The Top 10 films of 2019

One of the hardest things about writing a Top 25 Films of the Year list is making the difficult decision of which quality selections are going to be left out. What often perplexes me when people inquire about my annual end of year ‘best of’ tradition, is that people are surprised that there are enough good films out in a year to warrant such an extensive list. The reality is exactly the opposite. The hard part is not getting to 25, but highlighting only 25 films. Anyone keeping a list of the best films of the year,often finds that come November, the list of praise-worthy cinema is ever lengthening.

Ranking the best cinema has to offer is inherently flawed, since you are trying to numerically quantify pieces of art that have affected you in widely differing ways. Still, it is the best method of introducing people to films that may otherwise entirely stay off radar. A film critic has a better chance of enticing people to discover a film when it is on an end of year best of list, than they do as a stand alone review. 

With that in mind, films that have stayed with me, and at least deserve an honorary mention are included here:

Birds of Passage. How the drug trade got started in Northern Columbia, offered a poignant and ruminative portrait of how greed tears through communities. It was a great follow-up and companion piece to director’s Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent. Both films were inspired reflections of the legacy of destruction down in South America at the hands of outside influence.

Arctic was a tense and taught survival film with an authentic and sympathetic performance from Denmark’s Mads Mikkelsen. 

Other really good films that didn’t make the list include: Destroyer; Climax; Three Identical Strangers; Burning; The King; Booksmart; Brightburn; Wildlife.

 

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Release Date: May Taiwan

10. Free Solo

Imagine scaling America’s highest peaks and only having a few ropes to safeguard you in the event of a fall. Now imagine climbing them without the ropes. This is the point in which you enter into the seemingly deranged sport of free climbing. This eye-opening documentary gripped tighter than a free solo’s fingers to bare faced rock.  It’s possibly the only sport in which just one tiny mistake in a whole career would result in certain death. The imagery of a man on a ledge thousands of feet up, with the same safety equipment a young boy might have used to climb trees, i.e. none, was the most jaw-dropping footage it is ever possible to commit to celluloid. It is so extraordinary that the people who provided it are in the film as characters, representing the fear and anguish that everyone except the climber himself seems to have. They are aware of the delicacy of the situation, so they are worried that the intrusion of their cameras may increase chances of a grave mistake. It’s a feeling of apprehension that the audience can relate to far more than the mentality of the subject. 

You winced, squirmed and shifted uncomfortably in your seat watching him, in a way you would think would be reserved for only his family members had he used safety equipment. But the sheer terror of knowing that just a slight slip of the fingers would bring about his demise, made Free Solo one of the most tense and nervy films of the year. 

The mind boggles about what it takes to have such an unshakable sense of believe in yourself to take on such a death-defying quest. What sort of level of self-confidence in one’s own abilities do you need to possess to be so assured that you will not make even one mistake on a climb of a few thousand feet? The character you meet at the center of Free Solo defies every preconception that you have before watching the film. The conclusion the film made about how its subject had such composure in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, was as surprising as the challenge itself, leaving the audience plenty to reflect on post-credits after one of the most extraordinary documentaries you will ever see.  Those who saw Free Solo on the big screen this year, got a taste of what it is to cling to rocks thousands of feet up. Hearts were in mouths and audiences reacted with the same sense of awe as if a miracle had been witnessed, and in a way, the sport in Free Solo, if it isn’t totally mad, is miraculous. 

 

 

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Release Date: January Taiwan/UK

9. Cold War

In his debut Ida, director Pawal Pawlikowski made a fascinating film, shot with moody black and white cinematography about a Polish girl journeying into secrets that change her identity. His second feature has lots of parallels with his debut: sumptuous black and white cinematography, a narrative probing under the surface of period-set Polish life and characters carefully rendered from real life observations. The film is loosely about the relationship he perceived of his parents.  The two films have made him a rising name in World Cinema; Cold War crossed over to the West, fueled by across the board critical appraisal, which allowed it to run the gauntlet of awards recognition. Ida and Cold War have lifted his profile and put Polish cinema back on the map. 

The striking poster of a couple warmly embracing contrasts the icy depiction of the relationship within. There is more than a hint in the title of how the director has depicted this marriage. The director is not interested in surface sheen, he is interested in capturing the complexity of how their relationship is affected moving from their native Poland, rural an impoverished, to the ritz of the Parisian playboy worlds of lavish parties. 

Cinema loves romance, but it has always struggled to capture the multi-layered complexity of relationships, both the bitter and the sweet that develops over years and years of shared experiences. And that is one of the many reasons why Cold War was such a refreshing depiction of a relationship. Set over many decades, it captured how decisions made over a long and shared journey together can strengthen, distort and perhaps even strangle. There is no doubt that the two characters in Cold War love each other enough to endure together as life partners. Their relationship is something of a double edged sword: they enhance each other, have mesmerizing chemistry and a mutually complementary air of sophistication, but their enduring love for each other has a dark side, with a suggestion that their bond is actually also corrosive. Such an unusually complex and deep character dynamic resonated throughout, leading to a finale that was among the boldest endings to a film in cinema in 2019.  

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Release date: January Taiwan/ UK

8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Another Spider-man origin story seemed about as fun as and as welcomed as being bitten by a poisoned arachnid. Filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller – the hottest property in American animation outside of Pixar – were self-aware of this over-saturation point for Spidey and flipped it on its head, feeding Spider-man into a prism, with a knowing wink and finding that with some twists and distortions to the formula, a colorful stream of Spidey-related ideas streamed out the other side. In this universe, your friendly neighborhood Spider-man could be anyone in the neighborhood: a guy in his thirties; a detective; a girl and most notably a black teenager. It was a genesis of an idea, far-out and wildly adventurous, proving this story could be spun in more ways than one.

Visually, the film resurrected and reshaped a comic book format, abandoned since Ang Lee’s The Hulk, and fused it with a street-art style punk-ish vibrancy. It was an imaginative animated style that really made for an eye-popping spectacle. Filmmakers have always worried too much about distancing their visual form away from the hyper-stylized worlds of comics, so to see Lord and Miller fully taking on this challenge of making a comic book film celebrating comic books, in a fast–paced kinetic style, was really thrilling. 

Phil Lord and Miller have a fresh snappy comic style all of their own, and their humour applied to the Spider-Man Universe worked wonders in freshening up well worn material. 

You would think that far-out theories of the quantum realm would be too weighty to work in a superhero movie, but it was the connective spark that made this film so outlandishly from a different realm of the imagination.

In the end, there was a sense of inspiring another generation to think creatively about one of America’s most enduring superheroes. Thanks to Into the Spider-verse, you were free to subjectively stylize Spider-Man to whatever you wanted him to be in 2019. 

 

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Release date: Taiwan June UK February 2020

7. Parasite

The ever growing disparity between the way the affluent and the poor are living is now so wide that it is possible to live in different worlds even when you reside in the same city. All around the world this is happening and at least three films from Asia in 2019 reflected these social issues. Shoplifters, from Japan, was a bittersweet, underplayed drama showing how the poor band together on the fringes of Japanese society to survive and support each other – it scooped last year’s Palme D’or for its beautiful depiction of the galvanizing flip-side of poverty. We also had two films from South Korea which captured a brewing social discontent under the surface of society. Burning gained a simmering tension as the film quietly and subtly commented on the dangers of alienation; and Parasite used the wealth gap for an extraordinary vision of two families, from different classes living massively contrasting lives. 

South Korean director Boong Ju Hun has been one of the most prolific directors of the decade. Furthermore, he has done something that only a handful of Asian directors have done, in that he has crossed over from making Eastern films, to Western films and then back again to make films in Asia. 

Parasite continues his trend of reflecting socio-political themes in his films, in fascinating and unique ways. His films seem designed to stir up reflection on social issues swept under the carpet in society. In Okja, he reflected on the hidden mechanics of the meat industry and in Snowpiercer he made a film about how the rich and poor are kept in separate spaces. In Parasite, the barrier between the rich and the poor’s lives is lowered in a series of astonishing and shocking plot developments. One family, living in dire conditions, seeking out a living folding pizza boxes, cunningly engineered a way of gaining employment at a rich family’s estate, first in an impressively crafty way, and then in an increasingly more desperate and dubious style. At first, the film played rather lightly, as a black comedy, capturing how the only jobs left in these difficult economic times are those in humble service to the extremely wealthy. There was a catalyst about midway through, a game-changing moment, that was impossible to foresee, which, started a chain reaction of incredibly tense and involving events unfolding, that gripped in an enjoyably agonizing way. 

One of the many great things about South Korean cinema is that it is anything but predictable. There are usually tone and mood shifts that come out of the blue, which totally change the dynamics of storytelling. Protagonists are often suddenly treated coldly, as if they are being directed by old testament gods, rather than someone who cares for their plight. It is an entirely different attitude than how mainstream American films treat protagonists, which means the films often have sudden unpredictable moments of cruel drama or that adhere to the narratives of reality rather than fantasy. Parasite was another great example of how enjoyably ruthless South Korean cinema can be.  

The stage the film was largely set on was a beautifully designed, airy and spacious house with a garden; contrasting this we saw the dire dwellings of the main characters, who were all huddled together in damp, messy conditions. Both spaces were integral to what happens in the story and both send a message of how these circumstances shape personalities and lives. The poor yearn for what the rich take for granted and the rich amble through life oblivious to the suffering of the underclass. What is nice about the film, is that it makes its point about society without having to demonize the rich. The evil is the disparity between the two families. You have to buy into the rich family as naive but amiable, in order for the story to work. The unawareness of what was happening in front of them, made for a massively suspenseful plot as well as quietly projected its message that the rich do not see the human cost of these changes to society. How this message is done was brilliantly inspired, with almost every scene having a visual poetry to capture its themes of inequality. There was a lovely duality to the film – even the title Parasite could work in connection for how both families are living their lives if you reflect on it.  The film was rich in lyrical metaphor about how the poor are almost unknowingly pitted against each other when jobs are scarce in society. 

As the poor continue to grow in numbers in big cities around the world, it is interesting how they seem to be ignored to the point of invisibility. How Boog Ju Hu uses this point as the touchstone for a gripping, satirical, dark, blackly comic, twisted screenplay, is ingenious.  Parasite followed in the footsteps of Shoplifters as a totally deserved winner of the Palme D’or. See it now before an inevitable – but understandable – Hollywood remake and before it gets deserved Oscar buzz in the foreign language category. 

 

 

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Release Date: Taiwan August UK January

6. Blinded by the Light 

Have you ever had a transformative experience when a song lyric just speaks to you at the right moment in your life? The music of Bruce Springsteen reflects the plight of the working class struggle so perceptively that it has provided many people in such circumstances with this kind of epiphany. The twist in this film was that the working class boy is the second generation of a Pakistan family, adapting to life in the kind of small town people may strife to break out of – like a character in one of The Boss’ songs. This isn’t the Badlands of America though, this is Luton in the 1980s; the Thatcher-driven threat of unemployment unsettles in the background and a racial tension could be lurking around the corner – there is darkness on the edge of town. The boy in question (named Javed) felt poetry in his soul and a desire to be a writer; against the will of his father, who wanted him to pick a more lucrative field. He needed a mentor, which he found when a peer of his handed him an album by The Boss. 

The way the film visually represented the creative awakening the boy had is done so well by Indian female director Gurinda Chadha. A personal internal moment of connectivity Javed had when he realized Bruce’s lyrics perfectly capture his own plight, prompted a number of magical, infectious sequences. Lyrics were projected onto walls, as a burst of  expressive energy was released from a working class hero homing in on his potential. 

Music speaks to people who feel isolated in a way that friends, family and peers may not grasp. Blinded by the Light illustrated that connectivity better than anything I’ve seen before. 

There is a body of work that captures the struggle of being Asian and trying to find your place in British society. Films such as East is East, Chadha’s own Bend it Like Beckham and even last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody have captured the struggles of trying to reconcile Western-influenced ambitions in an Eastern subculture. Blinded by the Light shines brightly alongside these films at illustrating the young Asian’s internal conflict: How do you adapt, grow and find the individualism required to succeed in the West, whilst still not betraying the values of the culture you hail from? There is a tension in this paradox that creates great drama in Blinded by the Light and the aforementioned films. Globalization has created many opportunities, but it has simply ignored the fact that people from different parts of the world have opposing attitudes to conservatism and liberalism.  

We are living through an age where celebrity culture is oversold to us. This film reminded us about what an inspiration artists can provide if their poetry connects to your soul.  

If you want to be a writer, or you are someone with a dormant creative inner persona, this was one of the year’s most essential films.

 

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Release date: January Taiwan/ UK

5. The Favourite   

Yorgos Lanthimos has been experimenting with weird, irregular, disorientating and strange cinema for a while now ever since his debut The Lobster, but this was the moment that his style clicked to become something quite special. From the outside, the period setting, and lavish costumes made The Favourite look like a traditional royal drama. But Lanthimos, had great fun subverting expectations by taking the oddball monarch of Princess Ann and slotting her into  a mesmerizing three way character-driven power struggle between three really textured female characters. The script, the dialogue and the power play between the three leads, was very offbeat, surreal and modern for what looked like a costume drama. The Greek director continued to distort already unconventional storytelling with off-kilter, fully barbed dialogue exchanges, bizarre shots using fish-eye lenses and a wry satirical tone. It’s unconventional in itself to see a film driven by three strongly written, multi-layered female leads. But to take a female character story and plot it with this much edge, this much wry-fascinating, complexity was something that was stand alone unique.  

The film fully explored the depth of the premise, with a game behind the throne involving power play and manipulation. The twists and turns and shifted dynamics between Oscar winning Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Any stuffy white male film execs who think three women cannot carry a film should watch The Favourite and see what unpredictable story-telling is possible if one is willing to imagine female characters as something more than objects to be exchanged between male counterparts. 

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Release date: Taiwan June Uk May

4 . Rocketman 

A sequin-suited, towering sparkly demon barges into rehab – a poetic visual metaphor for the soul of Reg Dwight aka Elton John was born! The musical biopic is trending in cinema lately, but Rocketman managed to get under the skin of its subject far more successfully than others in the genre. 

Elton John is a colorful character with a checkered life. His considerable flamboyance lends itself to spectacular musical fantasy sequences and boy did Dexter Flectcher conjure some tributes to do justice to the man. The opening set-piece, of Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, burst away from the responsibility of telling the backstory of Dwight’s youth, and had audiences buzzing with excitement, to such a level that they could barely stay contained in their chairs. Rocketman took off from there. Every subsequent set-piece was peppered with Elton’s shimmering magic. 

One of the reasons why Rocketman surged above other films of this ilk, is that it had an original idea at its core, which validated the many colorful flights into fantasy the film took. The idea was not that this was Elton’s life, but that it was Elton recalling his own view of his life, from the crisis point of rehab. The rules were established in the first five minutes, which gave the film creative license to play around with blurring the lines between reality and extravagance. 

Stars struggling to contain the fallout from a meteoric rise to fame are a stable of biopic cinema. A descent into a hellish world of drugs and depression has been the fate of many stars, of which Elton John was one of the most prominent. But Rocketman actually provides an explanation for the source of the damage, which movingly works out the Elton John conundrum, whilst offering a rare insight into why so many stars launch a journey into self-destruction.

The way Flectcher dexterously told the story between the struggles of Elton’s working class upbringing and the heady stage show act he escaped into, was beautifully woven. You get a strong sense that if you don’t have an emotionally satisfied inner core, then fame and fortune are just window dressing that do not disguise a tortured soul. Lots of people see the wealth and fame of stars and wonder why they are not happy with everything. Rocketman actually provides a personal explanation. A fantastic performance from Taron Egerton is the vehicle for which the vibrancy of Elton shines through. Elton himself was so pleased with his portrayal, that he actually invited Taron on stage to perform with him. That is probably a higher honour than receiving any award recognition. Rocketman filtered the essence of Elton through a kaleidoscopic fantasy that sparkled and excited whilst also telling the Rocketman’s poignant, personal tale.  

 

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Release Date: Taiwan/Uk October

3. Joker 

DC comics’ most iconic super villain was transformed into a Scorsese-style anti-hero and transported into a Gotham that resembled the means streets of a gritty seventies film. The result was the year’s most controversial film. Genuinely rattling the establishment before its release, Joker went on to both divide and strike a chord with audiences, who helped make it into the top 10 biggest grossing films of 2019. It was an R-rated firecracker of a movie, which sticks out as a welcomed anomaly in a top ten grossing films of the year that is otherwise totally dominated by Disney. 

The detached mania of previous Joker portrayals was replaced by a more tragic sense of personal trauma, with Joaquin Phoenix tapping into the depths of his tortured soul to capture the dangerous vulnerability of the character. The Joker is rarely given a back-story, which gave The Hangover director Todd Philips a unique calling card; the central premise was all about how much personal tragedy a lonely outsider has to endure before his mind snaps.   

Turning the Joker, aka Arthur Fleck, into a sad, pathetic,  put-upon figure was a risk, and you can see how it sat uncomfortably with some of the DC core fan base. The Joker is the clown prince poster boy for madness, but you never really get a chance to analyze the psychosis behind the mania. That all changed in Todd Philips’ probing depiction. Who knew The Joker could be so sympathetic?  At first Phoenix’s portrayal had an innocence and purity: Fleck was a man who genuinely wanted to succeed at being a clown. The ruthlessness of the society he was in meant this spirit got chewed up and distorted, and like a dog that’s been badly treated, he became a threat. There was nothing funny about his plight; the infamous laugh, being turned into a tension lifting, chiming bell, sounding the alarming indicator of hidden pain. The punchline was the pathos. Heather Ledger’s terrorist Joker just wanted to see the world burn, in this, it is the Joker’s soul that was burning. It would seem the character’s colorful madness can stand up to multiple reinterpretations, but few have been as affecting as this one. 

Through all this pain and suffering, the character got chewed up by the cold, grinding machinery of society. The film seemed to try and pin-point the mental moment, when a person who has been constantly victimized decides to take a stand. 

The Joker was re-imagined as a martyr for the huddled masses who have been neglected and mistreated by society. In doing so, it shone a mirror to show the plight of the marginalized who have been wronged by the rigged games of capitalism in our actual societies. And that is the real reason why it seemed to spook the media. And perhaps is the reason it got so much traction with the public for so long. In this world, the entitled are the real villains, the corporate establishment, which includes – tellingly and cleverly – the Wayne empire, are the real menace to society.  Phoenix’s Joker becomes the hand grenade thrown into the the powder-keg of discontent stored under the surface of society. One look at the news today will show you that it is a powder-keg that is under the surface in society for real. There is a simmering discontent in the real world, which Phillips tapped into; that made it the most anarchic film since V for Vendetta; it could be re-dubbed J for Vendetta. Joker transcended its comic book roots to say something powerful about the state of society.

 

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Release Date: Taiwan/UK April

2. Avengers: Endgame 

The finale of Infinity War was arguably the biggest cinematic cliffhanger of all time as the fate of half of the iconic franchise-fronting characters was left literally in the air. Fans had an agonizing wait of a year to see whether there was any actual jeopardy in the apparently bold move, or whether it was the biggest demonstration of emotional manipulation in cinema history. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo struck a tone of melancholy and reflection at the start of End Game, that suggested they were willing to commit to the seemingly ruthless storytelling that stunned viewers at the Infinity War climax. Marvel heroes were left adrift, either physically or emotionally, creating a further sense of sadness for the fallen heroes. How End Game opened was actually like the saddest ending you could conceive of to a film, rather than a beginning, being all the more dramatically rich and emotionally textured for it.

Superheroes who usually find a way to save the day, were seen grappling with emotions of helplessness that were far more familiar to us regular folk than superheroes. Marvel confronted a superhero’s darkest nightmare: what sense of despair is unlocked if you can’t save the people of the world or even yourselves? Heroes have never been depicted with such vulnerabilty. The emotional fallout was authentic, and deeply satisfying. 

The film created a quite thrilling sense that there would have to be a humdinger of a metaphysical, time bending plot-line, to have any chance of overturning the damage inflicted by Thanos. And boy did they come up with one. The story managed to find a way to incorporate all of the remaining characters, in a complex way, that seemed reasonable, at least in the physics-defying Marvel cinematic Universe. Furthermore, it was a plot-line, all-encompassing enough to revisit 10 years of Marvel films, creating the thrilling impression, that each of those films, had been thought out to lead to this last one – the End Game. That is probably a beautifully constructed illusion, but what it did was reward loyal viewers, who had watched and bought into the mythology of every film. The more you had invested in this ever-sprawling opus of a franchise, the more deeply satisfying End Game was. It was like every film was a separate thread, that the directors had vision to weave into a stunning, intricately stitched tapestry. 

The constant expansion of the Marvel cinematic universe to encompass more films and more characters is enticing but creates certain narrative problems: how do you come up with a narrative with enough scope to give everyone something to do? How do you create a villain who is credible to match such an incredible display of power? How do you keep a story that shifts from earth to various parts of space, cohesive? Questions such as these were emphatically answered in End Game, and to a certain extent, Infinity War. 

This was the Russos’ crowning achievement: juggling all the various narratives in a fashion that kept the momentum of the storytelling. In Thanos, expertly played by Josh Brolin, the Marvel films have come up with one of the most thought-provoking super-villains of all time. He’s not some egocentric megalomaniac. His mission to give balance to the universe by removing 50% has an internal logic to it, that is outside pure evil and more Darwinian in nature. Really, he’s a man who wanted to use a glove to give nature a helping hand. The glove and infinity stones he sought, perhaps created the impression that he was another villain interested in personal pursuit of power, but his story arc, had a sense of self-sacrifice that was also reflected into the superheroes’ various plot-lines. Where we find him at the start of End Game told us more about his interesting detachment and humility as a character. On a planet such as ours in which rampant population growth goes on unmitigated, without assessment of damage, the points Thanos raised, were lots of fuel for reflection. Following his character and skewed philosophy were fascinating.

Tonally, the film was also expertly done. The spectrum of emotions the film moved through was extraordinarily wide. It’s a film that had to tribute fallen comrades, but at the same time delivered the snappy one-liners and gag-a-plenty script that Joss Whedon long ago established. The ease in which the film moved from heavy to light was impressive: DC, watch and learn!

As it all moved to an inevitable but absolutely epic final battle sequence, there was still so much up in the air. The clashes were spectacular and finally power seemed to be matched on both the good and evil side of things. 

Infinity War had thrown a gauntlet down, suggesting that at least some of Marvel’s cinematic franchise would have to meet their end. That sense of peril ran right up into the final battle sequence, which showed the sense of risk was not fake.

As the curtain came down on Endgame, audiences were left rightfully feeling bittersweet. Underpinning that sense was a satisfying feeling, that this insanely epic first opus for Marvel was actual closing. It closed in an emotionally, spiritually, and beautifully conceived manor that contrasted wonderfully the sense of uncertainty at the end of Infinity War. Thanks Marvel. 

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Release Date: Taiwan March

1. They Shall Not Grow Old

There have of course been many documentaries about the First World War, but few, if any, have gripped the heart, mind, and soul as much as Peter Jackson’s astoundingly stirring They Shall Never Grow Old. 

It starts out like any other War documentary; grainy footage and reflections; but, there is a moment in the first third that was the most world-shakingly impactful moment I have ever experienced in a cinema. The moment Jackson, forever a technical pioneer, used the full force of the impressive technological advancements, to take the audience up close and personal to those who sacrificed everything for crown and country during the First World War. In this moment, the grain faded away, the footage remarkably turned to color and the horrifying sounds of war were momentarily drowned out by jaws hitting cinema floors. 

Footage nearing a hundred years old has been restored in this film, to such a pristine level of clarity that you would have been forgiven for thinking that it had been shot the day before. It was like the mist we usually look at old footage through completely cleared, leaving us staring into the eyes of people who made the ultimate sacrifice for future generations. 

Using technology in this way seemed miraculous – like Jackson’s technology was seeing the seemingly unseeable – imagery that was surely lost to time forever was now crystal clear. With the haze removed, we could see and feel, in a way we could not before, that the soldiers were just young lads, in jovial spirit, not fully mentally equipped for the horrors that were about to be unleashed on them. In this moment, Jackson’s technique allowed us to be transported back to the beginnings of a war that would shape the century; we could step in muddy trenches, and almost walk through the torments in their boots. 3D cinema tries to be this immersive and fails.  The emotional impact of this new technical approach to the old was immeasurably powerful.

Children born in the latter part of the 20th Century in the UK are told stories by their grandfathers of the Second World War, who in turn pass on stories that their fathers told them about the First World War. There is always a grave tone underpinning these stories, with a message about how close the UK came to succumbing to invasion. 

We are told to value our freedom because of the sacrifices previous generations made. ‘We shall never forget’ is a message the young must learn. They Shall Not Grow Old personalizes this in a profoundly moving way. Jackson has managed to retrieve an extraordinary amount of footage of life in the trenches – it was so vividly delivered that you felt you could smell the stench of mud and gunpowder permeating the air.  It was gritty and hard-hitting, giving a fully formed picture of what day to day life was like in the trenches, never fully knowing whether you were about to have you last day on earth. 

Old men, who have gone through tough times as younger men are the best storytellers. Jackson paired the hard-hitting footage, with many old, well-restored sound recordings of elderly men reflecting on a youth shaped by combat in the First World War. It has been over a hundred years since the war, so these men have also long since passed – it’s like hearing ghosts recall tragic times of life on earth. The sound editor must have gone to extraordinary lengths to pair the right story with suitable imagery, to give the film its full, vivid impact. Each voice acts like a sonar system, filling in the blanks in the picture of the war in your mind’s eye. All those first hand testaments, combined with heart-stirring imagery created an effect that felt like finding a time machine to a First World War battlefield. Anyone who saw this in the cinema, was shook up to their very core; feeling the horror of war in a way that was not possible before. Hearing the firestorm of explosions and machine gun fire, haunted the spirit to all those who experienced it. 

