Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had screenplays that were so refreshingly imaginative that they threatened to make their screenwriter Charlie Kaufman something of a indie deity, a position that would make him uncomfortable considering the somewhat autobiographical themes of isolation, insecurity and uncertainty within his films.
He returned a few years ago with Sydechode New York, an ambitious but intentionally flawed film which saw Kaufman clearly deliberately set out to highlight the limitations of art to capture the truth of life. It’s a truth he continues to pursue with Anomalisa. Even though it is a stop-motion feature with puppets, it has some of the most naturalistic and honest depictions of human frailty seen in a film all year. The misanthropic central character was trapped in an almost Kafkaesque nightmare in which all the people he encountered had exactly the same voice. It was the most inspired device yet that Kaufman has created to convey the deep sense of alienation and detachment his characters and probably he feels himself. It proved to be a divisive film due to the unlikeable and despairing nature of the character; but if you connected with his unenviable situation, the moment Lisa, the subject of his affections spoke (wonderfully voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), you could relate to the transfomative effect it had on him, and what ensued was one of the most pure and heartfelt romances of the year. The bittersweet nature of the relationship was absolutely compelling. This was a film about a character totally disconnected from everyone, no character in his life understood the depth of his internal neuroses, the only people who could relate to him were those who saw the film and understood the tragic nature of his condition, those whose different voices he will never get to hear. Anomolisa, was dry-witted, inspiring and beautifully melancholy. Kaufman continues to be one of the most distinctive voices working in the left-field of cinema.
Veteran Director Clint Eastwood moved from a film about a solider celebrated as a hero for killing 175 people (American Sniper), to a man portrayed as on trial, despite saving the lives of 254 people. The result was something with heart-pounding drama and considerable emotional heft.
We all know the story of ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’ – the flight that lasted just a few minutes thanks to an encounter with a flock of geese – as it is etched onto the minds of all those who saw the rescue mission on the rolling news channels back in 2009. What surprised about Eastwood’s gripping drama was just how suspenseful he made this familiar story. The investigation into whether or not Sully’s decision to land on the Hudson rather than fly to a nearby airport was the right move, is scrutinized in a way that made the audience cast doubt as to whether Sully would emerge as a true hero or have his reputation and career destroyed. ‘I have flown millions of flights but in the end I am going to be judged on just two and a half minutes’, says Tom Hanks as Sully, regretfully. It may have just been a brief time but the level of genuinely nail-biting, edge of the seat, emotionally involving drama Eastwood wrung out of the situation was extraordinary. Tom Hanks on Oscar worthy form, brought heart and a quiet confidence to the role of Sully; and the vulnerability he brought to the character was really compelling. On screen he has an inherent sense of decency and integrity, so seeing a good man on trial against an inquiry panel eager to pin the blame on human failure rather than technical malfunctions, moved audiences in a Frank Capra sort of way. Hanks is the closest thing modern cinema has to James Stewart. The story of that doomed flight was portrayed in a way that made audiences feel like they were a fly on the wall in both the stomach-churning landing and the troubling court room scenes. Sully was a powerful portrayal of an extraordinary story, made in a classic Hollywood style.
8. Hail, Caesar!
While their trademark is dark crimes going spectacularly awry, the Coen brothers like to apply their wry humour to matters of faith (A Serious Man) and classic Hollywood satire (Barton Fink). Hail, Caesar! saw them on fine playful form, with a satire that found some delightful comic riffs on religion or more specifically, the fifties biblical epic and also some light-hearted affectionate fun-poking at the fifties Hollywood studio system. The Coen’s latest offering delighted fans of Barton Fink as it was essentially an extension on the ‘Wally Pfister wrestler picture’ humour from that Coen masterpiece – there is even a direct line that puts the two films on the same timeline. If there was a funnier comic scene this year than the opener of this, in which a rabbi a priest and other members of faith sit-down and discuss appropriate use of Christ’s image in a film, then I didn’t see it. It didn’t matter that the film felt more like a Monty phythonesque sketch-gag train than a full story as the humour was so sharply observed and laugh-out-loud funny that the film delighted and actually seemed funnier on repeat viewings. George Clooney in his goofiest, most unconscious performance yet gave one of the comic turns of the year as a clueless A-list star who is abducted by a mysterious group whose philosophy starts making sense to him. Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Scarlet Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Ehrenreich got the measure of the tone too, all gave great comedy performances. It was easily the comedy ensemble of the year.
