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2017 review

The end of another film year! Here are the 15 best films of 2017 and here’s last year’s post.

1. Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan
2. Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino
3. 120 Battements par Minute, directed by Robin Campillo
4. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins
5. Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve
6. La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle
7. Le Sens de la Fête, directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache
8. Coco, directed by Lee Unkrich
9. Nocturnal Animals, directed by Tom Ford
10. La Promesse de l’Aube, directed by Eric Barbier
11. Wonderstruck, directed by Todd Haynes
12. Star Wars: the Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson
13. Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi
14. Lion, directed by Garth Davis
15. Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols

Other great films: Get Out, Okja, T2 Trainspotting, Rock’n’Roll

It seems that there really can’t be a new Chris Nolan film that won’t top my ‘best films of the year’ list – Dunkirk was always going to grab that #1 spot for me. Both in form and content, it’s a genuine achievement, the embodiment of cinema as an art form. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere anyway, but I’ll repeat it here again: it’s such a bold move to make a film with zero narrative and yet with such powerful storytelling – it’s almost as if Nolan knows what’s expected of him and literally goes off to do the opposite. For that alone, Dunkirk deserves the top spot – you won’t find another film this year so riveting, and impactful.

My #2 film is theoretically a 2018 film but really is so unforgettable that I could not not mention it this year: Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is a truly gorgeous film and also possibly one of the most touching coming-of-age stories told this year. Taking place in the lush Italian countryside, it has this incredible tension and emotional build-up that only masterful directors can pull off. The characterisation of both Elio and Oliver is so spot-on: both are incredibly well-written, with their contradictions, heartaches and desires. Both actors, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, shine onscreen – and their chemistry is completely off the charts. The overall atmosphere of the film, brought together by impeccable cinematography, editing, costume and art design, make this film a truly rare sight: an impressive re-telling of the story of first love and the impossible heartbreak afterwards.

120 Battements par Minute, or 120 Beats Per Minute, is the kind of film that’s so hard to shake off – you’ll still be thinking about it days on end. It takes a macroscopic – and microscopic, approach to AIDS, via the story of Act Up, one of the first NGOs to speak up about the epidemic. Through the force of the group, but also of its individual members, the film takes an unflinching look of how French society tackled such an enormous problem, but also the toll it took on people, and the burden it becomes for the caretakers and everyone who’s been touched from close or afar by this terrible disease. It’s such an indispensable film as we may take a lot of things for granted now: awareness of the disease, medical treatment, preventive measures etc. All of which did not exist barely thirty years ago. Robin Campillo’s work is absolutely masterful and his actors serve him well: both Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois are incredible in their respective roles.

Moonlight should really rank higher, considering how brilliant it is, the way it depicts the journey of Chiron, how well-written it is and how it’s almost like the visual form of a poem really. I’ve said this elsewhere in my Oscar post but it’s just such a strong showing of filmmaking, so powerful in all its little moments, utterly heartbreaking in its big ones. It speaks of things that are sometimes buried so deep – in a child, teenager or adult, that it really is the magic of cinema, and art.

The fifth place was a tough one to choose, but in the end, Blade Runner 2049 just had to be in the top 5 – like Dunkirk, it’s such intelligent entertainment, one that does not underestimate the audience. And in today’s age of mindless blockbusters, it’s something that needs to be appreciated and encouraged. Of course Denis Villeneuve was never going to make a bad film, but with all the expectations that came with it, BR2049 could have easily been a disappointment. Instead it’s a rather fascinating piece of filmmaking – very contemplative yet packs a punch when necessary. Roger Deakins’ cinematography probably contributed a lot to that, and it is just so visually stunning that the film overcomes any screenplay shortcomings it might have.

By any rights, La La Land should rank much higher, with its catchy tunes and hopelessly romantic look. I enjoyed it tremendously and I still listen to the songs – I just wonder if as a film on its own, does it really stand out, and are the characters strong enough? Compared to Moonlight’s for example? I love Damien Chazelle’s aesthetic, and I love musicals, I wish it went a bit bigger on the whole ‘Hollywood musical’ aspect and less so on the ‘Mia and Sebastian’ romance. Still, the sight of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone on that LA bench is quite unforgettable – the cinema equivalent of a happy pill, if you wish, with a very bittersweet ending.

