31 December 2016

Favourite 10 Films of 2016

Welcome to the list of my favourite films of 2016. Another year where fewer films than usual were watched. Another year where I struggled somewhat to compile this list. I watched plenty of very good films this year, but not many truly jumped out making me think wow, which made putting this list together harder. In the years of watching 200+ films that was never a problem, and I think the type of film on my list has changed a little over these last 2 years – maybe for the worse?

Presenting it in a different manner, "The Stand-Outs" below were 5 films that I instantly knew had to be on this list. But then I struggled. I wanted this list to be back to 10 films (last year's limiting to 5 was unsatisfying), but the next tranche of films I couldn't bring myself to say they were my favourites despite really liking them. In previous years they would have made the initial long list but would've most likely then been cut, thus categorising them here as "Nearly good enough" feels apt. At the end you will find the film I'm classing my favourite of the year, split out for good reason.

As ever, all films I watched this year can be seen here in the order viewed https://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2016-films-watched/ which in numerical form looks like:

113 - total films watched (-12% YOY)
53 - films watched at cinema (+33% YOY)
59 - films released in 2016 watched
4 - films to be released in the UK in 2017 watched
0 - films watched more than once in 2016 

So here's the list... each section is alphabetical, it's based on a 2016 UK release date, and as ever, favourite does not mean "best" – this is a subjective list of what I liked the most.



Arrival is the type of sci-fi – slow, thoughtful, low-key - that is genuinely exciting. That's not to say overblown space operas or aliens blasting everything to hell can't be fun, but that rarely matches the rich of vein of ideas and existential power that can come from deeper within the genre. Guided by the steady hand of Denis Villeneuve, the focus of Arrival is firmly on the characters rather than the fact that aliens ships have appeared. That they want to communicate with us makes this a far more interesting story, as the linguistic puzzles provide a fascinating thrust to events. As everything coalesces and the story sucker punches you, you remember why films of this nature are worthy of your time and worth getting excited about. The starkly slick visuals add a seductive layer, and Amy Adams is particularly strong in the lead – all of which add up to make this such a thoroughly good film.


So much of the superhero genre is now focused on existing in a darker milieu, and the very concept of fun seems unable to co-exist alongside it - just look at Suicide Squad's failed attempt this yearThus it's refreshing to see a film that takes this inherent darkness and twists it into something incredibly entertaining. Deadpool is a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny film thanks to a superb script and the delivery of it by Ryan Reynolds. His background in comedy and the pathos he brings pays off with the many great asides that break the fourth wall, plus the over the top violence that's simultaneously comic and excessive. Ultimately the story is entirely generic and the overt X-Men elements feel forced in, but none of this matters thanks to how much damn fun it is, and because we so rarely see films of this genre dare to be so unashamedly adult in content.

Eye In the Sky

Another year, another film about drones on my films of the year list. Last year Good Kill did a fantastic job showing the futile detachment faced by drone pilots. Eye In the Sky instead attacks the subject from all angles, telling a seemingly real time story of a drone mission in Africa. The story itself is inherently interesting, but what really grabs the viewer is how it covers all of the key players, from the drone controllers in the UK to operatives on the ground in Kenya providing live intel, all the way up to those in the echelon's of power. This leads to an extremely satisfying mixture of ethical debate by government ministers, and tense action as the window of opportunity slowly contracts. Both Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman do fine jobs as they anxiously await a decision, whilst we're left with much to ponder both during and after the film. A finely crafted drama/thriller.

Finding Dory 

The thing about animated sequels is that you can wait twelve years, and have no issues with the cast aging or not wanting to come back. But what about the audience? Pixar have found that rarified niche where that's not really a concern, as adults, children and those who loved the first film as a child all flock to their films. I fall into the first category, holding no real attachment to Finding Nemo beyond it being a film I saw at a preview in 2004 and enjoyed. Other Pixar films have done much more for me, so perhaps that's why I liked Finding Dory so much? Sure the whole concept of the story is repetitious but focusing more on the tragicomedic Dory pays off, as both sides of the character work. But it's the second half that seals the deal, where it settles into more screwball comedy and a winner of a setting that's ripe for both random and very funny moments, culminating in an emotional payoff that was second to none this year. Even though it's from Pixar, this was an unexpected treat of a film.