They Shall Not Grow Old was harrowing enough to ensure that the message of ‘we shall never forget’ will be forever printed in the minds of anyone who saw this profound piece of cinema.

The Top 25 films of 2019 (25-11)

Once upon a time, the tent-pole franchise movies used to be erected by the studios, during the summer months, in time for the arrival of the blockbuster circus. Nineteen years into the modern century, big franchise releases, usually in the form of sequels to established brands, come thick and fast for all 12 months of the year. With tent-pole movies obscuring the horizon all year long, it can be harder to find the smaller, more story, or character driven cinema, or to even know they are there. But they are there. 

 

Despite the threats to the industry from studio brands, quality cinema is still being made all year long. For all the domination of superhero vehicles and action films, there is still wonderful cinema being made each month of the year. If you dig deep on the scheduling and do some research, you can plot a course into cinema,that peers past the tent-pole films, into a world of narrative, character and connectivity with real issues. 

There is nothing wrong with watching the big studio releases, indeed some of them have made my best of the year list, but what is worrying is that the sheer dominance of sequels has changed audiences’ appetites. There was always a feeling that mainstream audiences crave the familiarity but that has intensified in recent years. People seem far less inclined to seek out something original than they used to be and would rather watch returning themes, regardless of whether there is story variation or not. Statistics back this up. This has led to a perception shift in cinema, with even film fans starting to feel that the silver screen is a place of action-driven escapism only. 

 

But there is still nothing like the feeling of being out there in the dark, and connecting to a well-written character, or taken on a new journey or feeling a film resonate in a profound way. If more film fans could convince audiences that the smaller, less action heavy cinema also have merit, we could restore a balanced diet of cinema and prevent people exclusively gorging on purely commercial offerings.

 

The studios know that audiences right now are craving more of the same, and they will continue to finance a fourth or fifth installment of a franchise than an original idea. That is a shame, and at some point, audiences might understand they they are being fed more of the same and demand a more nourishing cinematic offering. For the time being though, things seem unlikely to change.

 

If you are one of the people who feels there is nothing new or good out there, then do a little research, each week, and you will be rewarded.  Coming to my blog is a step in the right direction and at the very least I hope you leave here discovering a film or two that you missed during the year. Here is a list of films that will stay with me after the dust settles on 2019.  The list is a mixture of UK and Taiwan release dates.

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(released July UK/ Taiwan)

 

25.  Once upon a time in Hollywood

The Charles Manson murders have haunted the Hollywood psyche for decades, since they represent a moment in which people in the L.A. film industry realized that their fame could also make them targets. When Tarantino announced that his ninth film was going to delve into the Manson murders, it unsettled a lot of people, who worried that Tarantino’s love of violence was what attracted him to the story. Perhaps it was, but the Pulp Fiction director, was obviously aware at how people would consider him to approach the material – it is safe to say that he totally subverted expectations with this love letter to a lost age of Hollywood. 

Tarantino is sometimes mis-characterized as the poster boy for a more violent style of filmmaking. He loves violence, but he loves suspense, character development and tension-building just as much. All traits that are often absent from mainstream cinema, but were on display in this film. You either took to its slow-burn, meandering style, and adjusted to the company of his lovingly crafted characters, or you took against it and lost patience with how long it took to get to its point. Two-and-a-half-hours to be precise. Sure, there was no doubt that many scenes had the hallmark of a typically Tarantino level of indulgence, but few filmmakers love the craft of cinema as much as he does, and his passion for his project shone through every scene. The director even went as far as tracking down actual broadcasting clips of the now defunct L.A. radio station KHJ, to give it an authentically easy, breezy, sun-kissed sixties mood. The clever and canny script played off both what audiences know about him as a filmmaker and what people know of the infamy of the Manson Murders. 

Scenes would not have had to be as long and drawn out, if this was, say his second film. He is aware that people were bracing themselves for shocking ultra-violence in his films, so he played that expectation to his advantage, by allowing scenes to drift, often without ending with the blows and blood baths expected. To Tarantino, violence is like punctuation, breaking up a style of film making prose that loves to make poetic tributes to classic cinema. In Once upon a time in Hollywood, the sentences had never been  longer – some people though, needed more punctuation.

What he gained from a more languid approach, was a sense of spending time with some players in Hollywood who are aware of how short lived their time will be there.These characters seemed real as they were letting their guard down – letting us into a secret world of insecurity and vulnerability.  It gave the film a thrilling sense of intimacy, that is if you are interested in how Hollywood works behind the scenes. No modern pr puff pieces here – this was characters letting you see into their inner torment. Whether it was Di Caprio’s character, unsettled by an awareness that his star was diminishing; or Pitt’s stuntman – further along the road to accepting he is heading out of the industry; or Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate – basking in the light of a screening of one of her films, seizing a moment of pride that the audience knows will be short-lived for her. The goodwill didn’t extend to Bruce Lee however, whose portrayal was a shocking, disrespectful caricature. Thanks to Tarantino a new generation are going to think that one of Asia’s most interesting screen presences, was a whiny weakling. 

There were definitely things that were misjudged, which is why this isn’t further up the list.

Still, if you liked the characters, the repartee of understanding between Pitt and Di Caprio, the affectionate portrayal, and the mood of nostalgia, then Once upon a Time in Hollywood connected; if you came expecting a snappy, more action-driven film, then you were no doubt left bewildered. 

After all, it felt like the whole film was one big set-up up to a crafty, cheeky wry play on a notorious chapter in film history, to soothe Hollywood’s damaged psyche. 

 

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released July (UK/Taiwan)

24. Midsommar

Anyone who takes on the tropes of pagan horror movies risks standing in the ominous shadow of The Wickerman. Ari Aster boldly went back into this territory, slowly walking down a path through weird sexualized cultish oddness. Horror afficionadoes, knew where it was all going, but for a new generation, the unconventional horror style of Ari Aster really terrified people. 

In his last film Hereditary, Ari Aster, really managed to upset people. He is very good at luring you in with the prospect of a thrilling horror film, only to greet his audience with a gut-churning sense of trauma, that really wires you up to the central character’s fragile emotional state of mind. When such a character is then taken into an environment in which, strange insidious threats rest under the surface, audiences really get to feel a potent sense of unease. Both of his films thus far have done this in an emotionally nerve-shredding way. His films take a vice-like grip of your soul, your psyche and your heart. 

Florence Pugh conveyed the pain of her character in a poignantly affecting manner. Her wailing of emotional agony at the start of the film got main-wired into your veins. You just wanted to wrap your arms around her at the start of the film, unfortunately, her boyfriend, uncertain of an emotional commitment, was not so sure. Yet, he did anyway. The weakness in their relationship was pivotal to the heightened sense of tension in the horror and drama. Midsommar worked even better as an example of a relationship crumbling under emotional strain than it did as a horror movie. You will have to dig very deep into the past of cinema to find an example of such a well-observed unraveling of a relationship. 

The setting, a Swedish rural village, merrily celebrating a summer solstice, on the surface seemed an unlikely place for horror. Those privy to the potential for subversion that these tropes hold, were perhaps less surprised when the reveals of hidden danger came. The sign posts were clear to see: here sunlight was sinister; fertility posed a threat and the cycle of life and nature created a sense of foreboding.

Fans of modern jump scare horror did not know what was happening to them. Astra likes to suspensefully build an underlying threat for maximum impact. Some of the best scenes, in which the horror really twisted the knife, launched debates about cross-culture clashes towards life and death and how these things are not universally perceived.  

For all the heavy emotional blows the film landed, it had a comedic lightness of touch generated from the culture clash scenarios of foreign travelers meeting strange customs. The wry humour was perceptive for anyone living in fear of upsetting someone in a foreign land. 

To get maximum impact from Midsommar, you would have had to have been a guileless sacrificial lamb with no knowledge of cinema history. That said, even for those who suspected what was coming, it was a head-trip of a horror film, that unsettled the nerves and played with the senses.  Like The Wickerman, it was nerve-searing enough to set your soul on fire.

 

 

Image result for Border Swedish movie poster

(release date: January Taiwan/March UK)

23. Border

A strange border security guard at a docks has an uncanny knack for sniffing out characters who are up to no good in Sweden. This is the starting point for the most beguilingly weird film of the year. There is a lot of strange mystical mythology hailing from the past of Scandinavia that has been explored in film before. However, this film hid a lot of its strange fantasy behind a surface of domestic modernity, which made it all the more enthralling when the audience started to get a hint at the unconventional fairy-tale that is being told underneath. The film began to reveal a series of jaw-dropping twists, which both subverted its far out folklore, as well as grounding the film in an oddly believable logic. 

Underneath all the many layers of art-house irregularity- was a story about how the emotional border in the modern world is loneliness gained from a feeling there is no one in this world an isolated individual can connect to. Border went through a metamorphosis as the film took you deeper into the secret world of its central characters – each secret shocked and fascinated. In the surprisingly packed screening I was in for this, there were a series of audible gasps as the surprises were unveiled. 

The very original retelling of its folklore served as a clever metaphor for the nature of identity in the modern world. There is a need for people to wear a mask and hide who they really are to fit into accepted social norms. This film playfully took on that idea, and ran away into a fantasy land with it. It had an organic magic to it that both charmed and unnerved.  Border was absolutely worth its Oscar nomination for best foreign film.  Some of the techniques used in the film were totally trailblazing. It is worth googling the actors who played the two central leads, as the transformation into the roles they play in Border were absolutely phenomenal enough to earn the film a best hair and make-up nomination at the Oscars. 

Following on from The Square last year, and Aniara this year, Border shows how Swedish cinema is going through a fertile period of creativity. 

 

 

release date: Taiwan December/ UK October

22. The Peanut Butter Falcon

A young man with Down syndrome, broke out of his nursing home captivity, and headed out on the road in pursuit of his dreams to be a wrestler – this simple premise provided the basis for one of the feel good films of the year. The strength of will the film summoned in the audience to wish this character to success was an unrivaled force in cinema this year. Cinema often doesn’t feel inclined to make mentally disabled characters protagonists; unless portrayed by actors on the hunt for awards, so Zack was something of a renegade, challenging outside notions of how people perceive him. His ambition had a symbolic significance, he seemed to be carrying an Olympic-style torch for any person who has been told their disability should curb their ambition. 

The film had an organic feel and an easy, breezy free-wheeling charm. The tone was the bittersweet comedy of Alexander Payne meets the natural adventures of Mark Twain. In fact, one of the characters seems to openly acknowledge they are on a Huck Finn style adventure, as sweeping cinematography through the heartland of the American landscape further makes the comparison. 

A never more likable Shia La Beouf seems to be continuing his reinvention in indie movies; this is the second film – after American Honey – that sees him portray a salt of the earth outsider. He channels Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy from One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a rogue outsider who champions the cause of a guy whose condition has him institutionalized, but whose spirit is wild and free. The chemistry he has with Zak, is smile-inducingly charming throughout; their buddy/mentor dynamic infused the film with real heart. Zack Gottsagen was a force of nature; on his debut, he had perfect comedy timing and charisma that lit up the screen. In the film, his character is inspired by a character called The Salt Water Crocodile (Thomas Haden Church), who he idolizes, and is inspired by. In a film that is all about following through on inspiration, Gottasagen will surely inspire other aspiring young disabled actors who see this film to pursue their own dreams. In these dark times, we need life-affirming indie gems like The Peanut Butter Falcon to confirm there is hope for humanity yet.   

 

Image result for Toy Story 4  Image result for Lego Movie 2

TS4 release date: June Taiwan/UK  Lego Movie2: February -Taiwan/Uk

21. Toy Story 4/ Lego Movie 2

These animated sequels both proved that there was plenty of life in the various secret life of toys premises. A fourth Toy Story posed the bigger risk, since, where Andy signed off from his beloved toys in the third film, was the most beautiful finale to arguably the most perfect trilogy of all time. 

Woody and his gang found themselves massively out of their comfort zone in a fourth outing, encountering all new manner of threats and life lessons, when being a long way from the comfort of Andy’s home. The characters in the Toy Story franchise have had more character development than most live action counterparts; in this peril aplenty adventure, the characters, particularly Woody, were given even greater challenges of selfless sacrifice than before. Woody had to accept and respond to being further down the line for a child’s affection, than a hilarious, suicidal piece of ‘trash’ sentient spoon. The new characters freshened up the formula, and deepened the sense of foreboding that has always underpinned the colorful story telling in the Toy Story films. Toy Story has always managed to shift gears between light and dark in deeply involving ways and this one found some new ground to keep audiences enthralled and entertained. The highlight was the vintage toy shop, in which the tone darkened, and Woody got to see an even deeper level of horror that can besiege the heart of a neglected toy.

There seemed to be a narrative shift from the other films, with the toys far more comfortable being away from their owner, strengthening their resolve of being out in a wild world, totally unforgiving to sentient plastic. These toys know how to deal with real world threats now, but it is always exciting to see the spirit of adventure that being in the real world unlocks for our favourite gang of toys. They were less concerned with being played with and more concerned with actually living. That sense of independence, seemed to acknowledge that the children who were all enthralled by this franchise when it launched Pixar in the mid-nineties, are all grown up now, mentally stronger and no doubt have children of their own. Having an animated series cover nearly thirty years, and a few generations is very unique – it brings a whole different level of meaning to family film, and with story telling as funny, dramatic and as lively as this, kids of all ages will be happy to see the gang return for a fifth film.   

 

Lego Movie 2 kicked off with an amusing, pastiche of apocalyptic movie tropes, showing that Phil Lord and Chris Miller still new how to put an inventive, satirical new spin on, what could have easily been a soulless toy promo had they not stayed with the project. 

The two Lego movies have both captured a sense of just why the little bricks and yellow figures have have such longevity with generations of children. They also have demonstrated that the company really understands which buttons their product presses to launch a child’s imagination. The way the visual sequences, were used to enter into not one, but two children’s minds was ridiculously inventive. If anyone stopped to reflect on just how nimbly the story weaved between the two separate imagined worlds of rival siblings they would see that the story-telling in Lego Movie 2 was actually quite ingenious. The two directors proved that they are an exciting box of tricks both visually and with story-telling. They directed this with a sense of verve and snappiness that made it up there with the most entertaining films of the year. Why on earth they were fired from The Han Solo film, when they have a tone so fresh and exciting is such a mystery. They are the only directors this year (or any other year- bar Steven Speilberg)  who are capable of making two films fresh enough to make the best of the year lists. They had another animated feature out this year that was even more inspired than Lego Movie 2, which is really saying something about how talented they are. 

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release date: UK May

20. High Life

If cinema has taught us anything about deep space travel, it is that it takes a heavy toll on the mind, body and soul. This year there have been two excellent films that captured the corrosive effect of deep space inertia, and neither of these films were Ad Astra. Clare Denis’ atmospheric, uneasy and contemplative film, had a haunting mood, which seeped into the brain. The premise had something of the underrated Alien 3 about it, in that it explored the idea of a system of incarceration in space. The story, about a fertility experiment on convicts in deep space, was fresh, though-provoking, and set up a lot of potential for interesting development, which the French female director fully explored. 

It is quite easy to make judgments about prisoners serving a space sentence. Does the punishment of indefinite space travel match their crimes on earth? Clare Denis direction, carefully moved from telling their backstory on earth, the past in space, and the present/future. Piecing together what happened to the crew on board, was part of the intrigue; the more we saw, the more Robert Pattinson’s character grew. Scenes inflected with an air of doom, decay and melancholy, were juxtaposed with other scenes with a sense of hope as new life was encountered. 

There were influences in style and mood, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and Silent Running being both major touchstones, but it had a darkly soulful mood all of its own and a simmering tension that forced audiences to contemplate the disquieting inner turmoil of drifting endlessly and aimlessly in deep space. 

 

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release date: April UK

19. Eighth Grade

A quick glance at the worrying rising anxiety figures among young people, is an indication that the kids are not alright. The social pressures that come with the difficult high school years, in which your adult identity is beginning to form, are evidently being intensified by the over use of technology and social media. 

With that in mind, the young, troubled acutely vulnerable teenager at the heart of this quietly powerful film, used technology, as a surprisingly, cathartic vessel to channel her inner turbulence. 

Kayla Day (a beautifully fragile turn from Elsie Fisher), uses her own YouTube channel, to verbalize her inner angst and confusion, at her inner changes, and the perpetual veil of awkwardness she appears to be cloaked in, when she is around, her peers, friends and even her dad. Her entries are remarkably insightful and made all the more intimate and therefore, personal, by not going viral. 

The film was extraordinarily perceptive at understanding the teenage syndrome; if you are a troubled teenager and you stumbled across Eighth Grade, it would have no doubt powerfully connected to your inner, hidden mindset. If you were a parent of such a child, it would have given you plenty to ponder over and a more tactful way to interact with your child. And if you have been a troubled, closed off teen in say, the last twenty years, it would have given you this thrilling feeling of a film articulating perfectly, the unique troubles of what goes on in a young person’s critical stage of development. It is not easy, being a teenager, we all know it, but that is difficult to put it into words, especially when you are going through that physical and mental change of not being a child anymore, but also not having the life experience to know what exactly being an adult is. Bo Burnham’s film massively shed light on the mysteries of a teenage mind. 

There have been lots of films that rightfully delve into the 21st century horrors that the explosion in new technology have released. There have been far fewer that reflect, a new mode of expression they represent. 

The film shows how social media platforms have offered young people, a way to vent inner feelings. There is a sense to the film that this stuff can be to teenagers, what confession can be to Catholics: a means of expression that unlocks, potentially destructive inner emotions – talking about what is inside is is often the hardest thing to do. Seeing YouTube used as a means of therapy, is something that was very thought-provoking.  If you’ve got a troubled teen in your life, get them a copy of Eighth Grade. It was essential viewing in 2019 – and perfectly captures the way cinema can form a spiritual, intimate connection with viewers, yearning to see a depiction of life-experience that in some way reflects their own.      

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release date: June UK

18. Aniara

There is a school of thought led by Elon Musk and other thinkers that colonizing Mars is the only way to safeguard the future of humanity. Musk and co, must have had their interest piqued by this progressive Swedish sci-fi film, as this is one of the first films to try to envisage what a mass-migratory journey to Mars may look like and what sort of vessel a country would need to keep travellers on a multi-year journey content. 

Aniara took as its starting point an ever worsening climate change crisis: we glimpse a world of unbearable temperatures visible as scarring on some of the passengers of the Aniara spacecraft. 

A potentially smooth journey takes a turn for the worse, when a technical malfunction knocks the colossal craft off course. The film then became about the mental, physical and spiritual effect that has on an individual and a travelling civilisation. 

The film raised some fascinating questions about the relationship between humanity and this planet and then answered them in startling ways. How long can people last without a real connection to nature? What effect does being estranged from the earth have on the spirit? Can we really exist without Planet Earth? These are the kind of philosophical, existential questions the film journeys into. 

There was a sense of slow burn dread and claustrophobia building up as their journey continued indefinitely. A vital piece of A.I. at the heart of the film gave the characters sanctum, allowing those on board a soul-replenishing immersive vision of the natural world they are physically removed from. This later became a clever plot devise, which intensified the drama and grew a sense of tension between the characters.   

The film was like a far more nightmarish version of Wall-E. Swedish cinema can often be unerringly bleak and dark – Aniara adheres to the tone of Swedish cinema. Such a tone applied to a range of characters stuck together on a spaceship aimlessly drifting through space, heightens tensions and builds a sense of disquiet. By the time the film takes a turn into space-induced madness, you already feel like a passenger on board the Aniara for real. It has a startling and dispairing mood that really uneases. Afterwards, you may want to skip barefoot through a forest and be thankful that the Earth isn’t quite in the state it in this bold and sobering Swedish sci-fi.  A space film that makes you grateful for the Earth is timely heading into an increasingly uncertain future for the planet.

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release date October (Netflix) Taiwan/UK

17. The Irishman

One of Martin Scorsese’s chief desires as a filmmaker is to tell all the Mafia stories that Francis Ford Coppola didn’t cover with The Godfather series. Accusations that his main vessels for portraying mafioso figures Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were now too old to play imposing crime characters, were somewhat overcome by state of the art technology, that allowed them to subtly de-age before our very eyes. With Al Pacino joining the band, the promise of a new super-group to tell an organized crime story previously unseen was a tantalizing prospect. Netflix thought so – backing Scorsese to the tune of 175 million dollars – a sum of money that would probably fill Mafia bosses with a sense of pride. 

The argument should not be whether The Irishman is up there with  the first two  Godfather films or Goodfellas and Casino, but to see them all as puzzle pieces that overlap and intertwine with each other, to give the audiences an even more vivid sense of how the Mob got its power on the flipside of American Capitalism.

If the historical truth in The Irishman can be contested –  it is based on I paint houses, Frank Sheeran’s highly controversial memoir – surely the emotional truth cannot. This is the Citizen Kane of gangster movies in that in had a deep sense of longing and regret about how the past has led the central character to his lonely melancholic, isolated position. 

Underneath it all there was a sense of confusion as to whom exactly gained anything from all the cold-hearted ruthless mafia decision making. There was an observation that one decision leads to another, setting in motion a machine that no one figure is fully running; As Pesci’s top don reflected, ‘it is what it is’. And What The Irishman was, was an impeccably observed painstakingly detailed account of five decades of tough decision-making and the knock on effect this has in the inner workings of the Mafia. It’s a legacy of regret that focuses, not on the glory and power, but on the physical and emotional destruction. In short, it was the movie that Scorsese needed to make and only he could do this with such personal understanding to otherwise unknowable mob members.

full review here

Image result for Stan and Ollie poster

Release Date: January Taiwan UK

16.Stan and Ollie

Stars who burned bright in the golden age of Hollywood often found that the backdoor out of Tinseltown led to the modest British theater circuit. It may not have been so glamourous as what they had before but it gave them a chance to keep the money coming in and perhaps even connect with some of the people who made them stars in the first place. This happened to many a Hollywood star, and this bittersweet biopic explored what happened when the tragi-comic iconic pairing of Laurel and Hardy saw their lives begin to look tragi-comic for real. It’s at first quite eye opening to see a comedy pairing, whose slapstick antics still endure today, falling on harder times. But the film begins to build a quietly poignant character study into the pairs’ multi-faceted relationship, and how some bad decisions at the height of their fame led to a fracturing of the relationship behind the scenes. 

One of the things the film did really well was to show how the on screen personas vastly contrasted with their real life personalities. If anything, it was closer to a total flip, with Laurel, the clueless fall guy on screen, being the brains of the operation behind the scenes and Hardy being the bumbling unaware character, whose actions keep landing them both in another fine mess.  

There was a naturalistic tone that seemed to give the film a degree of truth. It seemed less concerned with turning out the usual biopic tropes and much more eager to show that the onscreen tension between these two peculiar men, started to manifest in their relationship for real. 

The casting choices of John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan for Stan Laurel seemed both a wise and risky choice. On the one hand both are adept at blurring the lines between comedy and tragedy, but on the other hand, they are so recognisable in the roles that they play that you may thing it would be hard for them to morph into characters as iconic as Laurel and Hardy. To both actors’ credit, they filled the big shoes convincingly. Their voices, mannerisms and emotional observations were so impeccably observed that it was pretty early doors that you stop seeing Reilly and Coogan and start seeing Laurel and Hardy. They had comic chemistry and rapport, but they also have the ability to be spiky and acerbic.  There was an undercurrent of resentment that they have toward one another; they are practically the embodiment of can’t live with him, can’t live without him, which could also be said of their on-screen personas, in one of the many life-imitating art styles of poetry the film reflects on. 

 

Image result for Knives Out posterImage result for ready or not poster

release date, RO: November Taiwan/UK RON: October Taiwan/ UK

15. Knives Out / Ready or Not 


There were two films in 2019 that took us to strange, secluded, opulent country mansions, to take swipes at the increasingly ruthless sense of entitlement and detachment of the ultra rich. 

The first, a cleverly satirical horror comedy, Ready or Not, saw a sassy newly-wed bride, encounter a range of cold-hearted in-laws with a penchant for some dangerous games. It was an unexpected delight, managing to do a cinematic juggling act of keeping the horror tense, the comedy laugh-out-loud funny, and the satire razor-sharp. 

The derision of the ultra wealthy continued in Knives Out, which re-tooled the tropes of an Agatha Christie housebound Who done it?, until it was an entirely more lively post-modern cinematic puzzle. 

Director Rian Johnson, is a cinematic tinkerman; who loves to take genre conventions and entirely re-jig them into something new. He did it with film-noir in Brick; with time travel in Looper and, (Luke Skywalker infatuates look away now), he even managed to reinvent Stars Wars, in The Last Jedi.

Cliches in murder mysteries are so well-worn that you don’t have to be a super revered crime detective to sniff them out. How could Johnson possibly find new ground in a genre so well covered? With guile and cunning, he managed to present everything you think you know about the ‘Who done it?’ And before you could say, ‘give us a Cluedo Rian’, he had nimbly refashioned all the cliches into something that seemed exciting, tense, involving and new. 

Come the middle of the film, that smug sense of knowing how this story goes dissipated, to be replaced by a thrilling new sense of uncertainty; as audiences everywhere, threw away their pre-conceptions and went along for one of the most entertaining cinematic rides of the year.  

The master plan of Johnson’s self-penned screenplay, contained so much twisty narrative chicanery, each further left-field turn or double back maneuver, deepened the sense of intrigue. This was a crime mystery that was far from elementary. 

The ingenuity of the film extended further than just the plot mechanisms too; the film tapped into the ever-divided socio-political mood of America. Underpinning the complex plot, was a bubbling political tension, as certain characters, unknowingly reflected the emboldened right-wing attitudes that have infiltrated society in the last ten years. Some of the dialogue actually seemed to be a middle finger up to Trump and offered a mirror of reflection to all who support his anti-immigrant rhetoric. The comedy in Knives Out subtly pierced the casual racism hidden in pockets of America; in the firing line here, was the affluent – the film often rivaled Get Out for observational smarts.  

