Saturday 31 December 2016

My Top 20 Films of 2016

20. 24 
"What's quasi-miraculous is that Kumar never runs out of good ideas: he always leaves us with something to be amused or gripped by."

19. Pink
"Trigger warnings may be obligatory, but that’s testimony to how close the film gets to some uncomfortable truths – and how well those have been shaped into this progressive, provocative, legitimately powerful statement."

18. Weiner
"You’ll likely ask for your ticket for Weiner with a broad smirk on your face; you may well emerge from it with a tear or two rolling down your cheeks."

17. Midnight Special
"Might be pitched as E.T. with station wagons replacing BMXs, but its achievement lies in the way Nichols steers his own course... a resonant yarn is unravelled before us by a storyteller approaching greatness."

16. Cafe Society
"Allen has pulled too many misanthropic, throwaway scribbles from his bottom drawers in recent years, but here he takes a lightweight (and actually very Thirties) plot... and fleshes it out into something greatly more affecting: a very human comedy, which is to say one that acknowledges the tragedy of how our lives so rarely turn out the way we might like."

15. Things to Come
"If, after the globetrotting, era-spanning Eden, the new film has the look of a manageable miniature, Hansen-Løve has reached the point where even her miniatures pulse with wisdom and warmth: beyond showcasing a role any actress would kill for, Things to Come proposes its own philosophical position in regard to life, and specifically how the generations interrelate."

14. Under the Shadow
"Anvari’s biggest achievement here is how well he invokes the background horror of life during wartime – a moment where, even if you’re fortunate enough to avoid seeing your loved ones wiped out before your eyes, your ears are still vulnerable to sirens, screaming, and endless speculation about the terrors headed your way."

13. Hell or High Water
"In its big picture – the wide-open skies and endless Main Streets – Hell or High Water might be taken as a throwback to the Americana of Malick or Eastwood, depending on how you cast your vote; yet Mackenzie’s biggest achievement here lies in filling each frame with living, breathing, gabbing people, folk acting not out of greed, rather real, recognisable and – it turns out – basic human need."

12. Joy
"The most profoundly feminist self-actualisation tale the studios have let slip for some while. That Joy should also prove such a leftfield good time, whatever your gender, is all bonus."

11. Bone Tomahawk
"One of the more unusual and striking genre deformations the American cinema has recently sprung upon audiences... the violence – when it arrives – is untelegraphed and genuinely horrifying, elevated by brutally effective Foley work."

10. Knight of Cups
"You’ll emerge admiring Malick’s continued commitment to moods and emotions, or convinced you’ve undergone the prettiest midlife crisis in Christendom. Either way, while you’re in the moment with it, Knight of Cups is a mesmerising thing to behold."

9. Little Men
"Again, the balance, wisdom and generosity displayed hereabouts is enough to propose Sachs as a modern master; given the bland, banal, thoroughly packaged nature of some of the indie movies that have fallen under awards consideration these past few years, it remains astonishing that this observant, thoughtful, compassionate filmmaker hasn’t received greater attention and acclaim."

8. Zootropolis
"Proceeds with wit and invention, subtexts up the wazoo, and the kind of message you instinctively feel the movies should be exposing our children to: though you may be small in form, don't let that stop your dreams from being as big as your heart, or a city entire." 

7. Train to Busan
"Yeon stages thumping close-quarters action, but also manages numerous deft, affecting manoeuvres with characters drawn from a cross-section of Korean society. We’re bound for an extraordinary railyard finale that involves seemingly half the country’s population and a living-versus-undead dust-up atop a runaway loco, yet Yeon keeps us guessing until the nervy closing seconds. It’s a delayed arrival, but here, finally, is the summer blockbuster for which we’ve all been waiting."


