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As a (slight but long-term) fan of London’s Saint Etienne I’d been meaning to watch the trilogy of short films they made with director Paul Kelly for some time. Examining three different aspects of London, the body of work is made up of Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) and This Is Tomorrow (2007), each one being around an hour long and a kind of wistful meditation on the changing face of the city (and thus as they deal to various extents with the past, present and future Saint Etienne’s very distinct brand of retro-futurism seems like a good fit for the soundtrack to me, for they are a band that has always looked back to classic European and American pop and also to more modern sounds of the dancefloor, albeit filtered through the lens of white pop classicists). I understand that the fourth collaboration between band and filmmaker, 2014’s How We Used To Live  a collage about 20th century living that uses British Film Institute archive footage, and which I haven’t yet watched sits seperately from these earlier works.

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Finisterre poster

Finisterre, co-directed by Kelly with Kieran Evans, is a modern take on the city symphony film, the footage darting from spots in suburban London a few of which I definitely recognised, a few that seemed familiar, many that I don’t currently know and probably never will – to more recognisable yet characterful places in the centre. The band and others, such as artist Julian Opie and musician Lawrence from the acts Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart (who would later be the subject of Kelly’s 2012 film Lawrence of Belgravia) discuss the places that mean something to them, which tend to be old, traditional cafes, gig venues, record shops, pubs and other places along those lines. But that’s not all; there are wide-reaching cityscapes, close-ups of boarded-up shops and everything in-between. The directors show a knack for catching small architectural details, interesting graffiti and stencils (the latter still a relatively new artistic phenomenon back then), and they use typography as a means of tracking changing times and design fashion, an approach that is consistent across all three films. It’s a fleeting glimpse of a city in flux, and it does to an extent feel like a personal one: this is Kelly and Saint Etienne’s London, primarily, not yours or mine, even if there is some overlap with the types of faces and places you see. The South Bank, Camden, Chalk Farm, Soho, Croydon… Finisterre darts from one spot to the next, knitting it all together, and the emphasis on London’s music scene and nightlife makes it seem warm and positive.

The voices of born and bred locals are more to the fore in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, a 45-minute short about Hackney Wick and the lower Lee Valley in London’s East End (pictured top). Watching today, this is the part of the trilogy that feels to me like the most valuable snapshot, given that the area of the city it examines has been heavily gentrified in the years since it was made, and is markedly different now to how it was in 2005. Kelly spoke to the BFI in 2014 about the three films, addressing the remaking and remodelling of the era. “There was a lot of change going on in London, but we didn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing,” he said. “London was being revitalised. But we wanted to document anything that we thought was going. At the time, there were lots of places that we thought ‘We’ve got to capture this,’ but by the time we got there it would be gone. There was a sense that things were going very fast. It seems to be changing even faster now, accelerating at a pace.”

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Still from What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?

Mervyn Day the title is a rather niche reference to a 1970s goalkeeper who played for local teams West Ham United and Leyton Orient is an atmospheric portrait, proudly examining the area’s industrial and sporting past, finding plenty of time for the waterways, overgrown and neglected corners and crumbling, condemned buildings of 2005. There are hints of the present and future: radio reports of the London terror attacks are incorporated, while the then-recently successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics is referred to in hopeful terms by some, who correctly identified it back then as an opportunity for renewal, collaboration and sporting endeavour.

East London’s gentrification was already well underway by 2005. As Kelly pointed out to the BFI, it was the influx of artists taking advantage of cheap rent in Hoxton and Dalston during the late 1990s that kicked it all off, but it went through the roof immediately after this film was made. However, as one resident points out on the soundtrack, this is a part of London that has regularly seen periods of dramatic change, partly due to its proximity to the Thames and the City of London (ie the financial district). The arrival of larger numbers of younger, middle-class professionals than normal is nothing new for an area that had just previously welcomed a large influx of Bangladeshi residents, or had seen a sizeable portion of the community’s white working class families move out of London into Kent and Essex. I’ve walked around here a couple of times in 2018. Some edges are still tatty; not everything has changed.

There’s a surprising amount of dereliction on show in this film, considering how close everything depicted is to one of the wealthiest square miles and some of the most valuable property in the entire world, but it’s all shown for a purpose, to highlight lost industries, to demonstrate how things  places, communities, events  can be forgotten, or how economic shifts take place and the use of land changes. Our guide through all of it is a mopey teenage lad on a bike, perhaps a Saint Etienne fan, perhaps a future Olympian, while David Essex and Linda Robson – defiantly uncool but absolutely inspired choices of celebs who were raised in the area – provide commentary.

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DVD cover

Of the three films, I was less enamoured with This Is Tomorrow, which charts the building, role and later renovation of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but it’s still well worth a watch. The area was bombed during the Second World War; the building of the concert hall as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 helped to put south London on the map, so to speak; and much has sprung up around it since, so it fits with some of the trilogy’s overarching themes, such as London’s changing face and land being used for different purposes. Kelly’s eye for detail is evident once again and there’s an interesting selection of interviewees, including philosopher Alain de Botton. Also present is Robin Day, one of the most significant furniture designers of the 20th century, whose seats adorn the hall. The film was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall itself (or rather the people who work in it and for it), and as such it’s more of a conventional documentary than the other two films in A London Trilogy, somehow less personal and by necessity rendering the people of London irrelevant.

I felt sad watching the three films; I see here the London that I moved to, albeit in 1999 rather than 2003, 2005 or 2007. What I should say, then, is that I definitely see the London I lived in for many years. I also felt a degree of warmth towards the films which came, oddly enough, because of Kelly’s insistence on poking around in dingy, messy corners of the capital. You don’t see these spaces committed to film too often, and I think such scenes here are part of a kind of more general, quiet celebration that I’m glad exists.

The London Trilogy is available to watch on BFI Player in the UK and can be purchased from lots of the usual outlets.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2017; I hope it’s a better one than 2016 in terms of blockbusters, at least, but as I cast my over a list of films that finished just outside my top 50 (below) I think overall it’s been pretty good, once again. Before I list that top 50, though, I just want to say thanks as always to anyone who has regularly or irregularly stopped by this blog for a brief or long read during the past twelve months. There have been some changes and I’ve not been able to write any reviews of a decent length for a few months now, but it’s still ticking along.

As always the usual caveats and points need to be made about a list like this. First of all, as I seem to say every year, it’s completely pointless, other than for being a way for me to make some sense of all the new releases I caught during 2016. As such, this list only includes films that came out on general release in the UK or were released on VOD/streaming services in 2016. That means there’s no Moonlight, no Toni Erdmann, no La La Land, no Manchester By The Sea, no Certain Women and no Elle, to list but a few well-received examples that will be released in the UK in 2017. And that also means there are films such as The Revenant and Room listed here: these were 2015 releases in some countries but January 2016 releases in the UK.

Additionally, although I have seen over 180 new releases during 2016, there are of course films I haven’t got around to yet that I suspect might get into this list or the list of 10 favourite documentaries underneath it. At the time of writing these include titles such as Cameraperson, Paterson, No Home Movie, A United Kingdom, The Edge Of Seventeen, Moana, The First Monday In May, and more. So, just to reiterate, this is a list of my favourite films of the year of the ones that I’ve seen, and in no way am I suggesting it as a definitive ‘Best of’.

Here goes…

Feature Films, Top 50

eye_in_the_sky_still_2_-_h_2015.jpg50. Eye In The Sky: ‘I guess in the future the film will be notable for being the last one to feature Alan Rickman before he passed away, and there are times when we get to enjoy one last dose of the exasperation that featured so heavily throughout his acting career (I’m struggling to think of an actor that can better Rickman’s ability to cast eye-rolling annoyance at those around his character). It’s not his best film, or his best performance, by any stretch, but he’s good in this and Eye In The Sky is a fitting end to a fine body of work. Hood – the director of the Oscar-winning 2005 film Tsotsi – has made a series of interesting career turns, of which this is the latest, and on this evidence I feel like I probably should have paid more attention during the past decade.’

49. A War: ‘ Like his earlier films, this Oscar-nominated drama by Tobias Lindholm (The Hunt, A Hijacking) wrestles with complex moral issues and also places much weight on the shoulders of one man (a Danish Army Officer, played by Lindholm regular Pilou Asbæk). It’s a tense and emotional picture.’

48. The Commune: ‘The strand of idealism that informs the rules of the house imbues the first half of the film with some comic moments, but these are eventually supplanted when the more selfish residents make repeat transgressions; the second half contains serious, darker passages, with the break-up of one couple and a tragic incident ensuring The Commune features plenty of emotional drama.’

47. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: ‘The plot is neither here nor there. What’s more important is that the performances (and lyrics) will keep most audiences chuckling away throughout. Popstar manages to effectively saritise modern American pop music and everyone associated with it – artists, managers, crew, fans, hangers-on – without ever being nasty or overly-caustic about anyone in particular. The targets are obvious, and the delivery is often right on the nose, but the hit rate is good and the regular, absurd flights of fancy work really well.’

46. The Club: ‘Larraín – who relies heavily on the production design of his films – opts for a washed-out colour palette, and the gloomy look suits the downbeat nature of The Club. It’s a gripping, well-written and superbly-acted drama; this is a filmmaker who appears to be going from strength to strength, and I hope that continues whatever country he makes his work in.’

greenroom_a24-0-045. Green Room: ‘It’s fairly frenetic, with the odd spot of gruesome violence, and it’s as thrilling as it is tense. Green Room’s also a lot of fun as a result, and although it’s not quite in the same class as Saulnier’s previous film, I enjoyed it.’

44. Nocturnal Animals: ‘Despite all of the effort made the transitions between pulpy thriller and psychological drama are a little too jittery, and whenever the action shifts from Shannon and Gyllenhaal to the subtler, Susan-led drama the film seems to lose some of its forward momentum… Adams is perfectly suited… the actress slowly reveals her character’s inner torment and sadness with real aplomb.’

43. Anomalisa: ‘The flights of fancy and strange occurrences are Kaufman’s invitations to try and figure out exactly what he is getting at, though he remains equally adept with the more straightforward, crowdpleasing stuff, incorporating humour that’s actually funny and penning convincing relationships, too. He’s still one of the most intriguing writers working today.’

42. Journey To The Shore: ‘It is a ghost tale, but it shares more common ground with the quiet, character-focused dramas of fellow successful exports Kawase and Koreeda than it does with your typical scary movie… If you like the strand of slow, intimate Japanese cinema that clearly has its roots in the work of Ozu and Mizoguchi then you’ll probably enjoy this.’

41. When Marnie Was There:When Marnie Was There is a quiet, measured treat from start to finish. It’s a Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli – probably not its last, as the studio’s use of the term ‘hiatus’ suggests future projects will be developed – that explores loneliness, unhappiness, deep-rooted family issues and a sense of belonging. Marnie addresses these themes in a way that is considered, intelligent and not in the least bit patronising towards children. It looks as good as you’d expect, and it’s a lovely way for Ghibli to temporarily sign-off.’

youth2015.jpg40. Youth: ‘There are problems – the way in which Sorrentino has the Miss World character intellectually besting Dano’s actor, for example, which is a transparent attempt to compensate for the way she is shot/subjected to the male gaze during the rest of the film, and the Paloma Faith bit is just silly – but overall it’s an interesting, moving and quirky piece that both challenges and accepts different widely-held ideas about aging and creativity.’

39. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: ‘While there are elements of this Star Wars standalone movie that I absolutely adored, there are also other bits that I disliked as much as anything that appeared in George Lucas’s much-maligned CGI-heavy prequels. Overall I think it’s a good job by Gareth Edwards (and Tony Gilroy, assuming the reports of his heavy involvement in reshoots are accurate) and a pretty impressive action film, which generally forges links successfully with the films that sit before it and after it in the Star Wars timeline.’

