Films of the Year- 2019

As we say goodbye to this decade, here is my top ten films of 2019.  I found it really hard this time to pick the outright top spot- I was torn between head vs heart, to a film that bewitched and disorientated me against a film that gave me the warmest, most beautiful feeling. In the end I realised I didn’t have to and that’s the beauty of cinema, one moment it can break and destroy you and in another moment it can put you back together and make you hopeful again. And I wouldn’t have it any other way x

Films 2019

10) Ad Astra (James Gray)

One of 2019s most visually stunning film is James Gray’s beautiful and meditative space opera Ad Astra. Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a controlled and composed loner who is seemingly void of emotion and affect, strengthened by the fact that his pulse never quickens or rises above 80. He is tasked with travelling to Neptune, to make contact with his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been absent for the majority of Roy’s life and who was heralded a space hero but who may also be responsible for a bout of cosmic rays that threaten life on earth.

Gray’s film has been dubbed Apocalypse Now in space and it is easy to see the comparisons. Pitt’s lonesome astronaut makes his intergalactic journey through the vast and merciless terrain, heading for a climatic confrontation with Jones’ world-weary rogue who seems hell bent on bringing chaos and destruction to something he once stood for. But whilst Ad Astra recalls the cinematic past, it also represents a wholly believable and not too distant future, its depiction of space travel and colonising the Moon for tourism is but a breath away. It shows how we have taken the excitement and the ground-breaking possibility of trips beyond our earth and reduced them to creating a carbon copy of the mundane trappings of life on our planet with the Moon playing host to shopping malls and coffee shops. It is a depiction that feels firmly rooted in reality, that our species can only degrade and destroy what we once were in wonder of.

What Ad Astra also achieves is creating the feeling of what it would be like to be in space, the film’s contemplative pace makes us feel the infinite void and the enormous stretches of time that one must endure to reach our destination. The colour palette is a tableau of beautiful hues that enhance the depths of the galaxy but also the inner existential crisis of Roy’s abandonment issues and his reluctance to register emotion. The film’s cinematography is breath-taking and provides one of the most immersive and real portrayals of space since Gravity. Go to see it on the biggest screen you can, is to marvel at its visual bounty.

In Pitt, Gray also finds his ace in the hole, with a face that could launch a thousand (space) ships, the actor has never looked better, his brooding surface perfectly encapsulates the look of an all-American hero but also someone bereft of succumbing to anything that may acknowledge any feelings. With seemingly little effort, Pitt turns out one of his best performances in years, with the aid of Gray’s camera which relishes in focusing on its leading actors’ features.

Ad Astra feels like grown up filmmaking, one that refuses to bend to the will of modern movie law, where action must drive and maintain our attention. This means that its glacial feel and pace will not be to everyone’s taste, save for a couple of pulse quickening scenes including a thrilling buggy chase on the surface of the moon, the film is happy to match the low resting heartbeat of its protagonist. But it is a film of endless splendour, taking us to the inner corners of the soul and the outer reaches of our world and it may just be the most beautiful sad man in space picture that we have ever witnessed.

9) The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz)

Whilst as movie lovers we often want to be challenged, to be dazzled and to witness something truly unique, sometimes we also just want a film that is going to offer us the feel-good factor, to provide the cinematic equivalent of a big hug. This year, the warm and fuzzies came courtesy of Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, a film brimming with so much heart that if you watched it on a rainy day, by the time you left the cinema, you would swear that the sun was now shining.

The film centres on Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a young man with Downs Syndrome who, due to no other available alterative by the state, lives in a retirement home but has bigger ambitions of becoming a wrestling star. One night he breaks out of the care home to make his dreams reality and attend the wrestling school of his fabled hero, The Salt Water Redneck, someone he has repeatedly watched on an old VHS tape with his elderly roommate (a nice cameo from Bruce Dern). Whilst on his journey he meets Tyler (Shia LeBeouf), a troubled fisherman who is haunted by his brother’s recent death and who is embroiled in a turf war with local crab fishers. Zak has something he is trying to run towards, and Tyler has something he wants to run away from, and the two unlikely lads strike a friendship as they cross the North Carolina Outer Banks. They traverse the wetlands and encounter obstacles whilst also being pursued by Zak’s compassionate carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the angry white trash fishers who are hunting revenge on Tyler.

It is sometimes a tightrope to walk when you are trying to make a film with the best intentions in the world and often the result can come across corny but with The Peanut Butter Falcon the sentiment and mood is pitched just right. This is largely down to the two main leads onscreen chemistry and a sense that their friendship extended beyond the camera lens. The part of Zak was written for Gottsagen after he impressed the writer/directors Nilson and Schwartz at a camp for actors with disabilities and it is a performance full of sincerity, depth and humour. Meanwhile the often-unpredictable LaBeouf gives one of his best performances to date, stripped back from the trappings of tales of his offscreen antics, he brings a raw, authentic honesty, where his soulful eyes harbour a lifetime of loss and the ache of daring to dream for more.

The landscape gives the film its modern-day Huck Finn moniker and gives us a glimpse of a world away from our own, one that may appear behind contemporary society with its lack of reliance on modern technology but whose simplicity is endearing. It is a backdrop that lives by its own laws, its own pace and utilises the basic instincts and living off the land principles, it is at once a place that could turn unforgiving but also one that offers a romanticised view of a bygone time. The setting and the film itself provide a sense of contemplation, that as a culture, we could all do with going back to basics, to remember what is of value in this world, of how kindness can be king and how we should not judge peoples dreams and limits by the circumstances they are presented within.

8) In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

It is a testament to Peter Strickland that with just a handful of films he has garnered the auteur reputation for distinct and unique work, one that causes fevered anticipation from critics and film lovers alike when he unveils a new release. And his latest feature In Fabric was no different, a truly twisted, subversive piece of cinema that builds upon the director’s love for retro aesthetics and meticulous sound design.

The plot comes across like the stuff of B movie greatness (or badness depending on your taste)- a haunted dress with a taste for murder inhabits and consumes any owner it comes in to contact with. Strickland has fun with the concept of this killer red dress, it slithers around doors, floats eerily upstairs and causes washing machines to turn into crazed, possessed and destroyed appliances.

But whilst playful in places, the dialogue of the witches/sales assistants in the department store is a highlight, the film also peels away at a different type of horror by the end of its runtime. Strickland uses oppressive sounds, layered images and evocative set pieces to create a mood that flits between the banality of everyday situations (demeaning work meetings/awkward dates in cheap restaurants) and the seduction of retail consumerism, our addiction for material things that promise a life away from the one we lead. It is a heady concoction, a myriad of concepts and arresting scenes and whilst it does lose a little traction towards the end, the film has created such an unforgettable mood that it is destined for a place in the year’s best lists.

In Fabric is quite simply unlike anything else you will see this year or any other year, cut entirely from a different cloth, it reaffirms Strickland’s place as one of cinema’s most original and intriguing directors and I personally can’t wait for the next chance to plunge into his weird, macabre world.

7) Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Whilst cinema can be relied on to lift our spirits and transport us to different places, it can also break our heart, something that we often venture into knowing the consequences and armed with tissues, we almost sometimes want that beautiful pain. This year Noah Baumbach brought us that bruised bittersweet experience with his devastating divorce drama, Marriage Story, a film that drew upon the director’s own divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The story focuses on artsy couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) who live in New York with their son Henry and by societal standards and outward images have an envious, privileged life. But when Nicole takes a job to shoot a pilot in LA, taking her away from the theatre work with Charlie she had traded Hollywood for, she also decides to end the marriage and start a new chapter she desperately craves. Initially Charlie, sticking his head somewhat in the sand, believes the move to LA is temporary but when it becomes clear Nicole wants to relocate to LA, they become embroiled in a cross-coastal custody battle for their son and the amicable split they envisioned gets shattered amidst courtroom clashes.

It is easy to at first empathise with Driver’s Charlie, coming from Baumbach’s side of the divorce experience, he is the one blind -sided when Nicole hires a divorce lawyer, despite their previous agreement to settle this without outside parties. He is the one making constant trips to visit his son and having to up- route his working life to battle the onslaught of legal bills and legal obstacles. But the beauty of Marriage Story is that it does not take a firm side and as the film progresses, we see the extent of how the break down of communication in the relationship has destroyed their love. Nicole is guilty of not expressing her desires enough and going along with her husbands plans while Charlie is guilty of refusing to acknowledge the degree of seriousness his wife’s relocation proposals were and instead shrugging them off with little afterthought. The resentment and corrosion of their world together spills out of the courtroom and culminates in a two hander scene in Charlie’s apartment, the couple argue, spit venomous words at each other that have been festering below the surface for months, maybe years and end up in tears, on knees mourning the irrevocable damage that has come to this sad swansong.

But if this all sounds very depressing, there is light and shade to be found in Baumbach’s film, he manages to find humour in the absurdity of the situation, particularly in Charlie’s interactions with his first appointed lawyer Bert Spitz (a wonderfully on form Alan Alda). Also, in a scene where Charlie is being assessed in his new LA apartment and on his relationship with Henry, the film turns a tense interaction into horrifying humour as a family in joke goes awry.

The two leads commit fully to their characters, bringing depth and nuances that feel natural, authentic and more bittersweet for it. Nicole on the surface, could have been a character audiences would find it hard to emphasis with but Johansson manages to make us feel for her, even when her actions seem harsh, we can see that this is not a decision she has taken lightly nor one she perhaps ever wanted to make. Driver meanwhile reminds us how lucky we are to have him, he traverses the tightrope of ego and empathy perfectly and his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ may well be enough to win him a golden statue come next years awards season. Their onscreen chemistry and tender moments mean you are fully invested in their story, almost too much so when the final scenes unfold, the tears will begin to flow. But just as the final chapter closes, we have a twinkling of a new era of their relationship, a small gesture of hope that through love and loss, something that once held them together will always thankfully remain.

6) Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

What do you do when the ardent fanboys have accused you of ruining their beloved Star Wars franchise and you have received enough ferment criticism on social media that even the toughest skinned character could crack under? Well if you are Rian Johnson you dust yourself off and come back with 2019’s most entertaining night out at the cinema, a barnstorming, firecracker whodunnit, packed to the brim with style and substance.

Taking a respectful debt from Agatha Christie, Knives Out revolves around the aftermath of the death of renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who meets his demise just after his 85th birthday. But what may appear to be a simple case of suicide on the surface, soon unravels to throw suspicion on each member of Thrombrey’s over privileged and freeloading family, who all emerge with motives to drive them to murder. Amongst the parasite, serpentine clan, only Harlan’s nurse and carer Marta (Ana de Armas) seems to truly mourn his death and appears to be the solitary virtuous, moral compass of the film.

