2020s

Confessions of a Film Freak 2020

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By Roderick Heath

Well. That was interesting.

This year those of us lucky to survive spent much time hunkered down in physical and psychological siege. For me, as for just about everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct impact on how I watched the movies of this year. Mostly by curtailing my watching them at all. Movie theatres closed down and then reopened without major films to fill screens. The sudden, colossal public demand for internet bandwidth made streaming somewhat difficult for me through much of the year. So my best alternative for viewing new movies was, ironically, the DVD vending machine in my local supermarket. This year, perhaps for good, some barriers between cinema and TV collapsed, but the only thing that’s definitely true for now is that things are in a state of flux. The vigorous mix of trends and styles we usually get in the course of any given movie year was choked off, precious few expansive entertainments and movies of mature and well-honed expression making it under the boom, leaving us mostly with a mealy stream of dumped studio refuse, dour low- and mid-budget dramas, and callow indie movies. For a time I lost interest almost entirely. I wasn’t entirely unhappy with this, as I had an excuse to get off the treadmill of currency and dig into my DVD and blu-ray collection for an epic rewatch of classics and newer movies I hadn’t seen since first release. Good for my head, not so good for this annual Confession.

But my viewings still piled up, and so too did the number of interesting movies and quite a few films that would be great in any year. Given how relatively few of these I’ve written up in the course of the year I’ll be writing more on the films on my favourites list than usual.

Unhinged

2020 felt like debts accrued these past few years coming due, societies at large paying the price for the blindness and incompetence of chosen leaders. So it’s appropriate, if not at all consoling, that a lot of the films that came out this year tended to be grim, savage, punitive in outlook. Many dealt with sexism and racism on manifold levels, along with monstrous greed and malfeasance. Horror movies proliferated and often purveyed a bleak and nightmarish tone. Sadomasochistic psychedelia and surrealism bloomed in films like Possessor, She Dies Tomorrow, Capone, Color Out Of Space, The New Mutants, Tenet, and Shirley. Psychos like the loony avenger in Unhinged, the transparent husband of The Invisible Man, the unseen boss in The Assistant, and the plutocrat husband from hell in Tenet made lives hell for women who offended their egos. People fought for space to release expression and gain fellowship in movies like Night of the Kings, Birds of Prey, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; A Rainy Day In New York, Mank, Lovers Rock, First Cow, The New Mutants, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Emma, Sonic the Hedgehog, On The Rocks, and Mulan. Others battled to simply claw their way out of deadly abysses and provide proof of their own existence, as in Underwater, Above Suspicion, Capone, Extraction, The Midnight Sky, Greyhound, Rogue, The Outpost, 12 Hour Shift, The Rhythm Section, Ava, Kajillionaire, Escape From Pretoria, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Bacurau, Palm Springs, Ammonite, I’m Your Woman, and VFW.

Greyhound

The time-slipping warriors of Tenet went to war with the future, with fate, itself. The young folk of The Vast of Night discovered how flimsy the substance of their stolid reality was and slipped through the cracks into realms unknown. Others faced the collapse of their personalities in the face of stronger ones or vortexes of confusion caused by destabilising reference points of body and mind, like the brainjacking antiheroine of Possessor, the constantly rebooted hero forced to re-experience his deepest trauma in Bloodshot, and the innocent abroad perverted out of shape in Shirley. Delroy Lindo’s shambolic ‘Nam vet in Da 5 Bloods seemed like the incarnation of the moment in his fervent, volatile, desperate need to express something chokingly inexpressible whilst feeling like spear-points levelled all around. Characters faced with endemic, even universal corruption and inequity in films like Da 5 Bloods, The Whistlers, Bad Hair, 12 Hour Shift, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Wild Goose Lake reacted by endangering themselves and their identities for what they judged the worthwhile risk of slicing off a piece of the pie; antiheroes in the likes of Capone and Greed felt the same urge even in the lap of luxury as age and the world’s repudiation starts whittling them down. Tyrannical regimes ascended and demanded resistance and familiar systems crumbled into anarchy in films like Bacurau, New Order, Night of the Kings, Escape From Pretoria, and Tenet.

The Rhythm Section

In further irony the wing of cinema most usually ubiquitous was the one almost entirely muted for most of the year: Hollywood superhero blockbusters. One of the few to see release was Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, which proved a last gasp for the familiar X-Men franchise even though intended as a new beginning, doomed to sit on the shelf for a couple of years amidst the tumult of 20th Century Fox’s purchase by Disney and then be dumped by its new owner to drum up some streaming revenue with a sigh of expedience. The film took a refreshingly indirect path towards the familiar mutant spectacle in portraying a quintet of adolescents being held in a near-deserted and fancifully segregated gothic hospital, contending with Alice Braga’s manipulative therapist and the mysterious and frightening talents for conjuring terrors the latest inductee seems to wield. The film courted the YA crowd in hiring The Fault In Our Stars director Boone, who made sure to keep including clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the rec room TV to let us know what his touchstone was, as well as nudging everything from The Breakfast Club to Girl, Interrupted. The film was largely trashed by both genre fans and critics, but it didn’t really deserve to be, sporting a lot of overlap with M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass but not nearly so affected. A solidly creepy, horror movie-lite tone was wedded to a straightforward take on the series’ driving urge to link teenage angst to superhuman traits with some decent performances, and sporting a refreshingly gentle queer romance at its centre.

Bloodshot

Derrick Borte’s Unhinged offered a merging of Duel and TV movie psycho stalker tale, as Caren Pisotorius’ listless divorcee was forced to fight for her life and the people she loves when she crosses paths in a heated moment on the road with Russell Crowe’s psychotic creep, who sets about avenging a minor infraction with a campaign of terrorism and murder. The result was a fun, tense throwback to an earlier age of down-to-earth, pulse-pumping thriller fare, but its ultimate impact was foiled by constant resorting to idiot logic as well as oddly wasting Crowe in a straightforward monster role, when the film could have tapped him for a stranger and more discomforting portrait of frustration and rage. David S.F. Wilson’s Bloodshot was a slick modern B-movie with a plotline that came across like a bit of a throwback to the days of weird grow-your-own-superhero flicks like Darkman, sporting Vin Diesel as a man brought back from the dead and imbued with incredible powers by nanotechnology and employed as a super assassin by the inevitably cast Guy Pearce. A good mid-film plot twist and some peculiarly lyrical visuals made the watching vaguely worthwhile, although the script was ultimately far too unambitious, and a strong cast, rounded out by Eiza Gonzalez and Sam Heughen, went almost sadistically wasted.

The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man picked at an interesting loose thread in blending the Wellsian concept of a scientific genius who makes himself invisible and uses it to evil ends, and the everyday psychological anxiety of spousal abuse and mental cruelty, the idea of the malevolent person close to you deconstructing your sense of reality. So Whannel’s inventor was also an abusive creep bent on using his invisibility device to torment and ultimately destroy his former partner, played by an inevitably cast Elisabeth Moss, in a slow-mounting campaign of harassment and victimisation. An interesting idea, one that ultimately wasn’t really developed much beyond the obvious, with Whannell just a little too eager to conflate his own showmanship with his villain’s. He relieved the psychological tension too soon, his story played out in an unconvincing milieu, and his plot kept offering huge holes in logic for a movie trying to offer relatively believable sci-fi excitement, particularly the superficially clever ending.

Possessor

David Cronenberg’s son Brandon made a bold gambit to anoint himself heir to his father’s unique cinematic kingdom with Possessor, exploring similar realms of body horror, conspiracy, and psychic disruption. Cronenberg the Younger cast the ever-valiant Andrea Riseborough as a fraying woman with unique aptitude for the latest realm in corporate warfare, having her consciousness plugged into the minds of luckless people chosen to commit assassinations, only to find herself trapped inside her latest mark and experiencing bizarre new zones of identity on the way to a bloody consummation. Cronenberg employed a fascinating premise and occasionally lighted upon a striking image in offering a surreal flux of style and story in portraying any sure sense of physical and mental reality dissolving. But as the film droned on it became a dull and oppressive chore punctuated by blunt, witless gore, the ideas lost amongst the overbearing style, and by the end the young pretender seemed practically interchangeable with any number of his father’s legions of imitators in film schools and music videos.

Bad Hair

Dear White People director Justin Simien seemed to develop good-humoured ambitions to get in on some of that sweet Jordan Peele money by making his own horror movie revolving around racial paranoia with Bad Hair. Set in 1989, Simien’s film portrayed a young woman, well-played by newcomer Elle Lorraine, beset by unruly hair, who chooses to get a radical new weave for the sake of making the leap from the production staff at a Black audience-aimed cable TV staff to on-camera star, only to find her lovely fake tresses have a vampiric life of her their own and will take over her mind entirely if she doesn’t fight it. With an eye to introducing an aspect of cultural anthropology rather than only nostalgic callbacks (but those too), Simien offered wittily exact recreations of the era’s music videos and would-be streetwise pop culture. Likewise he nailed the tone of a lot of low-budget horror cinema from the same era whilst giving the template a racially conscious makeover, and managed to make the most awkward of monstrous threats work. He also made great use of a cast full of old-school faces including Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. Only towards the end did the film lose some control, letting the climax turn goofy and trying a little too hard to ram a message home.

Da 5 Bloods

Meanwhile Spike Lee, the now-venerable yet ever-restless dean of African-American cinema, returned with Da 5 Bloods, one of many films of late to offer homage-cum-variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This one focused on four aging survivors of a tight-knit gang of Black Vietnam War soldiers who return to the former warzone to retrieve a stolen horde of gold and the body of a lamented comrade, but find themselves fighting thieves and each-other with equal ferocity for the prize. Lee still hadn’t lost any of his ambition, trying to blend rich humanity, in depicting his shambolic heroes and the hapless people they draw into their madness, with fluorescent melodrama and agitprop signposting. Lee’s script, despite many nods to other movies (the Apocalypse Now-themed dance club in modern Ho Chi Minh City was some kind of evil genius), was another work along the lines of Get On The Bus (1996) and He Got Game (1999), in presenting a situational portrait of a gamut of Black experience and dealing with generational as well as racial and national incomprehension. Delroy Lindo, as the most reactionary and damaged of the team, gave a near-Olympian performance, and the late Chadwick Boseman had a salutary cameo as the fallen comrade who served as the team’s political conscience, feeling between the two of them like the psychic poles of Lee’s aesthetic sensibility. The film was ultimately hampered by Lee’s familiar failings in not knowing when and how to quit nor nail a cohesive tone (I counted down to the moment when a character would “shockingly” step on a landmine), eventually taking recourse in tired twists and an ungainly last act. To be honest, nothing in it threatened to displace Dead Presidents in portraying the Black Vietnam experience.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

August Wilson’s lauded play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was brought to screens by Tony-winning stage director George C. Wolfe, handing career-capping parts to Viola Davis as the legendary chanteuse and “mother of the blues” and Chadwick Boseman in his last role as her aggressively ambitious but psychologically fraying trumpeter who finds his sustaining fantasies fatally endangered, in a story charting a mounting sense of crisis in the course of a hot Chicago day in a recording studio. Wilson’s theatrical architecture and lacerating perspective on the two main characters’ attempts to gain, wield, and show power in a culture that ritualises denying it to you according were largely transferred intact and made voluble by the potent, if unabashedly large, performances from the whole cast. Wolfe’s direction was slick and showy, however, with an overly-stylised recreation of the period milieu that lacked the crackle of verisimilitude to properly offset the balletic force of the dialogue, to really communicate the mounting furore and fetid mood and give a space to the telling: everything, including the actors, felt buffed and shiny and well-arranged. Some moments, like the start of Boseman’s epic central monologue, seemed more like filmed theatre than film. Still, no movie that records such vital drama is negligible.

The King of Staten Island

Judd Apatow tried to do for Saturday Night Live player Pete Davidson what he did for a battery of rising comedy stars back in his ‘00s heyday, and forge him an iconic star vehicle with The King of Staten Island. This took the interesting route of presenting Davidson not in some hyped-up farce but in an autobiographical comedy-drama drawn from his own experience as the son of a firefighter who died on the job: Davidson’s shambolic alter ego Scott Carlin had struggled well into adulthood with mental health problems and a general habit of weed-huffing ennui. Apatow drew low-key humour and feels from the character’s plight as he’s forced to come to terms with the past and head into the world after his mother finally gets another boyfriend, also a firefighter. The film finished up foiling itself on several levels despite Apatow’s talent for enabling vibrant acting. The cliché story arc felt at odds with its attempt to explore the fallout of grief and dislocation whilst the everyone-talks-like-an-improv-star style of verbal humour leeched the realism. Apatow ruined the story’s argument that Scott had worthy talent for some cheap laughs, and Apatow’s tendency to ramble on was particularly pronounced to no greatly enriching end. Supporting performances, including Marisa Tomei as Davidson’s mother and Bill Burr as her new love, tended to overshadow Davidson’s modestly appealing but one-note characterisation.

Palm Springs

Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs took up Harold Ramis’ beloved Groundhog Day and gave it a contemporary spin, that is by grafting on a very lead character type to The King of Staten Island, casting Andy Samberg as a young man caught in a time loop that dooms him to repeat the same day in the title locale, thanks to a freaky geological-quantum physical event and so exists in a state of wilful, lackadaisical disconnection, only to be eventually joined by an angry coot (J.K. Simmons) and a young woman (Cristin Milioti). The former constantly kills him whilst he finds himself falling for the latter, demanding a true reckoning with their situation that involves both achieving a level of maturity and purpose alien to them so far. Barbakow tried to augment the core theme of Ramis’ film, the futility of life lived without love, by confronting the hero with his female foil and making them reckon with their failings in terms of other people. But ultimately the film tried and failed to blend absurdist humour and earnestness, without many great jokes, and failing to really develop their journey into anything particularly memorable, aiming for a note of emotional crescendo in the final confrontation with mortal risk but ultimately remaining jammed in a gear of hipster self-satisfaction.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Andrew Pattinson’s The Vast of Night was subtler and more truly disconcerting in presenting a destabilisation of reality that also encompassed a fledgling romantic relationship faced with the difficulty of escaping the stolid, whilst also harkening back to the glory days of science fiction fandom and a newly weird evocation of 1950s American society. Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog tried to wrangle a coherent plot out of the beloved vintage video game, presenting the title character as an interdimensional exile hunted by government agents led by the arrogant Dr Robotnik and protected by a small town cop. The movie was tolerable but also as numbingly bland and ambition-free as last year’s Pokemon movie. It did have a fun performance from Jim Carrey as Robotnik, particularly the extraneous yet delightful scene where he combined bad guy business and workout by dancing to “Evil Grows In the Dark,” the kind of moment that reminds how you how much a real comic actor can be worth amidst a sea of boring CGI.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

I hadn’t seen any work by Giuseppe Capotondi since his interesting The Double Hour back in 2011, so was intrigued to take a look at his The Burnt Orange Heresy, an adaptation of a well-received novel depicting a disgraced art critic and historian, who, just after commencing an affair with an enigmatic young woman, is handed a chance to revive his career when a tycoon (played by a wittily-cast Mick Jagger) offers to get him an interview with a reclusive and legendary artist if he’ll steal one of his unseen trove of artworks for his collection. What seemed set to be a posh thriller about skulduggery in well-decorated rooms proved eventually to instead be a rather noirish study in self-destructive characters and creative and moral bankruptcy. A clever subtext ironically dramatized the often inverted stereotype role of host and parasite in art and criticism, as well as the misogyny subsisting in the modern art world. The acting, particularly from Elizabeth Debicki as a doomed adventurer and Donald Sutherland as the artist with all his hard-won wisdom, helped impose cohesion on a plot that required to some forced-feeling twists to occur.

Above Suspicion

Similar in its ultimate focus and upshot, despite a radically different setting, was Philip Noyce’s true crime drama Above Suspicion, focusing on a notorious incident from the late 1980s involving the fallout of a clandestine affair between a go-getting FBI agent assigned to an Appalachian backwater and drift into an affair with the much-abused young woman who becomes his key informant in her desire to escape a den of lowlifes and drug abuse. Emilia Clarke’s surprisingly strong turn as the angry, wilful, infuriating antiheroine, seemingly cursed to a daisy-chain existence of succumbing to her own flaws as well as the weakness of the men in her life, gave the film enough juice to keep it watchable. But Noyce’s direction eventually lost its way, and delivered what should have been a grimly compelling last-act study in personal and institutional hypocrisy in a rushed and slipshod manner. Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake was another, specifically localised spin on genre movie clichés and with a similar structure in confronting a young woman repeatedly with the bloody debris of crime and justice, taking on a classic style of noir tale, the man being hunted by authorities, and using it to anatomise the social landscape of modern China.

Mulan

Amongst the deluge of girl-power narratives this year, Niki Caro’s live-action remake for Disney of their 1990s hit Mulan again recounted the popular Chinese myth of a young woman who defies norms and dresses as a man to go to war for the sake of the family name. This finished up one of the more perplexing if not worthless misfires of the year. Caro’s filming looked good in a chintzy fashion, but the flimsy script swapped out the original film’s celebration of its heroine’s cleverness and competence for a cod-Star Wars narrative depicting the title character as a wondrous phenomenon who needs to reclaim her femininity to achieve her potential, but playing awkward games in trying to reconcile the model’s celebration of eruptive individualism with respectful traditionalism for the sake of making inroads with the Chinese market. Humour and music were discarded, too, in favour of a string of expensive but half-hearted action scenes. Given the large number of authentic wu xia films with kick-ass female heroes and villains going back decades in films made with much more elan, Hollywood trying to sell its own confusion with such things back to the Chinese was definitely trying to teach grandma to suck eggs.

Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Another tale of a young woman weathering a world of criminals was Julia Hart’s slow-burn and realistic I’m Your Woman. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn took a different tack, wielding a waggish sense of humour in presenting a gang of crime-fighting female frenemies as drawn from the DC Comics universe, led after a fashion by Margot Robbie’s semi-reformed gangster’s moll and general-purpose nutjob, in a would-be jaunty and colourful distaff edition of the Deadpool and Kick-Ass movies. Yan displayed an occasionally striking eye in sporadic neo-psychedelic visuals, but the film proved a teeth-gritting experience for the most part, with a script that felt like a mishmash of strategies, incompetent in trying to reconcile the divergent projects of providing a Robbie star vehicle whilst also introducing the titular team, who didn’t even meet up until the film’s climactic scenes and lacked any sign of group chemistry when they did. Plus the fact that, well, its comedy wasn’t really that funny and the action sporadic and lumpen, a nasty and bullying streak failing to mesh with the frivolity. Only newcomer Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead gave flashes of the right stuff, whilst Ewan McGregor gave the worst performance of his career as the bad guy.

Ava

Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section and Tate Taylor’s Ava both offered stories revolving around that much-fetishised modern archetype, the female assassin, the former charting the steady transformation of Blake Lively’s debased trauma victim into a cool and purposeful killer, the latter casting Jessica Chastain as one in the prime of her career but feeling the constant tug of old weaknesses and emotional ties. Of the two films The Rhythm Section was initially the more interesting, with Morano suggesting a feel for action and atmosphere as well as a patient touch for the essential character drama, the process of rebuilding a shattered self in dealing with an intriguingly (if ultimately excessively) closed-off and unsentimental protagonist: a lot of movies this year mistook blank unreadableness for stoic strength. The film eventually fell apart, the story trickling out in some terribly anticlimactic scenes. The reliably awful Taylor meanwhile applied clumsy, cheap-looking style to Ava, and Chastain, strong as ever on an acting level, never quite convinced as a lethal creature of balletic motion. The script tried to say something interesting about addiction and reckoning with damage left in its wake, at least, almost to the point of displacing the flimsy genre story, and the cast, particularly Colin Farrell as the villain, did their best to play up the modicum of substance.

Escape From Pretoria

Francis Anann’s Escape From Pretoria offered up a good old-fashioned, based-on-fact escape-from-prison tale, depicting the efforts by some white South African anti-apartheid campaigners (including one played by Daniel Radcliffe), railroaded for lengthy prisons stretches, who set about breaking free by taking advantage of the small but consequential security lapses of their arrogant but dim-witted guardians. Anann handled the suspense sequences and the minutiae of the escapees’ method with attentive skill, but the film never escaped prison movie canards or truly investigated its characters and their plight beyond the superficial, and so remained only a modestly gripping diversion. Tom Hanks returned to a World War II milieu for Greyhound, based on a C.S. Forester novel, with Hanks playing the inexperienced but quick-study captain of a destroyer on his first convoy escort mission during the Battle of the Atlantic, battling a rapacious U-boat pack and heavy weather with a cool head and a sense of religious duty. Director Aaron Schneider handled the high seas action very well, with a palpable sense of the setting and maintaining a high-pressure mood throughout, really nailing the feeling of being locked in a duel with utterly remorseless enemies. But, again, the film’s nods towards human drama were barely sufficient, including a stiff and unconvincing prologue sporting Elizabeth Shue as Hanks’ girlfriend, and it would certainly have been better spurning that stuff altogether and keeping focus purely on the business at hand.

The Outpost

Rod Lurie’s The Outpost was another warzone plunge, depicting the true story of a small US Marines garrison in a remote Afghani valley in 2009, a seemingly cursed locale that keeps losing COs. Eventually the outpost becomes the object of a large, committed Taliban assault in what became known as the Battle of Kamdesh, resulting in the first ever awarding of two Medals of Honor for a single action. Lurie tried to delve into the dynamics of the garrison and its personnel in a more restrained and realistic manner than a lot of recent War on Terror-age movies with less blustery machismo and some attention devoted to the uncomfortable tilts at outreach and community-building defining the soldiers’ relationships with their local hosts before everything goes to shit, trying to earn comparisons with precursors like Zulu and Pork Chop Hill. Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry-Jones anchored the film effectively as the two rather different types of hero, but somehow the other soldiers remained not terribly well-delineated as a collective of personalities or even faces, and Lurie’s constantly moving camera was often aggravating and confusing rather than intensifying, badly hampering the intended sense of intimacy even if did convey toey entrapment.

Extraction

Extraction tried to install Chris Hemsworth in an action movie role worthy of an icon of the genre, casting him as a mercenary hired against his misgivings and the wind drag of background pain to rescue the kidnapped son of a drug mogul from his even nastier rival, finding himself trapped on the ground in an Indian city and forced to fight his way out with the lad. The film delivered the requisite dose of shooting, punching, running, and jumping in a year starved of such basic cinematic pleasures. It was also an uneasy attempt to blend a gritty, old-school style of action-thriller with slick, hyped-up, John Wick-derived gun-fu business, two modes which to me can’t really be reconciled, and the wall-to-wall fisticuffs and spasmodic plot crowded out interesting elements, like Golshifteh Farahani’s equally proficient and vengeful partner.

Rogue

M.J. Barrett’s Rogue offered a version of the same basic plot only done on the cheap and with some killer lions thrown into the mix. Barrett cast Megan Fox as the appointed rescuer with a team of fellow badasses sent in to save some kidnapped schoolgirls from a vicious extremist group in an unnamed African nation. The unconvincing CGI lions and air of low-budget waywardness almost foiled the film, and Fox, trying to get gritty and de-glammed, didn’t convince despite offering a decent performance. As a whole, though, Rogue was a moderately engaging mixture of the ungainly and the likeable, trying to offer many of its characters moments to make them specific and empathetic, and sell itself as a message movie wrapped in a shoot-’em-up.

VFW

Joe Begos’ VFW was a similarly, self-consciously and happily trashy throwback B-movie, offering up a wonderful collection of aging but still potent genre movie faces including Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and William Sadler, as a gang of war veterans hanging around one of the titular watering holes who find themselves fighting off an army of brain-dead addicts and punk gangsters. The official style guide was early period John Carpenter with George Romero gore and some nods to Neil Marshall as well, the story a bare-faced if honest rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13. The cast interacted well, including young ringer Sierra McCormick as the truculent cause of the battle who proves every bit as ornery as the old coots, and the film provided some solid, grimy fun. The directing was jittery and clumsy when it came to action, however, and the script was sketchy, lacking the kind of casual wit and feel for character its models wielded, so it didn’t add up to anything more than a fun-sick diversion.

Underwater

William Eubank’s Underwater, released early in the year after sitting on the shelf for a while, blended disaster and monster movie and tried, like VFW and a score of recent movies, to sustain something like traditional dramatic values whilst also playing out a high-pressure situational thriller, shearing off the first act and cutting to the chase. Eubank started with everything going to hell and followed his emergent heroes as they try to survive an attack by a Lovecraftian monstrosity on their deep-sea drilling structure. The film also tried something interesting in making Kristen Stewart’s hardy protagonist, schooled well by grief in struggling through terror and darkness, provide the undertone of emotional evanescence investing the story. The result was, again, watchable and modestly entertaining, and yet failed to develop any aspect of itself enough to really count, never really scary or exciting or engaging sufficiently with its characters, even Stewart’s, to make the film truly thrilling or memorable. Plus the elaborate but murky special effects were trying.

Color Out Of Space

Veteran genre freak and pariah Richard Stanley finally returned to feature directing a quarter-century after his infamous sacking from The Island of Dr. Moreau, with another tilt at adapting a classic sci-fi/horror story. This was H.P. Lovecraft’s already twice-filmed Color Out Of Space, the story of a small New England farming family, here recast from Lovecraft’s eccent yokels to very modern folk, unlucky enough to have an unnatural meteorite land on their farm and begin affecting flora, fauna, and themselves in increasingly disturbing fashion. Stanley made sure to present his story and sketch atmosphere with a thankfully old-fashioned approach as well as good-looking photography, whilst his reading of Lovecraft’s story tried to turn it into a barbed portrait of family identity and the cruelty of time and nature working upon it. His approach to the body horror aspect of the story was strongly indebted to John Carpenter’s The Thing, whilst trying for an appropriately disquieting new edge of intimacy. Despite real initial promise, however, Stanley lost control quite badly, the build-up to insanity breaking out spasmodic and unconvincing when it arrived, the horror derivative, and most frustratingly, the characterisations never cohered. Altogether the experience was largely depressing.

Tenet

Christopher Nolan tried and largely failed to revive the year’s cinema-going mojo when he decided to release his latest opus Tenet in theatres, and those who did see it were often mixed in their feelings. So of course I liked this crossbreed of action and sci-fi more than most of his films to date, appreciating his stabs at giving some urgency to his characters and their plights, in a tale of a secret organisation in the present day battling a mysterious cabal in the future who, per some of Nolan’s weapons-grade gobbledygook, send people and objects back in a reversed time flow with an ultimate aim to reverse-colonising the past. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson did fun work as the uneasily partnered heroes and Elizabeth Debicki was affecting as the wife of Kenneth Branagh’s vicious Russian arms dealer who has his own motives for aiding the future enemy. As usual for Nolan, however, the conceptual gymnastics eventually displaced the personal drama and his ham-fisted visual style often foiled the thrills.

The Midnight Sky

George Clooney offered The Midnight Sky, casting himself as a brilliant but emotionally distant and deathly ill astronomer residing in an Arctic research station. His theory that a newly discovered Jovian moon has life-supporting potential has just been confirmed by an exploratory mission, including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler, now journeying back to Earth in their massive spaceship. But an unspecified apocalyptic event devastates the Earth, leaving polar regions temporarily untouched and the scientist marooned with a young girl who seems to have been accidentally left behind. The story counterpoints the two groups as the scientist and girl make a desperate journey across the Greenland wastes to reach a base with a large enough satellite dish to warn off the spacefarers, who have their own problems. Clooney set up an initially compelling set of situations and tried to weave a rarefied mood of blasted but lingering humanism, whilst offering some of his most visually accomplished filmmaking to date, including an excellent spacewalk sequence and ensuing crisis. None of that stopped the film proving an embarrassingly hackneyed disaster, with climactic revelations that reduced the whole film to a painful gimmick enabled with absurd coincidence, and themes illustrated with head-slapping obviousness. It’s the sort of movie that makes you hiss and shake your head for hours afterwards.

Emma

Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks and Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York shared both a level of ardour for New York as a seat of wistful dreams and comforting alienation whilst confronting different stages in life, youthful floundering in the latter, middle-aged fear and aging regret in the former. Experienced music video director Autumn de Wilde made her feature debut by getting into the Jane Austen adaptation business with Emma because, well, apparently enough time had passed since the Gwyneth Paltrow version. 2020’s most employed new star Anya Taylor-Joy was cast as Austen’s self-satirising heroine, artful arranger of domestic bliss who must contend with her own perturbing love-life. De Wilde followed Whit Stillman’s example in adopting a highly affected style, complete with arch performances designed to mimic the crisply ordered flow of Austenian prose but instead locking into a frieze of affectation, a strategy I found initially very hard to take. The film began to work, that said, when it started to relax in its second half and allowed the characters and their reactions to deepen.

Ammonite

Francis Lee’s Ammonite was a radically different take on the period romance mode, and depicted an interesting and neglected female figure of history, in this case working class paleontological pioneer Mary Anning. Whilst many compared it to last year’s Portrait of a Woman on Fire really Ammonite was closer to faux-Mike Leigh, with Lee weaving a remarkably immediate sense of her windswept stomping grounds on the English coastline and the tight, tense world of regional life in the 19th century. But without much if anything to say about the interest that was the driving obsession of Anning’s life, Lee decided to invent a lesbian romance for her on the thinnest pretext so as to sell it to a current audience for PC brownie points. Said romance, between Kate Winslet’s dour, impenetrable impersonation and Saoirse Ronan as the grieving young mother she’s saddled with by her distractible nerd husband, was modestly engaging and sported a pivotal sex scene that was at least more realistic and less diagrammatic than many such recent set-pieces of queer passion. But the film still never penetrated Anning’s mind beyond the self-evident, indeed leaving her as mostly the same lugubrious bore it presented her as at the start, in the sort of narrative that wants to be celebratory and liberating but was actually subtly sexist.

Shirley

Josephine Decker’s Shirley united several aesthetic strands of the year’s cinema, blending biopic, semi-surrealist mind-bending, quasi-feminist cultural anthropology, and psychological narrative. The nominal focal point was the beloved master of discomforting fiction Shirley Jackson, incarnated by a tic-ridden Elisabeth Moss, contending with the tantalising disparity between the writer’s bizarre and fecund artistic sensibility and her life as a housebound, cripplingly neurotic wife to a minor teaching star in the midst of stolid academia. The film divested the couple of their real-life children and invented a young couple, all the better to filch from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, invited to lodge with them only to be manipulated and finally subsumed into the creative process and the cult of personality. Decker’s style grew high-handed very quickly, offering scene after scene of Sapphic-tinged witchypoo nonsense between Jackson and her young female protégé/victim filmed in excessive close-up, in a desperate attempt to create an unstable and ambiguous mood, even if the narrative ultimately boiled down to some trite and vague statements about the relationship between life and creativity. Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson’s alternately insufferable and understanding mate was, when all was said and done, the best reason to watch; Moss, despite working really hard, was oddly wasted.

Capone

Josh Trank’s Capone, pitched as his comeback after the evil fate that befell his Fantastic Four, took a similar approach to the basic chore of the biopic. Trank tried to capture the state of mind of the legendary gangster in his last year by reproducing the garbled, ghost-filled perceptions of a brain eaten out by syphilis, with Capone desperately trying to hold on to his sanity long enough to aid his family and fend off a still-dogging government. Capone seemed to have everything going for it, with a major star in Tom Hardy tackling an inherently interesting historical figure. But the film was a squalid disaster, completely failing to make any element of its plot or strained stabs at emotional catharsis mean anything and wasting an excellent cast. Trank instead offered indigestible wads of fake Lynchian strangeness and corny CGI visions, and with Hardy chewing the scenery, furniture, and fellow actors with a flatly grotesque performance.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

By contrast Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 took a more traditional approach to recreating a historical moment and its antagonists, applying slick theatricality in invoking the heady days of the 1960s antiwar movement and the facetious prosecution of protest leaders to make them shoulder the blame for the riots around the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sorkin’s script took many liberties with events and characterisations, and his ultimate intellectual project, despite all the invited likenesses between the Nixon and Trump regimes and period and current activism, was actually looking at internal style conflicts on the left and the tension between Sorkin’s preferred brand of institutional-minded reformer and the boogeyman of genuine social rebels, obliging Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman to become his duelling puppets in this. Sorkin’s still a rather basic director in many ways and his primly loquacious politicking was almost amusingly wrong for dealing with the wild and shambolic energy of its topic, but his cross-cutting style helped keep things propulsive, with Frank Langella delivering a peach of a scary-funny performance the trial’s fossilised judge.

Incitement

Incitement saw Israeli director Yaron Zilberman dealing with a topic that must have taken some nerve to tackle, given the way it still echoes through Middle East politics: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a law student and fixated ultranationalist. The young killer’s journey to the fateful moment was charted with a rigorous sense of both psychological and political context, including the right-wing Rabbis who urged him on, and the political figures who benefited from the stoked, fervent deploring of Rabin’s peace moves. Zilberman’s intense, intimate handling and deft mixture of recreation and news footage helped make the time and place palpable, and the script was smart in contending with the tensions within the Israeli social make-up rarely noted by outsiders. Zilberman’s accusatory thesis set out to depict radicalisation as a process of intellectual seduction and mental colonisation from specialists in rhetoric who would like to create a certain outcome but not perform it themselves, relying on double-edged statements and seeking out amanuenses smart enough to join the dots and compelled by their own interior needs. This aspect gave Incitement relevance transcending the specifics of the story it tackles, even if perhaps its psychology was a bit too straightforward.

