Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Patriots’ Day

Patriots’ Day recreates the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the real-life manhunt by law enforcement that ensued. It stars Mark Wahlberg as a composite character of several police officers who were instrumental in the case. These facts, and the film’s title which inevitably provokes caution in a non-American audience for whom “patriot” can feel like a dirty word, may have you shaking your head and rolling your eyes.

But the film also evokes the nail-bitingly brilliant United 93 in its assiduous use of facts and its ability to create extraordinary tension around an event with which we are already familiar. It stars John Goodman, J. K. Simmons and Kevin Bacon who portray real players in the game of cat and mouse. And it manages to be desperately moving, respectful and exciting, all in one movie.

Director Peter Berg acted for many years before launching a career behind the camera which produced many of my lowest cinematic moments, notably Battleship and Deepwater Horizon. Remarkably, Patriots’ Day eschews the cheesy script, soaring horns traditional in patriotic American soundtracks and bland acting, and instead puts out a truly heart-pumping thriller which lacks judgement of its baddies and only shuffles a wee way over the line in terms of glorifying its heroes.

Like United 93, the front end of the film focuses on setting up the fateful day and introducing us to the key players: the terrorists and the civilians whose lives will be irreparably changed in the space of 12 seconds. This scene-setting is handled really nicely, particularly the private moments between newlyweds Patrick and Jessica, and the fascinating introduction of a young Chinese app developer Dun Meng (played by Silicon Valley‘s Jimmy O. Yang) whose pivotal role does not become clear until well into Act 2.

Of course, Wahlberg has to have his moments, and while I’m not the big fan of Marky Mark that I have been in the past, he acquits himself fine as a no-BS Bostonian cop who acts as the thread between what otherwise might have felt like a series of vignettes about the days. While some have objected to his composite character, the respect Berg has paid to all involved in the tragedy (including inviting survivors and law enforcement on-set and asking for advice and detail to preserve authenticity) more than makes up for a slice of artistic licence.

Principally, it’s a thrilling ride which seamlessly incorporates documentary footage into the fabrication as the day unfolds, tragedy occurs and justice is eventually served. Moreover, it’s an illuminating glimpse into how the investigation was handled, including a gripping sequence in a warehouse where the crime scene has been reconstructed in which Wahlberg’s cop uses his knowledge of the streets to predict which CCTV cameras may have captured the perpetrators’ moves. Similarly, the gunfight which halted the terrorists’ plans makes for a sensational scene worthy of any fictional Hollywood action movie, and all the more exciting because you know this one has (had) real stakes.

Simmons, Goodman and Bacon play real people whose photos and interviews appear, with those of some survivors, just before the closing credits role – an effect which some viewers may feel re-injects the saccharine into an otherwise admirably matter-of-fact telling. But this coda is indisputably moving, and a necessary conclusion to a harrowing story which delivers a message of indomitable spirit and community at a timely moment in American history.

 

Fifty Shades Darker

2 long, 2 dumb, 2 stars

I missed a social occasion to go watch the latest Fifty Shades movie, only to find out afterwards I didn’t need to officially review it. Of course, by then it was too late – already so full of aghastness and outrage, I feel compelled to purge myself of my predictably negative reaction, in the hope that either a) the producers will accidentally trip across this review on the internet and heed my comments for the inevitable third film, or b) I’ll at least be able to now forget I even saw it.

It’s easy to be derisory about the Fifty Shades series, not just because the books are (reportedly – I admit/am proud not to have read one) the worst written bestsellers since Dan Brown, but because the word “try-hard” keeps ringing in my ears whenever I think about the trilogy which shook up the publishing world by bringing risqué sex to a mainstream, largely female, audience.

The films have taken a similar bent; although a friend described it as “Mummy porn” (as in mother, not as in lie-there-and-play dead), there’s really nothing pornographic about Fifty Shades of Grey or Darker at all – at least, not in the sense that you might feel a frisson of erotic response while watching them. This is not only disappointing (because there is nowadays so much sex in films and particularly on telly that you’re hard-pressed not to see something titillating when you tune in) but surprising, given Fifty Shades tries so desperately to portray the tortured emotional relationship of two attractive young people whose main (if not only) connection revolves around carnal knowledge and ankle-cuffs.

