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.

 

 

 

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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.

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.

The best films of 2016

As film lovers, there is not much that we all unanimously agree on but I think it is safe to say that we all feel that this year has been a terrible one in terms of events, moments we never thought would happen and people we never thought we would lose. For me personally I have had a very hard year, a bout of prolonged illness is something I am not used to and don’t want to get used to and there may be some of admissions from my list which may have made it had I had chance to see them (apologies to Anomolisa, Under the Shadow, Son of Saul and Mustang to name a few and Rogue One which I am seeing next week). However the films that I did see this year reaffirmed my feelings about cinema, that through tough times, they can transport you, that when you are feeling down, they can give you the voice you don’t feel you have and when you think the world is a lost cause, they can show you the beauty that you have lost sight of and the things that you should be grateful for. So here are the films this year, that for different reasons, gave me goose bumps, gave me thrills and gave me my one constant thing in a topsy turvy time, my love of cinema.

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15) The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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A film that feels fresh yet harks back to the buddy movies of bygone years, The Nice Guys gave us the deliciously mischievous pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two immoral and incompetent private detectives in 1970s LA.  Assigned to investigate the mystery surrounding the death of a porn actress (which plays out in the opening sequence in OTT fashion) Shane Black’s neo noir comedy thriller plunges the bumbling duo deep into a sleazy world of corruption, sex and murder that is more slapstick than hardboiled. Mixing the crime pulp of Chinatown with the seedy sauce of Boogie Nights and coming off like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’s goofier cousin, Black proves he still has the smarts at combining whip sharp dialogue and burly action sequences and gives us a chalk and cheese combo that we never knew we wanted but are so glad that we experienced. As Jackson Healy, the portly muscle for hire, Crowe appears to have shaken off some of his pretentious aura and is having a hoot while Gosling is groovy as the hapless Holland March who wants to be the cool dude, like the roles Gosling usually plays, but is inept and accident prone with a shrill scream that frequently makes itself known.  The pair are clearly having a blast and making the most of starring in a film that is the type of ramshackle freewheeling genre blender that rarely makes it to the screen these days and which sadly failed to find its audience the box office. Perhaps it will find its feet in the steaming world where its late night stylistics and witty one liners will feel right at home.

14) Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler)

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Though The Revenant garnered all the headlines with its brutal bear attack, the most grisly scene of the year came courtesy of S.Craig Zehler’s underrated gem of a western.  For those who have seen the film will know exactly what I am talking about and for those who haven’t yet, prepare yourself for something truly jaw dropping nasty. But the film is much more than just a gruesome end for one of its characters; it is one of the best films of recent years in its genre and the better film this year to star Kurt Russell and his magnificent handlebar moustache.  A motley crew of town folk, including Russell’s sturdy Sheriff and Patrick Wilson’s determined every-man set off into the dusty plains to rescue their kin from a bunch of truly terrifying cave dwellers, turning the film into a tense mission with flashes of extreme violence.  All the cast fill their characters with well-played stereotypes but the real surprise of the bunch is Matthew Fox as a well educated enigma named Brooder, in a role so full of charisma and screen presence that it leaves you wondering why he has been left floundering in the cinematic wilderness  after his Lost heydays. His turn alone should give people reason to seek out Bone Tomahawk, a film that will truly stay with you, for better or worse.

13) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)

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Following on from the best comedy of 2015 What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi returns with a contender for best comedy of this year with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an action adventure with its roots deeply planted in the New Zealand outback. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled teen (his crimes including spitting, kicking and stuff) who is sent to a new home in the middle of no-where, where he finds temporary happiness. But through tragedy and a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, he ends up on the run with Sam Neill’s gruff foster uncle Hec and the scene is set for an oddball romp as a national manhunt begins for the unlikely duo. As you would expect from a Waititi joint, the film is peppered with eccentric characters and quirky curveballs to the narrative and features perhaps the song of the year (Ricky Baker it’s your birthday!) yet whilst it has all the trademarks of the director’s previous outings, at times Hunt for the Wilderpeople veers too close to homage territory particularly of the Wes Anderson ilk. But if you are going to riff on another director there are worse ones to pick than Wes and it doesn’t stop the film from being one of the grin inducing gems of the year and a runaway smash in its native New Zealand. Newcomer Julian Dennison is a quotable hero for a new generation and Sam Neill is the best he has been in ages, clearly having a ball and flexing his comedic chops that are rarely seen on screen  and there is also the inevitable scene stealing cameo from Rhys Darby. If Waititi can inject half the fun from the Wilderpeople into his next gig as director of Thor Rangorak then we are in for something really special.

12) Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford)

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Tom Ford follows up his beguiling debut A Single Man with an equally stylish yet jet black fable, which mixes two interweaving narratives into an absorbing, disturbing concoction. Based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, the film opens on art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) who’s seemingly perfect life is concealing her real feelings of discontent and a deeply unhappy marriage.  Out of the blue she is sent a manuscript from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she left in a callous brutal fashion and who has dedicated the novel to her. Fuelled by intrigue, Susan begins reading the novel and the film then intertwines between the two narrative strands, from Susan in the real world to the fictitious world she is imagining as she reads and to which she has cast Edward as the lead protagonist. Ford’s film flips between melodrama and brutal thriller, and manages to make both elements engrossing; the common thread of revenge binds them together. Edward’s novel pierces Susan’s conscious, taunting the idea that she previously had of him as weak and someone who would never succeed as a writer, whilst the novel’s theme horrifies her and in turn the audience, playing out with tense violence that recalls the fearful isolation of films such Duel and Breakdown. Nocturnal Animals is not an easy watch, some will be alienated by its coldness but it is intentionally glacial, it is a film of ugliness, of misjudged decisions and internal regret. It is perforated throughout with impeccable performances from the entire cast, with the (almost) inevitable scene stealing from Michael Shannon and an impressively cold cameo from Laura Linney, whilst the score evokes the feeling of a Hitchcockian romantic psycho drama and the clinical art world that Susan inhabits juxtaposes with the raw outback of Texas to create a queasy rigid imbalance. Those who travel into Ford’s gloriously overwrought Meta mystery may find themselves also experiencing a sleepless night.

11) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)

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David Mackenzie’s neo Western arrived with little fanfare at the box office but steadily grew recognition in end of the year polls and whose themes are ever present in modern society. Whilst The Big Short gave us the broader, showier themes of how banks are bad, Hell or High Water took the more intimate approach, focusing on one family’s battle with corrupt corporations. Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) carry out a series of robberies on the bank that is trying to rob them of their family farm whilst Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who is close to retirement, is closing in on their plans. Though there are familiar tropes within the film, it still manages to feel fresh, a modern Western with a quiet elegance and complex characters and a moral compass that wavers, leaving you questioning whose side you are on. Pine turns out one of his best performances so far and Foster continues to corner the market in live wire unpredictability, his Tanner always threatening to scupper his brother’s plan with his restless and reckless energy. Meanwhile Jeff Bridges excels as the Ranger who can’t quite quit, his world weary stance clashes with his dog with a bone need to solve the crime, with a performance that should be attracting awards attention. Mackenzie’s film is shot with harsh beauty, the baron landscapes interlaced with the devastation of modern times affecting the livelihood of a way of life that is being made obsolete whilst the final frames take you back to the feel of the wild west, where the man of the law will never rest.

10) Spotlight ( Tom McCarthy)

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Though the title refers to the team who uncovered the crime at the heart of the narrative, the way that the film plays out is the antithesis of the usual loud bombastic Oscar baiting type pictures that are based on true life stories. Todd McCarthy’s film goes about its job with a quiet dignity, as the Boston Globe discovers the abuse of many teenage boys at the hands of the catholic priests that were there to look after and guide them, never playing the scandal for cheap shock factor but simply retelling the story.  It is the type of film that rarely gets made these days, a proper grown up film for grown-ups, informative yet not preachy, where words are king but the film is no less gripping for this, it serves as the voice for the victims which they were denied at the time and whose story deserves to be told. Spotlight’s strength also lies in its cast, who all uniformly excellent, particularly Rachel McAdams who is carving a career away from the chick flick love interest and is all the better for it and Mark Ruffalo whose journalist Michael Renzendes is the slow building heart of the film, his simmering anxiety of the injustice he is part of uncovering culminates in one of the most powerful scenes as they realise the harrowing extent of the abuse. It may have been the surprise winner of Best Picture, under the radar of its flashier counterparts but it was no less deserving and proved that good old fashioned (real life) storytelling still deserves its place on the big screen.

9) Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)

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‘One girl, one city, one shot’ read the tagline for Sebastian Schipper’s virtuoso drama Victoria, a film that may on the surface appear gimmicky but uses its idea to maximum cinematic effect. Shot entirely in one take, the film follows a young Spanish girl Victoria (Laia Costa) over the course of one night in the city of Berlin as she visits a night club and meets a group of local young men and how her simple and innocent flirtation with one of the gang, sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to an irreversible situation.  By creating a film of fluidity with no cuts, as the audience you are positioned right in the centre of the narrative, it is as if you are one of the party, a bystander unable to stop the unfolding action (and there are times when you may be crying out at the screen to stop the inevitable catastrophe) yet also complicit to the crime.  By the time the credits roll, you feel like you have been through the wringer, almost hungover from the frantic and frenetic speed as the film gathers momentum and then spits you out into the cold light of day, reeling from the initial ecstasy to the abrupt sobering agony. Whilst you question some of her ill- advised decisions, Costa makes Victoria a continually engaging and sympathetic character, a girl whose early doors meet cute with a handsome stranger leads her down a dangerous path and whose youthful naivety is destroyed within the final frame. Schipper’s film evokes the spirit of the New Wave, a feeling of freewheeling cinema where directors use the technology available to them to push the conventions of cinema and where anything is possible and anything can happen.

8) 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Tratchtenberg) 

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Award worthy/boundary pushing/ revolutionary cinema is what we film lovers live for but sometimes we just want a darn good fun night out at the pictures. And that is what 10 Cloverfield Lane delivered in spades, a rollicking entertaining tightly wound chamber piece that maximises its narrative capacity and never drops a beat during its running time. Originally titled The Cellar with low key details, the film then revealed itself as the semi spiritual sequel to J. J. Abrams monster mash Cloverfield, as a potential fallout threat leads to life in a bunker for a trio of characters. Lead by paranoid parental figure Howard (John Goodman) who has crafted an insulated home for an inevitable catastrophe he has foreseen, he is joined by Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) and Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) the woman he saved/captured in a road side accident creating an uncomfortable family unit who are never sure about their host’s intentions. Goodman is on stellar form, playing on the blue collar worker he portrayed in Roseanne, though this time there is something slightly off, he is an unpredictable character whom Emmett and Michelle emotionally and physically tiptoe around, trying not to set him off. Mary Elizabeth Winstead proves to be his match, our heroine of the picture who is resourceful and determined, she may be planted initially as the victim but refuses to play the part and uses every tactic she can to keep fighting against her situation.  The atmosphere is tense, peppered with Hitchcockian touches, a Herrmann-esque score and dashes of humour to lighten the suspenseful air, director Dan Trachtenberg keeps the audience in the dark, teasing pieces of information slowly to disorientate where we stand. Equally we were in the dark about 10 Cloverfield Lane upon its arrival, it was a rare and dying breed when it came to the cinema, a film that we didn’t know much about and was all the better for it. It often feels like we have seen all the best bits of a film by the time it reaches the big screen, from the teasers to the multiple trailers so to go into a film fresh was an absolute treat and 10 Cloverfield Lane is an absolute blast.

7) Room ( Lenny Abrahamson)

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Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel was brought to the big screen this year which resulted in a faithful and emotional adaptation with aplomb. Lenny Abrahamson steered the ship but the film was anchored by the performances of Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack. Larson cleaned up all the acting awards for her portrayal as the Fritzlesque captive who was snatched as a teen and forced to live in the 10ft x 10ft room of the title, she is a haunting screen presence, a bruised and battered figure who manages to retain a steely determination through a mothers love for her son.  Tremblay meanwhile achieves the seldom seen act of being a child actor that isn’t annoying (even when his character is troublesome), he is our eyes and our ears, our vision of the world he is only ever known and to the world that he discovers and that we rediscover through him. The narrative takes us to some very dark places with the human spirit being pushed to its breaking point and Abrahamson creates one of the most nail biting scenes of the year as Jacob tries to execute the escape plan that Ma has created. It also follows the book’s lead of a non-Hollywood happy resolution once Ma and Jacob have escaped Room, the reality of their adjustment to life post capture is shown in its troubling form, that the nightmare is over yet the scars have taken their toll. Yet for all the distressing subject matter the film manages to be an uplifting experience, carving a new sense of appreciation for what we have, the human spirit may have been pushed but as a wise man once said ‘life finds a way’.

6) Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) 

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Director Jeremy Saulnier follows up his 2013 lean taut thriller Blue Ruin with another colour coded film that is laced with vicious threat and grisly ends. Punk band The Ain’t Rights are coasting from gig to gig when they hastily make an ill judged decision to play at a backwater dive that turns out to be populated by Neo Nazis and when one of the band members stumbles into a murder scene, things become very very nasty. The film then becomes a tense game of (Nazi) cats and mice as the band are holed up in the green room of the title while the red laced thugs try to force their way in, resulting in some shocking moments of violence that defy the conventions of standard horror, where no one appears to be the one that will get away and which makes the narrative more unsettling. Anton Yelchin as band guitarist Pat, who sadly passed away just after Green Room was released, shows why he was one of the great actors of his generation and what promise he still had to give to cinema, a charismatic presence with soul and verve. Imogen Poots also impresses and is less damsel in distress than dangerous with a boxcutter while Patrick Stewart plays against type as the cold calculating leader of the red laces, his efficiency at cleaning up the ‘mess’ is chillingly callous. Between the bursts of mayhem, Saulnier finds glints of black humour so in between hiding behind your hands you may find yourself wondering what you desert island band will be, but whether you will sleep well that night is another matter as Green Room will (guitar) shred your nerves.

5) The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

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So much has been documented about The Revenant, the stories of the arduous filming conditions, THAT bear scene, and Leo’s Oscar win, which launched a thousand memes, that the film itself has almost been overshadowed, lost in the mix of Awards buzz and folklore tales with shades of Coppola’s apocalyptic shoot. But whatever you may think about Iñárritu’s methods (and as him as a person) you cannot deny the astonishing results of his, and the crew/casts, labour, producing a timeless epic revenge piece that plays out like the most intense survival guide committed to celluloid, one that would make Bear Grylls curl up and hide. Choosing to film in only natural light and with the aid of stunning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the landscape becomes its own character, breath-taking in every sense of the word as DiCaprio’s wronged fur trapper Hugh Glass battles first bears then the elements on a one man quest for vengeance, clawing and crawling his way to Oscar glory, his punishing pursuit is agonising to watch.  Credit must also go to Tom Hardy, every ones favourite guy, who turns in a thoroughly nasty performance and creates a character so dastardly that you are waiting on tenterhooks throughout the film, praying for his comeuppance. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto chimes the whole journey with a sense of momentum and impending flashes of violence and threat, the beating heart of Glass’ reason to continue his quest. The whole experience is visceral, captivating, jaw dropping cinema, proving the mantra that you really suffer for your art.

4) American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

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Andrea Arnold has already mastered the portrayal of modern Britain, in all its bleak poverty and harsh actions and reactions and now has turned her eye to the dissection of the American Dream, where the blissful ignorance of youth clashes with the dirt poor reality of many of its vast wastelands.  Newcomer Sasha Lane blazes onto the screen, a fireball of unpredictable behaviour as Star, a young girl who abandons her poverty stricken, abusive home to hit the road with a rag tag crew, including Shia LeBeouf’s rat tailed Jake, who travel round America selling magazine subscriptions. What follows is an archaic road trip, as the gang deploy many different tactics to gain subscriptions, running from one city to the next, partying hard and bestowing harsh ritual forfeits for those that fail to gather the most sales. The film is glazed in a wash of stunning cinematography, every campfire scene looks like a party you want to be at but equally every desolate town is swamped in stark imagery you would want to avoid; the cross country narrative is captured in all its beauty and baroness. American Honey creates a restless energy that is hard to do without feeling forced but here it soars from every crevice whilst always flirting with disaster that comes from a lifestyle that cannot be sustained forever, that time is on the coattails of these delinquents and they must seize this moment with every inch of gusto.  The sentiment of the film is beautifully realised in Rhianna’s ‘We found love’ which becomes the anthem for the travelling crew and encapsulates the ecstasy between the ruins of the Promised Land.

3) Swiss Army Man (Daniels)

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If ever there was a contender for the most Marmite movie, it would be perhaps look and sound exactly like Swiss Army Man. It is either a film you are going to go with or you are going to be baffled by and dismiss it, and all this will probably be determined within the first ten minutes of its running time. Personally I fell into the former camp, bemused by its arresting opening gambit, embracing its unapologetic flights of whimsy and finally succumbing to its unique charms, hook, line and stinker. Swiss Army Man has been rejected by many who see it as puerile humour, a one note fart gag or (as some of the harsher internet comments suggest) a gay necrophilia comedy however it is much more than the sum of its flatulent parts.  It is a film that manages to wring genuine emotion and depth from its admittedly ridiculous synopsis as Paul Dano’s stranded Hank uses Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse as a means to navigate his way home, Radcliffe’s Manny becomes the Swiss Army Man of the title as his body is utilised for various tasks which creates eye catching visuals. But it is where Hank begins to teach Manny about that the life that he has forgotten that the film really finds its emotional groove, a montage of inventive images collide in a giddy, joyous fashion that ignite Manny with purpose and in turn fuel Hank’s journey back to a society where he himself might find wonder to behold in the world that previously alluded him. Swiss Army man is a film that doesn’t work well on paper but has to be seen to be believed and if you open yourself up to its oddities, you will experience one of the most marvellously strange and original films you are ever likely to see.  Like Weekend at Bernies directed by Michel Gondry, hummed to the theme from Jurassic Park. On second thoughts who wouldn’t want to see that?

