Film essays, Film reviews, LFF 2016

Best Films of 2016.

Here it is: my provisional list of 2016’s best films.

“But we’re already a couple of months into 2017” – a fact of which I am aware, but I don’t feel it entirely necessary to stick to end-of-year timelines for something like this. As you’ll see, I have my reasons for not rushing it. While we’re on the subject of what may appear a little different about my list, I’ll lay out a few rules I’ve applied before we get started.

There will be no 2015 releases on this list. Basically that means any film from last year’s awards season – like Room, for example – won’t be included just because they were released in UK cinemas in 2016. Room clearly isn’t a 2016 film if it was rewarded for being one of the best films of 2015, after all. This also extends to world cinema; films that were released previously in their native country before arriving on our shores later. Last year’s examples of foreign films that may otherwise have been included if I didn’t apply this rule include Son of Saul, Embrace of the Serpent and Victoria, all of which were first released in their respective countries in 2015.

I’ve also decided not to include films that were screened at film festivals in 2015 before being widely distributed in 2016, such as The Witch, simply because within this list I’ve already included at least one film that I saw at festival premieres last year, and I therefore count them as one of my favourites of the year, rather than waiting to declare it one of my favourite films of 2017 instead. If I saw it in 2016 and it wasn’t first screened officially in 2015, basically, it qualifies – even if it wasn’t scheduled for release in the UK until 2017.

Perhaps you can see now, with this criteria, why I typically like to delay my lists. Now, bearing these rules in mind, obviously this list is hindered by my doing it almost two months into 2017. Many of the best films of 2016 I still haven’t seen yet – such as the five nominees for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, including acclaimed German comedy Toni Erdmann.

With this in mind, I’ve adapted my own rules a little this time round, to stick exclusively to 2016 films I watched in 2016. This is partly just to make it easier for myself, as with the recent flurry of Oscar contenders released in UK cinemas, my list would be changing daily if I didn’t apply some sort of restriction. So, for example, films like La La Land, Silence, Hacksaw Ridge and some others, while being 2016 films, will not be included on this occasion. This serves to limit the list somewhat, but I’ve still ended up with 20 films on it (or technically 21, as I’ve decided on a joint placing for two films in one case).

Many critics like to include ‘honourable mentions’ when they compose arbitrary end-of-year top ten lists, which for me is like saying “these would’ve been included if I was allowed more than ten” or “if I thought your attention span would last that long”. I realise I may have a longer than average attention span, but I’d rather know why something qualified for an ‘honourable mention’ over a place on the actual list. If it’s not one of your favourite films of the year, why just throw its name out there? And if it is, why not explain why you’d like to include it? I understand many of us are busy people with other stuff we could be doing, myself included, but simply name dropping a bunch of films is not critique and, in my case, I like to think decent critique/ analysis is what I’m offering.

Still, if you’d prefer a top ten and think this overall list is far too long (that I couldn’t blame you for), skip ahead to my top ten below and consider the rest simply ‘honourable mentions’. But understand that every film on this list is there because I can make a case for it being one of my favourites of the year. A few others were in contention at one point or another, but I tried to rule out anything for which I couldn’t make as strong a case, or anything in which I found annoyance despite its qualities. Their ‘ranking’ on the list is simply down to personal preference and, really, I consider all of them pretty great – or they wouldn’t be here at all. So let’s get on with it, shall we?

20. Your Name

your-name-pic-1

The style and beauty of Your Name’s animation is something to behold, but what pushed it into this list was an original (if totally ‘Japanese anime’ style) narrative that built up an impressive amount of suspense towards its conclusion. That narrative focuses on two teenagers – Mitsuha and Taki – who undergo a frequent ‘body switch’, whereby their consciousness inhabits the other’s body, and end up learning a lot about each other’s lives through the process. From there it becomes an equally unconventional romance.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for raising their eyebrows at the premise, especially if foreign anime isn’t the first thing that pops to mind when you think of entertainment. But this is the world of cinema; a place for imagination, which Japanese anime is notable for and this film has in abundance. Give it a chance, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the depth of its story and characters. Or at least marvel at the gorgeous animation on display.

Your Name is also unique in that it’s an adaptation of a novel written by its director, Makoto Shinkai, who himself adapted his book into the screenplay for this film; novel and film were released within two months of each other in Japan last year. This film then enjoyed a limited successful run in the UK and US in late 2016.

19. 10 Cloverfield Lane

10-cloverfield-lane-pic-1

Suspense. Tension. That’s what 10 Cloverfield Lane executed as well as any other film last year. This was arguably one of the more underrated films of 2016.

While the original Cloverfield was an ambitious monster movie occasionally side-tracked by its handheld camera gimmick, this loose sequel is considerably smaller scale and more confined, shot almost entirely inside a bunker with no handhelds in sight. As a result it is actually more accessible than its predecessor, not to mention a better film overall. No kidding, I think this is one of the very best sequels I’ve seen in the past few years.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead puts in a fine performance as the strong-willed yet vulnerable protagonist whose unease and confusion we share, though the real star of the film is John Goodman as the seemingly unstable Howard. While his methods are questionable, the movie does a brilliant job of leaving the question open: are his mad theories about what’s happening in the world outside the bunker merited, or just the anxious ramblings of a PTSD sufferer? The film even threatens to leave the question hanging until the end…

18. Indignation

We come to one of the more understated films on this list, but by no means less deserving of a place on it. Indignation is the directorial debut of American screenwriter James Schamus and based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth.

indignation-pic-1

It’s set in the early 1950’s, amidst the backdrop of the Korean War, as central character Marcus (Logan Lerman) leaves his Jewish family home to attend a conservative college in Ohio. There his conviction to atheism provides a source of conflict with the school’s dean over the role of religion in academic life. That alone was a refreshing element to this film; lack of belief in God is something that cinema in general is rather unwilling to portray at face value as a ‘reasonable’ position to hold. The (rather childish) debate over declining Christian values in American mainstream cinema is one thing, but rarely do we see a film tackle the issue of religion/ atheism itself with such honesty and insight as is seen here. Credit for this must go largely to Roth’s source material, of course, though Schamus’ strong style of direction communicates the novel’s message with authority.

Another vital theme this film tackles is that of mental illness; an issue misunderstood to an even greater extent back in the time period in which Indignation takes place. It won’t be the last film on this list to touch on mental health in a thought-provoking fashion, which I consider a fantastic thing for cinema and cultural attitudes around that area. Sarah Gadon embodies the character of Olivia Hutton, who suffers from some form of ’emotional’ problem, having previously attempted suicide, and equally struggles to find her place in the college environment because of this. That Sarah Gadon is also currently one of my favourite actresses may have had something to do with my liking for this film – on a deep emotional level, obviously.

17. Divines

divines-pic-1

Another debut here, from Houda Benyamina, Divines is a French-Qatari co-production that screened at Cannes before being released worldwide on Netflix in November – one of a number of high quality Netflix exclusives in 2016. Divines belongs near the top of your watch list.

It follows the experiences of Dounia, a girl living with her mother in a shanty town on the outskirts of Paris, and her friend Maimouna as they fight off the prospect of a life without purpose by hustling and shoplifting. Dounia’s looks and desire to better herself financially soon help open up further opportunities for the pair, as they fall deeper into a potential life of crime, eventually leading down a murky path neither of them envisaged.

The film is directed with an intimate style and fits right alongside other ‘coming of age’ movies of recent years, most notably 2014’s Girlhood, which was one of the very best films of that year. If you already have a Netflix account, you’ve no excuse not to check this out!

16. The Coming War on China

Time for a change of pace. The Coming War on China is anything but small-scale and intimate; rather it’s a fitting documentary with an urgent global message. But perhaps not the typical narrative you’d be used to hearing about in mainstream media.

coming-war-on-china-pic-1

Prolific documentary filmmaker John Pilger is no stranger to tackling such topics. This time he tackles what might be his most urgent yet, exposing the truth behind US foreign policy towards Asia throughout the 1900’s, and the threat they see in China to their ‘divine right’ to lead the world economically, politically and morally; a perceived threat that could lead us to the very real, frightening possibility of all-out nuclear war. He also looks at the attitude of Western media towards the Chinese in recent history, showing how easily public perception can be subtly manipulated.

While some may find Pilger’s style grinding (occasionally we see only his face on screen as he explains an issue to us), this is more a typical case of substance over style. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a political piece; he’s not directly attacking any current political figure, though he has much to say against US foreign policy in general. He instead portrays China from a point of view that seems more fair than many others we get from other sources, while acknowledging clear issues that the country undoubtedly has.

It’s a fine educational piece. But of course, its closing message is the most vital one: that nuclear war between the US and China, and by extension the rest of the planet, seems closer now than ever. It ends, not by coincidence, in the same vein as my favourite film – Dr Strangelove (1964) – with the same recording of We’ll Meet Again. Come on, for that alone, how could it not have made this list?

