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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Cinema in the summer of 2017

Cinema in the summer of 2017 has taken us in many different directions. We’ve had not one but two Vietnam War-themed simian features. Wonder Woman dispelled an age-old Hollywood prejudice against women fronting blockbusters. And the biggest box office smash of the summer (in the UK at least) was set in a time when your grandfather was just a youth. As always, there were more sequels than true originals, as with so much money invested into their biggest movies, studios are aware that they cannot afford to have a box office flop on their hands. They feel, and not entirely irrationally, that audiences want the comfort of familiarity rather than the thrill of originality. But while totally new ideas are still in short supply, we have at least moved into an era in which sequels add something to stories whilst developing characters, and the films are not just tacked-on franchise fillers.

Logan

Logan

Just before summer kicked off, Logan threw down a steel-clawed gauntlet to the movies that would follow, with an unusually gritty take on the superhero movie. This was less a film about heroics, and more a film about pain, punishment and withering strength. It was a much needed reality check for an X-men series which had become ludicrously overblown after last year’s X-Men Apocalypse; although this had more in common with an apocalyptic Western than a comic book-based blockbuster. The rules had changed: superheroes could get hurt. With that came a thrilling sense of vulnerability to house-hold heroes like Wolverine and Professor X. Deadpool made adult-themed superheroes commercially viable; the visceral and extremely dark Logan has now set a new template for the superhero movie. Watch your backs, superheroes, you may be in for a world of pain.

Kong

King Kong Skull Island

King Kong has had many different incarnations in his eighty year cinematic history, but he has never been depicted as a metaphor for the struggles in the Vietnam conflict – until this summer. He has always been one of the most sympathetic movie monsters, since he is a great beast attacked in his homeland by invading forces who want to exploit him. This time the invading forces were American soldiers of fortune and mercenaries returning after the end of the Vietnam War. Both thematically and metaphorically, Kong Skull island found a lot of inspiration from this conflict, or more accurately, the great body of work made about the Vietnam War – most noticeably Apocalypse Now. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts tips his hat to Coppola’s masterpiece so many times – even borrowing that iconic ‘helicopters at sunset shot’. It is such strange territory for the great ape god to be in, that it actually feels radically different to the generic Kong remake expected. There isn’t really justification for the American military antagonizing Kong with their technology, so the scene in which Kong swats away heavily armed helicopters like you would bat away annoying insects, frames him as rightfully sympathetic. You want to bang the armrest with a kong worthy display of emotion in reaction to the scene. It’s a thrilling set-piece, one of many in the film. It would appear that the American military with all their technology had underestimated the force of nature that is Kong, and thus a clever metaphor for the struggles of the Vietnamese against invading American forces was born: Viet Kong – indeed.

AlienCovenant

Alien Covenant

Ridley Scott re-invented the B movie creature feature with Alien; he then went on to totally transform how we perceived A.I with Blade Runner. A lot of people cannot fathom why he has shown a desire this century to revisit his masterpieces and expand the world with Alien prequels and a Blade Runner sequel. Yes, an argument could be made as to why adding new chapters to his films jeopardizes the legacy of the originals – just look at what has happened to the Terminator series for a case study of the risks of re-opening seemingly completed film sagas. Ridley Scott has risked his reputation on his decision to revisit Alien territory; and the backlash he received might be one of the reasons why he only takes an executive producer role in the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel. I believe though that his motives are not financially driven and are more to do with the fact that we are now 17 years into the 21st century; we are closer than ever before to the timelines in which the Alien films and Blade Runner are set.

From a creature feature standpoint, there isn’t much that the new Alien movie can do visually with the monster that doesn’t diminish the threat of Dan O’Bannon’s original terrifying designs. However, there was always a lot more going on in the Alien movies than B movie monster threats. The films also explored man’s desire to colonize more than one planet and future A.I’s potential ability to blend with humanity and how a man made life-form would perceive humans after achieving superior consciousness. Both Alien and Blade Runner have shown that Ridley’s key theme has always been about how A.I could evolve. Since we now live in a world in which A.I is beginning to get closer to the level predicting in sci-fi, particularly, Scott’s sci-fi, it is understandable that Ridley would want to reboot his visions. In terms of it’s depiction of A.I and the overall central quest to colonize space, this second Alien prequel adds a great deal. In the original Alien, the mystery of where the Xenomorph came from was never dealt with, which is one of the reasons why it was so terrifying. Purists will claim that any attempt to flesh out their origins will detract from the mystery and some people will hate Alien Covenant for what it does. Personally, I think it adds even more threat and intent to the creature, whilst tying two different themes in the Alien universe together quite cleverly. This feels less like a scripted afterthought and more like a film that provides the lost strand of DNA. The explanation given for where the Xenomorphs came from makes more narrative sense than anything else that would attempt to fill in the murky lack of explanation in the Alien origin story. Ridley’s decision to make the story about Michael Fassbender’s David, was the best directorial decision he made here. In the originals, the A.I played a supporting role; in Covenant, A.I is in the narrative driving seat. David is a mesmerising character and his attitude towards creativity makes for a fascinating sci-fi. The many detractors of the film have allowed anger to blind them from seeing the inventiveness of some of the scenes. The scene in which David eerily communicates the importance of the creative mindset to a character, whilst making a penny-whistle threatening, is both creepy and poetic. In the seventies and eighties, sci-fi was asking questions like: could A.I pass as human? Could it be capable of emotion or reasoned thought? Would it threaten us? Now sci-fi is asking questions that reach to answer how much more intellectually sophisticated, artistically superior, socially advanced and cerebral powerful AI could become. Alien Covenant can be added to a list of films, including, Her and Ex-Machina, in making a rebooted statement about where A.I could be going now the science is beginning to erode the fiction of Artificial Intelligence.

GUARDIANS

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

Guardians of the Galaxy delighted audiences a few summers ago with it’s kooky charm and spirited comedy. The sequel was at a disadvantage to the original though, as the first’s colorful adventure was a Galaxy apart from anything else around. This time people new what to expect, but that allowed director James Gunn to be even more off the wall with his story-telling. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 was like a vibrant, kaleidoscopic seventies album cover come to life. For more evidence, take a look at that outrageously offbeat opening set-piece that saw the lovable heroes fighting a monster on the front of what looked like the UFO off ELO’s into the blue LP. It was a sequence that was even sound-tracked by ELO’s Mr Blue Sky – a track of course that features on that very album. As this is a franchise that is firstly playing for laughs and comedic absurdity, with an aim to tell a story, with it’s tongue firmly in its cheek, it has a lot more license to be playful and fun. The more absurd the story became, the more far-out an alien it all seemed. The comic interplay was parred with some surprising character development as certain aliens became likeably more human. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 delivered another refreshing dose of mad-cap cosmic comedy.

