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Film Year in Review: For mainstream Hollywood, 2016 was the worst year in memory

George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!: The Coen brothers’ supposed retro romp was chilly and difficult. Photo: Supplied Bleak: Kurt Russell and Samuel L Jackson in The Hateful Eight, one of the most political films of the year. Photo: Lindy Percival
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Comedy: Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins. Photo: Supplied

Isabelle Huppert in Elle: Mind games styled as an art movie. Photo: Supplied

Magical: Cemetery of Splendour was unabashed art cinema. Photo: Supplied

Girl Asleep was one of n cinema’s more worthwhile offerings.

Favourite: Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. Photo: Supplied

Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind The Clown. Photo: Supplied

These are interesting times to be a film reviewer, which doesn’t stop them from occasionally being rather dull.

Where mainstream Hollywood is concerned, 2016 was the worst year in memory: the outlook of the big studios has narrowed to the point where it’s unusual for them to back anything that isn’t a fantasy blockbuster, a strenuously edgy comedy or an uplifting biopic.

Still, even under these conditions good films get made, often by established names who have earned the clout to keep on doing what they do. Clint Eastwood’s Sullyturned an upbeat true story into something uncommonly subdued and haunting, while the Coen brothers’ supposed retro romp Hail Caesar was a religious allegory as chilly and difficult as any in their catalogue.

Quentin Tarantino’s bleak The Hateful Eight was one of the most political films of the year, and Ang Lee’s misunderstood Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk one of the most experimental – an essay on spectacle and perception which we hopefully won’t have to wait long to see in its original, pioneering high-frame-rate format.

A step away from the mainstream, Charlie Kaufman created a scale model of his own despair in the stop-motion Anomalisa(made with Duke Johnson), and Andrea Arnold offered an outsider’s romantic view of the US in her over-directed but exhilarating American Honey.

I was caught off-guard by Woody Allen’s quietly emotional Cafe Society, a demonstration of his ongoing commitment to dealing out his old cards in new ways.

Then there was Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, the funniest of Jane Austen adaptations; and Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, one of the rare comedies worthy of the finesse of Hugh Grant.

For now, it’s taken for granted that American product dominates n screens, but there’s no guarantee this will remain the case in decades to come. This year, non-Americans certainly had the best of it in the field of crowdpleasing entertainment.

Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, from China, and Makoto Shinkai’s animated Your Name, from Japan, were truly imaginative fantasies; while Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, from New Zealand, was a mock-epic adventure to delight viewers of any age.

Paul Verhoeven’s twisty melodrama Ellewas styled as a French art movie, but its mind games were at least as audacious as those of Verhoeven’s Hollywood blockbusters such as Total Recall.

Further into the realm of unabashed art cinema, Apichatpong Weerasethakul continued to explore buried landscapes of dream and memory – including memories of Thailand’s painful past – in his magical Cemetery of Splendour.

This was not a banner year for n cinema, although some worthwhile films were released – among them Ivan Sen’s Goldstoneand Rosemary Myers’ Girl Asleep. Eva Orner’s documentary Chasing Asylum– which contains rare, disturbing footage of our offshore detention centres – is the one local production all ns should see.

Here in Melbourne, the good news is that film culture continues to thrive, thanks to institutions like the n Centre for the Moving Image, the Astor Theatre, and especially the Melbourne Cinematheque, whose dedication to film history – and to screening of films at ACMI whenever possible in their original 35mm format – remains exemplary.

Specialised festivals are too many to list, but Monster Fest and the Melbourne International Animation Festival stood out as more adventurous than most. Mention should also be made of the regular avant-garde screenings mounted by the Artist Film Workshop, such as the recent program devoted to the work of Michael Lee – the kind of inspired maverick too rarely cited in discussions of the best in n cinema.

There’s also no space to do justice to this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, impressive even by MIFF’s high standards. My favourites of the premieres – some of which may show up in release in 2017 – included 11 Minutes, Staying Vertical, Despite the Night, Happy Hour, Toni Erdmann and Personal Shopper.

Better still were the retrospectives – above all, the comprehensive tribute to the directing work of Jerry Lewis, a master comedian who also happens to be one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. In his 1960s heyday, Lewis was able to get away with making bold, deeply personal art in the guise of light entertainment – something it’s impossible to imagine a comparable figure managing in the US now.

Unless perhaps he or she were working in television – but that’s another story. Top 10 films of 2016