2016 has certainly been a year to remember both on the screen and off. But while Trump was rallying up a storm in America, and Rogue One were taking down empires in a galaxy far, far away, 2016 produced some great films that may have went under the radar. Here are a list of some of the HeadStuff writer’s favourite hidden gems of 2016…
Released in May, Jeremy Saulnier’s follow up to the remarkably bleak and utterly brilliant Blue Ruin is a riotous and horrific trip to the darkest backwaters of rural America. Green Room follows The Ain’t Rights, a punk rock band on the fringes of poverty who unknowingly agree to play a gig at a Neo-Nazi rally in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Anton Yelchin stars as bassist Pat, in one of his final roles and proves the acting ability and range that he had, a talent that was so cruelly taken away amongst the many others in 2016. However, it is Patrick Stewart’s turn as the leader of the Neo-Nazis that steals the show, backed up by his lead henchman, the deeply unsettling Macon Blair, who starred in Blue Ruin.
An unapologetic genre piece soaked in blood, ultra-violence and a deeply disturbing dark humour, Green Room confirms Saulnier as a remarkable film maker who pits inept heroes against terrible odds in the most brutal of fashions. Personally, Green Room was my film of the year and like last year’s Bone Tomahawk, it shows that simple indie films done terribly well are outshining the Hollywood blockbusters at every turn. Yelchin will be a great loss, but having Green Room as his final film is a fantastic send off to a talented young man. Peter Morris
Train to Busan
It’s incredibly difficult to review a train movie without lapsing into train puns. So let’s just get this out of the way: If you choo-choo-choose to watch this movie, you’re on track to experience 10 carriage-loads of fun, as you thunder full steam ahead to Station Excitement.
Phew. Now, on to what’s so incredibly special about this one. It’s so wonderfully simple. Basically a neglectful father is on a train to Busan with his daughter when a zombie outbreak occurs, and he has to join a band of safe passengers to survive. I saw Train To Busan in a packed cinema and there was a genuine sense of roller-coaster to how we all gasped, breathed audible sighs of relief, laughed and sometimes screamed throughout. It made me realise the great thing about zombies isn’t their physical scariness but the tension and drama they can generate – the looming sense of doom off-screen, and the possibility of a character you love being bitten and ‘turning’, thus making your protagonist an antagonist in a single second. Train To Busan engages you with the heroes in short, succinct ways, then uses the zombie-threat to create the most suspenseful and exhilarating set pieces you’ll see all year. Tom Rowley
The Coen brother’s typically make two types of films, the Oscar type flicks where every frame is meticulously crafted, not only to look gorgeous, but to include the symbolism and foreshadowing that only the best filmmakers can pull off. Then there are the films where it’s immediately evident within a few seconds how much fun they had making them. Hail Caesar! is one of the latter. The Coens have often talked about how a film can come to them in the form of certain scenes and individual set pieces and how a narrative can be crafted around that. Whilst this does lend Hail Caesar! a certain amount of incoherence, the set pieces are so enjoyable that the scripting process stays completely at the back of your mind.
An astonishingly well-made feature Hai!l Caesar is near perfectly cast, with George Clooney excellent as the clueless film star Baird Whitlock, Ralph Fiennes proving yet again why his career re-invention as a comic actor is one of the most exciting things in Hollywood and Alden Ehrenreich getting a chance a show how he could become a modern day equivalent of a matinee idol. The whole thing is loving captured by Coen’s regular Roger Deakins. The highlights of the film remain, however, the affectionate parodies of 40’s Hollywood and in particular Channing Tatum’s pitch perfect re-creating of South Pacific. Sure, the whole thing might not hang together perfectly but when the surface is that much more, it really doesn’t matter. Adam Duke
Under The Shadow
Stranger Things wasn’t the only 80s scare in town this year. Set in Tehran in the 1980s, during a long and devastating war with Iraq, Babak Anvari’s assured debut Under the Shadow shows a mother trying to survive with her daughter as her home falls to pieces around her. Danger waits around every corner for Shideh (played to frayed perfection by Narges Rashidi), either from the possibly supernatural, missiles or perhaps the perils of motherhood. Between The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, horror is currently having something of a Feminist moment, and Under the Shadow carries on the trend with aplomb. The opening third builds a picture of constant pressure and expectation on women from all corners, and introduces the djinn menace so subtly you would be forgiven for thinking that you accidentally wandered into a lowkey drama, albeit a frighteningly relevant one for today. Once the horror hits though, it quickens the pulse and doesn’t yield till the conclusion. By the end, you will have a full sense of how the scars hostile environments leave on its inhabitants but also you most likely will have a few nightmares about the noises under the bed and the missiles above your roof. Cethan Leahy
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a downright miracle. A slow film with nary a single shred of real conflict or drama it’s something that shouldn’t work on so many levels, not least in getting funding from studio execs and staying on the right side of the audience’s patience. And yet somehow it exists, and perfectly on its own terms.