Mank

David Fincher returned for his first feature in six years with Mank, a biopic inevitably close to his heart, written as it was by his father Jack. Mank proposed to tell the story of screenwriter extraordinaire Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman. Fincher the elder’s script took the ever-controversial writing of Citizen Kane as a framing device but looked more to the acerbic and decent but also sadly alcoholic Mankiewicz’s immersion in the Hollywood of its day and his encounters with the plutocratic power of William Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and others. The Finchers’ desire to “take the writer’s side,” as they had a character put it, had an honourable purpose in celebrating people often under the heel of old Hollywood’s hierarchy. But even putting aside the extremely debatable portrayal of Kane‘s development, I found the film was an intensely aggravating and ultimately dire experience for several reasons. The imitation of Kane‘s structure was scattershot, the script far too in love with its approximations of Mankiewicz’s Algonquin wit deployed in drawn-out but not terribly illuminating sequences, and yet never quite managed to be genuinely funny or ironic, littered with fudged facts and anachronisms. Fincher’s familiar tendency to foil his undoubted technical prowess with flat, fidgety visuals, trying desperately to look retro-classy, was rendered particularly trying by Erik Messerschmidt’s occasionally well-composed but too often drab-looking, blow-out-happy black-and-white photography. Only Amanda Seyfried’s excellent Marion Davies was a good reason to watch.

The Gentlemen

For a rather more interesting and bloodcurdling exploration of the connection between power and storytelling, Philippe Lacôte tried to explore the schismatic mind of post-colonial Africa in Night of the Kings through the fetid microcosm of a prison where ancient tribal rituals and strange social compacts reign, but the thrill of both individual and communal expression still has meaning. Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock tackled some similar ideas and images but in a more familiar context. Trying to earn back a little of his street cred after the cinematic autotune of Aladdin and the punishingly empty spectacle of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie returned again to his roots in the Cockney gangland flick with The Gentlemen. Matthew McConaughey was deftly cast as a transplanted ganja kingpin battling off both enemies and supposed friends long enough to sell his business, in a narrative that proved good as a black comedy-thriller and better as a free-form satire contending with Brexit-era Britain as a prospective haven for all kinds of scamps, ruled by a venal press, a waned and cashless aristocracy, and a shaken Pax Americana, spiced up with a deal of meta play. Neat performances, particularly from Michelle Dockery as McConaughey’s stiletto-clad, derringer wielding “Cockney Cleopatra,” helped a lot. As with all of Ritchie’s films the result was patchy in its levels of invention and wit and purveyed all at the same volume, but it had a droll and flavourful texture overall and sufficient jolts of seriousness when required.

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow saw writer-director Amy Seimetz trying to dramatise a rarefied and difficult subject, the feeling of dread and despair in confronting mortality, in portraying a metastasising epidemic amongst a group of acquaintances who all become convinced, through some enigmatic influence, that they’re going to die the following day. The theme is certainly always worth tackling and indeed for some effectively represented the experience of 2020 in specific, but Seimitz’s chosen method was impenetrably pretentious and pseudo-experimental. Michel Franco’s New Order confronted straits just as nightmarish but with a far more immediate method, portraying a klepto-fascist regime taking control of Mexico using an underclass revolt as a pretext, with conclusions that were difficult to stomach but certainly valid in invoking pockets of recent world history. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau played an inverse game in depicting determined resistance to fascistic thuggery in a Latin American context, this time Brazil, via a loopy semi-futuristic parable. Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers was an equally eccentric but likewise dug into the problem of retaining your autonomy and humanity, and indeed your life, in a country where corruption and political malfeasance are a way of life and even decent people can be forced to countenance dangerous acts.

Kajillionaire

Reigning queen of American indie oddball Miranda July presented Kajillionaire, an initially intriguing, bizarre tale depicting a drop-out couple and their androgynous, clever, but socially maladroit daughter, dedicated to living off the grid in the concrete forest of LA and subsisting through petty crimes and scams, or what the father calls “skimming.” Their tight-knit unit began disintegrating once another young woman comes into their orbit, slowly drawing the daughter towards something resembling normality. Parts of this were ingenious, like a central sequence where the gang invaded a dying old man’s house and found themselves pressganged into recreating familial sounds to help him pass on, fulfilling his need for the illusion of domesticity even as they parody it according to their distaste for such things. July’s point, the difficulty for children of nonconformist families to orientate themselves in the world at large, came through in the deliberate exaggeration, and the excellence of the cast, with Wood giving a witty, physical, quietly pathos-ridden performance and Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger both amusing and excruciating, did a lot to keep the movie going. Still, July’s eccentric flourishes felt contrived and artificial as often as they worked, and the characters never felt real enough for their plights, and affections, to convince.

The Nest

Sean Durkin’s The Nest played as a tonal and situational inversion of Kajillionaire and yet was preoccupied by the same ideas: the perversity of family and the illusory nature of prosperity versus the necessity of rooting in the world. Durkin cast Jude Law and Carrie Coon (both quite excellent) as a 1980s couple with two kids who move from the US back to the husband’s homeland in England so he can take a job in a share trading firm he used to work in. The family soon face a slow-tightening gyre of anxiety and anger as the husband, driven by personal demons, tries to push big deals that won’t come to fund his fantasy lifestyle victory, including renting a huge, creepy country house, whilst the rest become increasingly aware of their tenuous position. As with his Martha Marcy May Marlene but with less justification, Durkin blended what was ultimately a story preoccupied by material (and materialist) truths with stylistic flourishes borrowed from horror movies to build tension and dread, constantly suggesting a haunted house with miscuing visual flourishes only to reveal – gasp! – the only ghosts are in the characters’ heads. Such devices, as well as the more literal one involving a dead horse, got in the way of a drama that, whilst straining at points to indict aspirational entitlement and entrepreneurial smokescreens, had substance and needling accuracy in depicting mounting familial crisis, and the last shot captured exhausted catharsis and ceded power like the release of a breath held for nearly two hours.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, despite its very different setting and style, told a not-so-dissimilar story in depicting characters taking too many risks to cut themselves off a slice of the capitalist dream. Reichardt told the story of two outsiders in a stretch of frontier forest somewhere in the American northwest in the early 1800s, who become friends and partners in commerce and find themselves a hit when one man’s talent for baking earns them the custom of people desperate for real cooking, only with the caveat that their successful wares depend upon milk taken at night from the one cow in the district, belonging to Toby Jones’ local bigwig. Reichardt avoided repeating ideas from Meek’s Cut-Off, her previous blend of deflated Western mythology and ultrarealist moodiness, and her calm, determinedly unhurried style drank in time and place, the visual exposition clean, some real elegance to the evocation of a constant edge of the absurd to life in such a place. The lead characters however remained flat and dull (despite Orion Lee’s class as one of the men, a well-travelled Chinese sailor), and the film took two hours to reach a predestined point, the upshot far too obvious. Reichardt is almost certainly the most talented of the ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers and yet she’s now butting against the limits of such a recessive, exterior style. Casting René Auberjonois in one of his last roles acknowledged the debt to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the comparison with Altman’s jostling, fecund, detailed take on similar material wasn’t that flattering.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Kitty Green’s The Assistant and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always both dealt with very young women traversing the isolating climes of New York and contending with the dismaying spectre of systematic domination, the former depicting an aspiring producer working as a mogul’s tirelessly labouring factotum who begins to suspect her boss is exploiting women who come into his orbit, the latter tracking a teenage girl who sets out on an interstate odyssey to obtain an abortion in secret with her cousin’s aid. Green’s film was fascinatingly cryptic, totally submerging the viewer in a state of existence almost totally severed from any world beyond and where gravity bends to unseen masses. Hittman’s film was a more classical brand of indie-realist drama, detailing her characters’ travails with a painfully precise feel for the minutiae of such a venture. The film was strong as both a caustic portrait of a social issue and a vision of people who are barely adults trying to weather a waking nightmare. The characterisations were a bit sparse, however, hinting at mysteries and distresses motivating the central character left undeveloped, and the film’s urge to keep the screws on felt a bit forced.

Greed

Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela explored the grief and anger of a woman at the opposite end of life, coming to Portugal to confront her husband decades after he left her behind, and becoming ensconced in a community of fellow immigrants trapped in a zone on the fringes of society. Michael Winterbottom and Steven Coogan finally got back to work after several The Trip series to make Greed, a film that pointedly sports an act of bloody revolt by a young female employee against her creep boss, climaxing an occasionally biting (that’s a pun) satire. Coogan was customarily good as a fashion tycoon Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie on the build-up to his orgiastic 60th birthday party, with David Mitchell playing his official biographer who soon begins comprehending how much his business success is based on conartistry and exploitation. Greed was deliberately heavy-handed in mixing consciousness-raising fable and black comedy, but it settled for skimming the surface for the most part, despite nods to Barry Lyndon and Lindsay Anderson as points of inspiration, with the comedy not quite strong enough to compensate. Some great supporting performances from Isla Fisher as McCreadie’s symbiotic ex-wife and Shirley Henderson as his ancient but still-pithy Irish mother helped keep things bouncy.

Eurovison Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a comedy with rather less on its mind, perhaps to its ultimate credit. Will Ferrell played another of his signature boy-man roles, this time a middle-aged loser from a small Icelandic town whose singular obsession with winning the eponymous music competition, forged after a transformative childhood glimpse of ABBA, distracts him from everything else, including the love of his talented performing partner, played by Rachel McAdams at her most ridiculously winning. When seemingly absurd fate allows them to actually make the contest, the duo are tested by temptation and their own seemingly endless capacity for self-sabotage. The storyline, even as a pretext for silliness, hit beats and covered ground Ferrell had already worn ragged. And yet Dobkin and the cast, also including Dan Stevens as a campy Russian star and Pierce Brosnan as Ferrell’s disappointed dad, put it across with enough conviction to make it work. The general high spirits and good-natured sensibility, where even the nominal villains were ultimately likeable, were a balm in a year filled with so many glum, mean movies. The lampoons of Eurovision fare also managed to be both affectionate and craftily dead-on.

12 Hour Shift

Brea Grant’s black comedy/thriller 12 Hour Shift offered another hellish workplace with indie horror star Angela Bettis smartly cast as Mandy, a life-battered, drug-addicted hospital nurse involved in a scam purloining organs from the recently deceased and who sometimes gives the dying a little push along to make the process run more smoothly. Her night on a double shift is made intolerably complicated when her dimwit living-Barbie in-law Regina (Chloe Farnworth), acting as her courier, loses the latest harvested kidney, and is pushed by their gangster connection to get a replacement on the pain of donating one herself. This sets in motion mounting chaos on the wards, with both women pushed to acts far beyond the pale. What made the film interesting was the way it charted a gyring sense of random and lethal abnormality with segues into both outright farce and straight genre film, whilst working coherently as a metaphor for the cynical headspace of its wired, overworked, grief-stunned antiheroine. Ultimately the film would have been better – even great – if it had been a bit more disciplined in terms of how far it pushed its cruelly absurd edge and stylistic quirks, as the script kept threatening to lose its grounding, particularly once Regina turned into an absurdly stupid killer. But the actors forced their characters to work, and as the film gained momentum it delivered some delightfully sick twists.

Performances Of Note

Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman
Emilia Clarke, Above Suspicion
Steve Coogan, Greed
Carrie Coon, The Nest
Gail Cronauer, The Vast of Night
Elizabeth Debicki, The Burnt Orange Heresy ; Tenet
Frankie Faison, I’m Your Woman
Chloe Farnworth, 12 Hour Shift
Sidney Flanagan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Julia Garner, The Assistant
Shirley Henderson, Greed
Rashida Jones, On The Rocks
Udo Kier, Bacurau
Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Jude Law, The Nest
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Elle Lorraine, Bad Hair
Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Matthew MacFadyen, The Assistant
Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night ; VFW
Bill Murray, On The Rocks
Naian González Norvind, New Order
Donald Sutherland, The Burnt Orange Heresy
Marisa Tomei, The King of Staten Island
Vitalina Varela, Vitalina Varela
Ensemble: The Gentlemen
Ensemble: Lovers Rock
Ensemble: Night of the Kings
Ensemble: A Rainy Day In New York
Ensemble: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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Favourite Films of 2020

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

In abstract this film threatened to be a dubious exercise in tabloid exploitation or a tinny talking-point drama a la last year’s crummy Bombshell: a tale of workplace abuse inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. The Weinstein figure was rendered here as an unnamed, unseen movie company executive whose shows of wrath and prerogative register through emails and phone calls like the tremors of the tyrannosaurus’ footfall in Jurassic Park. The situation was explored through the viewpoint of his young, still relatively green, hardworking assistant Jane, who in trying to pay her dues on the way to becoming a documentary producer, has the job of literally cleaning up the mess left by his casting couch adventures amongst myriad other duties beginning before dawn and ending at night. But Green’s feature debut did something very smart in tackling such subject matter. Green put the minutiae of Jane’s day front and centre with a sense of workaday routine perhaps derived from Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, unfolding in an office space where the sombre, intense atmosphere and the constant work has an embracing, almost homey mystique, one easy to imagine could sustain Jane through the gruelling and alienating entry-level days in the industry.

Except this was revealed with pitiless concision to conceal the constant knife-edge of threatened disruption lest the boss’s evil temper register, the parade of young lovelies waiting to go into the office perhaps just potential talent or willing supplicants or meal for a hungry ogre, whilst Jane’s submergence in her work at once makes her privy to signs of sleaziness but also allows her to retain an envelope of plausible deniability to let herself keep her job. The most frightening scene in any movie of the year came when Jane did finally work up the nerve to approach the company’s HR boss, beautifully played at maximum sucker-punch smarm by Matthew MacFadyen, only to have him fend off her concerns with expert soft bullying and then find everyone already knows about her foray when she returns to the office. The film relied on the audience to connect portrayed events with what we know about the Weinstein case, but what made it really worthwhile was the way that to a certain extent all that was rendered ambiguous, even supernal, to the exploration of the crushing weight of factotum solitude and powerlessness experienced by its heroine as only a slightly more urgent version of that experienced day in and day out by others like her.

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Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonca Filho)

Evoking the traditions of Latin American magic realism and its fascination with peculiar communities and fluxes of time and identity, as well as the Western movie genre, Bacurau can also be described a cleverly nasty inversion of familiar horror movie tropes. You know, those movies where hapless tourists stumble into malignant locales full of people, often in sleazy, degraded backwaters, and have to fight for survival. Here Dornelles and Filho define the people of a small, far-flung town out in the Brazilian boondocks as a collective defined by mutual trust and identity, a proud sense of both tradition and openness to the world in a movie set in the very near future. The droll early scenes depict the locals reacting to the death of a matriarch and the communal rejection of a patronising politician, tapping elements like the politician’s rolling campaign show for slyly deceptive comedy, came with sidelong hints of what’s coming as coffins are left scattered all over the road to town, empty at this point, and a teacher schooling local children is bemused when the town seems to vanish from online maps. Talk about cancel culture.

Those very communal strengths play a part in why they’re earmarked for eradication for reasons connected to local power structures whilst also equipping them to resist it. The actual agents of suppression are sourced, in a twist of sublime if incredibly harsh wit, through another potential future industry: murder tourism, bloodlusting internationals come to indulge lethal fantasies. The swerve towards ugly violence after the gentle absurdism of the first half serves a definite purpose as the racism and entitlement of the invaders is contrasted with the ordinariness of the locals, save the scattered criminals used to making their own impotent tilts at the world but who find their special talents needed to help the town fight back, the weirdness and wildness suddenly becoming weapons. It helped that the directors didn’t abandon their profoundly odd sense of humour even as war erupts, including an elderly couple whose choice of nakedness fools their opponents and also seems to contain some primal sensibility. Udo Kier, bringing the film cred in linking it to that horror movie tradition, was cunningly cast as the tour guide/assassin boss whose air of flinty command doesn’t quite conceal a bloodthirsty mania that gains the most fitting, and frightening, of comeuppances.

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I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart)

Last year Julia Hart’s Fast Color intrigued me with its blend of fantasy, fable, and dry realism, an unusual and interesting mixture that suggested where the superhero genre might find some artistic growth, foiled only by a rather too stringent budget and a poky tone. Hart’s return with I’m Your Woman wielded a similar interest in characters exiled both in the world and within themselves, and proved one of the year’s quietest successes in trying to present a feminist twist on the well-trod routes of the retro gangland drama. Rachel Brosnahan gave a terrific lead performance as Jean, the trophy wife to a gangster forced to go on the run with their mysteriously acquired adopted son for reasons she has no real understanding of, only slowly learning the truth whilst meanwhile forced to witness and do terrible things in the name of survival. Hart had to negotiate a dramatic difficulty in the central character’s blindsided passivity through much of the film – the gangster genre’s been beset by too many blankly reactive viewpoint characters in recent years.

Hart turned this into a dramatic strength in the space of bewilderment and hermetic detachment woven about Jean, her feelings of being at once deserted and besieged exacerbating her already confused and detached perspective on her existence, presented at the outset as a domestic fantasy, life in constant showroom readiness, wrapped in breathless plastic. Soon she’s on the road as the uneasy charge of one of her husband’s colleagues, a black man who barely knows more than her and proves to have a ruthless side despite seeming decent, and finds herself taken under the wing of his family, where she has to contend with the secrets compelling their assistance as well as try to find a way out of limbo. The mixture of character drama and tension had rigour, and if the film’s slight over-length did make me wonder what some 1940s noir-style on the story might have looked like, perhaps with a less naïve heroine and a pithier telling, ultimately Hart’s firm control and purpose paid off with several riveting suspense sequences. Most of these scenes were unusual, too, in dealing with characters who tend to stumble upon the results of others’ actions or get caught up in the furore. Jean’s breakdown in a Laundromat, swathed in sodden disco finery, was a marvellous vision of total pathos, precursor to the inevitable pivot as she matured into someone capable of protecting not only herself but others.

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Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Part of a five-episode string of thematically related movies detailing black British life from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, grouped under the heading Small Axe, Lovers Rock saw Steve McQueen doing something, on the surface at least, rather different to what he’s done to date in cinema, in choosing to depict joy and celebration. Stepping back from the kind of explicit portraits of psychological and social torment he purveyed in fare like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Year a Slave, and recovering from the sluggish disappointment of his commercial foray Widows, McQueen set about recreating, with a precise sense of both personal nostalgia and anthropological import, the sights and sounds of a house party in a black London neighbourhood circa 1979, from early scenes noting the DJs setting up and cooks preparing and young women choosing their battle dress, to giddy dance moves executed to “Kung Fu Fighting.” McQueen avoided inserting any traditional comic antics or big dramatic gestures to mythologise the event, or even nodding to any larger socio-political context beyond what he can grazingly suggest. Instead, he kept to his brief of simply watching people at a moment in time celebrating within the embrace of their fellows, a hermetic cultural experience at once in reaction to and ignorance of racism and incomprehension without.

In its way as maniacally focused and radical a piece of formalism as Hunger, Lovers Rock obliged the viewer to shift into a slightly different headspace to enjoy it. Some flashes of complication were introduced. A jolt of racist harassment from some white louts. A near-sexual assault by a pushy dandy, and the show of female solidarity that fends it off. One woman leaves in fear of intimacy, one tests out glimmerings of same-sex attraction, one seems to find the love of her life and rides off with him into the sunrise and beyond. But McQueen, to the point of risking patience at points, keeps his focus on the communal experience of dancing to music that invokes group identity, building to a rhapsodic eruption from the dance floor-lording young men, laced with political meaning as well as the insensate quality of authentic shared ecstasy, as the DJs play The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub,” suburban party suddenly become ancient rite of belonging and defiance, achieving the kind of mesmeric frenzy of body and mind so often sought and so rarely, truly gained. The coming of daylight brings the familiar flow of little, stinging insults and defeats but also the burgeoning of new hopes. Plus; given 2020’s feeling of isolation and besiegement, the film provided something close to a virtual reality simulator for the socially deprived.

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New Order (Michel Franco)

The bleak and unflinching flipside to Bacurau‘s prophecy of resisting exploitative power and oppression in a Latin American context, New Order ruthlessly charts its own socio-political thesis, proposing that very often the threat of class warfare usually finishes up benefiting reactionaries and opportunists far more than the masses, and illustrates it in truly effective ways. Disorientating flashes of revolt and totems of political transformation give way to a skittishly realistic portrait of economic disparity, as a former employee of a very rich family comes to ask to borrow money to help his sickly wife during a wedding party. The alternations of patronisation, outright rudeness, and actual charity from the good-nature bride amidst a show of dynastic ziplocking are pointed but believable, until purely by evil chance a revolution breaks out, people from the bottom of society climbing over fences and activating agents within.

Swiftian parable takes over: the military called into the streets to put down the revolt soon become agents of their own and their bosses’ enrichment, the rich are kidnapped and ransomed back to their families and the poor made to look responsible. Franco’s vision was by the end hard to take, but moved towards that end with remorseless energy and a vision of mounting horror brilliantly executed with a thriller’s tension, with its cruelly victimised heroine used in every way possible despite (and because) her being the most conscientious and likeable figure in the film, who finishes up in the deepest shit imaginable whilst setting out to do a good deed – not that staying within the castle walls would have spared her. Ghastly visions like a mass pansexual rape of the prisoners were mixed with a sourly detailed depiction of the nuts and bolts of repression under the guise of security, choking off easy communication and enabling disorientation, and concluding with brutish taciturnity with shots of the hangman’s ropes. Amidst all the phantoms of paranoia and appropriate anxiety thriving in 2020’s politics, New Order provided a cold reminder of what real tyranny looks like, provoking any sensible person to ask just what holds it off.

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Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Ivory Coast director Lacôte set his Night of the Kings in that country’s huge, forest-girded MACA prison, a community nominally controlled by the agents of the state but actually ruled over by an anointed kingpin whose command over the prison, in a pointed echo of old tribal law, depends on retaining his virility: when he gets too old or too sick he must die. Trying to fend off fate for one more day as he’s stricken by illness, the chieftain uses one technicality in his arsenal, appointing a young and naïve hoodlum just arrived in the prison to become the Roman or storyteller, tasked with telling the inmates a story through a long night with the Scheherazadian twist that if he finishes before dawn he’ll be put to death. The storyteller’s vigil becomes a communal theatrical event as the inmates invent dances and physically mimic the events he speaks of, whilst the storyteller himself tries desperately to synthesise his scanty and pathetic experiences as the lieutenant of a minor gang lord into a Homeric epic of national identity and magic-realist history.

Lacôte’s vision managed, in the course of a curt running time – it might well have been the only film of 2020 that could stand to be longer – to evoke both the specific cultural and historical experience of the Ivory Coast and the entire human experience of art as a communal event, people rearranging their minds and bodies to make sense of existence and the craving for narrative, for heroes, for psychic landscapes that knit the one into the whole, the spasms of interpretive dance and role-play the audience apply to the story giving it shared life and vitality. Tabloid violence and ancient myth bleed into each-other, the Roman connecting the contemporary folk hero with a suitably legendary backstory, so that the grimy and oppressive present gains the lustre of something deep-rooted. The young Roman’s night of testing is also an event with specific political purpose, an attempt to buy more time for a teetering regime, as lurking factions wait to invade the stage, including the watching, fraying eye of the armed yet besieged guards, one of whom finally shoots down into the arena to deliver random death, fending off, at least for another night, the moment where the jailed become masters.

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A Rainy Day in New York (Woody Allen) / On The Rocks (Sofia Coppola)

I’m counting these two together as connected evocations of a melancholically romantic New York, and whilst flawed they balanced each-other in gesture and impulse. Allen’s film loitered in fantasies of being young, rich, and free in his native city, at both his most off-hand and his most crisply directed and scripted in a long time. Coppola’s was a martini-dry deconstruction of fantasies both cinematic and personal, turning the tension between its relentlessly limited purview, in dealing with niggling psychic anxiety and uncertainty and the song of issues that seem long suppressed and yet need resolution, and the seemingly necessary largesse of cinematic expression, into its driving concern.

I didn’t expect Allen to deliver a film as blithely charming as A Rainy Day In New York at this point in his career, especially given that I’ve never been a fan, but it was the kind of sublime doodle late careers sometime offer, sporting ingenious comic performances from Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning as a mismatched young couple whose adventures in Manhattan provoke maturation and self-understanding, whilst contending with an array of farce trope characters and mood-piece havens. It’s the sort of movie an artist might only make when they’ve allowed themselves to relax on some fundamental level, simply existing within a way of seeing and feeling.

Coppola by contrast seemed to be in conflict with her own career to date, pulling apart the elements of her early signature success Lost In Translation and refashioning them in a more self-conscious and probing thesis, casting Bill Murray as an aging roué whose transgressions and failings are charted with a more precise sense of what they cost his daughter, played by Rashida Jones, even as his approach to life, laced in movie-fit postures, seems irresistible. If the key tension in artistically ambitious recent indie American cinema of late has been being sticking to a realm of low-key and hyper-realist authenticity at the expense of sacrificing bigger dreams and styles like weaning itself off a sugar rush, Coppola seemed to be trying to make this her very theme.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

An inventively crafted tribute to bygone dreams mediated by more modern insights and paranoias, The Vast of Night offered itself as a purported episode of some Twilight Zone-ish TV show from the black-and-white era, only to shift into full-colour, long-take, steadicam-enabled contemporary style. Two ordinary young people, the gabby, nerdy telephone operator Fay (Sierra McCormack) and the wannabe cool cat DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), connect over a tape recorder test whilst walking through the streets of their small, flat, close-knit home town in the Texas boondocks, a certain arc of fledgling attraction manifesting in their shared status as people with minds flung out far beyond the city limits even as she spills her enthusiasms and he plays aloof hipster. They soon find themselves draw together more urgently as strange phenomena begin manifesting, weird signals on the wires, lights in the sky, and callers testifying to universe-reshaping events. Patterson underlined his fascination, bordering on fetishism, for backdated technology and the accompanying mystique of past entertainment – the fertile, deftly minimalist palette of radio drama and the threadbare expressionist sketches of early television, the savoured fervour stoked in a time when expressions of nerdy obsession had to await the mailman bringing a magazine packed full of mind-expanding concepts and thrilling wonder stories.

Patterson’s more blatant cinematic gimmicks, his unblinking takes and roving camerawork, doesn’t simply seek to offer impressive technique but actively work to maintain the same sense of dramatic intensity and unity that such models wielded. Patterson’s eye and ear for the place and time was genuinely admirable, his actors precise in nailing period mannerisms and speech patterns. Patterson alternated shows of camera dynamism, including an astounding travelling shot that seems to travel from one side of town to the other, with passages of deadpan minimalism, so neither felt strained. The key influence here was ultimately less Rod Serling or George Pal or even Steven Spielberg than David Lynch, quoting his estranged depictions of ‘50s small town environs with a destabilising event forcing the two protagonists to face hidden truths social, as one caller explores the racist use of African-Americans in cleaning up an apparent UFO crash, and historical, as an aged recluse recounts to them tales of such events going back to the Old West with an enigmatic influence at work. Amongst the many Lynch acolytes emerging this year, Patterson was the best because he used the influence most subtly. Only in his climax did he spurn his theatre-of-the-mind aesthetic and offer a glimpse of something straining for the startling and awesome but not quite landing it. Nonetheless his final shots reverted to a haunting tone and suggested the price for getting out of Nowheresville can be steep.

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Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

Given how many movies are made these days by directors who scarcely seem to have any concept of framing and staging, it’s a bit of a shock to watch a movie that consists of nothing less than perfectly crafted pictures, composed in depth and with care in lighting that turns a nominally gritty location and subject and location into the stuff of Renaissance art. The latest film from sporadic Portuguese director Pedro Costa unfolds in a dreamlike key, shot in a Portuguese shanty town filled with immigrants in a manner that makes it look like warren of menace out of a Val Lewton or Marcel Carne film, but the only ghosts and crimes are banal in scope, if never feeling so to those who have suffered them. The title character, played in neorealist fashion by a non-actor woman of the same name, arrives in Portugal from her home in Cape Verde to confront her dying husband, the man who abandoned her decades earlier, only to find he’s passed just before her arrival. Vitalina is left alone in his crumbling, sloppily-built house, eddying in a space of grief commingled with rage.

Costa’s films are known for their severe façades and themes of an unquiet past, mixed with empathy for the underclass. The film’s political undertow, meditating on the false quest for prosperity for immigrants, a siren song strong enough to sunder the most idyllic unions, meshes in a particularly lucid but unforced way with Vitalina’s experience, her own recollections of constructive partnership from the early days of her marriage contrasted with evidence of phthisic will and shrivelled personal passion, a contrast illustrated by two different houses. Costa richly humanises and endows palpable, even epic eminence upon his outsider protagonist, Vitalina granted the blazing-eyed stature of a Greek tragic heroine whose ancient wounds hurt no less for their age. She’s also tormented not simply for being left behind but because she’s fed herself on her hurt, her nursed grievance a source of strength and still-stinging bewilderment, frustrated that she cannot gain the confrontation and catharsis she deserved. Meanwhile she comes into contact with an aged, haggard priest consumed by his own lode of guilt and evil memory. Costa truly nails down the experience of grief, the aimless desire to wrestle with phantoms, the long nights of grinding, inchoate feeling, as well as the slow coming of healing, a process Vitalina forces along with customary rituals even when they seem utterly false. Some of Costa’s images, like Vitalina trying to seal up her roof during a storm, had a visual power barely seen in cinema since the heyday of expressionism.

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The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Corneliu Porumboiu is generally known for his dark, tough, stringent dramas about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The Whistlers was a sharp change of pace for him, insofar that it’s a dark, tough, off-beat, often funny post-genre film about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The plot had a uniquely clever point of departure, as Cristi, a corrupt policeman, is sent to the Canary Islands to learn from the locals their time-honoured art of communicating through whistling, so that he and his accomplices in a drug-dealing operation can communicate in a manner incomprehensible to surveillance. Along the way he’s thrown into the company of a beautiful femme fatale aptly named Gilda, forced to negotiate for their lives with clashing factions and dodge plots involving his confederates and even his own opportunist boss. Poromboiu had the gall to sell a bent cop enmeshed with some real scumbags as a protagonist on the understanding that in a bottomlessly corrupt society all bets are off.

Cristi is the hangdog embodiment of moral and mental exhaustion, the son of a former Communist party official who never benefited from his father’s dishonesty but everyone assumes he did anyway, left excruciatingly exposed when his mother finds his stash of illegal cash and gives it to the church. Porumboiu taps the constant experience of surveillance and intrusion for both dark humour and tension, in a film that walked the line between satire and straight-faced, sharp-edged crime drama, with evident political dimensions: his gang of dangerous and diversely motivated criminals becomes stand-ins for a dissident element. The early encounter between Cristi and Catrinel Marlon’s smoky beauty Gilda, which sees them forced to have sex to satisfy hidden cameras, is a quietly hilarious game of deception and misdirection through sexual illusion Brian De Palma might have been proud of, whilst the sarcastic nods to Western films throughout leads to a shoot-out in a movie set and a curtailed gunslinging match between the two major female characters. Eventually all the hero is left with is his new, peculiar language, but that proves to be the key to a happy ending where his one good deed gains a just reward.

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The Wild Goose Lake (Yi’nan Diao)

Like The Whistlers, The Wild Goose Lake used film noir conventions to anatomise a society in a moment of painful and dislocating transformation, in this case the grim and gritty zones of China’s developing but iniquitous cityscapes – Wuhan, no less – where money is the only motive that keeps its value but evanescent connections keep people tethered to each-other with a host of needling motives. The Wild Goose Lake certainly fits in with a plethora of excellent recent Chinese films with similar preoccupations. Director Yi’nan Diao’s vision was certainly its own, particular thing, however, utilising the traditional noir theme of a manhunt, following a strong but dim gangster from an outfit specialising in stealing motor scooters, who kills a cop after a battle with rivals in his own gang. When a large reward is put out for his capture by the barely competent local police force and seeing no real way out, he tries to remain free long enough to contrive a way of making sure the reward money can go to the wife he abandoned years earlier. He finds himself thrust into the company of a deadpan and enigmatic young prostitute, who describes herself as his wife’s friend and emissary.

