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?

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.

Previews

Preview: The Wailing.

It’s been a long time since Western audiences were treated to a genuinely unsettling Asian horror movie – a quality many films from that region shared in the early 2000’s.

Korean film The Wailing looks like it could be the new one to watch out for. I will be attending a screening on the 30th December, and it is in fact one of my most anticipated of the year; mainly for the reason mentioned above. I have a great appreciation of Asian cinema, but truly top quality Asian film releases have felt few and far between over the past few years.

The plot revolves around an investigation into a series of mysterious killings and illnesses. Japanese-Korean tensions are hinted at, and the overall run-time stands at a glorious 156 minutes (while that may put some viewers off, for me a longer film suits this genre).

If you miss it – or have already missed it – on the big screen, you won’t have long to wait to check it out. The Wailing will be available in the UK on DVD January 30th.

Film reviews

Your Name.

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Your Name is one of those films that I feel deserves a bigger international audience than it will get (being a feature-length Japanese ‘anime’). Within a genre known for its rather fantastical concepts, this film still manages to stand out.

One might think a Japanese animated movie – the hand-drawn animation here is gorgeous – in the vein of Your Name would inevitably struggle to reach a wide audience… This isn’t necessarily true, especially in its native homeland, but admittedly there are story elements and themes at work here that anyone who isn’t accustomed to the genre may struggle to take seriously.

It involves Mitsuha and Taki, a pair of teenagers, one of whom lives in the centre of Tokyo and the other in a small village on the outskirts, waking up one morning and realising they’ve… well, kind of switched bodies. Cue a number of entertaining scenarios, including Taki’s typically teenage boy fascination with the breasts he discovers on Mitsuha’s body.

As weird and even slightly creepy as it may sound, this fits right in with the crazy world of anime. It’s not all lighthearted and cheesy either; there are points in the story that are serious and emotional. Your Name, essentially, is an unconventional romance, one that feels like such a breath of fresh air in the face of the usual fare offered by mainstream cinema. Taki and Mitsuha find themselves becoming attached to each other’s lifestyles to the point that when their switching suddenly stops, they grieve for its loss. The film then changes tone again as Taki becomes determined to find the girl with whom he had been inexplicably switching for weeks, only to discover towards the final third of the story that they have a chance to prevent catastrophe in an approaching natural disaster.

Yes, the whole thing is a little flustered, but the building tension in the film’s climactic scenes feels more real than in most other movies released this year. As a result, this is one of the year’s best, and certainly a strong contender for 2016’s best animated film. Director Makoto Shinkai also wrote the novel from which he adapted the screenplay for this film; uniquely novel and film were released within two months of each other in Japan earlier this year (the novel in June; this film in August).

Naturally one should approach the film taking into consideration their own feelings on anime. While I wouldn’t call myself the biggest ‘fan’ (a term I dislike at the best of times), I’m certainly open to enjoying it. In this case Your Name’s animation is beautifully drawn (it’s one of the most beautiful movies of the year), and the plot is also one of this year’s most original. Definitely worth checking out on Blu-ray if you missed its recent limited run in UK cinemas.

9 / 10

LFF 2016, Uncategorized

BFI London Film Festival – Highlights.

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Granted, this piece is almost a month late – in fact I think it’s almost one month to the day when I started writing it – but it’s been a pretty busy time for me lately.

This year’s BFI London Film Festival was one of the biggest and best ever. Here I’ll be offering an overview of my favourite movies from my time there, though if you want to read a little more about the festival itself and see the full selection, head over to the BFI website.

London Film Festival has typically tended to be a good barometer of the year’s best films and 2016 has been no exception – a number of the films screened will be deservedly gracing numerous end of year lists, and it also showcases the main contenders for awards season next January and February. Unfortunately though I wasn’t able to see all of them; this isn’t my full time job after all. What I’m going to give you here are 15 films I think deserve special mention out of the selection of screenings I was able to attend while there.

Screenings that I missed and are therefore not featured here, but films that will inevitably feature in awards season, included: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (expected in the UK early next year), Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams (which I have since seen and will review separately), Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (opening night gala), and Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (Brie Larson looks excellent in it and will be a Best Supporting Actress nominee for sure – closing night gala).