15. I, Daniel Blake

daniel-blake-pic-1

The British winner of 2016’s Palme d’Or, Ken Loach’s new film was welcomed by many amidst a tide of growing dissatisfaction towards the UK government. Its politicisation and ‘in your face’ message put some off before they even gave it a chance, which I find to be a shame, because this was one of the best British films of the year.

That’s not least due to the central performance of Dave Johns as Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old joiner who isn’t fit to work due to health reasons. However, when a review of his benefits determines that he is eligible for work – for arbitrary reasons like being able to raise his arm above a certain height – he’s told he must begin searching or lose his only source of income. It’s clear that Loach intended to show the benefits system from a perspective that exposes its rather antiquated requirements of job seekers, and its treatment of those who find themselves honestly unable to work; the film does this very well.

I’ll offer a few further thoughts on why I, Daniel Blake seems to have stricken such a poignant chord with so many people. Obviously it’s not universally representative of everyone’s experience. Yet the case of Daniel Blake simply represents what many vulnerable individuals have experienced within the UK’s social welfare system, which, in an effort to crack down on people who’d rather not pull their weight in society, has increasingly introduced measures – such as the disability review system to which Blake falls victim – to help weed out anyone who may be ready to find work but needs the extra ‘motivation’ to do so. We’ve heard this a lot from the UK’s current government in the past couple of years; they want to ‘encourage’ job seekers to find work (hint: they’re referring to those who can’t be bothered working and would rather take what they can get for free).

However, the government’s form of encouragement is a bunch of antiquated extra measures designed to make it more convoluted for anyone claiming benefits. While it’s certainly true that there are still claimants who try to push their luck, there are also people like Daniel Blake who end up on the wrong side of a system assuming everyone claiming needs to be hounded off it. These are the people this film speaks up for, giving them a much-needed voice through its protagonist. For those without experience in the system, ‘just be willing to take anything’ is often the prevalent attitude for finding work. As this film illustrates perfectly, it’s often not that simple.

14. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s latest film is a wonderful 145-minute story of lust and betrayal that spans three acts, all of which feature clever plot twists that make you look at the rest of what you’ve just seen in a different light.

the-handmaiden-pic-2

The premise we begin the story with is: in Japanese-occupied Korea sometime during the early-to-mid 1900’s, a conman hires a pickpocket to become the maid of a Japanese heiress, with whom he plans to be wed before committing her to an asylum and claiming her inheritance for himself. Though with the twists and turns we take along the way, the film ends up in a very different place from where one might have expected.

It’s fantastically written, and is a fine addition to Chan-wook’s film catalogue, further boosting his reputation as South Korea’s best director working today. Also features the most intimate, intense lesbian sex scenes since Blue is the Warmest Colour. I would say ‘not for the faint-hearted’, but this is the director of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003) we’re talking about, so it should go without saying at this point. The Handmaiden is an epic reminder that Chan-wook still has much to offer; it’s among his best work.

13. The Nice Guys

Is it possible for a mainstream American movie starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to under-perform at the box office and be considered underrated? In 2016 I think The Nice Guys proved that it is.

nice-guys-pic-2

Which is a shame, because it’s really quite hilarious, while being a somewhat comforting throwback to 1970’s period detective dramas. I challenge anyone to watch this movie with a straight face. Even if all of the humour doesn’t quite resonate (and at least some of it will for most audiences), its retro, smooth 70’s soundtrack surely will bring a smile. Gosling and Crowe play the two leads very well; for me it’s Crowe’s best role in years, and Gosling continues to impress as the awkward, alcoholic detective Holland March, who regularly finds himself taking advice from his young daughter Holly (played by Angourie Rice, in another impressive bit of casting).

There was brief talk of a sequel to The Nice Guys, and in this case I would’ve liked to see it, but considering its underwhelming performance at the box office – and due primarily to its release date, a lack of attention at awards ceremonies – it looks unlikely to happen. That we can’t get a sequel to a film like this while the industry becomes overly saturated with more Transformers and superhero movies is a crying shame.

12. Julieta

julieta-pic-1

Pedro Almodovar’s wonderful new film Julieta explores themes like grief, forgiveness, and family. It stormed the international scene in 2016, competing with I, Daniel Blake for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, nominated in numerous categories at the European Film Awards and winning Best International Film at the San Diego Film Festival.

Among those accolades was a deserved Best Actress at the Goya Awards (basically Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) for Emma Suarez, who plays the older version of protagonist Julieta in this film. Via flashbacks the story takes us back to Julieta’s past, showing how she met the father of her daughter, who at the beginning of this film has been missing for some time due a to series of events gradually revealed over the course of the narrative. Adriana Ugarte also puts in a brilliant performance as Julieta’s younger self, and Almodovar perfectly distinguishes the difference between the two time periods in his costume choices, hair styles and colour schemes. The present-day Julieta is surrounded by grey, while her past is filled with hazy bright colours, capturing her feelings of the time.

It can be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, while the poignant note on which the film ends is likely to stay with you for some time. Julieta is one of the best European films of 2o16, and the latest intriguing project for its veteran director.

11. Ma’ Rosa

ma-rosa-pic-1

Jaclyn Jose won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes for her performance as matriarch Rosa in this Filipino drama; a portrait of poverty and police corruption in Manila. This was one of the surprising gems I discovered at London Film Festival last October. It left an impression on me as one of the best films I’d seen there.

Ma’ Rosa feels similar to Victoria, in that while it doesn’t share the ‘one take’ device, it takes place across one night and is shot in an intimate fashion, taking you up close to the characters and following them as they move. Rosa and her family live day-to-day, on the edge of poverty; she owns a small corner shop and helps provide for them by selling hardcore drugs such as crystal meth on the side. But on this night, the Filipino police raid Rosa’s shop while she and her family are having dinner, having been tipped off by someone in what is otherwise a tight-knit community. Rosa and her husband spend the night in police custody while their kids try to raise the money demanded by these 3/4 police officers in return for Rosa’s release; otherwise, they’ll press overly harsh charges.

There’s something about the late night, rain-swept streets of Manila that makes this film oddly compelling. Watching it on a big screen, in high definition, one finds a strange beauty in its rough, harsh environment. That’s how I’d recommend seeing it. Ma’ Rosa was one of two strong contenders for the Filipino nomination for Best Foreign Language film; though it secured the nomination, it didn’t make the final shortlist.

10. Paterson

A film that celebrates the ordinary. A simple blue collar lifestyle; getting up early and eating cereal every week day; walking the dog and enjoying a drink at your local bar every night. Where small pleasures are provided by the conversations you overhear at work and the biggest ‘crisis’ is your dog getting his teeth into something he shouldn’t have.

paterson-pic-1

These are the daily experiences of modest poet and bus driver Paterson, played by Adam Driver in a widely contrasting starring role to his previous one in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here he shows extra depth to his abilities as an actor, and brings a curious watchable factor to this otherwise unremarkable movie – though in this rare case, ‘unremarkable’ is no bad thing.

Paterson is an American film that represents a refreshing change of pace to the usual fare. You spend part of the film wondering if there is some kind of twist coming; some big moment of crisis or disaster or emotional turmoil that will turn the whole experience on its head. Ultimately there is a ‘crisis’ as such, but it’s one in which you can almost tell director Jim Jarmusch was playing on and responding to our false expectations. He ends up giving us something that should be disappointing, but instead… It fills you with relief. You leave the film satisfied. Because you didn’t really want to see a big crisis here. The experience doesn’t need it. Yet in the turbulent year that was 2016, I think we needed an experience like this.

9. Manchester By the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea-pic-1

Deservedly a main contender for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is unlike any other film released in 2016. It’s a film that brilliantly portrays, better than any other I’ve seen in recent years, the struggle to communicate feelings to those closest to you, and the effort of simply ‘getting by’ following unbearable grief.

Casey Affleck’s role as the sullen main character Lee Chandler doesn’t appear to be an overly challenging one at first glance, but there is good reason he’s the favourite to walk away with a Best Actor prize this year. It takes a certain amount of skill to play a character who doesn’t say much, with Affleck helping us get to know this character not through the use of any great monologues or show of emotion, but in his downtrodden mannerisms and dry sense of humour.

It’s best to go into it without knowing the real reasons behind Chandler’s temperament. While the movie opens with the death of his brother (the film gives us frequent flashbacks to offer a glimpse into their relationship), forcing Lee into a situation where he’s suddenly guardian for his teenage nephew, it’s soon clear there’s something deeper going on. Coming to the realisation of what that is provides some of the most emotional cinematic moments of 2016. Don’t be surprised if this dark horse snatches Best Picture on February 26th; were it not for La La Land’s presence as a heavy favourite, Lonergan’s touching film would represent the ‘safe’ pick of the bunch.

