Monday 31 July 2017

Best and Worst of July 2017

Well, we certainly aren’t in 2016 anymore. July only further signifies how the summer of 2017 is leaps and bounds ahead of those before it, with an array of interesting movies, a good portion of which were actually good. See, even the worst movies of this month were not bland in the same way that the worst of last year had been at this point, they have been uniquely awful in a way that almost feels refreshing. But getting back to those good movies, they have not only managed to be consistently good but also terrifically distinct in both their premise and their execution.

What is most remarkable is that I am giving all of this praise without even having seen one particular movie that it would be fair to say some people are mildly excited for (I’ll get around to seeing it soon, don’t worry). There were a number of excellent blockbusters that I honestly feel bad for not finding room for them in my top three of this month. ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ was an enjoyable and refreshing take on the superhero genre, while ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ was a fantastic finale to one of the strongest trilogies in recent cinematic history. But alas, they did not crack the very best of the month.

3: The Big Sick

Having made a big splash at Sundance earlier in the year, this brilliantly subversive romantic comedy is based on the real life romance between writer/star Kumail Nanjiani and producer Emily V Gordon, which actually makes sense given that it’s a story so far out that it could only be based in reality. The movie never tries to create contrived drama in favour of focussing on the real human emotions that lie at the centre of the story, focussing on the quieter and more sobering aspects that ground it in reality. Each character feels empathetic and relatable but also manages to be immensely watchable as they navigate this difficult situation, something that the film’s terrific cast never fail to convey as the film moves on. It’s a movie that is as humorous as it is heart-wrenching, and is sure to please anyone who gives it a chance.

2: The Beguiled

Nearly two decades after her breakout feature ‘The Virgin Suicides’, Sofia Coppola brings us a movie that revisits the same themes of isolation and awakening that have been prevalent throughout her career but never more than in her first and latest features. With an ensemble that includes Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, the film displays a slow build of tension in which these volatile characters are thrown into a nerve wracking situation which Coppola approaches with restraint as well as a haunting beauty. It comes as little surprise that Coppola won the best director’s award at the Cannes Film Festival (becoming the second woman to ever do so) as her command over her craft is impeccable, fully capturing the unease that underpins the first half of the movie and the frantic dread of the second as events spiral out of control.

1: It Comes at Night

Not only the best movie of this month but also my new favourite of the year (sorry ‘Logan’), ‘It Comes at Night’ will undoubtedly leave some viewers cold, but for those ready to give into its provocative atmosphere it ends up being a highly rewarding experience. In a script almost entirely free of exposition, it focusses on the human drama of its story as well as bringing forth deep seated themes that play on our fears of the unknown. It paints a claustrophobic, isolated and paranoid portrait that due to a phenomenal sense of craftsmanship by director Trey Edward Shults, who deliberately upheaves the films pace and structure as it goes along to chilling results. It is patient and cathartic but never patronises its audience, allowing them to truly immerse themselves within the movie’s world and consider its themes on a more visceral level.

And the worst…

Of course it’s ‘Blind’, we all know it’s ‘Blind’. It’s a terrible, bland, melodrama that if anything makes me sad purely because I wonder how Alec Baldwin got here. So instead of going on about it, I thought I would take the time to address something else instead.

Movie that is so batshit crazy that I start to wonder what the fuck is going on once every few seconds, not just for this month or even year but in general…..

The Book of Henry

I feel like anyone who’s seen this movie is part of an exclusive club, a club of people who are forever changed because they have paid witness to Colin Treverrow’s mind boggling oddity that not only failed to understand the phrase “tonal consistency”, it single handily tracked down everything and everyone that could provide even the most vague definition of those two words and destroyed them immediately. With a script that juggles child geniuses, young friendships, abuse, assassination plots, brain tumours, grieving parents, authoritarian corruption and so much more, ‘The Book of Henry’ may be terrible, but it also has to be seen to be believed.

The Big Sick

"Let me give you some advice, love isn't easy. That's why they call it love."

In recent years, romantic comedy has unfortunately been stigmatised as the genre where convention and surprise go to die. The standard boy meets girl, boy falls out with girl, boy rushes forward at the last minute to confess his love and a happily ever after, story structure has been done to death. While there was some invention to be found in gender swapping the whole process it was not long before we were back at square one and slated with another bunch of uninvolving, contrived and stagnant movies. But Sundance breakout ‘The Big Sick’ is different.

 Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani comic who meets an American graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his stand-up shows. As their relationship blossoms, he soon becomes worried about what his traditional Muslim parents will think of her. When Emily suddenly comes down with an illness that leaves her in a coma, Kumail finds himself developing a bond with her deeply concerned mother and father.

It is a bold move to end the first act of a romantic comedy with not only the breakup of the couple that were at the centre of the story but also one half of that couple falling into a coma, but ‘The Big Sick’ is a bold movie in an enjoyably subtle way. Just the fact that half of that couple is a Muslim of Pakistani origin and the subsequent issues of cultural difference that arise when they meet each other’s parents is an intriguing enough approach as it stands.  What makes the whole thing even more remarkable is that the screenplay by Nanjiani is based on his real life romance with the film’s executive producer Emily V Gordon.

Despite its convention defying premise, what makes ‘The Big Sick’ particularly remarkable is how it never plays into the melodrama that it could so easily stray into. Lesser romantic comedy’s turn such trivial plot elements into major story beats but Nanjiani’s screenplay allows the human elements of the story to shine through its moments of high drama. It’s a script that takes joy in observing the more sobering aspects of the story it is telling and never feels to need to manipulate its audience into feeling a specific emotion, instead opting to portray the characters in a way that feels honest and consistent with the rest of the movie.

The result of this is even the heavier aspects of the story feel light and manageable. It challenges our expectations in regards to how we think the story will play out but also grounds it in genuine emotions that make it feel familiar. This is no surprise given that the film is produced by Judd Apatow, a man whose storytelling is renowned for tracing the humane elements of its narrative rather than the premise itself. Unfortunately, like a traditional Apatow vehicle ‘The Big Sick’ occasionally overstays its welcome, running just a bit too long but still being a thoroughly enjoyable ride in the process.

In fact, which a film like this, a slightly too long runtime is far from the worst thing that can happen. The characters that we get to spend time with are all relatable and sympathetic, creating a welcome dynamic of being involved in their conflict whilst understanding every side of the argument. Characters are hesitant to embrace other cultures not necessarily because they are closed minded but because they are set on certain traditions and have planned their lives according to those traditions to the extent that any deviation from said plan makes things uneasy.

These characters in question are all portrayed brilliantly by the supremely talented cast. Nanajiani showcases his charisma and charm as a leading man. Despite being unconscious for a significant portion of the movie, Zoe Kazan is immensely likable and empathetic as Emily. The supporting turns from Ray Romano, Holly Hunter and Adeel Akhtar only serve to make the story even better as their characters are not broadened into one specific trope. There’s no character that feels there specifically to be funny or expositional, they all have their fair share of funny, heart wrenching and complex moments.