So, not including the above four, here are 15 of the best from this year’s BFI London Film Festival:

15. Le Mechanique de L’Ombre (Scribe)

A French espionage thriller that takes the genre in an unexpected direction, feeling fresh and original because of it. The story of Monsieur Duval, a depressive alcoholic with little else to distinguish him from the average middle class office clerk, who loses his job and is forced to take on work transcribing secret telephone conversations on behalf of a shady employer. When he seemingly overhears a murder on one of the conversations, Duval finds himself getting sucked deeper into a mysterious plot despite his unassuming nature… This one likely won’t be getting much of a wide release in the UK, but it’s worth checking out on DVD or Blu-ray. I won’t claim Scribe is anything spectacular, but it’s one of the more entertaining thrillers I’ve watched in recent times.

14. Magnus

A cool, crisp documentary on the life and sharp rise of Norwegian chess prodigy and current chess world champion Magnus Carlsen; as a big fan of the game and of Carlsen’s unpredictable, ‘intuition’-based playing style, this one appealed to me straight away.

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At a brief 75 minutes, the film never drags and in fact may be considered too short by some. But for me that length is perfect. Carlsen himself is a reserved figure, an unashamed introvert who has no problem being rude in social situations to read about chess and further his mastery of the game. Often, in fact, he’ll seem lost in the space of his mind, his ‘own world’ – and we see how lonely a place it can be as well, with even the family and friends who he personally values so much unable to comprehend what goes on in his head. A bite-size gem of a movie.

13. Graduation

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu shared Best Director at Cannes this year for this family drama focusing on the socio-political environment of Romania. It also provides an insightful look into parenting and the notion of how far one is willing to bend their integrity in order to give their children the best life possible (which, in this case, is ‘escaping’ Romania via a scholarship to Cambridge). A typically masterful European movie made with skillful insightfulness, and unbridled honesty pertaining to the often-curious patterns observed in human behaviour.

12. Goldstone

Sequel to 2013’s Mystery Road (one of the more underrated movies of the past few years – check it out), Goldstone sees the return of aboriginal detective Jay Swan as he attempts to solve a missing persons case that inevitably turns out to be linked to a larger plot.

This is a smart sequel, possibly an even smarter movie than its predecessor. It doesn’t simply pick up where Mystery Road left off; rather, Jay Swan has changed considerably as a character due to certain things that have happened in his life since his last outing. The film doesn’t rush into revealing these details too quickly, instead settling into a groove dealing with this movie’s independent storyline, which also means anyone who’s never seen the first movie can enjoy this film without needing to. For those who have seen its predecessor, trying to work out what’s changed with this central character – you may not recognise him to begin with, such has been his change – adds an extra element of intrigue.

Otherwise, Goldstone deals with themes like human trafficking, capitalism, and aboriginal natives being driven off their land by rich white men for the sake of (what else?) expansion and profit. When all’s said and done, this film is probably deserving of a higher place on the list, if it weren’t for the emotional connection I had with certain others to come.

11. Queen of Katwe

Just released widely in UK cinemas, Queen of Katwe is set to be, I hope, Disney’s biggest hit of 2016.

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Based on the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Queen of Katwe is another film that first jumped out at me because of its subject matter. It turned out to be much more than just another movie about chess, though. Yes it has the feel-good vibes one would expect from a movie of this nature; yes, it is undoubtedly one for the entire family to enjoy (and probably my favourite ‘family movie’ of the year). Having said that, there’s still a ‘rare’ quality about this film; considering it’s a full-scale Hollywood Disney movie set in Uganda, with an exclusively black cast.

I shouldn’t say “if there’s only one film you see this week, make it this one” in a week when I, Daniel Blake is also released, but I certainly want to at this moment.

10. Frantz

Francois Ozon has made some of my favourite films over the past few years – In the House and The New Girlfriend were two of the best movies of 2012 and 2014 respectively.

Frantz is another departure for the talented director; filmed predominantly in black and white, it’s an unconventional romance set in France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Uniquely the character of Frantz himself only appears in flashbacks, the story revolving around a German man who knew him during the war travelling to France to meet his family. French-German relations of the time period are examined from both sides, as the film begins in France from the perspective of a German, then ends in Germany from the perspective of a French character. Colour is used sparingly in the film, but is effective when a transition takes place. This is another great outing from Ozon.

9. Paterson

Adam Driver hasn’t been short of attention in Hollywood since starring as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s found a role here that would define him, if he hadn’t already played one that inevitably will instead.

