The Great Wall

Director: Zhang Yimou (2016)
Starring: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing
Find it: IMDB

As film fans and frequent cinemagoers, we've all experienced it. You weren't exactly excited to see it, and were lukewarm on the idea at best. Perhaps you were coerced along by a friend or significant other. A film you didn't not want to see, but wouldn't go out of your way to sit through either. Sometimes it works out just fine, a pleasant surprise. Other times, you check your watch ten minutes into the film and pray for the fucking thing to be over already. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of The Great Wall.

As a rule, CGI monsters and I do not get on. If there are hordes of them, and they're computer animated, chances are, I do not give a shit about them. Whether they be zombies (World War Z), Sharknados (Sharknado), Transformers, Transformers 2s, Transformers 3s, Transformers 4s, Transformers dinosaurs, actual dinosaurs (Jurassic World), Orcs (The Hobbit) or generic ugly shits (everything else), if they're in it, there's a high possibility I couldn't care less about them or your movie.

Not unless you can back it up with good character work.  There's a reason the boring Chitauri and Ultron-bots of The Avengers and its sequel didn't make that list of whining - and that's mostly due to the characters, writing and performances elsewhere. In The Great Wall, almost everything is as muggy as the visuals. And the visuals are pretty damn muggy (save for the admittedly excellent costume design). Most muggy and indistinct of all though, is Matt Damon's grumbling, bored performance.

Here he plays a man who has a particular talent for killing monsters - something he does far better than the soldiers of The Great Wall, whose literal job and meaning in life is specifically and only killing monsters. The film throws its non-Matt Damon heroes the odd bone here and there, but it is precisely the Great White Saviour movie that it appears to be. It may not be quite as whitewashed as many had feared, but it is condescending and lazy. I can hardly begrudge Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe the work and screentime though, as they're the only fun to be had in it. Tian Jing shoulders co-lead (ish - very ish) next to Damon, but is as wooden and uninteresting as he is, making the majority of their scenes a bore.

Even (especially) the monsters are of the dull, grey, semi-dinosaur variety, and can only be killed by Matt Damon, Deus Ex Magneto, and Cliche. It's a combination of the three which win out in an astoundingly predictable CGI finale - leaving me begging for writers to start tearing certain pages out of the 'Alien Invasion' playbook, and look for a new way of defeating the monstrous horde for once. Ironically, the creatures' most effective sequence is one in which they're barely seen, shrouded in mist and attacking from the shadows.

By drowning the film in grey and brown CGI sludge, The Great Wall loses sight of what should be its greatest asset - you know, The Great Wall. I wasn't expecting full-on Crash Bandicoot: Warped, but Slightly More Colourful Game of Thrones does neither the Wall or the film any favours. Beijing looks slightly better, but never once does it feel like a real place - and certainly not an inhabited one, with stakes we should care about.

Well, at least Pedro Pascal is having fun. The only character without a predictable arc and, crucially, a smile, his charismatic mercenary almost makes The Great Wall worth suffering through, and his double-act with Willem Dafoe (typecast, but fine) gives the film a much-needed sense of comic relief. And, for all the CGI misfortune, at least the 3D is pretty good. It sounds awesome too (although I am a sucker for traditional Chinese folk music). And the scene with the paper lanterns is genuinely moving.

It's these glimpses of goodness make the film even more disappointing - that there's maybe a good movie buried somewhere beneath the rubble of The Great Wall. That movie has more imaginative monsters (like Attack the Block, but on The Great Wall) and doesn't have Matt Damon in it. This hypothetical movie lets the Great Wall actually look great, gives its Chinese actors something substantial to do, and doesn't flub its ending.

Hypothetical or no, it can keep Pedro Pascal though. All movies need more Pedro Pascal.

4. The Night Before

Director: Jonathan Levine (2015)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie
Find it: IMDB

Because we needed something to wash the taste of Filth out of our collective mouths. A Christmas addition to the ever-growing subgenre of high (ish) concept R-rated Bro Comedies that took off in 2009 with The Hangover, and still refuses to die off, nearly eight years later. Mister Seth Rogen has been responsible for more of these movies than most (his delightful Pineapple Express pre-dates The Hangover), usually with the help of a certain James Franco.

