Molly’s Game

Watched: 31 January

I think there’s almost (almost!) a very good film here, but Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut – about high-stakes poker game organiser Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) – is really let down by a cliché-riven final act reconciliation between Molly and her father (despite the excellent supporting turn by Kevin Costner) and a rather cheesy, dismally-soundtracked finale that attempts to establish the character of Bloom as a tough survivor when it’s really no longer necessary to do so, or necessary to attempt to steer the audience so blatantly into sympathising with her. Pretty much everything else I liked, though: Chastain is very good in the lead role (Chastain is always good in the lead role), playing a determined, intelligent figure whose drive and questionable morality with regard to business (we’re very much dealing with shades of grey here) means she’s similar in many ways to other recent Sorkin subjects like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, and also similar to her own Miss Sloane character from 2017; Idris Elba impresses as her lawyer (lotsa long, impassioned, typically verbose discussions between the two and courtroom scenes pepper the film after Bloom is indicted); Michael Cera is suitably oily as a poker-playing Hollywood celeb (possibly based on Tobey Maguire, who once reportedly asked Bloom to bark like a seal for a $1,000 poker chip, but also possibly a composite of the various big name actors who populated Bloom’s games); the voiceover narration works really well; and there’s a slickness to the way that the poker scenes are handled (games and participants’ abilities, personalities and playing styles are succinctly and clearly explained, never in a patronising fashion) that I very much enjoyed. There’s enough here to suggest that Sorkin will be every bit as successful as a writer-director as he has been to date as a writer, despite the mid-steps of the last act; his screenplays are not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, but I haven’t grown tired of his style yet. (***½)

The Night Is Young (aka Bad Blood) (Mauvais Sang)

Watched: 30 January

On the face of it this entertaining film by Leos Carax is about a love triangle (involving characters played by Denis Lavant, Juliette Binoche and Julie Delpy), but there’s a lot more going on than you might assume. It’s set in France in the near future, at a point in which young people in particular have been ravaged by a sexually-transmitted disease, which apparently strikes when people have unemotional, uninvolved sex; there’s an obvious parallel to be made with the AIDS epidemic, though I’m left wondering whether Carax would be so obvious, and whether there’s a wider point being made about relationships and love in France during the 1980s, when the film was made. (This is spelled out to some extent by the magical, iconic scene in which Lavant runs and dances along the street to David Bowie’s Modern Love, most recently copied by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.)

On top of this, there are certain elements you’d normally associate with gangster movies here, and a couple of scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mission: Impossible film, most notably a daring heist and a nail-biting mid-air rescue when a parachute jump goes awry. Still, the majority of the film lies with the love story, and Lavant and Binoche in particular deliver excellent performances that become increasingly frantic in nature. Visually interesting, moving and unexpectedly exciting in places. (****)

My Life To Live (Vivre Sa Vie)

Watched: 30 January

An excellent Jean-Luc Godard film from the early 60s, made at the height of the director’s infatuation with his stunning star (and, by this point in time, his wife), Anna Karina. She is on great form as Nana, who in the course of twelve separate segments goes from being a wife and mother who works in a record store to a single woman working as a prostitute for a Parisian pimp. The verité style of earlier Godard films is present once again despite the fact that DP Raoul Coutard used a heavier camera on this shoot, which I think was fixed to the floor; there are many scenes in which the cinematographer shifts perspective back and forth during various conversations between characters, which is an effect I like, even though I’m not sure what it actually signifies. Maybe it’s just something cool for cool’s sake. The ending – which further reveals the extent of Godard’s obsession with American gangster films and guns, and doesn’t quite tally with the rest of the film – is brutal… and stings like a slap to the face. (****½)

Salt And Fire

Watched: 29 January

A bizarre eco-drama-kidnap-thriller from Werner Herzog that’s set against the backdrop of the Bolivian salt flats and the supervolcano Uturunku. The screenplay is filled with the kind of portentous lines you’d normally expect to hear Herzog himself utter in one of his documentaries – specifically 2016’s Into The Inferno, which was about volcanoes – and quite unsurprisingly the cast members really struggle to deliver the dialogue convincingly. Michael Shannon and Veronica Ferres gamely try their best throughout, while Gael García Bernal got lucky – his ludicrous character disappears after the first act. It’s a stinker. (*)

Café Lumière (Kōhī Jikō)

Watched: 28 January

Hou’s Hsiao-hsien’s tribute to Ozu Yasojiro, made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the revered Japanese filmmaker’s birth, is a low-key but endlessly fascinating film (though as a committed Japanophile I would happily watch scenes depicting quotidian Japanese life, as seen here, for hours on end). There’s no plot to speak of, but the action follows writer Yoko (played by Yo Hitoto) as she visits her parents, stops by various bookshops, researches the late Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-Ye and rides around on trains. Our knowledge of the main character, as well as that of three or four recurring minor characters, such as Yoko’s parents, builds gradually and subtly, and even the most innocuous-seeming scenes reveal plenty about the lives and attitudes of those who feature – much like Ozu’s films, in fact. There are stylistic similarities, too, particularly with regard to the way interiors are filmed using medium shots; however it’s the great cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin’s long shots that impress the most, particularly when he turns his camera on densely-packed urban scenes, through which trains trundle to and fro along tracks built at different levels, human figures seemingly trapped in smaller frames within the frame. (***½)

Atomic Blonde

Watched: 28 January

Atomic Blonde is worthy of note for being an espionage action film that features a woman (in this case Charlize Theron) in the lead role, which is still a relatively rare event within this particular genre. And Theron gives a pretty kickass performance, carrying out much of the cartoonish, John Wick-style asskicking in thigh-high boots, stockings and the like, which is perhaps a costume choice that has been employed to draw in a portion of the straight, male audience that might otherwise have bailed (I like Charlize Theron very much and there’s no doubt she looks amazing here, but I think we’ll be getting somewhere equality-wise when an actress who is the same age as Liam Neeson gets to play a part like this in the same dowdy clothes that Liam Neeson gets to wear). Anyway, the film is very much a classic case of style over substance, the late 80s, eve-of-the-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall setting seeing the director opt for lotsa neon and lotsa really obvious musical choices (London Calling, 99 Luftballons, Under Pressure etc etc), but there isn’t much of a plot aside from the usual double-crossing and the supporting cast of characters – which features James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman and Toby Jones – are all poorly-written and straight out of the big book of stock spy movie bods. I was bored for quite a lot of it. (**)

Downsizing

Watched: 25 January

I really enjoyed the first hour of this sci-fi satire – the high-concept premise is fun, there are some barbed attacks that suggest a certain blandness and inherent racism and discrimination at the heart of the American Dream, and the execution up to a point is solid enough – but the second half really starts to meander and you get the sense that Alexander Payne lost control – though as this happens the film does admittedly begin to move into interesting, unexpected territory, and there’s something to be said for that. It’s a shame that certain characters get sidelined while this happens, but Matt Damon’s everyman becomes a resssuring presence, Hong Chau steers the film through more difficult waters, and both Udo Kier and Christoph Waltz are a hoot. I think that somewhere in this unusual screenplay there’s a work that could have been the equal of something like The Truman Show or Synecdoche, New York, but sadly it falls short – where would Charlie Kaufman have taken the story after the initial set-up, for example? By the time we hit the miniature retreat in Norway’s Fjordland I felt tired and ready to bail, but I do wonder whether this film will be reappraised in years to come – there have been knee jerk reactions to it, presumably because it’s unconventional and takes some unexpected turns, but I’d certainly like to see it again. (***)

Heroin(e)

Watched: 25 January

A very good, short-ish documentary about the effects that heroin use have had on Huntington, West Virginia, where the drug (and related criminal activity) is widespread. The film concentrates on three local women in particular who are trying to combat the issue in different ways: a judge who presides over a mostly-successful rehab programme; a local fire service chief; and a kind-hearted missionary who drives around at night offering help to those who might need it. It reminded me at times of Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher, and is similarly non-judgmental about and sympathetic towards the addicts, prostitutes and criminals who appear. I’d have welcomed another hour of this, as a result, but it works fine as a concise, to-the-point documentary. (***½)

They Live

Watched: 25 January

John Carpenter’s alien invasion film wears its anti-capitalist message very clearly on its sleeve; in this genre flick the wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper plays a construction worker who discovers a pair of sunglasses that enable him to see the world ‘as it really is’ – one in which subliminal advertising messages are used to control the people (‘Obey’, ‘Consume’, etc – hello, Shepard Fairey), while wealthy humans collude with disguised alien invaders to widen the gap between rich and poor – an idea cribbed from the earlier TV miniseries V. While the simmering discontent and sense of resistance contained within is as relevant today as it was upon release back in the late 1980s (arguably even more so, given the size of the rich/poor gap now), I can’t really make a case for it aging very well otherwise: the various action tropes seen here felt tired even by the end of that decade (caution: this film contains one-handed machine gun fire), and while Piper tries his best in the lead role – playing a character referred to as John Nada in the credits – it’s a shame that Carpenter regular Kurt Russell missed this one, though I have to assume he was probably sick of playing mullet-sporting, denim-clad heroes by this point. There’s not much info provided on who the aliens are, how and when they got to Earth and how they managed to take over, but I do like the way the film tantalisingly ends at a point in which things are about to get really interesting; perhaps Carpenter thought he might be able to make a sequel at some point in time. Fun at times, but despite its cult status it’s nowhere near as good as the director’s best work of the decade. (***)

The Lovers On The Bridge (Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf)

Watched: 24 January

Leos Carax’s third feature – also his most well-known to date – revolves around two vagrants who become lovers while sleeping rough on Paris’s Pont Neuf (‘New Bridge’): one, played by the contorting livewire Denis Lavant, is seemingly struggling with mental illness and has been homeless for a while, while Juliette Binoche’s artist is a relative newbie to the streets, having left her well-off family just before the story begins. I suppose I shouldn’t find it remarkable that the pair share an extraordinary chemistry; they had already starred opposite one another in Carax’s earlier film Mauvais Sang, after all, but still, they do seem a particularly well-matched couple (which is surprising as Lavant has such an unusual look and physical presence while Binoche’s appearance and demeanour is a tad more ‘classic’ by way of comparison). There are some standout, superb sequences in the film: the scene in which the pair dance on the bridge before taking part in a bizarre waterskiing session on the Seine, for example, while bicentennial celebratory fireworks pop in the background; and also the sequence in which Lavant’s character Alex sets fire to the missing person posters in the Metro that feature the face of Binoche’s Michèle. The bridge is under renovation for much of the film (the work spanned the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s), and it serves as a metaphor for broken lives in need of ‘repair’, or is linked perhaps to the physical condition of the two (her eyesight is failing, he is limping after a road accident seen at the start of the film). A sweeping romance, but also one that’s pleasingly strange. (****½)

Darkest Hour

Watched: 23 January

Worth watching for the excellent performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill – which, although it’s absolutely the kind of historical British impersonation many critics and Academy voters lap up, is still undeniably impressive, with convincing make-up work augmenting a showy, shouty but believable portrait of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The rest of the film is resolutely average, largely set within the murky corridors and rooms of the Cabinet War Rooms as Churchill considers surrendering to the Germans on the eve of the Dunkirk evacuation during the Second World War; much like last year’s Churchill, in which Brian Cox played the former Prime Minister, it’s intriguing to see an emphasis on the doubts that plagued a figure who has been subsequently lionised as an example of stoic, unwavering defiance. The now-infamous Tube scene is every bit as cringeworthy as I’d feared. (**½)

Final Portrait

Watched: 21 January

A low-key, unassuming film by Stanley Tucci about the Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush), set in a Paris that has been bled of much of its colour. Our way in to Giacometti’s world – principally the basic, backstreet home and studio he shares with his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud), his brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) and occasionally his lover Caroline (Clémence Poésy) – is via the American art critic James Lord, played in a restrained fashion by Armie Hammer; Lord agrees to sit for a portrait that is supposed to take a couple of days but eventually lasts for several weeks – it turns out, as the title suggests, to be the last one made by the artist. I assume that Hammer’s restraint is purely to keep the emphasis on the character of Alberto, whose gregariousness and sudden fits of artistic pique are occasionally rather amusing to watch, even though they signify a restless and ultimately unhappy mind. So the film relies heavily on Rush’s character and his scenery-chewing performance, but I got a kick out of watching it. (***)

Rough Night

Watched: 20 January

The intention here, presumably, was to make a women-led version of The Hangover, but Rough Night is inferior to every other ‘girls behaving badly’ comedy of recent years that I can think of – particularly Bridesmaids, but also 2016’s Bad Moms and last year’s Girls Trip. Formulaic to a tee, with Scarlett Johansson heading up a quintet of friends who travel to Miami for a debauched hen weekend, it’s lacking in good jokes, I never bought into the idea that the main characters were friends of many years’ standing, it gets stuck in one fairly boring and oft-used location (a beach house), it’s not particularly offensive (come on, try harder!) and the two oddball characters whose presence briefly improves matters – an awful pair of neighbouring swingers – aren’t used enough. Dire. (*)

Jaws

Rewatched: 20 January

I was probably only about 8 or 9 years old when I last saw Jaws, and the more extreme moments of horror, such as the sudden appearance of the bloated dead body underwater, or the severed leg that drops slowly to the seabed, absolutely terrified me at the time. They’re surprisingly gruesome scenes, given that Jaws laid down the template for the big, summer tentpole release, and I cant really imagine a studio in 2018 jeopardising a family-friendly certificate with jump scares like the ones Steven Spielberg included in this proto-blockbuster.

