While the uncertainty of the pandemic continued to impact box office, with all but the biggest of franchise properties struggling to draw the numbers that they might have expected in a pre-Covid world, 2021 was none the less somewhat of a bounce back year for the movies. We saw the release of a number of the higher profile properties that had been held back from last year, the festival circuit offered up some interesting works, the big streamers continued to make their mark as an avenue for smaller dramas, comedies and genre pieces that find it increasingly difficult to find space in the multiplex, and the late year box office performances of No Time to Die and, in particular, Spider-Man: No Way Home suggested that perhaps it wasn’t all doom and gloom for theatrical distribution.
On a personal front, while writing reviews was put on the back burner relatively early in the year, I continued to watch stuff and ended up seeing 57 2021 releases (plus a whole heap of older films). Here are my picks of the bunch…Continue reading
As it was for many, 2020 was a disaster for cinemas. Doors were closed for much of the year and even when they opened, the major studios’ reluctance to release their big properties into a compromised theatrical market left them light on product. Depsite this, it has actually been a pretty good year for movies. The space created by the near total absence of mega-blockbusters allowed those small and mid-level films which had found a home on streaming services to enjoy more of the spotlight than they might have initially expected.
While the demands of reworking curriculum on the fly for online delivery meant that I didn’t get to write as many reviews this year as I might have liked, I still got to see plenty of films. Here are my top ten for 2020…
10. The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for her adaptation of Thomas P Cullinan’s novel, taking his tale of a man entering a world of women and bringing a distinctively female perspective, making for a different movie to Don Siegel’s 1971 version. A story about an injured Union soldier who takes shelter among the women of a small Virginian seminary during the Civil War, The Beguiled is part melodrama and part psychosexual thriller with just a dash of black comedy. An entrancing film, its tone is constantly shifting as we wonder who is manipulating who and watch a paradise become a prison. Full review.
9. Spider-Man: Homecoming (John Watts)
The superhero movie continues to be the blockbuster form of the moment and 2017 offered up three good ones: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Logan and Wonder Woman. Logan was the most audacious, Wonder Woman was the most important, but for mine Spider-Man: Homecoming was the best blockbuster of the year. Part superhero movie, part John Hughes high school drama, it is energetic, funny and exuberant, and unlike Thor: Ragnarok (which I was not as high on as many others), did not sacrifice genuine emotion to get its laughs. It even has a good villain, long the achilles heel of the Marvel movies. After finally striking a deal with Sony Pictures, Marvel Studios didn’t waste the opportunity once they got their hands back on their number one commodity. Full review.
8. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
Edgar Wright’s stylistically ambitious action/heist/music video Baby Driver is the coolest film of 2017. More than just a film with a killer soundtrack, Wright used the music as a key structural element of his movie. Allowing songs to play out in their entirety, he choreographed the action to the soundtrack. While such meticulous planning could have made the film feel mechanical, it doesn’t. Rather the whole thing feels like a dance. While somewhat lacking at a human, character level, it is an exhilarating film experience. In light of recent revelations, though, it will be interesting to see if the presence of Kevin Spacey in the cast has any impact on Baby Driver’s replay value. Full review.
7. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture was an intimate, nuanced coming-of-age film which marked a massive step forward for the presence of LGBTQI cinema in the mainstream. A complex exploration of African-American masculinity and adolescent homosexuality, Moonlight tells the story of its lead character at three specific points in his young life, using a different actor to portray each stage with each actor bringing something distinct to their manifestation of the character. With a visual beauty that is not common for social realist drama and some very strong performances (most notably Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning turn as drug dealer and mentor Juan), Barry Jenkins has taken a queer, black story, which you would assume to be niche, and made it universal. Full review.
6. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
This is probably my most controversial selection because a lot of people hated this film, and I mean properly hated it. However, I don’t think I thought about a film this year as much as I thought about mother!. Darren Aronofsky’s allegory for the relationship between humanity, nature and the creator is a challenging and confronting piece of art that is intended to elicit a strong reaction. The very definition of a film that is ‘not for everyone,’ mother! will frustrate and disgust you, making you equal parts uncomfortable and angry. But whether you love it or hate it, you will think about it and you will want to talk about it. Full review.
