Actor-writer-director Taika Waititi has graduated in recent years from being New Zealand’s indie wunderkind to a box-office blockbuster filmmaker whose celebrated comedy style transcends fandom and genre. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genuinely bad film in his filmography, so as we explore his six efforts behind the camera, take into consideration that, for the most part, we’re splitting hairs. He’s a singular talent who blends hard-hitting emotional storylines with whimsical gags so meticulously, it’s hard to believe he got away with it.
6. “Eagle vs. Shark” (2007)
Taika Waititi’s debut film is a low-key comedy about outcasts combating depression, but although Waititi seems sensitive to their plight, “Eagle vs. Shark” is frustratingly off balance. Loren Taylor stars as an introverted young woman with a crush on a socially awkward Jemaine Clement; she follows him to his hometown, where he plans to finally beat up his old high-school bully. But Clement is such a self-centered blowhard that it’s hard to work up any interest in seeing these two allegedly lovable kooks wind up together. She’s a delight, he’s a cad, and although we can sympathize with their unique brands of unhappiness, it’s clear that — despite the film’s seemingly happy ending — one of our heroes has a lot more work to do before they’re ready to be the partner the other one needs.
5. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017)
Taika Waititi’s quirky Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is just the shot of adrenaline the God of Thunder needed. “Ragnarok” sends Chris Hemsworth’s hero to a planet where he’s promptly imprisoned and forced to fight the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, never better as Banner or his counterpart), while Thor’s brother Loki manipulates the weird dystopia behind the scenes, and while Tessa Thompson steals every single scene as the hard-drinking Valkyrie. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett vamps it up as Hela, the rejected daughter of Odin who successfully conquers Asgard in Thor’s absence. Beautifully stylized and very funny, “Thor: Ragnarok” only suffers because it came after the cliffhanger ending of “Thor: The Dark World” and has to wrap up stray plot points for a whole act before Waititi is finally free to cut loose and take the franchise in refreshing, weird directions.
4. “Jojo Rabbit” (2019)
It takes a skillful and sensitive comic filmmaker to turn Nazi Germany into the backdrop for a sweet coming-of-age story, and Waititi has what it takes. “Jojo Rabbit” stars Roman Griffin Davis as the title character, a young boy in the waning years of World War II who believes in German propaganda so much that his imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler, played (cheekily) by Waititi himself. Jojo’s unexamined fanaticism gets challenged when he learns his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, is hiding a young Jewish girl named Else (Thomasin McKenzie, “Leave No Trace”) in their crawlspace. “Jojo Rabbit” vigorously mocks the idiotic mob mentality of hatred while tenderly pulling one of the converted back into humane empathy, evoking tears and laughter in equal measure. It’s an excellent film, but just a little more contrived than Waititi’s other delightful comedies.
3. “Boy” (2010)
Waititi’s often-overlooked second film is another heartbreaking and hilarious coming-of-age tale about a boy desperately searching for a father figure, even though his best hope (as played by Taika Waititi) is clearly hopeless. James Rolleston plays the title character, who in the early 1980s is obsessed with Michael Jackson and his absentee father, who shows up by surprise one day to search for money he buried in the backyard, deigning to spend time with his sons while he’s looking. Waititi gives his best performance in “Boy,” as a man who takes advantage of his dad status but is clearly unqualified to mentor a houseplant, let alone children. Absolutely earnest, lovely, funny and tear-jerking filmmaking, with just a hint of magic along the edges.
2. “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014)
You’d be hard pressed to find a funnier modern horror comedy than “What We Do in the Shadows,” co-directed by and co-starring Waititi and Clement. A group of vampires from very different generations share a house together in New Zealand, struggling every day to adjust to contemporary culture while their centuries-old neuroses go completely unchecked. “Shadows” humanizes these monsters but never forgets they are, indeed, murderers, and the sometimes gruesome contrast is a whimsically ghoulish delight. But we can’t help but love these creatures of the night, who just want friendship and love and acceptance even while they’re sucking your veins dry. And the cameo by a group of equally sensitive modern werewolves is a classic piece of comedy.
1. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016)
Waititi’s finest coming-of-age story, so far, tells the story of a standoffish orphan (Julian Dennison) who finally finds the right, loving parents. But when tragedy strikes, and he’s about to be taken away, he escapes into the woods with his foster father (Sam Neill); getting back takes so long that all of New Zealand thinks the boy has been kidnapped. With nothing left to lose, they decide to stay on the run and live off the land, building a spectacular bond while the efforts to catch them get increasingly ludicrous. It starts intimate and evolves into straight-up “Mad Max” territory, and the filmmaking is so natural — and the characters are so specific and endearing — that you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where exactly the shift occurs. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a family film masterpiece, as raucous as it is heartwarming.