Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: THE HIGH

2016 was a year worth wiping away for many reasons but the quality of the good cinema was higher than usual. It was also more varied. Harrowing tales of desperation at the concentration camp gas chamber door to strong comedies with fragile surfaces, weird but effective sci-fi, les Dardennes extending themselves and Ken Loach digging in, a surprise Anglo/Iranian entry that acted as a kind of signal booster to the great Dark Water and on and on. At worst they are good films but at best they are of the unforgettable quality of the best of the long gone arthouse scene. Yes, there is still compelling cinema. And it's still in the cinema ... as well.

Son of Saul
Extraordinary cinema of the kind my nostalgic daydreams are crammed with when I think of the great days of Arthouse back in the 80s. Strangely staged, strongly maintained, harrowing and bizarrely beautiful. Geza Rohrig as Saul lets only the tiniest sign of emotion out from his persona of survivalist automaton until a vision of life affirmation compels a smile that feels like sunlight. Welling up as I remember it now.

My favourite of the year.

Crazy science fiction with the strength of conviction to fiercely pursue a crazy premise. The sense of the imagined world never tears and there are so many moments where you think "they aren't going to do that" and then watch it happen.

Goodnight Mommy/Ich sehe ich sehe
Stark, nerve eating tale of a broken mother/children bond plays like a classic fairy tale as told by Michael Hanneke. Takes a second viewing to sink in but boy does it sink in.

Fear Itself
Outstanding essay delivered over expertly chosen moments from horror cinema. The argument is couched in a fictional personal story of someone recovering from the true life horror of a car accident who has taken refuge in horror fiction. Everything works.

It's about cats in Istanbul. It's about CATS in ISTANBUL.

Right Now, Wrong Then
Sang-soo Hong's latest deceptively gentle comedy of manners hits the breaks halfway through and does it all over with a significant revelation timed and delivered very differently with diametrically different results. The work of a contemporary master.

The Unknown Girl
The Dardennes take their continental Loach-like tales of the dispossessed into something like a murder mystery yet keep to their own initial commitment to tell these stories. I've seldom been able to fault any of their films and can't fault this one.

High Rise
Ben Wheatley's take on the Ballard dystopia spreads the grime and sweat of the lower orders on the walls of the higher-ups with great humour and anger. The 1970s setting accentuates the vintage arthouse feel of the movie leaking an unsettling kind of nostalgia.

Under the Shadow
This year's It Follows as far as lean, mean and socially aware horror stories go. Like Dark Water with the constraints of a thuggish theocracy instead of the earlier film's traditional gender roles, Under the Shadow punches well above its weight, keeping the scares relevant, scarce and all the scarier for that.

I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach proves again that he does far more than point cameras at people at the desperate end of the street. He is a master filmmaker and this declaration of compassion honours his oeuvre.


A maestro's swansong, Cosmos plays like a milder outing than Zulawski's more famous efforts like Possession or Third Part of the Night. Very enjoyable, nonetheless.

High hopes for DenisVilleneuve's excursion into sci-fi but these gently deflated as the central concept became obvious well before time, a kind of Christopher Nolan twist that, like almost everything by Nolan, felt less impressive than intended. I'll still see what Villeneuve makes of Blade Runner.

La La Land
Some good songs, committed performances and sensational choreography almost got me in a sleight of hand. Just not quick enough to mask the shallowness of the overall exercise with its welcome stretching length.

Enjoyed for its strength of conviction in sticking with the less glamorous aftermath of atrocity, following the healing process rather than glory in the sordidness of the crime. Still, felt short of the mark I wanted it to hit.

A Month of Sundays
Good effort from Matthew Saville about grief and mid-life ennui with characters and dialogue that reminded me of Paul Cox's best. Too long, though, and too often indulged in setting up humour that would have been better served by brevity.

Whiskey Foxtrot Tango
Compelling dramedy with Tina Fey in the lead (followed closely by Margot Robbie) in a tale of the costs of adventure and finding one's best fit. Wanted more of the grit outside of the Kabubble, though.

Blood of My Blood
Impressive tale of long reaching vengeance against the misogyny of the church told across centuries in a small Italian town. Keep wanting to put it in the high list but it doesn't quite make it there for me.

Greek weirdwave in the tradition of Dog Tooth and Attenburg about male competition subverted by its own cleverness and a confusing play of the competition itself to the effect that it was easy to forget about as the character quirks were aloud to prevail. A scene of competitive Ikea shelf assembly should have been sidesplitting but bled out its own energy.

A Dragon Arrives
Some fun and epic sized mystery storytelling realised that it had to get all serious towards the end or disrespect the whole premise. This worked but felt separated from the first two act

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land
A mostly informative and endearing character portrait on an interesting pop star who engineered a major shift in music at the start of his career. Numan suffers from Aspergers syndrome which highly focused but cold appearance actually aided his robotic persona into fame. His is a good story but the documentary's purpose was to concentrate a little too much on his most recent album, suggesting that much of the fame years' stories are still to be told.

The Beatles: The Touring Years: Eight Days a Week
A loss of focus on the declared purpose of the piece (went beyond the touring story into the recording which has been told very fully elsewhere) but also suffered from too sharp a focus on the US tours. Always nice to see the Fabs on screen but this felt like a feature length introduction to the Shea Stadium footage (which had more than a little flown in from other audio sources). There is a much fuller and truer film to be made about this.

2016: THE LOW

Kate Plays Christine
Great concept hijacked by its own author and continually flattened into inconsequence. There was a fictionalised feature at the time about the same case. Should have gone to that instead.

Looking for Grace
A potentially compelling story rendered indigestibly cute by over cooking design, performance (Richard Roxburgh managed to overact just by standing still at one point) and concept.

Whimsy and ugliness blended until it was clear they wouldn't mix without more ugliness. Try-hard satire better managed by Roy Andersson or Elaine May than here.

The Demons
A kind of Michael Hanneke cover band which, despite some impressive choreography in the early scenes, flattened into a kind of hate-me-if-you-dare void.

The Lure
Great concept but aborted development. Felt like a short stretched into a feature length musical (what a good idea!) and just looked stretched out of shape as some themes were warped beyond purpose and others shrunken beyond recognition.

Nocturnal Animals
Lots of love for this one but I found myself unable to care about anyone on screen and sat back to look at all the lovely design. A waste of some of my favourite screen stars.