WW

Wonder Woman

For years, Hollywood had silently displayed its prejudice against women by being too afraid to allow a female superhero to front a blockbuster. You can blame Catwoman for this prejudice solidifying, as the Halle Berry-fronted feline-themed theatrics in that film did not exactly have either audiences or critics purring. Consequently, Hollywood assumed that this was due to a female lead and not due to a shoddily-constructed story and a cruddier script than three month old cat litter. The box office success of Wonder Woman, a female directed and fronted blockbuster, has sent the studios a strong message that their prejudice was unfounded. Wonder Woman has made studio chiefs eat a considerable amount of humble pie. This summer, Wonder Woman may have also saved D.C from getting a knock-out punch from Marvel. She tagged in when both Batman and Superman were brought to their knees by each other via the leaden Batman Versus Superman. She was an utterly likable superhero, with a feisty spirit, a strong sense of ethics and a charming innocence. The opening, set in a Xena Warrior Princess-like fantasy world, was like nothing in the modern D.C or Marvel world. D.C films, which have veered from turgid and dull to vapid and inconsequential of late, came up with a story that didn’t just entertain, but contained a charming screenplay that managed to have a social commentary mocking the chauvinistic attitudes of a male-dominated world. The comedy, which saw stuffy, middle-aged white men consistently try to put Wonder Woman in the same restrictive little box they put over women, could even be read as a satire of a similar attitude that stops female superheroes breaking out into their own films in Hollywood.

The period setting of World War 2 added lots of bold new directions for a comic book movie too. Since Wonder Woman could not know about the destructive, self-defeating wars of men, her incredulity at what she saw captured something of the senselessness of war. Watching feeble little white men try to patronise a character closer to a god than a mortal was very amusing. When she burst out of her disguise and literally broke across no man’s land in a scene that gleefully undermined the threat of Nazi barracks, the film felt genuinely euphoric as we willed her to show what she could do. Yes, the film’s third act was majorly flawed with the film gravitating back to the same path of fiery destruction that defines the ending of all, Zack Snyder styled D.C films, a formula that numbs more than thrills. You would have expected Ares, the Greek God of War to be a worthy adversary to Wonder Woman, but here he was comically miscast. Wonder Woman by then had done enough to win over audiences. The film had box office stamina and since Hollywood will always allow money to erase long time prejudice, we can suspect Wonder Woman has broken down the barricades for other female superheroes to follow.

spider-man

Spider-Man Homecoming

When Sony announced that they wanted to re-brand and recast Spider-Man for a third time this century, the movie world groaned. It was almost as if Sony raised its hand in anticipation of the outrage and said, ‘well hear us out. What if we do it without the spider bite backstory? What if we drop the emotional baggage from Uncle Ben’s inevitable demise? What if we subvert Spider-Man’s mantra with great power comes great responsibility? How about irresponsibility?’ We all went; ‘let’s see what that would look like’. As it turned out, those creative decisions are what turned one of the seemingly most creatively bankrupt decisions in comic book history, to a film that was more fun, breezy, entertaining and closer to the comics than Spidey had ever been before. Taking a leaf out of the Josh Trank Chronicle, this was a depiction of an ordinary teen, who wasn’t sure if he could handle all the extra power and thrillingly let it get out of control on more than one occasion. Having the narrative start shortly after Spider-Man’s exploits in the last Avengers saga, was one of many inspired story directions. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was buzzing with the same enthusiasm and energy that we might have had we gotten to swing out and fight alongside Ironman and company. That youthful exuberance freshened up than web-slingers adventures, and allowed for a film that fizzed with wit and humour.

 

 

war

War for the Planet of the Apes

It is one of the greatest twist endings of all time – an ending that shakes your world in the most literal way possible, but the thing about The original Planet of the Apes finale is that it creates more questions than it answers. Questions like: (Original Apes spolier alert)…. If this isn’t on a parallel planet, then how exactly did Apes evolve to speak? Why did humans lose both the power of intelligence and speech?

It’s because of questions like these that this modern apes franchise is one of the most justifiable trilogies in cinema history. With the question of how the apes evolved covered in the earlier films, this concluder was free to offer explanation as to how humans lost control to such a spectacular degree. It offers a believable and credible answer to decades-old lingering questions in a film that really broke the cinema trend of weaker third installments. We’ve been comfortable enough with the science-fiction of talking apes in this franchise thanks in part to some revolutionary effects work and also some underrated acting by an actor who has made simian behavior method acting: Andy Serkis. It is no longer wondrous for us to see fully believable talking apes; this is a good thing as it allows us to immerse ourselves in the characters and the compelling dynamics between the leading ape figures, without distracting thoughts like: oh aren’t the effects marvelous? As a result, this film took us deeper into the question of the Apes films have explored: ‘would apes be better equipped to live in harmony with each other than humans? The idea of talking, socially connected apes has been given such credulity over this franchise that the film stylistically was allowed to move from the realm of science-fiction into that of a character-driven Western. The frost-bitten environment and sweeping photography gave the film a really believable western feel, whilst the central theme was about how the unquenchable thirst for revenge corrupts the soul.

It is somewhat bizarre that there have been not one but two Apocalypse Now-themed Apes movies. I thought the influence of Coppola’s War opus, added interesting dimensions to both Kong: Skull Island and War for the Planet of the Apes. Woody Harrelson, playing a colonel character who seems to be an absolute descendant of Kurtz, was a divisive character. I thought it gave Serkis’ Caesar a focal point and personality to spectacularly clash with. The always excellent Harrelson provided an interesting character that balanced out his genocidal power trip with a philosophy on the future of humanity that made some sense. There was a lot more depth to his character than one-dimensional evil. The film had a good sense of humour too to balance out the weighty drama. Steve Zhan’s Bad Ape may have had an impossible back-story but he sure did provide some great comic moments. It also had a really satisfying conclusion that provided the err, missing link to the seventies original.

dunkirk

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 first hand.

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.

emoji

 

The Emoji Movie

It seemed that the critics were sharpening their knives ready to sacrifice The Emoji Movie to represent all that is wrong with modern cinema, way before the film had even been released. Few films this summer have been savagely torn apart as much as this one. It is easy to find fault with the film. It does shamelessly rip-off many inventive family films of the last few years: Inside Out and Wreck-it Ralph are practically mined for inspiration. Plus, since the film took place entirely in a smart phone, there were some horribly crass product placements for apps that do not need any extra promotion. However, there is some much needed attempt in the film to satirize the whole culture of emoticons. It seemed to me that a lot of critics allowed themselves to be swayed by the anger they had built up about something as silly as emoticons being used to sustain a film. The film had quite a nice involving little plot-line about a character labelled meh against his will who yearns to express himself and show the world how much passion he has inside. Be less meh is quite a useful message to direct at teenagers who think the height of cool is total indifference. I thought the little yellow guy was one of the most sympathetic characters in a film this summer; his journey was quite charming, amusing and even kind of moving. Break out of your little box is always a great message – plus it counterbalanced the vibes elsewhere in the film that seem to endorse staying in a box of another kind – the smartphone.

