Films of 2016

 

© Sidney Kimmel Entertainment / CBS Films / Lionsgate

 

2016 was generally a bloody horrible year but it at least produced some decent films.   Here’s my top ten favourite movies of 2016.  I realise that some of them were made (and released in their home countries) in 2015.  But since they didn’t reach British cinemas and / or DVD outlets until the following year, I’m treating them as 2016 films.  Be on your guard for occasional spoilers.

 

Anomalisa

The Guardian’s excitable film critic Peter Bradshaw described Anomalisa as “unforgettably, skin-crawlingly strange”, though I found its wistful and amusing story of a middle-aged celebrity finding love in a big soulless hotel more reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) rather than anything by David Lynch.  There’s even a scene in Anomalisa that does for Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun what Lost in Translation did for Roxy Music’s More Than This.

 

However, Anomalisa is based on a play by Charlie Kaufman, who scripted and co-directed it with Duke Johnson, so it’s also flavoured with brain-bending oddness.  David Thewlis’s harassed customer-service expert, in Cincinnati for a conference, suffers from Fregoli Delusion, i.e. he perceives nearly everyone in the world as the same person, including his wife, son and ex-girlfriend.  All have the same bland face and same bland voice (supplied by Tom Noonan).  When he meets a young woman who somehow bucks the trend and possesses some individuality (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he promptly falls for her.

 

What makes Anomalisa odder still is the fact that it uses stop-motion animation – Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan are speaking through puppets.  If, like me, you still associate stop-motion animation with the Ray Harryhausen movies of yesteryear – featuring cyclopses, gorgons, dinosaurs and giant octopi – the scene where the Thewlis and Leigh puppets indulge in cunnilingus will blow your mind.

 

© HanWay Films / Paramount Pictures

 

Bone Tomahawk

I’ve already written about Bone Tomahawk on this blog so I’m not going to say much more about it – save that S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters) was one of 2016’s unexpected pleasures.

 

It doesn’t end well for Deputy Nick, though.

 

Green Room

Three years ago writer / director Jeremy Saulnier treated us to the melancholy modern-day noir classic Blue Ruin.  He maintains his high standards with Green Room.  A down-on-their-luck punk band get a chance to make money playing a gig at a bar in the remote Pacific Northwest.  The catch is, it’s a ‘boots-and-braces’ crowd, i.e. the audience are neo-Nazi skinheads.  The band survive the gig – despite performing the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks F**k Off – but then see a murder committed backstage and end up trapped in the titular green room, besieged by some shaven-headed psychos who want to eliminate the witnesses.

 

Saulnier skilfully cranks up the tension in this nasty but blackly funny thriller.  Rarely in a movie have attack-dogs appeared more terrifying.  And equally terrifying is Patrick Stewart as the bar owner and the skinheads’ cerebral but malevolent leader – Stewart no doubt welcoming a chance to ditch his Goody-Two-Shoes Star Trek image for a while.

 

© Broad Green Pictures / Film Science / A24

 

Hell or High Water

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) updated to the 21st century, Hell or High Water has two Texan brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, adopt an unusual strategy to rescue their family farm from a mortgage deal with a bank.  To pay it off, they start robbing local branches of the same bank.  Will their scheme succeed before the investigating Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, catch up with them?  Director David Mackenzie deftly orchestrates the drama – we have two pairs of characters whom we like, but we know the results are going to be unhappy when their paths finally cross – and the bank robberies receive extra tension from our knowledge that this is happening in Texas, a state where the customers are as heavily armed as the robbers and security staff.

 

Oh, and Jeff Bridges just gets better with age.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

As I grow older and more curmudgeonly, I find fewer comedy films capable of making me laugh.  An exception is the work of New Zealand writer / director Taika Waititi: Eagle vs Shark (2007), What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and now this film.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about grumpy old misfit Hector (Sam Neill) and chubby juvenile delinquent Ricky (Julian Dennison) taking to the New Zealand mountains pursued by police, social services, vigilantes and the media; along the way encountering hardship, killer wild boars and an affable lunatic called Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), but also forming a precious friendship.  Waititi creates a funny and affecting movie but avoids easy laughs and cloying sentimentality.  The characters here take some hard knocks and the happy ending is hard won.

 

© Gamechanger Films / XYZ Films

 

The Invitation

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation takes a familiar dramatical trope, the dinner party that goes wrong – see Rope (1948) or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – and turns it into a horror movie.  For most of its length, though, it’s more about social awkwardness as a group of well-heeled trendies get together for a meal in the Hollywood Hills and find their hosts a little too vocal about the New Age fad they believe has turned their lives around.  Logan Marshall-Green is good as the guest who suspects something sinister is afoot – but is he just overacting to his hosts’ happy-clappy goofiness?

 

Kusama shows Hitchcockian skill in stoking up and then dampening down Marshall-Green’s suspicions at different points in the film.  Meanwhile, hulking character actor John Carroll Lynch gives a memorable turn as an unexpected party guest.

 

Krisha

Krisha was the year’s other great dinner-party-goes-wrong movie – not in a macabre way but in a painful, all-too-human one.  During Thanksgiving, the sixty-something Krisha of the title turns up at her family’s celebrations as a not entirely welcome guest.  Long considered the black sheep of the family because of alcohol and substance abuse, Krisha is on a last warning to behave herself.  Inevitably, as the day progresses and subtle but niggling pressures mount, Krisha’s self-control begins to fray.

