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My Top 20 Films of 2017

Good Lord, has it been a year already!? Greetings fellow movie-goers, and welcome back to another re-cap of 2017 at the movies! I hope this post find you well and in the midst of excitement for the New Year and not too full from the Christmas period. Hopefully you have room to digest just one more ‘best of’ list before we see in 2018 (it’s good, but I would say that, it is a list of my personal preferences after all). 2017 has had its low points, but I am sure many will agree that this year in cinema was a fruitful one, providing us with a number of both great original and franchise hits that worked to surprise, enlighten and entertain. This year has been a particularly hard one to rank, so do keep that in mind as you look over this list of films (*insert lists are arbitrary argument here*), as I do love every single one of the movies that you are about to discover below! I hope you enjoyed your year at the cinema as much as I did and have kept up with my writing over at The Hollywood News and The Scruffy Nerf Herder.  Without further ado, let’s get into it. (All the films featured and considered for this list were released in UK cinemas and/or available on platforms between January 1st and December 31st 2017).

Honourable mentions 

Elle (Dir: Paul Verhoeven, SBS Distribution)
The Big Sick (Dir: Michael Showalter, Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)
Thor Ragnarok (Dir: Taika Waititi, Marvel Studios)
Mudbound (Dir: Dee Rees, Netflix)
Loving (Dir: Jeff Nichols, Focus Features)

20. War for the Planet of the Apes (Dir: Matt Reeves, 20th Century Fox)

Sure to be remembered as one of the finest blockbuster trilogies of this early century, let alone as one of the finest examples as to how to reboot a franchise, Matt Reeves’ trilogy closer matches the quality of its predecessors Rise and Dawn and then some to deliver a conclusion that is as emotionally satisfying as it is visually astounding. The achievements made by the visual effects department cannot be emphasised enough. The confidence of their application is nothing short of spectacular, with incredibly detailed close-ups of numerous apes often occupying the frame allowing you to bask in the pixelated glory of the motion capture techniques that have been put to use. The fact that you often forget you are watching a special effect is a testament to just how seamless the technology is here, led by a highly emotive performance by Andy Serkis as Ape leader Caesar. Reeves applies old school techniques of David Lean and John Ford to mount the cutting-edge techniques, delivering a story that is part Western, part POW flick and part biblical epic, amounting in an emotionally engaging and rousing blockbuster spectacle.

19. Good Time (Dir: Ben & Josh Safdie, A24)

If you ever find yourself in an argument over whether or not Robert Pattinson is a good actor (frankly, whoever is arguing against him clearly hasn’t seen enough of his films), make that person sit down in front of the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. Largely taking place over the course of one night as Pattinson’s Connie attempts to make up for a bank heist gone wrong, Good Time is an exercise in escalation and desperation, as Connie goes from one situation to the next without giving much thought as to the consequences of his actions; he just wants to keep moving and make some money any way he can. The Safdie’s create a volatile and dangerous landscape across the streets of New York, aided by up-close and personal cinematography, a Tangerine Dream-esque score from Oneohtrix Point Never and a Pattinson performance which evokes the wide-eyed frantic-ness of a young Dog Day Afternoon-era Pacino (seriously, he’s that good). An unpredictable and wild ride that marks the Safdie brothers as a directing duo to look out for.

18. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dir: Rian Johnson, Lucasfilm)

The reaction  to The Last Jedi, Episode 8 of the Skywalker saga, has been nothing short of divisive. Those that were angered by the safe approach of The Force Awakens, seem equally (if not more so) irked by some of the unexpected directions Rian Johnson takes in this superior entry. It just goes to show that there is no pleasing some people when it comes to properties such as Star Wars. For me and many others, The Last Jedi has come to represent the type of Star Wars film that we have been waiting for since it was announced that more adventures in a galaxy far, far away were going to be made. Johnson plays with ideas of the mythology and expectations of character in surprising and bold ways, crafting the most thematically engaging Star Wars film to date. It is also probably the most cine-literate Star Wars film awe well, as I can’t think of any Star Wars film that would even bother referencing shots from Wings to Hitchcock and cues from The Last Goodbye as fluidly as this does. It is a franchise film which takes unexpected turns and valiant moves in changing the course, taking our expectations of the franchise and bending them in a manner which sets up a future for these characters that feels unpredictable, fresh and exciting.

17. David Lynch: The Art Life (Dir: Jon Nguyen, Soda Pictures)

Have I just included this documentary to talk about Twin Peaks? No, not entirely, but it is probably a good point in which to say that Twin Peaks: The Return is without a doubt the best thing I watched this year, but it won’t make this list as it was released episodically on television. It has been a good year for Lynch fans, what with the return of Peaks and this utterly captivating documentary. Lynch is notoriously allusive when it comes to providing meaning to his work, be it his films, TV shows, or his paintings. This documentary very much proceeds in this vein as it follows Lynch (having a cigarette at pretty much every opportunity) in his workshop creating paintings all the while divulging tales about his upbringing and early career, with the film and his recollections ending just before the release of Eraserhead. It is a unique visual memoir, dropping pieces of information willingly but never out-right stating what effect certain experiences have had on the man himself or his work: any associations you make are entirely your own. The Art Life is utterly fascinating and an essential for any Lynch fan that feels enlightening even though it maintains the enigma of the great man himself.

16. The Florida Project (Dir: Sean Baker, A24)

It was always going to be interesting to see what Sean Baker would follow up his dynamic debut Tangerine with, and he certainly has not disappointed with The Florida Project. The film follows six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives with her mother in the Magic Castle motel in Florida which rests just outside of the Walt Disney World Resort. The film largely follows Moonee’s point-of-view across one summer as her and her mother (Bria Vinaite) try to make ends meet in their pocket of American life. The Florida Project takes a a pastel-coloured look at an under-represented area of the American population, a life of struggle and poverty that still manages to be be a playground for fun and mischief when viewed through the eyes of a child. Largely shot on 35mm, Baker provides a unique and vibrant view of the world, one where harsh realities lay just on the outside of the frame, threatening to take over at any point but often kept at bay by the care-free attitude courtesy of the outstanding performances of the children at the centre of the film.

15. Jackie (Dir: Pablo Larrain, eOne Films/Wild Bunch)

There have been many images that have stayed with me throughout the year, and one that has been playing on my mind since January is that is of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy getting drunk in the White House listening to ‘Camelot’ in the wake of her husband’s assassination. There are countless more images that I could list from this film alone that have stayed with me (the aerial shot from the ceiling during JFK’s funeral being chief amongst them), a testament to the searing effect that many of Larrain’s images invoke throughout the course of this examination of Jackie Kennedy, one of the most looked upon figures of the mid to late 20th Century. Portman’s pitch-perfect performance drives this intimate and often unsettling look at the defining moment of
Jackie’s life as she attempts to navigate the tumultuous aftermath of her husband’s assassination. It is a captivating, frightening, unforgettable and deeply intimate account of one individual’s battle with grief on the world stage for all to see.

14. A Ghost Story (Dir: David Lowery, A24)

A film in which its lead actor spends most of the time hidden behind a white sheet as he plays a ghost may sound absurd, and that is because it is. It is also quietly powerful, perplexing, meditative and bizarrely engrossing. Taking such a crude supernatural image and putting it front and centre of a film which explores themes of life, death and what lies beyond gives A Ghost Story  a sense of whimsy and humour that you may not expect alongside its art-house sensibilities. Shot in a ratio of 1.33:1, the film boxes in its subjects as we join Casey Affleck’s blanketed spectral form as he moves untethered through time, observing the coming’s and going’s of those who inhabit the house he once shared with his wife (Rooney Mara). Lowery shoots with a hazy poetic grace, allowing you to ruminate in the often beautiful imagery that he conjures, be it mist rolling over the neighbourhood or Rooney Mara eating a whole pie in one sitting. It is a strange and beautiful journey if you are willing to allow yourself to be open to its contemplative and quite literally spiritual journey.

13. Get Out (Dir: Jordan Peele, Universal Pictures)

One of the most profitable and critically praised films of the year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out has featured at the top spot of many lists, and for good reason. Boasting the most thematically rich screenplay of the year, Peele has crafted not just an exceptional genre movie but also a searing and bitingly prescient satire on the attitudes of white liberals in both America and beyond. Those familiar with Peele’s comedic background shouldn’t be too surprised to hear that he is a deft hand at satire, but they may be surprised to hear just how commanding he is as a filmmaker, crafting startlingly visuals that burn deep on the psyche, as well as drawing out exceedingly creepy thrills across the film’s tightly controlled run-time.  It is a ferocious directorial debut and a film which demands repeat viewings, be you looking out for more of its subtleties, techniques, thrills or simply looking for a film that both entertains and makes you stop and take a long hard look in the mirror.

12. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (Dir: Chris Smith, Vice/Netflix)

Jim Carrey is an actor who I am very fond of, having grown up with most of his big studio comedies as well as being a big fan of his more dramatic roles in the likes of The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. The latter film is the one that takes the focus of this documentary, charting Carrey’s method approach to his portrayal of comedian Andy Kaufman for Milos Foreman’s 1999 film. There has been many stories concerning Carrey’s bizarre level of commitment, and as it turns out, much of the behind-the-scenes experience was captured on film, presented for all to see in this warts-and-all documentary, inter-cut with a new interview featuring Carrey reflecting on the experience. Not only does the film give you full access to the often startlingly and down-right outrageous extremes Carrey went to on the set of Man on the Moon, but it also paints a very melancholic portrait of both Carrey himself and the figure of Kaufman. Carrey’s own testimony of the experience dovetails between humorous anecdotes and moments of very raw and touching segments of soul-bearing that are both emotional and illuminating. A must for any Carrey fan and those interested in the process of performing, with Jim & Andy proving to be a fascinating examination of both.

11. Moonlight (Dir: Barry Jenkins, A24)

It is a shame that Moonlight‘s Oscar-glory will always be associated with the now infamous envelope mix-up as it should not over-shadow the fact that this is the first film with an all-black cast and the first LGBT film to win Best Picture. Not only is it one of the most significant films of recent history, it is also boasts one of the most finely tuned structures of the years’ following the character of Chiron over three periods of his life; as a small boy, a teenager and as a man. It offers the chance for three actors to contribute to this sprawling yet intimate narrative, and the work of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes in their respective segments is nothing short of spellbinding. They are also supported by exceptional work from the likes of Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae and an Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali. It is a beautifully performed, poetically structured character study that also boasts gorgeous cinematography and the one of the most memorable posters of the past decade.

10. The Death of Stalin (Dir: Armando Iannucci, eOne Films)

Armando Iannucci has been responsible for some of the finest political satires of our time. From The Thick of It to In the Loop and his tenure on Veep, Iannucci has a knack for spotlighting the ridiculousness of bureaucracy and Western politics, all the while staying keenly aware of the harsh realities of our political systems. All of his talent for wit and satire is on full display in The Death of Stalin as Iannucci casts his eye to the past of the East to deliver a riotously funny and anarchic account of the events following the sudden death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 Soviet-era Russia. With a gallery of exceptional character actors  at his disposal including Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, a scene-stealing Jason Isaacs and a never-better Simon Russell Beale, Iannucci displays the increasing madness as the Committee members all vie for a position of power in the wake of Stalin’s death.  It is rib-ticklingly funny but also never forgets that this regime was one built on intimidation, violence and persecution. Quite possibly Iannucci’s finest work to date.

9. Logan (Dir: James Mangold, 20th Century Fox)

Not many actors can go 17 years playing the same character, but that is the case when it comes to Hugh Jackman and the role of X-Men‘s Wolverine. After first ‘snikitting’ onto our screens with 2000’s X-Men, Jackman finally hangs up the claws with the brutal, bloody and great Logan. With director James Mangold by his side, Jackman makes his last outing his best with a comic-book movie deeply drenched in the roots of Western cinema, giving Wolverine his Unforgiven and going out on a sombre yet blood-splattered note. Standing very much apart from much of what has come before, Logan gives Jackman and Mangold the freedom to do all that they have wanted to do with this character, and that includes lashings of blood and the odd expletive here and there, crafting a genre film that is devoted more to character than it is blockbuster spectacle. They have ensured that they have left this character with no sense of regret or missed opportunity, putting their all into a tale of last gasp redemption that proves to be thrilling, heartfelt and shocking in equal measure. Not just the best Wolverine movie, not just the best X-Men movie, but one of the finest comic-book movies ever made. Who says the genre has run out of steam?

8. Baby Driver (Dir: Edgar Wright, TriStar Pictures) 

 ‘All you need is one killer track.’ Well, if you’re Baby Driver, you have about 20. With one of the best soundtracks of the year coursing through its veins, Baby Driver delivered on the promise of a fast-paced gloriously entertaining thrill-ride from one of the most energetic directors working today in the form of Edgar Wright. Cutting his action scenes to the beat of a number of toe-tapping numbers such as ‘Bellbottoms’, ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘Neat, Neat, Neat’, Baby Driver drifts its way on to its list on the sheer cool-ness of the film-making techniques that it employs. From its meticulous editing to the joy of seeing real tyres screech and squeal on the streets of Atlanta, Baby Driver 70’s-esque approach to action film-making, driven by Wright’s infectious behind-the-camera glee, helps gives Wright’s most successful film to date a unique energy that other films can only dream of matching. It is a ride I’ve taken numerous times this year and one which never fails to entertain!

7. Call Me By Your Name (Dir: Luca Guadagnino, Sony Pictures Classics)

Largely taking place over the course of one summer in 1983, Northern Italy, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous tale of young love is a triumph of coming of age cinema. We follow Timothy Chalamet’s Elio who begins to fall for his father’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) student, the dashing and charming Oliver (Armie Hammer). Northern Italy cries out to be shot on 35mm, and Guadagnino, with his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, make sure that every frame looks like the most sumptuous postcard you have ever seen, a sun-drenched canvas for which this 17-year old’s sexual awakening can take place. Call Me By Your Name is an incredibly sensual experience, taking pleasure in everything from touch to taste to the human body, be it in the flesh or ancient sculptures. It is intellectual without being pretentious, lyrical and gorgeous to bathe in, beautifully scored and performed by Chalamet and Hammer, while Sthulbarg’s character makes a strong case for being the most forward thinking parent in cinematic history. Call Me By Your Name is a pleasure to get lost in, delivering a story of passionate summer love that we can all relate to in one way or another.

6. God’s Own Country (Dir: Francis Lee, Picturehouse Entertainment)

2017 has proven to be quite the year for queer cinema thanks to the likes of Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country. All three have presented stories that are to be cherished in their own way, with God’s Own Country proving to be (at least for me) the most emotional, the bravest and most relate-able of the three. Set in the hills of Yorkshire, God’s Own Country follows twenty-something Johnny (Josh O’Connor) who works and lives on his family farm, spending most of his downtime engaging in random sexual encounters and getting drunk his local pub. When Johnny’s father hires a new farmhand in the form of Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), the two soon form a relationship that finally gives Johnny something in his life that gives him meaning and something to truly hold on to and rely upon. O’Connor and Secareanu give two of the most achingly beautiful performances that I have seen put to screen, concocting palpable chemistry and forging an endearing love story that you crave to see end happily. A beautiful piece of home-grown cinema that stays with you long after you’ve seen it.

5. Manchester by the Sea (Dir: Kenneth Lonergan, Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

No one film in memory has quite captured the stages of grief in as affecting, heart-breaking, or as human a fashion as Kenneth Lonergan has in his strikingly raw drama Manchester by the Sea. When Casey Affleck’s handyman is brought back home to Manchester, Massachusetts in the wake of his brother’s death, he is forced to address not only the notion of having to care for his brother’s son (a brilliant Lucas Hegdes), but also the terrible tragedy which forced him to leave home in the first place. Lonergan has a knack for writing dialogue that feels natural and believable, crafting situations which are often alleviated with moments of wit or deepened by awkward encounters and revelations that are truly devastating. All the performances deliver Lonergan’s words in an effortless fashion marking Manchester by the Sea as one of the most elegant, melancholic, touching and surprisingly funny dramas of the year.

4. Raw (Dir: Julia Ducournau, Wild Bunch/Focus World)

Easily the most fun I’ve had with an audience in a cinema this year, Raw elicited such an incredibly colourful response from the crowd that I urge you to see it with as many people as you can possibly muster. People will gasp! People with laugh! People may well gag, all as a result of watching the most ferociously original coming-of-age film of the year. Raw follows young life-long vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) as she begins her new life at University. After a hazing ritual forces her to eat meat, Justine soon quickly develops a taste not just for raw meat but for human flesh! Raw‘s absurd premise is all in aid of a devilishly clever allegory on everything from blossoming womanhood, to sexual curiosity to the pressures of academic study and parental expectation, with all of it being conducted with a glint of knowing mischief throughout the increasingly grisly proceedings. Some of the body horror elements may prove a little too much for some (some of the truly testing scenes involve the relatively mundane act of scratching a rash), but if you can stomach it you are in for a treat. Marillier is astoundingly game as the lead with Ducournau’s sure-handed direction leading her through the increasingly gruesome and extreme situations with confidence and bravery. A wickedly fun film, if you’re brave enough to take a bite.