Diao’s woozy, fluid style avoided some of the more outright surreal touches offered by the likes of Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan in their ventures down this mean street, and yet he painted the story with flashes of electric strangeness, from the hooker washing off the antihero’s jism from her hand in lake water, to a young woman providing a sideshow attraction as a disembodied head in a box, and a gang of policemen converging on a felled gangster whilst all wearing fluorescent shoes glowing hallucinatory in the night. Such sights not only gave the movie its punch-drunk texture but also effectively described Diao’s thesis about modern China as a place filled with human rubble and where life and death have a perverse, almost acausal rhythm. Moments of bleak and gnawing irony, like a union meeting voting to see who gets sacked from a factory that mimics the conclave of hoods assigning turf from earlier in the film, rubbed against episodes of black comedy and vivid physical action John Woo might have been proud of, including one astonishing moment involving a creatively used umbrella. Underlying all this was an authentically noir sense of blasted solitude and tenuous human connection, building to a final revelation about the prostitute’s motives that finally drew the film’s serpentine emotional landscape as well as plot together. Vied with Vitalina Varela as the best-shot film of the year, too.

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Added to 2020 Favourites List after 1/1/2021

To be announced

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Honourable Mention

12 Hour Shift (Brea Grant)
Incitement (Yaron Zilberman)
The Nest (Sean Durkin)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

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Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Bad Hair (Justin Simien)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Greed (Michael Winterbottom)
Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins)

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Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ammonite (Francis Lee)
Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan)
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow)
Mank (David Fincher)
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
Tenet (Christopher Nolan)
Shirley (Josephine Decker)

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Crap

Capone (Josh Trank)
The Midnight Sky (George Clooney)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)

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Unseen

∙ Another Round ∙ Bad Boys 4 Life ∙ Beanpole ∙ Bill and Ted Face the Music ∙ Black Bear ∙ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ∙ Butt Boy ∙ Cuties ∙ Deerskin ∙ Driveways ∙ The Father ∙ The Forty-Year-Old Version ∙ Fourteen ∙ Hillbilly Elegy ∙ The Hunt ∙ I Was at Home, But… ∙ I’m Thinking of Ending Things ∙ Let Them All Talk ∙ The Lodge ∙ Mangrove ∙ Martin Eden ∙ Minari ∙ Miss Juneteenth ∙ News of the World ∙ Nomadland ∙ The Old Guard ∙ The Personal History of David Copperfield ∙ Promising Young Woman ∙ Relic ∙ Saint Maud ∙ Soul ∙ Sound of Metal ∙ Swallow ∙ Tesla ∙ The Trip to Greece ∙ Tommaso ∙ True History of the Kelly Gang ∙ The Twentieth Century ∙ The Wolf House ∙ Wolfwalkers ∙

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The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2020

Deluge (Felix E. Feist)
I Married A Witch (Rene Clair)
On The Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
Phase IV (Saul Bass)
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini)

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In Memoriam

∙ Orson Bean ∙ Honor Blackman ∙ Chadwick Boseman ∙ Wilfred Brimley ∙ Tim Brooke-Taylor ∙ Earl Cameron ∙ Sean Connery ∙ Gene Corman ∙ Linda Cristal ∙ Abby Dalton ∙ Sonia Darrin ∙ Olivia de Havilland ∙ Brian Dennehy ∙ Kirk Douglas ∙ Mort Drucker ∙ Rhonda Fleming ∙ Derek Fowlds ∙ Stuart Gordon ∙ Buck Henry ∙ Ian Holm ∙ Terry Jones ∙ Hugh Keays-Byrne ∙ Shirley Knight ∙ John Le Carre ∙ Michael Lonsdale ∙ Vera Lynn ∙ Ennio Morricone ∙ Daria Nicolodi ∙ Geoffrey Palmer ∙ David Prowse ∙ Helen Reddy ∙ Carl Reiner ∙ Little Richard ∙ Diana Rigg ∙ Kenny Rogers ∙ John Saxon ∙ Joel Schumacher ∙ John Shrapnel ∙ Jerry Stiller ∙ Max von Sydow ∙ Stuart Whitman ∙ Fred Willard ∙ Barbara Windsor ∙

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2010s, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Film Freak 2019

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By Roderick Heath

If there’s any conviction underpinning my yearly film round-ups, it’s the feeling that the movies are talking to each-other. In 2019, it seemed the conversation was more intense and deeply interwoven than ever. As the way we consume cinema evolves and a moment of generational change looms in terms of who makes and watches movies, the common references and preoccupying themes gained something like a collective voice. Filmmakers and their on-screen avatars faced the treachery of their bodies, floated in dreamscapes of nostalgia and sore memory, felt the nature of identity becoming porous and confused, and pondered the meaning of relationships between people in many different figurations testing all for their perversities. 2019 proved a formidable year in terms of the sheer number of excellent films; indeed, I’d say at this point the best year of the closing decade by a good measure. This is not to say it didn’t have its share of duds, disgraces, and acreage of mediocrity. But it was a year when old cinema heroes and new ones offered a surfeit of boldness and quality, all determined to prove their boisterous energy and vision.

02
Parasite

Perhaps it’s a result of facing excruciating political choices and dim prospects, but many of 2019’s films betrayed a desire to crawl into a subliminal space of dreams and remembering and wrestle with the meaning of experience, in what might called, however paradoxically, urgent nostalgia. Films as violently disparate as The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Pain and Glory, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Nightingale, Us, Ash is Purest White, The Souvenir, In Fabric, Ad Astra, High Life, The Aeronauts, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, revolved around an unstable evocation of pasts, presents, and futures private and communal, featuring characters who, willingly or not, drift into places beyond recourse, obliging them to justify their living tenure. Many dug into a place in the creative mind where fetid experience and adored art mash together in a polymorphous lode, often conflating filmmaker and on screen characters in implicating webs, autobiography and cultural reportage merging. Works like The Lighthouse, In Fabric, Under the Silver Lake, and The Wind saw characters plunge into zones where all certainty over what constitutes reality dissolved.

03
Ford v Ferrari

Protagonists of films like Pain and Glory, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Rambo: Last Blood, The Irishman, and King of Thieves struggled with their own fraying bodies and wits, forced to recognise the limitations of their prowess and power, several tossing away their curatives in exchange for more direct purgation. The hero of Gemini Man was literally confronted by his own clones, young versions free from such weary flesh but lacking the seasoning imbued by hard experience too. Many stories of 2019 dealt with harsh necessities, people seeking sustenance and shelter without time for navel-gazing, like the lost folk of The Chambermaid and Little Woods and Arctic, the rogues of Dragged Across Concrete and Triple Frontier, Les Misérables, Hustlers, Joker, Birds of Passage, and Parasite. Works as tonally diverse as Hustlers, Holiday, Booksmart, Richard Jewell, The Hustle, Marriage Story, Ride Like A Girl, Men In Black: International, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ash Is Purest White, The Aeronauts, and The Nightingale portrayed women trying to assimilate themselves into realms more usually associated with masculine behaviour, often for reasons blending wisdom and futility and finding their efforts leading them to places that left some triumphant but others discomforted, even damaged or perverted, by the experience. Adoring artists feverishly sketched the forms of their beloved in Pain & Glory and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, trying to capture the fleeting being in a moment, or lost themselves in the orgiastic in the likes of Tempting Devils, The Beach Bum, and Under the Silver Lake, trying instead to accept with equanimity the fluidity of ardour.

04
Fighting With My Family

Property, and characters’ desperation and determination to hold it or regain it, was central to many stories, and some had to surrender it amidst hard choices. The antihero of Uncut Gems forced himself into situations of existential risk purely to feel that kind of shocking urgency and danger. Nor were there hard borders between the wistful and the immediately anxious stories, as a film like The Last Black Man In San Francisco perceived the connection of the two states. Studies of close friendships and family, the people we share life with in bonds of need that sometimes turn strange and painful in their very necessity, also permeated 2019. The people we lean on as life whittles away choices and chances, the people life would be unbearable without even if it’s unbearable with them, in relationships that can be noxious or umbilical or both – the tethered sisters of Little Woods and generational unions of Fast Color and Shaft, the magnet pals of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, and people trapped together in situations they can’t escape, like the aging bastards of The Irishman and the fraying coworkers of The Lighthouse and the crumbling interstellar exiles of High Life. Others searched for those who taunted in their absence and embodied gaping holes in psyche and memory, the son hunting for his multifarious father in Ad Astra, the sought-for ghost of a lover in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and reunited gangster and moll in Ash is Purest White. Deterioration and death waited for all, from the poet of Hotel by the River to the killers of The Irishman and Ash is Purest White. Only taking on a burden of care saved many a 2019 character from sliding into limbo.

05
Arctic

Joe Penna’s Arctic gave Mads Mikkelsen a strong if strenuous role as one such character who enacted perhaps the most basic and essential variation on that theme. Mikkelsen played a plane crash survivor stranded in remote and icy climes, who does everything right in weathering his situation but finds himself obliged to take a dangerous chance when a helicopter that comes to rescue him crashes too, forcing him to care for an injured woman. The storyline obeyed familiar beats of the survivalist tale without much variance, but Penna distinguished it with patient, detailed filmmaking, well-matched to Mikkelsen’s expert depiction of a good and sensible man driven through stations of bitter humour and tragic acceptance in learning just how bad bad luck can get when contending with an indifferent universe.

06
The Aeronauts

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts took authentic history as a leaping-off point, mashing together real events and personalities from the pioneering days of ballooning, portraying prototypical meteorologist James Glaisher’s landmark ascent and inserting a female pilot to accompany him, imaginary if a composite of some real figures. In abstract it sounded a bit try-hard when it comes to fashionable revisionism. In practice, thankfully, the film proved a vivid, gorgeous-looking Jules Verne-esque adventure that played smartly on Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ established if previously ill-served chemistry, and found effective ways to complicate a straightforward story, with an eye to the way science and showman’s hoopla have so often been obliged to play uncomfortable bedfellows.

07
1917

Sam Mendes made 1917, his first non-James Bond feature in a decade, as an attempt to render a revisit to the grim trenches of World War I an immediate and intense experience rescued from all hint of period quaintness, depicting the fates of two luckless soldiers dispatched on an urgent and dangerous mission across No Man’s Land to prevent a doomed attack. Mendes joined the growing ranks of directors who have made a movie in a simulation of a single camera take. The approach sometimes paid off, particularly during an unblinking depiction of a character’s slow death. But as is often the case with such strenuously achieved cinema, the hoped-for immediacy and realism was instead squelched by a tendency to theatrical awkwardness in acting and dialogue, and Mendes’ tendency to offer excessively preened visual flourishes was pushed to the nth degree: too often, for all its would-be sombre grandeur, the film resembled a video game where for each level survived you met a prominent British actor.

08
The Nightingale

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra expanded on their debut Embrace of the Serpent in continuing to study the travails of South America’s indigenous peoples, portraying traditions tested to the limit by involvement in the drug trade. The Babadook creator Jennifer Kent released her sophomore feature, The Nightingale, a gruesome revenge saga set in Tasmania in the bloody throes of colonisation, where an Irish convict lass is compelled to join forces with a bereft Aboriginal tracker and chase down and kill the thuggish English officer who brutalised her and her family. Kent roped together some very trendy themes and points of thorny, lingering contention in a potentially fruitful manner, and offered a couple of properly powerful scenes, when her heroine confronted the reality of brutal payback and her hero despaired at an act of apparent hospitality. To describe the bulk of the film as blunt and heavyhanded would be understating things, however, with the conflation of a specific and personalised battle with evil, represented by Sam Claflin’s ridiculously over-the-top villain, with a general portrait of historical brutality, ultimately self-defeating. Kent’s attempts to extend the best aspect of The Babadook, its delving into a subliminal world afflicting a troubled mind, proved merely clumsy.

09
Monos

Alejandro Landes gained wide attention and acclaim with his debut film Monos, grappling with South America’s agonised recent history of guerrilla warfare as glimpsed through a cracked and absurdist lens. Landes portrayed a gang of teenage warriors, impressed and indoctrinated as members of an insurgent force, assigned to guard a dairy cow and a ransomed American doctor, but who steadily become wrapped up in rites of passage and tribal power games until their cause, and their community disintegrates in a welter of bloodshed and lunacy. Landes’ fragmented images were alternately impressive and opaque, the arty postures vigorous and overbearing, with early scenes chasing a Dogtooth-esque vibe in portraying strangely socialised behaviours but without the same precision, whilst nods to Lord of the Flies towards the end were likewise a bit tinny. The basic storyline, although more conventional, steadily gained force and tension, and the sense of place, particularly when the guerrillas relocated to the jungle, was palpable.

10
The Last Black Man in San Francisco

In a year filled with some extremely accomplished studies of more quotidian situations, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco became one of the year’s major indie successes, depicting a flailing man’s efforts to reclaim the house his family once owned, now a pricey piece of desirable real estate in once-homey, now-gentrified inner San Francisco. Talbot took on a theme difficult to dramatize, the angst and disruption caused by urban renewal and displacement of black neighbourhoods, with first-time actor Jimmie Fails, whose experiences inspired the story, proving a thoughtful lead. Talbot offered an open-hearted humanism, permeated with an honest sense of yearning and regret, that felt peculiarly acute in describing 2019 as a moment. Still, his direction alternated interludes of attentive and nuanced beauty with patches of mannered windiness, the slight story taking far too long to play out, and the personal drama trickled away.

11
The Art of Self-Defense

With The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns returned to the appeal of cultish allegiance for disoriented personalities he explored in Faults, in depicting a dweeb accountant’s rebirth as a karate student following a vicious assault, only to find himself under the thumb of a fascistic sensei, played with a drone of cold wit by Alessandro Nivola so sly it was almost occult. Stearns’ style, this time inflected by a blackly comic absurdism enacted by a selection of characters at once pokerfaced and verbose, lacked the cryptic and dreamlike visual quality that marked Faults, but the film’s wry confidence in depicting an increasingly bizarre and shocking situation, and the ironic sharpness of its denouement, marked it as a small gem.

12
Uncut Gems

Fraternal directing duo Benny and Josh Safdie continued a negotiation with the mainstream whilst retaining their squirrely street energy with Uncut Gems, making ingenious use of Adam Sandler’s talent for playing fraying hotheads by casting him as Howard Ratner, a jewellery seller out on a limb thanks to his love of gambling and other rowdy appetites, trying to land a big score with a hunk of illegally imported black opal before loan sharks come in to feast. Whilst the Safdies tried valiantly to set up political and spiritual subtexts, the real engine of the drama was simply Howard’s endless capacity for self-sabotaging risk-taking. This added up to my least favourite work by the Safties to date however, lacking the submerged and alien sense of individuals cleaved out of society found in Heaven Knows What and Good Time, instead offering a hyperbolic update of ‘70s films like The Gambler and California Split, deployed with a high-pressure style but without that much to say about the lead character other than his being a very trying, half-smart jerk: the schmuck also rises.

13
The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell took up a basic story template that’s been run ragged in American indie films, the uneasy family reunion where a lurking crisis threatens general high spirits and feels, and gave it a unique bilingual gloss. Wang recounted a lightly fictionalised take on experiences with her family returning to China to stage a fake wedding as an excuse to say goodbyes to the clan’s elderly matriarch, whose diagnosis with a fatal illness they’ve elected to keep from her. Wonderful performances from Awkwafina as the frustrated, terminally honest artist and Shuzhen Zhou as the beloved, unflappable grandmother, coupled with Wang’s well-knit flow of vignettes and a meditative sense of cross-cultural and intergenerational attachment, amounted to a lovely piece of work. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir offered a similar project, transmuting personal experience into an inquisitive artwork, although Hogg’s labours proved much more complex and ambivalent, testing all her sentimentalities.

14
Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart took on one of those cultural grail quests that occasionally preoccupy both filmmakers and the commentariat – to make a hit girls-behaving-badly romp. Wilde revealed directorial promise, particularly in a marvellous sequence in which Kaitlyn Devers’ nervous queer heroine gains her mojo as she swims amidst jostling bodies on a high of sensual possibility only to run aground on heartbreak. The film also had a starting point with potential – what happens when the intellectually confident start trying to be socially and sexually adventurous? But the script was a grab-bag of tones and ploys for Twitter feed approval, the film less about and for teens than for an older audience’s idealisation of themselves, and an overt attempt to make a woke artefact that forgot to check its own haute bourgeois privilege. Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot was a similar attempt to make an of-the-moment work pleasing its presumed progressive audience as it portrayed a romance between Charlize Theron’s glamorous Secretary of State running for the Presidency and Seth Rogen’s shabby but zealous journalist-turned-speechwriter. What could have been a smart new age take on The American President instead lurched between incompetently deployed jokes, unable to decide whether to aim for satiric hyperbole or something more credible.

15
The Beach Bum

Recovering arthouse sleaze merchant Harmony Korine returned with The Beach Bum, featuring an impishly cast Matthew McConaughey as a sometime poet who’s abandoned himself to a wild bohemian lifestyle around the Florida coast, forced to return to his art after his rich wife’s death but still refusing to take anything seriously. Korine located a new, if still very earthy breeziness as he blended a hyperbolic take on the mystique of the wild-living genius, with a gamy modern twist on classic anarchic comedies by the likes of Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers. If Korine had set out to counter the tendentious and dogmatic tenor of much cultural attitude in 2019 he couldn’t have done better in his depiction of absurd and happy hedonism as a curative for artificially stoked angst, and Korine’s eye, as hinted on Spring Breakers, has evolved into a good one. But his familiar monotone dramatic style, able to focus only on one mode of behaviour reiterated endlessly, meant that despite some comic and visual coups, The Beach Bum turned pleasantly dreary well before it ended.

16
Under the Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake was supposed to be released with all the occasion due a notable new director following up a hit like It Follows, but after a weak reception at Cannes it was eventually, rudely dumped. Whilst enlarging upon aspects of Mitchell’s first two films, this one proved something else again, a portrait of shambling bohemian discontent and disconnection contending with malign and paranoid forces of money and power. Under the Silver Lake was by turns fascinating, dazzling, annoying, silly, undercooked, and ardent, alert to the incoherence of the moment if also often inclined to chase its own blue balls. In short, a definite failure that was more interesting than most successes. For his first film since the gimmicky but compelling Locke, Steven Knight offered Serenity, at first seeming to be a sun-kissed neo-noir piece that proved rather a meta-narrative stunt. Even before it reached a truly stupid central twist, the film was beset by pointlessly showy direction and overheated performing from a strong cast who deserved a straight-up, old-school genre vehicle: only Jason Clarke’s malignant gangster offered real juice.

17
The Hustle

Writer and actor turned director Stephen Merchant aimed for and scored a modest populist hit with Fighting With My Family, recounting the real-life rise of a goth girl from a wrestling-mad Norfolk family who found fame and fortune with WWE after overcoming a crisis of identity. Despite Merchant’s brainy reputation the result was a succession of trite and familiar loser-makes-good audience manipulation ploys, leavened largely by Florence Pugh’s excellent lead performance and the generally good-natured support around her. Chris Addison, another talent honed on British TV, made a foray into star vehicle directing with The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels casting Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway as con artists (and actors) engaged in a duel of abilities based in their disparate varieties of guile and skill. The script was broad and the humour leaned on the comic value of colliding chic and crudity like a crutch, but despite the general caning it got from critics I finished up mildly enjoying it, mostly because of Wilson and Hathaway’s gusto in their roles.

18
Rambo: Last Blood

2019’s action cinema quite often resembled that of thirty years ago. Rambo: Last Blood saw Sylvester Stallone returning to his other beloved hero role for some septuagenarian slaughter, this time avenging the despoiling and death of his housekeeper’s daughter at the hands of a scummy Mexican drug cartel. As an extension of Rambo lore it was at least slightly better than the previous film in the series, with some lip service to the lingering sway of PTSD to leaven dully xenophobic politics and a stagnant sense of what the character means. Adrian Grunberg’s anonymous if efficient direction and a painfully straightforward script made for a contrived and negligible experience for the most part, but the bloody climax, if not exactly making the outing worthwhile, did at least deliver a hot dose of entertaining violence. Michael Bay was one of several big-time directors who explored the pleasures and pains of Netflix bankrolling in 2019, with his 6 Underground debuting on streaming despite being made with all of Bay’s blockbuster braggadocio undimmed. Ryan Reynolds turned his patented wiseass act to playing a billionaire who’s faked his own death in order to set up a team of talented pros for the purpose of taking down an evil dictator. Bay wielded all his craftsmanship and managed for a time to sustain a free-flowing tapestry of frenetic humour and flashy, even beautiful imagery, particularly in the lengthy, bravura opening chase scene. Melanie Laurent was particularly good as the team’s deadpan resident badass babe. The problem was, Bay’s hasn’t gained any capacity to vary his style and rhythm, every scene pushed to an artificial extreme, and by the second hour it was more chore than thrill ride.

19
Daughter of the Wolf

Hans Petter Moland remade his own Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance in the USA as Cold Pursuit, sold as darkly comic variant on the accustomed Liam Neeson action flick. The original plot was transposed to the Rocky Mountains, with Neeson’s irate father out to destroy a drug dealing syndicate to avenge his son’s death, accidentally sparking a gang war in the process. Some touches, like having the villain be an über-macho fad food freak, hit the right zone where gallows wit and noir unease can mix, but the movie still felt like a theory by its end, not quite funny, not quite exciting, affecting sardonic distance but foiling itself with rather too much CGI. David Hackl’s Daughter of the Wolf took a similar winterbound setting for a far more traditional type of revenge flick, with Gina Carano playing a rampaging army-trained momma bear chasing down her kidnapped son and doing battle with the “family” of Richard Dreyfuss’ monstrous criminal patriarch. Scruffy production values and a basic script kept the result from being much more than streaming fodder for a rainy evening, but as with Hackl’s Into the Grizzly Maze it was honourable as a cheap and efficient blood-pumper, anchored by Carano’s convincing toughness and Dreyfuss having a ball as he officially enters the “old coot” phase of his career.

20
Us

Neil Jordan returned with his first feature in six years, Greta, starring Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman acclimatizing to New York who becomes the object of obsession for the title character, a crazed, aging, would-be maternal moulder, played with crafty bravura by Isabelle Huppert. Ultimately the film proved a nasty, chamber-piece variation on Jordan’s fascination with characters trapped in situations defined by perverse modes of loving, but only after trekking through many a stalker movie cliché and never really engaging with the sort of emotional complexity Jordan was once a master in locating. The fun performances, also including Maika Monroe’s hilarious turn as Moretz’s sturdy gal pal and a cameo by Stephen Rea as a mordant private eye, did most to keep the film animated. Jordan Peele unleashed a second helping of his special brand of socio-politically charged horror-fantasy after Get Out with Us, an off-kilter tale of an upwardly mobile black family being tormented by a gang of enigmatic doppelgangers. Peele’s visual talent is swiftly evolving with flashes of genuine strangeness and intelligently oneiric imagery. These remained largely isolated, however, amongst a story at once bold-type and vague in its symbolic dimensions, the solid suspense filmmaking balanced by an overdrawn and sometimes borderline silly glaze of would-be creepiness.

21
The Wind

Emma Tammi’s The Wind, whilst straying more overtly into the blurry hinterland between psychodrama and horror film, sought to portray desolate straits in an isolated setting, depicting two frontier families contending with a destructive force that might be supernatural or mental, the difference between the two increasingly beside the point. Tammi’s direction was initially intriguing, with a potent sense of place and mood nimbly complicated through a splintered sense of time. The Wind nonetheless lost cohesion as the threat became more literal and overt, whilst the acting was awkwardly TV-like and callow. The Vanishing saw Danish TV director Kristoffer Nyholm tackling an infamous mystery of Scottish history, the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote island early in the 20th century, for a grim tale of madness and murder. The Vanishing proposed a solution to the mystery in a basic film noir plot, with a more allusive patina imbued by the theme of men contending with the corrosive and destructive intensity of grief. The actors did their best to imbue proceedings with gruff and hirsute grit, but the storyline was far too stock and predictable, and the film overall proved drab and demoralising where it should have been flavourful and exciting.

22
The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse proved a very different piece of work even in dealing with the same basic setting and theme. Eggers’ second feature also offered a similar proposition to his first film The Witch, studying characters stranded in a setting geographically and historically remote, succumbing to a collapsing sense of reality. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson brought startling, stylised passion to the project in depicting the grizzled, perhaps deliberately histrionic and hammy elder and his young, quietly neurotic employee who alternately loathe and love each-other. When the film concentrated on their fluctuations of affection and hatred, accord and dominance, it was interesting. And yet The Lighthouse felt less mature than The Witch in its bombardment of hoary surrealism, sickly physical textures, and general portent rammed home almost from the opening frames, overloaded with suggestions of the supernatural and even religious symbolism and yet offered with little sense of measured effect: the totality looked uncomfortably like an overblown student film.

23
High Life

Claire Denis’ High Life was an even more high-falutin’ take on the same motif of disorientating isolation, again armed with Pattinson. This sci-fi chamber piece depicted a spaceship crammed with prisoners sent on a one-way trip to check out a remote black hole. Juliette Binoche was the ship’s witchy doctor, pursuing a sideline in experimental fertilisation, eventually leaving Pattinson’s monkish survivor to raise his biological daughter alone after his fellows all crack up and die. The result was familiar Denis in the stringent evocations of weird sexuality and psychological torment. Something about the movie overall didn’t gel for me, however. The provocations were a bit too predictable, the approach uncomfortably pitched between realism and stylised allegory, and the tone of acting apart from Binoche rather stilted. By the end, the attentiveness in Denis’ best work to finite glimmers of the sublime amidst the forbidding had devolved here into a vague, zombified sort of sentimentality. One scene, the freakish “fuck box” excursion for Binoche, was basically the justification for the whole exercise. James Gray’s Ad Astra was similarly preoccupied with space voyaging as a metaphorical canvas of evoking human connection and alienation, depicted in a relatively more conventional narrative, but Gray managed something surprisingly akin to cinematic jazz in setting up vast surveys and big feelings and yet managing to syncopate them allusively.

24
Dragged Across Concrete

Back down in the mean streets, men and women still battled for such petty issues as money and power. J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier leaned, like The Vanishing, on a Treasure of the Sierra Madre riff in portraying a team of former soldiers turned Robin Hood adventurers out to steal a drug lord’s fortune only to crash literally and metaphorically into the rugged and impoverished Latin American landscape. Chandor’s storyline offered some dramatic turns and the methodical directorial method was initially engaging. But as the film became more serious it proved excruciatingly heavy-footed on all levels, indecisive in toggling between a dark parable about corrosive greed and a more forgiving attitude towards its mercenary heroes. S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete was another variation on the same basic motif of blue-collar warriors contemplating a turn to the dark side to combat financial distress, in this case Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan’s unruly cops, balanced by Tory Kittles’ more practical and patient ex-con, who all find themselves contending with an especially scummy crew of bank robbers. Zahler proved gutsier than Chandor if also perhaps disingenuous in portraying his antiheroes’ crude and unromantic aspects. Zahler’s style, offering concerted escalation of narrative through a minimalist palette, was still effectively peppered with islets of startling brutality, but now stumbled into the blurry area between slow-burn and long-windedness, trying to tell a taut thriller story with all the nimbleness of an oil tanker trying to turn.

25
Les Misérables

Brian De Palma’s long-delayed Domino invoked a similar sense of urban warfare, although its thematic reach invoked geopolitics and media event-making, his heroes defined by the struggles to direct their well-honed skills despite their own earthbound humanity. Ladj Ly hijacked the title and original spirit of Victor Hugo’s venerable Les Misérables for a very contemporary study of the Parisian neighbourhood where, long ago, Hugo wrote his tome, now crammed with poor immigrants. Ly depicted a newly transferred cop’s experiences with his bilious, exasperated partners and the seething, easily provoked denizens, with an adolescent boy’s act of thievery kicking off snowballing acts of abuse and confrontation. Ly expertly charted the social schisms and little ironies inherent in the locale and cleverly built tension as the seemingly happenstance meshed into a trap of fate, even if the essential set-up wasn’t that original and the sociology never deeply interrogated: how many times in movies and TV have we seen bullish cops and troubled youth make friction until they kindle a blaze? Moreover, the movie resolved in a lady-or-the-tiger situation more liable to exasperate than distress.

26
Shaft

Where the first John Wick movie, the renascent Keanu Reeves’ all-style-no-substance action franchise, left me quite bored, the second episode at least managed to complicate its oddball universe and leave off on an intriguingly precipitous note. The third episode, Parabellum, got off to a good start as Wick had to battle off armies of assassins, including one stirring quote from Sergio Leone, and fun turns from Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos. But as it lumbered on it became clear that for all the hyped-up yet pointless fight sequences, this episode was simply one long exercise in marking time, quite truly sound and fury signifying nothing. Nominally engaging a similar zone of urban thriller grit but in a completely different key, Tim Story’s Shaft invoked not just the stature of Gordon Parks’ 1971 hit but also John Singleton’s 2001 sequel-cum-reboot. Samuel L. Jackson reprised his role as John Shaft Jnr, Richard Roundtree returned as the grizzled but still potent elder, and Jessie T. Usher was installed as grandson JJ, a milquetoast FBI agent who evolves into a next-generation standard bearer. The original’s suave, clever, worldly Shaft was left far behind, instead offering more a riff on Jackson’s familiar persona as a truculent hard-ass, and the new edition tended far more cartoonish than its predecessors. But Jackson and Regina Hall as his perpetually aggravated ex gave performances of whirling-dervish comic ability, the outing had spunky energy and real understanding of the appeal of star power, earning the status of guilty pleasure.

27
Avengers: Endgame

2019 delivered a deluge of would-be blockbusters, most of them at least nominally in the science fiction genre. The superhero vogue reached its official zenith with Avengers: Endgame, a pseudo-epic that saw the familiar team return for one last adventure with daunting stakes, trying to undo archenemy Thanos’ exterminating victory through time travel. Endgame certainly hit the spot for a vast number of moviegoers. It left me dispirited, however, even in comparison to the better-organised, more exciting Infinity War. The directing Russo brothers sacrificed vast swathes of running time to reiterating well-worn parental traumas for its characters whilst neglecting their camaraderie, served some heroes very poorly, and slogged through a plotline more busy than epic. Worst of all, it somehow became the biggest hit in movie history whilst representing cinema’s ultimate surrender to a drearily digitised aesthetic somewhere between seniors insurance commercial and video game desktop wallpaper.

28
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Another great epoch in blockbuster hype concluded as J.J. Abrams rounded off the third Star Wars trilogy, delivering Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams had a job of work ahead of him to conclude the saga in anything like a coherent and satisfying manner, especially considering how the previous episode left much of the narrative infrastructure in tatters, and the disorderly development of the new trilogy was more obvious than ever. The strain of trying to come up with something momentous enough to please fans, critics, the studio, and general audiences all at once showed, in a film stuffed to bursting point as it laboured to do justice to the characters and motifs already in motion but introducing a grab-bag of new ones too. And yet as a totality the episode was as much buoyed by excess as it was hampered, with a blissfully freewheeling pace and a real sense of dramatic weight in its most important scenes. The storyline took the crucial duologue of heroine and antihero to some interesting new places, and Abrams offered some powerful flashes of visual mystique.

29
Captain Marvel

Shazam! proved an entertaining and well-made entry for the Warner Bros./DC universe, which confirmed signs in last year’s Aquaman that, having abandoned cyberpunk grandeur as the series model, the new one is ‘80s blockbusters. Director David F. Sandberg went for a full-blooded tone and really grasped the empowerment fantasy complete with a finale where its collection of hapless orphans became a stable of bemuscled champions, whilst only slightly diluting the found-family sentimentality with knowing. The familiar enemies of lumpen CGI and over-length did retard the product, but not too greatly. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel aimed for a similar gloss of playful nostalgia, casting Brie Larson as a spirited military pilot who evolves into the eponymous spacefaring swashbuckler after getting caught in the middle of an intergalactic war. Larson and costar Samuel L. Jackson did their best to make everything seem gallant and chirpy, but the script might as well have been was written on a tissue, and Boden and Fleck’s direction was stupefyingly plastic.

30
Brightburn

David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, written by two members of the Gunn family dynasty, offered an intriguing basic premise in taking up Superman’s origin story in all basic details but recasting the adopted alien superbeing as a psychopathic parasite whose genetic programming kicks in at puberty, leading him to wreak carnage as he comes to understand his role and powers. There was certainly a prospect here to deliver a scurrilous assault on the all-conquering superhero genre and a twist on slasher movie chestnuts, and it mooted an interesting, emotionally immediate theme in the spectacle of desperate broodiness turning a blind eye to all warning signs. Actually delivering on such potential proved beyond the filmmakers: the storyline showed it cards far too soon, and devolved into an inevitable string of bluntly gory killings as a sense of the inevitable robbed proceedings of surprises and tension. F. Gary Gray reportedly had a hard time behind the scenes in taking on another backdated franchise, with Men In Black: International. The filmmakers had the right idea in reuniting Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson to expand on their chemistry, and the notion of turning the established concept’s framework from cop tale to extra-terrestrial spy movie parody, with Hemsworth as a hunkier Maxwell Smart, could have resulted in something really good. The movie failed to do anything even faintly original and exciting with such quality parts, however, completely neglecting the founding film’s oddball streak as well as its propelling concept as a metaphor for modern subcultures, filling in instead with weak plotting and some laboriously on-trend nods.