The film is effectively split into two parts. First there’s the build-up of terror as the shark repeatedly attacks bathers frolicking off Amity Island, Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody cutting a somewhat impotent figure as local commercial concerns take precedence over matters of safety. Using Brody as a proxy, Spielberg adopts a somewhat resigned, downbeat view of the corporate world, the needs of which are here seen as being farm more important than the lives of human beings, and it’s no surprise that the shark’s first human victim is a hippie, a character representing a kind of late-60s idyllic naivety who is literally torn apart by while skinny-dipping after an all-night campfire party. It’s the cinematic equivalent of The Stones at Altamont, albeit five or six years too late.

Later, Jaws focuses more on the three main characters at sea, Brody being joined by two men who represent science (Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss) and a kind of seadoggy mysticism or spiritualism (Quint, played by Robert Shaw). This is the part of the movie I enjoy the most, and though we see more of ‘Bruce’, the wonky, animatronic shark here, I do think that it adds a great deal to the charm of the film – the sudden appearances of the beast as it attacks the men on the boat come with a certain degree of mood-lightening humour. There are of course plenty of iconic shots, scenes and lines of dialogue within both parts of the film – and while I wouldn’t personally rate it as Spielberg’s best, or even his most entertaining, it is perhaps the most important film he has made and probably will make, as it helped to shaped the future of cinema like few others have done before or since. (*****)

The Man With The Iron Heart

Watched: 19 January

This thriller about the Second World War assassination of Reinhard Heydrick (Jason Clarke) in Czechoslovakia was always going to struggle; it’s the umpteenth telling of said story, the most recent iteration being 2016’s Anthropoid, starring Cillian Murphy, Toby Jones et al. There’s more of an emphasis on the character of Heydrick here than in Anthropoid, with a prolonged attempt to explain just how this monstrous, murdering Nazi fuckstick became a monstrous, murdering Nazi fuckstick (it’s all a woman’s fault, apparently, with Rosamund Pike playing Heydrick’s wife Lina, who slips him a copy of Mein Kampf early in the film, thus introducing him to Hitler’s ideology). After joining the party and ‘distinguishing’ himself through cold, brutal violence, Heydrick then meets Heinrich Himmler (played by Stephen Graham, now sadly typecast and pretty much the go-to man whenever someone is required to portray a deranged psychopath), and subsequently rises further within the SS, eventually taking on a key role in the perpetuation of the Holocaust as it spreads across Europe.

Clarke is fine in a role that requires him to ‘go big’ with regularity, as is Pike as Lina, but the first half of director Cédric Jimenez’s film is never anything other than a perfunctory affair, and there’s a certain casual matter-of-factness to the way that various violent acts are stitched together in a throwaway passing-of-time montage that I’m not altogether comfortable with. The second half concentrates more on the killing of Heydrick – Operation Anthropoid – and the aftermath, and at this point Jack Reynor and Jack O’Connell come to the fore, playing two of the Czech agents who carried out the task. Again, nothing particularly bad and nothing particularly great about this part of the film, but it lacks much of the tension that steadily built in 2016’s take on the story, made by Sean Ellis. Prior to this Jimenez made the entertaining cat and mouse gangster film The Connection, which I think was unfairly brushed aside and underrated, and I had been looking forward to seeing what he came up with next; sadly it’s a bit of a disappointment. (**½)

Frida

Watched: 18 January

A striking, vibrant portrait of the artist Frida Kahlo that’s perhaps most notable for the energetic, effervescent performance by Salma Hayek, though it did win Oscars for score and make-up too, and Kahlo’s artwork informs the production design and certain flights of fancy that occur.

Typically, for a movie about an artist, it concentrates a little too much on Frida’s love life (at the expense of her artistic process and working life) for my liking, but I do appreciate that the time spent on Kahlo’s affairs with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush, accent and all) and Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) serves adequately as a way of portraying her as a person who was full of passion and emotion. I expected, and wanted more, but it’s fine. (***)

Shut Up And Play The Hits / The Long Goodbye

Watched: 17 January

It feels a bit weird to finally sit down and watch the documentary about the ‘end’ of LCD Soundsystem and their farewell show at Madison Square Garden given that they’ve since reformed and released a new album, but Shut Up And Play The Hits is still a poignant, emotional and often thrilling film nonetheless. Live footage is interspersed with singer and songwriter James Murphy going about his daily business in New York, as well as an interview with the perceptive Chuck Klosterman, and highlights of the concert – which I’ve watched in full online a few times – are well chosen. This is a two-hour snapshot of an excellent band at the peak of their powers, but it would have been nice to have heard from other band members like Nancy Whang or Pat Mahoney, though. The additional discs in the three-disc set (ie The Long Goodbye) show the full concert. (****)

Justice League

Watched: 17 January

At this point in time Warner Bros’ ongoing attempts to fashion a cinematic universe to rival that of Marvel Studios feel increasingly rushed, slapdash and desperate, and it seems that the studio is now starting to abandon its model of dark and lengthy films in favour of lightness and brevity. Or is it? And does anybody actually know what the long-term plan is anymore?

The latest, Justice League, depicts the allegiance of several heroes and is heavily reliant on the assumption that the audience has prior knowledge of each one’s origin and background: Superman and Wonder Woman are familiar and have admittedly had their own recent standalone intro movies, and it’s not like we need another run through the early history of Bruce Wayne and Batman, but sadly Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash – the three less well-known superheroes appearing here – are thrown in with very little fanfare, and as such seem to me like secondary concerns that are only present to make up the numbers; the brief attempts to give each one personal issues to deal with, and motives, are half-hearted at best.

That all said, Ezra Miller’s Flash does have some good lines, and that’s one key factor in terms of the levity in this film, which must surely have resulted from the late introduction of Joss Whedon as both a writer and director (his employment being the clearest sign yet that Warner Bros have realised they’ve been getting these films wrong up to this point). It’s welcome.

The rest of the film is absolutely Zack Snyder’s, and like his other recent work it’s po-faced, gloomy, full of slow-mo and not really much fun to sit through at all. (While Disney has rejuvenated its Marvel cash cow post-Age Of Ultron by focusing for the most part on a different set of heroes, becoming increasingly cosmic in its outlook, it’s as if Warner Bros are stuck in an eternal loop of murky mediocrity, albeit with last year’s Wonder Woman bucking the trend by not being set mostly at night – and indeed by not being shit.)

The story here – which revolves around some boxes that may as well have ‘Mac’, ‘Guff’ and ‘In’ writ large on them – involves yet another all-powerful alien being who is naturally easier to defeat than he initially seems, although anyone with knowledge of DC’s comics will realise that he must have originally been penned as a mere harbinger of something worse to come.

Personally, I think that every time these characters are ushered away from more ‘everyday’ crime-fighting scenarios in the likes of Metropolis and Gotham they instantly become much less interesting. As such, the two fleeting scenes I enjoyed the most in this film involved Wonder Woman rescuing a load of innocent hostages from deranged terrorists in London and Superman saving a building (presumably full of people and not empty, though that would have been pretty funny) during the big final battle. The rest of it, aside from the occasional spot of Whedon’s hero-on-hero banter, is a sloppy, cheap-looking mess that has presumably suffered because of too much studio interference. The problem is, it’s probably too late to start again. (*½)

Blow Out

Watched: 16 January

Hugely enjoyable and pulpy Brian De Palma thriller, in which John Travolta’s sound artist witnesses and manages to record the murder of a high-profile politician, subsequently launching his own investigation when the authorities seek to cover up the killing. Travolta is really good here, and although John Lithgow’s performance as a brutal hired killer veers from silly to terrifying (sometimes within the space of a scene), the villain does seem to fit snugly with the piece as a whole, which is lurid and menacing, hinting occasionally at giallo and American exploitation cinema.

De Palma’s adoration for the work of Alfred Hitchcock is evident throughout, but particularly during the tense set pieces, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is on good form, using a variety of canted angles to signify all is not well with the world. Cheapo exploitation flicks are crucial to the story and dealt with wittily at times (in fact, from the very first scene), and you get the sense that De Palma is having some fun at his own expense here, while the ‘peeping tom’ theme, the name of the film, the overriding sense of paranoia and the shots of tape being wound back and forth etc. recall suspense-heavy mysteries from the previous two decades like Blow-Up, Klute and The Conversation. (****)

Boccaccio ’70

Watched: 16 January

Though running close to 200 minutes in length, this early-1960s anthology of shortish films by notable neo-realist directors never really felt like a chore to get through, although I must admit I enjoyed the first two – by Mario Monicelli and Federico Fellini – much more than the latter pair by Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. Each piece or quarter features a different beautiful actress of the day (Marisa Solinas, Anita Ekberg, Romy Schneider, Sophia Loren), playing characters caught up in then-modern tales of love and morality, though the sexual politics of Italian film (and, presumably, Italian society) have since changed considerably. Certain comments on the objectification of women in each screenplay are dealt with a little half-heartedly, and it’s notable that all four of the directors cannot resist the opportunity to film Loren, Solinas et al in their underwear. The 45-minute long melodramas are all undeniably full of life and energy, though, and it’s well worth watching for the performances of the four stars. (***)

Good Time

Rewatched: 16 January

I think even more highly of Good Time than I did when I first saw it in 2017, and was impressed again by its relentlessness, its wired energy and the constant twists and turns of the story; there are so many coups de cinéma here it’s hard to keep up at times, and although a few of the plot holes became more noticeable the second time round I don’t really care, to be honest – it all gets lost amid the wild, buzzing energy of the film anyway. Pattinson is on fantastic, career best form, but there are several excellent supporting performances – some of which are delivered by non-professional, street cast actors. Looks great, sounds great and if I see a more thrilling opening 25 minutes to any film this year I’ll be a happy man indeed. (****½)

Black Mirror Season 4

Finished: 15 January

I don’t always log the TV shows that I watch here, but as I’d added the latest episodes of Black Mirror on Letterboxd I thought I may as well collate those entries here too.

The fourth season kicks off with USS Callister, a near-feature length Star Trek spoof that’s rather on the nose at times, but it’s well-observed nonetheless and occasionally very funny indeed. It’s also a withering condemnation of men who abuse their positions of power, and a crowd-pleaser in the sense that it gives you the ending you’re hoping for (a certain odious character gets their come-uppance). It makes its points about online abuse, the anonymity of the internet and gamergate-style sexism smartly and clearly enough.

For the second episode, Arkangel, showrunner and writer Charlie Brooker and director Jodie Foster set their sights on the technology of parental locks and controls as well as the effects of umbrella parenting, and this really does seem like a terribly sad episode all round to me. The protective single mother who is central to this story experiences a traumatic episode during the opening scene, and so her subsequent behaviour regarding her daughter can certainly be understood with this in mind, even if it is rather extreme.

Arkangel has a brutal, cold ending, though it has nothing on Crocodile, an incredibly bleak story about a woman going to extreme lengths to cover up her part in an accident that happened 15 years earlier. The frozen Icelandic landscape – standing in for Scotland, I assume – helps to create and sustain the mood, and there’s a deliciously weird idea employed in order to give the episode a final (albeit ultimately unsatisfying) twist, but overall I found this one to be particularly cruel and unforgiving. Andrea Riseborough is very good in it, though.

