This is the second part of our discussion of the year in film (the first part is here). In this post, we discuss our choices of best film, worst film, documentaries, TV shows, best moment in a film and also a selection from our home country (Scotland, Ireland and Australia). As with part 1, we are happy to hear your views too so please feel free to leave some comments below if you wish to contribute to the discussion…
JJ: 13th by Ava DuVernay (who made Selma) is a doco about the incarceration of African Americans in the US throughout its history. It is sharp, smart and has some brilliant, revealing interviews with activists, journalists and politicians. The subject matter is nothing new – the US is still fundamentally a racist country, but it still provides a heavy reminder of the shit that went down since 1865 (and continues to).
JJ: The uncompromising visionary and documentarian Werner Herzog is still kicking, and he offered us an intriguing angle of observation in relation to the current interaction between humans and technology in Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World – if anything, he always gives us a glimpse inwards of ourselves through other fascinating humans and the reveal is usually baffling.
Robin: Hotel Coolgardie is a low-budget Western Australian documentary that follows two Finnish backpackers working in a rural pub. There’s very little narration; the director Pete Gleeson simply has the camera follow the girls at work and in their leisure time, and the story ‘naturally’ unfolds. It captures the rural setting extremely well, both its jocular teasing and underlying social awkwardness of lonely, and often socially ill-equipped, men. It is both funny and sad, but its strength as a film lies in its ability to reveal an out-dated mode of constructed masculinity that is little more than a façade, where damaged men hide. And it touches on the exploitative nature of seasonal work for migrant backpackers, while showing glimpses of genuine concern by other locals. As a documentary, it is not a heavily researched topic, but it is more a ‘day in the life of’ biopic. This was one of my highest scoring films of the year.
JJ: Unfortunately it didn’t get a wide release so after missing it in the film festivals over here, it may take a bit of archaeology work to track a copy down!
Robin: Dancer is a biographic portrait of the renowned Ukraine ballet (come modern) dancer Sergei Polunin. In some ways, it is a promotional film as well, in the mode of the super-Rock Star documentaries, with footage of performance and behind the scenes pieces and edited interviews. The dance pieces are impressive. (I note that Polunin has a small acting part in Murder on the Orient Express!!)
Robin: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is a fun movie, with good footage sequences, and some interesting commentary on race relations in the US. It is hardly an in-depth film. Rather, it is more of a warm tribute to the Fab Four, but…well…it’s the Beatles. Some of the crowd scenes are still incredible to watch, especially the Liverpool football supporters in the stadium singing She Loves You.
JJ: John Pilger also documented some terrifying truths about the current state of geopolitics between the US and China in a typically high quality piece of video journalism with The Coming War on China. See it if you can. It’s not pretty but it’s essential.
Robin: I heard from several people it was good. I don’t know if Mountain fits in this category or not. Beautiful scenery and some stunning photography, nice but slightly corny narrative by Willem Dafoe, and nice orchestral music to fit the scenery – but after 20 or 30 minutes I had seen enough. The slow ‘why do people climb mountains’ is all a bit old hat. It had the feel of a well filmed tourist promotional video. Beautiful but lacking any real narrative.
JJ: They should have just used this video from William Shatner to explain it….
Robin: I saw The Trip to Spain at the cinema. Yeah, well, it was okay. Couple of laughs, but it’s all getting a little repetitive.
JJ: It’s just become very, very light-on and, as you say, very repetitive. Eat, drink, Rob Brydon impressions. Eat, drink, Steve Coogan gets awkward…and so on. The sooner Alan Partridge returns the better!
Alan: Mindhunter was fantastic but how do you recommend it to people? It isn’t really a serial killer type series. It isn’t even really about crime investigation. It is about people undertaking an academic exercise and the effect that it has on their lives. It is slow burn and driven by character and dialogue.
JJ: Watched the first series on your recommendation and was not disappointed. A brilliant series that educates as much as it shocks. There were scenes here that would not have been out of place in some of the greatest films of all time. I am thinking particularly in the interactions between characters – the flowing dialogue and the humanistic expressions that seem, well, unacted. The intensity of the wording and the subtlety of body movements are magnificent. Great soundtrack too although Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ was a bit too obvious!
Alan: If you watch Mindhunter and like it, Manhunt: Unabomber is similarly good. Based on the true story of the hunt for the Unabomber, it has a great cast. Not as good a script as Mindhunter. It swings from technically interesting to borderline soap-opera but it is still worth a watch if only for Paul Bettany’s perforance.
