I remarked in my review of Hell or High Water back in September that 2016 was a bit of a ‘meh’ year for blockbuster films, and that’s not really changed. The disappointing flop to awesome high-grosser ratio is still pretty dire. For every Captain America: Civil War there’s multiple Suicide Squads, The BFG, Ghostbusters, Passengers, and TMNT 2. The release of Doctor Strange and Moana increased the standard of the 2016 blockbuster considerably (and inched Disney closer to world domination) but the real stars of 2016 exist in the lower budgeted realms of independent cinema and mid-budget movies. So here is the MyCreativeRamblings list of the top 5 films of 2016, share yours in the comments below!
Trying his hand at science fiction after the grim realism of last years excellent Sicario and 2013’s Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s latest film is arguably his best. Starring the always-outstanding Amy Adams, Arrival is a cerebral and emotional sci-fi tale that not only manages to be something new (in an increasingly over-stuffed genre) but also manages to easily explain its weighty themes. The instant classics joins the pantheon of other cerebral and existential science fiction films like Blade Runner, Moon, and Ex Machina, while being accessible enough to avoid the pretentious reputation given to others (2001: A Space Odyssey). Plus with the presence of the affable Jeremy Renner the film is occasionally funny too, which I find tends to help films which cover topics as heady as these (Ex Machina had this wonderful scene for example).
DP Bradford Young does a great job too (see that shot above for an example) and Villeneuve’s frequent composer Jóhann Jóhannsson does some of his best work on Arrival. The performances are pitch-perfect, especially Adams as the scientist with a damaged past. Villeneuve was already one of the most exciting directors working today but with the arrival of Arrival he cements himself as one of the best.
4. The Nice Guys
From the magnificently 80’s Lethal Weapon to the underrated Last Action Hero to the modern day film noir of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it was never up for debate whether or not director Shane Black would be up to making another action/comedy buddy film. This time the action is transplanted to LA in the 70’s. The labyrinthine plot (a cornerstone of classic noir films) manages to involve both the porn scene of the 70’s and the then-booming auto motive industry of Detroit. It’s a great story, both unique and nostalgically familiar, but more importantly it allows Black to set up some of his very best jokes.
As I wrote in my review of The Nice Guys back in June, the film in anchored by the three central performances. Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, a brutish thug for hire with a heart of gold, whose practically a comedy version of Bud White, the other neo-noir character Crowe played, in the excellent L.A. Confidential. Ryan Gosling is lovable goof Holland Marsh, a P.I. with questionable ethics. Russell Crowe masters Black’s snarky dialogue while Gosling is surprisingly brilliant in the slapstick role. Marsh’s daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice is hilarious too, stealing almost every scene she’s in with some of Black’s best lines of his career. Don’t be put off by the low box office amount, definitely check this out; it’s almost certainly the funniest film of the year.
3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
OK, when I said ‘the real stars of 2016 exist in the lower budgeted realms of independent cinema and mid-budget movies’ in the opening paragraph, I was telling a bit of a lie. There were great things on the blockbuster scene too, they were just fewer and far between. And despite stiff competition from the excellent Captain America: Civil War, the best blockbuster of the year was the latest in the Star Wars canon; Rogue One.
When I ranked the Star Wars films recently, I wrote that Rogue One was the second best film in the series (after the near-unbeatable Epirre Strikes Back). It contains some of the best writing and direction of the franchise. Director Gareth Edwards idea to shoot akin to a war movie pays off and the film is violent and visceral as a result. Every single cast member is wonderful too which, considering the massive cast, is no small feat. Perhaps the best part of the film though is how it both respects and lives up to the original trilogy while also making reference to the prequels, something even The Force Awakens shied away from doing. As Jack pointed out in his review of the film,“it successfully merges the prequels and the originals and for once it feel like a larger, seamless universe.”
2. Hell or High Water
I reviewed Hell or High Water back in September and I knew straight away it was going to be one of the best films of the year. Written by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is a neo western heist thriller. The comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ excellent No Country for Old Men are obvious (they’re similar in plot too; elderly cop hunting down average-joe opportunist criminals) but Hell or High Water is entirely it’s own thing. Despite the films taught pacing and desolate landscapes it’s surprisingly affecting, especially where the relationship of the two brotherly leads (an excellent Ben Foster and Chris Pine) or the laconic law men (a wonderful pairing of Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). You care deeply about the characters on both sides of the law making the inevitable shown down between the pairs heart wrenching (especially as Jeff Bridges’ character cleverly plays with the ‘only one week left to retirement’ stereotype).
The direction by David Mackenzie and cinematography by Giles Nuttgens is frequently stunning too. The washed out bright landscapes of West Texas have an almost tangible ‘high noon’ feeling to them, adding to the fast approaching and inevitable showdown. The soundtrack is great too, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis managing to perfectly underline a scene without going overboard. There have been rumblings of possible success for the film when awards season roles around, which really hope is true. Hell or High Water is a fantastic old fashioned action thriller about the roles of masculinity and social inequality. It’s one of the only films of the year worthy of the over-used phrase “they don’t make ’em like this any more.”
1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
My pick for best film of the year was pretty much sealed from the moment the credits rolled on Taika Waititi’s magnificent Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I reviewed it at the time and pretty much wrote as much; “Hunt for the Wilderpeople is definitely the best comedy film of the year and more than likely, the best film of the year.” By the time my imported NZ blu-ray of the film turned up (which I paid far over the rrp for, just so I’d have as soon as possible) I was completely sold.
The story follows troubled youth Ricky Baker as he moves in with the latest foster family. Surprisingly Ricky begins to enjoy life in his new home, a desolate farm in the New Zealand outback (think the creepy farm from Vincent Ward’s Vigil) thanks to the efforts of his new fosterer; the quirky Bella (Rima Te Wiata). Unfortunately a sad series of events means Bella is gone, and Ricky is left alone with her grumpy husband Hec. Taika Waititi’s script is the best of the year, blending non-stop laugh out loud moments with genuine poignancy. The jokes always land and the performances are consistently excellent, veteran actors and newcomers alike. The always great Sam Neill gives a career best performance as grouchy outdoorsman and grudging father figure Hec and newcomer Julian Dennison is especially excellent as the hilarious rap loving delinquent Ricky. The rest of the cast are wonderful too especially the overzealous child welfare worker Paula, played by Rachel House, and the insane church minister played by Waititi himself.
Film’s like this can unfortunately slip under the radar of a lot of people but I hope that’s not the case for Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Waititi’s masterpiece is funny and heart-warming in equal measure, with the best script and some of the best direction, performances, and music of the year. Films this perfect don’t come along often, a majestical must-watch for sure.