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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

Film reviews, LFF 2016

Paterson.

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Paterson is quite simply a film about the day-to-day life of a working man, and the normal everyday trials – from walking the dog to mild disagreements with the wife – that the average working class man goes through. No more, no less.

Adam Driver plays the title character, who drives a blue bus around the small American town of Paterson. In his spare time he likes writing poetry; not particularly good poetry, but one can admire the quiet passion he pours into it. His wife is also an artistic type with dreams of being a fashion designer; again, she has little talent, yet unlike her husband, who keeps his feet firmly on the ground, her head often appears to be in the clouds. You can tell he loves her, though. Most evenings he enjoys walking his dog down the road towards the local pub, where he ties her up outside, while he goes in for a beer.

This is Paterson, the latest directorial effort from Jim Jarmusch following Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). And while all that may sound rather dull and monotonous to some, it turned out to be one of my favourite films of the year.

There’s something undeniably comforting about watching this movie from the comfort of a cinema seat. Whether it’ll retain that same sense of easy comfort from a seat in one’s front room while watching on a smaller screen remains to be seen – but I’d wager the experience won’t be too different. Driver inhabits the role of Paterson (who, yes, shares his name with the small town in which he lives and works) with such ease, instantly bringing the audience alongside him to share in his humble life experiences. I dare you not to like him, and grow to enjoy spending time with this character as if he were a close friend.

Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani plays his wife Laura, who brings a similarly likable if somewhat quirky quality to the film. Of course, one can’t talk about Paterson’s cast without also mentioning arguably its star player, Nellie, who plays the couple’s dog and won the Palm Dog Award for best canine performance at Cannes earlier this year.

My favourite scene involves a conversation Paterson has with an unnamed Asian man (played by Masatoshi Nagase) on a park bench towards the film’s conclusion; this serves as the closest thing this movie has to a payoff, following the closest thing it has to a crisis point in the story. Needless to say, neither are pulse-inducing by modern cinematic standards. But, particularly in this day and age, Paterson feels like that rare breed of film everyone could do with seeing a little more of.

9 / 10

Uncategorized

How political correctness helped fuel social discontent and radical politics.

The surge in ‘political correctness’ in Western society over recent years has helped fuel a push-back from the far right in politics… as well as the rise of extremist groups like ISIS (not that I want to get into war or foreign policy decisions here – but their hatred of our ‘privileged’ Western way of life also cannot be ignored). Now, we have to figure out a way of dealing with it that doesn’t only include what we’ve been doing up to this point. It will need something more.

Mainstream politics is changing. The UK government earlier this year campaigned hard for remaining in the EU, only to be humiliated when 52% of the voting public showed they weren’t listening, or at least didn’t want to. In the US election, Hillary Clinton was very much the candidate of the ‘establishment’; for whom supporters claimed her experience alone qualified her more for presidential office than counterpart Donald Trump. It’s true; if the presidency was a normal offer of employment for which prospective candidates had to submit a CV and go through an interview for the job, Clinton would have been a shoe-in, and was still seen as such even in the democratic environment where we should know anything can happen. Those at the top became complacent, thinking people would vote the way they ‘should’ vote, trusting that the majority would ‘see sense’ and that things would inevitably go the right way.

For too long the US establishment mistakenly looked at Trump as the underdog – someone who perhaps would provide an easy opponent against whom the Democrats could guarantee the first female president. I won’t get too much into party politics here, but let’s just say if it had been Bernie Sanders going against Trump in this election, I daresay we would have seen a different outcome; but nor would so many people be in uproar right now at the fact that a perceived sexist misogynist pig could get as many votes as a woman whose greatest attribute, aside from her gender (which I’m sure the Democrats hoped would suffice), was ‘experience’.

Politics for so long has been about a cult of personality; to the extent that most who considered themselves ‘decent’ people thought there was no chance anyone could possibly vote for a candidate like Trump. Rather than trying to answer the concerns raised by Trump regarding the establishment, concerns clearly shared by those planning to vote for him, they instead called into question his character – something which many of his supporters actually considered secondary. Yes, some people dared not be offended so easily. Quite a lot of people, as it turned out, hadn’t bought into the politically correct mindset that dictates we must all be offended by certain things.

Yet that mindset is still being pushed in the aftermath of this election, and (to a lesser extent perhaps) the EU referendum that preceded it. Those who have voted for personal reasons this year have been largely labelled racist, misogynist or a variety of other general labels, thrown by people over the Internet to strangers they don’t know, based on the perception created by a minority who’ve taken to bullying others in public places without being openly challenged for it. People would rather take a recording with their phone and/ or condemn the actions online later, when they’re back in their safe space.