8. Moonlight

moonlight-pic-1

If Manchester By the Sea was unlike anything else released last year, think of Moonlight in a similar vein – though in certain other ways, the two couldn’t be more different. Like the aforementioned film, it is alarmingly insightful and honest, and it deserves its place contending for Best Picture.

This movie is exceptional, even before we consider its story, characters or soundtrack. It has an exclusively black cast; it portrays realistic images of drug dealing in the back streets of Miami; and it revolves primarily around the theme of unrequited or misunderstood homosexual love. Whereas a previous film on this list, The Handmaiden, featured lesbian sex scenes as if they are an entirely normal part of life, Moonlight is more about the self-denial of those experiences out of a mixture of shame and lack of comprehension. This, let’s remember, is an environment in which homosexuality is extremely taboo, and the film portrays black/ masculine identity in a way we’ve rarely, if ever, seen done before.

So for the more conservative among you, rest assured there’s nothing overly ‘offensive’ here, any more than there is something offensive about other stories exploring identity. The film is split into three acts in the life of Chiron; we see key experiences in his childhood and adolescence that lead to him becoming the rough, muscular man we see in act three. All three actors who play the lead (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) are impressive, as are Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali in their respective roles as Chiron’s mother and a drug dealer who somewhat takes the father-less Chiron under his wing in the first act. Ali is deservedly expected to take home the Best Supporting Actor award at the upcoming Oscars, while Harris has also been nominated in what is probably her best role. Challenge yourself by sitting down to watch this film. It may affect your overall attitude on an emotional level – that’s how powerful Moonlight is.

7. Weiner

weiner-pic-1

Perhaps documentaries shouldn’t feel as entertaining as this, especially when it’s dealing with the very real and pertinent collapse of a man in front of your eyes, but damn, Weiner is one of the year’s most watchable films. There’s something about former Congressman and Democrat Anthony Weiner that gives off a ‘love him or hate him’ vibe, even without taking into account the ‘sexting’ scandal around which this documentary (following his 2013 mayoral election campaign and supposed comeback) is partly based.

Taking a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach, the film introduces us to the high beginnings of Weiner’s successful career as a loud-mouthed Democrat on the Senate floor, the lows of his initial sexting scandal and resignation in 2011, before picking up proper with the electoral team as they prepare to launch a campaign for his return to politics as mayor of New York. A campaign that starts well and initially looks triumphant… before the proverbial shit threatens to hit the fan again. When it does, you won’t want to turn away for fear of missing the latest cringe-worthy development.

From a certain point of view, one has to feel for Anthony Weiner in the making of this documentary. When he agreed to full access to his campaign, he did so with the mindset that it would be a successful one; allowing it to be completed and released with the hope (as he himself says in the film) of being given yet another chance after the public saw him in a new, more personal light. But in Weiner’s case, as with the Democrat party as a whole in 2016, it seems a lot of people got fed up with the message.

In light of the US election result and an FBI investigation that dogged Hillary Clinton during her campaign (one that re-opened in October, just a few days before the election, due to files found on Anthony Weiner’s computer), this entertaining film has perhaps taken on even greater poignancy and significance.

6. Chasing Asylum

A documentary whose filmmakers literally risked imprisonment to make, Eva Orner’s Chasing Asylum focuses on Australia’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers and side-swipes the country’s rather ‘curious’ (some might say backward) politics.

chasing-asylum-pic-1

You may have heard President Trump recently complain about the ‘terrible’ US deal with Australia regarding the resettling of asylum seekers – well, this film directly references the cause of, and shows events leading up to, that very deal, offering us a glimpse of what potentially awaits if the deal is scrapped without an alternative solution. It’s one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen in recent years.

Politically, many people jumped to conclusions and threw labels at each other last year. The UK’s vote to leave the EU was portrayed very much by the media as Britain saying to immigrants; “we don’t want you”, even though many voted leave for different reasons. Chasing Asylum shows Australia as being considerably more blunt about the issue, their Prime Minister repeatedly and clearly reiterating on camera to anyone seeking asylum in Australia; “your boats will be turned away… WE DON’T WANT YOU”. His justification is that they are carrying out the will of the Australian people. But what is revealed in this documentary – such as ‘refugee camps’ not unlike prison camps, revealed via undercover cameras, and children driven to the brink of madness and starvation – is a harrowing reminder of the things politicians may feel morally justified in doing, without necessarily being open about it, because it’s all in the name of ‘carrying out the will of the people’.

5. Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, was one of the best films of 2014. Here the French director re-teams with Stewart for a contemporary ghost story and classy psychological thriller set in the murky world of high fashion.

personal-shopper-pic-2

Stewart plays Maureen, a ‘personal shopper’/ assistant to a demanding supermodel, who enjoys trying on her employer’s new dresses (hey, someone has to) and spending nights at her luxury apartment when she’s out of town. She also spends her free time attempting to contact her recently deceased brother. In fact, the film’s opening scene has Maureen staying overnight in a supposedly haunted mansion, by herself, hoping that said brother will reveal himself to her.

It isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds… yet in a weirdly intelligent and atmospheric way, it kind of is. Maureen and her brother were both mediums before his passing, setting some context as to why she believes she’ll be able to contact him. The entire experience is grounded in reality; Maureen herself comes across as a healthy sceptic, someone who didn’t share her brother’s positive ideas of the afterlife but is now nonetheless hoping that he was right.

It may technically be a ghost story, though this isn’t your typical horror movie. Ghosts are an almost normal part of its universe, and even then, most of their involvement is left unseen. There isn’t a jump scare in sight. Atmosphere and subtlety seeps from every scene; including the 20-30 minutes in which the main focus is a bunch of mysterious texts Maureen starts receiving on her phone, and the resulting text conversation she proceeds to have with an unknown recipient.

Having been released in France in December, Personal Shopper is due for general release in North America on March 10th and in the UK on March 17th.

4. Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-pic-1

Tom Ford’s second film (following 2009’s A Single Man) may have been a long time coming, but Nocturnal Animals feels like the kind of film worth waiting for. Starring Amy Adams in one of two career-best roles last year (alongside Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival) and Jake Gyllenhaal in what is another interesting project to add to his colourful resume, this is a film that will imprint itself on your memory from its opening scene featuring… Well, if you’ve seen that opening scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Its introductory nod to the grandiose and excessive nature of ‘art’, while feeling somewhat tongue-in-cheek, sets the tone for a film in which life and art appear to take the place of the other. It would seem nothing in this film is there just to fill space; it constantly commands your undivided attention. Adams’ character, Susan Morrow, is the rich owner of an art gallery, while Gyllenhaal plays her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, who we only see in flashbacks and as the main character in a manuscript he has written and sent to Susan. As she reads his story, we see its contents play out on screen in real time; a realistic, gritty thriller that contrasts with Susan’s surface-level, stylish life of excess. The sense of irony is entirely intentional, though there is still more going on in this film, a level not unlike the deeper meaning of Edward’s manuscript, that I’d love to analyse in future. A few short paragraphs isn’t enough to do it justice here.

Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play memorable characters from the fictional world of Edward’s novel; itself an atmospheric thriller that could’ve made a fine movie in isolation. But to take it as part of this film’s larger context is vital. Nocturnal Animals is definitely one of the 2016 movies I’m most likely to revisit. There’s even a little something about love and soul mates thrown in there, for those of you who like that sort of thing.

(I’m joking, I like that sort of thing too, when it’s executed well).

3. Christine

christine-pic-1

Rebecca Hall was criminally overlooked for a Best Actress nod at the Oscars, despite her role as troubled newscaster Christine Chubbuck being the peak of her career so far and one of the performances of the year, but it’s not a big surprise. A harrowing film about a woman who shot herself live on air in 1974, without getting the adequate help she required, isn’t something the Academy Awards are ready to draw attention to. Only if the narrative had a feel-good ending or similar vibes – as that’s still often the only way people can process the topic of mental health – do I think she might have had a chance; there’s no such thing in this true story. Yet, it was both one of the most insightful, and one of the most important films of 2016.

In 1974 ‘bipolar disorder’ wasn’t established as a mental illness. From all accounts – and we don’t have very many – of Christine Chubbuck’s personal life, this appears to be what she suffered through. But Antonio Campos’ Christine goes further than this, humanising her in a way that most people will never have seen before; indeed, many people have never heard of this story at all, because there is no circulating footage of her live suicide. Christine Chubbuck, in the years since her death, has become somewhat of an urban myth.

Christine shows her tragic story from a piercingly honest perspective, revealing her to be a flawed individual, frustrated with the lack of understanding others showed her but intensely focused and committed to her job as a news reporter. In the end it was these qualities that led to her implosion.

