Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

The (my) 20 Best Films (ie. the 4.5 & 5-star ones) of 2016 (so last year)

The Best Films of 2016

It’s that time again. Time to look back over one’s top picks of the year, complain about how few masterpieces there were, how much The Franchise Movie seems to be taking over Hollywood, and wonder what on earth Spotlight was about (that film from early 2016 which received 5 stars from me and rave reviews all round).

Herewith, the best films of 2016 as rated by one reviewer in one newspaper in one small country of the film-viewing world. Having been lambasted occasionally for “simply giving her opinion”, it may be timely to remind readers that yes, film criticism is just one person’s view, but that the role entails watching hundreds of films every year and thus building a fairly solid context for judgement. I’ve tried to counter my gut-reaction (Did I feel something? Did I start thinking about dinner? Could the film have done anything better?) with more objective musings about quality of performances/diligence of production aspects/socio-political relevance of narrative. One of my critics (we all have them) pointed out he knows he’s going to think the polar opposite of any opinion I give – but the critic’s role as barometer against which the viewer can make his own decisions is arguably what it’s all about.

Due to space constraints, this is just a Top 20 (although arguably any list of notables is dilluted the longer it goes) so these represent only the 5- and 4.5- star films of my 2016. The absence of other popular critical contenders (La La Land, Arrival, Hell or High Water) is purely down to their having been not quite as strong as the Top 20. And one small confession: the absence from this list of the superb I, Daniel Blake was purely an oversight, having seen it when I was off-duty and not reviewing.

So take with a pinch of salt, or queue these up on Netflix: here are my top 20 flicks of the past year (plus I, Daniel Blake).

  1. Green Room

A bunch of punk-rock musicians take on the murderous might of a skinhead gang led by a disarming Patrick Stewart. So well-written! So breath-holding! So violent! So good I saw it twice just to check my initial proclamations that it would wind up being my Film of the Year. It did.

green-room

  1. The Revenant

Actually, until Green Room, I thought Leo’s dedicated performance (snow-trekking, bear-mauling, beard-growing) as a fur trapper caught up in Alejandro Iñárritu’s long tracking shots was going to take top prize. It’s still the most visually stunning and viscerally compelling film of 2016, and deservedly won three of the year’s top Oscars.

  1. Room

Harrowing and mesmerising in equal measure, Brie Larson indisputably earned her Oscar alongside a preternaturally talented 9-year old, playing a mother and son held captive in one room for several years. As well as being a terrific thriller, the story provoked some fascinating thoughts about how we take our understanding of the world around us for granted.

  1. Zootopia

This animated children’s movie proved far too clever for adults to avoid, with its brilliantly-written subtext of racial profiling and human intolerance. An amazing script, great characterisation (including a plucky bunny who becomes the first female police officer in the titular city) and more cinematic in-jokes than you could spill your popcorn at, Zootopia delivered a timely message with great wit.

zootopia

 

  1. Doctor Strange

Initially wary that Marvel would simply churn out another elongated fight scene of a movie, I should of course have known that Doctor Strange would have me at “Benedict Cumberbatch”. As the misanthropic uber-surgeon brought to his knees by his own hubris, the Brit went subtly American and considerably more spiritual in order to fight the evils of the dark world. A fabulous supporting cast, enormous wit, an excitingly elongated final fight scene – who could ask for anything more?

  1. Spotlight

An awfully long time ago (February, in fact), Spotlight also won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay of its depiction of the Boston Globe’s investigation into child abuse allegations which overturned the Catholic Church. This wasn’t just a “worthy” movie – it was lauded for doing what the paper’s award-winning journalists achieved by telling an important story with strong performances and a gripping script.

  1. Paterson

Proving that fantastic films don’t need to be flashy, director Jim Jarmusch’s gentle love story of a bus-driving poet (the chameleonic Adam Driver) and his dream-seeking girlfriend living the simple life in New Jersey won accolades and proved that, after a helluva year like 2016, sometimes all we need is love.

  1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

One of only two films this year I have unreservedly recommended to everyone I know, Wilderpeople unconditionally delighted New Zealand audiences with its odd-couple story of a foster child (break-out star Julian Dennison) and his reluctant guardian (an hilariously gruff Sam Neill) who go on the run from authorities through native bush. Scored to perfection by the Phoenix Foundation and a host of classic pop hits, and directed by Godzone’s beloved Taika “Thor” Waititi, we fell in love with local cinema all over again.