Such is her aversion to deceit that her body has a physical reaction and she vomits when she is lying, something that provides a fantastic narrative device as the plot thickens. Into the mix, and to weed through the duplicitous characters and concealed clues comes Daniel Craig’s southern sleuth Benoit Blanc, an old-fashioned cigar smoking gentleman detective who has a penchant for coin tossing, dramatic entrances and intentional pauses. He is a grandiose and theatrical creation that could have been hammy in other, lesser skilled hands but such is the joyous aplomb that Craig plays him with, that we go along with every over pronounced drawl that comes from his lips. It is a delight to see Craig revel in a character that could not be more far removed from the shackles of Bond and builds upon the comedic playfulness that we witnessed in Logan Lucky.

But it is not just Craig that knocks it out of the park in Johnson’s meticulous murder mystery, the film is almost an embarrassment of riches with every part of the puzzle coming together. The cast is a whodunit who’s who of established and future stars, from Don Johnson’s philandering pompous son in law Richard, to Michael Shannon’s whiny out of favour son Walt to Jaeden Martell’s twitter troll grandson Jacob. Each play their parts with a devilish edge of affluent entitlement but special mention must go to Jamie Lee Curtis as Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda who commands the screen with her brazen confidence but who also unveils a hidden suspicion that her father has something else predesigned for them. And another actor who is taking great pleasure from being away from a huge studio franchise is Chris Evans who has an absolute ball playing the self-entitled, stellar jumper wearer and fantastically monikered grandson Ransom.

The set design is a Cluedo lover’s dream, with most of the action taking place in Thrombey’s gothic mansion, complete with hidden entry points, creaky stairs and grand interiors. It would be a fitting location for any Christie novel and becomes just as much of a character as the family are. Meanwhile Johnson’s direction allows us the vantage point at times but pulls the rug from under us at others, just as we think we have solved the mystery, it flips what we knew on its head to race to a genuinely thrilling climax. As a cinema goer it is a real treat to be able to watch a film where you can openly see the fun a director and cast are having and be part of that, like one of the gang and this is how Knives Out feels. It is a delicious, heady concoction that surprises, entertains and amuses and with Johnson back on stellar territory Star Wars alleged loss is very much cinema’s gain.

5) Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)

It’s always a joy when an actor gets to flex parts of their dramatic chops that we, as the audience, may not have seen yet and we get to revel in another side of their skills. This year it was never truer than with Melissa McCarthy’s stellar turn as Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s biographical film Can You Ever Forgive Me? The film picks up Israel’s story in the 1990s right at her lowest ebb, a previous bestselling celebrity biographer in the 70s and 80s, she is now struggling to make her rent and unable to get any new work published. Living in a state of squalor and with her sick cat Jersey requiring medical attention, Lee is desperate for cash and, through a set of surprising circumstances, she carves a new career as a forger of celebrity letters. While she begins to enjoy the lucrative rewards of her profitable venture, it becomes just as much for Lee about the praise she receives for her writing, her flair for impersonating the likes of witty literary greats such as Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.

McCarthy has been churning out comedy performances since her breakout role in 2011’s Bridesmaids and while some have been great (2015’s Spy), many have felt repetitive and lazy, relying too heavily on her initial schtick and not bringing anything new to the table. But with Can You Ever Forgive Me, McCarthy finds the perfect vehicle to convey some of her humour but also to add depth and layers that have not had chance to shine previously.

Lee Israel is presented as a difficult character, someone whose arrogance and refusal to adapt and play the literary game has cost her greatly but McCarthy manages to bring so much humanity to the part. Even at times when Lee’s morale compass wavers, we still root for this woman, and whilst her actions can elicit frustration ultimately, we want her to find a better resolution as McCarthy creates a beautiful portrayal of a flawed creative character. She is aided and abetted by a fantastically on form performance by Richard E Grant as her partner in crime, Jack Hock, a dandy drug dealer with a taste for the finer things in life, but without the money to fund it. E Grant dials up the sly charm to 11 and delivers a stellar performance and the two lead actors form a delightful odd couple, clinging on to one another like two stalwarts in a world that no longer values their currency.

The wintery hues of 90s New York tinge the air with a sense of melancholy and sadness, where coming to terms with a life you had not planned become a harsh reality against an unforgiving city and evolving time. The sense of out with the old and in with the new has never been more prevalent as Lee’s penchant for old timers like Fanny Brice are no longer interesting in a world of Tom Clancy novels. But whilst the film has moments of failure, of darkness and of quiet devastation, time spent in the company of two ramshackle rogues is utterly charming and seeing two actors working in such brilliant unison is an absolute delight making this one of the years most unexpected gems.

4) Monos (Alejandro Landes)

Despite being set on earth, this year’s most otherworldly experience came from Alejandro Landes’ breathtakingly brutal Monos, a film which presents us with a society, filled with chaos and rituals, that is so far removed from our own existence it is hard to believe we cohabit on the same planet. Set in Latin America, the film focuses on a gang of young soldiers who are initially living on a remote mountaintop and who, save for the occasional visit from their leader and instructions via a radio, spend their time completing physical exercises and indulging in teenage hedonistic behaviour. Their unit are tasked with guarding an American hostage and to look after a cow which has been provided to give them milk. But the combination of reckless, self-possessed youth and semi-automatic weapons starts a chain of events which loosens their bond and when an ambush hits their isolated location they are forced into the jungle where the squadron disintegrates with dangerous consequences.

It is hard to quantify where Monos would sit within the genre pool, it is a film that peels at many layers (survivalist story, thriller, social commentary) and has some palpable comparisons (Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now) yet it is strikingly its own beast. To witness it, is to encounter a cinematic fever dream, where narrative ambiguity keeps the viewer in a heightened tense state and violent impulses threaten to erupt at every turn. It is a disorientating and consuming dive into the unknown where only a handful of references (some of the gang have pop culture names such as Rambo and Smurf) remind you that this is our shared world but not our same environment.

The films cinematographer Jasper Wolf captures the duality of the soldiers and of the land, where the beauty of nature meets the oppression of landscape. Stunning shots of clouds that engulf the hilltops of the teenager’s original outpost give the film an ethereal splendour, where the recruits are offered moments to bask in their semi freedom in a dreamlike wonder. In contrast, when they are thrust into the jungle, the stifling, humid conditions intensify the fractures of the group, dwindling supplies and fly infested digs eat away at their emotional stability as they struggle to recall who or what they are fighting. The film is also bolstered by an incredible, haunting score by Mica Levi which periodically pierces the narrative with unsettling soundscapes and restrained voids, at times the music builds, rolling from out of the clouds like a thunderous, impending feeling of dread. At other times, Levi knows that the smallest of sounds can still evoke discomfort and displacement, where a simple whistle upon the wind can echo and burrow into our subconscious.

Monos is an unforgettable experience, one that when the lights go up, it is hard to move from your seat as you try to remember your own surroundings and regain your semblance of normality. But as you process this, you are left with the frightening realisation that, whilst you return to your life, for some countries and for some children this is their own normality, that they do not know another world that exists beyond violence and war. It is easy for us to awake from the fever dream but this landscape of beauty and of terror is a waking nightmare for those that are born into something that they will never know any different.

3) The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Storming out of the blocks in January came Yorgos Lanthimos’ riotous period comedy/drama The Favourite which combined the director’s dark humour and eccentricities together with captivating performances from its three female leads. In early 18th century England a fragile and erratic Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) reigns on the throne, whilst her closest friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country and attends to Anne’s health and whims. When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives on the scene and begins to court favour with Anne herself, the two women become locked in a vicious power battle for the Queens affections. This set up allows Lanthimos to indulge in scenes of deliciously wicked behaviour and permeate the frame with wide angled cinematography which highlights the severe acts and attitudes of the characters. The result is a dizzying concoction of a warped history lesson with flashes of Blackadder, showing the physical harshness of this period and the ugliness of power behind the powdered wigs.

The film boasts an exceptional trifecta of performances from its leads with Stone using her big-eyed virtuousness to reveal something more calculating whilst Weisz adds layers to her Lady Sarah, using cunning moves but also revealing a genuine love for Anne. But the film in the end belongs to Olivia Colman who balances the tightrope of archaic comedic outbursts and sympathetic pathos. Her Queen Anne is in a state of emotional arrested development, a lifetime of stifled manipulation leaving her infantised and prone to fitful cries of anxiety and an inability to be happy. One scene where she watches Lady Sarah engaging in a dance with Baron Masham is a masterclass in acting, her smile slowing beginning to fade and a lifetime of sadness is etched across her face.

With The Favourite, Colman proved her leading lady status and became the nations acting royalty and Lanthimos proved again that he is a director whose every move leads to fascinating results and undisputedly exciting cinema.

Joint 1st) High Life (Claire Denis)

You know when you see a film at the cinema and you become completely immersed in that world, mesmerised by every scene and shot and leave feeling completely disorientated? That is the greatest feeling and this year one of the greatest creators was Claire Denis’ with her hypnotic and demanding High Life. Denis’ debut English language film paints giant brush strokes of life’s biggest themes, the notion of what it is to be human and whether we carry on when we are hurtling towards an inevitable end.

The film begins with Monty (Robert Pattinson) and an infant named Willow alone on a ship floating through space, devoid of any other signs of life and crew. As Monty goes through the motions of maintaining their existence, there is a cloak of impending death seeping through the lone corridors and dwindling functions of their spacecraft. This makes it even more unsettling to see a small child, in the beginning of its life inhabiting a world which appears to have no future.

As the film flashes back to show us how Monty and Willow became the only surviving members of the crew, we learn that this was a doomed exercise, destined to fail from the start. A mission to harvest energy from a black hole to bring back to earth, the journey itself would outlast the crew’s lifespan and therefore they were expected to procreate. At the hands of Juliette Binoche’s enigmatic but devious doctor Dibs the crew, made up of former death row inmates, are forced to breed another generation that would continue and complete the assignment. But fevered tensions and opposing characters creates a microcosm of sexual conflict and violence that tears the crew members apart. The realisation that they have escaped one life sentence for another encourages savagery and hostility in an environment that offers oppressive, sterile rooms and the only other option is the void of space.

Whilst the cast of societal misfits all play their part well and Binoche has an arresting sensual scene involving the ships ‘fuck box’, it is Pattison’s film and Pattinson’s face that you will remember. Proving again why he is one of cinema’s most interesting contemporary performers, the actor stalks the passages and rooms of the ship in an almost wordless performance. His restraint compared to his fellow shipmates/captives allows the camera to linger on his face and to provide the humanistic, tenderness in scenes with his daughter.

