Seek and you shall find: the top 20 films of 2016
It’s easy to lament the decline of mainstream cinema, which this year descended further into predictable franchise fodder. Big budgets and little innovation. The worst comedy of the year (Ghostbusters) was, somewhat ironically, a remake of one of the greatest American comedies of all time. This seems to be the pattern. Hollywood has signalled its intent to continue rehashing old ideas, churning them through the meat grinder, and stripping them of whatever sustenance they had in their original form. Watering down the syrup. Cutting the quality coke with caster sugar. Fresh and exciting stories seem now to only exist on television.
And what a year for television it was: Westworld, The Night Of, Stranger Things and The Night Manager, to name but a few.
But there are those of us that still love the cinematic medium, tragics prepared to actually leave the house to go and see a movie. We spend time trawling releases from year to year, searching for something fresh – a story that takes us momentarily out of our lives, to a place uplifting, devastating, arousing or shocking.
Despite my reservations about mainstream cinema, this is not exactly a list of obscure indie movies. There’s big names here: Tarantino, Iñárritu, Allen, Verhoeven, Favreau and Kaufman. But there’s also a group of consistent smaller directors that seem intent on keeping the dream worlds of movies alive – and are making a name for themselves in the process. Jeff Nichols. Nicolas Winding Refn. Taika Waititi. Damien Chazelle. Park Chan-wook. The fashion designer Tom Ford.
This year’s choice selection is bookended by two female directors – one a Brit who documented youth in America, the other a superb American filmmaker that made not only a tense thriller, but also the best movie of 2016.
Get ready for a movie marathon that won’t disappoint.
20. AMERICAN HONEY
Director: Andrea Arnold
Release date: November 3, 2016
It’s fascinating that the year’s most incisive movie about modern America was written and directed by a Brit. Acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Arnold used a cast comprised almost entirely of non-actors, save for the impressive Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough, and travelled across America to immerse herself in the world of “Magazine Crews” – groups of youths who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door.
In a star-making performance, unknown actress Sasha Lane plays Star, the prism through which we experience this absorbing and stunningly realised journey into America’s heartland. It’s a world of motel rooms, sex, drugs, music and the looming threat of danger is never far away. Star and her band of young salespeople drive through America’s sub-cultures, from the wealthy to the decaying fringes, providing an ultra-realistic depiction of youth against the system. We are shown the American Dream – and it’s rarely pretty.
Arnold may be guilty of pulling some punches – there’s moments that perhaps could have truthfully ventured into darker territory – but American Honey is still one heck of a dizzying experience. Her eye for the minutiae of every key scene adds to the film’s arresting pastiche.
At 163-minutes, this is a lengthy flick, but the movie pulls you into its mesmerising cyclic structure, ultimately presenting us with a moving depiction of a young woman deciding what type of person she wants to be.
19. THE NEON DEMON
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Release date: October 20, 2016
Nicolas Winding Refn refined his cool, detached, all-surface approach in The Neon Demon, a psychological horror movie that feels filtered through the glossy pages of a high-end fashion magazine. Indeed, the 46-year-old Danish director uses the immaculate, superficial visual cues of the fashion world to create a scathing satire. The result is a provocative, impressionistic, sensory experience that stylishly eviscerates the LA fashion scene in a manner as brutal as David Lynch’s searing Hollywood roast, Mulholland Drive..
Elle Fanning is perfectly cast as 16-year-old, small-town doll Jesse, whose descent into degradation seems assured from the first time we see her on camera – posed in a glamorous mock murder scene, covered in blood and make-up. A fashion shoot. Jesse is the embodiment of flawlessness and youth – two commodities the glamorous fashion world worships – and it’s quickly apparent that her fellow models, two played by Aussies Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, would like to suck the life from her.