I’ve been quite good at seeing French films this year, I think, and so here’s the quintessential French comedy, with a twist: Le Sens de La Fete is a very touching comedy, yet it doesn’t have any of the sappiness or ‘easy’ jokes that French films are much too guilty of. Instead it works as a character piece – every role is superbly written, and most of all, it is incredibly entertaining, with impeccable comedic timing. The opening scene, with Jean-Pierre Bacri at its grumpiest, is a great way of setting the rest of the film: a sarcastic comedy, but with plenty of heart to spare.

My #8 pick is Coco, gosh really it should rank much higher considering what a beautiful film this is – both in terms of screenplay and visuals. The most amazing thing about Coco is that you can see Pixar’s and its director’s devotion to telling this story right, the emotional build-up is quite strong and the themes are, well, universal – who doesn’t have strained relationships with their family, yet they’re the most important thing in the world, really. Coco is a gorgeous love letter to Mexico, to family, and to music and that’s what makes it such a great film.

Nocturnal Animals is one of the first films I saw in 2017, yet it’s maintained its position in the top 10: it’s such a disturbing yet genius piece of filmmaking. Who else than Tom Ford can have such a memorable aesthetic and yet genuinely trouble most viewers, with this insane story-within-the-story, and Amy Adams’ remarkable performance as a cold-hearted gallery owner? It’s such an intense film and the twist at the end really hurts – the best kind of twist then. It’s just a really ballsy, bold film, that stays with you for a long time.

In tenth place we have yet another French film: La Promesse de l’Aube, based on Romain Gary’s book of the same name. La Promesse de l’Aube is a sweeping drama, an old-fashioned epic that focuses on a son’s love for his mother – and carried by two amazing performances by Pierre Niney and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The theme of maternal love, which is just such a strong theme in itself, is really at the heart of the film: it will make you weep with joy and sadness, to see this tale of childhood and the incredible strength that a mother’s love can represent. It also has a gorgeous score and amazing costume and set design.

Wonderstruck is a stunning film, exquisitely constructed, with two amazing performances by Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds. It’s this really touching story of deaf kids – sounds very trite when you describe it like that, but ultimately them being deaf is not their defining criteria: it’s a coming of age story like any other, with the children trying to find out about their parents and eventually their identity. It has a wonderful touch of nostalgia too, and overall makes for quite a magical experience, which is something rather surprising coming from a filmmaker like Todd Haynes.

Star Wars the Last Jedi. Oh dear. We could talk about this film for ages, debate about it forever, but ultimately it comes down to this: is this a good Star Wars film or not?! And the answer is that it is: in its best moments it treads slightly on what makes the Star Wars universe so magical. Now, the film has enormous flaws that can’t be overlooked, including an entire first hour with very poor character writing and makes very little sense, plot-wise. But once the second hour starts, the Last Jedi takes off on its own completely and offers us a beautiful tribute to the character of Luke (even if the motivation for some of the characters’ actions is still somewhat murky). Ultimately it’s this very original and different take on Star Wars: perhaps less comfortable than the Force Awakens for us lifelong fans, but at least there’s something to be said for trying something new and different. Can’t wait to see episode IX really, and it warms me up to the idea of a new trilogy, even if, of course, it still doesn’t come even close to the genius of the original trilogy. Somewhere in there though, there is a really solid film that could have stood on its own.

Detroit is hard to review, because in itself it is a great film but then when you pick things apart, it starts to unravel and it’s a frustrating thing. Kathryn Bigelow still is a great director, and Detroit is relentless, superbly paced and just really well-directed, yet its screenplay falls short of that; and the frustrating bit is first lack of context, second the part where the film turns into a courtroom drama and third just the lack of any very strong commitment to take a stance on the story and defend it. As a filmmaker working on a contemporary and highly difficult subject, such as race relations in America, it is almost a moral obligation to take a stand. Yet here, something in the film feels quite procedural: it describes the facts, plays out very straightforwardly and leaves the viewer to really ponder the meaning of the events on his own. And that is a bit of a shame, as it could have really packed a punch. Still very harrowing and overall great directing from Bigelow, again it’s just the screenplay that’s letting her down a bit.