Having arrived on the scene as a promising director with another darkly subversive romantic comedy ‘Hello, My Name is Doris’, director Michael Showalter takes a nuanced approach to brining Nanajani’s screenplay to life. His direction definitely has an intimate feel to it that places us directly within the dynamic of the characters in question. Though it is easy to overlook, I think Showalter’s direction is an intrinsic part of what makes ‘The Big Sick’ feel so involving. He also understands the screenplay’s need to absorb the quitter moments of this story and his direction is sure to draw attention to them whilst also navigating each scene in a tone that feels appropriate. It may not be the most visually involving approach but it highlights the strength of the already fantastic screenplay.   

‘The Big Sick’ brilliantly mixes humour and heartbreak to create a surprising, subversive but also familiarly welcome story of love.

Result: 8/10

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

"We need the two of you to be the guardians of our future."

No other movie this year, or in fact in recent memory for me, has had a higher ceiling or a lower basement of expectations than Luc Beeson’s ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’. Watching the trailers, footage and stills I see the potential to be on the same level as the masterful ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ but also the terribleness of ‘Jupiter Ascending’. Based on a highly influential science fiction comic book, I went into Beeson’s film with literally no idea of what to expect beyond what promised to be a highly unique experience at the very least.

 In the 28th century, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) work together to maintain order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the minister of defence, the duo embarks on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where diverse species gather to share knowledge and culture. When a dark force threatens the peaceful city, Valerian and Laureline must race against time to identify the menace that also jeopardizes the future of the universe.

One danger of adapting a highly influential science fiction novel is what I like to call the ‘John Carter’ effect, wherein there is nothing inherently wrong with your adaptation itself, but the source material is so highly influential and has been cherry picked by so many others that the once unique elements now feel formulaic. We saw a similar thing happen to ‘Ghost in the Shell’ earlier this year. Luckily ‘Valerian’ manages to avoid this purely thanks to Luc Beeson’s sheer creativity as a filmmaker combined with his directorial style that is unlike anything else currently in cinemas.

Beeson possesses an ability to breeze through the most mind boggling ideas and utilise them in a way that ensures the pace and tone of his films never grows stale (as long as you forget that ‘Lucy’ happened). As Beeson demonstrated in ‘Leon: The Professional’ and ‘The Fifth Element’ his sheer energy and creativity allows him to showcase more brilliant ideas within a single action set piece than most blockbusters, in fact more than most franchises possess nowadays. The opening scene of exposition alone is some of the finest auteur filmmaking on a blockbuster scale, being a cacophony of imaginative, inspiring and involving pieces of storytelling.

It also helps that ‘Valerian’ is well and truly a visual masterclass from start to finish. Alongside his usual cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, Beeson brings forth a colour palette that dazzles the viewer for ever frame of the movie. Do not be mistaken for a second, on a purely visual level ‘Valerian’ is one of the finest spectacles you are likely to see on the big screen this year, a spectacle the feels completely and utterly like the product of an impassioned visionary. It’s no surprise that Beeson funded the entire movie through personal and crowd funding, making this the most expensive independent film of all time, no studio would allow a director to be this creative or expansive on visual level.

Inevitably though, ‘Valerian’ does have some issues as far as its broader construction goes. It relies so much on spectacle during the first act of the movie that by the time it reaches a stage where the narrative needs to support said visuals and act as the driving force of the movie it’s not up to the task of doing so. It starts to slow down and without substantial characters or a more intricate plot I had little reason to be as involved within the story beats once the amazing visuals became part of the normal proceedings. Perhaps if Beeson had shown less restraint during the movie’s first act he would have more interesting elements to introduce later down the road but instead the movie’s second half, which is by no means bad, just feels less involving.

Another issue are the two main actors. Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan are perfectly fine in their roles and has the movie’s script treated them as nothing more than vehicles to take us through this journey they would have filled their roles perfectly. But the movie feels the need to dive into their relationship and inner workings in a way that feels like it assumed I was actually invested in them, which I was not. DeHaan and Delevingne seem to lack to necessary chemistry to make their interactions seem especially intriguing, especially when the focus of a scene is on their dynamic. Beeson has never been known as an actor’s director so it seems hardly surprising that his actors can’t quite connect in the way they might under the direction of someone not concerned with world building and spectacle. If anything the fact that more Rhianna is able to steal the scenes in which she is in stands as a testament to how well ‘Valieran’ crafts its characters for a short period but not a sustainable length of time.  

Inspiring and imaginative beyond belief, but somewhat lacking in the narrative department, ‘Valerian’ is still worth seeing for its visual splendour alone.

Result: 7/10

Thursday 20 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

"No mercy, no peace, this is war. Apes. Together. Strong."

I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how successful this ‘Planet of the Apes’ prequel/reboot has become. Both on a critical and a commercial level the films succeed in winning over critics and audience, delivering a blockbuster that is not only hugely entertaining but also more thoughtful than the average popcorn picture. To make a movie that is labelled as complex but also features a horse riding monkey dual wielding machine guns is not an easy feat.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless colonel (Woody Harrelson) who deals a vicious blow against the ape kind. Pitted against the colonel in a fight to the finish that will determine the future of both their species as well as the future of the entire planet, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.

As well as promising us another excellent movie with each new instalment, but these movies also signal the start of a debate that will last from the moment of its release until Oscar season regarding whether or not Andy Serkis should receive an Oscar nomination. I’m discussing Serkis right at the start because, contrary to its title, ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is not the gigantic conclusion it is being marketed as. It is less of an action film and more of a character study, one that focusses on a character dealing with his own darker instincts and what he is willing to sacrifice in the name of his beliefs, who also just happens to be an ape. It’s a movie that is driven by the decisions of its character and his own moral dilemmas.

Serkis’ performance as Caesar has been consistently great throughout this trilogy, but I think this is where it reached new levels of brilliance. He so acutely conveys the conflict and turmoil brewing within Caesar with hardly a word. There are only a few occasions throughout the movie in which Caesar speaks and only a handful of those are conveying his emotions. We come to understand so much about what motivates him and his progressing state of mind throughout the movie purely on account of Serkis’ masterful performance that so clearly represents an artist in complete control of his craft.

Surprisingly though, we are treated to a number of brilliant performances that can match that of Serkis. Alongside him in the motion capture section is Steve Zahn, who manages to make the comedic sensibilities of Bad Ape work perfectly within the movie. Given that few things can sink a serious science fiction/action movie faster than an annoying comedic side character this is an achievement. Then there is Woody Harrelson as the film’s ruthless antagonist. I went into this movie knowing Harrelson would deliver some appropriate scenery chewing, but what struck me most was the nuance he and the writers injected into his character. Not only does he become completely empathetic but his role in the movie sets him up as a character who can go head to head with Caesar for their levels of complexity as well as their involving presence.

Of course, great performances in a movie like this would mean nothing if the visual effects were not up to the task. But it comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen the previous instalments that the CGI in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is astonishing. Not just brilliant when they are depicted on a large scale, or interacting with the humans but some of the close up shots honestly had me wondering whether I was actually looking at an image rendered on a computer, something I have not experienced to this degree outside of ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Terminator 2’.