In a side role, Jena Malone steals the show as Ruby, a make-up artist and part-time morgue attendant with a keen eye for beauty. She takes Jesse under her wing. Malone is fearless – and delivers 2016’s most shocking scene.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Release date: August 18, 2016
J.G. Ballard’s cult classic novel finally made it to the screen this year. It had been a dream project for British producer Jeremy Thomas since the 1970s, and his vision was 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 proved entertaining cinematic material, and Wheatley clearly relished the black comedy and violent anarchy of the source novel.
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 building, except to step into the real world to hold down a job.
The high-rise 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 live 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 (Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Elizabeth Moss included) who clearly relish the pulpy material.
17. DE PALMA
Director: Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow
Released: August 2016
There are those that think that writer-director Brian De Palma is one of American cinemas great living geniuses – and there are those that are wrong. In this loving homage to the great man by devotees and filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, the legend himself holds court and takes us through a play by play account of his constantly fascinating career.
There’s no other interview subjects, just a static shot of the fierce visionary in a living room, interspersed with behind-the-scenes clips from his well-known masterpieces, such as Scarface, Carrie and The Untouchables, to his many gems: Blow Out, Phantom of the Paradise, Dressed to Kill, The Fury and Body Double.
For fans and general cinephiles alike, De Palma is a riveting anecdote-heavy journey with an opinionated auteur as its tour guide. A must watch.
16. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Release date: January 14, 2016
Sure, there are some missteps in what was reverentially branded in its marketing as “The 8th Film by Director Quentin Tarantino“, but even at his most self-indulgent and heavy handed the master filmmaker’s work still towered over much of what mainstream Hollywood had to offer in 2016.
This excessively bloody and murderous tale of eight shady characters trapped in a stagecoach lodge during an aggressive blizzard, set some time after the American civil war, is another provocative showcase for Tarantino’s talents as an auteur. His sharp dialogue and flair for camera and stage direction are writ large, all captured (for those lucky enough to get to the limited screenings) in glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision.
Rich with the actors who’ve become part of Tarantino’s motley tapestry (Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Kurt Russell), The Hateful Eight caused its fair share of controversy amongst the more inane members of the PC establishment. But for more discerning pundits, it was difficult not to jump on the writer-director’s wave-length and enjoy the wild and wordy bloodshed, all set against an Academy Award-winning soundtrack by the great Ennio Morricone.
It’s not Tarantino’s finest work, and contains a very unnecessary voiceover by the man himself, but The Hateful Eight is still devilish fun.
15. DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD
Director: Ricky Gervais
Release date: August 25, 2016
Ricky Gervais’ forays into filmmaking in the absence of his writing partner and creative sounding board Stephen Merchant have been problematic, to say the least. Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying and the woeful Netflix outing Special Correspondents have all failed to find the emotional depth – and, indeed, darkness – of The Office, Extras and Cemetery Junction. Clearly, Merchant’s involvement is vital.
It was reasonable, then, that fans of Gervais be forgiven for keeping low expectations about the comedian’s return as the character that made him a household name, the tragic and cheeky loser David Brent. In fact, all of the main players from The Office were noticeably absent from the production of Life on the Road, which gave us something of an ominous feeling.
But, in spite of these concerns, Life on the Road was a welcome surprise. It seems that in Brent – who is no doubt an unfiltered, brutally honest depiction of the comedian himself – Gervais inherently knows what works, and the movie feels like a natural continuation of the character, recapturing the tone of the classic series from whence it came.
In 2016, Brent still dreams of being something – ideally a famous musician – and the pain and palpable melancholy of the character imbue Life on the Road with as many poignant moments as there are laugh-out-loud set pieces. Gervais might ham up a few elements – like the horrible treatment that Brent suffers at the hands of his bandmates – but ultimately Life on the Road is both moving and very funny.
A wonderful return to form for the beloved comic.
14. ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING
Director: Andrew Dominik
Release date: September 8, 2016
Following the tragic death of his son in July 2015, revered songwriter and lyricist Nick Cave invited filmmaker and collaborator Andrew Dominik to chart the making of his 16th studio record, Skeleton Tree. Captured almost entirely in eerie, sombre black and white, One More Time With Feeling is not just an insight into Cave and his band The Bad Seeds’ creative process, but also a painfully intimate document of this traumatic upheaval that Cave found himself in.
The film is as uncomfortably personal as one might expect, especially if you’re aware of Cave and his family’s loss before viewing. But through that intimacy the film grows into a broader exploration of death and creation, as Cave ruminates on whether such crippling pain really is conducive to the making of art. The songwriter is numbed by his son’s passing, yet finds a way to craft what is perhaps his greatest musical achievement.
13. CAFÉ SOCIETY
Director: Woody Allen
Release date: September 1, 2016
It seems that in Jesse Eisenberg, prolific writer-director Woody Allen has found the perfect avatar, a vessel through which his trademark bumbling protagonist can be reimagined into youth. Indeed, Eisenberg is a perfect fit for Allen’s witty, verbose style of comedy and he shines in this return to form by the legendary filmmaker.
As much a satire on old Hollywood as it is a love letter, Café Society sees Eisenberg – who previously appeared in Allen’s To Rome with Love – as impressionable Bobby Dorfman, the youngest of a Jewish family living in New York City in the 1930s. Bored of working with his jeweller father, Bobby sets off to Hollywood to work for his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a powerful talent agent that brushes shoulders with bona fide screen legends. Phil asks his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him around the town and the two form an attraction.
In the past six years or so, Allen seems to have gotten his groove back, with the relatively recent Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine amongst his better offerings since his purple patch in the latter half of the 1970s. His latest film is aided by Eisenberg and Stewart’s established screen chemistry, with the two previously playing lovers in Adventureland (2009) and American Ultra (2015). But all the cast is excellent, with Carrell at his best and a radiant Blake Lively adding glamour to proceedings. A funny side plot features Corey Stoll as Bobby’s gangster brother.
Café Society leaves you with a sense of melancholy, perhaps reflective of Allen’s longing for this distant golden era of cinematic history.
12. AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Release date: November 2, 2016
One of the stranger pop-culture stories in recent times was that of Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, a 16-year-old transgender drug addict prostitute author that took the literary world – and Hollywood – by storm in the late ’90s. In one of literature’s most fascinating modern scandals, JT LeRoy, darling of the film and literature universe, turned out to be a fake, a persona created by American writer Laura Albert.
This was no simple nom de plume. Albert pretended to be a 16-year-old over the phone, convincing a psychologist, numerous editors, publishers, journalists and major celebrities, and then followed the ruse to the next logical step – engaging her young sister-in-law to pretend to be JT LeRoy at public appearances. Albert herself became “Speedy” a mysterious British woman who was JT’s manager and confidant.
Needless to say, there was much egg on numerous important faces when the truth was eventually exposed. In Author, Albert gives a candid and (seemingly) honest account of how the JT LeRoy hoax snowballed and evolved, and invites us into the childhood events that may have led to her bizarre controversy. This is a warts-and-all insight into this stranger-than-fiction tale and is full of actual phone conversations with major celebrities that Albert recorded and archived. Feuerzeig does a fine job of depicting this odd chain of events and presents Albert as both an endearing and duplicitous eccentric.
11. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
Director: Taika Waititi
Release date: May 26, 2016
Taika Waititi had been one of New Zealand’s quiet achievers, writing and directing a string of immensely funny indie flicks (Eagle vs Shark, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows) off the back of his Academy Award-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night. This year’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople cemented Waititi as a fine creator of poignant humanist comedies, no doubt a large reason why the reins of the upcoming Marvel franchise instalment Thor: Ragnarok were dutifully handed to him.
The adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a break-out success in America – and rightfully so. It’s a very funny film, loosely in the “coming-of-age” genre, that tells the story of Ricky Baker (a very natural Julian Dennison), a young teenager who has been bounced around in the foster system. He’s no monster, yet has been cheeky enough to be branded a lost hope. On his last chance, Ricky is sent to a farm with a new set of foster parents. There he is looked after by a very kind “aunty” (Rima Te Wiata) and “uncle” Hec (a grizzled Sam Neill).
A series of unfortunate events lead to Ricky and Hec becoming outlaws, on the run in the New Zealand wilderness. Though Hec was never keen on the idea of taking in a foster child, their predicament ultimately endears young Ricky to the grumpy farmer and they engage in an often hilarious run from the long, bumbling arm of the law.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople was perhaps 2016’s most genuinely funny and heart-warming comedy, rife with memorable and laugh-out-loud moments. It was yet another gem from Waititi, with two fine performances at its centre.
10. LA LA LAND
Director: Damien Chazelle
Release date: December 26, 2016
When hot and tired motorists trapped on the offramp of the LA freeway break into song, the opening scene of 31-year-old director Damien Chazelle’s latest flick is immediately jarring. Why? Because original live-action movie musicals have almost become a thing of the past. Indeed, La La Land itself feels like a strange set of anachronisms – modern technology littered through the tale of a bygone era. A seamless marriage of old and new.
The opening song-and-dance number on the crowded offramp, ‘Another Day of Sun’, that opens this wonderful movie, demands an adjustment from the viewer – the promise that you’re about to encounter something more than a two-hour episode of Glee.
Once you’ve settled into the rhythm and tone of La La Land, where characters do indeed break into song throughout, you’re richly rewarded by this heartfelt tribute to Los Angeles (LA LA Land, get it?) and to the wide-eyed dreamers that venture there in search of fame.
There’s no doubt that much of the movie’s charm is derived from two immensely talented leads. This is the third time Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have played on-screen lovers, and their natural chemistry is palpable. Gosling has never been more charming or funny. In La La Land he and Stone play Sebastian and Mia. The former is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club and keeping the dying genre alive. The latter is an aspiring actress, who serves coffee at a cafe on the Warner Bros lot and spends her days between fruitless auditions. Their paths cross and they fall in love.
La La Land is an excellent modern musical, with some genuinely catchy compositions that punctuate key moments. There’s some breath-taking long takes and scintillating camera work, with Chazelle demonstrating a keen eye for set pieces and choreography. The story, of course, is filtered through a romantic, old-Hollywood nostalgia and draws on the visual and sonic language of movie musicals to tell the story of these two lovers in search of their respective dreams. In this way, La La Land‘s themes are comparable to Chazelle’s previous film, the very impressive Whiplash – an exploration of the personal sacrifices required to step out from the crowd. La La Land is likely to be a monstrous success and is, perhaps, a modern classic.
09. THE JUNGLE BOOK
Director: Jon Favreau
Release date: April 7, 2016
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 in 2016, Disney had special effects at its disposal that allowed a live-action child actor to interact and converse with extremely life-like talking animals. Favreau made 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 is nothing short of sublime casting.
The Jungle Book represents the best that cinema can be – pure, unadulterated escapism.
08. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Director: Jeff Nichols
Release date: May 19, 2016
Much was made of The Duffer Brothers’ Netflix nostalgia-fest Stranger Things – and the praise heaped upon that TV series was certainly justified. But it should not be at the expense of Jeff Nichols’ impressive Midnight Special, a tense and beautifully made piece of old-school science fiction.
Just like Stranger Things, Midnight Special owes a lot to 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 actor Michael Shannon) and his son Alton Meyer, a boy with special powers. Roy was a member of a Texas cult built around his son’s incredible abilities, but steals him away in the night. Soon, both the cult’s heavies and members of the American government are after Roy and Alton. Father and son are assisted in their escape by Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a believer in Alton’s power, and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Alton’s biological mother. Sam Shepherd appears as the suitably unsettling cult leader and Adam Driver is again impressive as a specialist FBI agent.