2) Arrival ( Denis Villeneuve)

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Bold, intelligent and beautiful science fiction this year came in the form of Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral stunner. Rejecting the tired old notion that extraterrestrials come here to blow up first and think later (yes Emmerich I am talking about you) Arrival takes a different approach to the invasion narrative and manages to do what Interstellar couldn’t, combining high concept ideas with emotional resonance. Amy Adams plays linguistics expert Dr Louise Bank who is drafted in by the government when a dozen spaceships appear in different locations around the globe and the need to translate the alien’s language is of rapid importance before a global war breaks out. And so begins a race against time to decipher the visitor’s message and to make a form of contact, however the film doesn’t take the usual tropes that the genre can befall; it carves a path of its own, creating an atmosphere of supernatural intrigue and analytical endeavour. The contact with the aliens is presented with an air of stylistic eeriness; the conceptual design makes the most of this with its disorientating and claustrophobic ambience heightened by Johann Johannsson’s masterful otherworldly score. But at the heart it all, and what makes it work when it goes to some, potentially alienating, places is Adams who injects the film with a sense of vulnerability but also steely determination, she is our guide and the connection to solving the mysteries within its cryptic plot. And when the revelation comes and the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, it is seeped with the heartfelt emotion that Adams has carried and that we have invested in, creating a beautiful and never more resonant message about the necessity and the magnitude that communication can have. If this is Villeneuve’s calling card for his gig on the Blade Runner sequel then we may have hope after all because he has produced a gloriously audacious slice of sci fi which is one of the years greatest.

  1. Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross)

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Ironically for something that sounds like a superhero film, Captain Fantastic turned out to be the perfect antidote to the post summer blockbuster binge that often leaves many deflated and fatigued and provided cinema with a soulful, original punch that it was crying out for. In a role that was made for his otherworldly survivalist presence and in one that he has never been better, Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, the head of a family who has raised his children in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, cultivating their own microcosm society which is built upon physical and intellectual learning. But events force them to (re)enter the world and Ben’s methods of parenting become challenged by those around him and also by himself. Beautifully shot with a heartfelt narrative, Captain Fantastic is peppered with moments of humour but also a very human sense of poignancy, it asks tough questions about the nature of parenthood and mental illness, how no matter how much you try, you may not be able to override someone’s devastating internal disorder. It is a bitter pill to swallow but garners respect for its brave realisation, rather than the Hollywood approach where something or someone can easily eradicate a mental illness (as played out in Silver Linings Playbook).

There are note perfect performances from all its cast, every member of the family plays their part without any precocious child mannerisms,  they add their world view of each age bracket they inhabit and their actions and reactions to how they have been raised . But the heart of the film belongs to Mortensen, shrouded in fitting facial hair and an array of knitwear, his patriarchal figure manages to traverse a myriad of attributes from arrogance to anger, from warm to caring, his grief ridden but loving father shows every emotion etched on his face with a subtle grace.

Captain Fantastic now occupies the same space in my heart that Little Miss Sunshine does, it is that film that is bittersweet but still manages to give me the warm fuzzies, it makes me want to live my life and love my life, that times will not always be perfect and you may lose your way but that family will always be your guide home. I laughed and I cried and fist pumped the air that original films like this still make it to the big screen and it is something to be thankful for as this Captain is something truly special.