What is even more remarkable is how Matt Reeves rarely seems to draw attention to the brilliance of these effects. So many movies with impressive special effects linger on them to a point where it distracts from the main narrative but Reeves utilises his effects in a way that only draws the audience deeper into the movie, to a point where the apes feel like an even more realistic presence than the humans. The action sequences are impeccably crafted, as are the moments of high tension and drama that underpin the movie. But where Reeves’ direction excels the most is how he treats the quieter moments of the film. There’s a humane element to them in which the audience are actively encouraged to consider the characters as actual, feeling figures. Moments where we get to see the humanity within and remember why we care about the plight of our protagonist. In a time when so many blockbusters focus on spectacle above all else it feels hugely refreshing to see that spectacle being merged with the intimate aspects of a story so masterfully.

I really am struggling to find any major criticisms with the movie on a broad scale. Any quibbles I have with it would require going into spoiler territory that focus on specific details that I was unsure of. A few contrived plot points, some questionable character decisions and an ending that drags on just a little too long that disregards logic in favour of an emotionally satisfying pay off. Beyond that, there’s little else to bother me.

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ is a thoughtful character study that just happens to be about apes taking over the world. A brilliant end to one of the best trilogies in modern cinema.

Result: 8/10


"You either make the change that will forever alter your life, or drown in your own security."

Alec Baldwin was in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, a movie that Baldwin, despite only being given five minutes of screen time, managed to leave such an impression with his performance that he outshone the likes of Al Pacino, Jack Lemon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris. Demi Moore was in ‘About Last Night’, a movie that was awarded a full four stars from Roger Ebert. I’m just reminding you of the good things these actors have done since it is hard to recall those accomplishments after seeing ‘Blind’.

Bill Oakland (Alec Baldwin) is blind novelist dejected by the mounting misfortunes he has suffered. However he gradually begins to rediscover his passion for life and writing when he embarks on an affair with the neglected wife (Demi Moore) of an indicted businessman (Dylan McDermott) but as the situation becomes more and more complex, their relationship must find a way to move past these impending trials.

So every now and then some Lifetime Channel movie, by some weird coincidence, means of blackmail of kidnapping, manages to bag a semi-decent star for their movie and manage to cobble together enough sappy clichés to make a movie with a runtime more in line with what one might expect from an actual film. They then somehow manage to release it in cinemas where it will be seen by approximately no one but still make money because the only alternative was to release it on Television anyway. Having done no research into the production history of ‘Blind’ I would guess that to be its origin, but even if it isn’t it makes no difference since the quality of the movie is exactly the same regardless.

If you told me this movie was made 20 years ago, released straight to VHS and only recently resurfaced, not only would I believe you but it would make the entire torturous ordeal make much more sense. ‘Blind’ parades one tired cliché that would have been outdated 20 years ago after another until it becomes so easy to predict exactly where the movie will go, devaluing any attempts at dramatic tension. Actually, I say that one can predict the movie but only the bare foundations of it. The small detours the narrative takes along the way feature the characters reacting to events in a way that no rational human being would. If you want to talk about empathetic characters then ‘Blind’ is the anti-thesis of how to create them. None of the characters have any discernible motivation for what they do nor any redeeming quality to draw sympathy from. They each fit into an allocated role and stay there, with no depth, complexity or even the slightest bit of interest.

Now, had this been a different kind of movie then the cold, distant and incomprehensible characters might work. But when you are making a sappy melodrama that tries to manipulate its audience’s emotions then the least you could hope for are characters that are mildly engaging to watch, at least engaging enough to forget the crushing realities of life. But if anything ‘Blind’ only made me wish for those crushing realities even more. As I said at the beginning of this review, the movie features a cast that at least during one point of their careers, talented. They’re given so little to do beyond reading from a screenplay so contrived and artificial that you may be forced to wonder whether it was written by a person or an algorithm that they remain completely flat and bland.

In fact, speaking of flat and bland, let’s talk about the direction. The entire construction of the film feels uninspired, never once forming an image that feel evocative or engaging. I can’t necessarily fault the direction as it still conveys each narrative element effectively but at the same time there is so little within it that I found my eyes involuntarily straying away from the screen itself. Nothing draws the viewer in. There is no style to elevate this paint by the numbers story and when the more dramatic moments do unfold the direction still remains at the same dull tone, making it even more difficult than it already was to even feign a mild sense of involvement with the movie.

Also, for a movie called ‘Blind’, it does very little to actually portray a blind character (or the disability itself) in any meaningful light. All we can gather about Bill Oakland is that he’s a bitter man who shouts abuse at those who try to help him, except for Demi Moore because….reasons. It does nothing to give us a genuine connection with the character and his affliction almost feels like an afterthought, as if the script was already written but the makers realised they would need some kind of hook to pitch it. Again, had this been a different kind of movie then I might not be criticising it as much, but in this they called the movie ‘Blind’ and yet they seem really uninterested in the fact that their main character is blind.

Boring and uninspired, ‘Blind would be lucky to find a second life as a TV movie.

Result: 2/10

Tuesday 18 July 2017

The Beguiled

"We ask for your protection over our school and we prey that we will be kept from harm throughout the night."

When it comes to modern auteurs who deal with a consistent theme throughout their entire body of work, Sofia Coppola possibly stands out as the best example of that. I would say all of her films are about isolation in one way or another, the effects it has on the human psyche and our subsequent desire to seek some kind of connection. Her latest film ‘The Beguiled’ is not only her first feature film since 2013’s stylish but disappointingly empty ‘The Bling Ring’ and earned the filmmaker the prestigious best director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is an injured Union soldier who finds himself on the run as a deserter during the Civil War. He seeks refuge at an all-female Southern boarding school where the teachers and students seem more than willing to help. Soon, sexual tensions lead to dangerous rivalries as the women tend to his wounded leg while offering him comfort and companionship.

I think it is fitting that ‘The Beguiled’ sees Coppola reteaming with Kirsten Dunst, as the two previously worked together on ‘Marie Antoinette’ whose elaborate period setting and lavish cinematography feel present once again here. But even more prevalent is the first film the in which the two collaborated, Coppola’s breakout hit ‘The Virgin Suicides’ as both it and ‘The Beguiled’ have a strong thematic connection. As I said before, all of Coppola’s films seem to deal with isolation and connections in one way or another but it’s her earliest and her latest features that seem to share an undercurrent of intimacy. In both movies Coppola seems to have little interest in the larger picture surrounding the events she depicts or the connotations they may have. She simply wants to convey a story from a specific perspective and on that front she does a superb job.

To say ‘The Beguiled’ is making a statement on something would be untrue. Unlike the 1971 movie based upon the same novel which was about, in its own director’s words “the basic desire of women to castrate men” (anxious much?), there is no real meaning to the images of Coppola’s movie. But those images in question are hauntingly beautiful and strikingly personal. Most of those shots are static for the first half of the movie, with Coppola’s camera patiently lingering on each image in an unnervingly still manner. Then during the second half of the movie we see more movement both from the camera and from the narrative.