The key to Midnight Special‘s success is that Nichols bravely takes this high-concept science fiction seriously and grounds it in gritty realism. As with all classic sci-fi, a suspension of disbelief is required, but the movie richly rewards those that take the journey.
07. GREEN ROOM
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Release date: May 12, 2016
This year American writer-director Jeremy Saulnier followed the success of 2013’s critically acclaimed crowd-funded revenge flick Blue Ruin, with the dark and thrilling grindhouse throwback Green Room. It also featured 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 witnesses the aftermath of a violent murder, the Nazis panic and lock them in the green room. Leader 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 and wince in pain, then there’s a lot to be enjoyed about this impressive, nasty, funny uber-violent gorefest.
06. THE HANDMAIDEN
Director: Park Chan-wook
Release date: November 3, 2016
After a very brief foray into English language films with 2013’s moody thriller Stoker and a role as producer on the impressive dystopian sci-fi Snowpiercer (released the same year), South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook returned to his homeland for the sumptuous, romantic and decidedly erotic thriller The Handmaiden.
The Handmaiden tells an engrossing tale set in Japanese-occupied Korea, early in the 20th Century. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a young pickpocket enlisted in a plot by conman Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) who plans to marry and defraud the mysterious and beautiful heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Count Fujiwara promises to pay Sook-hee a nice cut of the proceeds if she becomes Lady Hideko’s personal handmaiden and helps him in his deception. But they have to act quickly, as their victim lives under the watchful eye of her maniacal and perverse Uncle Kouzuki, a collector of erotic literature and art. He plans to marry his niece and get his hands on the fortune himself. Sook-hee becomes Lady Hideko’s handmaiden but soon finds herself falling in love with her intended victim.
Featuring all the luscious sets and costuming that one might hope for from the period, The Handmaiden effectively transplants the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, set in Victorian era Britain, into gorgeous Korean and Japanese locales. Park Chan-wook, known more widely as the director and co-writer of 2003’s Oldboy, imbues the winding story with romanticism, humour, moments of violence and an especially passionate sex scene.
The Handmaiden is an intoxicating experience.
05. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
Director: Tom Ford
Release date: November 11, 2016
Fashion designer Tom Ford’s second foray into feature filmmaking opens with skin – a large, naked woman hypnotically jumping up and down in slow motion – and then proceeds to burrow deeper into the subconscious.
A story within a story, Nocturnal Animals finds the prolific Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, a Los Angeles art gallery owner adrift in a period of existential dissonance – she’s questioning her career, lives in a soulless, austere mansion and is in a loveless marriage with Hutton (Armie Hammer). When the manuscript for the debut novel by her estranged ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), arrives, Susan uses her incessant insomnia to stay up on a series of nights and immerse herself in the book.
Susan is shocked by the novel – titled Nocturnal Animals – which is a cold and violent tale of rape, murder and revenge. Through the book’s brutality, Susan is forced to come to terms with the pain she inflicted on Edward through their break-up. The novel’s narrative plays out as Susan reads it alone in her bed.
Tom Ford’s film packs a series of double punches, as the “real” and “fictional” stories unfold, one a pulpy noir, the other a domestic psychological thriller. The novel within the film is played out with shocking realism, its cast including Gyllenhaal, the always brilliant Michael Shannon and Isla Fisher. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the novel’s chief antagonist and has never been better – this evil performance might win him an Oscar nomination.
With two stories intertwined, the onus is on Ford to deliver two impressive endings and the source material doesn’t let him or the audience down. Nocturnal Animals is bleak but not distancing. It’s filled with a mesmerising and intensely cinematic atmosphere. Ford’s screenplay, based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, is ultimately a rumination on the craft of writing, how an author’s real pain is filtered and mutated before it bleeds on to the page.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Release date: October 27, 2016
In another year of decidedly bland mainstream cinematic output, the return of Dutch director and master provocateur Paul Verhoeven, after a 10-year absence, could not have come any sooner. He brought us Elle, a dark, brilliant and decidedly twisted black comedy that the millennial snowflake generation was sure to find a tough morsel to swallow.