Where are we at, story-wise? Ah yes. Christian Grey the trillionaire (Jamie Dornan) and Ana(stasia) Steele (Dakota Johnson) broke up in the last movie, when she figured out he was of dodgy mind and not going to be able to meet her emotional needs. Cue: Darker, Scene 1: He reappears out of the ether and buys all the portraits of her at an art exhibition because: “I don’t like strangers gawking at you.” Fair enough.

From then on, the game is afoot. Scene 2: “My mother was a crack addict. You fill in the blanks,” Christian says. Fair enough. Actually wait, no, not fair enough – I’m pretty sure they employ a script writer for this bit. But nevermind – that’s enough “opening up” for one day, and Ana lets them get back together.

Oh, but hold on – Scene 3: Let’s take it slow.

Scene 4: OK yeah, nah, let’s not.

And the sex is on. The talky opening up stuff takes a little longer, but eventually Christian grabs a lipstick and invites her to help him draw his “boundaries”, quite literally, by tracing a rectangle across his torso (helpfully excluding his nether regions, which are, of course, completely within bounds). But wait, she says: Are those cigarette burns? What happened to you?? Which is a completely ridiculous question given a) they starred in a movie this time last year and she would have noticed them then, and b) what do you think happened??

This relationship is clearly not about a meeting of intellectual minds.

So we still have a possessive guy, who doesn’t even bother to couch things in less creepy terms than “I want you here all the time” when he asks her to move in with him, and we still have a supposedly empowered woman who is a mere PA to some dickhead of a fiction editor at a swanky firm. Hmmm, I wonder if the dickhead (Eric Johnson, a man even less charismatic than Jamie Dornan) will try to hit on her?

No time to worry about that, though! Christian wants them to get married, but first he has to fly a helicopter and survive a crash so badly acted I was convinced it was a dream sequence about him feeling trapped in his relationship (which would have been a really clever metaphor, come on!). Unfortunately it turned out to be an actual crash, which happened in about 58 seconds of screen-time and served as nothing more than a catalyst for Ana to realise she did want to marry him and for Grey’s excruciating family (Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora et al) to extend a bit of their acting range (distress, shock, relief, etc).

The galling thing about Fifty Shades Darker (and its predecessor) is there is nothing subtle, clever or illuminating about a poor little damaged boy growing into a man who admits to his fiancée that he’s a sadist who enjoys causing women pain (textbook!). The bigger crime is that the impressionable young women who watch these movies are still being fed notions of wealth, skinniness and beauty as paramount (the camera spends more time “gawking” at Dakota Johnson’s corseted body than Dornan’s pleasure trail), and that consensual S&M is OK, years before they have the maturity to develop a relationship which can handle this philosophy safely. It also reinforces that age-old chestnut that women can change men through love, even if he “doesn’t want to talk about it”.

While Dornan is possibly the most earnestly banal actor in all of Hollywood, Johnson is actually pretty good, through genes (Melanie Griffith & Don Johnson) rather than any help from the script, which sounds like it was written by a dialogue-generating computer programme.

But perhaps the biggest outrage is how definitively unsexy the whole film is. And the fact that Fifty Shades Freed (no, really? Do you promise?) is already on the slate. I’ll definitely be washing my hair that night.

SPL 2: A Time for Consequences / Kill Zone 2

4 stars, R16, 115 mins

A brief word about this pan-Asian, MMA, kick-ass crime thriller which would probably have looked even more stunning on the big screen.

I hadn’t seen/wasn’t aware of the first SPL movie (and I haven’t looked into what SPL stands for) but A Time for Consequences is one hella blockbuster of an action flick. The complicated plot involves an evil, sick, rich man who is forcing his beloved brother to donate his heart so the misanthrope can live; a prison warden (Thai legend Tony Jaa of Ong-Bak fame) whose cute-as-a button daughter needs a bone marrow transplant from a hard-to-find donor; and an undercover cop imprisoned by corrupt officials who plays an integral part in the ensuing chaos.