It seems almost eerily distant in its approach as the slow build of tension throughout the house is so gradual that one might even miss it. It creeps rather than explodes and the performances complement this idea as well. Colin Farrell portrays a man whose tactics are shrewd, sometimes to the detriment of the movie where his character decisions feel a bit too irrational, but at the same time Coppola makes it clear that the focus is on the environment and dynamic of the house itself as it changes, not necessarily on what makes it change. In a similar way to how we never uncover the real reason behind the suicide of the Lisbon sisters in ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (that’s not a spoiler, it’s the title of the movie), ‘The Beguiled’ only seeks to portray this isolated location and its twisted descent.

That descent in question may be underwhelming for some, but the method in which Coppola takes us there is so involving and masterful that one will struggle to look away. The increasingly unhinged attitude of the women who resort to jealousy, spite and rage as this obsession envelopes their domesticity is brilliantly conveyed by Nicole Kidman, Dunst and Elle Fanning in particular. As the wounded soldier recovers the girls compete for his attention, and he himself makes the fatal mistake of indulging their rivalry. The patient stance of the movie means that it never feels like it is explicitly condoning or condemning anyone, just observing as the phenomenon takes hold.

Despite being the perspective being more restrained than Coppola’s other movies, the images she composes are striking on their ability to leave a lasting impression. The cinematography is at once deep and meditative but also eerie just by what it refuses to show. There’s a sense of feeling and atmosphere to every major shot that not only establishes the mood of the narrative as a whole but also does so much to establish the isolated nature of these characters as well as their ever shifting dynamic. When more soldiers arrive to investigate it feels like an invasion of this territory. As the situation escalates the forced calmness imposed upon the house is possibly the most frightening aspect of the entire movie. Coppola never needs to resort to broader statements about what her story means, the story in itself is more than interesting enough.

Brilliantly crafted and utterly involving for its entire runtime, ‘The Beguiled’ is an isolated and patient drama that displays Sofia Coppola’s more ruthless side as a storyteller.

Result: 8/10

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Full Metal Jacket: The Soldier in the Syetsm

Something that I always admire about Stanley Kubrick (as well as just, well, everything) is his versatility. Kubrick never made the same movie twice, he never repeated himself and he never felt the need to close any loose ends. One can look at his body of work and need only describe each film in the broadest possible terms to highlight how different they are. A dark comedy, a film noir, a historical epic, a science fiction movie, a horror and an erotic thriller. The only genre he revisited was that of war, but even then his films within the genre are radically different both in style and subject matter.

 ‘Paths of Glory’ was released in 1957 and in it Kubrick brought us into the trenches of WW1, an empathetic tragedy that depicts a Colonel attempting to defend a group of soldiers who are under threat of being court martialled for cowardice. It’s evidently an early film within Kubrick’s career, much more humanistic than his later efforts as well, being much less ambiguous as the story of individuality wears its anti-war sentiment on its sleeve to highlight the pointlessness of war. It stands in stark contrast to ‘Full Metal Jacket’ which was Kubrick’s penultimate film as he died just days after completing ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ in 1999.

Though it is set in the Vietnam War and naturally has a very different style and tone to ‘Paths of Glory’, its entire thematic conceit is wildly different. Whereas before, Kubrick went to great lengths to humanise his fighting soldiers, the very first frame of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ seeks to strip man of his humanity. Despite being set in Vietnam the film’s intent is to focus upon the very system of war itself, the dehumanisation of man and his increasing separation from all that tethers him to a civilised society. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman states to his soldiers “Here you are all equally worthless”.

The first and last hint of any real identity we see from a character other than Private Pile (more on him later) is from Private Joker and it is quickly snuffed out by Hartman. Though he earns his drill sergeants respect, Joker clearly still has no place from which to be anything other than a cog in the machine. One would argue that Hartman’s job, more than the actual training of the men, is to emphasise how they are merely part of a system and no longer an individual. He tells them that the Marine Corp will live on regardless of the soldier’s deaths, he moulds them into identical machines. Critics of Kubrick have referred to him as being cold or clinical, without seeming to realise that both those qualities are exactly what the director wanted to achieve.

Every frame of the movie’s first half is composed to stress this dehumanisation process and show how it gradually takes hold over all of the men there. Kubrick’s symmetrical framing and evocative images cement this concept into our minds. We watch the men becoming better soldiers but at the same time straying further away from any identity they had at the beginning of the process. Kubrick’s intent is not to show the individual nor any trace of humanity. He wants to show us the machine slowly engulfing the men, taking control and reducing them to components that will bend to the will of whoever controls them.

In this case that controller happens to be Sergeant Hartman, whose control over the movie is designed to reflect his control over the lives of his soldiers. His voice seems like an ever present element of the movie’s first half of the movie, a constant factor that asserts its dominance in every scene. It is little wonder that R Lee Ermey was typecast as figures of authority following the movie’s release because his commanding tone is about as controlling as they come, due both to his performance and the way Kubrick uses him. Hartman is a traditional god-fearing, Marine loving American soldier. He seems actively disgusted when Joker reveals that he wants to work for the war press rather than be a soldier. As Hartman puts is “You’re not a writer, you’re a killer”, writers express individuality, killers under his regime don’t.

Of course, this system has no room for a screw that does not fit and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ has just that in the form of Private Pile. Vincent D'Onofrio gained 70 pounds for the role, breaking the record previously set by Robert De Niro for ‘raging Bull. Like all of Kubrick’s requirements it was specific and essential to the director’s vision. D’Onofrio’s weight gain means that as soon as Pile is seen in the film, the audience can tell he does not look like a soldier, nor does he act like one. He fails to adapt to the system and does not improve to benefit that system. As the other soldiers improve and make fewer mistakes within the course of their training, Pile repeatedly fails to match the standards of his sergeants, exposing the man within the soldier. Eventually Hartman resorts to punishing the unit for Pile’s mistakes, isolating him from his fellow soldiers and further emphasising how he does not belong within this ever moving machine.

But then, as it looks as if Pile is finally about to break, the regime starts to affect him. He still does not fit into the machine but he can at least mascaraed as being a part of it. Kubrick frames him a number of intense close ups to signify that something is very wrong within Pile internally. Hartman gives examples of Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald as skiller marksmen who were trained by the Marines. He credits them as a testament to what “one marine and his rifle” can do, without realising that both were unhinged members of their machine. Each man made history by lashing out at what they perceived to be their enemy. Hartman is unwittingly describing the conditions of his own death there and then. When Pile murders Hartman it is not out of rage or revenge, but simply the fact that the system succeeded in turning Pile into a soldier. But the only enemy he knew was his abuser, sergeant Hartman. Then with the enemy defeated, for Pile the war is very much over.

However, the film ploughs on as Kubrick takes us to the heart of the Vietnam War shortly after. While some see this aspect of the film as the weaker half, I believe it is part of Kubrick’s masterstroke in his portrayal of war and its condition on the human spirit. Having witnessed the scrupulous syetm rob these men of their identities in the first half, we see the complete breakdown of that system in the second. Here the soldiers are driven to act impulsively. It’s here that the identity of Vietnam and its hypocrisy bleed into the film’s main thematic point. It’s a stark contrast to the measured approach of the first half, where Kubrick’s static shots are replaced by an ever moving camera to reflect the lack of control.

