Cinema is the capturing and creation of space, within which events and characters take shape. Frequently films create a semblance of unified space, but in the case of Assassin’s Creed, space is often fluid and inconstant. Justin Kurtzel’s adaptation of Ubisoft’s blockbusting computer game achieves the remarkable feat of creating an immersive experience that allows the viewer to vicariously undergo the experiences of Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), descendant of assassin Aguilar (also Fassbender), as he enters the Animus, a device that causes him to relive the experiences of his ancestor. The technobabble explanations provided by Dr Sophia Rikken (Marion Cotillard), part of a modernised Templar Knights, adds to the mystery of the events that understandably confuse Cal, but once he enters the Animus and his movements and feelings blend with those of Aguilar, the viewer is set for a visceral and enthralling experience where space, time and personality shift dramatically and arrestingly. Kurtzel stylises speech, location and action in a manner similar to his superb Macbeth, and while the emotional heft of Assassin’s Creed may not reach that of the Shakespearean tragedy, it does succeed as a strong film based on a video game (a rare beast indeed), and confirms Kurtzel as a promising talent to watch.
There is significant consensus that 2016 was a thoroughly horrible year, with the deaths of many beloved figures and the ascension of hateful policies and individuals. However, the rot did not affect film releases, which remain as varied as any year. Perhaps inevitably, many films passed me by but, nonetheless, here are my top twelve films of 2016, and all titles ranked in order of preference. As always, my list is based on U.K. release dates.
Top Twelve (in musical form)
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Eleven United Kingdoms
Nine Eagle Hunts
Eight Big Shorts
Seven Spotlight scoops
Six Strange Doctors
Five Noc-tur-nal Animals
Four Eyes in the Sky
Two in a Room and
A heptapod Arrival!
In more traditional list format:
Film of the Year: An eerie, enthralling, exquisitely balanced, inspiring and magnificent sci-fi drama.
A sublime, magnificent, heartwarming, heartbreaking tale of the terrible and the wonderful.
A brilliantly inventive, hilariously zany, poignant and intelligent anthropomorphic comedy.
A tense, nerve-shredding thriller of surveillance, globalization, military, political and ethical conundrums.
An exquisite, haunting, beautiful and intoxicating drama, suffused with style, pain and regret.
Inception crossed with The Matrix, enhanced with Harry Potter and amped up to ‘Are You Nuts?!’
An enthralling, absorbing, compelling journalism thriller about community, tradition and responsibility.
An equally hilarious and horrifying tale of economic, intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
An enthralling, inspiring tale of courage, determination and the tensions between genders, tradition and modernity, wilderness and civilization.
An immersive, enthralling, ethereal yet tactile portrait of survival, nature and revenge.
An epic yet intimate tale of love, duty, defiance and justice, in equal parts angering and uplifting.
An exquisitely detailed, brutally grim and unflinchingly gruelling wartime thriller.
A gripping, atmospheric, terrifying Iranian Gothic of fears both natural and supernatural.
A dark, gripping tale of fractured minds, damaged lives, voyeurism and victimhood.
An unsentimental yet heartwarming and progressive tale of hardship, courage and strategy.
An intricate, stylish tale of identity, loyalty, moral, legal and financial interconnections.
A measured, melancholic and gripping modern western of bonds and devotion between little people.
A measured yet thrilling, warm and intelligent sci-fi adventure of duty, family and purpose.
A gorgeously imaginative and sumptuously realised tale of storytelling, destiny and belonging.
A fast, furious blend of high octane action, knowing humour and politically incorrect fun.
A truly epic super-bonanza of power, regret, choice and destiny.
An intense, gripping globe-trotting revenge thriller of loyalty and the proper uses of power.
A gorgeously designed, sometimes meandering but ultimately uplifting retelling of a timeless tale.
A stirring, planet-hopping, slightly unbalanced but compelling sci-fi war movie.
A warm, wacky and wild watery wonder of family, memory and destiny.
A sweeping, moving and enthralling romantic epic of repression, duty, desire and love.
A squifflingly scrumdiddlyumptious felim of dreams, delights and whizzpopping wonder.
A grim, brooding, lumpenly paced yet intriguing exploration of power and our responses to it.
A gorgeous, sumptuous adult fairy tale of identity, duty and desire.
An endearing and moving portrayal of connection and choice, in equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking.
A slick, stylish sci-fi tale of memory, identity and the panopticon.
A sharp, witty and often hilarious buddy comedy of 70s’ shadow and sleaze.
A grim, gripping, muscular thriller of concerns new and old.
A boisterous and energetically scrappy if somewhat overstretched paranormal comedy adventure.
A shambolic but stylish assembly of freakish figures and super villainous set pieces.
A politically correct and well orchestrated if sanitised and far from operatic action western.
A detailed, measured period spy romance of loyalties, devotion and nostalgia.
An atmospheric and sometimes gripping but also unbalanced and messy thriller.
A quirky, creepy, kaleidoscopic portrayal of Sartrean social insanity in the Infernal Tower.
An over-designed but still stylish splat of a fantasy epic.
An attractively designed but uneven and lacklustre fantasy adventure.
A hollow, preposterous, unengaging, mess of a thriller.
Turkey of the Year: a disparate, discordant and messily inferior sequel.
