2016 Films: Round-Up Review

To round off last year I wanted to briefly talk about some of the films I’ve seen released this year, however I must first mention that I’m defining these 2016 films as in they were released in UK cinemas this year – some may have premiered in other countries or been to festivals in 2015. There’s also a few films that are technically 2016 releases, but I haven’t been able to see yet as they’re not released over here until 2017, so you can find those in my 2017 films blog post! Finally, these aren’t my top films of the year, or my favourites, they’re just a collated list of the ones that stuck out for me. Let me know what you thought of these films, and if there’s any others I must see!

Directed by: Peter Sollett Written by: Ron Nyswaner Starring: Ellen Page, Julianne Moore
After waiting what felt like years, Freeheld was finally released in the UK this February and I was so excited! Of course, I didn’t get round to seeing it until recently when I bought the DVD, but better late than never, right? This film absolutely wrecked me. I don’t remember the last time I cried at a film, but for the last forty or so minutes of this I was just solidly crying. Do not watch this if you’re not able to cope with a sad film. Do not. But truly, this is so much more than just another sad lesbian film. It’s based on the Oscar-winning documentary of the same name, and follows the true story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree, who fought for equal rights to state pensions between hetero and homosexual couples. As this is such a close topic to my heart, it’s difficult to separate that emotional connection from the true film quality, but if I were forced to be objective I’d compare it to films like Milk (2008, Van Sant) which are above-average films, but mostly are excellent because of their content and political comments. Freeheld tells the true story wonderfully, and it’s comforting to know the real Stacie Andree, and original documentary director Cynthia Wade (who was actually there for the last few weeks of Hester’s life, both supervised the film so it’s as accurate as a ‘based on’ film can be. Both Julianne Moore and Ellen Page’s performances are emotional, believable, and not over the top. Michael Shannon is also excellent. If you feel able, I would 100% reccomend you watch this. It’s an inspiring, heart-wrenching and important story that we should all remember.

The Handmaiden
Directed by: Chan-wook Park Written by: Seo-kyeong Jeong Starring: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo
The Handmaiden is based on the book Fingersmith, by my favourite author Sarah Waters, so of course I had to watch it. The book itself is by far Waters’ most complex, with interweaving and confusing plots that turn back on themselves and then completely surprise you all the while. Throw that plot into a 1930s Korean-Japanese adaptation and you get The Handmaiden. As if Fingersmith weren’t confusing enough, The Handmaiden makes it even harder to follow. While cinematically, the film is perfectly attractive, as someone who’s read the book this seems to fall slightly flat – contrary to raving reviews I’ve read. It is an incredibly difficult plot to translate to film (or at all), and I suspect the language barrier makes it harder to follow for me as I had to read subtitles, however I think this is one of the rare occasions that perhaps simplifying a book’s plot may have benefitted the final film. Usually this happens with books that aren’t overly complex, but had small sections been changed or omitted from The Handmaiden I think perhaps it would have flowed better, and left you less exhausted two and a half hours later! I do however, appreciate that it follows the plot exactly, aside from changing places/names and the third act quite a bit. My final critique is that of the sex scene, while I appreciate throughout the film we are shown male sexuality as something almost grotesque and simply ‘in the way’, the lesbian sex scenes feel unrealistic and over-sensuous. They somehow manage to be too sensistive and shy, shying away from being realistic, while still being rushed and brisk enough to make them not sensual and instead feel sloppy and unrealistic. I’d be interested to know how other queer people feel about the sex scenes (mostly the first one), but this felt a bit reminiscent of Blue is the Warmest Colour with its good film, direction etc. but slightly missing the mark on the surprisingly crucial sex scenes.

