While many cinephiles are lamenting the quality of mainstream cinema’s output in recent years, there’s been a number of truly enjoyable flicks to emerge in 2016.
It’s no surprise that the diamonds in the rough are mostly low-budget auteurist gems, as mainstream Hollywood continues to dance with sequel fatigue and pointless reboots.
The films mentioned below are by directors who still carry the torch for quality cinema – and this year they’ve given us movie geeks some hope for the future.
Director: Karyn Kusama
From the moment our protagonist’s vehicle strikes a coyote and he’s forced to mercifully execute it, Karyn Kusama’s tense LA thriller, The Invitation, starts to simmer, building heat until its scalding conclusion.
The driver, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills. The hosts are Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and new husband David (Michiel Huisman, or Daario Naharis for you Game of Thrones nerds). We learn that the death of Will and Eden’s young boy led to their relationship’s demise. It’s quickly apparent that Will still carries an immense amount of pain, but Eden has seemingly freed herself of grief’s burden by spending time with a New-Age spiritual group called The Invitation.
Further revelation of plot would be a disservice to would-be viewers. But know this – Kusama’s low-budget piece of psychological horror is a masterclass in filmmaking. The cast, none of them household names, is flawless, serving the script’s nuances and heavy themes. The film is rife with sleight of hand and misdirection, often deliciously executed, and the torturous pace, while almost unbearable, is ultimately crucial to the film’s success.
Kusama brings us to a final moment that might be the most brilliant and terrifying of any film since the 1970s. They say a picture tells a thousand words – The Invitation‘s final five seconds say a great deal more.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Much has been made of The Duffer Brothers’ Netflix nostalgia-fest Stranger Things – and the praise heaped upon that TV series is entirely justified. But it should not be at the expense of Jeff Nichols’ impressive Midnight Special, a tense and beautifully made piece of modern science fiction.
Just like Stranger Things, Midnight Special owes a lot of the suspense fantasies of the late ’70s and ’80s, from King to Carpenter and, of course, Spielberg. It’s a realistic road movie spliced with fantasy DNA, the fast-paced narrative rocketing to a memorable finale.
The film follows stoic father Roy (Nichols’ go-to lead Michael Shannon) and his son Alton Meyer, a boy with special powers. Roy was a member of a cult built around his son’s abilities, but he flees with him in the night. This leads to a chase from both the cult’s heavies and the American government.
The cast, which includes Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepherd, use their immense skills to elevate Midnight Special above its potentially silly premise. More importantly, Nichols is game enough to take this subject matter seriously – and he pulls it off with undeniable effectiveness.
The future of genre films is safe in the hands of filmmakers like Nichols.
Directors: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
For many, a simple word association with “Charlie Kaufman” would conjure a list of superlatives – terms like “visionary” and “genius”. And the gifted cinematic mastermind does his reputation no disservice in the moving and fiercely original Anomalisa.
The first R-rated movie to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (disappointingly pipped by the pleasant but overrated Pixar flick Inside Out), Anomalisa is fiercely unique, poignant and abstract. At times it’s also uncomfortably intimate, both literally and emotionally.
Using stop-motion puppets created with 3D printing technology, the film follows self-help author Michael Stone as he flies to a conference in Cincinnati. He’s in a state of internal crisis, adrift in existential melancholy, so numbed that everyone around him looks and sounds the same (a figurative device provided by veteran character actor Tom Noonan). But then he meets a shy fan who arouses his senses. Her name is Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two have an affair in the hotel and, at least momentarily, Michael’s existence is imbued with meaning.
Anomalisa deals with similar ideas to Lost in Translation and Up in the Air but, when channelled through these spookily life-like creations, creates a dream-like malaise that is moving, abstract and tactile. A successful cinematic experiment.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
American writer-director Jeremy Saulnier follows the success of 2013’s critically acclaimed crowd-funded revenge flick Blue Ruin, with dark and thrilling grindhouse throwback Green Room. It also features one of the final performances by the talented Anton Yelchin.
This gritty and uber-violent tale follows the plight of young punk band the Ain’t Rights. They’re on a tour that isn’t going so well. They’re low on cash and willing to play anywhere. So much so that they take a dubious last-minute gig at a private party on a property outside Portland. When they arrive, the band find themselves in a full-blown Neo-Nazi compound. They’re part of the musical line-up for a skinhead piss-up.
When the band accidentally witness the aftermath of a violent murder, the Nazis panic and lock them in the green room. Head of the skinheads, Darcy Banker (played with cold cruelty by Patrick Stewart), pragmatically decides that the easiest way to cover-up the crime is to murder the band. What follows is a particularly grim showdown, depicted with bloody flair and relentless realism.
Touring punk bands might find this situation all too real and all too plausible. If you’re prepared to flinch, then there’s a lot to be enjoyed about this impressive horror movie.
THE JUNGLE BOOK
Director: Jon Favreau
Most remakes are pointless. But this year Jon Favreau created an exception to the rule. Rudyard Kipling’s classic book of short stories has been brought to the screen on multiple occasions by Disney, most notably as the 1967 animation and again in 1994 as a live-action film featuring Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli.
But now, in 2016, Disney has special effects at its disposal that allow a live-action child actor to interact and converse with extremely life-like talking animals. Favreau makes the most of this technology, directing a stunning visual feast that’s alive with creatures and edge-of-your-seat set pieces.
The Jungle Book nods specifically to Disney’s animated movie, and seamlessly works in some of those classic songs. The presence of Bill Murray, Idris Elba and Christopher Walken in key voice roles proves sublime pieces of casting.
The Jungle Book represents the best that cinema can be – pure, unadulterated escapism.
Director: Ben Wheatley
J.G. Ballard’s cult classic novel finally makes it to the screen. It had been a dream project of British producer Jeremy Thomas since the 1970s, and here his vision is realised with deliciously retro and kaleidoscopic panache by UK director Ben Wheatley.
Ballard’s exploration of social structure, class tension and the impacts of technology on the human psyche is clearly not an easy narrative to depict on screen, but Wheatley relishes the black comedy and violent anarchy of the source material.
High-Rise follows Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) as he moves into an innovative, self-contained block of apartments. With its own supermarket and recreational outlets, there’s really no need to leave the apartment except to step into the real world to hold down a job.
The building was designed by esteemed architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), a zen-like visionary who, naturally, lives in the lavish apartment that takes up the very top floor. Within the building is a class structure, with poor families able to afford lower apartments and the upper class closer to the top.
Continued power outages and other technical difficulties see the social structure within the high-rise start to erode, teetering on the brink of chaos.
To enjoy High-Rise you must suspend your sense of common logic and enjoy its sub-text and visual flair. Otherwise you’ll continue to ask why no one simply leaves the building when the inhabitants are gripped by the unfolding chaos. You’re rewarded for this suspension. This is prosaic cinema that remains wickedly funny and wildly absurd. Wheatley offers us a challenging piece of science fiction with a British sensibility, buoyed by a fine cast of actors who clearly relish the juicy material.
Also see: THE REVENANT: review