Alan: I’ve been watching The Punisher. Another good series from Marvel after some recent lukewarm efforts. It manages to make the character a little deeper and more likable rather than the un-tethered psychopath from the movies.
JJ: So I take none of you good folks watched Twin Peaks: The Return (or Twin Peaks: The Ordeal as it was termed in our household)? The term ‘ordeal’ is a bit disingenuous of course. David Lynch didn’t want to give us anything. He just wanted to finish off what he started and I guess he couldn’t really do that back in the early 1990s. In that, it is a very personal project. A very disturbing, warped, fucked-up, maddening and sometimes nonsensical personal project. Still, as a bit-part Lynchian fan, it was worth watching, but I cannot say I liked all of it. Out of 18 hour-long episodes, more than half of those had literally nothing happen in them apart from some lengthy visual interludes (a 20 minute sequence that resembles the mind-bending final scene in 2001 for example) and Kyle McLachlan staring into space. The live musical performances at the end of each episode was a nice touch.
A choice from the home country
Alan (Scotland): Does this count? I was really disappointed in T2 Trainspotting. I know that it was technically impressive and it was beautifully shot but it seemed like the writers, actors and characters remembered the first film very differently to me. This is not where I wanted the characters to go or expected given the ending of the first film. If the first film is Goodfellas (and it is, but that’s another post) imagine if all the characters from Goodfellas came back for a sequel but had nothing to do except whine about their life choices and worry about being middle aged. Sorry Renton, couldn’t give a shit if your girlfriend (whom I’ve never met or cared about) has left you. Could give less of a shit if you’re lacking training and about to lose your job. The only bit of the movie which had any balls was the relationship between Begbie and his son…and their balls dropped off before the end anyway. Sound and fury signifying nothing.
JJ: I liked it. I know Boyle was trying to tie it in to the 1996 world that these characters had inhabited but it was too implausible. That was a specific time and place, and it should’ve been kept at that. However, in Boyle’s usually hyperactive style, he runs with things and doesn’t stop. As it went along, I started to enjoy it – the ‘1690’ sequence was take-the-piss gold! It should be stand-alone from the first film but its romantic associations to it I suppose will never allow it to be. In a way, it was only ever made to pay homage to it. The Begbie and his son storyline didn’t really rise too far I agree but Spud’s act as a junkie with a deep heart was touching and I think there was a nice ending to that.
Robin: I liked T2 Trainspotting but it didn’t match the original. The original had me thinking about it for weeks afterwards. I pretty much forgot T2 after a day or two. I thought Robert Carlyle did a fine job.
JJ (Ireland): Unfortunately it hasn’t been as prominent a year in Irish film. At least last year we had Sing Street, and Brooklyn the year before that. My google research suggests that the big Irish films of the year were Halal Daddy (a Muslim abattoir manager in Sligo), Cardboard Gangsters (Love/Hate: the movie) and The Notorious (a documentary about Conor McGregor). Jeesh!! That’s not saying though that its been a bad year for the Emerald Isle – I hear Song of Granite is excellent and the much-acclaimed The Killing of A Scared Deer is technically an Irish film too. The only Irish film that stood out for me though was The Young Offenders, which is on Netflix. Two scumbag teenagers from Cork head off on their bikes to score some of the 7 million euro worth of cocaine that has washed ashore on the coast after falling off a shipment. It’s light-hearted and done with little fuss, no grand flashiness, and amateur in a good way. The two main characters are hilarious, honest and hideous all in the one breath. The stand-out is when they give detailed homages to their favourite Hollywood movies.
Robin (Australia): The Australian documentary Hotel Coolgardie was very impressive (see above). Simple, but very true-to-life and insightful. The Light Between Oceans (part Australian, New Zealand, UK and USA, set in Western Australia) is a beautiful drama, and is more or less a faithful depiction of the novel it is based on.
Favourite moment from a film
Alan: The one-shot fight scene which turns into a car chase in the last act of Atomic Blonde. I know there must be hidden cuts in order to reset stunts and apply makeup but short of actually filming a 20 minute fight between spies this is about as bad-ass as it gets. The camera work, blocking and positioning of actors combined with choreography is breathtaking. The technical aspects of the stunts along with the special effects (blood, gunfire, makeup) is amazing when you have time to think about it. What is more there is a real sense of danger. All the characters involved take severe beatings and come away looking battered and broken. Add in that the fight is organic to the plot, when everything has gone to shit and there is no other option but to use a corkscrew. A stand out scene not only for its visual impact but for the technical prowess that made it possible.