31
Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a designated critical and box office bombsite, but I liked it a lot. Debuting director Michael Dougherty honoured the old Toho franchise with real affection, and added new layers. Like its monsters it was a bit too big and cumbersome. But it also wielded a proper sense of immense spectacle that also described the emotional chaos of its human characters, and gained zany energy in fusing together classic bits of kaiju eiga and Lovecraftian lore. Of all the FX spectacles released this year, it seemed the one least embarrassed with itself. Simon Kinberg, like Dougherty a Hollywood player trying to level up, took his tilt at ushering out the X-Men franchise as we’ve known it with Dark Phoenix, recapitulating Jean Grey’s infestation by an alien energy that exacerbates her wild mutant talent. The film was met with particular derision, but again I liked it more than the last 3 or 4 entries in this franchise, with Kinberg retaining a down-to-earth approach to action, and a serious sense of the characters, contending in their different ways with knowing the extraordinary is possible whilst languishing in a depressingly predictable world: this felt more keen to the moment for me than many number of others attempts to nail the zeitgeist down. But the very end went bewilderingly awry, punching unexplained holes in series continuity for the sake of an unearned note of closure.

32
Fast Color

Julia Hart’s Fast Color offered an intriguing variation on the notion of people with extraordinary powers subsisting in clandestine fashion, used to illustrate an intriguing metaphor for the covert strength and resilience of matrilineal traditions, in depicting three generations of African-American women blessed with mysterious but tormenting gifts that ultimately prove to have world-saving potential. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was particularly good in the central role and Hart’s direction effectively fused the mundane and the fantastic, although what felt like a very cramped production limited its ultimate effect. Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate had some unusual similarities, in also concentrating on a rebel band of mutually reliant women contending with impending apocalypse and pursuing authority, whilst also trying to revive a doggedly beloved but waning franchise. The return of Linda Hamilton’s majestic Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sardonically pokerfaced T-800 offered shots of grizzled, nostalgic appeal to punch up a script lacking any true innovation and imagination. Actually, Mackenzie Davis provided the best reason to watch as the latest dedicated defender from the future, even if the plot gave her tour of duty little to distinguish it.

33
Joker

M. Night Shyamalan signalled intent to get back in on the superhero craze he gave some impetus to with 2000’s Unbreakable, offering Glass as a sequel to both that film and 2017’s Split. The movie pitted Bruce Willis’ homey hero against Samuel L. Jackson’s nefarious title character and James McAvoy’s multitude of acting class skits, with Sarah Paulson added for a neat study in smiling castration as a psychiatrist with a mysterious agenda. The result was initially engaging but went nowhere fast, Shyamalan backsliding with alarming speed into familiar habits of empty showmanship and witless meta pizzazz that laboured desperately to disconnect itself from any hint of the material’s pulpy roots. Todd Phillips’ Joker became the year’s succes de scandale in netting the Golden Lion at Venice whilst provoking oodles of ridiculous pre-release commentary. When it did come out Joker scored big at the box office and became perhaps the instant go-to archetype of what you think is a really great grown-up movie when you’re 13. The actual movie, a middling rip-off of several superior films and sporting a violently overhyped Joaquin Phoenix performance, wielded an effectively grimy feel, but only offered vague and generic social critique and misfit-turned-vigilante clichés, so loosely anchored to a nominal basis in comic book lore that it managed to betray both those roots as well as any ideals of proper drama.

34
Dumbo

Disney’s much-discussed and wearying grip on the box office in 2019 came in large part through expertly playing to several audiences, offering up plenty of material for young viewers whilst also repackaging old successes just in time for the first wave of Millennial nostalgia. Whilst Jon Favreau and Guy Ritchie were richly rewarded for doing hackwork in helming The Lion King and Aladdin respectively, Tim Burton placed his neck on the chopping block as he deigned to helm one of Disney’s live-action remakes of more hallowed animated fare, in his case Dumbo. Burton’s film was imperfect but at least an honourable negotiation, his familiar gothic tint lightly applied to lush period Americana, perfect for a tale of the misbegotten’s gentle melancholia struggling to bloom for a romantic adventure. The film had a better performance from its CGI title character than many real actors offered in the course of the year, and Burton’s theme of the regret inherent in selling private dreams to large entertainment concerns came perilously close to biting the hand currently feeding him.

35
Aladdin

Aladdin was a much bigger hit, but despite Ritchie’s relentless attempts to invest the splashy production with vaudevillian energy, the project never felt anything but forced and hollow. Will Smith turned hammy and floundering with third-rate material as an all-powerful Genie who still couldn’t conjure up good comedy writers. The rest of the cast was boring and wooden, and the price we keep paying for “Let It Go” notched higher with the one new song tacked onto the dolorously well-scrubbed score. Rob Letterman’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opened a campaign to build a big screen franchise out of the gaming and anime property. The product was so functional, processed, and bland it made Styrofoam seem tasty, and yet it was kept watchable by Ryan Reynolds’ affable shtick as the mysteriously loquacious title character, and Kathryn Newton’s zest as a plucky reporter: anyone wanting to update Torchy Blane for the 21st century should hire her.

36The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 offered a gallery of cute animated house pets, many of them blessed with voiceover work by a top-drawer cast, and their adventures in trying to save a white tiger cub from a vicious circus owner whilst canine protagonist Max (Patton Oswalt) learns to let go of his protective role over his owners’ infant son and mans up under the tutelage of a gruff farm dog (Harrison Ford). The film certainly wasn’t any sort of classic, but it was slickly animated, occasionally quite funny, and offered an unpretentious simile for the trials and tribulations of helicopter parenting. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part saw Mike Mitchell subbing for Phil Lord and Chris Miller, taking up the lingering note of threat to lad paradise at the end of the first instalment to portray one boy’s efforts to play nice with his sister through the prism of unruly Lego avatars. As a second helping, it couldn’t recapture the original’s furious pace and heady legerdemain in making comedy from nerd-canon literacy. But in some respects it was more sophisticated and substantial in marrying absurdist humour with insight into childhood dynamics. Plus that song got stuck inside my head.

37
Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez joined forces with writer-producer James Cameron to adapt the manga Alita: Battle Angel as a CGI-heavy action-adventure flick, following Rosy Salazar’s robotic heroine from junkyard foundling to unleashed supersoldier. Rodriguez executed the film in a more colourful and expansive version of his stylised Sin City films. Salazar proved a capable star as the empathic but vigorous title character. The movie ultimately left a bad taste in the mouth despite her however, with swerves into ugly violence and distressingly tacky-looking special effects throughout. Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth made waves by scoring a colossal success at the Chinese box office, evincing that country’s new outlook in offering not historical gallivanting but mammoth sci-fi action filmmaking. As a movie, The Wandering Earth was much less notable, a flat, flashy, alternately wooden and overacted assimilation of Hollywood’s goofier precincts, and how much it entertained depended on how much you wanted to turn your brain off. Zhang Yimou’s Shadow was more traditional, a martial arts action flick set in a mythic past, albeit with the action essentially offered as decoration for a dark melodrama about identity and loyalty that built beautifully to a finale where underclass rage and feckless aristocratic entitlement meet and lose all shape: the result was perhaps Zhang’s finest excursion into genre film to date.

38
Crawl

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl sounded just like what the doctor ordered amidst the desultory mid-year blockbusters, an unpretentious thrill-ride built around a perfect cliffhanger situation, pitting a young would-be swimming champ and her injured father against alligators amidst a raging hurricane. The result was entertaining in a kinetic and mindless manner, but the attempt to stretch the situation out to fill an entire movie via contrived thrills, as well as a rather tinny dramatic pitch, kept it from being anything like as good as it could have been. Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It concluded with It: Chapter Two, a capstone taking up the tale of Derry, Maine’s Losers gang, now forty-somethings in various states of middle-aged unease, forced to return to their home town and do battle once more with the monstrous wraith Pennywise. The film’s bloated expanse incidentally confirmed how clumsy Muschietti’s first part was in laying out story essentials by having to introduce some here via flashbacks, whilst being incompetent in itself. The characters were still sketchy assemblages of identifying traits and cliché traumas battling an endless succession of lacklustre shock sequences, building to a finale that tried to make an agreeable point about victim empowerment that unfortunately reduced an unholy cosmic terror to something that could be defeated by a schoolyard chant, an event horizon for the horror-is-a-metaphor-for-something school of thought. Good actors like Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy went terribly wasted.

39
Gemini Man

Hobbs & Shaw set out to expand the Fast and Furious franchise by forcibly uniting Dwayne Johnson’s hulking FBI agent and Jason Statham’s reformed mercenary, in an entry replete with middling rival alpha comedy and passable action scenes. John Wick and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch failed to inject much of his patented Vodka ad style, and Idris Elba and Eiza Gonzalez were pathetically wasted as the android villain and a criminal queen. To be fair, though, eventually it cut loose with a gleefully ridiculous finale, and Vanessa Kirby as Shaw’s kick-ass sister gave a dose of elegant spunk. Ang Lee continued his recent campaign to revitalise cinematic showmanship through technological advancement in releasing Gemini Man, Will Smith’s second underwhelming stint in front of a green screen for the year. Lee pitted the middle-aged Smith against a CGI simulacrum of his younger self, as he played a brilliant but burned-out hitman forced to go up against a clone raised by his former mentor turned enemy. In flashes, Lee recalled the graceful staging and sense of physical action of his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon days and he tried to work in his familiar motif, the struggle with one’s sense of self and one’s progenitors, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong gave expert support as Smith’s allies. But the storyline was excruciatingly familiar and clichéd, decorated with action sequences lacking real conceptual edge, whilst the fancy effects proved largely underwhelming and sometimes actively annoying. Worst of all, Smith was called upon to give one of the least animated performances of his career so the one-note inexpressiveness of his digital doppelganger wouldn’t seem too flaccid.

40
Knives Out

Jim Jarmusch, having tackled vampires in 2014 with Only Lovers Left Alive, turned to the living dead for The Dead Don’t Die, depicting the chaos befalling a small town during a zombie apocalypse, with Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny as the outmatched local cops, and Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician with a secret, amongst a host of other notable players. The result was fitfully amusing and Jarmusch indulged a waggish brand of fourth-wall-breaking, with characters who know the film’s theme song and have read the end of the script, plus a late swerve into another genre. But the film almost entirely lacked its precursor’s richness as a deconstruction of genre concepts, settling instead for recapitulating the already given themes of the Romero zombie flick as a dull screed with some witless satirical jabs, and failing to make much of his excellent cast save a superlative Sevigny and a cunningly deadpan Driver. By contrast, Peter Strickland’s return with In Fabric saw the director balancing black comedy, fetishistic horror, and surrealist consumer satire with dazzling gall. Rian Johnson recovered after his divisive Star Wars outing with Knives Out, a wry and energetic twist on whodunit essentials that suited Johnson’s sensibility far better, with a pointed, merrily obvious subtext taking aim at arrogant privilege being displaced by immigrant pluck and decency.

41
Hellboy

After patiently waiting nine years for a new movie from Neil Marshall, it proved especially disheartening that he should return with a reboot of Hellboy, stepping into Guillermo Del Toro’s very large shoes for a movie that never stopped feeling like a studio trying to squeeze juice out of a convenient intellectual property. Miraculously, some essence of Hellboy as a character, along with his circle of outcasts and eccentrics, came through, and Marshall occasionally nailed the tone of gory-corny musketeering he was aiming for. But overall the film badly lacked Del Toro’s playful yet earnest connection with the material, with lashings of CGI bloodletting that couldn’t hide how rote the effects and plot stakes were.

42
Top End Wedding

Elizabeth Banks took a stab at rebooting Charlie’s Angels with a suitably trendy makeover, casting aside the day-glo jesting of the early 2000s films as well as the glycerine gloss and blow-dried spunkiness of the old TV series, instead slotting a new selection of omnicompetent ladies into a free-range mash-up of other heist and action movies. The film’s many miscues included casting Kristen Stewart, hardly known for on-screen levity, as the scrappy, zany team member, failing to back her up with some strong and defined star charisma in her co-stars, using a script crammed full of harvested internet memes, and piling on girl power touches about three decades past their use-by date. That might all still have been forgivable if the film had any real wit or skill in staging action, but the result seemed only desperate to be called fun and affirming. The Sapphires director Wayne Blair and star Miranda Tapsell reunited for Top End Wedding, a starring role Tapsell cowrote for herself. Tapsell’s enormous appeal and skill as a comic performer and a generally good-natured vibe in contending with the clashing vagaries of modern and traditional identities helped keep the movie watchable. But the confused story and pat emotional resolutions saw Tapsell cheating herself of a vehicle worthy of her.

43
Ride Like A Girl

Rachel Griffiths, an actor who had shown a breezy touch in her sporadic short films, made her feature debut with Ride Like A Girl, a biopic depicting the often gruelling life course jockey Michelle Payne travelled to gain her landmark 2015 Melbourne Cup win. Payne’s story was certainly worth a movie and came with its feminist message built in, and the ever-undervalued Teresa Palmer supplied a strongly felt lead performance where you could feel the character’s many hard knocks etching themselves on her bones. But again the script was a cornball amalgam of crowd-pleaser clichés and formulaic dramatic swerves, with costar Sam Neill gorgonized by some of the dramatic beats and lines he was obliged to enact. The project as a whole was swathed in impersonal gloss, with Griffiths’ direction long on cute touches like a flock of betting nuns, but short on specifics, like scarcely properly identifying many members of Payne’s big brood.

44
Midway

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan was another Aussie film depicting a true subject, albeit one rather more grave, depicting the clash between green conscripts and their estranged leadership when thrown into a vicious battle with North Vietnamese soldiers in 1966. Red Dog director Kriv Stenders handled events mostly with insipid professionalism, although he did try early on to offer a dialogue of perspectives on battle – chaotic immersion for fighters, distant glimpses for hapless entertainers, sputtering radio reports for the commanders. That gave way however to overworked visuals and clunky war movie cliches. Somehow screenwriter Stuart Beattie dared not only to offer a variation on “It’s quiet” “Yes, too quiet” but followed it immediately with one soldier showing another a picture of his family. Another recreation of a famous battle, Midway saw Roland Emmerich trying to mesh his penchant for historical subjects with his more familiar trash-spectacle expertise in depicting the early months of the Pacific War, climaxing in a big, brash recreation of the titular naval battle. Emmerich’s long-apparent desire to make a proper 1950s B war movie with modern special effects finally found true realisation, and early reels loped awkwardly with some tonelessly jut-jawed acting and lapses into near-cartoonish affect. Like a few of Emmerich’s films it proved however cumulatively something better than initially proposed, as he tried to counterbalance a straightforward depiction of heroism with a more holistic and attentive attempt to convey a moment in history and its players than Michael Bay’s haplessly melodramatic Pearl Harbor. Emmerich’s fluid visual gifts touched the wartime action with a sense of beauty as well as thrilling immediacy.

45
Hustlers

British bandit of bland James Marsh offered King of Thieves, recounting the true story of a gang of elderly underworld figures who banded together to pull off a colossal diamond heist, only to be undone by their long-simmering enmities and tunnelvisioned worldviews. It was worth watching to see a battery of terrific actors still strutting their stuff as men to whom age brought no wisdom, and yet Marsh’s limply jaunty style couldn’t mesh with the low-key storyline and the script never worked out what the real crux of the drama was. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers was another, lightly fictionalised spin on a real-life case involving sympathetic devils, a gang of strippers who, hitting hard times after the global financial crisis, started drugging and robbing men under the guise of hard partying. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez anchored the film with smart performances, and Scafaria’s direction was both muscular and finely textured, turning sequences of bump-and-grind and felony into arias of physical and mental contest, making it one of the best of the many fake Scorsese films in recent years. Scafaria also managed what most directors to try it before her failed to do: weaponize J-Lo’s celebrated booty. The characterisations were shallow and evasive, however, with Lopez’s character in particular intriguingly sketched but never fleshed out, and Scafaria left me unsure us to just how seriously we were supposed to take its characters’ facetious self-justifications as social commentary.

46
Synonyms

Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday offered a more focused and quietly remorseless tilt at a similar subject, portraying an attractive young female trophy who in one gesture rebels against and accepts the logic and cruel pleasures of an abusive subculture. Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms recounted the anxious adventures of a young Israeli man fresh out of the army, who lands in Paris determined to recreate himself as a Frenchman, a being he conceives in the most quixotic fashion. He is slowly disillusioned in the face of poverty and the subtly vampiric relationship he strikes up with a privileged, arty young couple, whilst his strong young buck’s body slowly becomes a rather cynical object of exploitation for him and others. Lapid, dramatizing his own experiences, managed the creeping transition from a sprightly tale of romantic overreach to a clammy portrait of a man’s incapacity to escape himself and the immigrant’s agonies in trying to change from one state of sponsored self-delusion to another. Tom Mercier’s excellent lead performance was charged with just the right kind of neurotic energy. And yet something about the film didn’t quite cohere, its calculated ambiguities, particularly in regards to the central character’s mentality, ultimately rendering it merely a collection of impressive vignettes rather than a coherent character and social study.

47
Luce

Julius Onah’s Luce took up a similar concern, the discomfort of the transplanted, and also had a certain resemblance to Brightburn. The title character, a former Eritrean child soldier adopted by some Americans bourgeois and transformed into a poster boy student, seems to begin a war of nerves with a teacher he believes unfairly treated one of his friends. The film, adapted rather obviously from a play, tackled a host of hot-button notions and was most effective at portraying the kind of performances black (and other) Americans are expected to put on for the sake of enforced equilibrium: Octavia Spencer, as usual, was splendid in an hesitantly written role. The pseudo-thriller framework was more aggravating than tension-provoking, however, foiling its dramatic punch as it reduced the essential question to whether or not Luce was the next Obama or Unabomber, as one of far too many recent dramas unambiguously about ambiguity, before throwing up its hands.

48
Share

Pippa Bianco’s Share was another adventure in high schooler angst and one that took seriously an issue Luce grazed rather foolishly, analysing the impossible position of a teenage girl who awakens on her front lawn after blacking out at party and must face the legal and personal fallout as fragmentary video footage of the party leaks out. Bianco did an admirable job avoiding the tone of an op-ed piece or cautionary after school special, the fuzzy digicam naturalism meshing effectively with a story rooted in disorientation and confused feelings, although the story and characterisations ultimately proved a little too superficial and so never really transcended the realm of illustrative cautionary anecdote. The Upside, Neil Burger’s remake of the French hit The Intouchables, relied entirely on the expert playing of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston as a man flailing after a prison stretch and a paralysed tycoon who forge a friendship and help each-other overcome their various life crises. The film got a long way on playing games with prettily photographed stereotyping and the most obvious tweaks therein – ha ha! a black ex-con liking opera! a stoned rich white guy! – but did offer flashes of emotional depth as it unfolded.

49
Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name united a formidable battery of creative talents: screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tackled another of their trademark biographical subjects in Rudy Ray Moore, the flailing nightclub comic who reinvented himself as a folk hero with his Dolemite character and found unlikely cinematic success. Craig Brewer took on directing duties and Eddie Murphy played Moore. Murphy was characteristically terrific, nailing Moore’s blend of bluster and ingenuity, and he was backed up by some delightful supporting turns including Wesley Snipes as the perplexed D’urville Martin. Overall the film was good fun, even if the script recycled a few too many jokes and flourishes from the writers’ Ed Wood, and Brewer’s direction was oddly lacking in his usual, shaggy energy and texture: where Moore’s work had madcap confidence, Brewer’s take on it was only slick and sufficient. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood likewise revisted a wilder, woolier age in filmmaking, and amongst its manifold qualities it depicted the co-dependent reliance of actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman-cum-dogsbody-cum best pal Cliff Booth, as they face unemployment and more overt terrors in a changing cultural moment.

50
Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods played as a fringe underclass variation on the topic of women relying on each-other in tough times, with Tessa Thompson and Lily James playing sisters in a North Dakota town, one trying to walk the line after being busted for smuggling prescription drugs out of Canada and the other contending with an unwanted pregnancy. DaCosta’s terse, evocative direction and sense of milieu went a long way, and Thompson and James cemented their resumes with effective if occasionally theatrical performances, as well as Lance Reddick as a solicitous parole officer. Ultimately, though, the film didn’t really distinguish itself that much amidst a plethora of recent movies depicting hard times in flyover states, with a cliché collection of bearded deadbeats offered as foils for the heroines. Chinese wunderkind auteur Bi Gan went for a deep dive in carefully delineated zones of cinema and consciousness with Long Day’s Journey Into Night even as he also described a depressed and backwards region and the people subsisting there. His film was half bleary meditation, half lucid dream about making peace with the past and self in the context of China’s gritty and decaying provinces not yet caught up with the national boom.

51
Marriage Story

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White likewise wrestled with the sense of jarring uprooting and the petty sadisms of aging. Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory took on the same concerns with a more overtly autobiographical inflection, meditating on the director’s life and career in a tapestry of past and present, art and life. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also transmuted a director’s personal experience into a would-be incisive drama laced with barbed comedy. Baumbach depicted the agonising way good intentions in divorce easily slide into recrimination and legal drama, as Adam Driver’s engrossed New York theatre director ends his union with Scarlett Johansson’s once-and-future LA star wife and struggles to stay in his young son’s life. The film neatly captured the ratcheting frustration such situations generate, and sported terrific supporting turns from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as divorce lawyers who channel their personal outlooks into cases. But as usual with Baumbach I found it overall too archly loquacious and smugly theatrical to really galvanise, and also far too tightly wedged in a privileged niche. The characterisations evoked the surface furore in a disintegrating partnership but stopped well short of really exploring its central figures as both individuals and a failed couple, whilst Baumbach’s efforts to net awards attention saw a new mawkishness and episodes of strident acting spectacle bloom despite the stars’ great efforts. Also, Randy Newman’s score annoyed the shit out of me.

52
Jojo Rabbit

Marriage Story was however certainly part of a terrific year for Johansson, who also invested her mainstay heroine Black Widow with a tint of melancholic necessity in holding down the fort before meeting a tragic end for a noble cause in Avengers: Endgame, and was tremendous as the doomed radical mother of Jojo Rabbit. The latter film saw Taika Waititi, after his own sojourn in Marvel service, returning to his more common concern with a child’s perspective on the adult world this time attached to a risky topic. Jojo Rabbit was the account of a young German boy weathering the last six months of World War II, instilled with fanatical love of Hitler so thoroughly that he conjures his own fondly imagined version of the Fuhrer as a mentor, but eventually confronts reality when he discovers a Jewish girl living in their attic. Waititi’s evocation of the young hero’s viewpoint with all its transformative inflections helped the film keep balanced whilst exploring madly divergent tones, although Waititi’s goofy, anachronism-laced approach hampered any hope of truly disquieting meaning, not quite working as a portrait of a specific age nor exactly nailing a more general thesis about misaligned hero worship and in-crowd longing.

53
The Two Popes

Most other 2019 films dealing with history played a more familiar game. The Two Popes offered an intriguing proposition, a chamber piece drama describing the retirement of the arch-conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his uneasy conversations with the modern and open-minded Jorge Borgoglio, about to become Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles trying to imbue a distinctively South American lilt to the portrayal of Francis’s ascension. The stage was set for a meaty portrayal of two completely different men enclosed nominally by a common tradition expounding on serious and urgent moral issues and the various crises facing the church, as inhabited by two great actors. That film never quite arrived, however: what we got instead was a sort of buddy comedy and glossed-over piece of Church-approved marketing that quite literally muted Benedict’s role in hampering action against criminal priests, whilst offering a once-over-lightly portrait of Bergoglio’s own experiences and lapses under the Argentine junta, before assuring us that as long as the Pope can enjoy a soccer game everything’s pretty forgivable. Some of Meirelles’ lushly decorative shots confirmed he still has an eye, but he should still be ashamed of himself.

54
Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets followed his drone war drama Eye in the Sky as another slickly packaged study of contemporary political dilemmas, this time recounting the true tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun’s struggles with government chicanery in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Keira Knightley’s customarily strong central performance, capturing Gun’s unstable mixture of flighty uncertainty and deeper resilience, gave the film backbone, and Ralph Fiennes was equally good as her calm and cunning lawyer. Gun’s story, however, was a bit too thin and anticlimactic to justify an entire movie, and the neat, audience-flattering approach to a fraught moment in recent history was ultimately a bit cheap. Scott Z. Burns likewise tackled the War on Terror’s fallout in The Report, a journalistic portrayal of the efforts of a US Senatorial staffer to compile a comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture program unleashed on captive suspects in the wake of 9/11. Burns’ crisp direction laid down the details with admirable clarity, ably describing the way bureaucracy and political balancing acts foil accountability, even if the gestures towards character drama and tension were mostly supernal.

55
Hotel Mumbai

Anthony Maras made a bold feature debut with Hotel Mumbai, recounting the dreadful events in the Taj Hotel at the climax of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Dev Patel wielded his familiar aura of guileless yet stalwart humanity as the waiter who exemplified the hotel staff’s dedication amidst the horror, amongst a squad of quality actors. The depiction of the events as a pulse-pounding thriller veered towards the tactless on occasions amidst the delirious carnage, but Maras managed to coherently depict the furore of such nightmarish straits and maintained a sense of pathos even in the gunmen, depicted as bribed and brainwashed yokels who nonetheless thoroughly owned their villainy, driven to acts of astounding callousness to nullify their own bewilderment at a word that refuses to obey a neat moral order. James Mangold got back to doing what he does best for his first non-Wolverine movie since the ‘00s for Ford v Ferrari, recounting a clash of carmakers in the mid-1960s climaxing in the infamous 1966 Le Mans race, but more deeply interested in the travails of the people hired to enact contests of plutocratic ego with their own acts of genius and physical commitment. The script leaned a tad too heavily on some conventions straight out screenwriting manuals, and yet Mangold’s flashy, detailed direction and lush sense of the period backed up the terrific cast’s expert work in creating a popular entertainment actually worthy of the name.

56
Richard Jewell

Martin Scorsese’s name was used in vain throughout 2019 when he dared critique the notion that popularity is virtue in cinema, but he put his money where his mouth is in style with I Heard You Paint Houses, called The Irishman in promotion, a revisit to his old gangster movie stomping ground based in the allegedly authentic exploits of Teamster official and supposed Jimmy Hoffa assassin Frank Sheeran. Clint Eastwood tackled another page of recent history in his ongoing project of locating unexpected value amongst ordinary, often scorned people, with Richard Jewell. This time he harked back to the mid-1990s and the story of the portly security guard whose punctilious approach to his job helped save lives amidst the infamous bombing of a public concert during the Atlanta Olympics, only to find himself the lead suspect behind the attack chiefly because of stereotyping. Eastwood’s cool and measured directing counted amongst his best as he depicted the actual bombing, even down a witty use of the Macarena to not just nail down the time period but describe a moment of communal experience. But he also nudged the material towards the melodramatic and partisan as he offered a version of Jewell that did some caricaturing of its own, making him seem more like a persecuted naïf than he ever appeared in real life, and his enemies in the media and FBI into blunt instruments of ego and unchecked power. It was a reminder that Eastwood, once a nuanced and complex conservative artist, has lately been degenerating into punchy propagandist. Nonetheless, within such limits the cast had a ball, particularly Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Olivia Wilde as the tabloid spirit incarnate.

57
Dark Waters

Dexter Fletcher followed his rescue work on 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody with Rocketman, a portrait of Elton John, tracking his rise from prodigious but emotionally bereft boy, through stardom and a spiralling crisis of drug use whilst contending with his queerness, to eventual recovery and self-acceptance. Fletcher mashed together approaches and styles, making the film part standard biopic, part jukebox musical, part sub-Ken Russell fantasia, and part TV talent show bumper, sporting Taron Egerton’s superficially convincing approximation. None of it congealed, however, with a desperate shortage of story to tell, a surplus of shallow psychology, and even a lack of promised gritty sexuality: despite Fletcher’s many, often clumsy magic-realist flourishes, it couldn’t even finish with good spectacle. Todd Haynes turned his rarefied, acquired-taste aesthetic to a mainstream end with Dark Waters, the tale of a corporate lawyer drawn into advocating for a West Virginia town where he has roots as it becomes clear residents’ lives have been poisoned by Dupont dumping carcinogenic Teflon waste from a local plant. Haynes made it a fittingly explanatory companion piece to Safe, as well as a peculiarly muted and world-weary variation on the familiar crusading lawyer tale, noting the capricious nature of life between the official margins as the case drags on for years and the might of a monolithic corporation seems intractable. Mark Ruffalo did fine work in the lead, although Bill Pullman stole scenes as a colourful legal ally.

58
A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick resumed a relatively conventional narrative form for A Hidden Life, contending again with the issue he wrestled with in The Thin Red Line, the possibility and meaning of pacifistic stands in wartime. This time he recounted the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler. The leisurely three-hour running time was wielded with a sense of purpose, as Malick tried to capture a sense of open spiritual experience balanced by a portrait of a society sliding towards bigotry and scapegoating. The customarily dazzling imagery drank in the beauty of Jägerstätter’s native Alps and was attentive to the physical immediacy of his performers, and despite a grim theme and length the film held attention easily. That very silkiness was a signifier of the underlying problem, however, as it failed to truly ignite the sweat-inducing fires of imminent martyrdom and real moral and mortal terror. Malick’s sense of Jägerstätter’s saintliness was so airy it never touched earth. As a whole it proved one of Malick’s least original and compulsive labours to date, as the straightforward method cut off access to his poetic arsenal whilst failing as prose to really gain access to any character’s head, so Malick was largely reduced to offering variations on the same two or three scenes over and over.

59
The Chambermaid

The Chambermaid, actor-turned-director Lila Avilés’ debut feature, depicted the working travails of Evelia, palpably incarnated by Gabriela Cartol, a young, single mother who works in a luxury downtown hotel in Mexico City, and her encounters with coworkers and guests, trying to maintain a taciturn and businesslike demeanour in her quest to get ahead. Avilés deftly sustained a mode of cinema based around the rhythms of a workaday world, a constant roundelay of toil leavened by flashes of both farcicality and crisis amidst floating islands of luxury, populated by the daffy despots of privilege. Only towards the end, as Avilés piled up dashed hopes for Evelia, did it start feeling untrue to her initial, observational project in order to underline a point. Tell It To The Bees, one-time Super Mario Bros auteur Annabel Jankel’s adaptation of a respected novel, wanted to be a British equivalent to Todd Haynes’ Carol as it portrayed a working class woman of the mid-1950s with a young son who, after breaking up with her thuggish husband, falls in love with a female doctor new to her town. Holliday Grainger and Anna Paquin did right by their roles, but the film’s sluggish, precious tone and ridiculous late swerves into both melodrama and magic-realist inanity aimed for daring but gained only embarrassment.

60
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was a carefully paced, concertedly self-serious period drama about a young female painter commissioned to paint the portrait of a young bride-to-be for a distant, arranged intended’s inspection, but finds herself falling in passionate love with her moody, cloistered subject instead. Sciamma managed for the most part to walk a fine line between potential traps of Harlequin romance and anachronism, delivering a keenly felt tragic romance laced with finely observed touches and excellent lead performances. That said, I found the early scenes, with the artist-heroine’s attempts to divine both her own nature and the mysterious blank that is the assigned centre of her art with an implied struggle between phony artistic conventions and psychological reality, more interesting than the affair once it fully bloomed, the style a little too cleanly glazed to entirely evoke the depth of anarchic passion running under a staid surface the title image evoked, although the elegance of the last shot was a great salve.

61
Transit

German director Christian Petzold, maker of Phoenix, returned with another tale of people displaced and cleaved from identity by war and dislocation, Transit. Petzold’s boldest decision was to take Anna Steghers’ World War II-set source novel and retain its period specifics, but play it out in present-day surrounds, Nazi occupiers dressed like French SWAT teams and the like, erasing the gap of years between the refugee crises of the past and present to elucidate our short tribal memories. Petzold’s vision proved beautifully controlled in parsing his characters’ state of entrapment in an everyday setting, and the quietly tormenting anxiety of the refugee’s lot, watching as they try to cling to their morals and illusions. But as with Phoenix, Petzold’s penchant for vaguely Hitchcockian images and themes in his human drama, attached to a central anti-romance revolving around concealed and mistaken identities, cut against the grain of his cool realism and failed, ultimately, to truly resolve into something persuasive.

62
Non-Fiction

Bong Joon-ho captured the year’s Palme d’Or with Parasite, a film that started off as a jolly-nasty satire about a hard-luck family who efficiently insert themselves into the lives a richer clan with various acts of fraud, before becoming a malicious morality play. Bong’s filmmaking was at its most energetic and deceptively amusing throughout, and it’s somewhat easily the best of his work I’ve seen. But Bong’s brand of social satire, much as it wields hipster appeal, remains one-note, and the late swerve into bloodletting mostly came across as an attempt to make the film seem less like a well-shot sitcom, whilst failing to even try living up to the more insidiously Bunuelian aspects of its set-up. Non-Fiction was one of those very French movies Olivier Assayas makes in between his attention-getting exercises in po-mo mindbending, tackling the upheavals facing the French publishing industry in the internet age. Such cultural dislocation is experienced by an equable editor trying to decide what his career mission is, his actress wife ensconced in a TV cop show, and a shambolic author who can only write about personal experience, even as their private lives suggest not everything changes in such realms. As a movie it was entertaining if relatively slight for the director, with pretences to hot-button commentary already dated. Assayas’ handling was still sleek and witty, and the portrayal of the randy intelligentsia shot through with both acerbic knowing and affection.

