by its thoroughgoing self-seriousness.  Hey, Kubo, I get that you're telling a story about telling stories, so maybe you could let two lines of dialogue go without reminding me?

And yet - so pretty.  Kubo basically gets a special mention for its superlative animation and its visual (if not narrative) imagination, and for the fact that as an animation nerd I couldn't rightfully leave off something so ravishing.  But, man, imagine this thing with a halfway decent script; now that would be sitting at the entirely other end of this list.

And now, without further cheating, my actual top ten...

10) High-Rise

I love Ben Wheatley so much!  And someone finally gave him a decent budget to play with!  And then he made his weakest film yet!  I'm inclined to blame this on the Ballard source material, since I increasingly suspect I don't like Ballard one bit; in fact, having watched both this and Crash last year, I know full well I don't.  Still, the fact remains that the result is something of an intermittently brilliant, frequently fascinating slog, a work of often phenomenal craft in service of a plot that seems determined never to gain any momentum, even when theoretically exciting things are being done by theoretically exciting people.  I doubt there will ever come a time when I hate, or even actively dislike, a Ben Wheatley movie, but I certainly did have a hard time staying engaged with this one, and that alone was enough to make it 2016's biggest disappointment.

9) Doctor Strange

It's a Marvel movie meets Inception!  Oh, but without the ingenious premise and plotting, and with a wholly generic three act structure in its place.  Okay, so that's unfair, there were some definite flares of ingenuity and imagination going on here: the action sequences were generally splendid, the ending was a novel, knowing twist that went against formula, and I for one really liked the fact that it refused to deliver on its trite love interest set-up and instead gave us two post-relationship characters relearning how to behave like decent human beings towards one another.  Oh, and the production design was an utter treat.  But for all that, I find it impossible to look back at Doctor Strange with much excitement.  In the end, it came and went and did not much more than it needed to, introducing a new character to the pantheon who'll no doubt be better served by better sequels.

8) Star Wars: Rogue One

Only now do I realise that the most galling thing for me about 2016's blockbusters was just how many times a director I rate highly delivered subpar work.  And what better example could there be than Star Wars: Rogue One, the third film by the miraculous Gareth Edwards?  Seriously, did everyone who raved about this see the version that Disney hadn't hacked to shreds and then stuck back together with gaffer tape?  I don't believe I've ever seen a film that wore it's re-shoots so blatantly on its sleeve; just as one example, I defy anyone to make meaningful sense of the two protagonists' character arcs.  And yet the great bits are certainly great, the supporting cast do wonders at keeping the whole business afloat, and there's an undeniable thrill in seeing a genuinely visionary director set loose in the Star Wars universe.  But if this is how these new Star Wars movies are going to work, taking talented artisans and then cutting them off at the knees, then I suspect that me and they are going to fall out awfully quickly.

7) Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them

With no real investment in the Potterverse beyond the fact that I'd enjoyed the latter movies - and particularly the latter movies directed by David Yates, a cracking visual stylist with fine taste in cinematographers - I wasn't sure how excited to get about Fantastical Beasts, which looked for all the world like Rowling returning to a watering hole she had no real interest in drinking from except for the huge bundles of money littering the shore.  So that the result was at least endearingly odd is certainly something, I suppose.  It was too long, too sluggish, not half so pretty as I'd hope a Yates-directed, Potter-related movie to be, and Rowling's script seemed to have no clue how to marry up its A and B plots.  But in its best moments it had a heck of a charming vibe, built on some appealing characters, and there's a lot to be said for a story that takes the time to build its world and cast, especially in these fallen times.  As long as Yates stays on board, I suspect these might end up doing a perfectly good job of filling the hole in my yearly film watching that those annoyingly terrific latter Potter movies left.

6) Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

The superhero movie of 2016 that everyone loved to hate, and only a madman would claim that Batman V Superman was an unqualified success, but for me it worked more often than it didn't - though, months later, I struggle to remember precisely why.  I suspect that my lack of investment in the DC universe probably helped matters, as did my mild exhaustion with Disney-Marvel's habit of sanding off the sharp edges from absolutely everything.  Snyder's movie was a weird old hurricane of a mess, like basically ever Snyder movie, but I was just ready for something so grandiose and idiosyncratic.  Honestly, I think this might be one of those films that everyone looks back on in five years time and realises they underestimated.  But if not then it still managed to be a willfully odd alternative to the increasingly suffocating Marvel formula, and to do what everyone seemed convinced couldn't be done: to usher in a new filmic Batman who feels like he might yet prove a satisfying replacement for Nolan's interpretation of the character.