 

Shot over nine days in 2014 with a budget of just $14,000, Krisha feels claustrophobically intimate because director Trey Edwards Shults filmed it in his parents’ house, using members of his family and his friends for the cast.  Making it feel more intimate still is the fact that Shults himself plays Trey, Krisha’s estranged son; while Krisha Fairchild, his real-life aunt, plays Krisha.

 

Krisha is a low-fi marvel and it’s easy to see why indie filmmaking guru John Waters named it his film of the year.

 

© A24

 

Room

More claustrophobia is served up by Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, scripted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name.  This Canadian-Irish co-production sees Brie Larson abducted and imprisoned for seven years in a small, fortified shed that has the amenities of a grotty caravan – sink, toilet, bathtub, TV, gas cooker.  Larson’s abductor also subjects her to a sexual relationship, the result of which is a young son, played by Jack Tremblay, who knows nothing of the world but what he sees in the cramped quarters around him.  To him, ‘Room’ becomes as huge and all-encompassing a concept as the ‘Earth’ or ‘Universe’.

 

Eventually, Larson and Tremblay escape from Room.  But faced with uncomprehending and emotionally-traumatised relatives and by sensation-hungry journalists, you wonder if spiritually they’re going to be prisoners of Room forever.  It sounds like a discouragingly bleak film but, thanks to Abrahamson and Donoghue’s treatment of the story and to the performances by Larson and Tremblay (the former winning an Oscar), the ultimate result is surprisingly positive and uplifting.

 

Train to Busan

Yes – Zombies on a Train!  It’s easy to dismiss Yeon Sang-ho’s high-concept horror / disaster movie as a case of what you see being what you get – and what you do see and get is plenty of spectacular and nail-biting action set-pieces.  However, there’s more going on than you might initially think in Train to Busan, which has a zombie apocalypse erupting on the Korean peninsula and some survivors on a train trying to get past zombie-overrun stations and avoid the infection spreading on board to reach the southern, zombie-free city of the title.

 

© Next Entertainment World

 

While blue-collar characters like Ma Dong-seok’s streetwise bruiser and Choi Gwi-hwa’s homeless man act in defence of their fellow passengers, suited CEO scumbag Kim Eui-sung has no compunction about sacrificing everyone else to save himself – and the train staff are alarmingly and maddeningly deferential to him.  In fact, he embodies the corporate rottenness that contributed to South Korea’s real-life MV Sewol disaster in 2014.

 

The Witch

Finally, praise for Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which was stupidly marketed as a straightforward, scream-a-minute horror film.  This baffled audiences of adolescent horror buffs who came to it expecting something like Sinister (2012) or The Conjuring (2013), but instead were treated to a slow and unsettling tale of a Puritan family being torn apart by superstition, mistrust and paranoia in the Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque setting of 17th-century New England.

 

At least Stephen King got the right measure of The Witch, calling it “a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.”

 

© Rooks Nest Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

And just when you thought 2016 couldn’t get any worse…

 

© Columbia

 

I’ve just read in the news that the great Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away.  With Donald Trump newly elected to the White House, I suspect Cohen decided it was time to check out because the world had reached a point where it was even more depressing than one of his songs.

 

Cohen produced many tunes that were marvellous because of their very sadness.  Their melancholia was delicious.  No wonder his most recent album, released only last month, was called You Want It Darker – he knew what his audience expected of him.

 

I’m not a great fan of 1984’s Hallelujah (1984), perhaps his most famous song, which for me has just been covered (and X-Factored) to death.  But I love The Stranger Song, Winter Lady and Sisters of Mercy from his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), all of which featured on the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s classic western movie McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).

 

© Warner Bros

 

Indeed, the beginning of McCabe and Mrs Miller where Warren Beatty and his horses plod across a bleak, windswept mountainside to reach the muddy, back-of-beyond frontier town that’s the setting for the film’s action, to the strains of The Stranger Song, is my all-time-favourite opening sequence in a western.  Though I have to admit that starting the film with a Leonard Cohen song gives the game away somewhat.  The moment Cohen starts singing, you just know there’s going to be an unhappy ending.  Warren Beatty is going to die.

 

Incidentally, the other day, I was watching Taika Waititi’s amusing comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) when, suddenly and unexpectedly, Cohen started playing on the soundtrack. This was during a bleak-looking sequence where Sam Neil and Julian Dennison struggle across some wintry New Zealand mountains.  Of course, this was an affectionate nod by Waititi towards McCabe and Mrs Miller, though the song played here wasn’t The Stranger Song.  It was The Partisan, a 1969 cover Cohen did of La Complainte du Partisan, written in 1943 by Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly.

 

© Defender Films / Piki Films / Curious

 

Two other Cohen songs I’m fond of that also have a strong cinematic connection are Waiting for a Miracle and The Future, both off the 1992 album The Future.  These book-end Oliver Stone’s ferocious 1994 movie about the American media’s adulation of two mass-murderers, Natural Born Killers.  The slow, gruffly-intoned and doom-laden Waiting for a Miracle plays at the film’s opening, which sees Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis arrive in a fly-ridden, redneck-infested diner in the New Mexico desert.  The song warns you that something horrible is about to happen.  And yes, since this is an Oliver Stone movie, something horrible soon does happen.

 

Played at the close of Natural Born KillersThe Future is a jauntier affair, but it contains the worrying refrain, “I’ve seen the future, brother – it is murder.”  Actually, I rather hope that Cohen has arranged for that to be played at his funeral service.  Then the joke really will be on us.

 

© Regency Enterprises / Warner Bros