I didn’t see a great deal at the cinema in 2016, so my favourite thing comes from the world of television: GAME OF THRONES. HBO’s biggest hit remained an enthralling spectacle in season 6, telling a multi-layered story you’re desperate to keep up with. But what really helped this year was how fans were (largely) on the same page as everyone else, excuse the pun, as the story moved past George R.R Martin’s literary saga. So it was a season of big reveals and surprises for everyone watching, and it just felt more enjoyable to be less cautious about reading spoilers and getting to theorise with gleeful abandon. On a technical standpoint, the show put most blockbuster movies to shame with a tremendous action set-piece during “Battle of the Bastards”, but also broke hearts using just three little words: “hold the door”.
Honourable mentions: Better Call Saul (AMC, season 2), Black Mirror (Netflix, series 3), Westworld (HBO, season 1), Outlander (Starz, season 2), American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J Simpson (FX), Fleabag (BBC, series 1), and The Jungle Book (2016).
My biggest disappointment of 2016 was Fox’s misguided revival of THE X-FILES, because it was huge opportunity to update the show for a new generation while keeping those characters around for new but occasional adventures… that got squandered. Creator Chris Carter assembled a promising clique of X-Files veterans to work on it, and it was great to see David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson return as Mulder and Scully, but the show was a creative mess. The standalone stories were functional at best, the only hour that totally worked was a comical one (from a script Darin Morgan didn’t even originally write for the series), and it was a monumentally poor decision to bookend the season with mytharc episodes that overhauled years of plotting. The deeper mysteries of The X-Files may have became an albatross around its neck in the 1990s, but killing that albatross and replacing it with a heavier one wasn’t the best way to go. Some things are best left in the past.
Dishonourable mentions: Vinyl (HBO, season 1), Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice, Ghostbusters (2016), and The Fall (BBC, series 3).
In a year filled with solid dramas and interesting comedies, the five-part documentary O.J: MADE IN AMERICA stood clear of the pack. On the surface it was yet another retread of the O.J Simpson murder trial, a subject that had been well covered earlier in the year by Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson—and given that, it was tempting to claim there was nothing else to say. Tempting but wrong, because this documentary was about far more than one murder, however infamous. Made in America placed O.J Simpson in context.
It took us back to the early days of his career—and in doing so reminded non-Americans, who largely knew him as the goofy cop from The Naked Gun movies, what a huge deal he actually was—and it carefully detailed his marriage to Nicole Brown, showing just how many times the police were called to the Simpson home, and how many times those calls were ignored because of a desire to see sports stars as heroes. Most importantly it turned an unflinching eye on race relations in America, and in so doing made viewers understand why the Simpson jury returned the verdict it did. Unflinching, clear-eyed, and forensic in its detail, Made in America showed us how the aftershocks of the Simpson case can continue to be seen in everything; from today’s celebrity culture, and the rise of Donald Trump, to the continued spate of black deaths in police custody, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It was the story both of the fall from grace of a man but also the ongoing collapse of a nation.
Honourable mentions: Gomorrah (BBC, season 2), Fleabag (BBC, series 1), Atlanta (FX, season 1), The Night Of (HBO, miniseries), and Peaky Blinders (BBC, series 3).
Few shows have felt as out of touch with their times as VINYL, the bloated drama about rock music in the 1970s. Conceived by Mick Jagger, with a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, and a script from Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter, Vinyl should have been the next big HBO hit. Instead, it was an incoherent mess. The charismatic Bobby Cannavale did his best as drug-addled record executive Ritchie Finestra, but it was hard to care about a man who lied, cheated, and stole from just about everyone he met. Matters weren’t helped by the casting of non-actor James Jagger as proto-punk rocker Kip Stevens—his inability to deliver the dense dialogue convincingly only serving to highlight how overwritten much of it was.
Most of all, though, Vinyl failed because it got the focus wrong: any one of the show’s female characters, from Juno Temple’s A&R girl on the make, through to Susan Heyward’s conflicted secretary CeCe, to Olivia Wilde’s trapped wife Devon, would have made a more interesting lead. There were, occasionally, hints of a different, better drama (a clear-eyed take on addiction that didn’t worship its bombastic leading man), but those moment were too often drowned by lavish musical sequences, spot the rock n’ roll god cameos, and a feverish desire to shoehorn every possible ‘70s music reference into one show. Vinyl wanted to tell a story of Shakespearian excess, instead, to quote the bard himself, it ended up “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Dishonourable mentions: Crisis in Six Scenes (Amazon, miniseries), The X-Files (Fox, miniseries), The Fall (BBC, series 3), One of Us (BBC, miniseries), and The Night Manager (BBC, miniseries).