Star Trek Beyond
The worthy successor to JJ Abram's 2009 Star Trek... this second sequel does a superb job of wiping clean the sour memories of Into Darkness. Star Trek Beyond is an exceptionally entertaining film that brings back the fun of the first film, playing to it's biggest strengths – it's cast. Yet again the interplay between them just works superbly as they're all so comfortable in these characters now. This sequel appears to remember that the vast universe of intriguing alien creatures and worlds needs to be mined and exploited, whilst the action sequences are big, intense and dramatic. In fact the major one that serves as the culmination of the first act is incredible to watch. Maybe watching on an IMAX screen helped, but the shifting of directorial duties to Justin Lin clearly had an impact on the general tenor of the film, arguably for the best. Beyond was probably the film I most enjoyed watching in the cinema this year.
[Read my full review here]


Hell or High Water 

Hell or High Water excels by keeping its morals ambiguous, leaving it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about the course of action taken by brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Touted as a modern western, it feels that way amidst dust bowls and sleepy towns drowned in the stark Texan sunshine. Whilst Jeff Bridges' laconic drawl is weary and hard to decipher, an almost archetypal Western lawman but for the modern setting. It's a game of cat and mouse with very well staged action scenes and a story that makes it hard not to sympathise with the bank robbing protagonists. Perhaps the societal commentary runs a little heavily, but this stops the film feeling frivolous. This is a really well staged little thriller with the three leads all doing great work offering different shades to an interesting story.

The Neon Demon

I wanted The Neon Demon to push further. This feels lesser than Nicolas Winding Refn's two previous films, but the feeling I had sat in the cinema watching it has still not totally escaped me over the preceding five months – just seeing the poster brought that back. It's cold, damaged, eerily enticing. The music works to overwhelm, the starkness of life in a vainglorious cesspool devoid of beauty makes you want to retract, but you are drawn in, you can't pull your eyes away, the simmering black hole of emptiness is entrancing. You want it to push further but it retracts. You know this could've been a better film but somehow its phantasmagoria is narcotic – that's Refn's trick. And just like Only God Forgives, it's divisive and he probably doesn't give a fuck what you think about it.

The Nice Guys

It's hard not to think of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang when thinking about The Nice Guys, because really, this feels like the seventies version of that film. And that's not necessarily a bad thing as Shane Black's directorial debut is a thoroughly enjoyable, very good film.There's a lot of love for LA in both films, and they focus on a pair of protagonists not always so happy about working together. And Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a fine pairing here, offering a nice contrast and playing off each well. This is a very funny film, mostly due to the script, but both actors, who are not necessarily known for comedy, deliver it extremely well. They're just outshined by teenager Angourie Rice. Story wise it feels like we're into well worn territory for Black, but he really is one of the best at this so you very happily go along for the ride. A very enjoyable film – nothing more, nothing less (and the second best film I saw starring Ryan Gosling behind La La Land, which is out in 2017 so not on this list!).

The Revenant

The Revenant is undoubtedly the best looking film released in the UK this year, not to mention the one in possession of probably the most achingly haunting soundtrack. It's impossible not to heap reverence on the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, pretty much the best in the business as his repeated work with Terrence Malick attests (it's a shame Knight of Cups just felt a touch too distant to make this list). He wrings such beauty out of whatever he points his camera at, making these wildernesses feel even more dramatically epic as if you're witnessing something nature wants to keep only for itself. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was right to work with him again after Birdman, and as a director knows how to make the music work so completely in such a dramatic way, that it becomes a key element rather than feeling incidental. How this can benefit a film is immeasurable. The only flaws here are dragging the story on too long, and making the bear attack just so vicious that recovery from it seems implausible with the time and means on offer. The cast are all mighty fine, even if this is not the film DiCaprio should've won an Oscar for but really it's Lubezki's show, making the most compelling case for watching film on the biggest possible screen you can find.


