The 10 most enjoyable films of 2016

Not necessarily the best movies of the past 12 months, the following list of flicks are the ones that kept me most entertained. The list is roughly in order.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years
My introduction to the Beatles’ music was through hearing them on radio on family car trips in the 1970s and later through compilation tapes. Even as I grew to love the tunes, I don’t think I ever really understood the phenomenon of Beatlemania – 200,000 fans turned out to see the band in Adelaide in the early 1960s – or even the impact of the music itself until this clever (admittedly somewhat hagiographic) documentary. Assembled from concert footage, still photographs and a combination of archival and new interviews, here is a film that enthrals and informs. Good job Ron Howard.

Rosalie Blum
A sad-sack mummy’s boy hairdresser, a hard-smoking middle-aged grocery store owner, her drop-out niece and a slew of fringe-dweller associates doesn’t sound like the most encouraging cast of characters. Yet it all comes together in this cleverly crafted and beautifully executed small-town French dramedy.

The Accountant
This surprising shoot-’em-up could be described as “John Wick meets Rainman“, or as my buddy Derek Agnew puts it, “autistic Batman”. As strange as that sounds, it absolutely works.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The best film of the long-running franchise hands down. Highlights were Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as an ambitious Imperial higher-up, the toughest blind swordsman since Zatoichi, and the most fearsome Darth Vader yet (even if James Earl Jones’ voice sounds a little off in a young villain).

Our Kind of Traitor
Adaptations of John Le Carre can get bogged down in the characters’ internal struggles and torments, expressed through interminable periods of waiting and anguish (for the audience). Yet this lively intrigue is expertly paced, and buoyed by great turns from Stellan Skarsgard as a whistleblower Russian mobster, and Damien Lewis as an MI6 operative bent on revenge.

Sully
The old maestro Clint Eastwood does it again in this telling of the day an airliner made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. It’s way more moving than that sounds. (Idea: I’d love to see directors sneak in a shot of Wilson the volleyball from Castaway into all future Tom Hanks movies, just for old times’ sake).

Allied
There is a small sub-genre of films (Music Box, High Crimes) where a character is made to look so guilty the audience thinks they can’t possibly be the culprit. Is the lovely Marion Cottilard really working for the Germans?

The Sweeney Paris
Gee it’s good to see the hangdog yet charismatic Jean Reno back on screen in this French (of course) police procedural, which features the best street gunfight since Heat. Zut alors!

The Secret Life of Pets
For this animated treat I found myself being that idiot who laughs loudest in the cinema. Enough said.

David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D
Part of the attraction was no doubt the free ticket and choctop, but my first trip to the Imax cinema was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Explanations and extras
Looking through this list, what stands out is the lack of depth, nuance and variety. I definitely was drawn to the escapist flick in 2016. And for this I do not apologise. Surely since the moment the Lumiere brothers showed footage of steam trains coming and going, the point of cinema is transport (no pun intended) rather than edification?

I have no doubt a good part of the enjoyment of the Beatles docco and Rosalie Blum was pleasant surprise – the sense of low expectations being easily exceeded.

The decision to see both movies resulted from sessions for other preferences being sold out, filled by the organised and well mobilised silver foxes of Cinema Como and Palace Balwyn, respectively.

After reading a glowing review on The Onion AV Club, I felt pretty let down by Midnight Special and its very silly cop-out ending. But the whole thing, really. Just dumb.

I had problems with Arrival too, the main ones being understanding how giant squid could build spaceships, and the deus ex machina of the aliens’ “gift”. What a come-down from Sicario for director Denis Villeneuve!

La La Land was quite good, but after it received a record number of Oscar nominations, I’m wondering if I missed something. Many of its tunes sounded like the forgettable filler in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. And like the director’s previous film Whiplash, the conclusion was astonishingly discordant  with what came before.

I walked out on the creepy, exploitative The Witch.

Hell or High Water was a film I wanted to like more, but couldn’t (and didn’t).

Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea were two films I didn’t get around to seeing before the Australia Day deadline.

I also heard Korean zombie epic Train to Busan was worth a look, too. The trailer makes it look like Snowpiercer meets World War Z. I probably won’t see that one. In 2017 I am going to be more discerning, I swear.

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Same, same but different

Motion picture sequels don’t have to go through the motions.

Directors and writers who take over a movie series have two choices: they can continue to shepherd the franchise down the well-grooved path it’s been on – same tropes, characters, and narrative arc – or they can pursue a different route.

In the former category you could put Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Admittedly this is part seven in an epic series spread over 40 (Earth) years. So there’s an expectation that the storylines established in the first six parts will continue to unfold – and perhaps even satisfyingly conclude.

But still. As enjoyable as it was, JJ Abrams’ nifty effort was derivative in the extreme. So much so that it was basically a remake of the original Star Wars (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), but with a female lead standing in for the young Luke Skywalker.

In the latter category could be placed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though set in the carefully circumscribed and increasingly self-referential Star Wars universe, it is a stand-alone off-shoot – something of a prequel to the George Lucas-directed 1977 film.

Like the original, Rogue One is a pastiche of a bunch of different influences, yet the action is considerably more propulsive, and the overall tone somewhat darker.

In a series that has had its share of misfires (Jar Jar Binks and little Anni Skywalker, for instance), it’s a stunning achievement.

The original Alien is admirable for its incredible production design, its masterful build-up of suspense, and for its ground-breaking use of special effects. (Who could forget the film’s signature scene of an extra-terrestrial bursting forth from its host?)

And yet I much prefer the visceral action of the James Cameron-helmed sequel, with its gung ho cadre of military specialists pitted against an icky foe.

Having made “tension” the defining feature of the original, the quintessential space creature feature, Aliens takes us on a thrilling head-long ride that barely lets up.

The Rocky series had taken far too many body blows by the time Creed stepped into the ring. Having stayed past its welcome, it was punchy, against the ropes even, and surely due for the figurative white towel to be tossed in.

However, with Sylvester Stallone relieved of directing and script duties, Creed is easily the best film in the series since the Oscar-winning original.

Featuring the most realistic depiction of the sweet science in the Rocky films, it boasts a charismatic lead in Michael B. Jordan, and a knock-out plot.

Can Adonis Creed fulfil his pugilistic destiny? Can trainer Rocky Balboa impart the essential ringside lessons to the son of his most worthy opponent while himself fighting the biggest foe of his life?

Boasting a stirring score and the essential training montage sequences, it’s a terrific yarn well executed.

Based on the books by Robert Ludlum, the Jason Bourne series appeared as if it had reached a logical end by the time credits rolled on The Bourne Ultimatum (with the best-forgotten Jason Bourne released a few years later).

No longer a complete enigma to himself, super-agent Jason Bourne had outlasted all the agents in the Treadstone program, discovered his true identity, and seemingly closed the door on a life of black ops, clandestine morally indefensible activities, and the ominous engagement of assets.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who had worked on the first few Bourne films, then put his hand up to deliver a side story.

In The Bourne Legacy, a frantic Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) must use all of his lethal training and enhancements to outwit and outfight a merciless government determined to erase all trace of him, going so far as to burn to the ground the Outcome program that provided Cross’s advanced capabilities.

In this intelligent actioner there is less emphasis on the protagonist’s inner journey and more on his determination to survive. And not only is it a worthy addition to the series, it seamlessly integrates into it.

Gilroy’s deft touch can also be seen on Rogue One, for which he served as co-writer.

Just like The Bourne Legacy, it involves the critical search for a MacGuffin.

Somehow it brilliantly references the universe from which it was generated – Darth Vader has never looked more lethal – without ever, er, forcing it.