Like I say, it was at times a little confusing, especially as the story moves so fast the subtitles often shoot off the screen before you’ve had a chance to read them (truly!) and it cuts madly from one scene to the next as the many threads unravel. But my goodness, what a blast. It’s vibrant, noisy, intense, and boasts stunning camerawork, often so breathtakingly clever your background brain is trying to unpack “How did they do that??” while you keep up with who’s fighting whom and why? and where did that mobile phone end up? and how does he know about him? and so on and so on.

The fight scenes rival those in both Raids for sheer panache, with Jaa’s legit, no-props prowess truly impressive up against other characters’ use of wire-work which delivers a sometimes Matrix-y quality. But that’s no problem – the whole film has a larger-than-life bombast which makes it cinematic in the extreme. As a bonus, the brilliantly choreographed set-pieces are soundtracked by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Mozart’s Requiem, a seminal fave of mine which is only slightly tarnished by filmmaking’s inevitable need to chop it to fit the action on screen. (Makes it harder to sing along.)

If you can keep up with what’s happening in the plot – or even if you can’t – SPL2 certainly delivers a rollicking ride.

Jackie

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017

4.5 stars, Rated M, 99 mins

The first thing that strikes you when watching Natalie Portman on screen as Jackie Kennedy is that the actress must have done her homework. Portman, an Oscar winner for Black Swan who has forged a reputable career since she debuted at age 12 in Leon: The Professional, took a break from Hollywood to complete a psychology degree at Harvard because she considers being smart more important than being famous. And so, if the strangely accented, halting drawl comes across as a bit mannered in her evocation of JFK’s First Lady, rest assured that Portman will have worked tirelessly for this role, and what we’re seeing is the real deal.

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Jackie is a strange sort of biopic in many ways. Principally, it doesn’t seek to tell the tale from the beginning – we learn nothing of how the socialite met her prince and established the house of Camelot. Instead, the film focuses on the days surrounding JFK’s assassination in Dallas, skipping between Jackie’s interview with a dispassionate reporter (a steely and terrific Billy Crudup) as she conjures up recollections of that dreadful day, and a depiction of the actual event and its immediate aftermath.

With a great cast and evident dedication to accurately relaying history, it’s an often devastating watch. Portman’s superb performance as distraught widow is underscored by the tension between her right to privately grieve and a lack of time in which to do it. The brutal haste with which JFK is succeeded is galling: Vice President and Lady Johnson (a perfect John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) make excellent villains as Jackie witnesses his swearing in as President on Air Force One mere hours after the shooting, while she stands dazed in the background.

The other thing that marks Jackie out is director Pablo Larrain’s very particular style of filmmaking. Shot on 16mm film, every frame looks like archive footage from the period (excepting the small quibble that Portman is too beautiful to truly convince as the albeit stylish Jackie O), and several scenes are recreated shot for shot from clips you can view for yourself on YouTube. The production design of the White House and, of course, Jackie’s signature suits are spot-on, while her staffers (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, both terrific) and brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) perfectly embody the 1960s in their speech and attitudes.

But above all, this is Portman’s film. With tangible pain, she portrays a woman preoccupied by her husband’s legacy and reputation, while clearly drowning in grief. There is nothing as lonely as the sight of the former First Lady wandering vacantly around the White House in a pink suit stained with her husband’s blood. Harrowing and fascinating, Jackie is a beautiful, painful throwback to a terrible moment in history.

Lion

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017

4.5 stars, Rated PG, 118 mins

Readers who are familiar with the flow of the cinematic seasons will be rubbing their hands with glee as we enter a period traditionally dominated by 4 and 5-star reviews for films that will be turning up on Awards’ shortlists in January and February. (We call it “Oscar season”, but of course the Golden Globes and BAFTAs also make their judgements at this time of year.)

