Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Best Films of the Year 2016 (January-June)

"If you only see one film about Icelandic sheep farmers this year, make it this one..."
And so we cross over the half way-point of our movie watching year. Thus far, a rather good year for film it's been too. Throughout the last month I've been catching up on all of the new releases I wanted to see from the first half of the year, and below is a rundown of my favourites (grouped by rating, but otherwise just in alphabetical order). As I consume my movies almost exclusively at home these days, I go by the DVD release schedule, so all of these were released on disc in the UK between January and June 2016. To make sure I didn't miss anything, I went through the Film Distributors' Association's entire cinema release calendar, then checked on Amazon when everything reached DVD. Too much work for something this unnecessary. In late December, after the latest update to my giant Christmas movie list extravaganza, I'll do it all over again for the second half of the year. Then the best titles from both lists will go head-to-head for my overall film of the year award. Someone needs to tell me to stop with the lists already.

Hitchcock Truffaut
Two of the world's leading directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, got together to record hours of interviews exploring Hitchcock's work. It resulted in a book that transformed the way people viewed Hitchcock and his films, and this film uses the audio recordings alongside photos and input from people like Martin Scorsese and David Fincher to relay the story of perhaps the most influential book ever written about cinema. Essential viewing for film buffs and fans of either director.

In the Heart of the Sea
A surprisingly engaging story from Ron Howard about the original events that inspired the tale of Moby Dick. Liam Hemsworth takes charge of a sea voyage that runs into trouble when it's attacked by a monster-sized whale, and is told in flashback to Herman Melville as if he is researching the story for his novel. Fantastic special effects steal the film, and I found it more entertaining than expected.

The Lady in the Van
A very English style of comedy now, the true story of playwright/actor Alan Bennett and his curious relationship with a homeless woman who lived for many years in a van in his driveway. It goes on a little too long, but is very funny in the early parts, and Maggie Smith is wonderful as the old lady. The directorial style of having Bennett talk to himself, with two of him in the room, was a little misguided for me though.

Our Brand is Crisis
Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton are political strategists who go to war as rival campaign managers in a fiercely contested Bolivian election. Strange film this, part comedy and part political statement, the combination doesn't sit well together and would have been better just one way or the other. The two leads are very good though, I almost always enjoy their performances, and they're the only reason this is worth your time.

Mississippi Grind
Two poker players, Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, go on a high stakes gambling tour. The setup is like The Sting or it's sequel The Colour of Money, but goes in a very different direction, a lot more downbeat and sobering than you might expect. Strangely I would have liked a few more genre cliches thrown in just to lighten the mood a touch, the experiences of the characters and tone of the film made me feel a little flat, but I can also appreciate why they chose it to be that way.

Vincent Cassell runs a commune that cares for and protects women and children. Sounds admirable and quite everyday. Only there's much going on behind closed doors, not least in that he's training children to be assassins. Really. Cassell is so good, his torment and fury when any of the children rebel or speak out against his instructions is a sight to see. It has a subtlety and originality that I think would take several views to get to grips with, I would like to see it again at some point.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I finally enjoyed a Star Wars movie! Having only seen the originals for the first time a couple of years ago, I have no nostalgia for the series, and wasn't overly fussed once I had seen them. Even though this is very similar, the new characters were good and showed a promising future for the series. I'd now place it alongside other fantasy series like Harry Potter and The Hobbit, which is quite a leap from where I would have had it previously. Still not sure what that "Chewy" weird-noise bear thing is all about though.

A Walk in the Woods
Based on Bill Bryson's book about two old and unfit men (Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) who attempt to walk the entire 2000 miles of America's Appalachian Trail. With emphasis on the word attempt, it's to the film's benefit that grumpy Nick Nolte isn't exactly gifted with the body of an athlete. A gentle and easy to watch mixture of comedy and profundity, not essential viewing but perhaps a good one for the end of a long day.

Welcome to Leith
The best new documentary I saw in the first half of the year, and a story that is uniquely American. A tiny town in the middle of nowhere is overtaken by a white supremacist who intends to radicalise the town and make it the home of Nazi sympathisers and extremists. Shocking, bizarre, and an insight into just how deluded and pathetic humans can allow themselves to become.