Everyone’s brave when they’re given a keyboard with which to fight their own little battles. But put them in the midst of an actual problem or confrontation, and that’s when your politically correct cultural bubble won’t protect you. We’re part of a generation that hasn’t had to fight any great wars; we’re subject to a movement that seeks to somehow convince us that words are the real enemy, that being offended is the real evil.

Speaking of online labeling, it is the emergence of mass social media usage that has given rise to a greater cultural awareness of how things work, including politics… People are more aware than ever of the kind of corruption that occurs at the highest level. True, president Obama has shown us that it is still possible for the establishment to inspire the general public; all it really takes is charisma, which I’m afraid Clinton just did not have. Many people now consider a vote against this establishment as a victory.

Notice as well, how when people look back at Obama’s tenure as president, their first thought won’t be that he was only elected ‘because he was black’. No, he is perhaps the most charismatic leader of modern times, and it largely helped carry him through two terms. The social justice, politically correct movement wanted Hillary Clinton to be president mainly so they could say we had elected the first female president. But these things shouldn’t be forced; when a candidate comes along who is able to engage with people, as Obama did, and to a lesser extent as Trump has been able to do, they will find success. It would be shallow, not to mention quite insulting for anyone to claim that Obama was elected for his colour rather than on merit; it would be equally insulting for a woman to be elected president just because she was a woman. There will be a female president in the near future, I’m sure of that; but it will be someone who is able to bring people together and inspire others better than Hillary Clinton could do.

From another perspective, things have happened during Obama’s time as president that has gradually seen people who may have voted for him previously, now be turned off. The rise of ISIS means we are living in a different world now than when Obama was first elected, and their undeniable association with the Islamic faith has provided an extra incentive for single-minded people to vote for the kind of rhetoric that Trump – and the ‘leave’ side of the EU referendum in the UK – has come out with (though don’t me wrong, I acknowledge – unlike some other people – this was only one small part of the campaign, and for a lot of people, an insignificant one). As the ostracism of Muslims and other minorities may only serve to push them into the manipulative hands of extremists and greater hatred of us in ‘the West’, we could be heading for an uncomfortable few years to come.

We’re seeing now that political correctness is laughable in the face of extremism. It serves to reinforce our privilege. That is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t respect each other, that we shouldn’t value different opinions and viewpoints, but the balance has been unsettled. PC culture has gone too far in trying to force a polite society in which everyone thinks a certain way and doesn’t offend each other.

Being around people who think differently from us, those who have other opinions we may not be used to, is healthy. Even getting offended from time to time is healthy. It’s how we learn. Respect for each other isn’t something that can be forced; it’s something to be earned. There is supposed to be a balance somewhere, in which we feel comfortable in being ourselves but at the same time don’t think everyone else around us should be the same way.

Our PC culture has gone some way to unsettling this balance, and the drastic push back from the other side is something we are now seeing take form. Because many people feel they’ve been forced into accepting everything, from other cultures to other lifestyles, opinions and viewpoints, they now want to close the borders instead (to cite one example).

This culture of being afraid of offending each other has made Western society reluctant to call bullshit when necessary. Then someone like Trump comes along, who says things the establishment would dare not say, who in the process freely and willingly risks offending whole groups of people, and in doing so speaks to a group who felt the same way as he but were reluctant to say it openly.

It’s something new, something that a lot of people haven’t seen in the mainstream for a very long time… They’re so used to everything being polished and orderly, of politicians saying the right things, smiling at the right times, looking perfect for every photo opportunity. They’re tired of the comfortable political system that has formed in the years since the latter stages of the Cold War, at which point countries in the West had really begun to get their houses in order and set up some kind of peaceful political structure.

Western countries like the US, the UK, most of the EU, became comfortable with their ‘system of structure’. Then along comes a catastrophic event like 9/11, an attack on this way of life and in some ways the catalyst for the problems we’re faced with today, and everything began to change again…

When the structure comes under attack, people start looking around for who’s to blame, and we inevitably begin to point fingers at each other, letting our minds become clouded as we’re bombarded with various conflicting messages in this digital age. Granted, in 2001 it was easy to see who was to blame – those evil people over there in Iraq who don’t share our treasured Western values. Therefore we had to invade them to get our ‘revenge’ and stand up for these values; an action that began a chain reaction leading to where we find ourselves today. That certain things have since come to light regarding the Bush administration (I won’t be going into them here, except for the use of one key word: oil) is in no small part to blame for the major loss of faith in ‘the establishment’ and the rise of an outsider like Donald Trump.

