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.
That a film like I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in a year when radical politics has risen to challenge the establishment is significant. There are those who would try to disregard its bleak vision of a man beaten down by an illogical, unfair and even inhumane system as being ‘unrealistic’, but these are the same people who have never been in the position of this film’s central character. Any of us who have ever had to visit a job centre in the UK will have empathy with Daniel Blake.
I find the state of the welfare system in the UK to be a great irony. Originally set up as a noble cause, to provide for those in a vulnerable position, whether currently looking for work or unable to do so, it has become something quite different. A system, under the Conservative government especially, that assumes everyone using it is some kind of scrounger exploiting those of us who are ‘hard working’.
Therefore it now operates under a set of guidelines, checks and balances that take away the human aspect. Claimants sit at a desk where they are interrogated and, if the exact answers are not provided, if everything is not done strictly by the book, they risk losing everything. The reason we often hear to justify this is that the government wants to “encourage people to find work”, and seemingly their way of doing this is to make life as difficult and uncomfortable as possible for those who don’t have a job. As if not having a job somehow amounts to living a dream that everyone who works is missing out on. The reality for most of us, of course, is precisely the opposite. As humans, work is the bread and butter that gives our life meaning; most of us not only want to work, but like to work, and those who don’t fit that bracket are, in actual fact, few and far between – yet it is that minority who are often cited as reasons to punish the majority. It is they who get the headlines in tabloid press.
I, Daniel Blake showcases this questionable system in a simple but powerful and poignant way. It is, in similar (if less dramatic) fashion to Son of Saul, a film that transcends its medium. To give some kind of rating for its ‘entertainment’ value almost feels beside the point, though it does still somehow manage to entertain.
Dave Johns, a stand-up comedian when he’s not acting, plays the title character. His performance ensures, despite the somewhat depressing subject matter, that we ourselves never feel down while watching the absurdity unfold. There is an empathetic quality to the character that’ll put a smile on your face as he deals with the hand he’s been dealt. Such is the connection formed with him over the course of the film that it’s absurd to think anyone could accuse this of feeling unrealistic, even if they do point out that it’s fiction, which it is only in the strictest sense. Daniel Blake may not be a real person, but there are a lot of real people who feel that they are Daniel Blake.
Some may feel put off by director Ken Loach and his heavy-handed approach to social issues, but I can’t stress enough just how important this film feels at such a time as this. The winds of change are blowing in politics right now and I, Daniel Blake raises an issue that could be part of that change. It would require some to swallow their pride and admit this isn’t simply a “work of fiction”, but the message will at some point be taken heed of. If there’s one film this year that I’d encourage everyone – regardless of personal taste – to support above all others, it would (probably) be this one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Here’s what I have planned for this blog in the near future, in case anyone thought I’d given up on it.
Video games: my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series is still ongoing. Next on my to-do list are two of the greatest horror video games of all time, and two of my favourite games in general: the original Silent Hill (1999) and its 2001 sequel. I figured it would be fitting to get both of these out – or at least one – by the end of the month, as we are in ‘Halloween’ month after all.
Speaking of which, around Halloween time last year, while I was making the case for why the horror genre is not only great but essential, I promised another film essay, focusing on The Babadook. Granted, I kind of slipped on this one, though it’s always been on the backburner, and hopefully I will also have it out by the end of October. Believe me, I’ve thought so much about this film – my top film of 2014 – that it won’t be too difficult getting a detailed analysis down in coherent words and clicking publish. I had in fact already started working on it around this time last year.
Looking back in my ‘film essay’ category I see that I haven’t in fact published one here since last July, which really is too long, especially considering I was going along at a pace of around one per month up until then. There are two others I have planned immediately following the next: Nightcrawler and Ex Machina, arguably two of the most overlooked films of the past couple of years, and certainly two of my absolute favourites, so I want to do them some justice.
