At last, we have reached the peak of 2016’s crop of great films. Which ones made it to the summit? Read on to find out…
5 – HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE
The forests of New Zealand are home to many things, from stunning landscapes to popular spots used in the Lord of the Rings films, but now it is a prime hotspot for one of the year’s finest films, Taika Waititi’s excellent comedy-adventure that acts as a mix of both Up and The Revenant, and is far more awesome than even that combination suggests.
Waititi’s penchant for comedy was already strong with his few previous directorial credits, including the hilarious and under-seen What We Do In The Shadows, but Hunt for the Wilderpeople demonstrated his flair for Wes Anderson-style storytelling, albeit with his own eccentric signature that just so happens to include beautiful New Zealand woodlands, social workers with the mind-set of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, and a gruff, bearded Sam Neill partnered up with a young overweight teenager with a love for rap. Luckily, it was executed well enough to be adventurous, thoroughly hilarious, and surprisingly heartfelt.
Not many people did end up seeing this mini-masterpiece, which is a crying shame when you think about the many worse films out there that did get wider platform releases, but those who did were able to experience one of the year’s most coveted and priceless gems, one that is bound to gain more of a following over the next few years as well as catapult Waititi high in the rankings of adventure-comedy filmmakers (in fact it’s already happening, as he’s now in post-production on next year’s Thor: Ragnarok).
Definitely do yourself a favour and make sure you don’t miss this wonderful slice of cinema – or, for that matter, the remaining four films on this list…
4 – HELL OR HIGH WATER
Perhaps the best use of Texan customs and law enforcement since the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, this film stunned audiences with its gripping tale of desperation in these woeful economic times, along with career-best performances by a lead trio of actors who have seriously never been better, and quiet and old-timey direction that lands it an instant spot on any list counting down the top modern western films ever made.
Hell or High Water was just a fantastic piece of filmmaking, the kind that brought out the best in everyone like director David Mackenzie, writer Taylor Sheridan (who is now two-for-two after his writing debut Sicario), cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, and most of all its lead actors. Chris Pine is truly something to behold as a humble man roped into a series of robberies, while Ben Foster is magnificent as his loose-cannon brother just out to raise all sorts of hell. They have an ingenious plan for the riches they steal from a number of Texas bank branches, one that soon catches the attention of Jeff Bridges’ retiring sheriff, a role that Bridges is indeed wonderful in but also works wonders to not make his old lawman a walking cliché, thanks in part to some wonderful writing but also to Bridges’ total commitment to the role that reminds us all of why he’s such an acting legend.
Much like another film you’ll see shortly on this list, this is a movie that celebrates the common everyman, who in this case has been forced into a situation so desperate that they will do things they never dreamed of doing in order to make things right in the long term. Nobody is truly the bad guy here, they are all people setting out to do what they feel is the right thing to do, even if it means sacrificing a whole lot of moral complacency to do so. Thanks to the great writing, directing, and collaborative filmmaking from the cinematographer to the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, it is a film that captures the emotion, desperation and powerful struggle of the common everyman, driven by economic woes and fuelled by total determination for the goodness to emerge at the other end of the dark tunnel.
It’s a film that will stick with you long after you see it, cementing its reputation as not only one of the year’s finest film, but also a film you will be coming back to for years to come…
3 – ARRIVAL
Slowly but surely, Denis Villeneuve has become a major directorial force to be reckoned with, after films like Prisoners and Sicario gained him a wider audience, and his current work on the eagerly-anticipated Blade Runner 2049 likely to gain even more followers. Before that anticipated sequel, however, he was set to wow us all yet again with a very different but very relatable twist on the age-old alien invasion movie – and, as you’ve guessed, it turned out to be one of the year’s very best.
Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, saw Villeneuve approach this situation, namely aliens suddenly coming to Earth without an obvious reason as to why they’re here, with a thoughtful and deeply rooted attitude to it, choosing to focus more on an aspect not often explored in films like this – namely the actual communication process with extra-terrestrial creatures – while also somehow making the art of linguistics enthralling entertainment. Villeneuve also commands the on-screen visuals with extra grace, with scenes being beautifully shot by cinematographer Bradford Young and accompanied by a haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, allowing the tension and surreal dream-like imagery to bounce right off the screen and firmly imprinted into our collective minds.
