FilmSnap: Toni Erdmann

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Toni Erdmann is an experience like no other. A 3-hour German epic consisting of boardroom mundanity, cheap practical jokes and a sexual shenanigan involving a petit four, all riffing off a beautifully touching and complex paternal relationship.

The father is Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a divorcee adopting the goofball persona of Toni Erdmann in order to become closer to his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), both figuratively and literally. Ines herself is entrenched in the workload demanded of a business consultant, and so the antics of her father distract rather than entertain – her straight-faced demeanour at odds with Winfried’s spirited take on life. Accompanied by farce and several cringeworthy situations, we watch as their relationship evolves.

It’s a triumph of sharp scriptwriting and superb performances, an emotional odyssey with the perfect conclusion. There’s no pretension here, no melodramatic speeches or the excessive swells of a saccharine score. It’s grounded and quietly devastating, director Maren Ade aware of her actors’ ability and the strength of the dialogue, ridding the film of its background noise and thus of its superficiality. With a single embrace, Toni Erdmann profoundly communicates the complications and tribulations of a father-daughter relationship far better than any sickly sob-story could manage.

And it’s funny, too. As unorthodox a comedy as it may be, Winfried’s actions and Ines’ reactions earn plenty of laughs, and several set-pieces are teeming with awkward energy. It’s not a film that consistently provokes belly-laughs, focusing moreso on the ‘drama’ aspect of ‘comedy drama’, but Simonischek and Hüller are totally committed to their roles, and so the humour is both intensely embarrassing and remarkably believable.  

Toni Erdmann’s 3-hour runtime may seem daunting, but it allows its ingeniously realised central relationship to flourish. By the end, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. So you do both.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Split

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

M.Night Shyamalan’s latest may not be the return to form that many have suggested, but at least it’s a return to watchability. It focuses on Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), an introverted teen who, along with two other victims, are abducted and imprisoned in an underground facility. Their abductor? A man with 23 different names and 23 different, competing personalities, with the 24th personality, ‘The Beast’ waiting to be unleashed…

Split is a film that epitomises Shyamalan’s career so far, laying bare his greatest qualities and exposing his worst. He manages to conjure up more than enough entertainment – a pulpy brew of ridiculous conceits and committed performances – to make the whole viewing experience worthwhile. Yet, similar to many of the flops in his filmography, Split is hampered by shoddy dialogue and bland characterisation. Bettie Buckley’s Dr. Karen Fletcher, for instance, is a character wasted on exposition, a figure for McAvoy to act against while never amounting to anything more substantial. In truth, only McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy are given enough screentime to truly function as characters. McAvoy has terrific fun in his role – it’s no Oscar-worthy performance but he’s able to act each character out with enough believability that the narrative doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own preposterousness. Taylor-Joy, in the ‘final girl’ role similar to her part in The Witch, reacts to her situation with superb measure, an enigmatic presence whose past is revealed in a series of surprisingly dark flashbacks.

As a tension chamber, Split succeeds, through murky lighting, slow-panning camera movements and a refusal to acknowledge the ridiculousness of its own premise. More impressively, it manages to explore mature themes in a wholly unique, if clumsy manner. Sadly, the film’s penchant for unnatural dialogue and abandonment of any form of characterisation leaves me with split opinions.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Jackie

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Pablo Larrain’s first of two biopics released this year (The second being Neruda) is a tamely unorthodox character study of Jacqueline Kennedy, following her husband’s assassination. Using an interview as a rather unnecessary framing device, Jackie details her anguish and subsequent resilience to lovingly memorialise him, visualised through a series of flashbacks that agitatedly shift between settings. She’s holding her dead husband in her lap, ingraining a grotesque, lingering image. She’s confiding her insecurities to a priest, played by John Hurt, in sequences too brief to impact. And she’s arguing with several members of the White House regarding her husband’s funeral.

This argument forms the crux of Jackie’s narrative, an axis on which to apply themes of legacy, grief, and letting go. Natalie Portman stays true to the character, and her despair is certainly believable. Yet the performance is inherently flawed: Portman, in attempting to resurrect Jacqueline Kennedy with a desperately faithful performance, draws attention to the unnaturalness of the character’s mannerisms, and, most noticeably, her accent. It’s a loyal depiction, sure, but it’s hard to pry the celebrity away from the figure when the accent disengages the viewer from the drama.

Shot on 16mm, Jackie is framed and textured to recreate its era, archaically draining the image of its colour and sensibly placing Portman in bold, sanguine shades. The intent is clear: it’s Jackie in isolation, disembodied from normality, left to grasp at what’s left of reason in the face of her husband’s death. This idea is furthered via Mica Levi’s score, a deliciously foreboding melody that phonetically encapsulates Jackie’s friable state of mind. Crescendoing to a forceful and resonant finale, Jackie ends strongly, but you can’t help but feel that Larrain’s artistry is too subdued to memorialise the film with the same vigor that Jackie memorialised her husband.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: The Fits

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

When a film pose questions, do they have to be answered? The Fits stages a mystery – a girls’ dance troupe is plagued by a series of seizures that have no discernible explanation – but doesn’t seem all too interested in figuring it out. The film instead uses these fits as a backdrop to explore the identity and development of its central character, Toni, an eleven-year-old tomboy played with tremendous vulnerability by Royalty Hightower.

She slowly involves herself in the dance group, gradually learning the moves and straying further away from her initial routine of training in the boxing ring with her older brother. She makes friends, gets her ears pierced, and plays in empty swimming pools. It’s a simple, contained story, exemplified by director Anna Rose Holmer’s decision to stage most of her narrative in a single location: the sports facility. Yet The Fits isn’t entirely grounded. Its eccentric score overrides its mundanity, and the fits are filmed almost as dance sequences. There’s an element of the supernatural to the seizures, an awareness of the metaphorical significance that they possess, despite several people, notably adults, treating it as a very real and scientific threat.