The Girl King
Directed by: Mika Kaurismäki Written by: Michel Marc Bouchard Starring: Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon
Another film to finally release in the UK this year was the long-anticipated Girl King. For me this film was a slight disappointment. It’s been on my list for a while, but didn’t feel particularly well-made. I think this is mostly down to the colouring and lack of detail in some of the sets – which come across feeling almost too shiny and unrealistic. It’s a perfectly good film which I will probably rewatch due to my love for a good queer film, but aside for the Buska, the main actress who is convincing and compelling, the acting is mediocre. However, once you get past the appearance and exaggeration in dramatic scenes, the film is interesting. The way it shows the men in her life trying to control her, and first teaching her to act like a man then forcing femininity on her is excellent social commentary. I also appreciated the moment when one character laughs at another’s idea that raising her like a tomboy is the reason she is gay. Overall it’s a film well worth watching if you’re interested in the history of Sweden’s first female ruler (though obviously it’s based on rather than pure adaptation) or if you enjoy queer films, which is really the only reason it was originally on my list. But I would tend to say, if it’s just a queer film you are after then this lack of real queer relationship or happy ending is probably not worth it.The Girl King manages to straddle the period drama genre and the ‘queer’ film genre – and while it’s totally possible for a genre film to be queer in passing, or a queer film to be more than ‘just a gay film’ (Carol for example) – this film isn’t really historical enough to watch for the historical aspect, nor is it queer enough to watch for the queer elements.

Written and directed by: Sian Heder Starring: Ellen Page, Allison Janney
This film. Goddamnit, this film. Tallulah is beyond charming. The script alone is impeccable, the use and flow of dialogue is absolutely flawless, and once again Ellen Page knocks it out of the park. The film is constantly pulling you between hilarious moments of comedy and heart-warming moments of family. Page’s character is endearing, funny and excellently written and portrayed. She thinks of things that others don’t, and questions them, which is something I recognise from within myself, and truly appreciate seeing. She represents a kind of youthful innocence and fresh perspective to the world that we’d all benefit from seeing. The relationship between her and Allison Janney’s character is beautifully crafted and just epitomises how well the script has been written. Sian Heder has somehow managed to make her debut feature film a perfect all-rounder, providing you with a touching story and a full cast of characters you empathise with, even when perhaps you shouldn’t. I cannot wait to see more from her. Honestly, I can’t explain this film in any way other than absolutely charming and endearing.

The Lobster
Directed by:
Yorgos Lanthimos Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Léa Seydoux
This was one of those films I’d seen dotted around articles and blogs but knew nothing about, and after a quick IMDb browse I was even more in the dark. Still, I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did. I think The Lobster is a film that will probably be studied in the future, and would benefit from a rewatch, but in general I’d reccomend it (but don’t put it at the top of your list). Throughout the first half felt reminiscent of some European cinema – the piano-accompanied slowmo sequences and moments of pure random which aren’t addressed as out of the ordinary vaguely reminded me of a strange Dogme meets French New Wave feel, but I couldn’t really pinpoint specifically why. The standout point of the film has to be its social commentary on relationships and love – in this world your life isn’t worth anything without it, and the countless satirical references to society’s courting rituals and dealings with relationships are priceless. From ‘throwing children’ into a relationships issues, right down to the moment our protagonist enquires about a bisexual option and is told he’ll ‘have to choose one’ as it was removed due to ‘operational errors’. Frankly, the film is bizarre, and feels weirdly dated despite being set in a near future. Ben Whishaw and Lea Seydoux steal the show with their performances, though Colin Farrell manages to make a bland character seem oddly captivating. All in all, it’s an interesting film, but not neccessarily an enjoyable one.

The Assassin
Directed by: Hsiao-Hsien Hou Written by: Cheng Ah, T’ien-Wen Chu, Hsiao-Hsien Hou Starring: Qi Shu, Chen Chang, Yun Zhou
I still don’t really know how I feel about this film. I was anticipating it as being beautiful and slow-burning, both of which it was. However the narrative (or lack thereof) tended to distract me from the beautiful 35mm shots. There wasn’t a single uninteresting shot within the film, and it truly felt as if everything in the frame was deliberate, which I beyond appreciate. But the plot was confusing, not necessarily confused, but confusing nonetheless. Obviously this would always be different from the typical Western narrative-based cinema I’m used to, but it seemed as though it was just a different style of cinema, simply a less developed plot. The characters seem to appear and disappear without fully being developed as individuals with motives and emotions – aside from the protagonist who is slightly delved into. It’s a fascinating story (although the base concept isn’t particularly original, but what is nowadays?) and the scenery alone is worth watching for. The fight sequences are excellently choreographed and not thrown in unnecessarily. There is an oddly theatrical atmosphere, particularly in the first act, with sets that lack any sense of depth or perspective, and characters who just appear from either side then are never seen again. Overall, I’m glad I’ve seen this, and I suspect it would benefit from a second or third viewing, but I feel perhaps that while this is a beautiful film, not enough work went into the script and characters, as they do tend to merge together unmemorably.