Denis’ film is full of startling, striking imagery, where a single glove can perform a zero-gravity sad ballet or bodies floating in outer space fall in a dreamlike state, like stars slowly plummeting into a black abyss. There is such a stark, astonishing visceral quality to scenes that once seen, you are unable to wipe away. The film’s aesthetic recalls 1970s sci-fi, the ship which carries the crew looks like a cube shaped trash compacter and shades of Silent Running pepper the garden scenes.

It is a bold and impressive move to reject the usual conformity of shiny and futuristic set design and echoes the films sensibilities that modern technology will not be our saviour. Things on earth do not fare any better, with flashbacks showing a landscape thick with sepia toned malaise, devoid of colour and kindness. It all enhances an aura bereft of hope, the film makes it clear that there will be no resolution either in space or on earth, that it has all gone to the dogs (quite literally in one unsettling scene).

High Life is challenging cinema at its finest- uncompromising, visionary, disturbing and astounding in equal measure. It is a film that gets under your skin, clings to your fibres and refuses to let go, gnawing at your thoughts for days and weeks and perhaps till the end of our own mortal lifespan.

Joint 1st) Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

I came to Little Women with fresh eyes, having never read Louise May Alcott’s book or having seen any of the previous adaptations, my only knowledge of it came courtesy of Joey in an episode of Friends. But even to the uninitiated, it is evident that Greta Gerwig’s revision is made with the upmost respect, love and adoration for Alcott’s apparent timeless text. It is a film so rich and warm that it is impossible not to get invested and intertwined in the lives of the March sisters and to relate to one (or perhaps each of them) in some way.

The film begins with Jo March (Saoirse Ronan reuniting with her Ladybird director) who is living in New York and trying to get her stories published, concealing the fact that she is the writer herself. As she struggles to juggle her artistic integrity against providing an income, we see the contrast in her sister Amy’s life. Amy (Florence Pugh) is accompanying their Aunt March (a formidable Meryl Streep) around Europe with the hopes of refining her painting but with the expected reality of marrying well in society, something that she is repeatedly reminded of by Aunt March in order to ‘save’ the family. Whilst the two sisters may appear different, they are both trapped within the confines of the time, where having aspirations of independence and making a living are obstructed by society’s positioning of women.

The film then takes us back to the March sisters’ childhoods and we are introduced to Meg who likes to act (Emma Watson) and Beth who adores playing piano (Eliza Scanlen), each sister showing an artistic streak which is lovingly encouraged by their kind hearted and generous Marmie (a luminous Laura Dern) despite the patriarchal climate and economical hardship they face in a post-Civil War America. The interplay between the four sisters is effortless and effervescent, they have a natural chemistry which radiates on the screen, whether this is huddled together in embrace as Marmie reads them a letter from their father who is away with the war or when they are bickering over sisterly quarrels.

Thrown into their lives is the literal (albeit wealthy) boy next door Laurie (played with foppish charm by the internet’s boyfriend Timothee Chalamet). Laurie becomes integral in the March sister’s teenage years and he falls in love with Jo, who only sees him as a partner in crime, rather than a partner whilst Amy secretly pines for him on the side-lines. As the narrative cuts between the present struggles of the March sisters, these scenes become even more precious and bittersweet, before the tragic fate of Beth begins to surface and before the feelings of playing second best to Jo reach a turning point for Amy.

Each member of the cast excels in their respective roles, but with more narrative space it naturally falls that Ronan and Pugh stand a little further out. Ronan as the free spirited and headstrong Jo shines with a restless energy that is both empowering and infectious, her resistance to simply become a wife is a rally cry for any female who has faced a conformity box within their lives. Dressed like a poet and always slightly bedraggled, she is a transcendent heroine both classically and contemporary. Pugh on the other hand has the harder task for the audience to like her as Amy, her dismay at being left behind whilst her sisters experience social activities without her leads to some hot-headed actions that will make her unpopular. But Pugh gives her the right amount of childlike naivety which then turns into steely poise, her admission that she lives in her sister’s shadow, does not excuse but does explain the motives behind her outbursts of bratty behaviour. When she is finally on the cusp of what she has always wanted, her first thought still is that of runner up prize to Jo.

Despite its period setting, Little Women feels modern and relevant, just because something has the detachment of time doesn’t mean that the struggles, hopes and dreams are so different from ours. And whilst we have come a long way in the prospects afforded to women these days, there is still a feeling that trying to produce a film that centres on women, with relatively ordinary loves and relatable narratives remains a hard slog in Hollywood. But thankfully Gerwig tried and succeeded, for she has created a beautiful film that is little in name but is big on heart and an absolute joy from start to finish. Also, unlike its name might suggest this is not just a film for women, it will appeal to all as it shows us the best of humanity, of how every life has value despite the smallness of it and how the small moments in life build to those that matter the most.

 

 

Films of the year- 2018

films 2018

Due to a current hectic life schedule and my writing for Film Inquiry, my blog has now become severely neglected and redundant however for my few readers who have asked (thank you and I love you), I will continue to do my films of the year.

As always there are some that I may have missed that could have made the cut (such as awards favourite Roma) but again hectic times in my household mean that, despite a healthy lot of cinema viewings, I haven’t always managed to see everything I wanted.

So here is my round up of what has grabbed my cinematic sensibilities this year

10) I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)

It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that the story of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding would make for an intriguing film but still I,Tonya was a bombshell blast, a spiky mockumentary biopic with knockout performances. Margot Robbie gives a gutsy uninhibited performance as Tonya Harding, the scrappy skater who worked her way from the wrong side of the redneck tracks to outperform her privileged competitors. But she was always considered the outsider, her homemade costumes and unorthodox style at odds with the stuffy snobbery of the elite skating world. So, when she became embroiled in a violent attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, the establishment, and more notably, the press found their villain and Harding’s career became a car crash, played out on the world’s stage.

Craig Gillespie’s film uses the chaotic events surrounding Tonya’s life and career to present wildly varying sides to the narrative from the key players involved and which creates a wildly entertaining film, as jagged and barbed as the ice and blades around it. Whist the stories may conflict and whilst the audience’s preconceptions of Harding may differ, the film makes it clear, that despite everything else she was a fighter, an underdog who was hit by life (and literally by most of her family). I Tonya dazzles with its intense skating sequences and eccentric characters, particularly Harding’s force of nature mother LaVona (played in towering fashion by Alison Janney) so when the fallout of the Kerrigan incident hits, it hits hard. Beyond the outrageously entertaining antics, we see the price that Harding paid for her role as skating’s bad-girl. In one scene Robbie sits waiting to perform on the ice rink, her face made up in cartoonish fashion, she alternates between grinning and grimacing as she realises her fate as the crowd’s court jester. Whatever your take on Harding before the film, by the end Robbie’s fearless performance will make you rethink it.

9) Hereditary (Ari Aster)

Whilst the UK was experiencing some of its hottest weather in years, Hereditary came along to chill us to the bone and take us to some very dark places. Toni Collette, who already has had a rough time cinematically in a variety of put upon roles, had her most brutal part to date as Annie, a woman trying to keep her family together after the death of her suspiciously secretive mother. To say she goes through the ringer is an understatement in a film so intrinsically unsettling, it clings to every fibre of your being, enveloping you in a wrath of dread and doesn’t let go, even after the credits have rolled. Owing a debt to Rosemary’s Baby is never a bad thing and Hereditary evokes the paranoia of the 60s classic with its suffocating, all-consuming nightmare, where the scares come from knowing everyone is out to get you and there is no escape, no matter what you do.

A uniformly excellent cast commit to their parts so well, particularly Collette whose face belies the gauntlet of terror she is faced with and Alex Wolff as her son Peter whose teenage façade quickly crumbles in the wake of impending and sustained panic, reducing him to a simpering child. It also features one of the year’s most shocking scenes, one that escalates quickly to a moment that you can’t quite believe just happened. With Hereditary horror continues its ascent to be regarded again as a genre with merit, way past just cheap frills and easy frights, to grip hold of an audience with a disturbing presence. Long may its comeback continue I say, though I am not sure my nerves agree.

8) Mission Impossible- Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)

I have said it before and I will say it again, no one gives you more bang for your buck than Tom Cruise, he is your bone fide movie star and the Buster Keaton of blockbusters. But even he outdid himself with the latest instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise, which was this year’s stellar standout actioner. It deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible to witness the multitude of set pieces and stunts that Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie had the balls to think of and then actually execute. From a car chase through the streets of Paris, to rooftop pursuits and culminating in a helicopter chase that has a literal heart in the mouth moment, you can feel every crunch and crack as Cruise pushes the limits of what is possible in terms of practical stunts.

But this is not all just flash and showiness, there is an intelligent script with narrative twists and turns and the interplay between the actors shows the emotional depth that these characters have been drawn into as each Mission progresses. Mission Impossible Fallout succeeds in both feeling slightly retro with its cinematic sensibilities but also thoroughly modern with its approach, where grown up clever action films are perilously in short supply, it is a welcome franchise that has produced one of its best films so far down the line. The only impossible part may be topping Fallout and if they do, I am not sure the audience’s anxiety levels can take it.

7) You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited return to cinema after her gut punching adaptation of We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) is an equally dark and nightmarish tale, with echoes of Taxi Driver but also with a murky beat of its own. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a war veteran who is sleepwalking through a life of pain and violence and who is now a gun for hire, retrieving missing children for those that will pay for his brutal services. When he is hired to find the daughter of a senator, it draws Joe into a sinister world which will have repercussions to his own sparse but personal life.

Make no mistake that this is feel-bad cinema at its best, with Ramsay creating a series of disturbing and cruel scenes that build upon a world filled with dread and despair. The narrative may sound like something for a Liam Neeson actioner, but this is not a redemptive revenge tale where everything will be made right in the end. Phoenix’s Joe is a man that feels like he is already dead and is just living in his own tortured purgatory, he is a physically and emotionally bruised shadow that walks the earth. The only warmth in his life is with his mother, a scene where they sing to each other whilst polishing cutlery is tender and becomes even more devastating after the reverberations of Joe’s course of action. The film is set to a pulsating score by Jonny Greenwood that clings to the sides of the frame, heightening the jet- black menace that is found around every corner. You Were Never Really Here is not an easy watch but it is a fascinating piece of work by Ramsay, a strangely hypnotic experience where you may want to turn away but can’t bring yourself to.