So, critics – come on, since it’s based on emoticons, they got quite a lot of plot out of something for something as seemingly unsupportive of cinematic narrative. A lot of what you are saying about this film is churlish and unfair. Yes, there are poo gags in the film and usually poo gags are clear signs of scraping the bottom of the barrel – critics love to criticize a bit of toilet humour. But the poo character in this was suave and well-spoken – it is played by Patrick Stewart after all – and as a result the poo gags were funny. Plus, the film had an absolutely laugh out loud gag about what emoticons have done to punctuation; that joke has made me chuckle every time I have thought about it. Critics of all people should hail such a gag.

Overall, summer 2017 in cinema was not the best ever, but pretty colorful and it provided hours of spectacular entertainment and at least one film that will be topping end of year best of lists and challenging for accolades come awards season. Cinema in summer 2017 was way above meh then.

Kong: Skull Island

KongKong: Skull Island

If you’ve seen the poster for this latest return to the big screen for cinema’s most famous simian, you will have probably noted that it has more than a passing resemblance to scenes from Apocalypse Now. While watching Kong: Skull Island, you will need a tally system to record just how many times director Jordan Vogt-Roberts tips his hat to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. He clearly has a lot of affection for the cinematic stylings of other Vietnam war movies too. The question is, what’s King Kong doing in a film that looks more like a Vietnam War movie than a big blockbuster? Did the director misinterpret what the studio meant when they asked him to make a movie about the Viet Cong? Yep, this is Viet Kong country -like we have never seen it before.

What is surprising is that it’s a bold genre splice that strangely works. As the cinematic styles are so unlikely for a big creature feature, you are inclined to go along with it. Director Vogt-Roberts made a great little film called Kings of Summer about a group of children who yearn to escape into nature; this might seem a huge step up from his debut, but he retains the spirit of his original film. This has the same sense of wonder at the natural world and a similar sense of adventure to his organic debut. We have a young enthusiastic director here who is trying to create that old Jules Verne storybook sense of imagining Lost Worlds with gargantuan prehistoric creatures – there is something about that that is always going to be infectious.

The opening of the story clearly takes its cue from Gareth Edwards recent Godzilla makeover. We meet a crack-pot scientist, (John Goodman) trying to secure funding for an exhibition to a mysterious island shrouded in allegedly impenetrable, perpetual storm systems. He claims there may be something undiscovered within. He rounds up a motley crew of mainly soldiers returning from the Vietnam War and heads to the island. He was right, there is something there on Skull Island; King Kong lives there and he doesn’t live there alone….

If we must have all the old movie monsters paraded out for a special effects make-overs, then it’s good that we can have them made by young directors, who are cine-literate and are eager to prove that they can retain the magic of their small features when directing massive studio event movies. I’m sure Vogt-Roberts was fighting creativity-hampering studio execs like Kong fights a plethora of monsters. He must have won a lot of his battles though, as Kong: Skull Island leaves an impression.

First up, he displays his knowledge of seventies cinema with an opening that sees an American and a Japanese soldier crash land on an island in a sequence straight out of John Boorman’s excellent alternative Second World War movie Hell and the Pacific. It typifies the film’s uncanny knack of using old film references to tell a familiar story, but in a very different fashion.

The director seems to favour a cinematic style that allows the audience to savour the beauty of the world within and you are allowed to soak up the action. It has a sense of awe in regard to its creatures that is reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The usually frenzied editing style of blockbusters is pleasingly absent – the director instead takes a more refreshing approach: long takes that circulate around the action and focus on the detail help make the set-pieces enthralling.

As helicopters approach the island basked in an orange sunset, the excitement the director must have had about making his own tribute to the flight of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now is palpable. It’s done with such a hypnotic beauty that when King Kong makes his startling appearance it is almost a big surprise.

The set-pieces are excellent and there is time to breathe between each one. It isn’t just a long chain of unrelenting action. The film settles down frequently, allowing mood and suspense to build, as a group venture through the jungle with a sense of trepidation about what could be lurking within the trees.

King Kong always had a lot more character than most movie monsters. There was always another side to his personality than just sheer brute strength. As Vogt-Roberts is not afraid to show Kong, we get to see little touches that bring him to life. The original stop-motion puppeteers who slaved away to make the original King Kong the beguiling masterpiece that it remains to be today, would smile in approval if they got to see how Kong has been realized here.

The main reason why Kong Kong works in the style of a Vietnam War movie is because they have found an allegorical connection between the fiction and the non-fiction. Kong’s territory is invaded by the U.S military who are reckless and willing to use all sorts of destructive methods in the natural world, whilst underestimating their opponent; there’s no doubt who the real aggressor is. It’s a metaphor that really works. The script is peppered with clever references to the Vietnam War; underground tunnels and mass graves are referenced as plot-points, but we really know what the director means under the surface. We also get not one but two versions of Dennis Hopper’s war photographer from Apocalypse Now. Brie Larson represents the more conventional side of Hopper’s character, a war photographer who is snap happy in the heat of action, and John C. Reilly represents the more crazed eccentric side of Hooper’s persona. Reilly brings the comic relief, but seems a plausible Robinson Crusoe type character rather than a crazed wacko, with a backstory that works surprisingly well. Oh, and if there was any doubt as to the Apocalypse Now influence then Tom Hiddleston’s character should clear that up: he’s called Conrad as in Heart of Darkness author, Joseph Conrad.

There are missteps of course. The director wants to create a tribal mythology around Kong, but doesn’t really know how to make it believable; Peter Jackson’s Kong remake did this aspect of the story far more vividly. The director again takes his influence from Apocalypse Now here, with vacant-looking tribes people who do nothing more than passively stare. The film is reaching for a spiritualism but it comes across as superficial. The lizard monsters are a bit silly too; their unnaturalness leaves you yearning for a good Kong versus T-Rex showdown, but I guess Peter Jackson gobbled them up in his version. The story also engineers less than convincing plot-points to keep the crew in the heart of the jungle, with characters coming up with tenuous reasons to head towards danger – looking at you, Samuel L. Jackson’s character.

It’s not a good Vietnam War movie without a popping seventies rock and roll soundtrack; Kong: Skull Island gets the jukebox pumping on this front. For some though, the references to Vietnam War movies may reach overkill, landing the film in pastiche.

If you’ve ever wondered what a Vietnam War movie would look like with monsters then Kong Skull Island is the blockbuster for you. 6.9/10

The Top 10 Films of 2016

anomalisa10. Anomalisa

Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had screenplays that were so refreshingly imaginative that they threatened to make their screenwriter Charlie Kaufman something of a indie deity, a position that would make him uncomfortable considering the somewhat autobiographical themes of isolation, insecurity and uncertainty within his films.