Throughout his time in Vietnam, Joker attempts to be more than just a singular entity. He wears a Peace symbol on his jacket, yet has “Born to kill” written on his helmet, a gesture to show the duality of man but one that baffles his superiors who tell him to get with the programme. In that very same lecture an officer tells him that their purpose in Vietnam is to help the Vietnamise, yet just minutes earlier we saw a soldier gunning down civilians as he regards them all to be either VC’s or well-disciplined VC’s. Amid the chaos of Vietnam the system the marines are taught to obey is proven worthless. Any sense of unification they had is decimated. Their squadron, equipment and tactics are broken. Is the American cause that they represent also broken?

In fact it’s here where Kubrick does actually start to echo some of the themes he established in ‘Paths of Glory’. In that film his soldiers were insignificant, fighting for a worthless piece of land. In ‘Full Metal Jacket’ the soldiers spend a good chunk of the film pinned down by an enemy sniper. They pointlessly and all the survivors have to show for it is the death of their enemy, who in this instance happens to be a teenage girl. But what does all this amount to, what does it want to say in the end?

The simple answer is that Kubrick was not interested in the morality of war no did he want to make another human drama with ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Vietnam and its aftermath were explored in many films prior to ‘Full Metal Jacket’ but Kubrick’s approach was a unique blend of brutal realism and dark satire. He demonstrates the breakdown of humanity within the film’s first movement and then uses the second half to question the futility of such a sacrifice.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Top 5 Threequels

The analogues of cinema are littered with abysmal threequels, movies that fail to stick the landing on the third attempt. As well as being outright bad movies it’s hard not to feel the sting a little more if the preceding movies in the trilogy were excellent. So many promising trilogies end in disaster when the third one overhauls the level of quality in favour of terrible nonsense. Even if the second movie is a disappointment a great third movie can still redeem a franchise but so many somehow get even worse upon their third entry. ‘Alien 3’, ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’, ‘Spider-Man 3’, ‘Blade Trinity’, ‘The Matrix Revolutions’, ‘Superman 3’, ‘Batman Forever’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘Terminator: Rise of the Machines’, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’ and ‘Hangover 3’.

But amid these catastrophes, a few third instalments actually rise to the challenge and manage to not only close their respective trilogies on a high note but go above and beyond what the previous instalments accomplished. For this top 5 said threequels have to be a definite improvement or of similar quality to their previous entries. So while ‘Return of the Jedi’ is fantastic, it’s decidedly a downgrade from the masterpiece that is ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

As an additional rule I’m going to say that each instalment should be the end of their respective franchises, concluding the story in a satisfying and masterful way. So that means I have to exclude ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (as much as we would love to forget that there was another). Also ‘Toy Story 3’ is great but, go figure it didn’t make the cut..

5: Pusher 3

Nicholas Winding Refn made his start with the low budget thriller ‘Pusher’ which not only launched his career but also that of Mads Mikkelson. Though he originally never wanted to expand upon his Copenhagen crime saga the financial success of the first film prompted Refn to do just that. With each instalment following a different character through the dark and gritty underworld Refn established, the director was essentially left with a blank slate from which to craft each new story (with this one focussing on a Serbian drug lord caught in an ensuing power struggle) and it shows, as his freedom in storytelling and boldness of vision never fail to shine through. This being Refn the movie is loaded with brutal violence and gallows humour but surprisingly there’s an oddly profound nature to the movie as well, ending one of cinema’s most underrated and best trilogies.

4: Before Midnight

Speaking of underrated trilogies though, we now have Richard Linklater’s astonishing magnum opus that is ‘The Before Trilogy’. Filmed over the course of 18 years (take that, ‘Boyhood’) by recapping the same couple once every nine years into their relationship, the trilogy goes out on a high note with ‘Before Midnight’. It’s more hard hitting and less joyous than the previous two instalments as Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s romantically entangled couple now find themselves facing marital issues. But the chemistry between these two actors is something that cannot be faked, it’s built up from years of experience and bonding with one another which is evident in every encounter they share. It’s poignant, humorous and sometimes heart-breaking but always amazing.

3: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

It’s no accident that the final instalment of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy saga still holds the record for most Oscars received by a single film (tied with ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Titanic’ at 11 apiece) as honouring this movie was the Academy’s way of honouring the entire trilogy. But even when taken on its own value, ‘Return of the King’ is a spectacular piece of filmmaking, with such an epic and grandiose vision that any one of its incredible set pieces might seem daunting to any other filmmaker. But at this time in his career Jackson was in complete control of his creative process, brilliantly crafting each scene and invigorating it with a spectacular sense of awe inspiring brilliance. But amid all of the gigantic battles Jackson never forgets to focus on what is intimate and poignant. Those battles carry such weight because we are attached to the characters and their long journey, we feel their struggle and are rooting for them to succeed every step of the way. Few films have such an incredible gift to make grown men well up in an instant with lines such as “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you” or the iconic “You bow to no one.”

2: Three Colours: Red

When it comes to picking a definitive masterpiece from Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski you are spoiled for choice from ‘Dekalog’ to ‘The Double Life of Veronique’. But his most enduring work might just be his ‘Three Colours Trilogy’, a filmmaking achievement so intricately staged and masterfully executed that it almost defies belief. His trilogy marks the perfect blend of style and substance, a series of creative choices that are dazzling to behold but never, not even for a second, feel like they are compensating for a lack of depth. They are written to be personal and affecting, with the final instalment ‘Red’ being one of subversive brilliance. Described as the anti-romance it’s remarkable in the way that Kieślowski takes these complex emotions and distils them into a dazzling experience. It was to be his final film due to his death in 1994, so it not only served as a stunning finale to an amazing trilogy, but also the end of a great filmmaker’s illustrious career.

1: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Looking back on it today, it’s hard to imagine a time when Clint Eastwood was viewed as an odd choice for a western protagonist, but that is exactly how it was viewed in 1966, as well as every other creative decision undertaken by Itaian director Sergio Leone. But in the decades since his entire way of filmmaking has become synonymous with the western genre, redefining its very essence and cementing a legacy that few films in the history of cinema have ever surpassed. The tale of three gunslingers (Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach) hunting for a stash of buried gold has Leone’s style bleeding from every scene. His dry humour and patient character moments both contrasts and complements the sudden bursts of violence that litter the film. When the violence does appear it’s easy to understand why Leone became the icon we now know him as, his editing, use of music and direction was unmatched by anyone else in the genre. Leone’s previous westerns with Eastwood redefined a genre, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ redefined all of cinema.

Monday 10 July 2017

It Comes at Night

"I just want to talk, and I want honest answers. Do you have any idea what's going on out there?"

As far as modern film companies go, it’s hard not to love A24. By financing, producing and distributing a wide variety of movies from new and talented filmmakers they have made their mark as a sign of significant quality. Since 2014 a good chunk of the year’s best movies have come under the A24 banner and 2017 looks to continue that winning streak, especially with films as superbly crafted and as refreshingly unique as ‘It Comes At Night’.

 Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous order a man (Joel Edgerton) has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within the man as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.