One must remember, the ‘digital age’ is still relatively young – social media itself has only hit its ‘boom’ period during president Obama’s tenure in office. Up until around 2008 it was still somewhat niche. Now everyone talks about ‘giving us a like on Facebook’ or how many Twitter followers they have… and this has changed how the population thinks, it has changed how we communicate. It can be used to communicate messages positive or negative, of hope or despair, on a mass global scale in a matter of seconds, and everyone wants to get involved to show they have a voice. They want to be acknowledged so they feel their opinion has value.

Some who voted for Trump will have felt that their voices weren’t being heard, either by the establishment or by those of us who try to impose political correctness on others. Many of them we don’t see on social media, probably because, again, so many of us refuse to engage with those who think differently on issues we feel strongly about. We think Facebook and Twitter are good barometers of the broad social climate, and are then shocked to find out half the country might dare to disagree with us.

And how do we respond? The only way the Internet knows how; by broadly labeling, throwing insults at people we don’t know, and panicking that the world we live in may not be the perfect cosy little one we thought political correctness had achieved.

But the digital age also provides hope for those who think everything’s suddenly gone to shit. Things like racism and bigotry will phase out of society over time, as people are exposed to more stuff and naturally become more educated – the Internet is perhaps best used in this capacity. I don’t deny that racism and bigotry helped swing the vote in both ‘Brexit’ and the US election. Yes, there were a LOT of voters voting who were not racists and bigots, but that doesn’t allow us to discount the fact that those things DID swing the vote in both cases, because both cases were narrow victories. We know by the rhetoric that was being thrown around by the campaigns in both cases beforehand, and by those who feel they’ve been empowered in the aftermath.

American citizens need to remember that slavery of human beings of a different colour to white folk is still a relatively recent tragedy, and something their country has never really dealt with. Racists do still exist, that’s the undeniable and unfortunate reality, but there are now far less of them than there once was, and no, Trump’s victory does not automatically imply that half of the US is still overtly racist.

Education is relentless in the long run, and the answer to our concerns is to keep strong in our own convictions and beliefs. History has shown us that hate and bigotry doesn’t win. But it is also now showing us, perhaps, that the other extreme of political correctness doesn’t win either.

More of us need to be willing to stand up to things like racism when we see it on our doorstep. To not be afraid of offending people by calling out bullshit if it is for the greater good. To accept that different opinions exist, but they do not necessarily imply evil intentions.

Perhaps politics in 2016 has helped wake some of us back up from our complacency and realise this once again. We’ve become too comfortable, too reliant on ‘political correctness’ to make the world a nicer place rather than doing the hard work ourselves. Too worried about what people say, rather than focusing on what people do. Trump is a fine example of someone who’s taken advantage of that, and stepped into the void created by the failed US political system, of which Hillary Clinton was the finest model. If she had been half as radical as her opponent with her message, we wouldn’t be here now – but the best reason her supporters could come up with for voting Clinton was ‘experience’. That’s not what American or British people wanted this year; their message was “enough of the status quo”. Mainstream politics needs to step up and listen if it wants to win them back.

Previews

Preview: Shin Godzilla.

The original Godzilla, released in Japan in 1954 and rich in thematic influences from the atomic bomb that ended the Second World War, is one of my favourite films; one I can still enjoy today despite its humble special effects. So it should come as no surprise that this is one of my most anticipated movies right now.

Shin Godzilla was released in Japan back in July, and had a limited theatrical run in North America as Godzilla Resurgence. Unfortunately there’s no word on a UK/ European release yet, and as of writing it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any time soon. But I am hopeful we’ll be seeing this film on the big screen over here at some point in 2017. An imported DVD/ Blu-ray copy would be a poor substitute.

In the trailer below you can decipher Godzilla’s iconic roar, almost unchanged from the 1954 original, and a similarly refreshing vintage soundtrack that feels reminiscent of the old monster movies from Godzilla’s peak years. His design, as well, returns somewhat to the roots of the franchise (now 31 films old, including this one), though this is apparently the largest version of the creature yet.

I can’t wait for some kaiju action when Godzilla eventually finds his way to these shores again – hopefully someone at Toho gets the message.

 

Previews

Preview: Get Out.

Now, this is a very interesting, potentially awkwardly hilarious and sinister horror movie due to be released in the US next February.

