Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton
Adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of Neil Armstrong, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is faced with two distinct challenges. Firstly, how to build suspense and tension when the audience already knows of the successful outcome of the Apollo mission, and secondly, how to make a contemporary audience appreciate just how audacious and inconceivable an undertaking that mission was back in 1969. By taking a more personal approach to this story, and reinventing the cinematic representation of space travel, it manages to achieve both to great effect. Continue reading
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
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
The classic movie musical, the kind the big studios churned out in the 1940s and 1950s, is largely a thing of the past. These days movie musicals tend to be layered in irony, knowingly winking at the audience in order to acknowledge the inherent silliness of the form. Movie musicals, like everything else, have become postmodern. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, however, harks back to that bygone era. It is striking in how traditional it is, and in how earnestly it embraces its romantic, nostalgic tone.
Like so many great musicals, at the heart of La La Land is a simple story of boy meets girl. The boy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented jazz pianist who makes a living playing Christmas carols and harmless ditties in restaurants while lamenting the disappearance of the great American art form and dreaming of the day when he can open his own jazz club. The girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring young actress who has moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of her dreams and now works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. Continue reading
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson has for two decades now been the most distinctive cinematic voice in America, and this 1930s-style caper film is the most complete realisation yet of his aesthetic. Anderson first-timer Ralph Fiennes is not known for comedy, but he is tremendous here in leading an all-star cast. In a time when so many comedies are built around rambling improvisation it, there is something really striking about the meticulously crafted nature of The Grand Budapest Hotel. With a Russian Doll structure, the film is beautifully designed and precisely shot. A real treasure.
2. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Irish director John Michael McDonagh managed to one-up his brilliant debut feature, The Guard, with this poignant, powerful and yet still very funny film about a rural Irish priest who receives a death threat in the confessional. What starts as a black comedy transitions into a quite profound modern passion play, with Brendan Gleeson delivering what is for mine the year’s best performance as Father James Lavelle, a good man who must bear the sins of the institution that he represents, an institutation that has failed both the wider community and himself.
3. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Where so often movies about music focus on passion, soul, creativity and love for the art, Damien Chazelle’s debut feature chooses to explore the determination, single-minded obsession and dangerous perfectionism that goes into the pursuit of greatness. This emotionally and psychologically brutal film features a powerful and controversial depiction of the student mentor relationship as a determined young drummer is brought to the brink by a borderline psychotic conductor. JK Simmons is surely a short price favourite to walk away with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar early next year.
4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
There has never been a film quite like Boyhood. Writer-director Richard Linklater shot the film over a twelve year period, following the same boy (Ellar Coltrane) as he grew from a six year old into a young adult. Incredibly ambitious and effectively executed, the film manages to not only explore the evolving family dynamic as this family grows up together, but also to navigate the cultural and political changes the world experienced over the twelve years of production. Managing to be at the same time epic in scope and incredibly intimate, Boyhood is a truly unique cinematic experience.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
How hot are Marvel Studios right now? In what looked like a questionable step following the success of The Avengers, they announced they would be bringing a minor comic book about a motley crew of space adventurers that includes, among others, a talking raccoon and a walking tree, and they have turned it into the most exciting, fun and fresh blockbuster in decades. Rather than repeating the formula of The Avengers, James Gunn has gave Guardians of the Galaxy a completely different style and tone. This 1980s style sci-fi adventure is Marvel’s funniest film and has made a legitimate movie star out of Christ Pratt.
While it lacked the mainstream potential of True Grit and No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis saw the Coen brothers in top form. This character study of a neurotic, arrogant but undeniably talented folk musician offered significant insight into the mind of an artist while poking gentle fun at the earnestness of the Greenwich Village folk music scene. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is stunning, with its muted colour palate of greys, greens and browns making the film feel almost black-and-white. The soundtrack, arranged by T-Bone Burnett is outstanding.
7. Locke (Steven Knight)
One man in a car making phone calls. Who’d have thought that could be the basis of the year’s best thriller? Steven Knight’s variation on the one-man play breaks with formula and bravely rethinks how to tell a story on screen. Carried by a compelling performance from Tom Hardy – one of the few actors in the world who can carry a film on their own for ninety minutes – this minimalist piece of filmmaking reimagines the very nature of what is cinematic.
8) Chef (John Favreau)
Jon Favreau got back to his indie roots in 2014 with his passion project Chef, the food porn film of the year. With its simple story, Chef is a completely endearing celebration of food, cooking, creativity, passion and family, with many critics seeing more than a hint of autobiography in chef Casper’s quest to rediscover his creative spark. Vibrant and alive with the Cuban inspired flavours of the food and the music, Chef is a joyous film and not to be seen on an empty stomach.
