21 Dec 2016

2016: Cinema Year in Review

From Widescreen, 8:10 pm on 21 December 2016

Dan Slevin sums up the good, bad and the indifferent of 2016’s year in cinema.

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller on their way to another important business meeting in Toni Erdmann

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller on their way to another important business meeting in Toni Erdmann Photo: NZIFF

Back when I was a regular newspaper film reviewer my most popular column of each year was the “year in review” and, because in those days I saw literally everything, readers could be trusted that no turn would be left un-stoned. Some would even cut the page out to take to the video store for support in times of dispute. (If you weren’t a Wellington Capital Times reader you can find digitally archived copies of 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 at my old blog, Funerals & Snakes).

Marriage, parenthood and several proper jobs mean I don’t see quite as much as I used to in those days but a quick squizz at my Letterboxd diary for the year tells me that it was still a very full dance card (159!). My tendency is to not do top ten or top twenty lists (although I did provide one for this recent survey of New Zealand critics) and instead group films under the rough categories Keepers, Watch Again, Mentioned in Dispatches and Shun at All Costs. What’s interesting to me, looking back, is how often my opinions have changed in the time since I saw a film. The tyranny of the ‘hot take’, eh?


Keepers are the ones that I want to own – to have available to me whenever I feel like re-watching, to introduce to others, to loan out to friends.

Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight divided audiences, much as it divided characters’ limbs from their bodies. Watched at a particularly emotional moment for me in my personal life – and in the presence of the great Quentin himself – it was hard to be rational about it at the time. Looking back, it was a supremely well-achieved statement of Tarantiniana and will benefit from re-watching (but only when the complete “roadshow” version is available for home viewing).

Samuel L Jackson in The Hateful Eight, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Samuel L Jackson in The Hateful Eight, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino Photo: Supplied

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a sucker for the directing of Danny Boyle, the screenwriting of Aaron Sorkin and the computing devices of Apple Inc. So, Steve Jobs is basically already in my DNA. Lenny Abrahamson’s Room got right under my skin, especially Brie Larson’s outstanding lead performance. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi) is already in my permanent collection and we watched the Blu-ray as a family the other night. It’s even better second time around.

By July we had got to this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival and there was plenty of good, and enough great, to feel like it was a vintage year. Rock star and performance artist Laurie Anderson directed a film called Heart of a Dog that was superior to almost any other film of the year – intelligent, emotional, elliptical, parenthetical, surprising. This year’s masterpiece of the diaspora experience was the wondrous Radio Dreams (Babak Jalali) where a romantic poet and programme director of San Francisco’s biggest Farsi-language station attempts to bring Afghanistan’s top rock band together with Metallica so that cross-cultural sparks can fly. Haunting and hilarious.

The crew of San Francisco’s number one Farsi-language broadcaster prepare to meet Metallica in Babak Jalali’s Radio Dreams

The crew of San Francisco’s number one Farsi-language broadcaster prepare to meet Metallica in Babak Jalali’s Radio Dreams Photo: NZIFF

This was a good festival for archive-raiding and the highlight was Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) showing what American cinema has lost over the last 40 years. A death of a thousand cuts.

My favourite film of 2016 – and one that could become an annual Christmas ritual viewing  –  Toni Erdman (Maren Ade) managed to win over everyone this year except the Cannes jury. Its bounty is not immediately apparent from a simple plot summary so ignore them when you see them and just go when the film comes out in cinemas next year.

Probably not coming out in cinemas next year is the slow burning Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) so you will have to seek it out by other means. Jarmusch’s Paterson was balm for a troubled soul – the nicest film of the year and one of the most distinctive.

Poi E (Te Arepa Kahi) opened the festival but I didn’t get to it until well afterwards, at a matinee screening in a suburban cinema that gave it a unanimous round of applause at the end. Poi E and Wilderpeople show that Māori filmmaking and Māori filmmakers are in good shape – probably better shape than the rest of the NZ industry put together, if I’m honest.