38. Under The Shadow:Under The Shadow is one of those horror films where – like Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-set movies – the real-life threat is greater than the supernatural menace. The djinn is scary, sure, and Anvari has a talent for spooking the audience, but is it as frightening a concept as a genuine unexploded missile hanging delicately over the lounge? Is it as scary as the armed soldiers or the hardline cleric Shideh encounters as she flees the apartment in the wake of one terrifying episode? The film straddles these twin threats – one very real, one possibly real – with ease and subtlety, and its writer-director is certainly worth watching over the coming years; this is a confidently-made debut, for sure.’

37. Kubo And The Two Strings: ‘This is a beautiful stop-motion film by Laika (American-made, but set in Japan), with a lovely story and fine voice acting, particularly from Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, playing a kick-ass monkey and a Samurai warrior-beetle respectively. It’s imaginative, funny, moving and occasionally quite dark.’

36. Dheepan: ‘For the most part Dheepan is an impressive piece of work, with fine performances from the three Sri Lankan cast members. Eponine Momenceau’s photography mixes wide shots of the banlieues with handheld cameras, used within the corridors, rooms and stairwells, while she has an impressive, deliberately rough-looking style of framing that I quite like, occasionally using foreground objects and walls to partly obscure the faces of the characters. Nicolas Jaar’s score, meanwhile, is atmospheric, and it changes to complement the shifts in Audiard’s material successfully. Pretty good, even if it doesn’t quite match the heights of the director’s best work.’

chronic-05.jpg35. Chronic: ‘A stripped-back drama about a palliative care nurse (Tim Roth in his best performance in some years) whose dedication to his patients perhaps masks some kind of obsessive/stalkerish tendency, or is perhaps reflective of an addiction to grief or death, or it may even be a source of sexual pleasure; it’s not initially clear, but director Michel Franco gives us subtle clues in several well-constructed scenes that show Roth’s character at work – gradually shutting out his patients’ families – or awkwardly dealing with people during his own down-time.’

34. Truman: ‘I really enjoyed this well-scripted Spanish drama, in which Ricardo Darín’s 50-something actor – who has terminal cancer and has decided to refuse further treatment – straightens out his relationships, searches for a new home for his dog and sorts out other affairs, all with the help of his best friend (Javier Cámara), who has flown from Canada to Madrid to see his dying best friend for the last time.’

33. Midnight Special: ‘It’s very much a character-driven film, as opposed to a sci-fi feature that’s propelled by attention-grabbing visual effects and action, and its notable that Nichols ends with a series of brief epilogues that feature most of the major players and little else; these, in keeping with the rest of the film, manage to shed light on some of the inherent mysteries, but they also feed the viewer some new questions that will presumably remain unanswered.’

32. Queen Of Earth: ‘The scenario serves as a solid and intriguing foundation, on which Perry builds a tightly-wound, Persona-esque psychological drama, hinting at fluid identities, schizophrenia, breakdowns and mirrored reality (not least via the constant and slightly unnerving shots of watery reflections). Strangeness seeps into the film as it progresses and the soundtrack constantly forewarns of trouble to come, but the true nature of the movie isn’t fully revealed until the final scene (and indeed the haunting, creepy final shot, when Perry freezes the action on the face of one of the characters). Grainy, slightly de-saturated film stock helps to cement the links to Bergman’s most productive period, and there’s some lovely photography of the location, mainly in terms of the exterior shots. I much prefer it to the director’s previous film, and Moss continues to impress; this is the best cinematic performance I’ve seen by her yet, and the best she has been since her long-running turn as Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.’

31. I, Daniel Blake: ‘Ultimately the film is a force for good, despite the overall bleakness and sadness that envelops it, particularly during the final stages. This is a stirring, moving work of protest that – in its own quiet, dignified way – angrily rejects the notion of benefits claimants being scroungers and layabouts and cheats that has long been peddled by governments and right-wing newspapers in the UK, and I’m all for it. Just as importantly, I, Daniel Blake highlights the fact that a welfare and benefits system originally designed with the intention of helping people who need help (many of whom, like Daniel, have paid into it for years while working) has become impenetrable for some by deliberate and cruel design.’

notesonblindness.jpg30. Notes On Blindness: ‘Developed from an Emmy award-winning short film of the same name, Notes On Blindness is a moving account of theologian and professor John Hull’s struggles and thoughts during the 1980’s, as he adapted to / came to terms with his blindness. It uses original audio recordings from an archive made by Hull and his family at the time, which subsequently served as a basis for the academic’s acclaimed books on blindness, and these aural snippets are combined with visual reconstructions that feature actors lip-syncing the dialogue. In that sense it’s one of those pieces that could be described as a work of fiction (albeit one that’s heavily based on fact) and as a documentary, no doubt annoying anyone who thinks that a film should only ever be one or t’other. But regardless of that, it’s beautifully shot, with darkness, shallow depth-of-field and soft focus used to enhance our empathy with Hull’s visual disconnection from the world, and the loss of clarity he experiences with regard to his memories.’

29. The Witch: ‘Despite the supernatural presence in the woods, The Witch is at its most engrossing when it plays with the idea of parents abandoning – or no longer protecting – their children, and the scenes in which family members turn on one another and accusations fly linger in the memory longer than the occultish chills. For a first-timer working with a tiny budget Eggers has crafted a remarkably assured film; it’s possible to read it as a tale about environmental revenge, but regardless of interpretation it convinces as a straight period drama, as well as a scary movie.’

28. Our Little Sister: ‘Koreeda’s latest is well-acted, and beautifully-shot at times, but the real draw of Our Little Sister is how honest and free-of-cynicism it is, choosing not to dazzle you with wit or incident but instead concentrating on realistic characters adapting to a realisitc but life-changing scenario. Quiet, yes, but extremely effective and a measured take on loss and readjustment in the wake of a death.’

27. Everybody Wants Some!!: ‘Like Dazed And Confused it’s the little details that help to creat a sense of time and place: the lingering, lusty shots of cars, the sighting of a Reagan/Bush banner, the brief discussions about or references to bands of the era, the vinyl, and the clothes and physical features of the characters, which make some of them look as though they’ve just stepped off an early-80s gay porn shoot. In fact there’s an in-the-closet undercurrent throughout the film, manifest through the way some of the characters initiate awkward physical contact, and also the fact that one or two are clearly trying to cover-up their sexuality by over-emphasising their (fabricated) experiences with women.’

26. Little Men: ‘Both of the younger actors give terrific performances, the highlight undoubtedly being Barbieri’s scene in an acting class, during which he is forced to rapidly trade lines with the teacher, though it’s Taplitz who really shines during the film’s final and most poignant moments, which seem to offer a resigned shrug about class divides in modern New York. Little Men has one of the strongest ensemble pieces I’ve seen this year; Sachs is clearly able to coax consistent, unshowy but solidly-impressive work out of his actors, and he continues to prove himself as a talented purveyor of low-key, likeable, modern New York stories.’

room3-xlarge.jpg25. Room: ‘Larson is utterly convincing while she is held captive and conveys Joy’s emotional turmoil with great skill. I was completely convinced by her acting and I’m pleased to see her hit a career high; it’s exciting to ponder where she will go from here. The same can be said for Tremblay, who is a real find, and a precocious talent; it’s harder for child actors to sustain their careers and many fail to equal their early peaks, but I hope he succeeds. Credit must also go to Abrahamson for his direction of the pair, which is sound; the interviews in which he has discussed his methods (particularly regarding his direction of Tremblay) show plenty of planning and care on his part, and have been illuminating. Thanks largely to the acting and writing I felt emotionally-drained by the end, which is as it should be when you watch a story about such grim material, but Room is an uplifting experience nonetheless.’

24. Your Name: ‘A terrific anime that drew me in much more than I was expecting it to; in fact, unlike many other animated films, I find myself still thinking about it a couple of days later. It’s witty, thoughtful, moving and subtle in its consideration of (or oblique references to) man-made and natural disasters that Japan has suffered, namely the devastation of Fukushima and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.’

23. Cemetery Of Splendor: ‘It’s quiet, slow-paced and duly filled with long takes, yet suddenly out of nowhere Apichatpong finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, be it the hypnotically-whirring fans and water wheels that repeatedly appear or the brightly-lit montage of street scenes that match the changing colours of the therapeutic light sticks used on the hospital ward. Cemetery Of Splendor is a relaxing watch, and it reminds me of that brief, strange state we sometimes experience when we’re no longer dreaming but haven’t quite woken up, and the difference between what is real/what is not real is not immediately obvious.’

22. Things To Come: ‘Huppert, who is on-screen for the vast majority of the running time, is excellent. The camera stays with Nathalie throughout, tracking her as she walks along the street or as she moves through buildings, only ever letting her wander off within her own apartment at the very end, when a kind of domestic peace washes over the film. (There is a certain energy to the camerawork one might not expect, given the subject matter and slow pace.) And Hansen-Løve – who won the Silver Bear for directing at this year’s Berlin Film Festival – has once again crafted a story with a fascinating central character and a world – intellectual circles in Paris and its environs – that seems entirely believable and fully understood. Confident, accomplished filmmaking.

21. The Childhood Of A Leader:Corbet’s debut as a director, The Childhood Of A Leader, is a cold, dark and distant film, with cameras that constantly back away apologetically from the action, or that seem to linger without emotion or fascination on the characters at the end of some scenes (in order to emphasise the importance of what is happening, however unpalatable it may be). The film’s superb, atmospheric soundtrack, by Scott Walker, has jarring strings and occasional, strange electronic outbursts, which means that it too seems to fit with the dissonance between the characters on screen, of which few (if any) are sympathetic. It’s a film with a distinct look and feel that one would have every right not to expect from such a young director.

hellorhighwaterrobbery-020. Hell Or High Water: ‘This is an entertaining crime film, set largely in West Texas, an area notable for its wide, open plains, long, straight roads and dusty small towns. You’ve seen these spaces (and the men and women on the right and wrong sides of the law who inhabit them) many times before – Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men, Lone Star, etc. – but if you’re prepared to look closely you’ll see that it looks different today, in 2016; there opening shot reveals graffiti on a walls that has been scrawled by a disenfranchised Army veteran, and the roadside billboards seen throughout are reflective of America’s wider economic woes. And, slowly but surely, this astute and well-made film directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) gradually reveals itself to be about the economy, and the very land that we see throughout, or rather the value of land and the property that has been built upon it.’

19. Sully: ‘The actual landing on the river – which, as we know, all passengers and crew survived – is shown a couple of times (with the director subtly shifting the perspective), and it’s a testament to Eastwood’s skill that it makes for gripping, big-screen drama each time, despite the fact the outcome is well known (and I think plenty of kudos is due to editor Blu Murray for helping to make these sequences so thrilling). This being Clint, he (rightly) celebrates the quick response by those working in the emergency services and others in New York that day, and then maddeningly sets up the government’s NTSB investigation panel as villains, which hasn’t gone down too well with anyone concerned with factual accuracy (or indeed the real-life investigators themselves). Overall, though, it’s a very solid piece and – as with last year’s Bridge Of Spies – sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy a couple of old hands drawing on every bit of their experience and making it all look so damn easy.’

18. After Love:I’ve seen three films starring Bérénice Bejo this year, and she has delivered two very impressive performances (in this, and in Brady Corbet’s moody The Childhood Of A Leader). Here she plays Marie, whose 15-year-old marriage to Boris (Cédric Kahn) has broken down, with a divorce settlement imminent; the only stumbling block, though, is how the proceeds of the sale of their house will be divided (and not, for example, who gets custody of their two young girls). The film details their fractious relationship while they continue to live together under the same roof, with sympathies regularly shifting from one person to another (both are shown to be unreasonable and arguably vindictive at different points), and it’s a well-performed, excellently-scripted French drama that intelligently addresses marital break-up and the effect it has on everyone.