Much like 2016’s ‘The Witch’ (or as the marketing called it, ‘The VVith’) which was also released by A24, ‘It Comes at Night’ is not the conventional horror movie its marketing makes it out to be. It’s not hard to see why some reviews have likened it to a David Lynch film, with its emphasis on atmosphere and provocative imagery over any conventional narrative. It is also similar to a Lynch film in the sense that one should not go into the movie expecting some definitive meaning or allegorical message, its meaning can be highly illusive which will no doubt frustrate some viewers, but those willing to dig deeper will be rewarded.

‘It Comes at Night’ never goes out of its way to explain its environment or meaning to the audience. It drops its viewer straight into its post-apocalyptic setting, the only exposition you get is what is presented right in front of you. We never get a clear answer over what illness has swept this land or what state the world is left in now. There are many heavily implied answers but not everything is shown. In an age where so many films feel as if they can’t even respect the intelligence of their own audience this approach feels so refreshing. Our experience is designed to mimic that of the characters, instilling a sense of uncertainty and fear within us just as it does for the characters.

By furthering the sense of paranoia and tension ‘It Comes at Night’ is able to highlight the themes that underpin the entire film. Confusion and loss play a major part in the films narrative from the first scene to the last and our investment in those themes requires a sense of empathy with the characters within the movie. As I said earlier though, the movie does a masterful job of placing you within the mind set of said characters. The uncertainty and distrust they feel between themselves will plague the mind of the viewer for every scene, especially when so many crucial plot points are conveyed through a subjective lens, casting a shadow of doubt over it both for the characters and the audience.

What makes this lack of information all the more effective is the small scale in which the film takes place. It paints a claustrophobic picture that is completely isolated from the outset, so much so that the presence of any other living creature is made to feel like a subject of terror all on its own. As events do unfold there is almost a cathartic change to the movie’s sense of pace that also raises fear, displaying a truly phenomenal control of structure on the part of director Trey Edward Shults. The film’s cinematography is also brilliant, making such terrific use of light and dark that you feel as if you fully understand that tone of the world the story is set in before the characters have ever said a word.

This isolation might risk wearing thin if the characters were not likable or empathetic. But thanks to both the sense of atmosphere that places you in their state of mind, as well as the characters themselves being written as sympathetic human beings, I found myself constantly invested in their struggle, empathising with their actions whilst sympathising with their moral dilemma. They were also portrayed brilliantly, with each actor being superb in their role. Like the film around them each actor carries an air of ambiguity to their portrayal of the character, highlighting the possible ulterior motives that could be lurking under any of their actions as well as anything they say.

I have reservations in saying that ‘It Comes at Night’ is a terrifying film, but not in a conventional sense. It is what remains unspoken that is most frightening, the doubt and paranoia is what leaves the biggest impact, playing on our fears of the unknown. However, it’s not just implied scares as the film’s director Shults has a superb eye for conveying tension and dread. The fear that the characters feel is so effectively translated to the audience through his directorial skill. His patient camera movements almost seems to be inviting some kind of terror onto the screen, to a point where even relatively mundane scenes can turn into a masterclass of tension through the subtlest of camera moves. The use of music also elevates it even further, drawing us deeper into the unspoken horror of the narrative without ever feeling contrived.

Like the best of horror films, ‘It Comes at Night’ highlights the way that true horror comes from within. It is as much a terrifying character study as it is an exercise in terror, placing us within the perspective and mind set of the characters before forcing us to confront what we would do in their situation. In his second feature film Shults has more than established himself as a talent to watch out for. It is at that point in the story where we realise there are no discernible villains beyond what already lies within.

Masterfully tense, brilliantly paced and intricately staged, ‘It Comes at Night’ plays on our fears of the unknown as well as our fears of the internal.

Result: 9/10

Saturday 8 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

"Just forget about the flying monster guy and try to focus on being more like a kind of, friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man"

When it comes to everyone’s favourite web slinger, the variation of quality for big screen adaptations is a wide margin. On the one hand you have Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man 2’, which was not only hailed as a great movie upon its release, but is still regarded as a high point of the superhero genre (it genuinely holds up shockingly well). But on the other end of the scale you have the manufactured, soulless, franchise pandering train-wreck that is ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’. High ceiling, low basement.

Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to live with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Under the watchful eye of Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr), Parker starts to embrace his newfound identity as Spider-Man whilst also trying to return to his daily routine. Peter must soon put his powers to the test when the evil Vulture (Michael Keaton) emerges to threaten everything that he holds dear.

It’s strange to think that the biggest movie franchise on the planet is being forced to compromise with another, much less powerful studio that botched their own attempted franchises twice before. But that’s exactly the situation that Marvel Studios find themselves in when trying to make their own Spider-Man movie. Having been introduced in last year’s ‘Captain America: Civil War’, Tom Holland steps into the web slinger’s costume to take his place amid the rest of the MCU. Of course, Marvel had a tightly wound schedule for the next ten or so years of filmmaking, but their deal with Sony basically changed the playing field, meaning that a few things had to be shuffled around and other things had to be rushed forward and in some regards that is evident within ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’.

But since I’m an optimist (okay that’s not true, but just go with it) I’ll focus on the positives first. In fact there are mostly positives to be pointed out since on the whole ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is another solid entry for Marvel. It’s a fun and entertaining ride that promises plenty of laugh out loud jokes, likable characters and a relatable setting for its target audience. The movie is easily at its best when it embraces its high school movie influences. They understand the fact that at its heart Spider-Man has always been compelling to the masses because he is simply an ordinary teenager trying to navigate life, merging the person he is with the person that he wants to be. ‘Homecoming’ not only understands this but also fully embraces it, to a level where it almost feels like the superhero aspects of the plot feel more obligatory than anything else.

However, therein lies one of the problems, as the action scenes and narrative of the movie feel somewhat underdeveloped. We are treated to another fairly generic villain in the form of the The Vulture who despite being portrayed with great charisma and menace by Michael Keaton (were we expecting anything else?) lacks any discernible motivation or memorable presence. While I do enjoy the fact that the plot bases itself heavily on Peter Parker’s own need to carve out an identity amid this sprawling world, the actual story doesn’t seem to yield much consequence.

The thing is, many MCU solo movies feel the need to jog on the spot in order to maintain the status quo for the eventual team up later down the line. That is what ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ suffers from, things happen but none of them feel like they have an impact. The main emotional arc is that we get to witness Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, which is fine but not something we’ve never seen before. As I said though the high school setting and comedic sensibilities lead to a greater sense of freshness and originality. While it’s action scenes are not particularly memorable (especially when compared to Raimi’s movies in which every action sequence works to further the characters and their development) the way the characters react to them and take us toward them is hugely enjoyable.

The cast are probably the strongest aspect of the entire movie, with the young actors being more than convincing in their respective roles. Tom Holland is exactly what I think of when I think of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, a morally driven kid torn between two identities. The dynamic he shares with his classmates is believable and often hilarious, with Zendaya, Toni Revolori, Jacob Batalon and Laura Harrier all doing a good job at drawing me into the unfolding high school drama. Then there’s Robert Downey Jr and Marisa Tomei who, along giving me weird feelings over Aunt May’s attractiveness, are compelling mentors to Peter as he makes his way through both high school and heroism.