Until last Sunday, Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings was my animated highlight (see Moana below). Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) just got voted top film of the year by the NZ critics and who am I to argue with them? In fact, there was a brief resurgence of American cinema (or more-specifically West Texas-located cinema) when Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals stopped me in my tracks. But soon after, American cinema simply ceased to be relevant once again.

Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta in Almodóvar's 2016 masterpiece.

Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta in Almodóvar's 2016 masterpiece. Photo: Transmission

Almodóvar’s Julieta was a stunning return to form – no, it was better than that – it exceeded anything of his that I had seen before. A masterclass from everyone involved.

Finally, and still humming through my veins, Moana (Clements/Hall/Musker/Williams) doesn’t open here until next week but was the perfect end to a monumentally crappy year. Joyful, joyous, witty, playful, gorgeous and enough Kiwi talent involved that we can probably claim it as a local production. I have a feeling I’ll be watching it a lot next year when I need comfort from the state of the world.

Watch Again

Watch Again means either this film needs another watch before I decide which category it belongs in, or I wouldn’t mind if someone else suggested watching it, or I probably wouldn’t turn it off if I stumbled across it accidentally on TV one night (although that scenario seems far-fetched nowadays).

Some of these are high-achievers. Academy Award-winner Spotlight. Carol remains beloved by aesthetes and those who somehow want the ice to melt but it never does. The Coen’s Hail, Caesar! wasn’t polished enough for the Hollywood satire to work but their continuing meditation on faith, good, evil, right and wrong is just warming up. I’d watch 45 Years again just for the final scene which was utterly devastating and a crushing denouement to what had come before.

Hail, Caesar! thumb

George Clooney prepares to Hail... something Photo: Universal Pictures

Kung Fu Panda 3 was lots of fun, especially Bryan Cranston’s voice work as Po’s father Li. It was also wonderfully Chinese in look and feel. Very distinctive when you consider the production line techniques that produce these things. Koreeda’s Our Little Sister returned from the 2015 film festival just after his latest film, After the Storm, played the 2016 edition. Both are worthy of your attention, as is all his work, and both are likely to be elevated to “Keeper” status after another viewing.

Disney’s Zootopia sent great and positive messages to young people that the world’s adults then failed to back up. 10 Cloverfield Lane told us that it didn’t matter because the alien invasion is going to destroy everything anyway.

I think I am the only reviewer who found Villeneuve’s Arrival to be, what’s the word, um, bullshit, but I owe it to my colleagues to give it another go sometime. I may even write about what I find.

The Nice Guys fell apart in the third act. Love & Friendship’s delicious script wasn’t quite matched by the rest of it. From the NZFF, Sieranevada, The Lure, Graduation and Elle demand further attention but for different reasons. And my wife is still annoyed she didn’t get to see The First Monday in May, so that one goes on the list too.

Mentioned in Dispatches

Mentioned in Dispatches: Some of these I liked a lot but can’t bring myself to watch again – life being too short etc. For example, Tickled was great but the twists don’t work as well a second time.

Revenant thumb

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant Photo: 20th Century Fox

Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie
The Revenant
The Big Short
Valley of Love
Son of Saul
Eye in the Sky
Orphans & Kingdoms
The Jungle Book
Sing Street
Hacksaw Ridge

Shun at All Costs

Shun at All Costs: See if you can spot a thread running through all these…

Point Break
Zoolander 2
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
The Huntsman: Winter’s War
Angry Birds
X-Men: Apocalypse
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Now You See Me 2
Independence Day: Resurgence
Suicide Squad
The Magnificent Seven
Sunset Song

Finally, I need to remind you that I didn’t see everything in 2016. A different quirk of a calendar might have seen any of these make it into any of the other lists. These are the films I wish I’d seen but missed:

Green Room
The Shallows
Don’t Breathe
Captain Fantastic
The Girl on the Train
The Clan
Café Society
Under the Shadow
I, Daniel Blake
The Light Between Oceans
A United Kingdom