It opens with absence. The absence of John Williams’ theme, the screen crawl and even the words Star Wars, instead presenting the viewer with a planet in the emptiness of space. As a Star Destroyer slowly moves into view, the tropes of Star Wars reveal themselves and we quickly settle into familiar territory with mention of various planets, Jedi, the Empire and the Force. Yet, paradoxically, absence remains a dominant presence throughout Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, a spin-off story that takes place leading up to the events of Episode Four: A New Hope. Protagonist Jin Erso (Felicity Jones) feels the keen absence of her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen); Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is spurred by righteousness but also makes hard choices; Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) feel the absence of the Jedi under the rule of the Empire; Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) physically manifests absence through his damaged body. Sometimes the various characters are not given as much motivation or background as they could have, but for the most part absence works as a strength in the film rather than weakness, as the emphasis upon absence and loss conveys a palatable sense of what the Rebellion fighting for, described by Saw as ‘the Dream’. Edwards skilfully creates a sense of the odds facing the Rebellion, the superior weaponry of the Empire – including the Death Star – as well as the ruthlessness of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn), Governor Tarkin (Guy Henry in a digital Peter Cushing suit) and, in a spine-tingling cameo, Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding/James Earl Jones). As a result, the viewer is unlikely to feel shortchanged by this additional story, as Rogue One strikes a fine balance between material familiar and new, resulting in a film that bodes new hope for the future of this franchise.
Brad Pitt has a problem with Nazis. Not that they don’t warrant a certain amount of enmity, but with Inglourious Basterds, Fury and now Allied, Mr Pitt is consistently waging his own movie war against the Third Reich. In Robert Zemeckis’ latest, Pitt’s Canadian Wing Commander Max Vatan is joined by the dangerous and beguiling Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), who first joins him in a Casablanca assassination operation, then comes with him to England, marries him and they begin a family in Hampstead, while the war continues. When Max’s superiors find evidence that Marianne is a German spy, the happiness rapidly gives way to mistrust and suspicion. Despite the promising set up, meticulous period detail and some gripping set pieces – including the key assassination in Casablanca, a mission into German-occupied France and some air raids on London – Allied rarely feels more than a handsomely mounted portrait. The central relationship lacks enveloping emotion, perhaps due to a rushed pace. Zemeckis is a solid director, but Allied lacks the more heartrending moments of his other work – Tom Hanks crying out ‘Wilson’ is more upsetting than the Vatans’ marriage cracking under suspicion. That said, the moments at Max’s office are engaging in their depiction of period espionage, and do form a nice contrast with the domestic homelife. Allied is an engaging enough romantic period thriller, but is overall the sum is less than the parts.
In Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines, director Derek Cianfrance utilised an intimate and sometimes claustrophobic aesthetic that brought the viewer close to difficult events both domestic and criminal. With his latest film, Cianfrance combines this intimacy with an epic scale that engulfs the viewer in an overwhelming environment, both visually and narratively. Traumatised war veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job as a lighthouse keeper in 1918, and begins a relationship with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), which leads to marriage and her joining him on the island of Janus off Australia. Their secret, unofficial adoption of the baby girl leads to a range of tensions both private and public, especially once the child’s actual mother appears in the form of Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz). The central clash of the film is between moral duty and pure desire, as Tom is committed to a strict code while Isabel is emotionally guided. Pleasingly, the film does not fall into simplistic gender stereotyping, as the heady emotion of the film as a whole is in keeping with Isabel’s emotion while the expansive scenery feels at odds with Tom’s self-repression. The film makes no judgement about either perspective, but delivers a balanced, intimate and yet sweeping portrayal of a loving relationship lived and felt at every level.
The Accountant is an unbalanced sheet. Gavin O’Connor’s film boasts strong performances, an interesting portrayal of disability and some tough action sequences. It also has no central focus, irritating contrivances and storylines that do not add up. Bill Dubuque’s script is part action-conspiracy thriller, part detective story and part mental health drama. These strands are clumsily interwoven and there are several contrivances that not only stretch credibility but add little to the drama. The detective narrative featuring US Treasury agents Raymond King (J K Simmons) and Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) would have made a strong narrative in its own right, but as it stands sticks out like undeclared earnings. Various characters have unnecessary personal motivations much as in Jason Bourne, suggesting a lack of investment in the drama of people caught up in events beyond their control. This drama is especially relevant in the contemporary era of global interconnection, information and finance, a topic that features in a number of recent films such as The Big Short and The Infiltrator. To underfund such a theme in a film with this subject matter is disappointing.
On the plus side, The Accountant does channel its funds into effective design and atmosphere. DOP Seamus McGarvey gives the film an often bleak appearance, while production designer Keith P. Cunningham creates environments of sleek functionality. As the eponymous book keeper with shady connections, Ben Affleck blends roles of his friend Matt Damon, as Christian Wolff has mental health issues and deadly skills like Jason Bourne and mathematical genius like Will Hunting. Affleck’s hunched physical performance, muted tones and expressions express someone cut off from much of the world. Flashbacks explain his character and family history, while his relationship with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), the naive young accountant who stumbles into his world, is charming and effective. The film’s portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome sometimes falls into the trap of presenting an unusual mental state as a superpower, rather than a distinctive perspective. This perspective leads to the film’s most arresting moment, as Wolff peruses decades’ worth of accounting records before explaining his findings to Cummings with an animation not seen elsewhere. O’Connor creates a palatable sense of excitement and energy in Wolff’s forensic accounting, which is odd when other sequences feature blistering action. This suggests a more satisfying film might have been a true economic thriller. As it is, the film returns only partially on its investment, leaving the viewer wanting a greater return.