Amid the noise of Batman battling Superman, the Avengers turning against each other, and middle aged fanboys whingeing about the Ghostbusters franchise being revitalised with an all-female lead cast, 2016 has actually been a pretty solid year for movies, both in and outside of Hollywood. We haven't had time to see them all (we have a magazine to publish, after all) but nonetheless here is a list of our ten favourite films reviewed in Eureka Street this year.
As screenwriter for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman delineated a particular type of over-educated, middle-class, white male character; artists whose alienation and self-loathing is at odds with their social privilege, and whose creative drive entails a winnowing for authenticity or immortality that leads them inexorably down the rabbit hole of their own navels: the search for meaning as the ultimate act of self-absorption. This archetype was fully actualised in the character of Caden Cotard, the egomaniacal theatremaker played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2008's Synecdoche, New York — and emerges again in the form of Michael Stone, the celebrity self-help author adrift in a sea of menacing existential fog in Kaufman's surreal, disturbing and deeply humane stop-motion animation Anomalisa.
The story centres on the experiences of Joy (Brie Larson), who for seven years has been held prisoner in the souped-up garden shed of a suburban maniac; and her five-year-old son, Jack. It explores the elaborate and imaginative methods Joy has employed to nurture and educate her son, while at the same time protecting him from the dark reality of their existence. The novel was remarkable in its use of language to create the inner voice of Jack, who narrates it. This often involves charming deconstructions of idiomatic English. Jack is awed by Joy's description of their physical resemblance: 'You are the dead spit of me.' 'Why I'm your dead spit?' Later he observes a gob of her toothpaste and saliva in the basin; it doesn't look anything like him. As director, Lenny Abrahamson brings a stylised realism to the film that mimics the novel's capacity to transmit the bleakness of Joy's situation via the wonder-full gaze of Jack.
If at first glance Mustang seems familiar, cast your mind back to 1999, and Sofia Coppola's adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides. The resonance between the films, each of which is about five adolescent sisters who are literally held captive by conservative guardians, is graphic and explicit. The setting is different — The Virgin Suicides takes place in 1970s suburban Michigan, Mustang in a village in northern Turkey in the modern day — but the feminist lens is applied in an equally vigorous, and similarly melancholic manner. Yet Mustang builds copiously upon, rather than repeating, its forebear. The Virgin Suicides considered the plight of young women whose lives unfold under the weight of severe Catholic conservatism and the middle-class male gaze. Mustang concerns itself with a broader social conservatism and paternalism that is at once particular to its provincial setting, and universal.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople
The bulk of the film finds Hector (Sam Neill) and troubled foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison), on the run in the wilderness, a comedic caper that draws an ever escalating manhunt from welfare officer Paula (House) and her cohorts. They are unlikely allies, Ricky the would-be gangsta and Hector, the cantankerous bushman who has actually done time in prison, and who never wanted Ricky in the first place. Yet both have experienced loss and both have struggled to belong, and so slowly a friendship blooms that might just promise healing and redemption for both of them. If that sounds maudlin, it's not. Whatever the seriousness of its content at times, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is endlessly entertaining and hilarious, thanks to its pacy, polished script and top notch performances, especially from relative newcomer Dennison.
Language is central to Arrival, Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve's philosophically piquant first contact story. Its hero Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a talented linguist, enlisted by the US military to aid in its interactions with the occupants of an alien craft that has descended upon earth. The great, tentacled creatures communicate with sounds that, we are told, no human voice can reproduce, but also with a form of written language, which takes the form of complex circular hieroglyphs. Louise has experienced loss, and the task of interacting with the aliens provides a distraction from loneliness and grief; implicitly, to realise we are not alone in the universe can be as comforting as it might be terrifying. A brief exchange of dialogue explains that learning a new language can effectively rewire your brain, and the fact that Louise eventually comes to think in the alien language is central to the most significant plot development.
Andrew Haigh's adaptation of David Constantine's short story 'In Another Country' centres on Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) Mercer, an ageing, childless couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. As Kate goes about planning a party, news arrives that the body of Katya, Geoff's long-dead first love, has been discovered in a Swiss glacier. The disruption of the Mercers' life-lie comes not in the form of shocking revelation, but slow-dawning realisation; not that Geoff isn't the man he purported to be, but that Kate may not be what she believed herself to be, to him. Kate and Geoff live among The Broads of eastern Norfolk, and Lol Crawley's cinematography frames them standing against or moving through that bucolic landscape; just as the landscape is wide-open and ever, subtly changing, so too the faces of the two actors reveal far more than is communicated with words.
In April 2013, an altercation broke out between Sherpa and Western climbers on the middle slopes of Mt Everest. Longstanding resentment based in a perception that Sherpa assume the bulk of the risk but a fraction of the credit for Western climbers' achievements on the world's highest peak boiled over, with dangerous results. A year later, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom travelled to Everest, to document the sizeable tourist industry at the mountain from the perspective of its often unspoken heroes, the Sherpa. If she was expecting to find signs of a growing sense of self-agency behind the docile facade of the legendary 'Smiling Sherpa', she couldn't have predicted a rawer or more tragic scenario against which it would play out. When an avalanche comes through and kills 16 Sherpa, Peedom and her crew are there to capture the grief and politically charged aftermath.
I, Daniel Blake
Money, and the indignity and hardship that can attend its lack, are concerns central to I, Daniel Blake. Equal parts comedy and tragedy, the film sees veteran English director Ken Loach continue a career-long interest in the lives of the working class, forging a new blue-collar hero in the figure of his titular lead character, a joiner forced onto welfare at 59 due to a heart condition. Daniel (Dave Johns) is on doctor's orders not to work. But obtaining the benefits to which he is entitled proves to be a challenge of Kafka-esque proportions. The welfare system as he experiences it is a bureaucratic nightmare, populated by condescending Health Care Professionals, shadowy and calculating Decision Makers, managers who loom over their clients like stern parents, and caseworkers under pressure to stifle any human compassion for their desperate supplicants. Daniel braves the farce with incredulity and waning patience.
Eva Orner served as producer on Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about American interrogation practices during the war in Afghanistan. In Chasing Asylum she turns her eye to the experiences of detainees on Manus and Nauru. Asylum seeker advocates will be familiar with the facts and arguments that the film articulates. Taking a wide view, it traces the (d)evolution of border protection policies under five successive prime ministers. Human rights lawyer David Manne reminds us that despite government rhetoric it is not illegal to seek asylum. Journalist David Marr offers a potted history of the UN convention on refugees. What sets the film apart is its wealth of hidden camera footage caught within the grim confines of the centre on Nauru, and Orner's conversations with detainees and social workers who bore witness to the dire daily reality there.
Son of Saul
In the history of World War II and the Final Solution, the Sonderkommando cuts a pitiable figure. These Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz and other death camps were forced to perform the logistics surrounding mass murder — the carting and disposal of dead flesh. Though patently victims, they were viewed by some as collaborators. This left the few who survived the camps with a moral burden that was part and parcel of their specific trauma. Son of Saul — a Hungarian production — provides an immersive and impressionistic extrapolation of this ethical and actual horror. It takes place over the course of the day and a half leading up to the revolt by Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz in 1944, during which one of the camp's crematoriums was partly destroyed and three SS men were killed.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.