Top Ten Films of 2016

I want to write about all the good films that we’ve had already in the first few weeks of 2017 but I still need to put a line underneath 2016. As such here are my top ten films of last year, a by no means definitive list but hopefully a good representation of the quality year of cinema we had while the rest of the world burned.

If there’s one conclusion to be drawn from these films it is that women suffer and men cause nothing but trouble.

10: Notes on Blindness


In order to look suitably cultured it was important for me to include a documentary on this list and no other non-fiction film last year was so cinematic and immersive. The film takes the audio diaries of writer and theologian John Hull that he made as he lost his sight in the 1980s and put his words into the mouth of Dan Renton Skinner. The result is a surprisingly visual journey through the loss of vision as John philosophises about his changing world as his family grows and his senses reduce to four. A beautiful, dreamlike documentary.

9: Mustang


The first in a tragic triptych running through this list is a Turkish drama about five sisters who innocently flirt with a group of local boys and find themselves imprisoned in their home. Their family decides that homeschooling and arranged marriages will help to preserve the girls’ purity away from the temptation lying in the outside world. Trapped inside the girls fill their days by lounging around the house, making each other laugh, and plotting their brief escapes. Throughout the film we see the girls’ spirits slowly decline as they gradually accept their fates or give up entirely. Much like Sofia Coppola’s comparable Virgin Suicides this is a beautifully shot film about the tragedy of young girls’ lives being restricted as they blossom into women.

8: 10 Cloverfield Lane


Sticking with women in captivity we have Dan Trachtenberg’s genre-ambiguous bunker-dwelling marvel. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is this film’s hero who we meet chained up in a bomb shelter. Upon regaining consciousness Winstead meets her host, John Goodman, who she must try to decipher and identify as either her captor or her saviour. 10 Cloverfield Lane plays its card close to its chest and the result is a taut, tense, and tantalising puzzle that dials things up to 11 before revealing there’s a whole other set of gears. Marvellous fun.

7: Hell or High Water


It is rare for a crime drama to allow the audience to develop equal sympathy for both the criminals and the police who pursue them but in David Mackenzie’s modern Western both sides of the coin are given equal weight. We experience the thrills of two brothers robbing banks to save their family land and share the slow jovial investigations of the local Texas Rangers who patiently track their exploits. When the sides finally collide with unglamorous, brutal violence it is hard to know what side to choose and whether to cheer or cry. A timeless drama of crime and punishment.

6: A Bigger Splash


Luca Guadagnino’s English language interpretation of La Piscine came and went without much fanfare last year but when I saw it I adored it. A drama filled with sun, sex, and jealousy as a quartet of characters spend a few weeks on a small Italian island. Tilda Swinton is as captivating in her silent role as recovering rock star as Ralph Fiennes is as a bombastic, occasionally naked, dad-dancer. A big, bold, brash drama that really delivers.

5: Arrival


I still need to rewatch this idea-driven piece of science fiction as the true workings of the tale are only clear at the film’s ends. Watched for the first time the film is teetering at the high end of very good but would surely shoot up to great given a second viewing. Aliens land and they do not attack, instead they want to talk. It is up to Amy Adam’s linguist to figure out a method of communication before the army do what they do best and attack the interplanetary immigrants. A film for the mind and the heart assembled with beauty and brains.

4: Anomalisa


Though painstakingly made in stop-motion animation this human drama is not for kids; this is full frontal animation. Michael Stone is a walking mid-life crisis who is a big fish in the small pond of customer service. Staying at a hotel while he gives a keynote speech at a conference he picks the scab of an old love, contemplates a new love, and tries to ignore the love he has waiting for him at home. Michael is not a sympathetic man but he feels incredibly real despite his detachable face. The film as a whole is surreal and charming with a lot to say about the human condition.

3: Green Room


The sadly departed Anton Yelchin gave one of his final performances in this relentlessly nerve-shredding horror about a punk band trapped in a neo-Nazi club. Without hesitation this near perfect feature pulls its protagonists from one excruciating situation to another as their numbers slowly dwindle. The joy of the film is in its execution. An execution that holds nothing back and constantly surprises and horrifies. I gasped, I groaned, and I hid my face.

2: The Witch


Another horror here in the top three with a god-fearing family in 17th century New England being terrorised by a neighbouring witch. Forget broomsticks and cauldrons and instead think of old hags grinding the bones of a baby and you’re closer to the bone-deep terror that The Witch has to offer. The Witch is a pure, gimmick-free piece of cinema. It is delightfully terrifying and filled with an air of unrelenting fear and genuine horror. Don’t expect any sudden jumps just a consistent feeling that all is not well. It certainly isn’t.