6. Julieta
"Anybody lamenting the deterioration of craft in recent American studio pictures should find great solace here: every location and design choice – from the older Julieta’s blank apartment to the cassettes in the teenage Antia’s bedroom – is a clue, and has clearly been dwelled over as such. Yet there’s something else here that’s been lacking from the majority of this year’s releases: credible human beings, displaying recognisable human feelings even as they trail unshakeable, still-vivid history behind them." 

5. Embrace of the Serpent
"Floats the thesis that if we go out into the world with the right inquiring yet respectful spirit, we might just return with an expanded consciousness, refined perceptions of ourselves, others and nature... That Guerra's film, an essential part of that process, somehow registered with the Academy's palefaces is its own testament to the film's achievements, but then again this isn't a radical break from storytelling tradition so much as an informed continuation of what's gone before: an adventure movie - never more than a league or so away from the next pocket of peril, danger or wonder - albeit one working off an altogether sharper drawn and more richly detailed map."

4. Room
"The remarkably moving results suggest many things, not least Abrahamson’s ability to winkle out the powerful emotions and images of real worth lying in wait between the lines of any given text. To most audiences, however, I’d hope Room might stand as the anti-Gone Girl: a high-profile adaptation from which all traces of cynicism have been banished, replaced by feeling. From the first line of Donoghue’s novel to the closing frames of Abrahamson’s film, this was an exceptional story to tell."

3. The Pearl Button
"This director has an unfailing knack of showing you an interesting object, person or place, then reframing each of these in a way that’s several degrees more fascinating yet... This really is a model of big-picture cinema: a film that sees the joys and sufferings of the world entire in a single teardrop of water – and then gives you the fathomless mysteries of the ocean to ponder anyway."

2. Our Little Sister
"Feels less like a film than an open house we’re passing through... What transfixes us are the actresses, who keep doing things that make us smile, laugh and weep with joy, just as real people do, just as – if you’re lucky enough – real women do. Kore-eda observes his characters and performers alike with such enormous affection you suspect he didn’t shout “cut” as often as he initiated a group hug: every frame radiates kindness and compassion."

1. Son of Saul
"In years to come, thousand-word essays will be written on the film’s technique, and its implications: in particular, how the reduced focal length somehow equates to the short-sightedness – the need to block out everything considered extraneous to one’s survival – which might have been necessary to make it through the camps... The film is the masterpiece it’s been announced as, but it also possesses the urgency of a thriller, or one man’s last, desperate breath. Death lurks off-camera in Son of Saul, but it’s the clinging to life – that of Nemes’s camera, and of Röhrig’s grimly determined protagonist – which truly stays with you."

Friday 30 December 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of December 16-18, 2016:
1 (new) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A) **
2 (2) Moana (PG) ****
3 (1) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A) ***
4 (3) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12A)
5 (4) Office Christmas Party (15)
6 (7) Trolls (U)
7 (new) Bolshoi Ballet: The Nutcracker (U)
8 (6) Arrival (12A) ***
9 (5) Allied (15)
10 (re) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****


My top five:   
1. The Nightmare Before Christmas
2. Blue Velvet
3. The Young Offenders [Northern Ireland only]
4. Moana

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Finding Dory (PG) ***
2 (re) Money Monster (15)
3 (2) The BFG (PG)
4 (new) Bad Moms (15) ** 
5 (3) David Brent: Life on the Road (15)
6 (5) Ghostbusters (12)
7 (new) Mechanic: Resurrection (15) ** 
8 (7) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (12) **
9 (10) Me Before You (12) ** 
10 (9) The Legend of Tarzan (12)   


My top five:  
1. Ethel & Ernest
2. Dog Eat Dog
3. Cafe Society
4. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
5. Sausage Party

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Shawshank Redemption [above] (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
2. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (New Year's Day, ITV1, 4.30pm)
3. Reservoir Dogs (New Year's Eve, five, 1.20am)
4. Pulp Fiction (New Year's Eve, five, 10.30pm)
5. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Thursday, BBC1, 10.45pm)   