17. Wiener-Dog: ‘I really liked it, but you have to buy into Solondz’s humour and the way that works in tandem with his jaundiced, poisonous worldview, or it’ll be a very long hour-and-a-half. Wiener-Dog is wilfully difficult and self-indulgent, and its downbeat, defeatist nature makes it the absolute antithesis of this current (or any) anodyne blockbuster season, but it’s great fun if you can get on board.’

16. Rams: ‘Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography is naturally informed by the landscape’s shades of green, brown and blue, which gives way to the white of snow and the black of volcanic rock as winter takes hold; the Icelandic countryside filmed is as spectacular as it is bleak. Natural light is relied upon for the scenes set indoors, and there’s something enjoyable about watching the men rattle around in their homes, which are cluttered with all manner of useful farming tools and objects. With sure-handed direction, a suitably morose soundtrack by Atli Örvarsson, a well-written screenplay and some fine acting, particularly by Sigurjónsson, who has the bigger role, Rams is well worth your time.’

hail-caesar-channing-tatum.jpg15. Hail, Caesar!: ‘There’s more to Hail, Caesar! than warm-hearted nostalgia: there are as many broad swipes at religion and capitalism as there are jokey barbs at the expense of the movie business and its practices, and the character of Mannix is more than a mere go-between – his more dubious qualities have even alerted the defence contractor Lockheed Martin. However the truth is your enjoyment will likely derive more from the charming way in which the Coens celebrate the business of show, even though they also draw back the curtain on studio productions and reveal a range of problems occurring across the lot. But any doubts you may have as to how the Coens feel about Hollywood are quashed by the glimpses of one film – the Hobie Doyle-starring Lazy Ol’ Moon – premiering to a rapturous response.’

14. Arrival: For anyone still reading, I’m not going to quote a para from my review of this one, as it seems fairly lukewarm now as I read it back (though I did praise the score, cinematography, performances and the general bigness of it all – Villeneuve is a director whose films are as ‘must-see’ on the big screen as anyone else I can think of working today). Anyway, Arrival has continued to grow in my estimation since I watched it, and while it hasn’t quite cracked the top ten, it’s one of my favourite blockbusters of the year.

13. Love & Friendship: ‘Stillman’s film doesn’t sag at any point, the focus very much remaining on smart women who have the measure of their husbands, partners or male relatives; Lady Susan herself is a fantastic character, constantly deflecting any criticism and twisting the words and deeds of others to her own benefit, and if Beckinsale has delivered a better performance then I haven’t seen it. There are some nice formal touches, too: characters and residences are introduced by way of brief pen pictures, while the text of some letters appears on screen as characters read aloud, which strengthens one or two jokes that might otherwise be missed. Very good, and I say that as someone who often avoids period drama like the plague.’

12. Suburra: ‘On paper Stefan Sollima’s Suburra doesn’t really offer anything new: it’s a sprawling epic about gangsters and organised crime in Italy, and it details the way in which the influence of different crime families and gangs spreads all the way up to the highest echelons of society, noting that there is a point where the movers and shakers of the underworld interact with the movers and shakers of the business world (or, as is the case here, high-ranking politicians and those holding the purse strings in the Vatican). Yet this is a film that is executed with such grace and style it’s difficult to withhold admiration for its pizzazz, or to resist its pulpy, neon-heavy charms. The two-hour running time fizzes by thanks to a strong, multi-threaded story incorporating a range of well-drawn characters, there’s a relentlessness in the way that it moves toward a seemingly-unavoidable crescendo, and it’s all helped along by sporadic action scenes that are as tense as anything I’ve seen this year.’

11. Chevalier: ‘Set almost exclusively onboard a luxury yacht, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s droll dramedy examines masculinity and the competitive male nature in a brilliantly acerbic fashion, and it benefits a lot from one of the year’s most well-observed screenplays. The script is terrific, the cast is excellent and I urge you to check this one out: it’s one of the highlights of 2016.’

the-revenant-bear-leo-dicaprio.jpg10. The Revenant: ‘Iñárritu is a fine establisher of mood and a director who is skilled at employing a tonal consistency. It’s problematic for some that his films are so serious and relentlessly downbeat, but not for me, and I like this almost as much as I like earlier works such as Amores Perros and Biutiful. For a number of reasons watching DiCaprio slowly make his way across the terrain is quite engrossing, and thanks to Lubezki’s photography – sorry, but it bears repeating, there are some truly magnificent shots here – it remains visually stimulating throughout. I’m less enamoured by the film’s mystical bells and whistles, but that does at least raise some intriguing questions about the physical state of the main character, particularly at the end.’

9. Evolution: ‘The second film by Lucile Hadžihalilović is an odd blend of different genres, successfully serving as minimalist sci-fi, ethereal seaside folk tale and unsettling body horror (though it’s worth stressing at this early stage that Evolution beguiles and intrigues much more than it repulses)… What a fine film this is: weird, but not self-consciously so, lyrical, beautiful, unsettling and – eventually – as haunting as Zacarías M. de la Riva’s score. It offers interesting riffs on rights of passage, motherhood and bonding.’

8. The Neon Demon: ‘Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is an arch critique of the fashion industry – a target that you might well describe as low-hanging fruit – as well as being a brooding post-modern fairy tale that eventually descends into bad-trip-blood-curdling horror. It’s also a significant improvement on the messy pomposity of his previous film Only God Forgives, a work that looked great but struggled with its own sense of self-importance for an hour before eventually disappearing up its own backside… Refn benefits once again from an imaginative, stirring electro score by Cliff Ramirez, and the sound design and editing is excellent throughout. At times it’s pulpy, at times it’s camp, at times it’s exploitative, at times Refn’s will to shock the audience and break taboos just seems faintly ludicrous, and it constantly lures you into assuming there’s a lot of style and very little substance, but in actual fact The Neon Demon has been put together with considerable skill, and to my surprise it’s one of the more enjoyable and memorable films that I’ve seen recently.’

7. Julieta: ‘Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play older and younger versions of the title character respectively, and part of the joy of the film is seeing how their two performances blend together so seamlessly; the back-and-forth tranisitions between the character at different stages of her life are also helped no end by the editor José Salcedo, the cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu and some creative touches that I must assume came from the director himself. As an older woman Madridista Julieta reflects on a non-existent relationship with daughter Antía, and through flashbacks we see how this has come to pass. The screenplay is first-rate, I was hooked throughout and the main performances are excellent; it’s also nice to see Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma on form, here going completely against her real-life public image by playing an unglamorous cleaner.’

6. A Bigger Splash: ‘Watching the plot unfold is a delight… Guadagnino smartly cajoles the story along in tandem with changes to the symbolic, portentous weather: the sirocco arrives from north Africa just after Harry arrives on the island; rain is used at the end to cleanse the dusty land and buildings, while the draining of the pool also suggests a fresh start. The director focuses on other sources of water, too, foreshadowing the big splash of the title and the opening of emotional floodgates.’

mustang-02.jpg5. Mustang: ‘It’s beautifully shot by David Chizallet and Ersin Gok, with the stiflingly-hot, early summer shoot and setting ensuring that blinding sunlight creeps into the frame repeatedly; you can feel the stickiness of the heat. With Lale in particular the film has a focus, a fearless girl whose acts of rebellion grow in tandem with her own determination to be independent and free. I hope the character and the film more generally inspire young women who are subjected to similar treatment, if of course they’re lucky enough to be able to see Mustang or are able to contribute to change within their own society. Ergüven’s film is a damning indictment of a culture in which young women are bartered and exchanged like cattle, but it’s also a force for good, and confidently-made.’

4. Spotlight: ‘McCarthy’s screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, has been celebrated for its damning indictment of a number of complicit parties: religious, political, scholastic, legal and other institutions are all caught up in the cover-up. Even the Boston Globe does not escape criticism, despite the film being a celebration of its work, though naturally the focus is largely on the disgraceful actions of the Catholic Church at the time. Its presence is felt throughout the city: churches loom in the background of a number of shots, standing next to houses in working class districts or beside other temples of wealth slap bang in the middle of the business district. At one point a victim of abuse points out the proximity of a church to a nearby children’s playground. McCarthy gradually reveals the risk involved in taking on the Church, detailing the way it bought a certain degree of high-level protection in Boston, and relying on our own knowledge that within that city above all others in the USA it had the money and the influence to make things hard for the local newspaper and its reporting team; as such the film serves to remind us just how important it is that our news sources remain impartial and stay strong in the face of severe pressure from powerful insitutions. These real-life reporters were fearless, though the people who came forward that were subjected to abuse are obviously the truly courageous parties to this story. One of the reasons I think Spotlight is a very good film – arguably a great film, if I’m to allow myself a moment of hyperbole – is that it sensitively approaches the suffering of these victims while also doing justice to those who pieced together and broke the story. It doesn’t constantly demand your attention or attempt to wow you, unlike several other recent high-profile releases, but Spotlight is a gripping and well-acted procedural that will stand the test of time.’

3. Embrace Of The Serpent: ‘Guerra develops many interesting themes – the effects of colonialism, the western desire to ‘teach’ and ‘educate’ without necessarily being open to teachers and educators themselves, the process of aging and reflecting on life that has been lived, the concept of knowledge and how it is affected by memory, the differences between cultures that write things down and those that pass on information and stories verbally – but the real skill is in the way that he weaves them all together (this within a film that – amongst other things – is often very tense and gripping). It’s filmed in black-and-white, although a psychedelic, colourful end sequence appears which is in-step with the mythology presented during the film (Karamakate believes his ancestors were carried to Earth by a giant anaconda, and that in some ways taking the yakruna plant allows one to return to ‘the embrace of the serpent’). The cinematography – by David Gallego – is magnificent, and I haven’t yet seen a film that looks better than this one in 2016. In short it’s a fascinating, weighty and beautifully-rendered triumph.’

2. Son Of Saul: ‘Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély uses a 40mm lens throughout, and his camera is always close to Röhrig, with a shallow depth-of-field often employed; the titular character remains in focus, but anything more than a foot or so away from him is usually blurry, meaning that the viewer is constantly striving to make out details or figures in the background. As well as obfuscating events, the proximity of camera to actor works for another reason: most of the conversations between Saul and other prisoners are hushed, as a necessity, so to be tight in as they whisper and conspire makes perfect sense. It also increases the intensity of the film, though I’m not sure that any serious drama dealing with such subject matter requires such an increase. Nemes chose to present the film in the Academy ratio, too, a choice that increases the paucity of visual information and context, given that Saul’s face or upper body takes up so much of the screen space. All told it’s a remarkable piece of work, especially for a debut feature, and it features one of the best – if not the best – performances you’ll see all year. Essential viewing.’

880_movie_banner_11. American Honey: ‘There’s much to recommend the film, not least the two impressive central performances by Lane and LaBeouf, who overacts on a couple of occasions but ultimately turns in his best work since 2006’s A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. I’m eager to see Lane again, and will watch out for her during the next year or two; this is a performance of great strength, from an actor exhibiting the kind of judgment you wouldn’t usually expect from a debutant. Yet it’s the work overall that is most worth celebrating: American Honey has a strong, well-realised mood and tone, and as a character study it feels thorough, and genuine. As road movies go it’s modern, and romantic, without being overly-romantic. As a love story it’s intriguing enough. It’s also a visually and sonically stimulating throughout. Andrea Arnold has even managed to surpass her earlier work with this one.’

So, there you have it… American Honey is my favourite film of 2016. It seems churlish after listing a top 50 to carry on mentioning films, but what the hell: I also enjoyed the following for various reasons… The Unknown Girl, Southside With You, Chi-Raq, Train To Busan, Goodnight Mommy, The Clan, Doctor Strange, The End Of The Tour, Louder Than Bombs, Cafe Society, Valley Of Love, Sweet Bean, Summertime, Born To Be Blue, Zootopia, Maggie’s Plan, Adult Life Skills, Remainder, Sing Street, The Brand New Testament, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Victoria, Disorder, 10 Cloverfield Lane, High-Rise, Bone Tomahawk, The Assassin, The Big Short, Creed and The Hateful Eight. Perhaps best to think of those as joint 51st.