He plays title character Paterson in this film, a poet who lives in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. A bus driver by day (a trade that allows him to overhear some interesting conversations as the hours tick away), Paterson and his wife live a rather idyllic yet simple existence that feels right out of the American blue-collar storybook. In the evenings and at weekends, Paterson works on his poetry, which, while somewhat unspectacular, helps make him increasingly endearing as the film goes on. We end up connecting closely with this character despite his otherwise uninteresting lifestyle.

His dog in this film also gives an admirable performance; having won the Palm Dog award at Cannes for ‘best performance by a canine’. Paterson is due for its UK release in late November and may well be one I revisit soon.

8. Ma’ Rosa

A strong contender to pop up in the ‘Best foreign language film’ category as an entry for the Philippines, Ma’ Rosa is a stark portrayal of the struggle people have with everyday poverty. Central character Rosa is a mother and wife who casually sells hardcore drugs from her corner shop – out of necessity to ‘get by’. She comes across like a mother to the small, intimate surrounding community and so magnetic is lead actress Jaclyn Jose’s performance (for which she won Best Actress at Cannes) that at no point can you bring yourself to judge her from a moral high ground. Set during rainy season in the Philippines, the film has a kind of eccentric beauty about it, though a good portion of it you spend inside a police station over the course of a night in which police corruption is also exposed. Look out for this one next year.

7. Arrival

It seems inevitable that Denis Villeneuve is set to become this generations Spielberg, Kubrick and/ or Ridley Scott all rolled into one. His previous work has shown similarities to them – he’s set to inherent the Blade Runner franchise with his next project – and Arrival feels like the sci-fi Spielberg and Kubrick would have made if they had worked on one together (A.I. doesn’t count).

Arrival isn’t my favourite Villeneuve movie; that mantle still belongs to the lesser-known Enemy, and I admittedly preferred Sicario to it as well, personally. But let that not take away from the overall quality of this film. It is one of the best, and one of the smartest of 2016. It also has a global theme about different countries and nationalities working together to avoid catastrophe, which should resonate particularly well with people when it is released this week considering our current socio-political climate.

Amy Adams is set to be a frontrunner at the Oscars for her performance in Arrival.
Amy Adams is set to be a frontrunner at the Oscars for her performance in Arrival.

6. The Handmaiden

Korean director Park Chan-wook (of Oldboy fame) returns with a film containing scenes that may rival Blue is the Warmest Colour in their raw, visceral portrayal of lesbian sex.

Obviously depending on your point of view, that could make or break the experience. But The Handmaiden really isn’t about that; rather it’s a winding love story that follows anything but the traditional narrative path, in which characters and their relationships are constantly in question. At least two major twists take place that change your perspective on what came before, giving the film an “I have to see that again” effect. It’s one of the best films of the year, without a doubt. It may even be Park Chan-wook’s best film to date.

5. Christine

Christine is set during a time (the early 1970s) when knowledge of mental health in America was still at an alarmingly primitive stage. The result is an experience that is at once sad and tragic, while you’ll also breath a sigh of relief that we no longer live in such times. Rebecca Hall gives the performance of her career as news anchor and journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself live on air in 1974. The footage hasn’t been available anywhere – presumed destroyed – for some time, resulting in the story becoming somewhat of a modern myth; but it did actually happen, and at the time was as shocking as the portrayal here of elements leading up to the event. Christine herself was suffering from something; whether it was bipolar or a similar disorder is unclear, as though it is heavily hinted at, such diagnoses were non-existent at that time. This film is essentially the story of a woman who battles with demons yet is ultimately unable to defeat them. There was no happy ending for Christine Chubbuck, but thankfully nowadays there is for many who suffer as she did.

4. Chasing Asylum

An eye-opening look at Australia’s rather brutal anti-immigration policies in recent years; a documentary for which its makers took a genuine risk of two years in prison to release. Seeing its content, it’s not hard to work out why.

Honestly, this is a film that I believe everyone needs to see. Not a comfortable experience, especially considering the building anti-immigration sentiment in our own country, but you owe it to yourself to check out this documentary, regardless of the opinion you bring in or take out of it. This kind of thing is what can prevent mass stupidity in our own population and/ or government.