*Breaking my own rules – this film was watched at the London Film Festival and looks set for release in 2017, but it was the best film I saw this year and I can't in good conscious exclude it, so...


Brimstone is perhaps the most unremittingly dark film I watched all year. It's powerful, haunting and slowly suffocating. Some context – set in New England in the eighteenth century, a preacher arrives in a small settlement where a mute girl instantly fears his presence. Across four parts, the film slowly reveals her story and it's instantly gripping. Dakota Fanning is compelling as the girl, expressing so much with limited means in a superb performance. And she shines despite Guy Pearce's presence as the preacher. He is the brimstone of the title, supplicant to a strict religious fervor that surges through every fibre of his overbearing being. It's a showy role that he executes perfectly, balanced just right against Fanning's far more nuanced role. That's just one example of director Martin Koolhoven's superb craftsmanship. Every frame looks carefully crafted and beautifully shot, with a score that channels a mounting sense of dread. That feeling just builds and builds, portentous from the start, with the first part leaving you breathless. If there's any point that it starts to falter it's in the final section, which perhaps feels a little rote compared to what's preceded it. This is an extremely divisive film – that much was clear looking at social media post screening it's brutal, some may feel it's misogynistic and it is long, but it's deliberate pacing only enhances the stranglehold. There is much to discuss thematically (now is not the place), but no other film this year left me feeling quite so floored.

1 September 2016

Summer 2016

Remember when summer movie season used to be fun? That time when you'd anticipate what exciting, thrilling wonders Hollywood would offer up for your viewing pleasure? Unfortunately those times are very obviously long gone. Now there's much less to anticipate as we're fed a continual glut of blockbusters and (this year in particular) a surfeit of sequels. If you'd gone into summer 2016 full of hope and expectation you'd have very quickly realised that was a futile approach. This year it was perhaps more noticeable than ever that the desperate strategy of releasing overblown, ridiculously-budgeted films virtually every week just leads to audience fatigue and diminishing financial returns. Quite how the industry finds a way to curtail this over-saturation creep I do not know, but here's hoping some lessons are starting to be learnt, and that the quality really starts to pick back up too.

This then is the summer in summary, based on the new releases I watched. If you want the handful of longer form reviews I wrote, they're here... the very good: Star Trek Beyond ... the disappointing: Captain America: Civil War / Jason Bourne / Suicide Squad 

X-Men: Apocalypse

The X-Men franchise appears to be in a difficult place. It's tried to focus on it's most popular character a couple of times, and it's tried to move on by introducing younger iterations of the core characters. Yet for previous film Years of Future Past, it had to bring some of the old cast back unnecessarily. So where next? Here's part two of just the younger iterations. This constant changing up is certainly making it harder to be invested in the series unfortunately. The young cast do a god job with these characters and it feels like they were given short thrift in that last film so it's good to focus on them here. Yet we still end up with Magneto's desire to get revenge on everyone being a main plot device... yet again. How they handle what sets him down that path this time works well in the context of those scenes, but you're just left wanting something different. Which happily comes in the form of Oscar Isaac's prosthetisis heavy Apocalypse. The back-story and approach to taking over the world is far more interesting, as is the exultant menace he exudes. It's thanks to this storyline and character that I enjoyed Apocalypse way more than the convoluted Days of Future Past. This is certainly not the series at its best, but it still offered a fun two hours.

The Nice Guys

Shane Black. That there alone is the reason to watch The Nice Guys nevermind the great casting of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as private eyes in the seventies. This was a film that promised something along the lines of his really rather good Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, plus more of his sparklingly acerbic writing. It did not disappoint, even if it's not quite as good as that aforementioned film. It tells an interesting, if faintly ridiculous story, with conviction. The Crowe / Gosling duo play off each other and spar superbly, whilst Angourie Rice steals the show. Plus it's pretty damn funny too. So what we have here is an honest to goodness film aimed squarely at adults, featuring two recognisable movie stars, lacking both superheroes and massive scenes of digitally composed destruction, released smack bang in the middle of summer. With a film as good as this, it's hard to say that summer doesn't give.