The Coen brothers have been making films in the system for a long time and you can’t help but strongly suspect from watching Barton Fink and now Hail, Ceasar! that they were channeling some of what they’ve seen and anecdotes they’ve heard from contact with so many behind the scenes movie types, in this hilarious screenplay. Hail, Hail, Caesar!
To really appreciate the experience of this punishing but extremely rewarding wintry Western, you had to get into a similar mindset to that of Di Caprio and the crew. The shoot was grueling, painstaking and extremely tough, and those who braced themselves for a film that naturally brought the dogged days of a lost era of American settlers, planting the first seeds of capitalism, got the most out of the film. The cast and crew had to suffer for their art so why shouldn’t you watching in the relative comfort of your seat? Di Caprio set himself up for an endurance test of method acting, winning his long-awaited best actor Oscar for his troubles. He showed he was prepared to go to any limit required – including eating a raw bison liver – for authenticity. Although sparse on plot – it was essentially a long drawn out revenge drama – the film had such a breathtaking level of natural beauty. It was an unsettling vision into a past era of America, in which the native Americans and white settlers relationship had begun to fracture; the former concerned that their lands may come to be exploited by greed. It was also a drama paying tribute to the motivational power of vengeance to keep the spirit alive in hope of justice.
Director Alejandro G Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki showed their sheer commitment to realism by insisting on filming at only dusk hours, which extended the shoot considerably. Few filmmakers went as far as they did this year to deliver cinematic authenticity.
6. Embrace of the Serpent
The exploitation of Amazonian tribes at the hands of European invaders is an under-explored subject in cinema. This independent Colombian film, based on the diaries of a 19th Century German explorer, delved into the period, with a natural journey into the beginning of troubled times for the natives as the machinery of colonialism has begun it’s devastation of their culture. The film revolved around a richly observed, beautifully complex dynamic between two intrepid Western travellers and a Shamen who possessed an understandable disdain for the Western mentality. The naturalness of the relationships, was what made the film so compelling. Through inventive and impeccably observed characterization a rare voice for an indigenous tribe emerged: The white man won’t stop until he eats everything he said…. He will turn the whole world into death and hell’. The character, was based on writings from a 1909 diary, but just last year, a never before seen tribe came out of the jungle in a desperate last ditch attempt to save their disappearing lands and tribe leaders have put on trousers to go before Brazilian governments, tearfully pleading with them to protect the Amazon. Over a hundred years on from the period, the tribes are still dealing with the slow holocaust that the character in this correctly forsees as the cause for the demise of his people.
Shot in black and white, the film had a wonderfully effective archival feel. It often felt like a lost anthropology documentary. It was closer to a real journey into the heart of the Amazonian, than a contrived story; the pace of the film meandered along deep into the jungle in a natrual style mirroring the Amazonian river on which the story was set. It had the look and feel of an early Werner Herzog film, cira Fitzccaraldo or Agguire: Wrath of God. It also seemed to be a spiritual companion piece to both versions of the heart of darkness, both Joseph Conrad’s novel and Copolla’s Apocalypse Now: as the men drift up the river witnessing ‘the horrors’ and madness of colonialism, in a style reminiscent of the aforementioned works. Framed against a tribesmen agonizing at the destruction of his people’s way of life, the film was one of the most powerful and poignant stories of the year. Spiritual, soulful, meditative and insightful, Embrace of the Serpent had an unshakeable power that haunted those who discovered it. The last cry out of a voice that may soon become silenced forever.
The creatively brilliant thing about Room was it took a subject that has been deeply disturbing to hear about in news stories in the last ten years, and looked at it through a child’s innocent imagination, a child unaware of the unimaginable horror his mother must have had to endure at the hands of her capture.