Elle begins in the most confronting of ways. Our protagonist Michele, played by Isabelle Huppert at the height of her powers, is being raped. The horrific sounds of the attack are played out on the face of her cat, which coldly watches on. Then we see her attacker, a man dressed in black, wearing a face mask, calmly remove himself from Michele and leave.
It’s Michele’s response to this most brutal of assaults that makes Verhoeven’s first film since 2006’s Black Book, such an endlessly fascinating and challenging movie. Following her assault, Michele cleans her house, bathes, gets an STD check from her doctor and then does not report the rape to the police. The reasons for this become clear later on.
But what is also evident is that Michele has no intention of allowing the attack to disrupt the carefully controlled chaos of her busy and successful life. Michele and her friend Anna (Anne Consigny) run a video game development company, whose specialty is particularly sexual and violent fantasy titles. Michele navigates her relationships with men, an ex-husband, a lover and a son, with coldly precise aplomb. Michele has no room in her life to be a victim.
Verhoeven, now 78, initially wanted to shoot Elle in Boston, with a host of major actresses attached, from Nicole Kidman to Sharon Stone, Diane Lane and Marion Cotillard, but then decided to move the production to France. He learned French to communicate with the cast and crew, perhaps because he knew a US studio might prevent him from depicting this character and story in such an unflinching manner. It appears the decision was a correct one.
Huppert delivered the best performance by any actress in 2016 and was subsequently nominated for a Golden Globe. If there remains discerning voters in the Academy, then we should see her nominated for an Oscar too. Elle is France’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category – and it surely deserves to win. A riveting melodrama.
Director: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Release date: February 4, 2016
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.
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 mid-life spiritual crisis, so numbed that everyone around him literally looks and sounds the same (a 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, builds a dream-like malaise that is moving, abstract and tactile.
An astoundingly original movie experience.
02. THE REVENANT
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Release date: January 7, 2016
The comfort of a home cooked meal and a long hot shower was essential after enduring 156 minutes of The Revenant. Writer-director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to the Academy Award-winning Birdman is cinema at its most visceral and immersive, a bleak revenge tale and survivalist epic that weighs the emotional impact of blood, snow and dirt above dialogue and characterisation.
The premise is simple. It’s 1823 and Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is guide to a military sanctioned hunting party who are traipsing through the cold wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase to fill their quota of pelts. Minutes into the film the group are ambushed by the Arikara native tribe and in a stunningly realised sequence, in which you’re inclined to duck your head as arrows fly at the camera, a small number of hunters escape. The remainder are slaughtered. It’s a bloody and brilliant set piece.
Soon after, Glass is brutally mauled by a ferocious mother grizzly bear, a feat in movie magic. Slashed and bloody, Glass is discovered on the brink of death and, after attempting to carry him on the stretcher, the hunting party makes the tough decision to leave Glass behind. His son, a half-Pawnee native called Hawk, refuses to leave his father’s side. Another of the party, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is offered money to stay and make sure Glass is allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil in peace and relative comfort. But Fitzgerald grows impatient and decides to expedite the process. In a brief struggle, Hardy’s character kills Hawk and leaves Glass behind. This proves a mistake.
The themes in The Revenant are suitably simple, but no less profound. In the hands of Iñárritu, who knows how to harness the escapist power of cinema, a thin premise becomes something not just brutally humanistic – but almost biblical in scope. The result is a modern classic, a grand achievement of visceral and emotional power.
01. THE INVITATION
Director: Karyn Kusama
Release date: May 11, 2016
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, is on a 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, are note-perfect, serving the script’s nuances and heavy themes.
The Invitation 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 drags us to a final moment that was the most brilliant and terrifying of any film this year – perhaps of the last decade. They say a picture tells a thousand words – The Invitation’s final five seconds say a great deal more.
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