45 Years
In the first half of this year I have seen four outstanding British films with one thing in common: they’re all led by Tom Courteney. Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, King and Country, Billy Liar, and now 45 Years. If you haven’t seen them, they’re all highly acclaimed and worth checking out. In this one, he plays a man whose marriage hits the rocks when he reveals a surprising discovery about his past. Charlotte Rampling plays the wife, and together they form a believable relationship going through an entirely believable sequence of emotions, in the lead-up to their 45th wedding anniversary. Subtle, intelligent and mature filmmaking of a very high order.

99 Homes
This drama-thriller focusses on the impact on people losing their homes as a result of the major financial crash a few years back. Michael Shannon is excellent in the role of a cold-hearted realtor who goes around evicting people whose homes have been repossessed, with a story that centres on his dealings with one particular evictee (a fine performance from Andrew Garfield). By 15 minutes in I was sure I knew where the plot was going, but it’s far from predictable, and I was totally engaged throughout. If you’ve seen The Big Short (which I’ll come to in a moment), this is the perfect companion to that, highlighting the disastrous consequences for real people as a result of the scandalous behaviour by Wall Street bankers.

The Big Short
Turning a film about the financial crash that left so many people jobless and homeless into a comedy was a risky move, but it really worked for me. Christian Bale plays the guy who predicted the housing market crash and bet on it happening when no-one else would listen, and there's smart turns from Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt as the few who made a fortune following his lead. What's so clever is that it deliberately patronises the audience by having characters explain directly to camera what's going on, and makes it funny and entertaining (whilst still making a serious point) even when you know you're not really understanding what's happening. As I said, watch this as a double-bill with 99 Homes, it’s a fascinating way to see both sides of the coin.

Saoirse Ronan plays a girl from Ireland who moves away from her family to start a new life in New York, as so many Irish people did in the 50's, until events force her to choose between her new and old life. Ronan's performance is all that matters here, she's amazing - quiet, withdrawn, emotional, understated. So often actors go overboard in their quest for an Oscars performance, and end up just going "look how well I can act", but she's different here because she comes across as a convincingly normal, homesick Irish girl. It's a beautiful film.

So that's my first Christmas movie of the year ticked off. In June. Director Todd Hayes' films have a very distinctive look to them, with a saturated colour palate and lots of old fashioned period detail. It's a little like watching Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music, only with lesbianism, and no singing, and everyone's miserable. A curiously satisfying experience. Most Christmassy moment: when Blanchett goes festive shopping and buys a wooden train set from shop assistant Mara, without even seeing it, thereby basing her purchase solely on the shop assistant's description. All Christmas shopping should be done this way, much more fun and if you also get them to wrap and deliver it unseen, it's a bit of festive Russian Roulette on Christmas morning for you and your ungrateful children.

When I first heard they were giving the Rocky franchise a comeback, I thought it would be little more than an lazy cash-in. Not so, and in fact writer/director Ryan Coogler deserves a lot of credit for carving out an engaging new story whilst maintaining a strong connection to the classic originals. In a neat twist, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) becomes the coach of the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's great rival in the old films. The fights are impressively believable, they always are in boxing movies, and I was pleased Stallone got a meaty role rather than a token gesture. The other success here is that you could watch it without having seen the originals, and then see those as if a flashback. Hopefully there will be more films to follow, there's enough substance to warrant that, and it sets itself up nicely for the next chapter.

The Dressmaker
Genre-defyingly bonkers. That's the only way to describe this. Kate Winslet plays a woman who returns to a remote Australian town years after being accused of a murder. What's on her mind is revenge, Chris Hemsworth's underpants, and dressmaking. The film's marketing makes it seem conventional, but it's actually one of the most inexplicably mad films I've ever seen, with about a dozen genres smushed together and a dizzying number of unexpected plot directions. I don't know how to explain it, and it’s all the better for the fact that I can't. Some will love it, some will hate it, but if there's any justice, this is going to become a cult classic.