How the plot and the social commentary, cleverly merged to deliver – a gobsmacking final reveal, with a wonderfully satisfying, strangely hopeful message – was one of the cinematic conjuring acts of the year. Few casts have been as eclectic as this and few casts have probably had as much fun transforming their archetypes as the Knives Out ensemble; Jamie Lee Curtis; Michael Shannon, Toni Colette and Chris Evans, were all great, particularly Evans, playing against his clean-cut Captain America reputation as a smarmy trust-fund kid. Special mention must go to the usually dead-pan Daniel Craig, who had a lot of fun creating an outlandish southern detective, Benoir Blanc with an eccentricity level to rival Holmes or Poirot. Knives out was razor-sharp, outlandish cutting edge fun – an absolute hoot!  

 

Image result for marriage story poster
release date: November Taiwan/ Uk

14. Marriage Story 

There are so many films dedicated to blossoming love, but far fewer dedicated to what happens when love breaks down and the shark-like divorce lawyers begin to circle. In Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbauch, an actor’s director, who favours a naturalistic tone, captured the heart-wrenching tragedy when a formally strong relationship begins to be dismantled piece by piece Baumbauch is no stranger to this territory since he took a probing look at how divorce affects the children caught in the middle in the stirring The Squid and the Whale. Marriage Story was somewhat of a companion piece to his previous divorce-based film. It took a detailed, balanced, and objective look at how emotionally tumultuous going through a divorce is, particularly when there is a child to consider – but this time it examined the strain put on the adults when agreeing terms to see their children.  

One may expect such a portrait to be driven by characters brewing a hatred for one another. What was beautifully surprising about Marriage Story was how much love and respect can remain between two people whose lives and hearts were formerly deeply connected. 

The film wrong foots its audience expecting something acrimonious from the start, as both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s characters affectionately capture why the two fell in love in the first place. It was a film about divorce with one of the most genuinely romantic scenes of the year as a starting point. What this did was make you root for both characters and what they had built together.

These love letters to each other, serve as something of an anchor as the film begins to steer us into increasingly unsettling emotional waters. 

Unlike the divorce lawyers, Baumbauch wasn’t interested in making his audience pick a side. The film quietly observed, the tension that was put on both characters as they begin to go through the physical process of starting lives without each other, and the long, agonizing process of letting go of someone who was formerly your entire world. The performances from Driver and Johansson were so realistic, and emotionally committed that you entirely bought their history as a couple and their complex emotional perspectives on themselves and each other. You feel the full force of every painful blow that lands as both are so finely tuned to their characters and the intricacies of their relationship.  

Baumbauch deconstructed the long, slow-burn process of a divorce in forensic detail. The film was wonderfully well-rounded and comprehensive in covering this painful subject. At the start of their separation, the couple vow to find a way to part amicably; we saw the two talking through the aftermath of their relationship with a maturity, respect and a desire to minimize the effect on each other and process the emotional fallout. There was a suggestion that as soon as you put this through the divorce system, it becomes a much crueler game; There was a much more clinical coldness to the film, whenever the divorce lawyers turned up; strangely though, the divorce process also provided some of the film’s more dry-witted scenes with both Ray Liotta and Laura Dern in fine supporting turns, as lawyers playing the angles for their clients advantages in uncomfortably subjective ways. They are both looking for ways to strategize their history, using mistakes each have made as weapons against the other. The film captures the stark tragedy of dying love in an honest and bittersweet, involvingly organic style. If you are going through a divorce, or have had a divorce, Baumbauch feels your pain. 

Image result for the kindergarten teacher poster
Release date: Taiwan May February UK

13. The Kindergarten Teacher 

In this fast paced modern world, fewer people have the time, or the inclination to search inwards in the hope of finding a creative or artistic depth. They leave that for the retired or unemployed. But what if you do search inward for a deeper pool of creativity and find that the well of inspiration is rather dry? Maggie Gyllenhaal’s kindergarten teacher was such a character. She yearned to express a poetic side, but her endeavours were deemed hackneyed by her Latin poetry teacher (Gael Bernal Garcia). She seemed to discover a life-vein of poetic inspiration from one of her kindergarten students, as he inexplicably and randomly seemed to reflect on the world in profoundly expressive way. Or was she over reading him, projecting her own artistic desires onto the random murmurings of a kid in his own world?

As you can imagine, such a premise aimed for a sense of ambivalence between the two perceptions. Was she over-reaching, or had she discovered a prodigy? It kept that sense of balance throughout the film, in a tantalizing, intriguing and entirely unique style. 

We saw the story unfold completely from the perspective of the Gyllenhaal character, and her desire to first produce and then nurture poetic talent was rather noble in these overly commercial times. We understood her intentions towards her subject were pure and non-exploitative. The world has changed though, protection of children is understandably heightened, so any extra-curricular interest in a child could be deemed questionable nowadays. Her increasing obsession with her subject was itself, quite difficult to express. The tension built up between an audience, who understood her motivations and the surrounding characters, who were less aware of what desires she was trying to fulfill. 

The film was a clever study of the mercurial nature of inspiration; and the corrosive effect of obsession. You were never quite certain one way or the other whether she was right to champion the boy’s cause. There was an element of a beauty pageant mom about her, as she pushed her student into uncomfortable poetry readings in front of inebriated adults. She was clearly looking for a vessel to express her unfilled potential – which was unhealthy. But there was just something about the boy’s poems that made you think she had a point. The film moved subtly between endorsing her quest and her potentially overstepping the line, but in doing so captured the ebb and flow between a healthy interest and a destructive obsession – it is not always a clearly defined line.

That is where the film got its oddly unsettling mood from. Gyllenhaal was outstanding, appearing meditative and reflective, a character looking for a creative spark to alleviate the monotony of daily life. She had a melancholy due to spiritual anguish that made her sympathetic. She telegraphed what she was feeling internally, and we were on her side. Why she had a deeper desire to connect with someone on a creative level, was put across very well by filmmaker Sara Colangelo. The film was about a flash of creativity and unlike its protagonist, it absolutely found it. 

 

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Release date: February Taiwan/UK

12. Fighting With My Family

Bartin Fink was once dismissive of doing a wrestling picture, inferring that they are silly and dumb. Perhaps that is true of the sport, but as a film subject there have been some good ones in the modern era. The Wrestler was good enough to land Mickey Rourke an Oscar nomination and this year, The Peanut Butter Falcon and Fighting With My Family showed again, that wrestling scenes make great cinema. This true-life story of a British wrestling family and their bid to be W.E. federation megastars, was another heavy hitting wrestling picture.

There was a fairy-tale aspect to the film that was mirrored in how the film got made in the first place. The story has it that Dwayne the Rock Johnson, was flicking through the TV channels in a British hotel after a hard days blockbuster promoting, when he stumbled across a documentary of a family from Norwich and their infectious passion for a subject close to his heart. He made a few phone calls, which must have been a Cinderella moment to the real family behind Stephen Merchant’s film. The Rock appears in the film several times as himself, and his star appeal really adds a comic spark. Alongside The Rock, you have the perfect casting choice of the always loveable and hilarious Nick Frost as the Dad, and Lena Headey, shedding her aloof Game of Thrones image, to play a feisty Mum who also throws down in the ring. The film was carried by the very capable shoulders of Florence Pugh in her second big role of the year after Midsommar. As all out hilarious as the film was, it worked down to the organic nature of Pugh’s performance and the sometimes surprisingly edgy dynamic with her aspiring ring star brother, played emotionally honestly by newcomer Jack Lowden. The central dilemma the film had was strangely poignant, as the siblings hailed from working class backgrounds, and the carrot of stardom that is waved in front of them, should they succeed in their goal of breaking into the American Wrestling world, is their ticket out of the mundane – this setup creates a cracking amount of tension, conflict and drama.

You can see why the studio, with Dwayne the Rock Johnson attached, decided to go for it. There was a plucky underdog story at its heart, which is a continuously a successful sports movie formula. Director Stephen Merchant nimbly side-stepped the cliches that come with the territory, raking some surprisingly hard-hitting turns to the drama. On paper, the story looked conventional, but thanks to Merchant, there were a lot of turns done with sincerity and heart with pathos that gave the film some weight and heft.

After a career directing Ricky Gervais comedy, Merchant is adept at finding humour in situations, so Fighting with my Family is one of the funniest films of the year. What he does really well is the Anglo-American cross-over, with such natural observation humour on both sides of the pond. Perhaps this is due to the man having one foot in Hollywood and one foot in the dry British comedy scene. Vince Vaughan has been a diminishing star of late, but his dry-punchy delivery here as a W.E. wrestling coach, adds a lot of humour and spark.

The film, made for a modest 12 million, went on to smash it at the U.S box office – doubling its money there. It’s great to see a plucky underdog story done with such authenticity. Fighting With my Family was top level amusement, with some meaty drama an affectionate film about wrestling that was anything but fake. 

 

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Release Date: Taiwan February/UK January

11. Mary Poppins Returns

On the one hand, returning to a character so highly revered as Mary Poppins, perched so high on a pedestal by Julie Andrews, as to be considered untouchable, was a massive risk. On the other hand, with children, staring into the void of their technology, Poppins’ influence is needed now more than ever. It turned out that Mary Poppins made a timely return in 2019. 

First up, the casting of Emily Blunt was spot on; her portrayal of the character was practically perfect in every way. She had the stern but kind vibe as captured by Andrews, but there were some new traits in there too, a cheeky humour and an even greater desire to live life with maximum imagination. 

Musical maestro Rob Marshall, was the right man to bring the eye-popping musical sequences to life. The quality of the material was worthy of holding a candle to the original, particularly the showstopping Shine a Little Light sequence. It must have been intimidating to attempt to write songs as perennially catchy as the soundtrack to Mary Poppins, but they pulled some magic out of a Mary Poppins style bag with a soundtrack of quality memorable Poppins style tunes.  

What was really spine-tingling about this long awaited sequel to a family classic, was that it blended fantasy and reality in inspiring ways with sequences crafted not just for the eyes, but with the intention of fueling audiences’ imaginations. Mary Poppins was leading the charge of the return of the musical fantasy, which was a theme in 2019. 

 

Thanks for reading! Come back on New Year’s Day for the Top 10!

 

The Irishman – review

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One of Martin Scorsese’s chief desires as a filmmaker is to tell all the Mafia stories that Francis Ford Coppola didn’t cover with The Godfather series. Accusations that his main vessels for portraying mafioso figures Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were now too old to play imposing crime characters, were somewhat overcome by state of the art technology, that allowed them to subtly de-age before our very eyes. With Al Pacino joining the band, the promise of a new super-group to tell an organized crime story previously unseen was a tantalizing prospect. Netflix thought so – backing Scorsese to the tune of 175 million dollars – a sum of money that would probably fill Mafia bosses with a sense of pride. 

The argument should not be whether The Irishman is up there with the first two  Godfather films or Goodfellas and Casino, but to see them all as puzzle pieces that overlap and intertwine with each other, to give the audiences an even more vivid sense of how the Mob got its power on the flip-side of American Capitalism. 

In many ways it represented the biggest ever gamble for Scorsese since the film is about one of the most hushed mysteries in gangster history, focusing on a trio of characters, who were real and highly controversial figures: top Don Russell (Joe Pesci), Frank (the wall painter) Sheeran, (Robert De Niro) and sixties trade union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film is definitely stirring the pot of debate, around Hoffa, as well as raising old questions about the JFK-era America in which it is set.

Perhaps time has diminished the importance of certain things that The Irishman chimes in on, but to see a filmmaker of the stature in this field as Scorsese, wade in with suggestions about some of the biggest questions in sixties America, was scintillating. After watching The Irishman, it is worth going down the rabbit hole and researching the Mafia’s relationship with Cuba and the political reality of the era it captures; the film is remarkably close to the bone. Scorsese’s caveat for doing this though, is that how much of an unreliable narrator De Niro’s character is, is up to audience interpretation.

If the historical truth in The Irishman can be contested, surely the emotional truth cannot. This is the Citizen Kane of gangster movies in that it has a deep sense of longing and regret about how the past has led the central character to his lonely melancholic, isolated position. It has Citizen Kane’s same sense of mournful reflection. In another parallel with Kane, given it is based on the heavily contested memoir of Frank Sheeran called I Paint Houses, it is possibly to the truth of what happened between sixties mobsters and affiliates as to what Citizen Kane is to the Randolph William Hurst figure.  It also shares some of the DNA of James Cagney’s Angels With Dirty Faces in that it reflects on the legacy of destruction left in the way of a violent-driven gangster life. There is no glory or romanticism here – only the sense of futility at all the senseless, overly paranoid, ironically family-destroying, decision making at the heart of the Italian American Mafia mentality. It may have all the stylistics of a Scorsese film, but tonally it is closer to the mournful sense of regret, of The Assassination of Jesse James, by the Coward Robert Ford. Both films have a slow, steady meditative pace to reflect on violence as something that doesn’t bring glory but only sorrow and isolation. Perhaps the slow pace of both films frustrate some viewers, but connect to both films and you will feel the full force of the poignancy in a message, that does the opposite of glorifying violence.

At its heart, it is a story about the blurring of lines between loyalty and betrayal. All of the characters are aware of the world they are in and the threats that come with it; what they are less certain about is the position of power they perceive themselves to have. That is where the film gets its tension from. Hushed chats between confidants in corridors are the catalysts for the stark, shocking moments that follow.

From a technical perspective, this was the tried and tested Scorsese method: slick, concise, fluid yet highly detailed story-telling, which sweeps you up into the grave dilemmas of its characters; it’s a tribute to how confident and assured at telling such a complex intricate story Scorsese has become over a lifetime in the industry that at the end of the three and a half hour running time, you want to go in and see how the story plays out a second time. After all, the devil is in the details with Scorsese. The more you understand the background, the names and all the surrounding stories in a Scorsese film such as this, the more satisfying and thought-provoking the film is. 

The prospect of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci being reunited, then Al Pacino added too, is as mouthwatering of a billing as you could hope to assemble. All three are doing the edgy thing they are known for – but at the same time broadening and deepening it, to effect their changing stature and advancing years. All three are in their seventies now and due to game-changing technology, this is less of a problem than it should be. The technology may at first take some adjusting to, to steer audiences out of the uncanny valley territory the film seems to enter into. De Niro particularly looks artificial at first, but it is a watershed moment here that Scorsese can tell a story unfolding, enriching and becoming more agonizing over many decades, and age or de-age, rather convincingly as he chooses. These are new film-making tools that he is first to craft with. You get a stronger sense of how past decisions leave a destructive emotional legacy, partly due to the technology. There is somewhat a problem with the physicality of the actors though; the technology doesn’t seem to be able to shift weight off as easily, so the movement of the characters isn’t as fluid or as visceral as it needs to be at times – which has understandably broken some people’s suspension of disbelief. Scorsese had to shoot each scene using three differently angled cameras to get his shots; one wonders how many cameras he would need to use to get the actors’ body masses to match that of the characters. If it was a choice between leaving their weight to match their actual age, or telling a 76-year-old De Niro to get in the gym and shift a fair few pounds, then I can see why Scorsese went with the former option.

The updates to the iconic actors’ performances are worth reflecting on. Take Pesci for example: his character is now further up the chain of mob command than previous figures he has played, he is in effect playing one of the off-screen Mafia puppet masters, we often glimpse in films of this ilk, but here there is more focus on one of these hidden figures. A quiet nod of the head from him here, is just as menacing as one of the psychotic outbursts he played in his younger days; you know just what such a gesture signifies. Pesci gives you a sense of the power and the burden of being the decision maker.  

De Niro too has changed; his character is steel-eyed, and committed to unwavering obedience to the guy that gave him his break, but there are just the subtle hints of deeply hidden emotion that tells a story of the sense of loss his decisions have prompted. There are changes for Pacino too as his impassioned grandstanding outbursts, seem tweaked by both him and Scorsese as a hint of vulnerability unusual for Al character’s is present.

De Niro and Pacino have been peers since the seventies, and their family connection in The Godfather films gives the impression sometimes of a shared career. They did not appear onscreen together until Michael Mann’s Heat in ‘95. We perhaps won’t appreciate the fact that Scorsese has given us a film with so many cracking scenes between them, with also an out of retirement Pesci, and Harvey Kietel in the mix, until a few decades when all of them will be no longer with us. Scorsese was the leader of a dream team here, who all combine to provide some missing pieces of the mysterious puzzle that is the Mafia story in America. 

In the age of heightened awareness of a lack of balance between male and female characters, Scorsese has come in for some flack for often sidelining the female perspective. The female characters here are marginalized, but that is because the characters Scorsese focuses on would be unlikely to seek council from the women in their life  – despite being better off if they had done so. It is true that the females don’t have much of a voice in The Irishman, but that doesn’t mean they are not communicating. Anna Paquin, in a handful of scenes with next to no dialogue, conveys everything you need to know about how she feels about her father, and it is gut-churning for both him and the audience.

Underneath it all there is a sense of confusion as to whom exactly gains anything from all the cold-hearted ruthless mafia decision making. There is an observation that one decision leads to another, setting in motion a machine that no one figure is fully running; As Pecsi reflects, ‘it is what it is’. And What The Irishman is, is an impeccably observed painstakingly detailed account of five decades of tough decision-making and the knock on effect this has on this world. It’s a legacy of regret that focuses, not on the glory and power of the mafia, but on the physical and emotional destruction. In short, it is the movie that Scorsese needed to make and only he could do this with such personal understanding to otherwise unknowable mob members.

9/10

 

One Day At the Rugby World Cup

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After a night sleeping at an airport and a 6:50 am flight, I arrived in Fukuoka, dazed and disoriented, not quite ready to engage the brain and navigate a path through a new Japanese territory. Friendly Japanese staff took the pain out of the experience by directing me to the right bus to Beppu. Wearing a Welsh T-shirt had proven a good idea, since I was greeted by staff who knew exactly why I had arrived in Fukuoka. It was comforting and surreal to arrive in Beppu and see, a sea of red rugby shirts, with Welsh people seemingly out numbering the locals, in preparation for what would be a fierce battle with Fiji, in the neighbouring town of Oita. The Welsh had taken over this quaint little traditional Japanese town. The dragon was flying, by both Welsh and the Japanese, who have taken a liking to our dragon, as it evokes the myths of the East.

 

For many of the Welsh people here, this would be their first taste of the hospitality, friendliness and warm welcoming spirit that defines most Asian countries that I have experienced in ten years living in Asia. For me, being away from home for so long,  it was wonderful to see the bubbly Welsh people, having a few beers on the eve of a massive World Cup game. Welsh accents from varying regions filled the air. Japan had been turned into Cardiff on match day – I was home. 

 

I chatted to a few Welsh people as living in Asia for ten years, this is a rare opportunity, before making my way to meet my compatriot, Andrew Leakey, in a traditional Japanese hot spring hotel. Beppu is a patchwork of  fervent hot springs with plenty of places to stay. On the morning of the game, plumes of steam majestically billowed out of the ground, Strangely this Japanese region with its sloping mountains and its deceptively industrial looking environment made it look like the heart of the Welsh industrial age: like a Blaenavon or Port Talbot when industry was thriving. It must have been a strange sight for so many older Welsh men to come thousands of miles to the East to find an environment oddly similar to the Welsh valleys. But these are not industrial chimneys, they are steam vents to underground caverns – pools of bubbling water, the smell of sulphur permeating the air. Hot Springs range from warm and inviting to steaming hellfire to turn the skin red, not for the faint of heart. On the day of our big Welsh game, I looked out the window in the direction of Oita, and imagined that the steaming vents symbolized the stirring of sleeping dragons ready to roar out of the ground. 

 

 

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Beppu itself was a compact street of restaurants and little bars, very near to the coast,  with little Japanese touches like lines of lanterns to add a little bit of a traditional Asian atmosphere. In another surprising parallel to Wales, it was oddly similar to Swansea. 

There were many signs that the Rugby World Cup party had rolled into this remote part of Japan, but the one that gave me a lovely warm glow was provided by absent school children who had all put their own little spin on the Welsh flag and our rugby spirit with many little boards of pictures providing the best welcome Welsh people could ever hope for.  Welsh children celebrating St. David’s Day could not have depicted Welsh culture with as much passion, care and artistic value as the Japanese children have done in Beppu.

 The Japanese have done everything they can to ensure that foreign visitors to the country get a warm welcome and do not run into the language barrier induced culture shock that often can arise when you are in a bewildering new land. The Japanese are a tremendously forward thinking race. Rugby fans can merrily swig back beers, getting lost in the anticipation of a tantalizing rugby battle safe in the knowledge that when they step out of the bar, there will be a host of smiling, gracious faces, ready to guide them to their next point of call. There were thousands of cheerful volunteers on the streets of Beppu and Oita –  some there to guide crowds to essential bus stops and meetings places, others there to simply cheer on the crowds and stoke the atmosphere. 

 

In a typical act of Japanese consideration, they had anticipated that it may be a taxing experience for rugby fans in various states of inebriation to travel about thirty minutes down the road on Japanese public transport, so their solution was to put on fleet after fleet of coaches to get rugby fans to the ground, all for free.     

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The magnificently futuristic Oita stadium, built in 2002 for the football World Cup, was in a remote area, removed from both Oita and Beppu. The approach was rather surprising as it was a rural forested area, that would be tranquil if it wasn’t for the 15,000 is so Welsh fans, excitedly approaching the ground. A red army marched in, dragon flags flying, Welsh songs filled the air. Japanese volunteers offered encouragement in the form of hi fives, in over-sized novelty foam hands and shouts of ‘Go Wales!’. Everyone in Japan seemed to perk up at being in some way involved with the Rugby World Cup. 

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Outside the stadium Welsh fans were in full voice, while Japanese fans enjoyed the positive, wild energy, smiling vociferously. There were little pockets of Fijian fans, who broke out in the soul stirring style of harmony, that they greet you with when you visit their islands. Welsh fans danced with them and shook their hands respectfully. Wales and Fiji are two nations that are far apart geographically, but so connected in spirit. It is singing and unbridled passion for rugby that flows through the veins of people from both Wales and Fiji. 

 

In the stadium, the atmosphere was building. Two Warrior nations were twenty minutes from a pivotal World Cup battle. Fiji, already out of the competition after an unexpected, hurtful defeat against plucky Uruguay, had pride to play for. Wales, feeling confident after a historic win against Australia, were looking to top the table, but very wary of Fiji a nation who love to play Wales and had success against us in 2007.

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After stirring renditons of both anthems, the game got underway. Within the first ten minutes, the Fijians flew at the Welsh defense, breaching them twice with tries from the left and the right. The Welsh crowd fell silent. 15,000, Welsh hearts sank into 15,000 Welsh stomachs. From inside the stadium, it looked as if you could drive a coach through the gaps in the defense. The gaps do not look that big on television, I thought to myself. The Fijians seemed like a towering force, a perfect balance between power and speed. Was my first ever time watching Wales in a competitive match in thirty years of watching rugby going to end in a shock, humbling defeat?   

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 This Welsh side has a resilience that Welsh sides of the past did not possess. As soon as we entered into their 22, it was us that look the more threatening, and a cross field kick to Josh Adams resulted in a first Welsh try to calm the nerves and lift the crowd back up. The battle went right on until the sixty-seventh minute, when the game finally looked to have been won by Wales.When star man Jonathan Davies, slipped a clever pass to our prolific try scoring winger Josh Adams, the Welsh win looked sealed.  But it was a game not for the faint of heart, which tested the nerves of all the Welsh in the stadium. 

 

We watched both teams come over and clap for the traveling support and we all clapped back in a mutual show of respect for each others efforts. Leaving the stadium, the Welsh were recovering their excitement and energy, singing and cheering as they made their way back to another fleet of convenient free buses. The Japanese fans who attended, smiled, and clapped respectfully in appreciation of the atmosphere built by both sets of fans. 

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When we arrived back in Beppu, there were lots of beer tents open to provide a place for the Welsh fans to celebrate, but I had to leave early as I was looking at just a few hours sleep before I needed to get up to catch a bus in the middle of the night/early hours of the morning. 

 

It was five am. It was dark, but luck had worked in my favour, as in fortuitous circumstances we discovered,  the bus stopped right outside of the hotel. When it arrived in typical Japanese perfect timing, I boarded in a similar state to how I had arrived: dazed and feeling sleepy. About an hour into the bus ride back to Fukuoka airport, I looked across the sea – in the distance I saw Japan again live up to the billing of being the land of the rising sun, as a splendid sunrise began to reveal itself. You could tell it was going to be a calm clear day in this part of Japan. It was hard to tell that somewhere out there, typhoon Hagibis was charging towards Japan, set to be the biggest typhoon Japan had seen in decades. The typhoon would end up causing havoc at the rugby World Cup, threatening to eject Scotland from the competition and actually cancel some of the games.  But what put that in perspective is that it would cause so much destruction and tragically kill 70 people. Japan and its people had done such a great job of helping people that they really deserve better than being smashed by a big typhoon, when the eyes of the world are on them, but it is a hazard of living in this part of the world. 

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I got to the airport, feeling relieved and satisfied since the early morning bus trip after a day of rugby and drinking was the part I was most worried about. My flight was delayed as the typhoon was just a day away. I felt pleased and satisfied that all the plans had come together. I had been in Japan for only one full day, but finally going to the rugby World Cup was so worth it. It will be an  experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.   

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Oscars 2019: Guide and Predictions.

