Films of the year- 2018

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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.

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’.

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.

Review- La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

 

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We all know the score, its January, its cold and miserable, we are carrying post festivity pounds yet our wallets are feeling considerably lighter and to top it all off, we are still licking our wounds from the previous year’s constant assault of bad news, piling one brick after another in a Jenga onslaught that threatened to topple us. Oh and we have to prepare ourselves for the Trump presidency. So La La land has picked just the right time to come into our lives, Damien Chazelle’s modern day musical has come to whisk away the cobweb cynicism, to bring a sense of hope to proceedings and to bring Technicolor joy to the silver screen.

Emma Stone is Mia, a struggling actress in LA who is working as a waitress in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros studio lot, where she daydreams of a starring role and endures humiliation and rejection from one bad audition to another. Between her daily grind, she crosses paths with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jaded jazz pianist who is trying to keep his beloved dying medium alive. At first its less a meet cute than mild annoyance with each other, however as they continue to run into each other, it seems to be fate, their mutual passions for performing gives them a kindred alliance and as the seasons change from winter to spring and through summer their love blossoms. Sebastian has plans for a jazz bar and with his coaxing, Mia decides to stage a one woman play to kick start her acting career, by writing a role for herself but it is their dreams that begin to divide them, their success (and lack of it) comes between them, a bitter pill must be swallowed and they have to follow their hearts and break them in the process.

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From its opening gambit, a Fame style musical number amidst an LA traffic jam, you will know whether you will go along with La La Land’s ride, it’s an unashamed homage to the musicals of yesteryear and may not appeal to modern mainstream audiences who are not used to seeing their lead characters burst into song or break out into a freewheeling dance routine. However for those of us that do, will be charmed by its infectious spirit and optimistic energy, it lays its cards out on the table in brightly coloured verve and is an irresistible concoction of gusto performances and beautifully bittersweet storytelling. Both leads bring their game, throwing everything into their roles, Emma Stone uses her hugely expressive eyes to convey an emotional range as Mia, from wide eyed wonder to welling up as life hands her many blows, meanwhile Gosling brings his sardonic wit as Seb, his tendency for acting goofy guards his true feelings of falling hard for Mia and for losing sight of his true passion.  The decision to not pick actors who are known for singing and dancing proves to be La La Land’s ace in the hole, whilst Stone and Gosling learnt to sing and dance competently, it is their shortcomings that makes the film all the more endearing, the fragility in Stone’s voice makes her connection to the audience more resonant and Gosling is charismatic in a limited range. Both actors charm, particularly in an early song and dance routine, against the backdrop of the fading LA sun but also within the film’s more sombre moments, an argument over a romantic dinner, framed close up on their faces, is heartbreaking as reality hits home and their optimistic bubble is fractured. Director Damien Chazelle follows up the intense, almost claustrophobic feel of Whiplash with a film dripping with colour and virtuoso cinematography, the camera soars in the opening sequence and continues to impress with one take wonders and culminates in a stunning montage of a life less glimpsed.

La La Land has garnered an abundance of praise but there is also the inevitable backlash in the wings, almost alluded to by Stone’s Mia who, after showing her play to Seb says ‘I think it’s too nostalgic, people might not like it’. Seb simply replies ‘Fuck them’. Fuck them indeed, there will be the haters who say there is a reason they don’t make them like this anymore, but colour me smitten because I fell for it in all its glorious, (old) fashion. Like The Artist before it, it crystallises a moment in time, a moment of pure cinematic joy, one that is hard to repeat (and may not attain repeat viewings) but which doesn’t matter because you will never forget that blissful moment.

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.