Of all the superlative television dramas shown in 2016 there were two series that demanded binge-watching of me. Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS and HBO miniseries THE NIGHT OF, which are my inseparably favourite offerings of the year.
The debate still rages whether the Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things, set in Hawkins, Indiana, 1983, is either a shallow and shameless rip-off of Spielberg, Dante, Hooper, Carpenter, and Cronenberg and any other director of that era you care to mention, or if it is a stylish, gripping, nostalgia-primed scary monster story tapping into the veins of Stephen King’s Stand By Me and Carrie, and more modern fare such as Donnie Darko, Under the Skin and Only God Forgives.
However, there’s no doubting the strength of the ensemble cast; from the Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed young nerds Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), to a smashing central performance from Winona Ryder as Will’s stressed-out mother Joyce, whose sheer determination to find her son is beautifully played. As it progresses, Stranger Things rises above its 1980s riffs and becomes a twisted exploration of a darker parallel version of suburbia, the Upside Down, created by a sinister government agency attempting to harness the telekinetic powers of a young girl, ‘Eleven’ (captivatingly played by the magnificently named Millie Bobby Brown).
It had laughs, scares, a wonderfully retro synth score (redolent of Cliff Martinez, John Carpenter, and Tangerine Dream), and a compelling narrative and characters you seriously root for. The big question now is whether it can maintain its impetus for season 2, due in 2017.
At the other end of the spectrum is The Night Of, an adaptation of the BBC’s Criminal Justice, and originally set to star James Gandolfini. HBO didn’t pick the series up until after Gandolfini’s death and Robert De Niro was first choice to replace him, before John Turturro was instead cast as world-weary, psoriatic John Stone—a defence attorney drawn to the plight of a young Pakistani-American college student Nazir Khan (Riz Ahmed). The naive Khan, borrowing his father’s taxi one night, wakes after a night out with a young woman he picked up to discover she has now been brutally murdered.
The eight episodes turn the standard drama tropes of a police procedural, murder investigation and trial into a compelling, stunningly acted unpicking of the justice system, Islamophobia, and the loss of innocence within dehumanising institutions. Ahmed is entirely convincing as Khan is inculcated into the prison culture of Riker’s Island and spirals further into the abyss.
His alleged innocence is thrown into doubt as the trial proceeds and grouchy retiree cop Dennis Box (the superb Bill Camp) and steely district attorney Helen Weiss (the equally brilliant Jeannie Berlin) form a formidable prosecution case. Turturro might exploit the quirkiness of John Stone but it’s a minutely detailed performance, slowly unveiling the defence attorney’s vulnerabilities where his relationship with a stray cat offers a starkly bleak view into his psyche.
Finally, for a story suffused with ambiguity and no real sense of absolution, The Night Of also revels in its New York noir milieu: from the bars of the West Village and Union Square, to the shady diners of Tribeca, the mean streets of Manhattan never looked meaner.
Honourable mentions: Black Mirror (Netflix, series 3), Better Call Saul (AMC, season 2), Happy Valley (BBC, series 2), Line of Duty (BBC, series 3), Trapped (BBC, series 1), and Deutschland ’83 (Channel 4).
The biggest disappointments for me were THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, a folk horror mystery series that looked fantastic but always pulled its punches; a new adaptation of Conrad’s The Secret Agent which simply proved it’s a book that’s impossible to adapt; and the unnecessary third series of The Fall, with much of its running time spent fetishizing endlessly over Jamie Dornan’s body only to deliver an utterly predictable conclusion.
There are too few complex and intelligent works of science fiction these days, but Denis Villeneuve’s incredible ARRIVAL bucks that trend. It’s so much more ambitious than the average alien invasion movie, and aims to bring audiences something nuanced and intriguing. Its greatest achievement is in how it balances its enormous scale with what is, ultimately, a very human story. If there’s any justice, Amy Adams will get another Oscar nomination and maybe win for her exceptional leading performance, and the film deserves recognition in so many other categories, too—not least for its direction, visual effects, and score.
Villeneuve makes a successful switch from the utter darkness and cynicism of last year’s Sicario to make 2016’s most hopeful film. This is an uncompromising vision of the challenges and possibilities the future may provide, and it’s a highly relevant narrative that presents us with a clear look at how communication and understanding will build bridges and mend divides around the world. It doesn’t provide easy answers, but it leaves you thinking about it for days afterwards. Arrival also manages to be moving and emotional without feeling overly sentimental, something Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar admirably aimed to do but faltered. It’s amazing to see this all come together so well, as this is one of the decade’s most thoughtful science fiction movies. One that’s able to be powerful while never forgetting about the complexity of the issues it deals with.