He returned a few years ago with Sydechode New York, an ambitious but intentionally flawed film which saw Kaufman clearly deliberately set out to highlight the limitations of art to capture the truth of life. It’s a truth he continues to pursue with Anomalisa. Even though it is a stop-motion feature with puppets, it has some of the most naturalistic and honest depictions of human frailty seen in a film all year. The misanthropic central character was trapped in an almost Kafkaesque nightmare in which all the people he encountered had exactly the same voice. It was the most inspired device yet that Kaufman has created to convey the deep sense of alienation and detachment his characters and probably he feels himself. It proved to be a divisive film due to the unlikeable and despairing nature of the character; but if you connected with his unenviable situation, the moment Lisa, the subject of his affections spoke (wonderfully voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), you could relate to the transfomative effect it had on him, and what ensued was one of the most pure and heartfelt romances of the year. The bittersweet nature of the relationship was absolutely compelling. This was a film about a character totally disconnected from everyone, no character in his life understood the depth of his internal neuroses, the only people who could relate to him were those who saw the film and understood the tragic nature of his condition, those whose different voices he will never get to hear. Anomolisa, was dry-witted, inspiring and beautifully melancholy. Kaufman continues to be one of the most distinctive voices working in the left-field of cinema.

sully9. Sully

Veteran Director Clint Eastwood moved from a film about a solider celebrated as a hero for killing 175 people (American Sniper), to a man portrayed as on trial, despite saving the lives of 254 people. The result was something with heart-pounding drama and considerable emotional heft.

We all know the story of ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’ – the flight that lasted just a few minutes thanks to an encounter with a flock of geese – as it is etched onto the minds of all those who saw the rescue mission on the rolling news channels back in 2009. What surprised about Eastwood’s gripping drama was just how suspenseful he made this familiar story. The investigation into whether or not Sully’s decision to land on the Hudson rather than fly to a nearby airport was the right move, is scrutinized in a way that made the audience cast doubt as to whether Sully would emerge as a true hero or have his reputation and career destroyed. ‘I have flown millions of flights but in the end I am going to be judged on just two and a half minutes’, says Tom Hanks as Sully, regretfully. It may have just been a brief time but the level of genuinely nail-biting, edge of the seat, emotionally involving drama Eastwood wrung out of the situation was extraordinary. Tom Hanks on Oscar worthy form, brought heart and a quiet confidence to the role of Sully; and the vulnerability he brought to the character was really compelling. On screen he has an inherent sense of decency and integrity, so seeing a good man on trial against an inquiry panel eager to pin the blame on human failure rather than technical malfunctions, moved audiences in a Frank Capra sort of way. Hanks is the closest thing modern cinema has to James Stewart. The story of that doomed flight was portrayed in a way that made audiences feel like they were a fly on the wall in both the stomach-churning landing and the troubling court room scenes. Sully was a powerful portrayal of an extraordinary story, made in a classic Hollywood style.

hail-caesar-quad8. Hail, Caesar!

While their trademark is dark crimes going spectacularly awry, the Coen brothers like to apply their wry humour to matters of faith (A Serious Man) and classic Hollywood satire (Barton Fink). Hail, Caesar! saw them on fine playful form, with a satire that found some delightful comic riffs on religion or more specifically, the fifties biblical epic and also some light-hearted affectionate fun-poking at the fifties Hollywood studio system. The Coen’s latest offering delighted fans of Barton Fink as it was essentially an extension on the ‘Wally Pfister wrestler picture’ humour from that Coen masterpiece – there is even a direct line that puts the two films on the same timeline. If there was a funnier comic scene this year than the opener of this, in which a rabbi a priest and other members of faith sit-down and discuss appropriate use of Christ’s image in a film, then I didn’t see it. It didn’t matter that the film felt more like a Monty phythonesque sketch-gag train than a full story as the humour was so sharply observed and laugh-out-loud funny that the film delighted and actually seemed funnier on repeat viewings. George Clooney in his goofiest, most unconscious performance yet gave one of the comic turns of the year as a clueless A-list star who is abducted by a mysterious group whose philosophy starts making sense to him. Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Scarlet Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Ehrenreich got the measure of the tone too, all gave great comedy performances. It was easily the comedy ensemble of the year.

The Coen brothers have been making films in the system for a long time and you can’t help but strongly suspect from watching Barton Fink and now Hail, Ceasar! that they were channeling some of what they’ve seen and anecdotes they’ve heard from contact with so many behind the scenes movie types, in this hilarious screenplay. Hail, Hail, Caesar!

the-revenant7.The Revenant

To really appreciate the experience of this punishing but extremely rewarding wintry Western, you had to get into a similar mindset to that of Di Caprio and the crew. The shoot was grueling, painstaking and extremely tough, and those who braced themselves for a film that naturally brought the dogged days of a lost era of American settlers, planting the first seeds of capitalism, got the most out of the film. The cast and crew had to suffer for their art so why shouldn’t you watching in the relative comfort of your seat? Di Caprio set himself up for an endurance test of method acting, winning his long-awaited best actor Oscar for his troubles. He showed he was prepared to go to any limit required – including eating a raw bison liver – for authenticity. Although sparse on plot – it was essentially a long drawn out revenge drama – the film had such a breathtaking level of natural beauty. It was an unsettling vision into a past era of America, in which the native Americans and white settlers relationship had begun to fracture; the former concerned that their lands may come to be exploited by greed. It was also a drama paying tribute to the motivational power of vengeance to keep the spirit alive in hope of justice.

Director Alejandro G Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki showed their sheer commitment to realism by insisting on filming at only dusk hours, which extended the shoot considerably. Few filmmakers went as far as they did this year to deliver cinematic authenticity.

embrace-of-the-serpent6. Embrace of the Serpent

The exploitation of Amazonian tribes at the hands of European invaders is an under-explored subject in cinema. This independent Colombian film, based on the diaries of a 19th Century German explorer, delved into the period, with a natural journey into the beginning of troubled times for the natives as the machinery of colonialism has begun it’s devastation of their culture. The film revolved around a richly observed, beautifully complex dynamic between two intrepid Western travellers and a Shamen who possessed an understandable disdain for the Western mentality. The naturalness of the relationships, was what made the film so compelling. Through inventive and impeccably observed characterization a rare voice for an indigenous tribe emerged: The white man won’t stop until he eats everything he said…. He will turn the whole world into death and hell’. The character, was based on writings from a 1909 diary, but just last year, a never before seen tribe came out of the jungle in a desperate last ditch attempt to save their disappearing lands and tribe leaders have put on trousers to go before Brazilian governments, tearfully pleading with them to protect the Amazon. Over a hundred years on from the period, the tribes are still dealing with the slow holocaust that the character in this correctly forsees as the cause for the demise of his people.