  1. Tickled

The only other “You have to see…” film on my list was David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s startling documentary which began as an investigation into competitive endurance tickling (yes, that’s a thing) and descended into a bone-chilling commentary on bullying. Not many films can take you from laugh-inducing to adrenaline-pumping, but the Kiwi filmmakers nailed it, before garnering critical acclaim all over the world. If you haven’t already, “you have to see…”

  1. Train to Busan

I’m going to round out my Top Ten with one of the few movies I didn’t review, and went to see just for kicks: a Korean zombie movie, no less, whose plot is as straightforward as its clichéd characters are endearing. Imagine you’re setting off on a long-awaited family visit, only to find a contagious member of the walking dead has managed to mind the gap between train and platform. Amidst the chaos that ensued, Train to Busan emerged as one of the most fun movies of the year.

train-to-busan

  1. The BFG

I was quite unprepared for how inveigled I would be by Steven Spielberg’s retelling of the Roald Dahl classic from my long-ago childhood. It was thanks, no doubt, to a stunning performance by thespian Mark Rylance who nailed the voice and parlance, and managed to imbue a not-entirely-CGI character with extraordinary humanity. Definitely one for children aged 4 to 104.

  1. The Salesman

Asghar “A Separation” Farhadi has no equal when it comes to situating heavy emotional drama in the most domestic of contexts. In The Salesman, the Iranian writer-director’s latest perfectly-pitched offering saw a couple torn apart in the wake of a mysterious assault. Keeping the audience as much in the dark as his protagonists, he yet again excelled at tightening a noose around the well-observed narrative until a third act in which we couldn’t breathe.

  1. A Bigger Splash

Despite being a well-cast ensemble piece, it was Ralph Fiennes who stole every scene in this rollickingly entertaining glimpse into the life of a retired rocker (Tilda Swinton again), her toyboy lover (the dishy Matthias Schoenarts) and the outlandish ex-partner who threatens to ruin their idyllic Italian holiday.

a-bigger-splash

  1. Carol

There was no way Carol wasn’t going to be impressive, given its casting of the luminous Cate Blanchett in the titular role, and director Todd Haynes’ reliably beautiful rendering of her life as a suffocated society wife in 1950s New York. As Blanchett’s languid gaze fell in love with shop assistant Rooney Mara, we were helpless to fall in love with them both.

  1. Nocturnal Animals

Provocative and beautifully designed thanks to its director’s artistic leanings, Tom Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man proved an adrenaline-pumping portrait of pure evil and materialistic excess. An ice-cold gallery owner (Amy Adams) read her ex-husband’s new novel as we watched the nasty narrative play out on screen, and it provided my most uncomfortably visceral cinematic experience of the year.

  1. Eye in the Sky

Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman headlined this fantastically gripping moral thriller which unfolded in real time as allied military commanders sought to make a Red Button-type decision which would impact civilian lives. Utterly caught up in the dilemma, the audience switched sides each time the players received new information, giving us an affecting insight into the quandaries of playing war.

  1. The Nice Guys

Russell Crowe showed his humorous side and Ryan Gosling rolled out the goofy charm in this violent, witty comedy of curse words. What did we love most – the 1970s LA styling? The ridiculous plot? The odd couple’s hilarious and endearing chemistry? Whatever it was – these private eyes had us smiling.

the-nice-guys

  1. The Lady in the Van

Lovers of Dame Maggie Smith (and frankly, I thought I’d seen enough of her) were treated to her career-defining performance as Alan Bennett’s eponymous homeless woman in this fabulously entertaining and somewhat bittersweet rendition of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre play. With a host of familiar History Boy cameos and the wonderful words of Bennett to carry it, this was an unexpected joy.

  1. The Girl on the Train

I hadn’t read the bestselling novel, so the film was all the better for not knowing a) that Emily Blunt’s titular girl was supposed to be in London not New York and b) what the heck was going to happen. Yikes. In a similar tone to Gone Girl, the story wove a grieving alcoholic with credibility issues (a stunning performance by the incomparable Blunt) into an unsolved missing persons mystery, and gripped me until its gruesome end.

  1. Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Rounding out my list: For a bit of a laugh, plenty of swearing and a few explosions, I couldn’t go past Whisky Tango Foxtrot for pure entertainment. Tina Fey was hilarious as the unlikely war correspondent thrown into the deep-end of Middle Eastern conflict, who rapidly takes a shine to life in the “Kabubble” of drinking, partying and gunfire. This adaptation of a real-life reporter’s often hilarious anecdotes was at once fascinating, exhilarating, and just what a night at the flicks should be.

