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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review- Films of the Year

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

15) Logan Lucky (directed by Steven Sodenbergh)

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

14) Thor Ragnarok (directed by Taika Waititi)

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

13) Good Time (directed by the Safdie Brothers)

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

12) Logan (directed by James Mangold)

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

11) The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins)

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

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

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

5) The Handmaiden (directed by Park Chan Wook)

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

4) Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)

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

3) La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle)

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

2) The Florida Project (directed by Sean Baker)

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

1) A Ghost Story (directed by David Lowery)

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

Review-The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five of the best….looks in cinema

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

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

Tom Cruise- Magnolia (1999)

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

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

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

Al Pacino- The Godfather (1972)

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

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

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

Jean Seberg- A bout de Souffle (1960)

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

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

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

Kathleen Byron- Black Narcissus (1947)

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

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

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

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

Grace Kelly- Rear Window (1954)

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

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

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

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

Review- Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)

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Contains spoilers and quite a bit of ranting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Five of the best…times cinema has changed how I feel about a song/band/artist

Film and music are two forms which make for interesting and creative bedfellows, the power of the two combined have created some unforgettable partnerships.  There are so many films that are hard to imagine without their score (too many for me to even mention here, for fear of leaving out a classic) and there are those that are notable for the absence of any music at all. And away from the meticulously crafted scores, there are the songs that are chosen for films that can work wonders in a scene, from heightening the drama and pulling on the heartstrings to puncturing the memory with a slice of pop culture pop that makes you smile and tap your toes. And then there are the times in cinema, where a song comes along,  bursting within the walls of the frame  and takes you by surprise, whether it’s because you didn’t expect its  welcome presence or whether due to its somewhat strange appearance in a scene, it then changes your previous feelings towards that song completely.  And it’s these times when a song being used in cinema has transformed my relationship with it or the artist that I have pondered below to try and rationalise/excuse/accept what has happened.

*Please note that the below songs may have been used in other films but I am referencing them in the films that they stood out for me.

Dancing in the Moonlight- Toploader (used in Four Lions)

Man I hated this song, I mean really hated this song, when it first came out and ever since. Having not heard the original, all I had to go was Toploader’s annoying 90s version and boy did I hate it. It was the type of song that if it came on when I was out and about, I would be cursing in my head and counting down the moments until it was over. It was the type of song that if it came on in the car I would turn it off or mute it until it was over (if it was someone else in charge of the music, I would plead for their mercy to turn it off). It was the type of song that made me detest Jamie Oliver just for using it in his Naked Chef shenanigans. Bugger off Toploader with your big Moka!

Then something happened. When I first watched Chris Morris’ black comedy Four Lions, during a scene, that bloody song came on and at first I cringed at the prospect of having to endure the pop banality of the load of Top. But then I began to find its presence amusing, as a group of Muslim men sung along to the tune in between planning a suicide bombing, the song took on a different quality, the cheery inoffensive pop song cast amidst a plot that flirts with controversy created an absurd juxtaposition.  But then Morris does this so well, finding the humour within the incomprehensible, sometimes the only way to rationalise is with laughter. And then so Toploader’s one time Sainsburys advertising diarrhoea ditty becomes funny and dare I say likeable? Likeable in the sense that now when I hear it, I don’t imagine Jamie and chums whipping up tasty bangers in the kitchen but instead now imagine a bunch of idiots in a van or in a flat in Sheffield, the goofiness of the situation makes me smile.  Something I never thought would happen with a Toploader tune.

God Only Knows- The Beach Boys (performed by Paul Dano in Love and Mercy)

Ok so I already really liked this song and had heard it many many times, Pet Sounds is often played on repeat in our household (as it is one of the greatest albums ever made) but when I watched Love and Mercy, the song was transformed for me. The film is a biographical drama about Brian Wilson, seen through two major periods of his life, the 60s and the 80s and offers two versions of Wilson in the form of Paul Dano and John Cusack. Whilst Cusack is competent as the elder Wilson, it is Dano as the younger version that steals the film and leaves you wanting more of his timeline; in fact a whole film of Dano’s Wilson during the making of Pet Sounds would have been better. It is in one of these scenes that Dano performs a simple early version of God Only Knows, just him at the piano in his house, watched by his domineering father and it is in this moment that I felt I was hearing the song for the first time; such was the power of the scene.  The fragility of Wilson and in turn, the song made God Only Knows feel so much more beautiful, its simplistic nature also turns out to be its greatest strength, it has a purity and honesty that endures and still captivates. Learning about Wilson’s life in the film also gives the song another layer of depth, the cathartic output coinciding with the pain he suffered.  Dano’s performance of God Only Knows gave me goose bumps in the cinema and took a great song and made it into celluloid majesty.