3. Paddington 2 (Dir: Paul King, StudioCanal)

While Paddington 2 may not seem as important a film as some of the other’s listed above, it perhaps offers the greatest service of all – it provides an adventure of unpretentious, un-cynical and incredibly heartwarming fun, that makes you forget about all your worries for at least a couple of hours. If you thought the first Paddington film was near-perfect, you won’t have any complaints about this sequel which takes everything that worked so well the first time around and plays them to the tune of a new engaging adventure for Michael Bond’s marmalade loving Peruvian bear. Utterly charming without being sickly sweet, with visual inventiveness that gives the character the finesse of the finest silent movie stars, Paddington 2 is a celebration of just how much joy a piece of film-making can give to an audience of all ages, proving to be very funny, often stunning to look at and heartfelt to the cuddly extreme. If the ending doesn’t have you wiping away at least a little bit of moisture from your eyes then I’m not sure I can trust you. A pure unbridled delight from start to finish.

2. La La Land (Dir: Damien Chazelle, Summit Entertainment)

The film that I have perhaps had to defend my opinion of the most this year (just let me have it guys), La La Land suffered from the annual case of ‘awards-favourite backlash’ that seems to befall at least one film a year as a result of awards-season hype. For me, every time I have returned to La La Land expecting the air to sputter out of the balloon I have only loved it more and more. An affectionate letter to musicals and a vast array of cinema from both Hollywood and European cinema, La La Land is crowd-pleaser that is technically and visually dazzling with all involved coming together to make something with love, care and passion. Its musical numbers have been playing on my mind all year, its colour palette a constant feast for the eyes, and the performances always coming across as palpable, charming and affecting. La La Land also isn’t all tap-dancing and toothy smiles, as an air of melancholy runs through the proceedings, giving this musical more weight than most modern musicals, giving this example of the genre a contemporary twist all the while indulging in the techniques of the old school. La La Land never fails to put a spring in my step or a smile on my face and for that reason alone I adore it!

1. Dunkirk (Dir: Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros.)

My number one spot goes to the film which I found to be the most immersive experience of the year: Christoper Nolan’s Dunkirk. Not only is Nolan’s latest a technical marvel, but it manages to breathe a sense of vitality into one of film-making’s oldest and most tried and tested genres; the War epic. With a daring structure that plays with time and perspective on land, in the air and on the sea, Dunkirk had me gripped from the first rattling gunshot. Witnessing Nolan’s epic in I-MAX was a soul-shaking experience with the intense sound design thrusting you into the middle of the action, alerting your senses and doing everything it can to make the experience feel genuine and terrifying. My jaw dropped as spitfires roared through the sky, my heart was in my throat at every attempt to leave the beach and my nerves were shredded at every hairy moment on the open water. There is a level of authenticity to the proceedings that has an undeniable impact, with the audacious score and narrative structure allowing the film to feel like a sensory experiment, testing the limits of the film form to dramatise one of the most tentative events of World War Two. Dunkirk is Nolan’s finest work to date,  a director working at the top of his craft to deliver a purely cinematic experience that is quite simply a triumph.

So there you have it, another year over and a new line of films to enjoy for years to come. I managed to hit a personal best by seeing 100 of 2017’s releases, so if you didn’t see your favourite of the year anywhere in this list (or want to tell me what I missed and should’ve seen instead of Geostorm), you can check out my full ranking of the 100 films I saw by clicking here. As always, I will leave you with a super-cut of this year’s releases, courtesy once again of Nikita Malko. May 2018 bring you all you wish for, both on the screen and off. See you at the movies!

 

 

 

 

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My Top 20 Films of 2016

2016movies
Let me just blow away some cobwebs here, brush off some dust there, and ok, we are good to go! Hello blog readers, it has certainly been awhile. Apologies for not producing a great amount of material across this site, but if you follow me hopefully you’ll see I’ve been busy contributing to sites such as ‘The Scruffy Nerf Herder‘ and ‘The Hollywood News‘, but I do feel bad leaving my little ol’ blog alone in the dark. However, there is only ever one place I would come to post my list of the year. And what a funny old year it has been. It has been a year of unexpected twists, both on the screen and off. In a year where uncertainty hung heavy in the air, the movies were still there to provide us with respite (even if it’s one of the more lack-lustre summer seasons we’ve had in awhile). It was still a year that managed to impress, and to demonstrate, I’ve bumped up my list to discuss 20 of this year’s finest! Buckle up! (This list only takes into account the films released in the UK from January to December).

Honourable mentions 

Midnight Special
Hail, Caesar!
Doctor Strange
10 Cloverfield Lane
Tickled

rogueoneposter

20. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir: Gareth Edwards)

Rogue One was never a sure thing. It was coming off a wave of fairly negative re-shoot rumours, let alone having to shake off the stigma of being a Star Wars prequel. Yet the first in a number of planned spin-off movies has proven to be an absolute treat for Star Wars fans. Following the group of rebel spies who stole the plans of the original Death Star, Rogue One opens the field for stories which allow for a different take on the galaxy far, far away, all the while maintaining a distinctive Star Wars feel. Edwards’ rough and ready approach gives this addition to the franchise a great edge, leading to a final act which pulses with engaging action and a number of fan-pleasing delights. The contained nature of it also allows for a refreshing blockbuster experience that feels contained and precise. Check out my full review here.

 

19. The Nice Guys (Dir: Shane Black)theniceguys

From the first pluck of the groovy bass line over a smoggy backdrop of 70’s LA, I knew there was no way I wasn’t going to enjoy Shane Black’s latest contribution to the Hollywood buddy picture. And boy, does it take you for a ride. So pulp fiction you can almost see the dog-eared pages of this paperback detective tale browning in the sun, Black takes you on a tour of 70’s LA with one of the best on-screen pairings of the year in the form of Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe’s hapless, yet somehow productive, P.I’s. With a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, Cadillac’s, sleazy parties and colourful voice-overs complement Black’s trademark irreverence and wit, amounting in what is a fun, occasionally very dark buddy movie that can hold a candle to Black’s iconic back catalogue. Is there a full review to check out? You bet your rear posterior there is. Click here to read more.

moana

18. Moana (Dir: Ron Clements & John Musker) 

2016 has proven to be something of a banner year for Disney (more on that later), with Moana representing a refreshing take on the Disney princess archetype, giving us their most satisfying take so far in the studio’s current animation resurgence. Celebrating polynesian culture, Moana‘s brilliance is also demonstrated by the stunning animation on display (it is easily the most beautiful film they have made since The Princess and the Frog) and a collection of truly memorable songs from the pen of Hamilton‘s Lin Manuel-Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. The character of Moana, beautifully voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, should stand to be a great role model for young girls in the years to come; a Disney princess not characterised by a quest to win the heart of a prince, but more by a quest of self-discovery. And I haven’t even begun to mention Dwayne Johnson’s energetic turn as demigod Maui. A glorious Disney film that proves that the studio can change to match new generations.

 

bonetomahawk

17. Bone Tomahawk (Dir: S. Craig Zahler)

Let us all take a moment to thank Kurt Russel for making the time to put his stunning Hateful Eight moustache to use in another, superior western. Zahler’s western is more than just Kurt Russel playing a small town sheriff. What we have here is a western by setting but a horror film by nature. As Russell puts a band of men together to go find some kidnapped townspeople, they enter a hellish world populated by a cannibalistic tribe, who remain an ominous presence throughout, until we reach the startlingly violent and shocking final act. There are horrors in here that have to be seen to be believed, and even then you may that you can’t bear to look. At times a beautifully shot western, but all the while a nerve-shredding monster story that has a prevailing sense of dread. Skin-crawlingly good.

americanhoney16. American Honey (Dir: Andrea Arnold) 

Andrea Arnold’s latest film, after her startling debut Red Road, the highly impressive Fish Tank and her rather draining Wuthering Heights adaptation, sees her uproot from an English landscape to present an American road-trip movie that comes with what is now her trademark emotional rawness and textured aesthetic. American Honey very much presents an America that feels authentic, one that is both beautiful and ugly often in the same moment. We follow Sasha Lane (a fantastic discovery) as she leaves her broken home in Oklahoma to join a pack of fellow strays on a trip across America to make money, sometimes by by unconventional means. It is a film populated by attention-grabbing performances, not just from the outstanding Lane, but an incendiary turn from LaBeouf. It may be a little long for its own good, but there is something so intoxicating, so arresting, about the rawness of Arnold’s cinematography and a improvisational spirit that is hard not to be enticed by.