Performances of Note:

Fabienne Babe, Tempting Devils
Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows
Juliette Binoche, High Life ; Non-Fiction
Tom Burke, The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir
Gabriela Cartol, The Chambermaid
Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917
Deng Chao, Shadow
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die ; Marriage Story ; The Report ; Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, In Fabric
Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Endgame ; Jojo Rabbit ; Marriage Story
Sun Li, Shadow
Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum
Vincent Macaigne, Non-Fiction
Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Ruth Negga, Ad Astra
Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense
Brad Pitt, Ad Astra
Christopher Plummer, Knives Out
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out ; Uncut Gems
Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell
Victoria Carmen Sonne, Holiday
Zhao Tao, Ash is Purest White
Ensemble, The Irishman
Ensemble, Hotel By The River
Ensemble, The Lighthouse
Ensemble, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Favorite Films of 2019

63

Ad Astra (James Gray)

Familiar in aspects and yet in totality a creation with a singular creative stamp, Ad Astra was unmistakably a James Gray film even as it saw the director making a valiant stab at breaking out of his craft-art niche to paint on larger canvases without sacrificing his delicate textures. Gray managed a twinning of opposites, a grand odyssey rendered as a sombre, semi-abstract, psychological tale, a story invoking big ideas and vast realms but in the most interior emotional terms. Ad Astra teased apart the Kubrickian blueprint that’s long held sway over the space movie even whilst seeming to honour it, demanding we turn our attention from fantasies of gods and monsters to study the face in the mirror.

64

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

In a particularly excellent year for Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke didn’t offer formal stunts as heroic as Bi Gan or action spectacle as fervently as Zhang Yimou. But his patient, accumulating style, punctuating an earthy sensibility with moments of lyricism and fantasy, tackled a common theme in recent film, people tied together as they slip from youth to decrepitude and confront their mistakes in spasms of anger and acquiescence. His characters, a gangster and his girlfriend who somehow manage to keep betraying and exiling each-other even as they stumble on through changing times into shambolic co-dependence, made for a sarcastic kind of neo-Western, as China’s prosperity cleared the boondocks of its last feudal lords and drowned memories along with cities under the rising tide.

65

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra)

Made amidst the directing team’s divorce but betraying only sublime balance of sensibilities, Birds of Passage saw Gallego and Guerra following their debut Embrace of the Serpent with another study of South America’s troubled native populaces. This time focusing on Colombia’s Waayu people, the duo used an ill-starred marriage as the central catalyst for a descent into hell, as a tribal identity made potent by tradition is laid waste by involvement in the briefly enriching drug trade. The plot recalled classic gangster movies but told in a manner closer to the cool, folkloric approach of directors like Paradjanov and Herzog, with references to Ancient Greek literature offering mythopoeic echoes to hint how the same stories recur from age to age, world to world.

66

Domino (Brian De Palma)

Domino limped out into the light after several years on the shelf only to be swiftly reburied in general estimation, a once-titanic director tackling a low-budget Euro-thriller that arrived backdated and curtailed. And yet Domino proved a superlative example of what a great director can spin from such crude circumstance, ransacking the material for opportunities for clever filmmaking and sigils of sharp characterisation, along with De Palma’s still-quicksilver feel for the game of cinema correlated with political messaging. De Palma wove in a needling dialectic about characters who cling to philosophies that underpin their actions in the world, and the sorts of faiths, and illusions, that sustain them on the way. Movies of 2019 that cost a hundred times as much couldn’t boast set-pieces as beautifully sustained and diagrammed as the key early rooftop chase and the climactic terrorist attack at a bullfight.

67

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi)

Gaining bizarrely little acclaim despite being a highly accessible yet still rigorously fashioned film from a major director, Everybody Knows saw Farhadi landing in Spain and making deft use of stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, cast as former lovers who find themselves bound together in a fraught reckoning when Cruz’s daughter is kidnapped. If the story frame was melodramatic, it served Farhadi well in lending new intensity and purpose to his usual, novelistic texture in exploring human dynamics, detailing sweat-inducing straits of personal crisis and families in stifling proximity with a needling understanding of the way even the most intimate relationships can be contingent on money and the things it can accomplish. All was fleshed out with a lively, convincing portrayal of communal joy and friction.

68

In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

In comparison with Peter Strickland’s last two works, lushly suggestive and esoteric imaginative realms where dream and waking worlds slowly merged, In Fabric to a certain extent offered a more waggish and explicit, if still often surreally fractured, variation on his honed aesthetic. This time the melding of retro horror tropes with a satire on commercialism’s distorting effect on lifestyle alternated the truly weird with a skit-like sense of humour in recreating bygone textures, in devices like tacky ‘70s late-night TV ads as vehicles for evil influence. The compensation for the new archness was a diptych of insidiously brilliant character portraits, as Strickland pitted hapless everyfolk in oblivious contest with agents of dark forces masquerading as purveyors of consumerist paradise, churned together with a delightfully bizarre and sickly-erotic evocation of the stygian, delivered in images that came on with mesmeric verve.

69

Holiday (Isabella Eklöf)

Sharp and bright as jagged glass and about as cuddly, Holiday presented for our consideration the tale of a young woman who’s attached herself to the boss of a drug trafficking crew and vacations with him and his hard-partying but dreary and moronic clique, weathering storms of abuse and violence in exchange for being an anointed creature of the globetrotting set. When she reaches out for a more becalmed form of affection, the gesture leads to some nihilistic conclusions. Holiday overlapped with Ash is Purest White and well outpaced something like Hustlers in contemplating a young woman who proves far tougher and more dangerous than anyone expects. Eklöf’s cool, taut filmmaking and unnervingly sustained, rhetoric-free approach paid off in a finale that made its central character’s recourse to violence shocking but comprehensible on several levels, from psychic pressure release to self-reassuring achievement of equality.

70

Hotel By The River (Sang-soo Hong)

Hong’s long been a quietly marvellous filmmaker who always manages to skilfully work invest novelty and dexterity into his movies despite their superficial similarity. Hotel By The River took up some of Hong’s well-trod concerns, like artists dealing with the mess of real life and characters wandering in places of humdrum exile where everything feels at once familiar and disorientating, with a new lilt of aged and wintry regret. Here his most lovingly crafted images, crystalline in their simplicity and integrity, became the aesthetic springboard for the deftly tragicomic, in his twinned depictions of mutually reliant women and a father and his sons whose lode of tension and resentment boils over. The very end stepped over a threshold other directors this year marched up to and paused before. Death is an end to pain; it’s the living we have to worry about.

71

I Heard You Paint Houses (aka The Irishman) (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s epic anatomisation of both recent American history and a film genre he helped invent, the modern gangster movie, The Irishman pieced together a cold indictment of both its specific players and the world they represented, relating the maybe-true adventures of hitman and Teamster official Frank Sheeran, who confessed to killing his legendary former boss Jimmy Hoffa. Rarely has such a long film been so tightly wound and cohesive in first forcing the viewer to understand a certain subculture’s worldview and then obliging us to consider the ugliest consequences for buying into it. A great piece of moviemaking that was also that rarest of cinematic blessings, a coherent and fitting monument to filmic figures of the calibre of Scorsese and his battery of still-mighty stars.

72

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

Bi’s second feature felt in many ways like the essential condensation of 2019’s cinema even as it beat most of it to the punch. Bi portrayed landscapes physical, mental, and artistic whilst correlating cinematic experience with the haze of memory and the transformed lucidity of dreaming, via a tale that can only be described as the story after the story, his characters wandering about in the wreckage long after a standard-issue film noir plot has played out, trying to piece together an accurate sense of the past’s meaning and the present’s possibilities. The airier themes were coupled with a pungently evocative contemplation of life in modern China’s backwaters, whilst the long final sequence was an act of cinematic cabalism.

73

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A droll, Cassavetes-like character study and a Proustian recreation of a lost time mated with meta-western and true crime drama, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood saw Quentin Tarantino lingering in unusual territory, at least before the characteristically outrageous finale, in contemplating the terrors of middle age and the travails of weathering a hostile zeitgeist. His ninth film proved at once deeply funny and cumulatively, emotionally piercing, finding a uniquely nimble way to study both the fear of creative irrelevance whilst also celebrating the lingering influence of pop cultural heroism, a force imbued with strange magic: even if it can’t literally save lives, as the climax ironically depicts, it still elevates and envelopes commonplace experience with epic lustre, giving form to modern life it too often otherwise lacks. The Manson Family murders offered their legend as the basis, only to be rudely inverted as the antiheroes doled out harsh chastisement to malign berserkers.

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Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

The thought of Pedro Almodovar, ever the colourful raconteur and provocateur, getting gloomy and facing up to the predations of age sounded in abstract like a thoroughly depressing chore, and Pain & Glory tackled the subject with a lightly fictionalised gloss that might have proved in the hands of a lesser artist a study in navel-gazing. Almodovar instead turned this into the stuff of one of his best films, a memoir-like portrait of a once-outrageous gay film director struggling to overcome niggling physical ailments and general dejection as he faces decline only to be released for new adventures thanks in large part to revisiting the past and his formative experiences. The film was loaded with beautifully crafted images and portrayals of characters laced with both cutting wit and insight, as well as a spry sexiness that was ultimately invigorating. Antonio Banderas deftly incarnated both the director’s troubled and meditative streak and his remnant lode of bantam cock pride in creative achievement.

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Shadow (Zhang Yimou)

With Shadow, Zhang tried his hand again at the same conceit he fumbled years ago with The Curse of the Golden Flower: using the trappings of a wu xia saga to depict forms of evil, particularly the venomous nature of unchecked power, and vagaries of identity, as people deform themselves into perverse shapes to fit into social roles even as they contort with lethal vivacity in battle. This time Zhang applied his most dazzling and accomplished stylistics to a cunningly developed and focused story, avoiding his usually lush colour schemes, adopting a nearly monochrome look instead, to lend a noir-like texture to his narrative, where the abstract political games always had a precisely identified impact on human players, complete with a barbed punchline that did cruel things with the familiar worm-turns tale.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

Hogg’s fourth feature gained her a breakthrough to broader recognition with an autobiographical story, but The Souvenir was still a rarefied piece of artistry, building a subtle yet definite emotional texture whilst also unfolding in layers of reference and aesthetic query. Like Almodovar, Hogg asked intelligent questions of a familiar mode of storytelling, scratching out its own path in considering the quandary of an artist’s growth, taking shocks through risk in life. The Souvenir reached back into Hogg’s past and retold a tragic romance, framed through not merely a metafictional statement about artistic becoming but also perceiving how all realities, personal and cultural, are amassed in webs of borrowed likenesses and echoes. How do I know who you are? is also How do I know who I am?

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Tempting Devils (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

Cheap-looking, capriciously horny, and barely distributed, the final film from an old pervert saw Brisseau plying arthouse-softcore as the shiny wrapping on a beguiling package filled with deeply sardonic romantic and slapstick comedy, philosophical inquiries into art, love, death, and transcendence, anecdotal portrayals of endemic social evil, and gleefully tacky special effects where lesbian threesomes hovered amidst galactic visions. Brisseau managed at once to send himself up mercilessly whilst also becoming himself at last in entirety, and of the many filmmakers to offer studies in imminent mortality of late, his seemed the most blithe, the most determined to do a good turn in trying to release people from cages of varying types. Whilst Tempting Devils certainly wasn’t the most politely refined work, it was lively, funny, and heroically accepting of human strangeness and resilience in ways many a more polished and posturing release of this year failed to be.

Honourable Mention

The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns)
The Chambermaid (Lila Avilés)
Dumbo (Tim Burton)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Transit (Christian Petzold)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold)
Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (Martin Dougherty)
High Life (Claire Denis)
Hotel Mumbai (Anthony Maras)
Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)
Les Misérables (Ladj Ly)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)
Shaft (Tim Story)
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams)
Under The Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Us (Jordan Peele)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

1917 (Sam Mendes)
Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)
Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
Brightburn (David Yarovesky)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck)
Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland)
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)
Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)
Gemini Man (Ang Lee)
It: Chapter Two (Andres Muschietti)
John Wick – Chapter 3: Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)
Joker (Todd Phillips)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Long Shot (Jonathan Levine)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie)
The Vanishing (Kristoffer Nyholm)
The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo)

Crap

Aladdin (Guy Ritchie)
Glass (M. Night Shyamalan)
Men In Black: International (F. Gary Gray)
Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher)
Serenity (Steven Knight)
Tell It To The Bees (Annabel Jankel)
The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)

Unseen

An Elephant Sitting Still ∙ Asako I & II ∙ Atlantics ∙ Bacurau ∙ Bombshell ∙ Border ∙ The Burial of Kojo ∙ Diane ∙ Doctor Sleep ∙ Frozen II ∙ Gloria Bell ∙ Honey Boy ∙ Invisible Life ∙ Just Mercy ∙ The Lion King ∙ Little Women ∙ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ∙ The Mountain ∙ One Cut of the Dead ∙ Peterloo ∙ Queen & Slim ∙ Sunset ∙ Tigers Are Not Afraid ∙ Toy Story 4 ∙ Waves ∙ The Wild Pear Tree ∙ Young Ahmed ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2019

As Tears Go By / Days of Being Wild / Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Avenging Conscience / Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout The Ages (D.W. Griffith)
The Awful Doctor Orloff / A Virgin Among The Living Dead (Jesus Franco)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah)
Bigger Than Life / Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim)
The Blue Bird / Victory / The Last of the Mohicans (Maurice Tourneur)
The Boy Friend (Ken Russell)
Cairo Station (Youseff Chahine)
Carnival Rock / Sorority Girl / A Bucket of Blood / The Young Racers / Bloody Mama (Roger Corman)
The Champagne Murders (Claude Chabrol)
Cotton Comes To Harlem (Ossie Davis)
Darling Lili (Blake Edwards)
Dolemite (D’urville Martin)
Foxhole in Cairo (John Llewellyn Moxey)
Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill)
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nabuo Nakagawa)
Godzilla vs Monster Zero (Inoshira Honda)
Glastonbury Fayre / Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg)
Hangmen Also Die! / Cloak and Dagger / American Guerrilla In The Philippines (Fritz Lang)
Head (Bob Rafelson)
The Hired Hand / Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda)
Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni)
It’s Alive / God Told Me To / The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
J’Accuse! (Abel Gance, 1919)
The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille)
La Venere d’Ille (Lamberto and Mario Bava)
Man’s Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks)
Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer)
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 / Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise)
The Outlaw and His Wife / The Monastery of Sendomir (Victor Sjöström)
Private Hell 36 / Flaming Star / The Killers (Don Siegel)
Red Ball Express (Budd Boetticher)
Robbery (Peter Yates)
The Shanghai Drama (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Mauritz Stiller)
Svengali (Archie Mayo)
Ulysses (Mario Camerini)
Wavelength (Michael Snow)
We Were Strangers (John Huston)

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2010s, 2018, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2018

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By Roderick Heath

2018 was a tough year.

I lost my father this year. My partnership with Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films came to an end, a rather gentler and less wrenching if still saddening end for an era. Too often the zeitgeist felt like a practical joke where everyone was the sucker. Watching things we love crack up and fail has seemed a little too often like the new state of things. Hell, the year’s biggest hit movie, Avengers: Infinity War, ended with half the universe exterminated. Granted, that’ll probably be reversed in the next movie, and yet it sat heavily with me when I realised my father, who always loved zoning out with the Marvel films, will never see it.
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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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But 2018 also saw some new beginnings, including the founding of my new site, Film Freedonia. The year’s movies often betrayed a pensive, roiling, deeply uneasy sensibility but often underscored with guttering expectation, perfectly in tune with such a backdrop. Many films spoke to a general hunger for justice and renewal. One major connective theme of 2018’s cinema meditated upon shambolic figures who find themselves at the mercy of fate at once leviathan-like but also often informed by seemingly trivial signifiers – a motif that connects a film as massive as Avengers: Infinity War and as rarefied as Lucrecia Martel’s Spanish Colonial tale Zama. The moment of crisis is one of the basic lynchpins of drama of course, but this year in particular the theme of imminent reckoning became a constant, unavoidable topic in movies – the moment when fair weather suddenly and cruelly ceases and for insular structures of families, friends, common causes, and communities, when agreed mutual fictions and sustaining myths must be abandoned and raw truths confronted if anything is to be salvaged. Such fulcrums were found in tales as diverse as Support The Girls, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disobedience, The Party, The Rider, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Black Panther, Colette, Blockers, The Endless, Bad Times at the El Royale, Double Lover, Cargo, The Ritual, Braven, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Breath, First Reformed, The Commuter, A Star Is Born, Widows, The Death of Stalin, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Kindergarten Teacher, and on and on. Hell, even ‘70s drop-in The Other Side of the Wind managed to fit in. Some, like Roma and Vox Lux, depicted mean scenes of personal reckoning but hinted at larger cultural moments still to come.
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A Star Is Born

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This year I found myself growing frustrated with a dominant mode of realism celebrated in current cinema, where a certain droning, one-note experience was too often had, laden with a kind of false subtlety, and more attracted to films that attempted to capture states of mind and zones of interior fantasy and experience. Much-praised works like Roma, First Man, The Rider, Leave No Trace, The Guardians, and others featured fastidious depictions of exterior reality, but on close inspection their drama was familiar, even a bit trite. Roma and The Guardians for instance both revolved around quasi-saintly, servile female characters used and abused by the clans they’re attached to, scarcely evolved from types you’d find in Victorian fiction and silent films. More interesting, if not always more successful, were the spasms of creative flux and floundering expression apparent in movies like the scabrous surrealism of Sorry to Bother You, or the dreaming zones of On Body and Soul, the multitudinous layerings of Ready Player One. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman wrestled not only with racial consciousness and real history but with pop culture modes as signifiers of substance. The Strange Ones tried to depict the world from the viewpoint of a damaged young mind, where reality becomes a splintered and nebulous thing. All were movies that tried to wrestle with complex ways of knowing self and others
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Bohemian Rhapsody

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The makings of stardom and general heroism came under close scrutiny. Films like A Star is Born, Vox Lux, Bohemian Rhapsody, Colette, and Mary Shelley considered artistic fame and success as fields of violent and sometimes fatal contest despite their general reputation for being removed from gritty realities. Movies like Black Panther, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Red Sparrow, Tomb Raider, and The 15:17 To Paris, looked at protagonists who must fight tooth and nail to become the men and women they hope to be, and a telling number of “fun” films, including Black Panther, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Bad Times at the El Royale, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, revolved around watching friends, doppelgangers, and loved-ones make unconscionable choices based in understandable if not condonable reasons. One unifying interest in several of the year’s comedies was a basic template of fretful, middle-aged people contending with their own unruly appetites whilst still trying to function as nominally mature entities, for the sake of those entrusted to their care, be it children or society at large.
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Blockers

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Kay Cannon’s Blockers was particularly interesting in this regard as it contended with reactionary impulses amongst the officially equable and aware modern brand of parent out in the swanky suburbs, and it managed to generate some real laughs amidst musings on what it’s like to be both a parent and a young adult today. The trouble was, the film cut itself off from the sexual anxiety that was fuel for its premise and so had to generate increasingly absurd and strained situations to justify itself. Terrific comic performances, particularly from Leslie Mann, helped a lot. Stephan Elliott’s Swinging Safari looked back to the 1970s milieu of Australian suburbia as a rambunctious Eden, and considered the opposite problem of kids adrift when parents exist within a bubble of self-interest. Elliott’s outlandish stew had moments, but it never knew when to quit or throttle off. Sally Potter’s The Party explored the crack-up of New Age mores in the face of a treacherously enticing promise from an unseen temptress, standing in for a fickle audience of voters and viewers; Potter’s wickedly funny script and trenchant camerawork instilled what might have been a minor exercise, a tribute to a very arch mode of theatre, with real cinematic meaning. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night felt agreeably reminiscent of a breed of shambling ‘80s comedies about everyday folk thrust far out of their comfort zone as it sent a crew of flaky gamers into the night to solve a mystery they think a mere fun exercise but turns out to involve real danger and crime. The film delivered a fun night at the movies thanks to snappy acting, particularly from Jesse Plemons as a discomforting cop neighbour, and Cliff Martinez’s vibrant electronic score exacerbated the ‘80s vibe. Trouble was, the script got too clever by half and what could have been a freewheeling outing kept tripping over its own feet.
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Support The Girls

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For comedy that tried to maintain a more authentic and quotidian vibe, Claire Scanlon’s Set It Up and Andrew Bujalski’s Support The Girls each tried to marry shambolic indie flick energy with slick, conventional appeal. Both studied small communities consisting of the self-exploited, in the former the overworked minions of New York office culture, the latter the young lovelies and their frazzled mother hen working in a Texas boobs-and-sports bar. Scanlon’s film sported fun performances and jolts of brazen humour, particularly from the ever-promising Zoe Deutch, but the film semi-accidentally made the case that none of these company creeps actually deserved love. Bujalski’s entry lacked the intricate humour and originality of his previous work and rambled on a bit, but its ripe, open humanism and liking for its characters were refreshing. Bujalski’s mumblecore fellow Aaron Katz made his own methodical play to go Hollywood without losing the vibe of his no-budget work with Gemini, a moody, sinuous, multifaceted send-up of celebrity culture that doubled as a parable for its own making, accumulating the paraphernalia of a traditional thriller much as its heroine dons the garb of a noir heroine, trying to work out how all the pieces fit together.
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Sorry To Bother You

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Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You stood up for a more aspiring wing of comedy, and provided a shot of absurdist satire with a specifically black perspective, following Lakeith Stanfield’s antihero from garage-dwelling loser to wealthy telemarketer thanks to his talents at “white voice,” and finding himself an imminent tool in a plot by Armie Hammer’s loony corporate boss to foster a race of half-horse, half-human slave workers. Riley’s comic conceits were occasionally genuinely brilliant, like a central scene where the hero cynically improvises a rap verse that goes over a treat, and the film felt reminiscent in its ambitions of classics like O Lucky Man! and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer as a scattershot takedown of an entire cultural moment. But Riley’s direction and script were both highly erratic, stumbling over dull conventions like Tessa Thompson’s girlfriend of articulate conscience and a unionising subplot, and badly dispelled its impact through over-length.
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Early Man

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Nick Park, one of the most creative filmmakers around, nonetheless proved that even he can have an off day with Early Man, a jokey prehistoric mini-epic that both teased and honoured the familiar underdog sports drama; whilst littered with Park’s usual ingenious figments, particularly his lovable menagerie of animals, nonetheless the result felt underdeveloped in too many regards, and the subject matter, football, proved ill-matched to Park’s usually dazzling instincts for action staging. Wes Anderson offered his own stop-motion animated film, in the style of his best to date, Fantastic Mr Fox, for Isle of Dogs, a parable for scapegoating wrapped up in a self-satirising Japonaise edition of Anderson’s picture book style. The lack of a solid basis like Roald Dahl was telling this time, leaving Anderson leaning even more heavily on pure aesthetic than usual for an occasionally droll if very minor exercise.
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Winchester

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2018’s crop of horror cinema continued the momentum the genre’s had in the past few years, performing well at the box office and galvanising filmgoers, although some of the more trumpeted efforts of the year felt bizarrely overinflated in rhetoric. John Krasinski’s mass audience-friendly A Quiet Place proved a fun exercise in gimmicky tension in depicting a rural family battling sound-sensitive monstrosities: Krasinki proved himself a surprisingly dab hand at staging thrills but the script was far too evasive when it came to providing logic and context. Ari Aster’s Hereditary aimed higher in both style and theme, depicting a family beset by awful events that prove to have a secret, incredibly malevolent unity. Aster’s filmmaking was intricate but onerous, his attempt to create a bleak parable for family secrets and the predestination of genetics big on laboured visual metaphors but short on convincing writing and detailed characterisations. Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester flew the flag for the old-fashioned haunted house rollick, building a story around an authentic location, the house built by the heiress to the Winchester firearms fortune (Helen Mirren). But the film proved flimsy and absurd on just about every conceivable level, failing to do any justice to its fascinating basis.
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The Endless

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Gary Bruckner’s The Ritual, a loose adaptation of a well-received novel, followed a well-trod path into the spooky woods it sent a bunch of urban twats out into the Scandinavian wilds to meet an ancient monstrosity and a perverted cult. Bruckner’s happy embrace of genre convention was at once limiting and faintly vexing given the more original pitch of its source, but also proved by the end a bit of a relief in comparison with the year’s more exhaustingly self-serious horror flicks, as it worked up genuine tension and sustained it to the very end. Post-modern freaks Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead returned with their third feature, The Endless, casting themselves as twin brothers who feel compelled to return to the bizarre, cultish setting of their youth and find themselves confronted by segmented pockets of time and causality reigned over by an invisible, sadistic entity. The filmmakers cleverly augmented the meaning of their previous outings (including a salutary revisit to Resolution), but the human level of their drama remained sketchy, and the film kept blindly poking about hoping a tone would stick.
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Unsane

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An Australian entry in the zombie apocalypse stakes, Cargo, saw another collaborating duo, Yolande Ramke and Ben Howling, employ Martin Freeman’s specific everyman pluck in a tale of a solitary father trying to save his infant daughter from a cruel landscape. The attempt to adapt a very well-worn model to comment upon localised racial and environmental concerns honoured the Romero debt, but were never properly thought through and failed to mesh with the maudlin reflexes of the main story: the result grew tedious on the way to a finale that played like a parody of Woke cinema. Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane was bolder in extending its director’s recent penchant for interposing twisty, straightforward thrills with overt social issue-raising, tracking Claire Foy’s uptight heroine as she finds herself under the thumb of both a greedy institution and a ruthlessly controlling stalker turned nurse. The result wasn’t subtle and the choice of shooting the whole thing on an iPhone made for an occasionally grating, inflexible visual style, and yet it still built up a surprising charge of grimy excitement, proving perhaps finally that Soderbergh is at his best when he’s at his trashiest.
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Upgrade

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Former Saw mastermind Leigh Whannell presented a new venture in low-down genre thrills with Upgrade, unfolding in the blurry margin between body horror and sci-fi. The product played as an update of a ‘80s Cannon Films video shelf filler, as its hero (Logan Marshall-Green), paralysed in the same vicious attack that also killed his wife, forms a symbiotic relationship with the AI installed in his body to help him walk again and setting out for revenge, only to find he’s being used. Upgrade was moderately engaging whilst unfolding, but bland performances and a strangely detached, ugly tone retarded hoped-for high spirits, even before the gracelessly cynical ending. Similar in theme and lexicon of influences if vastly different in approach, Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy was a far more arresting if also more heedlessly monolithic work, unleashing Nicolas Cage in a trippy alternate universe 1980s to battle demon bikers and malignant cultists whilst avenging his murdered wife. Genuinely strange, wild, and beautiful in a junk-art manner, it proved one of the most unique films of recent years.
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Pacific Rim: Uprising

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Steven S. DeKnight took over the Pacific Rim imprimatur with Pacific Rim: Uprising, subbing for Guillermo Del Toro who was presumably too busy making his Oscar and his Godzilla figurine fight it out in the bath tub. The sequel’s deliberately more naïve, youth audience-friendly tilt and DeKnight’s plainer visual approach meant it wasn’t as gaudy an entertainment as the original, but it still proved a decent piece of ridiculous fun, with a couple of neat twists and a finale that paid pure tribute to its roots in old Toho monster movies. Alex Garland returned for his second directorial outing with Annihilation, adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed novel trilogy into a would-be mind-bending exercise where the psyche and the physical blend in bizarre and dynamic ways. Unfortunately, Annihilation merely confirmed Garland knows nothing about cinema, proffering a lumbering exercise in dingy-looking pseudo-profundity, embarking on a trek that ripped off several better films before arriving at a lightshow finale that aimed to inspire cosmic awe but only inspired extreme boredom.
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I Kill Giants

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald saw director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling return with the second instalment of the prequel pentalogy set in Rowling’s Wizarding World, with introverted hero Newt Scamander contending with his heartier brother and other confounding human relationships whilst trying to stop the ascent of charismatic fascist Grindelwald. The instalment proved aggravatingly lumpy, betraying Rowling’s inexperience as a screenwriter to an excruciating degree and neglecting the best aspects of the first film. But eventually it got to an interesting keynote regarding good and terrible choices in life and political adherence based in the amount and kind of pain one’s suffered, and Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp gave sure performances playing perfectly contrasting antagonists. Anders Walter’s I Kill Giants went for a variety of magic realism reminiscent of the kinds of ‘80s fantasy movies young folk have fallen in love with through home viewing ever since, depicting a smart and disdainful adolescent who escapes harsh reality into a fantasy life so intense it borders on lunacy. Madison Wolfe confirmed she’s an actor to watch with her vehement playing of a spiky, troubling heroine, but the film around her proved too insistent and unsubtle and excessively indebted to directors like Spielberg and Del Toro, without any of their sense of intimate detail or storytelling savvy.
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Tomb Raider

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Roar Uthaung’s Tomb Raider and Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story were both surprisingly good extensions of hallowed franchises, and both were relatively, sadly neglected by the mass audience they courted and served so well, telling tales of formative escapades for famed adventurers, with Alicia Vikander and Alden Ehrenreich filling a decent percentage of their predecessors’ very large shoes. Tomb Raider managed the faint-praise task of proving the best video game adaptation ever with its lean and intelligently restrained action sensibility, although it should have doubled down on its best impulses. Solo: A Star Wars Story proved that sometimes a sober, smart, experienced professional behind the camera can outpace showy tyros. Manhunt, John Woo’s belated return to the sort of hard-charging pulp fiction he made his name with three decades ago, proved a heady melange of Hitchcockian thriller, sci-fi-tinted social conscience tale, and straight-up Woo shoot-’em-up; the product was absurd and awkwardly acted in three languages, and yet I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a blast all the same.
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Ocean’s 8

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Lin Oeding’s Braven took on a weary action movie formula, if with the beguiling contemporary twists of offering up a family of protagonists where everyone’s a badass. The notion of staging an action film on such a homey, intimate scale was a good one, but the film kept hurting itself by not sticking to that brief. Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves flew the flag for hardboiled cops-and-robbers fare as it pitted a nefarious team of former soldiers turned bank raiders against Gerard Butler’s ornery rogue detective, with O’Shea Jackson Jnr as the low-rent criminal apparently caught between the two camps. The film had the right idea in serving up a desperately-needed shot of bloody urban action, and it promised an interesting portrait of warring subcultures and streetwise protocols. Sadly, it was beset by a plot that belonged in an Ocean’s film and far too much cliché macho posturing in the meantime. Speaking of which, Gary Ross served up an extension of the Ocean’s series with Ocean’s 8, with a driving idea right out of 1966 in putting together – get this! – an all-female team of thieves. Fun work from Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter, both making fun of their popular images with gusto, kept things modestly engaging. Hard not to notice, however, a fascinating lack of proper dramatic complication or real stakes in the drama, as if the film, under its frothy façade, was actually sustaining a subtly sexist notion that women can’t face a real challenge or danger, and a script that gave most of its entirely overqualified cast far too little to do.
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The Commuter

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The Commuter was another essay in pressure-cooker situational action from Jaume Collet-Serra, pressing Liam Neeson into service again as a weary but able hero, this time on a train where he comes under the thumb of some villains who want him to kill an enigmatic passenger. The signposted class politics and late middle-age fretfulness promised new dimensions to a well-worn template, but were cancelled out by the need to keep the plot swerving. Script and handling were both way too formulaic and artificial, and the film urgently needed more of Vera Farmiga’s expertly galling voice of doom. Babak Najafi’s Proud Mary couldn’t even manage to provide solid Saturday night streaming fodder, holding out the promise of some flashy-trashy thrills in casting Taraji P. Henson as a hitwoman, but Najafi’s flavourless direction exacerbated a tediously generic product. Ted Geoghegan’s neo-western Mohawk at least had the virtue of wielding some great ideas and some riskiness to its historical perspective, as it portrayed a valiant female Mohawk warrior living in a ménage-a-trois with a brother brave and an English agent provocateur, taking on a party of ruthless Yankee warriors during the war of 1812. But hamfisted direction and a tinny, repetitive script meant it eventually degenerated into an overripe bore.
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The Predator

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When it came to the kind of big, immodest, special-effects driven spectacle you look for in Hollywood cinema, 2018 was a damn limp year. John Turteltaub’s The Meg set out with a simple mission: unleash a giant man-eating shark upon hapless submariners and swimmers for bloody hayhem and malicious entertainment. And it still managed to screw it up, unfolding with incredible blandness and perfunctory plotting, without any sense of how to use its monstrous enemy. Only one good phobic image, of the behemoth staring at a child through a wall of plexiglass as an impersonation of childhood nightmare, made it at all worthwhile. Shane Black returned to old stomping grounds as he took over a franchise he acted in way back in 1987, to make The Predator, a misshapen mutt of a movie sporting salty Black dialogue in spades and some fun performances, particularly from Olivia Munn. But the film’s tortured production proved very evident in a final product that never quite found its groove in pace or style, moving spasmodically through some half-chewed ideas and patchy action scenes.
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Black Panther

