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: 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

Under the Shadow.

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Under the Shadow is an internationally co-produced (UK/ Jordan/ Qatar) horror film that has been selected as the British entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Set in 1980s war-torn Tehran during the Iran-Iraq conflict, it follows levelheaded mother Shideh and daughter Dorsa as they become increasingly unsettled not only by the continuous air strikes on their city, but an apparent supernatural evil that resides in their apartment block…

The backdrop of Islamic culture immediately brings a fresh perspective to the film – as we’re so conditioned in the West to consider anything ‘supernatural’ to basically mean ‘demons and shit’. Here we see the Islamic equivalent, with Shideh and Dorsa haunted not by a demon, but by entities known as ‘Djinn’, who are said to “travel on the wind” and, while inhabiting an unseen realm, are capable of physical interaction.

Or not, as the case may be… Under the Shadow does not entirely reveal its hand in this respect. You’ll be left wondering (at least initially) whether anything supernatural is really going on, or whether it might in fact simply be a psychological trick; the result of a large amount of stress from the harsh war environment in which Shideh and her daughter are living.

This kind of ambiguity is present in a lot of my favourite horror films – the best ones from the past few years; The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch all shared the quality of not holding your hand to explain what exactly is going on. It helps the film ooze intelligence, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks, and it’s a quality worth treasuring.

Cheap jump scares are thankfully kept to a minimum (save for one scene in which its use is forgivable). Instead, the reliance is on slow-building atmosphere. While it may take longer than some viewers would like for the payoff to kick in as the film sets the scene and builds its characters, once it starts to arrive, the movie quickly gathers pace towards a nerve-wracking finale.

Straight up, this is one of the best films of the year – at least the smartest, something I can imagine informing the field of film study in years to come – and another home run for the horror genre. If you have the slightest interest in good storytelling, horror in particular, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch Under the Shadow.

10 / 10

Film reviews

Morgan.

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The Ridley Scott-produced Morgan, directed by his son Luke (in what is his directorial debut) and starring Kate Mara in the leading role, has been garnering a negative reaction from critics… it’s not hard to see why. On the surface it looks like another generic science fiction movie in which a science experiment funded by a shady branch of the government has gone wrong; and under the surface, while the film no doubt thinks itself smart, one is not overly shocked at the twists when they come.

You can probably sense a ‘but’ coming, and that’s because despite the lack of truly new ideas in this film, I actually kind of liked it.

Mara plays Lee Weathers, a ‘risk-assessment specialist’ sent to an isolated house that sits alongside a laboratory to, well, assess the risk posed by her company’s latest experiment. The lab houses ‘Morgan’, an artificial human hybrid created for reasons that aren’t quite made clear until towards the film’s conclusion; even then you may have a hard time working out what just happened and why.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Morgan herself – or rather, ‘itself’ – having previously appeared in The Witch (still my favourite horror movie of the year) in what was her breakthrough role. Here she is undoubtedly one of the best parts of the film, her main competition coming from Paul Giamatti, who only appears briefly in the movie but makes a strong impression when he does.

Toby Jones also brings his unmistakable eccentricity to the film while Jennifer Jason Leigh helps round out what is a strong cast for a debut – though I imagine having Ridley Scott producing, and having Ridley Scott as one’s father, tends to help with that.

Themes of humanity and identity are touched upon, with Lee – the professional company woman here to do her job – routinely correcting the scientists who have become attached to Morgan, regarding her almost like family and referring to ‘it’ as ‘her’.

The first portion of Morgan deals primarily with this psychological aspect, keeping you guessing as to whether the scientists are right to regard it/ her so warmly, or whether there is something darker lurking underneath. For me this opening half, up to and including Giamatti’s character introduction, is clearly the strong half of the movie. In the second, we see it almost devolve into the generic sci-fi action flick one might have been expecting on the way in.

This isn’t groundbreaking or mind-blowing stuff by any means, but I found it entertaining. If anything, the major disappointment with Morgan is that it doesn’t fully commit to the slower, more atmospheric and horror-oriented genre it wants to be in its opening half, in which it showed genuine potential to be something more than it appears. I was intrigued… whereas in the end, it simply leaves you feeling indifferent at its unsatisfying attempts to wrap up the narrative.

6 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

The Bunker.

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Der Bunker is the German directorial debut from Nikias Chryssos – and it must be one of the most unique, eccentric feature debuts ever.

The main protagonist is a nameless character referred to only as ‘the Student’ throughout the film. Hoping to find peace and quiet so he can make progress with his work – apparently some groundbreaking scientific stuff involving the Higgs particle theory – he moves in with a family (Mother, Father and son Klaus, who is the only named character) as their new lodger. Yet this is no typical family; they live in a bunker, and the Student’s room has no windows, despite the property having been advertised as a ‘lake-side home with a view’.

