My favourite films of 2016

Being very strict with myself this year and definitely sticking to a top 10. It hasn’t been easy, and you can see a ranking of my 2016 film viewing here. The top 12 and bottom 5 are in order, but the stuff in between is more of a general reflection than anything precise.

One note – I’ve deliberately left off Xavier Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde from my list. I saw the UK premier at the London Film Festival this year and it would have been in my top 10, but it’s not being properly released in the UK until February 2017 so I’m being good and not including it. Which gives me room for an extra film!

Number 10 – Anomalisa

Such a beautiful animation. Every detail has been acutely observed – the way fingers curls around a cigarette, a hand opening a medication bottle – even the slight rise and fall of the chest as a character breathes gently. So, so exquisite, and a striking exploration of why romantic relationships fail so easily.

Number 9 – Captain America: Civil War

It’s like when Michael Corleone realises that his brother Fredo betrayed him – it hurts.

Number 8 – Paterson

A film about an ordinary man who writes poetry is, in fact, a poem to ordinary people.

Number 7 – I, Daniel Blake

Not an easy film to watch, but one which must be seen.

Number 6 – Umimachi Diary – Our Little Sister

Maybe I’m being predictable having a film from one of my favourite directors here, but Kore-eda Hirokazu usually hits the mark. Here he presents the delicate intricacies of family life in which on the surface not much happens, but beneath that, each family member learns something about herself and her sisters, without huge revelations or tantrums. Subtle, gentle, delightful and insightful.

Number 5 – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Shit. Just. Got. Real. Funny, sweet and serious in equal measure – and most definitely majestical.

Number 4 – Son of Saul

This much-awarded film was released in other regions in 2015, but we had to wait until this year for it. It was worth it – required, though not easy, viewing.

Number 3 – Arrival

With a narrative exploring philosophical questions about language, semantics and culture, and how this impacts on our view of the world, it was always going to appeal to this language geek. It also presents the idea that in learning a language, we open up a window into how other cultures think, and that it might be markedly different from our own comfortable view of existence.

Number 2 – Hail, Caesar!

Joel and Ethan Coen explore the subject of faith – whether it’s faith in religion, political ideals or in other people, it all boils down to what’s important to you and what you’re willing to stand up for. I’m standing up for Channing Tatum dancing on a table.

Number 1 – A Bigger Splash

Multi-layered film with an excellent cast that took me with it wherever it wanted me to follow. No questions asked.

Agree or disagree? Let me know – would love to know your top films of the year! You can find the whole list of 2016 films I saw this year ranked here on Letterboxd.

 

 

 

My least favourite films of 2016

I generally manage to stay away from the absolute worst films of the year, but I was scuppered this time around because some of the biggest and most hyped also turned out to be totally and utterly abysmal. Feel free to disagree!

Click on the film title below for my original thoughts on each one.

Number 5 –The Legend of Tarzan

Not even Alexander Skarsgård’s beautifully toned abs could rescue this – mainly because there wasn’t a comprehensible storyline to be found.

Number 4 – Suicide Squad

I love Margot Robbie, but this is her second appearance in this list. She was one of the few good things about Suicide Squad but this was an unholy mess of a film and was only marginally better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in that it didn’t make me angry, just bored.

Number 3 – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Tom Cruise tries to prove to both himself and viewers that he is still capable of doing the same action movie stuff but it only prompted me to issue a cease and desist notice.

Number 2 – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Wonder Woman aside, the women are mothers or girlfriends to be rescued at appropriate moments, to be easily sacrificed, or to be an anonymous plaything for a billionaire vigilante on his night off. A complete fiasco.

Number 1 – Gods of Egypt

The only good thing I could find to say about it was that it mercifully came to an end.

Favourite films coming up in the next post!

Cruising (1980)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

Controversial when it first appeared, with objections from gay rights activists disrupting filming and the censors forcing huge edits, this now plays as a very interesting but confusing story.

At first it appears to be the attempt of an undercover cop (Pacino) to find a killer who has been murdering gay men from New York’s S&M nightclubs. But part way through, we start to question how far the police officer is prepared to go to find the perpetrator, and then begin to wonder if he isn’t uncovering something more deeply personal about himself instead. By the time we reach the end, we’re actually not sure of anything at all, not even if the correct criminal has been apprehended.