The film shares many similarities to Carol Morley’s The Falling: they both sculpt their narrative around seizures in a group of girls, and tie them to themes of self-discovery and sexuality. But The Fits is The Falling’s less woozy American cousin, a more placid interpretation that trades complexity for focus. It may lack dramatic intensity for the majority of its runtime, but its admirable restraint lets loose in its final, euphoric moment: an ambitious stab at surrealism that both conflicts with its tone and makes perfect sense. It may not answer its own questions, but The Fits doesn’t need to when its final image speaks for itself.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Endless Poetry

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s second installment in his planned quasi-autobiographical quintet is an opulent odyssey, utilising his trademark brazen surrealism and contortion fetishism to full, nauseating effect. His younger self, played at first in his youth by Jeremias Herskovits, and then soon after by his actual son, Adan Jodorowsky, is a self-obsessed man with the ambition to become a renowned poet.

His quest sees him abandon his parents, join a group of artists, and begin an unconventional romance, but nothing his character ever says or does should be taken literally. There are strands of meaning, concealed visual cues that support and substantiate the film’s tangled narrative, but to uncover its metaphorical tenacity is like traversing treacle. The motif of passersby wearing expressionless masks that strip them of identity and signify the protagonist’s blatant solipsism is relatively easy to work out. His anarchic portrayal of a self-loathing clown pointing to his frustration with not being taken seriously as a director is manageable, but also flawed in its concept by eventually urging the audience to laugh. And the film’s monologues on the meaning of life are more often than not lazily profound babble. It’s an uneven hodgepodge of ideas that is similar to an exuberant fever dream, but the ideas are so exciting, if occasionally impenetrable, that Endless Poetry always remains at least interesting.

At 128 minutes, it also boasts the contradiction of being both overstuffed and overlong. Endless Poetry resembles the blueprints of Jodorowsky’s swan song, the veteran director cramming his film with as many ideas as possible, and exhausting his audience in the process. Yet, while it may not be quite the concentrated cinephiliac ecstasy he conjured up with his magnum opus, The Holy Mountain, Endless Poetry is nevertheless a heady and stirring delve into the mad, mad mind of Jodorowsky.   

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: A Monster Calls

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Here’s something refreshing: a story involving a cancer patient that doesn’t baselessly lie to its audience (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, though I do love that film in spite of it), nor dumb down the tragedy into palatable mush (nearly every other filmic incarnation involving a patient with a terminal illness). J.A. Bayona is certainly accustomed to tearjerkers, having directed the deceptive horror-drama The Orphanage and the tsunami-weepie, The Impossible. A Monster Calls is no different, building on his penchant for sob stories with a thrillingly original perspective.

Based on Patrick Ness’ book of the same name, A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) as he summons a beautifully-rendered Monster (Liam Neeson) in order to come to terms with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) imminent death. It’s Pan’s Labyrinth-esque escapism, though less gothic and more colourful than the 2006 fantasy. Through the animated sequences in the film, their brash, painterly styles contrasting superbly with the sedate real world, O’Malley unearths parables on morality and blame that ease him towards accepting what the Monster refers to as ‘the truth behind his nightmare’. Whether these stories firmly relate to O’Malley’s sufferings when held up to scrutiny is questionable, but if you disregard their lack of focus, these segments serve as delightful interludes to the morbidity Bayona musters up in his primary narrative.

When the ‘truth behind his nightmare’ does finally reveal itself, however, these fantastical elements suddenly seem so distant. The film doesn’t need a wobbly subplot concerning bullies to conjure up the raw emotion Bayona is seeking; the film delivers on its smartly-paced buildup with its powerful, unexpected reveal, and Lewis MacDougall’s astonishingly convincing emotional release, rising above its genre’s ilk by managing to be emotionally devastating without being visibly manipulative.

-Gus Edgar

Ranking The Academy Awards Best Picture Nominees 2017

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time available to see Hidden Figures. With nine Best Picture nominees and limited time and budget, it was inevitable, so I chose to miss out on what looks like the nominee that I’d find the least engaging/interesting. Not to say that it’s the worst of the bunch, and it almost certainly isn’t, but I mean, c’mon, it looks like a made-for-TV movie.

8. HACKSAW RIDGE

Hacksaw Ridge is the American Sniper of this year’s nominees: an absolutely tepid and disengaging war flick devoid of cinematic comprehension or comprehension of any kind, really. As has been pointed out by its detractors, and with good reason, Mel Gibson’s latest is wildly bipolar, swinging from a twee, flimsy romance to a comically gutsy and over-the-top portrayal of the horrors of war. There’s no progression, no middle ground, and so when the battle begins, the first instinct is to laugh out loud. Yet, in a way, this change in tone can be seen positively: it saves the film from the corny schlock and mindless plot contrivances of the first half. It’s as if Gibson doesn’t know how to direct, attempting to recall 90s tack via inane uses of slow-mo and hammed-up character traits. When the war gets going, it’s still terribly made, the situations incredibly far-fetched (a Vince Vaughn-being-dragged scene in particular), but it’s terrible in the fun kind of way that makes you at least able to laugh at the film if nothing else. How this got nominated is beyond me, but I can at least take solace in the fact that there’s not a chance in hell it wins. They don’t make ’em like they used to, and based on the evidence of Hacksaw Ridge, maybe there’s a reason why.