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Deadpool 2 saw Ryan Reynolds now co-scripting as well as starring, evolving his smart-mouthed antihero into the personification of the internet, a one-man machine for snarky memes, callbacks, flames, and smarmy sentiment. The vehicle about him attempted a balancing act that was always going to be difficult, employing straight-arrow John Wick and Atomic Blonde helmsman David Leitch for action movie cred for a film that tried nonetheless to offer perhaps the most aggressively mocking deconstruction of a pop culture blueprint since the days of certain Swinging ‘60s lampoons, but desperately lacking their jaunty charm or panache. Star Josh Brolin dominated Deadpool 2 by playing his part completely straight, just a couple of months after doing the same thing in Marvel’s crowning colossus, Avengers: Infinity War. Speaking of Marvel, that studio’s domination of the box office epoch reached a new height with the astounding success of Black Panther and Infinity War just behind it, one powered on by its uniqueness as a cultural phenomenon as a tailored Woke blockbuster, and the other drawing on the momentum of the entire series. Black Panther was merely okay, save a rowdy car chase sequence mid-film and a potent performance from Michael B. Jordan as a villain whose smouldering sense of injustice encapsulated an entire sociological moment. The film’s status as a fanfare for the possibility of a black blockbuster sensibility was worth honouring but the minutiae of its efforts bore little scrutiny.
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Ant-Man and the Wasp

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By comparison, Avengers: Infinity War was widely criticised for being crammed to the gunwales, but that’s precisely what made it such a blast for me, the comic book movie’s moment of Neroesque excess that had the balls to leave its audience hanging like no movie ever has before, and stands as underrated despite its success for the way it made Brolin’s archvillain the propelling figure rather than all those pesky outmatched twerps in tights. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp had the misfortune of looking rather shrunken (sorry) in contrast. Some find this branch of the Marvel universe the most personable and engaging, and I had some sympathy for that after the first Ant-Man, but this one I found almost torturously lacking when it came to plot, action, and repartee; only Hannah John-Kamen as a pain-wracked antagonist who could teleport at will wielded real spunk. Ava DuVernay returned after her potent work on Selma for a much-hyped leap into big-budget fantasy with a Disney-sponsored version of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved book A Wrinkle in Time. Not perhaps since Heaven’s Gate has a follow-up to an admired hit seen a director’s stock drop so sharply, but by contrast with that flopped masterpiece, A Wrinkle in Time proved was rather the spectacle of talent gone screamingly generic and bland, toneless in script and performing, strangled by a would-be empowering gloss, with DuVernay’s direction at once fidgety and lumbering. And that’s before we even got to the attack of the fifty-foot glitter Oprah.
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Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom

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J.A. Bayona stepped behind the camera for another venerable franchise extension with Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, in which Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard returned as Owen and Claire to save their beloved dinosaurs from their exploding island, only to find themselves yet again the fools of corporate malice. Bayona’s strong dose of imported horror movie and dark nursery rhyme imagery, and a couple of plot twists with potential, brought this property to the brink of new territory, but it all still felt far too familiar and enervating, neglecting its real dinosaurs for yet another genetic chimera and wrapping up with a seen-it-all-before game of chase and chomp. Christopher McQuarrie reteamed with Tom Cruise and company for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, yet another go-round for the IMF adventurers that tried to offer closure for some dangling loose ends from previous entries. As usual for this series, the entry was zippy, well-made, and still absent any true personality, its characters still placeholders despite the attempts to provoke nostalgia. Surprisingly, or not depending on your viewpoint, by far the year’s best event movie was Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a project couched in an unpromising basis, cataloguing tropes of ‘80s and ‘90s nerd culture, but which turned out to be only incidentally such a fetishist totem, with its inexhaustible director both lampooning and extending his own impact on pop culture.
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Bad Times at the El Royale

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Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow showcased Jennifer Lawrence, improbably cast with her Crossfit build as a ballerina who turns to espionage at the encouragement of her Putin-lookalike uncle, in what seemed like a determined attempt by Lawrence to cast off her down-home sweetheart aura. The film’s lengthy, sleazy discursions to a “whore school” for spies proved something of a miscue in promising a ruthlessly kinky psychosexual escapade, and eventually revealed it had no game at all beyond a stock-standard tale of spy deceptions and divided lovers. Drew Goddard aimed someplace between fake Tarantino and devolved Robert Altman for Bad Times at the El Royale, a labyrinthine thriller unfolding at a depopulated hotel on the California-Nevada border in the late 1960s. Goddard’s busy intersection of characters and their attendant mystiques kept accumulating rather than enriching, and ultimately felt like plotline bingo. That said, the film sported some strikingly well-directed sequences and a terrific roster of performances, but only when Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering pseudo-Manson cult leader entered the scene did the film really find a focal point.
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Thoroughbreds

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Sibling filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms made Small Town Crime, a riff blending aspects of character drama and film noir, portraying a screw-up former cop, played in a perfect star turn by John Hawkes, embarking on a quixotic attempt to solve the murder of the girl he finds dumped by the roadside. The familiarity of the recovering drunk angle and neat obedience to basic genre precepts kept results modest, but within such limits the film proved one of the year’s quieter successes. Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds also juggled familiar tropes, if in a more unusual manner, depicting a pair of young women bound together by a common detachment from the usual laws of empathy and responsibility in a well-to-do environment where psychopathy might be an evolutionary advantage. The film proved too hermetic to really bloom as a pitch-black comedy-thriller, but it did find strange pathos in characters bewildered and exiled by their lack of humanity. Beirut saw one-time indie tyro Brad Anderson taking on a Tony Gilroy script, with Jon Hamm playing a former American diplomat forced to negotiate with the byzantine dramas of Lebanon during the prolonged and vicious civil war, trying to lay his own tragic past to rest at the same time. Good work from Hamm and Rosamund Pike as a roguish CIA agent kept the film buoyed, yet couldn’t paper over the fact Gilroy’s written the same movie about a world-weary wheeler-dealer over a few too many times, and the seemingly pertinent backdrop eventually felt incidental.
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Hold The Dark

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Steve McQueen ventured into more mainstream climes for his first feature since his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, with his big screen adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s admired 1980s TV series Widows, transplanted from England to Chicago. This film theoretically had everything: a meaty story, a great cast, and a top director, with a seam of intersectional angst to mine in following a gang of patronised criminals’ wives band together to outwit their foes and pull off a big score. But the result was perhaps the year’s most grinding disappointment, with characters who resolutely failed to become interesting, stakes that utterly fizzled in a rushed finale, and pretentions to sociological depth far too familiar. Only a couple of almost incidental elements, like Daniel Kaluuya’s sadistic goon and Robert Duvall’s mean old-school patriarch, galvanised at all. Blue Ruin and Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier and actor-writer Macon Blair returned with Hold the Dark, a bleak and savage tale in which Jeffrey Wright’s aging, alienated wolf expert travels to Alaska to hunt down a rogue animal at a young widow’s request only to find very different monsters are at large, in a film that eventually became an odd, antiheroic spin on First Blood. The director-writer duo revealed expanding creative horizons in their attempts not only to fuse genres but work in unexpected reference points, including a weird and unsettling nod to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and political allegory, as the corrosive effects of social neglect on the home front and traumatising warfare combine to create several cold and well-matched killers. The lashings of portent, complete with constant suggestions of supernatural menace and threats to segue into horror, nonetheless highlighted the filmmakers’ confused intentions, and the result proved more intriguing than substantial.
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Double Lover

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Much less grave and far more entertaining, Double Lover saw Francois Ozon bounce back from a recent spell of half-hearted movies with a psychodrama outing, employing muse Marine Vacth as an anxious young woman drawn into an affair with the aggressive twin brother of her kindly therapist fiancé, only to soon find all reality becoming blurred. Ozon had a ball using the feverish storyline, taken from a Joyce Carol Oates story, as an excuse for erotic provocations, including a hilarious fantasy of threesomes and twincest, and his visuals were often genuinely delirious, even if the film finally became a bit too silly and excessive to truly unnerve or add to more than a lark. Paul Feig stepped away from broad farceur duties to take a tilt at his own kind of droll domestic thriller with A Simple Favor, pitting Anna Kendrick’s Pollyannaish working mom against Blake Lively’s self-invented existential antiheroine. The project had potential as a partial send-up-cum-fantasy rewrite of the likes of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train with a number of interesting ideas on the simmer. Feig proved utterly incapable of sustaining a tone or structuring a thriller, however, and only Lively’s strident performance made results watchable.
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12 Strong

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Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris was the venerable auteur’s latest exploration of true-life heroism, in this case the three young American friends and patriots who successfully foiled a terrorist attack on a train, but this time Eastwood seemed finally set on moulding himself to the commonly deployed caricature of his efforts, wielding atrocious, conservative base-pleasing screenwriting and flimsy acting to dress up his tawdry insights. By contrast, Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong was a stab at making a cool, clean-cut war movie, depicting a Special Forces team forging an alliance with Afghan allies in the early days of the US-led war there. The corny Taliban villain didn’t entirely detract from Fuglsig’s otherwise surprisingly textured, atmospheric, good-looking filmmaking, and it finished up one of the few superior War on Terror-era films. Following his showy but shallow 2016 musical La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s First Man set out to depict one of modernity’s great events, the Moon landing, and the man at its heart, Neil Armstrong, in a biopic packed with sombre gravitas as it explored the way unspoken grief and emotional repression helped and hindered Armstrong in his titanic venture. Chazelle’s depiction of extreme physical straits through attentive filmmaking was persuasive. Nonetheless he foundered rather badly when it came to getting into his hero’s head, revealing himself as too temperamentally at odds with such a character to grasp it and too determined a showman to let it be, and so fell back on hackneyed devices to wring an acceptable Hollywood arc out of the drama.
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BlacKkKlansman

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Spike Lee returned to find the times suddenly attuned again to his specific brand of sociologically attentive drama as he offered up BlacKkKlansman, an adaptation of former FBI agent Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Occasional flourishes confirmed Lee’s greatness as a stylist hasn’t entirely waned, and the film was at its best when playing out like a demented sitcom about self-creation through role-playing. But even after bolstering the material with imaginary characters and invented action, the story was thin, and I found Lee’s attempts to be simultaneously larkish and trenchant often cancelled each-other out. The more overt agitprop touches, like an interlude depicting diverse reactions to The Birth of a Nation and a coda leading into the Charlottesville riots, proved more successful than the film’s scanty attempts to analyse white nationalism, without much to say about the phenomenon beyond rednecks gonna redneck, and Lee’s greatest gifts, for dynamically portraying both personality and culture in flux, remained frustratingly scattershot. Actor Joel Edgerton made another foray into directing with Boy Erased, an adaptation of a memoir of a young gay man’s excruciating experiences weathering religiously-informed therapy intended to turn him straight, and fight to make his religious parents accept him whilst blowing the whistle on the sordid subculture. Intelligent performances from Lucas Hedges and Russell Crowe gave the film some meat, although Edgerton’s direction felt rather laborious at points.
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Mary Shelley

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Jason Reitman returned with a movie perfectly on brand for his variety of vaguely topical, vaguely highminded pseudo-drama, The Front Runner, depicting Gary Hart’s collapse in the 1988 Presidential race in the face of media-fuelled innuendo about his private life. The film was initially absorbing with Hugh Jackman acquitting himself well in the lead, but finally proved little more than succession of pretences towards analysing the meaning of the event without a guiding principle, apart from generalities about growing media venality, and wouldn’t get to grips with the feeling Hart was destroyed as much by his own stiff-necked self-righteousness as anything else. Afghani director Haifaa al-Mansour took on the early life of Mary Shelley, with Elle Fanning playing the heroine on her path from the daughter to wife of radical thinkers before achieving her own revolutionary coup in publishing her epic parable Frankenstein. Fanning was good in the part and the movie pretty, but the numbing script made sure to make Mary mouth great hunks of modern-day critical discourse and moral repudiation of the sometimes injurious behaviour art and passion made her a party to.
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Colette

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In another literary biopic about a transgressive heroine, Wash Westmoreland’s Colette profiled the early career of one of France’s most famous writers, including her multifarious sexual and artistic exploits and tendentious relationship with her indulgent but exploitative first husband. Ace performances by Keira Knightley and Dominic West made things bouncy and occasionally the film captured the heady flavour of belle époque gallivanting, but too often elsewhere it seemed incredibly tame and tawdrily middlebrow for such a spectacularly dissolute subject. Much the same could be said of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a rumination upon the life and career of legendary Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, one that hit screens wafting a smoke trail of compromise and discarded stars and directors. The actual result proved chock full of music biopic clichés and shallow as a paint tin lid, but still it proved rather more entertaining than it had any right to be, as Singer gave it a dose of authentic swagger, and Rami Malek’s terrific central turn made its hero coherent in his mix of wounding vulnerability and performative zeal.
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Vox Lux

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Similarly obsessed with the problem of finding self through performance, if fictional this time, Bradley Cooper gained a popular hit and plaudits with the umpteenth version of A Star Is Born, casting a game Lady Gaga as the gutsy pop belter who falls for Cooper’s shambolic country rock star and finds herself catapulted to fame whilst coping with her husband’s collapse. Cooper displayed an inconsistent but occasionally fine-tuned touch for capturing chemistry and intimacy between himself and Gaga, and smarts for staging musical sequences (and the score was actually good). But Cooper’s relentlessly up-close-and-personal style grew wearisomely high-handed after a while, and the script made only scant gestures towards revising and deepening the very familiar melodrama of the storyline. Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux played as A Star Is Born’s instant critique, biting off a big chunk of contemporary angst in offering pop star Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy whilst young and with amusing bravura by Natalie Portman in maturity) as the subject of a “Twenty-First Century portrait,” a girl put on the path to fame when she’s gunned down by a classmate in a school massacre, survives, and finds her gift for writing anthems unleashed. The film offered a coldly incisive proposal, that the current cults of empowerment and optimism in pop music are a bromide in an increasingly unsettled time whilst real trauma lurks untapped through the total exile of any kind of dark revelry, and Fassbender might have appreciated one twist, when terrorists appropriated Celeste’s imagery for their own counter-messaging. Corbet however skidded over such ideas and settled into an amazingly clichéd arc as heroic young talent evolves into a regulation jerk star, with the showy direction failing to venture beyond superficialities, interspersed with utterances of strained significance from Willem Dafoe’s narrator.
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The Kindergarten Teacher

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The more ambitious American independent fare of 2018 betrayed depths of moral struggle not just between cultures and communities but inside individuals, psyches whiteanted by the manifold pressures of the age. The Strange Ones signalled real talent from collaborating directors Laura Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff, in their attempts to depict the viewpoint of deep trauma through fragmented and elusive cinema, bolstered by intelligent performances from Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson. Only the film’s uncertainty when and where to end degraded its carefully parsed sense of enigmatic desolation. Similarly obsessed with fragmented identities and perceptions, You Were Never Really Here was Lynne Ramsay’s first film in six years, a disturbing exploration of a psyche and a society equally damaged by misuse and iniquity. The careful, remorseless deconstruction of a standard genre story resulted in a movie that seemed wilfully offbeat and anticlimactic, and yet rewarded careful attention and receptivity to its portrayal of deep-riven spiritual and mental pain. The Kindergarten Teacher was an American remake of an Israeli film, adapted and revised by writer-director Lisa Colangelo. Her take proved an exacting portrait of a woman in the title profession, latching on to the astonishing poetic talents of a young boy in her class as a way of coping with her own growing frustration in life and outlook. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s terrific lead performance kept the character ambivalent even as she eventually did foolish and self-destructive things, and the story unfolded with a certain rarefied tension as it invited the audience to share her mania and know its urgency.
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First Reformed

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Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace were very similar experiences for me, as works made by talented filmmakers trying to unite methods derived from documentaries, in a careful attention to physical detail and authentic contexts, with a more elusively poetic quality, in depicting individual avatars of assailed and damaged subcultures in contemporary America. Both were interesting works but remained basic on the dramatic level, their central characters blankly alienated, noticeably avoiding examining the furore of individual personality and the way such people stand in context of the louder, uglier cultural brawls at large in the nation. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed was a more traditional brand of serious filmmaking, but one with a similar aim in describing a personal watershed, in this case the gyring mania of a troubled priest confronting both individual and systemic despair after the suicide of a young environmental activist whose welfare he tried to take an interest in. Schrader’s attempt to articulate a specific sense of crisis and a general state of contemporary existential angst provoked a great performance from star Ethan Hawke. But Schrader remains a frustratingly basic director in many ways, aping the haughty masters he’s long admired without their easy intimacy or sense of detail, and his script promised a forceful dialogue between value systems that never arrived, settling instead for a kind of religiously-tinted green-left rewrite of Taxi Driver. Only right at the end, as Schrader invited ridicule but gained real power in depicting the life urge breaking loose in all its unruly, irrational force, did he explode his own formula.
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What They Had

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Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had occupied slightly different territory in the continent of awards season cinema, depicting the reunion of a troubled but loving family faced with the decline through dementia of its matriarch, played with skill and deftly obvlious humour by Blythe Danner. Robert Forster, Hillary Swank, and Michael Shannon were equally fine as her flailing family, and the film unfolded with a level of real feeling. And yet the cross-currents of life straits afflicting the various characters felt too stagy and designed, and made for a busy, slightly facetious dramatic landscape. In a similar vein of slickly-scripted, urbane comedy-drama, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life depicted a pair of aging creatives (played, with stunning inevitability, by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) trying to have a baby with increasing desperation and finally entering into a pact with their flaky but talented, hero-worshipping step-niece for an egg donation. The film never rocked the boat in filmmaking or narrative, and sometimes reeked of navel-gazing, but an acerbic sense of humour and accurate sense of people in different stages of life crisis kept it interesting.
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34-DarkRiver

Dark River

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After a superlative 2017, what I saw of British cinema this year was much more awkward. Saul Dibb again proved his eye one of the more visually textured and purposeful amongst the current crop of vaguely prestigious Brit directors, as he took on a real war horse by remaking R.C. Sherrif’s Journey’s End, an appropriately bleak revisit to the trenches of the century-gone Great War. The remake proved solid enough, but the adaptation neglected the play’s central question as to the value of hero worship, and so added up to just another bummer war movie. Armando Iannucci, maker of cult TV satires and occasional movies, dared a more risky and insolent foray with The Death of Stalin, a depiction of that momentous event couched in terms of multiple farceur traditions, in recognising an aspect of the absurd to a terrible regime. But Iannucci’s filmmaking was shaky, and his enormous conceit eventually proved unmatched by any degree of real intellectual provocation or truly outrageous humour. Clio Barnard’s Dark River took up a similar story and setting to last year’s The Levelling as it depicted a troubled woman’s return to her home on a farm in the Yorkshire dales after many years, following her father’s death. The film was strong when depicting her haywire relations with her aggrieved brother, and sported gritty performances, but wasted time trying to play its abuse aspect as a formative mystery, and the stab at tragic grandeur at the end felt unconvincing, depending on twists of circumstance and character that felt rushed and arbitrary.
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35-GuernseyLiterary

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Mike Newell’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society employed a great cast for describing an interesting but little-studied time and place, the impact of Nazi occupation on Guernsey, cut off from the mythology of resistance to blitz and tyranny and forced to find meaning in other ways. But the result was the worst kind of by-product of the current school of middlebrow British cinema, slinking through a lamentably dull romantic subplot and fragmented stiff-upper-lipisms, and proffering smarmily anachronistic congratulations for its presumed audience. Spanish director Sebastian Lelio landed in a fresh pasture, London, to focus on the city’s Orthodox Jewish community, for a drama invoking those frisson-inducing words, forbidden lesbian romance, in Disobedience. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams played the former lovers thrown together again after the death of Weisz’s beloved rabbi father; Alessandro Nivola played the third corner of the triangle as McAdams’ husband and heir in scholarly repute to the late rabbi. Bodied, intelligent performances gave the film most of its muscle, which otherwise proved too inoffensive in its portrait of tested tradition and worrying desire, never really penetrating its characters and failing to ask really hard questions about how to reconcile self with community.
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On Body and Soul

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In Australia, Breath saw Simon Baker making his directorial debut on home turf, adapting author Tim Winton’s fictionalised take on his own youth, depicting a pair of teenage boys falling under the spell of a former champion surfer and his damaged American wife. The brilliantly shot surfing sequences managed to trace out a zone of pantheistic poetry, and if he’d had faith to simply immerse his viewer in that zone, Baker might well have conjured a minor classic. But as the thin plot played out Breath proved overlong and eliding, failing to penetrate any character’s headspace or make the jailbait romantic twist of the last third feel believable. Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi captured the Berlin Golden Bear with On Body and Soul, her mystically romantic study of oddballs who find themselves connected on a sublime level despite being immersed in a squalid environment. The film was hindered by a slight feeling of inevitability, but it remained a lovely study in people pushed towards natural fulfilment in spite of their being misshapen by worldly standards.
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The Guardians

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Perpetual provocateur Claire Denis made an unexpected pivot back to the wistful, urbane romanticism of her Friday Night with Let The Sunshine In, a study in middle-aged romantic frustration, readily communicated by Juliette Binoche as she contended with a coterie of potential mates who all prove mismatched to some degree. The film was witty in portraying its heroine’s frustration with a parade of men in love with the sound of their own voices, but it never wielded any clear design as a character study, and remained awkwardly perched between Denis’ impressionistic films and more conventional fare. Xavier Beauvois, who contributed memorably to Denis’ film as an actor, returned as a director with The Guardians, a film that applied the slow, elegant, patient tempo of his Of Gods and Men to a depiction of the French home front during World War I, where the rhythms of rural life unfold with stammering interruptions and transformations in a context of general dread. Beauvois’ attentiveness to detail was lovely and rewarding, but something about the drama remained frustratingly unfledged and obvious – like one character’s dream sequence of killing himself in battle – and it lacked the inquisitiveness of Beauvois’ precursor.
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38-Burning

Burning

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Lee Chang-dong’s Burning extrapolated a short story by Haruki Murakami for an uneasy contemplation on a contemporary Korean social landscape litted with bewildered and alienated young folk, with its central character, a would-be writer and son of a hothead farmer, stumbling into a sort-of relationship with a girl from his home town who’s had so much plastic surgery he can’t recognise her, and her other pseudo-boyfriend, a blithe and mysterious rich kid who confesses to arson as a hobby. Lee’s patient, attentive filmmaking paid off in some extraordinary passages depicting desperation, both personal and in the zeitgeist, particularly when noting the flighty heroine’s various stabs at self-expression, all too incompetently observed by others. But of all the films I wanted to like this year, this one left me the most subtly frustrated. The hangdog blankness of the main character and the opaque smugness of his foe struck me as excessively calculated, sapping some of the power intended in the finale’s jarring, almost arbitrary eruption of overt violence, and the film was more interesting in its first half, when it was a study of confused and drifting types, before it became more an enigmatic thriller. Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch was a broadcast from Zambia that noted with both puckish humour and a sense of desolate beauty the surreal collision between ancient and modern varieties of flimflam.
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Cold War

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Lucrecia Martel’s Zama was an equally perturbing study in social breakdown and personal ambiguity, albeit in a radically different setting, in this case an Argentine outpost in the waning days of Spanish imperialism. The titular hero, an ageing don eternally pining for escape from his supposedly respected but actually excruciating post but constantly missing the cues that might deliver him, rides his downward trajectory to the bitterest end. Martel’s striking images were vital in creating an increasingly surreal atmosphere, even if sometimes the story felt less like a tragedy of a ridiculous man than a hyperbolic castration fantasy. Some notable works of non-English language cinema seemed to think being in black-and-white was a serious cinematic gesture in itself. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski released Cold War, a follow-up to 2014’s Ida and a similar exercise in stringent, monochrome evocation. This time Pawlikowski focused on a pair of quarrelsome lovers, a hangdog music teacher in a state-sponsored folk culture conservatorium and his earthy student discovery, who criss-cross Europe and find themselves trapped both by political systems and by their own ornery personalities. Sharp performances, particularly from Joanna Kulig as the imploding heroine, and Pawlikowski’s gift for composing images by turns artful, abstract, and soulful, made the film a fascinating journey, and yet this time around the eventual recourse to tragedy felt unearned, the narrative too rushed and fragmented to add up to much more than an exercise in historical-aesthetic ventriloquism.
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Roma

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Alfonso Cuaron returned for his first film since 2013’s Gravity with Roma, a fastidious recreation of the milieu of his childhood in early 1970s Mexico. A contemplation of domestic life as a manifestation of bigger things, Roma centred on a privileged but unstable bourgeois family and their maid Cleo, who does most of the real work of raising the rambunctious brood of kids whilst contending with her own troubles. Cuaron’s talents for staging and shooting episodes of spectacle were given free rein in a film that played less as dramatic entity and more as an attempt to submerge the viewer in a way of seeing and feeling. But for me the ostentatious style foiled the intended essence, the attempt to orientate according to a childlike perspective. Dramatic values remained obvious, the political backdrop never really developing beyond affected window dressing. Whilst Cuaron offered up the most artfully shot dog turds I’ve ever seen, his characters remained vague gestures, their world recreated but not made to matter. The very end, despite the apparently raw emotions involved, came perilously close to sitcom neatness as the family settled down with its two shaky but resolute matriarchs. Valeska Grisebach’s Western depicted a clutch of German labourers exiled to a Bulgarian backwater to build a dam, faced with language difficulties and character clashes, with one lanky worker finding tentative amity with the locals but also eventually catching the brunt of their pent-up ire. The title’s reference to genre mythology informed a wry sense of frontier isolation and episodes of physical struggle and communion over such raw essentials as water supplies, gravel, horses, and sex, and overall Western proved easily the best and least strained of the several films this year that tried to evoke a sense of workaday straits with a drifting, virtually plotless narrative, with a particularly astute use of non-professional actors.
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The Other Side of the Wind

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The most remarkable film event of 2018 was certainly the appearance of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, methodically pieced together after decades on a variety of shelves. The result might have blurred the boundaries between archival rescue and accomplished film – I suspect Welles might have been a touch more brutal with his footage than the editing team, including costar Peter Bogdanovich, could bring themselves to be. But it was still a startling, blissful experience, joining Welles’ obsession with corrupt and compromised men of vision to a vicious meditation upon his own rare stature and the transformations sweeping the movie world at the time of shooting, filmed with his characteristic ferocity turned up to 11. I can’t bring myself to call The Other Side of the Wind a film of 2018, but it was still rather easily the best work released this year.

Performances of Note:

Nathalie Baye, The Guardians
Iris Bry, The Guardians
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One ; Thoroughbreds
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Claire Foy, Unsane
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
John Hawkes, Small Town Crime
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher
Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther ; Creed II
Jong-seo Jun, Burning
Lola Kirke, Gemini
Rachel McAdams, Disobedience
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Leslie Mann, Blockers
Ben Mendelsohn, Ready Player One
Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Meinhard Neumann, Western
Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here
Linus Roache, Mandy
Dominic West, Colette
Ensemble: Bad Times at the El Royale
Ensemble: The Party
Ensemble: Support The Girls

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Favourite Films of 2018
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I Am Not A Witch (Rungano Nyoni)

Alternately beguiling in the often haunting poise of its imagery, and piercing in its darkly comic portrait of institutional corruption and prejudice in a context well off the beaten track, I Am Not A Witch contemplated the lot of an orphaned, wandering 9-year old Zambian girl accused of being a witch, exiled to a camp full of similarly accused women and exploited by various parties in the faith that her supernatural capacities can bring riches and dispel the parched and blighted pall over the locality. Debuting director Nyoni managed the fine art of blending potentially discordant tones – laugh-out-loud satire colliding with mystic sparseness and social issue movie – ultimately achieving a sense of enigmatic regret in questioning what we steal from ourselves when we fail to recognise wonder.

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Gemini (Aaron Katz)

From its early scenes, with their carefully woven sense of punch-drunk paranoia, to a droll last third where Lola Kirke’s kooky fool of fortune slowly refashioned herself into master of all she surveys, Gemini was one of the year’s most intriguing and stylish films. Katz offered a spry, twisty narrative that worked on several levels whilst never quite giving in to the temptation to become any one thing definitely. Katz made affectionate sport of noir film clichés, analysed the alienating precincts of an endlessly self-referential celebrity culture, and dramatised the uneasy process of his brand of filmmaker negotiating with Hollywood, contending with the problem of selling out even whilst taking charge.

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Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)

Often I hold the phrase “unique vision” in a certain dubiety as it’s by no means a guarantee a filmmaker who has one is necessarily also any good at making a watchable movie with it. But Mandy established firmly that Panos Cosmatos certainly has one, and moreover one that surely flaunts his touchstones and inspirations and yet also subsumes them entirely into his private universe. Starring a cunningly cast Nicolas Cage as wrath, backed up Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache as grace and malevolence, Mandy promised and delivered a gory, gut-crunching genre film, but also successfully communicated something more elusive, about the transformative power of love and its eternal partner, loss.

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Manhunt (John Woo)

This whackadoodle excursion from an aging master seemed to be trying to singlehandedly invent a new variety of pan-Pacific action movie, as Woo remade an old Japanese film and used it as a template to study the uneasy relationship of modern Japan and China where the only common lingua franca is English in the boardroom and Hollywood thrillers on the streets. The plot was silly and the acting off. But the explosions of dazzlingly fluid staging, episodes of operatic showmanship, and overripe images of romantic annihilation made the whole thing a crazy treat of pure joy in the medium.

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg’s best film since Lincoln and his most carefree since his tilt at Tintin, Ready Player One received a lot of commentary upon release that read more like polls over how much one liked its basic mission statement, as a film based around a certain period in pop culture (of which it proves, astonishingly, there are more fans now than of, say, Little Nemo and Biggles). Generally they ignored its actual form and function, as a swinging romantic adventure film and old-fashioned teens-fight-the-man comedy, ebullient spectacle mixed with lucid, affectionate satire on online culture and a surprisingly pensive sense of summation for its director, contemplating the hazy zone at the nexus of artists’ rights, open-sourced culture and fan provenance, and corporate domain defence. Plus it had Mechagodzilla and Chucky going apeshit.

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You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature gained a pitifully small viewership for such a well-reviewed and original effort, with its relentlessly interiorised, eccentric deconstruction of the purgation-through-violence noir tale, and its sense of psychic struggle with things both virulently ugly and ungraspably beautiful will probably remain too rarefied for a cult audience either. But it was still a major achievement, creating a sense of what it’s like to have a badly damaged and traumatised mind whilst still trying to act according to a potent sense of right and wrong. Joaquin Phoenix’s carefully recessive performance provided the axis around which Ramsay’s visions created a hallucinatory void where acts of decency skid across ice with a dark hell below.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel)

Weird, painful, and ultimately perversely cathartic in studying degradation as a natural process, Zama had a basic storyline that felt on occasions like a Coen Brothers put-on about a character too dumb or blinkered to know he’s doomed. But Martel turned that journey into a fresco at once fetid and desolating yet also perfervid, with some of the most beautifully composed images in recent cinema, finding hues of surrealism in sights as disparate as a woman caressing a horse’s belly, lordly natives wearing bird-masks, or a man robbed of his hands but finally delivered from the tyranny of worldly cares. The film came ready-loaded with implications about hot-button issues, like the ills of colonialism and slavery, but Martel’s pictures dispelled all trace of thesis and instead became a shamanic invocation of a past lingering like mist in the dawn.

