Before I start on the good stuff, some words on the dud of the entire year.
In the lead up to the American Presidential election, Robert De Niro lashed out against Donald Trump, admitting in a video: ‘I’d like to punch him in the face,’ and explaining that he was very worried that about the direction his country might take under Trump.
Well done you may say although I would rather De Niro concentrated on the direction his own career has taken over the past two decades or so. From Goodfellas to Dirty Grandpa. That’s a career decline every bit as severe as McCartney going from A Day in the Life to that Frog Chorus nonsense but at least Macca had the excuse that We All Stand Together was aimed at children.
It’s not that I object to the infantile humour on display in Dirty Grandpa – I laugh every time I see Brian projectile vomiting on Family Guy and even found the inside the humping elephants scene in Grimsby pretty amusing – but this was just rather sad and the script’s unfunny grossouts really aren’t helped by some sanctimonious claptrap that the De Niro character dispenses to his uptight grandson.
Misconceived from its first scene through to its last, Dirty Grandpa as entertainment, rated somewhere between being forced to watch the boxset of the complete Mrs Brown’s Boys and sitting through a Westboro Baptist Church lecture about God hating fags. Maybe a Golden Raspberry would remind the greatest actor of his generation to consider putting his reputation before potential paychecks.
2016 was far from a vintage year for films set in Scotland although some Scots did excel in the world of cinema and played a part in four of my favourites over the last twelve months. Kate Dickie put in a pitch perfect performance in one of the year’s most unsettling films, The Witch, while the ever reliable Tilda Swinton shone in her brief appearances as Thora and Thessaly Thacker (yes, you read that correctly) in the seventeenth Coen Brothers movie, the dazzling Hail, Caesar!
Karen Gillan didn’t impress quite so much in In a Valley of Violence but director David McKenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) deserves to receive some attention from the Academy for his latest offering, Hell or High Water but probably won’t this time around. I expect Jeff Bridges to be more fortunate and earn a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars although Mahershala Ali is a stick on to win that category for his performance in Moonlight. Put your money on it.
Okay, the top ten.
10. Deadpool: A surprisingly entertaining watch for me, albeit I did enter the cinema with far from high expectations. Yeah, it goes out of its way to show how clever its creators are but hey, that’s preferable to most of the lowest common denominator formulaic rubbish that regularly hits cinema complexes. Ryan Reynolds is perfect for the self-referential superhero (of sorts) and lines like his one about David Beckham and good looks had me chuckling loudly.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane: A far more interesting film than Cloverfield with John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in very good form.
8. In a Valley of Violence: Although not a spaghetti western, this does have a definite pasta-ish feel and John Travolta puts in possibly his best performance since Pulp Fiction. And if there was an Oscar for best animal actor, then Jumpy as Abbie would be taking home the gong.
7. Hail, Caesar!: Fans of the Coen Brothers will lap this up, in fact, fans of cinema should lap this up, especially for the exquisite pastiches of 1950s Hollywood on display: a Noël Coward drawing room drama starring a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich); Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid in a lavish Busby Berkeley style aquatic production; a very entertaining song and dance number from the kind of musical that usually starred Gene Kelly called No Dames, where a bunch of sailors mourn the fact that they won’t see a woman for eight months after they report back for their next voyage (but after seeing their superbly choreographed routine I think they’ll be fine) and a Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! that stars George Clooney. A swell way to spend 100 minutes of your time.
6. De Palma: Watching this documentary in the GFT a few months ago reminded me of just how many great films Brian De Palma has directed over the years such as Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables. I’m now even tempted to give Bonfire of the Vanities another chance.
5. The Witch: Watching The Witch, or The VVitch as it is styled, got me thinking of the way that even all this time later there are still parts of the world where religion reigns totally; where men are thrown off buildings for being gay, where women are forced to marry men who rape them and, even in one case I read about early last year, a Iraqi teenager was publicly beheaded for listening to Western music. The Witch is a harrowing watch but also a very worthwhile one.
4. Sweet Bean was never going to cause any stampedes in the queuing areas of cinema chains but this Japanese film about an elderly lady finding fulfilment in a job making the filling for pancakes was one of the most satisfying watches of 2016. My review here.
3. Hell or High Water: A neo-Western heist thriller by David MacKenzie, a director who has always chosen the music for his movies wisely. For The Last Great Wilderness he persuaded The Pastels to provide the soundtrack, for Young Adam he turned to David Byrne while this time around its Nick Cave, along with Warren Ellis, who supply the score.
2. The Hateful Eight: Released in America last Christmas but Britain had to wait until January to see the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino hence its appearance in this list. My review here.
1. The Neon Demon:
A surprise number one I would imagine, having been booed at its Cannes premiere. It also failed to get anywhere near the Rotten Tomatoes top hundred films of the year and polarized critics yet managed to unite many conservatives and liberals, pissing them off equally, mainly due to a lesbian character indulging in some necrophilia and the most grotesque scene involving an eyeball since Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali gave the world Un Chien Andalou.
According to Rolling Stone, ‘The Neon Demon is a special kind of awful’ while the Telegraph’s Tim Robey called it ‘the most offensive film of the year.’
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who is best known for Drive, the 2011 film where Ryan Gosling drives fast and says little, The Neon Demon is hyper-stylized and drenched in startling, super-saturated blues and reds with every frame obviously being shot with the utmost care by someone with an artist’s eye for composition.
Just as impressive is the brooding electronic score by Cliff Martinez, that recalls Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream’s soundtracks back in the 1980s.
Set in the superficial world of fashion where a bigwig designer can declare without contradiction: ‘Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing’ and where young models talk about getting plastic surgery on their ears so they can wear ponytails in the same way they would discuss what they’re having for dinner (which, incidentally, probably consists of a stick of celery and a few grains of boiled rice).
At the centre of the film is Jesse, played by Elle Fanning (Super 8), just turned sixteen and beginning a career in modelling.
Agency heads and high end photographers uniformly adore her and the more she is fêted the more Jesse lets the flattery go to her pretty little head. Her looks, though, attract just as much jealousy as praise – rather than an exploitation film this is a film about exploitation. Mainly of Jesse.
The plot isn’t the best quality of the film and elements of it might even have David Lynch scratching his head. Like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, The Neon Demon plays out as much like a dream – or, more precisely, a nightmare – than a realistic drama.
There’s also some Lars Von Trier style surreal sadism in the mix and the kind of triangle symbolism that would give Kubrick a run for his money.
Macabre and menacing, haunting and hypnotic, The Neon Demon reminded me in some ways of my experience of seeing Under the Skin for the first time. At times I was borderline bored but as soon as I stepped out the cinema I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and almost immediately wanted to see it again.
The Neon Demon might not be the best film of the year but it is the most memorable one.
Finally it was good to see two splendid British films re-issued, namely Kes and Psychomania. The former a social realist masterpiece about a boy and a kestrel, the latter a horror tale of an English biker gang coming back from death with the aid of a frog. Sons of Anarchy it definitely wasn’t.
That series had shootings, stabbings, stranglings and general mayhem. Psychomania had bikers acting like a bunch of brattish schoolboys in a suburban mini-market. Both Kes and Psychomania featured scores by John Cameron, who, strangely enough, went on to play on the old Top of the Pops – Whole Lotta Love theme tune.
The best re-release of the year, though, has to be Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which came out on Blu-ray for the first time in Britain during the summer. An anti-war classic and right up there with the director’s best work.