7. FENCES

I’d make a pun that Denzel Washington’s third directorial effort swings for the fences and misses, but that would be lying: it doesn’t even try to. Fences is a creatively bereft and ultimately pointless retelling of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that functions infinitely better on stage. Denzel Washington uses the play as a vehicle to show off how well and how much he and Viola Davis can act, forgetting that acting is only one component of a film. Fences is ugly, framed with little cinematic verve and stuttering camera work that only knows how to zoom in on people’s faces during heavy, tiresome monologues, and not how to cohesively portray an argument; the camera wanders and jilts distractingly, seemingly unaware of how to make the dialogue interesting to sit through. And there’s a lot of dialogue, too, all of which must be endlessly fascinating to experience live on stage, but dreadfully dull to watch on screen. The plot never escapes the trappings of its setting, and Washington has no interest in designing Fences as a worthwhile adaptation rather than a shameless medium to win a Best Actor Oscar. Shamefully, the one moment of abstraction that breaches Fences’ stagey confines also seems to justify the actions of a horrible man.

6. HELL OR HIGH WATER

Hell or High Water is an okay movie. It’s adequately made in every department, the camerawork kinetic, performances solid, and narrative largely satisfying. But it’s just okay. It’s a modernised western-thriller that plays out exactly as you’d expect to, missing the toppling emotion or daring moments that the films placed higher on this list all possess. Save for a few speeches that ram its themes of modernisation and exploitation down your throat, a few missteps in dialogue (a waitress scene that most people seem to love comes across as incredibly false in a film that at least appears to be going for realism), and characters that are, despite being fleshed out, largely dull, Hell or High Water is a film without any distinct and unsalvageable problems. It’s well-written, and astutely directed, but the film suffers from the same problems I have with another critical darling of 2016, Sing Street: we’ve seen these narrative beats before, this is a well-made film, but can we have something a little different? Hell or High Water is still an enjoyable ride, but it’s simply that: it doesn’t have the emotional or thematic heft required to justify a nomination.

5. LION

Lion is a lovely film. It tells the story of a young Indian boy stranded and adopted to live in Australia, yearning for home and striving to find his family again. We know the basic structure of the narrative so all that’s left is to find out is whether it’s executed well. Thankfully, it’s that and more, an effectively affecting tearjerker that contains some astonishingly cathartic scenes and an adorable child actor in Sunny Pawar. His scenes, a tour of Indian culture that make up the first half of the movie, are truly exciting to watch, and while we know where he ends up, we still feel afraid for his safety. Which makes it all the more frustrating, then, that the second half of Lion makes its story’s shortcomings clear, in what is essentially an hour of Dev Patel frantically using Google Earth to locate his family. Thanks to a superb score and a genuinely upsetting premise, Lion still manages to irk out the tears, and many of them, but it also occasionally botches its delivery, blunting out the idea of recollection rather than trusting the audience. What’s more, Rooney Mara’s role is nonexistent, relegated to conflict fodder when more time could’ve been spent on Sunny Pawar’s development with his new parents. Still, this is a film that attempts to be as emotional and resonant as possible, and achieves just that. Yeah it’s manipulative, but it doesn’t draw attention to the fact that it’s manipulative, by coming across in a genuine, heartfelt manner (aside from an odd sing-song shared between children). Think Brooklyn levels of sweet sentimentality rather than Room’s cloying guff.

4. MOONLIGHT

Moonlight, at least according to Metacritic, is the best-reviewed film of 2016, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s an important drama, sprawling and contained in equal measure, detailing the experiences of a gay black man, Chiron, through three stages in his life. It’s a narrative structure used by Derek Cianfrance (more effectively, though) in A Place Beyond the Pines, and it’s use is necessary to convey Chiron’s progression in the face of abuse. Moonlight hits all the components of an Oscar movie but conveys them in a refreshing, artistically interesting manner, deep hues of blue and purple smoking the screen and signifying the film’s presence as not-your-everyday racial study. The score is suitably aching and powerful, the acting formidable at every turn, and its themes are appropriate and necessary. Sadly, however, Moonlight can’t help but feel like less than the sum of its parts, the message vital yet never truly impactful. This could be in part due to the fact that I live in England and this is a wholly American movie, but this is also due to the fact that Barry Jenkins takes some easy narrative decisions that serve to cheapen the plot, and that each act of the story never properly ties in to one another. It’s a film that I’m thankful for, if not truly taken aback by.

3. LA LA LAND

The hot favourite for Best Picture places third on my list, and with just how dazzling and enjoyable it is, I wish it placed higher. It’s a showy, starry faux-musical, a romance that’s more mature and developed than people give it credit for, a catchy playlist and potentially a criticism of Hollywood ambition that’s managed to disguise itself as just the opposite and propel itself to a hefty collection of accolades. I’d sing La La Land’s praises, but you’ve already heard it all before. Sure, it has its problems: it’s thematically confused, unable to firmly direct a central message at the audience without contradicting itself, and I’m not quite convinced Gosling and Stone’s amateurish singing and dancing is on purpose when every other role manages to sing and dance just fine. But that’s besides the point: we as an audience ignore La La Land’s shortcomings due to just how enamoured we are by the showmanship and talent on display, and with an ending that leaves you with an incredibly complex mixture of emotions, they’re easy to forgive and forget about. With Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash, he more than sticks the La La Landing.

2. ARRIVAL

Denis Villenueve’s passionate, intelligent sci-fi, like this list’s number one spot, contains a moment that turns the whole film on its head. It’s an astonishing revelation of a scene, and one that’s earned almost as much controversy as it has praise. That’s not to say Arrival hinges on this scene: the film is still expertly written and beautifully photographed beforehand, the narrative tense and reluctant to reveal its secrets. Yet it’s this scene that propels the film from an interesting science fiction to a superb study on humanity and connection. Backed up by Johan Johansson’s appropriately otherworldly score, a rich Amy Adams performance, and the daring necessary to portray such an ambitious story, Arrival hardly puts a foot wrong. Villenueve’s next film is Blade Runner 2049, and based on the evidence of Arrival, it’s going to be great. You can read my Arrival review here.

1. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Despite how unassuming a film Kenneth Lonergan’s latest effort is, it’s by far the best film nominated for Best Picture: Manchester by the Sea is one of the most mature examinations of the human condition in quite some time. The film follows Lee (Casey Affleck), a handyman forced to parent his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother’s (Kyle Chandler) untimely death. As Lee experiences the trepidations of being a parent, his past unravels via various flashbacks seamlessly interwoven with the narrative. The film feels small, owing to its understated camerawork, yet still astonishes – a powerful revelation halfway through sheds new, brutal light on Lee’s restricted mannerisms. Affleck, like the rest of the cast, executes his character perfectly. It’s a reserved, heartbreaking performance, aided by a script that refuses to manipulate. For all the potential for Manchester by the Sea to become cloying tedium, Lonergan has created a mellow masterpiece. I saw this film in October at the London Film Festival, and if anything, it makes more of an impression now, burrowing deeper into my mind. Is there anything quite as extraordinarily moving as Manchester By The Sea in the last few years? I doubt it.

-Gus Edgar

Silence

A film that’s been carefully designed and developed over a span of 25 years, Martin Scorsese has displayed great patience in creating a passion project that will ultimately test our own. Silence is a steely, brutal slog, an extreme departure from Scorsese’s recent filmography, deprived of Wolf of Wall Street’s manic energy and Hugo’s warmth and wonder. This abrupt change isn’t necessarily disappointing, and may indeed be welcoming, but the problem lies with the fact that Silence adopts the blunt manner of imparting its central message in a way that may be more suited to those films.

The film, a faithful adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, follows Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), two Jesuit priests willingly sent to Japan to spread their faith and find their captured mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who’s believed to have renounced and reformed as a Japanese Buddhist. It’s a premise poised with potential, yet Silence endeavours to sap any intrigue built up by the promise of danger. Rodrigues and Garupe are joined by the historical drama’s most complex and interesting character, Kichijiro, a Japanese Catholic who has no reservations about renouncing his faith in order to protect his life. He’s a tragic figure, beautifully portrayed by Yôsuke Kubozuka’s and his suitably exaggerated expressions, each delivery layered with desperation. His plight, a repetitive cycle of renouncing and pleading for forgiveness, is harrowing, and gives the film its greatest, and, really, only impact.

Less impactful is the narrative thrust as a whole, where the character arc of Rodrigues, and his tangling with faith, is designed with little consideration of subtlety or range. Over the lengthy running time, he’s worn out and grinded down by Japanese enforcement and the horrific torture of those around him, and the audience share his discomfort. Yet discomfort is the only emotion these scenes can manage to muster up. That a film is intentionally unenjoyable to watch shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but when it can only incite a reaction similar to a mother looking at her son’s grazed knee, there’s the problem. We feel sorry for the victims of the on-screen torture, not because we care enough, but because we’re meant to. Their scenes are achingly slow, intended to draw out the pain felt by the victims, yet they are just faces, barely fleshed out identities to which Scorsese can exact his punishment. The use of clumsy narration, coupled with some outrageously shoddy sound mixing, where waves mesh jarringly with dialogue, transform what could’ve been an impactful event of victims strapped to crosses and drowned against the waves, to a disappointingly soggy affair.

And let’s talk more about that sound design. Throughout Silence, characters’ dialogue between cuts change in volume, are dubbed over with imprecision, or combine with the background so that both noises are incoherent. It’s astonishing that a film, carefully constructed over 25 years, with a director infamous for his perfectionism, can be swamped with multiple instances of technical faults. And if these decisions were made intentional by Scorsese, it’s only as a detriment to the film, taking the audience out of scenes where the whole point is to suck you in and leave you as helpless and agonized as the film’s protagonist.

The protagonist himself is indeed both helpless and agonized, sure, but Garfield can’t summon the complexity needed for a character that’s intended to carry the film’s lofty theme of faith in the face of silence. He manically overacts in the first half, his agitated expressions betraying any notions of nuance, before calming down when the script dictates a simplified, worn-down performance in the protracted transition from second to third act. It doesn’t help that Scorsese has decided that English marked with the rough fragments of a Portuguese accent is the best method of delivering dialogue, a choice that functions much worse on camera than it does in text; neither Garfield nor Driver have the voicework necessary to pull off the task convincingly.

Liam Neeson, thankfully, doesn’t even bother. His introduction and following speeches on Japanese tradition and religion, while blatantly expositional, provide the profundity that’s otherwise lacking throughout Garfield’s narrative. His presence adds intrigue, if only momentarily, but then directorial decisions made in the third act serve to either undercut the idea of maintaining faith in spite of the absence of a spiritual response, or to lay on the ham, dragging towards an obvious conclusion, in a film beset with obviousness. The characters are categorised by a strict separation of good and evil, Kubozuka’s Kichijiro the only anomaly, where context is wastefully neglected to characters starved of depth. It’s a pretty film, fog rolling across villages, representative of Garfield’s clouded state of mind, and the narrative is appropriately drawn out and met with the required level of torment and discomfort, so it’s difficult to argue that the 25 years taken to finally release Silence were for nought. Yet the inconsiderate approach to both character and sound design, and the absence of a deep emotional core, suggests that 25 more years of development may do the film some good.