One strong contender is Lion, about an adopted Indian boy who leaves Australia to search for his long-lost family 25 years later. A well-acted true story which tugs at the heartstrings and co-stars Nicole Kidman, it’s very likely Oscar-bait, but that’s not without good cause.

The incredibly moving story sets off at pace, dousing us with an enchanting soundtrack and spectacular photography as we follow the doe-eyed Saroo (the first acting role for tiny Sunny Pawar, who is absolutely captivating) as he unintentionally boards a passengerless train and is whisked away far from his mother and brother, to bustling Calcutta. Unable to establish where he has come from, Saroo is shuttled from one inadequate situation to the next, encountering shady characters both in and outside the welfare system. It’s an engrossing first act, thanks to the film’s deeply authentic use of local places and people and the desperate storyline which finds relief only when Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (played with compassion and considerable restraint by Kidman and David Wenham) and takes up a new life thousands of miles from home.

lion

25 years later, older Saroo (now played by Best Exotic Marigold’s Dev Patel) is living an Aussie life devoid of anything which relates to his cultural heritage, when he is prompted to try to retrace his 5-year old steps. Using Google Earth and a fallible memory, his ensuing quest occasionally loses narrative momentum, but since Lion already stole our heart in Act One, we are nonetheless gripped.

The whole thing may sound horrendously saccharine, but Australian director Garth Davis’ first feature is a stunning combination of smart writing (based on the real Saroo’s memoir), perfectly-pitched performances and brilliant use of his locations. While Pawar is a revelation, Kidman is also to be applauded for conveying the nuanced emotions of an adoptive mum while respecting her position as a supporting character in someone else’s film. Even so, she has moments which break your heart. The charismatic Patel does a fine Aussie accent, and Divian Ladwa (a little-known Jack of many filmmaking trades) is excellent as the wayward brother.

Lion is the sort of film you could easily go into feeling cynical, but every aspect of its production, from heart wrenching story to exotic spectacle, makes it a worthy adversary to its fellow nominees.

 

The Edge of Seventeen

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 8th January 2017

3 stars, Rated M, 104 mins

When you’re a teenager, films about teenagers totally speak to you. You’re like “OMG, finally!” Someone who understands what it’s like dealing with raging hormones and being unpopular and the traumas of high school life is putting all that up on the big screen and showing you it’s all gonna be OK.

edge-of-seventeen

If you’re reading this as a child of the John Hughes era, you know what I’m talking about. Hughes was a grown-up filmmaker with an incredible memory of what it was like to be young. His films may have been all-American but his characters were universal. Or at least, aspirational. He gave us losers who became winners in their own way. That’s still an important message for the youth of today.

To this end, The Edge of Seventeen will speak to today’s teens and they should totally go see it. If, however, you find the whole teenage thing too angsty to take seriously, or too excruciating to revisit, you may want to give it a miss.

Written and directed by relative newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig, the film stars True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld as the fraught Nadine, who lives in the shadow of her football-playing stud of an older brother (Blake Jenner from Everybody Wants Some!!) and therefore falls apart emotionally when her best friend Krista and brother fall in love. Nadine is the type of teen we all recognise (and since I work with hundreds of teens every day, I see her in many of them) – earnest about the state of the world and her place in it; anxious about fitting in socially; smart and perceptive; and she has a great wardrobe of hi-top sneakers. (Actually, the sneakers are my favourite thing about her.)

Steinfeld plays Nadine the only way she possibly can with such an on-the-nose script – slightly over-the-top, eye-rollingly dry, lots of “OMG!” moments that verge on slapstick. Woody Harrelson provides a nice counterpoint as the very still, ironic teacher to whom Nadine takes all her problems. Harrelson says all the things teachers cannot, but wish they could, say. (Cute as it appears in the script, no real-life male teacher would read aloud a sexually explicit text message or jokingly encourage suicide.) Their odd-couple tête-à-têtes provide some of the film’s highlights.