Shot in black and white, the film had a wonderfully effective archival feel. It often felt like a lost anthropology documentary. It was closer to a real journey into the heart of the Amazonian, than a contrived story; the pace of the film meandered along deep into the jungle in a natrual style mirroring the Amazonian river on which the story was set. It had the look and feel of an early Werner Herzog film, cira Fitzccaraldo or Agguire: Wrath of God. It also seemed to be a spiritual companion piece to both versions of the heart of darkness, both Joseph Conrad’s novel and Copolla’s Apocalypse Now: as the men drift up the river witnessing ‘the horrors’ and madness of colonialism, in a style reminiscent of the aforementioned works. Framed against a tribesmen agonizing at the destruction of his people’s way of life, the film was one of the most powerful and poignant stories of the year. Spiritual, soulful, meditative and insightful, Embrace of the Serpent had an unshakeable power that haunted those who discovered it. The last cry out of a voice that may soon become silenced forever.

room.jpeg5. Room

The creatively brilliant thing about Room was it took a subject that has been deeply disturbing to hear about in news stories in the last ten years, and looked at it through a child’s innocent imagination, a child unaware of the unimaginable horror his mother must have had to endure at the hands of her capture.

The Room of the title was a small cell like enclosure that clearly the mother and child had been in for sometime, in the child’s case, all his life. This small, seemingly claustrophobic enclosure was an entire universe to the child (a mesmerizing Jacob Trembolore) though and watching him explore his world and talk about it with a sense of childlike whimsy and fantasy, was enthralling. It was a film that captured a child’s unique power to alleviate the darkness of a situation through the power of imagination.This illustrated the peerless power of cinema to transform a story you would imagine to have rather a different tone if done as a documentary. The film immersed us so deeply in the way he saw the world that when there was a tonal shift and a renewed sense of peril the film was unbearably tense. The depiction of the bond forged between the Mother (a suburb deservedly Oscar winning performance by Brie Larson) and her child was so intimate and naturally rendered that it was equally as compelling in both the first and second sections. Poignant powerful and easily one of the year’s most original films.

hell-in-high-water4. Hell or High Water

‘It seems kind of foolish to me…robbing a bank and expecting to live long enough to spend the money…. those days are gone, so says a Stetson wearing old-timer musing in a Texan diner. It’s a sentiment that frames the unlikeliness of a bank heist drama set in the modern era. In a digital age in which hard currency in banks has been replaced with numbers on a screen, pulling off a bank raid seems more like a task designed for the mouse clickers than the gun-totters. There’s a reason why this film has been considered ‘one that they just don’t make anymore’, bank raids are a near impossibility in the modern era. Director David Mackenzie, tense and taut Western found a way around it via a shrewd plan, to aim for the small dough and a scheme brainstormed by a desperate but savvy character played superbly by Chris Pine. While stylistically it was a Western, appealingly old-fashioned, thematically it was contentious, focusing not on how the West once was but how the West now stands. Modern social pressures facing dusty Westerns towns were explored; Chris Pine – and his brother a rather more unhinged character – were in an outlaw state of mind, but there was no doubt who the real outlaws of the film were: the banks. The ominous spectre of foreclosure cast a gloomy atmosphere on the film, if there was a sense that the curtain was coming down on the one-horse western town, there could be no doubt who was operating the strings. Whenever banks have wreaked this much havoc in society, the bank robber becomes almost heroic, call it the John Dillinger or Robin Hood effect. There can be no doubt that audiences were willing Pine’s character to a modest success, a symbolic victory for the little guy, which is why Jeff Bridges in probable Oscar winning form, as the sheriff in pursuit, was a fantastic character. Politically incorrect in nature, his casually racist patter with his Native American deputy, was wryly amusing . Here was a character that if he were to really exist, would no doubt be encouraged by the Trump victory, yet underneath the spiky sparring you could see he was a good man trying to do what he felt was right. The unorthodox, unpc nature of the character and his edgy tone of banter, allowed the film to put a different spin on racial tension. How fully rounded the two law officials relationship was is one of the many reasons why Hell or High Water is one of the most important films of the year.

spotlight3. Spotlight

Considering journalistic freedom seems to be in danger of being compromised by corporate interests, it was great to see a film that captured the power of a free independent media to expose shocking corruption, sweep in from no where to take the Best Picture Oscar. It was a film that looked for inspiration from the seventies golden age of journalism films, with All The President’s Men clearly being the biggest influence on director Tom McCarthy’s powerful film. McCarthy did the seemingly impossible by making un-flashy mundane tasks like painstaking, diligent research, seem earth-shatteringly dramatic. Special Effects teams can try all they want but they are not going to come close to matching the drama of the moment in Spotlight when Mark Ruffalo’s character was running to use a photocopier. People answering phones and searching through phone-directories, provided absolutely nerve-shredding drama. Few films this year created the rising drama and tension resulting from the Catholic Church being subjected to an ever more damming wide-reaching inquiry, in the none more Catholic area in America of Boston. The Boston Globe Versus The Catholic Church was the David V Goliath battle of the century. Frankly there was no image more poignant in any film this year than the post film credits sequence that listed just how many cities world wide have suffered at the hands of Catholic priests sexually abusing young children. The evidence the film revealed was haunting. The message was so hard-hitting it was honestly surprising The Catholic Church didn’t suffer even more damage to their image.

the-witch2. The Witch

Outside of children’s fairytales, there have been very few credible films that captured the threat of witches. Those that have taken on the subject, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspira, The Blair Witch Project, were potent horror films because they alluded to witchcraft rather than put witches in the spotlight. Don’t show the witch seemed to be the rule of horror; The Witch spectacularly subverted the rule in the early stages by showing scenes of a witch that were deeply unsettling. That became a game-changer for a horror film that found so many new ways to unnerve. Set in the early days of the American settlers, a time in which puritan values rule the minds and the communities, the film, focused on a family cast out of their gated village and forced to live off the land next to a strange forest, alone. Whenever storytellers twist historical time periods and lace in horror fantasy the results are frequently enthralling.

Everything about this film was eerie and threatening, just the idea of going off into an unexplored American wilderness, where no English settlers have gone before was foreboding as it’s clearly an environment that could be a stage for horror to happen. Director Robert Eggers pulled off something very unique with this film: he managed to simultaneously make a frightening horror film about a witch as well as a film that perfectly captured how religious dogmatism can tear minds, souls and families apart. Superstitions and fear of evil caused the family in this film to doubt themselves and each other, resulting in shocking drama that carried a potent message considering the religious fanaticism growing around the world. Stylistically, the film contained eerie imagery clearly influenced by the witchcraft paintings of Goya, which created a thrillingly cinematic and unsettling effect. It was a great year for alternative art-house horror – Goodnight Mommy and Under the Shadow were also really interesting alternative takes a horror, but The Witch was easily the scariest film of the year in my book.