10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg Written by: Josh Campbell, Damien Chazelle, Matthew Stuecken Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Originally I wanted to see this at the cinema, but ended up watching it the other night. I finished the film feeling slightly underwhelmed. The acting was good – though John Goodman undeniably held the film together, and the concept was superb. It was a good film right down to the set design, but the last half an hour unravelled the majority of the tension and impressiveness it had built up. As you probably have heard, this is meant to be in the Cloverfield universe, rather than directly linking to Cloverfield itself. 90% of the film takes place in a single location, building up suspicions and tension excellently, with just brief glimpses of outside (though in my opinion, even these could have been removed). However, the last few scenes of the film show the protagonist finally escaping to the outside world, and here it could have ended. Even, it could have ended with her just climbing to freedom. But then, a drawn-out sequence which explicitly shows the aliens and transforms this dramatic thriller into a sci-fi action takes place, and quite frankly, ruins the climax of the film. It comes across entirely as though this sequence (and even the glimpses to outside earlier on) have been added in solely for the purpose of then being able to market it as within the Cloverfield franchise (you could tell me they were cut in from another film and I’d believe you). These sections do not integrate organically, and while alone they work, they feel like they’re from an entirely different film and ultimately draw you out from the pressure of the tightly-wound tense experience that the main film provides.

Directed by:
Denis Villeneuve Written by: Eric Heisserer Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner
I was excited to see Arrival ever since I watched the first trailer, and it lived up to expectations – but in a very different way. I was expecting a standard sci-fi film about aliens coming to earth and us trying to communicate – mostly, I was excited to see a female lead in a film with this kind of narrative. However what I left the cinema having seen was a wonderfully Nolan-esque time-twisting, mind-hurting smart blockbuster. The portrayal of the aliens is unique, and the concept of their language in comparison to ours in excellently written and imaginative. The sheer imagination and originality in this film blew me away. On top of this narrative, you had solid performances, cinematography and writing. Definitely a sci-fi to watch if you’re interested in ones that make you think.

Star Trek: Beyond
Directed by: Justin Lin Written by: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, John Cho, Sofia Boutella
I’m a big fan of Star Trek. I’m a touch obsessed with Next Gen and Voyager, and I’m an undebatable Trekkie. I also adore the rebooted films. I think they wonderfully capture the essence of Star Trek and Starfleet, while bringing a fresh and contemporary perspective on it. And Beyond was no different. It’s a pretty standard sci-fi action flick, but the comedy and subtle social commentary keeps it together. While I wouldn’t say it’s the best of the three rebooted films, I think so far this is one of few franchises which hasn’t rapidly declined in quality over sequels. Furthermore, I was beyond ecstatic to see the sheer diversity in the cast – the background characters alone (something rarely thought about, but that I always notice) were a real representation of our planet’s community, and the kind of diverse and peaceful civilisation that Star Trek has always shown Earth’s future to be.

Captain America: Civil War
Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd
To be quite honest, I don’t particularly remember Civil War. For all the hype, it felt like a disappointingly predictable sequence of set pieces and strained dramatic moments. For me, one of the under-utilised and most interesting parts was Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)’s emotional and mental struggles after Age of Ultron and losing her brother, home and causing lots of destruction. I’d have liked to see more of this, but the film didn’t really allow for much room individual character development as it tried to pack in such an array of other superheroes. While it did show Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) feeling remorse for his part in the previous Avengers problems, it seemed mostly to scrape the surface rather than fully exploring this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth watching, and a good Marvel film, but personally I think a film properly exploring the aftermath of Age of Ultron would have been good, before moving onto a new problem (the return of Bucky). However, obviously, that isn’t how the Marvelverse tends to work. Unfortunately, I think after how fresh and slickly cinematic both Avengers films were, perhaps the Marvel team will struggle to continue on that level.