However, it is also a great achievement by lead actress Amy Adams, who here gives her strongest performance in years as a woman roped into this worldwide event, who ends up having given to her a particular gift that both fascinates but also devastates her, in ways that couldn’t possibly be spoiled here but be wary that the idea of it alone is as complex as it is terrifying. Adams is fantastic here, and along with great support by Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, she gives one of the most layered performances of the year, in a 12-month period that has also presented many other stand-out roles by other actresses.
It’s a sci-fi film that we desperately needed in our secretive and uncertain times, giving Villeneuve both the honour of having it be one of the year’s best films, but also strong hope that Blade Runner 2049 is worth the decades-long wait…
2 – PATERSON & LIFE, ANIMATED (TIE)
I always seem to find a way to get a tie in at some point during my end-of-year lists, and this year two films have ended up in the number-two spot – but both of them have very distinct reasons for being together on this list.
On the surface, Paterson and Life, Animated seem like polar opposites. Paterson, for example, is a scripted drama about a small-town bus driver who just goes about his day doing his job, writing some poetry on the side, spending time with his wife, and interacting with the locals. Life, Animated, meanwhile, is a documentary about a young man with autism who learns to communicate through several classic Disney films.
But although they may seem so different from each other, they do actually have something in common, which was what led me to include both as my joint number-two: they are both vast celebrations of the everyman and their individual accomplishments, which sometimes might not be huge to others but are so to themselves, which is all that matters in their own personal journeys.
Paterson is the more humble of the two, operating on a much lesser scale in terms of drama, but nonetheless keeping things unmistakably human. Adam Driver, who in his unshowy and quiet performance has never been better, plays someone who lives an uneventful life, but never feels dissatisfied or even upset with it. In his own strange way, he has found true happiness, married to a woman he adores with all his heart, and encountering people with whom he shares an amicable connection. What drama there is in the entirety of the film is very miniscule, almost insultingly so, but you still are able to feel this uncommon connection with this character and his quiet life because it is so normal, it is so reflective of our own uneventful lives, and it shows simple human emotions without having to go so overdramatic. Sure, nothing happens, but Paterson is a film where nothing is really meant to happen; it’s a film about an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, but it celebrates the beauty of the ordinary and the simple but identifiable everyman at its centre.
The subject of Life, Animated is, however, anything but simple. Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism at an early age, but he was eventually able to communicate not just through his beloved collection of Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, but also through the love and support he received from family, friends and dedicated professionals. As we see in Roger Ross Williams’ inspiring and emotional documentary, Suskind slowly transitions into young adulthood which, for anyone with autism, is a larger step to make than anyone else his age, from graduating to moving into his own apartment. Like with Paterson, these things may not seem especially exciting to the outside audience, but for the people involved it’s the equivalent of taking that first step in a more conventional three-act structure, and the film celebrates the beauty in just the simplest of things that we as human beings perceive as common and, for lack of a better word, “normal”. But maybe I’m biased: since I myself have autism in the form of Asperger’s Syndrome, I identify heavily with Owen’s own personal journey by making sense of the world through the language of cinema, and there is a lot in this film that I feel is appropriate for everyone to see, especially if they themselves are affiliated in any way with autism. It gets so much about the inner workings of a young autistic man’s mind just right, from their difficulties in expressing feelings to becoming so entrenched in their favourite subject that they become a walking IMDb page. It is a beautiful film that everyone needs to see, regardless of personal connections to autism or not.
However, both Paterson and Life, Animated are tied for the number two spot because each of them display, in very different but also very similar ways, how much we as human beings sometimes take our existences for granted. We get so wound up or lamentable when the smallest of things go wrong in our lives, but we also tend to forget that we can either learn to let go of our anxieties and enjoy the life you have been given, or help support people who find it far more difficult to access the community than others. Adam Driver’s Paterson and Owen Suskind represent the very things we as humans tend to neglect sometimes in our privileged lives, that sometimes we should look at the wider picture instead of focusing on what’s important for ourselves, and find beauty in just the simpler things. Whether it’s a humble existence, or finding confidence through the power of film, Paterson and Life, Animated are beautiful, moving and worthy tributes to simple, everyday lives that every person should aspire to have.
But why, if both are so good, are they only one spot away from being number one?