The Room of the title was a small cell like enclosure that clearly the mother and child had been in for sometime, in the child’s case, all his life. This small, seemingly claustrophobic enclosure was an entire universe to the child (a mesmerizing Jacob Trembolore) though and watching him explore his world and talk about it with a sense of childlike whimsy and fantasy, was enthralling. It was a film that captured a child’s unique power to alleviate the darkness of a situation through the power of imagination.This illustrated the peerless power of cinema to transform a story you would imagine to have rather a different tone if done as a documentary. The film immersed us so deeply in the way he saw the world that when there was a tonal shift and a renewed sense of peril the film was unbearably tense. The depiction of the bond forged between the Mother (a suburb deservedly Oscar winning performance by Brie Larson) and her child was so intimate and naturally rendered that it was equally as compelling in both the first and second sections. Poignant powerful and easily one of the year’s most original films.
4. Hell or High Water
‘It seems kind of foolish to me…robbing a bank and expecting to live long enough to spend the money…. those days are gone, so says a Stetson wearing old-timer musing in a Texan diner. It’s a sentiment that frames the unlikeliness of a bank heist drama set in the modern era. In a digital age in which hard currency in banks has been replaced with numbers on a screen, pulling off a bank raid seems more like a task designed for the mouse clickers than the gun-totters. There’s a reason why this film has been considered ‘one that they just don’t make anymore’, bank raids are a near impossibility in the modern era. Director David Mackenzie, tense and taut Western found a way around it via a shrewd plan, to aim for the small dough and a scheme brainstormed by a desperate but savvy character played superbly by Chris Pine. While stylistically it was a Western, appealingly old-fashioned, thematically it was contentious, focusing not on how the West once was but how the West now stands. Modern social pressures facing dusty Westerns towns were explored; Chris Pine – and his brother a rather more unhinged character – were in an outlaw state of mind, but there was no doubt who the real outlaws of the film were: the banks. The ominous spectre of foreclosure cast a gloomy atmosphere on the film, if there was a sense that the curtain was coming down on the one-horse western town, there could be no doubt who was operating the strings. Whenever banks have wreaked this much havoc in society, the bank robber becomes almost heroic, call it the John Dillinger or Robin Hood effect. There can be no doubt that audiences were willing Pine’s character to a modest success, a symbolic victory for the little guy, which is why Jeff Bridges in probable Oscar winning form, as the sheriff in pursuit, was a fantastic character. Politically incorrect in nature, his casually racist patter with his Native American deputy, was wryly amusing . Here was a character that if he were to really exist, would no doubt be encouraged by the Trump victory, yet underneath the spiky sparring you could see he was a good man trying to do what he felt was right. The unorthodox, unpc nature of the character and his edgy tone of banter, allowed the film to put a different spin on racial tension. How fully rounded the two law officials relationship was is one of the many reasons why Hell or High Water is one of the most important films of the year.
Considering journalistic freedom seems to be in danger of being compromised by corporate interests, it was great to see a film that captured the power of a free independent media to expose shocking corruption, sweep in from no where to take the Best Picture Oscar. It was a film that looked for inspiration from the seventies golden age of journalism films, with All The President’s Men clearly being the biggest influence on director Tom McCarthy’s powerful film. McCarthy did the seemingly impossible by making un-flashy mundane tasks like painstaking, diligent research, seem earth-shatteringly dramatic. Special Effects teams can try all they want but they are not going to come close to matching the drama of the moment in Spotlight when Mark Ruffalo’s character was running to use a photocopier. People answering phones and searching through phone-directories, provided absolutely nerve-shredding drama. Few films this year created the rising drama and tension resulting from the Catholic Church being subjected to an ever more damming wide-reaching inquiry, in the none more Catholic area in America of Boston. The Boston Globe Versus The Catholic Church was the David V Goliath battle of the century. Frankly there was no image more poignant in any film this year than the post film credits sequence that listed just how many cities world wide have suffered at the hands of Catholic priests sexually abusing young children. The evidence the film revealed was haunting. The message was so hard-hitting it was honestly surprising The Catholic Church didn’t suffer even more damage to their image.