Hidden Figures is such a conventional pick, yes, but I couldn’t help fall completely for this story, three black women working at Nasa in the sixties: it has a fantastic screenplay, three amazingly charismatic leads (Taraji Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer) and a standout supporting performance by Kevin Costner. Most of all it’s this completely inspiring tale of women working in science, basically my two favourite subjects ever. Highly recommended viewing.

Lion made me cry like a child – it’s the story of an adopted boy trying to find his biological family, so of course it’s packed with emotion. It’s also quite surprising in the way it’s directed: with these almost Terrence Malick-like shots, full of natural light, quite delicate really. The only reason it’s not higher up in my top 15 is that it is perhaps too emotional, a bit heavy-handed if you like, but otherwise a really beautiful film.

Considering how obsessed I am with Jeff Nichols’ directing, Loving should rank much higher – it’s a gorgeous story and the two main actors are incredible. It’s just that, yes, for once the really slow pacing, oddly enough, introduces quite a distance with the viewer. It’s almost as if Nichols is scared of showing any kind of emotion really, and in order to avoid any triumphalist or obvious moment, decided to go for the entire opposite: it’s almost too restrained, too removed from its subjects. Still, it’s an achingly graceful film, with tremendous performances by both Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.

And this is it for my review of the year! Looking forward to yet another great year in film. And the Oscar nominations are soon upon us, so I will see you then!

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Dunkirk

Seeing a new directed by Christopher Nolan film is always such an event; it comes with really high expectations -of being completely left in awe, of being dazzled, of watching something that’s potentially going to be a game-changer, especially for ‘commercial’ cinema, as I call it, ie. operating within the boundaries of the Hollywood industry. I’m glad to say, Dunkirk doesn’t fall short of that expectation -it completely, absolutely, exceeds it.
The tricky part of making a “war film” is that the genre in itself is quite restrictive. There are rules to it, and Chris Nolan abides by them -it’s telling a story about something that is so utterly visceral, and extreme, that you can’t really go about a thousand different ways of doing it. Yet there’s something that feels inherently innovative, and radical, in the way Chris Nolan chose to depict it. It’s not so much a war film as a thriller about war -which sounds like such a cliché way of putting it, but it seems like the closest description of Dunkirk, if you were looking for one.
All of Chris Nolan’s usual ‘trademarks’ (others would call those gimmicks or tricks for sure) are there: it somewhat plays with the conventional structure of storytelling (yet plays out in three clean acts), there’s a bit of fiddling around with the linear arrangement of the event and yet it’s a very straightforward story of that one war evacuation, the photography is both very natural and elegant and finally, it has a very restrained emotional aspect, which builds up to an incredibly strong, climactic ending. It’s almost as if everything -plot information, character development and background etc., needed to be withheld, and then all of the emotion released in order to achieve the greater effect. And that is indeed the essence of why Dunkirk is such brilliant storytelling. As usual with Chris Nolan, there’s nothing that’s given freely, or understated -the viewer is just thrown in there, directly, bluntly, unable to make sense of it all or at least to process it like a conventional story, until the end really, that one final emotional sequence. It’s almost like being held underwater for two hours, and then being able to breathe again. In that sense it’s quite similar to Interstellar, perhaps with less renlentless questioning, and bigger action scenes.
By Nolan standards, Dunkirk‘s runtime is quite short, an hour and forty-five minutes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that there’s so very little character development. Very little in the way of traditional narrative storytelling is there, which is why it might feel really and almost baffling for audiences expecting a summer blockbuster. But frankly it’s one of the best things about the film: you don’t really need to know about the personal stories of the soldiers, civilians and pilots that we’re following. The whole ordeal of a war is just too horrible to be reduced to circumstances or context and there’s the overwhelming feeling that something more fundamental is at play here. More importantly, the sense of urgency and of looming danger is just ubiquitous -it permeates the whole film, and in a way, that’s what makes it truly successful. Of course all of that is meticulously created with the editing (both image and sound) and that’s why Dunkirk feels yet like another massive, monumental, technical achievement. Again, Chris Nolan created a film that’s probably for the ages -only time will tell. It’s just filmmaking reduced to its simpler yet most powerful form.
Of course the film is supported by immaculate acting performances (from Fionn Whitehead’s lead part to the supporting roles) and that’s even more impressive considering that the actual screenplay, as mentioned before, is quite minimal. The score, composed by Hans Zimmer, is a triumph of simplicity -it’s so carefully interwoven with the structure of the film, again with that incredible appearance of effortlessness, yet we all know it’s anything but. Production and costume design are very meticulous indeed, and the lack of computer-generated effects simply lends the film an awe-inspiring and tangible sense of reality.
Is this Chris Nolan’s best film yet? Hard to tell, but it certainly feels like his most important and most accomplished yet. That’s quite a statement for a director with such successful films, especially as he seems to keep puhsing the bar higher. It’s hard to be objective when watching a Nolan film, a director I hold in such high regard, yet I also feel confident saying that Dunkirk is easily this year’s best film. Eventually that standard of excellence has to flounder, but I’m glad to say, Dunkirk absolutely lives up to it so far, and to the rest of his filmography. Onto the next film, then!

