31 December 2016

My top 10 films of 2016

Another year packed with film watching is almost over, and it's time to select the best of the new films I saw this year. Many of the 196 films I saw in 2016 were filling in gaps from earlier years - the earliest was from 1920 - but there were plenty of enjoyable contemporary releases in the mix too. The film festival was a highlight as usual, and it was a great opportunity to see both of Terence Davies' features, Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion with the director there to provide amusing comments and context. This year's top 10 includes a couple of top documentaries, low-budget comedies and dramas, a German oddity, a New Zealand favourite, and a dash of Hollywood blockbuster for good measure:

10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Pure entertainment is on offer in Rogue One, and unlike last year's similarly popcorn-flogging epic, The Force Awakens, this is a new tale rather than a rehash of the original. This confident war flick throws a cast without major star power through its paces and succeeds in retaining the sense of wonder and spectacle of the first trilogy. It even makes self-assured steps towards an understated comic undertone that is a welcome departure from the familiar comic relief of the 70s and 80s epics. A few minor quibbles about CGI actors aside [spoilers], chiefly a misjudged final scene that should have been rethought, Rogue One is a highly recommended slice of pure big-screen entertainment for the whole family and the whole world to enjoy.

9. Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann is the fictitious, mischief-making alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a semi-retired teacher, who flies to Bucharest to inject some chaos into the life of his work-driven, unhappy adult daughter Iren (). Donning a ludicrous wig and fake teeth, he spins increasingly far-fetched stories amongst Iren's high-powered business world circle: devoted to climbing the corporate ladder, Iren has no real friends to speak of. And while viewers might be expecting a heartfelt meeting of souls in which father and daughter reconcile their differences and emerge happier and closer, Maren Ade's anarchic film takes great glee in confounding expectations. In allowing its actors great leeway to experiment, the film is seriously unhurried - a 162 minute runtime is daunting for any film, let alone a comedy. The lead performances that result are quixotically appealing, particularly as they never veer towards cheap sentimentality or broad farce. Motivations are also often hard to read because the unpredictable characters fail to conform to the usual predictable comedic payoffs, instead preferring a more oblique strategy. And if approached with an expectation of conventional logic and comedic structure, the film will probably prove frustrating. In fact, I expected to find this meandering, inscrutable film powerfully irritating, but instead I developed quite an affection for its wilfully contrary approach.

8. Arrival

The intelligent new sci-fi offering by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), Arrival, begins roughly where Close Encounters of the Third Kind ends: what does humanity do when confronted by First Contact with aliens with no recognisable language? Amy Adams is reliably watchable in the lead role as linguist Prof Louise Banks, given the task of working out how to communicate with the spooky aliens, ideally before any other nation manages it, or before the whole world panics itself into oblivion. Wrestling with international paranoia, political pressure and linguistic theory, this is clever speculative fiction that plainly wears its influences on its sleeve, but unlike many other similar attempts, it retains a sense of intrigue, wonder and inventiveness. Particular note too must be given to the suitably otherworldly sound design and music by Icelandic composer Johann Johannson, who was Oscar-nominated for his scores for The Theory of Everything and Sicario. Finally, as my friend Jessica advised: if you're going to see Arrival, try to read as little about it as possible beforehand, because some numpty reviewer is bound to spoil the genuine surprises in store.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

With each film Taika Waititi grows more confident and assured, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows his earlier two minor local classics, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, into even broader appeal. Derived from an unimpeachable 20th century popular literature source, the writing of bush legend Barry Crump, but deftly updated for modern audiences, Wilderpeople makes powerful use of spectacular New Zealand bush landscapes and harks back to the heyday of local filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s when Sleeping Dogs (Sam Neill's first major film, from 1977), Smash Palace (featuring legendary everyman Bruno Lawrence) and Bad Blood (the Stanley Graham story) all went bush to find drama and self-realisation. Wilderpeople also succeeds due to its accomplished local cast, chief of which is the comedic and dramatic prowess of the Bunteresque Julian Dennison, who never puts a foot wrong despite being surrounded by experienced talent. Veteran Sam Neill builds a perfect craggy bravado, Rima Te Wiata brings a warm and mumsy charm, and a supporting cast of frustrated officialdom, bush-dwelling oddballs and bounty-seeking chancers rounds out a grand chase movie. Commendably, this is Waititi's least indie-styled production: this is a family film, and one with a strong heart. And it has every chance of attaining popularity overseas too, with such universally likeable characters.

6. Hail, Caesar!

Much anticipated due to the delightful prospect of the Coens taking on golden-age Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! succeeds in bringing to life an exuberant mix of star turns that poke gentle fun at 1950s celebrity culture and the ethos of the studio system. Plenty of modern stars decorate this 'prestige picture' (as Josh Brolin's film fixer character Eddie Mannix would say), with George Clooney as the blithe matinee idol Baird Whitlock offering the most stellar of star turns, ably supported by comic turns from Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, and a gloriously on-point musical number from Channing Tatum that mirrors the high camp of many Technicolor extravaganzas. The stand-out performance is undoubtedly from Alden Erenreich as the ludicrously talented cowboy film actor Hobie Doyle; Erenreich has since been cast as Han Solo in the next Star Wars prequel. Hail, Caesar! is a must-see for any fan of classic cinema, and while it may not scale the heights of their finest work it offers a fond glimpse of a now-vanished Hollywood world.