While that high school setting does work for the narrative and humour of the movie it never quite feels as involving as it should, especially when for the first time their “high school superhero” doesn’t look like a 30 year old pretending to be a teenager. But while the environment puts a fresh dressing on the story, it doesn’t give it enough substance. When they pull out the old “Spider-Man lifting the heavy thing” moment is feels like an obligation rather than what it should be, a metaphor for the emotional weight said hero is lifting and overcoming. I feel like I’m being too critical since this is still a highly enjoyable and entertaining movie, but I guess I just wanted a bit more.

Another solid effort from Marvel that is joyous and massively entertaining, but perhaps somewhat lacking in substance.


Wednesday 5 July 2017

The Book of Henry

"When somebody hurts someone else, we have to make it better."

Every now and then I have to review a movie where, rather than commenting upon the actual quality or worth of the movie, I feel like the best indication of how good or terrible it is should simply be a description of the movie’s plot. In a related matter, Colin Treverrow, the quintessential example of why taking someone from obscure indie fame to giant unprecedented blockbuster fame might not yield the best results, has a new movie out and it’s getting quite a bit of attention albeit not for the right reasons.

Single mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) works as a waitress while her son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), a genius child prodigy, takes care of everyone and everything in his own way. Protective of his brother (Jacob Tremblay) and a tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother, Henry blazes through the days like a comet. When Susan discovers that the family next door harbours a dark secret, she's surprised to learn that Henry has devised a plan to help the young daughter.

While some critics have unabashedly named ‘The Book of Henry’ to be the worst movie of 2017, I have to disagree. Not because I think the movie is good, it is in fact bafflingly terrible, but it’s also far too interesting and insane to warrant being written off immediately. Especially when so many bland and lazy movies have a claim to the title of worst movie of 2017 now that we are at the halfway mark. ‘The Book of Henry’ is also not as apocalyptically bad as some reviews have suggested. The mere fact that every conceivable creative decision doesn’t have the exact opposite effect of what its creator intended means that it is not worthy of being put alongside ‘The Room’. Also, even if it was that bad, Colin Treverrow is not nearly as interesting as Tommy Wiseau.

The think is, I can understand what Treverrow and writer Gregg Hurwitz were trying to achieve, I really do. I think ‘The Book of Henry’ was intended to be both a homage and a deconstruction of the family friendly movies of the 1980s in which all the adult problems of the world would be solved by some smart-ass kid. On paper the concept itself is a decent one, drawing an audience into an illusion before shattering it right in front of them in favour of showing them a harsher but more truthful reality. I get it, but the way the movie jumps from its homage segment to its deconstruction is so tonally jarring that ‘The Book of Henry’ comes off as pure insanity fuel that academics could go crazy over trying to decipher and piece together.

I pity the poor people who went into ‘The Book of Henry’ expecting some fun children’s romp with a dark edge because the movie spirals out of control faster than a genetically engineered dinosaur at a futuristic theme park. We go from child friendly antics and one scene to real world issues like death, illness and abuse. It’s like welding the first half of a Chris Columbus movie onto the second half of an Ingmar Bergman movie. If I can draw anything from this movie it is that it’s given me much more respect for directors like Wes Anderson whose movies frequently begin as quirky comedies and turn into studies of grief and loss. Maybe ‘The Book of Henry’ could work in the hands of a more skilled director, but as Treverrow suggested with ‘Jurassic World’, subtlety is far from his strongpoint and any nuances that might have eased the movie through this tonal shift are lost in favour of clichéd melodrama and plot points so ridiculous that they will evoke laughter rather than…..whatever they were supposed to evoke, I really don’t know.

Another helpful addition in terms of letting your audience know what they are in for is some subtle foreshadowing. You can shift the entire tone of your movie so long as you lay the groundwork for it and clue your audience into a change in style. But none of that appears, in fact the amount of times I wrongly guessed which direction the movie would be going next rose to double digits before the movie’s runtime had even reached double digits. None of the subsequent turns the movie takes are in any way implied or suggested, with each irreverent turn having no bearing on where the movie might go next. Furthermore they’re not explored or established in any great detail either, with half of them being rushed through. The best example is probably (I’d say spoiler but really, who cares?) is that a character goes from being completely healthy and functioning to developing a brain tumour and dying in the space of about ten minutes of screen time. That doesn’t just apply to the narrative either, as character motivations (speaking of which, one of the characters are remotely sympathetic or understandable in any way, shape or form), established rules of this world and the law enforcement system itself change seemingly on a whim.

Jarring and disorienting in every conceivable way, ‘The Book of Henry’ is bafflingly terrible if not highly interesting.


Monday 3 July 2017

Top Ten Movies of 2011

You need only look at the individual directors who contributed to some of the year’s best films to know that 2011 was packed with provocative and experimental forms of filmmaking. New and increasingly bold visions burst onto the scene that transported audiences to uncomfortable places, but if anything that disturbed feeling that I associate with many of the year’s best just proves how effectively they carried out what they promised to do, create an emotional response. What is also surprising is just how many newcomers there were to the top tier in 2011, as ever there were plenty of seasoned veterans to offer up their usual brand of quality but a majority of films in my top ten come from directors whom I wasn’t hugely aware of beforehand but am unlikely to forget after their efforts.

As ever though there are numerous honourable mentions to hand out first. This distinct sense of auteur quality even managed to sneak its way into the blockbusters of the year, with Matthew Vaughn lending his unique sensibilities to ‘X-Men: First Class’. The same could be said for Brad Bird’s ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ as well as ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’. Also, though it pains me that I couldn’t find room for it in the top ten, the Harry Potter series ended in spectacular fashion with ‘The Deathly Hallows Part 2’, goodbye childhood.

Even if they were not being made on a blockbuster level there were also a few brilliant smaller genre films to go alongside the big hitters. Though it’s inclusion here is likely to be accompanied by the traditional “the original Swedish one was better” I thought David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ was a chillingly efficient example of a high stakes thriller. Speaking of chilling, we also saw Lynne Ramsey’s twisted psychological terror ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. Then on the other side of the scale (sort of) there’s ‘50/50’ that despite sounding like the worst idea on paper actually handles its subject matter and tone with effective grace.

But as ever there was no shortage of high drama to keep us on high alert. There was Alexander Payne’s heart wrenching drama ‘The Descendants’ with its Oscar winning screenplay by Jim Rash (who knew Dean Pelton was such a good writer?), but while we’re on the subject of good screenplays you can’t ignore the brilliance that is Aaron Sorkin and ‘Moneyball’. Then there is also the culturally significant as well as emotionally involving ‘A Separation’. Finally, while I don’t think it’s the masterpiece some proclaim it to be, there is no denying the grandiose ambition and personal resonance of Terrance Malick’s epic ‘The Tree of Life’.

10: Melancholia

Lars Von Trier has never been one to comply to convention (in fact I am fully confident in saying he doesn’t know the meaning of the word) and ‘Melancholia’ continues to cement that. Anchored by an emotionally resonant performance from Kirsten Dunst that dare I say stands as the best of her career, it’s a quietly beautiful look at the end of the world with too many breath-taking images to count. It’s Von Trier at his most elegant without ever abandoning the ideologies that set him apart as a filmmaker, being so refreshingly original at the same time that it is almost awe inspiring. Though I can understand some being frustrated by its sprawling outlook and methodical pace, ‘Melancholia’ represents a filmmaker in complete control of his own vision, underlying his unique qualities as well as his versatility and ability to adapt.