The Finest Hours
In 1952, off the coast of Cape Cod, a ship ventured into a storm so powerful that it split the ship in half. Stranded at sea and sinking fast, a coastguard crew risked their lives to save the stricken men. Chris Pine and Casey Affleck take the lead roles, and I enjoyed both of their performances in what is a charmingly old-fashioned disaster movie. What’s not so old-fashioned are the special effects, this is a substantial leap forward from films like The Perfect Storm, it all looks very realistic. The sections of the film set at sea are fantastic, I really did get engrossed in the rescue attempt, but what lets it down a little are the scenes back on land - it’s the usual worried wife type stuff and only halts the momentum of an otherwise enjoyable true story.

As with most Shakespeare plays, I got quite lost with the language almost as soon as it started. Unlike most Shakespeare plays, I quite enjoyed it anyway. This would be down to the seriously impressive staging, there cannot be a Shakespeare adaptation that looks better than this, and the astonishing display of acting from Michael Fassbender. Being Scottish, I've always wanted to appreciate this story more, and move beyond the memories of being forced to read it at school in endlessly tedious English classes. I think I finally have. Fassbender, I raiseth mine cap to thee, innit.

The Martian
Matt Damon is trapped on Mars with almost no chance of survival, and nothing but an in-depth knowledge of how to grow crops on an uninhabitable planet. Which is handy. I love space films like this, and it's an especially good example of the genre, giving the impression of being intelligent without being condescending or boring. I also thought it was very funny, Matt Damon's screen presence and likability made him perfect for the role. I cannot wait to see the next Bourne film now.

If you only see one film about Icelandic sheep farmers this year, make it this one. A very low key tale about two brothers who live next door to each other but haven't spoken for years, who are forced to confront their differences when disease threatens their flock. Bleak comedy would be the best way to describe it. In some ways it's a marvel that films like this get made at all, never mind that they get worldwide distribution, but I love quirky films like this that appear out of the blue. Oddly moving too.

Director Denis Villeneuve came onto my radar this year after I saw Incendies, an extraordinary film that's a contender for my not-new film of the year. This isn't at the same level but is still riveting stuff, following a secretive government unit in the hunt for a major drug cartel near the US-Mexico border. There's a particularly striking sequence filmed in silhouette night vision by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also shot Villeneuve's previous film Prisoners. For me, Emily Blunt delivers one of the best performances of the year, holding her ground in some gripping action sequences whilst surrounded by an otherwise male-dominated cast. Also has the best traffic jam scene of the year.

The only film on the list I actually ventured out to the cinema to see, what with me being a massive Bond fan and all. I managed to avoid every preview, review, trailer, and even the theme song and so went in knowing nothing other than Christoph Waltz was in it. It's definitely not Skyfall or Casino Royale, those went their own way and were better for being more original, Spectre mostly retreads old ground. I did enjoy it a lot through, some of the stunts were of a spectacular "how on earth did they do that?" standard, and I very much hope Waltz becomes a series regular. If this is how Daniel Craig's era ends, he's going out on much more of a high than any other Bond managed. Idris Elba for me next please.

Steve Jobs
The story of the guy who invented Apple computers. Or at least the guy who took another person's invention and turned it into one of the world's most successful and influential companies. I knew little about Jobs the person, certainly not how ruthless, manipulative and difficult a character he was, so this was quite enlightening. Aaron Sorkin's script divides the story into three chapters, each set backstage in the lead up to a product launch, which I thought was a clever and original structure. Michael Fassbender is once again brilliant in the lead role, and he's in every scene of this dialogue-heavy film. How does he remember all those words?

Straight Outta Compton
A huge surprise this turned out to be, not least because I thought it was going to be a documentary. Instead it's a dramatisation of the story behind a group of young disenfranchised youths who break out of a life on the streets of Compton and rise to become the biggest names in the US hip-hop music scene; Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dog etc. The biggest compliment I can give the film is that I really enjoyed it even without having any particular affection for this type of music, because it's a compelling account of how they went from ordinary neighbourhood youths to superstars who revolutionised American music and black culture. Don't be put off if you don't think you like this kind of music or what you think this film will be, it really is a lot better than I'm making it sound.

Sunset Song
Based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic novel, deemed by many (including my Dad) to be the greatest Scottish novel ever written. He likes the book so much that he refuses to watch the film because it'll never match it. Can't argue with that kind of logic! I've not read the book but I can say I enjoyed most of the film, it looks dreamy (even if it was filmed in New Zealand for some reason, so the landscape is not really the Scotland I know) and the director clearly has a love of the source material. It's a lot darker than I thought it would be, dealing with love and loss and the impact of war on Scottish communities, and there are several narration passages that are heart-meltingly poetic. It's worth seeing just for those alone.