6) Widows (Steve McQueen)

Following his Oscar winning epic 12 Years a Slave (2013) with a film based on an 80s Lynda La Plante miniseries seemed like a very odd choice for director Steve McQueen. But it’s a left turn idea that paid rich rewards, creating a barnstorming crime thriller with strong performances across the board. Whilst the idea of a heist job being pulled off by an all- female crew must have been progressive in the 1980s, there is still a sense that we are watching something new, fresh and crucially exciting. Lead by a commanding Viola Davis, each member of the team is allowed time to flesh out their interesting characters and motives for taking part in a job that they are not ready for. With a screenplay by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, the interplay between the women, at first cagey and cautious and then finding some form of bond in their enforced situation, means the audience care and invest in their lives.

Whilst the female characters rightly dominate the screen, there is strong support from the all the rest of the cast, Colin Farrell encompasses both charm and callousness in equal spades as a morally corrupt politician. Daniel Kaluuya meanwhile is terrifying as the brother and henchman to Brian Tyree Henry’s criminal turned politician, his pursuit of Davis and co is nail biting stuff and every time he is on screen, there is an air of unpredictably akin to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. McQueen relocates the action from London to Chicago, which allows for some social commentary to flow into the narrative, the divides of the haves and the have nots clear to see on the streets of the city, where the wealthy continue to line their pockets while others struggle to keep afloat. The director also shows he is as equally adept at dealing with action sequences as well as dramatic arches with an opening scene that skilfully combines both, throwing us headlong into this world without a moments pause. Despite a long running time, the film flies along without a single frame wasted, each one building and escalating the stakes higher to a tense finale which still combines depth and emotion amongst its chaos. Where McQueen goes next from here may be anyone’s guess but after nailing another genre, it will be a tense and anticipated wait.

5) Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

Storming out of the blocks to herald the start of a new year came Martin McDonagh’s blistering, bruising and blackly funny Three Billboards. We already knew that Frances McDormand was a fearless actress but even she outdid herself with her towering performance as … a mother taking the law into her own hands after her daughter’s murder continues to go unsolved. It is a sucker punch of a role, a melting pot of rage and grief, raw and rousing and it felt like a call to arms right at the height of the Me Too movement, proving that women can command the screen with the fire and fury that is usually only reserved for men.

McDormand dominates the screen yet also allows her co-stars their moment to shine, particularly Sam Rockwell, who confirms what many of us have known for a long time, that he is Hollywood’s unsung MVP. Three Billboards wasn’t for everyone though, some were uneasy with the brash brushstrokes it created, and its award sweeping run up to the Oscars was dashed on the big night by Del Toro. But for those who got McDonagh’s groove, there was much to admire, his ability to turn the narrative from fist pumping vigilante antics to the silent ache of a mourning mother is a masterclass in modern storytelling.

4) A Quiet Place (John Kransinski)

In a world where information about a film is accessible to our searching fingertips and when the hype machine builds up a release, months before it lands on the screen, one of cinema’s greatest remaining pleasures is the sleeper hit. A film that seemingly comes from nowhere without any burden of sequel, reboot or remake and that captures the imagination of an audience ready for something that feels fresh and new. This year that accolade went to John Krasinski’s barnstorming thriller A Quiet Place which gave its viewers a silent, nail biting, nerve shredding experience and also took cinema screens back to their intended state- noiseless and free of phone screens as all were engrossed in it’s almost wordless narrative. In a post-apocalyptic world, survivors must remain silent  to avoid attracting the attention of giant predators that, whilst blind, have advanced hearing and will attack at the slightest sound. We follow a family, Lee (Kransinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their two children who live in a countryside house, adapted and kitted out to withstand a world that must be quiet at all times. They have managed to create a survivalist form of living, but they will soon be confronted with a new challenge as Evelyn is about to have a baby where she must remain silent during childbirth and where they must find a way to keep their new-born hushed.

A Quiet Place delivers an almost unbearably tense cinematic ride, with Kransinski showing he can direct taut set pieces that would make Spielberg proud and reduce cinemagoers to anxiety ridden messes by the end of its running time. But amidst the silent chills, the film also raises questions about our humanity and what life we would have to live if we were denied a fundamental part of our existence, our ability to express emotions through sound. And at its very core, it is a film of hope and love, with one particular scene showing the heart-breaking paternal instinct that a parent will provide no matter what.

3) Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)

Debra Granik’s second and most prominent feature Winter’s Bone (2010) dealt with characters leaving on the fringes of society, cut off from the wider world and who create their own microcosm of rules and ways of life. Her new film Leave No Trace shares its DNA with its central narrative about an army veteran Will (Ben Foster) suffering from PTSD who lives in the vast forests of a national park in Portland Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). However, their self-contained world is shattered by a small mistake and they are thrown into the guidance of social services and a reintroduction to society that Will is unable to adjust to but where Tom begins to discover the pieces of life that she wants.

Leave No Trace is a film of beautifully judged and subtle moments, there is no overdramatic teenage acts from Tom as she begins to pull away from the world that her father had created for them. Instead it’s a culmination of tender moments that embed like whispers on the wind, making you want Tom to have those that she cannot and quietly devastated when she is pulled away from another chance of home. But the film doesn’t paint Will as the monster, his reasons for his way of life are valid and his love for his daughter unwavering, both Foster and McKenzie portray their parts magnificently so you are on both sides of the coin, able to see each other’s actions and motives. So much so that the final scene between father and daughter is all the more heart-breaking, the pull for both of them to another way of life will the catalyst to break their unified bond. Ironically for a film titled Leave No Trace, it is a film that will linger in your thoughts long after, its trail of human emotion leaving a footprint in your memory.

2) Ladybird (Greta Gerwig)

There have been many coming of age films but none that have struck a chord with me as much as Greta Gerwig’s fabulously observed Ladybird. Set in Sacramento in 2002, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine but who insists to be called by her given name Ladybird (when questioned by a teacher she declares ‘It was given to me, by me’). She clashes with her mother Marion (a stellar Laurie Metcalf), particularly on her desire to go to college in New York to experience culture, her lofty ambitions are in opposition to the family’s ability to pay the tuition fees. Ronan is superb as the self-assured teen, even in her brattier moments of behaviour, she still manages to charm with her unwavering conviction that usually eludes many awkward adolescents.

Indie darling Gerwig directs with confidence and a keen eye for all the small details that makes the film soar with heart and spirit, period touches feel authentic and every character has the chance to shine. Whilst the narrative deals with the familiar coming of age milestones- prom night, losing virginity, fallouts with best friends, it also puts as much emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship and this is where its depth and painful familiarity emerges. In one scene, as they shop for prom dresses, Ladybird asks her mother if she likes her, her mother is quick to reply with ‘of course I love you’. But Ladybird presses the matter and replies ‘But do you like me?’ The air hangs with uncertainty and the realisation that, whilst the love between parent and child is undeniable, our attitude as teenagers often puts a strain on our parent’s ability to connect and actually like us at certain times. It is a bitter pill to swallow and holds a mirror up to how we acted in our teens, I myself squirmed recalling past encounters with my parents when I was loaded with a youthful know it all arrogance and I felt the strong urge to hug my mum after watching the film. Gerwig has created a modern classic in the underrepresented female adolescence pantheon, one that feels deeply personal but also will feel entirely relatable for many. It is a funny but bittersweet memory to a time filled with joy and anticipation of what life holds ahead but also to the reality that is waiting to clip our wings before we have even taken flight.

1) American Animals (Bart Layton)

Bart Layton followed up his blistering documentary The Imposter (2012) with another film based on true events but whose lines became significantly blurred between fact and fiction. American Animals tells the true crime story of four college students in Kentucky, who in 2003, boldly and foolishly attempted one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Layton combines both factual reconstruction and documentary style with the action cutting to interviews with the real people involved, which adds depth and differing versions to the unfolding drama. The effect is a fascinating portrait of a bunch of kids who became bewitched by an idea, without thinking of the consequences and it is also a riveting heist movie whose players are themselves influenced by iconic crime films. In one scene the gang wade through a ton of DVDs including Rififi and Reservoir Dogs, seduced by their air of coolness but oblivious to how these tales actually end, a precursor to how ill-conceived their plan actually is.

The actors playing the real-life students all bring a different energy and conflicting stances to the heist, Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters particularly excel as the two main protagonists Spencer Rheinhard and Warren Lipka. Keoghan waves the line between a cautious unease and an entranced abandonment, all etched on his intriguing face, his need for something to bring greater richness to his art leading him away from his intended, resolute path. Peters meanwhile gets the showier role as the erratic and unpredictable Lipka, his misplaced confidence and maddening behaviour is somehow transfixing in Peters hands, the actor’s hypnotic swagger recalling a young Malcolm McDowell. Layton’s direction flits between playful homages (the boys imagine their intended heist to resemble a cheeky Oceans 11 slick operation) and authentic realisation, with the actual plan turning into a confused, frantic mess, the arrogance of youth held up directly on scene. But for all its slicks and tricks, American Animals never feels gimmicky or exploitative, instead it is a fascinating portrait, brilliantly constructed look at how a hair brained scheme promises, but ultimately fails to lead your life to a better outcome.

 

 

 

Review- The Shape Of Water (directed by Guillermo Del Toro)

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Guillermo Del Toro’s career has been one of flights of fancy, a director with big ideas and big imagination. He has been heralded with acclaim for past fantasies The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pans Labyrinth (2006) but he has also missed the mark for many with the big budget bombastic Pacific Rim (2013). And whilst his last film Crimson Peak (2015) was a deliciously dark gothic tale, it failed to find an audience for Del Toro. However his latest film arrives on the back of winning the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and a haul of 13 Oscar nominations, signalling a return to form and one that encapsulates many Guillermo hallmarks.

The Shape of Water is brimming with his love for fantasy and for cinema itself; it is the stuff of B-Movie horror but wrapped up in the styling of a classic Hollywood melodrama, offering both the beauty and the brutality that often inhabit the same space. The film begins in the 1960s with a look into the sweet but simple life of our heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose days are filled with practicality but also a sense of wistful imagination, alluding to the loneliness she feels. Elisa works as a cleaner in a government laboratory, a routine that allows her to go almost unnoticed until one day she comes across the scientists latest and most dangerous discovery- an amphibious but human alike creature (played by long time Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones). Elisa begins to bond with the creature; their mutual inability to communicate through spoken language allows them to connect through music, eggs and their own sign language and which makes their resulting against all odds romance, wholly believable. However the political climate means there is Cold War era paranoia afoot with the soviets trying to acquire the ‘asset’.