 

 

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The remaining films of 2016

Public Service Announcement

Due to a large time-lag in this writer posting her reviews contemporaneously, and with a promise to be more efficient in 2017, the remaining film reviews of 2016 (listed below) can be found by searching “Sarah Watt film review” at http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The Girl on the Train

Deep Water Horizon

Café Society

The Daughter

Hell or High Water

The Light Between Oceans

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Doctor Strange

Arrival

The Accountant

Julieta

Nocturnal Animals

The Founder

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The Neon Demon

Allied

Sunset Song

Dancer

Elle

Le Ride

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The Magnificent Seven

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, September 2016

M
133 mins
3 stars

Another day in Hollywood, another pitch for a remake of some classic that probably needn’t have been messed with. (Perhaps they said this in 1960 with regard to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but at least that was translating a Japanese classic into American.) In contrast, this updated Magnificent Seven opts to stick to its original time and place and merely update its casting with some brave/unusual/ uninspiring choices. Magnificent? More like Middling.

The straightforward story, always one of the successful hallmarks of a Western, involves the victimisation of a small American frontier town in the 1870s by an evil industrialist (a terrific Peter Sarsgaard, who has the invidious talent of appearing really sinister even when he’s not). Pillaged and left with the threat of his return, who are the townspeople gonna call? Luckily, wandering bounty hunter Sam Chisholm tips up at the right time, and in turns conscripts a band of mostly merry men to protect and serve.

This time, Yul Brynner’s bald-pated leader is played by Denzel Washington, heralding the first of the curious casting choices – while certainly progressive it’s historically unlikely that uncivilised white folk would have followed a black man – but in any event, Washington’s colour is not mentioned. Similarly, the taciturn “Oriental” counterpart (actually a Korean actor though spoken of as “found in China”) is a specialist in knives and an accepted member of the team, and although the Mexican has a teasing relationship with Chris Pratt’s cheerful buffoon, one can hardly cry “racist!”.

From the superb Training Day which got him attention, to the average The Equalizer and flawed Southpaw, director Antoine Fuqua’s ability to meet my excited expectations is certainly waning. As far as Westerns go, this one is unremarkable – boasting neither Tarantinian dialogue nor the exquisite photography of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But it’s largely well-executed, maintaining a smart pace and delivering a nicely choreographed battle scene which is less tiresome than most Marvel fights. Perhaps if one manages one’s expectations of magnificence, these seven will still entertain.

The First Monday in May

M
91 mins
4.5 stars

I used to own a pair of sparkly pink uncomfortably high heels I wistfully called my “photoshoot shoes” – hoping, as you do, that one day Vanity Fair magazine might need me for its cover, and that I would look stylish in some outlandish outfit, without having to walk or move about.

If I had you at “uncomfortably high heels” then this latest fashion documentary (for there seems to be at least one a year nowadays) has you embroidered all over it. The First Monday in May follows the curation of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume exhibition, and the corresponding lead-up to the event’s annual fundraising shindig: the Met Gala. (It’s little wonder the intoxicating combination of Hollywood starlet and wrinkled camp designer can bring in $12.5 million to support the museum.)

There’s not a lot of drama plot-wise, but the behind-the-scenes footage of the exquisite ensembles and in particular the juicy almost-gossip of Who Can’t Sit With Whom on the celebrity tables is more than compelling.

And the clothes. Oh my. Not just “fashion” but “clothing as artworks” say the exhibition’s insiders and the documentary’s only downside is that the camera often glides too quickly for you to absorb the incredible detail and breath-taking beauty.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour has a starring role (she is surprisingly restrained when questioned about The Devil Wears Prada), and the interviews with famous designers, although fairly safe in their content, are fascinating purely as an opportunity to get so close as to admire the handiwork of the interviewee’s surgeon. Compulsive viewing for wannabe fashionistas.

Captain Fantastic

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, September 2016

M
119 mins
4.5 stars

This unexpectedly marvellous indie flick was written and directed by Matt Ross who plays the narcissistic Gavin Belson in TV’s marvellous Silicon Valley. Means nothing to you? OK, this is only his fourth directorial outing after two shorts and an under-the-radar feature. And he won a directing prize at Cannes this year. Still so what?

Well, the So What revolves largely around Ross’s superb script which feels fresh and original for the first three quarters at least. It is bolstered by the canny casting of the exceptional Viggo Mortensen as a disarmingly straight-talking father to six characterful children whose adventurous upbringing in the bush is disrupted by a family tragedy that sees them having to encounter “the real world” for the first time ever.

That world is, of course, the consumerist, capitalist, comparatively ignorant one that we all live in (it’s safe to say if you live the way of this family, you won’t be reading this online or in the paper). And Ross sells us this alternative reality as black and white, setting up an enchanting landscape where health and well-being comes from playing music around the campfire and reading improving books, along with knowing how to protect yourself in hand-to-hand combat.