-Gus Edgar

Top 20 Films of 2016 (10-1)

(This list is based on UK release dates.)

To read my Top 20 Films of 2016 (20-11), click here.

10. THE WITCH

“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” And so begins The Witch, a film that from its very first few moments makes it clear how committed it is to portraying New England folktales of witchcraft in all its grotesque detail. The film uses these notions of evil magic as means to threaten a disgraced family cast into exile. After losing their youngest child, the madness and paranoia of the family escalates, leading to a crazed, unpredictable final act full of disturbing scenes. This is a film intended to be watched with one eye hidden behind the covers: there’s an unbearable sense of unease present throughout the film, created by the dulled palette of the cinematography, the droning score and  some magnificently creepy shots of animals. Accompanied by some magnificent portrayals of characters each complex, sympathetic and deranged, The Witch is 2016’s greatest horror film, a simmering exercise in losing control that’s packed with lasting imagery.

9. HIGH-RISE

One of the year’s most divisive films, High-Rise is an unapologetically blunt and brash satirical thriller, adapted from J.G.Ballard’s novella. Unsurprisingly, director Ben Wheatley is a perfect match for the material, crafting a dangerous and delirious film with the off-kilter mania he’s known for, and in turn producing his best work yet. The film uses a high-concept building as both its setting and its main character: it’s the symbol of progression into regression the film bases its sparse plot around. Within it, the screen is bloated with bold colours and flashy editing, a cacophony of noise and violence. Luke Evans’ Wilder embodies this spirit, giving a wild and menacing performance that has to go down as one of the year’s best. The film belongs to him, despite it following Hiddlestone’s Dr. Robert Laing instead, a more quietly dangerous figure without the sensibilities we would assume of him at first glance. As he and each other character loosens their grip on perception and judgement, the film tightens its grip on its audience, and we can only watch on, and, fascinatingly, enjoy the absence of morality put forth on screen. High-Rise is a film that deserves high praise.

8. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

It’s very difficult to pin down a genre for Nocturnal Animals. In one instance, it’s a satire, and then it’s a thriller, and then it’s a romance, and then it’s a western, and then… you get the idea. It’s an ever-changing, twisting film, laced with an unpredictable danger, with one key theme at its core: revenge. Amy Adams’ Susan is the target, and the delivery of a typescript to her from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a damning review of Susan’s actions disguised as an irresistible gift. The film then digresses into a wonderful tonal boiling pot of guns and decor, shaped exactly as you’d expect from a fashion designer-turned director, Tom Ford. It’s an uneasy and treacherous traversal through the mind of a man who feels betrayed, his emotions discerned through powerful imagery and unmissable parallels: the close-up of Susan’s piercing eyes, the naked bodies strewn across a couch. These ideas aren’t repressed by Ford but allowed to burst at the seams, getting the message across in a magnificently melodramatic manner, and crescendoing towards a brutal finale that’s every bit as brutal as it is inevitable.

To read my review on Nocturnal Animals, click here.

7. ARRIVAL

2016 may not have been sci-fi’s strongest year (Arrival is the only film of the genre that appears on this list), but it did have its seemingly-annual groundbreaker in the form of Arrival. An alien flick but not really, the film is a powerful cry for humanity’s togetherness, conveyed via an intellectually stimulating and thoughtful character piece. The character in question is Amy Adam’s Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist challenged with interpreting and understanding alien dialect before the threat of war against the extra-terrestrial creatures is realised. It’s intense and tinged with uncertainty, the film appearing as a standard, if interesting and absorbing, fare, before pulling the rug from under you and laying bare its central themes. This is a film directed by Villeneuve without his usual flair, instead sensibly allowing the script to unfold. And what an astonishing script it is! It’s imaginative and heartfelt and bubbling with ideas and sociopolitical statements. As far as sci-fi goes, Arrival is a welcome, er, arrival in a genre that’s continuously evolving and changing with each passing year.

To read my review on Arrival, click here.

6. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

I’m hardly Tarantino’s biggest fan, and I struggle to enjoy Westerns (Hell or High Water and Westworld both falling victim to that preference), so The Hateful Eight had the makings of a film that I’d find easy to hate. What a welcome surprise, then, to find a film as downright enjoyable as this. The film is a largely contained western thriller set in one shack, where eight characters have to stay the night and try to get along. Obviously, this all goes pear-shaped, and despite the restrained setting, what follows is an unbridled showdown of guns and mayhem. It’s a first and second act of palpable tension, magnificently constructed by Tarantino, and a third act of balls-to-the-wall violence. Using segments voiced over tongue-in-cheek by narrator Tarantino, there’s a distinct sense of fun cast over the narrative, managing to make the most despicable crimes incredibly enjoyable to watch unfold. That’s not mentioning how technically astounding The Hateful Eight is. Ennio Morricone’s score is a sweeping melody deserving of its Oscar, packing a sinister tone and helping the film maintain its tension. The visuals are stark and cold when focusing on the shack’s surroundings, and warm and cosy on the inside, cleverly juxtaposing the gunslinging brutality on screen. And the camerawork is kinetic and alive, intent on capturing each character’s demise in all their gory detail. It may have been released in January, but The Hateful Eight is still vivid in my mind.