5. The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
First-time screenwriters and married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon drew on the true story of their own unconventional courtship to create the year’s best romantic comedy. Nanjiani, a stand-up comedian best known for his role in Silicon Valley, plays himself, reliving the experience of his new girlfriend (with Zoe Kazan portaying Gordon) being placed in an induced coma while his traditional Pakistani family were unaware he was seeing a white girl. With its unique scenario and examination of the migrant experience, The Big Sick takes a genre that is often derided for being a bit formulaic and makes it insightful and personal while still being incredibly entertaining. There are also some very good supporting performances from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents. Full review.
4. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
While films like The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street have seen Martin Scorsese enjoying the most commercially successful period of his celebrated career, Silence is his most unashamedly uncommercial film in decades. Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo about Jesuit missionaries in imperial Japan (which Scorsese first read back in 1989), it is a long, slow and challenging meditation on questions of faith and doubt. Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing has always been one of the primary influences on his filmmaking, and Silence is a good companion piece to his earlier wrestles with faith in The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Thanks to Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design, it is also one of the most beautiful looking films of the year. Full review.
3. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
While thanks to Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty and the team from Price Waterhouse Coopers La La Land is destined to be immortalised in trivia competitions as the only film to be incorrectly awarded Best Picture as the Oscars, that should not detract from how wonderful a film it is in its own right. After its haul of 14 Oscar nominations it is easy to forget how risky a proposition this film was. There hadn’t been an original musical of any significance come out of Hollywood since Newsies in 1992. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling may not be the world’s most polished singers and dancers but they share great onscreen chemistry, and with Damien Chazelle’s flair for directing with music and Justin Hurwitz’s fantastic score, La La Land was a joyous piece of uplifting, escapist entertainment. Full review.
2. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Get Out was the film which came out of nowhere to become the cinematic talking point of early 2017 and remains the best reviewed film of the year. On the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Get Out borrows that central premise – a white girl bringing her black boyfriend home to meet her unknowing family – but takes it in an entirely different, and far creepier, direction. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, best known as one half of the sketch comedy duo Key & Peele, Get Out functions simultaneously as a top-shelf piece of horror cinema and a sharp, zeitgeisty piece of social commentary. Full review.
1. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
A surprise pick for number one as I doubt it is featuring on many such lists, but I saw this documentary at the Sydney Film Festival this year and it blew me away. I Am Not Your Negro brings to life author, intellectual and activist James Baldwin’s unrealised book ‘Remember this House,’ a personal account of his experience of the murders of his three friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Using archival footage of Baldwin, plus excerpts from the treatment for the unpublished work unrecognisably performed by Samuel L. Jackson, Raoul Peck tells the whole story in Baldwin’s distinctive voice. A great thinker, Baldwin was speaking hard truths in the 1960s which remain hard truths today. If you can find it, see it. Full review.
The Next Best (alphabetical): Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve), Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan), Happy End (Michael Haneke), Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi), Logan (James Mangold), Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson), The Teacher (Jan Hrebejk), War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves), Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
Rough Night (Lucia Aniello)
Oh, how I wanted this to be good. We are in somewhat of a golden period of screen comediennes, and while dude-bros might kick up a stink about which is the appropriate gender for busting ghosts, there have been some really good female driven comedies in recent years. But Rough Night set its gender-flipping sights on a sub-genre – the massive party/night out that goes horribly wrong – which largely produces terrible films so, true to form, it is too. It even caused a small controversy, outraging the sex industry for its characters’ flippant reaction to the death of a stripper. As fate would have it, the similarly themed Girls Trip came out shortly after and received much better reviews.