Mortensen (fine in the LOTR films but always at his best when flexing a morally ambiguous muscle, as in A History of Violence and festival fare Far from Men) is enormously entertaining and compellingly authentic as a politically idealistic dad teaching his offspring survival skills and self-sustenance in a gloriously tech-free enclave. “Interesting is a non-word – be specific,” he instructs these eccentric, emotionally secure and extraordinarily well-read youngsters, and when they are thrown into counterpoint against dull-headed cousins, you can’t help but think he’s got it right.

As the ethics get more complex, however, the plot becomes a little predictable even though the ideas turn a thought-provoking grey. Like its protagonists, Captain Fantastic is flawed but nonetheless bewitching.

Bridget Jones’ Baby

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, September 2016

M
122 mins
3 stars

To be fair to Bridget Jones, this sequel presents a valid justification for reviving her brand. Unlike the recent “Absolutely Fabulous: Regeneration” movie (absolutely unnecessary, more like), and the recast update on the decades old Dad’s Army, the latest installment of Bridget’s Slings and Arrows of the Terminally Unmarried comes with a great conceit: at 43, she finds herself unexpectedly up the duff, but doesn’t know whether the father is the former love of her life, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), or a dashing algorithm billionaire played by Patrick Dempsey.

Which should she bet on? The Fresh Start or the Old Times’ Sake? Director Sharon Maguire’s follow-up has myriad problems, from some lame jokes to the excruciatingly awkward slapstick, but the characterisation of the would-be (nay, positively wanna-be) dads is actually one of the film’s strengths. Firth and Dempsey produce such polar opposite yet equally appealing options that the script manages to toy with us until the very end, making the story unusually engrossing.

It helps a lot that as Firth climbs back on that straight-faced horse in his pin-striped suit, we are magicked back to those heady days when Bridget Jones counted calories and fumbled her lines and we loved her romantic ineptitude as it mirrored our own. Of course, we’ve moved on in the last 12 years and even Bridget has, sort-of, working as a TV news producer and maintaining her goal weight. (One imagines Renee Zellweger being express in her contract that she would not be puffing up again for this sequel.) And Zellweger’s still got it, too – that trill British accent, the pout, the hair which always looks like it has cake and children’s toys stuck in it, even when it hasn’t.

So if this was a bit of you back then, it’ll be a bit of you now. Predictably, the usual supporting suspects reappear (dotty mum, understanding dad, sweary friends) and there are the obligatory call-backs to the earlier flicks.

But the film doesn’t dwell too much on history. Bridget has a very present predicament, and with any luck she won’t have to sort it out all by herself.

Blood Father

R16
88 mins
4 stars

At first glance, Blood Father threatens to serve up all the clichés of the action genre; however, there’s a refreshing twist on each. The grizzled old loner, living an abstemious life in a trailer in literally the middle of nowhere, may be an ex-con but when trouble comes a-knockin’, he’s surprisingly slow to pick up his erstwhile, criminal ways. Meanwhile, his troubled runaway daughter, sullen and ungrateful in any other movie of this ilk, is cute, very smart, and speaks her politics with eloquence (she also exhibits perfect manners with strangers). So when they wind up on the run from some unsavoury characters, the chemistry between Mel Gibson and relative newcomer Erin Moriarty makes this pair’s peril a real treat.

Gibson has been taking it slow in recent years, his one-film-a-year trajectory less memorable than his drunken outbursts and obnoxious behaviour off-camera. Perhaps this absence makes the heart grow fonder, but indisputably Gibson’s natural charisma contributes to a storming performance here which proves the actor’s talent never went away. (One scene so precisely evokes Jack Nicholson, if you close your eyes you can hear the older man on screen.)

French director Jean-François Richet dipped his toe in Hollywood waters a decade ago with the underwhelming Fishburne and Hawke cop thriller remake of Assault on Precinct 13, but his far superior work includes the violent two-part biopic of legendary French gangster, Mesrine. Richet’s European touch may account for why some of Blood Father’s moments feel subtle for an American flick – one particularly nuanced conversation about mosquitoes between said daughter and her dad’s old colleague is staggering for its brutal insights.

At times the witty repartée between Gibson and Moriarty doesn’t always sound the most likely to issue from their characters’ lips, but although the overarching plot is what you’d expect, the intricacies are often unpredictable. Mainly, Gibson is great and would whip that Neeson in a dad-off any day of the week.

Pleasingly understated and including a low-key William H. Macy in support, Blood Father is considerably more interesting, and thus enjoyable, than many a recent action thriller.