But the Best Thing Ever is Hayden Zseto’s unlikely romantic lead, Erwin – the nerdy, easily-flustered classmate who takes a shine to our heroine. Stealing every scene and putting the Adorable into the story, Zseto is going to be a big star.

Overall, the story gets rather tiresome. Don’t get me wrong! I spend all day with teens, and their concerns are real. Just sometimes tiresome. But hopefully watching The Edge of Seventeen will make them feel better.

Passengers

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st January 2017

3 stars, Rated M, 116 mins

The set-up for Passengers is pretty great, and the startling setting and gorgeous rendering of space travel initially suggest this is going to be a worthy blockbuster.

The Starship Avalon is on a 120-year journey through space to Homestead II – a new colony to be inhabited by the ship’s 5000 civilians who are seeking a new life away from Earth. Viewers who have flown long-haul in ordinary aeroplanes will be wistful, since these travellers lie in induced hibernation for the duration, scheduled to awaken only at T minus four months in order to enjoy leisure activities such as you’d see on a 6-star cruise ship, and to prepare for their new, Utopian existence.

Unfortunately, something causes passenger Jim Preston (the popularly charismatic Chris Pratt) to wake too soon. Nine decades too soon. Facing a lonely life and certain death before the vessel reaches its destination, Jim’s future now turns on an ethical dilemma.

Passengers’ strong points include its aspirational, futuristic production design and the casting of Jennifer Lawrence against Pratt, which was surely predicted to be chemistry on tap. But better than these two put together is Michael Sheen as the cliché-spouting android bartender. And of course, the interstellar setting promises much, including Gravity-esque space walks and a terrific scene which aptly demonstrates the importance of actual gravity.

passengers

Sadly, despite these wonderful opportunities, the plot lets it down. The initially gripping “How could this happen?” is even tantalisingly dangled in the film’s tagline “There is a reason they woke up”. Well, yes there is – but it turns out it’s not something you can really build a film around. So screenwriter Jon Spaihts (who co-wrote the brilliant Doctor Strange and the disappointing Prometheus) relies heavily on Pratt and Lawrence’s romantic qualities instead. As a result, what could have been exciting like Total Recall or Sunshine (films that this one evokes) instead fails to even reach Titanic heights/depths (another movie alluded to in Passengers – Jim the engineer is a lower class of passenger than Lawrence’s Aurora, and his question “Do you trust me?” is a sure nod to the famous “I’m flying!” scene in the doomed boat drama).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum made the multi-award nominated The Imitation Game and the terrific Scandi thriller Headhunters, so it was fair to assume he had the chops to handle a big-budget space adventure. Granted, purely as big-screen entertainment, Passengers does deliver some spectacle and engagement – but with a more developed conceit, it would have been great to see what a $110 million budget could really have bought.

 

Paterson

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st January 2017

5 stars, Rated M, 118 mins

I’m not the first to rave about Jim Jarmusch’s latest love story, but I’ll tell you why I think it’s sending critics into paroxysms of gratitude and appreciation. Paterson feels like just the antidote we need as 2016 draws the curtain on its decimation of beloved musicians and actors, and its worldwide natural disasters, and is a welcome respite from the cynicism induced by recent months of political absurdity (politicking so absurd that if they made a movie of it, people would accuse it of being unrealistic).

Paterson is named for the titular character as well as the city in New Jersey in which the story is set.  Played by Adam Driver (the indie darling who crossed over into the Star Wars universe to win plaudits as Kylo Ren), he is a gentle-natured chap who gets walked by his pet bulldog; the epitome of the working man, driving buses by day and enjoying a pint of an evening. Less typically, Paterson writes poetry in his lunch breaks, before returning to his sweetly kooky girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani) whose unconditional support for his extra-curricular creative leanings is immensely touching.

paterson

Director Jarmusch is reportedly uncomfortable shooting sex scenes, so there’s a novel pleasure in watching an understated love affair on screen that eschews carnal simulation for companionable conversations and loving gestures like helping to pack freshly-baked cupcakes for market. Even if Jarmusch’s vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive made romance more melodramatic (with captivating performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, how could it not?), he has a knack for making the audience care about his characters as much as they patently do each other.