Five of the best…Films I love but find hard to go back to

Warning- Contains plot details/spoilers

Perhaps I am an overly sensitive soul but do you ever watch a film for the first time, a film that grabs you emotionally, pierces through your heart and jumps straight into your list of all time favourite films? Then when you come to watch it again, you hesitate, your heart twitches and a melancholy wave creeps upon you as you remember the ache that you felt upon the first viewing? These are not to be confused with the type of films that are too arduous to watch again (yeah Dogtooth I am talking about you) but the type of films that cause a malaise inducing dilemma. Like Joel and Clementine ponder in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,-do they go through their relationship again knowing it will end badly just so they can experience the good moments, I, in turn, ponder the merits of getting a case of the blues to experience the beauty in certain films. Hopefully I am not alone in this quandary, that there is cinematic solidarity for this predicament, and so as a cathartic exercise I have listed five films that I absolutely adore but find it hard to go back to.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Any film that explores childhood, from the heady excitement to the realisation that something along the way will have been lost, will always edge on the side of melancholy but Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are absolutely floored me. Stirring up wistful memories of being a child, Jonze’s take on the beloved book by Maurice Sendak is not really a film for kids, despite the presence of giant furry creatures and is instead for those who have lived and lost their adolescence. We follow Max (Max Records), the boy who has behaved badly and is sent to bed without supper, who then escapes to a forest inhabited by the Wild Things, a journey that feels like one of those endless summer school holidays where you play all day, fall out with your best friends, make up again and go home at the end of it all, grubby from climbing trees and playing in the dirt but with a dreamy satisfaction as the sun goes down. Where the Wild Things are beautifully captures this feeling and more, through its spirited direction and its wondrous realisation of the wild creatures, created through a mix of Jim Henson’s workshop and digital face work, and all voiced perfectly particularly James Gandolfini’s lead Wild Thing Carol. And yet for all the joy that there is to behold, the abandonment that comes with childhood, there is also a looming sense of heavy-heartedness, from the autumnal palette of the film to the repeated hints that all things have an end. This is achingly realised in a scene with Max and Carol, as they walk across a desert, Carol exclaims ‘soon the whole island will be dust and I don’t even know what comes after dust’.  Karen O’s glorious soundtrack fits the mood beautifully slipping between the euphoria of the wild rumpus to the reflective nature of Carol’s hideaway and by the time her cover of Daniel Johnston’s Worried Shoes can be heard, I begin to get a serious case of heavy boots. This builds throughout the film to an ending that, despite having not watched the film since its release in 2009, is still etched into my soul, as Max leaves the island and in turn his new friends, Carol runs after his boat and the sight of Gandolfini’s Wild Thing crying at the loss of Max is truly devastating. Where the Wild Things Are is a bewitching capsule of childhood, one that whilst I am watching leads me to mourn for a time that I can never return to and so makes it hard to return to the film, it is only on reflection of a period of time that we can only hope we savoured every (bitter) sweet moment of it.

Inside Llewyn Davies (The Coen Brothers, 2013)

For their 2013 folk masterpiece, The Coen Brothers are firmly on melancholy form asking the wistful extensional question that many (struggling) artists will have to ask themselves at one point; whether they are going to continue, to persevere on or whether they consign their art to the back burner and get a ‘real’ job. For Llewyn Davies (Oscar Isaac) a folk singer working the Greenwich Village circuit in 1960s New York, there seems to be no choice, despite what the world is conspiring to tell him and we watch as he treads a weather worn path in pursuit of his passion, penniless, relying on the kindness of strangers and sometimes literally without a coat on his back. On the initial surface, Llewyn does not fit the mould of the lovable loser that we would usually root for yet it is his unfaltering commitment to non-conformity that provides a bittersweet connection to our anti-hero as the film unfolds. In one scene his sister hints to Llewyn that he should quit the music to which he replies ‘So I should just exist?’ a feeling that will resonate to anyone with a passion that will not diminish. And therein lies the rub and the reason I find this film a soul searching struggle, if life gives you lemons, what if you can’t even get anyone to take your lemonade? How many no’s does it take before you give in? The Coens reflect the narrative handsomely with the contrast of the intimacy of the warm hued folk scene to the harsh realities of a cold New York winter, again an autumnal palette is peppered through the film, which seems to be a precursor to my blues, the passing of seasons are a prelude to introspective behaviour. There is also a recurring motif with a ginger cat, which is at once amusing but becomes quietly devastating, in one particular scene, Llewyn is leaving the car he has been hitching a ride in and to which the cat has been his companion. He stops and looks at the cat, debating whether to take him any further, a moment occurs between them, a look that the cat portrays is remarkable and the emotion that this scene creates is almost too painful to recall. And that’s the Coen’s great trick, like a cinematic slight of hand, they misdirect you with unique brand of humour and amusing cameos and all the while they are building a beautiful brooding picture which creeps up on you and tenderly breaks your heart. The bastards!

