Sunday, 31 December 2017

A Year in Shadows: 2017


This year's stars, who appeared on three covers: Channing Tatum* (once as Lego Superman) and Wonder Woman (twice as Gal Gadot, once as a Lego).

On two covers: Ben Affleck, John Boyega, Tom Cruise, Judi Dench, Vin Diesel*, Adam Driver, Gal Gadot, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sally Hawkins, Tom Holland, Oscar Isaac, Hugh Jackman, Daisy Ridley

On one cover on their own: Brian Cox, Chris Hemsworth, Charlie Hunnam, Jimmy Kimmell, Jennifer Lawrence, Noomi Rapace, Kristin Scott Thomas, Andy Serkis*, Peter Simonischek, Dan Stevens, Charlize Theron, Kristen Wiig*, Katherine Waterston, Emma Watson

On one shared cover: Ewen Bremner, Alan Arkin, Will Arnett, Pilou Asbaek, Jeff Bauman, Dave Bautista, Hugh Bonneville, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Steve Carell*, Robert Carlyle, Gwendoline Christie*, Pierre Coffin*, Miranda Cosgrove*, Bradley Cooper, Daniel Craig, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Matt Damon, Anthony Daniels*, Daniel Day-Lewis, Elizabeth Debicki, Johnny Depp, Zac Efron, Taron Egerton, Ali Fazal, Oakes Fegley, Rebecca Ferguson, Carrie Fisher, Ray Fisher, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Josh Gadd, Dana Gaier*, Karen Gillan, Brendan Gleeson, Emily Gordon, Ryan Gosling, Hugh Grant, Mark Hamill, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Dwayne Johnson, Doug Jones*, Diane Keaton, Dafne Keen, Riley Keough, Pom Klementieff, Vicky Krieps, Brie Larson, Charlotte Le Bon, Lewis MacDougall, Peter Mayhew*, Ewan McGregor, Ezra Miller, Jonny Lee Miller, Maribeth Monroe, Jason Momoa, Julianne Moore, Kumail Nanjiani, Liam Neeson*, Connie Nielsen, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chris Pratt, Ryan Reynolds, Michael Rooker, Zoe Saldana, Nev Scharrel*, Rose Marie Tran, Millicent Simmonds, Harry Styles, Jason Sudeikis, Beat Takeshi, Jimmy Vee*, Ben Whishaw, Fionn Whitehead

And four times on one cover: James McAvoy

* includes animated or face-obscurred characters

The Best of 2017: 37th Shadows Awards

I don't use traditional eligibility rules for my lists - I tried, but it got too confusing to balance US and UK release schedules. So this is based on films I saw during 2017 that were screened to paying audiences, either in regular cinemas or at film festivals.

My top film this year is simply the one I couldn't get out of my head. It had a visceral impact while I watched it, and has lingered ever since. I feel like it's one of the most important films made anywhere in recent years. Intriguingly, this is the second year in a row in which a Chilean filmmaker made my best movie of the year.

Note that a much more extensive roundup of the year is at THE 37TH SHADOWS AWARDS, including my top 50 films, longer lists in every category, and frankly more than anyone wants or needs. This is an extremely abridged summary...

Daniela Vega, A Fantastic WomanFILMS
  1. A Fantastic Woman (Sebastian Lelio)
  2. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
  3. God's Own Country (Francis Lee)
  4. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
  5. Coco (Lee Unkrich)
  6. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
  7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) 
  8. Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper)
  9. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
  10. Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)
  1. Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)
  2. Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here)
  3. Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled)
  4. Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman)
  5. Francis Lee (God's Own Country)
  1. Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  2. James Ivory (Call Me by Your Name)
  3. Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
  4. Celine Sciamma (My Life as a Courgette)
  5. Geremy Jasper (Patti Cake$)
  1. Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth)
  2. Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman)
  3. Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner, The Hitman's Bodyguard)
  4. Trine Dyrholm (Nico, 1988)
  5. Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  1. Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird, Hostiles)
  2. Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats)
  3. Lakeith Stanfield (Crown Heights, The Incredible Jessica James)
  4. Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)
  5. Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Logan Lucky)
  1. Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
  2. Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
  3. Carrie Fisher (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
  4. Bridget Everett (Patti Cake$, Fun Mom Dinner)
  5. Mary J Blige (Mudbound)
  1. John Boyega (Detroit, Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
  2. Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  3. Patrick Stewart (Logan, The Wilde Wedding)
  4. Thomas Gioria (Custody)
  5. Will Poulter (Detroit)
  1. Transformers: The Last Knight (Michael Bay)
  2. Chips (Dax Shepard)
  3. Stratton (Simon West)
  4. Bright (David Ayer)
  5. Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)
  6. The Shack (Stuart Hazeldine)
  7. Home Again (Hallie Meyers-Shyer)
  8. The Snowman (Thomas Alfredson)
  9. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg)
  10. Baywatch (Seth Gordon)