I understand mental health is still a touchy issue – but at least we know enough about it now for it to even be an issue. In years past, this wasn’t the case. Today we’re overly worried about language used, or how mental illness is portrayed in media. What I liked most about Christine is that it wasn’t so concerned with dancing around the issue, nor does it fall into the trap of romanticising her story. It gets straight to the point, portraying Christine Chubbuck frankly, with all her human faults rather than as the tragic heroine. The truth is, she wasn’t a tragic heroine at all. She was a sad, lonely person not unlike many of us – and that, I suppose, is the real tragedy.

3.5 Kate Plays Christine

I’ve included this unique docu-drama as a .5 because I think it works well as a companion piece to Christine, setting some context around the story of Christine Chubbuck and delving a little more into our responsibility as its audience.

It’s worth bearing in mind after all – as those arguing against the telling of it would say – that there is a risk of ‘sensationalising’ this story; a direction in which news media was heading around the time of Christine’s death and which undoubtedly played a factor in the very public nature of her suicide. In her final speech on air, she spoke of the ‘blood and guts’ aspect of broadcast journalism, which she found fundamentally at odds with her own integrity as a journalist, and declared that her live suicide was ‘in line with’ this, thereby giving the audience what they wanted, though it was also a desperate final form of protest against the absurdity of it.

kate-plays-christine-pic-1

Kate Plays Christine asks whether the portrayal of her story perpetuates the very thing – this ‘blood and guts’, sensational style of journalism – that partly caused Christine Chubbuck’s mental downfall in the first place, and whether it’s right to do so for entertainment’s sake. Your personal answer will likely depend on whether you perceive films as purely ‘entertainment’, or you think they’re capable of something more. This film seems to be an advocate for the latter, as its primary intention is to make us think about what we’re watching.

That’s not to say it risks putting you to sleep; its process of discovery is actually rather entertaining at the same time. It follows actress Kate Lyn Shiel as she prepares to play the role of Christine for an unspecified production, taking us through her process of learning more about the woman behind the myth. Throughout that process we gain extra insight into the attitude of Christine’s peers towards her and her actions, helping Kate form an opinion not only on the woman herself, but on the morals of stepping into this role for the sake of telling a story in which interest only exists because of what Christine dubbed the ‘blood and guts’ attraction of broadcast media (and, by extension, films themselves).

The question of “what’s the line between exploration and exploitation” of issues like mental illness, among others, is interesting. Of course, films are free to go down either path, and be judged accordingly on a case by case basis. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer. But establishing a line between one and the other, if possible, is important for classification purposes at least.

My advice here is to watch Christine first, then Kate Plays Christine to add an extra layer of context.

2. My Life as a Courgette

my-life-as-a-courgette-pic-1

My pick for 2016’s best animated film has refreshingly been nominated in the corresponding category at the Oscars, despite being a ‘foreign language’ French-Swiss co-production. I found it emotional and almost magical, it evoking the same kind of feelings in me that I had when watching 2015’s Inside Out. To even consider the two a fair comparison is extremely high praise, as Inside Out set the bar so high. Make no mistake, My Life as a Courgette belongs in the upper echelons of animated movies in recent years for the way in which it tackles mature issues with a sensitivity that can resonate with adults and children alike.

Those mature issues include, in the opening scene, the accidental death of a young boy’s alcoholic, abusive mother, leaving him orphaned and subsequently sent to a children’s home. He meets a group of other orphaned children in the process, all with similarly tragic stories to tell of how they ended up there. But this isn’t a particularly depressing story. It has its sad moments, but entirely necessary ones that can resonate with children. Again, reminiscent of how Inside Out made me feel watching it.

The stop motion animation is beautifully created and finely executed. Plus, at a compact run time of only 67 minutes, you can burn through it quickly, with little chance of attention waning. An accessible movie for all audiences; try to take my word for it even if the ‘subtitles’ thing puts you off. In fact, even if they do, this may be one case where the fascinating animation alone gets you through.

1. Under the Shadow

My favourite film of 2016 should come as no surprise to anyone who knows my appetite for a good, original horror story. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (his directorial debut) feels like a throwback to the peak of the atmospheric, patient, suspenseful and ambiguous days of Asian horror.

under-the-shadow-pic-1

It isn’t alone either, following a number of other impressive recent horror movies including The Babadook (my 2014 film of the year), It Follows (2015), and The Witch. While series’ like Insidious and The Conjuring continue to deal with recycled demonic tropes (even if quite well in some cases), the above films are notable for utilising more original ideas, themes, and approaches to horror. This particular one, though, feels most like the spiritual successor to some of my favourite J-horror films of the past. Think Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) for reference.

That isn’t to compare it directly to anything else. Under the Shadow (a unique Persian-language UK-Jordan-Qatar co-production), set in post-revolutionary Tehran in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, is undoubtedly its own, highly original film. It takes spiritual reference not from Christianity, as is often customary with Western horror, but from Islam. The main antagonist ‘force’ here is the Djinn, basically the Koran’s equivalent of demons, and the film builds up a glorious amount of suspense in its first third leading to their introduction to the narrative.

Even then, main protagonist Shideh, stubborn mother of Dorsa, is a logical sceptic, in a cultural environment where spiritual scepticism is frowned upon and belief in ‘Djinn’ is accepted as the norm. The film has feminist undertones for sure – at one point Shideh is arrested and harshly scolded for venturing out in public without being ‘properly covered’, with the phrase “are we in Europe now?” thrown at her as a mocking insult – but there’s certainly no heavy handed agenda in sight.

under-the-shadow-pic-2

Shideh and daughter Dorsa have been left alone in their apartment as the man of the household, Iraj, works away from home. In this (a mother and child left alone to tackle a force seeking to come between them) we see the most obvious similarity to both Dark Water and The Babadook, though the shared themes between these films is something I aim to tackle in more detail another time.

As the physical attacks on their apartment increase due to bombing on the city of Tehran by Iraqi forces, the spiritual attacks on Shideh and Dorsa also seem to become more frequent. Gradually, residents of their apartment block evacuate the premises while Shideh, initially out of stubbornness, refuses to do so, as it would mean accepting the hospitality of her mother-in-law. Eventually, the strong will to leave is what may be the only thing that can save the mother-daughter duo from becoming trapped by the spiritual haunting surrounding them.

Obviously this movie has the same atmosphere and tension I’ve mentioned before on this list; I’m admittedly partial to these attributes in my cinematic preferences. Of all the films on my list, Under the Shadow came closest to that sweet spot for me, executed in a way that fits my main tastes. Another one of those is ambiguity; a film/ story that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers with which to spoon-feed you. This wonderful film leaves open the possibility that what you’re seeing might not be everything to know, with a suitably ambiguous ending. I recommend it as the best horror film of 2016. Did I mention it’s a British production too?

Previews

Trailer comparison: Hidden Figures and Fences.

I saw Hidden Figures back in early January at a preview screening at Odeon. Since then I’ve been bombarded by trailer after trailer for the film.

This wouldn’t be a problem if it were a teaser we were talking about, but no. The final Hidden Figures trailer is the most tragic case of spoiling an entire film since we saw the same thing happen to Room around this time last year. These aren’t isolated cases, either. Trailers for Batman vs Superman and Viggo Mortensen’s Captain Fantastic were the other major culprits from last year, and I could list more if I wanted to spend time thinking about it. The unfortunate mentality of sheer desperation – of studios and editors thinking the only way to get audiences to pay for a film is by showing everything to them beforehand – is currently one of my biggest problems with the film industry.

Honestly, this is a case of a film blowing its entire load prematurely – and yes, the analogy to an overeager, desperate man unable to contain his excitement for the payoff is entirely appropriate. Within the Hidden Figures trailer – having seen the film and liked it very much, I can tell you for certain – we see brief clips from every major scene in the movie, beginning to end; we hear literally every relevant piece of dialogue, swiftly cut together at speed so as to fit it all in; and the overarching theme of the film is thrust upon you with virtually no sense of subtlety.

I’m going to put the trailer below to help illustrate my point. However, I will say this: if you have not yet seen this trailer and plan to see the film anyway (it is actually worth your time, hence my frustration), don’t watch it. Don’t ruin it for yourself. I know if I had seen this trailer beforehand, I likely would not have enjoyed Hidden Figures as much as I did. But then, I like to be surprised when I watch a film; perhaps you see a cinema trip as more of a risk and like to know absolutely every detail you’re going to see, in which case go ahead and watch this trailer. We’ll just continue to not understand each other.

There is a clear stopping point for me in that trailer – or rather, a point at which it becomes obvious they’re giving away too much. It is the line “I don’t know if I can keep up in that room”, as the general tone shifts to not-so-subtly make it clear that ‘hey, this is a film with a serious message you know’. Tonal shifts like this should be the film’s domain, not its trailer. But again, the trailer is too focused on squeezing every possible detail into two minutes, to let you know you might like this movie, if you liked its incredibly condensed version. It’s not too difficult to decipher, as well, that there is likely an agenda at play with the trailer for this film, if not the film itself. However, I’m going to save this part of my analysis for another article on each of the nine Best Picture nominees.