By Duncan McLean
10. Weiner (Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
Weiner is not the documentary that directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg intended to make and is so much better for it. When disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner’s run for Mayor of New York was derailed by another sexting scandal, what was meant to be a behind the scenes look at a political comeback turned into front row seats to a political campaign in full-blown crisis mode. With incredible access to throughout the downfall, this engrossing film is equal parts train wreck and tragedy as we see the impact this scandal has on the candidate, his family and his team. Full review
9. Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush)
Disney’s Zootopia works on multiple levels. It is a mystery, an odd-couple buddy movie and a powerful fable about discrimination, stereotyping and, in the face of these, empowerment, all packaged up in a bright and fun family animation. The story of a rural police bunny who moves to the big city for her first assignment is also another step in the evolution of Disney’s post-princess positive messaging to young girls. Fresh and smart, with vibrant production design and excellent voice casting, Zootopia is further evidence that Disney Animation Studios is in the midst of another purple patch. Full review
8. The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s incredible “true” survival story of frontiersman Hugh Glass was an endurance test for its protagonist, for its cast and crew and, in the best possible way, for its audience. The Revenant is a brutal, bleak and gruelling movie. While Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance earned him his long awaited Oscar, the real star of the show here is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose amazing images, shot entirely with natural light, make the North American landscape simultaneously breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying. It is an agoraphobic film that makes you feel trapped by sheer space. A really ambitious piece of filmmaking. Full review
7. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is a gripping drama about how a woman who has been locked in a room for seven years creates a life there for her young son, and then how the two of them adapt to the outside world upon their escape. A film of two distinct but equally effective halves, Room is built on two brilliant performances: Brie Larson’s Oscar winning turn as Ma, and newcomer Jacob Tremblay as her son in one of the most nuanced child performances you will ever see. Seen through the eyes of the young boy, this is an impactful and life affirming story about the lengths a mother will go to for her child. Full review
6. The Big Short (Adam McKay)
Comedy director Adam McKay shifted gears to examine the housing crisis with this tragicomedy brimming with righteous anger. Following a small group of economists who see the writing on the wall and, when no one will heed their warning, decide to bet against the housing market, The Big Short is a David and Goliath story with a difference because they only win if everyone loses. While the complicated economic concepts on which the story hinge could alienate viewers, McKay finds a fun way to get around this, using fourth-wall breaking celebrity cameos to explain just enough for the viewer to get by. Full review
5. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
You check into a hotel as a single person. You have forty-five days to find a compatible partner. If you are successful the two of you return to society together. If you are unsuccessful you are transformed into an animal. The Lobster is Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’s first film in English and this surreal fable is undoubtedly the most original film of 2016. Darkly comedic but genuinely funny, The Lobster is both an unconventional love story and an absurdist reflection on romance, courtship and our society’s obsession with coupling. Colin Farrell leads a strong cast, all delivering wonderfully deadpan performances. Full review
4. Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)
The year’s highest grossing movie also turned out to be the year’s best blockbuster. While a number of high profile superhero films stumbled, Captain America: Civil War was the fullest realisation of the narrative potential of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Drawing together established characters with some fun new additions, Civil War sees our heroes turning against each other in an ideological conflict about the appropriateness of the Avengers’ unilateral power. Directors the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to balance spectacle with smarts, offering a sophisticated thematic exploration while retaining the fun, lightness of touch which has typified Marvel’s films. Full review
3. Sing Street (John Carney)
For mine, Sing Street is this year’s most criminally underseen film. Irish writer-director John Carney’s latest musical is a continuation of his favourite theme, that music has the power to lift people up and bring people together. A fifteen year old boy living in Dublin, in a moment of improvisation, asks a girl to star in a music video for his band. So now he has to form a band. Set in 1985, Sing Street has the added element of nostalgia with its soundtrack featuring a blend of classics from Duran Duran, Hall and Oates and The Cure, and originals by Carney and Gary Clark which fit seamlessly into the era. Full review
2. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve)
Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve continued his dramatic rise (next stop Blade Runner 2049) with this brilliant piece of science fiction. A first contact story that is more Close Encounters than Independence Day, Arrival focuses on the process of communication. How would we communicate with visiting extra-terrestrials and how would we make sure that we were understanding each other? Arrival achieves the difficult feat of being a really intelligent and thought provoking piece of science fiction that still manages to have some emotional resonance and human warmth. It is also easily my favourite film ever made about linguistics. Full review
1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
The little film that could. Hunt for the Wilderpeople earned rave reviews all over the world. Following on from the success of his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi took a beloved New Zealand book, Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress, and recreated it in his own image. The result is the most heartwarming and best film of 2016. The tale of a young Maori boy and his grizzly foster father on the run from the authorities in the New Zealand wilderness, Waititi’s film is a rollicking adventure with real human intimacy. Outstanding chemistry between the veteran Sam Neill and relative newcomer Julian Dennison as the mismatched protagonists. Full review
The Next Best (alphabetical): 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg), Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin), Anomalisa (Charlie Kauffman, Duke Johnson), Carol (Todd Haynes), Ghostbusters (Paul Feig), Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson), The Hateful 8 (Quentin Tarantino), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
There was some competition for this one from large scale, misfiring blockbusters like Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, but in the end I couldn’t go past this debacle. A mess of cliches and worn out scenarios with nothing new to say, How to Be Single follows four parallel tales of women dealing with love, romance and single life in New York in which the amount of screen time given to each is inversely proportionate to how interesting they are.
Earlier this year the Coen brothers released Hail, Caesar!, their ode to the romance of the classical Hollywood era. That film became part of a rich tradition of movies about the movies. From Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood to Michel Hazanavicius’ Best Picture winner The Artist, the cinema is one of the cinema’s favourite subjects. Some focus on the process of making a film, some simply immerse themselves in the world of the industry. Some tell true stories, some thinly veiled allusions, some straight up fantasy. But all of them reveal something, in their own way, about this industry, art form and cultural pastime that we love. Here are six of the best movies about the movies… Continue reading
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Thirty years on and Max is still king of the road. It is not often that you see an action movie at the pointy end of lists like this, but in 2015, at the ripe old age of seventy, George Miller took the world’s directors to school. Mad Max: Fury Road showed that a singular creative vision can elevate the action film to the level of art. Miller effectively tapped back into that part of his imagination where Max resides and delivered a visually stunning, kinetic action masterpiece. Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes but Charlize Theron is the real star. Full review
2. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
It is exciting to see something you have never seen before, an entirely original cinematic vision. There is no other way to describe Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. While much was made of its visual style, with the whole film appearing to be one continuous shot, Birdman is so much more than a single shot gimmick. Birdman has complete unity of form and vision. Every cinematic element, without fail, is consistent with Iñárritu’s vision and the thematic concerns of the film. The casting of Michael Keaton and subsequent critical acclaim for his performance also made for one of the stories of late 2014/early 2015. Full review
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a special little movie, an indie which won over audiences on the festival circuit before getting a theatrical release. It is a coming-of-age story about an insecure high school senior, and aspiring filmmaker, whose mother insists that he befriend a girl from school who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Genuinely funny without ever undermining the seriousness of its subject matter, touching and poignant without being schmaltzy or overly sentimental, the film is a beautifully affecting piece of cinema brimming with youthful creativity. Full review
4. Ex-Machina (Alex Garland)
The directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is great small science fiction. A young programmer is invited by his enigmatic boss to put a humanoid robot he has created through a Turing test, a series of interviews intended to determine whether she has achieved artificial intelligence. With only three real characters, Ex Machina is an impressively performed chamber piece which draws its drama out of conversations and dialogue. Shot on a modest budget, that money has clearly been spent in the right places because the visuals are outstanding, with the robot, Ava, being one of the year’s best CG achievements. Full review
5. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