N O N - F I L M   D I V I S I O N

  1. The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
  2. Twin Peaks (Netflix)
  3. Big Little Lies (HBO)
  4. Veep (HBO)
  5. Stranger Things (Netflix)
  6. Game of Thrones (Sky)
  7. Master of None (Netflix)
  8. Black Mirror (Netflix)
  9. Queers (BBC)
  10. The Carmichael Show (NBC)
  1. Human (Rag 'n' Bone Man)
  2. Sign of the Times (Harry Styles)
  3. In the Name of Man (Plan B)
  4. Green Light (Lorde)
  5. Everything Now (Arcade Fire)
  6. Shape of You (Ed Sheeran)
  7. Oh Woman Oh Man (London Grammar)
  8. Blinded by Your Grace, Part 2 (Stormzy & MNEK)
  9. Walk on Water (Eminem & Beyonce)
  10. Malibu (Miley Cyrus)

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Critical Week: Odd couple

One nice thing about the films I've seen this week is that I haven't needed to write long reviews for each one. So here are shorter comments on the movies I've caught up with over the holidays so far, starting with the one pictured above (that's Will Smith with, yes, Joel Edgerton)...

dir David Ayer; with Will Smith, Joel Edgerton 17/US *.
Perhaps there was something interesting in Max Landis' script for this fantasy cop thriller, but director David Ayer brings his usual sledgehammer approach, obliterating any character nuance or plot intrigue with a barrage of bullets, explosions and relentless machismo. The one decent twist in the tale is badly telegraphed from the start, and it's all so blunt that it leaves the actors lost. Smith can survive this kind of thing with his wits, but Edgerton's excellent acting chops are swamped by his excessive makeup. This eliminates any chance of proper camaraderie as they play human Ward and orc Jakoby, cops partnering in a parallel reality Los Angeles in which a psychotic elf (Noomi Rapace) is plotting to resurrect a dark lord, but first needs to track down her missing wand, which can only be touched by a bright like the young Tikka (Lucy Fry), whom Ward and Jakoby have rescued. Along with endlessly dull mythology in the dialog, scenes are packed with incoherent chases, shootouts, fights and lots of magical nonsense. Even the solid cast, which includes Edgar Ramirez, Jay Hernandez and Margaret Cho, can't save this one.

dir-scr Julia Ducournau; with Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf 16/Bel ****
A chillingly original take on the coming-of-age story, this French drama takes a series of almost outrageously gruesome twists and turns. There's a dark undercurrent of meaning here, but writer-director Julia Ducournau seems mainly interested in freaking out the audience with some extreme femininity. It's the story of teen Justine (Marillier), who is enduring a particularly painful week of hazing as she starts veterinary school, following the footsteps of her big sister Alex (Rumpf). A strict vegetarian, the worst thing for Justine is being forced to eat a bit of raw meat. And she's horrified to discover she now has a craving for meat, including the human kind. Ducournau kind of taunts the audience with unfinished scenes and lots of waking up unaware of what happened the night before. But the film is gleefully grisly and darkly provocative. A true original.

dir-scr Kleber Mendonca Filho; with Sonia Braga, Zoraide Coleto 16/Br ***.
Brazilian filmmaker Mendonca isn't terribly subtle with this over-long drama about the clash between old-world humanity and present-day commercialism, but the film has a loose energy that makes it worth a look. And Sonia Braga shines in the central role. She plays retired journalist Clara, a woman who has had a long, full life then finds herself the last occupant of the seaside apartment block in Recife where she raised her children with her late husband. Now she's the only thing stopping the developers from knocking down the building so they can construct a gleaming tower in its place. But she has no intention of going, so simply gets on with her life, spending time with her friends, children, grandson and a favourite nephew, continuing her lifelong bond with housekeeper Ladjane (Coleto) and enjoying her extensive, eclectic music collection. All of this meanders a bit, and the final act feels both heavy-handed and oddly unfinished. But watching Braga is sheer joy.