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And there is a menacing government agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) who appears to have a personal vendetta against the creature and wants it to be destroyed, thinly veiled in the name of science. So it falls to Elisa to hatch a plan to rescue the creature from a terrible fate and find a way to keep their burgeoning relationship afloat.

The marvel of The Shape of Water is how it takes a supremely odd premise, one that shouldn’t work yet weaves it into a fantastical and credible love story, one that feels like a fairytale that has been told through the ages. It plays to Del Toro’s strengths as a director, he simply does not paint pictures but he creates worlds, ones that promise to show us the mythical but also pull us back to harsh sadistic realities. Whilst the film is full of enchanting imagery, of old movie theatres, overflowing baths, stolen moments and dream sequences, it also takes us to the dark side, mostly through Shannon’s evil agent. He may be dressed in a suit but Strickland is the real monster of the film and creates flashes of violence that permeate the narrative, a tool often deployed in the Del Toro cannon. Michael Shannon uses his bug eyed intensity to create a true villain of the piece, you can almost hear the audience want to hiss (and cower) whenever he is on screen.  The rest of the cast sell the oddball premise with class and conviction, each supporting member brings something to the table. Elisa’s loyal best friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) both carry the character arch of being on the fringes of society in the 60s but both are fully realised characters, rather than just serving the purpose of affirming their alignment to Elisa. Michael Stuhlbarg meanwhile is the wavering compass of the film, his (secret soviet) scientist wrestles with his conscious of doing his duty for his country and finding compassion for the creature he is to steal.

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But at the heart of it all is Sally Hawkins, a woman who often seems fragile and used to being put upon but who transcends her exterior with a steely determination, she is a woman who may appear delicate but who has desire in her heart, sexually and emotionally. Hawkins carries the film with her expressionistic face and her unearthed strength for that what was missing from her life and for what will now make her feel whole. It is a slight shame then that the end of the film seems somewhat rushed, when it’s allowed to breath in so many other areas that our love story’s conclusion is given short shrift but this is a minor damp squib when we have already been delivered so many riches.

Whether Del Toro’s big bold fantasy will make waves at the upcoming Oscars remains to be seen and its unique cinematic vision may be too diverse for some audiences but then the director has always marched to the beat of his own screen drum. It is a delight to see such a piece of work that is clearly a passion project, one that has not been compromised by the powers of the studio. It is also a timely fable for our troubled times, a reminder of those living on the outside, whose voice is often not heard, of those wanting to rise above what is unsaid and to break above what is seen on the surface.

Review- Films of the Year

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I love film, I really do. But like most things you love in your life, sometimes those you take for granted become neglected, you depend on them being there so you try a little less and with the pressures of modern life, they can fall to the backburner. So this year I thought the unthinkable for me, I was not going to do a review of my favourite films of the year, my poor blog has seen less writing over the last 12 months than ever before and my passion for film has taken a battering, I began to feel like Llewyn Davies where the universe is trying to get him to give up the one thing he loves. Sometimes it is easier to try and ignore the thing you are most passionate about because acknowledging it brings pain when you are not able to do it more. But then one night over dinner with one of my dear friends, she asked me when I would be doing my review of the year, I was taken aback, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t think anybody really read this (I’m not trying for a sympathy vote here) and that it was just one more end of year list to be glanced and forgotten. I told her I wasn’t sure I would write one this year but when she said that she used my review as a tool to choose what films she would then watch.  I was, to say the least, touched and a little teary (I had a cocktail with dinner so I blame that) and I thought, if just one person reads my review, and that may well be true, and then gone out and discovered films to watch as a result then I had done my job.  So Helen this is for you and in a way for me, as even though I may not be doing the thing I love most in the world all of the time, I should still give it the love and attention that it warrants. It may just be a list of the year’s best films but to me, what it represents, means so much more, it signifies the times this year that I have been able to spend time with one of the greatest loves of my life, the cinema and that is something I should not take for granted.

15) Logan Lucky (directed by Steven Sodenbergh)

Steven Sodenbergh continues to have the best post retirement career of a director, who really never retired in the first place, with his hillbilly heist Logan Lucky. Somewhat overlooked at the box office , there is much to enjoy in this assemble piece that deserves another reprieve. Blue collar worker Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is laid off from his construction job due to an existing condition so he devises a plan to pull a job during the NASCAR Coca Cola 600 race. Enlisting his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) who lost an arm in Iraq and his straight talking sister (Riley Keough) they set out on a job that is not fuelled by greed but by necessity, Jimmy merely wants to provide for his daughter and he represents the fatalities that have befallen many workers in the current American economic climate. Sodenbergh peppers his film with nods to this changing landscape, where jobs are scarce and the divide between the have and have nots grows wider everyday but he also injects verve and his trademark crime caper pizazz so the proceedings are not weighed down. Riffing on his previous films, a clever in joke describes the resulting heist as Oceans 7/11, Logan Lucky has some familiar beats but also a great sleight of hand pay off, aided and abetted by a uniformly excellent cast. But the films real ace in the hole comes in the form of a certain James Bond, the magnificently monikered Joe Bang, a bombs disposal expert played by with giddy aplomb and bleach blonde hair by Daniel Craig. Though he is incarcerated in the film, Craig seems to be relishing the opportunity to shake off the shackles of 007 and has the time of his life playing the egg loving mischievous inmate, giving us a reminder of what a great character actor he can be and he alone, is enough reason to give this shaggy heist story a spin.

14) Thor Ragnarok (directed by Taika Waititi)

Taika Waititi has said that nobody leaves the cinema with a smile on their face anymore and so it appears that he is on a crusade to bring back the fun and cheekiness to multiplexes, for which he has succeeded with his previous films What we do in the Shadows and last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And now he brings his unique blend of Kiwi quirk and abundant humour to the superhero world, managing to have his cake and eat it by delivering a stonking blockbuster Marvel movie but one that is overflowing with charm and oddball goofiness. Chris Hemsworth gets not only to flex his muscles but also his comedic chops in the most bonkers outing for an Avenger yet. Struck out of Asgard by his long lost evil sister Hela (a minxy Cate Blanchett), Thor must first escape the day glo planet of Sakaar where he is forced into gladiatorial combat with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and then assemble a rag tag crew to get back to his homeland and save his people. This plotline allows Thor and the Hulk to play out an off kilter buddy movie, with Hemsworth and Ruffalo bouncing off each other in a way that is so fun, you wish for a spin-off of just these characters. They are also aided by the feisty but boozy badass Valkyrie (a fabulous Tessa Thompson) and estranged brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston ramping up the devilish side that must is so fun to play). Jeff Goldblum meanwhile camps it up as The Grandmaster of Sakaar in a role never more suited to his acting style and Waititi himself steals every scene he is in as the talking rock Korg whose revolution failed due to a lack of pamphlets. The film is awash with retro/future design that recalls the style of Flash Gordon and whizzes of electro beats which all enhance the playful edge that the franchise has so welcomingly taken. Quite simply just about the most fun you can have at the cinema this year.

13) Good Time (directed by the Safdie Brothers)

A film that pulsates like a beating heart, the Safdie brother’s crime caper grabs you from the outset and doesn’t let go through its frenetic, exhilarating running time. After a bumbled bank robbery lands his mentally ill brother in prison, Connie (Robert Pattinson) spends a frantic night trying to free him before he is sent to Riker’s Island. Using every ounce of hustle and quick wits that seep from every fibre of his being, Connie lunges from each new desperate scenario with breakneck gusto which leads to dangerous consequences. Throbbing with an intense electro soundtrack, the film pounds with a forceful nature, the high stakes of each decision leaving the viewer on tenterhooks and causing repercussions for everyone Connie scams or crosses paths with. The camera veers through the long long night with off the cuff verve; at times shot with obtuse close ups, documentary style vigour and a delinquent aesthetic. Scenes are saturated in neon hues and the streets become an additional character, vibrant, unrelenting and in a constant state of motion. Pattison, who surely has shaken off the teen heartthrob moniker and is now just seen as the great character actor he is, turns in another stellar performance as Connie, he is impulsive, often repulsive but never anything but mesmerising. As he fires from each hairbrained plan to the next, often with surprising dark humour, his motives for his brother’s safety and release keep the viewer as the passenger on his crazy delirious journey. The Safdie Brothers have created one hell of a calling card to Hollywood, evoking the 70s new wave and New York crime dramas but also feeling vibrantly fresh, one that is impossible not to get carried along by.

12) Logan (directed by James Mangold)

There was a worry at one point that Logan the film would not live up to Logan the trailer, such was the goose bump inducing trailer with its haunting use of Johnny Cash’s afflicted cover of Hurt. But the trailer merely paved the way for James Mangold’s meditation on the superhero movie, enhancing its sense of melancholy. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, particularly classic western Shane, which is referenced by Charles Xavier in one scene and thematically it feels akin to the John Ford era as Hugh Jackman’s Logan is living a self exiled life in Mexico. But what looms largest over the film is the burden of time, even more threatening than the government stooges that infiltrate Logan’s safe haven and this is what sets it apart from the comic book stylistics of the previous X-Men outings. This is the first time we see superheroes age, we see Logan’s body ravaged and unable to heal itself as quickly and we see Xavier, now frail and wheelchair bound, riddled with medication to keep his mind afloat and to keep his powers in order. They are relics of a past time, a stark realisation that the world will not always be saved. There is still action to this story however and the arrival of a new mutant, a young girl and the first in decades, gives Logan the vigour to have one final show down to lead her to safety and gives Mangold the chance to inject some ferocious violence to the scenes. In fact it was at the insistence of Jackman that the film was more adult and brutal than the studio would usually allow and he offered to lower his actor’s fee to secure that the film was made how they wanted it to. It was a gamble that paid off, a fitting and realistic farewell to Jackman’s biggest character and it is all the better, and sadder, for it.