Documentaries, Top 10

authorjtleroy5-1600x900-c-default.jpg10. Author: The JT LeRoy Story: ‘This is a fascinating story of an infamous literary ‘hoax’: acclaimed author and late-90s literary sensation Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy supposedly had an upbringing that involved prostitution and vagrancy, which informed several short stories and novels, but he was in fact the brainchild of a writer named Laura Albert, whose own upbringing differed to that of JT’s; on top of this, Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop appeared in public as JT for several years, becoming a bit of a darling within artistic circles – (s)he received the famous ‘Bono Talk’ at one point – and entering into brief relationships with the likes of Michael Pitt and Asia Argento, who would go on to make a film based on one of LeRoy’s books.’

9. Life, Animated: ‘A heartwarming and fascinating documentary about Owen Suskind, who, as a child, struggled to communicate verbally and non-verbally with his parents as a result of his autism; those parents eventually managed a breakthrough with the help of Disney’s extensive back catalogue of films, using Owen’s love for and encyclopaedic knowledge of the likes of The Lion King and The Little Mermaid – as well as several older classics – to encourage him to speak and make more eye contact. Owen’s early years are represented here through home video footage and simple but effective animations, while the modern footage follows him as he seeks to establish himself independently in a new condo…. I wiped away the occasional tear… it’s clear that this is a beautiful, life-affirming gem.’

8. The Pearl Button: ‘Guzmán’s film looks beyond the relatively recent brutality of the Pinochet years, addressing the treatment and decline of Chile’s indigenous nomadic, seafaring peoples as well as ruminating on the existence of water on other planets. There are some arresting images along the way, such as a Chilean artist unfurling a giant, cardboard scale model of the country in a warehouse studio (that Guzmán subsequently films from above), a string of fascinating old photographs that were made for an ethnographic survey, and a number of abstract shots of a glacier that are accompanied by the sounds of water flowing and ice moving. The director’s approach is quite loose, and there’s a hint of free association at times, while he relies on collaborating academics and poets to help tie it all together. Near the end the object referenced by the film’s title becomes a key symbol that allows the filmmaker to connect the indigenous peoples’ loss of freedom with the incarceration and murder of those who opposed Pinochet’s government. Guzmán’s continuing struggle to understand human cruelty in Chile is both worthy and moving.’

7. Weiner: ‘The documentary offers some insight into the way in which campaign staff struggle to contain stories or manage scandals, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage included, and it also serves as an effective critique of the media, with its appetite for salacious stories ensuring that scandals like this are seized upon and, it must be said, completely blown out of proportion. I’m not intending to absolve Weiner of his actions, and it’s no surprise that his marriage has failed as a result, but there are a lot of politicians in the US and elsewhere who have done terrible things, resulting in the losses of thousands of innocent lives, and many of them get a comparitively easy ride.’

6. Speed Sisters: ‘This fascinating documentary by Amber Fares follows the ups and downs of an all-female Palestinian car racing team over two seasons of a racing championship… It’s as interesting to see the women with their families, and to see them going about their daily lives in Palestine, as it is to see them at the race meetings, and the film offers an intriguing inside view of the region, with lots of footage illustrating the constant tension and the sporadic violent clashes that can occur. It is made clear that driving offers these trailblazing women a release, of sorts, a temporary escape from the world around them, and there are many shots of them smiling while they drive, their infectious grins captured cameras fixed in the interiors of their cars. The documentary is positive and uplifting.’

hypernormalisation_-_still_-_h_-_2016.jpg5. HyperNormalisation: ‘The various strands often come together satisfactorily, and yet the film feels loose and chock full of debatable points and train-of-thought passages all the same. Certain statements can be argued against or backed up with facts, even though Curtis’s film is so breathless he rarely stops to do so, while others will (probably) not stand up to any kind of rigorous analysis, though you’d be hard-pressed not to come away from HyperNormalisation with a slightly different perspective, or a greater knowledge of global affairs, or – at the very least – some food for thought.’

4. I Am Belfast: ‘Mark Cousins turns his creativity, energy, intelligence and boundless enthusiasm to Belfast, the city that he was born and raised in. A documentary with fictional elements, it’s as much a lesson in the art of seeing and listening as it is a potted history of the place or a study of its people; Cousins shows the beauty and drama in ‘ordinary’ street scenes and occurrences, even managing to wring tension out of a scene in which a lady accidentally leaves her shopping at a bus stop. He also interviews a couple of locals and visits a few places that, for him, seem to sum up the city in some way or other. Belfast is presented as a feminine entity, with Helena Bereen playing a (wo)manifestation of the capital, which Cousins explains away eruditely in the DVD extras.’

3. Behemoth: ‘This Chinese documentary/art film by Zhao Liang addresses the large-scale environmental destruction and landscape alteration that is currently taking place in Inner Mongolia, showing the work carried out at huge mines and smelting plants as well as the wide-ranging costs and effects that heavy industry is having on the area and its people. It’s a quiet, slow film – Zhao lets his striking images do the talking, for the most part – and it focuses on several different conneccted issues: first the changing of the landscape through explosions and other mining activities; second the displacement of farmers and others who have relied on the land for their livelihoods for many years; third the conditions that the workers in these giant mines must endure on a daily basis; and fourth the physical toll the work takes on them, with many young men and women eventually succumbing to respiratory illnesses and worse. The combination of stylish photography with the industrial subject matter recalls Jennifer Baichwal’s collaborative film with photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, though there is greater empathy with workers here and more of an emphasis on social issues.’

2. 13th: ‘A potent, timely documentary by Ava DuVernay that addresses the current state of the penal/criminal justice systems in the US, arguing that both of these over time have been manipulated by political powers and others in order to facilitate the large-scale incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. As well as the (mostly) intelligent and illuminating interviews with talking heads, there’s a sense of urgency created from the way that certain phrases appear on screen in block capital letters, and a rousing use of key hip-hop tracks from the past 30 or so years. The style doesn’t detract from the substance, though.’

fuocoammare_fire_at_sea_still.jpg1. Fire At Sea: ‘This contemplative documentary by Gianfranco Rosi – a Golden Bear winner at the recent Berlin Film Festival – examines the current European migrant crisis, paying particular attention to the way that it impacts (or doesn’t impact) on the small community on Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea that is nearer to the north African coastline than it is to its own country’s mainland… In terms of the content, there are no answers presented here to the problem, and those looking to hear the opinions of Italian residents on the matter will probably be disappointed. You’ll have to look elsewhere for straight-to-camera accounts from the people who have made the journey by boat, too, but Rosi’s documentary doesn’t feel at all incomplete or lacking; it’s quite insightful about life in this remote community, which serves as an outpost of a kind of lost, old Europe, and it examines the difficult work undertaken by some Lampedusans while never neglecting to acknowledge the suffering of many of the migrants.’

This year I’m going to take part in the ‘Blind Spot’ craze that’s sweeping all of our nations popular with several bloggers that I follow. That means I’m committing to watching the following twelve films at some point during 2016 as I’ve never actually seen them, and would like to, and probably ought to if I’m going to continue pretending to be a movie critic. The twelve I’ve chosen are:

January: When Harry Met Sally
February: Klute
March: Gone With The Wind
April: Shane
May: The Princess Bride
June: À Bout De Souffle (Breathless)
July: Dead Man
August: Saturday Night Fever
September: La Battaglia Di Algeri (The Battle Of Algiers)
October: City Lights
November: The Piano
December: Kes

(I dare say I’ll be watching other films this year on top of these that could be described as ‘blind spots’, too.)

23 Comments

Happy New Year and here’s to 2016; let’s hope it’s another good one for film fans. Before I list my favourite films of 2015 I just want to write a general ‘thank you’ to anyone who has regularly (or irregularly) stopped by this blog during the past twelve months. Thanks very much for taking the time to read, it’s always appreciated, and I’ve enjoyed chatting to people via the comments. I’ve maybe overdone it at times in terms of the number of films I’ve been writing about, and the quality has occasionally suffered as a result, for which I apologise; every time I look at an old post I spot a badly-made point or a spelling error or something that I’d have picked up had I proofread properly!

Anyway, the list below is a long one, but I saw a lot of films this year that I enjoyed, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to put up with such excess. Even now I’m looking at it and thinking ‘how can I not have got Everest or Me And Earl And The Dying Girl or Les Combattants on there?’ Also I’m fully aware that it’s pointless to suggest that ‘X’ is better than ‘Y’, particularly given that my own viewing habits are quite diverse, but I still like trying to figure out whether I liked Taxi Tehran more than Mad Max: Fury Road anyway. (If you’re wondering where the latter is…I’m afraid I just didn’t like it as much as everyone else seemed to.) Is there much difference between a film on this list that’s sitting at number 40 and a film at number 10? Well…not really…I’d recommend all of the movies listed below for different reasons.

My only criterion for inclusion in the list is that the film was on general release in UK cinemas during 2015, which means that some entries considered as ‘2014’ movies in other territories, such as Whiplash, Birdman and Foxcatcher, are included, while some films that have appeared in critics’ lists for 2015 are not, as they aren’t necessarily out here on general release until 2016. So, that means the list doesn’t include films many North American critics have rated highly, such as Tarantino’s latest, the new installment in the Rocky franchise or even festival-wowing fayre like Room, Spotlight and The Assassin. (Hey, I may actually dislike some of those anyway.)

The key (and obvious) thing here is that these are my ‘favourite’ films out of the ones I’ve seen; although I’ve been to the cinema a lot I think it’s almost impossible to get round to everything you want to see, unless you’re a professional critic. So there are plenty of 2015 releases that I’m still keen to check out, such as Dear White People, The Salvation, Theeb, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, Son Of Saul, Jauja, Song Of The Sea, Horse Money, The Dance Of Reality, The New Girlfriend and The Wolfpack, to name a few, but unfortunately the old adage about time waiting for no man is applicable once again.

Oh, and I’ve kept a separate list of documentaries, which I probably shouldn’t have done; you can find a top ten at the bottom of the post.

Feature Films, Top 50

mistress america

Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America

50. Mistress America: ‘…maybe (maybe) it betrays a certain smug, east coast loftiness from the newly-crowned King and Queen of Generation Flat White, but I can certainly forgive them while they’re making films about New York millennials as witty and breezy as this one.’

49. Mississippi Grind: ‘This road movie about two gambling addicts one young, suave and incapable of settling down, the other a degenerate with racked-up debts whose wife has long since bailed with their daughter in tow feels at times like a blast from the past, a 70’s-style character study that flows south along the titular river before eventually climaxing in New Orleans with the kind of win-or-bust ending that has been done many, many times before see The Hustler, Rounders, California Split, etc.’

48. While We’re Young: ‘It ends with a tart full stop and this talented writer and director, who seems to be undergoing a similar kind of change himself, is embracing the wider appeal of screwball comedy but refusing to completely let go of the acerbic style of his early career.’

47. Brooklyn:In terms of Irish immigrant tales set in New York I’ll register my preference for Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical In America, starring Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine, but I can see why Brooklyn has received a lot of praise. It’s solidly well-made, competently shot by Jean-Marc Vallée‘s regular DP Yves Bélanger, charmingly old-fashioned (both in terms of its pace and its wholesomeness), and Saoirse Ronan does a terrific job in the lead role.

46. Fehér Isten (White God): ‘It’s notable that the writer-director has chosen the animal that we’re supposedly the closest to, emotionally, in order to make his point; it’s a similar decision to that made a long time ago by a certain Pierre Boulle, who based his Planet Of The Apes story around creatures that shared the closest genetic proximity to humans. Indeed the Orwellian final act here occupies similar territory to Rupert Wyatt’s recent Apes reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, though there’s only a fleeting whiff of an action spectacular unexpectedly usurping the European arthouse stylings.’