startrekbeyond

15. Star Trek Beyond (Dir: Justin Lin)

My favourite of this years somewhat lack-lustre summer blockbusters, Star Trek Beyond is a pure unbridled celebration of everything Star Trek has come to embody in its 50 year history. Here is a future that is built on the level of cooperation between humans and species of all walks of life, all working together to allow for strong diplomatic ties, celebrating our differences and thriving as a result. Beyond gracefully portrays this utopia through a story which is all about legacy, both for the franchise as a whole and the characters within it. Star Trek has always been best when focusing on its characters, and this feature refocuses the attention on the Enterprise crew, leading to the first film in this rebooted series that feels truly  designed to find the best balance for both the legions of pre-existing fans and new audiences alike. It is a film which has provided a great deal of joy and emotion for me (a casual Trekker, not a full-on Trekkie) and as a fan of sci-fi cinema. It is a celebration of everything, and everyone, that this franchise has to offer. Full review is beaming up, right over right here!

zootropolis

14. Zootropolis (Dir: Bryon Howard & Rich Moore)

Who would have thought going in to the year that a Disney movie populated by furry anthropomorphic animals would come to be one of the most timely tales of the year. Along with the colourful trimmings, Zootropolis explores racial stereotyping, discrimination in the workplace, as well as the reach of governmental power. All that, and there’s still room for a Shakira pop track. It also happens to be richly detailed and imaginatively designed, often populating the background with visual gags, from cheap puns to subtle gags. It is often a little too referential for its own good, but the maturity in which it it deals with its incredibly prescient themes. A rewarding experience for all ages, and a sure-fire classic for Disney. Like I said, it has been one hell of a banner year for the house that Walt built. Full review? Sure, check it here.

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13. Green Room (Dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

In a year where many of the world’s brightest stars passed away, none felt quite as tragic as the passing of Anton Yelchin. A hugely promising talent who, at only 27, had left a considerable mark in both indie and mainstream Hollywood cinema (see above for his final turn aboard the Enterprise), one of his final films stands as a testament to the brave and daring choices he often made in his short career. Green Room is a tour-de-force of suspense cinema, with Saulnier demonstrating that his debut (Blue Ruin, equally nerve-shredding) was no fluke, as we witness a young punk band try to fight their way out of a neo-Nazis club after they stumble across something that they shouldn’t have seen. What follows is John Carpenter-esque exercise in tension, often exploding in moments of shocking violence. One of the most intense cinematic experience to have been had this year.

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12. Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir: Travis Knight) 

Laika animation studios have been slowly crafting a formidable name for themselves when it comes to crafting stop-motion, tales which have the capability to be as scary as they are amazingly crafted. Kubo and the Two Strings represents perhaps their best work so far, telling a story ingrained in Japanese culture, following young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) as he takes on the Moon King with his magical guitar and the aid of his friends, a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). It all amounts to a tale that is beautifully crafted and incredibly heart-felt, often pillaging depths of emotion in an uncompromising fashion, often taking you very much by surprise. It also happens to feature one of the year’s best scores, courtesy of Dario Marianelli. A magical, stunning delight.

 

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11. Hell or High Water (Dir: David Mackenzie)

This has been one hell of a year for incredibly taut thrillers, its a wonder I still have nerves to spare. With a script courtesy of Taylor Sheridan (who scripted last year’s Sicario), Hell of High Water features one of the tightest and most efficient screenplays of the year, the dialogue ringing with wit, authenticity and inventiveness. It also helps that it features career-best performances from a subdued Chris Pine and an on-edge Ben Foster, and that’s without taking into consideration the presence of Jeff Bridges, who could quite easily ride out the rest of his years playing aged small-town sheriffs, he’d hear no complaints from me. Mackenzie keeps proceedings moving at a breakneck pace, allowing for this wild west thriller to truly sizzle under the West Texan sun.

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10. Your Name (Dir: Makoto Shinkai)

While it may look like Studio Ghibli may be on the way out (their apparent final feature When Marnie Was There, also released here is certainly worth checking out), but if Your Name is anything to go by, Toho will certainly not be at a loss for stunning Anime’s to distribute. Taking a body-swap concept and flipping it on its head in a surprising and highly emotional fashion. To say too much would ruin the ride, but Your Name is a film which will keep you constantly on edge, giving you two engaging characters, set against a backdrop of stunningly realised animation, richly depicting both rural and urban Japanese life. Seek this one out, particularly if you are a fan of anime, as it is truly one of the finest pieces of Japanese animations to emerge in the last decade. Hey look, there’s a full review for this one. Head on over here to check it out!

 

singstreet9. Sing Street (Dir: John Carney)

Quite easily the most feel-good movie of the year, Sing Street is a hard film to hate, and if you do then you’re probably dead inside. A charming and genuine Irish tale following young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) put a band together in order to impress a girl (the startling Lucy Boynton). As he struggles with troubles at home, the restrictions of his school and the general tribulations of young love, he finds solace in his music, leading to a number of incredibly catchy, profoundly moving songs which have been part of the soundtrack of my year for the best part of the last six months. It is a story covers how every different relationship we have in our lives can affect who we are. A joy  to watch, and even more joyous to return to again and again.

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8. Everybody Wants Some!! (Dir: Richard Linklater) 

Richard Linklater has often proven to be a director very skilled at conveying the feeling of ‘living in the moment’, be it following a young boy for 12 formative years of his life, or witnessing a relationship form and develop in the Before trilogy. With Everybody Wants Some!! (never forget the superfluous exclamation marks), the moment is the first weekend before college statrts in Texas 1980, following the members of the college baseball team. What follows is a weekend of drinking, smoking, partying, and talking. And that’s about it, and it’s utterly charming to boot. With an easy-going wit and a cast of actors whose charm often exceeds that of their questionable behaviour. It is a film which is content in allowing you to simply ride along for its run-time, making you one of the gang with a camaraderie that is so effortless its impressive.

 

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7. Swiss Army Man (Dir: Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan) 

Certainly the most original film of the year, Swiss Army Man is the sort of film that reminds you that you can still be truly surprised in a day and age when a lot of films seems content to follow a predetermined formula. Swiss Army Man has proven a hard one to describe, for the simple fact that it does just sound ridiculous. Paul Dano’s ship-wrecked Hank finds possible salvation in the form of a corpse, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) who may not be quite as lifeless as he initially appears. It is a strange, down right weird story that ends up being all at once grotesque and beautiful, grappling with themes of depression and alienation by encouraging everyone to embrace their weirdness, as that may well prove to be the place that we find we are truly at our happiest. Not for everyone, but for those who can swallow it, Swiss Army Man proves to be a very enriching and profound experience.

embraceoftheserpent6. Embrace of the Serpent (Dir: Ciro Guerra) 

Embrace of the Serpent follows a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres & Antonio Bolivar) in two stages of his life. There is him as a young man in the 1900’s, helping a German explorer find a rare healing plant, and later as an old man helping an American botanist look for the same plant. Each journey down the Amazonian region of Columbia is riddled with mystery, threat, and occasionally madness, as we bare witness to how such a beautiful landscape can be drastically changed and pillaged. Guerra’s black and white cinematography is capable of capturing extreme depth within the jungle, as well as allowing for some images that quite truly blow your mind, all the while telling a story with displays the negative effects of the Rubber boom of the early 20th century on the landscape of a natural and stunning part of the world. An intoxicating piece of work which is leaves a significant mark come its final moments.

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5. Creed (Dir: Ryan Coogler)

In a world where everything is being rebooted, nostalgia begins to play a heavy-hand in various sequels and spin-off’s. Some of these films  have been drowned by their own legacies, failing to find the means to produce a story which feels like a natural continuation. There is one film, however, that makes it look easy, and that is Creed. As a long-time fan of the Rocky franchise, it is an utter delight to see the franchise thrive, presenting a new legacy in the form of Apollo Creed’s son, Aldonis (Michael B. Jordan), allowing for a spin-off to craft an identity that is very much all its own, all the while staying true to the spirit of the franchise. Coogler has an incredibly amount of energy and inventiveness behind the camera, he gives Creed the blood in its veins, which is pumped by the stunning cast (Stallone turns in career-best work here), giving the film the spirit to allow it to soar. A massive, crowd-pleasing, punch the air victory. Oh look, a full review can be found right here!

victoriaposter4. Victoria (Dir: Sebastian Schipper)

My poor, poor nerves. If Green Room took a machete to them, then Victoria takes a whole truck to them. In one fell take, in one Berlin night, you are taken for a ride that initially begins as something of a meet-cute romance, before developing into something that is much more of an intense and nail-destroying thriller. It is an impressive feat of film-making, made all the more impressive by a cast working off a thread-bare script, allowing for a genuine sense of human connection to be established before the more hair-raising stuff begins. An impressionable piece of daring film-making that is hard to shake off, even once you’ve been off the ride for the best part of the year. Well, look at that, there’s a full review right here!