Films of 2015

And so the turkey has been eaten, the presents have been unwrapped and as Christmas draws to a close, thoughts turn reflective and so to my end of year round up of the films that for me have been the best in 2015. Apologies to Macbeth, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mommy and Sicario which I didn’t get chance to watch. And also to White God which I was too scared to watch (I don’t like doggy violence)

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21) Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie)

mission-impossible-rogue-nation-poster-wallpaperSay what you will about Tom Cruise but he still remains a bloody great movie star, embodying the all action mantel and giving the audience a giant dollop of spectacle. In a world of CGI, the sight of Cruise clinging to the side of a plane that is taking off is made all the more exciting for knowing that the crazy bastard actually did it. And this is within the first ten minutes of the film! Rogue Nation ticks the boxes we have come to expect from Mission Impossible, delivering nail biting stunts, a multitude of locations and a host of espionage duplicity yet it also brings a new element to the table. With the addition of Rebecca Ferguson as suspicious agent Ilsa Faust, the franchise is elevated with freshness from this kick ass character. In a year where strong female leads have thankfully been more present, Ferguson is more than a match for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and is never reduced to becoming his love interest, instead often leaving him in her powerful wake and proves there’s life in this ole entertaining franchise yet.

20) The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)

lobster2-xlargeCertainly not to everyone’s taste Yorgos Lanthimos’ English Language debut was a divisive concoction but one whose oddity I found darkly refreshing. Set in a near future where people who are single must go to a hotel and find a companion within 45 days or be turned into an animal, the film really flies with comic absurdity from the beginning. Colin Farrell’s bespectacled frump comes to the hotel looking for a mate, along with an assortment of lonely and confused fellow guests but ends up drawn to a woman (Rachel Weisz) who is part of the resistance to the social dictation. Though the film loses some momentum during its second act, when we are within the hotel, The Lobster is one the most wickedly inventive films of the year and features some excellent oddball turns particularly from Ben Whishaw and Olivia Colman.

19) The Gift ( Joel Edgerton)

gordoJoel Edgerton shows that he is as nuanced behind the camera as he is in front of it with his directorial debut The Gift, an impressively tight thriller with menacing restraint. Edgerton plays Gordo, the former school weirdo who uncomfortably makes his way into the lives of former classmate Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall). Things soon turn sinister with the delivery of gifts to the couple, which begin to unravel the interior of their relationship. Edgerton runs a tight ship, cranking up the tension to an unnerving and bravado ending and pulling a malevolent performance from Bateman, turning the nice everyman persona he usually adopts and producing something entirely compelling and darkly interesting.

18) Eden (Mia Hansen-Love)

edenMy partner, an aspiring musician, was reduced to inconsolable malaise after watching Mia Hansen-Love’s odyssey to French house music from the 90s and beyond.  The problem was that the film was such a compelling and authentic portrayal of the music scene, that it captured the ecstasy and agony so painfully perfect in equal measure. Like a hipster version of the Les McQueen narrative from the League of Gentlemen, we follow aspiring Paris DJ Paul (Félix de Givry) who lives for music and the euphoric state it envelopes him in, as he achieves a level of success and riding high, only to fall out of favour with the crowds and out of touch with the scene. It also perfectly encapsulates the passing of youth, how idle and naïve we, believe, like the best sound-tracked nights of our lives that it will last forever. It’s a shit business but one that we cannot help but be seduced by.

17) Inside Out (Pete Docter)

inside-outMany said Pixar was on the wan after its recent disappointing output but it proved they can still pull it out the bag with the inventive and dazzling Inside Out. Set inside the head of an 11 year old girl, who has to traverse the emotional minefield of moving house and leaving all she has ever known behind, the film allows the emotions to be the stars of the film as we experience Joy, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Fear. The premise allows for clever set ups and an exciting race against time through a young girls head, taking an often Freudian slant at times with ideas aplenty. It may not quite live up to the majesty of Wall-E or Up but it is a definite return to form for Pixar. Just don’t mention Bing Bong or the waterworks will start again.

16) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

girl-walks-home-alone1Stylish, sexy, offbeat and cool. Perhaps not the words you would associate with a black and white Iranian film. But how about a black and white Iranian vampire film? Like the lovechild of Jim Jarmusch and Jean Luc Godard, director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut is a monochrome delight, with a morose but droll spirit and a bewitching lead performance by Sheila Vand, the eponymous girl of the title, a lonely vampire who wanders the night time streets of a district called Bad City.  Stunningly veiled in black and white, at once stark but also rich, the film evokes an air of perpetual emotion, loneliness has never looked so cool or romantic. It would make a great companion piece to Jurmusch’s fellow vampire film Only Lovers left Alive, both a world away from the connotations left by the Twilight saga,  the two showing how to really get to the heart of the undead.