Honourable mentions: Room, Sing Street, The Edge of Seventeen, Stranger Things (Netflix, season 1), and Black Mirror (Netflix, series 3).
Zack Snyder’s rushed attempt to catch up with the development of the Marvel universe, while systematically dismantling and ruining (or “deconstructing”, to use his own words) iconic figures of DC Comics, results in a drab, unexciting, and weakly-scripted superhero movie. Nobody wants a moody and sullen Superman, or a murderous and torturing Batman. Audiences made that much clear with the massive drop off at the box office on the film’s second weekend. A narrative did emerge that critics hated the movie and fans loved it, but that doesn’t seem likely. Fans came to watch it initially, but they didn’t come back and they certainly didn’t tell their friends to go see it.
I’d counter that BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is simply an unsatisfying experience for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to a particular bleak and hopeless view of heroism. Even outside of its failings as a movie about these iconic characters, it’s also just a poorly constructed piece of filmmaking. Scenes don’t tie together effectively, logic is largely absent, the photography is colourless and uninspiring, and it’s even about an hour longer than it needed to be! Crucially, the Dark Knight’s motivation in his feud against the Man of Steel is never established as much as it needed to be, and the moment that resolves their fight is frankly just too laugh-out-loud funny to land emotionally. This film is 2016’s most high-profile misfire, so much so that it prompted a major course correction within the Warner Bros./DC production line. Maybe there’s still some slight hope for the future of this franchise?
Dishonourable mentions: Suicide Squad, Anomalisa, and The Danish Girl.
2016 was a good year for movies, but the film I can’t stop suggesting to everyone is Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE. The story revolves around a group of New York friends who make a living thanks to the Commune, a comedy group they created to perform improv shows and teach the art to students. Their lives are a precarious struggle to express themselves, prepare for auditions, fight the temptation of resenting their friends who made it. And by “made it” I mean being hired to perform at a pseudo-Saturday Night Live, the big jump into TV that inevitably destroys not only relationships but comedy too.
It’s a film written by a comedian, about comedians, starring comedians, so be ready to laugh a lot — but I won’t believe you if you tell me you didn’t shed a tear, too. Birbiglia’s film is simple, intelligently written, heartfelt: enjoy the light-hearted but exhilarating camaraderie, the bittersweet and funny tone variations, and the sheer humanity it brings along. With Kate Micucci, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher and Birbiglia himself all spot-on in their roles, it’s also impossible not to appreciate how spontaneous the performances and the chemistry between characters are. They work so well I’m still wondering where the acting finishes and the real life story starts. The icing on the cake? Birbiglia is completely out of the circle of try-hard, forcibly edgy comedians who can’t get over their over-the-top persona—his work really is a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t seen such a lovely, satisfying comedy in ages.
Honourable mentions: Arrival, The Nice Guys, Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
It’s always difficult to figure out which film was the worst of the year. I plan my visits to the cinema carefully, but an unfavourable alignment of the planets led me to watch FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, which certainly was the most disappointing feature of 2016. The only Fantastic Beast left from the source novel, a 100-page book J. K. Rowling wrote for charity in 2001, is the huge cash cow the English writer (who wrote the script and executive produced the film) will happily milk with Warner Bros for the next decade. Judging by this first chapter, I don’t hold much hope that the next four planned sequels will be any different from the trite, excruciatingly dull, CGI-bloated adventure that clogged our cinemas last November.
As opposed to many of my peers, since I left my adolescence behind I also grew out of the special world of magic curses, house elves, school quarrels and trivia on the extensive parentage of Sirius Black. I also started thinking less of J.K. Rowling’s writing. I might not exactly be the target audience for this film, but I can safely say that, even if Rowling’s ability as a novelist is open for debate, the case on her ability as a screenwriter is officially closed. It seems nobody even hinted at getting her screenplay refined by a script doctor, as it’s a total disaster. The plot is just all over the place, the dialogue would suit an afternoon puppet show for kids, and the characters are all unbelievably bland. There is an actual scene where Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne mimics a love ritual by bending over and jiggling his butt, all in order to titillate a ‘Fantastically Horny Beast’. Eww.