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3. Room (Dir: Lenny Abrahamson)

This film has been hanging with me for some time now, having first seen it in October 2015. But, rules are rules, and with the UK release arriving in January, it can sit proudly in third place. It is a testament to the power of this film that it has remained in such a high position. Showing us the world through the prospective of five year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who has lived his whole life inside one room with his mother (Brie Larson), who soon hatches an escape plan with his help, allowing him to see the world outside the four walls of ‘room’ for the first time. Room tackles some dark themes over the course of its run-time, often making for distressing viewing, but it is ultimately a very beautiful story about perseverance, embracing the world and what the strength of love can truly accomplish even in the bleakest of situations. With sensitive direction from Abrahamson and two phenomenal performances from Larson and the young Tremblay, this is a profoundly rich and emotional experience. Check out my full thoughts over here.

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2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Dir: Taika Waititi) 

Ok, actually, maybe this is the feel-good movie of the year. Hunt for the Wilderpople has humble ambitions, to provide you with an adventure focusing on an unconventional pairing in the New Zealand bush, all the while supplying some laughs along the way. What it does deliver is a film with a unique sense of humour, a rich emotional core, and one of the most re-watchable movies of the year (it’s tied with Creed at six viewings. Waititi’s keen direction and witty script are both full of heart and the desire to present something that’s a little off the beaten track, with Julian Dennison and Sam Neil making for an incredibly engaging double act, equally capable of making you chuckle as warming the cockles of your soul. A rich, hilarious, and uplifting, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is like a good friend well worth paying a frequent visit to.

 

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1. Arrival (Dir: Denis Villeneuve)

If you have been following this blog (or just know me), you’ll know that sci-fi is very much my bag, particularly ones which provide plenty of food for thought. This year, such a dish came in the form of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the type of science fiction tale which takes place in a world that is very recognisably our own, allowing it to have a very prescient power with its themes and concerns, namely that of effective communication. It is also utterly beautiful to behild and filled with narrative surprises, amounting in a cinematic experience which proved to be profoundly engaging on both an intellectual and visual level. Villeneuve has been quickly establishing himself as a true master of these kinds of stories, ones which appear to have conventional genre trademarks, but provide something entirely surprising, taking you to a place you may not have expected. Arrival is his best film to date, a film which goes a long way to show inspire and move in a profound, often mind-boggling fashion. A film that inspires hope as much as it inspires creative and stunning storytelling. More thoughts on why this is quite simply the best film of the year can be found over here.

There we have it, another year over, another list compiled. If the shock twists and turns reminded us of anythign it is that we still have the cinema as a means of escape, and this year has provided features that have made everything just that little easier to bear. Now, all that is left to say is a warm and happy New Year to you all, I hope you are all spending it with people that you love and who make you feel cherished as we move into 2017. Bring on the movies!

Enjoy this stunning retrospect, courtesy of Nikita Malko.

 

Review: Victoria- Take One.

victoria-1The one-take gimmick is nothing new in cinema. Hitchcock gave it a shot back in 1948 with Rope, while most recently we have had Birdman employ camera trickery to imply an effect of one seamless take. It is often a joy to behold such a technique employed, be it for the course of the whole film or a sustained moment within. It is worth noting that Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is a film which unravels all within one continuous shot, as if you didn’t know it may be difficult to actually notice. Victoria does incredibly well to avoid shots in which it is obvious where a cut takes place, leading to one of the more seamless examples of continuous editing that certainly I have ever seen. A gimmick is just that though if it doesn’t have a greater meaning for either the narrative or the characters within the piece. Thankfully, Victoria has plenty of character and narrative surprise to stand as more than just a cinematic gimmick, proving to be a thrilling and pure experience.

Ever had one of those nights that just runs away with you? Victoria (Laia Costa) is about to have one such night. The young Spaniard, who is now living in Berlin, stumbles upon the company of a group of four local guys whilst out clubbing, all of whom take a shine to her, particularly the charismatic Sonnie (Frederick Lau). Willing to see where the night takes her and eager to embark on a more genuine experience of life in Berlin, Victoria soon sees her night turned upside down when the group asks her to assist them with a highly volatile task.Victoria-2

The nature in which the narrative unfolds across Victoria’s never-testing 138 minute run-time leaves one in a constant state of heightened tension. As we move from the club setting, to hanging out on a roof-top, to the cafe where Victoria works, we are led to believe that perhaps this is the sort of film in which we are witnessing a love story form over the course of one evening. Yet throughout, even during the more intimate moments (a scene in which Victoria demonstrates her piano skills is heart-achingly beautiful) there is a sense of unease, like a Molotov cocktail being held  by an individual desperately rummaging for a lighter.

The use of the long take is a large factor as to why we feel so uneasy over the course of the proceedings, seamlessly following our players up ladders and in-and-out of cars in incredibly controlled fashion. When the second act truly kicks into gear and the stakes become feverishly high, the amount of preparation and the impeccable direction truly come to the fore, as the perfectly placed beats of action turn this character driven piece in to a finely crafted thriller of nerve-shredding tension.Victoria-3

Victoria was shot over the course of one evening, from about 4:30am to 7am, accomplished reportedly in three attempts, and that is something truly incredible when you consider what occurs during the final act (I shan’t spoil anything here, much of the joy of the film is seeing it all unfold). With only a 12 page script, the actors improvised most of the dialogue, leading to very naturalistic performances, with the beautiful Costa and the rogue-ish Lau particularly impressing with a very convincing chemistry that fuels the proceedings even as the situation escalates to boiling point.

It is rather telling that the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is credited before the director once the end titles begin, as his work is nothing short of exceptional. Despite having to keep up with the action, action which becomes more and more complicated as we proceed, Grøvlen maintains a keen sense of composition and framing, never failing to ensure that the image remains sharp and occasionally very poetic.Victoria-4

Victoria succeeds as both a delicate character piece and a highly palpable drama that deserves a great deal of praise for its incredibly smooth mechanics, but also for its attention to characters, especially in regards to a central duo who we care for an incredible amount, an essential component once we enter a perilous third act. It is a film which rewards patience and remains on a knife’s edge throughout, resulting in the most unpredictable film thus far this year. If you can, I urge you to seek it out as soon as humanely possible, strap in and join Victoria in a night you both won’t forget in a hurry.

5/5- A poetic and thrilling experience that manages to effectively wrap character and drama within a startling exercise of technical daredevilry. Intoxicating stuff. 

BVS-1It is no secret that I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the first in Warner Bros. attempt at a DC Cinematic Universe (or the DC Extended Universe, as they appear to be calling it). It was a glum, poorly written, pretentious, and dumb attempt at dragging the icon of Superman into the 21st Century. It fared relatively well at the box-office but both fan and critical reception was divisive to say the least. It is for that reason that this ‘sequel’ to Man of Steel comes with a little added Caped Crusader. The decision to reboot Batman in only the second film of the Extended Universe must have been driven by the desire to reach bigger box-office numbers, and perhaps more favour with fans. Some may say that they were setting themselves up to fail, what with the widely beloved Nolan Trilogy still incredibly fresh in collective memory. As a result, the film hasn’t stormed the box-office as desired, what with a barrage of scathing reviews. Batman v Superman is as inelegant as blockbusters come, perhaps even more so than Man of Steel. But, to say it isn’t fun is to ignore aspects of what is possibly the strangest comic book movie to arrive in recent years.

With the arrival of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world has had to face up to the fact that mankind is not alone in the universe, and must also address who Superman is, what he stands for, and if he can be trusted. In the wake of the destruction in Metropolis caused by Superman’s battle with Zod, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who also practices vigilantism as the Batman in Gotham City, doesn’t believe the Son of Krypton can be left unchecked. With Batman keen to find a way to put the Man of Steel in his place, eccentric entrepreneur Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) sees an opportunity to pit the two together in order to rid the world of Superman for good (or something like that).BVS-2

BvS is a fundamentally flawed film, and that is largely down to a screenplay that fails to carve clear paths of motivations for its various characters found within (and boy, are there a lot of characters). It is an un-structured, cluttered, often aimless, loud, obnoxious mess. It is a collection of set-pieces, dream-sequences, Senate meetings and email correspondences that all amount in a film that while often difficult to follow, is not unlike reading a DC comic-book. Calling upon imagery from The Dark Knight Returns, the art of Alex Cross, story arcs of Dan Jurgens and further Frank Miller texts, this feels a great deal more like a comic book movie than Man of Steel, and in a way more so than The Dark Knight trilogy. It doesn’t entirely forgive it for its sloppy story-telling, but it gives it a relentless sense of pace and means that it is not afraid to get weird. And boy, does it get weird.