A War
This story centres on a Danish army unit and their engagement in an attack on a building in war-torn Afghanistan. For the first half hour it seems a fairly standard war film, but it's only the consequences of that attack that explain why the film became so highly regarded. I won't say much more, other than it becomes a courtroom drama, one that is tense and engrossing, with the Danish court setting giving it a very different feel to most courtroom films. After The Hunt, it's probably the second best Danish film I've seen.

I love Paolo Sorrentino’s movies. The Great Beauty is his best work, one of the great masterpieces of Italian cinema, elegant and beautiful and so moving. Although not in the same league, there are still an awful lot of things I liked about this. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are at a retreat in the mountains of Switzerland, and for the most part just sit around ruminating on life and love and the naked Miss Universe in the swimming pool. An enormously overweight Diego Maradona also pops up from time to time, it’s never explained why. This is what Sorrentino does, planting unexpected characters, behaviours and events to turn a relatively normal situation into something strange and yet with a graceful beauty to that strangeness. The music is wonderful, Caine (playing a retired orchestra conductor) is as good as he’s been in a long time, and I think it’s one of the most underrated films of the year. I have a box set of Sorrentino’s films that I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while, I really must get onto that now, he’s fast becoming one of my favourite directors.

The Assassin
If you love pretty pictures, you’ll love The Assassin. The cinematography is to die for, easily the best looking film of it’s type I’ve seen since Hero, which was over a decade ago. If you love action-packed movies, you probably won’t love it so much. Even though it’s obviously about a trained killer, for most of the running time nothing much happens, with veeeeery long shots of scenery interspersed with the slowest fight scenes of all time. They’re not even fights really, the assassin lady gracefully breezes through them with the most minimal of effort, in a way that is just ridiculously cool. For once I agree with the snooty critics, this film is kind of magical.

Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg is back with another film for the grown-ups, he does seem to be doing more of this kind of film these days rather than the popcorn blockbusters. Mark Rylance, a name I wasn't familiar with before, gives an impossibly calm, quiet performance as a softly spoken Scottish man accused of being a Russian spy. Tom Hanks, an actor who can do no wrong in my book, is the lawyer pushed into defending him when no-one else will, drawing accusations that he too is a traitor. I have a taste for Cold war spy films so was easily swayed by this one, it's a film that rewards patience and an appreciation for films that don't shout their message from the rooftops. Is Spielberg the greatest director of all-time? Well just imagine how different cinema would be without his movies. There's your answer.

The Hateful Eight
I had to watch Quentin Tarantino's latest work twice in the space of a few days, mainly because I didn't really know what to make of it first time around. There's so much to take in, so many chapters to absorb and character motives to work out. On second viewing it clicked, I settled into it and by the end was once again in awe of his unique capacity for storytelling. Playing out like a whodunnit set in a remote lodge, the story revolves around a crazed woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who bounty hunter Kurt Russell is intent on delivering to the hangman for a reward. Forced to stop off at the lodge due to a snowstorm at Christmastime, things don't exactly go to plan, and in some respects it becomes more of a horror than a western (it even uses music from The Exorcist 2). Like all his films, the violence is violent and the blood is bloody. It's quite the ensemble cast too, with Samuel L. Jackson the standout, though Leigh does a fantastically demented turn in the lead role. Seemingly quite a divisive film, and I can see why, but by the time we reach the credits it felt to me like I'd spent a really good night at the theatre, sat in the front row and splattered in red.

A little boy and his mum are trapped in a room. They have been held there for years, and the boy has never seen the outside world. He just calls it Room, and to him it is the world. Much of the film is cramped into this tiny space, before becoming something else that I won't expand on. To write such a film, you would have to turn your mind into that of a child's. To see the world as a child would. I'll admit to welling up just a teeny little bit for a fraction of a second, and no more than that because obviously I'm a fully grown adult male with a reputation to keep. It has a visual and vocal poetry that is so rare in movies these days, is moving and uplifting, and shows that cinema is in a very decent place right now.