3. Personal Shopper

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Kristen Stewart continues to defy critics who have lamented her acting ability by giving one of the best performances of the year in Personal Shopper – a different kind of ghost story in that it’s not part of the horror genre. There are a couple of potentially frightening scenes for sure, though they will intrigue rather than unsettle you. In general that’s what this film does; set out to intrigue its audience rather than spoon-feed them some cheap popcorn thrills. Stewart plays a young woman whose brother is recently deceased, and whom she believes is attempting to contact her from ‘the other side’. She and her brother were previously psychics, supposedly able to communicate with the dead, though Stewart’s character brings a healthy, refreshing skepticism to the story, preventing the whole thing from becoming eye-rollingly cheesy. Instead there’s an understated quality running throughout this film, right up to an ambiguous ending, that I loved. Others may feel differently depending on taste, but it’s one of the most original movies I’ve seen this year.

2. My Life as a Courgette

Forget what anyone else says – this is the best animated film of 2016. A French-Swiss stop motion that comes in at a compact 67 minutes, it’s the story of a little boy who is sent to an orphanage after the accidental death of his alcoholic mother, where he meets a group of other small children who’ve all lost their parents in various tragic circumstances. Like any top quality animated movie (indeed as 2015’s Inside Out also did very well), it grants the respect to children that they’re able to ‘handle’ serious issues such as the death of loved ones, loneliness, love, and there’s even subtle – yet entirely innocent – references to sex. It’s equally hilarious and incredibly sad. The stop motion on display is also an excellent work of art. Nominated as the Swiss entry for Best foreign language film, I’ll be shocked if this isn’t one of the favourites to pick up that award in February.

1. George Best: All By Himself

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Admittedly this is a somewhat sentimental choice – I’m allowed one occasionally! – but George Best: All By Himself is also one of the most insightful documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything new about one of the world’s best footballers, but it shares an emotional, engaging account of the boy from East Belfast who became football’s first celebrity superstar in the midst of the ‘swinging sixties’ in Britain, and you’ll likely come away from it feeling you know him better as a person than before.

I emphasise that because in recent years it feels like people don’t really look at Best as a normal person – rather, as a flawed genius who ruined his career on the football field because of his obsessive love of alcohol. And that he certainly was – but there was more to the man. All By Himself showcases a boy no different from any of us, who became swept up in a celebrity culture that the football world itself was unprepared for, and one in which he was unable to find any guidance or help, being the first to have experienced it. Growing up in East Belfast myself, this documentary obviously resonated with me, and while I wouldn’t hold any objective claim to it being the best film overall, it was my most memorable experience of this year’s festival.

Now I had been planning to write more in-depth reviews for some of the films here; as we’re at the stage where a few of them are being released widely – Arrival this week, and Paterson coming up as well – I’m instead going to post larger reviews of those films as they come. A notable exception from the above is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which I did see at the festival, and I did point out beforehand as a potential contender for Best Picture at the Oscars… Well I’ve changed my mind on that and will be writing a longer review in this case, as I think this film and the context surrounding its production raises some interesting issues worth a larger discussion.

Previews

Preview: London East Asia Film Festival.

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The BFI London Film Festival has just finished, and only a few days later, another film festival is set to begin in the capital tomorrow evening. This year marks the inaugural London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF), showcasing the best of new Japanese and Korean cinema specifically, many of which will be getting their UK premieres over the next week and a half.

Now, I’m a big connoisseur of Asian cinema, as some people may know – the height of Japanese horror between 1998-2003 with the likes of Ring, Dark Water and Pulse, which mastered a sense of slow-building atmosphere and psychological torment rather than the over-reliance on jump scares in Western cinema at the time (horror movies on this side of the world have since clearly taken influence from that period), piqued my interest in horror as a superior genre. Obviously Japanese cinema – not to mention that of Korea – goes much deeper, and in the years since I’ve gained an inherent appreciation of Asian culture. So this kind of specialist festival is something I’m highly interested in, though unfortunately I’ll only be able to attend over one weekend.

This inaugural festival is revolving around a retrospective of the career of Park Chan-wook, whose new film The Handmaiden will be getting another screening following its UK premiere at London Film Festival. Also happening – one of the film events I will be fortunate enough to attend – is a screening of the ‘Vengeance trilogy’: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, and the world premiere of a brand new 4K edition of Lady Vengeance. Chan-wook is one of the best filmmakers to have emerged from South Korea, and certainly is among the more talented directors in world cinema today. They couldn’t have chosen a better artist around whom to build this festival.