The Conjuring 2

It's impressive how James Wan has positioned himself as the mainstream horror name to pay attention too. As co-creator and director of the superb Saw, he instantly established his name as someone to watch. Interestingly he eschewed directing anymore of that series, but is directing sequels to his more recent films Insidious is still one of the best horror's of recent years, which he followed with the decent and well executed The Conjuring. This sequel follows the same tack of focusing on an actual documented mystery (the Enfield hauntings) with superb work again from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the paranormal investigators. The way the story is assembled and put together is always engaging, and Wan presents scares and scenes of horror with an impactful verve they're memorably shot thanks to his very good visual eye. It's all about the slow build, and that works so much better for a film like this. Whereas Insidious 2 felt like it undid the superb work of the first film, The Conjuring 2 builds on its predecessor leaving the desire to find out what case it's going to tackle next. Box office success suggests another is likely, and fingers crossed Wan comes back to that after his Aquaman adventures.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

As flawed as the 2013 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film is, I hate to say I quite enjoyed it. It completely and utterly got by on the charm of the voicework / script for the four brothers, something that continues in this sequel albeit with seemingly forced conflict because we can't be trusted to enjoy a group of heroes just getting on. But that previous film is certainly one-upped in both the action stakes, and the story side. The story is more interesting (good use of Bebop and Rocksteady) whilst the action is more fun and grander come the conclusion. This is not high art and it has no pretension to be anything more than it is and what that is I certainly enjoyed. But I remain as ever perplexed at how Tyler Perry keeps getting acting work – if there's a worse actor out there I certainly don't know of them!

Independence Day: Resurgence

The logic that goes into creating some sequels is confusing. Back in 1996 Independence Day made a shit-ton of money and was something of a blockbuster game changer. Right film, right era. But things have changed and a sequel after that many years, pinned on an irrelevant anniversary, seems foolhardy. Even more so deciding to proceed with all of the original cast bar Will Smith, arguably the one member needed to make this a success (regardless of the delight at seeing Jeff Goldblum in a semi-lead role in such a big modern Hollywood film!). It's as simple as this... I enjoyed Independence Day: Resurgence. I'm not prepared to defend it as a good film as it is overblown, unoriginal, unimaginative filmmaking. That it never really slows down after the first twenty minutes keeps you with it, although it's somewhat ironic that the cgi is of a far better quality, but much less impressive this time round. Fortunately it's not likely we'll get another one.

The Secret Life of Pets

A true high-concept animation why no-one sought to bring this to screen before I do not know because it's a winning idea. That it takes this fun idea and turns it into a run-of-the-mill story is a tad disappointing, but it succeeds on the strength of its characters. It's ultimately a madcap comedy with a bit of message, that although quality wise never feels quite on par with the likes of Zootopia or Finding Dory, is a heap of fun.

Now You See Me 2

This I was quietly pleased to go watch. The first film entertained me solidly for a couple of hours s good concept, well executed, was not bothered at how convoluted it got or about the detail. But as is typical of a film of that nature, it's hard to replicate without disappearing down a rabbit hole. Now You See Me 2 is certainly less interesting, less well executed and lacking the sense of fresh wonder. The cast may look like they're having fun and give it some energy, but the plotting is uninspired, the locations add little, culminating in the ultimate "that's it!?" / could care less finale. But sometimes all you want on a Friday night trip to the cinema is to watch something ephemeral some undemanding, vaguely familiar but forgettable entertainment, which this film excels at.

The Legend of Tarzan

There's a lot of potential within The Legend of Tarzan and it mostly delivers. Alexander Skarsgård fits the role neatly - he's got the physicality and a quiet wariness that keeps him brooding one moment, opening up the next and then running through the jungle like a madman, even though his accent jars at times. If you can ignore the subtle rewrites of history in favour of British colonialism, the story is balanced well – we are given a fairly short origins layered amidst the main story, without dragging out the prospect of us seeing Tarzan being Tarzan. Sure, Christoph Waltz plays the what is now archetypal Christoph Waltz villain (still a satisfying cliche), but I remain unsure as what point Samuel L. Jackson's character served, beyond some very mild light relief. This was an entertaining film and there's a lot more to potentially offer here. 