11) The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)

Sofia Coppola returned triumphantly to the screen off the back of her best director win at Cannes with a Southern pot boiling melodrama. As the Civil war rages on, a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) is found in the grounds of a ladies’ seminary and is taken into their refuge to be nursed back to health. But at what first seems like paradise to Corporal McBurney, being cared for and fawned over by beautiful young women, his presence begins to stir dangerous rivalries and set a course of irrevocable consequences. Coppola has always been a director who creates mood and The Beguiled is no different, shooting on film and using her trademark dreamy cinematography, the seeping of gauzy light filters into their world of starch upper collars and southern belle decorum. The air is thick with repressed desire, a clinging heat that threatens to engulf and destroy the microcosm that the ladies have built in their isolation from the outside world, evoking shades of Black Narcissus whose remotely stationed nuns begin to question their vows of celibacy upon the arrival of a government worker. The cast embody their characters beautifully with Nicole Kidman sharing the screen again with Farrell this year to great effect, this time as the headmistress of the girls whilst Kirsten Dunst is the heart and heartbroken of the film whose prim teacher is tempted by the promise to escape with McBurney. Though the film’s best moments occur when the ensemble comes together, the interaction used through subtle airs and graces and telling glances speaks volumes of their internal cravings. A candlelight dinner scene in particular, where the girls fawn over McBurney and try to outdo each over an apple pie is a master class in thinly concealed jealousy and proves that Coppola has lost none of her bite and sly humour and whose cinematic output is always welcome at the table.

10) God’s Own Country (directed by Francis Lee)

Dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain’ upon its release, director Francis Lee’s debut film carves its own path of poetic subtlety and yearning heartache. Young farmer Johnny is stuck in both his daily grind of life and a succession of meaningless hook ups with local lads in the village (where a night out in Bradford is seen as glamorous). When Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe comes to help on the farm, Johnny’s world is turned upside down and awakes a longing for change in his life that refuses to be neglected anymore. There is a real sense of beauty to Gods Own Country, where the smallest acts (Gheorghe offering his gloves to Johnny atop the cold landscape, keeping a newborn lamb warm during the harsh conditions) reveal the heart and fragility of life. Newcomers John O’ Connor and Alec Secareanu both impress, with O’Connor’s Johnny starting as an insular young man unable to convey emotion and go beyond the motions of his stilted life. His transformation when Gheorghe pierces his dispirited bubble is agonisingly nuanced, his hesitance to let his barriers fully down leads to a heart stopping showdown, where Johnny’s inability to convey his heart’s desire may lose him the one thing he truly wants. Alec Secareanu meanwhile creates captivating warmth as Gheorghe and a relationship to truly root for. They say that it’s grim up north but Lee brings lyricism and grace to his surroundings and tenderness to a way of life that is often unforgiving and stuck in the past. But ultimately his greatest strength is creating an understated majesty to two men traversing the rugged terrain of love.

9) Star Wars- The Last Jedi (directed by Rian Johnson)

They say that some of the best films are those that divide us and this certainly seems to be true of Rian Johnson’s instalment into the Star Wars saga, with critics hailing it one of the best additions to the sci fi universe but many fans up in arms with the direction it has taken. Whilst Abrams produced a crowd pleasing greatest hits with The Force Awakens, Johnson goes down the Empire Strikes Back route with something darker and more fractured. This allows one of the films greatest strengths to come to the forefront with the inner (and outer) turmoil of Kylo Ren as he battles between power of the First Order and the redemption of the resistance and showcases Adam Driver’s complex and riveting portrayal of an intriguingly flawed character. There is also the conflict of Daisy Ridley’s Rey who is struggling to find her place and how to control the force that has awakened in her, with a reluctant to say the least teacher in Hamill’s jaded Skywalker. But it’s not all doom and gloom in the galaxy and Johnson injects some wit, furry delights (hello Porgs!) and verve into the proceedings, allowing more screen time for the charismatic Oscar Isaac and the welcome addition of spunky new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). He also allows time to tug at the nostalgic heartstrings with the return of a certain green wise one, thankfully in his original guise and not a soulless CGI incarnation and a scene between Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher takes on a deeper poignancy. The Last Jedi manages to seep the old into something new, with bold strokes and battle scenes that take on an operatic ambience, with striking hues of red and white. It takes the saga into unchartered territories, one that may struggle where to go next but will be all the more exciting for it.

8) Call me by your name (directed by Luca Guadagnino)

Director Luca Guadagnino made an even bigger splash with his third film in his ‘desire’ trilogy which left critics in raptures and ending up on the top of many best of year poll lists and it is easy to see why. The film casts a seductive spell and plays out like the best summer you never had, in the landscape of 1980s Italy with a coming of age and coming of passion drama. 17 year old American-Italian Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends his days rather precociously in and around his parent’s villa, reading, transcribing music and hanging out with the local kids. But the arrival of American intern Oliver (Armie Hammer) who has come to Italy to assist his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) Elio’s charmed life suddenly is awakened with a desire which will change him forever. A film that is a feast for the senses, Call me by your name is draped in visual splendour and a burgeoning palatable sensuality that by the time Elio and Oliver kiss you are almost left breathless with anticipation. Filled with tender moments, where the slightest touch sends ripples that will last a lifetime in their hearts, it is anchored by tremendous performances from Chalamet and Hammer who convince in their passion and break your heart with their wordless final embrace. Though the pair keep their romance a secret, it is not perceived because of a fear of Elio’s parents reaction, in fact in the film’s most affecting scene Elio’s father shares a moment with his son full of compassion and understanding. He tells Elio that he envies him and that he should find pleasure in the grief as the love between him and Oliver is something so rare. Stuhlbarg’s delivery is so delicately beautiful but carries a weight and wisdom of words that many would have longed to hear from their own father. It also sets up the final scene of the film to be loaded with bittersweet heartbreak; a lingering shot of Elio’s face signifies the end of a beautiful summer and the enormity of the emotions that have spoken their name.

7) Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins)

With Moonlight director Barry Jenkins delivered something truly special and genre defying, a film of immediate relevance but also of startling beauty. Its chronicle of a young black man growing up in Miami details three defining periods in his life(know through the chapters as ‘Little’ ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’) and is portrayed by a trio of outstanding actors who all bring verve and soul to their depictions. The film traverses the myriad representations from a scrawny bullied boy to imbalanced teen to a bulked, gold grilled man but all carry the same desire that goes unspoken. What is remarkable about Jenkins’ film is how he swerves the traditional method that may be used to present a narrative whose nature is rooted in poverty, drugs and gritty streets and instead of using a gritty realism, he saturates his film in sheens of colour and dreamlike elegance. Hues of blue bath the screen, enhancing the recurrent theme of water that peppers the chapters; it represents the constant flow of this boy’s life, how his soul is swept through the ever changing waves and how his sexuality is simmering on the surface. Alongside the stunning cinematography, the use of music elevates Moonlight favouring an operatic score, filled with yearning strings and afflicted piano that transcend its setting. Scenes of Little being abandoned by his crack riddled mother (a blistering Naomie Harris) to Chiron erupting to his high school tormentor take on a higher plain by its crescendo of sound and stirring visual palette and the film builds to an aching symphony of love and longing. Moonlight may be remembered by those who have not seen it for its blundered Oscar glory however its legacy is there to behold and to admire, within its resplendent frames.

6) The Killing of a Sacred Deer (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

Cinema’s leading purveyor of feel bad cinema Yorgos Lanthimos returned with his second English Language film and reteamed with his Lobster star Colin Farrell for a deeply disturbing morality tale. Farrell plays Dr Steven Murphy, a cardiovascular surgeon who conducts an ill advised relationship with a young boy named Martin (an eerily good Barry Keoghan), the son of one of his former patients. As Martin’s behaviour becomes increasingly sinister, Steven’s idyllic life is shattered beyond recognition and he has to make an unspeakable sacrifice. Lanthimos’ previous films appear to live in their own universe and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is no different, he has created his own genre where rules and logic barely register and are inconsequential. He also creates a dialogue that is jarring and whose matter of fact nature brings a sense of comicalness to the proceedings, to break up the engulfing bleakness. And boy is it bleak with the film posing an abhorrent situation that has no other outcome than utter destruction; its journey to its shocking climax carries an almost unbearable sense of dread, heightened by its obtrusive and imposing score. Lanthimos’ cast sell the premise with conviction, something that may crumble in lesser hands with Farrell continuing his career reinvigoration, Nicole Kidman bringing an icy determination and Keoghan is the revelation, his previous incarnation as the sweet boy in Dunkirk is obliterated with his menacing compelling turn. The film asks many questions, notably where will Lanthimos go next and how much more can he put his audience through? Whatever it may be, there are many film lovers, myself included, who are ready to take that voyage, no matter how dark and twisted the path may be.

5) The Handmaiden (directed by Park Chan Wook)

Park Chan Wook delivers a tantalising adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel The Fingersmith transporting the Victorian setting to 1930s Korea with the tale of a con man and pickpocket who embark on an elaborate plot to seduce and dupe a countess out of her inheritance. But things are not as they seem and the film becomes a serpentine puzzle of who is conning who. By retelling the same events of the narrative but from different angles, it creates a devilishly tricksy journey for the audience , keeping us on our delighted toes. As you can expect from the director of Oldboy, Chan Wook’s proclivities for exposing peoples twisted persuasions continues as he weaves in a disturbing subplot of fetish book reading and tentacle keeping and involves one of cinema’s creepiest uncles. The film itself is a stunning visual feast for the eyes, where every frame is brimming with intrigue and dripping in seduction with captivating performances by its two leading ladies Kim Min-hee (whose face I found mesmerising) and Kim Tae-ri. They run the gauntlet of emotions- victim, predator, innocent, conniving, duplicitous yet romantic and it is impossible to take your eyes off them. One scene in particular involving a tooth and a thimble becomes so loaded with sexual tension that it is almost too much to take. It also sums up the feeling of watching The Handmaiden, it is a heightened giddy rush, best consumed in the all the glory of the director’s cut, to bask in its sumptuous erotic melodrama and be consumed by its wicked wicked charm.

4) Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)

A massive hit for Blumhouse (alongside M Night’s triumphant return Split) and something of a horror phenomenon, director Jordan Peele made audiences turn out in their droves and squirm in more ways than one by delivering one of the year’s most talked about and most critically acclaimed. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young black man getting ready to meet his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents for the first time, whilst we hear the sound of Childish Gambino’s lyrics ‘stay woke’ in the background, a subtle warning to what lies ahead. Her parents seem pleasant enough, though they are somewhat overly keen to present themselves as progressive and open, awkwardly throwing in their support of Obama in clanging fashion. But alarm bells start to ring, the air is filled with a tense unease, the black employees of the house carry feigned upbeat expressions and Rose’s mother is quick to jump on the opportunity to hypnotise Chris. As the real intentions of the family weekend transpire, Peele exposes horror not just in the actions, but in the attitudes of white liberal America, something that is never more timely and present in the times of Trump et al, exposing the uncomfortable undercurrent that lies behind the white picket fences and freshly cut lawns. But what makes the film so outstanding is that it stakes its social commentary into a wildly entertaining film, full of tension, scares and with its ‘sunken place’ creates a terrifying evil, worse than any recent monster or serial killer. The film also carries some well timed humour, Peele drawing on his comedic background to counterbalance the mounting dread that builds with every scene. Get Out never forgets to satisfy the audience with a thrilling cinematic ride, you may just get a little more woke by the end of the journey.