Thursday 29 December 2016

Unrooted: "A Monster Calls"

A Monster Calls is abandonment trauma rendered as effects-heavy fantasy: the sense of loss we feel is not quite the one we're supposed to feel. The Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) has enlisted author Patrick Ness to adapt his own book about one Callum O'Malley (played here by newcomer Lewis MacDougall), a bullied schoolboy living with a terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones) in the furthest reaches of the English countryside. One night at 12.06am, when the sleepless Callum is doodling, the giant yewtree in the cemetery beyond his bedroom window suddenly uproots itself and marches towards the house, threatening - in the gruff tones of Liam Neeson - to tell our boy three stories on three successive nights, eliciting a fourth in turn from the listener. Given that these tales arrive in the form of Useful Moral Lessons - "there is not always a good guy, nor is there always a bad guy; most people are somewhere in between" - the tree emerges as somewhere between a tutor and a therapist, without the sense of humour. 

He (it?) is quite the sight, however. Bayona's first movies have established him as something like a supply-teacher Guillermo del Toro, a not ungifted fabulist with a particular facility for integrating substantial handfuls of pixels into the design of his dark bedtime stories. This Monster looks like a gnarly offshoot of del Toro's Faun from Pan's Labyrinth, and he forms a workable little-and-large pairing with the kid: instead of climbing up into the tree's branches to hear his tales, Cal finds himself plucked out of his bedroom window and cradled in a woody fist. With The Impossible, Bayona bequeathed the world its latest Spider-Man (in Tom Holland), and it's clear he has an eye for durable young performers. MacDougall has a fierce, heavy-lidded look that suggests a boy finding out about life the hard way - overhearing snippets of fraught adult conversation, watching mum waste away before his eyes. The young lead deserves extra brownie points for maintaining his expression of cowed awe whenever the tree shows up - because the monster calls to bore us to sleep with these fairytales, all of which seem to revolve around how amazing the tree is. 

Having a catalyst who's a big barky bore is one problem with Bayona's film; another is that the reality from which Callum longs to escape never really convinces. Mother and son occupy a small corner of England that looks for all the world like a set - or massive green screen - and which doesn't ever connect with the terraced streets on which the boy's grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, with slightly off Limey accent) is shown to live. Weaver is typically imposing, and she has one great scene in which she acknowledges the rage coursing down this bloodline by helping the kid trash her own front parlour, but still: were there really no comparably bankable British actresses available to play this part? At every turn, A Monster Calls betrays signs that it had too much damn money at its disposal, that it felt compelled to blow up Callum's humdrum normality, his everyday tragedy, into the business of blockbusting Marvel-era multiplex product. A damp seaside day out with dad (Toby Kebbell) thus finds itself lavished with a full orchestral score; it climaxes with a meal in a Chinese restaurant that could conceivably house five-sevenths of the Chinese population.

You can goggle or be knocked out by the spectacle, sure - the early reviews suggest many trusted friends and colleagues have - but to these eyes, Bayona never gets close to achieving the intimacy he was surely aiming for, or which Ness surely achieved the minute his book started to be imparted as bedtime fare: the film's just too big for anything like that, and even when the camera does deign to get up close, in those scenes between Jones and MacDougall, the space around the players looks perilously plasticky, virtual, hollow even. (Bayona's next gig will be directing the Jurassic World sequel; this feels like a rehearsal.) Grief is such that I couldn't honestly predict the effect A Monster Calls might have on anybody going through a similar predicament: the film might be a source of consolation, but then again, it could just as easily be a chore, not least as it resembles so many of the overprogrammed smash-'em-ups currently bouncing around the multiplex. "I want it to be over!", Callum hollers at the point of acceptance Ness's five-stage narrative is building towards; grown-ups may express something similar in the face of Bayona's bludgeoning methodology.  

A Monster Calls opens in cinemas nationwide from New Year's Day.