Where the episodes Arkangel and Crocodile have revealed a new-found bleakness at the dark heart of Black Mirror (and that’s saying something given some of the more twisted episodes in earlier seasons), Hang The DJ resurrects the uplifting sense of optimism of the third season’s standout episode, San Junipero, and provides some welcome mid-series relief. A debt is owed to Yorgos Lanthimos, whose film The Lobster used a futuristic couples retreat as its primary setting, but Hang The DJ also recalls TV’s First Dates. Rather than focusing on the need to couple-up, Brooker and director Tim Van Patten tackle our increasing reliance on dating apps like Tinder and technological PAs such as Siri and Alexa, and the characters here seem to exist in a world where disconnected electronic voices and algorithms are more trusted than human instinct and personal thoughts. This episode has the sharpest script in the series, and it’s well-acted, so unsurprisingly it’s my favourite episode of the six.

Metalhead is shorter, simpler, stripped-back – and quite enjoyable because of that. Typically of this show, it feels ominously prescient or relevant when one considers the appearance of the Boston Dynamics-created robot guard dog in 2017, but otherwise this is a fairly straightforward genre effort in which a woman (Maxine Peake) is being repeatedly terrorised by a malevolent, relentless force, à la The Terminator or countless horror films. I’m torn on the choice of black and white here; it does make the landscape here seem less familiar, and therefore helps to sell a supposed post-apocalyptic setting… but it doesn’t look particularly good to my eyes, with a high contrast and bright exposure employed that I would usually associate (perhaps wrongly) with a degree of carelessness.

The season finale, Black Museum, is an anthology within an anthology. There are some intriguing ideas across three stories here relating to transferred consciousness, shared feeling and human beings as empty vessels, and Brooker’s deadpan style is manifest most obviously in a bizarre segment in which a character’s mind and soul is transferred into the body of a teddy bear, which I think could have been a standalone episode in its own right. I didn’t really go for the story involving the pain-seeking doctor, but points are scored for ending the season on such a bizarre note of triumphant revenge.

Overall this season is another mixed bag. The first two seasons, made for Channel 4, were three episodes long, and much stronger as a result – I think the transition to Netflix and six episodes per season means that some stories have been included that would otherwise have been dispensed with. I’m not surprised that fans have struggled to embrace the darker episodes, but they’re all of a decent standard… with Hang The DJ and USS Callister the standouts. (***½)

The Polka King

Watched: 14 January

The Polka King is the second film by Maya Forbes, whose debut feature was the infinitely-better-than-this Infinitely Polar Bear. It’s a comedy about the Polish-American musician Jan Lewan, who in real life ripped off hundreds of unsuspecting people through a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s that apparently involved various business operations (as well as being a musician and local TV personality, the Pennsylvania-based Lewan ran a Polish goods store and travel agency). He was profiled by the 2007 documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, which in turn led to the development of this title, picked up at Sundance in 2017 and distributed by Netflix. It’s basically a Jack Black vehicle, and as Lewan the actor is afforded around 90 minutes to goof around onstage, try out a generic Eastern European accent and let his expressive eyebrows loose (and boy does he let them loose). Black imbues the character of Lewan with a simple, childlike desire to please, and for the most part the film portrays him as a businessman-chancer who has the best of intentions but who gets swallowed up by debt (slight hints are made that he’s actually a habitual liar and a crook who knew exactly what he was doing all along). In reality, Lewan defrauded hundreds of people out of millions of dollars and spent time in prison, and there’s a scene near the end here – in which two elderly, conned pensioners are publicly lambasted for being greedy – that feels a bit mean-spirited towards those who invested in Lewan with goodwill. Black’s a Marmite performer but I’ve often enjoyed watching him, and there’s something of his Bernie Tiede from Richard Linklater’s Bernie here, though he overplays the hapless foreigner shtick on several occasions. There’s larger-than-life support from Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver (hey, all four stars begin with a ‘J’), and there’s a great sequence involving the Pope, of all people, but overall the film is a bit of an oddball outlier comedy that sadly rarely elicits any actual laughter. (*½)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Watched: 14 January

Most people I know (or whose opinions or reviews about films I read or hear) seem to like this awards season contender from Martin McDonagh, though there have been a fair few dissenting voices too, and those are the ones I’ve tended to agree with, partly because I too have found this film’s tonal inconsistencies a bit annoying; the other main reason, and I guess this is related to the first point, is that I have a nagging suspicion that the director and writer – whose first film In Bruges I chuckled at and whose second film Seven Psychopaths rapidly disappeared up its own arse – doesn’t particularly care all that much about any of the ‘serious’ events or issues that are included within his story, or the characters who are directly affected by them, from the (unseen) rape and murder of a young woman to institutional Midwestern racism, the onset of cancer and the experience of grief. He is clearly much more at home directing Sam Rockwell’s dumb racist cop – here presented as a skewed kind of comic light relief before unexpectedly and disappointingly becoming the nearest thing Ebbing has to a hero – as he yuck-yucks and explodes with rage, or shoehorning Peter Dinklage’s local barfly into the screenplay. This character is basically only present in the story so that McDonagh can insert a variety of unfunny lines about his height.

Some people seem to lap up this filmmaker’s way with words, but I can’t really see that there’s all that much beyond the profane insults and sudden bursts of violence; in fact this film seems to me to be a rank amateur’s attempt at making a Coen-esque movie, but without the wit or élan that those brothers exhibit so regularly, particularly when they’re focusing on similar geographical areas and types of characters. Perhaps I missed something fundamental and need to watch it again, but I was a tad surprised at the critical love-in and the fact that Three Billboards picked up some very notable awards. (I have no problem with anything handed out to Frances McDormand, though – she’s very good as a grieving mother who hires the titular three billboards to put pressure on the local police force regarding an unsolved, year-old case, but I think her work deserves to be in a better film.) (**½)

Personal Shopper

Rewatched: 14 January

This was my second viewing of Olivier Assayas’ eerie, unconventional ghost story, and it confirmed in my mind at least that Personal Shopper is one of 2017’s most intriguing releases, partly because of the way it leaves certain questions raised within the plot unanswered. Following grieving American-stylist-in-Paris Maureen (an enthralling, excellent central performance by Kristen Stewart as a character whose job necessitates being in the background, subserviently helping another), the film balances a mix of realism – scenes depict quotidian events like inter-city or cross-city travel, the installation of software updates for her employer, Skype conversations with friends and so on – with eerie, threatening and supernatural elements. The catalyst is the (unseen) death of Maureen’s brother, and there is a sense that this has unlocked within her some kind of latent potential to communicate with or understand the spirit world… or it’s possible that the things she experiences may simply be in her own head, perhaps caused by grief or an overwhelming desire to have just one more chat with a deceased loved one. Wedded to this is the film’s sketch of a murder mystery; a key sequence involving a series of creepy phone messages – which happens to be one of my favourite cinematic passages of last year – ties everything together very well indeed. Are these unsettling, intrusive texts coming from the real world or some kind of spirit realm… and if these can be considered as ‘realities’ for Maureen, which is the more frightening of the two? Some believe Assayas answers these questions, as well as others that the story posits, but after two viewings I’m still left unsure as to what to think about Maureen’s state of mind, and everything that we see her experiencing. That ambiguity is something I like very much. There’s also a pervading coldness and an unrelenting sense of dread throughout that may be typical of recent north European arthouse cinema, but it’s incredibly well-realised nonetheless and seems apt for such an unconventional, modern horror. (****½)

In The Mood For Love

Watched: 12 January. Rewatched: 13 January

For shame, I’d actually started to wonder why the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is so revered, but this masterpiece has put that right; as visually interesting as the three previous films of his that I’d watched are (My Blueberry Nights, As Tears Go By, The Grandmaster), none of them can hold a candle to this lusciously shot and ultra-moody romance. This – quite simply – is a great film.

Both Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung excel in the two main roles, playing a pair of new neighbours who come to realise that their spouses – whose faces we never see, and whose bodies we rarely glimpse on screen – have begun an affair, and this lends an extra dimension to their initial, charged chance encounters in the corridor outside their apartments, in the shared kitchen and dining room where landlady Mrs Suen holds raucous late-night mahjong sessions and en route to or from the noodle stall (both characters eat alone a lot, a theme that runs through the film). Their relationship develops apace, but as with many tragedies a simple misjudgement of time brings everything to a halt, and though the characters and the audience can all imagine a very simple resolution to the situation that leaves everyone happy it becomes increasingly harder for them to achieve as time moves on and their situations become more complicated. Very sad.

It’s a visual treat. There’s the slow-tracking camerawork by Wong’s regular DP Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin, the vivid colours they capture on film and the beautifully-decorated sets (in particular the apartment building, but also the separate workplaces of Cheung’s secretary Su Li-zhen and Leung’s journalist) as well as, of course, the quite amazing array of costumes, all of which combine to make this one of the best looking films of the 2000s. I wouldn’t ever call myself an appreciator of fashion, but even with my untrained eye I can see that Leung looks great in his suit and Cheung’s selection of qipaos is one of cinema’s finest wardrobes. So good I watched it again the following night. (*****)

Heart Of A Dog

Watched: 11 January

This film by the musician and visual artist Laurie Anderson about the passing of her piano-playing dog Lolabelle might be a bit loose at times in terms of its structure, but its ruminations on grief and emotions are certainly and clearly presented. It also incorporates Anderson’s thoughts on 9/11, so it seems like there are some ideas contained here that have been kicking around for some time, not that that’s a criticism or anything – it may be that the opportunity to discuss such matters publicly has only just presented itself to Anderson, whose strong score accompanies the film. (***)

The War

Finished: 11 January

This extensive documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – broken down into seven separate two-hour-long films on Netflix – provides a fascinating insight into the Second World War as it was experienced by Americans. In fact, it concentrates on the residents of just four different towns, but uses them as a jumping-off point to explore the war in the Pacific, the way the conflict affected American people of Japanese descent, the Holocaust, the fighting in Europe and Africa and much more, all the way to the atomic bomb attacks that brought Japan to its knees. As such there’s not so much here on the Second World War pre-Pearl Harbor, but the film clearly states it’s not supposed to be exhaustive; it’s always fascinating, and containing a huge amount of footage and still photography. (*****)

Sleepless

Watched: 9 January

This uninspired, sloppy Vegas-set action thriller stars Jamie Foxx as an undercover (or possibly dirty) cop trying to free his captive teenage son from various drug-dealing ne’er-do-wells. It’s mostly set within a casino, but it doesn’t really have much to do with gambling and could have taken place anywhere, as the action movie clichés that clog up the screenplay are pretty much transferable to any place or time and the plot is as rote as they come. It’s also a flatly-directed affair, with Foxx failing to inject any life into his blandly-written hero, while the tellingly grim-faced cast of supporting actors (Dermot Mulroney, Michelle Monaghan, Scoot McNairy, David Harbour) have to make do with dreary one-dimensional parts that were pretty tired when they were written into Seagal, Schwarzenegger and Stallone actioners during the 1980s. The action is unmemorable, there are various plot holes throughout, and I could go on and provide details, but I’ve no desire to spend any more time writing about it. (*)

The Consequences Of Love) Le Consequenze Dell’Amore

Watched: 8 January

I felt a sense of relief while watching this film as my initial fears that I’d be spending 100 minutes in the company of an insufferable prick of a character soon faded. That’s pretty much how Toni Servillo’s former broker Titta – a man who has been an aloof resident of a Lugano hotel for an entire decade – comes across at first, but gradually director Paolo Sorrentino casts light upon his history, and by doing so slowly reveals a more sympathetic, complicated and tragic figure, and a man with a noble, decent streak (though still not without some flaws). I won’t divulge any more of Titta’s story as I think part of the thrill of watching this film relates to its peculiar twists and turns, though there’s plenty to admire beyond the plot: it’s also an incredibly stylish visual work, for example, given to sudden lurid, neon-heavy sequences which pulsate with a resounding electronic score. DP Luca Bigazzi, who has enjoyed as fruitful a partnership with Sorrentino as star Servillo, incorporates plenty of camera movement – from rotating flips of the camera to slow-pan tracking shots – which adds to the technical splendour. Well worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it. (****)

Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru)

Watched: 7 January

I like the films by Hirokazu Koreeda that I’ve seen to date, but this one is probably my favourite of the lot: an emotional tale of two sets of parents who had sons on the same day in hospital, only to discover six years later that they took home the wrong boys.

There are lots of subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the two families, and the two fathers in particular, whose personalities both seem to inform (and perhaps dominate) their respective home environments. For example architect Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama, a musician as well as an actor) is reasonably wealthy, strict, reserved and dedicated to his work, while shop owner Yudai (the excellent Koreeda regular Lily Franky) is more relaxed, and fun, and he spends more time with his children than Ryota, who has unresolved issues with his own father. And although there’s something contrived about the way Koreeda puts these diametrically-opposed men together within the story, you quickly accept it thanks to excellent performances by the two actors, not to mention the inclusion of well-thought-out details to support the portrayals of the characters, such as the type of car each man drives, the clothes that they wear, the cameras that they own, etc.

