Due to a current hectic life schedule and my writing for Film Inquiry, my blog has now become severely neglected and redundant however for my few readers who have asked (thank you and I love you), I will continue to do my films of the year.
As always there are some that I may have missed that could have made the cut (such as awards favourite Roma) but again hectic times in my household mean that, despite a healthy lot of cinema viewings, I haven’t always managed to see everything I wanted.
So here is my round up of what has grabbed my cinematic sensibilities this year
10) I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that the story of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding would make for an intriguing film but still I,Tonya was a bombshell blast, a spiky mockumentary biopic with knockout performances. Margot Robbie gives a gutsy uninhibited performance as Tonya Harding, the scrappy skater who worked her way from the wrong side of the redneck tracks to outperform her privileged competitors. But she was always considered the outsider, her homemade costumes and unorthodox style at odds with the stuffy snobbery of the elite skating world. So, when she became embroiled in a violent attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, the establishment, and more notably, the press found their villain and Harding’s career became a car crash, played out on the world’s stage.
Craig Gillespie’s film uses the chaotic events surrounding Tonya’s life and career to present wildly varying sides to the narrative from the key players involved and which creates a wildly entertaining film, as jagged and barbed as the ice and blades around it. Whist the stories may conflict and whilst the audience’s preconceptions of Harding may differ, the film makes it clear, that despite everything else she was a fighter, an underdog who was hit by life (and literally by most of her family). I Tonya dazzles with its intense skating sequences and eccentric characters, particularly Harding’s force of nature mother LaVona (played in towering fashion by Alison Janney) so when the fallout of the Kerrigan incident hits, it hits hard. Beyond the outrageously entertaining antics, we see the price that Harding paid for her role as skating’s bad-girl. In one scene Robbie sits waiting to perform on the ice rink, her face made up in cartoonish fashion, she alternates between grinning and grimacing as she realises her fate as the crowd’s court jester. Whatever your take on Harding before the film, by the end Robbie’s fearless performance will make you rethink it.
9) Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Whilst the UK was experiencing some of its hottest weather in years, Hereditary came along to chill us to the bone and take us to some very dark places. Toni Collette, who already has had a rough time cinematically in a variety of put upon roles, had her most brutal part to date as Annie, a woman trying to keep her family together after the death of her suspiciously secretive mother. To say she goes through the ringer is an understatement in a film so intrinsically unsettling, it clings to every fibre of your being, enveloping you in a wrath of dread and doesn’t let go, even after the credits have rolled. Owing a debt to Rosemary’s Baby is never a bad thing and Hereditary evokes the paranoia of the 60s classic with its suffocating, all-consuming nightmare, where the scares come from knowing everyone is out to get you and there is no escape, no matter what you do.
A uniformly excellent cast commit to their parts so well, particularly Collette whose face belies the gauntlet of terror she is faced with and Alex Wolff as her son Peter whose teenage façade quickly crumbles in the wake of impending and sustained panic, reducing him to a simpering child. It also features one of the year’s most shocking scenes, one that escalates quickly to a moment that you can’t quite believe just happened. With Hereditary horror continues its ascent to be regarded again as a genre with merit, way past just cheap frills and easy frights, to grip hold of an audience with a disturbing presence. Long may its comeback continue I say, though I am not sure my nerves agree.
8) Mission Impossible- Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
I have said it before and I will say it again, no one gives you more bang for your buck than Tom Cruise, he is your bone fide movie star and the Buster Keaton of blockbusters. But even he outdid himself with the latest instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise, which was this year’s stellar standout actioner. It deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible to witness the multitude of set pieces and stunts that Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie had the balls to think of and then actually execute. From a car chase through the streets of Paris, to rooftop pursuits and culminating in a helicopter chase that has a literal heart in the mouth moment, you can feel every crunch and crack as Cruise pushes the limits of what is possible in terms of practical stunts.
But this is not all just flash and showiness, there is an intelligent script with narrative twists and turns and the interplay between the actors shows the emotional depth that these characters have been drawn into as each Mission progresses. Mission Impossible Fallout succeeds in both feeling slightly retro with its cinematic sensibilities but also thoroughly modern with its approach, where grown up clever action films are perilously in short supply, it is a welcome franchise that has produced one of its best films so far down the line. The only impossible part may be topping Fallout and if they do, I am not sure the audience’s anxiety levels can take it.
7) You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited return to cinema after her gut punching adaptation of We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) is an equally dark and nightmarish tale, with echoes of Taxi Driver but also with a murky beat of its own. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a war veteran who is sleepwalking through a life of pain and violence and who is now a gun for hire, retrieving missing children for those that will pay for his brutal services. When he is hired to find the daughter of a senator, it draws Joe into a sinister world which will have repercussions to his own sparse but personal life.