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After the recent disasters of envelope gate and the ‘Oscars so white’ backlash, the Academy were no doubt hoping for a few smooth years. Every move they have made this year has provoked a counter move, somewhat due to major, internet-driven outrage. Having been accused of being elitist in the past, you might have thought their decision to have a ‘most popular’ category would be met with approval, but it was heavily criticized, so they promptly withdrew the idea. Then the Kevin Hart debacle over backdated homophobic tweets, meant they lost the only person who seemed willing to host. Astonishingly, the Academy have stalled for months on securing a host, and now they’ve decided to allow the ceremony (that has always needed a figurehead to lighten the mood, link the show and provide a much needed dose of comedy to balance out the backslapping) to run without an anchor person.  

Officially and remarkably, nobody will host the Oscars. Perhaps they have a trick up their sleeves: maybe it will be presented by dozens of different famous faces, but it seems a massive gamble for a live TV show, with pressure, not to have another monumental screw-up to steal the headlines. It seems hosting the Oscars, in a climate in which you need to have an unblemished record, has spooked Hollywood’s Glitterati. You now need fewer skeletons in your closet to host the Oscars than you do to be the U.S president.

It has become very easy to bash the Oscars, but each year they still acknowledge a batch of quality films, that would not get this much media attention without the spotlight of what are still Hollywood’s most prestigious accolades. Yes, every year there are films deserving of attention that get bewilderingly overlooked, but the films that are usually up are always worth seeing and that is certainly true of most of this year’s Oscar nominated films.

Best film:

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos has something of a cult status in the art-house world, with his weird, off-kilter filmmaking style, feeling thrillingly out-of-step with everything else. Strangely, his unique film making style here was applied to a period set costume drama, with a real monarch (Princess Anne) at the centre. In theory it should be a total mismatch, but the  razor-sharp script and fascinating characterisation totally subverted the setting. The film manages to be weird and strange, without being alienating; blackly comic, but without upsetting the depth of the drama and it has an absolutely mesmerising power struggle, and beautifully written, complex games of sex, desire, power, and manipulation between three cleverly written female characters, played by Olivia Colman, Rachael Weisz and Emma Stone, all of whom are worthy of their Oscar nominations. This is probably not the outright favourite to win, but a mighty close second. 

Green Book

Green Book is well-intentioned, charming and has a feel good factor that can only be generated when two characters, tetchy in each other’s presence, who hail from different races and classes, begin to see the strengths in each other’s characters when they put class and race aside. Heck, in these modern times where old racial tensions begin to simmer under the surface of society again, a film that preaches a message of tolerance and understanding across racial lines can only be seen as a good thing.

However, it is quite a conventionally told story of racial struggle, that raises points that other Oscar films in this territory have made. Although it does cover the paradox of racism, where someone is invited to provide upmarket entertainment, but not allowed to eat at the dinner table in the same establishment. It captures a more insidious, middle class racism.  It is firmly in the mold of films that Sidney Poitier was making back in the sixties such as The Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night.

Peter Farrelly, a director known for films that are lowbrow, but hilarious like Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, seemed like the last filmmaker who would be capable of making an awards-worthy film. But he’s a filmmaker with a proven formula for making road movies, driven by camaraderie between two unlikely friends – and that influence is clear in the mirth that Green Book generates, in this story, of racial tensions in the road in the deep south. It’s a solid film, but certainly in the Oscars gold ball park and the backlash against it online, is one of the many reasons that it is unlikely to win. A far more progressive story of racial tension was told in the following Oscar nominated film….

BlackkKlansman

Spike Lee has finally received an Oscar nomination after making films for decades that have predominantly raised issues effecting African American people in the U.S. Like Green Book, BlackkKlansman was a sixties set story of racial struggle, but it was done with a lot more guile and ingenuity, than the far more conventional Green Book. A story of how a black police officer got in the favour with the powerful Klan members, managed to satire the absurdity of the klan; but also had a drama that was nervy and tense, with disturbingly, a socio-political relevance, that hits home in the climax of the film. It was stirring cinema, but it does seem unlikely to win best film in such a strong field.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Considering how troubled a production history the Freddie Mercury biopic had, with changes in both director and lead actor, it was a bit of a surprise that the film held together at all. It was impressive how great a run the film had at the box office and surprising how well it has done in the awards season. It doesn’t do too much to make any changes to the biopic format that Oscar has proven to love though; and in my opinion, a lot of what works about the film is down to the strength of Queen’s back catalog, and just how much momentum those songs give the film.

It was thoroughly entertaining to see a supposed origin of how the band’s songs came about. The scenes involving the titular song were outright joyous and hilarious, but there was more than a whiff of artifice about how the scenes involving their songs play out, done for amusement factor rather than any sense of the truth. It also seemed to be a view of Freddie Mercury as per the eyes of Brian May and Roger Taylor, both of whom were heavily involved in the writing process, rather than any truth about who Freddie Mercury really was as a person. It was an enjoyable, but clearly flawed film and its inclusion in the best film category at the expense of far better films like First Man, Cold War, and The Wife, is somewhat mystifying. It’s hard to see Queen being declared the champions at the Oscars.

Vice

This is the only Best Picture nomination that I haven’t seen, so it’s impossible for me to say whether it deserves to win or not. There can be few films with as important a subject matter to unpick as the relationship between Dick Cheney and George W Bush though. Whether the often arch Adam Mckey is the right filmmaker to really probe at the truth of how their relationship worked seems up for debate. The suggestion is there is a lot of fictionalized speculation in the characterisation. There were big problems with the clash of filmmaking style and subject in The Big Short. As the world continues to suffer under the legacy of problems left under the Bush administration. Is it too soon for a director with a wry comedy palette, to sweep in and cover stories that are still maddening? We want answers not jokes about what that administration were up to.

Roma

The Oscars has its own Cinderella fairy tale story this year. A film about a Mexican nanny, played by a first time actress, who is really a teacher. Directed by a Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, drawing beautiful imagery from memory of the unsung maid that helped raise him and shape his life. At a time where walls are being proposed between the U.S and Mexico, this film does a lot to build bridges. The film cleverly personalizes a working class story making you ponder the monumental role a person hired to do menial jobs may have in shaping lives in a middle class family. The artistry of the film captures the beauty of the everyday and how ordinary, unsung people have stories to tell that can become extraordinary if told by a filmmaker with the visual flair, poetry, and vision of Alfonso Cuarón. If Roma wins Best Picture and I think it will, it will create a new legacy of stories: A Netflix production winning Best Picture; a story of a Mexican low class worker, humble and ordinary winning the highest accolade in Hollywood: a Cinderella story indeed. 

A Star is Born

A film with a bruised soul and an alternative portrayal of the trappings of fame, that stole the hearts of audiences everywhere, A Star is Born was much more than the routine, fourth remake of a very familiar story. We didn’t realise how sensitive a director Bradley Cooper could be. The  film was done in a beautifully naturalistic way and the chemistry between Cooper and Lady Gaga was intoxicating. It seems to have faded in terms of Oscar buzz though, and if it takes home Best Picture it would please a lot of people, but would now be a major surprise.

Black Panther

There was a lot of internet backlash at Black Panther becoming the first superhero film to receive a Best Picture nomination. There has been a little too much focus on the superhero aspect of the film and not enough of how much Black Panther made a rich profound and original statement about Africa. Black Panther was no conventional superhero film. It had a discourse and debate running through it, that filtered thought-provoking questions about what Africa could be without colonial influence, through a striking sci-fi vision. The debates within the film are largely hypothetical, but it was fascinating to have a film in which a supposed villain challenges the hero, on why his vastly superior civilisation did not aid the less fortunate of his kind in a time of crisis and to then have that hero do some soul-searching on what it means to be a hero, this alone was enough to illustrate why Black Panther was so progressive. The debates will run, but I think that the depth and substance within the film makes it absolutely worth its place on the Best Picture list. It would be the icing on the cake of an extra-ordinary journey for Black Panther if it wins Best Picture and it would make a further mockery of why there was so much resistance to making a big budgeted film with a predominantly black cast and crew for so long in Hollywood.

Best Director

With an expanded field for Best Picture that we have seen in modern times, keeping the best director list to just five is a fallacy that gives clues to what film will win the top award. It creates inconsistencies between the fields that just seem bizarre. How can you nominate Pawel Pawlikowski for his excellent direction, but not deem his film worthy of a best picture nomination? It  also becomes a massive snub to a filmmaker who isn’t nominated in the director category, if his film is up for Best Picture. This year, that snub goes to Ryan Coogler for Black Panther; it is bewildering and also hints that the film doesn’t really stand much of a chance of winning Best Picture. Bradley Cooper too is a strange exclusion since it’s his organic direction that allows an old story to be totally reinvented with passion and emotion in A Star is Born. I think that Alfonso Cuarón will continue the trend of Mexican filmmakers winning in this category (Guillermo Del Toro won for The Shape of Water last year of course), as his direction is wonderful, on many levels.

It has been another year of powerhouse performances. Who exactly will be welcomed in the pantheon of Oscars Hall of Fame is wide open this year.

 

Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, Vice

Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

 

Christian Bale piled on the pounds again and seems to have totally transformed in mind body and soul to play Cheney; Bradley Cooper and Willem Dafoe look to have provided tortured, soul-tormented performances and Viggo Mortensen slowly morphs his New York Italian stereotype of a character into a person whose soul visibly grows before your eyes in Green Book. I actually think Rami Malek will win, for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury is absolutely the best thing about Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a performance that captures the star-wattage and swagger of the British pop-star, but with a sense of the mental struggle within too.

Actress in a Leading Role

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma

Glenn Close, The Wife

Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Yalitza Aparicio was not an actress before Roma and her natural performance captures how much real world experience can serve you when conveying a depth of feeling. Watching the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she’s lived through the trials and ordeals her character has. Glenn Close has been nominated seven times, but never won, surely it’s seventh time lucky? There’s somewhat of an irony in her winning for this, since she’s playing a character, for reasons that film The Wife subtly reveals, who does not covet the attention of awards ceremonies. Her performance is beautifully introspective, and her acting both hints at and conceals the troubling secrets within the film. To see a humble girl who started out on British comedy Peepshow to be in contention for the top acting honour is a beautiful story. It’s a raw and dynamic performance she gives in The Favourite, with a sense of the comedy and melancholy that long-term fans know and love. Lady Gaga managed to convince as a talented girl next door type who hadn’t tasted fame, even though she is a major pop star, it was some trick she pulled off in A Star is Born. And Melissa McCarthy is apparently excellent in Can You Ever Forgive Me? But I haven’t seen it yet.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, Vice

Marina de Tavira, Roma

Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Emma Stone, The Favourite

Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz give performances with such depth in The Favourite and are the main reasons why the mental strategy in complex power struggles come across so dramatically. Mariana de Tarvira is probably the surprise inclusion for Roma. It’s nice to see Amy Adams pick up a nomination after she was snubbed a few years ago for both Arrival and Nocturnal Animals. It’s a sixth nomination for her. I have a sneaking feeling Regina King will win for If Beale Street Could Talk. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s surprising that Barry Jenkins film has been overlooked in so many categories since it has been talked about so glowingly.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born

Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Sam Rockwell, Vice

If Green Book works at all as a film it is because of the feeling behind Mahershala Ali’s performance. Adam Driver goes from strength to strength but it seems odd to acknowledge his performance in Blackkklansman and not the lead John David Washington. Sam Elliot is very grounded, trying to pick up the pieces of his broken brother in A Star is Born. A first ever nomination for the now 62-year-old Richard E Grant is a sensational story. And Sam Rockwell is back as the current holder of the Best Supporting Actor Role for his uncanny portrayal of George W Bush. I think Mahershala Ali will make it a second win in this category to add to the one he won for Moonlight

Darren’s predictions: Best Picture: Roma 

                                       Best Director: Alfonso Cueron Roma

                                       Best Actor: Rami Malick  Bohemian Rhapsody 

                                       Best Actress: Glenn Close The Wife 

                                       Best Supporting Actor : Mahershala Ali Green Book

                                       Best Supporting Actress: Regina King If Beale Street Could Talk

                                       Best Adapted Screenplay: Blackkklansman Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee    

                                       Best Orignial Screenplay: The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara       Best Foreign Film – Cold War

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Top 10 Films of 2018

Such is the quality of films released in a given year, that it is not easy to whittle down all of the good ones into a final Top 10. Nevertheless, the film fan who embarks on writing an end of year best list has to do just this. I deliberated over what could make the final cut for quite some time. Lists are entirely subjective so what features on here is unique to my perspective. The great thing about lists is they launch good debates, but they are as accurate at measuring the overall best films of the year as award ceremonies are – everyone’s taste is different.

In case you missed it, here is another chance to see my top 25 – 11 films of 2018.

https://darrenmoverley81.wordpress.com/2018/12/31/the-top-25-films-of-2018-25-11/

These are the ten films that left a strong impression on me in 2018. I believe it is an excellent collection of films that perfectly exemplify how good a year 2018 was for cinema.

 

 

Widows_(2018_movie_poster)

10.  Widows

Steve McQueen has managed to mix the personal and the political in profoundly compelling ways in his four-film career. He covered the pain of food strikes for political purpose in Hunger; the corrosive decadence of sex addiction in Shame and the indignity of being a human commodity in 12 Years a Slave. In Widows, he turns what could have been a generic heist movie with a slightly new feminist re-spin, into a tapestry of socio-political stories that speak volumes of the numerous struggles in modern America. It’s hard to tell that this story started life as a Linda La Plante ITV series from a few decades ago, since the time and place (2008 Chicago) seems so integral to the material. ‘

He has an ensemble of characters to keep in balance, across races, wealth brackets, and class systems. He manages to give equal time for the characters to develop, each separate struggle says something stirring about modern America in the kind of gritty, perceptive and contentious style that The Wire managed to do.

You hardly notice that essentially the template of the plot is a rather generic simple concept: the widows of a group of criminals who perished in a heist, decide to take on the next job themselves. Not only is that kind of formulaic, it sets up something on paper that is entirely impossible since how could a group of people – with no experience of criminality – pull off a job that will require of career’s worth of criminal enterprise? Thanks to McQueen’s astute direction and a prolific collection of performances, the audience are so immersed in the tension and high stakes of the characters’ various predicaments, that they don’t stop to dwell on the unlikeliness of it all.

At the heart of the muscular drama is a steely performance from Viola Davis; you never doubt for a second that she is capable of pulling off such an audacious scheme, thanks to the inner strength that she appears to be exuding. She, and the other widows she assembles, have a mix of hidden strength and vulnerability that makes their arcs compelling and their competence believable.

The story picks up socio-political soundbites as it progresses, incidentally but powerfully commenting on issues like political corruption, black lives matter, the blurring lines between white and blue collar criminality, the rising wealth gap, and newly emerging economic-based racial struggles. It’s the social commentary that gives the drama such heft. There are many scenes that could launch a debate – the film proves to be something of a litmus test to show the dysfunction that capitalism has caused in American society.

The murky relationship between race, politics, money and power were explored in McQueen’s thought-provoking heavyweight drama.

Black-Klansman-Poster_1200_1500_81_s

9. BlackkKlansman

Spike Lee raised issues affecting black people in his films decades before Black Lives Matter became a movement. Few filmmakers have done as much to shine a light on the African American cause as Lee has. In BlacKkKlansman, he uncovered a helluva story, that needs to be seen to be believed. The succinct, snappy title said it all: The idea of a black undercover agent climbing the ranks of the Klu Klux Klan is an attention-grabbing concept and Lee had something of a return to form finding the satire.

In this darkly comic film, Lee indirectly drew ominous parallels with the simmering undercurrent of fascism in the seventies south, with the rising right-wing politics that have caused heated clashes in some parts of contemporary America, mainly Charlottesville. He explored why terms utilized by a certain president like ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’, have a sinister undercurrent. In fact, there is a sobering montage at the end of the film that starkly highlights what happens when fascism isn’t strongly condemned; Lee’s outrage fuels the film in these scenes, leaving the audience free to consider the gravitas of recent divisive politics in relation to what they have just seen.

The remarkable story comes fully cloaked in an obvious, outrageous irony that Lee generates a lot of serious entertainment from. The tone of the film skews the weight of the problem, as Lee had some fun portraying Stallworth as a late Blaxploitation figure with the wit, initiative and nous to outsmart the top Klansmen. Lee’s intention seemed to be to both flag up and defuse the threat of the Klan. The stoic Stallworth finds favour with the Klan by turning their racist tongue against them to expose their naivety and ignorance. Adam Driver, in fine support, as Stallworth’s stalwart, was the face to win over the Klan; given he was a Jewish character, a lot of tension and humour arose from this second mirthful irony. Driver was yet again wonderfully deadpan. As Stallworth, John David Washington was excellent, fully capturing the dilemma of what it means to be the first black police officer at a time where black people are rightfully mindful of the police. He captured the sense of internal conflict at the position he was in, but also the passion to make a difference and the power his position allows to break down walls that even the Black Panthers couldn’t touch. He had a unique brand of activism that makes him something of a black trailblazing hero.

In a way what Stalwart did, is what Lee does himself with his direction: he takes on the lingo of racists to expose the stupidity and heinous scheming of the Klan from the inside. The script is full of derogatory racist language, but Lee inverted its power, using it as a weapon against the Klan, which made for a wryly amusing, and gripping story.

Lee had a misty eyed-nostalgia for the political drive of yesteryear, with his portrayal of the Black Panther movement. The seventies vibe allowed for the styles and swagger of seventies Blaxploitation with shout outs to Shaft, Superfly and a nod to Pam Grier and a sense then Stallworth belongs in their ranks. The styles of the decade were perfectly evoked, but the story was something that we hadn’t heard before and the fact it isn’t widely known, hint at a conspiracy of silence that Lee broke with his witty, sharp and important film.

Annihilation-poster

8. Annihilation

It is not an easy transition to move from writer to director. The artistic skill set needed to be a writer is very different from that of a director. Can you produce the visions on screen visually that you do so effortlessly with words? In the case of Alex Garland, it is a resounding yes. He has made a prolific transition from scribe to director with two ground-breaking and entirely unique sci-fi visions. First came Ex-Machina and in March came the Netflix-produced Annihilation. The novelist of The Beach and scriptwriter of countless other Danny Boyle films has reconfigured first AI in Ex-Machina and now an alien invasion.

To bluntly state that this is an alien invasion film would be doing a great disservice to how much of a layered, distorted, and weird take on the genre Annihilation was. The source material was a 2014 novel from Jeff Vandermeer. Alex Garland, a novelist of some stature himself of course, braved the wrath of the fans by being bold enough to adapt the book to his own specifications. Considering the film’s plot and subtext both heavily involve adaptation, Garland must have thought their may not be too many objections to him altering the DNA of the original vision.

Most significantly, Garland altered the ending of the story. It’s a film that hints at a strong ending, all the questions the film poses and potential answers seem to emanate from the finale. It isn’t giving too much away to say that the ending was one of the strangest, boldest, most otherworldly and beguiling of the year. The finale managed to provide some explanation, but still left enough mystery to fuel endless Annihilation discussion, and a nagging sense of intrigue that left all those spellbound by the vision pondering it for weeks to come.

The premise was at the more tantalizingly abstract of the sci-fi genre: An odd translucent, oil on water, rainbow-hued dome – dubbed the shimmer – engulfed an area of land now quarantined. Many have ventured in to explore what lies beyond; few have come back. Only one in fact: a soldier named Kane (Oscar Issacs), seemingly deeply affected by PTSD. His biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman) joined a team of scientific experts with varying backgrounds, to investigate what the shimmer is and what is its purpose.

The film conjured an eerie vision, hooking its audience because of its seeming contradictions. The tone of the film was nightmarish, with a slow-burn sense of dread building up that made it a horror-inflected sci-fi. However, visually, there was a clear, counter-narrative of beauty to the vision with a sense of blossoming nature that is almost oddly benign. Any threat coming from The Shimmer is not so easy to detect. It’s a somewhat confounding effect which left the viewer disoriented, pleasurably confused and enraptured by a magnetic sense of intrigue. The deeper the team of female scientists ventured into the shimmer, the greater the sense of suspense built up. There was such an ethereal quality inside the shimmer, that suspension of disbelief was created in a similar way to how The Thing or The Mist worked. It played by rules of biology that the film itself created, so you were willing to go along with any sense of mutation that lurked within. Some of its more outright horror moments were tinged with a Cronenberg style sense of biological horror, a sense of the threat from within is worse than that external, that added further mystery. A lucid psychedelic visual style, a narrative full of mysterious paradoxes, and a cast of strong, brave female figures were just some of the strengths of one of the year’s best sci-fi visions.

ladybird

7.  Lady Bird

We are in something of a golden age for the teenager in film. The mysteries and complexities of the mercurial thing known as teenage angst have been accurately captured in films like The Way, Way Back, Louder than Bombs, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, and 21st Century Women, to name just a few that have gotten it right. The self-named Lady Bird – an eye-catching, sassy Saoirse Ronan – was a memorable depiction of a teenager with many layers of personality: some commendable, others maddening. She was a complex creature, who seemed extraordinarily real, saying something inspiring one minute and misjudged the next. Writer and debutante director Greta Gerwig used her own life experiences of growing up as a creative persona in suburban Sacramento – the Californian town in which the film is set – to make Lady Bird such a fully-rounded teenage character.

The film captures that moment in life when a young adult hits a point of seeing his or her potential, but feels resentment towards authority figures they deem to be creatively restricting – mainly teachers and parents. This is where Laura Metcalf deserves a mention, brilliantly playing Lady Bird’s frustrated and frustrating mother. She was the other half of one of the most accurately observed mother-daughter relationships ever captured in a film. An inspired early scene in a car between the two captured the pair’s sparky tension and exasperation with one another. What worked so wonderfully well between the two characters was that every interaction they had seemed to be burdened with the emotional baggage they had collected over many, many years of failed interactions. You get a strong sense that their long history of mis-communication was moving towards a breaking point, where they could have a terminal breakdown in their relationship. This made the film extraordinary realistic, quietly edgy and poignant.

Greta Gerwig’s script was full of sharp, witty dialogue that gave you a sense of the struggles of the characters. There is an art to getting dysfunction and family strife right in a film script and Gerwig, clearly in-tune with the subtleties of human interaction, got it note perfect in LadyBird.

A combination of observational humour and identifiable characters, mindsets and situations is what made Lady Bird so special. All the characters seemed true to life, rather than true to movies, nothing was smooth or neatly tied up. When you are a teenager, you are in an idealistic period, where you feel your own endeavor and determination to succeed, academically, romantically, or with friendships, will allow the pieces to fall into the place you want them to. Messy reality comes a biting to those who have big dreams – things can go awry just as quickly as they can come together. This film captures that clash of mindsets, saying something quite worthwhile about the teenage years.

Within just a small amount of screen time and the right combination of dialogue, even the struggles and hopes of the peripheral characters register an impact. From Ladybird’s sympathetic best friend to her long-suffering, but understanding father, everyone seemed captivatingly real.

Lady Bird was a lot more than the quirky offbeat indie comedy it appeared to be. It was funny and charming, but the characters felt natural and beautifully observed.

Teenagers, present and past, are going to recognize something of their own existence in Lady Bird and swoon with delight at having something that relates so strongly to their own life experiences. Long suffering parents too are going to see that loving your children so completely does not necessarily translate into personal understanding. It’s rare to get a film then so in-tune with the turbulent relationship between teenagers and their parents and it’s even rarer to get a film that seemed to understand these relationships from both perspectives.

I am not a witch

6. I am Not a Witch

The insidious underside of superstition was explored in this eerie and ethereal African-set drama. Zambian government officials were actually seen fanning the flames of fear around witchcraft. The film played out this absorbing sense of ambivalence: does the Zambian government actually believe in witchcraft, or are they exploiting irrational fears for their owns gains? In some rather striking recurring imagery, women are seen tethered by white ribbon as a supposed punishment for their ventures into witchcraft; their bonds would be easy to break were it not for the beliefs held by the women and their internal sense that they are actually witches. Tellingly, their punishment for their alleged crimes are state-run manual labor. This is slavery in witch’s clothing.

The film was written and directed by Rungano Nyoni, who based the imagery of the film on things she saw on an actual visit to Zambia. She opened up a window into a world which you may have assumed closed in the dark ages. A culture that believes in witchcraft usually hints at a sense of misogyny within. What was striking about the portrayal of witchcraft in this film is that there wasn’t any drama or anything out of the ordinary about witchcraft. There was no struggle: women deemed to be witches passively accept their fate; men accused women of witchcraft for the most innocuous of reasons, and civil servants went out to collect more witches. There is even a totally surreal scene, in which the ‘witches’ are reflected as a tourist attraction. Our way into this strange world was through a young girl who was soon to be put through the machinery of Zambian witchcraft. Like most of the other women, indoctrination is the spell she is under. Her fate generated the tension and drama within the film and her story was really rather stark and sobering.

At times there was the faintest hint of Python-esque satire at the madness of it all. One farmer has an impassioned rant at how a witch took his arm, gesturing wildly with the arm he deemed the accused to have taken.

Watching this well-organised state-run campaign to label regular women as witches was often rather unsettling. Particularly as the film had an organic docu-real style to it.

The film had this strange mix of fantasy and domesticity. The Zambian government have come up with a novel form of exploitation, and this drama fully captured the collective insanity of it all. The word witch is really a by-word for crimes against women; I am Not a Witch added another dark chapter to this with this insightful and evocative expose on the mythology around Zambian ‘witchcraft’.