Monday 26 December 2016

"Monster Trucks" (Guardian 26/12/16)

Monster Trucks **
Dir: Chris Wedge. With: Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Rob Lowe, Amy Ryan. 104 mins. Cert: PG

Here’s one of those barely-there studio timewasters that exists chiefly as a pun and a pitch – Fast & Furious for preteens, Transformers without the leering – bulked out with a thick carapace of pixels. Somewhere within that, there’s a workably goofy comic-strip premise: high-school loser Trip (Lucas Till, buffed to the point of blandness) gets to leave his rivals and troubles for dust after a gas-guzzling extra-terrestrial squid assumes residence beneath the bonnet of his battered pick-up.

Switching to live action fifteen years after directing the first Ice Age, Chris Wedge hits upon pockets of mild throwback charm. The alien lifeforms bash out Close Encounters notes on one of those old Simon memory games; inevitably, there’s an E.T.-like scene in which Trip and pals have to race away from the armed minions of Rob Lowe’s evil oil-drilling empire. (Green viewers might applaud were it not for the attempt, via the squid, to make fuel consumption appear cute and cuddly.)

It is very mild, however – its stunt driving forever more functional than exciting – and the emphasis on petrolheaded boys and their big, big toys leaves the women in the over-qualified cast with precious little to do: Jane Levy has to dial down her usual intelligence and wit to fit the role of adoring love interest, while erstwhile Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan has but half a scene in the retro-regressive role of “Mom”. It has tentacles and hot wheels, yes, but not the legs or bright ideas to sustain itself.

Monster Trucks opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Friday 23 December 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of December 16-18, 2016:
1 (new) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A)
2 (2) Moana (PG) ****
3 (1) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A) ***
4 (3) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12A)
5 (4) Office Christmas Party (15)
6 (7) Trolls (U)
7 (new) Bolshoi Ballet: The Nutcracker (U)
8 (6) Arrival (12A) ***
9 (5) Allied (15)
10 (re) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****


My top five:   
1. The Nightmare Before Christmas
2. Blue Velvet
3. The Young Offenders [Northern Ireland only]
4. Moana

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Finding Dory (PG) ***
2 (2) The BFG (PG)
3 (3) David Brent: Life on the Road (15)
4 (4) The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (12) ***
5 (5) Ghostbusters (12)
6 (6) Swallows and Amazons (PG)
7 (7) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (12) **
8 (re) Pete's Dragon (PG)
9 (10) The Legend of Tarzan (12)
10 (9) Me Before You (12) **  


My top five:  
1. Cafe Society
2. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
3. Sausage Party
4. Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Wizard of Oz [above] (Christmas Day, five, 2.10pm)
2. Dances with Wolves (Boxing Day, BBC2, 12.40pm)
3. King Kong (Christmas Day, ITV1, 1.30am)
4. Singin' in the Rain (Christmas Day, five, 4.10pm)
5. It's a Wonderful Life (Christmas Day, C4, 2.20pm)  

"Dangal" (Guardian 23/12/16)

Dangal ***
Dir: Nitesh Tiwari. With: Aamir Khan, Sakshi Tanwar, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra. 161 mins. Cert: PG

Bollywood’s three King Khans have adapted to changing times and mores by recasting themselves as protectors to the nation’s daughters. Action man Salman Khan played chaperone in 2015 blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan; namesake Shah Rukh provided therapeutic guidance to a mixed-up Alia Bhatt in last month’s Dear Zindagi. Aamir Khan’s latest offers a study in flexibility through the real-life figure of Mahavir Singh, a champion wrestler turned potbellied clerk who secured his sporting legacy with a rethink upon realising his girls Geeta and Babita had more fight within them than any male heir might have.
As with most of this Khan’s crowdpleasers, it’s acutely attuned to wider realities: beyond the mat, the Singhs encounter superstition, child brides and institutional slackness, each sidebar reflecting an ongoing social struggle. If elsewhere the sports-movie framework ensures Dangal takes fewer risks than P.K., Khan’s religion-razzing megahit of Christmas 2014, it provides a foursquare showcase for both the star, radiating paternal devotion beneath a stern exterior, and the fiercely supple actresses: the match-ups grapple appreciably with wrestling tactics, aware their outcomes have long been on the record. Very solid, very sound entertainment, with thumpingly good Pritam songs that make “Eye of the Tiger” seem like pipsqueakery. 