Much of the strangeness comes courtesy of Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. His performance belongs in an entirely different film, something that wouldn’t be amiss in a Joel Schumacher Bat-flick. His twitches and eccentricities cloud his agenda, but do make him a credible threat, as it is often hard to predict exactly what he’s going to do next. His motivation is murky as hell, and he is too far removed from Luthor in both the pages of the comics and previous screen incarnations, but he feels dangerous enough to pose a threat, and to push our heroes buttons to get them to rumble in the concrete jungle.

The two heroes themselves are something of a mixed bag. Let’s start with the good. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is a strong contender for being the best screen incarnation we have seen thus far. What about Bale, I hear you cry. Bale’s Wayne was infinitely more successful than his oft parodied Batman, complete with gruff growl, this Bat is made of much meaner stuff, and cuts a far more imposing figure than Bale ever did. The writing does let Affleck down, but he imbues both his Wayne and his Bat with a heap of regret that perhaps only a man with Affleck’s past could. The choreography attributed to this Bat is also a wonder to behold, as his brawler styling truly characterises him as one pissed-off vigilante who is way beyond the point of giving a shit about the lives of the scum of Gotham City. It is a controversial decision, but provides enough weight to suggest that this Batman is one with a history, and not a particularly colourful one. BVS-3

Superman is another matter. Cavill is once again given very little to do in a film which should have been his sequel. This is a Superman who seems to blatantly refuse to state his position in the world, for no good reason other than he’s a bit moody. One of the the biggest fundamental mistakes of this film is having both Batman and Superman as two characters who seem at odds with the world, and whose tactics at deploying justice are not too dissimilar, despite what the film may want you to think (they both kill people for chrissakes). The main reason these characters work well in a universe together is that their approaches to justice are so different, so when you have both of them being depressed individuals, the dynamic simply doesn’t work. This Superman becomes so passive through the course of this film that it is truly hard to invest in him as either a hero or a dubious figure. The actual bout between the two DC titans is well choreographed, but ultimately fails to work emotionally, as the motivations are unclear, with the factor that puts a stop to the fight coming across as hilarious rather an smart.

What truly hampers the film is its attempts to address the criticisms of Man of Steel and in its world-building, namely with attempting to draw threads for next year’s Justice League. The main criticisms of Man of Steel that it aims to address concern the amount of destruction and sheer number of civilian causalities that seemed to be entirely disregarded by the writers (and therefore by Superman). Its constant asides to acknowledge that a certain area is clear are often unintentionally hilarious, and in the end rather pointless as the final act simply descends into the same moronic, button-bashing action stylings that coloured most of Man of Steel. 

The Justice League set up is where the film is at its most lazy and its most laughable. While Wonder Woman, in the form of the beautiful but rather bland Gal Gadot, is present (complete with a rollicking theme), she is disappointingly very inconsequential to the proceedings, seemingly only present so that Bruce Wayne can send her an email containing video clips of other future Justice League members. What Marvel took their time to do over the course of five films, BvS attempts in an email, and it is just as lazy, dumb and uninspired as that sounds. BVS-4

BvS does seem to have weakened the DC Extended Universe more than it has strengthened it. While I enjoyed myself a darn sight more than I did in Man of Steel, there is no escaping that Snyder and co. still get a hell of a lot wrong. Snyder remains a strong visualist, but one who has a poor sense of judgement when it comes to character, while my hatred for David S. Goyer requires another post entirely. What we have here is a strange and disparate movie, one akin to dumping a bucket load of bouncy balls on a table top n the hope that some stay on the surface. It remains to be seen how DC’s future will pan out, and for the sake of the characters (most of whom I have a great deal of affection for), I hope this extended universe can be both critically and commercially successful. Guess we’re just going to have to be patient.

2/5- BvS is Blockbuster Cinema at its most unsophisticated, resulting in an un-intentionally hilarious, only occasionally inspired, yet never dull take on two pop culture icons. 

 

 

 

Clover-1In January of this year, a trailer dropped seemingly out of nowhere bearing the name 10 Cloverfield Lane. A Bad Robot Production with a title bearing the moniker ‘Cloverfield’ was something to take note of, as after years of speculation it seemed we were going to receive something akin to a Cloverfield sequel. Hiding behind a certain Star Wars, J.J. Abrams managed to shepherd this project in plain sight, and was quick to establish that this was not a straight sequel, more a spiritual sequel that would keep the Cloverfield brand alive through an anthology series. It is an inspired idea, allow a certain brand awareness to create Science Fiction projects that allow promising new talents a shot at something well within the public’s attention. Hopefully it is the start of many similar projects, as 10 Cloverfield Lane declares itself to be a thrilling début for its young director, Dan Trachtenberg.

After a fight with her fiancée, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her home in New Orleans, very much aiming to get as far away from her problems as possible. However, as she is driving through rural Louisiana, she is involved in a car crash and wakes up to find herself in an underground bunker. She is approached by a man called Howard (John Goodman) who informs her that there has been an attack of unknown origin on the surface, rendering the outside world as a dangerous, poisonous landscape. With seemingly no choice but to stay in the bunker, along with another inhabitant Emmett (John Clover-2Gallagher, Jr.), Michelle has to decide whether Howard is worth trusting, if something more sinister is at play, and find out whether or not something has actually happened on the surface.

It is best for one to know straight off that this Cloverfield has nothing to do with Matt Reeves’ found-footage monster movie from 2008. While this film does deal with the idea of monsters, it is not quite in the literal sense as Reeves’ 9/11 paranoia driven monster movie, rather more about what monstrous acts can be capable of. It retains a certain sense of paranoia, but in a more pared-down thriller scenario,set predominantly in one location with only three characters involved in the proceedings. It allows for 10 Cloverfield Lane to be a more character driven piece, enabling Trachtenberg to demonstrate strength in crafting tension and with working with actors.

The three players involved all turn in well judged performances, never being too overtly dramatic and grounding the proceedings very well. Gallagher Jr provides a refreshing levity, but the film belongs to both John Good man and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead is our guide throughout most of the proceedings, and she is put through the Clover-3wringer on many occasions, and she does well to earn our sympathy and empathy as a young woman thrown into many an unpredictable and volatile situation. Goodman is the best he has been in years, evoking both sympathy and menace often at the same time to provide a character who remains mysterious and treacherous throughout.

Much of 10 Cloverfield Lane rides on Trachtenberg’s skill at handling a chamber piece, aided by a screenplay which places character over spectacle, for the most part anyway. The final act requires something of a leap of faith, and while it proves to be quite cathartic in the grand scheme of the narrative, it ultimately isn’t as controlled or as sophisticated as what has come before. It segues into another genre not quite as smoothly as it would like, leading to a pay-off that feels strangely uninspired when compared to the superior and tightly wound proceedings of the first two thirds. Clover-4

Dan Trachtenberg, a man who only really had a strong Portal inspired short film under his belt, uses this opportunity to truly showcase his confidence as a film-maker, and particularly a strength with actors as well as high concepts. Even if the more grandiose finale is the weak-point of the proceedings, he still demonstrates a strong handling of visuals and character focus. Whatever he decides to do in the future, it will undoubtedly be a point of interest for myself and many others, as he exhibits traits that could well mark him as, dare I say it, the next Abrams.

4/5- This spiritual sequel carves out its own identity as a taut exercise in suspense and character, marking Trachtenberg as a talent to watch. 

Zootropolis-1Arguably, the output from Disney Animation Studios of late has been better than that of Pixar Animation Studios, not that the two are competing. Since 2010, Disney Animation (with John Lasseter as its head of production) has released Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and now Zootropolis, all of which were graced with strong to exceptional box-office numbers and equal critical acclaim. Pixar, while capable of still producing both critical and box-office darlings like Toy Story 3 and Inside Out, have seemed to lack a certain spark or depended upon hits of yesteryear (continuing to do so this year with Finding Dory). Disney themselves are once again leading the pack when it comes to mainstream animation, and in Zootropolis they have cemented what we were already beginning to suspect; Disney are in something of a resurgence period, one to match the second Golden Age of the 90’s. And this time, it’s political.

In  a world populated by animals of an anthropomorphic nature, whom all co-exist peacefully, young rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has just become Zootropolis’ first rabbit police officer. While often being faced with a certain degree of prejudice due to her size Zootropolis-2and species, Judy none the less is keen to make an impression and prove she’s more than capable to tackle the serious cases often handed out to her colleagues. The opportunity soon arises when she is tasked with a missing animal case, one of many in the city. Teaming up with street-wise con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Judy soon uncovers a conspiracy that could upset the peaceful balance held in the city of Zootropolis

Zootropolis is the type of animation that offers plenty for more adult viewers, despite the fact that it is a feature populated by talking animals walking on their hind legs. It is an incredibly timely tale that deals with various degrees of prejudice, holding a mirror up to American society, both its past and unfortunately its present. It tackles these mature themes through sophisticated allegory, all the while remaining a cute and engaging caper allowing for plenty of fun to be had throughout. Disney has often been very deft at such a balance, but rarely has it felt this timely.