5. ANOMALISA

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is my favourite film of all time. We’ve had to wait 8 years for his sophomoric effort, and it doesn’t disappoint. The film is a stop-motion animation that follows David Thewlis’ Michael Stone, a customer service expert who finds it much easier to tell other people how to talk to humans than do it himself. Like every one of Kaufman’s central protagonists, he’s a flawed character, insecure, cynical and controlling, but also deeply sympathetic. The choice of stop-motion isn’t a gimmick but integral to the plot, conveying the film’s themes of loneliness, human connection, and the Fregoli delusion in interesting, wholly unique ways. Despite its obvious animated appearance, Anomalisa is one of the most realistically human films of the year, precisely capturing conversations and mannerisms in a beautifully relatable way. It’s stop-motion like you’ve never seen it before: the camera moves in and out of rooms as if it were live action, focusing on a rainy window pane or the butt of a cigarette. It’s much less grand than Synecdoche, and much more personal, managing to carry a substantial amount of emotional heft in its short runtime; there’s no film-maker out there able to capture the human condition as deftly as Kaufman can.

4. NOTES ON BLINDNESS

Films are built around senses, and Notes on Blindness is no different. The smell of rain. The noise of a tape whirring. The image of a wave engulfing a supermarket aisle. It is the latter sense, sight, that has been taken away from John Hull, a theologian whose life is explored in this docu-drama. Over the course of his life after being diagnosed as blind, he taped several recordings talking about his affliction, how he was dealing with it, and what it meant to him. Notes on Blindness takes these soundbites and incorporates it into reenactments of certain scenes described, often metaphorically. It’s an unassuming film: there’s no grand, half-baked statements on philosophy and religion. They each play a part in Hull coming to terms with his loss of sight, but don’t overcrowd the film’s poignant simplicity. Funnily enough, despite focusing on the absence of images, the film’s cinematography is excellent, depicting powerful moments – the smile of a child, or a wife’s glance frozen in time – with significant attention, highlighting the gravitas of the accompanying narration. Make no mistake: Notes on Blindness may be small-scale at first glance, but it’s not slight. It’s an ambitious examination on what it means to be blind, demonstrated with irresistible emotional weight.

3. SWISS ARMY MAN

Swiss Army Man may very well be the greatest farting corpse movie I’ve ever seen. Director duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), best known for their crazed, surrealist music videos, give themselves a challenging task for their first effort at making a feature film: they hate acapella, survival storylines and fart jokes, and Swiss Army Man contains all that and more. It’s a film that caused walkouts at Sundance and spurred The Guardian to award it one star and five stars in separate reviews. The film is a philosophical adventure following Paul Dano’s Hank as he’s stranded on an island, and Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny as his Rigor Mortis-rescuer. As the title suggests, Manny is a dead body seemingly possessed with supernatural powers, able to talk, or use his boner as a compass, or to fart across water like a jetski. These crude and objectively weird moments is one of the messages the movie is trying to make: why is there such stigma against the weird and wacky? Instead of looking down on the quirks of others, we should embrace each person for who they are. This message, along with themes of isolation and yearning to be cared for, are portrayed with the Sundance-y flair of someone who knows their craft without being conditioned to adhere to strict filmmaking practice. As the film industry becomes increasingly saturated with schlocky flicks barely worth paying attention to, amid the guff, it’s refreshing to see a completely original, hilarious and heartfelt drama with not a bone in its body borrowed from another director’s methods. Like Manny, Swiss Army Man has a voice of its own.

2. EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

Embrace of the Serpent plays out like a fever dream. Taking two narratives, 30 years apart, both following an explorer looking for a rare plant with the aid of an Amazonian tribesman, and intertwining them to a satisfying whole, the film is a ferocious, pioneering exploration of contrasting ideologies. There’s no absolute truth the film presents, leaving us to decide for ourselves who’s in the right, if there even is indeed a ‘right’ in the first place. It’s a maddening expedition in both narratives, depicting child abuse, sickness and false Messiahs in interesting and often heart-breaking ways. There is a definite sadness to the story, and a political undercurrent too. We grow to understand tribesman Karamakate’s way of thinking, and empathise with his loss of connection with the surrounding jungle later in his life. He’s played in his youth with wonderful angry petulance by Nilbio Torres, an actual Amazon native, and his interactions with German explorer Theo von Martius (Jan Bijvoet) form the heart of the movie’s statements on colonialism and materialism. Meanwhile, the narrative of the movie that takes place 30 years later functions moreso as an aching for the past, and as an understanding and acceptance of change. Much like Swiss Army ManEmbrace of the Serpent is a film unlike anything you’ve seen before; a psychedelic, searing portrayal of two cultures both clashing and attempting to understand one another.

1. A BIGGER SPLASH

To state what A Bigger Splash is about presents a demanding challenge. On its surface level, it’s a film about four rich figures living in a villa together on a holiday glittering with sunshine, two of whom are increasingly unwelcome. On its second level, it’s a contained drama about change, and refusal to accept change, leading to inescapable sexual tension that threatens to separate the foursome. And on its third level, it’s a subtle example of escapism, the sunny holiday setting and expensive, expansive villa a way to ignore fame, loneliness, and the more troublesome affairs of the modern world. Brilliantly, the villa is also their trapping. The four characters in question are Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a famous singer who’s impermanently lost her voice, both literally and metaphorically, her husband Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a reserved, enigmatic figure, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a restive and exotic old flame of Lane’s, and Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the troubled and troublesome (probable) daughter of Harry. Each of these four characters are wonderfully complex, despicable yet irresistible, pervaded with poignancy. There’s the obvious character interactions of Harry attempting to rekindle the flame with Marianne, but less explainable mannerisms, such as the tricky actions of Penelope throughout the film. Simply put, the film is so interesting, and not just because of the characters. Director Luca Guadagnino approaches A Bigger Splash as a scientific experiment, overflowing with quirky edits and jittering camerawork, using sensual zooms in on peeled fruit or shimmering water to transport the audience to the film’s location, while simultaneously using fourth-wall breaks that somehow work in context of how much fun the film is. But it’s fun laced with venom and melancholy, and as the credits roll, there is an unmistakable sadness that accompanies the overwhelming delight of watching 2016’s best film.