The Revenant
Leonardo Di Caprio finally bags an Oscar, for a film that is less about him than most of his work. He is exhaustingly impressive of course, performing a loosely true tale of a man fighting for survival after a bear attack in the wilderness. Yet this is a film that's not so much about the story but the way in which that story is told. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is the real star, with some stunning shooting techniques and individual shots that film students will be studying for years to come. The heavily trailered horseback over a cliff scene, which then hovers in the air looking down, is one of the many reasons why I think he is now the best cinematographer in the business (having previously shot the likes of Gravity, Birdman, The Tree of Life, and Children of Men). He has such an imaginative vision for how to shoot a scene, and it's right to credit him the most because it's usually the director that takes the plaudits for such things, even when it's success is really down to the person controlling the camera. There's a wonderful flow to the film, it's one you have to watch on a big screen in a darkened room without interruption to get the full effect, and what an effect that is. Will be a major contender for my film of the year.

This year's winner of best film at the Oscars, but was it deserved? For me there have been better films out this year, but that particular awards ceremony is so politicised (and in no way influenced by lovely gifts to Academy voters) that it scarcely matters which film they pick. It is an important film though, following the Boston Globe journalists who exposed the Catholic church's outrageous child abuse scandal and cover-up. Director Tom McCarthy does the story justice by limiting the film to a straightforward procedural investigation, funnily enough he played a newspaper journalist in the final series of The Wire (the best TV show ever made) and I wonder how much that influenced his direction. He also wisely ensures that the ensemble cast all downplay their performances, no-one is screaming for attention, which is important because it then puts all the focus on the appalling truths the real journalists uncovered. It may not be All The President's Men, not even close, but it is still an excellent piece of filmmaking.

Time Out of Mind
The last two selections in the list are my top under-the-radar films of the year so far. In this one, Richard Gere plays a homeless man simply trying to make it through each day on the streets of New York. Even though it's fiction, I found it an eye-opening insight into the realities of homelessness, and there's one scene that perfectly captures that. Richard Gere, one of the most famous actors in the world, stands on the street begging real passers-by for spare change. No-one even acknowledges he is there. Without any grand speeches, lecturing or melodrama, director and actor show exactly what homeless people are faced with, how they are judged, and how difficult the system makes it to get back on their feet. It's not a preachy film, just a simple plot and simply told, that I found affecting and quite moving. I saw Gere mention that because this was a very personal film for him, he couldn't regard it's success in terms of critics' reviews or box office figures; instead the success would be that he and director Oren Moverman made exactly the film they wanted to make. A lot of the film is shot through closed windows, either looking in or looking out at him, and after a while you realise what it is they're getting at. I thought it had real substance behind the subtlety, it changed my perception of homelessness, and whilst I can get why it won't work for everyone, I would urge anyone reading to watch it and make up their own mind.

Finally, an audacious, groundbreaking cinematic achievement. A film told over the course of a single night, in real time, in one long continuous take. No cuts. Think about that for a moment: the director says action, then over 2 hours later says cut, and everything in-between is down to the actors and cinematographer being perfectly in synch and getting it all exactly right. Birdman gained plaudits and awards for giving the impression of being one fluid take - this film actually does it. Imagine the planning that went into pulling this off, if I hadn't seen it I would have said it was impossible. Most studios passed on it because they thought it couldn't be done. It's no gimmick though, with a story that creeps from a small and uneventful start into an astonishing, thrilling experience that for the last third genuinely had my heart pounding. I haven't even said what it's about yet. We kick off with a young girl, Victoria, in a nightclub. On the way out she meets a group of guys, they hang out for a while, we get to know her and she gets to know them. Things snowball from there, and I'll leave the rest a surprise because the less you know, the better the film is. The performances are remarkable (especially from Laia Costa in the lead role) given the lack of room for error and the story they have to deliver, and the whole thing is elevated further by a perfectly judged score by Nils Frahm. If you've ever thought there's no originality or ambition left in cinema, see this. If you've ever thought that actors have it easy, see this. If you've ever thought that cinema can't be breathtakingly gripping, see this. If you want to know why I love movies, see this.


I've also put this list on Letterboxd for your box-ticking pleasure. Check back at the end of December for part 2.

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