Added to 2018 Favourites List after 1/1/2019:

To be announced

Honourable Mention

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard)
The Strange Ones (Laura Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff)
Western (Valeska Grisebach)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

12 Strong (Nicolai Fuglsig)
Aquaman (James Wan)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
The Endless (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorehead)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
The Kindergarten Teacher (Sara Colangelo)
Green Book (Peter Farrelly)
The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois)
The Mule (Clint Eastwood)
On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
The Party (Sally Potter)
The Rider (Chloe Zhao)
The Ritual (Gary Bruckner)
Small Town Crime (Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms)
A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper)
Support The Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
Deadpool 2 (David Leitch)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Early Man (Nick Park)
First Man (Damien Chazelle)
Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J.A. Bayona)
Let The Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
Vox Lux (Brad Corbet)
Widows (Steve McQueen)

Crap

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Mohawk (Ted Geoghegan)
Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)
Vice (Adam McKay)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Winchester (Michael and Peter Spierig)

Unseen:

22 July ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Can You Ever Forgive Me? ∙ Capernaum ∙ Crazy Rich Asians ∙ Destroyer ∙ Eighth Grade ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Guilty ∙ Halloween ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ Madeline’s Madeline ∙ A Private War ∙ The Old Man & The Gun ∙ Revenge ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Sisters Brothers ∙ Sweet Country ∙ 

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2018

Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg)
Atlas (Roger Corman)
Les Anges du Peche / Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson)
Aparajito (Satyajit Ray)
The Beast (Walerian Borowczyk)
The Black Room (Roy William Neill)
Boudu Saved From Drowning / Night at the Crossroads / A Day in the Country / The Crime of Monsieur Lange / La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir)
Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli)
La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer)
The Gun Runners / Edge of Eternity (Don Siegel)
Female Vampire (Jesus Franco)
Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa)
First Man into Space (Robert Day)
Fort Graveyard / Japan’s Longest Day (Kihachi Okamoto)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram)
A Fugitive From The Past (Tomu Uchida)
Galaxy Express 999 / Adieu Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda (Rintaro)
Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog)
Ikiru / The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa)
In a Year of 13 Moons / The Marriage of Maria Braun / The Third Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
The Iron Rose / The Grapes of Death (Jean Rollin)
The Lady and the Monster (George Sherman)
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade)
Miracle in Milan / Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson)
Paisan / Germany, Year Zero / The Flowers of St Francis (Robert Rossellini)
Portrait From Life (Terence Fisher)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Rabid Dogs (Mario Bava)
Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
The Sheik (George Melford)
The Soft Skin / L’Enfant Sauvage / The Story of Adele H. (Francois Truffaut)
The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice)
The Strange Door (Joseph Pevney)
They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich)
A Touch of Zen (King Hu)
Touki-Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty)
The Weary Death / Woman in the Moon / Spies / House By The River (Fritz Lang)
Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick)

Standard
2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak 2016

 

By Roderick Heath

Around the middle of this year, I found myself awake late at night watching the oldest films ever made on YouTube—that place where everything resides now, the whole memory of the technological age of art. I watched Thomas Edison’s first stuttering shorts with their subjects dancing or fighting or simply being, against depthless black backgrounds. It felt like an act of cabalism, looking beyond the fringe of living memory at people recalled from the dead, hovering in a void. By comparison the Lumiere brothers’ escape into the light and discovery of the world at large was like returning to the land of the living. What genius of the day it took to create such an art form. What genius lets me watch it today with a click of a button.

Around the same time, I went to a cinema to see Suicide Squad. The experience was an ordeal, from the film itself, a work that might have been fun but which had been rendered close to intolerable by poor editing and witless handling, to the multiple irritations of the screening itself–the overly dark picture, the teenage jerks in front of me insisting on filming part of the movie and uploading it to the vague interest of their friends. It was hard not to feel like I’d stumbled upon cinema’s death throes, done in by an age in which the idea of a movie has devolved into a series of delivery systems, feeding fragments of incoherent but striking information to be channelled into instant iconography, detached from any pleasure of narrative or shared experience. But by year’s end I had also had radically different filmgoing experiences: regardless of what I thought of the movies in question, I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds watching the likes of Rogue One and La La Land that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.


Rogue One

Make no mistake—2016 has been a rough year, that’s for sure. Cultural heroes have departed us with dismaying regularity, and the less said about certain political twists the better. Hollywood definitely hasn’t been immune. The US summer blockbuster season saw film after film ring big loud gongs both critically and at the box office, and the laziest assumptions of filmmaking’s Mecca seemed set to be ransacked right at a time when it can least afford it. Apart from Disney and its many octopoidal limbs, it’s hard to shake the feeling much of Hollywood has almost forgotten what its business is. But what seemed like a train-wreck in July steadily resolved instead into a phase of quiet strength and achievement and signs of a shifting pop zeitgeist; audiences hungry for fresher, sharper thrills have been gravitating towards mid-budget thrillers, and for attentive cinephiles there’s been a constant flow of fascinating, worthwhile movies. Which is, of course, not to say that the age of franchise filmmaking is at an end, not when Marvel and Lucasfilm are raking in cash hand over fist. We still want great sagas and epics. But we want them done well, and finally audiences seem to be voting with their feet more effectively.


Little Sister

Suitably, a certain battered, whatever-it-takes terseness has defined many protagonists this year, with most keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The themes of besiegement, whether literal or spiritual or psychological, and of the fraught gathering of tribes only to find their axis has broken, have been obsessively touched upon. Following last year’s parade of collapsing systems, this year was all about getting through. A few mighty drama queens still made their presences felt, a la the damaged, frenetically needy mothers of the homecoming diptych Krisha and Little Sister, Ralph Fiennes’ gabby, sybaritic rogue in A Bigger Splash, and, more quietly but perhaps the most insistent of the lot, Toni Erdmann’s insinuating farceur father. But the year belonged more to the soldiers of extreme necessity, even in the year’s big, “fun” films. Roland Emmerich’s would-be throwback to ’90s pop jauntiness Independence Day: Resurgence, emphasised the damage and premature gravitas imbued by survival. The Star Wars franchise dug more deeply into the die-or-die grimness of the war film, offering up damaged and doomed heroes who finish up as backstory to someone else’s triumph. The very last scenes, a madcap, enthralling depiction of self-sacrifice whilst Darth Vader returned to his rightful place in the collective unconscious as emblem of marauding evil, came loaded with such symbolic and imagistic power that it seemed to capture something undefined about the year’s mood of dread. The Legend of Tarzan presented its never particularly talkative hero in battle with historical evil and deeply personal threat. Marvel came close to its finest moment in pitting its roguish gallery of heroes not against a great enemy but against each other, in Captain America: Civil War, which dramatized the very process of larkish venture shading into bleak and hateful interpersonal combat over deeply personal definitions of pain and history. The clash of titans in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice employed the same motif but with a different slant, presenting a battle of id and superego allowing ego to run rampant—a motif relevant in its own way. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room managed in a few quick, dense cinematic ideograms to sum up the extreme poles of political and civic discourse this year: idealistic but clueless hipsters, convinced a few blunt “fuck offs” to their enemies would dispel all opposition and carefully cultivate their dissident status, run headlong into potent, eagerly violent Nazis, whose downfall is that they’re not half as smart as they think they are.


Hell Or High Water

Tom Hanks’ eponymous hero of Sully was the epitome of the year’s heroes, a professional who brings utter cool and a cellular-level marriage of craft and intuition to a high-pressure situation, only visited with doubt under the scrutiny of a scourging public eye. Meanwhile the pilgrims of Paths of the Soul engaged in their arduous, infinitely repetitive journey to try to redeem the whole world. The couple at the heart of a pivot in law and culture in Loving stayed loyal and true in the midst of the world’s cacophony. Chris Pine’s heroes in The Finest Hours and Hell or High Water dealt with life’s storms with stern resolve, counterbalancing Ben Foster’s part in the latter, as the man who brings his own storms. Pine and his familiar compatriots of Star Trek Beyond couldn’t mourn their own defeat and the loss of their ship, instead forced to keep moving by any means possible to keep up the fight. The patriots of Anthropoid set out to kill a monster with the fixated nihilism of the intensely dedicated; those of Allied found themselves forced to question whether the profoundest loyalty is political or personal. The hero of Hacksaw Ridge endures ostracism, disdain, and finally war at its most savage without protection. Nat Turner offered himself as incantatory engine of revenge in The Birth of a Nation whilst Free State of Jones came under the domain of Matthew McConaughey’s glowing-eyed honky beneficence. Elle’s elegantly untraditional heroine refused to be reduced to victimhood, instead entrapping her rapist’s desire and perversity within her own until it is shrunken enough to conquer. The certain women of Certain Women coolly and patiently waited out the gnawing winters of the heart and the hapless Little Sister and her family fronted up to things that could be changed and things that couldn’t, its heroine fulfilling both sides of her titular role on the field of care and responsibility by any means on hand. The inhabitants of the Cemetery of Splendour contended with randomly cruel illnesses and multiple zones of reality. Amy Adams’ epitome of the human race in Arrival even had to put up with having her brain rewired and her future mapped out in excruciating detail, and learned to accept it.


Suicide Squad

Perhaps it’s apt that the western has been sputtering to life this year, evinced in Hell Or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, The Magnificent Seven, and Jane Got a Gun, being as it is a genre where hard-bitten, squinting antiheroes live wild and die free. Results differed. Hell or High Water, a Texas excursion for Scots director David Mackenzie, who has been making the sort of vexing films that illustrate the maxim “good is the enemy of great” for over a decade now, was a Peckinpah-esque exploration of the legacies of dispossession and violence past and present. The film struggled to find its feet with (sometimes literal) big signs announcing its themes and some familiar chestnuts of the Euro-director-goes-US mode, but the last half-hour sang with its eruptions of violence and genuinely ambivalent coda. In a Valley of Violence brought a similar blend of referential exactitude and shrewd dissection of the tropes of its chosen genre that defined Ti West’s earlier horror films, restaging the basic revenge drama in many a western as tale of mirroring misanthropy and brutal reckoning. The result was foiled only by West’s already familiar tendency to take refuge in formula when his ideas run out. Antoine Fuqua’s visit to the trail blazed by Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges occasionally caught the breeze of straightforward, cheery, bloodthirsty entertainment that once made the western so popular, giving Chris Pratt a death scene to die for. But Fuqua’s lead-footed filmmaking squelched any hope this film could live up to its models—that, and a fascinating refusal to engage with the same themes of class and race so important to those predecessors. Jane Got a Gun tried to bring a feminist tilt to the table, but failed to also offer an effective story or any pulse of excitement, playing out on all levels with strenuous inevitability. Suicide Squad was the grunge-tinted, contemporary variant on The Magnificent Seven, as a mob of variously low-rent, half-mad villains were pressganged to fight for…well, something or other. Whatever potential the film had was lost in a shit-storm of studio second-guessing and tired “fun” gimmickry.


Independence Day: Resurgence

Nonetheless, the superhero genre is definitely the modern-dress version of the western, following very similar templates—heroes with an edge over ordinary folk forced to answer their questions of the nature of justice and the meaning of community whilst fighting variations of the same essential moral dramas over and over. Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with merciless brickbats for trying to expand and deepen the superhero film’s palette. Whilst it did deserve some of the criticism, Snyder’s superior director’s cut restored heft and solidity, as well as a truly epic gravitas. And yet for all the huffing and puffing, the movie it wanted to be still only finally emerges in the last few fleeting minutes. Dawn of Justice isn’t the only one of this year’s whipping boys for which I found a little fondness. Independence Day: Resurgence was interminable when trying to outdo the original’s wholesale destruction porn, but curiously likeable elsewhere, particularly as it gave old pros Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner a chance to make me chuckle and offered Maika Monroe one of the year’s better action heroine roles. David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan was weighed down by an extremely lazy chase plot and a script that seemed determined to foil all its own impending climaxes. And yet Yates’ eye for epic filmmaking was evident, and his film offered an intelligently revisionist approach to its hero. Yates’ other film for the year, an extension of J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, renewed the franchise by backtracking. The result was at its best when simply having larkish fun and fell flat with the big picture game. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was doomed to languish in its shadow as its frizz-haired auteur tried his hand at juvenile franchise cultivation. Burton couldn’t break out of the bland rhythms of slickly CGI-crusted Harry Potter wannabes, but his strong imagery, furtive understanding of adolescent proto-eroticism, and episodes of slyly nasty humour (like introducing Judi Dench only to feed her to a monster) made it a reasonably honourable discursion.


Star Trek Beyond

Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ entry of the now rapidly expanding Star Wars mythos, was only serviceable on a dramatic level, but was jolted to life by the force of Edwards’ visuals and the sheer whatever-it-takes verve of his and his filmmaking team’s love of the material. Eternal rival Star Trek also had an entry this year: Star Trek Beyond was a similarly mixed bag but ranked as one of the year’s better FX blockbusters. The script, co-written by cast member Simon Pegg, actually understood how to pace and shape an adventure story and grasped the essence of the Trek brand, particularly as it pitched its heroes into amusingly generic Trekian locations. But it was also weighed down by a plot that bashed together concepts from the last four Trek films, including yet another quasi-terrorist villain with a grudge against the Federation. Justin Lin’s direction embodied the schism, drinking in scifi spectacle with an eye that easily dwarfed that of J.J. Abrams, but also offered jarringly hard-to-read action scenes. The film’s weak box office was undeserved but perhaps inevitable given how much air Abrams had let out of the tyre. X-Men: Apocalypse’s weak box office was, on the other hand, entirely deserved. Rarely has a once-noble franchise come to such an underpowered, apathetically written, acted, and directed turn, lumbering through the motions of killing off Magneto’s family yet again, and setting up Oscar Isaac as a villain of cosmic menace only to have him stand around waiting for the big gang-up finale—a sequence that did finally deliver some entertainment, but not sufficiently to redeem it. Marvel rival Doctor Strange was a splashy but entirely hacky entry in the superhero stakes from Scott Derrickson. The film was dotted with moments of cleverness, some vivid visuals and fun performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, but it foundered on its derivative and tony annexation of a more mystical wing of the Marvel realm, and failed that most basic of tests for this genre: it’s not in the slightest bit exciting. Tim Miller’s Deadpool, meanwhile, aimed at upending all familiar rules for this filmmaking mode, offering up a potty-mouthed antiheroic jerkwad as protagonist and making sport of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s self-seriousness. And yet it was the kind of curative that hurts more than the disease, a wad of collected internet memes passed off as antic cool.


The Neon Demon

Horror and thriller cinema proved extremely lively this year, benefiting from the disenchantment with the laborious parade of “big” movies. The second instalment of James Wan’s happily ridiculous The Conjuring series maintained the brand’s defining contrast between the loving, lively, generous impulses of its heroic, central married couple, and their line of work, which brings them into contact with forces of cosmic nihilism, this time around with a great supporting turn from Madison Wolfe as the victim of a demon’s possessive streak. Fede Alvarerz’s Don’t Breathe was a tolerable but trite and mechanical entry, depicting a home invasion with a nasty twist. Don’t Breathe desperately needed some of the hallucinatory gusto of the late Wes Craven’s similar The People Under the Stairs, but was faintly redeemed by its coal-black sarcasm in handling the idea of identity as fate—who could forget the turkey baster of doom? Jason Zada’s The Forest had an interesting setting, the “suicide” forest of Aokigahara by Mount Fuji, and a cool star, Natalie Dormer, but misused both in a half-hearted spookfest. Karyn Kusama bounced back from lacklustre blockbuster experiences to make the tense and smart The Invitation, which imagined the touchy-feely precepts of La La Land encounter culture as prelude to cathartic mass carnage. Perhaps the film I most anticipated this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and it became conversely perhaps my biggest disappointment, though I still liked it in some ways. Refn’s craft, at once languorously aestheticized and patiently nasty, managed to tether together a raft of referential peccadilloes—classic Hollywood’s imperial egotisms and the mythology of its sacrificial young, the horny, id-welling chic of ’70s Euro-horror, the totemic force of Greek legend and the airy gloss of high-class consumer culture—into a heady stew replete with magnificent images. But it went on far, far too long and went down so many blind alleys before reaching its true reckoning that much of its minatory power evaporated.


Under The Shadow

Although more thriller than horror movie and technically really not even that, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals touched on similar territory to The Neon Demon in studying LA’s exalted spheres (and sharing cast member Jena Malone) counterpointed with harsh and menacing evocations of ambition falling foul of the nation’s dark heart. Ford evinced surprising gifts for generating suspense and envisioning pivots of horror to a degree that suggests he might eventually make a good noir director. But whereas Refn’s quotes of fashion art were satiric, Ford’s are merely displays of brand affectation, and his better work here dissolves amidst dumb ideas, like a pair of murdered bodies rhymed with a couple in bed, and a finale when revenge literally costs an eye for an eye, before the narrative cuts off in a place that reduces the whole affair to a sick joke. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow was similar to 2014’s The Bababook in portraying a mother’s claustrophobic haunting by a demon, set not in anodyne suburbia, but in Tehran during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and its stifling, paranoid, reactionary zeitgeist: Anvari’s cool direction only occasionally let slip visions of strangeness, sustained an eerie mood right to the end, and held its own metaphorical inferences tightly leashed until nearly the end. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers’ The Witch gained plaudits as a horror film that took on the foundational struggles of European colonisation in America and its lingering credos. For myself, I’m still not sure how much I like it. Eggers’ eye is undoubtedly excellent, some of his images sear, and his sustained mood of dread was deeply effective. But the film’s supposedly radical tilt is actually pretty familiar for horror fans.


10 Cloverfield Lane

One of the year’s more surprising winners was Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, triangulating scifi and psychological thriller, sustaining a genuinely intense and unsettling note of dislocation and apocalyptic mystery until nearly the end, whilst maintaining a gloss of pop cinema fun. Terrific performances from the perpetually underrated John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead helped. And I can’t help but admit a little, sneaky enjoyment of one of the year’s bigger critical and commercial failures, Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a work that tried to combine Regency manners and Romero splatter with a certain clunky, goofy zest. Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin didn’t quite live up to its hype for me even as it marked an interesting debut, returned with the superb Green Room, a film with a genuinely Carpenter-esque sense of efficiency and drive. On top of its political inferences, it’s a film that offers sympathy for everyone by the end and actually manages to restore some of the fear of death and mutilation to a genre that too often treats both as playful pyrotechnics. Kudos in particular to the late Anton Yelchin and the marvellous Imogen Poots.


The Jungle Book

Making account of this year’s bad and mediocre films does require some time and effort. Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur broke my personal record for turning off a film, when its opening frames insisted on taking me to the start of the chariot race, with Morgan Freeman’s stentorian voice delivering nonsensical narration, and the actors playing Judah and Messalah swapping lines of dialogue with all the conviction of two high schoolers who get involved with theatre club to meet girls. Jack Huston, one of those actors, has been a promising talent, but probably won’t get another leading role until 2033. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was another fascinating example in how, if one can master certain arts of high-pressuring an audience through relentless use of editing and audio stunts, one can be taken as a genius even if the raw material of one’s art is tepid schlock. The climactic scene of a Chinese general explaining the plot by way of a supposedly casual encounter remembered/foreseen by its heroine was the stuff of broad lampooning, whilst the movie as a whole bested Interstellar for reducing the apparatus of cosmic awe to the meal of TV melodrama. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, a real display of Disney’s regal force of production values. But although it was entertaining, there was something pleasantly trite about its glossy, photorealistic but essentially nondescript CGI animals, duly solid depiction of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasia, and half-hearted annexation of the 1964 film’s musical aspect. Also the attempts to beef up the mythic and heroic side of Kipling’s story proved awkward, as in the finale when young Mowgli, marked for death by intolerant Shere Khan for his kind’s carelessly destructive ways, proves his point by behaving in a carelessly destructive way—but he’s the hero, so it’s okay.


The BFG

Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War trod arduously through their mythic-heroic guff composed of utterly flavourless drama and purely rote, appropriated scenes. Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t entirely escape the air of enervation that hovered around so much of this stuff this year. Although his The BFG was clearly personal and intriguingly muted, it felt weirdly flimsy and miscalculated, a gigantic project couched in intimate whimsy that desperately lacked a meaty story and compelling, detailed characters. Whilst by no means bad, it stands as the director’s biggest bust since the not-so-dissimilar Hook. The year’s most disgraceful entry from a major director was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, a staggeringly bad romp through a fantasy realm carefully wrought to evoke the computer game it was based on whilst obeying no laws of aesthetics, physical logic, or storytelling sense. Far from legitimising such adaptations, Warcraft instead described just about everything wrong with modern filmmaking, from pulverising its good cast into a lump of indistinguishable blandness to failing utterly to convey any feel for fantasy cinema, offering something more like a gamer convention promo reel gone berserk. Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters, meanwhile, became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. For all the hype and hate, the actual movie proved about as thrilling as a bucket of warm spit, a total failure of wit and invention sporting an array of tepid pseudo-improv comedy, weak heroes and villains, and empty, characterless special effects. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth did more for the film than it did for them. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows started intriguingly as a gap-year take on Jaws with an emphasis on minimalist menace, promising a rock-solid thrill ride. But it quickly sank amidst clichés and contrivances before revealing itself as the most elaborate game of hot lava ever played, with added Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appeal. Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen was the shit-smeared caboose of the long post-Die Hard action movie train.


Jason Bourne

J. Blakeson, whose debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, was so impressive a few years ago, returned at last, helming the eye-twistingly silly YA actioner The 5th Wave. The Divergent series went belly-up with the incident-free Allegiant, proving you can push the “let’s split the last book in two” adaptation process way too far. Tate Taylor, who at the moment is a serious candidate for the worst director in Hollywood, took on this year’s bestselling blockbuster adaptation, The Girl on the Train, and managed to waste Emily Blunt’s customarily good lead performance by shooting a supposedly creepy and intense thriller with all the propulsion and authority of a feminine hygiene commercial. There was some real bullshit amongst the year’s well-reviewed, classy fare too. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was Suicide Squad for people frustrated they never went to Oxford. Jeff Nichols’ first of two films for the year, Midnight Special, was an initially intriguing attempt to blend Nichols’ moody, big-things-happen-to-small-people motif first mooted on Take Shelter with tributes to ’80s Spielberg and Carpenter, but finished up boring me silly with its fuzzy, hole-ridden plot, unearned emotional ploys, and banal visualisations of the miraculous: the finale offered a magic, invisible city that looked disturbingly like the one in Tomorrowland, a place no one should have to return to. Rufus Norris’ London Road was an intriguing, radical-sounding project, adapted from a stage musical that used real interviews of the inhabitants of the title street where a serial killer lived as the libretto for its stuttering tunes, but the result was revealing only in how little such heavy lifting achieved. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s return to profitable stomping grounds, Jason Bourne, had one fine set-piece, a chase staged in the midst of an Athens riot, but proved so listless and unoriginal as a whole that it didn’t just bore me, but also made me wonder if I’d actually enjoyed the earlier films in the series.


Down Under

Ben Stiller also tried to revive a beloved character engaged in international assassinations and conspiracy for Zoolander 2, and blimey if I didn’t get a few chuckles out of the resulting stew, even if it lacked the blindsiding nerve that made the original memorable, instead memorialising its own formula. On the other hand, Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army revived the loveable old TV show but expended a perfect cast on hoary shenanigans and made the canonical mistake of such revivals by imposing an unfunny major character and resulting new dynamics on the classic template. Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows exasperated me last year, returned with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a tribute to bygone days of New Zealand’s comic outlaw movies and the wider pantheon of ’80s genre film: here Waititi’s true chops emerged, adroitly mixing authentic sentiment and pop culture-inflected waggishness. Abe Forsyth’s Down Under took on a disturbing major event of recent Australian history, the ethnically charged 2005 Cronulla Riots, and offered shots of effectively weird humour, but its attempt to segue from broad, caricatured satire to violent, darkly telling parable was ultimately laboured. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man tried to mate hipster philosophical concerns—the nature of life and how to meet girls—with body humour, and got a surprisingly long way on that odd mixture, only to fall foul of a near-inevitable exhaustion of inspiration well before it ended. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s Sausage Party tackled a similar mixture of authentically heady themes and raunchy humour and worked rather better, in part because as well as a spicy parable in favour of hedonism and against prescribed blinkering, it was also a much-needed burlesque of the now well-worn Pixar animation formula.


Paterson

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was doomed to be cited as the kind of great nonspecial-effect-driven film everybody claims to want more of but then doesn’t go to see, as, in spite of its top-line cast and strong reviews and crowd-pleasing tilt, it bombed hard at the box office. For me, Black’s raucous blend of black humour and retro action was often great fun and enabled an array of terrific performances from stars familiar (Russell Crowe), maturing (Ryan Gosling), and fresh (Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, Yaya DaCosta). But it also played the same hand one or two times too many, and wasn’t always so sharp at telling its great ideas from the ordinary. Gosling also featured in the film that will probably win all of this year’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film that seeks to wrap its audience in a fervent recreation of musical aesthetics past whilst telling a mildly bittersweet tale about love going awry whilst careers catch fire. The pretty photography and Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone distracted from the fact it’s a neutered New York, New York (1977) knock-off that does precious little that’s genuinely creative or incisive, littered with utterly forgettable songs and choreography. Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle blended drollery and bloodletting but in a very different fashion to The Nice Guys, applying the fuzzily realist aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to a Civil War-era tale of two brothers sent along different paths with the thesis that people back then were just as confused, listless, and hapless as we are today—only the tides pushing them around were stronger. Jim Jarmusch’s charming, ambling Paterson was an ode to creativity as a life-force for ordinary people, couched in typically timeless, oddball terms by its writer-director and littered with lovely performances. But as a whole I didn’t enjoy it as much as its immediate predecessor Only Lovers Left Alive, for whilst Jarmusch’s feel for neurasthenic cool is undeniable, I doubt he could find actual normality with a road map.


Don’t Think Twice

Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice was a film about comedy and the kinds of people who create it, exploring the tension between public artistic idealism and private expectation that eventually it had better start paying off: the film’s rueful portrait of the resulting crisis was affecting but never really proved as compelling, or funny, or insightful, as it wanted us to find it. Robert Edwards’ One More Time also depicted the pleasures and pains of a life in show business, offering Christopher Walken and Amber Heard a diverting if unmemorable vehicle as a waned crooner and his shambolic wannabe daughter. Two entries in the very familiar indie film subgenre depicting tense reunions of dysfunctional families gained strong plaudits this year. Zach Clark’s Little Sister was the lighter in spite of dealing with suicidal tendencies and gruesome disfigurement, whilst Trey Edward Shults’ stylistically harder-edged Krisha portrayed the fallout of addiction. Both films revolved around the impact of a self-destructive mother steeped in countercultural cool but now just a wash-up with ironically square kids (a theme also echoed in Toni Erdmann). Clark’s film offered rather too many cute ironies left insufficiently explored, and political themes that never came into focus beyond indicting the smugness of the bourgeois lefty style many felt the Trumpista victory was comeuppance for. But it had a fine touch for the ways people who love each other find ways both oblique and direct to make contact.


A Bigger Splash

Krisha, by contrast, came on strong but also blunt, laying on pathos and cinematic manipulation with a trowel, held together mostly by the deeply convincing portrait of fraying human will at its heart: its suggestion that some people can’t help laying waste to everything even when they don’t want to was fittingly cruel, but Shults’ tricky direction kept bad faith with the audience and struck one note for 80-odd minutes. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash sprawled out with glorious energy and eccentric humour with underlying menace for its first two-thirds as it explored the lives of the variously careless and rapaciously sensual, but then, after segueing into a fateful act of violence, left itself painfully beached without any idea where to go next. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was rapturously received by many. I liked it, although I can’t quite see what the big deal here is—stepping back from the genuinely original, cryptic indie-noir of Night Moves, Reichardt here offered a triptych of suggestive portraits where all the details feel as a carefully arranged as your grandmother’s crystal collection. Excellent performances and a great last 20 minutes did make the film worthy, however. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, on the other hand, gripped from the get-go with its enigmatic but almost physically exciting portrait of isolation within community, taking up a conceit similar to last year’s The Falling but more effectively, respecting the mystery it invoked but clearly understanding the unruly heart of youth.


Allied

Simon Stone’s The Daughter likewise revolved around the power and fragility of youth on the cusp, transposing Henryk Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Tasmania’s drizzly heartland with respectable if sometimes heavy-footed results, swapping Ibsen’s cool tragedy for soap operatics on occasion, but retaining an architectural solidity. I preferred it all in all to the film that overshadowed it on Aussie award nights, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That film was a big, bristling, very broad tribute to the clichés of war films past and a celebration of Gibson’s overwrought but curiously compulsive worldview, his happily boldfaced, confessional purging, his storytelling savvy, and his love of thrilling butchery—all peculiarly enjoyable when taken as pure theatre. Allied saw Robert Zemeckis similarly delving into classic movie lore with a less personal but more peculiar, intriguing bent, starting off with obvious touchstones—a spy romance set initially in Casablanca, of all places, replete with we-saw-Inglourious Basterds-isms—before turning into a darkly romantic portrait of marital distrust and sacrifice in the context of onerous official duty and collective paranoia, spiralling in towards intimate reckoning rather than explosive theatrics. It could well be Zemeckis’s best film, and certainly his determination to unmask the mobile orgy the war obliged might count as a historical duty. Another director who started, like Zemeckis, as a screenwriter in the heady days of New Wave Hollywood, is Terrence Malick. Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, received an indifferent reception upon release early in the year. Understandable, I suppose—after all, it was just another magnificently shot, feverishly edited, astonishingly acted visionary confession-cum-tone-poem exploring a deeply personal zone of experience through a universalised lens.


Sully

As usual, the major yardstick for would-be seriousness in this year’s high-end fare was a basis in some suitable real-life tale. That most esteemed of Hollywood veterans, Clint Eastwood, returned with Sully, another study in the ambivalence of myth-making as backdrop to the reality of valour. Few films of recent years have been so efficient, so concerted, and even the somewhat overworked bureaucrat bashing aspect was kept contained by Eastwood’s complex yet entirely lucid assemblage. Meanwhile eternal try-hard Peter Berg released two based-on-a-true-story fob-jobs this year, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Deepwater Horizon was the only one I saw: bolstered by a strong supporting performance from Kurt Russell, who proved he still commands the screen like an ageing but still ornery beast of the veldt, this one built to an impressive but curiously, cumulatively pointless recreation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Good thing dramatic niceties and a nick-of-time fade-out relieved the film of the responsibility of noting one of the worst environmental catastrophes of all time resulted from these events, which were all apparently the fault of nasty, weirdly accented John Malkovich. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a similarly pumped-up take on recent headlines, inflating controversial events that cost the life of a US diplomat and military personnel as a kind of neo-Alamo, but at least Bay’s showmanship was sufficiently madcap to serve as an end in itself. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, unlike Berg and Bay’s films, was not officially based on a true story but lightly fictionalised some familiar aspects of the War on Terror and its strange new battlefields into the texture of its drama for the purpose of introducing the audience to the simultaneously detached and nightmarishly intimate world of drone warfare. Whilst not quite wielding the same bleak and alien power, it could be counted as a modern-day take on something like Fail-Safe (1964) as a chamber drama of conscience versus necessity.


Miles Ahead

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa returned to the kind of preposterous yet fact-based story they cut their teeth on with I Love You, Phillip J. Morris in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film that offered Tina Fey and Martin Freeman welcome breaks from their more familiar parts, playing nerds transformed into wild cards in the midst of Afghanistan war reporting, but the film which could have been the MASH of the ’10s proved rather a few swear words away from being Private Benjamin instead. Natalie Portman had a much better time impersonating Jacqueline Kennedy and finding a lode of determination under her bob and Nob Hill accent in Jackie, the first of a superlative one-two punch from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, the other being Neruda, an inspired poetic twist on the usual hagiography. Don Cheadle suggested some real directorial chops in the snappy, colourful frames of Miles Ahead, a portrait-biography of Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s impersonation of the jazz great was suitably exact. But the facetious script eventually proved the opposite of Sully in that its showy structure led nowhere whilst its insights remained skin-deep. Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, depicting the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the heroically futile battle for survival by his patriot killers, confused recreating scenes from generations of spy thrillers for noble filmmaking, and the results just serviceable. Mick Jackson’s Denial explored a moment of subtle but consequential import in the history of history, depicting the slow skewering of Holocaust denier David Irving, but David Hare’s script proved a textbook for study of now-familiar screenwriting tricks for this sort of thing—convenient conflict here! contrived misunderstanding there!—and Rachel Weisz’s annoyingly broad lead performance didn’t help matters. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert depicted the life of Gertrude Bell, architect of nations and fool of fortune. Although generally dismissed and dumped on the home viewing market, I found this one quietly rapturous in recreating the brand of stoic, yet often blindingly intense romanticism at the crux of war, peace, man, woman, east and west: only James Franco’s miscasting proved a drag.


Hidden Figures

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation looked set to be one of the films of the year, with director-star Parker receiving ovations at Sundance with his project which, in theory, sounded inspired—recounting the tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and stealing the title of D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying epic, aiming to angry up the blood. But something went wrong: Parker’s dubious past became, perhaps unfairly, a sticking point for easy acceptance. More to the point, the film was a troubling chimera, with its best traits, a sense of moral torpor and lurking unease blooming into outright horror, owing too much to 12 Years a Slave (2013), and its lesser to a well-thumbed playbook of righteous avenger movies resolving in clumsily staged action scenes whilst suggesting, dismayingly, that laundered, manipulative history was the answer to the same. Jeff Nichols’ Loving ventured to explore the marrow-deep malignity of racist legacies and the challenge to it via the experiences of the so-aptly named Lovings and their consequential victory for marriage freedom in the late 1960s. Nichols’ feel for place and lifestyle was truly evocative here, but as it went along, the usual lapses of Nichols’ style manifested, particularly over-length, whilst the central, essential portrayal of the couple strained to celebrate them as quiet and decent but proved on closer inspection sentimentalised and vacant instead, offering plaster saints rather than real people, with the cumulative effect of locking all potential dramatic power in amber. Still, Ruth Negga, who also gave Warcraft its sole flicker of life, maintained dignity. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures played a more populist key in recounting the stories of black women mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: there’s a more serious and memorable movie lurking somewhere within, but the one around it has its moments.