After a pretty underwhelming last decade, Ridley Scott returned to form with The Martian. Following the fight to survive of a botanist left stranded on Mars, it is a different type of science fiction film, one that turns on the solving of problems and seeks to excite us more with its intellect and ideas than with explosions. Carried by the charismatic performance of Matt Damon, The Martian is enjoyable, irreverent and absorbing, a much lighter film than you might expect after reading the one line synopsis. It also features a great disco soundtrack. Full review
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
In the hands of a director, J.J. Abrams, who grew up with Star Wars and understood what the fans loved about it, The Force Awakens managed to recapture the look, feel and fun of the original trilogy. A transitionary film, it allowed us to catch up with beloved old characters while also introducing a collection of engaging new ones who will carry the franchise forward. Faced with almost impossible levels of expectation, to have people walking out of The Force Awakens not underwhelmed would have been a victory. That audiences have come out of not just satisfied but genuinely excited is a testament to how good it is. Full review
7. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Sometimes a film gives you something you didn’t even know that you wanted. There were very few people openly hoping for a seventh Rocky movie, but writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Creed, functioning at the same time as a sequel and a remake, was the pleasant surprise of the year. The first Rocky film not written by Stallone, Creed offers a fresh take on the material, knowing when to lean into the cliché and when to turn it on its head. While Rocky himself is only a supporting character in this story, Sylvester Stallone delivers a career best performance. Full review
8. Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen)
Taking us inside the mind of an eleven year old girl with a cast of characters made up of anthropomorphised emotions, Inside Out arguably represents the zenith of Pixar’s bold originality. Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen employ sophisticated visual metaphors to simply and effectively explain how memory, personality, subconscious and dreaming all work. Deceptively simple yet deeply profound, Inside Out is a beautiful film about growing up, farewelling the simplicity of childhood and learning to appreciate the full gamut of emotions that bring depth and texture to life. Full review
9. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Finally The Big Lebowski has a friend in the ‘stoner noir’ subgenre. Inherent Vice is the most flat out enjoyable of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (a filmmaker whose work in the past I have tended to appreciate rather than enjoy). Set in early 1970s California and featuring some magnificent costumes, Inherent Vice is an aggressively, unapologetically confusing mystery which will require a second or third viewing to comprehend the ins and outs of its multiple narratives. But if you can embrace the confusion and go with the flow, it will only take one viewing to enjoy this humorous head-scratcher. Full review
10. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
Not the most high profile doco of the year, but it was the pick of them for mine. During his life Marlon Brando made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself: memos, memories and recollections, self-hypnosis tapes. Listen to Me Marlon uses these recordings to narrate a biographical documentary on the legendary actor. The result is practically a posthumous autobiography, an intimate exploration of a brilliant but tortured soul. Amusing, intriguing, sometimes funny and often quite sad, it is a unique documentary befitting a unique talent. Full review
The Next Best (alphabetical): ’71 (Yann Demange), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor), Selma (Ava DuVernay), Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
The Interview (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)
If there was one winner out of the Sony hacking scandal it was this horrible film. Cyber terrorists demanding that Sony not release this comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un was a sure fire way of turning a film that would otherwise have shuffled quietly into obscurity into one of the must-sees of early 2015. Attention grabbing concept aside, The Interview did not warrant this spotlight.
Recently Warner Brothers and Guy Ritchie made the somewhat peculiar decision to adapt the 1960s television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to the big screen (read my review here). While Ritchie’s film wasn’t exactly a triumph, there have been a number of TV remakes which have been really good. Of course, there are also plenty which have been terrible (The Flintstones, The Smurfs, Lost in Space), but we are going to try and keep it positive here and look at six of the best TV remakes. To clarify, this is a list of the best TV remakes not just movies that have come from television shows. So I have chosen not to consider movies which feature the same cast as the television series which has disqualified films like The Naked Gun, all of the Muppets movies, Serenity, and films which originated as Saturday Night Live sketches like The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World. So let’s jump in… Continue reading
The Academy has presented us with quite an interesting eight film field for Best Picture this year. While half of the nominees are biopics – traditional Best Picture fare – we also have some rather audacious and distinctly non-traditional contenders. There is even a comedy in there! We also don’t have a cut and dry favourite, with different films having seemingly risen and faded over the last few weeks. What follows is a breakdown of the eight contenders chances and the arguments for and against for each. Continue reading