2016 was a spectacularly awful year, and one of the more regrettable moments was the misguided #CinemaIsDead movement, wherein many purported that cinema was actually a bloating corpse floating in a sea of bloating corpses. If you ask me, any year that sees the releases of American Honey, Arrival, Cameraperson, Certain Women, De Palma, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, Everybody Wants Some!! Green Room, The Handmaiden, Hell or High Water, The Innocents La La Land, The Lobster, Love & Friendship, Manchester by the Sea, OJ: Made in America, Sing Street, Sunset Song, The Witch, and even Zootopia is a worthy cause to celebrate, and proves that not only is cinema alive and kicking, but we need it now more than ever. To honor a year at the movies, I’ll be sharing my five favorite films that have gone by unnoticed. Let’s get started...
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The best films are the ones that catch you off guard, capable of turning a casual matinee excursion into a joyous cinematic experience. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those rare films. Written and directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi (whose previous film, What We Do in the Shadows, is hilarious and well worth seeking out, and he’s also helming the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a charming and goddamn delight that left me grinning from ear to ear over the course of its 100-minute running time. The film follows 13 year-old Ricky (newcomer Julian Dennison, terrific), a juvenile delinquent/wannabe gangster placed in the foster care of Bella (a cheery Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (a wonderfully grizzled Sam Neil). Ricky, ever the young rebel, runs away from his new home and into the woods, forcing Hec on a mission to return him safely, which then spirals out-of-control into a nationwide manhunt for both of them. Equal parts heartfelt and hysterical, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the most splendid and highly enjoyable adventure films of 2016.
Louder Than Bombs
With three varied, nuanced, and phenomenal performances across the year, Isabelle Huppert is the undisputed MVP of 2016. She’s received a host of accolades for her exceptional work in Elle and Things to Come, while her third film flew almost completely under the radar: Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs. The Norwegian filmmaker’s English-language debut (after previous efforts Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, the former of which I wrote about here), Louder Than Bombs details the events of a family left fractured after the death of its matriarch (Huppert). We center on the lives of a father (an astonishingly gentle and committed Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons (Jesse Eisenberg, washing away the stench of Lex Luthor, and Devin Druid, an excellent find) as they struggle to cope with the ambiguous circumstances of Huppert’s death, as well as restoring unity to their family. Huppert has more of a supporting role here, relegated to flashbacks and beautiful sequences of reconstructed memories, but she’s characteristically amazing, and the trio of leading male performances are amongst the year’s best. Stylish, dramatically nourishing and soulful in content without ever coming off as saccharine, Trier affirms himself as one of our strongest filmmakers currently working.
The Love Witch
When subjected to hundreds of films per year, it’s easy to overlook the more minute details, namely, the amount of actual physical craft put into the production of a film. For instance, the glossy sheen and technical competency of the Marvel Cinematic Universe renders them all virtually indistinguishable from each other, so much so that I derive no real pleasure from watching them. Enter Anna Biller, who blows the doors off the entire medium with The Love Witch, the most exquisitely-crafted and sumptuous-looking film I’ve seen all year. A pastiche of the works of Jess Franco, 1960’s occult and 1970’s European sexploitation movies, The Love Witch has its love for cinema literally stitched into every frame. Along with being the writer and director, Biller (who makes her second film here, after 2007’s equally rapturous Viva), is also credited as the producer, composer, editor, production designer, art director, set decorator and costume designer. The Love Witch succeeds entirely on her truly singular vision, and when coupled with the fantastic, period-looking ensemble led by a pitch-perfect Samantha Robinson, it’s one of the best films you’ll see all year.
One More Time with Feeling
As anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one can attest, grief is an absolute motherfucker, and no film was better at expressing this than music documentary One More Time with Feeling. Directed by Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), and shot in gorgeous, black-and-white 3D cinematography, One More Time with Feeling is a hauntingly beautiful masterpiece that shadows the creative process of Bad Seeds front man Nick Cave, tasked with the difficulty of completing latest album (entitled Skeleton Tree, my first and only pick for best record of the year), following the tragic death of his 15 year-old son. Cave’s album was written before his son’s death, but all of the songs were recorded, which lends a heavy, almost ethereal quality to each of the tracks, most evident in Cave’s heavy vocals. The result is an emotionally staggering, almost transcendent viewing experience, as Dominik captures the portrait of sorrow that hangs heavily in Cave’s studio magnificently, and each musical performance by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is more poignant than the last.
With the aforementioned Green Room, The Witch, and The Love Witch, as well as the box office hits of The Conjuring 2, Don’t Breathe, and Lights Out, it’s been a banner year for genre cinema, and The Wailing is no exception. From South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-Jin (whose two previous films, The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, come highly recommended from this writer), The Wailing revolves around bumbling cop Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) investigating the bizarre occurrences in his quiet village, which may or may not have something to do with the arrival of an ominous Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura). Without giving too much away, let me just say that Hong-Jin’s film is superbly horrifying, and features the most stunningly staged exorcism sequences I’ve ever seen. Even when it extends past its 150 minutes, The Wailing is always an intoxicating sit.