The Handmaiden

Radu Jude’s Aferim! trod a sneakier path towards a truer depiction of human absurdity and cruelty as it roamed around historical Romania, a place hovering on the threshold of modernity’s transformations whilst still subsisting in a medieval past, showing how we all learn to acquiesce to wrong and injustice when it’s painted as eternal truth and if our paycheque depends on it. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes winner from last year, Dheepan, finally surfaced this year in English-speaking markets. Audiard’s usually riveting gifts for blending raw sociology and dramatic daring with genre filmmaking proclivities here failed to fuse properly, but the result was still intriguing in its depiction of total personal and social dislocation and the peculiar malleability of identity, trying to wedge itself into the grey zone between Kafka and De Palma’s Scarface. Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden, which appeared at this year’s festival, was much hailed as a lush and loopy transposition of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Korea in the 1930s. This was another one everyone seems to have loved but me: I find Park’s filmmaking, eager as it is to claim the mantle of great cinematic sensualists and impresarios, to be a big hollow gong, his themes announced in unmistakeable brass booms, his eroticism slick and cold even (or especially) when it’s trying to be celebratory. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s follow-up to her great Attenberg was Chevalier, a would-be droll parable lampooning male anxieties and power games with a hint of political inference: some of its arrows landed deep and true and some images were sharp and funny. But the film, like its characters, kept going long after it had forgotten what the point was, if there ever was one.


Toni Erdmann

Tsangari’s fellow Greek tyro Gyorgos Lanthimos made his English-language debut with The Lobster, one of the year’s arthouse hits. Offering a twisted exacerbation of contemporary life’s obsession with sex and coupling as a retro-futurist dystopia, Lanthimos mixed comedy, horror, even romanticism in his stylised, deliberately (?) stilted context. At its best, it was jarring and disturbing in confronting human nature, but on other levels it was also just an inflated Monty Python sketch, and I absorbed it more in dazed fascination than real enjoyment or deep contemplation. Meanwhile in Germany, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann found general acclaim blending chilly realism and deadpan absurdity in depicting a mischievous father trying to prod his grown daughter, a serf to corporate life, to make some needed displays of undisciplined behaviour. Although the film had its fitful comic coups, and in spite of a nearly three-hour running time, it remained evasive in its characterisations and hackneyed in its supposedly biting critique of high capitalist behaviour, dressing up what was essentially an inflated Neil Simon three-act in the full regalia of Euro-cinema provocation. By comparison with such fastidious quirk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour was so delicate and sublimely well-fashioned, it barely seemed to be there, and yet it accumulated like summer mist on leaves until the finest patina of brilliance appeared as it drifted through ages and states of being with wry and melancholy grace. Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul, the first mainland Chinese film to deal with Tibetan Buddhism, engaged in spiritual themes in a more worldly yet no less mesmeric fashion, lifting the spirits by studying the unyielding dedication of the truly faithful and its more secular celebration of teamwork and trust. Way over in France, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved a tour de force for the filmmaker even as he ceded so much of its intent and effect to star Isabelle Huppert, who responded by giving a performance made of vulcanised rubber. The harder she was hit, the faster and straighter she flew.

Performances of Note:

Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Luke Evans, High-Rise
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Taissa Farmiga, In A Valley of Violence
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Sienna Guillory, High-Rise
Tom Hanks, Sully
Amber Heard, One More Time
Royalty Hightower, The Fits
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon
Ruth Negga, Loving
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Daughter
Chris Pine, The Finest Hours; Hell or High Water
Jenjira Pongpas, Cemetery of Splendour
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Addison Timlin, Little Sister
John Travolta, In a Valley of Violence
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2
Odessa Young, The Daughter
Ensemble: Knight of Cups
Ensemble: Paterson
Ensemble: Paths of the Soul

Favourite Films of 2016

Aferim! (Radu Jude)

A blackly comic yet casually tragic journey through Romanian history, Aferim! viewed the past through black and white photography to present a remembrance that refused to offer monochrome morality, an attempt to diagnose national ills and deliver a finale that succeeds as sad pivot for a young man’s maturation and a study of the blend of arbitrary human constructs we call reality.

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul’s latest was nominally slighter and even less overtly fantastical compared to his earlier work, but his vision has arguably never been more lucid or imaginative. When so many films struggle to pinion us in our seats with vistas of soporific spectacle, Weerasethakul here evokes multiple planes and states of being with pure language of mouth and eye, and, like the hospital that is his film’s setting, provides an islet of enigma and contemplation in the midst of a modern world bellowing in our faces.

Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

Signalling that Verhoeven’s cinema has become cooler and more insidiously methodical in his late phase, Elle shows he’s lost none of his characteristic provocation, the taste of arsenic under the heady aroma of this stew. Isabelle Huppert’s effortlessly commanding performance is the linchpin of a study that both totally fulfils and makes ruthless sport of the cultural grail that is the Strong Female Character, portraying a heroine who refuses to be judged by anyone’s standards but her own.

The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)

Sparse, cryptic, finally ecstatic, an American descendent of such bastions of European social cinema as The 400 Blows and the Dardennes that nonetheless feels original, this study in a young black girl’s desire for acceptance and communal identity amidst a mysterious outbreak of paroxysms amongst a team of talented dancers provided one of the best portraits of inner-city life ever put on screen.

The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie)

Nobody but me seemed to like this, but I found this throwback to an old-fashioned kind of adventure film a tonic amongst so many lumbering, bludgeoning big movie misfires, unabashedly corny but heartfelt and ravishingly shot. With its populace of hearty seafarers and flinty New Englanders, it was like an old Saturday Evening Post cover brought to life, and more successfully Spielbergian than the real Spielberg film of this year.

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)

Straddling zones of horror, thriller, even western, Green Room quickly proved that Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier has his ear to the ground in ways I couldn’t anticipate, depicting the political schisms manifest this year in the manner of all great genre cinema—by enacting them at wild extremes. The result was hard, fast, and beautiful in the precision of its ugliness.

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)

A portrait of Western civilisation’s crack-up as viewed through a lens of retro perversion, High Rise is the companion piece to Green Room’s diagram of 2016’s grotesqueness, contemplating the breakdown of a human and technological system that lays bare the workings of the social organism and suggests the strange, hideous, thrilling things that might take place.

Jackie / Neruda (Pablo Larrain)

A tawdry wing of current prestige cinema, the week-in-the-life biopic, is annexed by Latin America’s most dynamic current talent and transformed into something thrilling in Jackie, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her President husband’s assassination. The result is intelligent, investigative, and pungently unsentimental in its portrait of both intense personal horror and grief, and the construction of political mythology. Meanwhile, companion piece Neruda more quietly but just as radically dissects the role of the artist in society. Both films encompass the process turning life into fiction and fiction into the template of a new reality.

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

Knight of Cups offered the third and least celebrated of Malick’s unofficial trilogy exploring the state of modern life, coming on like a natural force in the relentlessness of its images and associations, replete with wide-eyed good humour as well as tragic force and fatalistic awe in its consideration of the manifold ways of humans being. Someday, it will be counted as a great shame no one was interested when such filmmaking was still being made.

Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang)

The first Chinese film to deal with contemporary Buddhist faith blends documentary with gentle drama for a hypnotic experiential work depicting the quest of a small band of the faithful from a small Tibetan town who undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, kowtowing all the way, for the sake of not just their own souls but the whole world. In a year of massive shows of wilful ignorance and collective sparring, this experience made me sad for wondering whether we are worth such dedication.

Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)

Another dismissed artefact by an ageing auteur, Queen of the Desert set out to be the anti-Lawrence of Arabia in style and substance, its lensing immediate rather than grandiose, desert surveys dusty and grey rather than radiantly expansive, its depictions of people and cultures intimate rather than mythic. Apt, for a tale that envisions the life of its heroine Gertrude Bell as moments of fleeting grace and escape and the desert an ocean of peace but only a respite from civilisation’s perversities. The result is that most contradictory of propositions: a romantic Werner Herzog movie.

Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:

Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Runners-Up

Allied (Robert Zemeckis)
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
The Nice Guys (Shane Black)
Sully (Clint Eastwood)
The Witch (Robert Eggers)

Rough Gems & The Underrated

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Captain America: Civil War (Anthony & Joe Russo)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Fences (Denzel Washington)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
In a Valley of Violence (Ti West)
Little Sister (Zach Clark)
The Lobster (Gyorgos Lanthimos)
Men Go To Battle (Zachary Treitz)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
Rogue One (Gareth Edwards)
Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)

Disappointing, Overrated, & Underwhelming

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
Deadpool (Tim Miller)
Free State of Jones (Gary Ross)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Loving (Jeff Nichols)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Passengers (Morten Tyldum)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)

Crap

The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson)
Ghostbusters (Paul Feig)
The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)

Not seen:

20th Century Women ∙ Captain Fantastic ∙ Christine ∙ Cosmos ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ Indignation ∙ Julieta ∙ Louder Than Bombs ∙ The Mermaid ∙ Neon Bull ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ The Treasure ∙ A War ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2016:

Bird of Paradise (King Vidor)
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento)
The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)
A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinneman)
Marooned (John Sturges)
Nazarin / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
Outrage (Ida Lupino)
Phantasm (Don Coscarelli)
Rapture (John Guillermin)
Road Games (Richard Franklin)
Rodan / Mothra (Ishiro Honda)
They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray)
Transylvania (Tony Gatlif)
The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman)
The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)

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Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak 2009

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Confessions2009-01-Milk

Milk

By Roderick Heath

Out with the old, in with the same old. Like (almost) everyone else, I pinched pennies and withheld from excessive spending on frivolities in the past 12 months as we rode out the financial crisis like the ark-dwellers of Roland Emmerich’s 2012, so my trips to the cinema in 2009 were relatively limited. Fortunately, in the past couple of months, mine and Marilyn’s entry (promotion? ascension? beatification?) into the ranks of the Online Film Critics Society saw us inundated with screener discs sent by hopeful studios and independent distributors, constituting the first actual perk I’ve experienced in film critiquing. And as happy as I have generally been to have such an opportunity, then again, much like Yossarian pointedly not helping build the officers’ club, I’ve always taken pride in ignoring a lot of movies, a pride now rather threatened by having copies of films I would be happy never to see, like The Blind Side, mailed to me. Now, as my film writing has been nudged gently out of the realm of happy amateurism and into that of desperate semi-professionalism, thus joining too many of my other pursuits, I am, therefore, in search of a new hobby. I will be accepting suggestions until the end of January. The current frontrunner is fly fishing.

Confessions2009-02-IBasterds

Inglourious Basterds

Call me a terminal grouch if you like, but at least amongst the films I saw, this was a weak and watery year of cinema-going indeed, with a few real gems shining out amidst the indifferent. As ever, it began with clearing away the dried-up carcasses of 2008’s crop of Oscar bait, wading through the (white) elephantine, instantly forgettable likes of Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Reader, the brutally disappointing Revolutionary Road, and the dispiritingly bogus “feel-good” victor, Slumdog Millionaire. Easily the best of that batch were Gus Van Sant’s slightly too pat but still dramatic Milk, and Jonathan Demme’s lively, lived-in Rachel Getting Married. I also liked the closest thing Woody Allen will ever offer to a late-period movie in the Hawks mode, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, making it the first Allen film I’ve liked in 20 years.

Confessions2009-05-Watchmen

Watchmen

The year’s roster was strongest in serving up forceful, volatile action films and thrillers. Three of my four most favoured 2009 films were, to a certain extent, shoot-’em-ups: Michael Mann’s majestic Public Enemies, Quentin Tarantino’s delirious Inglourious Basterds, and Zack Snyder’s waywardly wonderful Watchmen. A few highly entertaining worthies included Pierre Morel’s smashing Taken, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Tom Tykwer’s soulful The International, Neil Blomkamp’s raucous District 9, Kevin Macdonald’s absorbing State of Play, and J. J. Abrams’ vivid Star Trek. The International and State of Play sustained a remnant of the spirit of Fritz Lang and Alan Pakula, and District 9 energetically revived the ideals of ’80s sci-fi action. And no, I haven’t yet seen the new work by an actual icon of ’80s sci-fi action, James Cameron’s Avatar, which, so I understand, cost enough to buy Sri Lanka, and I’m hesitant to do so until it comes out on DVD, free of the need for funny glasses.

Confessions2009-03-Taken

Taken

Meanwhile I’m quite glad I resisted the temptation to go see Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Joe, and a few other oversold bang-bang flicks even when the darkest days of recessionary angst made their hermetic, juvenile pleasures appealing, retaining them instead for their proper place and hour: cable TV when nothing else is on. I went instead to see the new Harry Potter flick, and strike me dead if it wasn’t the year’s most unexpectedly likeable blockbuster. Taken was the kind of high-octane crap Hollywood’s supposed to give us regularly, but now it seems the French do with the most gusto, whilst Star Trek took this year’s inaugural Iron Man Award for “The Film that Isn’t Quite as Rocking as We Wanted It to Be, but Rocks Anyway”.

Confessions2009-06-WTWildT

Where The Wild Things Are

Certainly those smarter action films continue a trend I noted last year of intelligent filmmakers being drawn to expressing themselves through material once regarded as trashy. There’s also been the intriguing phenomenon of noted directors tackling children’s movies, which resulted in Spike Jonze’s valium-soaked edition of Maurice Sendak’s hymn to the inner beast, Where the Wild Things Are, a film which successfully defined everything witless and boring about the modern alt-culture it so desperately wanted to channel. I’m also left still pondering The Hurt Locker, whose modest generic reconfigurations have been far outstripped by the rhetorical praise it’s received. It’s certain that filmic phenomena move by at a quicker pace than ever now: I watched the Twilight phenomenon go from a tolerable and intriguing opening installment in January to an excruciating disaster called New Moon by December.

Confessions2009-04-2012

2012

At least the aforementioned 2012 , when treated rightly as comedy, was a total a blast. Meanwhile, adult drama has been pronounced to be just about dead as far as Hollywood is concerned, which may or may not be true. The continuing dominant Clooney-Coen-Soderbergh template of deadpan, ironic comedy-drama offered up two diverting films in The Informant! and The Men Who Stare at Goats, both of which took glancing, facile lunges at defining the faults of the modern American military-industrial mindset. And I’ve still got A Serious Man and Up in the Air to look forward to, if that’s the phrase I’m after. I’ll admit to mildly enjoying Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, neither more nor less incisive and relevant to the state of the contemporary psyche than The Informant!

Confessions2009-07-TwoLovers

Two Lovers

Indie cinema, it is generally believed, is in the process of imploding, and try-hard formula-squeezers like Sunshine Cleaning might indicate a certain exhaustion of ideas. But most of the truly stimulating American films still came from the outermost precincts of the mainstream: Robert Siegel’s intriguing, if finally frustrating, Big Fan, Greg Mottola’s modest, but rich and multileveled Adventureland, and James Gray’s Two Lovers, a very great film that neatly fused gritty outer-borough angst with Visconti-esque operatic flair. What I saw of British cinema this year was largely underwhelming, with the overblown, shapeless period film, The Young Victoria; the sneakily clever, if rather too silly and uncourageous Lesbian Vampire Killers; and the overrated An Education breezing in and out of my mind and leaving little to remember except for Rosamund Pike’s spiky glare. They were all a warm-up for the worst film I paid more than two dollars to see in 2009: Richard Curtis’ repulsively misogynistic and grindingly unfunny The Boat that Rocked (Pirate Radio stateside). On the other hand, there was Steve McQueen’s near-brilliant Hunger, a film that’s slowly trickled along the routes of distribution to receive the praise it deserves. I’m not sure if Jane Campion’s Bright Star counts as British or Australian filmmaking—both, I think—but either way, it was half a good film.

Confessions2009-08-SamsonDelilah

Samson & Delilah

Such was a quality Campion’s movie shared with an entirely Aussie film, Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, the oodles of official praise which it received made it feel like an act of treason and racism to critique it honestly. It was indeed a poetic and affecting, if uncomfortably sentimental and suspiciously lightweight work of social realism. On the other hand, David Field’s The Combination was temporarily removed from cinemas over worries that the ethnic quarrels it sought to define would spill over into the audience. Field’s film was actually a solid potboiler disguised as a social-message picture, but there’s nothing new about that. I’ll admit also to having had a lousy year of keeping up with recent foreign-language releases, though I’ll blame the fact many works I wanted to see never seemed to come near a theatre near me. I did admire Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, and Paolo Sorrentino’s tremendous Il Divo provided my year’s viewing with a stirring coda—on cable, undoubtedly where I’ll have to watch for many more of this year’s most well-regarded, but badly distributed works.

So, lists, and we can leave this whole sorry year behind us:

The Best Films I Saw in 2009 (Produced in and/or released in Australia in 2009)

Tie: Public Enemies (Michael Mann) and Two Lovers (James Gray)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Adventureland (Greg Mottola)
Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Milk (Gus Van Sant)
District 9 (Neil Blomkamp)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)

20 Most Awesome Films I Saw for the First Time in 2009 (Not Made or Released in 2009)

Chimes at Midnight and Confidential Report/Mr Arkadin (Orson Welles)
Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard)
Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki)
Broken Blossoms; or, the Yellow Man and the Girl (D.W. Griffith)
Deep Red (Dario Argento)
M. Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog)
The Big Parade (King Vidor)
Martin (George Romero)
Venus In Furs (Jesus Franco)
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy)
CQ (Roman Coppola)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Letter (William Wyler)
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark)
Fascination (Jean Rollin)
Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger)
The Reptile (John Gilling)
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Kevin Billington)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)

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Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak 2008

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Confessions2008-01-IronMan

Iron Man

By Roderick Heath

Considering that I’ve always taken more pleasure in digging through the ephemera of the past and the detritus of pop culture more than pretending that right now is so bloody important, I don’t think I should feel as phony as I do writing this. For starters, there’s the absurdity of the notion that we all have the same “year”. This year saw my enrollment in a Film Studies class that played like a Gary Trudeau satire (now kids, you are to analyse the awesome artistry of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). It also saw the release of a stupefying number of films, few of which I’ll ever see. And I inevitably wonder what’s being made today that will provoke interest, excitement, the thrill of the unexpected, the signs of the artful, in 40 years? Where amongst the avalanche of films released this year are the little gems, the future cult films? Are there any? What, in short, will last? Wasn’t it only a few years ago when people thought films like A Beautiful Mind or Crash were important in some fashion?

Confessions2008-06-Maitresse

An Old Mistress

Many of the best movies I’ve seen in the past 18 months are strange mutts produced by similar lines of thought. Films like An Old Mistress, Boarding Gate, Doomsday, and The Strangers are works made by intelligent filmmakers hunting for the scent of real blood and bone in the suspect qualities of old-school trash, florid melodrama, film noir, and no-budget horror. The year that saw the death of “termite art” theorist Manny Farber could be called a vast aesthetic tribute to his ideas. Or is the increasing tendency to nail films as “Oscar bait” the final process in the dumbing down of pop culture, a great excuse to ignore everything except the new comic book movie, which, by the by, has to provide the requisite amount of “darkness” and “relevance” in “parable” in compensation for the dearth of serious cinema? Sometimes our contemporary culture feels like the victim of a car crash learning to walk again. Either way, I suppose in the next couple of months I may work up the enthusiasm to pretend that David Fincher is some kind of artist and that I care anymore about Clint Eastwood.

Confessions2008-03-Angel

Angel

There’s a host of said Oscar bait that’s been jammed into the last weeks of this year like a wholesale clearance at a high class but unprofitable carpet warehouse, and many other films anticipated still nowhere in sight (Hurry up, Let the Right One In. Avanti, Gomorrah. Please move your arse, Rachel Getting Married). More than ever, ambition in Hollywood has become a wage-slave in an Oscar-hungry boutique, trading desperately in the Christmas build-up and abandoning the rest of the year, like the Romans did their empire, to hordes of ravening cinematic barbarians. I saw some of the best films I’ve ever seen in the past twelve months, all rather slow in coming down the pipeline of distribution. My world was appropriately rocked by the glory of There Will Be Blood, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Death Proof, Paul Verhoeven’s gutsy Black Book, and Francois Ozon’s delightfully weird Angel, and I did not demand my money back for the likes of Atonement, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Eastern Promises; Romance & Cigarettes; Lust, Caution; No Country for Old Men; and Sweeney Todd either.

Confessions2008-04-EdgeOfLove

The Edge of Love

Good, bad, and ugly, these were all works of real cinema that demanded at some point during their running time for us to ask just what our definitions of quality, invention, art, and entertainment are. But what can one say about 10,000 BC, the most boring caveman flick ever made (and that’s saying something—seen Clan of the Cave Bear lately?) or the utter catastrophe of Australia? The limp Get Smart? The pointless The Edge of Love? The instantly forgettable The Other Boleyn Girl? The last two especially would have been prime Oscar nets if they’d had the slightest idea of what they wanted to achieve.

Confessions2008-05-HappyGL

Happy-Go-Lucky

If 2007 was the year for works of grandly calamitous art, reflecting the fullest measure of an anxiety-wearied age by mixing fury and fear in many measures, 2008 reflected a year of transition—it didn’t know what it was about, but knew it wanted things to improve. The strongest fare came from some tried and tested sources. My favourite for the year was Catherine Breillat’s Une Vieille Maîtresse, which forcefully interrogated assumptions about the past, about gender and love, and certain genres of film-making. Mike Leigh’s deft Happy-Go-Lucky, which was badly marketed and even more badly described by most critics, was his most entertaining film since Topsy-Turvy and his most sleekly assembled since Career Girls. More importantly, it extended artfully on themes long crucial to Leigh—the necessity of communal existence and the unnoticed but vital presence of the people who make that existence possible.

Confessions2008-02-BoardingGate

Boarding Gate

It was impossible, after watching Asia Argento lick the blood off Fu’ad Ait Aattou’s bullet wound, to take the likes of The Duchess seriously. It was Asia’s year: as well as Maîtresse and her dad’s The Mother of Tears, she possessed the screen in Olivier Assayas’ gorgeously cryptic Boarding Gate. Assayas’ overcooked dialogue hardly obscures that he’s one of the few directors trying to stare modern dislocation dead in the eye; whereas Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor represents, to my mind, where indie cinema is, for better and for worse. Intense, well-acted, real-feeling, and a movie with something to say, it still leaned heavily on familiar props of the cute little film where people of different backgrounds come together, someone learns a life lesson, and our worthy multicultural fantasies come (temporarily) true—a kind of mix-tape for middle-age wannabe radicals. Still, it sported probably the year’s finest romantic coupling, and could be remembered as the signal Obama Year film. At least it wasn’t Juno. As far as blockbusters went, I found it a year of mixed blessings.

Confessions2008-IJonesCrystalSkull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Steven Spielberg didn’t quite nail his return to his finest franchise, with the awkwardly structured, anti-climactic Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But it delivered a master class in how to shoot comedic action scenes, and had a kind of breezy, throwaway sense of humour (particularly in the delightful support turns of Karen Allen and Cate Blanchett) that stood in high contrast to the dour, lacklustre pretension and sloppy edits of the year’s most astoundingly overrated blockbuster, The Dark Knight. The latter film operated like a straitjacket on one of the age’s finest actors (Christian Bale) whilst liberating another (Heath Ledger, in a good year for Aussies playing villains) all too briefly. More entertaining than Knight and more solid than Indiana Jones was Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, a neatly done, disposable superhero flick that ended up looking like a masterpiece by default, and sporting some of the year’s best acting, even though it wasn’t really as good as we said. Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted had the potential to be the year’s greatest thrill ride, with its Fight Club-rapes-The Matrix set-up, but something went wrong thanks to garish cinematography and plotting so dumb (did the hero really bring down his enemies with a horde of explosive rats?) a five year old would have been offended. As far as genre bollocks went, Neil Marshall’s giddy, unconscionable Doomsday kicked all their arses: it dove head first into revved-up car chases, gross-out effects, and ’80s references so obvious that the film finally became something of a mix-tape of the films I grew up with—indeed, it’s a film that’s testimony of the unshakable effect of disreputable but fascinating movie-making of the past. I wouldn’t exactly call it good, but it wasn’t dead either.

Confessions2008-07-TheStrangers

The Strangers

Aussie cinema’s desperate straits yielded, under the great cloud of Luhrmann’s Australia, Elissa Down’s The Black Balloon, a meat-and-veg little-people film that won a bunch of Australian Film Institute awards chiefly because it made money. It told us that retarded people are occasionally irritating to be around, and that Gemma Ward is awfully cute. Yes, we knew that. Ward was better used—even though she had about three lines of dialogue and spent the whole film wearing a mask—in the best horror film of the year, Brian Bertino’s The Strangers. A thin but beautifully handled exercise in pure dread that proved that someone, at least, remembers what the cinematic frame is about, The Strangers offers the possibility that the horror genre may escape its dreadful rut. Of any of the films I saw with a chance of being remembered as the cinemaniac’s dirty little secret, it’s the type that could fare very well. What else? The greatest film I saw this year—possibly ever—was Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, a titanic work of eccentric artistry that managed to be both austere and implacable, and yet immersive and accessible. Films like that only come along once in a generation. What else? Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Kagemusha and The Bad Sleep Well; Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us; Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman; Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels; Reed’s The Key; Godard’s The Little Soldier; Carne’s Hotel du Nord; Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express; DeMille’s The Plainsman; Jack Hill’s Spider-Baby; Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos; Anthony Mann’s Bend in the River; Franju’s Eyes without a Face; Grèmillon’s Stormy Waters; and Fleischer’s See No Evil. These films all remind me that, in the end, cinematic culture is far from being only the mediocrities and minor triumphs of the moment—it’s an evolving thing, depending not just upon what comes out at the moment, but also on the perspective we gain from discovering its history.

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My Year at the Movies – 2007

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MyYearMovies2007-01-300

300

By Roderick Heath

Filmgoing ’round my way can be a frustrating experience. Blockbusters will arrive instantaneously, sometimes before they hit the U.S., like Transformers, and the films you actually want to see don’t turn up for six months, if ever. I also confess to being a bit of a cinema blockbuster whore: why should I pay AU$14.50 to see Paul Giamatti’s nostril hair, when I can do that in the comfort of my own home and Megan Fox’s navel awaits on an IMAX screen?

MyYearMovies2007-02 - FantasticFour2

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I was drawn out like the good little drone I am to see Transformers, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Live Free or Die Hard (witlessly retitled outside the States as Die Hard 4.0. I, personally, am waiting for “Die Hard 7⅜.”) This was, of course, the year of the threequel. And the fourquel. And the fivequel. Most of these flicks demanded—and rewarded—low expectations. The tongue-in-cheek qualities of Rise of the Silver Surfer and Spider-Man 3 became particularly pleasing in such a mood. Raimi’s odd beast of a conclusion to the Spidey Trilogy pleased me for the same reason it dismayed hordes of fanboys for being as much romantic comedy and musical as a tale of an heroic flying whatsit battling gooey black whojars and big sandy thingimys that oddly resemble the mechanic dude from Wings.

MyYearMovies2007-03 - PiratesOTC3

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Of course you can go too far in applying comedy to action, as At World’s End did in its first two-thirds, before settling down for an unexpectedly impressive finale. This left only one mystery for me and my female friends: how could Keira could pass up Johnny Depp in eyeliner for that other skinny knob, even if he has managed to grow a bad teenage beard? Thank god for Bruce Willis. Until Harrison Ford gets back into the swing of things in “Indiana Jones and the Cure for Arthritis” next year, he’s the only guy around to show us what a proper ass-kicking looks like. Ford will be joined by Shia LeBeouf, who starred this year in a fair approximation of a John Cusack comedy from the ’80s somehow slipped in between a bunch of giant robots brawling in Transformers. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, in its odd way, seemed to make comment on audience tastes these days by alternating a child’s escape into mythic quest and fantasy whilst, around her, war and torture mangle the landscape. Nonetheless, when I haven’t blown my extra cash on some magic beans, and with a decent night’s sleep behind me, a serious movie will tempt me into a theatre. Much of last year’s Oscar bait fell seriously flat with me. Volver had me wondering if my beloved Pedro Almodovar had gone senile; Notes on a Scandal drove me from the theatre with its cruel and clumsy satire; Stephen Frears’ The Queen provided the most wimpy tabloid expose of repressed Royals ever; Deepa Mehta’s Water promised a deep immersion in the sexual discrimination in Gandhi-era India, and delivered instead a wading pond inhabited by fat ladyboy villains, lustrous-haired oppressed maidens, and hunky radical doctors. Borat established that Sacha Baron Cohen is a great comic writer and actor, and that comedy written is 10 million times funnier than comedy blundered upon whilst insulting everyday people not in on the joke.

MyYearMovies2007-04 - AmazingGrace

Amazing Grace

I was briefly bewildered when Mr. Fantastic suddenly lost his super stretching powers, went back in time, and started trying to abolish slavery in Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace. Apted’s film recreated, remarkably intact, the virtues of a ’30s biopic, injecting sober, intelligent, dramatically solid history with a bit of sex—no matter that William Wilberforce was two feet shorter than strapping Welsh hunk Ioan Gruffud, and his wife probably did not have so copious a bosom as Romola Garai. That’s showbiz, folks. Another Regency biopic—it was a happening time—Becoming Jane, promised a bucolic afternoon in Austenland, and presented a similar quandary: if Jane Austen looked like Anne Hathaway, why did she have so much trouble getting a guy? Despite the filmmakers’ strained efforts to make the scribe’s young womanhood resemble her own fiction, they ultimately had the honesty to show that her life lived more like how Thomas Hardy would have written it—a sad, greying tale of a woman who finds greatness by losing happiness. Hathaway gave it her best, but, finally, the film was worth watching for a pitch-perfect performance by the great Helen McCrory, whose short appearance as Mrs. Radcliffe told a dire truth. At least Marion Cotillard got down and dirty in playing Edith Piaf, burying her smoky-eyed beauty under enough latex to make a dozen outfits for Rihanna, in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose, which, as a film, was akin to listening to that kid in the schoolyard who just couldn’t tell a story for anything: “Yeah and then she and the American guy got in a car crash, but did I remember to tell you she like had a baby like way earlier, and gave it up? But what’s really important is the interview she gave on the beach to this chick who had really cute knees!”

MyYearMovies2007-06 - JesseJames

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

History was further ransacked for heroes in 300, Zack Snyder’s gloriously brainless homoerotic hootenanny. No other film of the year so sharply showed the division of old Hollywood from new for we fans of Rudolph Mate’s The 300 Spartans (1962), which, cheesy, stodgy, and badly acted, nonetheless had naturalistic intensity and a sense of historical accuracy. 300 was, instead, cheesy, stodgy, badly acted, and filled with digital spears rather than cardboard ones. Steve Reeves lives on in spirit. Leave accuracy and naturalism these days for art films with really long titles, like Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which kept the guy-lust to a suggestive bathtub scene. Featuring the best male performances I’ve seen this year and uncommon rigour of style and intelligence, Assassination was shot down at the B.O. Corral, and too many darned fer’ners liked it for the Foreign Press Association to nominate it for a Golden Globe. The only film produced by and starring one of Ocean’s 13 they had time for was Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, a sombre and stately thriller whose artistry and pinko cred helped disguise that it was a paint-by-numbers thriller. Star George Clooney was at his best in it, whilst he was at his most listless and disinterested in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, a stilted pastiche also featuring Cate Blanchett.

MyYearMovies2007-08 - Zodiac

Zodiac

David Fincher came close to making a real movie with the often compelling, often ferocious Zodiac, which, like Michael Clayton, did its best to live up to the cool, methodical class of ’70s thrillers like All The President’s Men, but couldn’t replicate the airy, faintly desperate urban nihilism of those works. Whilst justifiably disparaging Dirty Harry, Fincher could not, for instance, come close to the sonorous noir poetry of the scene in which Harry watches a girl’s body disinterred from Golden Gate Park in the grey light of dawn. Many praised the film for refusing a pat ending with the mystery solved, but Fincher’s style was too slick, as he dispersed his own cred by suggesting a definite suspect, and by giving us a cheap, discursive horror movie scene where paranoid hero Jake Gyllenhaal freaks out in a basement only footsteps from upstairs.

MyYearMovies2007-07 - SimpsonsMovie

The Simpsons Movie

The Greatest TV Show Ever became a good, if not mighty, cinema experience with The Simpsons Movie, which tipped a hat to most of the show’s pleasures and clichés but, ironically, failed to live up to the best episodes, which always made a virtue of compression. Still, in a year of action blockbusters, it proved the most intelligent, emotional, and believable of the lot. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant’s slow career transformation into Troy McClure continued with his leathery charm displayed to full effect in Music & Lyrics, a harmlessly entertaining rom-com that provided some snappy pop pastiche.

MyYearMovies2007-09 - Atonement

Atonement

And there’s so many more of this year’s statue chasers to come. I hear There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as another hirsute villain, was originally titled Gangs of New York 2: The Moustache Strikes Back. Will Atonement prove Joe Wright an heir to the mantle of David Lean or earn him a place in the Merchant/Ivory Museum of Offensively Dull Objects d’Art? Will No Country for Old Men finally make William Butler Yeats box office gold? Will Sweeney Todd prove to be that rarest of entities, a musical straight guys can watch?

I can’t wait to find out.

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