rogueone-astarwarsstory1. Rogue One: A Star Wars story

The Star Wars film we have been waiting for for over thirty years finally arrived late in 2016. Director Gareth Edwards realized that this film series is not about the Stars, but about the Wars. With a refreshing absence of so many of the main iconic characters, Edwards was free to tell a story far more true to the politics and rules of war than the Star Wars series has ever done before. Bucking the hype trend spectacularly, Disney played a blinder in regards to marketing, by stating the film was a one-time spin-off movie in the Star Wars Universe, separate from the original; it was much, much more than a side-story spin-off movie. It felt far more essential to the overall original story than any of the other modern Star Wars films. Thrillingly, it felt like the missing piece of the puzzle, a film that finally gave context and detail to Leia’s message to Obi Wan Kinobi. Cast your mind back to a New Hope and focus on the scene in which Leia witnessed that destruction on her home planet at the hands of the Death Star. There is an emotional wallop in that scene that is absenct elsewhere in the Star Wars films. Rogue One seemed to have bottled that emotion and distilled it into every scene, every character exchange and every frame of this film. The result was something with far more raw emotion, intensity and gripping drama than the franchise had ever produced before.By focusing on so many characters who are coming to terms with the idea that the Imperialists have a planet-destroying weapon, the film was so emotionally involving. It was so sobering and real that it made you contemplate the horror of being on a planet that might be marked for annihilation. The characters had more weight and more resonance due to the graveness of their situation. It seemed like someone had actually sat down and figured out the logistics of how the battles would work, the dialogue ringing true to being in battle. The focus on the strategy of war from both the rebel alliances and the Empire made the battles all seem spectacular due to the thrilling authenticity. The commitment to realism meant that the kookiness of the alien designs was pleasingly toned down, the alien characters that are in the film, seem as hard-edged as everything else. The new droid provided a levity to counterbalance the considerable weight of the drama, with a brilliantly droll sense of humour. Everyone one of his dry sarcastic one-liners landed – he was a brilliantly written creation. A total upgrade on C3P0’s prissy humour. Darth Vader made an a brilliant appearance but it was entirely justified rather than a gratuitous cameo, he seemed even more threatening than he did in the originals.

The Force Awakens, was a solid Star Wars film with an emphasis on nostalgia, but it didn’t really tell a new story. Rogue One however tells a story that provides the entire basis for why the Rebels had a new hope in the first place. It felt like a film that simultaneously told the past and the future of the Star Wars saga, by an absolute galaxy, Rogue One was the film of 2016.

The Top Films of 2016 (Part 1: 11-25)

Was 2016 a good year for cinema or a bad one? Your answer may depend on how deeply you jumped down the rabbit hole. Everyone gets to hear about the major blockbuster releases months in advance as their marketing campaigns become bigger and more ubiquitous each year, but there are always so many films for which you have to do research to discover.

Cinema has become like a giant cake: on the surface you have all the brightly coloured visual decorations enticing you in; they are enjoyable but you wouldn’t want to make them your full diet, just like the blockbusters. Underneath the surface is the substance, the cake itself, not as well advertised but (arguably) more satisfying than the stuff on the surface.

In any given year, there is an eclectic array of films released from all the over world. Given the fast-paced, work orientated, leisure time-light lifestyles we are all living now, there are more (potentially) excellent films released in a year than days available to watch them. Considering the fast turnover of films in cinemas – the less mainstream only get a few weeks release, sometimes in selected cinemas – the films might have finished their run before people have found the time to seek them out. Still, hearing about them is half the battle. To stay in touch with quality cinema, you have to do some research. Read the magazines, listen to podcasts, and of course, read the blogs.

2016 had some great films, you just had to do your homework to find some of them. The end of year lists always help. The great thing about these lists is that like the films, they all reflect rather different tastes. Shuffling and reshuffling them into an acceptable order gave me such a headache as ranking films is a flawed system.  All I can be certain of is, these are some of the films that left a distinct impression on me in 2016. I hope it was a good year in cinema for you too.

25.midnight.jpegMidnight Special

Director Jeff Nichols took an inventive approach to the idea of superpowers, portraying the idea of being born with extra supernatural abilities as more of a burden than a gift. The film explored the age-old familiar comic book story arc in an entirely new way, as a boy with powers he cannot control was chaperoned across country by his father, (another great performance by Michael Shannon) as the government try to track down his son.  Such a fresh approach to the idea of powers created a lively plot that retained mysteries right up until the unorthodox and entirely unforeseeable finale. The lack of heroism of the boy and considerable vulnerability left director Jeff Nichols to explore alternative plot strands, particularly how a boy with supernatural capabilities may begin to develop a religious following in those awaiting a new prophet. The film had an old-school, seventies style use of special effects which was pleasing. The ending may have proven divisive and anti-climatic for some but for others, it was a bold idea way ahead of its time.

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24.

Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford handled the complex ‘story within a story’ narrative of Austin Wright’s 1993 story, Tony and Susan, really well in this unusual and thought-provoking thriller. The film from the very start pulsated with tension aided by a really effective score. Moody and atmospheric, the film had a focal point for the uneasy emotional tone through Amy Adams’ superb performance. Amy played Susan, an upper class Manhattan artist, who is compelled to do some reflection and soul-searching when she reads the visceral novel delivered by her ex-husband, whom she coldly ditched some years prior. Both elements of the story – the physical violence of the novel Susan is reading, along with the emotional trauma stirred by the novel within – were completely mesmerizing and involving. The film had a lot to say about how dormant feelings for long-finished relationships can be stirred up years later. Nocturnal Animals was emotionally provocative and creatively presented.

 

 

train-to-busan23.Train to Busan

The South Koreans jumped on the unstoppable zombie train, with a story about unstoppable zombies, err, on a train. What it lacked in originality it made up for in character development as a range of social types, who seemed thinly sketched out at the start, slowly grew into characters who seemed so real and well-developed that you couldn’t help but will them to an unlikely survival. The depiction of the zombies upped the ante, considerably – the fluidity of movement, as thousands of zombies hurtled towards the characters, created the impression of a tsunami of the racing dead. It was so visceral, ferocious and intense, that it made crowds of shuffling zombies from classic zombie films look almost as quaint as old ladies shuffling around a tea room by comparison. There was depth to the narrative too, with an engaging socio-political commentary riffing on capitalist politics, Asian class hierarchies and how setting yourself up with ruthless self-survival instincts may not be preferable to group un-dead combat, when faced with the zombie apocalypse. The class politics stuff gave it more in common with Snowpiercer than just an unstoppable train.