Aquiet Place

5.   A Quiet Place 

In A Quiet Place, no one could hear you scream. Heck, no one could even hear you snap a twig, as the consequences for making any noise at all is being ravished by sound sensitive extra-terrestrial beasties. They offered no explanation for their acute response to noise – they just devoured you. Understandably, planet Earth had been changed. We are a noisy lot, so many of us didn’t survive. The ones who did crept around, using sign language to communicate and trying desperately not to step on anything. This was such a neat concept that it was actually both genius and obvious. It is quite amazing that no one had come up with it before. It’s strange that the person who stumbled on such an undiscovered gem of an idea: was John Krasinski, that bloke who played Jim in the American remake of The Office. He wrote and starred alongside an ever excellent Emily Blunt, his real life wife. It turned out that he is a rather accomplished director as his original concept created an extraordinary level of suspense and tension in A Quiet Place. This was one of the best cinematic experiences in the cinema this year, as there was an odd connectivity between the characters on the screen and the people in the theatre seats. What happened on screen was mirrored in the crowd; this is highly unusual. The film completely silenced the popcorn munchers and candy wrapper rattlers, who became as fearful of making noise in a eerily silent film as the characters up on screen. This duality of tension was extraordinarily gut-churning to experience. Hopefully it doesn’t lose this edge for the home viewing crowd. The sound of silence being broken has never been so chilling.

 

Black Panther

4. Black Panther

For years major studios shied away from a superhero film with any diversity on the grounds that there wasn’t any audience demand for different representation; how satisfying was it to see them proven wrong for a second year in a row. Following on from last year’s Wonder Woman, Black Panther, smashed box office figures, (it was the second highest grossing film of the year after Infinity Wars), sending a message back to Hollywood that widening demographics for blockbusters can turn into financial success. There was something heartening about seeing a big film with a predominantly black cast be one of the highest grossing films of 2018. Box office figures are the only language the studios understand; but what made it doubly satisfying was just how good Black Panther was as a film. For all of the Marvel Universe’s attempts to provide something fresh and different by reaching out to a space theme, it was exploring the heart of Africa, that took the superhero movie to a totally different dimension.

Having access to the culture, politics and history of Africa, took the superhero format to places it had never been before. From the inspired opening, which captured the mythology of Wakanda (an African country hidden from the horrors of colonialism), we could see that the story here was going to go to territory previously untouched upon in mainstream cinema.

Director Ryan Coogler, tapped into the mythology of the original comics, managing to keep the balance between highly energized action and the political perspectives, that spoke volumes about African identity, African American identity and the relationship between them.

The film used sci-fi and fantasy as a tool to explore, the potential of African civilization to develop without the course changing effects of colonial influence. Wakanda, and the incredible technology that the state produces for the eponymous character, represents a positive image of African identity that is aspirational and inspirational. The underlying question is: what if African tribalism had been allowed to evolve naturally closed off from outside influence? All the eye-catching scientific developments and visual spectacle on display in the film, had this central question as its foundation. Meaning that Black Panther had a social and political substance not seen since in the post-Christopher Nolan Batman years.

The script too had a flair for character arc reinvention that was scintillating and new. The dynamic between Chadwick Boseman’s hero and the villain of the piece, Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger was something special; there were so many shades of grey between their arguments that both could make a play for both the throne to Wakanda that they seek and the audience’s sympathy. The argument that Michael B Jordan was making really spoke to the heart of the political struggle against oppression that black people have been fighting since the days of slavery. The idea that if Wakanda had all this advanced technology then why didn’t they come to the aid of of all those struggling in the preceding centuries? That made him less of a nemesis and more of a freedom fighter battling for the rights of black people, against a hero, who is part of an elitist monarchy, more concerned with self-preservation.

The fact that it left the central hero, asking some internal questions about himself, his kingdom and his father’s legacy, was thrilling. It was one of the best relationships at blurring the lines between good and bad that there have been in a superhero movie. Come their epic showdown, there was some conflict as to whom the audience should be supporting.

There are countless other reasons why Black Panther was leagues ahead of all other superhero blockbusters this year: the way it fused the spirit, the heart, the colorful designs of Africa, onto the Marvel brand; the strength of female leadership on display from the likes of Lupita Nyong’o. The way that so many set-pieces had an inflection of African identity. The surge of passion from Coogler in regard to using the big Hollywood budget for a positive statement of black identity that will inspire the next generation. One character states that this is something we haven’t seen before – DC and Marvel are yearning do to that with each new film, but Black Panther truly delivered on that front. Wakanda forever indeed.

Phantom Thread.jpg

3. Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest character-driven film was very different to the stuffy starchy costume drama in might appear to be on the surface. What lurked beneath the outer layers was really where the strength of the film rested. You spent the first twenty minutes sussing out what kind of man Daniel Day Lewis’ fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock was. We spent time with him as he indulged in one of his many hearty breakfasts before he embarked on a hard days work of dress designing.

After you had a grasp on his prickly persona, the film started to lure you in. Outwardly, the film was still, measured, quietly delivered and patiently paced, but underneath, the film was a raging torrent of anguished and strained emotions. It was this contrast that made the film so utterly beguiling. Reynolds Woodcock was a man who would passive aggressively use anyone who didn’t adhere to his pedantic ways as a pin-cushion, sending barbed put-down towards those who didn’t tow his perfectly hemmed line. If you tuned yourself into the wavelength Anderson was working on in Phantom Thread, something as seemingly innocuous as an unannounced tea delivery would have made you bristle uncomfortably since you registered the magnitude of an error that is in the eyes of the ultra sensitive central figure.

As the film developed, it morphed into an unorthodox Gothic romance between two figures whose personas were so widely contrasting that sparks of tension not romance seem destined to fly. Where the film took their strange relationship was impossible to predict as Anderson twisted and warped their weird, toxic. yet spiritual connection into something that was an entirely unique interpretation of romance, that had to be seen, (possibly multiple times) to be understood. It’s about the impatience of the pursuit of perfection and it was very nearly perfect. Daniel Day Lewis claims that this is his final film; if this is the case then he goes out with a unblemished resume of films as impeccable as a Reynold’s Woodcock wardrobe.

First Man

2. First Man

Nearly fifty years on, most people can successfully remember that Neil Armstrong was our first man on the moon. But for most of us, our knowledge of the astronaut stops there. Perhaps we would assume it was heroism, aptitude, mental strength and a vigorous training system that landed him first in line for Man’s giant leap. But did you know that he was in the process of bereavement for his daughter at the time of his astronaut training?

This vital piece of information is the key prism in which Damian Chazelle filtered his biopic of the man through. How can a man so heavily burdened by heartache summon the strength to be the first Man on the Moon?

Any notions of a conventional biopic were shredded as Damian Chazelle’s emotionally intimate, somber drama probed at the psyche of one of the 20th Century’s greatest achievers. Grief was portrayed as a catalyst for Armstrong’s ambition rather than a burden. Each of Chazelle’s three films have been a variation on the theme of ambition, but this is the most groundbreaking film he has made thus far after LA LA Land and Whiplash.

It was quite a bold interpretation of a person deemed to be one of America’s greatest heroes. Gosling portrayed him as rather isolated from others through his concealed pain; he came across as socially stunted with an inability to process his emotions to his family, friends, colleagues and perhaps even himself. We see him looking at the moon with a sense of longing? Is he looking to the moon as a route to escape? Is he aiming for the moon as a tribute to his daughter? Is he looking to the moon as it will isolate him from an emotionally confusing world?

It’s the subtlety of Ryan Golsing’s performance that made questions such as these arise in your mind. He has a deadpan style of acting that is inviting to study, but not easy to read. There were clues to his state of mind, but Gosling made the audience search for the answers. It was a wonderful portrayal of an introspective struggle we would have never associated with such a historically successful figure.

The emphasis was on Gosling as Armstrong and the drama around him was low-key and reflexive. Contrasting this was a portrayal of NASA space launches that had an extraordinary physicality to them. The action scenes were thrillingly far from smooth. The intention seemed to be to put us in the boots of an astronaut boarding a tin can and being launched at ferocious speeds out of earth’s atmosphere into frontier’s barely explored. So raw, gritty and rickety were the space scenes that there was a genuine sense that you were in there with them, and that they might not make it to their intended destination. For a filmmaker to do that with a story with such a famous outcome, shows just how inventive the film-making style featured in First Man was. For all the attempts that 3D and 4DX have tried to give audiences an immersive experience, the systems have not come close to shaking the audiences up as much as Damian Chazelle did in this immersive drama.

The moon landing scenes themselves gave us the sensational thrill of the achievement perhaps more vividly than ever before. You were waiting for that line and it’s thrilling when it came, everything that followed however was entirely unexpected and beautifully evocative. The brilliant theremin score further added emotional clarity to Armstrong’s journey. The theremin is synonymous with sci-fi and space travel, but it has never been used so personally and emotionally as this. Come Oscars, Gosling and Chazelle should be the first men in line for awards.

 

three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-2696_8

1.  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Anti-establishment sentiment is bubbling under the surface among the working classes out there in small town America right now; many people are disgruntled at systems like the police for failing to look after the interests of the little guy. Firebrand character Mildred Hayes’ (portrayed by Frances McDormand) decision to take on the local sheriff and his force with the three titular billboards, in the hope of stirring them into re-opening the investigation into her daughter’s tragic death, made her the kind of ballsy vigilante figure that it is easy to admire in these times lacking proletarian system challengers. This is an inventive premise, and since she has the morally righteous position, you expect her to be a character to root for throughout. But Martin McDonagh’s original screenplay stumped its audience at every turn, frequently going down the least expected pathway.

In his debut film In Bruges, McDonagh played with the morality and the audience’s perception of the characters, in an interesting way. He became even more refined at playing with morality in his third feature. In this film, your attitudes and perceptions of the characters had to be frequently re-evaluated since the film was constantly challenging you to reconsider the integrity of the characters and their sometimes dubious, sometimes understandable actions.

It is rare to see a screenplay so complex and intriguing. In each of the acts, the characters were reinvented – the results were something totally captivating. There was a dramatic triangle that played out between the three key characters, that pulled the audience deeper into an emotional connection with each at different stages of the film; there is a reason why Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell, as the two antagonized cops, and Francis McDormand, as the trailblazing grieving mother, all earned deserved Oscar nominations. The way their relationship with each other changed gears from confrontational to sympathetic, was masterfully done.

The tone of the film shifted from guffaw-inducing, spiky, black-comedy one minute, to heart-stirring tragedy the next. It had a tone somewhere between the dark comedy of the Coen brothers to the stories set on the new American frontier as seen in Taylor Sheridan scripts, but it was very much its own creation; a fiercely original, wittily written, inventively plotted, character-driven story from a filmmaker quietly building a collection of darkly twisted films to define his name.

 

It has been a terrific year for film, so good in fact, that some great films that have been lingering in my mind in 2018 couldn’t quite break into my personal top 25.

Also very good: Leave No Trace; You Were Never Really Here; Call Me By Your Name; Beast; The Post; Ben is Back; The Square; The Ballard of Buster Scruggs. All the Money in the World;Molly’s Game; Puzzle

Very good, but not without flaws: Avengers: Infinity Wars; Ready Player One; Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Worst film of the year: The Nun

Biggest Disappointment: Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom

Thanks for reading. Happy New Year! What was your favourite film in 2018?

 

The Top 25 films of 2018 (25-11)

2018 was another year in which cinema took us in many different directions. The year in film was like a box of chocolates, you never knew what you were gonna get. It was a year where great films popped out to surprise people. 2018 proved that despite all the problems facing the industry, its ability to deliver an eclectic range of films is undiminished.

As always, the further you dive down the rabbit hole, the more likely you were to uncover some little gems.

To try and make sense of the year in cinema in terms of trends is somewhat futile since no analysis tells the full picture of releases. Nevertheless, there was some common ground with some films and a sense that cinema still remains a useful mirror to reflect issues effecting our societies in the 21st Century.

It has been a year in which strong female characters could be found in many films. Strong women are everywhere in our society, so it’s great that there is a sense of this naturally represented in film. In an industry that has been accused of failing to represent female diversity, 2018 had so many strong female characters in films too numerous to mention. Indeed, the number one film on this list is partly there due to an astonishing firebrand female character. Whether the strength in female representation is a tip of the hat to recent feminine movements, or just a coincidence is up for debate. But either way, 2018 was a strong year for female characters and performances.

Cinema has an amazing ability to evoke compassion, to allow you to see the world from perspectives out of reach before. I am not a Witch, Roma and The Breadwinner were some of the most empathy-inducing films of 2018. All of which were driven by provocative issues facing young women.

There were some excellent films that reflected positive black identity, with Black Panther, BlackkKlansman and Widows all being astonishing pieces of work.

Netflix continued its desire to shake up the establishment, by producing a staggering range of content, some of which makes it onto this list.

It was also a year in which horror continued a resurgence. Two such films have made my annual end of year list.

The blockbusters continue to take the biggest box office as well as the lion’s share of marketing and consequently audience attention; we have an insatiable appetite for high octane set-piece driven spectacle – there is nothing wrong with that, unless they totally swallow the financing of the smaller films, like some giant CGI monster. We have to remember, that there is a lot more to cinema than visual thrills and franchising; well-crafted, well-directed human-driven films are still the substance of cinema and thankfully they were well served in 2018. The big bucks belong to the blockbusters but the heart and soul of cinema, is still in possession of the mid to small-budgeted films. It’s a pleasure to announce that 2018 was another great year for cinema, with far more excellent films than you can fit on an end of year list. Here are my favourite films from 2018.

BAD TIMES

25. Bad Times at the El Royale

You can can guarantee that if a random selection of people roll to up to a strange hotel on a night with bad weather, things are not going to run smoothly. You can usually tell that these characters come with baggage of a different kind; the odd assortment of characters here – a priest (Jeff Bridges) , a Supremes-style singer (2018 break-out star Cythia Erivo), a vacuum-cleaner salesman (John Hamm) and a femme fatale (Dakota Johnson) , hint that they have things to hide. Part of the fun of this twisty period set-noir, was trying to work out what each character’s motivation for frequenting the hotel was. None of them were what they seemed – all appeared to be packing secrets and lies in their luggage. There was a fantastic scene early on, which heightened the sense of intrigue, when each character’s motivation was framed to the audience simultaneously. It was a head-spinning moment shot beautifully and inventively. You became aware of why each were there, but tellingly, the characters were not privy to these reveals. As their stories began to messily intertwine with each other, the tension mounted considerably.

Bad Times at the El Royale was set in ’69; an era when dishonesty and corruption had seeped into politics via the Nixon administration. There was a mood of that in the film, with lots of scenes gaining a sort of sleazy energy built around surveillance and a sense that you can never tell who is spying on you. Lots of characters were seen watching others do suspicious or outright sinister things and you yourself felt an unsettling sense that you were the true voyeur.

Drew Goddard’s follow-up to the shape-shifting Cabin in the Woods, was often as full of turns and surprises as his debut film. You can tell he is a director and screen-writer, that loves the craft of writing characters and story arcs. You can feel his desire to want to surprise his audience and he does just that, with a number of moments that entirely pull-the-rug from under the audience, swinging the pendulum of power back towards a different character. It’s an ensemble in which each characters sometimes dubious choices, sent the story in a different way. It was certainly far from predictable.

Bad Times was unmistakably noir, but it owed a greater debt to Tarantino than say Raymond Chandler. The tropes and styles seemed to mirror Tarantino’s in a multitude of ways: Goddard allowed his audience to be absorbed in a character interplay, then sucker-punched them with a moment of unflinching violence. This was as effective in Goddard’s film as it is in many of Tarantino’s. Both directors, seem to value the use of dialogue and character-interaction to build suspense, before going for the jugular with an unexpectedly brutal scene.

Goddard also seems to have Tarantino’s knack for mining style from a vintage pop soundtrack, and subverting its tone when used in a different often more unsettling context. The soundtrack took its cue from Ervio’s singer, who was trying to make it in the Motown music industry. Her performance provided the heart and soul of the film figuratively and literally, as soul music gives the film its atmosphere.

It’s another meaty, textured character for Jeff Bridges to get his teeth into. He was great as usual and the relationship between him and the singer was the most dynamic and nuanced in the film. Chris Hemsworth swaggered onto the scene, recalling the bravado of late nineties Brad Pitt, as a charismatic but despicable and unhinged cult leader. His entrance freshened things up no end – and proved a game-changer for the power dynamics of the characters, in this suspenseful, fresh, involving, and lively noir.

THOROUGHBREDS

24. Thoroughbreds

There is a school of thought that says extreme wealth can lead to worrying levels of detachment towards one’s fellow man. If that is true, where does that leave the offspring of the super rich? If debut director Cory Finley’s cold, disturbing austere drama is anything to go by, then the answer is removed, isolated, lost and numb to human emotion. One character actually declared that she felt nothing and only assimilated feelings to blend in. The irony laced in the title, hinted at the discontent within. The young girls in this film were extremely wealthy, but far from well-adjusted.

There was a tone of dry caustic satire to Thoroughbreds; it had a touch of Hitchcock’s Rope, Brett Easton Ellis-style characters and a jet-black, wry humour that recalled Heathers.

Both the central character’s exhibited latent sociopathic tendencies and what fascinated about the film was trying to work out what exactly they were capable of. We first met these two teenage girls in a mesmerizingly awkward study session, paid for by one of the girl’s parents. Olivia Wilde’s character was perceptive, off-putting, direct and unnervingly brisk. She was aware of her mum’s little arrangement to force her to be more social and called her ‘friend’ out on the payment she received. From this rocky start, the girls forge a wry bond, opening up a relationship built on skewed honesty as they each had a confidant to explore dark desires. They had a shared twisted perspective that echoed the one between the two girls in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures – Thorughbreds was often as equally chilling as Jackson’s disturbing film.

Every shot was cleverly framed to subvert images of an affluent lifestyle into something cold and alienating, a social prison to suggest money can be a barrier to impede social connectivity. Characters felt detached and removed from each other, which was why the girls’ unorthodox, pseudo-friendship, seemed to offer them some solace in an otherwise loveless existence. They had a relationship that was hard to define in its complexity and dynamism, which allowed the film to be so gripping. Thoroughbreds was a darkly amusing, wry piece of social satire.

film stars

23. Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

A faded Hollywood star Gloria Grahame ( Annette Bening), and a working class Liverpool lad Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), hailed from such different worlds, culturally, financially, and geographically, in this charming indie film, that the idea of them forming a romance seemed rather unlikely. But as we know, love doesn’t always cut an easy path – and as the cliché goes, opposites attract. You couldn’t get such a disparate set of actors than Bening and  Bell, but their chemistry was genuinely intoxicating, with a sense of magnetism between them that made this one of the classiest romantic films of the year.

The source material was a memoir from the real Peter Turner, who really did have a relationship with Gloria Grahame. Former movie stars do not have any reason to frequent the streets of 70s industrial Liverpool; the fact that one did made for a remarkable story.

The characters had a mutual fascination with each other’s lives. Bening’s character sparked to life being in the re-energizing spotlight that is a gaze of affection. She found comfort in a family support network that a Hollywood lifestyle may not allow for and Bell’s character had a wide-eyed sense of enchantment at Graham’s colorful life. There was pathos underneath the dreamy romance; love and pain can often go hand in hand. The relationship had a depth of feeling and a sense of nuance that reflected something of the truth about what it means to be in a relationship. There is a scene that played out cleverly as we saw the monumental damage misunderstanding can sometimes cause. It  perfectly captured the confusion that men sometimes feel trying to understand their partners. We know the reason why Grahame has turned on him, but we also understand why Peter is failing to read the signs. The film beautifully and delicately handled the shades of grey that can cast shadows on human connections.

Older female actresses complain that no one is writing interesting roles for post 40-something woman, and they are right to complain. However, Bening can have no such qualms as this is the second year in a row in which she got to play such a complex and well-thought out, fully formed older female. This would make a great double bill with last year’s 20th Century Woman for Bening fans. Her character had so much sunshine charm, but it was something of a mask to conceal a bruised interior. Keeping one’s self esteem and inner peace intact as an aging actress with a career on its dying embers, can not be an easy struggle. There was something of Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard story here. A poignant, mesmerizing beautifully written film. Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was the other story about a fading star and a young hopeful in 2018.

lucky picture.jpg

22.  Lucky

Harry Dean Stanton is an unconventional figure, who earned a status as a cult actor through his memorable performances, working with art-house royalty like Wim Wenders (Paris/Texas and David Lynch(The Straight Story). It’s a status he preserved right to the end, as Stanton, at the age of 91, bowed out of this world in 2018. Few actors get a finer film to ruminate on one’s mortality as Stanton did with this charming, contemplative and understated film. And few actors would have been so bold and brave as to explore one’s own physical frailty, ailing health and contemplations of what may, or may not lie beyond the great beyond as the veteran actor did in Lucky. The fact that this came out so soon after the actor died, obviously gave the film an extra layer of poignancy, while highlighting just how much of a soul-baring performance this must have been for Stanton.

It’s a character piece rather than plot-driven; We follow the titular character Lucky as he goes about the daily routines that are keeping him alive. In fact there is not much drama or conflict at all; the one (quirky) running dramatic rift is the status of a renegade runaway tortoise, which causes much distress to its owner, and Lucky’s best friend. The fact that the owner of the tortoise was played by David Lynch, Stanton’s long time friend and collaborator, was almost ceremonially fitting and added an extra layer of charm to an oddly loveable film.

Lucky has a stoic attitude to death, which meant the film never felt heavy or dark and there was even a lot of low-key humour generated from the fact that the hard smoking Lucky, keeps on defying doctor’s expectations and just carries on living. There are some old characters in this world that defy death by being as tough as old boots, there’s one in every neighborhood and in the dusty one-horse Arizona desert town that Lucky’s resided in, he’s that man. The fact that he is seen wandering through a similarly aesthetic town to the one he strode across in Paris Texas, will bring a wry smile to the faces of long time Stanton admirers.

There has been a lot of American indie cinema that has proven that you don’t always need a dramatic thrust to engage audiences. It is possible to allow people to sit with a character and quietly reflect on their existence – Lucky fits into this sub-genre. He was a cranky old-timer with a defiance of death, but underpinning that, was something that gave the character some extra layers, a hint that underneath the rugged-old-fashioned- set-in-his-ways masculinity, is a sense of disquiet at being so close to the unknown.

You can’t get much more personal than a man exploring differing reflections on death on screen when he must have known his own time was nearly up. It’s the ultimate cathartic cinema project. That’s what gave the performance and film such stirring authenticity. It also proved to be a mighty epitaph for a renowned character actor whose decision not to cross into the mainstream will allow his cult status to be taken to the grave. Lucky ensures Harry Dean Stanton can rest in peace.

isles of dogs

21.  Isle of  Dogs

Wes Anderson crafted an affectionate ode to the cinema of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa using stop-motion, his sophomore effort in the medium following his charming spin on The Fantastic Mr Fox. It was a shaggy-dog story of the most literal kind as a desperate group of outcast canines found themselves discarded with the trash on an island, due to the ruthless policies of dog-loathing tyrannical Mayor Kobayashi. A series of terrifying dog-related illnesses swept across Japan meaning that man’s former best friend had considerably fallen out of favour.

It was quite an interesting and neat set-up that explored a dormant fear in Asian society: viral outbreak, with a witty and satirical tone. Wes Anderson, being an American film-maker, took a bold step choosing to depict a Japanese society. Trying to get a satire with the bite of a rapid dog, when depicting a foreign culture, must have been a cultural minefield. Although there were some dubious creative choices – the Japanese were depicted as speaking gibberish to the dog’s ears – it got away with it for three reasons. It was all done as a loving tribute, it was told from the perspective of the dogs, and the comedy was often tongue-in-cheek and as playful as a newborn puppy.

Fans of Japanese cinema had fun spotting the numerous homages. Music from The Seventh Samurai was used cleverly and the dogs were framed in that epic operatic, close up style, as seen in iconic Japanese cinema.

Wes Anderson has twice now used stop-motion to inspired effect, infusing the childishness of the puppets with a sense of indie sophistication. From a technical perspective, his low-key comedy is perfect for stop-motion. He generates a lot of humour from the spaces in between dialogue – he loves generating mirth from a pregnant pause between character-interplay. Or a move to action after an an extended moment of stillness. He brought such artful beauty to scenes set on the grungy trash island. You could freeze some of his shots, and admire the artful use of light, color, composition, knowledge of Japanese culture and mythology and sheer detail for some time. It often had a breathtaking beauty seemingly beyond the limits of stop-motion.

Voicing the dogs was a dream team of A-list Anderson regulars, all of whom enriched their characters, and proved to be adept at the dry comic delivery needed for an Anderson script: could you ask for a better line-up to voice the motley crew of canines than Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, and Angelica Huston? That is the thing about being a indie-auteur with the cache of Wes Anderson: you get to cherry-pick the best in the industry. Everyone wants to work with Anderson, and when he is making inventive, astute, witty, satire such as Isle, you can see why he can command the top talent.

downsizing

20. Downsizing

The return of Alexander Payne is always a reason for fans of free-wheeling, offbeat indie drama to rejoice. A lover of bittersweet story telling, Payne has been one of the most consistent directors working outside the mainstream of American cinema in the last twenty years. His story about a man undergoing an operation to be be shrunk to fit more comfortably into a world ever more conscious about resource conservation, saw him ironically grow and stretch himself as a director. This pleasingly unconventional and meandering story saw him dipping his toes into sci-fi, with a novel high-concept premise neatly summed up in the succinct title. It could have easily been a premise played for broad comedy; you can imagine someone like Will Ferrell chomping at the bit to goof around with the idea; but Payne had bigger issues he was concerned with. There was a bit of tom-thumb type fun at the start, but Payne was much more eager to instill his film with comedy with an environmental consciousness and socio-political subtext.

He was primarily concerned with satirizing how the materialistic American dream does not nourish the soul. As Matt Damon’s character received everything he felt nothing – when he shrunk, his hunger for discovery grew. His decision to search for how other cultures have used their downsizing technology opened up the film into a journey full of enriching experiences and surprises.

Some critics have wrongly considered Downsizing to be disjointed and unfocused. It’s the fact that it doesn’t adhere to any genre convention that gives the film its charm and dynamism. Payne’s films have had a running theme of outsider characters growing spiritually on winding journeys; Matt Damon’s character here fits into Payne’s pleasing archetype – the difference this time was that Payne was sending his character into a delightfully weird and far-out world, rather than the natural settings we are used to with his films. The film packed a message that the meaning of life is not in what you own, but the community you belong to and the values that you stand for. This timely message complimented the environmental themes of the film. It was also one of the most enriching messages delivered in a film this year.

