Film Reviews

Half-year best-of

The best films I gone done and seen that were released in the UK in 2017 up to the end of June. It’s been a pretty good year so far, although I should that by this point last year we’d already had The Witch and Room in the UK, and there’s been nothing quite as good as those two films yet, although a few have come close. Up your game 2017! Nah, it’s alright, you’re doing good. List order is generally a rule of thumb – obviously I like No.1 more than No. 15, but beyond that it’s fairly interchangeable.

  1. The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata may be oscillating in a semi-retirement netherworld, evidently still in love with the medium, but Ghibli is still producing exquisite work. Collaborating here with director/writer Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is a beautiful, wordless journey through isolation on a desert island that manages to convey so much with so little.

  1. Two Worlds

The winner of the Wales International Documentary Festival 2017, this Polish documentary about a teenage girl who lives with her two deaf parents and acts as their bridge to the hearing world is perceptive, smart, and empathetic. Not my personal favourite of the festival, but a worthy winner.

  1. The Handmaiden

Back in South Korea after Stoker, Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a object lesson in how to adapt a novel to film. Even more impressive is how Park has adapted it to another culture too, an altogether harder task, but the man is a master filmmaker, so what else do you expect! As ever with Park’s films, The Handmaiden looks  jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and its construction is dizzyingly complex and a pleasure to watch unravel, wilfully erotic and embracing of sexuality onscreen too, something more films need to be comfortable with.

  1. The Other Side of Hope

Finland’s most reliable export outside of unbreakable Nokia phones, Aki Kaurismäki returns with another migrant fable. Bleakly funny, macabre and touching, The Other Side of Hope is a much stronger film than his previous, Le Havre, which was overly sentimental. Few filmmakers are as distinctive as Kaurismäki, but rather than paint himself into a corner he always finds new ways to make his films flourish.

  1. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki

An anti-boxing biopic, if anything. Devoid of the self-lacerating martyrdom of countless Raging Bull and Rambo knock-offs, this here is a boxing film about someone who doesn’t really want to box. Olli Maki is a refreshing protagonist in this clichéd genre, uninterested in the hustle and showmanship of the sport in which he finds himself portrayed as Finland’s hero, instead finding more satisfaction in simply being with the love of his life. Wonderfully sweet and heart-rending.

  1. Atlantic

Another highlight of this year’s Wales Int. Doc. Fest. Telling the story of three working-class fishing communities on both sides of the Atlantic all beset with uncertainty as a result of industrial overfishing and oil prospecting, director Risteard O’Domnhaill expertly weaves together three narrative threads to conjure one single story, one of the hunger of modern capitalism, environmental destruction and governmental ineffectuality. It might sound overwhelming, but the film retains a human touch throughout.

  1. Hoda’s Story

My personal favourite of Wales Int. Doc. Fest. It tells the story of Hoda Darwish, a young Palestinian girl in Gaza blinded by a stray bullet in 2003. Over the years director Johan Erikson follows Hoda and her family as she grows through adolescence and enters university. Her refusal to accept that she is blinded holds her back for many years, but what ultimately emerges is a story of one stubborn, perceptive, charismatic individual with an incredible story to tell. Powerful.

  1. Manchester by the Sea

This year’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture was a noticeably strong one. Whilst Fences and La La Land were perhaps overvalued by voters, Arrival and Hidden Figures were suitably solid picks. Then, there’s Manchester by the Sea, a minor masterpiece. It’s the kind of drama that’s rife with lived experience, the work of a director/writer who has paid close attention to the nuances of human interaction over the years, bringing out some incredible performances from his actors. Few films manage to balance such an emotional knife-edge so excellently for so long.

  1. Elle

Nobody does satire quite as devilishly as the Dutch master Paul Verhoeven. The trick is to critique your targets whilst gleefully reproducing and spearing their very same tendencies (and no, that doesn’t mean you can say what you want and call it “satire” afterwards, you fucking broflake). And boy, do Verhoeven and his partner in crime Isabelle Huppert bring their A-game here. Taking apart the hypocrisies of European bourgeoisie one sharp shot at a time, Elle is a sickening pleasure and all the better for it.

