In a world where commercialism rules OK, Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village – ostensibly a documentary about the Marian shrine in Knock and the people who visit it but ultimately a commentary on the state of religion in Ireland today - was never going to wipe the more mainstream releases off the screen. Even so, it drew huge (and deserved) praise from various quarters for its wide-ranging treatment of a fascinating subject.
Timur Bekmambetov’s re-make of Ben-Hur was fascinating in a more blockbuster-style way but I felt the ‘New Age’ depiction of Jesus in the film – a kind of ‘boy next door’ approach which did little for the film’s sense of reverence – was inappropriate. There was too much melodrama in the ‘sackcloth-and-ashes’ efforts Hollywood churned out as a matter of course in the old days but are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater with this new ‘ecumenical’ approach?
In the 1959 version the face of Jesus wasn’t seen. That proved very effective. He seems to be ‘just another character’ in many contemporary biblical films. It’s easy to see what Bekmambetov’s motives were, making the sacred more accessible to the layman in a post-Vatican 11 zeitgeist, but I think he went too far. Neither did Toby Kebbell’s British accent help as Messala.
I also had problems with Cliff Curtis as Jesus (or ‘Yeshua,’ as he was called) in Risen, Kevin Reynolds’ film about the aftermath of the Resurrection. Curtis shut himself off from his family for 30 days to get ‘into’ the role but for me it lacked passion. Also, his skin was too dark. And at 47 the actor was clearly too old for the role.
2016 was a year of re-makes. Perhaps The Jungle Book was the most successful. Antoine Fuque’s The Magnificent Seven seemed to me to be as redundant as the re-boots of other westerns like 3.10 to Yuma in recent years. The main (only?) motivation in such projects is to cash in on the automatic publicity created by the title. To this extent they’re little more than ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes dreamt up by the accountants who seem to be running Hollywood these days. I felt the same about Ericson Core’s ‘hippy-dippy’ re-boot of Point Break.
As far as the media was concerned, the year was dominated by the sturm und drang surrounding the break-up of the marriage of ‘Brangelina’ - Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Pitt appeared in Allied during the year. His relationship with co-star Marion Cotillard was rumoured to have contributed to the meltdown of a liaison that seemed rock-solid over the past decade or so as the couple went around the globe together collecting awards and children – in roughly that order.
Another alliance, that of Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander – ‘Vickbender’ – was harvested in the intensely moving The Light Between Oceans. I would nominate this as one of my films of the year. Performance of the year? Definitely Don Cheadle’s anthemic one in Miles Ahead. He became Miles Davis here - by osmosis.
Other films that stood out for me were Florence Foster Jenkins, The Revenant, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Elvis and Nixon, Love & Friendship, Zootropolis and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, a haunting adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s highly-acclaimed novel. Brie Larson took the Best Actress Oscar for this in February.
The ceremonies were dominated by the theme of racism, no black performers featuring in the main line-up. Hollywood did its best to reverse this trend in 2016.The most high profile black performer of the year was David Oyelowo. He was serviceable both in A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe but he seems to lack range. I incline more to Mr Cheadle.
There were many sequels during the year, most notably X-Men, Independence Day and Finding Dory. In Jack Reacher: No Way Back Tom Cruise again took on the forces of corruption and wiped them out from his diminutive vantage point. Star Wars: The Force Awakens had more going for it but I always feel these types of films are celebrations of style over substance. Another sequel, Bridget Jones’ Baby, was endearing but one can have too much of a good thing. If the trickledown trend continues, will we be vouchsafed Bridget Jones’ Grandchild by 2036? God forbid.
Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, two very busy octogenarians, were in splendid form with Café Society and Sully respectively. I was also taken with Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid, though in hindsight the Alamo-style finale strained credulity.
The films which probably made the most money during the year were those with comic book origins like Dr Strange and Batman versus Superman: Dawn of justice. Or television ones like perennial favourite Star Trek.
This opened itself up to a whole new generation with Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, advising us in no uncertain terms that the franchise is here for the long haul, William Shatner or no William Shatner. The pity is that these big budget releases grab most of the audiences and wipe the independent productions – like, say, Ken Loach’s absorbing I, Daniel Blake (or Strange Occurrences?) off the radar.
How did the church fare during the year? The Christian Brothers didn’t do too well in the over-praised Sing Street but at least the abuse chronicled there was just physical and not sexual. Have we reached a stage where this dubious concession is regarded as a welcome development? The latter theme was taken up in Spotlight, a film which was well made but trawled an overly-ploughed furrow. It left one feeling a sense of scandal fatigue by the end.