The first red flag came right at the beginning, in the shape of the Niffler, a cute beast scampering around for Newt to catch. “Isn’t it just lovely, stealing coins and shiny jewels?” the film seemed to desperately ask. Sadly, my focus was all on the critter’s poorly-rendered hair, the Roger Rabbit-like consistency (as if painted directly onto the screen), and its pointless role in the story. A good metaphor for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I can only summarise as being about as fun as getting hit by the express train to Hogwarts.
Dishonourable mentions: Suicide Squad, Independence Day: Resurgence, and London Has Fallen.
Stéphane Brizé’s THE MEASURE OF A MAN follows Thierry (Vincent Lindon) in the aftermath of his long-term employer’s decision to leave the country. Outsourcing to Asia in search of cheaper labour means the current workforce must be laid off, and as a middle-aged man on the scrap heap, getting back into work isn’t easy. When he eventually does, he’s forced to decide how far he’s willing to forgo his dignity for the sake of a regular pay cheque. This film is a wonderful portrait of the West’s labour market, and what the hollowing out means for people with very little to fall back on. Most of the cast are non-professionals playing characters whose jobs are the same as their own. So, the job
Most of the cast are non-professionals playing characters whose jobs are the same as their own. So, the job centre worker making excuses for his department’s mistake, when Thierry is sent on a training course that turns out to be useless, is played by a real job centre employee. This lends a ring of truth to the dialogue. Anyone who’s encountered the bureaucracy of the benefits system will have heard these phrases and been on the receiving end of these empty sympathies before.
The most striking and brutal scene in the movie comes when Thierry has to attend a group meeting to assess his interview technique. Glossed with the veneer of good intentions, as these things always are, Thierry is subjected to a mass pile on, in which everyone in the room tears into his every fault. He’s left to sit there while those around him, the fellow unemployed, tell him why his hesitating and his body language are a problem as they watch a recording of him being interviewed for a job. This is exactly the kind of bullshit activity you’re encouraged to participate in when you’re out of work, and Thierry’s gradual degradation plays out painfully.
Honourable mentions: The Pearl Button, Kate Plays Christine, No Home Movie, Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, and Things to Come.
The first problem that becomes apparent when watching INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is the mass of expository dialogue that lands in your lap at the start. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only problem this tardy sequel had. The threat from the returning alien invaders is so overblown and enormous there’s no way of having any kind of reaction to it. How do you feel anything for the millions of people apparently being killed as cities are destroyed when we see nothing but dull CG effects intercut with people making bad one-liners? It’s not funny, nor is it even mildly entertaining.
Dishonourable mentions: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Dheepan, Chicken, Son of Saul, and Time Out of Mind.
After going blind in 1980, university professor John M. Hull began to keep an audio diary as he came to terms with his disability. NOTES ON BLINDNESS used actors lip-syncing to Hull’s original tapes to create a powerful documentary exploring the realities of how the loss of a sense can impact on our identity and how we interact with our environment. This collision of authentic sound and manufactured visuals expertly blurred the line between fact and fiction, perfectly replicating the protagonist’s own relationship with the world now he could no longer see it.
Given the subject matter, it’s somewhat surprising that Notes on Blindness was one of the most visually stunning films of the year. Directors Pete Middleton and James Spinney created a number of set-pieces that beautifully complimented the insightful first-hand narration provided by John Hull and his family. This included a heart-breaking scene where Hull (Dan Renton Skinner, on scintillating form and unrecognisable from his day job playing Angelos Epithemiou) tried to imagine what his own child, born after he had already lost his sight, looked like. The filmmakers even managed to turn a simple trip to the supermarket into an awe-inspiring spectacle.
Thought-provoking, moving, and inspiring; Notes On Blindness has raised the bar for British documentaries.
Honourable mentions: Sing Street, Fleabag (BBC, series 1), Captain Fantastic, Spotlight, The Hard Stop, and The Night Of (HBO, miniseries).
Given how terrible the reviews were for SUICIDE SQUAD, it’s easy to forget the anticipation and excitement surrounding the film when it was released in August. A hugely successful marketing campaign including some fantastically well put-together trailers had hoodwinked many of us into thinking we were about to be treated to a landmark superhero movie.
Unfortunately, even the most talented PR people couldn’t polish this cinematic turd. Telling the story of a group of super-villains recruited to join an FBI task force, Suicide Squad failed in almost every regard. The script (which was allegedly written in just six weeks!) gave us a threadbare, insomnia-curing plot and endless exposition about characters that were mostly indistinguishable. The CGI was appalling and the whole thing looked as if it was designed by committee, with director David Ayer’s darker vision obviously hindered by meddling studio execs.