Firework- Katy Perry (used in Rust and Bone)

Katy Perry conjures up many thoughts and connotations – bubblegum pop princess with a tendency for over-shouting in her songs, purveyor of kitsch costumes and enough Technicolor to give you eye strain, sworn enemy of the Swifty or most recently one lucky lady on her hols (if you haven’t already seen the pics, google Orlando Bloom on a paddle board). But, as popular as her music is, we don’t tend to see it as very deep, instead it is pure emphatic pop, though when taken into a different situation, what was previously a cheesy pop song suddenly feels empowering and dare I say moving? That is what happens in Jacques Audiard’s 2012 drama Rust and Bone, in a scene featuring Marion Cotillard, a former killer whale trainer who has lost both her legs after a terrible accident at the whale park where she worked. We first hear Katy Perry’s song Firework as we see Cotillard’s character Stephanie performing a routine with the whales for a crowd of visitors at the park; it is the song that they use for the performance. After Stephanie is injured she loses all sense of her previous identity, confined to a wheelchair and unable to adjust to her new circumstance she is consumed by a sense of defeat. An unlikely friendship with an unemployed man trying to support his son (Matthias Schoenaerts) brings a change in Stephanie and in a scene where Perry’s song again is heard on the radio this time as Stephanie is by herself, she begins to perform the routine that she used to with the whales. Whilst she is in her wheelchair this time, her face begins to change as she performs her arm movements and the song kicks in to accompany this, Stephanie remembers the life she had but this time, it is not in a negative way. She begins to smile, a sense of purpose returns to her, you can see the fight returning to her and as this happens Perry’s song becomes emotive and triumphant. It may seem contrived to say that the lyrics of Firework take on a deeper meaning but in that moment, they really do, the power of cinema shows that in the right context, a song that once felt throwaway can become resonant and leave you now imagining that imagery whenever you hear it. Not bad for a bit of pop fluff eh?

Avril 14th– Aphex Twin (used in Marie Antoinette)

My knowledge of Aphex Twin was pretty narrow (and still is to be honest) and I only associated the British electronic artist with the terrifying imagery from the video Come to Daddy or the equally disturbing Window Licker which I remember being fascinated and horrified by in a film studies lesson. So when I was watching Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and a beautiful piece of piano based music was played during a scene I was really surprised when it turned out to be Aphex Twin. It was also surprising that in a film with a soundtrack of pop and offbeat choice which Coppola uses to juxtapose the time period, (like hearing The Strokes as Kirsten Dunst runs around the palace in a full powdered wig), that the inclusion of Aphex Twin turns out to be one of the pieces of music that fits the most. Its soft, melancholy piano also lends to the shift in Coppola’s film where the hedonistic earlier scenes of Marie Antoinette indulging the riches of her new royal lifestyle give way to a woman who is confined into the life that she has married into, the images of her in full regalia as she walks through fields craving more solitude, that she later briefly finds when she bears a child. Interestingly the song is also used in the closing credits to (previous entry) Four Lions and also provides the most melancholy moment in that film too.

Avril 14th hints at what a film score from Aphex Twin might be like, that the artist who is always one step ahead, who sounds like the future (according to my musical other half) might be able to strip back the electronica and produce a more classical sound akin to film composition, one which could be emotive and soulful. Aphex Twin’s inclusion in Marie Antoinette created a shift in how I saw/heard the artist and perhaps if he could produce more music like this I could see less of the earlier scary images in my head.

Dancing in the Dark- Bruce Springsteen (used in A Place beyond the Pines)

I am going to make a confession here- before hearing this song in Derek Cianfrance’s cross generational crime drama, I didn’t realise how awesome it was. My only thoughts on it were that it was ‘the one where Monica dances in the video’ and perhaps shamefully thought that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t really my sort of music, resigning it the label of ‘Dad Rock’. But when Ryan Gosling appeared in the film, he was at the height of his powers, coming off the back of his cooler than cool performance in Drive (he is the sole reason the rise of the shiny bomber has come back with a vengeance) and anything he did was laced with an air of stylish charm. Dancing in the Dark appears in a brief scene where Gosling’s stunt biker Luke has just completed a successful robbery and is celebrating with his cohort Robin (the equally awesome but for different reasons Ben Mendelsohn) and his dog. Sometimes it takes a different setting to make you see or hear something in a different way and this is what happens with the Bruce Springsteen track for me. It is likely that any scene where Gosling dances with a dog is going to charm you and make you take notice but the song still has to be good and hearing it in A Place beyond the Pines , I realised how good it actually was. I began to seek out a bit of Bruce and realised I had been wrong, or maybe it’s because I am getting older that I am succumbing to old American rock. Whichever it is, I know recognise that Bruce is boss and Dancing in the Dark now reigns supreme on most of the playlists I create. When it comes on at the next wedding reception I am at, I will take to the dance-floor and channel Gosling and his furry friend.

 

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

Warning- Contains plot details/spoilers

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

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

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

Inside Llewyn Davies (The Coen Brothers, 2013)

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

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

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

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

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

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

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