JJ: I did get a tingly giddy feeling near the beginning of Ragnarok when Thor started whacking the shit out of some evil pests with the glorious stomping riff of Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ as background music. I thought, why has this masterwork never been utilised in a film before – it’s always ‘Thunderstruck’ or ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ – then I realised that Shrek 3 did.…but badly because it was a hatcheted version of the song. No such problem here. It complimented the ridiculously over-the-top fights scenes perfectly.
Robin: I found the death of Professor X in Logan moving. Much of film built toward this moment, that life-long special but awkward relationship between Logan and X, so it had impact. And it certainly helped that Patrick Stewart is such a fine actor as a grumpy but vulnerable old man.
Robin: Also when the girl in The Big Sick, having recovered from her coma, goes to a small bar where her ex-boyfriend and small-time stand-up comedian is performing, and she starts o ‘heckle’ him from the audience; well that is just so sweet and heart-warming. Perhaps, because it is based on a true story it has extra poignancy.
Robin: In A Ghost Story when the ghost asks the (secondary) ghost in the house across the street what she is doing, and she says she is waiting for someone. He asks, ‘who?’; and she responds, ‘I can’t remember’, and then her shoulders slump and her head bows down. Oh, it’s so sad. But it has the audience pondering… what or who is it they are waiting for? And just how long have they been waiting? Do they think their loved ones – now probably long dead – are going to return to them? It pulls the audience in more and more. What is this film about? But you go with the ghost, and you see what he sees and wait and keep waiting… because you just have to know. That’s a clever film.
Robin: But the most powerful scene for me (and favourite) , is the scene near the end of Mother!, where Mother says to Him that she has given everything and she has nothing else left to give but her heart; and He puts his hands threw her chest and takes out her beating heart. A hair-standing moment.
JJ: Yes, this is a very poignant and iconic moment…pivotal to the film. As much as Mother! was a brilliant film as a whole, I have to say that there was nothing in that last 30 minutes or so that I specifically liked about it. It was all meant to repulse the audience and I can unequivocally say that I was definitely repulsed over and over.
JJ: Another moment that resonated with me was from the film Three Summers, which I seen very recently. It is written and directed by Ben Elton, who is an Australian-based resident for several years now, and is a very twee, light-hearted romantic comedy set around a folk music festival in modern-day Western Australia. You could take or leave the film but thanks to Elton’s informed and sometimes biting commentary on political and social affairs there are many illusions to the bullshit status quo in Australia on immigration, refugee treatment and the lack of respect for Aboriginal culture. There is a moment when a band of Afghan refugees are allowed to play a set of traditional music to the festival revellers, and the lead musician follows it up with a heartfelt statement about their horrendous plight in getting to Australia. It is emotionally charged in the highest manner and even more so because his statement is based in fact for so many others. It is impossible not to be moved by this scene but then again, people, particularly those in power, are more inclined to turn away and not listen.
Worst Films of the year
Robin: Not the worst film by any measure, but a definite disappointment was Alien Covenant. Good special affects but little else going for it. I wanted to like it, and the main alien was good but under used, and the story was absurd.
JJ: It was worse than absurd. It was a full-on attack of our intelligence. Utter waste of time and money (not just my own, but all the people who worked on it too). The whole pitch was just: introduce a crew, introduce an alien, have the alien kill all the crew one by one, but leave a few tidbits for another possible sequel to work with. I mean, this was meant to be high-budget, high-quality stuff. There is nothing fresh about it and the acting was awful – Billy Crudup, just go away…and Danny McBride, are you serious?!! The whole catching up of a backstory to Alien and Aliens is starting to feel tedious and beyond repair. Scott and co has comprehensively fucked this one up and should just leave it alone. End rant.
Robin: And I really wanted to like The Trip to Spain, and I kinda did, but… it just felt tired. I wasn’t at all beguiled by The Beguiled. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a bit lost on me (though it had the gem of a good dark story), and Bridget Jones’s Baby and Hail Caesar! were both a bit dull. Admittedly, Hail Caesar! did have a reasonable (comically ridiculous) story for this comedy with a message, but they just didn’t quite pull it off. The much praised sci-fi film Arrival combined mystical wankiness with a trite script to produce a truly forgettable film. I only watched it to the end because I like Amy Adams. I mean, just how many sci-fi films are there where a spaceship hovers over a field somewhere in the USA and the ONE Scientist working studiously to interpret what the aliens are trying to communicate, and the aliens are good and wise but are misunderstood by the army who want to blow them up? Yes, blow them up and end the damn film!
