2016 delivered a variety of films and TV shows which excelled. During a year that presented films from many genres that were all pitching for attention, here’s our list of the titles that stood out the most…
When a series of alien vessels appear at random points around the globe, a race to find a common language to discern the motives of the visitors becomes a race against time when some of the translations hint at darker goals.
The basic premise of the Denis Villeneuve directed Arrival isn’t necessarily a new idea, but the journey the story takes is surprisingly fresh. The bittersweet moments that kickstart the film are apparently designed to give some background to the slightly distant character of Louise Banks (Amy Adams). It’s only much later, when Banks is recruited to attempt a translation of the alien language, that these scenes take on a different meaning.
Arrival is shot using an intentionally drab palette and there’s a constant sense of ambiguity and dread, enhanced by both the deliberate obscurity in which the aliens are presented and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s brooding soundtrack.
Curiously, for a film that paints on such a large canvas, Arrival’s ending revolves around a single conversation that throws the preceding narrative into a different light. But it’s a film that will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.
Read the Wavegirl review of Arrival.
The Force Awakens provided a disappointing return to the Star Wars universe with its reheated tread of the first film and clumsy scripting (as Wavegirl had originally feared).
Then Rogue One changed the landscape completely by not only capturing the elements that were essential to Star Wars, but by going beyond it and making it grittier – and in places darker – than the original trilogy. Despite the plot revolving around the seizing of the plans for the Death Star (whose end is pretty definite in A New Hope), Rogue One manages to make the stakes appear more real and weaves in a Dirty Dozen theme to boot.
Felicity Jones does a superb job of playing Jyn Erso, a haunted character who finds herself leading a team to secure the plans for the Empire’s ultimate WMD. Perhaps the standout performances are from Alan Tudyk who plays the sarcastic droid K-2SO and Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe – a blind warrior whose faith in the Force easily compensates for his disability.
Rogue One also offers up a much more realistic take on war than its predecessors. Here, the actions of some of the rebels are definitely in a greyer area than the black/white divisions established in the original trilogy.
Despite being part of a bigger franchise, Rogue One manages to present a self-contained story which manages to combine action, character and emotion in a film that is easily the best genre film of 2016.
Ben Wheatley established himself as a director through the curiously dark narratives of films such as Kill List and Sightseers, so there’s something fitting in his assignment to direct the film adaptation of the JG Ballard novel High-Rise (a favourite book of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis).
Starring Tom Hiddleston, High-Rise establishes its characters in a 1970s setting which lends the film an oddly disconcerting atmosphere in itself. The plot introduces Hiddleston as a new tenant in a recently completed tower block whose residents occupy different strands of society. The analogies of class are painted in broad strokes here with a working class occupying the lower floors and the middle classes on the upper. Equally, the gradual breakdown of society draws its battle lines very distinctly as the film progresses through a progressively grimmer sequence of events.
High-Rise provides a compelling, if ultimately bleak, story that’s helped by the ensemble cast that includes Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons (playing the building’s architect Anthony Royal).
Disney has been on a roll with its animated features for the past few years. The ability to tap into pop culture and also present a cross-generational appeal has given titles such as Zootropolis some well-deserved box office success.
The world that Zootropolis presents is one populated by anthropomorphic animals, against which protagonist and newly graduated cop Judy Hopps has to contend with the dubious antics of con artist Nick Wilde. Essentially, this is a buddy cop movie in which two completely different characters have to learn to work together.
Zootropolis brings with it a message of tolerance and trust, which appeared to be very timely during a year of political turmoil. The humour works across a wide spectrum, the music and songs are spot-on and a lot of the plot twists are quite surprising for an animated feature.
Although Marvel have been riding high on their popcorn movie blockbusters, there’s something curiously flat about recent installments. Entries such as the lacklustre Age Of Ultron appear to be weak contenders against the wit and zip of Guardians And The Galaxy. Although Civil War was a step back in the right direction, it was still lacking some vital spark.
Meanwhile, the adaptation of Deadpool almost set a new standard for superhero movies. There’s a sense of wit and humour at play here that’s captured with style by Ryan Reynolds playing Wade Wilson aka Deadpool, an antihero with a tragic history, but with a self-deprecating wit to go with it. Keeping the comic character’s legendary fourth wall dialogue helps keep things playful, but there’s also enough brutal violence to keep the kids happy.
Having cameos from X-Men characters Collossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead gives Deadpool a cast the main character can bounce off and the result is an entertaining slice of comic book action that managed to be the 8th highest-grossing film of 2016 (which is more surprising for the fact that it went for an R rating in the US).
2016 also brought with it some particularly good quality TV shows, demonstrating that television is going through a bit of a renaissance period at the moment. Here’s our roundup of the shows that made a particular impression…
We’ve not always been well-served for science fiction on TV, particularly in occupying that rare territory that accommodates both action as well as more cerebral elements in its mix. It’s a combo that many a space opera classic in the world of books has delivered, but that remains strangely absent from both film and TV.
But SyFy series The Expanse changed the rules on this and offered up a compelling story that grips right up until the final episode. Adapted from the series of novels by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse is set 200 years in the future when the solar system has been colonised, but with rising tensions between the peoples of Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt.