2. The Witch
Outside of children’s fairytales, there have been very few credible films that captured the threat of witches. Those that have taken on the subject, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspira, The Blair Witch Project, were potent horror films because they alluded to witchcraft rather than put witches in the spotlight. Don’t show the witch seemed to be the rule of horror; The Witch spectacularly subverted the rule in the early stages by showing scenes of a witch that were deeply unsettling. That became a game-changer for a horror film that found so many new ways to unnerve. Set in the early days of the American settlers, a time in which puritan values rule the minds and the communities, the film, focused on a family cast out of their gated village and forced to live off the land next to a strange forest, alone. Whenever storytellers twist historical time periods and lace in horror fantasy the results are frequently enthralling.
Everything about this film was eerie and threatening, just the idea of going off into an unexplored American wilderness, where no English settlers have gone before was foreboding as it’s clearly an environment that could be a stage for horror to happen. Director Robert Eggers pulled off something very unique with this film: he managed to simultaneously make a frightening horror film about a witch as well as a film that perfectly captured how religious dogmatism can tear minds, souls and families apart. Superstitions and fear of evil caused the family in this film to doubt themselves and each other, resulting in shocking drama that carried a potent message considering the religious fanaticism growing around the world. Stylistically, the film contained eerie imagery clearly influenced by the witchcraft paintings of Goya, which created a thrillingly cinematic and unsettling effect. It was a great year for alternative art-house horror – Goodnight Mommy and Under the Shadow were also really interesting alternative takes a horror, but The Witch was easily the scariest film of the year in my book.
1. Rogue One: A Star Wars story
The Star Wars film we have been waiting for for over thirty years finally arrived late in 2016. Director Gareth Edwards realized that this film series is not about the Stars, but about the Wars. With a refreshing absence of so many of the main iconic characters, Edwards was free to tell a story far more true to the politics and rules of war than the Star Wars series has ever done before. Bucking the hype trend spectacularly, Disney played a blinder in regards to marketing, by stating the film was a one-time spin-off movie in the Star Wars Universe, separate from the original; it was much, much more than a side-story spin-off movie. It felt far more essential to the overall original story than any of the other modern Star Wars films. Thrillingly, it felt like the missing piece of the puzzle, a film that finally gave context and detail to Leia’s message to Obi Wan Kinobi. Cast your mind back to a New Hope and focus on the scene in which Leia witnessed that destruction on her home planet at the hands of the Death Star. There is an emotional wallop in that scene that is absenct elsewhere in the Star Wars films. Rogue One seemed to have bottled that emotion and distilled it into every scene, every character exchange and every frame of this film. The result was something with far more raw emotion, intensity and gripping drama than the franchise had ever produced before.By focusing on so many characters who are coming to terms with the idea that the Imperialists have a planet-destroying weapon, the film was so emotionally involving. It was so sobering and real that it made you contemplate the horror of being on a planet that might be marked for annihilation. The characters had more weight and more resonance due to the graveness of their situation. It seemed like someone had actually sat down and figured out the logistics of how the battles would work, the dialogue ringing true to being in battle. The focus on the strategy of war from both the rebel alliances and the Empire made the battles all seem spectacular due to the thrilling authenticity. The commitment to realism meant that the kookiness of the alien designs was pleasingly toned down, the alien characters that are in the film, seem as hard-edged as everything else. The new droid provided a levity to counterbalance the considerable weight of the drama, with a brilliantly droll sense of humour. Everyone one of his dry sarcastic one-liners landed – he was a brilliantly written creation. A total upgrade on C3P0’s prissy humour. Darth Vader made an a brilliant appearance but it was entirely justified rather than a gratuitous cameo, he seemed even more threatening than he did in the originals.
The Force Awakens, was a solid Star Wars film with an emphasis on nostalgia, but it didn’t really tell a new story. Rogue One however tells a story that provides the entire basis for why the Rebels had a new hope in the first place. It felt like a film that simultaneously told the past and the future of the Star Wars saga, by an absolute galaxy, Rogue One was the film of 2016.