The rhythm of the street: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Sean S. Baker's Tangerine

The pulse of the street: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine

45. Tangerine: ‘Underneath all of the drama lies a simple message about friendship and loyalty, and the film’s bittersweet ending is quite moving, with one character left out in the cold and another two reconciling in a launderette (which is about the least Christmassy establishment you can imagine). Baker and fellow cinematographer Radium Cheung who capture a series of backgrounds during an end coda to remind us of the time of year  have made an impressive low-budget feature, and their busy camerawork further manages to capture the rhythm of the street.’

44. Ex Machina: ‘For the most part it’s smart, zeitgeist-surfing material that assumes its audience is intelligent, but crucially it never alienates the viewer through constant middle-brow theorising.’

43. White Bird In A Blizzard: ‘Unfortunately the final act feels misjudged, in the sense that the explanation given for (a character’s) disappearance leads to a sustained period of sensationalism that jars with the earlier parts of the film, jolting it out of its previous, ethereal state. That said, there is some pleasure to be had as we tumble through a finale of misdirection and twists, and despite all the to-ing and fro-ing between different years Araki commendably manages to retain clarity through his editing.’

42. Fidelio, L’odyssée d’Alice (Fidelio: Alice’s Journey): ‘I enjoyed the main plot regarding Alice’s love life but I found Alice’s working life as an engineer on a ship of this magnitude slightly more interesting, and the scenes of downtime spent with several colleagues (whether at sea or in port) are very good, as are the sudden bursts of action that take place within the ship’s engine room.’

41. 99 Homes: ‘Bahrani, who co-wrote with Iranian director Amir Naderi, provides a damning assessment of those who exploit the misfortune of others for their own good or who are corrupt in some way or other, while also highlighting the many moral and legal grey areas that can be found within modern property law. I hope more people see this drama, particularly as the acting is of a high standard.’

Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo) and supporters stage a protest in Ava DuVernay's Selma

Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo) and supporters stage a protest in Ava DuVernay’s Selma

40. Selma: ‘I don’t want to go on too much about the whole Oscar thing, as it’s all been said elsewhere, but how this hasn’t been identified as one of the five best performances of the year is a mystery to me.’

39. Dokhtari Dar Šab Tanhâ Be Xâne Miravad (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night): ‘Ostensibly a Jim Jarmusch-style existential vampire tale with a few spaghetti western tropes added for good measure, it’s a striking and moody film shot in (beautifully-lit) black and white, and one that is heavily reliant on its carefully-constructed style: there is much use of shallow depth of field here, with plenty of interesting images created as a result, while a dreamy, narcotic haze pervades.’

38. Phoenix: ‘The drama here is understated, while Petzold’s film remains tightly-focused throughout, with just two leads and a supporting character appearing for most of the running time. It’s reflective, intriguing and executed with restraint.’

37. Beasts Of No Nation: ‘It’s understandable that some people will be put off from watching such upsetting subject matter, but Beasts Of No Nation is worth praising for the way it successfully highlights a growing problem: it is estimated that there are more than 300,000 child soldiers forced to fight in Africa today, and the film will surely draw more attention to their plight.’

36. Bridge Of Spies: ‘There’s undoubtedly a lot to admire in Steven Spielberg’s latest film: Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies feels well-crafted, like a good bit of solid oak furniture, or a Paul Weller album. The acting is commendable, too, and in writing about the diplomacy of the era Matt Charman (whose screenplay was ‘polished’ by the Coen Brothers) seems aware that the GDR/Soviet relationship is almost as interesting as the frosty one between America and its Communist enemy.’

Liao Fan and Gwei Lun-mei share a cab in Black Coal, Thin Ice

Liao Fan and Gwei Lun-mei share a cab in Black Coal, Thin Ice

35. Bai Ri Yan Huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice): ‘The screenplay, also written by Diao, recalls the plot of Harold Becker’s late-80s thriller Sea Of Love, though it also has a flavour of Raymond Chandler about it: it’s easy to get lost as the plot takes sudden left turns, right turns and about-turns, while the characters are, generally-speaking, noir archetypes. From what I can gather the pace of Black Coal, Thin Ice, coupled with the challenge of staying on top of the plot, seems to have put some people’s noses out of joint – a sign of the times, I’m sorry to say – but make no mistake: this atmospheric piece has been made by a talented filmmaker, and is well worth seeking out.’

34. La French (The Connection): The Connection is an entertaining film, sumptuously-shot, and packed with all the exciting drug busts, hits and sporadic acts of violence you’d expect (although the moments of quiet add plenty of flesh to the bones and ensure well-drawn, believable characters). It follows a few genre conventions a little too closely, while there is some repetition that ensures it sags a little in the final act, but for the most part it’s an exhilarating, well-acted crime drama that has understandably made a lot of money in France, and should do well internationally.’ 

33. Taxi Tehran: ‘There’s a dark, threatening ending to the film, but very quickly you realise it’s merely a construct to enable Panahi to get his latest work out of the country without excessive comeback from the authorities, and perhaps a further comment on how ludicrous the situation is that he finds himself in. You’re left with nothing but admiration for the man, who continues to prodcue interesting, illuminating and subversive work while remaining ‘in limbo’, and the bravery of the director/star and everyone else involved here should be applauded.’

32. The Lobster: It feels like there was a chance for something extra special here, a kind of Being John Malkovich for the modern day, but greatness just slips out of The Lobster‘s claws. That said there’s more than enough here to warrant a viewing and there’s plenty of arch commentary on the dating merry-go-round.’

31. Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales): ‘There are occasional minor dips in quality, but I stress that they are minor: overall Wild Tales is a fun, colourful collection of thematically-linked shorts and the humour is supremely off-kilter; it may not have won awards, but its nominations in the most prestigious film competitions have been richly deserved.’

45-Years

Charlotte Rampling delivers an acting masterclass in 45 Years, and Tom Courtenay isn’t too shabby either

30. 45 Years: ‘There is a sense here that minutes and days matter just as much as years and decades, and the length of the marriage counts for less than you would expect as both parties continue to change or the dynamic of such a union continues to evolve, even after 45 years. Complementing the superb acting and direction is Lol Crawley’s cinematography, which highlights the natural beauty of Norfolk’s flat (and tellingly very un-Alpine) countryside.’

29. Appropriate Behaviour: ‘The whole ‘break up and move on’ thing may be nothing new, but this is a good example of the way an unusual perspective can breathe new life into such a story, and Akhavan is a very funny writer and performer. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of it: Appropriate Behaviour is several minutes short of an-hour-and-a-half, and I could have happily sat through way more.’

28. Foxcatcher: ‘The director establishes a bleak tone early on, sticks with it for more than two hours, and it’s difficult to keep track of the number of utterly uncomfortable on-screen conversations you’ve sat through by the end. In that sense I can see why Foxcatcher would not appeal to everyone – it is at times a little too slow, too, though not overlong – but wisely I don’t think anyone has gone into the project with dreams of packed cinemas and enthusiastic standing ovations. It’s a confident, measured work, with a trio of fine acting performances, and I especially liked its incessant, troubling moodiness.’

27. Slow West: ‘Shot in 1:66:1 in order to emphasise the characters rather than the landscape (though DP Robbie Ryan does a fine job of showing off the magnificence of New Zealand’s South Island nonetheless), Slow West is a welcome addition to the pantheon of modern westerns, its writer-director entertaining with wit and weirdness but also creating a setting that feels satisfyingly realistic, not least because of its emphasis on immigrants and sparseness.’

26. A Most Violent Year: ‘Perhaps, if anything, it lacks that something special: there’s nothing in this film that would stand up to comparison with the wit and zip of Scorsese’s finest moments, the weight of Coppola’s most gripping scenes or the set pieces of De Palma’s best work, but those are rare filmmakers who have made rare works of excellence within this field and within this particular genre. Despite commendably approaching the crime film in a way that feels fresh today this sits just below the peaks reached by those directors…’

Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez in Spanish police procedural Marshland.

Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez in Spanish police procedural Marshland.

25. La Isla Mínima (Marshland): ‘It requires concentration and the screenplay – co-written by Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos – generally avoids those revelatory ‘eureka!’ moments and implausible breakthroughs that big screen detectives tend to enjoy; little wonder then that the scenario, style and setting have led many to compare it with the slow-burning first season of True Detective: there’s a similar look and feel to this film…’

24. Love Is Strange: ‘A limited release (only 130-odd screens across the US, for example) has seemingly put paid to wider recognition, but my advice is that you don’t let this film slip by unnoticed, even if you have to watch it on the small screen: it’s a warm, rich account of two people in love, it ruminates gracefully on the cyclical nature of life, and it examines familial discord very well too. Added to that, Sachs’ attitude towards New York City is redolent of some of Woody Allen’s better moments, and his latest film is just as amusing.’

23. Inherent Vice: ‘So: those who like their plots and their actors crystal clear are obviously best advised to give it a miss, but if you’re still up for it you’ll find a flawed-but-entertainingly absurd piece that slots nicely into the director’s filmography and looks typically fantastic. It’s kinda fun to be all-at-sea with Doc and Inherent Vice is a trip; how can you resist a film containing character names like ‘Japonica Fenway’, ‘Buddy Tubeside’, ‘Riggs Warbling’ and ‘Puck Beaverton’?’

22. Mia Madre: ‘Having recently suffered a loss myself (albeit under entirely different circumstances to those seen in this film), Nanni Moretti’s latest treatise on death and grief touched a raw nerve at times; however although this is a sombre piece overall it is also one that deserves to be championed as heartfelt and honest, and it deals with illness and bereavement in an intelligent, straightforward and moving way, carefully balancing its necessary moments of sadness with sporadic and well-judged outbursts of humour.’

21. Inside Out: ‘So, to sum up, it’s a film packed with gentle and inoffensive fun, with a winning attention to detail, but most impressive is the way that Docter and co subtly wage war once again on the suppression of emotions; this is carried out in a way that doesn’t come across as patronising to younger audiences (though really I’m not in a position to say this for certain) while also giving older viewers plenty of food for thought. Lovely film.’

Clouds_of_Sils_Maria-xlarge

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart excel in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria

20. Clouds Of Sils Maria: ‘You’re probably aware by now that Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win a César Award for her performance in Clouds Of Sils Maria, the latest film by French auteur Olivier Assayas, though she is in fact the second of her country’s talents to have done so (Adrien Brody got there first ten years ago). Stewart was very good earlier this year in Still Alice too, acquitting herself well opposite one of the best actresses working today (on Oscar-winning form to boot). So for anyone following her career closely it’ll come as no surprise if I concur that yes, she does deliver her finest performance to date as Valentine, PA to Juliette Binoche’s actress Maria Enders, and that she is just as impressive as the consistently-great Parisian last seen, rather unusually, in a brief cameo at the beginning of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla – in this poetic tale of identity and temporality.’

19. Love And Mercy: ‘By concentrating on and linking together two different but key periods of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life, Bill Pohlad’s Love And Mercy sheds light on his creative talent while largely sidestepping the usual music biopic formula that sees stories moving conveniently through three distinct passages: the humble beginnings and the rise to fame, the subsequent travails (artistic, personal, artistic and personal) and finally death or some kind of redemption, depending on the star in question; that’s all present here but the focus is firmly on the management of mental health issues.’

18. Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance): ‘While I’ve enjoyed all of Iñárritu’s films prior to Birdman this is definitely a step forward, tonally-different to his earlier, darker work, and it bodes well for the future that he has found another route to critical acclaim. That said this black comedy does have a spicy, vaguely malevolent streak, and its targets are broad: the prevalence of the superhero blockbuster is the most obvious, but there are a number of voices competing here with the intention of trashing actors, filmmakers, critics, stage directors and their audiences.’

17. Trudno Byt Bogom (Hard To Be A God):Hard To Be A God is undoubtedly a magnificent achievement, a film that defies categorisation and defies comparison with other cinematic works (and I’m not just saying that because my last two reviews here have been for Trainwreck and Wet Hot American Summer). I have to admit it’s not a comfortable viewing experience, but it is one that you will remember. I’d argue it’s entirely possible to consider a film ‘great’ without it ever necessarily appearing on a list of your personal favourites, and this is great in many senses of the word: epic, admirable, extreme, long, extravagant and formidable.’

16. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl: ‘What a fine film this is. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl smartly recreates the hippy hangover San Francisco of the 1970s through its costume, decor, hazy amber filter and an aesthetic that leans heavily on the underground comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb (and, by association, her husband Robert … in addition to its own graphic novel origins). It also highlights just how plain, plodding and boring most coming-of-age stories are.’

Family bonding in Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders.

Family bonding in Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders.

15. Le Meraviglie (The Wonders): ‘The Wonders is … a beautifully-shot tale of a rural family’s struggles, and yet there’s also something indefinably ‘other’ about it that ensures it lingers in your thoughts afterwards.’

14. Mommy: ‘Dolan is a real talent, and he has coaxed some fine performances out of his actors here: all three leads produce excellent work, with much of the film’s emotive heft created by the entirely believable interactions between their characters. It’s a relentless, absorbing story, played out in a naturalistic fashion, and it’s as touching as it is uncomfortable. Dolan keeps the pace up and gradually tightens the screw, to the point where you are convinced this is all building up to something terrible and shocking: it kind of does, but the end also represents a neatly-cyclical return to the status quo. A very satisfying watch, and the original soundtrack, by Noia, is my favourite of the year by a country mile.’

13. Steve Jobs: ‘Boyle has created an extremely intriguing film, one with several unexpected visual flourishes, and the editing by Elliot Graham, who did similarly impressive work on the biography Milk, is excellent. As has been widely mentioned elsewhere the supporting actors deliver fine performances, but special mention must go to Fassbender, who appears in nearly every single scene and delivers a fascinating turn that ranks among the best I’ve seen this year.’

12. Sicario: ‘I’m not convinced that Sicario tells those of us observing from afar anything new about the conflict or its associated problems cartels are ruthless, those at the bottom of the food chain on either side suffer and the US government’s agencies pay scant regard to the laws that supposedly bind them seem to be the main and obvious messages but purely in terms of thrilling action and suspense it’s well worth seeing and the performances and cinematography are obvious highlights.’

11. It Follows: ‘Mitchell is operating at a higher, more cerebral, more artistic level than most other horror directors, but I like the fact that the clever-clever allegory doesn’t get in the way of the important business of maintaining a sense of dread or scaring the viewers. It Follows is a fatalistic psychosexual chiller that has lingered in my mind since viewing, and I highly recommend it.’

A brief moment of family harmony in Ruben Östlund's frosty Force Majeure

A brief moment of respite in Ruben Östlund’s frosty Force Majeure

10. Turist (Force Majeure): ‘It is perhaps a little too long, but that doesn’t matter so much when a story is this engrossing, and it’s unsurprising that Östlund has been compared to Michael Haneke: this film has that same sense of cool detachment often found in the Austrian’s work, while it is regularly just as uncomfortable and quietly devastating.’

9. Timbuktu:Timbuktu is a must-see, rightly lauded since it competed for the Palme D’Or in 2014, and a film that looks at the effect of intolerance and fundamentalism on both individuals and an entire community with subtlety and grace. It is one of the most relevant films of the year to date.’

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: ‘Tough, sharp, resilient and independent, Rey is the true star of this new chapter and I think it’s terrific that she has been made the early focal point of this new trilogy. I loved her scenes with Finn and BB-8, and imagine the effect it will be having on young girls all around the world will be very healthy indeed. What a treat to see Star Wars back on the big screen in such great shape; I never thought I’d see the day.’

7. Carol: ‘My own criterion for deciding whether a movie is great or not is usually nothing more complicated than weighing up all of a film’s constituent parts; does everything come together to produce a work of true artistic merit? With regard to Carol, the answer to that question is unequivocally ‘yes’.’

6. En Duva Satt På En Gren Och Funderade På Tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence): ‘In terms of visual experiences A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is as good as it gets – take my word for it, Andersson’s influence on the fine art medium format photography world should not be underestimated – and I guarantee you won’t see anything like it in cinemas all year. It’s not the kind of film I would want to watch over and over again, but the writer-director’s clear sense of style and his impeccable execution must be applauded.’

Girls on film: Céline Sciamma's delightful Girlhood.

Girls on film: Céline Sciamma’s delightful Girlhood.

5. Bande de Filles (Girlhood): ‘Girlhood‘s combination of minimalism and a sporadically-colourful style, a strong screenplay and good all-round acting performances ensures it is one of the highlights of the year to date. Most of the cast members were recruited off the street in malls and stations and so on, and acquit themselves well, adding an air of credibility and authenticity to proceedings…’

4. Whiplash: ‘It’s unfortunate that events in Andrew’s private life feel a little by-the-numbers, and perhaps your enjoyment will be greater if you go expecting to be presented with a series of questions about the notion of achievement and the means of attaining it rather than any illuminating answers, but these points are raised merely to try and create a sense of balance here. In truth Whiplash is an extremely strong work and I left my local cinema thinking of the film as a great example of why I love this art form.’

3. The Duke Of Burgundy: ‘Elegant production design (Pater Sparrow), art direction (Renátó Cseh) and set decoration (Zsuzsa Mihalek) combine perfectly with the costumes by Andrea Flesch and the magnificent cinematography by Nicholas D. Knowland, who was also the DP on Berberian Sound Studio, to create a striking, aesthetically-pleasing work. Strickland gets fine performances out of his two leads, and wastes not a single second of screen time: his intoxicating third film is a sexy, sensory, swirly, psychedelic delight.’

2. Plemya (The Tribe): ‘However difficult it may be, I long to experience films like this, that feel so different to the majority, that starkly contrast with much of the turgid crap that gets released each year or those average movies that get wildly overpraised. The Tribe is undoubtedly a visceral film and a tough one to sit through at times for several reasons, but this is obviously a story by a strong voice, it is well acted, and watching it is a fascinating and immersive experience. It affected me in ways that few films have done in recent years, while the use of sign language is absolutely, categorically not a gimmick.’

Félix de Givry and Pauline Etienne in Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden

Félix de Givry and Pauline Etienne in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden

1. Eden: ‘The fourth feature-length film by French director and screenwriter Mia Hansen-Løve is less a celebration of the church of dance – though it is at times a paean to clubbing and its inherent vices, particularly in the first of its two parts – and more a bittersweet tale about moderate success, moderate failure, gain and loss, spanning a period of twenty years and focusing on the life and loves of (fictional) DJ and producer Paul Vallée (Félix de Givry). With its emphasis on the Parisian electronic music scene of the 1990s and early 2000s the subject matter of Eden may well alienate some cinemagoers, but those willing to take the plunge will find a well-scripted, intelligently-structured film that brings to mind both the cool dreaminess of Sofia Coppola and – through the use of several non-professional actors and the general focus on twenty-somethings – the work of Éric Rohmer …

… Eden is a finely-constructed and engaging film, and one of my favourites of 2015 to date; that’s partly due to its many obvious qualities – with regard to the script, the use of music, the acting and the accuracy of the clubbing scenes (the best since Yolande Zauberman’s 1996 film Clubbed To Death, released when the 90’s French house scene was in its prime) – but I also regard it so highly because it left me feeling warmly nostalgic about my own twenties and the places I lived in or visited (though I never had the missionary zeal of the main male characters in this piece, and thankfully no equivalent drug problem). Eden is an accurate, heartfelt, intelligent and absorbing picture, while de Givry’s central performance is both understated and realistic; he is well-supported by the rest of the cast.’

Documentaries, Top 10

In terms of documentaries, I’ve only watched about 15, so sticking with a ‘top ten’ was much easier. They are as follows:

Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan live it up in Cannes

Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan live it up in Cannes

10. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films: ‘When a documentary features Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Bo Derek, Charles Bronson, Superman, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme and a couple of ninjas on its one sheet then it is worth sitting up and taking notice.’

9. Cobain: Montage Of Heck:Cobain: Montage Of Heck is…an understandably sad film to watch, in which the mental state of a troubled father, son, husband and friend is examined mainly through his own words and previously-private thoughts. One wonders whether we should really be allowed to see all of this, and ultimately it’s a brave decision by his surviving family to let us, while thankfully Morgen presents it in a respectful (though not hagiographical) manner.’

8. Dreamcatcher: ‘Throughout Longinotto is an unobtrusive presence, rarely heard and never seen; working with regular collaborator and editor Ollie Huddleston, she has made a successful portrait of a hugely empathetic, selfless and staunchly non-judgmental character, whose value to society is priceless, and you’re left wishing there were more people like Brenda Myers-Powell in the world.’

7. National Gallery: ‘Wiseman is less interested in the gallery’s visitors than its employees, but I like the fact that the focus is on the latter, as a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage included here is fascinating. I’d warrant that we see nearly all of the National Gallery’s employees, from scholars and guides to those in charge of its budgets, from framemakers and decorators to those who care for and restore its paintings, and while we do not get to know any of them personally it’s more about marvelling at the collective knowledge, skill and enthusiasm, which the director has identified as being every bit as important as the work hanging on the walls.’

6. The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson: ‘It’s a life-affirming, thoughtful piece, its subject musing soulfully on his own time on this planet while paying homage to Bergman by playing Death at chess on a clifftop overlooking the Thames. Temple’s docs-on-speed are collages, utilising clips from other work alongside his own footage, and there’s plenty to keep cinema buffs happy in this choppy, kinetic 90 minutes; rather aptly A Matter Of Life And Death features most heavily in this magnificent, broad study of an intriguing individual facing the end.’

Amy Winehouse, the subject of Asif Kapadia's moving documentary Amy

Amy Winehouse, the subject of Asif Kapadia’s moving documentary Amy

5. Amy: ‘Naturally it is a sad film to sit through, and the death of the singer hangs over it from start to finish, but it feels like Kapadia has managed to get to the root cause(s) of Winehouse’s unhappiness and his examination of her short career feels exhaustive. The happier moments and the performances (great and awful) that are contained here merely add to the sense of impending tragedy, and the feeling that we have lost another rare talent far too young.’

4. Cartel Land: ‘Heineman’s effort in gaining access to both groups and his bravery behind the camera (presumably along with co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll) is as obvious as it is commendable; at one point one of the two men gets caught up in a shootout, which puts the stylistically-delicious but ultimately safely-constructed set pieces of Sicario in perspective.’

3. The Look Of Silence: ‘One early sequence here highlights the fact that history is taught incorrectly in Indonesian schools, thus – despite the scale – knowledge of the genocide does not seem to be widespread. Oppenheimer’s brace of films has helped to change that outside of the country, at least, even if justice still looks to be a long way off. The Look Of Silence may struggle to find as wide an audience as the earlier, more sensational piece – it’s far more conventional – but it is no less powerful and the motif about seeing (or not seeing) is simple and effective.’

2. A Syrian Love Story: ‘Throughout McAllister films his subjects with a hand-held camera, adding to the sense of intimacy as he sits in the various living rooms and bedrooms with family members. Over time he gets to know them very well, and is able to speak candidly and ask tough questions without necessarily causing the adults or the kids to raise their defences. He can do this because they trust him, and they are right to do so: this is a film that is as honest about them and their situation as it is moving, and due to its length it offers a far more rounded portrait of a refugee family and the issues they face than anything I have seen on the news or in newspapers during the past few months.’

A British soldier in Afghanistan connects with a local in Adam Curtis' Bitter Lake

A British soldier in Afghanistan connects with a local in Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake

1. Bitter Lake: ‘ It’s a powerful film and, notably, one that shows the value of restraint, incorporating long wordless passages which allow music and images to carry any necessary messages; the information is easy to digest but this multi-layered film lets it out gradually and intelligently, relying on visual impact as much as the director’s clear, schoolmasterly narration. Essential viewing.’