But Franco is foregone in The Night Before, replaced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is essentially a more likeable, less weird version of James Franco anyway) and B-list Avenger Anthony Mackie. Old schoolfriends, this mismatched trio of misfits have an annual tradition of going out every Christmas Eve and getting themselves utterly blitz(en)ed, thanks to an undiluted combination of booze, drugs and hotheadedness. But Rogen's Isaac is soon to be a father, and sportsman Chris (Mackie) has hit the big time, making this Christmas their last together. The lonely and heartbroken Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) is determined to make it the best yet...

It's a simple plot, and follows a predictable through-line: the friends take a bunch of drugs, get into some zany, risque scrapes, all fall out, feel sad and then (spoiler) reconnect in time for the feel-good ending. What makes The Night Before special, however, is everything which comes between. The film's strongest suit is the sheer chemistry and likability of its three leads. The men bicker, act weird and get up to some morally grey shit, but... well, it's Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Just you try being mad at those cheeky little faces. Although Seth Rogen is kind of annoying in this movie, and I say that as a massive fan of Seth Rogen. Here he's like that one friend you have who gets wasted far too quickly on a night out but refuses to go home, and becomes increasingly annoying as the party goes on.

Like everything else though, it's worth it for the payoffs - specifically, dick pics and a great hallucinatory sequence at the end. Almost every joke and setup has a fairly predictable punchline - Chris's weed gets stolen, Jewish Isaac goes to midnight mass, Ethan embarrasses himself in front of his ex, but The Night Before commits hard, and throws in enough strange, subversive or darker touches that it all feels far more original than maybe it is.

Its cameos are too good to be spoiled, but with a supporting cast which takes in Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling and Jillian Bell and Ilana Glazer, the film is more than just men behaving badly. Bell's role is relatively small, but a great alternative to the usual shrewish, nagging wife we'd usually get in this sort of movie. Glazer is similarly fantastic as Rebecca Grinch, who pays wonderfully against Mackie, and even giving him his own action sequence to liven things up.

None of them, however, can hold a candle to The Night Before's real star - Michael Shannon, as the guys' drug dealer, Mister Green. The Christmas present I didn't know I wanted until I saw it, Mister Green is... well, beautifully Michael Shannon, charismatic and terrifying at the same time.

'Transcendent' is a big word and is thrown around far too liberally for my liking. It's a word which almost certainly doesn't apply to a film like The Night Before, and yet here I am, using it. It takes a not-particularly-inspiring template and uses that to apply some of the biggest laughs I've had this year. It's not quite a Christmas miracle, but its stars are certainly bona fide angels in my book. Especially you, Michael Shannon.

3. Filth

Director: Jon S. Baird (2013)
Starring: James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan
Find it: IMDB

What's Christmassy, you say, about a film in which the life of a corrupt, drug-addled, alcoholic Scottish copper finally falls to pieces, leaving him broken, alone and suicidal? Filth is a film about chronic, self-destructive misery and loneliness during the festive period. Which, in my books, makes it every bit as Christmassy as Santa Claus, eggnog and the Queen's speech. And, if you still need convincing, it has a Christmas soundtrack.

Look, nobody wants to admit it, but being unhappy at Christmas is all a part of the grand tradition. Just look at your seasonal classics: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and Moe Szyslak's annual suicide attempt ... from the very earliest days of popular TV, literature and movies, writers and filmmakers have been depicting Christmas sadness in its many forms, with varying degrees of darkness. Filth is as black as it comes, making Bad Santa look like Elf by comparison.

For the first time since 2014, I watched Filth again this year. That doesn't sound like much - I don't watch films all the time, and many (most) I'll never watch again. But this is one I watched at least three times in the year following its release, coming to appreciate and connect with it more upon each viewing. Not only is Filth my favourite movie of 2013, but there's something about it which makes it one of my favourite films of this century, period. Filth is a film which deeply, deeply resonated with the Joel of 2013-14, to the extent where I had to stop watching it for a couple of years.