Zootropolis-3Along with this potent allegory, Zootropolis also has a team of animators working at the top of their game. The level of detail in the design of the numerous districts of the city of Zootropolis and its suburbs is phenomenal, with many scenes littered with intrinsic features and visual gags. This is the sort of film which will appreciate home viewing experience so one can pause a frame and pick out all the wonderfully imaginative details that can be found within a chosen scene. The character designs as well hark back to Disney of old, with the 1973 Robin Hood particularly coming to mind through numerous characters.

The general plotting of Zootropolis is perhaps the weakest point of the film. While it does have some smartly applied allegory, it does take a while to get to the truly meatier aspects of its politically tinged plot developments. For the most part, the proceedings take on a noir-ish element, and it is not always all that successful, particularly when it feels the need to reference both films within that genre and popular culture which don’t particularly share any DNA with the proceedings. It means a few of the gags do fall flat, but for the most part the script remains largely witty, if a touch too obviously self-referential in regards to Disney’s history (and future).

Zootropolis does a great deal beneath the surface of being a seemingly traditional Disney animation. It has an incredibly well written central female role, as well as populating the rest of the cast with characters who feel well crafted and well defined, even if this still suffers from the prevalent issue of Disney movies of Zootropolis-4late struggling to deliver a truly memorable antagonist. The voice-cast across all the characters, no matter how small their part, all do excellent work, particularly Goodwin and Bateman, who strike a strong chord as the two leads whose dynamic is incredibly refreshing, proving to be excellent company across the neatly paced run-time.

It shall be interesting to see how long this strong streak lasts for Disney, as they will more than likely succumb to the call of sequelizing their recently popular titles (Frozen 2 is happening, a decision which is surely more financially motivated than it is creative). For now, though, they can revel in what is proving to be a resurgence in which both the studio and the audience benefit, providing films that offer excellent entertainment and important moral lessons for all ages. A shining new era is tip-toeing nearer.

4/5- Textured, progressive and incredibly timely, Zootropolis can easily class itself as an instant Disney classic. 

 

Eddie-1Let me provide you with some context so that you can understand the mind-set that led to me enjoying Eddie the Eagle as much as I did. The day prior to seeing Dexter Fletcher’s latest film, I saw both Anomalisa and The Witch within an hour of each other. That was an ill-judged double-bill, as it left me in something of a funk, as neither film is exactly a bundle of joy. I needed a lift, I needed something to raise my spirits, something so unashamedly joyous to remind me that there are films which are designed to simply provide happiness. The story of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards is one such tale, and a very welcome one at that.

The year is 1988. Ever since he was a small boy, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) has had the dream of becoming an Olympic Athlete, despite not being all that gifted in the realm of sport. When it seems as though Eddie has exhausted all possible options in the sporting world, he stumbles across ski jumping, a sport that has had no British representative in six decades. Taking himself off to Germany to learn the sport, Eddie is initially met with ridicule, before being taken under the wing of disgraced ski jumper Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman). Together, Eddie and Bronson aim for the 1988 Winter Olympics, an event where Eddie sets out to make British history, provided he doesn’t break his neck first.EddieAct2

This account of Edwards is largely a work of fiction, namely due to the fact that its main focus is on Edwards relationship with a mentor, a mentor who did not exist. It is an approach which allows the film to have a lighter, more whimsical spirit that marks Edwards story as one fit for an inspiring sports movie. Once upon a time this was set to be a Steve Coogan comedy, which probably would’ve treated Eddie more as a joke rather than a figure of inspiration. Which would have been a shame, because there is definitely something to admire in the determination that Eddie showed in the face of a wave of naysayers, persevering despite never being what one would call naturally talented at sport. It is an underdog story that is easy to fall for.

One of the main reasons we find Eddie easy to fall for is Taron Egerton. The rising star absolutely shines in the role, his first true lead performance, radiating a charisma that often over-shadows his co-star, who is none other than Hugh Jackman. The two clearly enjoy each other’s company, but the movie entirely belongs to Egerton, turning in a well-Eddie-3judged portrayal of Eddie, one that is very sympathetic towards its subject and as energetic as a dewy-eyed puppy.

Dexter Fletcher is a director whose two previous films, the refreshingly upbeat crime caper Wild Bill and the tad-too-saccharine Sunshine on Leith, have been films that have aimed to give one a sense that happiness is something that is attainable for any one of any background, as long as their spirits remain high. Eddie the Eagle is a perfect fit for his sensibilities, and he does well to construct a classically structured tale of a sporting underdog. It is a film that very much wears its influences on its sleeve, be it Cool Runnings (it takes place in the same Winter Olympics that saw the Jamaican Bob-sleigh team compete), Rocky or Billy Elliott, it is a tale that feels decidedly wholesome in a very British way. Eddie-4

Much of the narrative of Eddie the Eagle is driven by Eddie’s determination to master his chosen sport under Jackman’s wing. It allows for a series of highly energetic training montages set to a gloriously poppy 80’s soundtrack (Hall & Oates! Van Halen! Human League!), which does mean that there aren’t too many surprises, and much of the conflict that arises throughout feels somewhat forced; conflict for the sake of having conflict. Yet, it does not rob from the fact that the film effortlessly makes you fall in love with the underdog spirit of Eddie Edwards, ensuring that you remain enticed right until the final jump, even if you know the outcome.

4/5- sporting punchline is turned into a supremely charming underdog story, one with a soaring spirit that proves hard to refuse. Inspiring and incredibly good-natured. 

 

 

Witch-1Witches are hard to make scary. They are a prevalent figure throughout folklore, and have been for hundreds of years, be it in cautionary children’s tales, or more macabre tales of straight-up horror. When such a character, style or figure such as this feels sapped of originality, it is often a wise decision to take the figure in question back to its roots. Director/writer Robert Eggers has done just that with The Witch, a film which aims to drag Witches off of their broomsticks, throw them in a 17th Century folk-tale, roll them about in the mud, and send them back out with dirt underneath their nails, ready to creep back into the nightmares of unsuspecting viewers.

Set in 17th Century New England, a Puritan family led by patriarch William (Ralph Enison) is excommunicated from his village – along with his family comprising of wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy & Jonas (Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson) – due to a crime of conceit. Setting up a farm within a large forest, it is not long until the family is plagued by a series of mysterious, possibly supernatural, occurrences all of which slowly, but surely, tear the family apart.Witch-2

Eggers commitment to the period setting imbues the film with an edge that may make it difficult for some viewers to truly become engage with, but it undoubtedly marks the film as something truly unique. With most of the dialogue lifted directly from 17th Century transcripts, the film creates a similar atmosphere to that of last year’s Macbeth; an atmosphere that is at once intoxicating, uneasy, occasionally frustrating, but oddly spellbinding. The dialogue presents something of a challenge to the actors of the piece, as they must form speech-patterns from streams of dialogue taken from centuries old text. While all the main players provide strong work, it is the work of the younger members of the cast which does the most to sell the setting and its authenticity.

Eggers owes a great debt to his casting director, as the child actors within his cast are what truly sell the moments of terror that befall the banished family of Puritans. Be it through Thomasin’s growing instinct to rebel, Caleb’s sexual awakening or the Twins inclination to cause mischief, we believe them all to be squabbling siblings suddenly faced with accusations of Satanic worship. When the terror begins, it is often that we look to the children to know how to react, as well as look upon in fear as their respective innocent souls are made a target by either the ominous Witch in the woods, or the growing paranoia of their aggressively religious parents. Taylor-Joy, in particular, as Thomasin does tremendous work in a role which certainly puts her through the emotional wringer, while Scrimshaw as Caleb stands out in one particular sequence which truly turns your blood cold.

Witch-3When it comes to the actual horror, most of what is at play here stems from a more psychological breed of fright, meaning that gore-hounds should perhaps look for their thrills elsewhere. Religion is a theme which drives most of the horror, leading to a great deal of threat driven by religious paranoia, as we experience a period in time where life was dictated by ones servitude to the Lord, with the threat of damnation being paramount among the concerns of everyday life.