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

We all want to believe that love can conquer all but sometimes it just…doesn’t and those love stories that begin rapturous and burn brightly are all the more devastating when they crumble. Such is the case with Derek Cianfrance’s beautiful bruiser Blue Valentine, a film about the relationship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a couple whose marriage begins to disintegrate through resentment and lack of understanding. The film tells their story in a non linear style, in two time frames, so we start at the decline of their marriage and piece together their relationship in flashbacks, the harsh reality of the present cut together with their meet-cute blossoming romance. And this is what makes Blue Valentine so cruelly bittersweet, by interplaying between the shifts in time; we see the destruction and long for the joy. It becomes even more affecting by the naturalistic chemistry that Gosling and Williams have and the intrusive camerawork that positions us close to Dean and Cindy relationship in all its rawness, this is a couple that despite their issues (for which there are several, they are not angelic chick flick characters) I want to succeed because I have been seduced by their initial happiness. This was a film that had me crying many times in many places, an early scene where Dean, working for a delivery removal company, transports an old man to a nursing home and decorates his room for him left me with teary eyes as did the scene where Dean and Cindy are flirting outside a store at night. As Dean plays ‘You always hurt the ones you love’ on the ukulele, Cindy tap dances and the tentative dalliance becomes even more poignant. The final scene shows the end of their relationship interspersed with the day they got married, as Gosling pleads with Williams and reminds her of the vows she took; we cut to the couple at the registry office, happy, in love, a bittersweet juxtaposition of what they have become and by this point I am a blubbing wreck. The film is also majestically scored by Grizzly Bear, a band I adore, which adds another sucker punch to my flailing heart. Most women will say that The Notebook is the Gosling weepie of choice but for me it is, and should, be Blue Valentine, a film that painfully makes us realise no matter how much we root for something, life, time and we ourselves sometimes find a way to destroy it.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Let me start by saying that I have a melancholy affinity with robots, which may have stemmed from early childhood viewings of the Short Circuit films (seeing Johnny Five write ‘I am dying’ on a wall is truly horrific) or may just mean I am a little strange, oddly wired if you will. But whenever there is a cute robot in a film, my first thought/worry is what is going to happen to the little guy/gal, making me wish there was a website equivalent of doesthedogdie.com to spare any potential heartache. Honestly if something bad happens to BB8 in the forthcoming instalments of Star Wars I am going to go turbo. Which brings me to Wall-E, a film I find to be absolutely gorgeous yet strewn with scenes and moments that make my soul wince and curl up into a foetal position, it is one that I hesitate to re-watch for the blues that it creates. The first part of the film is what kicks it to me, the wordless elegance for which Pixar should be applauded for featuring in a (supposed) kid’s movie, sees Wall-E as the last robot on Earth, tidying up the planet one piece at a time. But Wall-E has developed a personality and a home, littered with items he has found on his travels that creates a haunting sense of loneliness. In one scene as he wheels about the planet, he replaces one of his faulty parts with one of the many ‘fallen’ versions of him that scatter the Earth (Kids film? God it’s like Short Circuit all over again) which is eerie and saddening. Of course this being Pixar, the mood and narrative of the film lightens and becomes filled with adventure and Wall-E does find love with the sophisticated robot Eve, but not before being smashed in and (temporarily) losing his identity and uniqueness (God it really is like Short Circuit all over again). And it also doesn’t help that, despite being a ramshackle rust bucket, Wall-E has the most adorable expressive face and mannerisms that make my heart hurt every time something bad happens to him.  Perhaps I have said too much of my robot inclinations but Pixar have an innate way of, whilst entertaining the children, giving the adults a hefty tug on the heartstrings, from the fate of Bing Bong in Inside Out to the emotional devastation of THAT montage in Up, and Wall-E is no exception. The cute little robot had to wait 700 years for his Eve to arrive, a shorter time than it will take me to watch the film again, but still a time it will take for me to revisit that lonely planet.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

I deliberated with myself whether to include this film in my list for two reasons, firstly because I feel I include it in pretty much every list I tend to write (the reasons why may become apparent shortly) and two because it is a film I have watched many times but it is one that becomes harder to watch as the years go by, despite being in my top 5 all timers. But then I decided it had to part of this list because the film has become so intrinsic to my life, for which I cannot ignore and for which makes tough viewing. As with certain songs that can transport you back to a time and place, I find the same is true of films and none so more for me than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When the film was released I was just into the first throes of University (studying film of course) and I became a little obsessed with it, immediately influenced by the way it was filmed and wanting to be the next Michel Gondry ( I didn’t of course). I went to watch it five times at the cinema and endlessly played the soundtrack on repeat, but it wasn’t just the style and direction that I fell in love with, thematically the film spoke to me and I still believe it is one of the greatest representations of love to be depicted on screen. Despite its offbeat approach and inventive visuals Eternal Sunshine manages to be a wholly honest portrayal of relationships and how we often repeat the same mistakes over again, even though we convince ourselves that we won’t. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) may be doomed but they are willing to go experience the heartache to relive the golden moments, to bask in the sunshine of the early flourishes and promises. It is a question I often ask my (if you hadn’t realised already) melancholy self and the reason for this list of films. Would I go through University again knowing that I would not become the next Gondry (or Sofia Coppola as I also once hoped) and the answer is yes, because I still love film and despite the pain that comes with watching films such as Eternal Sunshine, it reminds me of my passion and why I love film, because sometimes films get me, and affect me, more than I can ever comprehend. I also realised writing this article that just because a film is one of my all time favourites, it does not mean watching it over and over again because they are already so ingrained into me, the pleasure and the pain, that the mere mention of them will stir an emotive response, one that I will never forget and one that does not necessarily need repeating. Although I cannot resist the chance to see Eternal Sunshine on the big screen again next week at Hyde Park so with my pack of tissues and my bag of malaise I will endure the heartbreak for the magnificence. Wish me luck dear reader.