Spoilers, yes, because of the ending and Bruce's suicide. During a period of five years when I was at my lowest ebb in life and culminating with the 'time to get help' August of 2014, something in Filth - the self-loathing, the guilt, the loneliness and repressed grief of Bruce Robertson- reached out and spoke to me; specifically what I perceived at the time to be his 'taking back control' in his final act. Like I said, pitch black as it comes, almost matching the dark heart of the novel upon which it is based, and almost as good too. Never let them tell you that art isn't dangerous. I wouldn't change it for the world, though.

Now, the technical stuff: Filth is packed with an excellent cast from all avenues of British cinema. James McAvoy is perfectly cast as Robbo, his greasy hair and crap beard (you can still see the chin beneath, which is a problem I also suffer from when trying to grow facial hair) practically emanating stink through the screen. The always underrated Eddie Marsan puts in a funny, sympathetic performance as Bruce's punching bag best mate, and there's Jim Broadbent too, as Bruce's doctor. Shauna MacDonald (adored since The Descent), Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, John Sessions, Shirley Henderson, Iain De Caestecker and Martin Compston fill out the strong supporting cast, while genre fans should also get a kick out of seeing the fantastic Pollyanna McIntosh show her face too. Its excellent soundtrack (a mix of Christmas songs and retro pop anthems), haunting score and Scottish burr make it one of the best sounding movies out there too.

Blackly hilarious, upsetting, troubling and curiously uplifting at the same time, Filth is the very Scottish answer to Bad Lieutenant and Bad Santa, and a great addition to the always 'fun' irredeemable-people-seeking-vague-redemption subgenre.

As time passes, however, so does one's perspective on art, and life. I watched Filth again in preparation for this piece and, this time, something about it didn't quite click. It remains one of my favourite films of this decade, but a part of me has moved on from Filth. And that's probably for the best.

Related: this piece I wrote for men's health charity The CALM Zone.

2. Die Hard

Director: John McTiernan (1988)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
Find it: IMDB

Terrorists at a Christmas party, 'Let it snow! Let it snow!' on the radio, and a Christmas tree. Of course Die Hard is a Christmas film. And not only that, but one of the greatest action movies of all time too. Die Hard is so influential that the sheer amount of imitators since have left it feeling a little dated and predictable when viewed for the first time by virgin, heathen eyes. And the less said about its sequels that aren't With a Vengeance the better.

A classic, but not a holiday one, which only makes it more acceptable to watch all year around. As if you needed an excuse. Good Era Bruce Willis is John McClane, but you didn't need me to tell you that. Trapped in an enormous tower block as terrorists attack on Christmas Eve (which you didn't need me to tell you either), McClane is the one man who can stand against the charismatic but terrifying Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, which you absolutely already knew). All this, and without shoes. What he does have, however, is pure working class spirit, a rebellious streak as wide as the Plaza itself, and a hell of a potty mouth.

If you're the sort of grump who has to ease into the festive spirit with a Christmas film that isn't really a Christmas film (see also: Batman Returns), then Die Hard is the perfect winterval gift. It's violent, sweary and full of explosions, but still sneaks in a bit of that Christmas goodwill between all the gunfire. The sequels may have let his marriage to Holly hit the skids again, but John's reconciliation with his wife here should warm the cockles of any old Scrooge's heart. But if that romance doesn't do it for you, there's always McClane's sweet friendship with beat cop Al and his undeniable chemistry with the villainous Gruber.

As with everything else, the shitshow that was 2016 makes watching Die Hard a bittersweet experience. Bruce Willis no longer gives a shit. Thanks to that and Jai Courtney, the franchise name is now worth less than that of its imitators. And of course, this being the year we lost the magnificent Alan Rickman. We can, at least comfort ourselves with his movies. Some may go with his turn in Love, Actually, but Rickman is more likeable in Die Hard. At least he's honest about his being an utter bastard (pretending to be an American hostage aside).

Willis is on top form here, but it's Rickman who owns this one. Magnetic, charismatic, imposing and with such unmistakable diction, even in a German accent. Its magic ingredient, Alan Rickman is the ace up Die Hard's sleeve, even after all this time.