22. Deadpool

As DC badlDeadpool_poster.jpgy stumbled with the turgid Batman V Superman, Deadpool breezed in with a likable, snarky energy, setting himself up as the comic book answer to a detached anarchist. Ryan Rynolds relished
the role, delivering more quick-witted one-liners in a few minutes than you would get in an entire mainstream Marvel movie. The film was absolutely brimming with wry humour and invention, the title sequence alone raised a movie’s worth of belly-laughs as the film made a claim to be a much-needed satirist of the conventions of the comic book movie. Director Tim Miller delivered wild R-rated fun, with a colorful screenplay that was deliriously enjoyable. Deadpool was deadpan, dead-on, dead dry and dead good.

neon-demon21. The Neon Demon

Blood and glitter made for a heady and intoxicating mix in this scabrous LA-set thriller. Promising indie director Nicolas Winding Refn found a new way to satirize the soulless and callous nature of the fashion industry, twisting the glitz and the glam until it resembled something really quite sinister. His use of shiny bright colours in one of the most darkly enchanting films of the year, was nothing short of mesmerising. His style lent a great debt to Dario Argento. The Italian horror auteur always found a way of assaulting the senses with vivid colors; Refyn brought the style into the 21st century, disorientating and unsettling the audiences with an effectively garish visual style. The palpable atmosphere of the film was so terrifically over-stylized that it began to take on a ethereal fairy tale quality. Some of the characters, so all-consumed by their own perception of beauty, were so twisted that they almost resembled monsters in fairy tales. If the Evil Queen from Snow White had granddaughters, they may look something like those in The Neon Demon. Vapidity has rarely been this threatening.

eddie20. Eddie the Eagle

Eddie the Eagle became a household name in the UK after his legendary heroics at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. People of Britain love a trier as much as a champion, but it was good to see that filmmaker Dexter Fletcher understood that mentality and stayed true to Eddie’s story, with a film that captured the spirit and tenacity of the character, but didn’t shy away from the reality of his ambition. For those who don’t know, Eddie the Eagle harboured a dream to become a Winter Olympian, in the daunting event of ski-jumping. However, he seemingly didn’t possess any natural athleticism and the British Olympic organisation were reluctant to let him compete due to fear of international humiliation. The film captured the heart and determination that Eddie had to allow him to work on his dream. Taron Egerton, had clearly studied his subject – he nailed the mannerisms, the jutting chin, the West country accent, it was all uncanny. To the approval of Eddie himself, he infused him with a likable charm and earnest will to succeed. Despite being a fictional character, Hugh Jackman’s mentor was a great addition to the story. It was Jackman’s expressive face that provided the drama and intensity as Eddie – in hair-raising, dramatic scenes – flew down the slopes. It was wonderful to see one of Britain’s most talked about Olympians become one of the feel-good films of the year. Nearly thirty years after he won the hearts of Britain, it was uplifting to see The Eddie the Eagle story take flight again.

nice-guys

19. The Nice Guys

The marketing posters featuring the film’s stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe made Shane Black’s new film look as if it was in the mold of his Leathal Weapon series. Actually, The Nice Guys was much closer to his sharply scripted, inventive noir thrillers like The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Darkly comic in tone, Shane Black’s latest was a creative seventies styled Hollywood set crime drama with a memorable story and a witty script. Exploring the seedy crime underbelly of L.A’s Hollywood glamour industries is something that Shane Black has always done well, and in The Nice Guys he had another thrilling, gripping and riotously funny crime drama that subverted the image of show business and had some wrly comic crime drama play out in Hollywood parties. Ryan Gosling, in one of his most comedic and charismatic roles to date, gave a funny and expressive performance that seemed to be partly inspired by the antics of Hollywood’s silent comedians. Crowe proved to be a good sparring partner for Gosling in one of the most inventive, funniest and criminally underrated films of the year.

captain-america-civil-war18. Captain America: Civil War

Superheroes fighting each other was a running comic book movie theme in 2016, but Marvel’s attempt to engineer conflict between their most heroic icons was a lot more convincing than DC’s. What made the conflict so engrossing and believable in this film was that it captured how a difference of opinion can escalate into a full blown stand-off and eventual war. That gave the film a message that far transcended the limited fantasy world of the Marvel Universe, giving it real relevance to the political and domestic issues of the day. This wasn’t the forced punch-up designed to cynically generate box office revenue that it initially appeared to be. Nor was it the standard good versus megalomaniac bad guy, as seen in other blockbusters this year, most notably the archaic X-Men movie. There was a complexity in the narrative that addressed how the wanton destruction of the previous Avengers’ outings, had led them to be as big a threat to world security as the foes they claim to be protecting humanity from. The fracturing of the relationship between Iron Man and Captain America was essentially very political in nature. In an ironic shift in perspective, technology mogul Tony Stark approved of government monitoring of The Avengers. Meanwhile, former super soldier Captain America, was believably distrustful of authority given his experiences in previous episodes, his anti-government stance was understandable. Polarizing the two chief characters’ perspectives, was fascinating, as neither of them were wrong, which made the conflict all the more edgy. Essentially, directors Anthony and Joe Russo managed to distill an age old political debate between the public and private sector into a terrific action movie, without the kids even suspecting anything. The film earned the right to its mouth-watering smackdown. It was like an Avengers-themed Royal of Rumble with a quick-witted Spiderman and equally sharp Antman, keeping things breezy and fun. Captain America: Civil War managed to simultaneously be one of the most politically stimulating films and enjoyable action movies of the year, that was quite the achievement. As for the bigger fight in 2016, DC are face down on the canvas, and Marvel are rocking around the ring, punching the air like Rocky Balboa.

 

 

son-of-saul17. Son of Saul

Haunting, hard-hitting and utterly harrowing Son of Saul told a holocaust story from a new perspective resulting in an utterly devastating piece of cinema. Set in a Nazi death camp in Auschwitz in 1944, the film was seen almost entirely from the vantage point of Saul, a Hungarian Jew who is part of a group granted special status as workers in the death camps. The group labelled Sonderkommando by the Nazis were given an extra few months to live in order to complete the daily tasks of cleaning up the death camps after industrial scale mass murder had been routinely carried out. Mass scale chamber death became blurred out background noise as the workers who kept this hellish system running had become so accustomed to death on a daily basis that it had become totally devoid of drama to them. Their lack of reaction, and the lack of drama was what made the film so unsettling. In Son of Saul, mass murder became an efficient industrial machine; the characters’ detachment was all the more horrifying to us watching afresh from the relative comfort of our chairs. There was almost no ray of hope to emerge from the oppressive grimness; the only shred coming from Saul’s secret quest, not to save his son from his fate, but to give him a dignified burial. It would be way too upsetting for most people’s tastes as it features at least two of the most shocking scenes of the year, and a tone of unrelenting misery, but, this is a film about what the Nazis did to the Jews, so it needs to be bleak. Few films have captured the unspeakable horror of the holocaust quite as powerfully as Son of Saul. It had the power to haunt all those who saw it for days after viewing.