  1. Those Who Jump

A highlight of this year’s Wales One World film festival, Those Who Jump is a documentary filmed by Abou Bakar Sidibé and edited together by Moritz Seibert and Estephan Wagner. Bucking the trend of refugee documentaries where well-meaning Westerners wring hands about the tragedy going on daily at Europe’s borders and all over the Middle East and Africa, Seibert and Wagner opted instead to give Sidibé a camera and allow him to film daily life in the Moroccan refugee camp near Melilla, one of two Spanish cities on the African mainland. Those Who Jump is a moving, honest and poetic portrait of a man simply trying to make life better for himself and his journey to get there, as well as an expression of how important film is to documenting our daily lives and experiences.

  1. Ambulance/Gaza

Another highlight from Wales One World. During Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, director Mohamed Jabaly asked to follow an ambulance crew during their time on call. What follows is a film that’s far more gripping and terrifying as any horror you care to mention; few films feel so visceral and terrifying as this masterwork. This is an essential account of the human cost of Israeli aggression against Palestine, but it does so without preaching, but simply observing and watching what goes on. In doing so, it strikes directly at film’s purpose, an essential component of our view of the world. It’s not simply an act of film-making, but a matter of duty to film.

  1. Free Fire

It feels somewhat strange “ranking” Ben Wheatley’s outrageously funny and mental genre exercise next to a work as singularily powerful as Ambulance/Gaza, but hey, cinema does that for you. Extending a generic warehouse shootout over 90 minutes, Ben Wheatley once again proves himself as perhaps the UK’s brightest emerging light, despite snobbery aimed in his direction because “oh, he does genre films.” They are fools, all fools, all damned fools and Free Fire is amongst his best yet! Brilliant hilarity.

  1. The Salesman

Amidst the furore of Trump’s travel ban and director Asghar Farhadi not being able to go the Oscars as a result (although why would an artist of his class and intelligence bother?), The Salesman marked yet another one of the Iranian auteur’s fine works, full of probing moral questions, ambiguity and mystery. Taking on elements of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Farhadi proves himself once again to be a master dramatist equal to any one of the 20th century’s best playwrights.

  1. Moonlight

It’s rare that the Oscars actually gets it “right”, and well, they very nearly didn’t this time. But Moonlight is absolutely the right pick. One of cinema’s greatest traits is its ability to relate us to characters from the other side of the world, people that we otherwise would probably never interact with. With a sensitive director, nuanced writing, excellent performances and beautiful cinematography, Moonlight does exactly that. It has such a specificity of location – the tropical, humid atmosphere of ghettoised Miami – but within that specificity it finds something entirely universal.

  1. My Life as a Courgette

At a mere 66 minutes long, My Life as a Courgette is the briefest film on this list. It’s also the best. This Franco-Swiss stop-motion animation about a group of kids in a care home is at turns hilarious, sweet, sad and heartbreaking. It peers into the lives of its maladjusted kids and understands intimately their hopes, dreams and fears. Of course, screenwriter Celine Sciamma has form on this – she’s directed Water Lilies and Girlhood, two of the finest coming-of-age tales of recent years – but director Claude Barras deserves credit for building such a tactile, physical world in which the story can take place. It’s the kind of work that genuinely makes you question why anyone would bother making a film that’s any longer.

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Genova (2008)

2.5/4

Michael Winterbottom is certainly one of the more interesting directors working in the UK today, as well as one of the most productive. Genova tells the story of Joe (Colin Firth) and his two daughters, Mary and Kelly (Perla Haney-Jardine and Willa Holland) who, after the death of their mother in a car accident, relocate to Genova in Italy. Mary, the younger of the two, struggles psychologically with the loss, experiencing hallucinations of her mother, while the adolescent Kelly dives headlong into a summertime romance and generally behaves as irresponsible teenager, frequently leaving her sister alone in the city.

Colin Firth and Catherine Keener are the two older heads in the cast, and both put in generally good-quality shifts, but it’s the two girls who really shine, bringing a solid weight to the process of childhood grief. There is an improvised feel to Genova, as is common in Winterbottom’s work (see: The Trip and The Trip to Italy, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dick around in restaurants), and combined with the hand-held roving camera, there’s a well-grounded naturalistic feel to proceedings. However, this same loose feel also means Genova lacks an overall structure or mood. Things happen, conflicts occur, and then the film just…ends without any concrete emotional payoff. Solid, if rather forgettable.