5) Star Trek: Beyond

Better than Abram's two Star Trek movies was never going to be the highest of bars to leap over: frankly, having the least affection for the franchise and not just using it as an audition tape to make a Star Wars movie would have been a fine start.  And lo and behold, that's the main thing that Star Trek: Beyond gets right.  Justin Lin will probably never be the greatest of directors, and he doesn't even bring his action A game, but Beyond is eager and earnest in all the right places, and that alone felt like a breath of fresh air after the dour, preposterous work of confused fan fiction that was Into Darkness.  Beyond never achieves a great deal more than feeling like a strong episode of the original show made with an astronomical modern budget, but you know what, that'll do me.

4) Captain America: Civil War

I admit, in the first draft I rated Batman V Superman above this, and on the whole I still like it that little bit more - but there's no denying that probably has more to do with expectations than anything else.  At any rate, has a colon in a film title ever said so much?  Captain America: Civil War is two things slammed inelegantly together, a good Captain America movie and a great Avengers movie, and I would much rather have seen that equation the other way round, or maybe just had the Avengers material in its own damn film.  Still, there's no worse brand of criticism than reviewing the film you wanted rather than the film you got, and the film we got is about as spectacular as one of the increasingly overstuffed brand of Marvel ensemble movies could hope to be.  Deep, thrilling, involving and surprising, and (thank goodness!) they got Black Panther just right.  Frankly, if nothing else comes out of Civil War but a great Black Panther movie then I'll happily retroactively consider it a masterpiece for the ages.

3) Moana

I'm already curious to revisit Moana, and to reassess my opinion of the time, that it was a great Disney movie that blew any number of opportunities to be an utterly top tier Disney movie such as we'd all still be talking about a decade from now.  When it plowed its own furrow it was gloriously, spectacularly distinctive; when it didn't, it was so generic that I would swear they literally copied bits of the script out of other Disney movies.  I mean, do we ever need another protagonist to audibly doubt that they really are the chosen one and then be reassured that, no really, they are the chosen one?  Well, conceivably, but for that same dialogue exchange to occur - what, fifteen times?  It felt like fifteen times.  Also, frankly, Moana herself had an annoying tendency to be the weakest link in her own movie; did she really have to be such an anachronistically stereotypical American teenager?  But, you know, other than that, I basically loved it.  Even the songs were great, and I try very hard to hate the songs in Disney movies.

2) Midnight Special

It breaks my heart a bit that I'm not giving this the top spot, because when I found out that Jeff Nichols, director of possibly my favourite genre movie of the millennium so far, Take Shelter, had another one out, I may have peed in my pants a little.  But I think, in retrospect, that I also entered with some truly unfair expectations, and also that if I'd seen Midnight Special first then I'd have unhesitatingly declared it a masterpiece.  It's a heartfelt drama about the awful lengths required of loving parents, especially of those whose children are, through no possible faults of their own, neither normal or entirely comprehensible.  And then second - a rather distant second in places - it's an ingenious science-fiction chase thriller built upon a chassis of other great science-fiction chase thrillers, most of them from the eighties.  Which, sadly, is the point at which it lost me a touch: I just don't have the nostalgia not to want Midnight Special to carry on being excitingly original all the way through to its conclusion.  Still, here's another one I'm eager to revisit, and I think maybe the love will come in time.

1) Arrival

It seems to be the case that whether you consider Arrival merely an exceptionally good science fiction film or a flat-out modern classic largely comes down to its ending, for there's not much question that the first two thirds are superlative: a delightful bit of smart genre movie-making told with utter seriousness by one of the better directors working today, abetted by a fine team of craftspeople - a sci-fi film with honest to goodness interesting cinematography! - and some fine acting.  Then that ending comes, and - well, it didn't work for me, but it wasn't film-wrecking either.  Still, even if I'm a little sad that I'm giving the number one spot to a movie I liked but didn't love, I refuse to bitch too harshly on Arrival, because it represents precisely the kind of thing I'd like to see more of in cinemas - and that the universe gave us a Denis Villeneuve adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story remains a wonder of the highest order.

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