(Honourable mentions for Iris, Love Is All: 100 Years Of Love And Courtship, and The Salt Of The Earth, all of which I enjoyed)

Summary

So, there you have it. Eden was my favourite film of 2015, and Bitter Lake was my favourite documentary. It has been a great year, film-wise, and I’m off to see my first release of 2016 in an hour or so. I’ll be joining in with the ‘Blind Spot’ thing this year too, as I’ve got way too many gaps in my knowledge, so I’ll post a list of those later today or tomorrow. If you’ve made it this far thanks again for reading and I wish you all the best for the year ahead.

Cheers,

Stu

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18wy6rxevxxwojpgThose canny cats at Disney have spent a whopping £10.99 on the Star Wars franchise – I haven’t checked the exact numbers but that looks about right to me and rumour has it they’re going to be trotting out TEN Star Wars-related films a year between now and 2025. That’s good news for fans, but bad news for people who would rather stick pins in their eyes than sit through another minute of camp robots and talk of ‘The Force’. But at least they will be able to go and watch one of the 74 superhero films currently in production instead. Here’s a handy guide to the films we’re looking forward to the most…

Star Wars – IG-88 vs IG-89: A moving account of the painful divorce proceedings negotiated by assassin droid IG-88 and his partner, fellow assassin droid IG-89. There’s already a bit of Oscar buzz surrounding this one, and Ariane Grande is being talked up as a possible Best Actress contender for her performance as IG-90, the teenage daughter caught up in the middle of the heartbreak. To be written and directed by Billy Dee Williams.

Star Wars – Gungan Din: Slated for a 2019 release, Jar-Jar Binks is the star of this three hour black and white arthouse take on the Star Wars universe, which will be directed by Bela Tarr. Apparently a statement about audience expectation and dashed hopes, early drafts for the film indicated that fans can expect to see Jar-Jar delivering a series of long, straight-to-camera monologues, although Darth Maul turns up at the very end for thirty seconds to give whining viewers a taste of what could have been. Tarr previously retired from directing in 2012, but one call from Skywalker Ranch persuaded him to get back in the saddle with a loud ‘yee-ha’.

Star Wars – The Movie: A long-awaited ‘origin’ tale depicting the earlier days of popular series characters Luke, Han and Princess Leia as they tackle the Imperial Death Star with the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Footage of Alec Guinness was cobbled together from various Ealing comedies before being massaged and prodded into something usable by technical gurus, while series actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have been digitally altered to within an inch of their lives in order to look 40 years younger. Unknown newcomer Lucas George is attached to the project, though his initial script included questionable scenes of rampant, unchecked incest, which have since been cut out by Disney enforcers.

Star Wars vs Predator vs Superman vs Aliens: What’s known in the trade as a ‘quad-bang’, this amalgamation of four different franchises promises to be a real treat for fans and idiots alike. Early leaked shots have shown Boba Fett grappling with a facehugger and young Anakin Skywalker getting his block knocked off by the Man of Steel. Zack Snyder is favourite to mis-direct this absurd and utterly depressing chaos.

Star Wars – Porkins Academy: Slightly different in tone to the rest of the series, this homage to saucy rompfest Porky’s follows aspiring pilots Porkins, Wedge and Biggs as they ‘earn their wings’ in the mixed-gender Rebel Academy. Includes a fresh twist on the line ‘they came from … behind’ that probably should have been left on the storyboard. Michael Haneke is pencilled in to helm this particular spot of risky business.

Polishing The Falcon: Legend has it that this long-rumoured documentary by Werner Herzog was destroyed in a gunfight in La Paz, Bolivia, but the German director recently cleared out his third bedroom and discovered that he still had the master tapes after all, stashed away in a box marked ‘Amerikaner Scheisse’. Herzog’s film is a warts-and-all behind-the-scenes look at the making of the critically-acclaimed 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special TV show, an entry into the Star Wars canon that hardcore fans have long considered to be even better than Empire.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Special Edition): This is the one that people have been waiting for. George Lucas, previously limited by technical constraints when making popular prequel The Phantom Menace, is finally given free reign to present the film he really wanted to make. It’s pretty much the same as the original except for an added sub-plot involving Brian Blessed’s Gungan king and a leaky window, a scene in which a couple of CGI Imperial Guards ‘walk’ in front of the camera, and the inclusion of several new aliens based around barely-concealed and pathetic racial stereotypes. And, predictably, you’ll all pay to go and see it again, feeding the beast like the suckers you are.

Yoda And Marcie: An entertaining-looking faux-mumblecore spin-off in which a Long Island kindergarten teacher and weekend hipster named Houghton (Zed Zeatonella) paints himself green and permanently adopts the characteristics and manner of speaking of Yoda, the revered Jedi Master. Writer girlfriend Marcie (Maz Potemkin-Battle) initially goes with it, but after an hour or so of soul-searching and unclear dialogue eventually decides to chuck him. Written-and-directed-by Andrew Bujalksi this is.

Boba Fett and Bossk’s Excellent Adventure: Part-time bounty hunters and full-time stoners Bossk and Boba Fett combine for this slapstick romp in which the duo discover a time machine and travel into th future to visit several galaxies that are far, far away. Highlights include Boba Fett bedding Egyptian ruler Cleopatra and Bossk accidentally starting the First World War by mistaking Archduke Franz Ferdinand for the sought-after intergalactic smuggler and Rebel sympathiser Han Solo. Seth Rogen and James Franco are pencilled in to write, direct and star, with Paul Rudd providing a cameo as Dengar, the duo’s colleague and accident-prone dealer.

Star Wars: Attack Of The Jedi And Revenge Of The Sith: An hour of CCTV footage of studio suits as they milk an actual real-life cash cow for all it’s worth in a boardroom before retiring, smug-faced, to their giant Malibu mansions to count hideously large piles of money. Directed by Chantal Akerman.

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LaBoeuf: Todger

LaBoeuf: Todger

Yes indeed, folks, it’s that time of year again. The Golden Globes have been announced, the cinemas are packed with all this worthy ‘great acting’, ‘great screenplay’ and ‘great cinematography’ crap that gets in the way of the superhero movies, and your kids have stopped playing with all the expensive toys you gave them a few weeks ago and have instead started hanging out on street corners, smoking cigarettes with that loose girl from number 68. It’s time for the nominations for The Oscars (or, as they insist on referring to themselves in a quaint but frankly ridiculous way, ‘The Academy Awards’).

Obviously the nominations aren’t out yet. I think they’re announced in a couple of days or something. What do you want? Research? Pffftttt. Google it yourselves! However, I do understand that this time of year is fraught with panic as you suddenly realise that your friends will laugh at you because you’ve only seen three of the films nominated for Best Picture, and your family may even disown you because you haven’t even heard of two of the actors up for supporting awards. Also you could actually go insane with excitement trying to work out which film that you’ve seen has the best make-up. So, set out below, I present to you my predictions for the forthcoming Oscar nominations. Read these and be sure to take in all the valuable information: that way you won’t look like a complete doofus during the coming days and weeks.

Best Picture:
Ride Along
Horrible Bosses 2
Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie
Grace Of Monaco
A Million Ways To Die In The West
Transcendence
Need For Speed
Tammy
Men, Women and Children
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Any one of these could feasibly win, but the smart money is on Men, Women and Children, because the Academy loves an ‘issues’ film.)

Best Meryl Streep:
Meryl Streep (Into The Woods)
Streep, Meryl (Into The Woods)
M. Streep (Into The Woods)
Ladies And Gentlemen: Ms Meryl Streep (Into The Woods)
Lymer Pester (Into The Woods)
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Streep, Meryl for her performance in Into The Woods. It’s barely even a contest.)

Leading Candidate To Be The New Meryl Streep And Get Nominated For Everything They Do Award:
Jennifer Lawrence
Amy Adams
Jessica Chastain
Julianne Moore
Hilary Swank
Reese Witherspoon
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Hmmmm. I’ll plump for Amy Adams.)

Best Male Nose:
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Sir Ian McKellan (The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies)
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Steve Carell to win by a nose.)

Best Film Overlooked By The Academy Because This Kind Of Stuff Is Made By Losers And Never Ever Wins:
The Babadook
Pride
Under The Skin
Calvary
Locke
Only Lovers Left Alive
Frank
Nymphomaniac
Transformers: Age Of Extinction
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: This is a straight fight between the horrendously-reviewed The Babadook and the critical darling of 2014, Transformers: Age Of Extinction.)

Best Film That Is Part Of A Series That Has Been Inexplicably Elongated So That It’s Actually As Long Or Longer Than The Godfather Trilogy, For Pity’s Sake:
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Taken 3
The Expendables 3
X-Men: Days Of Future Past
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Easy. Taken 3. A half-decent thriller unfathomably stretched into three movies, the second two of which were utterly pointless. Textbook.)

Best Todger:
Shia LaBoeuf (Nymphomaniac)
Stellan Skarsgaard (Nymphomaniac)
Jean-Marc Barr (Nymphomaniac)
Jamie Bell (Nymphomaniac)
Willem Dafoe (Nymphomaniac)
(Popcorn Nights: It’s likely that Shia Laboeuf will win the golden erection this year for his magnificent jolly jack tar in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.)

The ‘Merica Award For Best Patriotism:
The Interview
‘Merican Sniper
Captain ‘Merica: The Winter Soldier
‘Merican Muscle
Made In ‘Merica
‘Merica
Citizenfour
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: ‘Merican Sniper should win, but Citizenfour will probably emerge victorious due to its heartwarming story about an ordinary, selfless man who managed to get the NSA to do even more of their kooky illegal wiretapping and hacking stuff.)

Best Animated Film You Didn’t See Because Your Kids Have Forced You To Watch Frozen More Than 40 Times:
Rio 2
The Nut Job
Postman Pat The Movie
Penguins Of Madagascar
The Wind Rises
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Frozen will win, despite not being nominated.)

Best Foreign Film That Pretentious People And Intellectuals Are Talking About That You Probably Won’t Bother Watching Because It Is Subtitled And In Foreign And Frankly It’s All About The Avengers And Star Wars And The Fucking Hunger Games For You, Isn’t It?
Two Days, One Night
Ida
Winter Sleep
Force Majeure
Gloria
Like Father Like Son
Goodbye To Language
We Are The Best!
Closed Curtain
Yada Yada Yada
Does Anyone Ever Make It To The Bottom Of The Foreign Film List?
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Quelle est la signification de ce prix? Nous ne permettrons jamais vos films terribles dans les Césars, imbéciles américains.)

Best Posh Brit:
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything)
Felicity Jones (The Theory Of Everything)
Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Keira Knightley (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit)
Colin Firth (Magic In The Moonlight)
Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air)
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air to win for the 20th year in a row.)

The ‘Look At The Size Of My Bollocks’ Award For Loudest Picture:
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (Michael Bay)
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (Michael Bay)
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (Michael Bay)
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (Michael Bay)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Christopher Nolan will win for Interstellar, but only because there is a long-running conspiracy to deny Michael Bay the Oscar he so richly deserves.)

Best Oscar:
Oscar Isaac
Oscar Wilde
Oscar De La Hoya
Oscar Niemeyer
Oscar Pistorius
(Popcorn Nights Prediction: Despite Oscar Isaac being the frontrunner, given that he’s the only one involved in the film industry, there has been steadily growing support for Oscar Niemeyer and it’s possible the recently-deceased Brazilian architect has the momentum to steal this glorified golden toilet roll-holder.)

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Well, certainly the best films that I’ve actually seen in 2014, anyway. As with any list like this there are some parameters and disclaimers that need to be mentioned. First of all due to international release dates I saw American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Her, 12 Years A Slave and The Wolf Of Wall Street in January and February this year, but I have not included them in this list as I’ve tried to limit it to films that have been widely-released in cinemas in 2014 (i.e. leaving out the films our American friends watched way back in the year of 2013). Still, there’s no hard-and-fast logic to it all – Snowpiercer is included here despite the fact it still hasn’t been properly released in the UK (I…er…stumbled across a copy online, your honour), while some of the other films in this top 20 made their debuts in festivals around the world in 2013.

