2017 in cinema has already delivered the goods – Logan, Kong: Skull Island, Free Fire, Get Out, John Wick: Chapter 2 and The LEGO Batman Movie being the highlights.
By comparison, 2016 was responsible for a myriad of forgettable superhero movies, a handful of passable blockbusters and a humble assortment of smaller independent gems – most of which creeped past without anyone noticing.
Doctor Strange – despite its interesting premise and spectacular visuals – was surprisingly uninteresting. Suicide Squad was complete crap, and the less said about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice the absolute better. That said, there were notable exceptions: Deadpool, Arrival, Rogue One and Moonlight – all of which impressed in various ways.
Here are 10 movies from the past year that impressed in all the right ways…
Star Trek: Beyond
Beyond was a welcomed respite in a series which had continually underwhelmed. For one thing: it was a genuine Star Trek film - an honest attempt to recapture the spirit, as well as the tone of the original series.
Somehow, it managed to achieve just that, perfectly replicating the joyful optimism of Roddenberry’s creation, and successful navigating away from the sombre, gloomy cheerlessness of its predecessor, Into Darkness.
That said, the movie felt remarkably fresh, successfully introducing countless original creature designs, and having the story revolve around an entirely new character, Jaylah. Consequently, Beyond managed to avoid the mistakes of previous instalments, cultivating its own unique sense of personality without having to rely on the same handful of tired ideas.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Despite its ending – which somewhat jumps the shark – 10 Cloverfield Lane is surprisingly nuanced, exploring characters within a single confined setting, a sinister premise framing the action. In this respect, the entire thing is brimming with narrative intrigue, the characters changing constantly as the story progresses, the audience never made comfortable enough to settle on single opinion of them.
There’s humour too, but it’s equally as unsettling.
That said, the ending is surprisingly unsatisfactory, underwhelming despite its impressive scope, and appearing completely incongruously in relation to the larger experience. After all, the movie is patient – complete with a sombre tone and methodical pacing – but the ending is a climatic action set-piece, ripped straight from another, far less interesting movie.
It’s absolutely jarring – but, if you pretend the movie ended fifteen minutes earlier – it’s perfect.
Honestly, 10 Cloverfield Lane could have easily topped this entire article, but the ending is lacking in any of the qualities which made the movie such a worthwhile experience. That said, it’s still great, and well worth your time.
Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man was a divisive movie, receiving a mixed critical reception, which is understandable when you consider the film’s subject matter.
After all, the film’s about a farting corpse, which makes the following assessment even more astounding: it’s excellent, an emotional journey exploring pervasive themes – such as loneliness and inadequacy – with surprising maturity.
Despite their reception, the performances really carry the entire experience, grounding the bizarreness and sustaining audience investment in the characters.
The humour is very particular – as are many aspects of the movie – requiring a substantial suspension of disbelief. That said, Swiss Army Man is a genuinely rewarding experience – complete with empathetic characters, poignant and inspiring sequences – providing you’re prepared to meet the movie half way.
It’s hard to imagine, that a film about a farting corpse could reduce a person to tears, but it’s true. The film is captivating and emotional, and everything lacking from your average Hollywood romp.
The Jungle Book
The Jungle Book had no business being good. After all, the movie is a live-action remake of an animated classic, taking numerous liberties with the source material.
Somehow – mainly thanks to some strong performances and an experienced director – the film manages to succeed, innovating without demonstrating too much estrangement from its roots.
Visually, The Jungle Book is unprecedented – in terms of cinematography and special effects – permitting a range of emotional expressiveness, meaning the animals come across convincingly, despite their sometimes cartoonish movements.
That said, the visuals really are persuasive – almost everything rendered entirely digitally, apart from the protagonist – the characters seamlessly brought to life, portrayed with wonderful care and attention.
It’s nostalgic, yet its history is never allowed to interfere with the larger narrative. It’s indulgent, but not excessively – just enough to bridge the old with the new.
Captain America: Civil War
Contrary to popular opinion, the past year hasn't produced that many exciting superhero movies. Batman V Superman established an unprecedented standard for awfulness; Suicide Squad was abysmal – proving the importance of editing in movies; Doctor Strange was equal parts innocuous and unmemorable, and X-Men: Apocalypse – despite some positives – was a tonal disaster.