9) What We Do in the Shadows (Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi)
With What We Do in the Shadows Kiwi duo Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement take a subject matter, vampires, with which popular culture is teetering on the edge of overload, and a form, the mockumentary, that is every bit as tired and combine them to create a vibrant, original and downright funny movie. Juxtaposing the extraordinary with the mundane, the film follows a trio of vampire flatmates living in Wellington. The New Zealand sense of humour brings a slightly different sensibility to the film than we’d get from an American or British equivalent.
This year saw two films in which Scarlett Johansson got a bit cerebral. While Lucy was among the year’s worst films, Under the Skin was among its best. This odd film sees Johansson driving around Glasgow and the Scottish highlands, picking up men and then… well it’s best not to give away too much. A most peculiar and entrancing film, when you get to the end of Under the Skin you won’t quite know what you’ve seen but you’ll know you’ve seen something.
The Next Best (alphabetical): The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves), Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee), The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
I, Frankenstein (Stuart Beattie)
200 years after being brought to life, Frankenstein’s monster finds himself in the middle of an ongoing war between demons and gargoyles for… You know what? It’s not worth going on. This diabolical film which recasts Frankenstein’s monster as an action hero is utter nonsense and would have Mary Shelley rolling in her grave.
by Duncan McLean
What were your best and worst films of the year? Post in the comments section and let us know.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
All too often movies about music and musicians restrict their focus to the importance of finding and retaining ones passion, soul, creativity, and love for the art. Rarely do films attempt to explore the other side of the equation. With Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle draws on his own experiences as a driven high school jazz drummer to examine the determination, perfectionism, obsession and back-breaking hard work that that is required to be the very best.
Nineteen-year-old Andrew Neyman is a jazz drummer in his first year at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. Neyman is good. He is very good. But he wants to be great. After a chance evening encounter with Terence Fletcher, the infamous conductor of the conservatory’s award winning studio band, Neyman finds himself shockingly transferred into the band as the alternate drummer. Fletcher is more drill sergeant than music teacher but he is the best there is and the students know it. But is the combination of Fletcher’s psychological brinksmanship and Neyman’s determination to be the best leading the young drummer towards greatness or madness?
At what point does drive become obsession? When does determination go from being an admirable quality to being a repugnant one? At what point does the quest for perfection become counter-productive? We watch Neyman try and fail, and try again. We see him drumming until his hands blister and bleed. But rather than cheer him on, we become conflicted by his drive. His single-mindedness makes him selfish. His need to accept nothing but the very best from himself makes him incapable of acknowledging more ordinary achievements and aspirations in other people. His progress as a musician seems to be to the detriment of his development as a person.
Whiplash has the potential to stir up some debate with its controversial depiction of the student-mentor relationship. Fletcher’s aim is to push his students beyond what is expected of them. In his mind it is only then that greatness can emerge. Comfort and contentment breed mediocrity. There are no two more harmful words, he says, than ‘good job.’ But at what point does motivation and pushing just become abuse? Fletcher’s favourite anecdote, one repeated numerous times in the film, concerns a teenage Charlie Parker. One night he was playing in a recording session and made a mistake in his solo, prompting the drummer to throw a cymbal at his head. He went home humiliated and cried himself to sleep, but woke up more determined than ever and only a year later was playing some of the best jazz the world had ever heard. For Fletcher, fear and humiliation are powerful motivating tools. They provide the heat and the pressure with which a diamond can be forged.
At the centre of this film are two powerful, award-worthy lead performances, one from a young actor on the rise the other from a long-time character actor finally given the role of his career. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons deliver complex characters that are equal parts repellent and engrossing. The character of Fletcher in particular, is very carefully realised by Simmons and Chazelle. Early in the film we find his bluntness and barbs humorous, and in lesser hands he could become an over-the-top caricature. But as the film progresses these situations lose their humour. His aggression becomes frightening and we start to feel the cruelty of his words. Yet even then we understand where he is coming from.
As much as the clashing egos of Neyman and Fletcher seem destined to destroy each other, they are one and the same, entirely co-dependent. Fletcher’s methods don’t work unless a student is headstrong enough to persevere through them. Neyman can’t continue to improve unless he has someone who can push him beyond what he thinks he’s capable of. So dedicated are they both, so high are their standards, that eventually they have only each other.
Chazelle and his director of photography Sharone Meir shoot bands and musicians brilliantly. The director wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie and he really has achieved that. The rehearsals feel like battles. The performances play like action set pieces, edited for maximum intensity. You don’t have to know jazz in order to appreciate this explosive film because ultimately the movie is not about jazz. It is not even about music. Whiplash is an emotionally and psychologically brutal film about the dangers of perfectionism and single-minded obsession.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Whiplash? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.