5. Hell or High Water

A very fine Texan crime drama that places great emphasis on the character and motivation of the two brothers on a rural bank-robbing spree (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), and the grizzled, near-retirement Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who makes it his business to stay one step ahead of them. There are similarities with the Depression-era tale of Bonnie & Clyde in that the true villains of the piece are not the criminals - who are flawed, certainly, but far from evil - but rather the banks that inveigle themselves into family finances with a long game of taking everything when things inevitably go wrong. It's also a classic buddy film, with the brothers' grudging cameraderie and personalities covering the bases of nobility and rattlesnake-mad, which is probably not the most reliable pairing for a used-bills armed robbery team. Blessed with a strong supporting cast of incidental players illustrating the idiosyncratic West Texas mindset, a top soundtrack including strong work by Nick Cave, and a keen cinematographic eye for the blasted southland plains and grim decaying strip malls and junkyards, Hell or High Water is both a memorable crime drama and an intriguing glimpse into the fractured economy and society of the contemporary South.

4. Eight Days a Week

Ron Howard's Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years documentary is certainly recommended to all Beatles fans, which is to say, pretty much every human being who likes music. A thoughtfully chosen parade of talking heads provide the expected historical context, with Whoopi Goldberg is a stand-out for her story of her mother taking her to the Shea Stadium concert. For completists it's probably not going to provide any new information, but hey, you're a completist! The chance to see a half-hour cut of the '65 Shea Stadium gig with newly cleaned-up shriek-free audio (Xmas stocking-filler album ahoy) and some of the found footage of the touring years with the Beatles in their prime (including a brief snippet of their arrival at Wellington in '64) means this will definitely pique your interest.

3. I, Daniel Blake

Blessed with simple, naturalistic performances and not restricted at all by its use of non-actors in supporting roles, veteran director Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake is another fine addition to his canon. No-one who sees this film will forget its killer gut-punch scene in the foodbank: a truly powerful moment in British cinematic history. With deep-running themes of human kindness and solidarity, and frustration at a social welfare system that shirks its responsibility to maintain the self-respect of those forced to use it, the film also brings a deft vein of humour in the form of the bluff but gentle title hero, invalided carpenter Blake (comedian Dave Johns), who befriends isolated single mum Katie (Hayley Squires), who is struggling on the poverty line in Newcastle, a town where she has been moved by social services but where she knows no-one. It's sad to say that not many stories like this make it to the big screen any more, but their power is at least recognised by Cannes, which honoured I, Daniel Blake with the Palme d'Or.  (Not to mention the 'Palm DogManitarian Award' for featuring a three-legged dog).

2. Love & Friendship

It was real a treat to see an early screening of director Whit Stilman's period piece at the TIFF Lightbox cinema in Toronto. Derived from an early Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan, that was wasn't published until 1871, Love & Friendship offers an imperious central performance from Kate Beckinsale as the wholly Machiavellian widow Lady Susan Vernon. Seeking to secure her position in the world by arranging a successful matrimony for her daughter, the sincere and callow Frederica, Lady Susan will stop at nothing to engineer society and emotions to suit herself, even if it means setting up Frederica with a confirmed booby, the wealthy but fantastically dim Sir James Martin (a sterling comic performance by Tom Bennett). Filmed in Irish manor houses under glowering skies, Love & Friendship is driven by the scheming and plotting of its female characters, with the males typically oblivious and easily manipulated by Lady Susan, who relies on feminine wiles and misinformation to achieve her aims. The film also reuinites Beckinsale with her Last Days of Disco co-star Chloe Sevigny, who plays Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan's equally immoral American confidant. 

1. Weiner

At the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco I relished seeing this great documentary by  and  about the disgraced former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner (he of sexting infamy) and his 2013 run for Democratic selection in the New York mayoralty. In a way Weiner is still an amazing 'machine politician', and he still has the knack for electrifying political communication; he could wipe the floor with his opponents, if only the press would stop talking about his highly embarrassing humiliation that absolutely, comprehensively, utterly rules him out from seeking US political office. It's both painful and intriguing to watch Weiner's commited volunteers and staff as their commendable loyalty and enthusiasm is undermined so completely as everything goes wrong and the valid political message is drowned in a sea of sleaze. Particularly telling is the scene in the back of a car in which Weiner is bantering with his long-suffering communications advisor, which goes swimmingly until he makes a thoughly inappropriate and completely unnecessary sexual joke; the awkward silence is palpable. The tragedy is the gruesome car-crash politics that reinfect his relationship with his highly talented wife, Huma Abedin, a powerful political fixer for Hillary Clinton. If there's one lesson in this must-watch, agonising slow-motion political suicide in documentary form, it's that it should be Abedin standing for office, not Weiner.

See also:
Movies: My top 10 films of 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

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