That said, Captain America: Civil War was an exception, achieving a seemingly impossible task: balancing countless independent properties – each with its own heroes and secondary characters – somehow fashioning a compelling story around such a bloated premise. The action is comprehensive and dynamic, as well as completely self-indulgent, and the majority of the characters are given an adequate opportunity to shine.
Logically, this movie shouldn’t have succeeded, yet managed to achieve several impossibilities: reintroducing existing characters, establishing new stakes, acquainting audiences with new heroes and framing the action around an involving narrative.
The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon is a surprisingly deep movie, considering its shallow premise. The visuals are easily the most remarkable aspect – the cinematography is particularly breath-taking – but, thematically, the movie is saying a surprising amount with considerably little.
The director’s previous effort, Only God Forgives, attempted something similar – using symbolism and visuals to express character motivations – but was mostly just underwhelming.
By comparison, The Neon Demon avoids understating secondary elements – such as story and character – in favour of pure spectacle. The movie is stunningly beautiful, but there’s plenty beneath the surface to motivate continued investment, as well as some wonderfully demented twists permeating a visual descent into madness.
The characters – though deplorable – make a disturbing amount of sense, sustained by the strength of the performances, which substantiate the more fantastical elements.
From Fede Álvarez and Sam Raimi, Don’t Breathe was a novel concept with an immediately captivating premise: three thieves are trapped inside a house following a botched burglary, pursued relentlessly by its deranged, sightless inhabitant.
The movie is perforated by the many hallmarks of your typical, run-of-the-mill independent horror – including jump scares, red-herrings, and numerous plot twists – yet its execution develops the material considerably.
In this respect, the movie’s originality and inventiveness elevates a seemingly exploitative premise into something with more substance, positively packed with narrative intrigue.
The premise is straightforward, certainly – and might have worked even in the hands of a mediocre filmmaker – but is enriched exponentially by its creative cinematography, impulsive editing and frantic, non-rhythmic pacing, which makes each sequence remarkably tense.
Don’t Breathe was a surprise success – grossing five times its original budget at the box office – winning over audiences with its innovative take on the genre, which is why its highlight.
Kong: Skull Island
Completely self-indulgent, Kong: Skull Island is more nostalgic for Apocalypse Now than any previous iterations of the character. It’s a monster movie with anti-war undertones – with action sequences equal parts unsettling and exciting, and secondary characters more disposable than extras in a disaster movie. It’s also excellent.
It’s essentially a sci-fi channel original with a Hollywood blockbuster’s budget, elevated by some awesome performances, some genuinely creative monster designs and some welcomed self-awareness. Brie Larson is particularly great, but the film boasts an exception cast – including Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman and John C. Reilly.
There’s a decent chance Kong: Skull Island slipped under your radar – which is understandable considering its underwhelming trailer – but it’s worth checking out.
You certainly won’t be bored.
The Coen Brothers – despite the varied nature of their filmography – are somewhat contentious, audiences tending to quarrel whenever a new project manifests itself. Case and point: Hail, Caesar! maintains only ‘45%’ on Rotten Tomatoes for audience approval, most average moviegoers never quite knowing what to make of the directors’ ongoing work.
That said, Hail, Caesar! deserves more consideration. It’s a wonderfully funny, charming mystery movie, predicated upon dozens of memorable performances, idiosyncratic dialogue, and countless memorable sequences. It’s essentially a pastiche of post-war Hollywood cinema, eccentric but never encumbered by its substantial ambitions.
That said, it’s not necessarily their greatest accomplishment – it’s no Barton Fink, nor Great Lebowski – but even the most middling Coen brothers’ effort is spades above the competition.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Called a ‘kiwi’ comedy – which is what Australians call New Zealanders according to Flight of the Conchords – Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a genuine pleasure from start to finish, redeeming an otherwise dismal year in cinema.
For one thing, the film had pretty much everything – humour, personality and charm – wrapped around an endearing assortment of characters, including a protagonist who singlehandedly carries the entire experience.
The director – Taiki Waititi, the man behind the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok – brings his trademark wittiness and intelligence to the production, and the humour is largely on point. That said, the characters and their endeavours are treated with reverence, the movie avoiding the mistake of descending into pointless wackiness. In this respect, the movie works because it places drama before comedy, somehow managing to balance both aspects regardless.
There aren’t enough good things to say about Hunt for the Wilderpeople. In short, it was the highlight of the previous year – which might not be saying much – but regardless, it’s a genuine triumph