The other joy in Jarmusch’s work is in the details. Amidst scenes of well-observed dialogue, the camera cuts away to sneakered feet dangling on a bus, and photo frames of a character’s past life. Our unlikely protagonist encounters ordinary people who bring his quotidian life unexpected meaning. A carload of street-talkin’, white homeboys warn Paterson unthreateningly about the dangers of getting “dog-jacked”. He takes inspiration from a 12-year old poet. Throughout, Jarmusch’s quiet observations entrance the eye and hook you into the world his characters inhabit. Even when Paterson’s best “work story” is about a bus breaking down, we hang on his every word.

Simultaneously making me want to cry without ever giving me cause, watching Paterson is as soothing as reading a great book while sipping a fine ale on a leisurely afternoon.

La La Land

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, December 25th 2016

4 stars, Rated M, 128 mins

People are going gaga for La La Land, and probably the nicest thing about this fact is that it shows that contemporary audiences once again have an appetite for musicals. Huh? That’s right – it’s important you know there are song and dance routines, because that’s not for everyone, but if anyone is going to convert your long-held prejudices, it’s Damien “Whiplash” Chazelle. And if you’re already sold, just jump on board.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are shaping up to be today’s equivalent of Garland and Rooney, this third outing (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) demonstrating yet again their chemistry and endearing camaraderie. Sebastian is a jazz pianist struggling to turn a dream into reality; Mia is an aspiring actress who serves coffee to actual actresses at one of Hollywood’s major studios. Just as in the MGM musicals of yore, they meet-cute (tick), their initial animosity gradually translates into affection (tick) and they unselfconsciously segue into naturalistic singing and well-rehearsed dancing which is guaranteed to bring a smile to every audience member’s face. The allusions to Singin’ in the Rain are fun to spot, but La La Land’s real charm is in the fact these actors are not indentured musical monkeys from an era 60 years ago, but tangibly real people who give the impression of just being themselves.

la-la-land

Given the eviscerating script and harsh lessons of Whiplash (one of the instant classics of 2014), Chazelle may seem a strange choice to helm a modern-day, feel-good musical. However, the director’s love of jazz is front and centre, and once again his actors stepped up to the “I’ll do this myself” plate, with Gosling playing his own piano numbers, Stone’s breathy voice bringing a naturalistic charm, and the pair doing a damn fine job of mimicking the moves of Reynolds and Kelly in one delightful night-time scene.

As a depiction of Hollywood, the observations are bang-on (the distracted casting directors, the audition waiting room full of clones) but Chazelle masks most of the unpleasant aspects with gorgeous primary-colour-blocked costumes and catchy tunes you’ve never heard before. From the one-shot opening scene in which an unlikely joyous traffic jam turns into a dance routine complete with modern-day touches of parkour and BMXers, through to Stone’s wonderfully powerful closing number, La La Land takes us back to a time when we’d watch movies just to say “now that’s entertainment”.

The (my) 20 Best Films (ie. the 4.5 & 5-star ones) of 2016 (so last year)

The Best Films of 2016

It’s that time again. Time to look back over one’s top picks of the year, complain about how few masterpieces there were, how much The Franchise Movie seems to be taking over Hollywood, and wonder what on earth Spotlight was about (that film from early 2016 which received 5 stars from me and rave reviews all round).

Herewith, the best films of 2016 as rated by one reviewer in one newspaper in one small country of the film-viewing world. Having been lambasted occasionally for “simply giving her opinion”, it may be timely to remind readers that yes, film criticism is just one person’s view, but that the role entails watching hundreds of films every year and thus building a fairly solid context for judgement. I’ve tried to counter my gut-reaction (Did I feel something? Did I start thinking about dinner? Could the film have done anything better?) with more objective musings about quality of performances/diligence of production aspects/socio-political relevance of narrative. One of my critics (we all have them) pointed out he knows he’s going to think the polar opposite of any opinion I give – but the critic’s role as barometer against which the viewer can make his own decisions is arguably what it’s all about.