In contrast, the first trailer for Fences, another Best Picture nominee this year, is a much better example of a well executed trailer than the fast, desperate cutting of the Hidden Figures equivalent. If you watched the one above, now check out this trailer, and observe the clear difference between the two. Note there has since been a second trailer, similar to this but with only a few extra details added, though I haven’t seen that version shown in UK cinemas.

We’re left in no doubt from the Fences trailer that it also tackles some interesting themes and social issues; but it communicates this in much less words than the Hidden Figures equivalent, and does it without spoiling many of the film’s major scenes. In fact, this trailer communicates its message through clips from (seemingly) two major scenes, showing only brief glimpses of a few others while leaving the rest to the imagination, in effect building anticipation for the overall film. I think Hidden Figures could have achieved this too, though perhaps not to the same effect (there aren’t many actors with the screen presence of Denzel Washington, after all).

Bear in mind my comments here are not directly related to the quality of each film; rather, I’ve focused entirely on critiquing their trailers, though to do so is important as the quality of a trailer does correlate with how many people are going to see the film in question. I will be giving my thoughts on the films themselves when I give my breakdown on each of the nine contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in a separate post, to come soon.

Sport

On PED’s in sport.

(The following article is one I mostly completed last year but haven’t gotten around to posting until now… if there are any discrepancies in the context, that’ll be why. Still, I wanted to publish it here in case anyone finds interest in reading it. One can only hope.)

In 2016 we saw what was branded as another ‘summer of sport’, with Euro 2016 in June-July followed by the Brazil Olympics throughout August. With Russian athletes almost universally banned (at least until said ban was, to some extent, overturned on appeal) from this year’s Olympic Games due to alleged state-sponsored doping, and with numerous other instances of athletes in sports like tennis and MMA (mixed martial arts) recently caught using banned substances, the issue of performance enhancing drugs has never been more prevalent than it is now.

That’s not because more people are ‘cheating’ now than athletes of the past. On the contrary, I believe with the more stringent testing available today, the amount of athletes trying to manipulate the system has fallen. Yet at the same time competition has never been higher, with multi-million dollar sponsorship available for the best, most successful athletes, and without a doubt, as testing methods improve, so too do the range of drugs available that can slip through the system. It is a constant battle for testing methods to keep up with PED’s on the market.

I figured I would use this space to offer my thoughts on this controversial issue of performance enhancers. That’s what they are; my thoughts and nothing more. I don’t intend it to be a conclusive, in-depth article, but if what I write can help others think more critically about a certain topic, I can’t help but do it.

For me personally, the topic became prevalent again recently when one of my favourite athletes, Brock Lesnar, tested positive for a banned substance while training for, and on the night of, his UFC fight with Mark Hunt on July 9th. But this is not something I write as a ‘fan’ of someone or because I want to defend anyone who breaks the rules. Rather, it’s that I want others, people like you and I, to understand that this issue isn’t as cut and dry as most seem to think. It’s not always – if ever – a black and white divide between ‘cheating’ and being totally ‘clean’. Let’s talk about the reasons why.

Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.
Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.

As obvious as this may sound, there are many different forms and variations of performance enhancers out there. It’s not too dissimilar from the range of vitamins and supplements available; the line is drawn when the effect of a certain substance is deemed to give an unfair advantage over those who don’t take it. Whereas I think the line should instead be drawn with substances that endanger an athlete’s long-term health.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of unfair advantages; quite the opposite. In simple terms, I think athletes should be given a list of legal substances they can use by their allocated governing bodies. These substances would be tested and approved beforehand, to ensure they aren’t a danger to the health of an athlete. Said substances would be available to use as each athlete sees fit.

Granted, this isn’t too different from what happens currently: athletes are given a list of ‘banned’ substances, and things are added to or removed from this list dependent upon how much of an advantage they give in terms of performance enhancement. But the policy on this is generally zero tolerance on anything that is seen to give said advantage. I think this leaves room for abuse by athletes who have the resources to ‘slip through the gap’ as such with the latest designer drugs – who would not be motivated to take such a risk if there were allocated drugs available to use for each athlete rather than confined strictly to the banned list.

This isn’t me trying to make excuses for those who break the rules. Think of it more as an argument for those who don’t; those who end up at a natural disadvantage just for sticking to their principles, for reasons they’ve had drilled into them – that all PED’s are wrong – and a way of removing the advantage given to those who simply have greater resources at their disposal.

It’s also an argument in favour of the integrity and enjoyment level of sport itself. The larger-than-life athletes of the past and present that people know and love, who’ve inspired millions with their feats, may not have been who they became were it not for performance enhancers. Of course people may feel aghast at even the suggestion their heroes would do such a thing, but how can you be sure they didn’t, aside from wishful thinking and their carefully constructed public perception?

If rules around performance enhancers continue to become more stringent – unnecessarily in many cases – sporting heroes of the future likely won’t be seen in the same light. The general aesthetic value and marketability of sport will inevitably go down. My argument is for the integrity of sport and evenly balanced competition across the board, not against it. We need more openness, better transparency, and most importantly, more easily accessible information on the PED’s we’re talking about, for the benefit not only of the public, but also the athletes who need to be aware of what they’re taking. You may think it obvious that they would naturally know what they put in their bodies and what exactly those things do, but bear in mind most top athletes have specialists taking care of this stuff for them; specialists whose success is tied directly to the sporting success and aesthetic value of their athlete.

These drugs have many different properties. They all affect your body differently. That effect often depends not only on the drug itself but on the type of athlete taking them and the sport in which they compete. Regulating bodies are still behind the game on this, but they know enough now to be able to offer some more flexibility that would perhaps help discourage those who abuse the system as it is.

Erythropoietin (EPO) is often seen as one of the more egregious examples of a PED by those who understand what it does. Many people will have first heard of it when Lance Armstrong was finally popped (after a long and generally convincing insistence of denial) by USADA back in 2012 for his use of it following a drawn-out saga lasting almost since Armstrong’s first Tour de France win in 1999. This was the highest profile case of our time, or at least at the time in 2012 (as there have been several other high profile doping cases since); as a result it has helped teach people some of the differences in PED’s and what they do. It also illuminated the unique position there is – and still remains – between the use of drugs in sport, and the drug tests used to catch these substances. For years people suspected Armstrong of some kind of cheating, yet he feigned innocence for as long as the authorities were unable to prove it, and those who supported him were always able to lean back on that until the curtain fell.

For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use despite accusations from those who knew what they were looking for.
For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use amidst accusations from those who knew the signs.

Now this indirectly leads us on to another brief point I want to make, and this may be the most pertinent one: PED’s are not magic pills. Sounds obvious enough, but it’s something the uninitiated seem to struggle with. Taking them does not suddenly give an athlete a free route into a final or mean they don’t need to put in hundreds of hours at the gym. Taking a few steroids doesn’t suddenly give a bodybuilder his toned physique or the ability to lift monumental weights.

The clue is in the name: they enhance what’s already there. If an athlete does not have the talent to begin with, or doesn’t want to bust their ass in training every day, then whatever PED’s they try taking, quite frankly, won’t have any more effect on their overall performance than a cheeseburger would. I’ve heard people say that athletes take performance enhancers because they’re sitting on their ass all day and can’t be bothered working out in the gym; please go and do some much-needed research if you think that way.

They don’t make you a superstar, they can’t give you talent; but they can help an athlete with talent become a superstar.

You may have a different opinion on all of this, and your opinion may be justified. As I always say, that’s fair enough. We should be having more conversations about this topic in general, whatever side of the fence you may fall on. As I’ve said, I’m not in favour of any athlete breaking the rules – if they do so without justification or reasoning, they should rightly be punished – I just think maybe those rules should be examined and questioned a little more. In most other areas that would be seen as healthy, but it seems in this area people get touchy about it.

Video Games

World of Final Fantasy.

world-of-final-fantasy-pic-1

At face value, a review for this game should be easy. Ask yourself one question: would you consider yourself a Final Fantasy fan? Or have you never touched one of the 15+ main series’ titles in your life?

If you fit into the latter category, rest assured World of Final Fantasy offers little to convince anyone this is a good starting point. This is unashamedly a Final Fantasy title for the fans, of which there are many. So I’ll continue on assuming that anyone reading beyond this point has at least a passing interest in the series.