There are wonderful performances too by Machiko Ono and Yōko Maki as the two mothers in the story, and – typically of Koreeda’s films – really good turns by all of the child actors involved (in particular Keita Nonomiya, whose character shares the same name). Mikiya Takimoto’s camera glides slowly around the interior of the small apartment and houses that feature, though the close-ups and mid-shots used are contrasted occasionally with sudden long shots within shopping malls and outdoors, which have the effect of immediately rendering the characters more vulnerable. It’s a terrifically well-observed and well-acted drama that kept me interested from the first moment until the last. (****½)

A Dog’s Purpose

Watched: 7 January

Schmaltzy, down-home drama from Lasse Hallström, who returns to familiar territory with another canine-centric story. (I must admit that I haven’t seen his earlier Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and have no intention of doing so having sat through this cack.) A Dog’s Purpose applies a particularly odd approach to the idea of reincarnation, but rather than making any salient points about life after death or exploring the idea in any meaningful way it’s merely used as a plot device to pull at the audience’s heartstrings as various dogs sharing the same consciousness die, particularly during the second half of the film. I suppose some kids of a certain age might enjoy it, and will probably cry at the right bits, but the film is so nakedly and unashamedly manipulative I had little goodwill left towards it by the end. The thoughts of the dogs are all voiced by Josh Gad, which probably tells you all you need to know about this film… and all you need to know about Josh Gad. (*)

Victoria & Abdul

Watched: 4 January

A typically lavish British heritage piece that feels very familiar from its very first moments, mostly because Dame Judi Dench has been cast once again as Queen Victoria (and she confidently inhabits the role, delivering exactly the kind of performance you would expect). The film is about the monarch’s relationship with Muslim ‘moshi’ Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who initially leaves India for England to fulfill a minor role as a servant in a grand state banquet, before later becoming a kind of cross between teacher, confidant and consort.

There are some subtle and not-so-subtle condemnations of Empirical superciliousness and cruelty, largely facilitated by the overtly racist, utterly hateable supporting characters and their constant mistrust of and nastiness towards Abdul; and with regard to that I liked the way that there was no attempt by director Stephen Frears to provide some kind of redemptive arc for (or give softer edges to) the objectionable figures in Victoria’s inner circle played by Paul Higgins and Eddie Izzard, the latter of whom is playing somewhat against type as the Queen’s son and future king. Overall, though, it feels like the two main characters are too nice, their relationship becomes too strong too quickly, and in Victoria’s case there’s an unrealistic liberal streak that feels false to me. I can understand why the Hindustani Times’ reviewer branded the film “a fake smile”. (**½)

Life Is Sweet

Watched: 3 January

Is this Mike Leigh at his very best? Life Is Sweet certainly holds its own when compared with the other films he made during the 1990s, all of which are very, very good indeed (and one of which, Naked, is arguably his masterpiece to date). There are hints of several late-80s/early-90s British sitcoms within this kitchen sink comedy-drama, which focuses on an Enfield family headed up by Jim Broadbent’s slightly lazy dad and Alison Steadman’s livewire mum, particularly when the action shifts away from their house to a terrible-looking (and surely doomed) French restaurant called ‘The Regret Rien’. Here, Timothy Spall’s appalling, hyperactive wannabe chef leers after his staff while pompously extolling the virtues of his terrible-sounding menu, which includes grim-sounding faux-French dishes such as ‘pork cyst’, ‘liver in lager’ and ‘saveloy on a bed of lychees’.

The above-mentioned trio deliver performances that are really enjoyable to watch, and the cast also includes Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks and Stephen Rea, who contribute plenty and receive a fair amount of screen time. Leigh casts astute glances towards alcoholism and anorexia nervosa, but overall it’s a comedy and I found myself laughing along at regular intervals. (****)

Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek S Kinoapparatom)

Watched: 2 January

It’s definitely too much to take in on first viewing; Dziga Vertov’s silent avant-garde documentary Man With A Movie Camera – I watched the version with the accompanying Michael Nyman score – shows hundreds of scenes of daily Soviet life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa, and employs lots of fun tricks that emphasise the presence of the filmmaker, the cinematographer and the camera itself. Clearly the product of a daring, experimental director, it’s a fast-moving affair and Vertov pulls just about everything from his bag of tricks, using jump cuts, split screens, backwards footage, double exposures and a hell of a lot more. A lot of the in-camera trickery holds up today. It’s beautiful, way ahead of its time and quite amazing, all told. (*****)

2017 Round-up Part III: Favourite Feature Films

So, here I am again at the end of another year (well, a couple of months beyond the end of another year, but never mind). I’ve been posting during the past week about the best films I’ve seen during 2017 (for a general overview of the year click here and for a list of my 20 favourite documentaries click here) and below is a list of my 50 favourite feature films. The only criteria applied is that they were released in the UK during 2017, either in cinemas or on streaming services. This means that certain movies that appeared in US cinemas – and on many critics’ lists – in 2016 are included here (e.g. Manchester By The Sea, La La Land, Moonlight), and that certain well-received US releases from 2017 like Lady Bird are not included here, as they are 2018 UK releases. Got it? Good!

Note: At the time of writing I’m yet to catch up with a few releases from 2017 that I think may have a chance of being somewhere in this top 50, including The Death Of Stalin, After The Storm, The Disaster Artist, A Silent Voice, Hotel Salvation, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women, Happy End and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer; should any of those make it in at a later date I’ll re-order everything accordingly. (Also, I’m not sure whether it’s worth stating, but I’ve seen over 230 2017 releases at the time of making this list.) Oh, and spare a thought for the ‘nearly’ films that ended up just outside of the this top 50, all of which I’d recommend seeing. They include Back To Burgundy, Land Of Mine, The Other Side Of Hope, My Happy Family, The Fits, The Levelling, A Man Called Ove, Fences, Wind River, The Red Turtle and First They Killed My Father.

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Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

50. Logan Lucky (Soderbergh): A rather endearing robbery caper set in West Virginia against the backdrop of a popular NASCAR race. It has a lot going for it, not least the rather entertaining and eminently likeable cast, which includes Riley Keogh, Adam Driver and Channing Tatum as the three Logan siblings, who must carry out a heist while the race is on and the small matter of a family curse hangs over their heads. It’s an entertaining, light-hearted way to pass a couple of hours.

49. The Founder (Hancock): An unusual biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who ‘joined’ McDonald’s and transformed it into the world’s biggest fast-food franchise. It’s unusual in the sense that it spends the first hour setting Michael Keaton’s Kroc up as a nice guy, a dreamer with a vision and a man with the will and belief to see it through; the second half, however, systematically destroys his character, emphasising his single-minded ruthlessness in sidelining the real founders, Richard and Maurice McDonald, as well as his first wife Ethel. It appears to be celebrating an American institution yet also undermining it, faintly criticising the business practices and moral decisions that transpire as it grows to a certain size.

48. I Am Not Madame Bovary (Xiaogang): A Chinese film about Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), whose attempts to overturn a court’s decision against her bring frustration and cause more and more headaches for officials as time passes. Much of it is intriguingly presented in a circular format – deliberately recalling traditional Chinese art – though occasionally it does change briefly to a square.

47. I Am Not A Witch (Nyoni): An impressive tragicomic debut feature by Rungano Nyoni about a young girl who is accused of being a witch in Zambia and sentenced to a kind of slave labour camp with other accused women, before later being exploited by a government official. It starts out as a coruscating satire, with a number of absurdly funny scenes (or scenes that just seem plainly absurd, at least to my eyes, unfamiliar as I am with the subject matter and the country of Zambia more generally), though Nyoni gradually takes the film into a darker place, and the final act – in which there is much less dialogue – is strikingly solemn.

46. My Life As A Courgette (Barras): Warm-hearted and thoughtful animation about French kids in a care home. Doesn’t skate around issues and it’s all the better for its frankness and openness.

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Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country

45. God’s Own Country (Lee): This debut feature by Francis Lee seems to me to be the pick of the recent rural-set English dramas (Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling missed out on my top 50, though not by much). It’s a queer love story involving the English son of a farmer and a Romanian farmhand, set against the backdrop of the southern Yorkshire Dales, and although it shares certain plot points with Brokeback Mountain this is very much a Brexit-era British film that deals with immigration and racism, the new world causing friction as it rubs up against the old world, and includes the kind of rolling pastureland that occasionally steals the show (but is often kept out of focus with tight, close-up camerawork focusing on leads Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor). Ian Hart and Gemma Jones provide good support.

44. Harmonium (Fukada): A small home features prominently in this Japanese family drama, in which an ex-con goes to live and work with a man who we later discover is indebted to him, as a result of an unseen act carried out years beforehand. At first the style and the setting bring to mind Ozu, or perhaps in terms of modern directors Koreeda, but this is no slice of everyday life, and it becomes a much darker film that helps to distance it from the work of others. It’s split into two parts; the first, leading up to two terrible events, is suffused with dread, the second – set years later – a suffocating sadness and a sense that a new character’s genuine attempt to put things right is just going to lead somewhere very dark indeed. Good performances all round.

43. The Big Sick (Showalter): The breakthrough comedy hit of the summer, Michael Showalter’s Apatow-produced The Big Sick was written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani (who stars as himself) and writer Emily Gordon (also Nanjiani’s wife), a version of whom is played in the film by Zoe Kazan, an actor I always enjoy watching and who tends to bring a certain edgy charm to romantic movies (I’m thinking of her self-penned Ruby Sparks, primarily). It’s a sharp, funny comedy that mines the couple’s meet-cute and the early stages of their relationship for chuckles really well, and gets plenty of laughs out of the comedy club circuit and Nanjiani’s Pakistani-American family life, too. The film loses some of its early momentum when Kazan’s character, here named Emily Gardner, falls into a coma, though this does also bring about the appearance of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, both of whom are on terrific form. A funny movie with heart and soul.

42. The Beguiled (Coppola): I haven’t seen Don Siegel’s 1971 original, remade in 2017 by Sofia Coppola, but this newer piece certainly has a strong sense of time and place, like all her films – it’s set in and around a girls’ school during the American Civil War, and you can almost feel the oppressive, muggy air and the heat emanating from the swampland surrounding the establishment. It also establishes its characters well, such as three of the women of various ages studying in and running the school (played by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, none of whom put a foot wrong), as well as the wounded Union Army soldier that they discover and take in (a terrifically oily Colin Farrell). The film looks and sounds beautiful, as you would expect from Coppola, and watching the three main women – who have different roles within the school, as defined by their ages, but who all end up desiring the same thing – as their closed-off, carefully-maintained environment is turned upside-down by this sudden male presence is compelling, particularly during the second half.

41. Suntan (Papadimitropoulos): I was impressed by the performance of Makis Papadimitriou in Athina Rachel Tsangari comedy-drama Chevalier, which came out in 2016, and here he delivers another impressive turn as Kostis, a middle-aged doctor whose behaviour becomes increasingly pathetic and unhinged after he takes up a new post on an unnamed Greek resort island. Both films deconstruct the behaviour of men, though where Chevalier drew laughs from its depiction of absurd male competitiveness Suntan gradually turns into a much darker affair.

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Antonio Campos’ Christine

40. Christine (Campos): The main question surrounding this biopic – which depicts a brief period in the life of Florida TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, ending with a shocking recreation of her on-screen suicide – is whether it should have been made at all; or, put another way, why bring up this sad event if all you’re really doing is reigniting the age-old ethical arguments surrounding the “if it bleeds, it leads” edict of TV news reportage? Whatever you think, at least it’s a strong, evenly-paced work that recreates the period well enough, and is sympathetic towards the character of Chubbuck, played with deft skill by Rebecca Hall, who should at the very east have been nominated for an Oscar. Tracy Letts and J. Smith-Cameron are also very good in supporting roles.

39. Mother! (Aronofsky): A flawed but ambitious Mother Earth parable that has a slow build up (which I liked) to a chaotically over-the-top final act (which I liked less). Clearly the entire cast and crew got behind the director, and for that reason I think it just about works for me, much in the same way Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, which has a similarly crazy final third, worked for me last year. But fuck you, pretentious director, you’re getting a bloody capital ‘M’ on this blog.