Well, my pick for the #1 best film of the year isn’t necessarily better than either of those films, but just gave me exactly what I had wanted to see in a year full of despair and glum realities. For that reason, and the many more I am about to go into further detail on, it has ended up being my number one…
1 – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
I know I just went into a long segment celebrating the ordinary everyman, but when it comes to delivering full-on entertainment at every angle, you need a superhero to do the job.
Or indeed, several superheroes as Captain America: Civil War, the first in Marvel’s “Phase 3” run of films, was chock-a-block with already-established ones like Captain America (of course), Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye and even Ant-Man, as well as newer ones making their debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Black Panther and the newly-rebooted Spider-Man. But the truly astonishing thing about the film is that, despite an overabundance of characters, it still managed to flow smoothly with each character serving a useful purpose in the story, even if it doesn’t seem like much, and yet still managing to keep the focus on where it needed to be the most: the title character.
Captain America can now claim to have the strongest superhero movie trilogy of all time, with each instalment from The First Avenger to The Winter Soldier to now Civil War being great movies that work both as franchise continuations and standalone features. Whereas most superhero trilogies tend to fall apart around the second or third entry, Cap’s transcendence into movie territory has consistently been high-quality entertainment, and Civil War – very loosely based on the popular comic story of the same name – is not only the best of the three by a country mile, but also perhaps the finest achievement of the MCU to date.
How it manages to combine so many characters into a tight narrative and yet have each and every one of them not feel like wasted space is an extremely difficult and even impossible task, but once again Marvel has managed to defy expectations by also giving it solid action, heartfelt emotion, strong writing, enjoyable humour, and everything you could imagine that makes a genuinely great movie. Anthony and Joe Russo return to direct after The Winter Soldier, and they bring the same grounded but engagingly kinetic style they brought to that film, but on a much larger scale; now that they have a lot more characters to focus on, they pace things just right to give each and every one of them the appropriate amount of screen time to develop and leave an impression, which can be said for both the many action sequences or even quieter scenes of people just sitting around talking.
Part of the beauty of the MCU thus far has been to make these character literally leap off the page and become interesting, likable characters on the big screen, and the Russos have such a talent for making these people that we’ve seen over the course of the entire MCU seem even more interesting with every passing movie. Tony Stark, for instance, has matured into someone finally willing to take responsibility for his past selfish actions, compared to his rule-breaking playboy persona of the past, while Steve Rogers has seen the untrustworthiness of figures he could usually rely on and uses that to not conform to the new government legislative, again in contrast to his previously-established boy scout mentality. They are the perfect figureheads to butt heads over the main conflict in the film, which sees the introduction of a superhero registration program that limits the Avengers’ participation in world-saving ventures, and the film is smart enough to use what we know about the characters so far and completely turn it on us to create whole new worlds of drama and intrigue.
It’s relieving to know that the Russos are due to direct the next couple of Avengers movies, because they have proved with this film that they can balance both a huge ensemble and a captivating, even timely, story flawlessly, and above all else make it some of the most fun entertainment a major studio release could give audiences all year. It has great action, clever writing, an intelligent debate you can easily put yourself in and choose a side, and is just tons of fun to have as both a Marvel fan and also as a common moviegoer.
I personally found it to be some of the most fun I had in a cinema all year long, partly because it was so well-made, but also because it gave me pretty much everything I wanted out of a movie in 2016. When things got glum, I reminded myself of the epic airport fight sequence complete with hero-on-hero action. When Brexit and Trump dominated the headlines, I thought back to how, for the very first time thanks to studio agreements, Spider-Man was finally interacting with other Marvel heroes like Iron Man and Captain America. It was one of the many films I kept coming back to in my head due to its immense enjoyment factor, but this one more than others because it featured characters I really liked, a script that never treated audiences like idiots, and a perfectly flowing pace that made the time just zoom by, and it’s a film that’s almost two-and-a-half hours.
It was, by all accounts, one of the year’s brightest spots in a year full of dark ones, and even though there were other films I saw this year that were probably stronger in other departments, Captain America: Civil War was by far my favourite out of the bunch, if only for its power to fully transport one into this extravagant movie universe where robotic men, giant green monsters, talking trees and gun-toting raccoons all co-exist, and not have it feel overcrowded at all. This is pure entertainment, which after the year we’ve all had is exactly what we needed.