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Academy Awards winners, 2017

And now I’m almost two months late for this post commenting the Oscar wins! I really am a rubbish blogger.

Best Picture
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell Or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester By The Sea
Moonlight

What a Best Picture upset! And a brilliant one, too. La La Land was so far ahead, I didn’t think Moonlight could catch up with it, but I guess the Academy has changed since last year, and they wanted to send a strong message. Not that Moonlight did not deserve that win, because it absolutely did -it’s such a beautiful piece of art, almost like a long poem being filmed and yet dealing with such difficult subjects, the perfect balance between form and content in my opinion. I won’t say anything regarding the massive snafu during the announcement, I think so much has been said already on that subject, but truly it’s a shame the Moonlight win was overshadowed by that because it truly is a win for the books…

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Academy Awards nominees, 2017

I’m really late making this post, the ceremony is in two weeks’ time! In all honesty, I was waiting to see the main contenders before writing this post, but now I feel like I’ve seen enough of them…

Best Picture
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell Or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester By The Sea
Moonlight

Nine nominees this year -and not too bad in terms of genre and scales. My favourite of the bunch is of course Arrival but it has very little prospect of winning despite its numerous nominations. There’s one favourite looming large and ahead of everyone, and that’s of course the much-loved, fantastic La La Land. I personally loved it, although my personal preference still goes to Arrival. But I can see why La La Land is such a favourite -it’s about the industry, the manufacturing of dreams, the limitless power of those dreams. And to top it all off, it’s a musical. Not a grand musical like Hollywood used to make, but a more intimate and contemporary one. So yeah, I can see why La La Land is the big contender. Not too far behind is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a miraculous coming-of-age story, the epitome of artistic, independent cinema. If there is a political statement to be made, surely this would be the right way of doing it. And with Hidden Figures winning the SAG and Lion being shephered by the Weinstein Company, you just never know. However it’s a safe bet to say that with its 14 nominations, La La Land is a very strong favourite.

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2016 review

I think this is the time of the year when I apologise for not updating this blog anymore! But hopeully with the end of yet another year and the Oscars not too far from now, I can try and write more. Here are the 15 best films for 2016, and you can refresh your memory with last year’s post here.

1. Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve
2. Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle
3. Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy
4. Midnight Special, directed by Jeff Nichols
5. Finding Dory, directed by Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane
6. Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley
7. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach
8. The BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg
9. Moana, directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker & Chris Williams
10. Frantz, directed by Francois Ozon
11. Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie
12. Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler
13. The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
14. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, directed by David Yates
15. Bridget Jones’ Baby, directed by Sharon Maguire

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