Mama Mia 2

19. Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

The bittersweet hit of the summer, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again defied expectations by being surprisingly good. It managed to contextualize more of Abba’s toe-tapping back-catalog in a story that was oddly naturalistic and believable. Peel away all the infectiously joyful musical numbers, and there was a story that was actually far more complex and beautifully told than a Mama Mia sequel had a right to be. If you reflect on how dynamic the storytelling was, you could see that quite a lot of work must have gone into the writing and editing to allow the film to juxtapose two separate timelines and a journey into how a mother found out she was pregnant and how her daughter was then in a similar position.This was done poetically and movingly with no hint of artifice or contrivance.

Few films this year handled backstory as well as Here we Go Again did. Meryl Streep gave a vibrant effervescent performance as Donna in the first film and here Lily James was given the daunting task of acting like the younger incarnation of Streep’s character; she managed to replicate the spirit of Donna, feeling spiritually in-tune with her life-affirming attitude. She captured the heart and soul as well as giving a show-stealing, belting vocal performance. Across the board, the casting choices of the younger actors to represent the many characters played by acting super-brands was impeccable. The fact that they chose actors so similar to their older counterparts allowed the film to have a surprise sense of progression through time and a continuity with the characters that unlocked a range of emotions.

The film itself was a perfect representation of what ABBA were all about: they were a band that had a knack for a jovial upbeat sense of joy to their music, but reflect on the lyrical content, and you can see that the double husband and wife team that made up the band had such a depth of feeling towards love, life and heartbreak. The film totally gets that about ABBA, and managed to pair their songs with scenes that extract that quality of truth in their timeless tunes. The film found the perfect balance between a sunny sense of froth and fun and a emotional sincerity that was really rather touching. Mama Mia! Here We Go Again sent audiences out of the cinema this August with a spring in their step and a tear in their eye – that is a hard combination of things to pull off.

 

A Star is Born

18.  A Star is born

There seemed something quite cynical about Bradley Cooper choosing a fourth remake of A Star is Born as his directorial debut. But there is a reason why this story, about one star on the way up and one on the way down, comes back every couple of decades: it says something quite penetrating about the fickle nature of the fame game. For all our modern obsession with fame, there are very few pieces of work that try to capture the psychological toll being in the spotlight must take on successful artists. There must have been something quite cathartic for Cooper and Lady Gaga to take on a project that allowed them to explore the realities of celebrity in a raw and candid style.

It struck a chord of authenticity right from the get go, as Cooper – a seasoned rock/country musician – hit all the right notes on a stage performance that seems thrillingly real. The film went on to have the electricity of live stage performances throughout.

Cooper and Gaga had a genuine chemistry that is like cinematic gold dust to achieve. There was an effortless natural humour and camaraderie between them; the connection was born from a spark of creativity. The film cared about the songwriter process, this was illustrated by just how many really good original songs were written for the soundtrack.

The songwriting furthered the storytelling in quite a thrilling way, being key to a number of genuinely emotive scenes. Given her tendency for showbiz eccentricity, it is quite surprising how good Lady Gaga was at being a down-to-earth girl next door type. Her job in the setup was to convince us that, despite having the desire and raw talent, her dreams of stardom might not be achieved. It’s a credit to her acting that there was a sense that the character felt it may not work out for her. This left us absolutely rooting for her; so when she got that moment to shine, and she looked a little nervous, we were hoping that she was going to soar, not choke, supporting her as much as Cooper’s rock star character does. We went on the journey from the outside of the industry looking in, to passengers on a meteoric rise. We were with this girl when she was throwing out bin bags; her success somehow felt like our success.

The film gave you the intoxicating sense of being a fly on the wall on the inside of the industry. Naturally, this allowed us to see the troubled mindsets behind the screen personas. Cooper’s performance captured the hard toll twenty years of rock touring can have on a star. His hard liquor-swilling character had a twinkle in his eye and a heartbreak of a star burning out.

Passionate, honest, sobering and infectious, A Star is Born swept its audience up into an energized mood. Through Cooper’s authentic direction, audiences got to get a taste of the highs and lows of the dream of stardom.

A great director is born and unlike the title of one of the film’s big songs, the film was anything but shallow.

TULLY

17. Tully

Diablo Cody’s sympathetic drama about a mother of two struggling to cope with the workload of parenthood must have been unnerving for expecting mothers and somewhat therapeutic for any mum dragged into a state of perpetual sleep-deprivation due to maternal duties.

It all hinged on a brave and vanity-free performance from Charlize Theron, who for the second time in her career, packed on the pounds to embody a role. She was comfortable on the screen looking frumpy and worn-down, giving a vulnerable performance that captured the beleaguered spirit of her overburdened character. She appeared poignantly strung-out in the boldest female performance of the year.  Cody has always been a scriptwriter with a distinctive style, who offsets snappy dialogue with a natural tone. There is a recurring theme of maternal matters in her work. Tully is on the other end of the pregnancy spectrum to her work in Juno though; the teenage Juno took pregnancy in her stride, but the thirty-something character in Tully is strung out with childbirth-related stress. It’s a somewhat parallel theme to Juno, but her writing here showed Cody is maturing and getting better at commanding audience sympathy for a well-observed female character. There is a lot of accurately depicted domestic woe in Tully, but Cody sprinkled this with a little bit of screen-writing magic through the character of Tully, a sort of helper/friend drafted into to relieve Theron’s character of some of her workload. The two struck up a genuinely charming friendship that provided the heart of the film.

Tully worked towards a brave third act twist that actually gave the film a moving psychological depth. Twists are a little out of vogue right now, but Cody managed to use the device in a way that enhanced the emotional impact rather than something that played as a cheap-gimmick. Tully was a salute to all the unsung heroes out there: all the women painstakingly doing every task to raise children. It was a warm hug of appreciation for all the hard work these women do. For all the new mums out there in 2018, Diablo Cody had your back.

Adrift.jpg

16. Adrift

There is a spirit that awakens in some twenty-somethings, a call to see the world and have adventure. When adopting this mindset, one tends to see the opportunities rather than risk. But when things go wrong overseas, it can open up horror stories that can leave you utterly well, adrift. Adrift tapped into the dark side of travel with a cautionary tale about the horrors an intrepid spirit can leave you facing. The story started with a believable organic kindling of romance, as two souls driven by their love of discovery, begin to feel the magnetism of connection in an exotic destination.

When an opportunity presented itself for the couple to sail a luxury yacht across the Atlantic from Tahiti to California, they could see nothing but positive chances. He was a competent sailor with plenty of experiences and she’s an adventurer ready to adapt to any situation. This could be the ultimate adventure for them both, but little do they know that out on the open seas, a storm is brewing….

Sam Clefin and Shailene Woodley had a mesmerizing chemistry in the earlier part of the story that is actually quite rare to see. They convinced as two people forging a deep connection and all the beautiful landscapes and perfect moments between them allowed the film to get its hooks into you, so that when they hit the open seas, you really got a sense of tension at their isolation and vulnerability. It is easier said than done to make an audience care about central characters, but if a filmmaker can do it, it opens up such great potential for drama and tension to arise. Director Baltasar Kormakur was tremendously successful at achieving this, so when things started to go wrong and the characters began to get a creeping sense of their own mortality, we were literally and figuratively in the same boat with them.

The film was part love story and part disaster movie. They are two genres that rarely blend as effectively as this. The horror of the disaster was stark, raw and unnerving and the romance alluring. The film was really cleverly edited to intertwine the perils they end up facing, with their blossoming relationship, so you almost got a sense of the two things happening simultaneously. Adrift then managed to stir the emotions in a dynamic way. The characters’ spirit of endurance and survival were tested in a range of gripping ordeals. The key to it all working was the authenticity that everything was rendered with. Adrift was a brilliantly realized, poignant depiction of a true story about the pitfalls of paradise and how nature can turn travel dreams into nightmares.

mortal engines.jpg

15. Mortal Engines

This gargantuan Peter Jackson-produced mega-film, directed by his prodigy Christian Rivers, seems like it is going to have to be filed away with The Golden Compass as a potential franchise launcher sunk by criminally harsh reviews and equally infuriating audience apathy.

Audiences are starting to send a worrying message to the giant studios that they don’t want their blockbusters outside of an existing established brand. This is the reason why the big films seem to lack invention, because as soon as something with a flicker of creativity comes along, like Mortal Engines, it is immediately stamped out by poor box office numbers.

Nobody has tried to do a blockbuster set 1000 years into the future. To do that, you have to imagine the world so irrevocably changed; Mortal Engines actually managed to deliver on this front. with a vision of an apocalyptic world so radically changed by quantum war that the remaining cities have to hunt each other down in a cutthroat battle for survival labelled municipal Darwinism by one of London’s top power brokers, played by Hugo Weaving.

A vision of cities consuming each other served as a phenomenal visual spectacle unseen before and, on a deeper level, as a metaphor for the inherent lack of sustainability of capitalism, with a sense that The Mortal Engines vision is the end destination of a road we must surely be well down in our resource guzzling modern world.

We have seen visions of the future that suggest we get taken back to primitive times by humanity’s lust for power. But this did something new with that arc. In Mortal Engines, it was the heavy mechanization of the industrial age that served for the visual inspiration. At the heart of the film were giant machines sustained by the monstrous appetite for old technology. All parts were fed into them, to make something giant and new. In a way, this was a metaphor for how the film played out. Detractors have argued that the film is derivative of lots of action adventure that have gone before. Admittedly there are hints of many of the 20th century classics from Frankenstein to Terminator to Peter Jackson’s Star Wars, LOTR, Mad Max to Robocop, to name just a few. The film seemed to grind up all these influences through its machinery and mesh them to make a totally new beast – just like what is going on in the story. The film certainly gives the newcomer an appetite to seek out Philip Reeve’s source material.

There is a fear that it has wrongly been lumped in with the ailing teen dystopian sub-genre that has run its course in the wake of the success of The Hunger Games. Its tortured female protagonist, Hester Shaw, is sufficiently different from Katniss Everdeen though. For one, Rivers was bold enough to show how damaged the character was both on the inside and the outside. This kind of daring characterization should be an audience draw, but its strength may be the reason that on the outside the film could look like another Hunger Games knock-off. It’s a shame as it’s closer to the dark tone of something like Snowpiercer – another overlooked vision. There is a sense that everything has been put together with a rustic DIY ingenuity, it had a grubby sci-fi feel that puts it closer stylistically to something Terry Gilliam might have made or Jean Pierre Jeunet circa Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. There is also a strong influence from Miyazaki with some of the film’s visual design almost making it a live action version of some of Ghibli’s films, notably Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky. Perhaps that was what was so off-putting for audiences, as these influences show how weird and deranged a film Mortal Engines is; we know now that nothing scares mainstream audiences like a bit of weirdness. Mortal Engines probably only got made as Peter Jackson has been a proven world builder which has translated into repeated box office success. Sadly his name wasn’t enough of a draw this time, which is a shame as Mortal Engines was a daring, immersive unsettling, epic vision that played as a cautionary metaphor of what may happen to humanity if we don’t find a surer road to sustainability.

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14.  I,Tonya

If you are old enough to remember the 94′ Lillehammer winter Olympics, the name Tonya Harding will bring back a memory of a sporting horror story. One American ice dancer Harding, was portrayed as hiring someone to smash her competition in the knee with a crowbar. The tabloids had a field day: seizing an opportunity to frame Harding as the biggest villain in sport and reveling in the irony of a graceful sport being disgraced by horrifying violence. What the director of I,Tonya Craig Gillespe set out to do with this, is to re-examine the pieces of the case and suggest their was something of a vendetta against Harding due to her class, determined even before the infamous incident.

She is seen as a tragic victim rather than the nasty villain we remember from the tabloids. Her ice-skating talent is seen as the thing that kept her going through a life of routine abuse dealt out to her by her horrid mother, tightly-wound husband and a sporting system that doesn’t want to see their well-bred elite dancing swans upstaged by someone they evidently deem to be white-trash.

Tonya Harding seemed an unlikely figure to command sympathy, but when you see her story put into the context of her tragic background, the film really started to stir up emotions, particularly by those who judged her all those decades ago, ie, everyone who read a newspaper headline about the incident. The film had a great use of a talking head, as Margot Robbie (powerfully portraying Harding), talks directly to the audience about all the details before and after the infamous moment that de-railed her career. The film found a tone that had an excellent balance between comedic mocking of the ill-advised set of circumstances that led her career to that moment and a more evocative note that added pieces of the story that show she wasn’t directly culpable for what happened and she was just as much of a victim as her old rival. The film suggested it was naivety rather than malice that led to that incident and that puts Tonya Harding in a completely different light.

There is an outrageous story around her, involving a bunch of hapless rogues getting into criminal activity they are not nearly smart enough to succeed at. The tone was done with a generous helping of wry comedy; there was something of a Coen brothers-style plot, involving stupid criminal ineptitude driving unfortunate circumstances. The style of the direction recalls the pacy editing of Scorsese circa Goodfellas, as the film covered a lot of Tonya’s life: from her promising start as skater to her firebrand on ice style to the lead up to where it all went awry for her.

Certain sports can be very elitist and if your face doesn’t fit, then you might find your pathway to success a constant uphill battle. Judging from I, Tonya that seems to be the fate the former Olympian faced. There turns out to be a lot more than we remember from the 90s news headlines to Tonya Harding’s life – thrusting her into the spotlight for a blackly comic yet evocative film, proved to be dramatic gold.

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13.  The Breadwinner

The fate of woman in Afghanistan seems an unlikely topic to explore in animation, on paper. But The Breadwinner typifies exactly the power of the the medium that has been unlocked in the last few decades: the ability to enter into worlds that live-action would struggle to authenticate. The oppression of woman under a stifling patriarchy became something with almost a fantasy edge in this powerful animation. There was something tragically absurd about the plight of woman here: woman of any age are not allowed to be seen out on the street without full Islamic dress and a male chaperone; things became complicated for a household of woman when the male of the house disappeared mysteriously. Naturally, some of the more daring girls, had to take it upon themselves to venture out to ensure the family’s survival; but there in lies the dilemma, the mere presence of woman is likely to incur severe punishment.

The magical thing that happened in The Breadwinner is that the simple pursuit of daily bread became an act thwarted by danger and tension. Heavy disguise is the only way that our central character, a bold young heroine who pretended to be a boy in order to skulk around on the streets of Afghanistan, could survive. Angry misogynistic fanatics became beasts on the street to avoid, giving the film a dark fantasy edge. There was a beguiling, but threatening fairy tale, nightmarish quality to the film. The intensity of the threat is so heightened, which exemplified the point within: that being a female in Afghanistan under extreme-Islam is impossibly hard. This is obviously something we could assume from afar, but walking a mile in their shoes was thrillingly, unnerving and disconcerting. So much fear and hysteria had been cooked up around women, that from an Afghan male perspective, the mere glimpse of a female on the street, caused a level of panic and alarm usually reserved for monsters in fairy-tales.

There is one scene in which you note the calmness on the street with the absence of women, until our heroine is spotted and alarm bells are sounded. Needless to say, with the stakes so high for the women, the film was profoundly moving and involving. The idea that the grimness of oppression towards women in a ruthless Islamic fundamentalist state, could be explored in as a nightmarish fantasy was really inventive. Irish studio Cartoon Saloon are quietly building a unique style, The Breadwinner rivaled Song of the Sea for animated beauty and enchantment.

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12. Hereditary

One of the rules of horror cinema is to get the characters right in order to drag the audience into the horror. Hereditary was exceptionally successful at doing this. It didn’t achieve this by making you like the family at the centre of the story, but instead it created a believable mounting tension between them and a growing sense of dread around their inability to understand each other’s point of view. There is a palpable sense in Hereditary that the ever-fraying relationship between mum (played by Toni Collette) and son (Alex Wolff) is going to lead to major disturbances. There’s a brilliantly realized exchange at a dinner table between them that had you shifting as uncomfortably in your seat as you would if it happened at a real dinner party you had attended. You realize that this all had the effect of getting its hooks deep in your psyche and deeply involved in the emotional conflict.

What Hereditary did expertly well was present a cliché and then completely wrong-foot you with a sly side-step away from convention. As it did this, it delivered a sucker-punch of an emotional blow, almost as a punishment for wrongfully assuming the direction would be derivative. Take the little girl. She had a weirdness to her that screamed something supernatural in the vein of Carrie. Director Ari Aster played with that and absolutely floors its audience with how exactly that character’s story was woven into the narrative, not once, but several times. If you think it was hackneyed you were not looking close enough; very few horror films ever reach this level of emotional intensity. This film picked you up, threw you around in your chair and forced you to feel something. It put me through the emotional wringer to such an extent that I was physically flailing around in my seat, like a person possessed. This was simultaneously thrilling and upsetting. No detachment here – it shook off your sense of apathy many times over.

It took its time to build such a tragic emotional dynamic between the characters, that by the time the supernatural element was brought in you felt like you’d gone through enough bruising psychological blows that you were now a member of their family. The fact that the director seemed concerned with providing scares at the malevolent end of the supernatural spectrum, gave the film intensity that disturbed the soul. It didn’t matter that we had seen a lot of the supernatural stuff done in other films, it was so frightening because of the emotional investment, the uneasy sense that the characters were mentally unraveling and just how much intent of malice is in the film – on and off the screen, There has been a lot of hyperbole talk that this is the new Exorcist. This is way off the mark, the right level of buzz but the wrong film reference: there was a sense that the characters were doomed due to an unseen force conspiring against them; that made Hereditary a lot more like a Rosemary’s Baby for the modern generation. Disturbing; emotionally hard-hitting and outrageously scary.

 

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11. Roma

The striking opening shot of Alfonso’s Cuaron’s visually sumptuous Roma, stated the Mexican director’s intentions: soapy run-off water from a hard-working maid’s mop, settled to reveal a picture of framed reflected beauty. The memorably poetic shot encapsulated’s Cuaron’s desire to morph menial drudgery into something with a hidden elegiac beauty.

What made the eventual beauty that the film steadily revealed all the more poignant, was the user of that mop was formed from his own recollections of the maid that helped raise him. It is always very attention-grabbing when a director uses his status to explore something of his past, but the Oscar-winning Mexican director here went even further into the depth of personal story-telling, by building a film from the memory of his childhood.

As we grow up, we may reflect on figures from our past with an altered, maturing perspective; we may gain empathy for their struggles more than we did when we were young, self-centered and immature. In essence, Cuaron captured the spirit of this desire to shed new light on the past in a film which had an emotional weight gained from being filtered through his memory. The central figure in Roma is Cleo, an indigenous nanny beloved by the children and family of which she toils for day and night. She is seen as part of the family, but also constantly reminded that her role is in a working capacity first. One of the likable little scamps running around the house was essentially, Cuaron’s own memory of himself and the other figures were his siblings and mother. The film was far more satisfying with the knowledge of this and being privy to this information, allowed the viewer to understand why the film had an affectionate shimmer of nostalgia within its beautiful black and white imagery.

It is not often that an artist is struck with such empathy for someone, perhaps unacknowledged from their past; Cuaron’s cathartic exercise has shown how art can be therapeutic in its ability to work out the past and the sense of personal importance the film has to him, allowed it to be a transcendent experience, a salute of respect to all the unsung, downtrodden workers out there whose stories are never going to be heard.

This was a film with not a lot of dramatic drive; but what absorbed about it was the sense of how well-observed the characters were; the lived-in vibe to the film-making, the authentic earthiness about the world it depicts, and the naturalness of the scenarios. Since it was a film about a maid, there are obviously a lot of shots in which very little except housework seems to be accomplished, but when the film moved into its emotional third act, you realized that these scenes had build up a platform of empathy for Cleo; that Cuaron has used all his status to shine a spotlight on a figure whose story, and others like it, always seemed to be forgotten with time. It’s a profoundly moving final act, where all the pieces of Cuaron’s memory puzzle fall into place.

The film was evocative in a way that brings to mind the work of Fellini another director who drew vivid imagery through the nostalgic haze of his memory.

Roma is probably going to have a run in the awards season, which will garner it big headlines particularly as it will be Netflix’s first serious Oscar campaign. On one level, this will be a remarkable almost fairy-tale story for a humble little film born out of an artist’s desire to better relate to the struggles of his nanny. The glamour of the showbiz buzz that surrounds it, is at odds with the stories of humility within though. However to see an intimate story about the relationship with a Middle Class family and their hard-working nanny, about to hit the awards campaign is an almost literal Cinderella story. At a time where, there is a lot of anti-immigration sentiment and perhaps a lack of respect for people who are living tough, hard-working lives supporting the rich, Cuaron has come along with a film that gave a voice to the kind of quietly dignified figure you rarely see represented on the big screen.

Thanks for reading. Happy new Year loyal readers. Tune in tomorrow for the Top Ten…

 

 

 

 

The top 15 horror films of the last two years

It is traditional at this time of year to revisit old classic horror movies and have them turn the screws on your psyche all over again. There is something comforting about revisiting old classics like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist and discovering their power to scare is little diminished even after many decades of familiarity and endless references in popular culture. The classics have a power that will endure for many Halloweens to come.

But what about horror in the modern era? Is it back from the dead, or did it have the final nail hammered in its coffin many years ago? These are the questions that have lurked around the genre for many years. Creativity is a hard beast to capture in modern story-telling and this is particularly true in modern horror. The ghosts of old tales lurk around the minds of modern directors – it is very hard for them to cover new ground in the most well-worn of movie genres. The problem with horror is that it has always been easy for it to fall into cliché and formula once the initial terror of the premise has become familiar. How many slasher franchises for example, kill their concept with endless franchise sequels? Looking at you, Halloween.

Long-term horror fans yearn for new nightmares and primal fears to be uncovered. There is something thrilling about being unsettled particularly around Halloween.

The problem with mainstream studio horror is that it is often aimed at a young teen audience, many of whom might be uneasy for the wrong reasons about watching films made before 2000. This means old ideas can be recycled, hackneyed jump scares can be endlessly milked for cheap thrills and derivative films can be repackaged for unsuspecting younger audiences. This for me is the big problem with the very inauthentic Conjuring series. The Nun for example, was an endless string of recycled ideas stolen from The Omen and The Exorcist. Hopelessly un-scary unless you had never seen a classic horror film.

Horror is at it’s most unnerving when it is raw and made outside of the mainstream studio system. It is unlikely that we will ever see another era like the 70s, the golden age of horror, where the films got naturalistic, real, psychological, authentic and seriously scary.

While we may never see another time of terror as remarkable as the seventies, the genre is doing enough to stave off its obituary. In the last two years, it has undergone a renaissance. Every now and then a director finds a way to totally reinvigorate an old theme. In the last two years there have been more than a few signs that the genre is rising from the dead….

If you are looking for some Halloween-appropriate thrills and chills, the following films could well provide.

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15. Mandy (2018)

An acid-soaked psychotropic trip of a horror film, Mandy has the most lucid day-glow visual style seen in horror for a number of decades. It’s a throwback to horror styles of the eighties, a mixture of garish aesthetic Dario Argento style, eerie backlit smoke scenes like John Carpenter’s The Fog and deranged fiends who could stand comfortably along the pantheon of demons from Hellraiser.

Mandy has a simmering slow-burn sense of dread directed with a strangely slow pacing by director Panos Cosmatos. It’s like some sort of hazy midnight nightmare and has a use of color flare, shadow and mist that gives it a hypnotic twisted beauty. It also has Nic Cage, delivering another, emotionally over-the-top, utterly deranged Nic Cage performance. It seems like a horror movie pitched towards fans of retro death metal – reflected in the late Johann Johannson’s ominously atmospheric metal tinted score; there’s a lot of imagery that tips its hat to the twisted dark fantasy  imagery of rock metal album covers too. For me, the hyper-stylized, luminous aesthetics were so ethereal, they offered a chance of a better supernatural story, than the underwhelming, conventional revenge fantasy at the heart of Mandy. The quality of the first strange and unnerving first hour, makes the second hour a victim of the first’s success. It takes an age to reveal the core drive of the story and when it does, if you are not a hardcore gore fan or lurid horror imagery enthusiast, you might start to see that there are a lot more genre conventions in the narrative and you can practically join the dots of Nic Cage’s character’s plan of execution. Having the often overwrought Nic Cage stops the full tragedy of the story impacting, but on the other hand you have no limits Nic Cage, who brings a sense of over-the-top cartoon histrionics to action now; seeing him do such mad things as battle with a chainsaw and light a cigarette with a flaming skull is highly, wryly amusing. Seeing a somewhat conventional horror story twisted out of shape due to spaced-out drug fueled madness does give Mandy something unique and its dark, brooding, nightmarish quality haunts long after viewing.

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14. IT (2017)

Most people agree now that there are few things as scary as clowns. And what is really disconcerting is that clowns are real, even having their own scientific phobia categorization: coulrophobia. With so many people admitting to coulrophobia, freshening up of ideas in Stephen King’s classic IT was timely. Pennywise is really a demon in clown form, so a demon who likes to deliver his scares with a wry sense of fun-house humour provided an entertaining and jolt-inducing macabre carnival of twisted fun. Horror movies can often become repetitive, but as Pennywise tailored his nightmarish opinions around each character’s personal fears, it meant that visually and psychologically there was a lot more variation in the horror. Tim Curry played his Pennywise as a creepy older guy with a 50 cigarettes a day gruff voice, in the original made for TV two part drama. In a contrast that justified a reboot Pennywise, here he was a bit more clown like, with a sly amusement factor and an un-nerving over-sized clown baby appearance to haunt your nightmares.