The directorial debut from actor/ writer Jordan Peele, Get Out has been described (in his own words) as “a horror movie, but with a satirical premise”. He’s also talked about the fascination he has with the combination of horror and comedy. This film certainly looks like it combines those genres well.

It’s a movie that clearly winks to the racial tensions prevalent in US society today; rather than tackling the issue with a high-minded serious attitude, it instead embraces the culture in which it resides, with exaggerated white characters whose racism is initially hidden but then emerges in dramatic fashion. Like all good satires, it appears to combine undertones of truth with a veil of comedy.

Daniel Kaluuya plays the central character and is typically, it seems, one of the few black actors in the film – though the fact that he is the central character, as a young black man, is already breaking established conventions of most Hollywood horror movies. Usually, after all, his kind of role is the one inhabited by a young white female who can easily evoke sympathy. Conversely, I look forward to observing the emotions triggered by Kaluuya’s character, and the film overall.

Admittedly the trailer for Get Out isn’t one of my favourites – as it gives away a little more than I’d like it to, but I trust the film will have a few more surprises up its sleeves upon release. Stylistically I like it, and it certainly sets up the premise of this movie in an intriguing way. We could be looking at one of the sleeper hits of next year, if this film lives up to its potential.

Film reviews

The Childhood of a Leader.

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This is a curious one. The Childhood of a Leader chronicles events in the life of a child destined to become a fascist dictator. Growing up in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in WW1 and partly revolving around the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, parallels to Hitler’s rise are obvious. It is clear, however, that this child is not Hitler and the film shouldn’t be thought of as biographical pertaining to any one particular fascist leader; rather, it is like an amalgamation of them.

It is nonetheless fascinating to see a story told from this perspective; a character study as such, showing the elements that mix in this child’s life to help form what he will become. Can we blame nature or nurture? Could his parents and those around him have affected his life differently, or was his future inevitable due to his inherent ego and controlling personality (both of which we see form during the film)?

This movie does not necessarily attempt to answer those questions, but it does give us food for thought on the issue. Newcomer Tom Sweet plays ‘the boy’, named Prescott, and this kid is good; one of the film’s main strengths, as his onscreen presence helps communicate a sense of foreboding unease. He always comes across as naturally charismatic and charming, with an unnerving confidence and piercing stare to go with it.

Prescott shows impressive intelligence and alarming insightfulness for a boy his age; something he does not entirely share with either of his parents, one of whom is a caring mother wanting to be her son’s main influence, the other an overbearing father too busy and/ or unwilling to spend time with his son. The former is played by French actress Bérénice Bejo, best known for her role as Peppy Miller in The Artist (2011), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Irish actor Liam Cunningham, whom many people may recognise from Game of Thrones, plays Prescott’s father.

One of the most immediately striking things about the film is its score by Scott Walker. Fast, aggressive, and intimidating, this soundtrack will be one of your lasting memories of the experience, as it captures the stark urgency and dread of what awaits in Prescott’s future. Though the film’s described as a ‘historical mystery drama’, one would be forgiven for thinking its score more in line with horror; and fittingly so, as we’re dealing with a horrific – if not overtly – overall theme.

Subtly touched upon, in one scene in particular, is the treatment of Germany in the immediate aftermath of WW1. It’s hinted that this harsh, bordering on arrogant tone from representatives of the rest of Europe (one of whom is Prescott’s father) towards their defeated foe influenced what Prescott was to become; a parallel to Hitler’s rise and the factors that led to WW2.

Debut director Brady Corbet has appeared as an actor in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (the 2007 version) and a selection of other films over the past decade, as well as appearing in American TV shows such as 24 and Law & Order; so this is an experienced hand in front of the camera if not behind it. For a first feature, The Childhood of a Leader is certainly an impressive feat; winning Best Debut and Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Rounding out the core cast is Stacy Martin, a young actress most recently seen in Tale of Tales, whose stock has been gradually rising since appearing alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac; and Robert Pattinson, whose role here is a considerable departure from previous projects. Pattinson, while initially seeming only a supporting actor with not much to do, has a vital role in the film’s final scene that justifies his ‘big name’ presence.

In the end this film may bring accusations of pretentiousness – it does not explain everything nor wrap up the narrative with a neat resolution – but the ideas that Corbet communicates are something to be admired. These and a thumping, unforgettable soundtrack carry The Childhood of a Leader along at a good pace. Ultimately, it’s hard not to appreciate the experience.

8 / 10

Film reviews

Don’t Breathe.

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I went into Don’t Breathe feeling it was already a breath of fresh air.