Dangal opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

For your consideration: my Critics' Circle votes 2016

Best Actor
1. Vincent Lindon, The Measure of a Man
2. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
3. Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann
4. Tim Roth, Chronic
5. Ethan Hawke, Born to be Blue

(Honourable mentions: Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash; Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys and La La Land; Alfredo Castro, From Afar)

 Best Actress
1. Isabelle Huppert, Things to Come
2. Narges Rashidi, Under the Shadow
3. Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann
4. Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship
5. Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake

(Honourable mentions: Berenice Bejo, After Love; Kristen Stewart, Cafe Society; Adriana Ugarte, Julieta)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Tracy Letts, Indignation
2. Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
3. Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk
4. Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
5. David Oyelowo, Queen of Katwe

(Honourable mentions: Amitabh Bachchan, Pink; George Mackay, Captain Fantastic; Ralph Fiennes, Hail, Caesar!; Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!, Steve Carell, Cafe Society)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
2. Dana Ivgy, Next to Her
3. Lupita Nyong'o, Queen of Katwe
4. Riley Keough, American Honey
5. Avin Manshadi, Under the Shadow

(Honourable mentions: Paulina Garcia, Little Men; Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys; Carmen Ejogo, Born to be Blue; Lou de Laâge, The Wait)

Best British/Irish Actor
1. Tim Roth, Chronic
2. Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
3. David Oyelowo, A United Kingdom
4. Dan Renton Skinner, Notes on Blindness and High-Rise
5. Scott Chambers, Chicken

(Honourable mentions: Dave Johns, I, Daniel Blake; Paddy Considine, The Girl with All the Gifts; David Morrissey, The Ones Below; Martin McCann, The Survivalist)

Best British/Irish Actress
1. Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship
2. Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake
3. Sennia Nanua, The Girl with All the Gifts
4. Letitia Wright, Urban Hymn
5. Yasmin Paige, Chicken

(Honourable mentions: Kate Dickie, Couple in a Hole; Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash, Hail, Caesar! and Doctor Strange; Alice Lowe, Black Mountain Poets)

Young British/Irish Performer
1. Chris Walley, The Young Offenders
2. Alex Murphy, The Young Offenders
3. Sennia Nanua, The Girl with All the Gifts
4. Avin Manshadi, Under the Shadow

(Honourable mention: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Sing Street)

Director of the Year
1. László Nemes, Son of Saul
2. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Our Little Sister
3. Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann
4. Pedro Almodovar, Julieta
5. Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent

(Honourable mentions: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea; Sang-ho Yeon, Train to Busan; Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake; Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow)

Best Screenplay
1. Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, Little Men
2. Pedro Almodovar, Julieta
3. Mia Hansen-Love, Things to Come
4. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
5. Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann

(Honourable mentions: Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, Zootropolis; James Schamus, Indignation; Shane Black, The Nice Guys; Pablo Larrain, The Club)

British/Irish Breakthrough
1. Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow
2. Peter Foott, The Young Offenders
3. Peter Middleton and James Spinney, Notes on Blindness
4. George Amponsah, The Hard Stop
5. Daisy May Hudson, Half Way

(Honourable mentions: Sean Spencer, Panic; Joe Stephenson, Chicken; Stephen Fingleton, The Survivalist; Daniel Barber, The Keeping Room; David Farr, The Ones Below)

My annual lists of the year's twenty best and ten worst films will appear here next week.