Originally I had planned my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series to, like my plan for film essays, proceed along at a pace of around one per month. Obviously that hasn’t happened for various reasons – not that I’ve just been sitting around, rather I’ve had other things to focus on in the time being – so what I’m going to do with that is, at the very least, get out the two Silent Hill articles (because honestly writing about either of those is an almost limitless joy), then write up something about Final Fantasy VIII (1999), my favourite childhood game and one belonging to a series that frequently splits even its own fans. I’ll be making my case for why VIII, rather than its predecessor, was the peak of the series overall.
After those, I’ll assess whether it’s worth continuing ‘20 Years of PlayStation’ at all. In reality it will probably end with the year 2016 (as we will then technically be into 21 years and so on), and I’ll instead focus on more modern stuff again.
I’ve also been working on an article focusing on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sport, after a year in which we’ve seen a few high profile cases of doping offences and accusations. That one doesn’t entirely follow the politically correct narrative – I think along the lines of allowing some PED’s to be used in a controlled manner, rather than banning everything outright – but I’m writing it mainly to shed some light on the stuff that people tend to overlook when it comes to ‘cheating’ (the blanket term for any offence) in sport.
Otherwise, there are four other prominent ideas for articles that I want to finish and publish here by the end of the year. Those are, first: a piece tackling the issue of review ethics and people who deride critics for any reason, from simply being a butt-hurt fan to those who accuse us of just being ‘haters’ who don’t know how to enjoy stuff.
I have a strong belief when it comes to critique; that it should not tell you what to think about a film, video game, or whatever the product/ service may be, but rather it should help you develop how you think about them. Reviews above all should inform the consumer – they’re not about telling people what they should or shouldn’t enjoy as if there’s some objective standard. Something I love may be something you hate, because everyone has different tastes; but the detail I give about that thing should be enough to tell you how you’re going to feel about it, independent of my own opinion.
Linked to this but worthy of its own article, I’m going to go into the impact that films, video games and books have each had on me personally in terms of my own development. Certain aspects of modern society actively discourage critical thinking and open-mindedness – in fact, I think it’s always been like this, but today’s culture of political correctness means we hear things like “you can’t say that” more than ever, especially on social media (my advice: whatever kind of person you are, it’s healthy to have less of that in your life).
That’s why I think this is important. Art is vital for helping people think outside the confines of the masses; it’s why I value artistic integrity and freedom of expression so highly. Many people who have a single-minded approach to issues in life, on the other hand, don’t. I heard a statement recently that stuck with me: an open mind is a learning mind. Rarely has a truer statement been made throughout history.
My final two planned articles for the year have been an even longer time coming. They are: my Best Films of 2014, and Best Films of 2015.
Now, obviously I understand that most people who like to do this sort of thing prefer to do an ‘end of year’ list and leave it at that. It’s like a nice way to wrap up the year in film, but for me none of those lists are definitive. Not that I’m saying mine would be, though here’s the thing; I consider a film that comes out in 2014, regardless of where it first comes out, to be a 2014 film.
For example, a film released in the UK in, say, early 2015, yet features heavily in awards season, is undoubtedly a 2014 film (Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, for instance) – because the Academy Awards reward the best films of the previous year. Said film will have been out in the US a few months before, but many of us living elsewhere would not have had a chance to see it yet, and it is therefore, by default, left off the list.
From my perspective, then, to make a list at the end of a calendar year would feel a little silly, bordering on dishonest, as the best films released in the UK that year would only represent around half – if that – of the year’s best films overall. I like world cinema; films from Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. And usually it takes a year or so to catch up on films from those places as their releases gradually filter out across other regions. I prefer to include those in my lists, as I want the list to be as definitive and conclusive as possible.
The other thing to note is my dislike of limiting said lists to a ‘top ten’, again usually done for efficiency (I understand; critics are busy, and wrapping up a compact top ten list at the end of the year is simpler than the method I’m currently advocating). The ‘best’ films of a year may not be limited to just ten – or perhaps in an extremely dry year, there wouldn’t even be ten worthy of inclusion.