James Holden is one of the survivors of the deliberate destruction of the ice hauler Canterbury – an action that threatens the delicate peace between the major players in the story. On Earth, United Nations executive Chrisjen Avasarala is willing to go to extremes to preserve that peace. Meanwhile, police detective Miller, based on Ceres in the asteroid belt, takes on a missing persons case. All of these characters later see these disparate events link up in a conspiracy that has wider implications for humanity.
The design of The Expanse has been executed with style. If you can imagine the design aesthetic of Alien, Blade Runner and Outland combined, the series is given a gritty and realistic feel which provides the perfect backdrop for the story to play out. Meanwhile the space opera elements of the series has nods to classic such as Babylon 5 as well as cult show Firefly. There’s also more than a bit of Blake’s 7 tossed in for good measure, particularly the idea of different people thrown together on a powerful ‘borrowed’ spaceship.
Season 2 of The Expanse arrives in the new year while season 1 is currently available on Netflix.
There were very few shows running in 2016 that achieved the acclaim that Stranger Things courted. It managed to capture the style of 1980s films, particularly by directors such as Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, and use this as a setting rather than a cheap attempt at nostalgia.
Having the focus on child actors as the central characters also puts a lot of weight on the abilities of the young cast, but they all put in a superb performance. In particular, Millie Bobby Brown as “Eleven” whose brooding and initially mute presence suggests a talent at least 10 years older.
The supporting cast also work successfully in bringing the small town 1980s vibe to life. David Harbour as town sheriff Jim Hopper gives off a jaded and resigned attitude that’s suddenly discarded when his focus switches to solving the mystery of the missing Will Byers.
There’s a distinct horror vibe to the series as well, particularly the scenes that take place in the ‘Upside Down’ – the bizarre dimension that also houses the monster stalking the cast.
With a superb music score, both in the period pieces that are dropped in at points over the series, plus the thematic electronic score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, create a package that was one of the must-see shows of 2016.
While the idea of rebooting a ’70s film that explores the idea of a western-themed park populated by lifelike robots seems unlikely on paper, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy managed to serve up one of the most compelling shows of 2016.
Westworld as a TV series traded on mystery and the motivations of many of its characters remained ambiguous for the most part. But the core concept of artificial intelligence emerging took the show’s viewers on a journey that slowly teased out its answers over the season’s 10 episodes. It’s a concept that’s been explored before through classics such as Blade Runner and also through another rebooted show, Battlestar Galactica. Likewise, Westworld manages to elicit sympathy for some of its non-human characters (or ‘hosts’) – in particular Dolores, who enters the story as one of the original hosts of the park but has a particularly complex arc that leads to a shocking denouement in the series finale.
Anthony Hopkins deploys his underhanded charm to play Dr Robert Ford, one of the park’s creators, who manages to run rings around the park owners while pursuing his own cryptic agenda. Ed Harris delivers a chilling portrayal of ‘The Man In Black’ whose casual sadism sums up the mantra that echoes through the series: “These violent delights bring violent ends”.
While there’s still a lot of mystery about how such as park could actually operate in reality, Westworld as a series is more concerned with the philosophical questions that its central conceit invokes. As a result, the viewer become complicit in many of the more morally dubious directions the series takes. In particular, the story of Maeve, another of the hosts who isn’t reluctant to pave a particularly brutal path to her goals.
While the final episode’s action stepped up a gear, the change of pace from the brooding mystery of the preceding episodes seemed a little strange. It didn’t quite stick the landing and the world-changing elements that the finale delivered means that season 2 (which has been commissioned) will likely be a very different beast indeed.
Westworld is screening on Sky Atlantic and is also available on Amazon.
Dabbling in the same waters as Stranger Things to some extent, The OA manages to crank up the sheer absurdity dial for a truly bizarre series created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.
Prairie Johnson (played by Brit Marling herself), a young woman who has been missing for seven years, resurfaces with strange scars on her back. Also, despite being blind from a young age, she’s now capable of sight. Referring to herself as “The OA”, Johnson is evasive when questioned by her parents and the FBI over where she’s been. But gathering an assorted group of very different locals, Johnson tells her story and also asks for their help.
From there, things get very strange indeed and takes in tales of Russian oligarchs, near-death experiences, abduction and other dimensions to present a story that will be a very ‘Marmite’ experience for viewers (you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it).
The OA is screening on Netflix.
Marvel’s TV universe got off to a bright start in 2015 with both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. 2016 saw season 2 of Daredevil (which also introduced the character of Frank Castle aka The Punisher) while season 2 of Jessica Jones is also planned. But 2016 also saw the debut of Luke Cage which took the character introduced in Jessica Jones and gave him his own standalone series.
The Harlem-based show managed to offer up a fresh take on Marvel’s ever-expanding world and also helped to develop the character of Cage, played with a pensive, disarming charm by Mike Colter. Impervious to bullets or indeed pretty much anything that can be brought down on him (including a building apparently), establishing Cage as a credible character who is vulnerable was always going to be a tough call. But what makes the series work is the supporting characters, particularly Misty Knight (Simone Missick) who provides a moral compass for the series. But equally, there’s strong performances from Mahershala Ali as Cornell Stokes and Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, who play the villains of the series.
While the series tackled the thorny issue of whether a reluctant hero such as Cage would step up, the weaving in of elements that connect these characters to his past helped to give him motivation. The show didn’t quite stick the landing and final villain of the piece Diamondback fell a little flat. However, the world building that season 1 delivered suggests a stronger foundation for the in-development season 2.
Luke Cage is screening on Netflix.