To set some context here, I’m the type whose introduction to this series was during its initial PlayStation run (I wasn’t yet born when it began), more specifically Final Fantasy VIII. I’ve played every title since, apart from exclusively online titles XI and XIV, and even ventured back to sample earlier games IV, V, and VI. I think it’s fair to say, then, that I belong around the middle of the spectrum, not quite a hardcore fan who’s played every title to completion, but someone with a good working knowledge of the series and proficient knowledge of those titles I have played. In other words, I’m enough of a fan overall to appreciate many of the references included in World of Final Fantasy, though a few did admittedly fly over my head.

At its core that’s essentially what this game is: fan service, in its self-referential nature, gameplay style, and characteristic meandering plot. Initially it feels rather like 2000’s Final Fantasy IX, itself seen as a romantic title harking back to the series’ earlier days before it moved on to the ‘new’ era with Final Fantasy X on the PS2. This is most obvious in its retro-feeling visual style, which is undeniably charming and, in its own way, beautiful.

Character models verge between cartoonish, child-like and disproportionate (a slight nod back to the 2D era of gaming when every character’s head was as big as the rest of their body) to more realistic and evenly proportioned. This is worked into the story, as the two main characters you control during this game, Reynn and Lann, can transform between the former (known here as ‘Lilikins’) and the latter (known as ‘Jiants’).

While your party is, on the surface, restricted to these two characters for the entire game, this gives way to arguably this game’s best attribute, at least in the earlier stages. That is its battling, which revolves around catching ‘mirages’ (basically, monsters with a name that won’t put children off) and stacking them within your party.

Tactically, the stacking system feels addictive, while the colourful visuals add character to the game world.
Tactically, the stacking system feels addictive, while the colourful visuals add character to the design of the game world.

Every mirage has different strengths, and they’re split into three different sizes – small, medium and large – which naturally leads to multiple playing styles and tactics you can employ. Will you stack mirages with similar strengths, or try to balance out their weaknesses? Fans will enjoy the nostalgic designs; being able to get on top of a Malboro’s head in battle is just one of the small joys this game offers. The return of turn-based battles, random encounters and the ‘active time battle’ system from earlier titles is also strangely refreshing, while levelling up occurs on a board similar to the method used in Final Fantasy X and XIII.

The system is not perfect, though. As every mirage begins at level 1 from the moment you catch it, you’re going to have an issue if you find one in the late-game that you wish to add to your party. In my case I had a few different stack selections I was happy with relatively early on, and didn’t vary them much beyond the half-way stage of the game. On the flip side, battle difficulty also appears to wane slightly as you get further on and your team becomes more powerful, when traditionally the opposite is true of RPGs and even other Final Fantasy games. This may be due to the game trying to appeal more to kids and not wanting to be too hard for them to get through it, though it is still interesting enough overall to appeal to more mature players – if not those who prefer a hardcore challenge.

While the gameplay represents World of Final Fantasy’s most addictive aspect, the characters you’re playing with represent something else entirely. Brother/sister duo Lann and Reynn are generic and stereotypical, the former filling the role of an ‘annoying brat’ and his big sister being the typical know-it-all. But far and away the most irritating aspect of this game is their companion (i.e. mascot) Tama, an overly cutesy mirage who places ‘the-’ in front of random objectives every other sentence (she’ll regularly say stuff like “we have to the-run” or “time to the-catch the mirage”). Thankfully there’s an option to skip dialogue, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing that every time Tama starts talking. Even the average 10-year-old I doubt would find it enjoyable.

Generic and annoying main characters aside, others you meet on your journey around the land of Grymoire – basically an amalgamation of various regions from past Final Fantasy titles – help keep the experience fresh. These include famous protagonists from the series’ history such as Cloud (VII), Squall (VIII), Tidus and Yuna (X), Lightning and Snow (XIII), as well as several older characters who I didn’t initially recognise (though the first ‘summon’ you get in this game is a wonderful throwback to the original Final Fantasy; even I could appreciate that).

The game has a surprisingly clever sense of humour and regularly pokes fun at itself – including THAT unbearably awkward laughing scene from Final Fantasy X when you visit the region of Besaid from that game. Every time you catch a new mirage, you’re given a short description that may reference the monster’s past in other games, and the subtle jokes inserted in there never failed to make me chuckle. It is in this aspect that I think the game appeals to more mature players, as there’s no way kids are going to get the humour in most of the references. I certainly enjoyed this element of the game immensely.

Unfortunately, the backdrop to these wonderful references and nostalgia trips is a rather uninspiring plot that becomes unnecessarily convoluted the further you go in the game. This, like the annoyance one feels toward the central characters, exposes World of Final Fantasy’s weakness: its original elements (i.e. when it isn’t relying on nostalgia, borrowed characters and ideas) are utterly forgettable.

But for most fans, I daresay that won’t be a problem. It certainly didn’t stop me enjoying the overall experience for what it was. In fact, there came a clear emotional point in this game for me in which I couldn’t help but react with the kind of pure nostalgic joy that I haven’t felt since revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4. Obviously I won’t spoil it here, but I will say it was upon visiting a well-known location from my personal favourite game in this series, Final Fantasy VIII, at a pivotal point in the story. Yes, it was a joyful fanboy moment, and I have few of those.

So naturally I will be grading this title on a curve, the caveat being that those who aren’t quite as big a fan of Final Fantasy may very well find their overall enjoyment of World of Final Fantasy affected by that. Technically this is a game with a few glaring flaws, but one that has the priceless value of nostalgia thanks to the extensive back catalogue the Final Fantasy series has built up over its 30-year history. Catching and battling with mirages admittedly has the air of Pokemon about it as well; you can even ‘transfigure’ them into larger mirages when you level them up or obtain certain items. For completionists, there is an unmistakable joy to be found in discovering them all. For the rest of you, you may just be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

7 / 10

Previews

Preview: Elle.

Elle, a 2016 French psychological thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Isabelle Huppert in a role for which she’s become a surprising front-runner for the Academy Award for Best Actress, has quickly become one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Unfortunately, as it’s not due for release in the UK until March 10th, I likely won’t be seeing it until after the Oscars have been handed out on February 26th. But based on what we know of this film thus far, it deserves the recognition it gets, and bearing in mind the subject in question, I’m still somewhat taken aback that it has gotten such attention in the first place.

The film’s central character, played by Huppert, is the female head of a video game company. Themes tackled include rape, violence and murder, involving Huppert’s character whether directly or indirectly, which seem interesting if only for the reason that these are themes associated negatively with the video game industry in recent years. This is no coincidence I’m sure, and I’m intrigued to find out just how Elle tackles these issues – that, for me, will make or break the film, as I have my own strong feelings on the matter.

I’m making an educated guess that the movie tackles them intelligently and maturely, hence my eagerness to see it. Whatever the case may be, Elle promises to be a thought-provoking film for UK audiences to look forward to. No doubt you’ll be hearing more about this one in the weeks to come.

Uncategorized

An Open Mind is a Learning Mind.

I’m one of those people who needs to write. I’d go so far as to say my health – perhaps my very survival – depends on it. That isn’t me trying to sound melodramatic.

No, I, like many other writers, consider writing not simply a hobby or a method of making money, though it can and does fit easily into those categories. When I say I’m a writer, I’m saying it is as important an activity as eating or sleeping; to go without it for too long leads to moodiness and agitation.

Naturally with writing, one also ends up reading. To write means to record ideas on paper, and one can’t do that unless you’ve first gathered inspiration to form ideas worth recording. Ideas, information and knowledge are things I’ve treasured along with writing from a young age. In more recent years I’ve also become passionate about the importance of establishing the difference between ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’, whether historical or current, and the methods by which we go about establishing said distinction. Do you believe stuff based on evidence? What, in your mind, constitutes evidence? Hint: it isn’t always what people try to say it is.

To think about this is, I think, especially vital in the age of the Internet, where we’re exposed at ease to many opinions often presenting themselves as fact, and vice versa. Unless you want to believe everything, or nothing, or just stick to the inherent bias you grew up with, then you had better develop an eye for what constitutes evidence and a good argument. There’s a lot of bullshit out there, but that’s not to say I don’t value the Internet extremely highly; it has led to my generation becoming arguably the most open-minded of any generation before us. Growing up with so many easily accessible ideas around us has, in general, been healthy.

I find it hard being around people who do not care about these things, who may accept ‘truths’ just based on bias rather than applying critical thought; I find it offensive, and insulting, to see and hear that kind of thing in my presence. I’m not easily offended but this, you could say, is one of my ‘triggers’. Journalistic integrity and freedom of speech are two of the absolute pillars of a free-thinking society, while censorship lies at the opposing end of the spectrum (to be clear, by censorship I do not mean age ratings on products like movies and video games, which are often helpful and entirely necessary).

In my mind the acts of writing and critical thinking go hand in hand, though I know this is not the case for everyone – as I have read plenty in which it was clear the writer was not a critical thinker. Nor must one be particularly intelligent to write a lot, though to be a good writer (volume written doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality content) requires knowledge, not only of your craft but of the world around you.