 

kubo16. Kubo and the two Strings

Laika, The animation studio who brought us Coraline, A Corpse Bride, Paranorman and Box Trolls, made it five excellent features out of five, delivering their most immersive cinematic world to date. Japanese mythology is so vibrant that it works spectacularly well in animated form, but it was unusual to see a film made about Japanese customs that wasn’t made by one of their big studios. Kubo and the Two Strings told an enchanting story that paid reverent homage to Japanese culture and folklore in a yarn that was kooky, fun and spiritual. The level of beauty in the animation was nothing short of breath-taking, but the tone was quite dramatically dark and unnerving in places. What’s so refreshing about this studio is that they seem to be actively trying to create a niche for themselves as an alternative family option. As a result, they are giving their filmmakers a creative licence to be as weird, strange and off-beat as they want to. The characters in Kubo were memorably unconventional, from Kubo, a hero with just one eye, to an amnesia-suffering Samurai beetle, the characters were all brilliantly imaginative. The boldly imagined story had the bewitching dark magic seemingly inspired by the old-school Disney films, think the evil queen from Snow White. The combination of a story which was a beautifully romantic celebration of the ancestor worship prevalent in Asian cultures as well a lucid nightmarish fantasy, made Kubo and the Two Strings one of the best animated features of the year.

victoria15. Victoria

In modern films, frequently the editor is the unsung hero of the production; for the production of Victoria, the editor must have found themselves with very little to do, as extraordinarily, this two-hour and twenty minute production was shot in one uninterrupted, continuous take. However, audiences who saw it become so quickly immersed in the natural vibe between a female Spanish cafe worker living in Berlin and a group of male German clubbers, that the film’s audacious stunt soon had the desired effect of making you forget that you were actually watching a film at all. The first hour drifted by in a leisurely, free-wheeling style as the group moved from clubs to bars on a night out in Berlin. It worked because the two leads had chemistry and rapport and it all felt natural because it was unfolding in real time, in an improvised style. The transition to crime drama was all the more thrilling because of just how innocuously the film shifted into an entirely different genre. Suddenly, our group of likeable party-goers seemed way out of their depth to deal with the challenges ahead as they seemed more like real everyday people rather than crime players. The shocking third act gained all the more intensity for the one take strategy meant that the actors were going through the motions in real time. How they managed to cue up the enthralling third act, which shifts to several locations is mind-boggling. You won’t see a more realistic heist because they actually did it virtually for real in this audacious film.

your-name14. Your Name

Japanese director revitalized a well-worn Western plot device (body-swapping) in Your Name, telling a tale that started out playful and later built into a story that was deep, meaningful and heart-warming. For reasons that adhere to the laws of magic, two teens, a boy in Tokyo and a country girl in a tranquil little town, started to wonder whether the dream they were both having involving being in the other’s body, wasn’t a dream at all. The first section had some lovely playful observational humour which discovered more detail about the emotional effect that such a switch would have on your and your friends’ reactions than the body-switching device had mustered before. As the story progressed, it began to take on some mind-bending, unexpected dimensions that drew it closer to something like Donnie Darko than a generic body switch movie. It’s this dimension that draws you back into a film that became richer, and even more emotionally involving with repeat viewings. Perhaps that’s why it compelled Japanese audiences for so long, who kept the film top of the Japanese box office for an impressive three months. Hanging over the story was a comet which gave the animators such a vivid focal point for some awe-inspiring animation. The way the story shifted to bring the comet into play with the plot was ingeniously executed. There was a quintessentially Japanese sense of romanticism and the musical interludes that just wouldn’t work in a Western film provided a genuinely touching dimension to the story. Japanese animators continue to find new ways to tell stories that are simultaneously cutesy but intelligent, emotionally rich, but light-hearted, spiritual but dark. Your Name had all of these factors and is another Japanese animated classic.

sing-street13. Sing Street

Coming on like an Irish John Hughes movie, this crowd-pleasing film sent spirits soaring as audiences who had the pleasure of seeing Sing Street watched a young Irish teenager unlock his talent and musical potential via a love of eighties pop music and a romance with the object of his affection, a glamourous but troubled young girl. It was like The Commitments, if the characters in that had less tension, more understanding and original songs. Yes, the songs, some of which were penned for the film itself were so authentic, melodic and soaked in positively energized eighties styling that the film absolutely demanded a second viewing just to appreciate how well-crafted the music was. The film was an ode to the transformative effect that music and a sense of connection can have on someone. It was a genuinely delightful coming of age story, as a put upon, young teenager found his calling and morphed into a confident and assured young star. Sing Street perfectly captured how music can provide colour and life to previously dreary and downtrodden settings, offering a way out to those who choose a musical pathway, which echoed the story of practically every British band ever.

a-monster-calls12. A Monster Calls

Sentient, talking trees have become something of a familiar sight in fantasy after Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot and, prior to that, the Tree Ents from The Lord of the Rings. Spanish director J.A Boyona took the concept of a talking tree monster and re-imagined it as something entirely different in a film that found as compelling a blend between stark social drama and riveting fantasy horror as his masterful previous film, The Orphanage. Liam Neeson lent his commanding and intimidating vocal tones to The Tree Monster, a simultaneously menacing and reassuring presence, a character with a similar ambivalent paternal instinct as the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that this owes a great debt to but it is worthy of comparison, to Guillermaro Del Toro’s Spanish masterpiece. The Tree appeared to a troubled young boy struggling to come to terms with his mum’s weakening condition after a battle with cancer and declared that he will return to tell him three stories. Those three stories were beautifully rendered in artfully abstract animated sequences which illustrated the power of ambivalence in fairy tales. The stories’ ambivalence are emblematic of the film itself. The story was a wonderful metaphor for the pathos generated from dealing with traumatic events as well as providing an insight to the therapeutic qualities of fairy tales. Beguiling, enchanting and hard-hitting, perilous and poignant, A Monster Calls worked on a beautifully allegorical level of story-telling.

deep11. Deepwater Horizon

The BP oil disaster of 2010 is such a recent tragedy that the damage inflicted on both the people involved and the environment itself is still painfully raw. Therefore, any attempt to turn it into a Hollywood action film had to be handled with care, to avoid turning a terrible tragedy into an exploitative blockbuster. Director Peter Berg avoided decries of it being too soon to make a film of the worst oil disaster in U.S history, by establishing a tone of seriousness and sincerity with the film and bringing an industrial, tactile and extremely realistic lived-in feel to the action. The reason why the action had an extraordinary visceral intensity is because Berg was forced to commit fully to the project and make the decision to build an oil rig from scratch. Reading the story of the production is as gripping as watching the film itself. Within the film, BP came under extraordinary scrutiny given they are a part of the untouchable oil industry, the film goes as far as to portray their reckless erroneous negligence as villainous. What’s interesting is they were just as much of a threat to the film itself. The reason why Berg had to make the decision to build a rig is because BP released an army of lawyers in an attempt to stop the director getting any access to an oil rig or experts in the field. BP clearly failed and instead improved the quality of the film as the director had to walk such a fine legal line that the attention had to be shifted to a detailed and accurate explanation of what happened. The fact that Berg made technical exchanges about engineering so engaging is something of an achievement in itself. Even the usual portrayal of brave American heroism seemed believable via Mark Whalberg’s most human performance in years. His character’s actions provided considerable emotional impact. The film tapped into a well of anti-corporate sentiment and illustrated a point that needs to be made right now: how corporate hunger for profit blinds their experts to potential catastrophe and environmental costs that could be prevented with more consideration for their workers. It earns the right to be considered one of the most realistic disaster films of all time. ‘This is the film that BP didn’t want you to see’, – that would have made one helluva poster quote. Damn you lawyers.