The paranoia befitting of the time fuels much of the horror, but so does the titular Witch, as it is made abundantly clear to us from the start that the family are indeed being targeted by something within the woods. Eggers shows a great deal of skill in presenting an ominous atmosphere, as scenes of slow-burning tension are stretched out to unbearable lengths, to then suddenly be concluded with a cut to reveal a scene of a horrific nature. It is a very sharp and reserved way in which to stage scares, scares which punctuate scenes with startling images that are hard to forget. It is a patient yet disturbing style of horror which greatly recalls the work of William Friedkin. Witch-4

While the film is often very capable of providing scenes which are unsettling, many of the more overtly supernatural scenes (namely involving the family goat Black Philip) tend to come across as a tad too ridiculous when delivered within an otherwise very authentic setting. This is particularly an issue with the final act of the film, which fully commits to more traditional expectations of Satanic worshipping and Witchcraft. It feels at odds with the carefully crafted authenticity given to re-creating a 17th Century setting, and leads to a pay-off which is predictable and not entirely satisfying. For the most part, however, The Witch stands as one of the most sophisticatedly crafted horror films of recent memory, one that is capable of sending shivers down your spine with images that have proven hard to forget.

4/5- Attention to period detail and exceptional performances from its young cast enable The Witch to succeed as an atmospheric, and occasionally very startling, horror exercise. 

ANOMALISA

Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. He is undoubtedly brilliant, but his work often doesn’t operate too well with those not prepared to view the world through his off-kilter gaze. His world view has provided some terrific screenplays, namely in his collaborations with Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and he proved himself to be an quality potent director with Synecdoche, New York. You have to be prepared for his style, his approach, otherwise it can send you on a ride that you may not particularly stay on board with throughout its course. That may well be what happened to me as I sat down to take in Anomalisa. My expectations were set more to receive something with a but more Jonze-esque whimsy injected into it; what I got was full blown Kaufman, and that sometimes isn’t the easiest of pills to swallow.

Set in 2005, the film follows self-help author Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). Michael, despite having a family and great success as a supposed problem-solver, is in something of a depressive spiral, one which has manifested itself in an usual way; everyone he encounters has the same voice and very little to distinguish them as individual personalities. While travelling for a convention, Michael believes he may have found a glimmer of hope in the form of the timid yet enthusiastic Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has come to attend Michael’s conference.Anomalisa-2

This film, it must be noted, is not entirely a Kaufman joint. It is based on a play of the same name written by Kaufman, but it is co-directed by Duke Johnson. Johnson, the man behind Community’s stop-motion Christmas episode, is clearly a key contributor in being the puppet characters of Anomalisa to uncanny life. Anomalisa undoubtedly represents Kaufman at his most technically accomplished, although it could well be that Johnson deserves most of the credit for the simply stunning puppetry on display, considering it is very much his field of work. None the less, the look and movement of the puppets enable Kaufman’s thematic concerns to illustrate themselves through various means, be it plainly seeing the lines in which the face masks are attached, or removing a face altogether. It is an expertly crafted film, one which makes this a far more interesting endeavour than if it had just been live-action.

There are a number of beautiful and very witty moments in Kaufman’s script, one which explores the human condition in an original fashion, but one which ends up being a little too cynical to handle. Kaufman chooses to focus on the psychological effect of an individual who has become incredibly self-absorbed, no longer concerned with forming or maintaining relationships in his life (the hotel Michael stays at is called The Fregoli, also a name of a mental disorder in which an individual holds a delusional belief that everyone is the same person). This characterisation Anom immediately makes Michael an unlike-able protagonist. The choice of Thewlis for the voice of Michael is both inspired and creepy, as we witness this man attempt to find hope, but ultimately squander it, a man who is perhaps beyond help. It makes the proceedings decidedly bleak to experience, with many moments of the final third spiralling out of control along with Michael, resulting in a denouement that ends up being somewhat grating to watch.

What is impressive about Anomalisa is its smaller details. The conversations that Michael has with complete strangers are often very well observed, as is normally the case with Kaufman. The whole design of the world is also very sophisticated in its sparse and authentic arrangement. Much has also been made regarding the love scene within the film, and it is one that is much more genuine than one would find in most live-action pictures, with it and other scenes (namely Jason Leigh’s rendition of ‘Girl’s Just Want to Have Fun’) conveying a raw emotionality that is often lacking from more straight-forward dramas.Anomalisa-4

Anomalisa has frustrated me since I saw it last month. I desperately wanted to love it and embrace it, but just when I thought I was about to, it stretched out its arms and kept me away from truly forming something meaningful for myself. Its view of the world is not one that inspires much hope, and while I respect that that is somewhat the point, it nonetheless dampened my experience and left me in one hell of a funk when leaving the cinema. This has much to do with its draining final third, as much of what comes before it is simply beautiful. As a whole, it is a film unlike any other even in regards to Kaufman. It may frustrate, but there is something very human at play here, and something definitely worth exploring. Just be prepared.

3/5– While masterfully crafted and often very well observed, Anomalisa unfortunately leaves one with a hard, bitter taste, making it difficult to embrace.

 

 

HailCaesar-1The Coen Brothers have now ascended to that special realm of film royalty for film buffs everywhere. It is a realm which grants their work a certain level of excitement, with many of us simple followers looking on at their next film as another potential masterpiece. It is a realm which now grants them a certain level of safety from critics, as the thought of the Brothers making a bad film is something that is inconceivable to many. It makes going in to Hail, Caesar! an interesting experience; I had probably subconsciously already decided I liked this film even before going in. And I do, it offers the Brothers at their campiest and produces both a hilarious satire and a touching homage to Golden Age Hollywood (I’m a sucker for anything set in the Hollywood of old). Yet while it is enjoyable, it probably should serve as a reminder that not everything the Coens touch turns to gold.

The year is 1951. Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, head of physical production at Capitol Pictures (the same fictional studio in Barton Fink). Not only must he deal with a number of large scale pictures at once, he must also wrangle the big personalities found amongst the cast and crew. While he contemplates a job offer at a sensible airline company, Mannix must also seek to find movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who has been kidnapped from the set of his latest prestige picture, biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, by a group known only as ‘The Future.’  HailCaesar-2

The plot is one that is made up of many character threads intertwining all around the focus point of Brolin’s Mannix. Hail, Caesar! sees the Coens once again work with an ensemble cast populated by some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Throughout the film, we have turns from the likes of Scarlett Johansson as an actress pregnant out of wed-lock, Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque musical star, and Ralph Fiennes as a well-mannered high-class English director. Everyone on board the cast clearly had a wonderful time in less exposed roles, allowing them to forge memorable moments throughout without having to carry the weight of the narrative on their shoulders.

Much of the weight of the narrative falls to Brolin, whose Mannix must deal with a number of situations at the studio, with Whitlock’s kidnapping being simply another thorn in his side. It provides Brolin with a character that allows him to display his strengths as a performer, as he is a man capable of providing charm, intimidation and confidence. Even if the character himself is a bit bland, it is a terrific performance. Clooney once again plays a Coen nitwit after turns in the likes of O Brother and Burn After Reading, as his movie star spends company in the time of ‘The Future’, who may or may not have a Communist Agenda. The HailCaesar-3highlights of a cast which also includes fleeting appearances from Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jonah Hill, are Fiennes in an excellent comedic turn and bright new star Alden Ehrenreich as a fresh faced cowboy actor forced to star in pictures out of his comfort zone (the scene between Fiennes and Ehrenreich is likely to go down as the funniest of the year).

The narrative of Hail, Caesar! is by far its weakest point, as the proceedings are very loosely sketched together in-between extended moments of homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. It would be a problem, if it were not for the pitch-perfect casting and the impeccable means in which Joel and Ethan have re-created filmic styles of the post-war Hollywood period. The film at its centre, the epic Hail, Caesat! is a wonderful pastel-hued riff on Christ pictures such as Ben-Hur (but more notably Richard Burton’s The Robe), while we are also treated to extended scenes of Ehrenrich in a cowboy picture complete with drunken prospector, a Busby Berkeley-esque aquatic dance number with Johanssen as a Mermaid, and an outstanding musical number with a tap-dancing Tatum. It is in moments like this that the film truly thrives and exhibits the best work from regular Coen collaborators, particularly Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Carter Burwell’s period perfect score.  HailCaesar-4

Hail, Caesar! quite possibly represents the Coen Brother’s finest technical achievement, but there is ultimately no way of shaking off the knowledge that this film is something of a release for them, the light comedic affair they make to blow off steam in-between more dramatic pictures. The truth remains, however, that the Coens blowing off steam is often better than what most directors put out when they are on their A-game. Hail, Caesar! is campy, airy, inconsequential, beautiful, and uproariously entertaining. If it won’t be remembered all too highly in the pantheon of the Coen’s, it will at the very least stand as one of their more proficient homages to the film-making styles  of old.

4/5- The Coens head to Old Hollywood and bring an outstanding ensemble cast with them, delivering their campiest, most technically assured feature yet.