1: Room


My personal favourite film of 2016 is not the most enjoyable to watch. At numerous positions on this list are women being persecuted and none more so than Joy as portrayed by Brie Larson. For years Joy is kept in captivity; initially alone and then with the gift and curse of a young son to keep her company. Room has affected me in numerous ways each time I have watched it, with three different types of tear running down my face. Often with films containing this level of bleakness the work is admirable but hard to actually recommend anyone see. Room is different. Room is an easy film to recommend. Room is devastating and uplifting and finally brought the talents of Brie Larson to the world’s attention. I could watch this film countless times and no doubt I will.

Carrie Fisher 1945 – 2016

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21st October 1956 – 27th December 2016

“I always wrote. I wrote from when I was 12. That was therapeutic for me in those days. I wrote things to get them out of feeling them, and onto paper. So writing in a way saved me, kept me company. I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn’t know.”

Ron Glass 1945 – 2016

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10th July 1945 – 25th November 2016

“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”

Paterson – Film Review

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To criticise Paterson is to try to fit it into a box it isn’t made to fit. You might think the film lacks enough plot, or humour, or drama but it has exactly as much plot, humour, and drama as writer-director Jim Jarmusch wants it to have. If you dislike Paterson then you and Jarmusch are just going to have to agree to disagree.

In Paterson we spend seven days in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), and to a lesser extent his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), as he goes about his business. Every day Paterson gets up, walks to work, drives a bus around the city of Paterson, walks home, briefly indulges in Laura’s latest fantasy, and then walks their dog to his local bar. Lather, rinse, repeat. In his spare moments Paterson write poems; beautifully mundane poems about small moments written for the film by Ron Padgett. Laura urges Paterson to share his poems but he seems content to live his life and keep his poems as a private expression.

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Paterson has no dramatic plot twists, emotional blowouts, or stunning visuals. Like Paterson’s poetry Paterson delights in the minutiae of day-to-day life and the film, running to nearly two hours, allows you to soak up Paterson’s daily routine. As you become familiar with the patterns of Paterson’s days the repetition becomes reassuring and comforting, and the tiny differences leap out at you in all their insignificance. If Paterson is a poem then each day makes up a verse with plenty of rhyming in between.

Adam Driver is the perfect man to tackle this understated role; his expressive face says so much as his character says so little. He plays Paterson as a humble man who keeps his own emotions to himself while absorbing everything from those around him. As a constant observer it is easy to easy to see how Paterson might come to express himself through prose. As his bus moves inconspicuously through the city so Paterson goes unnoticed in the town that is his namesake taking us along for the ride. Paterson, and Paterson, teaches us to look and listen and revel in the details. By the end of the film we might as well be Paterson; few films will have you this absorbed in the life of their lead character.

A perfect unassuming film that celebrates the undramatic wonder of the everyday, Paterson is a charmer. Just don’t go expecting anything explosive.

Paterson is out in UK cinemas now.

London Korean Film Festival 2016

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It is time to set aside those unwritten LFF reviews as the LKFF is here! The London Korean Film Festival has returned from the capital and runs until 17th November with a season of classic and contemporary Korean cinema. This year’s festival has a special focus on films that explore the lives of Korean women as told through the lenses of female directors as reflected in Thursday’s opening gala screening of Lee Kyoung-mi’s new thriller The Truth Beneath. The festival closes in London with Hong Sang-soo’s latest Yourself and Yours after which the festival goes on tour to Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow and Belfast from 18th – 27th November.

The festival features a wide range of Korean films and gives a rare opportunity to see films that might not make it back to the big screen in the UK. See the official website for more info or read on to find out what I have seen so far.

The Truth Beneath

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In Lee Kyoung-mi’s second feature the wife (Son Ye-jin) of an aspiring politician finds her life upended when her teenage daughter goes missing at the start of the national election campaign. While her husband (Kim Joo-hyuk) remains focussed on his political ambitions she instead picks up where the police investigation has failed and delves into the second life her daughter was leading.

With clever cinematic devices and an unflinching eye Lee Kyoung-mi explores both the story of a young girl’s struggle to find acceptance and friendship alongside a grieving mother’s struggle to get to know her daughter when she is no longer around. The film’s twists created loud gasps from the audience and the tense narrative had us gripped from start to finish. The lead performance by Son Ye-jin was powerfully understated and complex. A powerful opening to the festival and a strong statement to show this year’s commitment to showing the life of Korean women on-screen.

Our Love Story

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Another female director Lee Hyun-ju tackles a different kind of female relationship in Our Love Story as she explores the beginnings of a romance between a female student and an older young woman (Lee Sang-hee and Ryu Sun-young). The film is much more understated than the thriller above as it focusses on emotional nuance above flashy plot twists.

The romance between the two lovers is handled with great care and sensitivity. Free from the male gaze Our Love Story is capable of including sex between two women without including a full panoramic view of entwined naked forms à la Blue is the Warmest Colour or The Handmaiden. Instead we have a more restrained, tender, and authentic romance on-screen as part of a sweet and emotionally complex romantic drama.

I really do recommend you seek out a screening, a trailer of highlights is below, and if anyone has a spare ticket to the closing gala please let me know; it has already sold out!