Naturally then, the best writers also tend to be among the smartest, though it would depend on your point of view pertaining to how we should judge this kind of thing. Do we judge a writer by how clear and concise their style, or by how much knowledge they communicate through it? I suppose the best of them have both qualities. I certainly like to strive for both.

I grew up in a relatively ‘free’ family environment, with parents who weren’t overly strict and didn’t force any particularly weird rules upon me. It was an environment in which I was free to play video games, watch films, and read books without having to worry about which ones were ‘banned’, though at the same time neither of my parents were especially interested in those things and did not therefore instil any inherent bias for or against either. Each medium played their part in helping me grow up relatively open-minded and with an understanding that the world was bigger than my own little bubble.

To an extent, I do consider an open mind to be a privilege; one that many other people who grow up in different family environments aren’t encouraged to have (not that I was particularly encouraged towards it, but it wasn’t heavily discouraged either). Would I really have had the same learning opportunities, the same privilege of experiencing different sides to the world at an age where my mind had not yet grown hardened to them, had I grown up in a strict religious family for example? Likely not.

I find it a great shame when parents take it upon themselves to mould their children into who they want them to be (“for their own good!”), rather than allowing that child the space to discover themselves as an individual. This doesn’t just happen within fundamentally religious families either, and it isn’t always obvious. But as the subject of religion is a sore point for many, including to an extent myself (which I will explain a little further on), let’s stick on it for a moment.

Looking across the history of Western civilisation, our society and culture in the UK, US and Europe have been moulded by Christianity to the point where people have grown up believing – often subconsciously, before coming to ‘know Christ’ and being ‘born again’ later – in God, particularly the version of him portrayed in the Bible. Horror movies and literature in the West often portray demons or the devil himself as the source of all evil. In a court of law, people must place their hands on the Bible in some vague appeal to their conscience; a reminder that God is watching and they’ll be somehow punished for not telling the truth in front of Him.

Not that I want to get too deep into that issue here; what I’d rather do is illustrate how our ability to be open-minded about stuff can be inhibited simply through the culture or environment in which we grow up. If you grew up in the UK like me, you’ll be familiar with our inherently Christian culture. The US is similar, if not worse when it pertains to a Christianised culture, though the secular/ religious divide is arguably more extreme (or at least, more vocal) there as well. The UK, while moderately liberal, is also less willing to voice concerns over things like our monarchy, when we really should.

Now, I think it’s fine for people to acknowledge they’re not ‘open-minded’ about certain things, so long as they are aware of it. PC culture would dictate that we need to be respectful of everything, to the tiniest detail, but we’re all inherently different to begin with and naturally aren’t all going to see things in the same light. Some people don’t like swearing, others do. Some of us like eating meat, others don’t. People on either side, or somewhere in the middle, should be able to live how they want. Don’t rely on the approval of others for that. Equally, don’t expect everyone to be fully accepting of it.

Each of us have our inherent biases; open-mindedness is being able to recognise that bias and acknowledge there are people who’ll be coming from a different point of view. So long as that point of view doesn’t cause or advocate harm to others – which, again, is where religion can pose a bit of a problem – there’s no reason we can’t all respect each other as fellow humans while acknowledging our differences and not getting offended over stupid shit.

My own bias plays in to how I’m writing this article. Why is it, for example, that I feel the need to say swearing is okay, when really most people don’t need to be told that to do it anyway? Or why I focus on the importance of respecting points of view other than your own? Well, it comes back, again, to religion, more specifically Christianity; a religion that did not dictate too harshly how I should live my life growing up, but did at least subtly hold me back from fully expressing myself. Looking back on it, and seeing the effect it has on others as well, it’s clear this is what it does.

The unique thing about Christianity – at least, the Protestant side of which I have direct experience – is that it does not say you must obey its rules, and yet you kind of do, because if you don’t, it means you don’t really love Jesus and will go to hell anyway. A little slip-up is okay, but you must live the correct lifestyle consistently if you’re a ‘proper’ Christian. And boy, being told you’re “not a true Christian” is regarded as the highest form of insult. It’s something they’ll use against me, to discredit my own experiences, because in their eyes only someone who was “never a true Christian” could ever wish to turn away from it.

In many cases, Christians will use that one line as an all-encompassing excuse not to truly engage with issues raised by those who disagree with them. In fact, in my years of being around Christians, I can say in hindsight that many of those relationships, in the interest of ‘accountability’, involve carefully examining each other to determine whether one is a ‘proper Christian’, and each will make their determination, whether privately or publicly, about whether someone else is.

Christianity is supposedly about choosing to do the right thing through your own free will. But free will, of course, only goes as far as our inherent bias lets it – and this religion knows that all too well. It teaches the ultimate form of bias – that when we get to heaven, we’ll want to obey God without question, out of free will, because that will be our inherent nature. For now, on earth, we must deal with our ‘sinful’ nature, which wants to do bad things against God.

I’ll continue on that diatribe another time – there is so much more to say – but for now rest assured I’ve managed, though it has taken a lot of work, plenty of inner conflict, self-justification and thorough research, to largely let go of the hold Christianity had over me growing up and even up until a couple of years ago. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I have anything against Christians as people, though they can’t seem to help but take it personally (and I suppose one can’t blame them, if they believe with honest conviction) when others tell them they think their religion isn’t true.

The single biggest factor in breaking free from the confines of certain aspects of a religion, or anything else, relies on someone being open-minded enough in the first place to even consider whether they might be wrong. Of course I’m not saying that one necessarily leads on to the other (plenty of open-minded Christians have helped carry it out of the dark ages – while many conservatives/ traditionalists/ fundamentalists would claim that’s precisely the problem), but it’s certainly rare for anyone to leave their religion unless they’re open-minded enough to consider something other than what they’ve been conditioned to believe is true. They could, having considered everything else, still settle on Christianity being the truth, and I wouldn’t begrudge them that; it’s their prerogative to believe what they want, just as it is mine.

But if you consider it impossible for yourself to be wrong about something as ‘big’, as important as this, then you’re going to see opposing viewpoints through that specific lens. And naturally you’re going to shut yourself off from learning specifically why people might hold different points of view, because in your mind, in your version of reality, they’re already wrong and you – say, through the Bible – already have all the answers you’ll ever need.

Or maybe it’s more that, deep down, you’re terrified of realising you were wrong, having to admit it to others, and the damaged relationships that would inevitably result from that. I can understand that concern. I’ve seen it before, in people who stick with the Christian lifestyle not because they passionately believe in it, but because they perceive it to be simpler than the alternative, especially if they have a family of their own or friends who look up to them for spiritual support. The amount of Christian pastors hiding this kind of secret – feeling the weight of responsibility to ‘lead the flock’ and fear of letting them down – would shock the everyday church-goer.

I have realised I may need to pad what I say a little here, for those who may not know the full context surrounding my current opinions. First, if it seems I am overly negative towards Christianity, now or at any point to come, this is not necessarily an attack on its principles or even on the faith itself. Many Christians I’ve known are the liberal type who do not adhere strictly to everything the Bible says, or take what it says literally in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary. Those people are Christian simply because the lifestyle makes most sense to them, and that’s fine.

However, let’s bear in mind what I said about bias. I am a UK citizen, yes, but more than that: I was born and lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland up to the age of 18, at which point I moved over to England for university.

Now, I’m going to assume any potential readers won’t quite realise the significance of that, so I’ll divulge some more. In Northern Ireland, as most people will know, we have a bit of a history of conflict; a kind of Irish ‘civil war’ as such, originating from when Ireland joined the UK a few centuries ago largely against the will of the Irish people. Long story short, back in 1922 the Irish Free State was formed as Ireland won some measure of independence from Britain (though they still had to abide by an ‘oath of allegiance’ to the UK until achieving full independence via a referendum in 1937).

At the same time, the predominantly unionist (that is; loyal to the union of the United Kingdom) six counties of Northern Ireland decided they wanted no part of Irish independence from the crown, and this country itself was technically formed in 1922 as well. Republicans (that is; those who are committed to seeing a fully independent Irish republic) have always held issue with this, just as unionists held issue with southern Ireland trying to take what they saw as their British identity. Even today, Northern Ireland sits in a unique position, in which its residents can claim to be Irish or British and neither would be lying; we are, after all, entitled to dual citizenship from birth should we so wish to claim it.

A large part of the origins of that conflict between Ireland and the UK was this: Ireland was largely a Catholic country, whereas the UK, at that time in the 1700s and continuing since, was protestant. So while technically you could say that means they were both ‘Christian’, no. Trust me, growing up in Northern Ireland it’s impossible to see ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ as equally Christian. You’re either on one side or the other, and our version of ‘peace’ is tolerating the other side while those old grievances still reside in the back of our minds.

