While in 2015 I managed to see far fewer films released that year than in 2014, this past 12 months made even those efforts look stellar. Partly because my partner & I emigrated halfway through 2016, and partly because I had no job & therefore very little disposable income, a meagre 30 movies were seen by yours truly. Bearing that in mind, it’s almost pointless to pick 5 that stood out, ‘cos they’re aren’t exactly up against tough competition. Nonetheless, for what it is worth, here are the ones that I enjoyed the most this year.
Part-biopic, part investigation into philosophical questions of obedience, empathy and individuality, this effort from writer-director Michael Almereyda tells the story of the experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1961. Played here with evident enjoyment by the always-watchable Peter Sarsgaard, Milgram wants to know why it was the so many apparently empathic people had nonetheless committed unspeakable atrocities during the Second World War. To this end, he carries out a series of tests aimed at exploring the extent to which individuals will relinquish responsibility for their actions once they believe that a higher authority has deemed such actions necessary. The film brilliantly shows the controversial studies themselves and the subsequent pushback from the scientific community, a response aimed at discrediting the methods and results used. Intermittently, Milgram addresses the audience directly, and it is these moments that really stand out; his ideas on alienation, development, awareness and liberation shine through in an invigorating way. An adroit cast including Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo and the late Anton Yelchin perform an excellent script; the plot is a precise and the dialogue as punchy as is necessary in a movie that barely clocks in at over an hour and half in runtime.
He Never Died
What if the Biblical Cain was condemned to live forever? What would he look like? What would his life be like? This is a darkly humorous, violent and engrossing answer. Henry Rollins, charismatic as all hell but as subdued as you might expect after multiple millenia of existence, plays a mysterious, stoic, undemonstrative immortal just trying to keep his head down until the end of days. Despite this endeavour, he attracts the unwelcome attentions of a bunch of local goons, and the slightly-more welcome attentions of the waitress in his local diner. When his daughter is kidnapped (yes, he has a daughter, don’t overthink it), the jaded Jack has to rouse himself for some serious ass-kicking. Funny, brutal and brilliantly performed – props to Steven Ogg who puts in a wicked turn as the main antagonist – this is a fresh, entertaining, gritty romp.
Ava Duvernay helms this documentary focussing on the loophole in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a loophole that allowed – and allows – slavery to persist in America. Drawing on a wealth of expertise, a whole coterie of talking heads, and the unimpressive protestations of some establishment figures, Duvernay and co-writer Spencer Averick take us through the history of the abolition of chattel slavery and its replacement with the no-less insidious Prison Industrial Complex. The Amendment which supposedly ended slavery is revealed to have had an exemption for those who are convicted criminals, and as this movie makes abundantly clear, the significance of that has echoed down through the generations right to the present day. The criminalisation of black people, the harsh incarceration rates, the war on drugs and the continuing wealth inequality are all examined as 13th shows us the incredible lack of justice in the United States of America. When even Newt Gingrich admits that there’s a fundamental unfairness at work, you know the situation is beyond abysmal. Compulsory viewing.
The Hateful Eight
Before watching this, there were only 3 Tarantino productions that I had any time for; the fantastic Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and the less-impressive-but-still-enjoyable Jackie Brown. Inglourious Basterds I found an incredibly obnoxious, self-indulgent and crass bit of film-making, and Django Unchained was good for the most part before dissolving into utter nonsense pretty much from the exact moment the director himself showed up for his regular appearance. I have yet to see Kill Bill or Death Proof. However! Finally I can add one more to the list of movies directed by Quentin Tarantino that I actually like. Sticking to a single main setting, as in Reservoir Dogs, really helps, it seems; the major action all takes place in a haberdashery, albeit with various flashbacks featuring other locations. Visually, the whole thing is luscious, with the decision to use old-school 70mm totally vindicated. There’s still a momentary clunker – the auteur’s voiceover between chapters is mildly irritating – but the tension and suspense quickly put that to one side. The cast, without exception, are all on top form, and for once there is but a solitary instance to which we can point and say, “Easy on the old corn syrup there, Quentin”. All in all, I enjoyed this a hell of a lot more than I thought I would…which, given that I liked the look of the thing beforehand, is a considerable recommendation.
The Siege of Jadotville
This depicts the little-known story of a company of Irish U.N. peacekeepers in 1961 Congo who were isolated, surrounded and attacked by a combined force of Katangan rebels and international mercenaries. Jamie Dornan inhabits the role of Commandant Pat Quinlan, who leads his besieged troops in a desperate defensive action, pleading desperately with his superiors over the radio to come to their aid – to no avail. Of the supporting cast, Conor Cruise O’Brien is portrayed with apt oiliness by Mark Strong, and Guillaume Canet plays the suprisingly-likeable leader of the mercenary group. Fighting to the very last bullet, without losing a man, the Irish soldiers are somehow subsequently seen as failures, the whole embarrassing episode to be forgotten by their country as quickly as possible. This movie plays its part in resurrecting the reputation of these brave men, and shows the dispiriting reality of international peacekeeping, with all the political machinations and political ambitions behind the scenes that wreak havoc on the frontlines. For an avid fan of war movies, this ticks all the boxes.
Solidarity, brothers & sisters…☆