Tuesday 3 January 2017

Top 11 Biggest Surprises (2016)

2016 was a pretty depressing year. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, the incredibly high mortality rate for childhood icons and life-long heroes was enough to make us at least question if someone on-high was trying to mess with us. However, I wouldn’t exactly call this a bad year overall because while the real world may have been rather uninviting, the more creatively inclined definitely got their shit together. Aside from seeing industry titans in the realms of music like Metallica, A Tribe Called Quest and Nick Cave release some of their best material in years, this has also been an astoundingly good year for movies. Not only that, this has been a surprisingly good year in that regard with a lot of films being a lot better than I think anyone could have expected them to be. So, in light of wanting to show 2016 as being far more entertaining than the world seems to have given it credit for, here are my picks for the Top 11 films of 2016 that were far more entertaining than they had any right to be… and in keeping with my last list, chances are that you’re not going to like our first entry.

With how divisive and lacking-in-perspective this film’s reception still is, from “You’ve ruined my childhood!” to “MRAs hate anything with an all-female main cast”, it’s rather fitting that my own opinion on the film would be likewise mixed. I still maintain that the soapboxing by the 'fandom' has been quite ridiculous, but I can’t deny that the film honestly does suck for the most part. Annoying characters, equally annoying comedy and a spiteful approach to its own detractors that leaves a seriously foul taste in the mouth. However, once the third act kicks in, it results in easily one of the most entertaining finales of any film I saw all year. This film isn’t just surprising because of how I actually managed to find enjoyment within it, given all the backlash surrounding it, but because of how much enjoyment it provided once that finale kicked in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting to ever watch this film again, but it definitely blindsided me after spending so long trying to convince me to hate.

In spite of a couple of lukewarm lead actors, this is a film that seriously deserved a better reception than it got. As someone who will openly deride rom-com clichés wherever I find them, I really dug how this film seemed to hate those clichés as much as I do. In place of well-worn tropes, it had an approach to shock humour and line-a-rama that made for a nice reprieve from the film surrounding it, not to mention being pretty damn funny in its own right. And do I even need to get into that massage scene, one of the biggest mindfrags of the whole year?

I went into this film as I’m sure most moviegoers did: Questioning why a sequel to the cult classic needed to exist. Well, not only did it manage to answer my scepticism in probably the most apt way possible, highlighting how the fashion world has actually gotten weirder since the days of the original film, it also brought Ben Stiller’s most stylistically ambitious work to date. Taking the sense of scope that Stiller must have picked up while making The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, he utilised it to create one of the most enjoyably bonkers films of the year. It’s funny, it’s got a better handle on world-building than a lot of films I would look at over the last twelve months, but most importantly, it legitimised its claim to exist in today’s world. For a sequel, that’s a pretty good effort.

Knowing this film’s extremely eccentric premise going in, I never could have guessed that it would be used to such profound ends. Taking the notion of a lonely man taking comfort in the company of a corpse and turning it into a treatise on mortality, depression and suicide, this is one of those films that I seriously wish that the rest of the world would give its chance in the sun… and yet, I fully understand why most viewers would be alienated by it.

Ghost hunting has about the same respect given to it as most reality TV, and to be honest, it kind of deserves the flack that it’s gotten. That said, I was genuinely impressed with how this documentary handled the topic. With Chad Colek’s experience in the field, and his history with spectral charlatan Ryan Buell, the fact that he treats the footage containing the titular presence with as much scepticism as he does is honestly really commendable. Sure, the questions that still linger by film’s end make it a little difficult to completely buy into, and made for a bit of an annoying sit overall, but in a field that is so heavily populated with easy believers, this will make me at least a little more receptive to similar fare in the future.

