5. Captain Fantastic
I worry that Captain Fantastic may have been misunderstood by confused moviegoers who read the title and expected to see the next Marvel movie but were instead disappointed to discover that it’s actually the story of Aragorn living in the twenty-first century (which with his elvish heritage is perfectly plausible). In reality though, Viggo Mortensen is playing a gloriously bearded hippie dad with some pretty unique views on how to raise his children. The film isn’t subtle in its message—family is hard and society and modern culture suck. In a way the father is a modern Don Juan, where the only principled voice in the world must surely be insane. It’s almost the same message a lot of people might read into The Walking Dead; how do you raise your kids right in a world gone wrong? After watching Captain Fantastic, the more civilised viewer might decide that a zombie apocalypse is preferable to living on the outskirts of modern Western society, but the film goes to great lengths to present the superiority of the family’s lifestyle. The major gripe I have is that there are so many opportunities to look critically on Viggo’s character and choices, but the filmmakers have instead decided that he is the staunch hero while all judgements against him are villainous. That being said, the film is worth it for Mortensen’s performance alone, and there are so many genuinely touching and humorous scenes throughout that it’s difficult not to fall in love with the whole hippie family.
We’ve come to expect a lot from our animated films these days, but Zootopia still manages to set a new high standard. For a lot of critics, the film follows the overwhelmingly popular Frozen as the next in a new golden age of Disney animation. It broke the billion-dollar mark at the world box office, making it the third most-watched film of the year behind only Marvel and Pixar, and is currently the highest rated film for 2016 on Rotten Tomatoes at 98%. If you’ve seen the film you know why. The whole ‘fun for all ages’ tag is getting pretty old these days when it comes to animated features, but Zootopia is really one of the first non-Pixar films to achieve a perfect middle-ground between mature themes and childish fun. The film uses adorable little animals and the predator/prey dynamic to explore racism and prejudice. In a kid’s movie. Seriously. It goes a long way to show that concepts surrounding bigotry and discrimination are maybe not as difficult to understand as we like to believe, but at the same time it doesn’t shy away the complexity of the issues themselves. There are throwaway jokes about whether other animals are allowed to call bunnies cute or if that’s only okay for bunnies to say, as well as deeper narrative questions like whether the smaller, more edible animals should carry pepper spray designed specially for use against foxes. They combine into a story that really can be appreciated and understood no matter what your age. Add to this a beautifully constructed world with loveable and interesting characters and you have the start to a long-running (and highly bankable) franchise.
3. Captain America: Civil War
How am I not sick of these superhero movies yet? Because Marvel does such a damn good job with them. Captain America: Civil War keeps the franchise chugging away without letting it get stale, introducing some new characters to the universe (like Black Panther) and some old ones (Spiderman!) with teasers abounding for their upcoming titles. With the exception of Avengers, this is the one film that Marvel always had to make, and they do so with their impeccable sense of narrative drive. Considering not only the amount of characters but the immensity of the plot that’s present, they keep the audience engaged the whole way through with a fast pace that manages to avoid that confused feeling you can get when too many things are happening at once (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay). The fight scenes, as you’d hope, are exciting and incredibly directed, keeping both your average movie-goer and your hardcore comic book fan enthralled. The sense that you’re only getting part of a puzzle that won’t be finished for years to come is the frustrating thing about these individual movies, but it’s also one of the most satisfying parts of the franchise as a whole. Just how long the studio can keep that up will be determined not by the cookie-cutter origin stories like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange (no matter how much fun they might be), but by the films like Civil War that combine everything fans love while still keeping the universe feeling fresh and exciting. And if nothing else, it keeps us watching until Infinity Wars finally comes together.
2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I don’t use the word ‘whimsical’ very often, but when I do, it’s usually about something from New Zealand. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is no exception. It’s a stellar film in every respect—from the writing and direction of Taika Waititi (who was also responsible for the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows), to the performances of Sam Neill as Uncle Hector and Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker—everything works together perfectly to deliver what must surely be the best thing to come out of the country since Neil Finn. The New Zealand bush provides a worthy and beautiful setting for the story (just like The Lord of the Rings, as Ricky reminds us), and it’s used in a way that makes it difficult to see the narrative unfolding anywhere else. The relationship that forms between the two main characters is held together with wit and humour, creating one of those rare films that’s both heartbreaking and heart-warming at the same time. Even in the face of their futile goal there is joy and excitement at the sharing of their journey. Like I said – whimsical.
1. Kubo and the Two Strings
This is a really special film for so many reasons. Firstly, the premise—it’s a mythological story set in ancient Japan about a boy with magical origami powers who’s being hunted by his god-like relatives while his dead parents try to protect him from beyond the grave. Yeah, it’s intense. Secondly, the animation—produced by Laika, the studio behind Coraline and The Boxtrolls, the film uses a combination of CGI, puppetry and stop-motion animation to create some truly unique visual effects. The stylised look of Kubo and the Two Strings is stunning and continues to draw you into the world with every character and monster and magical act you witness. Thirdly, the cast—in the lead is Art Parkinson of Game of Thrones fame, with Charlize Theron as Monkey, Matthew McConaughey as Beetle, Ralph Fiennes as the Moon King, Rooney Mara (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as the Sisters, and even George Takei in a supporting role. They each give their characters a voice and a personality that permeates the story and gives it life, making the mythical feel authentic. But the main reason this film tops the list is the litany of emotions it pulls you through without ever being jarring or overly sentimental. It deals with grief and hope and loss and courage all in the same breath, and it does so in a way that is both moving and humorous. Never has a children’s film scaled emotional depths with such maturity and still stayed fun the whole way through. Kubo and the Two Strings really does deserve the number one spot on this 2016 list.
Tickled – Documentary making at its…I want to say best? Maybe I just mean strangest. Unsettling and brilliant.
Finding Dory – Not quite up there with Pixar’s greats but still a worthy addition to the studio’s filmography. Hank the octopus may just be one of my new favourite characters.
Swiss Army Man – You’d think farting corpse jokes would get old pretty quickly. They really don’t. Grotesque in that charming sort of way.