The Neon Demon

This is a Nicholas Winding Refn film through and through. Hell, his monogram is all over it. Thus you know what you are getting, or perhaps that should be, you can visualise some obtuse ballpark of what you are getting. The Neon Demon is indulgent, arrogant filmmaking. It is a troubling, Dionysiac journey into a world where outright beauty is the only item of value. It unnervingly leaves your expectations running wild before ripping them apart in unexpectedly disturbing ways. It's visual beauty is starkly intoxicating as a pounding synth-led soundtrack gratifyingly overwhelms the senses. It feels like Suspiria transplanted to the cold, emotionally dead hollows of Los Angeles. It leaves you wanting more... just a tantalising little extra taste more... but you know this is not good for the soul.


One of the most enjoyable film of the summer, not that the trailer gave that impression at all. Did we need another Ghostbusters? Of course not. But does it work thanks to the essentials that help make a film good – you know, a quality script, decent casting and chemistry amongst the leads yes it does. There's a bit of separation anxiety as it tries to half recreate the original 1984 film whilst also pulling away on its own path, but when it does the latter it's at its best. Throw in some superb effects work and 3D that actually compliments the on-screen action (which is saying a lot considering my general disdain for the format), and you've got a very entertaining film, with great potential for a sequel. And to the haters who inexplicably dislike the female casting / say it ruins their childhood grow the fuck up. 


The BFG is the latest film to prove that we're still not technologically there yet when it comes to creating humans in a computer. There's still a yawning gap in the uncanny valley. Now you could say the BFG is not human, but he's humanoid enough (ie not looking enough like a fantastical creature) for this to be a major issue – you just don't get anything from the character, very little emotion beyond vocal intonations or anything relatable, which is a shame (and not Mark Rylance's fault). It doesn't help that Ruby Barnhill is very good as Sophie, making the gulf even greater. And then there's the realisation that the BFG's mis-heard, playful language may be fun for a kid to hear, or an adult to read, but after ten minutes in the cinema it just becomes tiresome. A boring film that doesn't really work, and further proof of how the last ten years really have been a very very long way from Spielberg's best. 

Finding Dory

The Pixar dichotomy – the original films are so good that you want to see more from their respective worlds, but who needs sequels when they can so readily offer up such high-quality originals? They seem to be entering a run of sequels, which is not the most inspiring prospect (no matter how good the Toy Story films are, we don't need a fourth), with Finding Dory seemingly being the first of this phase. Finding Nemo may not be the best Pixar film but it feels like one of their most quintessential, and with such a focused story it left scope for more exploration of this world. Yet at face value the story for Finding Dory seems like a copy of the original. Fortunately it's so much more, quickly getting to a locale that is ripe for entertainment value offering a slew of new, excellent characters. This leads to a funnier, more entertaining film than the original, with an even stronger emotional payoff. Let's be honest, it's no surprise that Pixar delivers one of the very best films of the summer.

Lights Out

James Wan part 2 - this time he takes on a producers role and it's kind of a shame, because there's a kernal of a good idea within Lights Out but what we have here is a pretty generic modern horror. It struggles to create much in the way of tension (although I'm sure the woman sitting a couple of seats down from me would strongly disagree), and is too content to follow the lazy horror trap of, sudden burst of music / noise means something scary is on screen so jump now please. Not to mention the frustrating nonsensicalness of some of the things that happen on-screen, even when you're supposed to take it all with a pinch of salt. But relying on the contrast of light to dark, especially when your object of fear mostly remains a menacing shape in the shadows, is enough to keep you with it for the fortunately short run time. However you can't help but think though that in more seasoned hands, this could've been a really effective little horror film.