1. Batman Returns

Director: Tim Burton (1992)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfieffer, Danny DeVito
Find it: IMDB

Tim Burton, a giant Christmas tree full of bats, Alfred doing his Christmas shopping, and Gotham City in the snow. Just try telling me that Batman Returns isn't really a Christmas movie and I'll tell you how wrong you are. Alright, like Die Hard, Filth and many Shane Black joints, the Christmas element of Batman Returns is just incidental enough that we can watch it all year around, but it wears its festivities upon its sleeve, kisses beneath the mistletoe and all.

This is a funny way to preface a love letter to Batman Returns, but Batman Returns is a terrible Batman movie. It might be the least faithful Batman movie ever made, featuring a Batman who murders more casually than even Ben Affleck and can't hold a candle to the heroism of Val Kilmer or George Clooney. In terms of its source material, Batman Returns is an absolute travesty. Say what you will about the rest, but they remained faithful to some version of Batman or another - be it camp, tortured or Frank Miller. Not so the Batman of Batman 1989 and its sequel - this is Tim Burton's very own take on the character, beholden to none...*

And yet. Batman Returns remains my favourite Batman movie of all time, head and shoulders above even The Dark Knight or Batman '66. I detested the murderous Batman of Batman v Superman. I balked at the "...I don't have to save you line" in Batman Begins. Batman tying a gargoyle to the Joker's leg and watching him drop off've the side of a building troubles me to no end. And yet. In Batman Returns Batman straps a bomb to a guy, drops him down a manhole and lets him explode. With a smile. And this is my favourite moment in Batman Returns.

Batman Returns is a film which plays entirely by its own rules, shrugging off the conventions of most comic book adaptations or action movies to do its own thing, yet still keeping everything which worked about the original film. Michael Keaton is wonderfully weird as Bruce Wayne. Michael Gough, pitch-perfect as Alfred. The car and the suit. Danny Elfman's theme. A properly Gothic looking Gotham City. Paul Reubens in the pre-credits sequence. Hell, that whole pre-credits sequence...

Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfieffer are the (pre-reboot) franchise's iconic villains, lacking the baggage (and, perhaps, one-dimensionality) of the Joker, which gives them some leway  in depiction and performance. And, of course, Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, who was made up for the film but steals it anyway.

The Mike Pence to Oswald Cobblepot's Trump, Max Shreck aids the quacking creep as he runs for Mayor of Gotham City. Watching in 2016, it's eerily prescient. I know, we say that about everything these days, but that dialogue is spot on at times. "It's not about power. It's about reaching out to people," says the Penguin of his policies, "touching people. Groping people." Then, mere moments later, of Catwoman, "Just the Pussy I've been looking for." Which would make poor Batman (again, a bit-player in his own movie) the Hillary Clinton of the piece, framed on a trumped up murder charge.

"The glory I yearn to recapture is the glory of Gotham!" speechifies the Penguin from his lectern. In other words, 'Make Gotham great again', right? Ultimately, Cobblepot is undone after Gotham overhears him badmouthing the city and its citizens - playing them like "a harp from hell." Which is, sadly, the one thing Batman Returns got wrong. Hizzoner the Trump tweets shit like that all the time and look where he ended up.

It's not all politics though: Batman Returns also takes in the hottest superhero screen romance we've ever seen; Pfieffer's puberty engine catsuit and the sizzling dialogue ("mistletoe is deadly if you eat it...") managing to bypass what is, admittedly, a lack of chemistry between herself and Keaton. His bulky, immobile Batsuit doesn't really help matters either. It's hard to feel sexy when you're walking around dressed like your car.

The Dark Knight had a rough road ahead following Batman Returns. After Burton and Keaton hit the road, the franchise would stumble on to one passable entry - the underrated but still quite bad Batman Forever - before being bludgeoned to death with neon camp in Batman & Robin. Things are on a (relatively) even keel now, but there's no Batman movie I return to more, or have fonder memories of, than this one. All year round. What, it isn't really a Christmas movie... is it?

*Except maybe for those very earliest issues by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, in which the Bat was still figuring his shit out and nobody was quite sure what he was supposed to be.