38. Get Out (Peele): This whip-smart Stepford Wives, Society or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style horror about race that effectively satirised white, middle class liberal American attitudes towards black people, while also providing the audience with an occasionally comic ride and plenty of thrills. I liked Daniel Kaluuya as photographer Chris, the guy who must spend a weekend in the company of the wealthy family of his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), and I very much enjoyed the awkwardness of Chris’s first encounters with his other half’s nearest and dearest. The movie delivers its key message succinctly and cleverly while also highlighting the fact that in real life black Americans who go missing do not receive anything like the level of attention afforded white Americans in the same predicament. It’s also a lot of fun.

37. Frantz (Ozon): François Ozon’s latest is a sombre tale set between Quedlinburg, Germany and Paris after the end of the First World War, and apparently a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, which I’m afraid I haven’t seen. Part mystery, part romance, part social drama, it’s handsomely shot in black and white by Pascal Marti, who won the César for Best Cinematography in 2017, while the tone and subject matter feels concomitant with Ozon’s other work as well as, occasionally, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.

36. Detroit (Bigelow): I wish this were higher up, as in dramatising the Algiers Motel incident of 1967 the first hour of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit offers tense, gripping filmmaking of the highest quality. Sadly this leads to a top-heavy work; detailing the aftermath and telling us what happened next to the people involved is absolutely necessary, but the interviews and courtroom scenes that follow are muted and the film meanders slowly to a finish.

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Aisling Walsh’s Maudie

35. Maudie (Walsh): Tender, warm portrait of the Canadian painter Maud Lewis, who lived in and worked out of a small shack in Nova Scotia for much of the 20th century. She is played here by Sally Hawkins, whose intense physical performance is informed by the artist’s struggles with rheumatoid arthritis, though there’s much more to Hawkins’ work here than contortions and pained expressions. The film concentrates less on her art and more on her relationship with husband Everett (Ethan Hawke). A lovely soundtrack adds to a warm viewing experience.

34. The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki (Kuosmanen): Very much an anti-boxing movie (though it’s not, for clarity’s sake, anti-boxing per se). In real life Mäki was a very successful amateur Finnish boxer, competing in the Olympics before later turning professional. He fought Davey Moore in Finland for the World Featherweight Title in 1962, only to lose in two rounds, and this beautiful black and white film by Juho Kuosmanen is set during the run-up to that bout, as well as its immediate aftermath. Really, though, the film is about the relationship between shy, unassuming Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) and his girlfriend Raija Jänkä (played with a huge dose of warm-hearted charm by Finnish singer-turned-actor Oona Airola). It’s a light, entertaining film and the hand-held camerawork and boxing gym locations bringing to mind Shane Meadows’ low-key debut TwentyFourSeven, though the images here are crisper. I thought I was done with boxing movies, which often seem to have turned into parodies of themselves of late, but this is a gem that quickly disarms anyone who mistakenly approaches it with weary cynicism.

33. Jackie (Larrain): While this Jackie Kennedy biopic is not without its problems, it’s still a dizzyingly intense and striking imagination of life within the White House as lived by Jackie-O before and after the death of JFK; it creates a good sense of what it might be like to be in the middle of a media whirl, to be completely unanchored after the killing of a loved one, and to have to find precious time to mourn while also being expected to fulfil certain ongoing obligations. Natalie Portman is really good here and the soundtrack by Mica Levi is excellent, helping to set both tone and pace.

32. Loving (Nichols): The quietly-told tale of a landmark court case, anchored by two impressive lead performances (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving, who fought Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law). It’s a film that takes plenty of time to explore the couple’s deep love for one another, as well as their individual reactions as their case escalates through the courts. I think it’s a film that will be forgotten about by many as time passes, which is a shame.

31. Logan (Mangold): It was nice to see superhero films moving in a slightly different direction last year, particularly with regard to the gender of a main protagonist and a director (Wonder Woman), but also the greater emphasis on humour elsewhere (Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming). However Logan‘s the 2017 release that really seemed to stand out from the pack to me and go against the grain, despite the fact that its seriousness and the focus on a character who has appeared many times before on the big screen probably counted against it in the eyes of many amateur and professional critics. The action was stripped back and bone-crunchingly violent, the dialogue sweary and sparse, and it was great to see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine at his baddest after all these years. The western influences were presented a little clumsily at times, but at least this was unusual.

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Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body And Soul

30. On Body And Soul (Enyedi): Ildikó Enyedi’s first film for nine years mixes absolutely beautiful shots of a shared dream, in which deer stalk one another in a frozen woodland, with a drama about the complicated relationship that develops between the two dreamers in question, who are also workers in a Hungarian abbatoir. One is a taciturn man (Géza Morcsányi), the other a woman with Asperger’s (Alexandra Borbély), and the quiet, peaceful aura created by these two characters is punctured occasionally by startling imagery.

29. Marjorie Prime (Almereyda): A low-key, slow and satisfying drama set 40 or 50 years into the future, at a point when technological developments have enabled humans to live with holographic representations of deceased loved ones, all of which are able to learn and become more realistic the more that they are conversed with. The film grapples with its themes and ideas – memory repression, misremembered or edited history, AI in the future, to name but a few – in a way that I found pleasing, and the overall effect is, I suppose, a little bit of Blade Runner 2049 crossed with a little bit of Black Mirror crossed with a little bit of Robot And Frank, even though it’s also much, much subtler and calmer and reflective than the combination of such works might suggest. Also – nice to see Tim Robbins and Geena Davis again.

28. The Salesman (Farhadi): The title of Asghar Farhadi’s latest Oscar-winning drama refers to Arthur Miller’s play Death Of A Salesman, of which we see snippets (rehearsals, and then later, performances). Some of Miller’s themes feed into this film’s overarching narrative, which concerns two of the actors in the play, Emad and Rana, a married couple; on the face of it they have a good, solid relationship, though the opening prologue – in which their apartment building is evacuated before it begins to collapse – hints at problems to come. Farhadi regulars Shahab Hosseini (A Separation) and Taraneh Alidoosti (About Elly) do particularly well in the lead roles, delivering convincing performances that mostly make you believe in their characters, their decisions and their actions.

27. The Handmaiden (Park): A twisty three-parter, effectively starting out as an elaborate, class- and race-focused period con movie and then – typically of Park – turning into something quite different indeed: a film that easily shifts back and forth from its central queer (and often explicitly-rendered) love story to psychosexual drama and even twisted revenge thriller. It’s a committed, fast-paced affair, but my suspicions that this Korean director is always trying too hard to dazzle his audience with spectacle simply won’t go away.

26. Graduation (Mungiu): Cristian Mungiu’s latest drama sees a chain of events unfold after a promising student (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is attacked outside her school, an incident that affects her ability to perform in a crucial exam with a scholarship to the University of Cambridge riding on the outcome. Out of this horrible situation comes a cautionary tale about corruption and the calling in of favours within modern Romanian society. It has an excellent script by Mungiu and there’s a really impressive ensemble performance at its heart. Bleak and downbeat, but also sincere and thoughtful.

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Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)

25. The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected) (Baumbach): More Upper East Side shenanigens from Noah Baumbach, who has managed to wring the first excellent performance out of Adam Sandler in many a year. It’s basically an anthology film about one family, as hinted at by the title, and I think the best praise I can give is that I wanted to see more of nearly every character after it finished. Elizabeth Marvel and Ben Stiller also impress.

24. In Between (Hamoud): Three female flatmates in Tel Aviv face struggles for independence, equality, acceptance and tolerance within a patriarchal, conservative society. It’s a well-written, well-acted, sharp piece of drama.

23. Paddington 2 (King): Really great fun from the first moment to the very last, with a wonderfully self-effacing turn by Hugh Grant as the villain. It incorporates animated sequences in a lovely way, puts forward simple, positive messages and it’s probably as good as the first Paddington… perhaps even better.

22. Mudbound (Rees): That still-fairly-rare occurrence… a high-quality Netflix feature film (see also The Meyerowitz Stories, above). There are really good performances across the board here, including Mary J. Blige’s Oscar-nominated supporting turn as a farmworker, Garrett Hedlund’s troubled veteran and Carey Mulligan’s love-torn city girl, as well as stunning photography by Rachel Morrison (again Oscar-nominated) that seems to simultaneously highlight the bleakness and toughness of the land in Mississippi while also capturing serene beauty of its sunsets. The story is powerful.

21. A Quiet Passion (Davies): Cynthia Nixon excels as the acerbic, witty and forward-thinking American poet Emily Dickinson in this biopic from Terence Davies. Using just one (admittedly fairly large) location, it looks great (thanks to the wonderful period production design), and it’s often very funny, with Dickinson’s superbly caustic zingers arriving regularly throughout. There’s heart and soul in there too.

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Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women

20. 20th Century Women (Mills): One of the things I like best about this film by Thumbsucker director Mike Mills is that it switches its focus so skilfully between its characters, so on the one hand you get passages that feel very much like a typical coming of age film with a teenage boy as the centre of the known universe, and then others that concentrate more on the life of Annette Bening’s matriarch; in fact all of the main characters are well-drawn and get plenty of time on screen. There are some creative montages and retro special effects to denote the late-70s California setting, too.

19. Lady Macbeth (Oldroyd): This chilling debut film by William Oldroyd is loosely based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov and contains a star-making turn by Florence Pugh as Katherine, a scheming young woman rebelling against the older men she has been forced to live with: one her cruel, miserable husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), the other her cruel, miserable father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Alice Birch’s screenplay is very impressive and Ari Wegner’s cinematography emphasises the austerity of the house.

18. Slack Bay (Dumont): Bruno Dumont’s black comedies mix slapstick and farce with cutting social commentary, gruesome acts and the otherworldy bleakness of the north of France, and I guess they’re not for everyone but from what I’ve seen I like the mish-mash very much. This tale of tourists going missing while holidaying on the Normandy coast includes a pair of bungling detectives and hilarious turns from Fabrice Luchini and Juliette Binoche, who play a wealthy brother and sister.

17. Aquarius (Filho): Impressive, thoughtful and unhurried Brazilian drama by Kleber Mendonça Filho, notable for its excellent central performance by Sônia Braga as Dona Clara, a retired music critic, cancer survivor, widow and mother, and also the last resident of the titular beachside block of flats in Recife. The story is about gentrification, and greed, but the film is also a reflection on time and (a particular) space, subtly exploring family relationships, individualism and memory.

16. Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino): I didn’t fall for this romantic drama as much as some viewers seemed to (it’s the most swooned-over release of 2017, for sure), but I still liked and appreciated it very much; a tender, gay love story that’s perhaps a bit reticent about actual sex (hey, why show that when you could show lovely meals in the late-afternoon Italian sun, eh?), it features a really good breakthrough performance by Timothée Chalamet and has a nice, woozy charm. Do you judge a love story by the way you feel about the outcome at the end? I sometimes do, and if I don’t care about what has happened to the characters I don’t think it’s a particularly successful film; not the case here – the end is emotionally hard-hitting.

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Julia Ducournau’s Raw

15. Raw (Ducournau): Raw is a visceral, highly-stylised European horror that doffs its cap regularly to Italian giallo, both in terms of the bloody, over-the-top, exploitation-style violence it contains and the lurid colours employed on occasion, which are cleverly incorporated into the plot and the production design so that the film also manages to retain a certain sense of realism, at least in terms of its setting. Events that transpire, and the way that they are depicted at times, are way more out there. A great, gruesome debut.

14. Toni Erdmann (Ade): A bittersweet and keenly-observed comedy with two terrific protagonists that uses the comedy of embarrassment really well. I think I under-appreciated it at the time of viewing, partly because I’d expected so much after all the hype, and the more I thought about its comic set-pieces afterwards the more I warmed to it. Two really great performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek to enjoy as well.

13. Elle (Verhoeven): It’s a tonally-mixed but very compelling movie, in which Isabelle Huppert’s commanding performance holds everything together; her apparent ease at portraying coldness-mixed-with-resilience makes her the perfect fit for the role. It’s clear that her Dutch director/collaborater shows no sign of entering into a tamer, late-life period, as this is among his most brutal, violent and unsettling work, at times, yet it also contains scenes that are among his most drily witty.

12. The Florida Project (Baker): There are excellent performances here, and a sugary, colourful look that captures perfectly the way that the pastels of the Walt Disney World Resort seep beyond its boundaries and across the Floridian businesses that surround it and rely to a certain degree on it. The setting is a hotel where many of the residents (single mothers and their children, predominantly) are apparently fighting to stay just above the poverty line and keep a roof over their heads. Baker’s film is sympathetic and non-judgmental, but it doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of a certain character’s actions either. It effortlessly slips from presenting this candy-coloured world from a child’s point of view to the points of view of the stressed adults who inhabit it.