Make no mistake that this is feel-bad cinema at its best, with Ramsay creating a series of disturbing and cruel scenes that build upon a world filled with dread and despair. The narrative may sound like something for a Liam Neeson actioner, but this is not a redemptive revenge tale where everything will be made right in the end. Phoenix’s Joe is a man that feels like he is already dead and is just living in his own tortured purgatory, he is a physically and emotionally bruised shadow that walks the earth. The only warmth in his life is with his mother, a scene where they sing to each other whilst polishing cutlery is tender and becomes even more devastating after the reverberations of Joe’s course of action. The film is set to a pulsating score by Jonny Greenwood that clings to the sides of the frame, heightening the jet- black menace that is found around every corner. You Were Never Really Here is not an easy watch but it is a fascinating piece of work by Ramsay, a strangely hypnotic experience where you may want to turn away but can’t bring yourself to.
6) Widows (Steve McQueen)
Following his Oscar winning epic 12 Years a Slave (2013) with a film based on an 80s Lynda La Plante miniseries seemed like a very odd choice for director Steve McQueen. But it’s a left turn idea that paid rich rewards, creating a barnstorming crime thriller with strong performances across the board. Whilst the idea of a heist job being pulled off by an all- female crew must have been progressive in the 1980s, there is still a sense that we are watching something new, fresh and crucially exciting. Lead by a commanding Viola Davis, each member of the team is allowed time to flesh out their interesting characters and motives for taking part in a job that they are not ready for. With a screenplay by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, the interplay between the women, at first cagey and cautious and then finding some form of bond in their enforced situation, means the audience care and invest in their lives.
Whilst the female characters rightly dominate the screen, there is strong support from the all the rest of the cast, Colin Farrell encompasses both charm and callousness in equal spades as a morally corrupt politician. Daniel Kaluuya meanwhile is terrifying as the brother and henchman to Brian Tyree Henry’s criminal turned politician, his pursuit of Davis and co is nail biting stuff and every time he is on screen, there is an air of unpredictably akin to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. McQueen relocates the action from London to Chicago, which allows for some social commentary to flow into the narrative, the divides of the haves and the have nots clear to see on the streets of the city, where the wealthy continue to line their pockets while others struggle to keep afloat. The director also shows he is as equally adept at dealing with action sequences as well as dramatic arches with an opening scene that skilfully combines both, throwing us headlong into this world without a moments pause. Despite a long running time, the film flies along without a single frame wasted, each one building and escalating the stakes higher to a tense finale which still combines depth and emotion amongst its chaos. Where McQueen goes next from here may be anyone’s guess but after nailing another genre, it will be a tense and anticipated wait.
5) Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Storming out of the blocks to herald the start of a new year came Martin McDonagh’s blistering, bruising and blackly funny Three Billboards. We already knew that Frances McDormand was a fearless actress but even she outdid herself with her towering performance as … a mother taking the law into her own hands after her daughter’s murder continues to go unsolved. It is a sucker punch of a role, a melting pot of rage and grief, raw and rousing and it felt like a call to arms right at the height of the Me Too movement, proving that women can command the screen with the fire and fury that is usually only reserved for men.
McDormand dominates the screen yet also allows her co-stars their moment to shine, particularly Sam Rockwell, who confirms what many of us have known for a long time, that he is Hollywood’s unsung MVP. Three Billboards wasn’t for everyone though, some were uneasy with the brash brushstrokes it created, and its award sweeping run up to the Oscars was dashed on the big night by Del Toro. But for those who got McDonagh’s groove, there was much to admire, his ability to turn the narrative from fist pumping vigilante antics to the silent ache of a mourning mother is a masterclass in modern storytelling.
4) A Quiet Place (John Kransinski)
In a world where information about a film is accessible to our searching fingertips and when the hype machine builds up a release, months before it lands on the screen, one of cinema’s greatest remaining pleasures is the sleeper hit. A film that seemingly comes from nowhere without any burden of sequel, reboot or remake and that captures the imagination of an audience ready for something that feels fresh and new. This year that accolade went to John Krasinski’s barnstorming thriller A Quiet Place which gave its viewers a silent, nail biting, nerve shredding experience and also took cinema screens back to their intended state- noiseless and free of phone screens as all were engrossed in it’s almost wordless narrative. In a post-apocalyptic world, survivors must remain silent to avoid attracting the attention of giant predators that, whilst blind, have advanced hearing and will attack at the slightest sound. We follow a family, Lee (Kransinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their two children who live in a countryside house, adapted and kitted out to withstand a world that must be quiet at all times. They have managed to create a survivalist form of living, but they will soon be confronted with a new challenge as Evelyn is about to have a baby where she must remain silent during childbirth and where they must find a way to keep their new-born hushed.
A Quiet Place delivers an almost unbearably tense cinematic ride, with Kransinski showing he can direct taut set pieces that would make Spielberg proud and reduce cinemagoers to anxiety ridden messes by the end of its running time. But amidst the silent chills, the film also raises questions about our humanity and what life we would have to live if we were denied a fundamental part of our existence, our ability to express emotions through sound. And at its very core, it is a film of hope and love, with one particular scene showing the heart-breaking paternal instinct that a parent will provide no matter what.
3) Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Debra Granik’s second and most prominent feature Winter’s Bone (2010) dealt with characters leaving on the fringes of society, cut off from the wider world and who create their own microcosm of rules and ways of life. Her new film Leave No Trace shares its DNA with its central narrative about an army veteran Will (Ben Foster) suffering from PTSD who lives in the vast forests of a national park in Portland Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). However, their self-contained world is shattered by a small mistake and they are thrown into the guidance of social services and a reintroduction to society that Will is unable to adjust to but where Tom begins to discover the pieces of life that she wants.
Leave No Trace is a film of beautifully judged and subtle moments, there is no overdramatic teenage acts from Tom as she begins to pull away from the world that her father had created for them. Instead it’s a culmination of tender moments that embed like whispers on the wind, making you want Tom to have those that she cannot and quietly devastated when she is pulled away from another chance of home. But the film doesn’t paint Will as the monster, his reasons for his way of life are valid and his love for his daughter unwavering, both Foster and McKenzie portray their parts magnificently so you are on both sides of the coin, able to see each other’s actions and motives. So much so that the final scene between father and daughter is all the more heart-breaking, the pull for both of them to another way of life will the catalyst to break their unified bond. Ironically for a film titled Leave No Trace, it is a film that will linger in your thoughts long after, its trail of human emotion leaving a footprint in your memory.
2) Ladybird (Greta Gerwig)
There have been many coming of age films but none that have struck a chord with me as much as Greta Gerwig’s fabulously observed Ladybird. Set in Sacramento in 2002, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine but who insists to be called by her given name Ladybird (when questioned by a teacher she declares ‘It was given to me, by me’). She clashes with her mother Marion (a stellar Laurie Metcalf), particularly on her desire to go to college in New York to experience culture, her lofty ambitions are in opposition to the family’s ability to pay the tuition fees. Ronan is superb as the self-assured teen, even in her brattier moments of behaviour, she still manages to charm with her unwavering conviction that usually eludes many awkward adolescents.
Indie darling Gerwig directs with confidence and a keen eye for all the small details that makes the film soar with heart and spirit, period touches feel authentic and every character has the chance to shine. Whilst the narrative deals with the familiar coming of age milestones- prom night, losing virginity, fallouts with best friends, it also puts as much emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship and this is where its depth and painful familiarity emerges. In one scene, as they shop for prom dresses, Ladybird asks her mother if she likes her, her mother is quick to reply with ‘of course I love you’. But Ladybird presses the matter and replies ‘But do you like me?’ The air hangs with uncertainty and the realisation that, whilst the love between parent and child is undeniable, our attitude as teenagers often puts a strain on our parent’s ability to connect and actually like us at certain times. It is a bitter pill to swallow and holds a mirror up to how we acted in our teens, I myself squirmed recalling past encounters with my parents when I was loaded with a youthful know it all arrogance and I felt the strong urge to hug my mum after watching the film. Gerwig has created a modern classic in the underrepresented female adolescence pantheon, one that feels deeply personal but also will feel entirely relatable for many. It is a funny but bittersweet memory to a time filled with joy and anticipation of what life holds ahead but also to the reality that is waiting to clip our wings before we have even taken flight.
1) American Animals (Bart Layton)
Bart Layton followed up his blistering documentary The Imposter (2012) with another film based on true events but whose lines became significantly blurred between fact and fiction. American Animals tells the true crime story of four college students in Kentucky, who in 2003, boldly and foolishly attempted one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Layton combines both factual reconstruction and documentary style with the action cutting to interviews with the real people involved, which adds depth and differing versions to the unfolding drama. The effect is a fascinating portrait of a bunch of kids who became bewitched by an idea, without thinking of the consequences and it is also a riveting heist movie whose players are themselves influenced by iconic crime films. In one scene the gang wade through a ton of DVDs including Rififi and Reservoir Dogs, seduced by their air of coolness but oblivious to how these tales actually end, a precursor to how ill-conceived their plan actually is.
The actors playing the real-life students all bring a different energy and conflicting stances to the heist, Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters particularly excel as the two main protagonists Spencer Rheinhard and Warren Lipka. Keoghan waves the line between a cautious unease and an entranced abandonment, all etched on his intriguing face, his need for something to bring greater richness to his art leading him away from his intended, resolute path. Peters meanwhile gets the showier role as the erratic and unpredictable Lipka, his misplaced confidence and maddening behaviour is somehow transfixing in Peters hands, the actor’s hypnotic swagger recalling a young Malcolm McDowell. Layton’s direction flits between playful homages (the boys imagine their intended heist to resemble a cheeky Oceans 11 slick operation) and authentic realisation, with the actual plan turning into a confused, frantic mess, the arrogance of youth held up directly on scene. But for all its slicks and tricks, American Animals never feels gimmicky or exploitative, instead it is a fascinating portrait, brilliantly constructed look at how a hair brained scheme promises, but ultimately fails to lead your life to a better outcome.