9: Midnight in Paris

Though it may not measure up to his timeless masterpieces, ‘Midnight in Paris’ stands as a pleasant reminder of why we love Woody Allen’s movies. Exploring themes of nostalgia and modernism but probably in the most delightful way possible, the movie boasts many brilliant performances from Tom Hiddleston, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Martin Sheen, Alison Pill and Adrian Brody. But even among this impressive ensemble it’s Owen Wilson who shines the brightest, his enthusiasm and humanity is infectiously charming as well as his elegantly handled emotional arc to a point where you can feel ever emotion exuding from his character by the end of the movie. Allen distinguishes himself as a filmmaker who trusts his audience’s intelligence, even when his story is as relatively basic as this, his craftsmanship and intelligence are obvious within ever scene, as are his subtle methods of informing the audience whilst transporting them.

8: Take Shelter

A movie that is sure to evoke plenty of discussion and thought, Jeff Nichols psychological drama is deeply layered and open to many interpretations but even when taken on face value it earns its praise as a terrific piece of cinema. So much of the movie relies on Michael Shannon’s powerhouse performance that stands as one of the best of the year. He conveys so many differing moods to the audience that he can change the entire tone of the movie on a whim, sometimes enforcing a sense of stability but the  turning his character, and the whole movie, in on itself by injecting an ounce of vulnerability that throws everything into a new light. Nichols superb direction only highlights this increasing unease and dread even more, to a point where if you ask five different people what the movie means, chances are you will get five different responses.

7: Hugo

If you were not already aware of just how versatile of a filmmaker Martin Scorsese is, then ‘Hugo’ should cement his reputation as one of the greatest creative forces in the history of cinema. It’s unlike any other film he has made but the expertise and craftsmanship that are evident within the movie means that ‘Hugo’ never once feels like Scorsese trying to do a fantasy film, it just feels like an amazing fantasy film. It’s both a brilliant adventure with universal appeal as well as Scorsese’s own love letter to cinema, inspiring a great love of film’s earliest pioneers in the process. It has the best use of 3-D I have ever seen in a movie (and if you can’t take my word for that then take it from James Cameron since he is the one who said it) as well as a brilliant cast to bring out the humanity within the story. ‘Hugo’ is simply a delight from start to finish.

6: The Kid with a Bike

The many comparisons between the Dardenne brothers’ ‘The Kid with a Bike’ and Vittoria de Sica’s timeless classic ‘Bicycle Thieves’ go beyond the mere fact of both films featuring a bike. Jean Pierre and Luc succeeded in evoking a sense of neo-realism that many thought had been lost to modern cinema, telling a heart-wrenching story of childhood, loss and trust. The camerawork and cinematography possess this amazing lightness to them, evoking a sense that anything is possible in this world of harsh realities. The characters are brilliantly drawn and so empathetic, so it’s little wonder that the performances of Thomas Doret and Cecile de France evoke such raw emotions. Its screenplay is so intricate and personal that never fails to evoke a powerful response from the audience and speaks volumes about its central themes as well as its characters.

5: The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almovodar has always had a fascination with themes of exploitation and taboos. But ironically in what, based on its premise, looked to be his most brutal film is actually his most elegant to explore said themes. Described by its own director as “a horror without scares or frights” it’s certainly a film that defies convention, twisted yet mystical, patient yet thrilling. It may have the dressing of a horror movie but ‘The Skin I Live In’ reaches into the broader territory of existentialism without ever feeling unfocussed or unguided. Its thrills are just as effective as its philosophy, being sure to unnerve the view in one scene and have them pondering on the deep questions in the next. In the hands of anyone else ‘The Skin I Live In’ might implode upon itself, but Almovodar never loses sight of his unique vision and stays true to his own deeply unsettling but masterfully crafted horror story of isolation and obsession.

4: The Raid

If you want a complex narrative and layered characters then go somewhere else. For everyone else, experience what I can confidently label one of the best action films ever made in the form of Gareth Evans’ ‘The Raid’. As well as earning points for being Welsh, Evans marks himself as an esteemed auteur in the field of heat pounding action sequences that defy belief in how frenetic and refined they are. Evans keeps his story and dialogue to a minimum, choosing to convey most of his story beats through visual storytelling and making his fight scenes integral to the story to a point where the action never lets up but also never feels exhausting, one scene just builds upon the next to a point where you think that the next could get any better, but then it does. The result is an astonishing display of genre filmmaking that is not only hugely entertaining but for someone who wants to see a filmmaker in complete control of their genre then you can’t get much better than ‘The Raid’.  

3: Samsara

Keeping on the subject of narratively sparse films, we come to what must surely be the pinnacle of visual storytelling, ‘Samsara’. It is cinema at its purest and most basic form, a medium beyond language that uses images to tell its story. That story in question is about everyone and everything. It uses its images to compare and contrast different cultures and societies, highlighting their differences but also observing upon their parallels. Filmed over the course of 5 years in 25 different countries, it is a monumental feat of filmmaking and with the level of attention and care put into capturing each new environment that effort only becomes even more apparent as ‘Samsara’ stands as one of the most visually stunning collection of images ever put to celluloid. It’s open to a different interpretation from all who see it but I’m sure everyone will agree that it needs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible.

2: Shame

After the hauntingly powerful ‘Hunger’ in 2008, Steve McQueen managed to do one better with ‘Shame’. It is unspeakably powerful and endlessly empathetic in its portrayal of its characters and their deep seated trauma. McQueen’s method of filmmaking is so subtle yet so resonant that his balance of the two is astonishing, he evokes such a raw intensity from the film through the most effective and almost invisible of methods. Michael Fassbender gives a tour de force as the films painfully damaged main character, one that is made all the more heart breaking when shown alongside Caery Mulligan as his sister whose trauma is just as devastating but underpinned with an unspoken vulnerability. There is an emptiness to the movie that plays to our own sense of existential dread but also a humanity that instead of giving us hope, makes us realise how real these struggles are and how horrifying it truly is.

1: Drive

A balance of style and substance is a difficult thing when you are Nicholas Winding Refn, whose filmmaking sensibilities are so extravagant that they can sometimes detract from the main story. But that is not the case with ‘Drive’ at all, telling one of the most effective anti-hero tales since Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’. Its stunning visuals and tense action sequences are only outdone by its humanity and themes, which are explored to a great extent through both of the aforementioned elements as well as its soundtrack and dialogue. As well as being a compelling tale of redemption, ‘Drive’ stands as a perfect blend between brutality and tenderness. In a hyper stylised display of violence Winding Refn has brought forward a superb character study. Flawlessly framed and composed as well as being soaked in visual flair, ‘Drive’ has all the substance to back up its splendour, especially from its hugely talented ensemble cast.  It defies trends and subverts conventions, being a homage to a grittier era of cinema whilst also demonstrating how modern advancements can elevate filmmakers visions. It is artful and ruthless, accessible yet uncompromising and the best film of 2011.