There are also several glaring omissions that will no doubt be appearing on other people’s lists. Certain movies that have been widely-praised already by those that have seen them, such as Birdman, Whiplash, American Sniper, The Theory Of EverythingFoxcatcher, A Most Violent YearSelma and Inherent Vice have not yet been released over here at the time of writing, and are therefore not included. Lastly, there are many, many movies that I just haven’t got round to seeing that I expect I will enjoy or find very interesting based on the reviews I’ve read elsewhere; that means The Lego Movie, Locke, The Babadook, Pride, TracksAdieu Au Langage, Leviathan, JaujaTwo Days, One NightFinding Vivien Maier, Starred Up, Horse Money, KajakiThe Look Of SilenceFruitvale Station (a 2014 UK release) and plenty more besides aren’t listed here. In some cases they just haven’t been shown at a cinema near me, but I hope to watch all of them at some undetermined point in the future. So that should tell you all you need to know; I’m not for one minute suggesting that this is a definitive list of the best films in 2014, but it is simply a list of my favourites out of the ones that I’ve seen. And if anyone suggests to you that it has been a crap year for film feel free to send them here.

OK…without further ado…

20. Edge Of Tomorrow
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Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in this Groundhog Day-ish sci-fi / videogame-style futuristic nightmare, directed by Doug Liman, that also looked to the Normandy landings of Saving Private Ryan and the alien-paggering mayhem of Starship Troopers for inspiration. Edge Of Tomorrow arrived with less fuss than most of the year’s blockbusters, didn’t take itself too seriously, and this fun action film showed Cruise still knows how to pick a sci-fi script. (Read full review.)

19. Gone Girl
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David Fincher’s icy portrait of a marriage gone horribly wrong was overrated in my opinion, but there was still much to admire; the main twist was well-executed, the lead performances by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were decent, and the sudden explosion of violence in the third act was quite something. A clever, multi-layered thriller and media satire, but not one of Fincher’s best. (Read full review.)

18. Guardians Of The Galaxy
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Another overrated load of old nonsense, arguably, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Guardians Of The Peace Galaxy nonetheless. It was hailed by many on its release as a breath of fresh air, and while in reality it adopted many of the usual Marvel / comic book conventions, it did contain some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and was very well cast. I steered clear of Marvel’s output this year, by and large, but this was a fun summer film and it was successful in establishing a wide range of little-known characters for the future. Apparently that’s a good thing. (Read full review.)

17. Snowpiercer
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Bong Joon-ho’s frenetic Snowpiercer has had such a fragmented release schedule – the result of the director pissing off the dastardly Harvey Scissorhands over at Miramax – it’s hard to know whether it should be included in a top 20 from last year, this year or next year. This dystopian sci-fi action film is set almost entirely on board a train that circumnavigates Earth at high speed, and though its setting becomes less and less credible as the story reaches a climax, it still makes for an excellent dark, claustrophobic setting. Chris Evans is enjoyable as the frowning hero battling his way from one carriage to the next, but Tilda Swinton steals the show with a performance that can only be described as bonkers. (Read full review.)

16. 20,000 Days On Earth
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This quasi-documentary about the singer-songwriter Nick Cave gives a fascinating glimpse into the artistic process – or rather his artistic process – with a mix of genuine and scripted footage as well as in-car conversations with collaborators as diverse as Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue. It may be a little self-indulgent at times but, like Cave, it’s always interesting, and worth watching for the Nina Simone anecdote alone. (Read full review.)

15. What We Do In The Shadows
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In my opinion it has been a lean time of late in terms of comedies, but this New Zealand film packed in a bunch of laughs as it lampooned the vampire legend, with the team behind Flight Of The Conchords mocking or referencing everything from Nosferatu to Twilight along the way. Genuinely witty, with a warm heart, even if the ‘fake documentary’ shtick is old hat. Destined to become a cult classic. (Read full review.)

14. ’71
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Yann Demange’s tense, taut tale of a young British soldier caught behind enemy lines in Belfast during the course of a night in 1971 included some nail-biting sequences, a moody soundtrack from David Holmes, and a very good turn by rising star Jack O’Connell. This underrated thriller does not seek to give an overview of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but it does offer a carefully-neutral view on the city at that time, and the IRA, the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary all appear to be beset by internal problems.  Good support from Sean Harris. (Read full review.)

13. Ida
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Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida is a slow-burning and often beautiful film, controversially examining the role of Poland’s own citizens with regard to the Holocaust. It’s also a film about two related women born into entirely different ages: one who looks to the future in a world where the west is gradually beginning to exert an influence, the other jaded after many years as a prosecutor in the country’s Stalinist regime. A satisfying, rich study. (Read full review.)

12. Frank
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Few would have predicted that northern comedian and performance artist Frank Sidebottom would be the inspiration for one of the best films of the year, and fewer still would have predicted that Michael Fassbender would play an American character based on Sidebottom, but that actually happened. Frank was one of the year’s quirky treasures, and a savvy rumination on fame, outsider music and artistic integrity that also featured decent turns from Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domnhall Gleeson. A bittersweet pill maybe, but easy enough to swallow. (Read full review.)

11. Fury 
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Brad Pitt played the leader of a tired, battered and bruised tank crew in David Ayer’s hard-hitting World War II film, but this was a meatier affair than many had expected, despite the fact that Pitt’s hair rarely looked shabby. Fury painted a grim picture of the conflict and the inner turmoil experienced by its participants on both sides, all muddy roads and bombed-out towns, and it was an engrossing experience with realistic-looking battle sequences that kept the viewer on the edge of their seat. (Read full review.)

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel - 64th Berlin Film FestivalThis pink and purple-hued latest effort from Wes Anderson delighted his legion of fans and probably won him a fair few new ones as well. At times it was as sweet as a box of chocolates, but there was a darker edge to this hotel-based caper, which was set against a backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe. Ralph Fiennes excelled as the hotel’s ebullient concierge Gustave H, while newcomer Tony Revolori provided plenty of deadpan laughs as the young lobby boy helping to clear his superior’s name after he is accused of murder. A host of famous faces camped it up in support. (Read full review.)

9. Vi är Bäst! (We Are The Best!)
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2014 saw a return to lighter material for Lukas Moodyson, who made this energetic and hugely enjoyable film about a spirited trio of Stockholm punks, set in the early 1980s. We Are The Best! championed the outsider spirit in a different way to Frank, but it was just as funny and even more heartfelt, and Moodyson’s film never feels condescending to teenage girls (though I guess that’s actually pretty condescening of me to assume so, given that I’m a 39-year-old man). Spiky and effervescent, the three lead performances were magnificent. (Read full review.)

8. Calvary
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More a ‘whosgonnadoit’ than a ‘whodunnit’, Calvary features a very strong performance by Brendan Gleeson – arguably a career best to date – as a threatened priest trying to fulfill his duties to the local community and his convalescing, suicidal daughter, all while operating under the knowledge that someone will soon be making an attempt on his life. John Michael McDonagh’s intelligent script ruminated on forgiveness and the role of the Catholic Church in 21st Century Ireland, but it also incorporated plenty of comic moments that made fine use of supporting actors like Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran. (Read full review.)

7. Blue Ruin
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Jeremy Saulnier’s Kickstarter-funded thriller may have been a straightforward tale of revenge and escalating violence, but that doesn’t make it any less well-made than some of the more attention-grabbing films on this list. A tense, broody affair with occasional explosions of violence, little wonder it drew comparisons with the work of the Coen Brothers; Blue Ruin was one of the indie highlights of 2014 and it will be interesting to see what Saulnier, and lead actor Macon Blair, do next. (Read full review.)

6. Only Lovers Left AliveTilda-Swinton-in-Only-Lovers-Left-Alive

The second film in this list featuring Tilda Swinton and John Hurt (the other being Snowpiercer), and also the second modern take on the vampire legend (the other being What We Do In The Shadows), Only Lovers Left Alive was Jim Jarmusch’s latest quirky genre experiment, and it was a typically idiosyncratic affair, revolving around two vampire lovers, played by Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, living apart in Tangier and Detroit respectively. A great mood piece, filled with a certain woozy, narcotic, late-night ambience. (Read full review.)

5. Under The Skin
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Arguably 2014’s weirdest ‘mainstream’ film, Under The Skin was Jonathan Glazer’s triumphantly unsettling return after a decade-long hiatus. It featured Scarlett Johansson as an alien entity who assumes human form before preying on the young men of Glasgow (some of whom, famously, are non-professional actors who must have thought all their Christmases had come at once), as well as a dissonant, experimental soundtrack by Micah Levi that added to the film’s otherworldly vibe. Glazer’s movie asked plenty of questions and left out most of the exposition, treating its audience as intelligent individuals that didn’t need spoon-fed plot explanations every five minutes. The year’s best sci-fi movie by a country mile, and perhaps the most visually arresting. (Read full review.)

4. Nymphomaniac (Parts I and II)
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Understandably, Lars von Trier’s 241-minute, sexually-graphic, two-part study of a nymphomaniac woman named Joe between the ages of 16 and 50 isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea, and this was certainly heavy going at times, but you can only admire such a great example of a filmmaker’s desire to break taboos and push the boundaries of cinema. Von Trier was aided in his quest by some brave actors: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin were both excellent playing Joe at different ages, while Shia LaBeouf was also impressive, if you’re willing to overlook the fact his oily character spoke with an accent that veered from Australian to English to South African to American … sometimes in the space of a sentence. Joking aside, this pair of powerful films felt like a milestone work, damning just about every subject it addressed, and there were great supporting turns by a host of famous faces (the standouts being Stellan Skarsgård and Jamie Bell). Well worth the effort. (Read full review.)

3. Mr Turner
Mr-Turner-3Mike Leigh’s biopic of JMW Turner, arguably Britain’s greatest living artist (if you ignore the past decade’s output by Jason Statham, of course), was a stately affair flecked with all the grit, grime and illness you’d expect of 19th Century London. Timothy Spall excelled in the lead role, picking up the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s entirely possible that Oscar glory may follow. Cinematographer Dick Pope, who manages to recreate Turner’s pastel-heavy palette in the film’s many stunning scenic shots, may also be in with a shout. And don’t forget the fact that the Academy – quite rightly on this evidence – loves Mike Leigh. (Read full review.)

2. Nightcrawler
nightcrawler-movie-wallpaper-5A satire on the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality of TV news channels and reporting, Nightcrawler featured magnificent photography from Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular DoP Robert Elswit and a career-best turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as sociopathic freelance cameraman Lou Bloom, who cruises the streets of LA at night looking for accidents and crime scenes. Bloom is a modern day Travis Bickle, and Dan Gilroy’s film occasionally recalls Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, though this is a very modern, glossy affair and deserves to be judged in its own right. A terrific film with a memorably unhinged character driving it forward, Nightcrawler is brilliant. (Read full review.)

1. Boyhood
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I went to see Boyhood at the cinema twice, and enjoyed it just as much the second time round as I did at first; the 2 and 3/4 hour running time seemed to fly by on both occasions. Richard Linklater’s epic study of a young boy and his family was famously shot over a period of 12 years, and yet it flows together so seamlessly the finished work is a testament to the skill of the director and his cast and crew, who would reconvene in Texas each year for a couple of weeks’ work. Ellar Coltrane is very good as Mason, the boy who grows from 6 to 18, while Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are superb as the divorced parents going through their own mid-life crises. Sincere, honest, warm, sad, funny, inspiring, melancholic and touching, Boyhood is a must-see, and my favourite film of 2014.  (Read full first review / Read full second review.)

So…that’s all from me this year, thanks for reading during 2014 ,and I hope you’ve enjoyed these releases as much as I have. I’ll be back in 2015 with more reviews and general film-related nonsense. All that remains is for me to ask … what are your favourite films of 2014?

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