Perhaps these elements of confusion are deliberate, intended to match Pacino’s character’s personal confusion. But to me it felt like we needed a little less ambiguity, or at least a commitment to whether the crime solving or personal revelations were the main focus. I suspect this may have been lost in the editing, which is a real shame.

Nevertheless, Pacino’s performance is very good, as he evolves from a generic patrol cop to something much more internalised and dark.

La fille inconnue – The Unknown Girl

Just after seeing this movie, I read that directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne had originally intended to make this film with Marion Cotillard but it didn’t work so they made Two Days, One Night with her instead.

And intriguingly, having had two years to sort out The Unknown Girl, the two films have so many similarities it makes me wonder why they didn’t abandon the idea completely – this latest film is definitely the weaker and contains some contrivances which I struggled to accept.

Adèle Haenel plays earnest doctor Jenny Davin who is plagued by guilt when she learns that she failed to open her door to a young woman who is then found to have died nearby. This guilt drives her to seek the girl’s identity, presumably in an attempt to atone for her earlier (in)action.

For some reason, her position as doctor allows her to begin her own private investigation, and so she sets off door to door (I swear, some of the very same doors that Madame Cotillard knocked on) to seek answers. Quite how she has time to do this given her long list of patients and no receptionist to even check the patients through the door for her is not explained. Neither is the presence of her intern. At the start it feels like he – or their relationship – will have some importance, but his thread later in the storyline seems to have little purpose – it certainly doesn’t explain why Dr Davin behaves as she did, although I suspect this was the intention.

Not to be too down on The Unknown Girl; there are definitely some very interesting and tantalising thoughts bubbling below the surface. There are strains of an examination of class, given Jenny’s choice of work environment. There are the beginnings of a look at immigration or race relations in modern-day Belgium, and perhaps even a question as to how the police respond to these. And there are a couple of lovely moments of generosity of spirit, reminding us that most people are genuinely good and are just trying to get on with their lives.

But being honest, the film lacked the bite of the Dardennes’ previous release, and the similarities only serve to underline this.

A version of this post first appeared on www.filmdispenser.com

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Perplexed.

I understand where this film lies in the Star Wars movie-verse, and that this obviously means that there will be links to other films. I also understand that there will be all kinds of references to things which mean nothing to me but which will satisfy those who are more immersed in the universe than I, and which won’t cause a problem to those of us who have no knowledge of anything other than the films.

But. When I leave the cinema thinking that the trailers seemed to have been for a different film, and that there were huge jumps in character or timeline that I didn’t grasp, then I have to wonder what happened. If I can’t understand a film in isolation, then I have a bad feeling about this.

I will say that apart from being a bit confused I was generally entertained while watching this. I was certainly was impressed by the final act, and happy that they made those choices they did with regard to how the characters ended up. Of course I loved Mads Mikkelsen (underused for the second time this year), Donnie Yen, and the dark lord wielding his light sabre down a corridor. But this was not enough for this non-Star Wars freak.

Our main group of rebels all seemed to have the potential to be really interesting in their own right (stand up Riz Ahmed and Diego Luna), but we learn next to nothing about them; what we do discover is largely contradictory, particularly Jyn and Cassian. I didn’t understand why Cassian would do something so brutal when we first meet him, then appear to have a change of heart later on. Jyn hopped around from being sullen kid to rebel leader with no character development and little believability from Felicity Jones, and I have no idea what Forest Whitaker was being or doing – nor why he grew a full head of hair between the trailer and the film.

I also side with those who feel that the controversial CGI characters were a mis-step. For the one we spend more time with, it was definitely a case of being creeped out by the glassy eyes and weirdly moving mouth.

Definitely underwhelmed.

 

Inglorious Location

I took myself off for a short pre-Christmas break in one of my favourite cities this weekend – Berlin!

I’ve already described a couple of locations from The Bourne Supremacy in a previous post, and this time, I even did the complete ‘get on a tram in Alexanderplatz’ thing that Jason and Nicky did.

But there’s much more to Berlin than that, and so this time I found myself eating Apfelstrudel. A bit like this:

strudel

Obviously a scene from Inglorious Basterds, no-one eats with more charming menace than Christoph Waltz. If you know the film well, you’ll know that the scene is set in Paris, but it was actually filmed in a beautiful café in Berlin – Café Einstein Stammhaus.

