According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2016 was the Year of the Monkey. For cinema from Hollywood and beyond, it was the Year of the Mediocre Film.
2016 saw the release of many films that were either mildly impressive or mildly disappointing. There were few spectacular successes or failures, which is probably evidence of the maturity of contemporary cinematic craft and the global perfection of Hollywood economic policy. The "entertainment industry" seems to fully realise, now, that the best way to generate profits is to make anodyne productions that alienate a minimal number of viewers.
So we had Hollywood productions like The Nice Guys, Gods of Egypt and The Purge: Election Year: slightly better than anticipated, not quite middle-of-the-road films that left a minor sense of satisfaction in the viewer.
The Nice Guys, written and directed by Shane Black, wouldn't hold a candle to the films he wrote in the 1980s and 1990s - gems of the action genre like Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991) and one of my Christmas favourites, The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) - but it was passably amusing nonetheless, with a classic LA-noir plot maintaining our interest.
I expected Gods Of Egypt to be the kind of unwatchable, tedious epic indicated by its name, yet it proved to be an enjoyable adventure that, unlike most of its ilk, avoided distracting the viewer with needless fetishisation of visual effects.
The Purge: Election Year wasn't nearly as good as The Purge (2013) - a brilliant analysis of the violence underpinning all law and its relationship to the American security society - but it was better than the second Purge film.
Creepy, low-key supernatural horror film Lights Out, comic nostalgia trip Independence Day: Resurgence, and the suitably didactic The Big Short also fell on this side of slightly better than ordinary. Nocturnal Animals was an engrossing, intense thriller, but the ending seemed out of sync with the rest of the film, and was therefore dissatisfying.
Mildly disappointing fodder was just as plentiful. The premise of Nerve was excellent, and it should have been - like Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) - one of those zeitgeist films discussed for years to come. Despite appealing performances from a cast led by Emma Roberts and Dave Franco, it failed to develop its potential as a dissection of new media's colonisation of physical space. It was further let down by a fatally stupid ending in which the tension of the entire narrative was resolved when a bloodthirsty multitude walked away from their violent apotheosis because they were asked to be nicer!
Point Break, a remake of Kathryn Bigelow's popular action film of 1991, promised little, but in fact began well before completely self-imploding. It spent the first half labouring the point that a so called "outlaw" gang of eco-activists were in fact sober, ethically conscious citizens of the world. It then made a complete about face, and we were meant to suddenly dislike the gang and turn on them along with the film's so-called hero, FBI agent Utah (Luke Bracey). FBI agents who appeared mean and petty triumphed over criminals who were decent, morally righteous people - and somehow this was meant to make us cheer.
The revamp of Ghostbusters similarly proved disappointing, with most of the jokes falling flat. Its plot was uninteresting and the characters were obnoxious without being charmingly so. The whole thing relied too heavily on its central (and in itself meaningless) conceit of recasting the all-male team from the original film as all-female - as though this alone signified some kind of progressive direction in gender representation and "real-world" gender relations.
There were other big-budget films that disappointed without spectacularly bombing (the bomb, I'd suggest, is in fact preferable from the perspective of a viewer, as anyone who's seen Tommy Wiseau's The Room (2003) will attest). These included the wildly uneven Captain America: Civil War, the worst of the Bourne films, Jason Bourne, the offensively sentimental Money Monster, and Bastille Day (later renamed The Take), a harmless but completely forgettable Euro-actioner.
The Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar! was also something of a non-event - it was certainly worth seeing, but I include it in this category because it fell far short of earlier Coen works like Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996).
The 2016 Sydney Film Festival offered, as usual, a large bloc of excellent films (see my discussions in The Conversation and Senses of Cinema for more detail) - including brilliant films like Free In Deed, Apprentice, Tickled, and Captain Fantastic, amongst many others - as well as the two worst films of the year, Swiss Army Man and War on Everyone.
Other excellent Hollywood films included the Blake Lively vehicle The Shallows - the best shark film in years. It managed to run through the tried-and-tested motions of the genre without feeling stale, expertly manipulating the viewer into a state of exaggerated tension. The low-key but suspenseful horror film The Witch, and the compulsively watchable documentary Wiener were also excellent.
Some (rare) spectacular failures from 2016 included the pretentious Deadpool - a film that strained so hard to be both "original" it was almost painful to watch - the inane How to Be Single, and The Boss, an offensive celebration of flexible accumulation starring Melissa McCarthy (yet another bad choice on her part).
Of course, I didn't manage to see every film of 2016, and I most regret missing Sing Street, The Queen of Ireland, The Neon Demon, Paterson, Personal Shopper, Everybody Wants Some!, Eye in the Sky and Chasing Asylum - I imagine some (or most) of these would be excellent. Films that I missed that others loved (but about which I suspect I would be more lukewarm) include Hacksaw Ridge, Batman v Superman, Sausage Party, The Danish Girl, Snowden, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Trumbo and Where to Invade Next.
A few great films
In a year characterised by some good films but few great ones, Paul Verhoeven's Elle stood out as the best.
Verhoeven has had an illustrious career. Out of 16 feature films made across five decades, there has been only a single disappointment, Hollow Man (2000), his last American film. Elle, I would argue, is one of his best, up there with The Fourth Man (1983), RoboCop (1987), and Black Book (2006).
Production Co: SBS Productions, Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion GmbH, France 2 Cinéma
Isabelle Huppert anchors the film with her stunning performance as Michèle, a middle-aged, irascible woman who runs a video-game company and has zero tolerance for stupidity or false pleasantries. The film follows her life in the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year after she is brutally raped in her Parisian home in the opening scene.
The plot is extremely simple, yet it intersects with - and, critically, unlocks - a socio-psychological complexity and nuance extremely rare in our contemporary cultural climate. Our culture tends to generate figures and artefacts that are either uncritically and inanely polemical - spouting words of the self-righteous kind - or barbarically anti-intellectual. Elle, like Michèle, the woman to whom the pronoun refers, is neither.
Running over two hours, it is a long film - but, testament to Verhoeven's genius as a filmmaker, it never feels like it. Along with Nicolette Krebitz's Wild and Argyris Papadimitropoulos' Suntan, Elle is one of the few films of 2016 I can't wait to see again.
Every 2017 Oscar nomination should go to one of the latter three films, though I'm uncertain how they'd fare in the Best Animated Feature category.