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Kaboom (2010)

3.5/4

Polyamorous teens, witchcraft, science-fiction conspiracy theories, shoegaze soundtrack galore…yup, it’s a Gregg Araki film. Often shifting between nihilistic dramas and sprightly, wildly post-modern comedies, Araki is certainly one of the most unique and undervalued directors working today, and I honestly think that may have something to do with the sexually frank nature of his films, which embrace all types of experiences, something that’s too much for the sexually repressed nature of Western European civilisation. Kaboom is an amusing and well-crafted film with plenty of sly reference points. It’s a light work, but it hides a good deal of psychological complexity just beneath the surface, particularly in the way it depicts displaced anxiety over sexual identity and the supposedly liberating process of college in the US. A rushed and badly thought-out ending notwithstanding, this is a fine film from Gregg Araki.

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Nashville (1975)

4/4

Perhaps the pinnacle of Robert Altman’s style, Nashville is truly a great work of American cinema. How many other filmmakers have the confidence and guts to put together a movie with not one, not two, but 24 major characters? Even more staggeringly, Altman pulls it off without barely a hitch, stuffing his film with layer upon layer of minor revealing details, aided by actors who were every bit as invested in the project as he was. In addition (and its easy for me to say this as I do love me some country music), the songs are fantastic too; mostly written by the cast, they function as revealing moments of character development themselves, all part of a larger tapestry of an America that was then standing at crossroads between the cynicism of Watergate and the lost promises of Carterism. A stone-cold masterwork.

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La vie d’Adèle – chapitres 1 & 2 [Blue is the Warmest Colour] (2013)

3.5/4

A film with a very special place in my heart…because it was this film I watched with my girlfriend on our very first date together. Whilst I might have been edging close to that scene in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle takes Cybil Shepherd to a porn cinema—the sex scenes really are too long and narratively uninteresting—as far as films detailing the growth and collapse of a relationship go, few are as epic or in-depth as Blue is the Warmest Colour. Director Abdellatif Kechiche keeps most of the entire three-hour running-time in close-up, drawing us closely into Adéle’s (Adéle Exarchopoulos) world. Just as well then that her performance and that of her co-star Léa Seydoux, are astounding in their emotional honesty, lighting up the screen and holding the baggier parts of a flawed three-hour movie entirely together.

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红高粱 [Red Sorghum] (1987)

3/4

One of cinema’s greatest aesthetes, Zhang Yimou’s first feature film showcases the director’s eye as fully-formed from the start. Red Sorghum begins as a sumptuously-shot fable, with Yimou’s muse and leading lady, Gong Li, being married off to a leprous winery-owner by her poverty-stricken parents in 1920s China. As she is carried along in her sedan, she falls in love with one of the carriers, played by Jiang Wen. Told by a narrator, the couple’s grandson, the film has a fable-like feel, as if part of a memory partially obscured by the dust of the Chinese countryside. The winery-owner mysteriously disappears (we never even see him onscreen), and Red Sorghum begins to focus on the tale of Gong Li, taking control of the winery, and her elemental, charged relationship with Jiang Wen, who fluctuates between alcoholic despondency and romantic fervour.

Unfortunately, Yimou’s skills as a painter of gorgeous cinematic images have always been limited by his rather conservative storytelling abilities. He would go on to make equally sumptuous and grandly ambitious wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, again two gorgeously-shot films which suffer from a thematic conservatism. Here too, Red Sorghum begins to disintegrate towards the end, dovetailing into a war film where Japanese forces occupy and brutally oppress the area. The high-wire balance of gorgeous imagery and melodrama that Yimou achieves in the first two-thirds of the film is thrown away in favour of a simplistically manipulative third act set against the backdrop of war. It’s a shame, because although the sheer poetry of the film’s images are never less than breathtaking, the thematic conservatism and simplicity with which Red Sorghum finishes is wholly dissatisfying.

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American Graffiti (1973)

3/4

American Graffiti would make a fine double-bill with Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Certainly, outside of the veneer of nostalgia there is in both films an air of sadness, of an innocence lost, although in Lucas’ film it is less pronounced. Not surprising, given that Lucas has always shown a strong desire to return to childhood, much like his good pal Steven Spielberg. What results then is a film with an brilliant sense of place and time—with some utterly beautiful cinematography to boot—and some strong performances, but a certain weightlessness to it. Lucas does not have nearly the same eye for social observation as Linklater does, and that is where the two films depart. Still though, I’ll take Chuck Berry over fucking Foghat any day.

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