dir-scr Brett Morgen; with Jane Goodall, Hugo van Lawick 17/US ***.
Using a treasure trove of unseen footage from the early 1960s, this documentary traces the life and pioneering work of Jane Goodall. It's fascinating to watch her as an untrained 26-year-old head into the wilds of Tanzania with only her innate curiosity and patience to work with. She was specifically selected for those qualities - and for her lack of scientific education - and as a result her observations of chimpanzees told the world things no one ever knew, in the process changing the definition of what it means to be human. This may not be a particularly original observation, but filmmaker Brett Morgan assembles this doc beautifully, making the most of the footage skilfully shot by Goodall's husband Hugo van Lawick. And since it's narrated by the luminous 83-year-old Goodall herself, it's full of pointed personal commentary. Her life journey is moving and important.

The Work
dir Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous; with Brian, Charles, Dark Cloud 17/US ***.
There's rather a lot of navel gazing in this involving documentary about a group of men working through their deep-seated issues in a California prison support group. Intriguingly, the film follows several non-inmates as they join the prisoners in Folsom and find themselves right in the middle of the cathartic experience. All of these men have serious issues with their fathers, expressed through their lives in a variety of ways. And how they confront them varies from man to man, sometimes through baring the soul and sometimes through making the struggle a physical one. Each of them is in tears at some point. It's all rather intense, and extremely over-serious. But it's also a remarkably honest look at the way masculinity is expressed in American culture. And it's shot in a strikingly observational way that gets very, very personal. It's a view of male identity that's rarely if ever seen on-screen.

I also watched the superb Irish drama Sanctuary and the acclaimed German thriller In the Fade starring Diane Kruger, as well as a couple of Christmas films, including the Victoria Christmas movie, Sarah Jessica Parker in The Family Stone (2005) and Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays (1995), which I'd never seen before.

And there are a few more films I need to see this coming week, before the final round of voting in a couple of awards, and also just to wrap up my year - things like Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father and the British dramas Lies We Tell and Journey's End. If I have time....

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Critical Week: Saluting the holidays

I only had three screenings in my final week of the working year, but then I was rather busy with getting the London Critics' Circle Film Award nominations announced - a terrific event. The films I caught included Pitch Perfect 3, which is being billed as the curtain call for the a cappella franchise, and definitely shows the strain in coming up with something for these talented women to do. It's a shame to go out with such a whimper after the seriously great first two movies. All the Money in the World is notorious for director Ridley Scott's last minute decision to scrub star Kevin Spacey from the movie and replace him with Christopher Plummer. But perhaps future viewers will be able to enjoy this superb true thriller without the baggage. It's one of Scott's best films, a taut drama with terrific performances from Michelle Williams, Charlie Plummer and indeed Christopher Plummer. And Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel also brings some baggage with it, but is notable for Kate Winslet's staggering performance as a desperate housewife in 1950s Coney Island. It's also shot and lit gloriously by veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. And I also caught up with this little gem...

Faces Places [Visages, Villages]
dir Agnes Varda, JR; with Agnes Varda, JR 17/Fr ****
This quirky documentary teams up 88-year-old filmmaking icon Agnes Varda with 33-year-old artist JR as they travel spontaneously around France taking large-format photos and wallpapering them onto various enormous structures. Watching this is a delight, as these two lively figures spar with each other and explore the nature of art and culture. Agnes talks about her life and friendships, and constantly teases JR about the way he hides from the world, obscuring his name and personal life, and even his eyes behind sunglasses. And the people they photograph along the way capture a spark of life in very clever ways that have a big effect on onlookers. Powerful pictures include workers on different factory shifts reaching out to each other, wives of dock-workers towering above them, and Agnes' eyes and toes on train cars. There is also a clever sense of history, with vintage images posted on appropriate surfaces. It's all a little meandering, and sometimes rather too clever to accept as just a random sequence of encounters. But the way it touches on French culture, the history of cinema and larger issues like globalisation is deeply involving.

This coming week will be a chance to watch several screeners of films that were nominated in various awards I vote in. On my list are the docs Jane and The Work, the foreign films Raw and Aquarius, and late-in-the-year releases like Irish drama Sanctuary and German thriller In the Fade.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Critical Week: Stop and smell the flowers

It was pretty daring of Fox to release the animated movie Ferdinand this week, but for critics it was a welcome respite from Star Wars mania. The warm-heated core story is still there the beloved 1930s book and short, although it has been expanded with mindless action-comedy chaos. Meanwhile, the big news of course was the single press screening on Monday night of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, introduced by writer-director Rian Johnson. It's a massive, slightly over-intense two and a half hour battle epic packed with excellent characters and surprising connections.

