Saturday, 31 December 2016


The general consensus is that 2016 is a year that we'd all like to forget, but whatever your feelings about it, there's no denying that it was a strong one for cinema. Here's my top 25 (listed alphabetically), followed by my predictions for best of 2017. See you on the other side!

Note: TANGERINE is a 2015 film that I saw this year, too good to omit.






Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Big Ones

Although I mostly cover smaller movies here, I'm not immune to the charms of the big-budget tentpole, particularly when it comes to one of my favourite genres - science fiction. If indie movies are the planets and moons that provide fascinating little worlds for us to explore, blockbusters are the stars that we can't help but gravitate towards, to be dazzled by their immensity and spectacle.

In following with the general shitiness of 2016, this year has been a bit of a wasteland in terms of blockbuster quality. For my money the only real exception was Denis Villeneuve's excellent ARRIVAL, a reminder that big budget sci-fi can - and should - be about more than just action and explosions. However, for all ARRIVAL's strengths - and there are many - it can't quite capture the humanity at the heart of it's source novella (STORY OF YOUR LIFE by Ted Chiang), nor the simple beauty of Chiang's physics and linguistics concepts. The result is a film that is tantalisingly close to perfection, but suffers from too much exposition (almost inevitable when adapting a heavily conceptual work like this), and in terms of its human aspects, ends up being almost as mawkish as it is profound*.

The only other genre blockbusters that came close to greatness this year were STAR TREK BEYOND and ROGUE ONE, but they're both too flawed to be really satisfying. The former is definitely the best of the STAR TREK reboots (and closest in tone to the original series), but in the end BEYOND is still just an action movie with sci-fi trappings, lacking the deeper themes and ideas that make the best of the original series so enduringly great. As for the latter, it's still too reliant on nostalgia and formula to be really exciting. STAR WARS' first opportunity to play outside of the Skywalker sandbox squandered its potential in favour of a lot more of the same. And those jarring CG simulations of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher, oy vey! Strong with the dark side this one is though - Ben Mendelsohn's Director Krennic rules, and Vader's scenes are all-timers.

To be perfectly honest, the most outstanding large scale sci-fi production of 2016 is to be found not on the big screen, but on TV. HBO's WESTWORLD is fantastic, and if you haven't given it a shot yet, I highly encourage you to take the plunge. Thematically deep, thought provoking science fiction that also doesn't skimp on delivering plenty of visceral thrills and titillation. With episodes directed by Vincenzo Natali and Neil Marshall, and a cast lead by Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins, what the fuck are you waiting for? 

So with 2016 behind us, let's look ahead, and the immediate future of the big budget sci-fi movie is blindingly bright. To return to my cheesy space analogy, we're about to enter a cluster of massive stars. As dazzling as they all look now, some of them will invariably implode into black holes of disappointment. No one yet knows which ones are stable, and which will go supernova... but that's all part of the fun, right?

*In screenwriter Eric Heisserer's defence, it must have been a nightmare adapting Chiang's spare, minimalist story into a commercially viable movie.

I like Gareth Edwards' 2014 take on GODZILLA a lot, and I'm pretty chuffed about seeing that universe expand into a fully fleshed out American kaiju series. After the big G goes up against King Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra in GODZILLA 2, we'll be seeing him face off against King Kong in their very own movie. This March we get our first introduction to Godzilla's once and future nemesis in Jordan Vogt-Roberts KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and this iteration of the beast looks to be the biggest and meanest yet, a far cry from the sympathetic animal of Merian C. Cooper's classic. The tone of the film seems to be "APOCALYPSE NOW on Skull Island", quite appropriate really following an explicit reference to Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS in Peter Jackson's KING KONG. Not exactly sure why Dr. Steve Brule appears in this movie, or why his beard seems to change in every shot in the trailer, but I'll be finding out opening day. TRAILER