Following Adam Driver as a bus driver named Paterson, in a city called Paterson, writing poems inspired by William Carlos Williams, also from Paterson, Paterson could be downright unbearable in anybody else’s hands but under the gentle but steady guidance of Jim Jarmusch it blossoms into one of the year’s most remarkable films. A loving testament to the small wonders of the everyday it feels like something that simultaneously Jarmusch has been building towards for his entire career and at the same time a great risk. What’s a real shame about Paterson is the fact that not enough people are going to see Adam Driver in a star making turn. The Star Wars actor isn’t given a particularly showy role, but this allows him to make it entirely his own, a chance he hadn’t been given up to this point, and as a result his character feels entirely lived. That the American film industry can continue to produce a film like this is astonishing and it should be seen by the widest audience possible. Adam Duke
Maggie’s Plan, despite receiving plenty of critical acclaim just a few months ago, has been conspicuously missing from 2016 best-of-lists. It’s a shame because Rebecca Miller’s film, which owes a great debt to Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, was this year’s most hip and indie rom-com. Greta Gerwig plays the titular character, a professor who begins an affair with her colleague John (Ethan Hawke), breaking up his marriage to the overbearing Georgette (Julianne Moore). However, a few years later, Maggie begins to feel stymied by her new husband and concocts a plan to reunite John and his former wife.
Miller’s script is a terrific twist on the old love-triangle screwball comedies of yore like His Girl Friday. While before Cary Grant was manipulating his female object of desire into leaving her husband for him, in Maggie’s Plan, it’s a woman orchestrating the events of the movie for the opposite reason. Adding to this, the cast are all wonderful. Gerwig is an effortless lead, capturing the right level of kookiness, as opposed to actresses such as Zooey Deschanel and Anna Kendrick who can be quite cloying. Also, Hawke and Moore are brilliant playing against type, particularly the former who sheds his “breezy masculine” persona to play a neurotic intellectual. Overall, there is a great lightness to the movie, where Miller will take a break from the high-concept plot in order to let the audience spend time with her characters. The moments when John takes Maggie to an underground Chinese gambling den/hotel or when during a stressful moment, Gerwig’s character takes a minute to dance to The Specials “A Message to You Rudy” are, for lack of a better turn of phrase, so cool. Stephen Porzio
Eye in the Sky
Just how completely this film flew under the radar – pun very much intended – is somewhat surprising. Aside from its uniquely harrowing yet simultaneously callous portrayal of a topical subject (drone strikes and civilian casualties), its cast alone should have garnered it more attention; the ever reliable Dame Helen Mirren – here as a chillingly pragmatic British colonel willing to sacrifice a young child to get her target – is joined by the likes of Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi and lest we forgot the final (live-action) performance from Alan *insert obligatory “fuck you, 2016” here* Rickman.
The setup is simple and the staging almost that of a play. A known terrorist has emerged, the clock is ticking before their next attack and a drone strike is available. The problem is that a young girl selling bread is going to be a guaranteed casualty. What ensues is an almost unendurable masterclass is slow burn tension-building as the various characters – few of whom are in the same locations – attempt to navigate the increasingly muddied waters of the ethical no-win scenario they find themselves in: Is a child’s life worth more than all the victims of the suicide bombing her death would prevent, but, since these are government officials, which of those scenarios is more media-friendly?
It feels very much like a drama from a bygone era updated to a modern setting and quandary. The performances are all unsurprisingly top-class and the ever-mounting moral relativism and responsibility-dodging of their discussion over trying to legally justify child murder is genuinely thrilling to watch and horrifying to behold. Richard Drumm
Writer and director Robert Eggers folk-horror film The Witch plays on a great deal of modern fears. From the disintegration of the nuclear family, the perils of grief and the dangers of religious fundamentalism The Witch collects all our modern age fears in a 17th Century setting. All horror films prey on their audience’s fears but rarely do they commit the same amount of energy to authenticity. Eggers is a different breed of director and through extensive research of journals, court documents and records from early Puritan settlements in New England he makes The Witch’s terrifying power feel all too real.
Eggers displays a mastery of style and form rarely found in horror or any other genre. Only the likes of Scorsese and Kubrick had this much control over their projects. From the rough spun clothes and archaic dialogue Eggers shows a mastery some directors never achieve. Add to this the intense performances of Ralph Ineson and Anna Taylor-Joy along with Mark Korven’s score and The Witch has a sense of impending doom only matched by the greatest apocalyptic films. As a horror film The Witch feels forbidden; as if it is documenting something so profane and so extreme that the human eye is compelled to look and to look away. The Witch is transfixing and hypnotic in its power. It is not just horror cinema at its peak but cinema itself. Andrew Carroll
Screened as part of the IFI’s 2016 Horrorthon, Raw stars Garance Marillier as Justine, a vegetarian college freshman studying veterinary in her parents’ alma mater. She, along with her fellow first years, are forced to undergo hazing rituals by the older students, one of whom is Justine’s sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). After being coerced into eating raw rabbit liver, Justine develops an insatiable craving for meat – including that of humans.
Part The Neon Demon, part Cronos, Raw is a very confident debut for French director Julia Ducournau. Each beat the movie takes succeeds on the level for which its designed – the humour is laugh out loud funny, the violence is stomach turning. At one point, following one hilarious Rude Goldberg-esque sequence of abject disgust, the next scene sees a man laughing maniacally onscreen – probably a stand-in for Ducournau herself grinning at the audience for making them endure what they just saw. However, despite the insanity of certain portions of Raw, like a lot of acclaimed foreign fare, there is an enhanced realism to proceedings that taps into a more relatable dread. This may have something to do with how Ducournau manages to always keep one foot in reality – with the hazing sequences and themes of body shame and blossoming sexuality in today’s world feeling viscerally real and relevant. On a side-note, the film also features a killer soundtrack. One glorious three-minute tracking-shot party sequence has led me to start listening to French band The Dø – high praise indeed. Stephen Porzio
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