-Gus Edgar

Top 20 Films of 2016 (20-11)

(This list is based on UK release dates)

We’ve survived 2016. Amid celebrity deaths, Trump, Brexit and Toblerones, the year has hardly been a happy one. At least there’s a silver lining to be found in the wonderful array of films 2016 has to offer, right? Well, yes and no. Blockbusters and high-profile sequels haven’t given us much to cheer about: Star Trek Beyond, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, Jason Bourne, The Magnificent Seven, and, from my own more personal viewpoint, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book and Rogue One were all met with a shrug. Batman v SupermanSuicide SquadIndependence Day: Resurgence and X-Men: Apocalypse fared even worse. But, if you scour the year’s filmography and dig deep, there’s some daring, exciting, extraordinary films worth watching amid the insufferable commercialised safety of big-brand blockbuster.

Inevitably, I didn’t manage to see every single film available this year. There are many films that may have made this list had I had the chance to see them. These films include Things to Come, The Childhood of a Leader, The Valley of Love, The Assassin, Son of Saul, Lemonade, Your Name and Julieta.

As always, a Top 20 doesn’t leave room for all of the great films on display this year. Some fell just short of making the list, but deserve a mention all the same. The Invitation is a thriller involving a gathering that’s, on the surface, a dinner party, managing to create more tension than any film this year despite a rather meagre payoff. 10 Cloverfield Lane is similar in the sense that it takes place in a contained area, the plot unwinding in a gripping, unpredictable fashion as we realise whether John Goodman’s character’s talk of aliens is true or a symptom of his obviously unhinged state. The Club is a drama that gives insight towards paedophilia and preisthood. It’s a disturbing, morally-muddied take on the subject, culminating in a brutal finale.

American Honey is an intentionally meandering mood-piece on America’s wistful youth, using first-time actors and improvising its scenes in order to emphasise its gorgeous, sun-soaked realism. Always Shine is a fierce, faux-horror study on jealousy between actors and the female role in an inherently sexist Hollywood, shimmering with style and brutality. And Hail, Caesar! is a delightful offering from the Coen Brothers, following Josh Brolin’s character as he deals with a selection of barmy, interlinking affairs in an atypical few days of 50s Hollywood.

And so begins the Top 20…

20. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING

2016 has been a fantastic year for comedy. Sure, we’ve had the odd Bad Santa 2, but we also had Neighbours 2, and despite being savaged by critics, I thought both Grimsby and Zoolander 2 were hilarious. And another reason for this brilliant comedic year comes in the form of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, detailing the rise and inevitable fall of ‘Conner4Real’ (Andy Samberg) following his break-up from a previous boyband. It’s a satirical riff on celebrity culture and egotism, acted and directed by The Lonely Island, a trio of comedy-musicians that became internet sensations with such nuanced work as Jizz in My Pants. So the humour is vulgar and immature, right? Well, yes, while also being both clever and hilarious. Popstar‘s true feat is that, in the face of dick jokes and Seal getting attacked by a pack of wolves, it manages to craft an emotionally rewarding and satisfying tale of friendship. No, seriously.  Despite the laugh-a-minute approach of the film, there’s genuine heart to be found, the film finding an impressive balance between the crude, the cutting, and the charming.

19. THE NEON DEMON

Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous two films, Drive and Only God Forgives, are two of my favourite films of this decade. The Neon Demon may not reach those heights, but it certainly maintains Refn’s penchant for bloody violence and stylish set-pieces. Following model-in-training Jesse as she rises up the ranks of the fashion industry, the film explores beauty standards, vanity and jealousy, the shelf-life of models and their bloodthirsty pursuit of obtaining youth, and, er, occults. It’s a hodgepodge of venomous and surreal ideas gloriously realised by Natasha Braier’s glitzy cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s electrifying score. The film glides along with an underlying sense of dread before veering off in a totally unexpected manner that ramps up the shock factor – unexpected even when considering Refn’s track record. And the shock factor has a place rather than used just for the sake of it, propelling and fleshing out Refn’s deranged method of symbolism and meaning. The Neon Demon makes it very clear, in gloriously polished fashion, that beauty is ugly.

18. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Animation company Laika have found a niche in making grotesque and unsettling flicks palatable for a younger audience. Each of their films – from Coraline to Paranorman deal with mature themes in a careful and inspiring manner, often integrating creepy set-production and character design that would give even an older audience the jitters, and Kubo and the Two Strings is no different. Kubo focuses on loss and how it provokes the titular character to fulfil a quest very similar to a story he tells the village-folk as a way of busking. It’s a sweet, sentimental story that’s involving enough. But in truth, the story only serves as a vehicle for the film’s greatest strength: it’s wonderful animation. Astonishingly hand-crafted rather than digital, there hasn’t been a more beautiful stop-motion animation in the history of cinema (though a film appearing higher up on this list does run it close). As Kubo and his oddball sidekicks journey through caves and deep in the ocean, we are introduced to a wide variety of eye-popping visuals. Elevated by an impressive, suitably-strumming score, Kubo is an absolute joy to watch.

17. PATERSON

Paterson is a story about a man called Paterson who lives in Paterson, who’s a bus driver played by Adam Driver. This is fitting – the film takes on a subtly surreal tone where everything Paterson does seems to fit in place with a prior event: A painting of a waterfall, the name of a poet. A more appropriate way of describing Paterson would be that it’s less of a story and more an ordinary segment of his life, following Driver’s character for a week, fixating on his routine. He’s an aspiring poet, an affectionate boyfriend, an inquisitive bus-driver. There’s nothing much more to the film; much like Boyhood, the film revels in its delightful simplicity, rather than opting to manufacture drama. The film’s not heart-pulsing or action-packed, nor does it have to be – the camera lingering on a matchbox or eavesdropping on a conversation between two passengers is riveting enough. The film is simply a lovely two hours of cinema that functions as an ode to the creative mind.