I also caught up with Margot Robbie's excellent performance in I, Tonya, a bitterly comical take on disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. But there's an important point to the tone. Hugh Jackman stars in the colourful musical The Greatest Showman, which tells the story of circus founder PT Barnum with great songs and elaborate choreography. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart reteam for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a somewhat pointless reboot to the franchise, although it's at least energetic. And Liam Neeson continues in mindless action mode for The Commuter, a contrived thriller set on a train.

Further afield, we had the offbeat British indie drama Beast, which tells a twisted story that's part romance and part thriller. And Peccadillo put out their latest compilation Boys on Film 17: Love Is the Drug, nine short films about desire. It's a very strong collection this time, with films made over the past five years.

I only have a couple of screenings over the next couple of weeks, including Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World and Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel. But I still have quite a few awards-season screeners to catch up with as time allows. I'll prioritise the ones that pick up nominations.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Critical Week: The morning news

Awards season is heating up with a flurry of late screenings and screener discs before voting deadlines. Two sets of awards I vote in - London and online critics - have a nominations deadline on Friday 15th December, so there's a lot to see. Although there are so many documentaries this year that it's impossible to watch them all. Here's what I've watched in the past few days...

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are at the peak of their powers in The Post, Steven Spielberg's expertly made film about the release of Pentagon Papers in early-70s Washington DC. It's startlingly relevant. Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike are excellent in Hostiles, Scott Cooper's remarkably gritty, realistic Western. It beautifully tackles some huge issues. Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss are terrific in the Cannes-winning Swedish black comedy The Square, which unapologetically takes on the art world. It's challenging and fiendishly clever.

Outside awards season, Better Watch Out is a riotously edgy pastiche that plays with cliches of both Christmas and horror movies to create something both entertaining and nasty. Native is an extremely low-key British sci-fi thriller about two officers on a deep space mission who question obedience to their leaders back home. And after seeing The Disaster Artist last week, I had to check out Tommy Wiseau's 2003 bad-classic The Room, which is every bit as terrible as they say, but also has a bizarre charm to it. Finally, there was this doc, which I watched so I could participate in a lively TV discussion programme...

Whose Streets?
dir Sabaah Folayan; with Brittany Ferrell, Bassem Masri 17/US ***.
This documentary takes an intensely personal approach to the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed teen Mike Brown Jr by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Using firsthand interviews and extensive video footage of the events, it traces how the vigil turned into a peaceful march and then an activist movement demanding an end to racially charged policing. And also how this was met with a heavy-handed official response with heavily armed cops in militarised tanks. It's definitely not a one-sided film, condemning the looting and vandalism as well as how the media and police focus on that, ignoring the name of the victim. The springboard is Martin Luther King's statement that "a riot is the language of the unheard". Without ever getting shouty, the film is raw and angry. Although it gets a little bogged down in personal stories. These may be resonant, but they feel a bit off-topic. And as it follows years of investigations, riots, vigils and arrests, it also gets a little repetitive. Which is exactly the point.

This coming week we have the hotly anticipated screening of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, plus Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, British drama Beast, Hungarian drama Jupiter's Moon, Brazilian drama Bingo: The King of the Mornings and the short film collection Boys on Film 17: Love Is the Drug.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Critical Week: Fashion forward

Since I travelled mid-week, my film viewing over the past few days was somewhat limited (I've already seen everything worth watching on the plane!). But before leaving Los Angeles, I caught an awards-season screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a 1950s London dressmaker. It's tricky, twisty and utterly mesmerising. And James Franco's The Disaster Artist is a hugely entertaining look at the making of a terrible movie, which turns into an ode to the importance of following your dreams. The all-star cast is excellent, and a lot of fun.

I also saw the family adventure Kepler's Dream, a rather simplistic TV-style movie that will appeal to undemanding audiences. It's boosted by the presence of Holland Taylor and Sean Patrick Flanery. And then there was the chance to revisit the 1969 Western Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, starring a surprisingly feisty Robert Redford. It's a complex ahead-of-its-time drama set in California's Native American community - riveting, emotional, challenging.

Coming up this week: the Cannes winner The Square, the Hungarian drama Jupiter's Moon, Rupert Graves in Native and the British drama Beast. There are also a number of for-your-consideration awards screenings coming up.