11. Certain Women (Reichardt): A film that is partly about three faltering relationships: between a lawyer and her client; between a woman and her family as they set about building a dream home; and between a young law teacher and a ranch hand student.
The scene in which a truck rolls off the road is one of the saddest, most heartbreaking cinematic images I’ve seen for quite some time, but there’s a mournfulness seeping in throughout this movie, perhaps reflected most by the snowy, barren Montana landscape.

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Katell Quillévéré‘s Heal The Living

10. Heal The Living (Quillévéré): The narrative in this excellent new film by Katell Quillévéré, written by Quillévéré and Gilles Taurand, drifts from one character to another, all of whom are linked together in some way by a dying patient in a hospital and his heart. There are excellent performances and some very persuasive sequences that indicate the strange state that exists between dreams and reality, which are beautifully shot by Tom Harari. There’s also a really lovely soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that contemplates the images and the delicate nature of the film. A moving, well-considered, subtle study of life, death, grief and hope.

9. Personal Shopper (Assayas): A difficult film to pin down, as it comfortably slips between genres without much in the way of fuss. It is on the one hand an existential drama largely set within the fashion industry and the celebrity world, though it’s apparent from the off that Assayas wishes to deglamorise fashion, or at least the purchasing of it (if not the actual act of wearing). It’s also a chiller, a genuinely unnerving ghost story and a psychosexual thriller that leaves its fantastical phenomena mostly unexplained – we see and ‘hear’ the same things that Maureen hears, but even by the end it’s still unclear whether we’re supposed to believe in these interactions or judge Kristen Stewart’s character as someone who is a) able to communicate with the dead or b) coming apart at the seams. Fun to pick apart, and it’s a superb central performance by Stewart.

8. Silence (Scorsese): Martin Scorsese’s rumination on belief and persecution includes two good actors in the lead roles whose careers are still very much in the early stages, and I’m not sure either is really suited to the role of a 17th century Jesuit priest or is quite able to carry the weight of such a film at the present moment. I just wish there were a couple of great turns here; as it is the two leads are overshadowed by Yōsuke Kubozuka, who is excellent in a smaller role as translator/guide-turned-betrayer Kichijiro. It certainly looks very good – lots of lavish images from Rodrigo Prieto – and Thelma Schoonmaker is of course an excellent editor who has been at the peak of her powers for as long as her illustrious collaborator. The subject matter of faith – familiar to long-term Scorsese fans – and long running time evidently put plenty of people off, which is a shame.

7. La La Land (Chazelle): This celebrated musical is equal parts miserably relentless, tentatively hopeful, brilliantly effervescent and quietly resigned, just like the four seasons it uses for its structure, and even though it’s basically selling a lie it’s no hardship to sit back and let Chazelle and co flog it to you one more time, with feeling; I’ve tired of Hollywood’s endless celebrating of itself in the past, but I have to admit I can turn a blind eye (and even enjoy myself) when it’s trying to entertain you as hard as it does here, and though it’s easy to be cynical about the success of the characters in terms of achieving their goals, it is at least delivered with a welcome underlying note of sadness. Considering that no other characters beyond those portrayed by the two leads are developed in any meaningful way, and that the film’s running time extends beyond two hours, Gosling and Stone do a terrific job.

6. A Ghost Story (Lowery): An emotionally stirring, striking and heartfelt study of a ghost who is trapped in the house in which he once lived, while corporeal, and who is himself traumatised by the arrival of new residents and haunted by the slowly-disappearing memories of his life. Its appeal lies in its mystery, its otherness, and what the director does here with space and time is very impressive indeed. It grabbed me from the off and it delivers on its intriguing premise.

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Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049

5. Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve): This is an excellent science-fiction film that smartly takes ideas and themes from the original Blade Runner in new directions, and also retains certain aspects of the look, soundtrack and feel of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece while also feeling very much like Villeneuve’s own vision. It also keeps the sense of bleakness and the lack of hope you associate with film noir – a key influence on the first film – but dispenses with the idea of fun, oddball characters and creations, which I think works pretty well. No smiles to be had here.

4. Manchester By The Sea (Lonergan): This awards season contender from Kenneth Lonergan is a strong, intelligent and superbly-acted drama. It deals with grief in an intelligent fashion, refusing to bend to convention by offering a silver lining or some sort of redemption for anyone at the end of a tough and chilly-looking two hours (it’s snowy and cold in a number of flashbacks, as well as the scenes set in the present day). It’s also filled with interesting characters who have been written with nuance by someone who understands people (as opposed to someone who just knows how to write people in movies) — there are contradictions in terms of the behaviour of nearly everyone in this story, whether they’re going through periods of intense change in their lives or have recently been through them and are still struggling to adapt on the other side, and Lonergan has rendered all of them believable, whether they are central to the story or drop out of it for long periods. It’s a film with a heavy heart, but there are alleviating laughs to be found, as well as strong editing by Jennifer Lame, which manages to fuse the daydreamed reminiscences with the present very well indeed.

3. Good Time (Safdie, Safdie): A great, wild ride of a New York movie by the Safdie brothers, one that channels the scuzz of Scorsese’s sleazy, lowlife-ridden streets in the 1970s and also the on-the-hoof indie spirit of Cassavetes in equal measure. Robert Pattinson is excellent as Connie Nikas, a morally bankrupt small time hustler whose attempt at a bank robbery with the help of his younger, mentally-challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie, co-director) goes spectacularly wrong, kicking off a chain of events that take place over the course of one night. A dizzying mix of lysergic visuals, kinetic energy, great acting and Oneohtrix Point Never’s pulsing score.

2. Dunkirk (Nolan): Christopher Nolan’s 100-minute-long film is effectively one very long, very tense sequence that builds and builds towards a particularly thrilling finale. I was gripped throughout and felt for the first time in a long time that I was watching a blockbuster worthy of the name. Dunkirk is much more than just an extended, bravura action sequence, though; it has Mark Rylance’s kind-faced performance and Tom Hardy’s narrowing eyebrows; the otherness of the icy Channel and the miserable rain-swept beach; Harry Styles’ unexpectedly effective panic and Hans Zimmer’s apt metronomic score. There’s a lot here to enjoy.

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Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

1. Moonlight (Jenkins): This is a beautiful, heartfelt and superbly-acted film that in my opinion fully deserved its Oscar wins (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay), and I say that despite thoroughly enjoying other contenders. Moonlight flows so well through its three parts that you barely notice the introduction of different, older actors to play the main character (‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’, depending on the period of his life shown), and as so many critics and fans have pointed out it was refreshing to see such a nuanced, thoughtful take on black, gay, American, male sexuality in mainstream cinema (because let’s be clear…although an indie film shot for less than $2m this was propelled into the big leagues as a result of its critical success). Emotionally resonating – because even given my own distance from the material as a white, straight, English man there’s enough universally-understood sadness and longing pulsing through the film for anyone to grasp hold of – and with gorgeous Floridian cinematography by James Laxton (who, a year ago, was probably best known for lensing some of Kevin Smith’s recent box office bombs), I’d struggle to name a better film released since I began blogging four or five years ago. Elegant and enthralling.

2017 Round-up Part II: Favourite Documentaries

Here is a list of my 20 favourite documentaries of 2017, which is the second post of my three-part round-up of last year (click here for the first bit). The simple criteria is that the films were officially released in the UK during 2017 in cinemas, shown on streaming services or screened on TV.

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Rahul Jain’s Machines

20. Machines (Jain): Rahul Jain’s artful piece shows – in some depth – the workers and workings of a textile factory in Gujarat, India.

19. Lost In France (McCann): In the late 1990s several bands on Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground label played a festival in a small French town together, and they return for this doc, older and possibly slightly wiser; it’s a charming and nostalgic trip down memory lane with the key figures offering plenty of anecdotes and reminiscences.

18. Heroin(e) (Sheldon): A very good short-ish film about the effects of heroin on Huntington, West Virginia, where use of the drug (and related criminal activity) is widespread.

17. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (Cohen, Shenk): A documentary that describes Al Gore’s apparently tireless efforts with regard to tackling climate change during the past decade, following the success of earlier film An Inconvenient Truth. It looks closely at natural disasters befalling the world, particularly catastrophic flooding, provides a snapshot of Gore’s work relating to the Paris Accord – the film was updated in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull the US’s support earlier this year – and spends time with the former VP as he passionately promotes solar powered energy.

16. I Called Him Morgan (Collin): Engaging release about the brilliant but under-appreciated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot and killed by his wife Helen in a club in 1972 at the young age of 33. It feels standard to begin with, as talking heads lament the loss of a prodigious talent and share stories about live performances and other events. However, as it approaches the subject of Morgan’s death, director Kasper Collin’s film becomes more and more interested in the life of Helen, and it kind of turns into a documentary about her life, which is every bit as fascinating as Lee’s. It’s complemented by wintry images of New York and, unsurprisingly, an excellent soundtrack.

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Katharine Round’s The Divide

15. The Divide (Round): A fascinating film by Katherine Round that explores the vast (and increasing) gaps between the rich and poor in the United States and the UK, using seven subjects as case studies.

14. Trophy (Schwarz, Clusiau): There is a very even-handed approach to the emotive subject matter (big game trophy hunting): for all the sickening images of rich American holidaymakers standing over the magnificent lions, tigers and other animals they have paid considerable amounts of money to slaughter in the name of sport, there are also compellingly-put arguments that highlight the amount of money that such tourism brings into South Africa (the country that features the most here), and how in turn that money is subsequently spent on certain conservation projects or how it is used to combat the illegal, unchecked poaching of, say, rhinos and elephants. That said, although Trophy shows us how arguments for or against hunting are not quite as black and white as many of us might think they are, ultimately the witless, arrogant utterances of several hunters here – including one religious nutjob – ensured that my pre-existing views on the matter were well and truly cemented by the end.

13. Risk (Poitras): Laura Poitras’ latest documentary is a study of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, the Australian programmer who has been holed up in the Ecuador Embassy in London for the past five years. She ended up re-cutting the work, though, into Risk’s more critical presentation of Assange as a flawed character; a move that was triggered in part by some of his own on-screen comments about women and partly, as Poitras acknowledges via her candid voiceover, in the wake of her own brief affair with activist and Assange supporter Jacob Applebaum, who was publicly accused of abusing women in 2016. Some reviewers have criticised Poitras for entering into an affair with one of the subjects of the film, though the version released in 2017 seems balanced and honest to me, mostly as a result of her own commentary.

12. Five Came Back (Bouzerau): Netflix’s short, illuminating series explores the careers of five important Hollywood filmmakers – Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston – during the Second World War, as they helped with the US war effort. It’s fascinating to explore the stories behind films as diverse as William Wyler’s propaganda drama Mrs Miniver and Ford’s documentary The Battle Of Midway, and there’s lots of insightful commentary from the select band of interviewees (Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Francis Ford Coppola). Meryl Streep narrates. A follow-up focusing on the army careers of the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable would be great.

11. Kedi (Torun): A pleasant and often jauntily-scored ramble through the streets of Istanbul with a number of the city’s cats as the focus (though the film becomes just as much about the ordinary people who look out for the cats and care for them). Occasionally insightful, very restful and a good lesson for the majority of the rest of the world on how cities and residents of cities can be tolerant of and kind towards stray animals.

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Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet

10. Casting JonBenet (Green): Kitty Green’s Netflix documentary about the 1996 death of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey in her Boulder, Colorado family home is an unusual affair: it seeks the opinion on events from a number of actors, who are all auditioning to play (or who are eventually cast as) JonBenét, or members of her family and other people who were involved in the subsequent unsolved investigation.

9. LoveTrue (Har’el): Director Alma Har’el ruminates on modern love in this superbly edited documentary, which follows the lives of three American families (in Hawaii, Alaska and New York) as they go through some form of relationship upheavel. In Hawaii we follow William, a surfer who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is not the biological father of his son; in New York Har’el explores the reactions of seven siblings after their parents separate in the wake of an extra-marital affair; and, in Alaska, Blake works as a stripper while seemingly in a stable relationship with partner Joel, though financial strains and the nature of her job eventually cause problems for the couple. It’s interesting to see how people cope differently with loss and disappointment, and although on occasion the trio of stories become sad to watch, there are more than a few notes of optimism by the end… and there’s a commendably non-judgemental stance towards the people who welcomed the director and her cameras into their lives.