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13. Veronica (2018)

For someone who loves horror films, I’m not a great believer in the supernatural. Yet I’d sooner plunge a knife into my own arm, than dabble with a Ouija board. One of the things horror cinema has taught us is this is not a board game to be played with. Yet, curious teenagers continue to seek them out. One such teenager was Estafania Gutierrez Lazaro. In the film, she tried to contact her deceased father with one of the dreaded boards. Big mistake: some unknown force was released and what exactly happened to the girl is much more disturbing than most other Ouija board stories. When you see the strange and alarming occurrences that torment the girl and the three siblings she is in charge of protecting, you’d think it is the stuff of creative fiction. There’s a police officer who witnesses something at the start of the film that prompts such a look of shock on his face, that it gives the film an unlikely gravitas as well as a sense of suspense about what he actually witnessed. The film does muster about five good bonafide scares, and an atmosphere of unease, but on the whole it is a pretty standard haunting story. However, there are numerous accounts of Netflix viewers turning it off on grounds that it is too scary to finish. As there is so much police procedure involved in the story, you get a sense that it is real, enticing you to google what it is based on and when you do that, that is when the real chills will get provided. It turns out that the true story behind Veronica, is even more spine-tingling and chilling than anything that happens in the film. If anything, they toned down what actually happened in the film – and the patriarchal ghost figure in the real story is far more threatening than in the actual film. It’s not every day that police are faced to explain the paranormal, but in the case behind Veronica they were; and their lack of credible explanation gives the story and the film an authenticity that lift it above the bog standard jump scare horror on offer elsewhere.

 

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12. Cargo (2018)

Martin Freeman seemed an unlikely lead in a horror movie before this year, but he has been one of the lead actors in two good horror films on this list, the first being this unusual Australian set zombie film. Locating a zombie movie in the outback of Australia freshens up the conventions of the genre really well. Zombie outbreaks taking place in the red clay wilderness of Australia’s bush, creates some interesting and fresh visuals. There is an inventive use of aboriginal culture as the indigenous people have their own methods of dealing with the increasing masses of the un-dead. The harshness of the zombie film is often off-set with the other side of the genre: the sense of unlocked love when the central character is forced to contemplate a course of action when a family member is contaminated. And in Cargo, that’s where Freeman comes in. He’s convincing as a sensitive dad gaining strength in a determination to protect his newborn baby from the virus. Just when you think that so many zombie movies have arisen that they are indistinguishable from one another, Cargo comes along with a totally new spin on the genre conventions.

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11. The Ritual (2017)

Having a group of friends travel off into the woods is almost a sure-footed path to cliché in the post -Blair Witch Project era. The fact that The Ritual steps out of the shadow of the Blair Witch and wanders down its own wonderfully weird pathway, is due to a range of factors. Firstly, the protagonists are not a group of naive teens, but a closely connected gang of forty-something men, who would presumably have steely resolve in the face of uncertainty. Secondly, something happens at the start of the film, a startling and unsettling event, that fractures their long friendships just enough for a simmering tension to creep in. Its grounded believably allows the film a platform for the tension to arise. Unusually authentic character exchanges help take you on their increasingly foreboding journey deeper into an ominous forest. When strange things start occurring hinting at potentially occult-connected residents in the woods, you are swept into the same feelings of dread and unease as the central characters are. The key to horror working is always much more to do with the characters than the occurrences. If you build a sense of realism around your characters, audiences can be hooked into believing things that may otherwise seem a stretch. The Ritual plays that trick rather well. If you keep your audience in the dark about a potential exclamation for the threat that lurks behind the sense of dread, you can generate a deeply unnerving atmosphere. The Ritual manages to do this for an impressive length of time and although the explanation does owe a great debt to certain cultist films of the past, and is more than a little silly, you are so locked in with the sense of terror the characters have, you just go with it.

 

 

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10. Ghost Stories (2018)

Anthology horror can usually be hit or miss as the vignettes don’t have time time build a necessary sense of dread or connection with the characters. With that in mind, Ghost Stories is the most successful example of the horror anthology since Trick R Treat or VHS. It has an interesting central character: a paranormal skeptic hailing from the Dana Scully school of paranormal cynicism. He spends his time unceremoniously exposing TV psychics. This gives the film a neat setup as you have a central character less likely to be scared by any of the supernatural tactics than the audience.

He’s told by his paranormal debunking hero that he has to investigate three ghost stories that will shake his certainty that the supernatural is fake. The film sets itself a task to present to him and you that there can be evidence of the paranormal. That is a tough challenge for any horror movie to take on, as we really now need to see something we haven’t seen before. The film then plays a clever trick, efficiently building some spooky scares that are creepy, if a little underwhelming to prove that film’s central conceit to us and the central character. But the film has some audacious but plausible and oddly poignant tricks to play, that first allow it to get seriously weird and creepy, then ultimately provide a satisfying pay-off that neither you or the character could ever see coming. With two experimental zombie movies –The Girl With All the Gifts and The Cured – there are signs that the long dormant British horror scene is starting to reawaken.

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9. Halloween (2018)

Has there ever been a forty year time gap between film and sequel? Halloween has had countless reboots and sequels, so director David Gordon Green wipes the slate clean, eliminating all the messy story-lines that have occurred in the many, many sequels to John Carpenter’s seminal slasher. Forty years is a lot of time for off-screen emotional baggage to have been built up in the skewed psyche of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. We meet her hardened by trauma. She’s estranged from her daughter, who has had to endure a childhood shaped by the paranoia of her victimized mother; she’s run out of patience with her mother’s obsession with Michael Myers and now deems our former teenage scream queen mentally damaged beyond repair. Laurie almost needs another Michael Myers knife spree, to prove that her preparation was not irrational but prescient and with Myers being transferred from his mental hospital on All Hallow’s Eve she might just get her chance to confront her bogey man and settle her mind…

The world has changed a lot since Halloween (1978) came along and ignited a craze for murderous, mask-wearing psychopaths. In the post ‘me too’ movement, the very idea of a slasher movie makes people seem nervous for different reasons. Vulnerable screaming girls running from knife-wielding masked men, isn’t going to work in the age of female-driven defiance of abuse. But Halloween works as it’s aware of this and sets itself up as a massive chance for Laurie to fight back against the figure who ruined her life. Jamie Lee Curtis’ character undergoes the kind of transformation Linda Hamilton’s went through in Terminator 2. She’s no longer carefree and innocent, she’s tough, fearless, and in possession of both the strength and arms to vanquish her tormentor.

The character development means there is a lot more reason to revisit this seemingly exhausted franchise than anniversary nostalgia. It is made with a lot of love, respect and understanding of the original. The film’s spirit is encapsulated in the opening credits when a decaying jack-o-lantern is playing in reverse shot and comes back to health. This captures the film’s intention to resurrect a dead franchise by inverting the original. It does this very well, with Myers’ attack scenes having just enough of a tweak to create tension all over again. Perhaps there are a number of scenes that make more sense in terms of homage to the original rather than story-logic, but overall Blumhouse have justified doing a new Halloween movie. In the past few years, the flood gates have opened on women coming forward to confront their real-life monsters; Michael Myers has been offered up here as an effigy. It’s a chance for three generations of women whose lives have all been affected directly or indirectly by his cold-hearted crimes, to fight back. In that sense, this is the right horror movie to come out in the post ‘me too’ movement. Women are as mad as hell and they are not going to take it anymore. It’s only right that this should infiltrate the horror genre.

 

 

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8.  1922 (2018)

Isolated farmlands surrounded by cornfields is always an enticing platform to build a horror film on. This Netflix-produced Stephen King adaptation boasts a chillingly steely performance from Thomas Jane. Horror films can really get in your head when seemingly ordinary characters decide to take a pathway towards evil in pursuit of personal gain. It’s possible to sympathize with the character’s plight, but not his plan; the details of which are revealed in the character’s cold chilling inner monologue. The element of sympathy the character garners for his predicament, allows the film to sink its hooks into your psyche. It has a simmering Hitchcockian tension and some stark, brutal and shocking imagery that lingers in your mind for days after viewing. Rats are inherently creepy, and their presence is cleverly woven into the fabric of the story as a stark horror gains a supernatural element. Going to extreme crimes to gain wealth is always an-ill-advised step for a character to take. It’s a a familiar story arc given, a renewed sense of horror in this chilling and dark period-set cautionary tale.

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7. The Girl With All the Gifts (2017)

George Romero is rightfully credited as the founder of the cinematic zombie, but even he struggled to find a way to make the idea of a more mentally refined un-dead population seem plausible.

What was thrilling about The Girl with all the Gifts, is that it found a way to bring the idea of an un-dead apocalypse into the modern age. Zombie movies usually start with a clear sense of what macabre madness is unfolding; in a refreshing approach, the first twenty minutes of this earthy British film created a sense of uncertainty of what level or indeed which characters were the real threat. Was it the seemingly innocent children who were wheeled up in chairs designed to restrain the likes of Hannibal Lecter? Was it Glenn Close’s eerily focused scientist? Or was it the edgy military types patrolling within the under-bunker, unwilling to give the chair-bound children an inch of freedom? This unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty made the film deeply immersive. The patient start to the film built up significant levels of tension, so when the film exploded into life to reveal the dangers, it had done enough to sink its teeth into its audience and from that moment, it did not let up.

What followed was a film that consistently found new ideas and direction in a seemingly saturated market. The central character, Melanie (played by Sennia Nanua), yet another astonishing child performance, had a mesmerizing mix of sweet charm and feral primal energy. She is the reason why this was such a thought-provoking film.

Usually, the zombie movie is used as a comment on the decadence of society. Here there was social commentary of a different kind with an oddly optimistic attitude towards a zombie apocalypse. There was a sense that the demise of man may prompt the evolution of other creatures.

Director Colm McCarthy used the concept to explore the arrogance of our self-imposed place at the top of the food chain and something quite unique began to happen when the characters’ fight for survival twisted into reflections of how certain our place on this earth really is. It was the evolution of the zombie movie then in more ways than one. The best zombie movie in years.

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6. The Apostle (2018)

Director Gareth Evans clearly sets out here to make a horror movie in the raw, grim tough tradition of British classics like The Wickerman; The Devils and Witchfinder General. The Apostle is not only worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with those films, but it steps out of their ominous shadow, shaking off a sense of familiarity quite early and then it starts to do something very different with the period set Medieval horror film. We are taken to a strange island in which we are told the sister of the central protagonist has been held for purposes of ransom by an imposing leader of a cult, (played superbly by Michael Sheen). Dan Stevens needs to infiltrate the weird, fundamentalist community by convincing the leaders he is a follower of the faith, but there are secrets, lies and weird mythologies which will work against him.

The Apostle stays engaging and unnerving throughout as each act introduces a new unforeseen, deeply shocking and surprising element which heightens intrigue, unnerves thickening the sinister atmosphere of dread in the film.

The film seems to owe a debt to Robert Egger’s really eerie The Witch (2016) as it’s a period-set horror film, that gains its threat by creating a community in which health of the lands and the mindset of the people seems to be warped by insane religious dogma.

The film is unflinching, and punishing as we see leaders with ego-driven messiah complexes and a community driven to madness by the fear of god. Like The Witch, the hard edge to the horror is a cautionary tale of how well-intentioned religious doctrine can be dangerous to the mind and community, with faith in false prophets.

Evans is clever enough to take key elements from horror mythology and subvert them. There is a vague supernatural element that creeps quietly into the story, which has quite an effect due to its unexpectedness.

I was both excited and nervous when I heard about The Apostle as it is made by a Welsh director; stars one of Wales’ best actors; and was filmed in Bridgend in Wales, with Welsh studio help. After twenty minutes I forgot about those elements as I was immersed in this dark, deranged and suspenseful horror film.

 

 

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5.  The Wailing (2017)

When Western horror was locked in a torture porn dungeon in the early 2000’s, it was Asian horror movies that emerged, being as they were, psychological, eerie and full of a sense of dread about all that is dark in the world. In the last few years, South Korean horror has had a bit of a resurgence with first a barnstorming take on the zombie movie, in Train to Busan. And secondly, this unnerving genre-splicing horror film. The Wailing is a hefty two-and-a-half hours, but justifies its running time with an inventive plot and shape-shifting story that undergoes numerous tonal shifts. What starts out as a hilarious horror comedy as a bumbling easily unnerved police officer struggles to contain a virus that rips through his village, eventually becomes a ruthlessly dark and unflinching supernatural chiller. The director impressively finds a way to shift gears from monster fable to zombie movie, to ghost story to demonic possession in quite a convincing way.

The fact there are so many elements at play in the film means a lot of intrigue and suspense builds up as you try to deduce an explanation for what is unleashing such dark forces in such an innocuous village. The film is a riff, possibly even a satire on the hostility directed at foreigners when things start to go wrong. A lot of the plot centres around a Japanese man whose presence uneases locals in a South Korean village. A lot of the tension that arises says something about racial conflict, but it is quite interesting to see this played out in a different culture.

The story builds to an inventive, utterly unnerving climax that has set so many different supernatural elements up, that there is a lot of mystery to what is the cause which the film capitalizes on with a really unusual ending.

One thing that unsettles so much about Asian horror films is the sense that the central character’s vulnerability can be used against them, the vibe of Asian horror films usually chime with the harshness of reality than the rules of storytelling. It’s worth watching to see just how differently a South Korean exorcism is handled from a Western one – in one of the many intense scenes in this original hyper-supernatural film.

 

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4.  A Quiet Place (2018)

In A Quiet Place, no one can hear you scream. Heck, no one can even here you snap a twig, as the consequences for making any noise at all is being ravished by sound sensitive extra-terrestrial beasties. They offer no explanation for their acute response to noise – they just devour you. Understandably, planet Earth has been changed. We are a noisy lot, so many of us haven’t survived. The ones who have creep around, using sign language to communicate and trying desperately not to step on anything. This is such a neat concept that it is actually both genius and obvious. It is quite amazing that no one has come up with it before. It’s strange that the person who stumbled on such an undiscovered gem of an idea: was John Krasinski, that bloke who played Martin in the American remake of The Office. He writes and stars alongside an ever excellent Emily Blunt. It turns out that he is a rather accomplished director as his original concept creates an extraordinary level of suspense and tension in A Quiet Place. This was one of the best cinematic experiences in the cinema this year, as there is an odd connectivity between the characters on the screen and the people in the theatre seats. What happens on screen is mirrored in the crowd; this is highly unusual. The film completely silenced the popcorn munchers and candy wrapper rattlers, who became as fearful of making noise in a eerily silent film as the characters up on screen. This duality of tension was extraordinarily gut-churning to experience. Hopefully it doesn’t lose this edge for the home viewing crowd. The sound of silence being broken has never been so chilling.

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3. Hereditary (2018)

One of the rules of horror cinema is to get the characters right in order to drag the audience into the horror. Hereditary was exceptionally successful at doing this. It didn’t achieve this by making you like the family at the centre of the story, but instead it created a believable mounting tension between them and a growing sense of dread around their inability to understand each other’s point of view. There is a palpable sense in Hereditary that the ever-fraying relationship between mum (played by Toni Collette) and son is going to lead to major disturbances. There’s a brilliantly realized exchange at a dinner table between them that has you shifting as uncomfortably in your seat as you would if it happened at a real dinner party you had attended. You realize that this has all had the effect of getting its hooks deep in your psyche and deeply involved in the emotional conflict.

What Hereditary does expertly well is present a cliché and then completely wrong-foot you with a sly side-step away from convention. As it does this, it delivers a sucker-punch of an emotional blow, almost as a punishment for wrongfully assuming the direction would be derivative. Take the little girl. She’s got a weirdness to her that screams something supernatural in the vein of Carrie. Director Ari Aster plays with that and absolutely flaws its audience with how exactly that character’s story is woven into the narrative, not once, but several times. If you think it is hackneyed you are not looking close enough; very few horror films ever reach this level of emotional intensity. This film picks you up, throws you around in your chair and forces you to feel something. It put me through the emotional wringer to such an extent that I was physically flailing around in my seat, like a person possessed. This was simultaneously thrilling and upsetting. No detachment here – it shakes off your sense of apathy many times over.

It takes its time to build such a tragic emotional dynamic between the characters, that by the time the supernatural element is brought in you feel like you’ve gone through enough bruising emotional blows that you are a member of their family. The fact that the director seems concerned with providing scares at the malevolent end of the supernatural spectrum, gives the film intensity that disturbs the soul. It doesn’t matter that we have seen a lot of the supernatural stuff done in other films, it is so frightening because of the emotional investment, the uneasy sense that the characters are mentally unraveling and just how much intent of malice is in the film – on and off the screen, There has been a lot of hyperbole talk that this is the new Exorcist. This is way off the mark, the right level of buzz but the wrong film reference: there is a sense that the characters are doomed due to an unseen force conspiring against them; that makes Hereditary a lot more like a Rosemary’s Baby for the modern generation. Disturbing; emotionally hard-hitting and outrageously scary.

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2. Raw (2017)

Shocking provocative, but oddly subtle and delicately handled in a way only European Art-house cinema can achieve, Raw is one of the most memorable horror films of the century. The story about a veggie veterinarian student who pursues a recently awoken taste for iron in a way no human should, is a horror film that strengthens and becomes even more disturbing on subsequent viewings.

What’s clever about the direction of the film, is that the central character’s story slightly shifts on second viewing, when you realize the full meaning of the girl’s disturbing appetites. On first viewing, it seems as if the girl is losing a battle with a moral dilemma and being corrupted by the brutal institution she is encamped in, leading her down an ill-advised pathway that is increasingly demented. On second viewing, you realize just how much unease has been awoken in the girl’s soul and how ingrained her appetites are in her blood. She’s more sympathetic on second viewing, as you realize she is as powerless to resist her carnal urges as a relapsing junkie who has found a stash of heroin. This renewed interpretation seems to add a new element of power to the expertly handled shocks.

There’s a genius scene where a perceived food-poisoning looks like something far more chilling the second time around. Plenty of scenes occur which deepen in meaning and significance on further viewings. It’s a horror film that seems a very different beast on revisitation, almost supernatural. Raw manages to be simultaneously depraved and classy, and leaves audiences with a hunger for a new wave of European horror films.

 

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1. Get Out (2017)

Socio-political commentary is something the horror movie has done very well. For evidence, see the closing shots of Night of the Living Dead, which delivers a stark racial message as a sting in the tale. In that respect, Jordan Peele’s Get Out has something in common with George Romero’s masterpiece. They both build to uncomfortable endings that deliver a thoughtful message on race.

The genius of Get Out though was it was a horror film that gained its ability to shock and unnerve from a form of racial tension that is unmistakably present day. It built its sense of unease and dread from a less visible more undercurrent sense of race-based issues in society. When the bemused central character meets the tellingly awkward family of his white girlfriend, it is not an outward hostility but an over-enthusiasm towards racial difference that causes the discomfort and provides the platform for a film that works both as an excellent horror film and a prescient social satire.

There is a sense in the film that the Middle Class baby boomer generation are a little too eager to experience what they think it is to be black. One of the many things that is clever about the film is that the story does give you a sense of the awkward tension that black people must face every time someone makes a well-intentioned, but misjudged race-based comment. You get to experience the full effect of how draining this must be from the expertly telegraphed looks of incredulity on lead actor Daniel Kaluuya’s face as his looks of bemusement shift to expressions of outright concern.

There is evidently an insidious threat to all the outward fervour to race shown by the awkwardness of the people the lead character encounters in this strange community. The film brilliantly took inspiration from Rosemary’s Baby and the Stepford Wives, with a plot that has a sense of conspiracy surrounding the central character, who is unaware of just what the strange signs are indicators of. The reveal was so twisted it was impossible to predict, with a finale that sent audiences reeling, in one of the most inventive and important horror films of the century.

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Is Netflix the new house of horror?

One of the reasons horror has had a hard time in the last few decades is that cinema has been increasingly targeted at younger, disposable cash flush 15-year-olds. The 18 certificate movie was prominent in eras when cinema was more attended by adults. Many films now are major victims of this, as fewer movies get made and horror has become sanitized. Since then, fewer studios have wanted to fund the 18 movie as they are not so commercially viable.

Netflix have a different remit to a lot of the studios since they want to generate a lot of content and seem to realize that the horror genre has a lot of dormant potential.

Netflix seems to be positioning itself as the new house of horror. As studios become ever more conservative in their attitude to new ideas, the streaming service seems a lot more daring and willing to green-light projects that would not get made elsewhere. A lot of the films on this list were made by Netflix and they have a nice line in horror tinted sci-fi too, like Annihilation, a film I will talk about in my end of year best of list.

Go to the horror section on Netflix and there is increasingly more self-commissioned original content. If there is ever going to be a new wave in horror films, there is more of a hint that this could come from Netflix. If the horror film genre is bursting back out of the grave, Netflix were the company that loosened the nails in its coffin.

Thanks for reading.

Have a fiendish Halloween horror fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Films of 2017 (1-15)

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15. 20th Century Women

The relationship between teenagers and their parents has en masse been characterized by friction, misunderstanding and tension in both films and real life, probably ever since James Dean rebelled without a cause. With this in mind, Annette’s Bening’s open quest to penetrate the wall of her teenage son’s alienation in 20th Century Women was a refreshing new approach. Her free spirited, open-minded and experimental mother figure was depicted as reaching out to understand the younger generation’s interests and passions from the inside, passing on the benefit of her life experience. A droll sense of wit and wistful reflections on life were two of the many charms of Bening’s delightful character.

Scenes in which she smokes pot and tries to work out the appeal of punk music, captured the film’s world-weary philosophical essence. Set in California in the 1970s, the film had a languid, laid-back charm, capturing the feel of the late seventies quite authentically. The film depicted an America on the brink of sweeping changes in which community and togetherness were soon to be replaced by the Regan-era age of materialism. The film had an appealing sense of nostalgia for this more organic period, in which people had time to figure out who they were before being thrust into a life of empty consumerism. In the film’s most interesting scene, characters are seen watching Jimmy Carter address the socio-political transformation of America that will begin in the coming decade; elsewhere, Bening’s voiceover ruminates on the impact the media and technology will have on her son and his generation’s futures. The scenes reflect the film’s thoughtful, contemplative and candid wit. The characters are rich and deeply observed; you get the sense you would rather hang out and understand them rather than see them engaged in difficult drama. 20th Century Women features one of the most interesting mother/teenager relationships seen on screen. Struggling to understand your teenager? Watch 20th Century Women and you’ll be inspired by a new approach to parenting.

 

 

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14. A Ghost Story

Wearing a bed sheet as a ghost costume is an idea so hackneyed that you would be ridiculed for trying it at a Halloween party. It was rather strange then to see a film in which the central character is confined to such an appearance for nearly the entire duration of the film. What was even more surprising is that this seemingly most cliched of ideas took on a new lease of well, life as this artfully directed, existential film put an entirely different perspective on what it may mean to be a ghost.

Tonally, the film brought the utmost integrity to the most novel of ideas. There wasn’t a single minute in the film where the idea of Casey Affleck in a bed sheet felt silly. In fact, when he arose off his deathbed and strode down corridors in a hospital, the film gave him a gravitas that was quite remarkable considering his most passe of appearances. It turned out that enough time has passed on the oldest horror look that it is again interesting.

For all the many films featuring ghosts, there are very few that reflect on the experience from the deceased’s perspective. Films usually focus on the living’s fears of apparitions stuck between worlds. Curiously, there are very few ghost stories that focus on the emotional turmoil that may arise if you realized you were dead and then awoke in the exact same reality that everyone assumes you have completely departed from. Casey Affleck’s character was faced with this grave situation. Via the extended takes of Affleck’s ghost passively watching his partner mourn for him and adjust to life without his presence, something remarkable began to happen: the film managed to make the viewer see the world through those two dark holes in the sheet. The slow pace of the film arose from a character who has nothing left that he can do but forlornly drift around a space, quietly examining life going on without him. The less Affleck conveyed with body movement, the more poignant and thought-provoking the film became. It was a simple but really inspired idea, given depth by the extra dimensions of the film, that hit Kubrickian and Terence Mallick levels of reflection on life, death, the universe and the relationship between time and space. Would a ghost really be able to exert a force on the material word? What reason would there be for a ghost to exist without an ability to contact anyone? Would a ghost have any ability to transcend boundaries of time and space that the living do not? This was an exceptionally contemplative film, which ruminated on the concept of existential loneliness in the afterlife. Deep, dark, curious and though-provoking. Arguably one of the most insightful and profound films about what it would mean to be a apparition. Meditative, mournful, moody and suitably haunting.

 

 

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13. Okja

This beautifully told story of a South Korean girl rescuing her prized pet pig-like creature was a story so movingly told that it had even the most hardy of meat-lovers pondering the merits of vegetarianism.

There was a Spielberg-ian sense of enchantment to the young girl’s quest to save her beloved companion from the horrors of the inhumane meat industry. Her horror became our horror as she learned that her lovingly-reared family pet was designed for the dinner plate.

The David and Goliath battle that ensued between this highly principled little girl and an all-powerful corporation was deeply involving. If there was a character on a more noble quest than hers in a film this year, then I didn’t see it.

The Netflix-produced film showed an anti-establishment statement of intent with a film that boldly satirized the duplicity of corporate marketing, the hollow fake-ness of PR and the industrialized murder mechanisms of the meat industry. Left-wing animal crusaders also came in for some derisive treatment to balance out the film. Okja was an original, biting and inventively told story that won the hearts and minds of many this year.

12. Manchester By the Sea

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In this melancholy character-study, we were presented with a man who was hopelessly withdrawn, introverted, and closed off to the world. We were given the impression that something had happened to him to render him this socially adrift. The film quietly observed his behavior, allowing us to examine the meaning of his social awkwardness and the silent rage that seemed to be welling up beneath his surface.