DC and Warner Bros. desperately wanted to evoke the darkness of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the misfit camaraderie of Guardians of the Galaxy and the sassiness of Deadpool but got nowhere near the high benchmarks set by these films. Suicide Squad is Hollywood at its absolute worst: a risk-averse, focus-grouped, franchise-building slab of mind-numbing blandness that did well enough at the box office to reaffirm the studio’s belief they can make millions by producing terrible movies.
Dishonourable mentions: Triple 9, Anomalisa, and A Bigger Splash.
AMC’s PREACHER is the unsung TV hero of 2016. The show starts with an exploding pastor and a vampire fighting passengers on a private jet. It’s as aesthetically pleasing as Utopia, pop culture referencing like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and absurd comic book action The Walking Dead wishes it could pull off. 21 years in the making, this comic book adaption concerns Reverend Jesse Custer’s (Dominic Cooper) receiving an unwanted superpower which allows him to impose his will on others. Cooper is dashing and dangerous as a bank robber turned preacher, Ruth Negga is sexy and tough as Tulip O’Hare, and Joe Gilgun turns bloodthirsty Irish vampire Cassidy into a charming puppy dog. These one-dimensional characters on the page became more relatable, charming and fully realised in live-action. It may not have delivered the ‘OMG!’ moments of Westworld, but it created an entirely believable sense of place in dusty Annville, Texas, that helped normalise the bizarre community we found there.
Honourable mentions: Westworld (HBO, season 1), American Horror Story: Roanoke (FX, season 6), How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, season 2), and American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J Simpson (FX).
A show 20-years in the making, suggested by iconic Mick Jagger to the legendary Martin Scorsese, about the thrilling era of 1970s rock music in New York sounds like a surefire hit. But record executive Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) just snorted coke and lived through a series of clumsy flashbacks in the sorely disappointing VINYL. This HBO drama contained all the music drama clichés: bad accountants, cocaine-fuelled jet plane rides, and one of the most boring falls from sobriety seen on TV.
The ‘70s were all about the changing cultural and musical landscape, where gender and politics were both being played with and hip hop was forging its own identity, yet Vinyl is more concerned with a black-and-white “rock n’ roll is king” ideology, missing out on a plethora of things that are still relevant to pop culture. There are some lovely references for the more hardcore music fans (like a brilliant recreation of Led Zeppelin manager Pete Grant’s meltdown), but the show sadly sinks into the plots that no one wanted. The fact this show has fifteen producers was part of the issue, as there was no singular creative vision from showrunner Terence Winter. Instead of being a buzzy music drama, Vinyl chooses to drift into cop show procedural and made audiences wonder where the music went.
Dishonourable mentions: The Secret Agent (BBC, miniseries), Shadowhunters (Netflix, season 1), Fear the Walking Dead (AMC, season 2), and The 100 (Netflix, season 3).
Without a doubt, BBC1’s THE MISSING was the highlight of my TV year. At first, I was apprehensive about watching the show given the fact I didn’t enjoy the first series. But, because of my love for Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes, Line of Duty), I downloaded series 2 and was immediately gripped. From the beginning, it had a Nordic Noir feel, which is a genre British writers often seem to emulate well. Each episode, written by Harry and Jack Williams, had a unique ability to throw up more questions than it answered, making every instalment unmissable. Unlike some other dramas, the finale was also explosive and gripping—testimony to a fabulous drama—instead of a predictable damp squib. The cast was incredible, making you feel like you were unravelling this mystery along with them.
Honourable mentions: Humans (Channel 4, series 2), Brief Encounters (ITV, series 1), Victoria (ITV, series 1), Orange is the New Black (Netflix, season 4), Black Mirror (Netflix, series 3), and Unforgotten (ITV, series 1).
Of a similar genre-inspiration, THE TUNNEL made a long-awaited return and became the show that most disappointed me in 2016. The first series was, in places, a carbon copy of the Scandinavian drama it was adapting, The Bridge, but it was nevertheless a well-produced and enjoyable remake, so I had high hopes for series 2. Unfortunately, none of the episodes flowed, the story was hard to grasp, and dialogue switched between English and French so often it all felt badly edited together. The main storyline concerned a plane crash and should have been a taught thriller that had us on the edge of our seats, but it was instead tedious and difficult to follow. The only thing I wanted to do after it had finished was put my original DVD of The Bridge on.
Dishonourable mentions: Tutankhamun (ITV, miniseries) and Top Gear (BBC, series 23).