What a year, huh? Shame it was so uneventful. Nothing of social or artistic or political consequence happened and we all lived happily ever after!
Okay, I'll dispense with the sarcasm. Honestly, I'm not sure what I can say about this year that hasn't been said already, repeatedly and more eloquently. We lost titans of the arts -- from David Bowie and Alan Rickman, to Prince and Leonard Cohen, and then some -- while the far-right swept to power in a depressing majority of developed nations as fears around economic disparity and radicalised terrorism took hold (boosted and manipulated by a media often all-too-willing to seek clickbait headlines and controversial soundbites over facts, but that's another conversation for another forum). I mention this as the major events of 2016 have left a lot of people around the globe uncertain at best -- and terrified at worst -- at what awaits us in 2017, and this climate can't help but find itself reflected in the art we saw and heard this year.
As a consequence, my favourite films of 2016 list boasts some choices that, while still great films on their own terms as art, entertainment or documentary, are undeniably politically motivated; cinema that aims to illuminate, educate and/or shock us out of our reverie (if the news hasn't done that already). Many of my favourite film experiences of this year were, in some way or another, reflections of where we're at as a society right now, and, while we've come so far, highlight symptoms of a society still in need of many cures.
However doesn't mean I've gone all self-righteous and shit. Some killer big-and-small-screen entertainments made my faves of 2016 as well, because I'm a human being who enjoys popcorn and a good time like everyone else. So, without further waffling, let's jump in by busting a widely-spoken myth, straight up:
CINEMA IS NOT DEAD.
Every art form bursts with valid perspectives and fresh takes on old themes each and every year. The first flaw most of these articles make is assessing "Cinema" by looking almost solely at blockbusters and awards season titles, which is like assessing literature by focusing on E.L James and Stephanie Meyer -- based upon that criteria, the novel is well dead and buried, too! Just because gargantuan promotional budgets try to force blockbuster behemoths into the zeitgeist, doesn't mean they represent the art form, or, indeed, that they were of any worth in the first place. If you look around, even a few inches either side of your local multiplex, you can see vital, exciting cinema to prove the seventh art is as thrilling as ever. (After all, for every Mad Men or Stranger Things or The Night Of, there's a Luke Cage or a Keeping Up With The Kardashians or, well, most of the soapy dross that continues to flood network prime time TV. Again, it conveniently suits these arguments to focus on the top 1% of great works, ignoring the garbage it floats atop.)
Okay? Are we all agreed? While, yes, there is some brilliant television, and, yes, gee whiz it can tell stories in such a different way to cinema (well, being a different art form, of course that's true) -- my own highlights of the year include the brilliant final season of Mad Men, the adorably fun Stranger Things, the claustrophobic real-world terror of The Night Of (welcome back, Richard Price!), the salty, kickass (if somewhat overlong) Jessica Jones and the beautifully melancholic first season of Transparent -- let us come to our collective senses and agree that the reports of the death of movies have been greatly exaggerated. (Read on, to find some supporting documents as to the continued health and life of the art form.)
SOME GOOD -- NO, GREAT -- STUFF HAPPENED TO ME THIS YEAR.
For starters, we made a movie. I've wanted to make films for 25 years, only got serious about it 8-9 years ago and, after making five short films during that time, finally got lucky enough to be given the chance to make my very first feature, Trench, this year. We set up and shot the film for $15,000 over 16 days during a balmy April in Melbourne, and -- daily heart-into-throat stress attacks aside -- it was a truly special, memorable time of my life, surrounded by a small cast and crew of the most lovely, giving, talented and beautiful souls I've had the pleasure to know and work with, who pulled together their incredible skills (for whatever reason!) to help my partner and I make our crazy little modern Melbourne comedy/noir picture. This circle of kindness opened wider still, when we raised almost $14,000 for post-production mid-year, thanks to 230 wonderful people who wanted nothing but to help us realise our dream (and, yes, get a tax deduction as well). To my ears, no amount of thanks I can give these people -- cast, crew and donors -- sounds adequate. The reason Trench exists is because of you. As the time of writing, we have a fine cut locked in, and we'll be spending January getting the picture and sound sorted, aiming to complete the film by the end of that month, to screen for sales agents, distributors and festivals! (Not bad for a film we didn't start writing until late August 2015.)
I also got to attend a film festival as a filmmaker for the very first time, as my most recent short film, Cigarette, was selected to screen at this year's Monster Fest -- Australia's premier genre and fantastic film festival! -- in Melbourne this November. The job festival director Kier-La Janisse and her team have done over the last two years in raising the game of this relatively young festival has been nothing short of awesome: the program featured the very best films to emerge from the world's major genre fests, such as Sitges, Fantasia and Fantastic Fest, as well as shining a light on emerging Australian talents. From Opening to Closing Nights, I made full advantage of my VIP lanyard, seeing 9 films in 4 days, being roped into an impromptu session of the VHS board game Nightmare and meeting all manner of cool people, from filmmakers to festival programmers to film fans alike. I got to be the subject of my very first recorded interview and Q&A as a filmmaker, and got to sit in an audience with my cast and crew, watching our hard work beam onto the big screen. The entire festival treated me beautifully, and it was a wonderful experience I shall forever treasure... and, I dare say, felt like the turning of a personal corner.