15) The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

The Tribe by the Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav SlaboshpytskiyMy most unsettling experience at the cinema this year came after watching this film but it was also my most unforgettable. Set within a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf teenagers, The Tribe signalled a landmark within the medium by presenting the film with no dialogue and no subtitles.  We are left with the visuals which entirely speak for themselves as the pupils create a microcosm of violence, illegal activities and a hierarchy of cruelty. When we do hear sound it is startling and often disturbing from the screams of a girl in pain to the aftermath of an act of vengeance, The Tribe is a stark piece of endurance cinema that revels previous unsettling benchmark setter Dogtooth, something I do say lightly.

14) Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)

Crimson-Peak-Tom-Hiddleston-Jessica-ChastainGothic horror made a welcome return to the big screen this year with Guillermo Del Toro’s lavish Crimson Peak, a film drenched in sumptuous period detail and with a beautifully old fashioned ghost story at its heart. The triple acting threat of Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastian provide the perfect accompaniment to the film’s evocative design, with Wasikowska providing the steely determination as our plucky heroine and Chastian relishing the opportunity to sneer with all the venom of cinema’s greatest ice maidens. Rather than pandering to the modern cinematic ideal of horror, Del Toro instead provided a love letter to the classics of both the film and the literary genre, with nods to Hitchcock, Kubrick, The Bronte Sisters and Edgar Allen Poe.

13) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez Rejon)

CinemaMeEarlDyingGirl-680x383Cruelly overlooked at the box office, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl managed to be that rarest of things, a coming of age teen movie that has emotion but isn’t corny or overtly syrupy. It is also a film lover’s film made by a film lover. Alfonso Gomez Rejon’s debut is laden with cinematic references to American counter culture and European arthouse classics and it radiates a true affection for the medium. Greg, a socially detached teenager (Thomas Mann, the Me of the title) channels his film influences and makes parodies of his favourites (Sockwork Orange, Rosemary’s Baby Carrots, The 400 Bros) with his friend Earl. When he is asked to hang out with Rachel (the dying girl, played beautifully by Olivia Cooke), Greg uses his creativity for a purpose and begins to see beyond a life of remakes. Look beyond the mawkish title and discover a charming gem which should find its audience on the small screen and become a future cult classic in its own right.

12) Amy (Asif Kapadia)AmyWhat could have been a cautionary tale of a girl gone wrong becomes a tragic case of a talented girl who was abused by the industry she wanted to be part of and betrayed by those who she loved. Asif Kapadia’s moving documentary of the short life of Amy Winehouse goes beyond the cheap shock factor of the tabloid pictures and the calamity of her incoherent stage performances to reveal a young woman who vulnerabilities made her susceptible to the darker side of fame, built up through old home movie footage and testimonies from those who knew her. Unsurprisingly Amy’s father Mitch does not come out of this well and since the release has condemned the film however he cannot deny his accountability in her derailment. A scene where Mitch brings a camera crew to St Lucia where Amy is trying yet again to recover is one of the most heartbreaking moments you could witness. Amy is an afflicting, devastating snapshot of a girl who wanted to vanish but whose fame refused to let her.

11) Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)

mistress-americaNoah Baumbach delivered two great films this year, first there was While we’re Young, which was followed by Mistress America, a reteaming with his partner and writing partner Greta Gerwig which produced a deliciously entertaining screwball comedy about female friendship. Gerwig is this time less the lovable loser than she was in Frances Ha, or at least in her characters eyes she isn’t. She plays Brooke, a woman who appears to be living the hip New York dream, however her reality is revealed through her relationship with her soon to be stepsister Tracey (Lola Kirke) who is at first enthralled by her but then pulls at the curtain and the truth behind it. Baumbach and Gerwig prove that great writing and great performing can produce something that feels fresh and relevant yet also pleasing old school, reminiscent of Billy Wilder movies where dialogue was king. Mistress America also passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, showing that a female centric comedy can be at the forefront of cinema.