David Brent: Life on the Road

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, August 2016

M
96 mins
4 stars

The Office may have ended in 2003, but its creator and star, Ricky Gervais, seems hardly to have disappeared in the intervening decade. There were a couple of underwhelming comedic forays into Hollywood (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying) and he’s a vehement animal rights activist on Twitter, but notably Gervais reared his head in recent years to offend the Hollywood Foreign Press at the Golden Globes. Say what you like about his frequently line-crossing crassness (OK, I will – Ricky, rein it in a little, mate), ambling on stage with a pint is a nice touch, and I defy anyone to say the man isn’t a brave comic genius.

Of course, to most of us Ricky Gervais is David Brent, the excruciating office manager of a small paper business in Slough who never quite realised how others saw him with rather more disdain than respect. And thanks once again to Gervais’ pitch-perfect blend of edgy humour and devastating pathos, Brent is back: no longer The Man but now working for The Man as a sales rep for sanitary products.

With four hearty laughs in the first two minutes, David Brent: Life on the Road starts with promise and goes on to be an immensely satisfying, sometimes uncomfortable, return to form. Brent, who fronts a soft-rock band in his spare time, takes leave without pay and a group of reluctant session musicians on an expensive tour of his local area. Staying at bland suburban hotels while teeing up under-subscribed gigs, the rockstar experience this middle-aged man has always longed for becomes hard-earned and at times frankly embarrassing.

Brent is also a changed man: he still makes racist jokes but stresses “it’s from the Chinaman’s perspective – for once”, aided and abetted in his gasp-inducing audacity by Love & Friendship’s standout Tom Bennett (taking the dopey Mackenzie Crook role here). Brent even has a black friend (a young rapper whose deadpan is wonderfully natural and believable).

Amidst the film’s quieter, less hysterical moments there is a deeper ache than The Office belied, and his performance frequently proves Gervais as a genuinely terrific actor. Love for David Brent may hurt, but it’s worth it.

War Dogs

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, August 2016

R16
114 mins
2 stars

War Dogs stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as, improbably, arms dealers in their mid-20s making dodgy deals between corrupted war-torn countries and the US Military.

It’s not awful; it just isn’t any good. And this is disappointing – not because War Dogs is by the director of The Hangovers (a man with such comedy chops has no place trying to branch out into drama, as demonstrated by his casting of an over-bronzed, giggling Hill). It’s just a shame because it’s based on a true story (published in a Rolling Stone article) and that tale is so fantastical you’d expect the screenwriter’s job had been half done for him.

It wants so badly to be Goodfellas; from voiceover to freeze-frames, it copies every Scorsese-ism in the book, but for all this it is doomed by an under-written, lacklustre, and at times banal, script. “Chapters” are punctuated by self-explanatory quotations, while the bursts of delight-inducing songs (from House of Pain to the Beastie Boys to, um, UB40) feel like a manipulative cover-up of how lame the actual movie is beneath.

By the end it’s clear that War Dogs is actually trying to be a Wolf of Wall Street but while its protagonists’ morals don’t sink to quite those levels of depravity and excess, War Dogs simply lacks the panache of Scorsese’s darkest hour, and to that end isn’t even fun to watch in a guilty pleasure sort of way.

Kubo and the Two Strings

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, August 2016

PG
92 mins
3.5 stars

This latest feature from the makers of Coraline and ParaNorman is notable less for its story and more for the stop-motion animation that delivers an aesthetic which at once feels fresh and exciting, while also comfortingly old-fashioned. (I say this as someone who marvels at the technical wizardry of modern animation, remembering vividly gasping at the rendering of individual hairs in Final Fantasy and loving the sheer vibrancy of Zootopia, with not a clue as to how it all happens.)

So when our young hero, Kubo, sets the scene for his impending quest by narrating adventure stories to his fellow villagers, it is the spectacle of fluttering origami paper that captivates us – “so real it looks like paper!” I whisper, only to be told that’s because it is paper – and the ensuing beauty of each scene that marks it out from the raft of CGI-created movies churned out every year.

Less compelling, however, is Kubo’s tale, although it touches on issues of familial bonds, orphanhood and ancestral worship (albeit through characters beholden to American accents, including the great Brit, Ralph Fiennes). But the messages get lost among fight scenes festooned with autumn leaves and the shiniest armour you’ve ever seen in a cartoon (that’s because it probably is armour – I don’t know!).

Note: the censor’s rating wisely mentions violence and scary scenes, so consider your little person’s capacity for dark stories before taking them to experience exquisite technical skill and a charming glimpse of Japanese culture.

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