Due to space constraints, this is just a Top 20 (although arguably any list of notables is dilluted the longer it goes) so these represent only the 5- and 4.5- star films of my 2016. The absence of other popular critical contenders (La La Land, Arrival, Hell or High Water) is purely down to their having been not quite as strong as the Top 20. And one small confession: the absence from this list of the superb I, Daniel Blake was purely an oversight, having seen it when I was off-duty and not reviewing.

So take with a pinch of salt, or queue these up on Netflix: here are my top 20 flicks of the past year (plus I, Daniel Blake).

  1. Green Room

A bunch of punk-rock musicians take on the murderous might of a skinhead gang led by a disarming Patrick Stewart. So well-written! So breath-holding! So violent! So good I saw it twice just to check my initial proclamations that it would wind up being my Film of the Year. It did.

green-room

  1. The Revenant

Actually, until Green Room, I thought Leo’s dedicated performance (snow-trekking, bear-mauling, beard-growing) as a fur trapper caught up in Alejandro Iñárritu’s long tracking shots was going to take top prize. It’s still the most visually stunning and viscerally compelling film of 2016, and deservedly won three of the year’s top Oscars.

  1. Room

Harrowing and mesmerising in equal measure, Brie Larson indisputably earned her Oscar alongside a preternaturally talented 9-year old, playing a mother and son held captive in one room for several years. As well as being a terrific thriller, the story provoked some fascinating thoughts about how we take our understanding of the world around us for granted.

  1. Zootopia

This animated children’s movie proved far too clever for adults to avoid, with its brilliantly-written subtext of racial profiling and human intolerance. An amazing script, great characterisation (including a plucky bunny who becomes the first female police officer in the titular city) and more cinematic in-jokes than you could spill your popcorn at, Zootopia delivered a timely message with great wit.

zootopia

 

  1. Doctor Strange

Initially wary that Marvel would simply churn out another elongated fight scene of a movie, I should of course have known that Doctor Strange would have me at “Benedict Cumberbatch”. As the misanthropic uber-surgeon brought to his knees by his own hubris, the Brit went subtly American and considerably more spiritual in order to fight the evils of the dark world. A fabulous supporting cast, enormous wit, an excitingly elongated final fight scene – who could ask for anything more?

  1. Spotlight

An awfully long time ago (February, in fact), Spotlight also won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay of its depiction of the Boston Globe’s investigation into child abuse allegations which overturned the Catholic Church. This wasn’t just a “worthy” movie – it was lauded for doing what the paper’s award-winning journalists achieved by telling an important story with strong performances and a gripping script.

  1. Paterson

Proving that fantastic films don’t need to be flashy, director Jim Jarmusch’s gentle love story of a bus-driving poet (the chameleonic Adam Driver) and his dream-seeking girlfriend living the simple life in New Jersey won accolades and proved that, after a helluva year like 2016, sometimes all we need is love.

  1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

One of only two films this year I have unreservedly recommended to everyone I know, Wilderpeople unconditionally delighted New Zealand audiences with its odd-couple story of a foster child (break-out star Julian Dennison) and his reluctant guardian (an hilariously gruff Sam Neill) who go on the run from authorities through native bush. Scored to perfection by the Phoenix Foundation and a host of classic pop hits, and directed by Godzone’s beloved Taika “Thor” Waititi, we fell in love with local cinema all over again.