Now, most critics actually agree with this to an extent; hence why they do some ‘honourable mentions’ that don’t quite make the top ten. For me that’s curious (why name-drop if you’re not going to detail your reasons?) but again I sort of understand why one would – it saves time, and essentially a ‘top 10’ is more marketable than, say, a ‘top 13’. I have more flexibility in my personal schedule and don’t see why I would restrict myself in that way when I’m not required to.
So basically, my lists will feature the best films of each year, whether it’s 10, 12 or 15 movies long. The 2014 list is almost ready to go and realistically I hope to have that one posted here by the start of next month. 2015, hopefully by the end of the year, and as for my 2016 list, well, I’m thinking Summer 2017 at the earliest. The good thing is, as I’m about to hit another film festival – my second such event of the year – I’ll have a decent head start on a lot of the biggest films to feature in awards season coming up. I’ll probably be writing an article around Oscar time too that will give large hints as to the films I found most impressive over the past year.
One final thing… I plan to do brief film previews (yes I am capable of writing shorter pieces!) every Friday. This will give me an opportunity to look forward to some new movies that catch my eye – that won’t necessarily get the mainstream marketing treatment – and share it with you guys. I’m frequently finding new stuff to get excited about so there’ll be no shortage of things to write about here, and I figure it might be useful to have a category for which posts are regular and somewhat set in stone going forward. That way, one could turn up here every weekend and know they’re at least getting something new, even if I haven’t otherwise written anything of great existential meaning.
Speaking of existential meaning, I’m off to prepare for one of the best times of the year: London Film Festival.
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!
For the second time this year, ‘legendary’ opera singer and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins’ life is the subject of a major feature film. French movie Marguerite was not a straight biopic, more a loosely inspired standalone film – though a rather good one. So I was especially curious to see how its British counterpart, starring Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep, would turn out in comparison.
I said Foster Jenkins is legendary – perhaps infamous may be a better word, but I hesitate to use it because people did actually like her. Basically, though she knew music – classical opera specifically – she couldn’t sing, and her close friends and family didn’t have the heart to tell her so. Nor did she have an ear for her own voice. She couldn’t hit a right note to save her life but thought she was brilliant.
It was her personality that made her endearing, and Meryl Streep does a brilliant job playing the title character in this film. Get it wrong and her ‘thinking she’s good when she’s really not’ outlook would have been at best annoying, at worst infuriating.
Despite her vocal shortcomings, you fall in love with the character during the movie, and this is testament to Streep’s acting ability. Few, if any, could have played the role better. Those who knew Foster Jenkins personally – and we, the audience, get to this stage over the course of the film – come to feel for her what she imagines her audience are feeling when she sings to them.
Hugh Grant plays her romantic partner St. Clair Bayfield, and I’d daresay it’s his best role; certainly the most interesting one I’ve seen him play. Bayfield himself appears a complicated character; despite being closely involved with Jenkins (throughout the movie we see just how entwined they are) he lives separately from her and has a girlfriend. But somehow you do not dislike him too much; as the film progresses you learn why they share such a convoluted lifestyle and it’s actually quite heartbreaking. Not many movies come close to making me cry (only Inside Out managed it last year); Florence Foster Jenkins almost succeeded. Consider that a huge mark in its favour.
Simon Helberg also stars in a comedic role; he brings an uplifting air to the story. Irish actor John Kavanagh plays Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who coaches Florence and keeps her spirits high, making her feel like a professional. His may just be the most underrated performance of the film.
This movie is heart-warming and hilarious in equal measure. On the side it also offers an interesting take on the critic/ artist divide. Are Florence’s friends and family correct in keeping the truth from her? That’s a question I found myself pondering.
Were it later in the year, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant would surely both be certainties for Oscar nominations in 2017, and they may deservedly still be in the minds of the Academy in eight months time. Not that I care much about that part; rather, Florence Foster Jenkins is a film worth seeing and appreciating as soon as possible.