After sitting through the last two Pokémon films in cinemas, I had a pretty clear idea of what to expect for this one: Basic line animation, surprisingly solid CGI, weak voice acting and a plot designed solely to string Pokémon battles together. Well, I can’t exactly say that I was wrong in those assumptions, but I certainly wasn’t expecting something this genuinely entertaining in the process. Not only that, it’s that exceptionally rare specimen that seems to be enjoyable no matter which way I look at. Legitimately, it returns to the themes of Pokémon’s relationship with humans that made earlier films work so well, creating some pretty emotional moments, and the animation reached a decent meeting point between its animation styles. Illegitimately, the lame voice acting and the writing transcended just being painful into being pretty funny in their own right, up to and including Michael Liscio Jr. giving one of the most wooden performances I’ve ever seen in a film. Like, Bible Black levels of hilariously wooden.

For a film that, right from the marketing downwards, seemed determined to make me hate its guts, I walked away from this one a lot happier than I thought I would. Yeah, its approach to puns was pretty obnoxious and rather overwhelming at points, but as a look at how useful anger itself can be, it gets dangerously close to Inside Out in terms of poignancy. Add to that a decent cast, writing that ends up making the best of the vacuum of a plot the original games had, and some pretty good animation, and you have a film that was honestly far better than I think anyone could have guessed.

#4: Trolls

Part of the 'twerking in the trailer' trifecta that also gave us the surprisingly solid Sing and the unsurprisingly awful Why Him?, this is the film more than any other on this list that has no right being as good as it is. While its approach to emotion, and in particular happiness, is pretty basic and kiddified, it makes up for it by knowing well enough about emotional impact to make them work, creating some legitimately hard-hitting moments. Not only that, this had some of the most ingenious uses of soundtrack I’ve seen outside of a Point Grey production, representing the kind of honest effort that I hope the movie musicals to follow will be able to keep up with.

There needs to be a seriously heady mixture of critical snobbery and legitimate merit within the film itself to make Alex Proyas’ temper tantrum on Facebook actually seem reasonable, and sure enough that’s exactly what we get here. Through a learned but still cautious approach to Egyptian theology, and a cast that is quite capable of delivering with the characters they’re given, this film ended up being a lot smarter than I think anyone else is willing to give it credit for. Maybe if the world would stop whinging about the casting, which honestly isn’t nearly as white-washed as people are making it out to be, then it would realise that the film’s perspective on religion and the more money-hungry wielders of religion is something worth giving credit to. I know that after the horror show of Pan, the world is a bit more cautious about this kind of thing, but c’mon!

You can’t really get much worse in terms of fan reaction that having people campaign to shut down one of the biggest critical aggregates on the Internet in response to them not liking a particular film. This is made even weirder by how the fan reaction, depending on who you ask in person, is either “Ugh, that sucked” or “Hmm, that was actually pretty good”. As for me, I’m very much in the latter. This film marks a very good diversion from DC’s overall cinematic approach to story-telling, in that they tell the exact same story just with a different coat of paint on it, meaning that we are actually able to have some fun with the film rather than being required to treat it with deadpan seriousness. The action was fun, the characters were engaging and quite heartfelt at times, the soundtrack is one of the best of any film all year, and the writing merges the realms of superheroes and war films into a pretty good example of how to do both right. Or, if that isn’t enough to make my point, this marks the first DC film that I not only wholeheartedly liked watching, but would gladly watch the extended cut of. Given how Wonder Woman and Justice League are coming up soon, getting to this stage is definitely a good sign.

Holy mother of Dude, this film is amazing! Taking what is ultimately an embarrassingly underwhelming horror film and handing it to writer/director Mike Flanagan to make a prequel, what we got is easily one of the best horror films of the last several years. Fun, clever and legitimately quite terrifying, this is pretty much the cinematic surprise to end all surprises. After seeing how, with a bit of effort and the right approach, pretty much anything can be made good, I plan on being a lot less initially sceptical on the releases that come out this year. If this is possible, then I’m willing to be open to other films being at least watchable. Trust me, when dealing with films like Monster Trucks, I’ll need all the optimism I can get.

And with that, I hope I have made a semi-legible point in that 2016 wasn’t all that bad in hindsight. Feel free to put your own picks for the most surprisingly good films of the year down in the comments section; I’m always interested to see what other people expect out of certain releases. Now it’s time to leap head-long into the New Year, and by that I mean that I’ll probably end up looking at a couple more 2016 releases before properly getting into this year’s freshest crops.

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