The café has a large open area, and a smaller room in which filming took place but which was unfortunately full when I arrived so I ended up sitting in the larger area.

strudel

No matter; I ordered my Apfelstrudel and coffee, and of course it was delicious.

cafeeinstein

Here’s the full, chilling scene, if you want to experience it again.

A United Kingdom

When the London Film Festival chose this to open its 2016 schedule, it seems obvious that they were making a statement. Several of them, to be honest.

Earlier in the year, director Amma Asante was one of a number of film makers invited to become a member of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, following the criticisms levelled that the Oscars lacked racial diversity. A short time later, Asante’s film A United Kingdom was announced for LFF’s opening night, putting her in the position of being the first black British director to be given that honour. This selection also comes in a year in which the lack of female directors has been a regular talking point.

But do not assume for one moment that because Asante is a woman, this is purely a costume-clad story about the trials and tribulations of an inter-racial romance.

In fact, the romance is merely the starting point for a much bigger story, with major social, economic and political implications that even the people involved hadn’t foreseen. Amma Asante together with star and producer David Oyelowo (who has been nurturing this story for several years) have given us a remarkable insight into how the marriage of two people apparently threatened not only the political stability of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), but also of the British Empire, and is a much more interesting and intricate story than the trailer would have us believe.

Without too much heavy-handedness about the grander political machinations in the chambers of power, we learn that the marriage creates ripples beyond any of the protagonists’ imagination, and it is to the credit of the two main actors that we do not get lost in the diplomatic and back-stabbing but remain locked with the personal. Those who have seen Selma will know that Oyelowo can deliver rousing speeches with conviction, but here he also gets to be as politically cute and astute as the British civil servant overlords – played with unfortunate moustache-twirling dastardliness by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton. Rosamund Pike brings all her English rose loveliness to her role, a character who is challenged but not broken by the environment in which she suddenly finds herself an outsider.

There are one or two things in the plot which I found to be a little too convenient for the storyline, but as this is based on true events I can only assume that these were artistic choices made to move the storytelling on – and which I was prepared to overlook while watching. Truth be told, they probably ended up simplifying things a little too much, and I imagine that actual events were far more complex.

Amma Asante creates the contrast between rainy, smoggy London and dry dusty Bechuanaland in the palette choices, with much of London being presented at night, showing up the beautiful yellows of Africa in direct opposition.

I will admit that there were a couple of occasions where I might have got a speck of dust in my eye – not at the romantic story however, but at simple touches of human kindness when they were not expected.

Overall it’s a film that tells an interesting story in a charming and understatedly powerful way; I expect there is enough material to have created a mini-series in fact, as I suspect the surface has barely been scratched.

A version of this post also appeared at www.filmdispenser.com

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I know, I know, the clue is in the title – there are plenty of fantastic beasts in this film.

Sadly, the bits with the beasts were the least interesting, with the exception of the clingy stick insect and the kleptomaniac platypus. The bits with people were far and away more interesting – and yet the most interesting of these didn’t really get enough screen time as there was so much else going on.

It was quite nice to be back in a version of the familiar Harry Potter world, but I ended up just wishing I was watching the original films again.

Paterson

A film about an ordinary man who writes poetry is, in fact, a poem to ordinary people.

Trying to make this film sound a worthwhile watch is difficult because the usual way in which we talk about films doesn’t truly apply.

There is no major drama, no huge arguments, any slight issues are resolved with a phone call or a cup-cake. It’s like when my Dad asks me have I had a busy day and all I did was go to work and then put the washing-machine on so I say ‘Oh not really’ and yet it’s not like I’ve been sitting around in my pyjamas all day eating chocolate hob-nobs. Things have happened, I did actual things, but not worth making a fuss about.

And so this film is just that – unfussy, ordinary, normal.

But not boring. Not for one moment, and here credit is definitely due to Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani. Without their engaging performances it would have been two hours of absolutely nothing. OK, so Farahani is perhaps just verging on manic pixie but they are both clearly content in the relationship and she is a cheerful, believable character who does things for herself and has plans for her future. Adam Driver though is truly outstanding in just driving a bus around, taking the dog for a walk, and writing his poetry. There is nothing showy about his character, there’s no scenery chewing, yet he is totally believable. I would feel completely safe if he were driving my bus.

Something in the tone, pace and even small-town setting put me in mind of the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, where major drama is often absent and the gentle pace of life and day-to-day events keep things moving forwards.

Just like real life.