Another professional delight this year wasn't even mine: it was watching my great friend Tim Egan's short horror/sci-fi/thriller, Curve -- unbelievably, his first short film in over 15 years -- conquer the world, premiering at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, before going on to screen and win major prizes at Fantastic Fest, Toronto After Dark and, most notably, Sitges, where its award win qualified it for the Academy Awards(!). Every week for the last six months, it seems, Curve was selected to screen at another festival across the world. My proudest moment, however, was sitting in the audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival -- a key Melbourne event Tim and I have attended, both together and apart, for the best part of 20 years -- and watching the screen extend from a 16:9 aspect ratio, extending further, seemingly to infinity, to handle the sheer visual heft of Curve's 2.35:1 ratio, before the film exploded onto screen in all its darkly thrilling glory. Tim and I have worked together on various projects in various capacities over the last ten years, and he's always struck me as a singular talent -- I count him as a key creative mentor, which is unusual to say about someone five years younger than you, but Tim's no ordinary cat -- and the fact that Curve has made such a far-reaching impression, effectively announcing Tim Egan to the world just confirms everything I've ever thought about him, and it couldn't happen to a nicer dude.
One last professional joy for me also wasn't my own, nor was it even cinematic: another of my closest friends, Lee Zachariah, turned the toughest emotional time of his life into his very first book, Double Dissolution: Heartbreak and Chaos on the Campaign Trail, which sees him covering the 2016 Australian Federal Election whilst recovering from the disintegration of his marriage. I'm still in the midst of reading it, but thus far it's everything I expect from Lee and then some: honest, insightful, brilliant and hilarious. Double Dissolution is available in bookstores throughout Australia, or at the link I've helpfully laid into the book's title above. If you haven't yet, I urge you to grab one for yourself, and more copies for others.
But enough about me and my friends...
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2016
1) As always, this countdown reflects my own personal thoughts, and not the views of our production company or any other people within it.
2) As ever, the films eligible for this countdown were every feature film to receive a paid public non-invitation screening of any kind: so, everything released to cinemas, home video, video on demand, streaming channels or film festivals. In 2016, I saw 97 such films (33 of them at festivals), the first time in recent memory I've not hit the ton. (Something something I've been making my own damn film, etc.)
3) After emerging shattered, enraged and gobsmacked from the absolute worst film I saw this year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice -- I don't like announcing my worst-of-the-year, but I'll make an exception for this comically inept, aggressively mean-spirited, chronically misjudged ten-ton turkey -- I implemented a new rule I would stick to for the rest of the year (and possibly beyond): I would see no more blockbuster sequels, reboots or remakes. (I saw Captain America: Civil War beforehand, and the only four blockbusters I saw for the remainder of the year were what I've taken to calling "Lateral Blockbusters", that is, original films set in existing universes: Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Rogue One. None of which came anywhere close to making this list, just so you know.)
4) Past readers of these year-end blogs may be expecting a wrap-up of my favourite retrospective screenings of the year. Unfortunately, I'm just not able to do one this time around. What with making Trench and generally being busier than ever, I just didn't have the chance to see as much stuff this year. Another reason for this paucity is the fact this was my first year not co-hosting the Hell Is For Hyphenates podcast, which forced me to explore the career of a different great filmmaker every month. Yet another was, I watched a stack of film noir both new and old in research for Trench, but very few (of those I hadn't seen before) excited me. You can see the list of what I watched here -- for fun, when Trench comes out next year, see if you can find any trace of them in it! But also... while I saw a lot I liked and some I loved, there just wasn't a truly revelatory experience like I had felt in past years, like discovering Robert Altman, or Masaki Kobayashi's Human Condition trilogy, or being blown away by the restoration of William Friedkin's Sorcerer or seeing Pulp Fiction on the big screen for the first time in 20 years.
5) However, one of my most fun film experiences this year was what I termed 'Shocktoberfest 2016', where I watched 31 horror films (and the Charlie Brown Halloween special!) in the 31 days of October on the flimsy excuse of celebrating Halloween. I really dug a lot of what I saw, and it was fun to rekindle my true love for horror again. You can find the full list of what I watched here. (The biggest revelation of the whole thing, for me, was how brilliantly Cujo held up. A claustrophobic nightmare about the erosion of the modern American family. Everyone in the film, even poor Cujo himself, is a victim. It's frightening and poignant stuff.)
6) All right, real quick: my favourite first-time retrospective viewings of 2016 were...
THE TOP 20 FILMS OF 2016.