I'm no anime guy (with the exception of AKIRA, which I love), and I've never even watched the original GHOST IN THE SHELL the whole way through, but I'm really digging the look of this live action update. In terms of its production design, GHOST IN THE SHELL looks like cyberpunk heaven, almost certainly the closest anyone has yet come to capturing the aesthetic of William Gibson's Sprawl novels. Of course this probably means another nail in the coffin for the long mooted NEUROMANCER film, an adaptation that feels more redundant every year. Much has been made of the casting of Johansson in the lead as whitewashing, but I'm not too fussed about it. After UNDER THE SKIN I'll follow ScarJo just about anywhere. The big question is whether Rupert Sanders, director of that unfortunate Snow White movie and nothing else, can deliver more than just pretty visuals. TRAILER

I have chronic superhero fatigue, but the one Marvel movie that really does it for me is James Gunn's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Gunn is a terrific writer, and GUARDIANS is brimming with all the hallmarks that made DAWN '04 and SLITHER so memorable: well-drawn characters, a sharp wit and genuinely moving emotional beats. The man can also direct action with the best of them, and his 2014 Marvel entry features some truly mind-blowing set-pieces and action sequences. Top it off with a cosmically epic scope, and some seriously trippy visuals, and you've got a space opera worth rewatching. With more Michael Rooker, a giant tentacled space monster, and a sentient planet played by Kurt Russell, GUARDIANS VOL. 2 is looking very promising. TRAILER

Am I a masochist? You'd think that after the crushing disappointment of PROMETHEUS, my inclusion of ALIEN: COVENANT on this list would all but confirm it. The thing is, my expectations for COVENANT are completely different to Scott's previous ALIEN prequel. Where I wanted that movie to be a masterpiece, I'm more than happy for this one to be a weird, gory, big budget GALAXY OF TERROR type B-movie. And judging by the trailer that just hit, as well as some of the awful rumours that are getting around about the script, that's exactly what we'll be getting. ALIEN: COVENANT looks like a very odd beast indeed, like the endless cycle of cheap ALIEN knockoffs has come full circle to the point where Sir Ridley has now made one himself. Expect this one to outdo RESURRECTION in terms of bizarro self-parody. TRAILER

Speaking of ALIEN knockoffs, LIFE looks like a blatant attempt to marry Scott's classic with Alfonso Cuarón's GRAVITY. Despite an impressive cast and SFX, the film's journeyman-type writer/director team doesn't inspire much confidence. If nothing else it'll provide some nice sci-fi eye candy. TRAILER

This is the big one for me. BLADE RUNNER's legions of devoted fans (of which I'm one) are an obsessive lot, so if Ridley Scott and Co. fuck this one up, they might as well jump the next shuttle Off-World. If it wasn't for the talent behind the scenes on this sequel I would have dismissed it out of hand, but with his art-house meets blockbuster sensibilities, Director Denis Villeneuve is definitely the man for the job. He's working from a script co-written by the original's Hampton Fancher, and bringing with him one of the hottest cinematographers in the business (Roger Deakins), so things are looking positive, but we'll just have to wait until October to see if Villeneuve is really up to the task. ENEMY, SICARIO and ARRIVAL say yes, but regardless of its brilliant director's talent and credentials, BLADE RUNNER 2049's success is largely dependent on avoiding the pitfalls of other recent sequels and prequels. An over indulgence in nostalgia and fan-service will sink this movie like a stone. No one wants to see attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, or C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. We just want an intelligent, thought provoking continuation of the themes and ideas of the original, and another glimpse into that terrifying yet paradoxically beautiful future. TEASER

I'm writing this last paragraph with a heavy heart. Carrie Fisher died today, and STAR WARS EPISODE VIII will mark her last appearance on the big screen. Let's hope it's a fitting send-off. Despite their strengths, THE FORCE AWAKENS and ROGUE ONE are prime examples of that unhealthy indulgence in nostalgia that I mentioned above, and in order for the series to thrive it needs to break out of its increasingly stale formula. With that in mind, Rian Johnson is a much more optimistic choice to helm a STAR WARS movie than J.J. Abrams. Hopefully the director of LOOPER - one of the more unique SF movies in recent memory - can steer the saga in new and exciting directions. Pros: Johnson has a strong and interesting group of new characters to build on in Rey, Finn and Kylo Renn. Cons: if a rumoured script leak is to be believed, we'll be seeing a story thread explaining the origins of the force, uh-oh!