  1. Tickled

The only other “You have to see…” film on my list was David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s startling documentary which began as an investigation into competitive endurance tickling (yes, that’s a thing) and descended into a bone-chilling commentary on bullying. Not many films can take you from laugh-inducing to adrenaline-pumping, but the Kiwi filmmakers nailed it, before garnering critical acclaim all over the world. If you haven’t already, “you have to see…”

  1. Train to Busan

I’m going to round out my Top Ten with one of the few movies I didn’t review, and went to see just for kicks: a Korean zombie movie, no less, whose plot is as straightforward as its clichéd characters are endearing. Imagine you’re setting off on a long-awaited family visit, only to find a contagious member of the walking dead has managed to mind the gap between train and platform. Amidst the chaos that ensued, Train to Busan emerged as one of the most fun movies of the year.

train-to-busan

  1. The BFG

I was quite unprepared for how inveigled I would be by Steven Spielberg’s retelling of the Roald Dahl classic from my long-ago childhood. It was thanks, no doubt, to a stunning performance by thespian Mark Rylance who nailed the voice and parlance, and managed to imbue a not-entirely-CGI character with extraordinary humanity. Definitely one for children aged 4 to 104.

  1. The Salesman

Asghar “A Separation” Farhadi has no equal when it comes to situating heavy emotional drama in the most domestic of contexts. In The Salesman, the Iranian writer-director’s latest perfectly-pitched offering saw a couple torn apart in the wake of a mysterious assault. Keeping the audience as much in the dark as his protagonists, he yet again excelled at tightening a noose around the well-observed narrative until a third act in which we couldn’t breathe.

  1. A Bigger Splash

Despite being a well-cast ensemble piece, it was Ralph Fiennes who stole every scene in this rollickingly entertaining glimpse into the life of a retired rocker (Tilda Swinton again), her toyboy lover (the dishy Matthias Schoenarts) and the outlandish ex-partner who threatens to ruin their idyllic Italian holiday.

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  1. Carol

There was no way Carol wasn’t going to be impressive, given its casting of the luminous Cate Blanchett in the titular role, and director Todd Haynes’ reliably beautiful rendering of her life as a suffocated society wife in 1950s New York. As Blanchett’s languid gaze fell in love with shop assistant Rooney Mara, we were helpless to fall in love with them both.

  1. Nocturnal Animals

Provocative and beautifully designed thanks to its director’s artistic leanings, Tom Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man proved an adrenaline-pumping portrait of pure evil and materialistic excess. An ice-cold gallery owner (Amy Adams) read her ex-husband’s new novel as we watched the nasty narrative play out on screen, and it provided my most uncomfortably visceral cinematic experience of the year.

  1. Eye in the Sky

Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman headlined this fantastically gripping moral thriller which unfolded in real time as allied military commanders sought to make a Red Button-type decision which would impact civilian lives. Utterly caught up in the dilemma, the audience switched sides each time the players received new information, giving us an affecting insight into the quandaries of playing war.

  1. The Nice Guys

Russell Crowe showed his humorous side and Ryan Gosling rolled out the goofy charm in this violent, witty comedy of curse words. What did we love most – the 1970s LA styling? The ridiculous plot? The odd couple’s hilarious and endearing chemistry? Whatever it was – these private eyes had us smiling.

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  1. The Lady in the Van

Lovers of Dame Maggie Smith (and frankly, I thought I’d seen enough of her) were treated to her career-defining performance as Alan Bennett’s eponymous homeless woman in this fabulously entertaining and somewhat bittersweet rendition of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre play. With a host of familiar History Boy cameos and the wonderful words of Bennett to carry it, this was an unexpected joy.

  1. The Girl on the Train

I hadn’t read the bestselling novel, so the film was all the better for not knowing a) that Emily Blunt’s titular girl was supposed to be in London not New York and b) what the heck was going to happen. Yikes. In a similar tone to Gone Girl, the story wove a grieving alcoholic with credibility issues (a stunning performance by the incomparable Blunt) into an unsolved missing persons mystery, and gripped me until its gruesome end.

  1. Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Rounding out my list: For a bit of a laugh, plenty of swearing and a few explosions, I couldn’t go past Whisky Tango Foxtrot for pure entertainment. Tina Fey was hilarious as the unlikely war correspondent thrown into the deep-end of Middle Eastern conflict, who rapidly takes a shine to life in the “Kabubble” of drinking, partying and gunfire. This adaptation of a real-life reporter’s often hilarious anecdotes was at once fascinating, exhilarating, and just what a night at the flicks should be.

 

 

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