Review- Midnight Special (directed by Jeff Nichols)

midnight poster

In the short space of three films, Jeff Nichols has established himself as a director worthy of the term auteur, bringing emotional depth and lyrical storytelling to his work. From the anxiety inducing allegory of paranoia in rural America in Take Shelter (2011) to the Southern coming of age soul of Mud (2012), he skilfully blends heart with added dimensional undercurrents. With his fourth feature Midnight Special, Nichols continues to build upon his impressive cinematic catalogue, this time dipping his toes into the science fiction genre pool but without sacrificing his knack for emotive integrity.

The film begins with a news report of child abduction but the pieces of the story begin to form a different picture. A child has been taken, from a dubious settling known as The Ranch populated by a set of deeply religious members, but the child, eight year old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher),  was taken by his birth father  Roy (Michael Shannon) for his own protection and for Alton’s own purpose. It is revealed that Alton possesses otherworldly powers, his condition and capabilities grow and emerge further, a fact that makes him a target for both the Ranch, who believe he is their religious savour and for the FBI who believe he is a threat amidnight groupnd a potential weapon.

What follows is a race against time as Roy, accompanied by his former childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper who is affected by his predicament and who believes in Alton’s plight, head across the Southern landscape to reach a preordained destination  whilst being tailed by government officials and a couple of sinister Ranch members. If these narrative tropes seem familiar, those expecting bold brass sci-fi action may be disappointed because what emerges is something altogether different but all the more rewarding for it. The film adopts a slow burn journey that cares as much about the family drama at the heart of the matter as its bolder story arch and allows its actors to inhabit their characters. Michael Shannon who is Nichols go to guy, again displays why he is one of the best and most underrated actors around with a performance that speaks so much with so little words. His expressions and mannerisms belie the inner turmoil he is wrestling; every pained breath discloses the duality of Roy’s situation, his sorrow and his determination.  When Roy tells Alton ‘I like worrying about you’ Shannon echoes the words that many parents must feel, that it is their job to protect their child, no matter where the consequences will take them. Kirsten Dunst continues her semi renaissance after Fargo with a contrasting sensitive turn as Alton’s mother who was exiled from the Ranch and has a fleeting reunion with her son, avoiding sentimentality. Joel Edgerton is on solid form as the type of friend we would hope to have in a desperate situation-proactive and resourceful; his limited knowledge of Alton’s back-story doesn’t prevent him from believing in his purpose. Adam Driver portrays a sense of earnestness and heart that is a million galaxies away from Kylo Ren, his Adam Sevier is the type of government agent we would hope to have in a desperate situation, he wants to understand Alton and not merely contain him. Meanwhile Jaeden Lieberher sidesteps the precocious child act that Haley Joel Osment cornered once upon a time to deliver a naturalistic performance beyond his years/this world. midnight drive

The effects tend to serve the film rather than overshadow it, the early restraint gives way to a flourish in the final act yet we never descend into over reliance of CGI which is something to be commended and something to be thankful for in this cinematic age. The aesthetic and themes of Midnight Special have drawn comparisons to late 1970s/early 80s science fiction films particularly those of Spielberg and it is easy to see why, the DNA of Close Encounters and ET weave into its fabric, though Nichols should be celebrated for bringing his own vision and not merely emulating his peers. He has created a film of hope, of earnestness in a somewhat cynical time, one that will no doubt confound as many as it will attract, for it does not unravel all of its mysteries.

But the point is not to have all the answers, it is merely a snapshot of time, we as the audience experience what Alton’s parents do, the uncertainty of the situation, trying to form a grasp of the events-how and why did Alton come to be and where is he headed, yet we are not given the bigger picture. We can only go so far along the journey and the rest, like many things in life, has not been written.