16. SPOTLIGHT

Last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight, crept up on us. With The Revenant expected to be awarded the prize, Spotlight began picking up awards at an increasing pace, until it was thrust into the, er, spotlight (sorry), and received the attention that it deserves. Likewise, the film itself is an unassuming investigative piece that creeps up on you, shedding light on paedophilia in the church and how knowledge of it was hushed and swept under the rug rather than condemned. Unlike this year’s The ClubSpotlight takes a less personal approach and a more objective viewpoint, allowing the audience to develop their own sentiments of rage and indignation. Aside from fumbling a fleeting moment of outburst from Mark Ruffalo’s journalist, the film isn’t showy or heavy-handed. While its nearest competitor, The Revenant, was praised for sweeping camera movements and sumptuous visual effects, there’s nothing of the sort on display here. Rather, Spotlight adopts a minimalist approach, the camera held steady and the score barely noticeable. In that sense, it’s technically perfect: it allows a potent script and believable acting to flourish, leaving the audience with a devastating ending without drawing attention to itself.

15. VICTORIA

Victoria is a 140-minute thriller in which its central protagonist, played wonderfully by Laia Costa, inadvertently involves herself in a robbery after a harmless night of clubbing, drinking, and smoking. The snag? It’s a single take. This obstacle doesn’t prevent Victoria from managing high ambitions, however. We follow the titular character as she joins a group of four men, talks philosophy, plays the piano, takes part in a robbery and outruns the police, all in one take. The method of filming doesn’t mask the grittiness of the situation, and provides realism and panic to stakes that we as an audience are engaged by. The film is deeply emotional, impressively action-packed, daring, unpredictable you name it. Its cinematography leads us to believe that these are real people, stuck in a real situation, and their plight is one we should be interested in, and, inevitably, devastated by.

14. THE BIG SHORT

On paper, a movie about banks is tricky business. The problem is that nobody in their right minds should care: it’s all adjustable-rate mortgages and collateralised debt organisations. However, Adam McKay, director of Anchorman, makes it look easy, birthing a film about the housing market collapse of the mid 2000s that’s not only interesting and informative, tinged with McKay’s impressive knack for eking out humour, but also ferocious in its criticism of the banking industry. Make no mistake, the slick self-aware explanations of financial jargon and the knowingly-cheesy fourth wall breaks are all bells and whistles for a serious, cutting film imbued with a political current. There’s no mistaking the fact that the final few moments of the film provide anger rather than relief, solemnity rather than celebration. It’s a study on morally grey characters: their profit is a huge amount of people’s loss, and McKay’s greatest trick is to stir the audience into celebrating along with them before realising the significance of the situation.

13. UNDER THE SHADOW

2016’s most downright terrifying film of the year goes to Under the Shadow, an Iranian-language horror with a disturbing threat that may or may not exist in the form of a Djinn. There’s a sociopolitical undercurrent to the events taking place: Narges Rashidi’s Shadeh, the central character to the film, is seen fleeing from her apartment with her daughter. Rather than being consoled, she is arrested for not covering herself up. It is made clear that Shadeh not only has to face the horrors haunting her apartment, but the horrors of the outside world. Yet these themes of sexism and intolerance in religion don’t overcrowd the simple, calculated story at the heart of Under the Shadow. Supernatural happenings occur, and with the introduction of a few marvellously unsettling dream sequences, the camera swaying with Shadeh’s movement, it’s not made immediately apparent whether the Djinn is tangible or simply a fiction created by Shadeh’s insomniac-ridden mind. Under the Shadow functions beautifully on many levels: as a statement on Iran’s sociopolitical climate, as an ode to their mythology, and as an intensely frightening horror story.

12. THE NICE GUYS

Shane Black is gradually becoming one of my go-to directors for comedy. 2013’s Iron Man 3 is my favourite movie from the Marvel Universe, and that’s because it was a comedy begging to not being taken seriously, with a comedic twist worth the ticket price alone. The Nice Guys maintains its director’s sense of riotous fun with a 70s detective caper, lead by the duo of Russell Crowe’s straight-faced Jackson and Ryan Gosling’s endearingly clueless Holland. It’s a supremely enjoyable and stylish pastiche of the 70s, complete with cheesy afros and funky house parties. There’s little discernible substance, and the film acknowledges the lack of harm the two characters go through, Gosling stating his own invincibility amid a flurry of gunfire, but there’s enormous amusement to be had listening to the protagonist’s Ritchie-esque banter and watching as they faff their way through a rather serious investigation. It’s the year’s best definitive comedy, in a year full of great comedy.

11. THE REVENANT

While The Neon Demon argues that there’s ugliness in beauty, The Revenant argues that there’s beauty to be found in ugliness. At least, that’s what the film’s cinematography suggests, often giving the appearance of a nature documentary rather than one man’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) cold-blooded tale of survival and revenge. It’s brutal film-making, realised in high definition, orchestrated with panoramic camera movements that capture blood, dirt and snow in all its gritty detail. Interspersed with floaty dream sequences, the film is elevated beyond a simple revenge tale to a study on the concept of revenge itself, the morality behind the actions you take in order to pursue it, and the marvels of human endurance. The Revenant is a visceral, spiritual journey supported by stirring performances, an unsparing tone and its juxtaposing, visually arresting imagery.

Join me next week for my Top 10 Films of 2016.