10) It Follows (David Mitchell)

IT-FOLLOWS-Official-Trailer-YouTube-630x343The horror genre found a fresh vibe with this year’s sleeper hit It Follows, David Mitchell’s masterfully inventive much needed addition to the genre. The simple yet striking plot was like the physical manifestation of a chain letter as a gang of teenage friends try to protect one of their own who, after sleeping with her boyfriend, is pursued by a mysterious entity, one that is takes the form of different people as it persistently stalks its victim until the curse is transferred through sexual contact. Refreshingly the film does not use the narrative as an excuse for exploitation or titillation and instead builds upon a truly haunting sense of dread; the underlying theme of teenage sexualisation is handled with unspoken subtlety. Its John Carpenter meets The Virgin Suicides feel makes it the most stylish and more importantly most creepy horror of the year.

9) Slow West (John Maclean)

slow-west shaveMichael Fassbender continues his run of interesting choices and excellent performances with John Maclean’s sophomore Western. Set amongst the wild terrain of 19th century Colorado, former Beta Band member Maclean creates a sharp, tense tale of young Scottish man Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who travels to the plains of America in search of his love who has had to flee her home. Along the way he is ‘befriended’ by Fassbender’s Silas and tracked by an assortment of nefarious characters, all out for their own ill gotten gain, creating the classic trademarks of a Western. Yet Maclean brings a lyricism and a minimalist poetry to the film, aided by ravishing cinematography, splashes of Tarantino-esque violence and another charismatic turn by Fassbender.

8) The Duke of Burgandy (Peter Strickland)

The-Duke-of-Burgundy3-xlargeThe film that was everything that Fifty Shades wasn’t, erotic, playful, sexy and seductive, and all done without a splash of nudity; Peter Strickland’s third feature was a unique take on the ideas of an S &M relationship between two women. Set within an undisclosed time and place, though the detail suggests a rural 70s era, we are transported into an otherworldly vibe, where women attend lectures on butterflies and men appear to be wholly absent, all set to a sublime soundtrack by Cats Eyes. Though the film flirts with pastiche, it manages to retain a bewitching cocktail of the ideas of submission and dominance between two women whose roles are not as clearly defined as they seem. Strickland remains a director in total command of his vision and whose none conformity to the ideas of British cinema mark him as one of the most exciting filmmakers of the moment.

7) Appropriate Behaviour (Desiree Akhavan)

appropriate-behavior-2014-005-three-women-in-lingerie-store2015 was the year I fell for Desiree Akhavan after watching her witty, sardonic debut Appropriate Behaviour. A semi autobiographical tale of an Iranian twentysomething living in Brooklyn, trying and failing at both relationships and trying to tell her parents that she is bisexual, Akhavan has created a razor sharp comedy with echoes of a modern day Annie Hall and a suitable showcase for her writing/acting talent. Yes it may be another hip indie movie set in New York and has justifiable comparisons to Girls (Akhavan has since starred in the series) but in the Dunham era of female representation on screen, frankly I say the more the merrier, with Akhavan proving a welcome edition.

6) Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)

whiplash-003The film that made the words ‘Not my tempo’ as chilling as anything that may be delivered in a horror movie, Damien Chazelle’s debut takes the age old idea that art comes from suffering and applies this to the Jazz world creating the most tense film of the year. Miles Teller excels as young drummer Andrew who is pushed to his limits by the teacher whose approval he desires the most. That teacher is Fletcher played with magnificent authority by JK Simmons who dominates the film with his terrifying demeanour. The film also features some of the finest editing on screen this year, matching the music, note for note and building to a crescendo in the final scene that tests the nail biting patience of even the most resilient person.

5) Phoenix (Christian Petzold)

phoenixA plot reminiscent of 50s melodrama and Hitchcockian overtones combine to make the best foreign film of the year. Phoenix is a study of the physical and mental wounds of war and two people who have ‘survived’ it, Nelly (Nina Hoss) a Jewish former club singer who has undergone facial reconstruction after her ordeals in the War and Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) her husband who may or may not have shopped her to the SS. Nelly returns to her husband but he doesn’t recognise her and convinced his real wife is dead, instead offers her the opportunity to pose as Nelly so he can claim her inheritance. The characters are unable to see what the audience can, Johnny is unable to see his wife, for to do so he would have to accept the consequences of War and Nelly is unable to let go of her husband despite his duplicitous nature. The stage is set for an achingly brittle love story, with shades of Vertigo and Eyes without a Face, one which also provides the best final scene in a film this year, as Nelly performs ‘Speak Low’, the ramifications of War are fully realised in a devastating blow.

