Films of the Year- 2019

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

Films 2019

10) Ad Astra (James Gray)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8) In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

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

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

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

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

7) Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

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

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

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

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

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

6) Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Monos (Alejandro Landes)

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

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

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

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

3) The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

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

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

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

Joint 1st) High Life (Claire Denis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joint 1st) Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.