8. Zero Days (Gibney): A film that sheds light on the process of cyberwarfare and, in doing so, confirms that we’re all absolutely fucked.

7. I Am Not Your Negro (Peck): Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary concerns the life and times of writer, critic and activist James Baldwin, and is based partly on his unfinished manuscript Remember This House. The film gets to grips with Baldwin’s life (at least the mainly public-facing side of it), and his observations on and role within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, occasionally underscoring his words with modern footage of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s a powerful piece that is put together very well by Peck and his editor Alexandra Strauss, who weave in archive news depicting racism towards black people, racist TV and film footage and Baldwin’s 1960s TV interviews, conducted with largely clueless white hosts who are sadly struggling to understand what all the noise is about. A restrained and low key Samuel L Jackson narrates.

6. Tower (Maitland): Keith Maitland’s gripping account of the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas, in which 15 people died (including the shooter, Charles Whitman, who had earlier murdered his wife and his mother). It blends rotoscoped dramatisations of events with numerous eyewitness accounts and newsreel footage that was shot on the day, and the looseness of the animation technique and the vibrant colours used seem apt when applied to a mid-1960s American campus – a politically-explosive place within a conservative state, for sure, but also somewhere right on the cusp of the hippie, psychedelic era. Maitland’s documentary captures the chaos of the morning as well as a film could possibly hope to, and the rotoscoping never once comes across as being a gimmick, which I had feared when I first heard about its use. If anything, when we eventually see the real footage of the survivors as they are today, near the end of the film, the fact that images of their faces have been withheld for so long seems to make their appearances doubly powerful and moving. This is inventive, effective storytelling.

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Yance Ford’s Strong Island

5. Strong Island (Ford): A moving, powerful documentary by Yance Ford about the murder of his brother William Jr – who was shot dead during an argument at a gas station in Long Island in the 1990s – as well as the subsequent investigation, which Ford argues was not as thorough as it should have been and has as a result caused the family much anguish during the interim years. Ford often appears, speaking directly to the camera about how he feels and spelling out exactly why he feels the way he does, his face filling the majority of the screen; it’s a powerful technique that adds to the overall righteousness and anger of the piece, while appearances by other members of the Ford family are equally saddening, and maddening.

4. City Of Ghosts (Heineman): A harrowing film by Matthew Heineman, who has followed up the acclaimed drug trade reportage of Cartel Land with a piece that relies more heavily on footage captured by other people. City Of Ghosts details the dangerous work being carried out by the Syrian citizen journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, who have been reporting on the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their homeland for the past few years. Many of these journalists and their family members have been threatened, arrested or executed by ISIS, and the film mostly follows a half dozen who have made it out of the country (to Turkey, though they all eventually end up in Germany) and tries to understand the stressful circumstances in which they must carry out their normal lives. It’s a fascinating watch that lurches from the relative calm of the journalists’ new lives (which do involve protests with the far right but also marriage, and childbirth) with the sickening footage that captures public executions, warnings and the indoctrination of children in Raqqa.

3. The Work (McLeary, Aldous): This fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary is made up almost entirely of footage shot during a four-day group therapy session within Folsom State Prison. The programme involves incarcerated inmates – including several current and former gang members serving multiple life sentences – and members of the general public, who are apparently admitted after a strict vetting process that involves the input of prisoners (though there is not much information given on the procedural aspects of the whole affair, despite brief use of title cards). What happens is surprising – a very confrontational, testosterone-fuelled series of sessions that include plenty of primal screams and physical contact as the participants work through a variety of issues (though, it must be said, several seem to revolve around long-standing problems with their fathers). It’s utterly compelling to watch, and clearly of considerable benefit to those who take part.

2. Cameraperson (Johnson): A moving memoir of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s career behind the lens to date, reflecting on the places she has been, the people she has met, her relationships with collaborators and the way in which her life has changed as a result of her work.

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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

1. The Vietnam War (Burns, Novick): A thorough, informative TV series by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick, who combine archive footage and interviews with an excellent soundtrack – which balances Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score with obvious but expensively-licensed late 60s/early 70s hits – and some stunning still photography. I appreciated the attempts to depict a balanced view of events, with talking-head screen time divided equally between American and Vietnamese survivors of the war. Frequently moving, with facts presented clearly and simply. (I should note that I watched the 10-hour BBC edit, rather than the 18-hour PBS original.)

2017 Round-up Part I

 

First of all, thanks to anyone who read The Last Picture Blog during 2017. I appreciate that this round-up of the year is a bit late, and that most bloggers published their ‘end-of-year’ lists and whatnot a while ago, but I’ve only just caught up in terms of posting about the films I watched in December, and it seemed like I should wait until doing that before trying to write a summary post of the year.

Prior to 2017 I used this blog to write a little more in-depth about each film that I watched, but I don’t have as much spare time on my hands these days, and at the start of the year I decided to make some changes. The main decision, and the first thing that I did, was to delete the existing archive so that the only content you could see related to films that I watched during the current year. That means that after I’ve posted a few round-ups this week (my favourite documentaries of 2017 and my favourite features of 2017 will follow in separate posts) I’ll delete everything on the blog again and move on to 2018. Hopefully that’s clear, but don’t worry if it doesn’t make any sense… the world will keep on turning, after all.

Oh, and one further thing: I’m using Letterboxd’s excellent stats service for this update. You can find me here, if you happen to be on Letterboxd yourself, and if you’re not, I can highly recommend it.

General viewing habits

Apparently I watched a total of 426 films in 2017, though that does include shorts and a fair number of silent pictures, which of course tend to be much shorter than the feature lengths we are used to today. Total time spent watching films was 769.2 hours, or roughly 32 days, or just over a month, depending on the period of time you like the best (though it’s not wholly accurate, as I don’t sit through credits in their entirety). As you’ve probably guessed from that number, I tend to watch a film most evenings, either at home or in one of our two local cinemas (there’s a multiplex about five minutes’ drive from where I live, as well as a smaller arthouse cinema that tends to get new releases a couple of months later than everywhere else). On top of that I might watch a film during the day before/during/after work, if time allows. Unfortunately that means I split these viewings into half-an-hour before work, 50 minutes to an hour during my lunch break, and half-an-hour after work, which is sacrilege in the mind of some people but I don’t mind breaking movies up and I tend to watch the things that I’m not so bothered about that way anyway; anything I really care about I’ll see at home, uninterrupted, or in a cinema. Occasionally I’ll have a blow-out weekend and watch between 9 and 12 films over the course of three days, too. My wife, thankfully, is very understanding.

Of those 426 films I watched just one of them three times (Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, which I saw twice in the cinema and once at home), and two of them twice (Manchester By The Sea and Dunkirk, both seen at the cinema once and at home once). I mostly watched American films, and dramas, although apparently I sat through 92 comedies in total. That’s absolutely news to me.

The most-watched actors were Ewan McGregor and Samuel L Jackson (8 times each), which I’m sad to say is partly because I decided to re-watch the Star Wars prequels last autumn to see if they were as bad as I remember them being (they were worse, as it happens). After that comes Georges Méliès (7 times, mostly during an exhibition about his life and work in Cadiz) and a variety of other male stars with 6 viewings (Joel Edgerton, Tom Cruise, Adam Driver, Anthony Daniels and Michael Fassbender. I watched Marion Cotillard act in five different films, and even though they were a mixed bag, she was good in all of them apart from Assassin’s Creed. There’s absolutely nothing good about Assassin’s Creed. #

In terms of directors, I watched 12 films by Méliès, 5 by Agnès Varda (all excellent), 5 by silent film pioneer Alice Guy and 4 apiece by the Lumières, Charlie Chaplin and George Lucas (American Graffiti, as well as those dastardly prequels).

Notable viewings

I’m going to publish separate ‘favourites’ lists for 2017 UK releases, but I thought I’d finish off this post with a list of older (i.e. pre-2017) films that made a strong impression on me in one way or another when I saw them for the first time. (They’re ordered simply by date watched.) I rated all of these films as 4, 4.5 or 5 out of 5 on Letterboxd, which basically means I’d recommend all of them. Those that were part of my ‘Blind Spots’ list for 2017 (i.e. recognised classics I needed to get round to watching for the first time) are marked with an asterisk, while several were watched as part of a film studies distance learning course that I enrolled in with the University of Exeter.

The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)
On The Waterfront (Kazan, 1954)
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012)
Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)
Scenes From A Marriage (Bergman, 1973)
The Four Troublesome Heads (Méliès, 1898)
Seven Samurai* (Kurosawa, 1954)
The Man With The Golden Arm (Preminger, 1955)
On The Town (Donen, Kelly, 1949)
Volver (Almodóvar, 2006)
Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)
Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)
L’Avventura* (Antonioni, 1960)
Great Expectations (Lean, 1946)
A Wedding (Altman, 1978)
Suspiria* (Argento, 1977)
Songs From The Second Floor (Andersson, 2000)
Beau Travail (Denis, 1999)
Cléo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)
The Human Beast (Renoir, 1938)
Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)
To Kill A Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962)
In A Lonely Place* (Ray, 1950)
Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel, 1929)
The House Is Black (Farrokhzad, 1963)
Harold And Maude (Ashby, 1971)
The Bridges Of Madison County (Eastwood, 1995)
Limelight (Chaplin, 1952)
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg* (Demy, 1964)
Let The Right One In (Alfredson, 2008)
The Man With The Rubber Head (Méliès, 1901)
The Melomaniac (Méliès, 1903)
Atonement (Wright, 2007)
M*A*S*H (Altman, 1970)
The Third Man (Reed, 1949)
Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans* (Murnau, 1927)
Le Bonheur (Varda, 1965)
The Selfish Giant (Barnard, 2013)
Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Kechiche, 2013)
La Strada (Fellini, 1954)
The Sting* (Hill, 1973)
One More Time With Feeling (Dominik, 2016)
Lourdes (Hausner, 2009)
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (Gervasi, 2008)
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind* (Spielberg, 1977)
The Gleaners & I (Varda, 2000)
You, The Living (Andersson, 2007)
Meek’s Cutoff* (Reichardt, 2010)
Philomena (Frears, 2013)
Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977)
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)
Plein Soleil (Clément, 1960)
PlayTime (Tati, 1967)
The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Cousins, 2011)
Barry Lyndon* (Kubrick, 1975)
Woman On The Run (Foster, 1950)
The Square (Noujaim, 2013)
Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki, 1966)
8 1/2* (Fellini, 1963)
Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993)
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (Yates, 1973)
Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)

As I look back on this I realise there are a hell of a lot that I’d like to watch again, and if I was to pick five absolute favourites from the list I’d probably say The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, PlayTime, Barry Lyndon, On The Waterfront and Schindler’s List were the ones that made the biggest impression. Anyway, that’s all from me for now, I’ll be back in a couple of days with my Top 20 documentaries of 2017.

 

Call Me By Your Name

Watched: 31 December

This awards season contender is a story of stuttering love involving a half-Italian, half-American teenager (Elio, 17, played by Timothée Chalamet) and an older American student (Oliver, 24, played by the very-much-not-24 Armie Hammer), set in Italy in the early 1980s – though unfortunately I didn’t quite connect with it as passionately as many of its fans have; by which I mean that I liked, rather than fell head-over-heels for, this film.

It’s based on André Aciman’s novel, which has been elegantly adapted for the screen by James Ivory, and director Luca Guadagnino has form with regard to tales of complicated romances in sun-kissed, idyllic southern European settings – to the point you can almost smell the olive groves and lemon trees that are dotted around the landscape in his films; his previous feature A Bigger Splash was set on the island of Lampedusa, while characters in 2009’s I Am Love sporadically left the city of Milan for passionate affairs in the surrounding countryside.

Most of the action takes place at the house owned by Elio’s parents, or the surrounding village, but there’s a brief excursion to Rome that jars a little, perhaps deliberately so – it certainly comes at a key point in the timeline of the romance. At the house, Elio’s mother (competently played by Amira Casar) does not get to affect the story too much, though his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) has more of an influence over the prevailing mood of the film, particularly during its standout latter stages. Their residence is large, and given that it’s summer the characters spend their evenings outside, enjoying convivial feasts that also feature friends and neighbours before Elio, Oliver and Elio’s girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) move on to local discos. It’s here – inhibitions and self-control removed by alcohol – that we begin to see the strength of Elio’s feelings for Oliver, whose stay with the family is only temporary; and perhaps there are early hints that the feeling is mutual. We also hear for the first time (though not the last) The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way – an uplifting 80s hit that Oliver seems to enjoy more than just about everyone else, and it courses through the film alongside a few notable Eurodisco hits and Sufjan Stevens’ brittle original score. Stevens has been Oscar nominated for his song Mystery Of Love, but Love My Way is absolutely the defining tune of this film, becoming a kind of rallying call for one young gay man, at least.