3) La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle)

And so as the Hollywood dust has settled we can look back at cinema’s tempestuous love affair with La La Land. It burst onto the screen in January to beat away the winter blues and won over audiences with its golden age nostalgia and snappy tunes. But it faced an inevitable backlash, becoming the easy target for critic bashing and its time at the Oscars was marred by that infamous presenting cock up. Upon revisiting the film, La La Land still holds up to the test, its Technicolor pizzazz lights up the screen in a wash of delightful dance numbers and spirited singing. Ryan Gosling infuses his struggling jazz pianist with the right levels of charm and cynicism whilst Emma Stone nabbed her way to Oscar glory with her portrayal of an aspiring actress, still in love with idea of Hollywood but brow beaten by a string of failed audiences. Their romance plays out amidst the city of stars but the bittersweet reality of following your heart means theirs may break in the process and the smitten audience have to swallow a melancholy pill. La La Land is a true delight for movie lovers, old and new, yeah the haters are gonna hate but here’s to the ones who dream.

2) The Florida Project (directed by Sean Baker)

Piercing through the winter winds and transporting us to a sun soaked backdrop was director Sean Baker’s second feature, this time swapping Tangerines for the oranges of Florida. Though this was no holiday destination and instead showed us the lives of the inhabitants of a purple hazed motel, living in the shadows of the commercial utopia of Disneyland. The film focuses on six year old Moonee and her spirited mother Halley as they live by the skin of their teeth each week, just managing to scrap together rent money to stay in the motel. Moonee’s days are filled with joy and adventures as she creates mischief with her friends in a fantasy filled world, the motel’s names of Magic Castle and Futureland and the vivid colours of the surrounding buildings enhancing the childlike microcosm. But as Moonee plays within this absorbing universe, Halley struggles to keep her daughters fantasy from crushing down around them and the reality of their situation threatens their insulted existence. Sharing a slither of DNA with Andrea Arnold’s American Honey where those living on America’s poverty line cultivate their own world out of the world that doesn’t want them, The Florida Project manages to find heart and verve out of this desperate situation. The film is brimming with vibrancy and feels alive and in a constant state of motion, the innocence of childhood is infectious, reminding us of a time when life was one big playground and wonder could be found in the simplest of pursuits. Newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince play mother and daughter with natural ease and bucket loads of naturalistic charm whilst cinematic stalwart Willem Defoe delivers one of his best performances. He is quietly devastating as the motel manager whose everyday annoyances with his tenants give way to a warmth and compassion as he becomes protector to Halley and Moonee despite their wayward behaviour. Baker’s film allows us a warm snapshot back into the world from a child’s point of view, and in our jaded and troubled times, however fleeting that may be, like the passing of one great summer, it is a thing of wonder to behold.

1) A Ghost Story (directed by David Lowery)

On paper, the premise for A Ghost Story sounds like it really shouldn’t work- A recently departed Casey Affleck is cloaked in a bed sheet (though some people may welcome this) and wanders around his former life and watches over his widow (Rooney Mara). But director David Lowery transforms the childlike demeanour of a crude Halloween costume and makes it into something incredibly soulful. As Casey’s ghost traverses time, the film encapsulates the devastating feelings of loneliness and loss and what happens when a loved one finally moves on and it manages to convey some much emotion from a sheet with two eyeholes. It also contains one of the year’s best scenes as Mara’s widow eats a pie in an extended shot that epitomises the numb, brutal nature of grief. Set to a swelling tear jerking soundtrack, the film navigates through life’s heavy themes, the ebbs and flows of humanity are captured with simple but wholly effective scenes. Its narrative builds and builds to a sweeping, heart bursting abrupt conclusion that stays long after the credits have ended and leaves A Ghost Story lingering in your thoughts for days after. Every now and then a part of the film will pierce into your subconscious and make your soul ache, its stark visuals act as a reminder about how precious and flitting life is. Quite simply I could not shake this film from my mind and nothing else affected me as much at the cinema this year. Truly haunting.

Review-The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)

 

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It is a brave move to put an Independent film against the might of the summer blockbuster brigade and the potential rays of sunshine that dampen the crowds of the cinema. But a new Sofia Coppola film will always rear the heads of the critics and her ardent admirers who will help form an audience in the face of adversity.  It also helps that her latest, The Beguiled, is coming off the back of rave reviews at Cannes and Coppola’s win as best director, the second female to ever to win the accolade.

Based on the 1966 Thomas P Cullinan novel, The Beguiled begins in 1864, three years into the Civil war, where we are thrust into the heartland of the southern Virginia. A young girl walks between the weeping willows of the forest, a hazy beam of light piercing between the trees whilst the sound of cannon fire is heard in the distance. As she gathers mushrooms in a basket, a figure appears from behind a tree, a wounded Yankee soldier who begs for her aid. She helps him back to the large, white pillared plantation looking ladies’ seminary, a place of refuge and restraint for a group of young girls who seemingly have nowhere else to go and who are under the charge of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Following Ms Farnsworth’s lead who warns the girls to be wary of the soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), they at first treat him with caution and distain, but are all able to demonstrate Christian charity by nursing him back to health before turning him over to the confederate troops.

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As McBurney embeds into their hospitality and tends to their flowerbeds, his presence begins to affect the girls and the women of the house, bringing buried emotions to the surface in some and stirring the emergence of sexual awakenings in others. McBurney’s intentions appear to be focused on Farnsworth’s subordinate Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), but as his gaze lingers on the younger Alicia (Elle Fanning) who makes her desires crystal clear to McBurney, he begins to stir dangerous rivalries and set a course of irrevocable consequences.

Coppola’s southern melodrama is a melting pot of sexual repression and tension, where emotions teeter on their repercussive brink. A scene where Kidman’s tightly browed headmistress baths the wounded McBurney simmers with languid desire, which by its end; the audience may well be wiping their own brow. Echoing the themes of her previous film The Virgin Suicides, where a group of girls become imprisoned within a world which becomes their own microcosm, it also evokes shades of Black Narcissus whose remotely stationed nuns begin to question their vows of celibacy upon the arrival of a government worker. Shooting on film and using her trademark dreamy cinematography, the seeping of gauzy light filters into their world of starch upper collars and southern belle decorum. Surprisingly for a director whose work is synonymous with cleverly crafted soundtracks, The Beguiled features minimal music, even the presence of French electro band Phoenix does not pierce the air with contemporary sounds.

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The cast embody their characters perfectly, shifting their tones as their burgeoning desires materialise. Kidman is a droll delight as the authority figure whose upturned brow can belie her sly intentions. Farrell veers from wounded sensitivity to a roguish charmer and then to emasculated anger with ease. His hairy, darker complexion contrasting with the milky porcelain skin of the women who he thinks are his heavenly creatures under his spell but soon comes to realise that he is the prey. Dunst is quietly affecting as the prim teacher who wants to escape the seminary, her down turned demeanour temporarily lifted by the promise of a getaway with McBurney whilst Fanning has mischievous fun as the gym slip temptress. Though the best moments of the film are when the ensemble comes together, the interaction used through subtle airs and graces and telling glances speaks volumes of their internal cravings. A candlelight dinner scene in particular, where the girls fawn over McBurney and try to outdo each over an apple pie is a master class in thinly concealed jealousy.

Cullinan’s novel has been filmed before, a 1971 version directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood leaned more towards horror and fed on male paranoia. Coppola has said that she has not remade the film version but adapted the original source material. However it is hard for some not to compare the two, particularly as this time we see things from the female perspective. Coppola brings a stripped back, nuanced air to the proceedings, one that may not create new converts to her world of cinema and which may alienate fans of the Eastwood version. But to those well versed in the Coppola canon, there is much to relish in her seductive southern tale. As Ms Farnsworth tells the girls ‘the enemy is not what we believed’.

Five of the best….looks in cinema

They say the eyes are the window to the soul and that a face can launch a thousand ships but in cinema it can do this and much much more. A look can convey something better than pages of dialogue ever could, it can tell us things about a character, some we may want to know and some we wish we didn’t know and all with a flicker of the eye or the glimmer of a smile. At the dawn of cinema, the actor’s face was their greatest tool and then the advent of sound came in and changed the landscape of film forever. Acting became just as much about the conviction of the dialogue as well as the conviction of expression and many of Hollywood’s biggest stars fell to the wayside as they failed to make the transition into the sound age, they became relics of a bygone era.

Script writing gave us another dimension on cinema and has been responsible for many memorable lines that live on in people’s hearts but it’s sometimes good to remember where it all began, with the actor’s face. Though the pen may be mightier than the sword, looks can kill and here are five times in cinema where for me, I have been stopped in my tracks, mesmerised by a look and where the words have fallen by the way and the face has given me all I need to know.

Tom Cruise- Magnolia (1999)

There are no two ways about it; Tom Cruise is a movie star, a bone-fide archetypal movie star and one of a dying breed. He dominated the box office for a long period of time and such was his star wattage that all a poster for one of his films needed was a silhouette of his head with his name emblazoned above it.  He is also an actor that still consistently gives the most bang for the movie payer’s buck, routinely hurling himself from explosions or hanging onto the sides of structures and planes, doing his own death defying stunts. However one thing that is not often attributed to Cruise is his actual acting muscles, that he is an undeniable star but rarely is there praise heaped upon his dramatic delivery, perhaps because most of the time, he is too busy flying off the side of buildings. But when he does pick a project that offers less action and more acting, Cruise reveals hidden depths and never more so than in Paul Thomas Anderson’s narrative sprawling opus Magnolia.

When the film was released much of the attention on Cruise’s performance came from his character’s outlandish mantras, he plays Frank Mackey who is a motivational speaker.  But the real moment comes when Frank talks to an interviewer post seminar, pumped from his on stage high,Frank is all charm and chat at first, riffing on the persona that he has created. However when she begins to probe Frank about his family history, he at first dodges the questions, his slickly trained character dancing like an animal evading capture but then as she hits his weak spot and confronts the lie that he has been portraying, Frank’s whole facade comes crushing down.