For me growing up in a predominantly Protestant area, I naturally also grew up with that bias. But now, at this stage of my life, I see it all for what it is. Some others of my generation – usually those who have not ventured outside Northern Ireland to live for any sustained amount of time – still hold that strong sense of bias, and probably always will, as I firmly believe it becomes harder and harder to let go of built-in beliefs the older you get. None of us want to feel we wasted years of our lives being wrong about something after all, so as time goes on we’re more likely to make excuses to ourselves that help us keep believing it, partly also for the pride of being known as someone who ‘sticks to their convictions’ rather than someone who ‘flip flops around changing their mind’.

The elephant in the room when it comes to religion and conflict in Ireland, of course, is the claim I made to myself and others for many years: that the violence perpetuated in the name of God was committed by those who “weren’t truly Christian”. This is like what I said before; Christians justifying actions they don’t like by those who seemingly share their faith by simply disregarding it as “not the God I believe in”. If other believers aren’t acting the way you think they should, just keep yourself happy by saying they’re not ‘proper Christians’ and move on, free of any guilt and/or responsibility on the part of your own personal faith in God. Something similar is happening on a more global scale with Islam currently, but I won’t be touching that hot topic here.

Obviously we shouldn’t paint everyone with the same broad brush. We’re individuals, and we’re human, which means we all have different tendencies. Some of us gravitate more naturally to violence, though again there are environmental factors influencing that. Still, it’s undeniable: the Irish ‘troubles’ have their origin firmly rooted not just in patriotism but in the religion that goes hand in hand with it.

Christians on the outside looking in may try to justify their own belief in the loving nature of God by claiming they don’t represent him, but that’s precisely why they were fighting. Unionists would resist Irish rule “for God and country”. In their place would you not do the same to defend your own deeply rooted convictions/ beliefs? The men on the ground, murdering each other for a higher cause, were doing it because they believed it was God’s will in both cases, on either side – and it would not have been uncommon to see those same men in church on a Sunday morning, having taken part in terrorist acts during the week and planning more for the week to come.

All of this leads up to where Northern Ireland stands today. Belfast itself is an impressively modern city, attracting tourists from around the world and parts of it, particularly the city centre, looking a world away from the depressingly grey colours associated with the 1970s. I truly enjoy being back for the most part.

But it’s not all great. Our government serves as a stark reminder of our recent history, not only in its finely balanced unionist/republican divide (to get into the intricacies of it would be too complicated a matter to delve into here) but in the hold that religion has over us. Gay marriage is still illegal and our majority party, the DUP, have vowed to continue blocking it (while consensual gay sex was only decriminalised in 1982). Abortion is only legal under extremely strict criteria, and Northern Irish women often need to travel to England for private treatment to carry one out. Bars and clubs are forbidden from serving alcohol before 11.30am (whereas in England you can grab a beer from 7am in Weatherspoon’s if you feel so inclined).

Whether you feel strongly about the above issues or not, it’s indisputable that Northern Ireland feels a little left behind, even when compared to other regions within the United Kingdom. Of course, we have enough conservative Christian unionists living here that our population is generally happy with things as they are, as they see it as sticking to the rules set out in holy scripture. For me, I feel almost embarrassed by this stuff, and can’t see myself ever coming back to live long-term in Belfast unless certain things change.

Living in England introduced me to many Christians who were more open-minded than the kind of Christianity I’d always known in my homeland. And well, I’ve simply carried on from there, never really wanting to stand still, always keen to learn more. I don’t feel any blind loyalty to one way of thinking, and I don’t consider myself a nationalist in any sense of the word.

There’s one other element that went into all of this that can’t be discarded; in fact it may be the most important one of all. I mentioned earlier, near the beginning, how films and video games had been an important part of my childhood. One can’t be truly passionate about either of these mediums without encountering other cultures in the process. Two of my favourite video games, for example, are the survival horror game Silent Hill and its classic sequel on the PS2 (both developed in Japan), which first introduced me to the subtle elements of atmospheric horror unique to Asia.

Around that time, J-horror was also starting to take the film industry by storm, with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu inspiring a 2002 Hollywood remake starring Naomi Watts. That ended up being rather short-lived, with Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) and its 2004 American remake coming along at the tail end of it, but it can be attributed to sparking my interest in Japanese cinema and, more broadly, Asian culture. Why is this significant? Well, naturally, the more you see of the world, the less you feel you lie at the centre of it. Perhaps something I read recently can help sum it up; “A stolid attachment to a monolithic set of institutional forms becomes much more difficult when one is constantly faced with the beliefs and disbeliefs of many other traditions” (from Ghosts and the Japanese, Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken, introduction).

This, I believe, is why many Christians steadfastly refuse to openly engage with other ways of thinking; deep down they know it could lead to them questioning themselves and ultimately ‘losing face’ should they begin to doubt their own faith. So they build caricatures and stereotypes of other worldviews and belief systems, because that makes it easier for them to paint themselves as the ‘enlightened few’ who have the One truth. Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence summed up the inherent cultural differences and conflicts between East and West quite succinctly I think.

Sure, Christians may go on ‘missions’ with a view to ‘evangelising’ to those caught up in cultures they see as less enlightened, but they do not truly engage with the existing culture they meet when they get there, aside from the actions one must take so as not to appear awkward – such as taking your shoes off at the door when entering a home in Japan, for example. Even at the peak of my faith I could not help but feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at the idea of ‘mission’ to spread the gospel to those we see as less fortunate than ourselves. They’d return talking about how they ‘learned so much’… but I wonder how much they did learn, really?

I wanted to set this context so that anyone reading may understand my point of view a little better. I’m not saying others who were to go on a similar journey to myself would come to the same conclusions. I know some may read what I say about religion or Christianity and say “well, that’s not my experience”, and that’s cool. This is just me. Find your own way, but don’t let that way be dictated by blind loyalty, dodgy reasoning or a fear of changing your mind. Who knows… letting go of those things may help open the doors to something new.

Film reviews, LFF 2016

Moonlight.

moonlight-pic-1

On paper, Moonlight is a film that faced an uphill battle from the start. This film, perhaps more than any other this year, breaks conventions, and not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to tell its story. That story, and the tiny cast of characters we meet along the way, have helped Moonlight deservedly become one of the favourites for February’s Best Picture race at the Oscars on a relatively small $5 million budget and reportedly tight shooting schedule.

In reality, Moonlight is made a success precisely because it didn’t face an uphill battle when it came to its production crew. Director Barry Jenkins and his small, exclusively black cast give their all to tell a story often left untold in media and literature; that of a young black man, growing up in a rough neighborhood with an addict for a mother and surrounded by drug dealers, who discovers he’s gay. The latter part of that premise is what’s new here, but the rest of it shouldn’t be disregarded – this doesn’t come across as a heavy-handed social justice movie. On the contrary, its themes and ideas are there to complement its story, rather than force an agenda down your throat.

Central to this character-driven plot is Chiron, played over the course of the film by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as the story is split into three acts spanning childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Naomie Harris, brilliant as ever, plays his drug-addicted mother in a role for which she deserves recognition in Best Actress categories during awards season, while Mahershala Ali gives a similarly outstanding performance as crack dealer Juan, who becomes a father figure to Chiron in the first act.

One of the things I loved about this film was that it takes an issue often associated with ‘social justice’ and ‘political correctness’ – homosexuality – and puts it in an environment where those terms are alien; a community where common slang still involves words like faggot being thrown around liberally. In Moonlight the issue of homosexuality is real; it’s an intrinsic part of Chiron’s life, yet one he struggles to comprehend and doesn’t feel able to engage with openly or inwardly. It’s a world away from Facebook and Twitter, where everyone is bravely typing behind their computer screens, telling people they don’t know what they can or can’t say. For me, only through a film like Moonlight, which portrays the harsh realities that kids in certain communities face growing up, can an issue like this truly be engaged with in a helpful manner.

Anyone concerned about having to sit through uncomfortable sex scenes needn’t worry – this is certainly no Blue is the Warmest Colour. Essentially it’s a story about what’s left undone, what’s left unsaid in Chiron’s life; he himself is clearly an introvert who struggles to articulate his feelings at the best of times, having grown up without a father, and a mother who, when she wasn’t taking drugs, spent her time prostituting herself in order to pay for them. There is little here to offend anyone who appreciates good storytelling within its contextual setting.

Should Moonlight steal a few headlines in the early months of next year during awards season, there may be some who’ll try to claim it’s merely a reaction to last year’s “whitewashing” controversy, with its exclusively black cast. I hope I have communicated here that to do so would be a disservice to this film. It’s one of my favourite movies of the year, and the acting is some of the best I’ve seen this year. Whatever Moonlight wins in February, it has earned on merit – not because of some online social justice movement.

10 / 10