A love story stands or falls on the performances of its leads, and although I’m yet to make up my mind on Hammer (I suspect he is an actor with limitations, but good directors keep casting him and, in fairness, he is good here), the ace up the film’s sleeve is the performance by Chalamet, who is superb from his first scene until the very last one – an emotional gut punch which plays out rather well during the end credits. His Elio is a confident but bookish teenager, privately anxious (or perhaps simply hesitant) about revealing his own sexual identity, and experiencing certain feelings (I assume) for the first time as he negotiates that tricky first love. Elio is the beating heart of the film and a completely believable character, and I think Chalamet deserves all of the praise and awards season-related bunkum that he has come his way.

For some reason I feel the need to state my slight preference for A Bigger Splash; I just think there’s a little more to that piece than meets the eye, though undoubtedly it’s brasher and more attention-seeking than Call Me By Your Name. This more-celebrated effort is obviously very good, though, and is a very classy piece of work, for sure. (****)

Bright

Watched: 29 December

I watched a couple of long Ken Burns / Lynne Novack documentaries over the Christmas and New Year period and needed some light relief. Bright is not the worst film of 2017, as some critics suggested upon its Netflix debut, but this is not a particularly impressive effort by David Ayer either. There is – like Alien Nation before it – an attempt to blend the buddy cop action thriller with a completely different genre (in this case fantasy), and the premise is intriguing enough, but despite the gimmicky use of orc characters and the like it’s still just a collection of cop movie cliches and nondescript action sequences. And every time that I watch Will Smith in less-serious roles these days he seems to struggle; he certainly labours through long periods of this uninspired movie. (**)

Dunkirk

Rewatched: 26 December

Here’s what I thought when I first watched Dunkirk in the cinema last summer…

In a way Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed and much-loved Dunkirk is the logical conclusion of ‘set piece’-oriented blockbuster filmmaking, because even though he has three stories of varying length playing out concurrently (and edited together superbly) in this WWII-set drama, his 100-minute-long film is effectively one very long, very tense sequence that builds and builds towards a particularly thrilling finale. That’s an awful prospect for us to consider with the future in mind, because lesser directors will try to pull off something similar and will fail, but in this case I was gripped throughout and felt for the first time in a long time that I was watching a blockbuster worthy of the name. Anyway, just to be clear, Dunkirk is also much more than just an extended, bravura action sequence; it has Mark Rylance’s kind-faced performance and Tom Hardy’s narrowing eyebrows; the otherness of the icy Channel and the miserable rain-swept beach; Harry Styles’ unexpectedly effective panic and Hans Zimmer’s apt metronomic score. There’s a lot here to enjoy.

With regard to the soundtrack, during the upbeat nature of the finale (some of which doesn’t quite sit right, such as Kenneth Branagh’s clunky delivery of the line “Hope”), I did really love how the composer incorporated Elgar’s Nimrod. That was beautiful and I was surprised to find myself fighting back tears and feeling a degree of pride; it is quite something to imagine at this point a granddad or other loved one making their way back from France – sans musical accompaniment – and it’s something that is bound to affect many people. I certainly don’t understand why anyone would sneer at or look down on such a reaction in other cinemagoers, should they experience the film differently. Anyway, I think Dunkirk is a superb technical achievement and an extremely effective way of playing around with narrative threads; and it’s also one of the finest war films since Saving Private Ryan, if not the finest. (*****)

Berlin Syndrome

Watched: 26 December

There’s nothing particularly original about this thriller, in which an Australian backpacker is held captive by a sadistic teacher in Berlin, but it did hold my attention throughout and I think the performances are sound. Once Clare (Teresa Palmer) is trapped inside the ultra-secure apartment owned by Andi (Max Riemelt) it’s just a matter of sitting through the hour or so in which he has complete control over her until she begins to get the upper hand; you know it’s coming, but at least when it happens it feels satisfying, a bit like the escape in Room. (***)

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Watched: 23 December

Matt Reeves’ gloomy, CGI-laden Apes trilogy rumbles to a close with this misfiring finale, which suffers partly from Woody Harrelson’s hammy turn as a Colonel Kurtz-like rogue military leader (a nod that’s reinforced through the cringe-inducing underground graffiti reading ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’ that appears in the corridors below his stronghold), and also partly through the addition of comparatively thinly-drawn new simian characters, including Steve Zahn’s comic relief mo-cap performance as chimpanzee ‘Bad Ape’. The series has always been heavily reliant on Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, the leader of the evolved apes, but the casting aside of multiple human characters played by the likes of James Franco, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, John Lithgow, Brian Cox and David Oyelowo has eventually taken its toll, and the franchise has lost some of its earlier focus. Reeves goes for a big, emotional ending, but I’m afraid I’d stopped caring long before the two hours was up. (**½)

Gook

Watched: 22 December

An engaging, low-budget drama about two Korean brothers – and more generally about racism experienced by Korean people in Los Angeles – that is set against the backdrop of the 1992 LA riots. It’s crisply shot in black-and-white, and the look of the film had me recalling several notable indies that were actually made in the early 1990s, so it seems to me like a good stylistic choice. The script is occasionally a little bit on-the-nose, particularly when writer/director Justin Chon is seeking to establish and then resolve conflicts between his characters, but even when the film is at its most heavy-handed at least Chon is trying to say something about Los Angeles and racism in America. Worth a look. (***½)

The Snowman

Watched: 20 December

A shame, really, that Thomas Alfredson ran out of something (Time? Money?) while making The Snowman – you can tell that some scenes in this police procedural are missing, presumably having never been shot, and ultimately the film fails badly because of its resulting incoherence. It’s not abysmal, though, despite what some people would have you believe; for one thing there’s some stunning cinematography to enjoy here, on a par with anything in Alfredson’s last two films. But Michael Fassbender struggles to do much with his character, a cliche of a detective who is fighting various inner demons, while with the exception of JK Simmons the supporting players (Val Kilmer, Chloe Sevigny, Toby Jones et al) are all horribly miscast. (*½)

That Cold Day In The Park

Watched: 20 December

Among other things, this film highlights Robert Altman’s adaptability and diverse approach to filmmaking during the late 1960s and early 1970s; That Cold Day In The Park – a Vancouver-set mix of melodrama, suspense and clashing cultures – sits in his filmography between 1968’s Countdown (a low-key sci-fi drama) and the risky 1970 Vietnam War allegory M*A*S*H – and it’s hard to imagine three more different films being made by anyone else in such a short space of time. Sandy Dennis stars here, playing Frances, a woman from an ‘old money’ family who takes pity on a young hippie (Michael Burns) after spotting him shivering in the park overlooked by her large apartment. She invites him in and he becomes a mute house guest, returning occasionally and surreptitiously to his own friends and lover, but mostly staying put and enjoying the luxury that has temporarily come his way. There’s increasing sexual tension between the pair, with Frances intrigued by the man’s countercultural leanings, though throughout she seems to be a character in limbo: unable to take action and satisfy her own desires, and very much shaped by her own conservative, upper class family and social circle. The pace is slow, with some scenes lasting a minute or two longer than is really necessary, but this does allow the director and actors plenty of time to emphasise the awkwardness that exists between the two main characters before the cringe-inducing and surprising denouement. Dennis and Burns are very good. (***½)

Girls Trip

Watched: 19 December

Some have found uproarious comedy and many laughs here, which is great, because overall 2017 has been a very lean year for funny films. The four protagonists – on holiday in New Orleans – are all likeable enough, and the film certainly benefits from a couple of standout performances, but I just didn’t click with it – Girls Trip hits all the same beats as countless other supposedly raunchy and offensive comedies, and it shoehorns in its quota of cameo appearances with a disappointing predictability. I didn’t see much originality in relation to the comic set pieces either, but I guess it just isn’t for me and I’ll move on accordingly. (**)

Lost In Paris

Watched: 18 December

A light-hearted, Paris-set comedy by writers/directors/stars Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel that thankfully doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. The humour here is pitched somewhere between Tati and Mr Bean, though doubtless the filmmakers would prefer the comparison to the former; I’m afraid that for me it fell short, and I found its kookiness more than a little irritating. Still… it contains one of Emmanuelle Riva’s last performances and it’s hardly the kind of film you can be too offended by. It’s just not my bag. (*½)

The Friends Of Eddie Coyle

Watched: 18 December

A bleak, gripping early-70s crime thriller that has enjoyed cult status for a number of years, though it does appear to be finding a wider audience at long last due to recent US and UK DVD/Blu-Ray releases by Eureka and Criterion; if you are a fan of the American New Wave generally then it’s well worth seeking out. Robert Mitchum delivers one of the best performances of his career as Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle, a Boston delivery driver and low-level gangster who supplies guns to those higher up the food chain, principally a trio of bank robbers he has been working with for years. Events that have transpired prior to the start of the story mean that Eddie has turned informer to the ATF in order to receive a reduced jail term, and some of the tension here comes from his playing of both sides, though it seems inevitable throughout the film that it will all catch up with him eventually. This is augmented by some superbly orchestrated and nail-biting robbery and gun-dealing sequences, each of which is masterfully handled by director Peter Yates, who is perhaps best known for Bullitt and the late-1970s coming-of-age comedy Breaking Away – though for my money this is his best film. There’s an excellent supporting performance by Peter Boyle, too, and a fine jazz-funk score by Dave Grusin. Should be seen by more people. (****½)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Watched: 17 December

(Some spoilers below.)
I have mixed feelings about this latest Star Wars film, though as per usual I do wonder whether any negative thoughts I have with regard to Rian Johnson’s franchise entry have partly been caused by unrealistic expectations (I’ve said this umpteen times before on this blog, but a cinema could show a steaming pile of dung on screen for two hours and I’d happily sit there if they ran a John Williams score and an opening crawl at the start, which is my way of saying I like Star Wars very much indeed). In short, I enjoyed the usual space battle derring-do, as well as the slow, incessant chase that played out across the entire movie (a storyline used to better effect and more concisely in the remake of Battlestar Galactica). I also liked the moments of sly humour contained within, from Luke tossing away his lightsaber and brushing imaginary dust off his shoulder to the snivelling antics of Hux and his officers in the face of their Sith companions, plus it was nice to once again spend time with the older characters, even if lots of them seem to hang around offscreen doing next to nothing for two and a half hours (eg C-3PO, R2-D2, Chewbacca and all of the stormtroopers).

However, it’s a shame that Johnson didn’t seem to know what to do with a couple of the newer faces, either. John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey are kept apart for most of the film, which means The Last Jedi misses much of the dynamic that was such an integral, successful part of The Force Awakens, and the extended sequence in which Finn is off at a casino for well-to-do aliens with new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) reminded me of the very worst excesses of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, though I do wonder whether kids will be entertained more by that bit (which is, of course, the point). Elsewhere, Johnson cannot seem to find an answer to the now-established question ‘what’s the point of Captain Phasma?’, and in his hands BB-8 becomes just another droid, as opposed to the comic strong point that JJ Abrams created.

Sadly, the film loses much of its momentum every time that Rey or Adam Driver’s complicated emo villain Kylo Ren disappear from the screen, and though the pair get to enjoy a battle side-by-side as we move into the final act it’s a shame that Rey subsequently becomes such a passive figure during the main finale, when it should have been her turn to shine. Like many other viewers I’m not sure what to make of the late Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia suddenly being able to fly through space, either; even in a series that asks its audience to believe in a concept such as the Force, and all the other things that can be achieved by learning to make use of it… that did seem a little incongruous. I’m hardly angry about it, though, and I do fear for those out there who get so riled up by such things that they commission petitions for the movie to be remade or argue the toss with the director on social media for several weeks on end. Anyway, The Last Jedi is just about entertaining enough overall, and notable for some memorable riffs on old images (the twin suns appearing as Luke dies, the re-shown Princess Leia hologram, the big spacecraft crash) as well as a couple of newly-minted moments designed to elicit collective gasps. Johnson manages to provide a fresh take on old themes, too, and asks questions of these heroes and their causes in much the same way Gareth Edwards tried with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; both films attempt to dispense with the simplicity of ‘good versus evil’, recognising that it was still a lot of fun in the late 1970s but doesn’t play quite as well today. That seems like a good idea to me, but oddly enough I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m happy Abrams – a director more at home with simpler tales in which heroes are heroic and villians are villainous – is about to take over the reins again. (***)