Louis Theroux's customarily funny yet quietly frightening big-screen debut, MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE; Shane Black's colourfully intoxicating, razor-sharp return to L.A. neo-noir, THE NICE GUYS; Grant Scicluna's beautifully slow-burning rural Aussie noir debut, DOWNRIVER; Park Chan-Wook's sexy, twisted, bravura return to form, THE HANDMAIDEN; Jesse Moss' unexpectedly lovely look at the friendship between Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds (and, thus, 1970s American machismo), THE BANDIT; Rock Baijnauth's charming, affectionate document of coffee-crafting excellence, BARISTA; Jennifer Peedom's astonishingly right-place-right-time debut documentary and damning examination of class and exploitation, SHERPA; David Farrier & Dylan Reeve's insane, hilarious and increasingly unnerving exploration into the world of "competitive tickling," TICKLED; Mattie Do's deliciously complex, Laos-set modern gothic drama of class warfare, DEAREST SISTER; Ben Wheatley's caustic, visionary and all-too-uncomfortably relevant Ballard adaptation, HIGH-RISE.
Limited theatrical release.
Capsule review: Ergüven's smashing debut succeeds as a moving look at sisterhood, a thrilling escape tale and an angry indictment of an abusive culture, taking on the patriarchal tyranny of fundamentalist religion and its impact on young women, depicting despair, resignation and hope in equal measure – with incredible suspense, as it’s ingeniously structured like an escape thriller. Or, put another way: Wadjda meets Papillion.
Limited theatrical release.
Capsule review: Gripping outback noir shows you can make a film that’s thoroughly Australian, yet plays like 70s New Hollywood, as writer-director-everything-else Ivan Sen brilliantly racks focus from the racial tensions of Mystery Road, to the daily economic cruelty that keeps such divisions in place. Also: Aaron Pedersen is a goddamn movie star. I’m generally anti-sequel, but I’ll follow Jay Swan wherever Sen points him.
3) TONI ERDMANN
Film festival screenings only. (Due for release in 2017.)
Capsule review: "Don't lose your humour." Christ, is there a single quote more helpful to surviving the clustercuss that was the 2016 news cycle? A daring exercise in form, cranking up the social cringe comedy to epic proportions; its final act prompting a thunderous release of laughs and tears like few I can recall. Disarmingly expansive, bizarre take on life, work and the need for levity. Kind of glorious.
2) THE NEON DEMON
Limited theatrical release.
Capsule review: Nic Winding Refn’s most screw-you moment to date is an exquisite neo-giallo that plays like a 21st century Grimm’s Fairy Tale of pride and envy. Many hated it, but I found it a cornucopia of ugliness staged so beautifully I wanted to bathe in every frame... and I love that NWR wouldn’t give a damn either way. Also, Evil Sleazy Keanu might be my favourite Keanu.
1) THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Review: Funny how the first film I saw in 2016 was also the one to most accurately frame the violently toxic, tumultuous socio-political landscape to come. Anyone who knows me knows Quentin Tarantino is my favourite filmmaker and artistic idol, but even I didn't quite expect him to come up with this. (Also, for those who see this atop this year's countdown and find it painfully predictable, allow me to correct you: The last QT film to top any of my yearly best lists was KILL BILL VOLUME 1, waaaay back in 2002.) The Hateful Eight is not only Tarantino's purest spaghetti western to date, but also his most political film yet: a gleefully nasty, unflinchingly nihilistic mirror to a racist, misogynistic United States of America. It has something on its mind in a prominent way that Tarantino's films have always downplayed; they're always about something, but only lately have the works themselves been brazen and pissed off enough to openly admit it. It's a beautifully bilateral film: both thrillingly entertaining -- bursting with witty scripting and indelible, complex characters, -- and teeth-baringly vicious, out to leave a deep and painful mark. In an often painful year full of intelligent, angry films about the world we find ourselves in right now, I couldn't help but find this one of the most truthful. But it's no tract: The Hateful Eight is a big, blasting, booming cinematic tableau writ large -- quite literally, in its full 168-minute-plus-15-minute-interval, 2.76:1 aspect ratio, Ultra Panavision 70mm film glory -- with work from its cast (particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Walton Goggins) that ranks among the best of their career. And while we're discussing "career-best work", can we talke about il maestro Ennio Morricone, who delivered the year's most distinctive, thrilling, even bone-chilling, musical score? I saw this behemoth three times on the big screen -- something I've not done since, well, Death Proof -- and it wouldn't take much coaxing to lure me into a fourth. Although it made its world premiere at the tail end of 2015, The Hateful Eight has proved to be the definitive film of 2016, and the ultimate summation of the obsessions, concerns and filmmaking powers of Quentin Tarantino to date. Perhaps this might just be his masterpiece.
I look forward to seeing you around these parts in 2017 -- visit cinemaviscera.com and trenchfilmnoir.com for all the exciting developments on what promises to be our biggest and best year yet!
Love, peace and cinema,