By the looks and sound of things, there wasn’t a demon in sight… Nothing supernatural, nothing with religious undertones; just plain psychological horror driven by people in a game of survival.

Not that I don’t like supernatural horror – The Conjuring 2 was great once I got past its uninspired title, while The Witch was a refreshingly original stylistic take on the genre – but one can’t deny it’s been the default for generic Western studio horror movies in recent years.

More accurately, I should state this kind of horror is inspired predominantly by Christianity in the West – demons, the devil, etc. – and it’s that aspect which I find over-exploited. I am otherwise a big fan of supernatural horror outside of that context – when it takes cues from other cultural viewpoints, as we see in Asian horror for example. I bring up this issue now not only because it relates to part of the reason I liked Don’t Breathe, but also because it’s a discussion I’ll revisit in my review for another impressive horror movie I watched in the past few days.

To focus on the film at hand, Don’t Breathe follows three morally questionable, borderline unlikable characters who make a living by breaking into homes and selling the items they steal.

These three are the closest thing we have to protagonists, although the film quickly makes clear that two of the three will have a more interesting arc than the third. One of them, Rocky (played by Jane Levy), is taking part in these illicit activities so she can fund a move to California with her little sister to get away from an abusive mother and her new boyfriend.

The second, Alex (Dylan Minnette), provides the three with access to the homes they rob by taking advantage of his father’s occupation at a security company – though he feels some measure of guilt over it. While the third, Money (Daniel Zovatto) is not given the privilege of such a backstory; leading one to imagine, with good reason as it turns out, that he is the least important – and least likable – of the three central characters.

From this angle the film lacks substance; there’s really not much more of interest about the three characters than that. It’s only when we get to the fourth, the film’s “antagonist” (again, he has a somewhat sympathetic backstory), that this movie hits its stride.

Rocky, Alex and Money decide to rob the house of a blind war veteran after learning that he has $300,000 in cash stashed in it. Remaining unnamed, this character is known only as the ‘Blind Man’ – played by Stephen Lang who is undoubtedly the star of the film. As a former Army veteran, his character is unsurprisingly a badass who, despite his blindness, proves more than a match for the three intruders.

There is a certain pleasure in seeing two groups face off who would otherwise both be considered antagonists in a different story. We’ve seen it done before; when, for example, big franchises such as Alien and Predator collide to make what should be an amazing experience, but usually end up disappointing. Don’t Breathe is of course more down to earth, dealing with issues we can to some extent relate to, and the Blind Man’s ailment adds to the intrigue.

While this setting could have easily led to nothing more than a bunch of jump scares (the most annoying habit of Western horror), they’re refreshingly absent here. Instead the film boasts an impressive sense of atmosphere, as the experience turns into a cat-and-mouse chase with both sides fishing for an advantage. Director Fede Alvarez gets the most out of the limited space available to him; the house in which we spend most of the movie isn’t exactly large, and we end up covering almost every corner of it.

This tension-filled portion of the movie is the strongest element of it, and thankfully it makes up the majority of the experience. To this extent Don’t Breathe was the breath of fresh air I had been hoping for, and the simple ambiguity surrounding the character of the Blind Man – who is, after all, only defending his property from intruders, which goes some way to justifying his aggressiveness – was equally refreshing. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t last for the whole film.

Don’t Breathe is, in the end, still an America horror movie. One of the better ones of recent years for sure, but a couple of bad habits crept in during the film’s finale that slightly spoilt it for me.

First, they felt the need to provide what was a somewhat flimsy reason for the Blind Man’s actions. I won’t spoil it, but there are a couple of lines of dialogue towards the end in which he goes into a monologue that harkens back to the ‘Christianised’ aspect of Western horror mentioned above.

It’s as if someone – whether it was the original scriptwriter or a producer – felt a need to pad his ‘evil’ actions for the viewer who always likes a movie to teach a moral lesson. This is a habit inherent in American movies in particular, that is not so often seen elsewhere.

Yes, this is partly a matter of personal taste, but it also shows a lack of originality in the writing – seen too in the thin backstories provided for the three other characters – that wasn’t there in the style of directing.

The other issue I had with Don’t Breathe was its ending… Rather, its choice to have an ending after the ending. This was a film that didn’t necessarily need a resolution. And it felt like they made the choice not to have that, only to change their minds later and insert a final scene that partially leaves the door open for some direct-to-DVD sequel down the line.

Ultimately this is a film that should be applauded for its ideas, a tense atmosphere and memorable performance from Stephen Lang, but one that comes tainted by occasionally falling back on the overdone staples of Hollywood cinema.

7 / 10