JJ: Haha. I didn’t mind Arrival. It may have been a bit silly but it had a good atmosphere and as you say, Amy Adams was good. I thought the alien language thing was pretty cool actually – the linguistic approach may appear wanky but it’s different and kind of quirky. There’s always a narrow focus to these Hollywood ‘alien contact’ films but with Arrival, I never got that. There was a bit more thinking involved and it was beautiful to look at too.
JJ: So to be honest, I have not seen too many bad films this year….I usually avoid films that make me negative and angry. Alien Covenant, as discussed above, being an exception, but you know, you live in hope! Captain Fantastic (which was probably last year but anyway…) had some rave reviews on the indie track but have to say I was hugely disappointed. It pontificated too much and was actually quite boring. It felt like getting a lecture about eating a rasher sandwich from a hard-core vegan, while being extremely hungry and there is nothing else on the menu. The film is based around an American family who (implausibly it must be said) decides to eke out a self-sufficient existence in the wilderness but have to work their shit out and head back to civilisation when something goes awry. It is anti-capitalist, which is not the problem, but it is presented in a terribly cringe-inducing way, which is the problem.
JJ: Free Fire by Englishman Ben Wheatley was more of a disappointment rather than a bad film. It is definitely worth a watch but unfortunately it is evidence of a currently high-flying director (whose films Kill List, Down Terrace and Sightseers are must-watch dark comedy works of genius) losing his way (last year’s High-rise was also a bit of a letdown). It tries too hard to be Hollywood – it’s entirely shot in a warehouse in Boston in the 1970s (hence the Minder-style clothes), where an arms deal involving the IRA is about to go down. See, you would expect a ‘bottle’ film like this to survive on its dialogue and action alone so that would mean, you would have get this right to make the film work. Sadly, the dialogue becomes tedious quickly and the action is simply repetitive (shoot someone in the leg and have them say ‘owwwww’ one more time, I dare you!).
Best Films of the year
JJ: Ok, well I, Daniel Blake was the best film from 2016 that I seen in this year, and so far I would pick Mother! and Prevenge as being deserving of the highest praise from 2017 – Mother! for showing originality and an incredibly wide scope, and for creating an unpleasant gut punch, which humanity badly needs at the moment; Prevenge for also being original and current but it is smart and very funny in the most dark and wicked way (ala Ben Wheatley’s earlier films). I would also reserve some special praise for The Red Turtle, which I discussed in part 1.
Alan: Mother! is weird. I mean it’s good, it’s great, it is challenging and it is the only thing Jennifer Lawrence has been in that I liked. No wait…no I’m right. The ONLY thing. But the best of the year? Blade Runner 2049 was epic. EPIC, and it didn’t make its money back. What is wrong with the world? The guy’s next film is supposed to be Dune. I have this fear that there is a dick-in-a-suit somewhere who thinks that Blade Runner 2049’s poor turn at the box office is proof that intelligent and well-made sci-fi doesn’t work. At this very moment the dick-in-a-suit is saying, “We were going to make Dune like Lord of the Rings, a three-part epic which was faithful to the books, but now that Blade Runner failed, let’s just make a shitty little action movie about guys knife fighting in a desert, eh?” I suppose in a world so bleak that Blade Runner 2049 couldn’t make its money back something like Mother! could seem like a breath of fresh air.
Robin: I think I’d go with Mother! It was both startling and creative, and the message behind it is as sledge-hammer powerful as a film can get. It is an innovative shock-to-the-system film; so very refreshing for Hollywood. But I also really liked the low-budget film Maudie for its sensitive portrayal of the leading character and her seriously flawed partner. And, it just seemed to capture the remote wind-swept landscape so well. The documentary Hotel Coolgardie was a very engaging film, and I should also put a word in for the light comedy feel-good movie The Big Sick. It was just a fun and witty movie. Finally, Hunt for the Wilderpeople was sheer joy – or was that last year?
Alan: You guys all make great points but in Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron beats a guy to the ground with a fire hose and then stabs another guy in the chest with a cork screw. Just sayin’…
JJ: And on that note, we wish everyone a happy new year!