4) Star Wars (J J Abrams)

star wrs.jpgNot a huge fan-girl of the originals, nevertheless I cannot ignore the pure joyous cinematic thrill ride of J J Abrams return to form for the biggest franchise in the galaxy. Erasing the bitter taste left by ‘those three’, we get the sequel that Han, Leia and co truly deserve; both honouring the legacy carved before it and introducing new welcome additions to the film. Amongst those are Rey (Daisy Ridley-promising), Finn (John Boyega- star quality) and a magnificent new baddie in the form of Kylo Ren (the excellent Adam Driver).  The battle sequences showcase the sheer spectacle that cinema can hold and the sight of Han Solo back in the Millennium Falcon is one to cherish. To see it is to be transported back to childhood and to be reminded of how magical film can be.

3) Brooklyn (John Crowley)

BrooklynDirector John Crowley’s film succeeds where many Nicholas Sparks adaptations fail, to feel authentic and to take a woman’s relatable journey and turn it into something beautifully heartfelt. Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who leaves her homeland for better prospects in 1950s America and struggles adjusting to life without her family. However she finds romance with a young Italian (a charming Emory Cohen) but, through personal circumstances, is drawn back to Ireland and becomes torn between the two worlds. This is impeccable filmmaking with every element working, from the gorgeous cinematography to the pitch perfect performances from the entire cast, with Ronan at the heart of it all. Her performance encapsulates a range of emotions with each one delivered with restraint and sincerity, her wholly expressive face dominates the screen when words are simply not needed or will not form. Brooklyn is one of the years finest, a film that brims with a classic feel and builds with an exquisite swell and ache of the heart.

2) Carol (Todd Haynes)

cateWe all knew that the combination of director Todd Haynes, Cate Blanchett and source material from Patricia Highsmith would not be dynamite and Carol did not disappoint, becoming not just the most beautiful love story of the year but the most beautiful film of the year. Every detail of Hayne’s film is exquisite as we witness the relationship between two women in 1950s America who are unable to deny a love which transcends the time it was born into. Blanchett and Rooney Mara make for a magical pairing, both at the top of their acting game, matching each other perfectly with an expression yearning. Awards surely await this masterpiece of cinema.

1) Max Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

mad maxNo one knew quite what to expect from George Miller’s long delayed return to the Mad Max territory, and though a thrilling trailer suggested great things, it’s safe to say that many people were still blown away by the stonking bombastic spectacle that was Mad Max: Fury Road. Thrill rides don’t come any bigger or any more demented, from jaw dropping stunts to flame wielding guitars, the film plays like a steam punk version of Stagecoach as Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa betrays her tyrannical patriarch Immortan Joe (Mad Max stalwart Hugh Keays-Byrne). She takes across the desert in her war rig with Joe’s prized possessions, his ‘breeders’ (a group of scantily clad girls designed for baby making) and crosses paths with Tom Hardy’s Max, all of which leads to an almighty kamikaze showdown. The making of Fury Road has become just as infamous as the film, from the 30 year labour of love Miller has dedicated to this project, to the freedom and budget his vision was given by the studio (almost unheard of in this day and age), to the production of the film which favoured real custom built cars and real life effects instead of CGI, the results are blazed across the big screen. The film also gave us the most badass heroine since Ripley in the form of Theron’s one armed warrior Furiosa, and whilst Hardy’s Max is played with the actor’s usual magnetism, it is Theron who drives the film and is at its heart. She is a steely determined force of nature, unwavering in her mission and is played with iconic gusto by Theron, inspiring a legion of fans.

There is talk of sequels but it is hard to imagine they will be able to replicate this surprise beast, a true action tour de force and a truly mad film, one that smashes the theory that we have seen it all before, our eyes can witness something new, something that burns into our eyes as a visceral cinematic experience.