Directed by: Paul Feig Written by: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones
Ghostbusters was another highly-anticipated 2016 film for me. I may lose my film street cred, but I have enjoyed a couple of Melissa McCarthy films (particularly the also Feig-directed The Heat with Sandra Bullock). In general I’m not massively into comedies, and tend to find the majority of comedies either too childish or too vulgar for my taste – I like a good black comedy. However, Ghostbusters appealed to my ‘oh look women in main roles’ predictable side and my geeky classic science-fiction films side. While no film can ever replace the classic, and this doesn’t seem to know if it’s a reboot or a sequel, I’d suggest watching this if you like sci-fi comedies. The humour is really sharp (save for a few misses, as with all comedies) and while each of the four leads seem to play the comic relief, it somehow works. Introduce the stereotypical eye-candy (but gender-swapped) in the form of Chris Hemsworth and you have a hilarious ghost adventure. Hemsworth does seem to steal every scene he’s in, but the scenes excluding him still resinate with a slick comedy sheen and don’t feel like they’re missing anything as such.

The Intervention
Written and directed by: Clea DuVall Starring: Clea Duvall, Natasha Lyonne, Jason Ritter, Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders, Alia Shawkat, Ben Schwartz, Vincent Piazza
As a big fan of both Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne, I was eagerly anticipating them being back together again for a mini But I’m a Cheerleader reunion. The Intervention is Duvall’s first time writing or directing her own feature, and I’d say it was a strong debut. It definitely feels like a low-budget independent film, but that’s not a criticism. The cast is excellent and their performances definitely lock this in as a solid feature. While I would say DuVall’s talents (so far) seem to lean more towards directing, the script was perfectly good and had its gems of humour, but in general wasn’t anything extraordinary. However the direction was excellent; for such a simple film (location, character and story-wise) it was executed wonderfully. Sometimes the simplest concepts are hardest to direct as they’re surprisingly ambitious in their simplicity. It was, of course, also nice to realistically see a friend group which included a queer couple represented. Although it is quite lowkey, the cast and direction of The Intervention definitely make it worth watching if you get a chance.

Into The Forest
Written and directed by: Patricia Rozema Starring: Ellen Page, Rachel Evan Wood
Undoubtedly, my favourite film of 2016 (and climbing its way further up my all-time faves with each rewatch) is Into the Forest. I’ve wanted to see this since it was announced, as I’m a big Ellen Page fan, and recently discovered how much I enjoy Patricia Rozema’s work, too. Page not only acted in this, but also instigated the production after the read the book it’s based on. In short, this film is breathtaking. From the outside, a film about two sisters surviving in their secluded forest home after a worldwide power outage, the film manages to give you an exciting (and realistic) ‘apocalyptic’ genre film while also commenting on the human experience. It was absolutely stunning to watch and felt like a true experience. One of those films you’re still feeling running through you hours after it finishes. It’s incredibly moving in parts (and upsetting at times) but beyond worth watching. The way the two girls adapt to life without power feels like the most realistic (and thus heart-wrenching and inspiring) depiction of an apocalypse-type situation I’ve ever seen in a film. The characters are written excellently; so dynamic and full of layers. The acting is superb, the music is beautiful, the scenery is stunning. Even the pacing is spot on, it ebbs and flows like the ocean so you feel the utter serenity and the intense moments right with the characrers. Lastly I simply must mention the depiction of feminity. You can truly tell this was a film made by women – the female characters are diverse and complex, and display femininity in all its layers of resilience and reality and vulnerability and loyalty, all aided by the script and actors and direction. This is the kind of film I want to write myself.

Some other 2016 releases I want to see but haven’t yet are: I, Daniel Blake, London Town, Nocturnal Animals, Elle and The Girl With All the Gifts. 

To sum up, it seems Ellen Page’s films have won this year for me. She’s been outstanding and her projects have all been excellent, I can’t wait to see what she does in 2017. Don’t forget to check out my 2017 films post which will be out soon, and let me know if there’s any others you think I should catch up with!

Keep watching,

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