The way Cruise’s face immediately changes, the brutal snap that the image he has depicted is now being called into question is a masterful moment, one that is summed up wholly in his expression, the cocky smile is literally wiped from his face. Cruise’s juxtaposition is one of Magnolia’s greatest scenes, which says a lot for a film brimming with spectacle and revelations and it is all down to Cruise’s emotive nuances. The scene encapsulates the inner turmoil that Frank refuses to acknowledge and surrender to and the narrative plays with the connotations of Cruise himself as a ‘star’ and the baggage that comes with his persona. It is hard to think of someone who could have played the role better and it suggests that perhaps Cruise should continue to show us a different kind of money shot.

Al Pacino- The Godfather (1972)

I must confess that for me The Godfather films are not quite my bag, as a cinephile I can appreciate their craftsmanship and the legacy that they have had on cinema but I do not revere them like many film fans do. And yet there is one moment that stands out for me when I think of The Godfather and it is not the iconic horse’s head moment or the method mumblings of Brando. It is the scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) kills Sollozzo in the restaurant and in particular the moment just before, when he is deciding what to do.

This part of the scene is the definitive narrative point for Michael’s character, it tells us what kind of man he was before and the type of man he is going to become. It tells us that everything that came before will be erased by this act and from then on there will no going back, this fork in the road will define the path he will take. And all of this is simply conveyed within Pacino’s eyes. As a train is heard hurtling over it’s tracks in the background, Michael’s eyes dart back and forth, weighing up the consequences of the action he is about to commit, you can feel his inner turmoil as he wrestles with his conscience. It is one of the purest moments of acting from Pacino that he is able to say so much with the mere expression of his face.

I didn’t grow up watching The Godfather films and came to them later in life so my experience of Pacino as an actor was during his shouty phase and the almost caricature version of himself that he has become in his latter day films. Witnessing this scene in The Godfather reveals why Pacino went on to be heralded as one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema and a timely reminder that there was pathos and subtlety to his craft that  sadly went awry later down the line.

Jean Seberg- A bout de Souffle (1960)

Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless is the movie equivalent of Rock n Roll; it’s vibrant, playful and doesn’t need to say a lot but instead its more how it makes you feel. It burst onto the screen in 1960 and played with the conventions of cinema, creating jump cuts, using natural lighting and unnatural sound, things that were not the norm and that were a world away from the ridged studio backdrop. Godard’s fast and loose style extended to his characters, they were drifters, rule breakers, society’s riff raff.

Jean -Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a petty thief who at once encapsulates the style of Bogart but in the same instance despises it, he is our anti-hero who is on the run after killing a cop and who hooks up with old flame Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Paris. The achingly cool pair spend the rest of the film wandering the Champs Elysees or sharing intimate moments in Patricia’s small apartment before she ultimately betrays him to the police. Michel is shot and he staggers the streets of Paris taking his last breaths, at first it appears Patricia regrets her decision as she chases after him and in any other Hollywood film this would be the moment where Seberg’s character would profess her love for Michel.

But the chance of some sort of redemption or regret for Patricia’s act is fleeting, she appears to shrug it off with Gallic nonchalance. As she stares down at Michel in his dying moments, there is no real sense of sadness in her eyes and you could argue that he does not deserve any sympathy, he is after all a womaniser, a thief and a cop killer. But Patricia’s look of indifference simply adds to Godard’s groundbreaking slice of cinema and became one of the most iconic moments of the French New Wave.  As Seberg looks directly at the camera and moves her finger across her lips, this unconventional ending heralded the birth of a new style of film-making that would influence many directors throughout the years and would create an unforgettable look whose ambiguity would linger in the consciousness.

Kathleen Byron- Black Narcissus (1947)

It goes without saying that Powell and Pressburger sure knew how to compose a shot and they sure knew the power that colour could have upon a scene, in particular the use of red. In their 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, the vivid colour was used to symbolise passion and the impending danger that would engulf Moira Shearer’s ballerina as she danced her way to death, torn between love and her love of dance.

In Black Narcissus the use of red lipstick signifies the desire and passion that overtakes nun Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) whose faith and sanity becomes tested when local British agent Mr Dean (David Farrar) arrives at the nun’s remote Himalayan convent. Though it is not just the use of red in one particular scene but the lead up to Sister Ruth’s application of the scarlet make up that produces a sinister and memorable look, her face is a dangerous melting pot for all that she is feeling.

As sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) does her nightly rounds, she sees a light in Sister Ruth’s room and enters, where she is met with a woman’s unwavering, self possessed determination. Sister Ruth has decided to leave the order and her face contorts with the greed and lust she is feeling, the time isolated away in the mountains has driven her mad and she takes on the demeanour of a villain. Her face is lit in a luminous glow however as a smile creeps up her entire face, it is a wicked grin of evil; she has become consumed by a sensual desire, one that will lead to terrifying consequences.

The scene is smouldering with tension from Sister Ruth’s face and by the time she applies the crimson colour to her lips, she has conveyed everything to the audience.  This act of defiance is the final element in her journey of no return; she has left the path of faith and is on course to self destruction, one that is not only written, but painted on her face.

Grace Kelly- Rear Window (1954)

Grace Kelly’s arrival in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954) is problematic for a number of reasons yet it also is one of the greatest introductions of a character to the screen. Hitchcock was well known for having a fascination for his blonde leading ladies and none more so than Grace Kelly, she was the epitome of the ice cool woman that he would become mesmerised by and for a time he couldn’t imagine needing another actress.

Her appearance in the film plays like a fantasy, her face lit in the most beautiful way, she envelopes the frame like a stunning mirage, in the way that Hitchcock would see her in his own mind but also for the character L B Jefferies (James Stewart). As Jefferies stirs from sleeping, Lisa (Kelly) appears as if he is still dreaming, she is like a vision, one that is unobtainable for him and for Hitchcock. As the narrative progresses Jefferies finds reasons why his romance with Lisa won’t work, that their lifestyles are too different and he feels that marriage will be like the cast that his broken leg is in, constricting on his nomadic way of life. By Jefferies reluctance to settle down with Lisa, she seems confined to be the fantasy girl and the glamorous way she enters the screen would suggest this.

But this is Hitchcock and whilst his proclivities may manifest onscreen, he was also unafraid to poke fun at himself and to play with the audience. So whilst Lisa may appear to be a fantasy, she also defies expectations and turns out to be more resourceful than Jefferies, and perhaps the audience, imagined. Her entrance into the film, as she looks straight at the camera, may carry connotations with it but it can also simply be seen as a moment of pure cinematic magic, Kelly’ s face epitomises the golden age of Hollywood, the glamour of the bygone era.

It is sometimes hard to study cinema and separate the implications with the act of purely enjoying a film and to enjoy the beauty of one of Hollywood’s most dazzlingly iconic women. It is also hard to not see that Hitchcock has us all pegged, that in a film about voyeurism, from a director that was known for his voyeurism, pointed out the voyeuristic nature in all of us. And that seeing Kelly’s face coming towards the camera would prove alluring to not just him or to Jefferies but to all of us.

Review- Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)

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Contains spoilers and quite a bit of ranting

It almost feels like a pointless exercise writing a review for a film that clearly is not meant to be aimed at the critics, that the point of the Fifty Shades series is to please the crowd of the excitable fans of the book and it is not trying to make a form of artistic statement. Yet it is also hard to ignore the need to expel your feelings when you have witnessed a film that has left you aghast at how awful it is.

Fifty Shades Darker, the second instalment in EL Jame’s bonkbuster trilogy, continues straight after the first film Fifty Shades of Grey, where Anastacia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has left the dashing/mental unstable (delete as appropriate to your preference) Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).  Unable to understand and accept Christian’s sexual demands, Ana has forged a new life for herself, with a job at a publishing agency. Yet there is a sense of malaise to her daily life and when Christian shows up at her friends, somewhat creepy, art exhibition and buys every photograph emblazed with her image, she agrees to dinner with him. They rekindle their relationship but this time there will be no rules and no secrets between the two of them but Ana soon discovers that old habits die hard and the past has a way of resurfacing.

The film tries to shoehorn in a variety of subplots to add conflict , from a jilted ex submissive to the introduction of Christian’s Mrs Robinson, the woman who took his innocence and awakened his sexual preferences, yet nothing can disguise the fact that Fifty Shades Darker has no strong narrative, it simply meanders from one scene to another. The dialogue is excruciating and is delivered with no conviction or emotion and each sex scene is presented with a bombastic pop song to try to create some form of tension and fission but every one falls flat, undermined by the glaring omission of no form of chemistry between its leads.  And therein lies the rub as Fifty Shades is a film that needs more than anything a sense of attraction and heat between its central characters to make up for its narrative shortcomings yet it has nothing in its arsenal and even more damning is the lack of any positive qualities in this couple’s relationship for the audience to believe in.

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Christian Grey is a terrible terrible character whose behaviour is irritating, alarming and appalling and should be a clear as day indicator that this man needs many years of therapy before embarking upon a serious relationship. Apart from being young, rich and looking like Jamie Dornan, Christian displays no warmth and appealing behaviour to warrant Ana’s devotion to him or her perseverance on helping him battle his demons. Meanwhile Anastacia Steele (it pains me to write her full name almost as much as it pains me to hear Christian say it) is constantly told by various characters and Christian himself that she is different to his previous female partners/his submissives, that she is an independent spirit who will not yield to his more intimidating methods. But this point is routinely thwarted by Christian’s and her consequent behaviour as every time she protests his actions, the next moment she (literally) bends to his will. Ana is also denied any function beyond her sexuality, her boss at the publishing agency, who at first appears to be genuinely interested in her literary opinions, soon turns out to be a lecherous creep in a plot device to also excuse Christian’s overzealous behaviour and when she takes over her boss’ role at the company, this is undermined by the fact that Christian is now in his words ‘her boss’ boss’ boss’.

Johnson and Dornan have shown promise elsewhere however in this tripe series of films, they are saddled with badly drawn characters whose actions are irritating and annoying and afford no chance for an acting range beyond wooden and whimpering. On second thoughts perhaps they do show some acting promise as how they manage to keep a straight face delivering the appalling dialogue is a feat of sheer tenacity.

There are those that may be reading this that say Fifty Shades is just fantasy and not to be taken seriously, that it is just titillation and I would agree that it is fantasy, that I would find more realism in a CGI crammed Marvel movie. But it is just a fantasy that I find repugnant and unnerving, not that a woman would subject herself to those bedroom antics, but would tolerate the actions out of the bedroom. And to my eyes there is no romance to be found in the films (or the books, well I gave up after the first) to justify Mr Grey’s demeanour. And beyond the fantasy, in the real world that I want to live in women want to smash the glass ceiling and not settle to live in the penthouse apartment.