Furthermore Klaus is being led to believe by his parents that he will one day be president of the United States, and his Father is home schooling him in the bunker to prepare him for this future. One problem (aside from the obvious): Klaus does not seem particularly intelligent, struggling to remember even the capital cities of other European countries like France. Therefore Mother and Father soon suggest to the Student that he take over Klaus’ education, and after some gentle prodding, the Student reluctantly agrees despite it interfering with the important work that was the main purpose of his stay.

Mother also has a ‘presence’ – whether it be some kind of alien, god, or a figment of her own subconscious – called ‘Heinrich’ that inhabits a scar on her leg, regularly giving her instructions for dealing with Klaus (and later, the Student) as they insidiously plan out his upbringing.

Straight up; this film is crazy. But crazy in a good way. Its eccentricities aren’t there just for the sake of mindless fun – director Chryssos clearly intends meaning behind his choices, from the Student’s somewhat stalled attempts to work on the Higgs particle theory, to themes regarding unrealistic expectations for one’s children and even, perhaps, the dangers of following an unseen ‘higher power’ without question. Is it significant that the only two named characters of the movie are the son, Klaus, and the unseen Heinrich? Almost certainly; it seems the other three people involved are merely pawns in the game.

Of course, whether one feels they take anything meaningful from it will depend on the individual. Personally I suspect Der Bunker could be a masterpiece in due time – but on a single viewing I’m still not quite sure.

7 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Miles Ahead.

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You’re going to hear critics declaring Miles Davis as the role Don Cheadle was ‘born to play’ after seeing Miles Ahead; a biographical film focusing primarily on two separate periods of the influential jazz musician’s life.

They’d be right. Cheadle as Miles Davis feels completely natural, and the movie is worth watching for his performance alone. But will it hold your interest beyond that?

Not only does Don Cheadle star as Davis himself, but this is also his directorial debut. Ewan McGregor co-stars as Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden, whose pursuit of and subsequent interview with Davis during the musician’s barren years or semi-retirement between 1975-79 is the main anchor of this film. The narrative jumps between that present time period – with McGregor and Cheadle playing well off each other in a number of entertaining scenes, as they deal with Davis’ producers who are pressuring him to release his comeback record – and flashbacks to the peak of Davis’ early career, revealing details of his passionate and tumultuous relationship with his wife.

Needless to say the film may appeal most to fans of Davis, or at least anyone with the slightest interest in jazz music. Having said that, as a standalone drama this story is entertaining and occasionally hilarious; on that note it’s worth bearing in mind the movie takes some creative liberties with its subject.

Within Miles Ahead undoubtedly lies one of Don Cheadle’s best-ever performances; a fine turn from McGregor alongside him; and a script that holds your intrigue from beginning to end. This is a strong directorial debut from Cheadle, one in which his passion for the subject shines through.

8 / 10

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Mustang.

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Very rarely does a film affect me in the way Mustang did… This film, unlike the vast majority of horror movies I’ve ever seen, actually inspired a rather unsettling dream within hours of watching it.

In this curious dream I was being relentlessly pursued by a group of well-meaning men and women who intended to forcibly marry me off – in the end, myself and a girl to whom I did want to be married had to go on the run from these people, using various escape routes through air vents and underwater facilities. And those are just the details I’m able to recall now as the memory of the experience fades. It felt strangely thrilling but also dangerous, as if to be forced against your will into an unhappy marriage was akin to a death sentence.

For the five young girls at the centre of Mustang, and many others in their situation in real life, this kind of dream is a reality; one they would wish to escape from if given the opportunity. The film opens with the girls innocently playing in the sea with a group of boys – for which they are scolded, beaten, and subjected to virginity tests when an old lady in the neighbourhood sees what they are doing and passes the news on to their grandmother. Such actions are unbecoming of girls who should be spending the majority of their time ‘wife training’.

You may think this is one of those films with a lot to say about a specific religion – in this setting, Islam. But that’s not the case. These girls, their relationships with each other and their fight for liberty, freedom from the oppression inherent within their culture and family life, are the focus of this story. Overt references to God and the religion to which they belong are absolutely minimal, if present at all. Do not come to it expecting some heavy-handed political agenda or bias.

It’s the directorial debut of Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Erguven – and you can add Mustang to the list of recent debuts that I’ve been massively impressed by. This delightful movie is emotional, humorous and thematically challenging in equal measure… one that deserves the accolades it has received in the past year (first screened at Cannes in May 2015 and winning numerous awards on the festival circuit since); and one that I’m already looking forward to revisiting.

10 / 10