The story was told in a powerfully affecting non-chronological order. As we were given time to spend in the company of Casey Affleck’s difficult character, we got to ponder his personality. As the film progresses and we eventually saw what exactly happened to render him so broken, the film delivered an absolutely gut-wrenching and hauntingly harrowing sequence that was totally beyond the realms of prediction and therefore knocked the stuffing out of even the most hardened of film-watchers.

This blow was delivered about midway through the film and it created a canny shift. In the second part of the film, we realized we had been watching the actions of a man entirely broken down by trauma. We realized that this man was in a sort of social and emotional prison and his behaviour and inability to close the distance between him and the people he was formerly close to was then entirely understandable.

Casting Casey Affleck in this role was an inspired choice. He never really exudes a movie star-like charisma and instead always seems to have an intensity on-screen. He frequently comes across as an actor not entirely comfortable in his own skin or in the limelight. Just look at his uncomfortably awkward Oscar acceptance speech for further evidence of this. As a result, you can see he knew how to provide the intensity to this character required. It’s a great performance, but partly because the actor clearly has a well of social anxiety that he can tap into to deliver the believable performance he gives in Manchester By The Sea.

The film was  deeply poignant, probably one of  the most naturally emotive films released in 2017. It perfectly captured how trauma and tragedy can have an effect on one’s personality that one may never recover from.

 

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11. My Life as a Zucchini

It was quite remarkable what this French/Belgian stop-motion animation managed to do in its impressively lean sixty-six minute running time. Animation is proving its ability as a medium to tell stories that live-action would be too impractical to depict, but this delicately realized little film took that even further with a touching, life-affirming and oddly realistic story of orphaned children struggling to put the pieces of their broken psyches together and figure out their place in the world.

The film tackled unsavory and disquieting issues effecting childhood such as abuse, neglect, psychological torment and abandonment. With such themes integral to the story, you might think this would be a dour and depressing experience. On the contrary, it was a film full of wit, warmth and tenderness. It struck the right balance between melancholy and mirth. This honest and brave approach to depicting a side of childhood seemingly too unsettling for entertainment, gave the film considerable scope for capturing tough realities for children with troubled childhoods. Taboos were delicately handled and cliches of orphanages as nightmarish places were turned upside down. The bruised characters got richer and more textured as the film progressed, so much so that you completely forgot they were made out of clay.

The depth of feeling the little figures managed to convey was really quite amazing. As were the film’s candid and subtle observations about trauma being the catalyst for psychological dysfunction and behavioral issues. Ultimately, the film’s often comedic reflections on the importance of friendship between those without family made it a moving and strangely uplifting film. It is hard to recall a film to mind with a more daringly candid take on childhood.

 

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10. Free Fire

British director Ben Wheatley has been quietly building himself a resume of strange alternative films that are shocking and edgy. Usually his films leave their audience feeling a sense of disquiet and unease. Free Fire was a complete change of pace for the director as it was a crowd-pleasing riot. Wheatley is renowned for his twisted direction, but in Free Fire, the violence level was taken to such chaotic extremes that the film took on a consistently laugh-out-loud comic absurdity. It’s perhaps ironic that his most all out violent film yet was also his most accessible. The director wrung a lot of nervous tension and twisted humour out of it’s most simple of high-concept setups. The whole plot could be summed up in one sentence. A group of IRA operatives look to buy some semi-automatic weapons off some shady arms dealers in a Boston warehouse – things don’t go according to plan.

One-location film setups often have an advantage over stories that unfold over multiple locations. They can feel intense and pressurized as there are no cutaways to relieve the heavy atmosphere. This was certainly the case with Free Fire. Since this story was set almost entirely in a warehouse, and featured characters uneasy in each others company nervously trading a crate load of weapons, the potential for tension to build was there and it was efficiently exploited by Wheatley. The screen practically crackled with tension, with a sense of volatility in the air that you could practically smell.

It was just waiting for someone to light the blue touch paper by saying the wrong thing and when that happened, the film exploded into life in some of the most finely directed action set-pieces of the year. The violence was refreshingly un-slick and messy with a majestically madcap energy that made it unpredictable.

Free Fire was like a Tarantino film directed with the spirit of the violence in a Looney Tunes cartoon. As a result it was the finest black comedy of 2017.

 

 

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9. The Lost City of Z

There have been lots of films in which explorers enter jungles and end up either exploiting the indigenous people within, going mad, or doing both. There have been far fewer featuring explorers entering into jungles to prove that there could have been tribal civilisations more advanced than those found in the most refined of European cities. Step forward Percy Fawcett. He was an English-born trailblazing adventurer who ventured deeper and deeper into un-chartered South American jungle in search of the eponymous Lost City of Z. He was a maverick who is depicted in the film as opposed to the prejudices of bourgeois Royal Geographic society members, who true to the arrogance of British-driven colonialism, see themselves as far superior to the tribes people.

Percy is portrayed as having a uniquely respectful attitude to native people and is driven by a noble goal. As a result of the integrity of the character, it is easy to will him to success, but his story, naturalistically delivered here, was one with many fascinating twists and turns. The film gracefully side stepped adventure cliché after adventure cliché since the central character is less about losing his sanity and soul in the jungle, and more about finding a life-defining sense of purpose. As well-intentioned as Fawcett’s quest was, the film never lost sight of how much of a fool-hardy uphill battle Fawcett had in achieving his goal. As a result there, was an almost documentary real atmosphere to the film and not a trace of Hollywood gloss. The atmosphere of the South American jungle was so vividly depicted that you seemed to feel the anguish of each grueling step. For those who don’t know the story, (i.e. most of the audience), there was a genuine sense of danger and peril as a sense crept in that Fawcett may have embarked on a quest doomed to failure.

It had the organic feel of a Terence Mallick film but the edge and guts of a Werner Herzog film. Tonally, the film sat somewhere between the work of those two directors and was an immersive experience as a result. Essential viewing for any traveller who wonders about the origin of overseas exploration. Fawcett’s story needs to be known by modern audiences – Fawcett is clearly an influence on Indiana Jones after all – and this retelling did justice to his adventures.

 

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8.  Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ bold, brave, challenging, and sensitive debut film explored identity in a completely inventive, unorthodox and brilliantly observed way. It played off the idea that people are going to make assumptions about a poverty-stricken, black youth in an economically deprived area, and then subtly subverts those assumptions with a poignant portrayal of a man whose inner self was burdened by the pressures of black masculinity he feels he is expected to conform to.

 

In terms of narrative, the film was very inventive, with a story split in three separate chapters over the life of this alienated and tormented character, whose name changes over each section of the film in a canny move to address the uncertainty of identity the character feels. What this unusual structure did was make you consider how long the inner anguish of the character had been going on for. That character is played in the three different sections by three different actors, at different stages of his life. A lack of confidence and uncertainty of who he really is had left this person without the social skills to convey verbally what he was feeling inside.

 

Barry Jenkins has to take a lot of credit for such an assured debut film because he achieves the very difficult task of suggesting the inner struggle of his character through the atmosphere and mood of the film, and gave the audience a strong suggestion of what he felt under his skin in a style that is suggestive rather than overstated. It was a rich and rewarding film, with a depth of feeling that made it deeply poignant and original. The melancholy string soundtrack generated so much compassion for the central character and the film was rich in symbolism – the meaning of water in this film launched a thousand water-cooler debates – and artistry that conveyed the introspective journey of identity and sexuality the central character took. The film reached out to all those who grew up disenfranchised with conventions, whose identities were shaped by the inner conflict of feeling different to everyone else around. It empathized with the torment of the marginalized, and spoke volumes about how difficult it can be growing up in a place in which your identity is shaped by outside influences who may not respect who you really are. Moonlight was a richly layered and rewarding character study, a fascinating new way of approaching black masculinity and one of the most profound movies about identity ever made.

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7.  Raw

It was the film that left film critics all year using language that tip-toed around the central theme as the mention of a certain word would destroy the film’s delicious surprises. The horror genre is at a disadvantage compared to others as horror directors are forced to up the ante in terms of shock content to get the desired reaction or risk falling into horror cliches. Raw certainly managed to do that with many genuinely bold horror moments that were jaw-droppingly shocking. It was a rare beast of a horror film: it managed to be icky and nasty but still classy and sophisticated.

The film centered around two vegetarian sisters’ unpalatable awakening appetites at a veterinarian college campus with brutal freshers initiation ceremonies. The dark masochistic spirit of the campus seemed to permeate the psyches of the two characters taking them on an unorthodox sense of self-discovery. The film was utterly twisted and unsettling, but there was also clearly a droll sense of humour to the madness and depravity with subtle black comedy that balanced out the disturbing narrative. When a student uproots her life and moves into college, she goes through changes as she comes into contact with different characters’ world views and influences. The film took that idea and added some wry satire that became more apparent with subsequent viewings. The film seemed to be a subversion of the rites of passage, come-find-out-who-you-are-in-college mentality you enter when leaving the family for dorms. I’m not sure if it would have been terrifying or oddly cathartic for those in or off to college, but for the rest of us, it was both one of the most daring horror films in recent years and a rich satire of the transformative power of college.

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6. Jackie

The assassination of JFK is one of the most infamous events of the 20th Century, etched into the minds of everyone who lived through the sixties. Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s film focused on JFK’s widow Jackie Kennedy as she tried to come to terms with the horror of what she was experiencing. The film told the story in an effective and affecting non-linear order, focusing on the direct aftermath of her unspeakably horrible ordeal in the time between her husband’s murder and his funeral. It was probably the most underrated film of  the year, wrongfully labeled as cynical Oscar fodder. If you had that opinion after watching the film, you must have missed what exactly it was trying to do and just how nuanced and powerful Natalie Portman’s performance was.

Jackie looked like a film that was easy to pigeon-hole but actually, it was so far away from the usual biopic story format, that it couldn’t even be categorized in such terms. Out of all the Oscar-nominated films, it is the one that was the hardest to get into, as it told its story in an abstract and unconventional way that required the audience to think about Jackie’s psychological state of mind. It is not interested in adding drama to the event, or delving into the many conspiracy theories that surrounded the aftermath. Instead, it carefully removed the sensationalism and focused on Jackie and other White House personnel as they processed the emotions and logistics of dealing with the death of a figure who had brought hope to a nation.

The film had an intimate, almost fly on the wall style as the director allowed us to enter conversations away from the buzz of journalism, behind closed doors in the White House. That said, journalism did feature as there was a really good use of a familiar old story arc; the film was built around an interview Jackie gave to Billy Crudup’s unflinching reporter. If you were not paying attention, you might think that the structure was a cliché, but those who had that opinion did not stop to analyse how exactly the dynamic between the interviewer and bruised subject was playing out. Every exchange was absolutely fascinating.

The main thing the film did was challenge its audience to consider what it is to lose someone while you are standing in the glare of the public eye. Tonally, it was a film in mourning, to represent the mood of a woman beginning to grieve for her husband and a nation watching the candle of hope (that JFK represented) being extinguished. A fantastically engaging score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin) set a mood of a character quietly unraveling. This inspired soundtrack created such atmosphere for the film, slowly drawing us into Jackie’s shell-shocked state of mind.

Out of all the Oscar-nominated actresses this year, this is the role that demanded so much of the actress. First, she had to perfect the poise and somewhat over-staged mannerisms of Jackie Kennedy, a figure whose sixties style of grace may seem odd to modern audiences. Secondly, she was asked to convey the mindset of a woman who had just seen her husband brutally murdered in front of her. Thirdly, she was asked to present what this meant for Jackie psychologically. Natalie Portman absolutely transformed herself for this role and it was nothing short of a career best performance. She passed all the challenges the role presented; after about ten minutes you adjusted to her in the role, no longer seeing Portman but imagining what Jackie must have experienced.

This was a film about dealing with psychological trauma; her character was as haunted as a solider returning home after seeing the horrors of war. Portman garnered so much sympathy for the character, managing to appear both fragile and strong.

The While House became a sort of prison to her in the film. The scenes in which she returned home in her blood-splattered pink Chanel outfit for the first time without her husband were utterly heart-wrenching. She drifted around the imposing rooms of the house looking utterly lost. The narrative tells us that she had to swiftly move out of the premises, but her imprint will forever be on this iconic place. Her husband had died, but she is the one who had become a ghost.

If you tune into the wavelength the film was on, it became a deeply powerful experience. But it was also possible to drift through the film without being aware of its power since it was a film that was not easy to read. Portman’s Jackie was using the verbal interactions with the journalist, priest and other White house figures as a form of therapy to process her harrowing ordeal. It was an absolutely captivating and emotive character-study that told you so much about how impossible a situation Jackie Kennedy was faced with after JFK was assassinated.

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5.  Dunkirk

Young people in the UK grow up with at least a vague sense that our freedom and existence can be attributed to all the young men who put their lives on the line in WW2. The events of Dunkirk represent a time when those men were at their most vulnerable. The compelling true story of Dunkirk is extremely unappealing from a Hollywood perspective, as it doesn’t have the potential for a focal point of individual heroism. The men stranded on Dunkirk beach were all in a state of heightened fear and anxiety – in which survival rather than heroism was the defining mindset. It is a tremendous tribute to Christopher Nolan that he could get a very British war story on screen done with a very British sense of humility, but with the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster. In the UK, it has had considerable staying power at the box office as it has crossed generations who have been brought emotionally closer to the stories that were previously handed down through the word of those who lived through the Nazi threat. But the greatest endorsement that the film has received, is that it has moved to tears some of the now elderly veterans who experienced Dunkirk firsthand.

Since the story has been done with the greatest sense of authenticity and realism, it is as close as cinema has ever come to taking audiences to the front-line in World War 2. Dunkirk is an unconventional war film since the majority of men depicted were in enemy territory, but without weapons. The heightened sense of danger and looming catastrophe run all the way through the film, intensified by Hans Zimmer’s pulsating and gut-churning score. The film was a technical marvel – a film that simultaneously gave you the perspective from land, sea and air –suggesting how all three fronts were united in an up hill battle. Yet the film felt entirely grounded in reality and genuine human perspective on a seemingly doomed scenario.

It feels like a living piece of history, but one that strategically provides more questions than answers. You either bring the historical knowledge to it, or you take Nolan up on the homework assignment he sets audiences unaware of the events of Dunkirk. Nolan strategically doesn’t provide any context for why exactly so many British and French forces were stranded without the means to defend themselves against Nazi bombers – this actually heightens the sense of peril and threat since audiences are not fully aware of what scale of Nazi threat these men are currently facing as, for large parts, Nazi threat remains terrifyingly anonymous.

It brings the emotional and psychological reality of what the men faced and Nolan has done it in a way where those unaware of the historical context will definitely feel compelled to pick up a history book and fill in the blanks that are deliberately left in mystery. Dunkirk is the cinematic experience of the summer a brilliantly realistic war film that leaves its audience suitably drained and shaken up, while reflecting on this particular chapter of the second world war from a renewed perspective of understanding of what the men faced.

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 4. Lion

Try to recall a time when you were lost as a small child; imagine the creeping sense of fear you had when you looked up only to see strange, unwelcoming faces. Think about how frantic with worry your mum might have felt. Now imagine that sense of being lost continuing for over twenty years. This is the fate that befell a little Indian boy named Saroo, in the truly extraordinary true life story at the heart of Lion. We met this charismatic and lively young boy when he was out collecting coal to sell with his older brother. This little boy found himself alone on a train that was bound for another part of India, over a thousand miles away from everything he knew. He was so far away even the language had changed. His alienation continued for quite some time, until he was put up for adoption and eventually found his way to a lovely middle class Australian family in Tasmania.

What the film did really well was put you in the boy’s shoes, by building an entirely plausible and naturalistic, prolonged opening, in which we witnessed this bright little boy slowly becoming withdrawn due to fear and sadness. Had the film not spent so long creating such an immersive opening section in India, his psychological torment as an adult may not have registered as well and Dev Patel’s version of the character may have come across as an ungrateful and self-absorbed young man. As we were well acquainted with every detail of his agonizingly tragic back story, you couldn’t help but root for him and understand his reasons for feeling so mentally lost.

The film was very accomplished at taking you on the journey of what he must have felt as both a child and an adult. There is an inspired moment when Dev Patel’s character bit into a sweet Indian treat – the film needs to provide no explanation as to why this is such an evocative moment for the character as the opening section gave a vivid depiction about what this food means to the young Saroo. This moment alone could open up hours of debate about the link between the senses and memory. It’s just one example of how well the director blended both the past and the present of Saroo’s story; the film gave you a profoundly compelling journey through this man’s life. We shared his memories as vividly as he did – which is why we were in a better place to relate to his sense of being incomplete, far more than anyone he is connected to in Australia.

Director Garth Davis also avoided the pitfalls that the story might have fallen into. A well-known search engine plays a massive role in Saroo’s journey, had there been a lot of time focused on this, those scenes might have felt crass enough to damage the power of the story. It was handled carefully enough not to shift focus away from Saroo’s growing sense of yearning to find answers to unlock the truth about his past.

Lion won the hearts of many people as it was so organically made. It had a truly compelling and unique story and some of the most bittersweet moments of pure emotion on screen on year.

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3. Get Out

Tensions between black and white people in America should have by now been confined to the history books. Yet, in the year 2017, such problems hit newsworthy levels of contention, as racial struggles continue to broil under the surface of society.

What was truly unique about Jordan Peele’s approach to racial tensions in Get Out was that it didn’t focus on the disturbing, but well-documented backwards bigotry of the uneducated; but instead scrutinized the more subtle undercurrents of race-based interaction within a society of the supposedly liberal middle class.

‘I voted for Obama three times’, says the middle-aged white patriarch upon meeting his daughter’s black boyfriend. He exudes warmth and not hostility, but the fact is that he has brought up the subject of race in the subtext of his conversation to create the message that he is accepting of his daughter’s mixed-race dating. This kind of race-based conversational faux-pas, began to ratchet up the tension as we saw seemingly well-intentioned but still, skin-crawlingly awkward exchanges through the eyes of the film’s increasingly uncomfortable protagonist.

The film took a lot of influence from 70s horror thrillers like The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man in creating an atmosphere of social awkwardness and vaguely sinister undercurrents that you feel may be pointing in an insidious direction, but gives the viewer the enthralling sense of not quite knowing what exactly is going on. Such a narrative approach relies on the impact of the final act; Get Out delivered a sucker-punch of a finale, that was totally unpredictable, rivaling those aforementioned seventies films for shock value. As well as being a genuinely unsettling horror movie, the film had significant socio-political relevance exploring the untapped potential of the commodification of black culture.

It has become a mainstream joke that black people don’t tend to fare so well in horror movies. This is one of the many strengths of Get Out as it turns this cliché on its head. By constructing a horror movie in which the black guy is the protagonist, the film mainlines the discomfort black people must feel when white people are confident enough in their non-racist status to mention black culture as a way of establishing connection. The ‘friendly’ face of the new liberal-driven racism was put under the microscope in Get Out. The result was the best horror film of 2017 and one of the most astute films of the year. The socio-political relevance of this film should open up a whole new discourse for discussion on the ever-relevant issues of racial conflict.

 

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2. Loving Vincent

Even an art philistine would be able to recognise at least two Van Gogh masterpieces, as Starry Night and Sunflowers are among the most famous pieces of art ever made. Van Gogh is one of the most prominent art luminaries, so it may come as a surprise to people that his work was only recognised posthumously. This technically astounding and intensely personal depiction of Van Gogh did a remarkable job of allowing you to experience the mindset that the artist might have been in before his untimely death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was depicted as a troubled figure, who had not managed to turn his talent and passion for painting into a financially sustainable career. We saw him here as the definition of a struggling artist, financially supported by his brother and treated with suspicion in the little French town he resides as a strange outsider.

In perhaps one of the most reverential creative ideas in film history, his story was depicted in a style that paid affectionate tribute to his work. As the film proudly states, it was made by a team of over a hundred artists who painstakingly painted over the live-action using a distinctly Van Gogh style brushstroke, in an example of rotoscoping that is entirely unique to this film. That hard work and dedication combined to give the thrilling sense that Van Gogh’s paintings were magically coming to life. There’s a mystery to painting, the intriguing sense that what came before and after the moment was captured can only ever be filled in by one’s imagination. That is why seeing his paintings come to life was utterly beguiling and thrilling to behold.

The film was spellbinding, giving the viewer a spine-tingling thrill every time a famous Van Gogh work was weaved into the narrative. The more acquainted the viewer was with Van Gogh’s art, the more awe-inspiring moments the viewer received. The film was also compellingly enlightening in regards to the tortured state of mind the artist had been in throughout his life. Van Gogh is often defined as a mentally disturbed character, since he famously cut off his ear and spent time in mental institutions. He is the poster figure for a troubled artist; the figure who most represents the fine line between creativity and madness.

What was so startlingly poignant about Loving Vincent was that it provided significant context as to why he had such severe mental anguish. Something remarkable began to happen in the film: he changed from being an inscrutable genius instead becoming a strangely sympathetic figure whose melancholy was understandable. The film did something that no number of art books have managed to do; it brought to life the emotional mindset of an artist long since dead and made the viewer feel a deep, intensely moving connection and sympathy for his problems.

You come away with an entirely different understanding of Van Gogh than the one you went in. The final line in Don McLean’s song Vincent, an ode to Van Gogh’s anguished genius, states ‘they don’t know your genius, I guess they never will’. This is a film that captures what Don Mclean was feeling when he wrote that lovely song while giving the viewer a chance to prove Mclean’s final line wrong as Loving Vincent was a film that replaced all the mystery of Van Gogh with a deeply intimate sense of understanding; if you see it, try fighting back the tears when Mclean’s song plays out over the credits of this beautiful film.

1. Coco

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Leading the charge in the golden age of animation in the West is Pixar. The Disney-owned studio continue to use animation to open up new unexplored frontiers, that live-action would be hopelessly inadequately prepared to portray. What they did for the workings of the inner-mind in Inside Out they have done for the soul and the afterlife in the most vibrant, immersive and moving film of the year. There are few ancestor worship festivals as colorful as the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. It was an attractive option for Pixar, who pay reverential treatment to the festivities with an animation that words like eye-popping, vivid, and sublime do not go far enough to portray the wonder of it all.

We follow a music-loving little boy, who has been prevented from exploring his musical talent by his strict family. His calling to music goes beyond the grave, it’s part of his soul, reaching back into the family’s past to a figure who traded family responsibility for musical stardom. This became the entrance point for an extraordinarily original story, which explored the afterlife from the perspective of the dead. This all may sound Tim Burton-level kooky, but although it was one of the weirdest children’s films ever conceived, Coco had a pure heart and a depth of spirit that gave it a sense of spirituality that really started to hit a profoundly emotive level.

Pixar is a tour-de-force for creativity right now. They continue to make films that explore the human – and in this case post-human – experience in enlightening ways. After watching Coco, even the most staunch atheist had an urge to run home and build a shrine to deceased family members. It’s a film that profoundly sympathized with anyone who has lost someone they felt close to. The narrative pressed buttons of empathy that beautifully evoked emotions. It was about connection reaching beyond the grave, and the meaning of memory in keeping the essence of departed loved ones alive was central to the concept.

The story was impressively enchanting, sweeping its audience up in an involving adventure about a boy searching for the source of his talent. Can talent transcend generations through inherited DNA? This is the inventive narrative driving force behind a story that was as entertaining as it was powerful.

In a year of extraordinary cinematic experiences, Pixar went even further, to create a universal film that bedazzled, beguiled and stirred emotions like no other.

We will never know for sure whether there is a way of connecting with those we felt close to who have departed until we cross that threshold ourselves; but in Coco, we had a film that showed that if it was possible to allow the dead to connect with the living, it would be one of the most beautiful things imaginable.

Coco was released in Asia in November, but it will come out in the UK on January 28th.

Also in contention for my top films list were: Their Finest; Wonder Woman; War For the Planet of the Apes; My Cousin Rachel and Baby Driver.

 

The Best films of 2017 (Part 1: 30-16)

Every January, film fans scan the lists of scheduled movies to see what the year in cinema will have in store. Nowadays those lists are dominated by comic book movies, which now seem to take up a ubiquitous position in cinemas with either Marvel or D.C. releasing one every few months. The summer blockbusters are usually anticipated from about New Year’s Day too, but the real thrill of entering a brand new year in cinema is the enthralling sense that come the end of the year, the films that really break into new territory will not be the biggest blockbusters, but the smaller films that have come out from nowhere, but end up leaving an impression on (this particular) viewer for the remainder of the year. These films are usually produced by smaller studios, have more modest budgets, and virtually no marketing and often unknown casts or directors. They rely on astute indie critics or word of mouth promotion to find their audience. The true magic of cinema in the modern era lies within the craft of the smaller films. This is still truly an industry in which the biggest budget doesn’t mean the best end product.

This year has once again proven that early January feeling of optimism right; there have been plenty of films that are worthy of any film critic’s best of list in 2017. There have been an unusually high number of original films in what has been one of the best years for cinema in a long time. Usually it is hard to find 20-25 good films; this year the list could run up to forty or fifty.

The early part of the year was once again defined by the Oscar buzz. Of course the films nominated for best picture were overshadowed by the Academy leaping into a La La Land of their own idiocy by somehow managing to cause a screw-up that would be unforgivable at your local school event: it is still shocking to think that they actually announced the wrong winner, during the most cringe-worthy piece of television you are ever likely to see. Warren Beatty is still probably walking around Hollywood shaking whilst clinging to that red envelope, wondering how that could have happened. Both the real winner Moonlight and the fleeting Best Picture LA LA Land were good enough for my list along with many of the other films nominated as it was a strong year for the Oscars. Netflix joined the game too with a handful of films worthy of end of year lists and an intent to produce even more innovative content. It was a great year for horror fans too, as the genre was taken in some unexpected directions. Once again animation proved to be one of the most exciting and pioneering of film genres. Diving down the rabbit hole in 2017 uncovered some extraordinary films; here are my top selections for 2017.

 

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