Here’s the trailer. If you live in or around London, or are at all interested in East Asian cinema, you may want to keep an eye out for some of these new movies. Who knows, maybe one or two of them will even end up in my ‘Best of 2016’ list.

 

Previews

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – preview.

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I’ll say it right now; there is an intriguing battle shaping up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year.

On one hand, the favourite (quite clearly, for a reason I’ll go on to detail); Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a musical about classical Hollywood and the kind of artistic work that the Academy usually goes for. On the other, an underdog, but almost certainly the film to win if Chazelle’s effort misses out: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Yes, that it shares its name with a certain other movie released in 1915 is intentional, as is the poignant choice to make it almost exactly 100 years after its namesake dominated headlines as the first mainstream American feature length film.

Now, anyone who follows the Academy Awards will know that this decision can be as much about politics as it is about finding the best film of the year. And anyone who paid attention to the controversy surrounding last year’s ceremony will also know that the issue of race has been a prevalent one for the Academy of late. In fact, it seems 2016 in general has been a year in which the issue of race has prominently reared its head, with cases of unbridled racism, perhaps naively thought conquered, regularly hitting headlines in the US and – to a lesser extent but let’s not deny the unfortunate side effects of ‘Brexit’ – in the UK as well.

So I think the Academy is set to find themselves in a rather awkward spot come January/ February time. Whichever of the above two contenders wins the top prize is likely to affect the narrative surrounding the decision, and that narrative is likely, once again, to be about race.

I said La La Land was the clear favourite. That is because I honestly believe it’s the one the Academy will choose if they are to choose honestly. Without asking themselves which one they ‘should’ choose. But there is a chance, with the racial undertones of the past year, that they will opt for Birth of a Nation, and for many people it would feel like a victory in more ways than one.

I’m of course saying this without having seen either of these films. They will both be screening at the BFI London Film Festival, which begins this evening with another racially charged movie: A United Kingdom, a British film directed by Amma Asante. When I first heard this film would open the festival, I immediately thought of how the UK had been split by Brexit in the Summer – and the title of the movie took on an almost ironic tone, as if it was pointing out to all of us that our United Kingdom was not, in fact, living up to its name in 2016.

A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (both of whom I’m sure will feature once again in the acting categories at the Oscars – Oyelowo may well get his win this year) tells the story of the real-life romance between Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, and Ruth Williams, a woman he met while touring in Britain and took back with him to Botswana as his bride. As one might imagine, it proved rather controversial on both sides, and with the racial tensions of today, this film may therefore be another dark horse to look out for in February.

Those are the main headliners of the festival, but not necessarily the films I am most looking forward to. From what I’ve read, heard and seen, this year’s lineup is incredibly strong, and there are quite a few on my list to check out in the coming days.

This includes new films from some of my favourite modern directors; Francois Ozon (with Frantz, a monochrome WW1-era romance), Korean director Park Chan-wook (most famous among Western audiences for 2003’s Oldboy) with new movie The Handmaiden, and Denis Villeneuve (whose next project is the Blade Runner sequel) with sci-fi Arrival starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

My most anticipated, though, is the new film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is making his return to the J-horror genre for the first time since 2001’s Pulse, with Creepy. Admittedly an uninspired title at first glance, and last year’s festival wasn’t exactly kind with its promised return to this genre (Hideo Nakata’s Ghost Theater was rather laughably bad and a far cry from his vintage work), but I still have high hopes for Kurosawa’s return. Pulse remains one of my all-time favourite horror movies and his films outside the genre have been almost as impressive.

Other films that have made my watch list include: Queen of Katwe, a biographical film about a Ugandan woman – Phiona Mutesi – who proves to be a chess prodigy and competes at the world championships; Graduation, for which Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu shared the Best Director award at Cannes; and Personal Shopper starring Kristen Stewart, the director of which (Olivier Assayas) shared that Best Director prize at Cannes with Mungiu. Also a few highly rated Australian films, including hard-hitting documentary Chasing Asylum (about Australia’s harsh immigration policies) and Goldstone, sequel to 2013’s underrated Western Mystery Road.

There are more, many more of course, but I’m going to leave the rest for the imagination right now. Hopefully I’ve adequately whetted your appetite for the festival. I’m pretty hyped about what awaits, a little tired already thinking how busy it’s going to be, and looking forward to the inevitable surprises beyond what I’ve highlighted here.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a memorable festival, and an interesting few months leading up to the Academy Awards next February. Enjoy the ride!