Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey
As Jennifer Lawrence has transitioned from just being an actress to being a fully fledged superstar her public persona, the irreverent, funny goofball, has come to the fore. Red Sparrow, in which she is reunited with director Francis Lawrence who helmed the final three films of the Hunger Games series, gives her the opportunity to return to those qualities which first grabbed the world’s attention in Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook: strength, defiance, determination.
“Every human being is a puzzle of need. Learn how to be the missing piece and they will give you anything.” This is the mantra of the Sparrows, a special program within the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, focused on psychological manipulation. 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: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson
After watching Darren Aronofsky’s mother! you are left with a question: ‘Was that a good film?’ But answering that question requires you to first consider a bigger question: ‘What makes a good film?’ Ever the provocateur, Aronofsky has crafted a film that will frustrate and disgust you, making you equal parts uncomfortable and angry. But if, in order to make their point, it was the filmmaker’s intention to draw these negative reactions from the audience, does successfully doing so make it a good film? mother! is the very epitome of ‘not for everyone,’ and the way you answer that last question goes a long way to determining whether this polarising film is for you or not.
An unnamed married couple live alone in a large house in the middle of a circular meadow in the woods. He (Javier Bardem) is a highly regarded poet who has been struggling to write anything for some time. She (Jennifer Lawrence) has been working to painstakingly restore the grand old house, his old family home which had been destroyed in a fire. Continue reading
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Jon Spaiht’s screenplay Passengers, a science fiction romance about two people alone on a long space journey, had been around the traps for a decade having appeared on the Black List (an industry survey of the top unproduced screenplays) way back in 2007. But once they added two of the hottest stars on the planet in Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and an Oscar nominated director in Morten Tyldum, coming off his success with The Imitation Game, it wasn’t going to stay unproduced for much longer.
The Starship Avalon is 30 years into its 120 year journey transporting 5,000 hibernating migrants to the colony world of Homestead II when a technical glitch causes passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) to wake way too early. With all the other passengers and crew asleep, and no way of putting himself back into hibernation, Jim is faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life on this intergalactic cruise ship with only Arthur the android bartender (Michael Sheen) as company. Continue reading
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez, Dianne Ladd, Elisabeth Röhm, Bradley Cooper
As stated in its opening titles, Joy, is “based on true stories of daring women.” It explores the way a tenacious woman manages to survive and eventually thrive in a world determined to put her in her place. This semi-fictionalised account of the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop makes a point of never actually using the phrase “Miracle Mop,” or even the stating the surname Mangano. Rather than presenting a traditional biopic, director David O. Russell has opted for a comically exaggerated fable celebrating the American Dream and tenacious, can-do spirit.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) was a creative young girl from whom a lot was expected but for whom things haven’t quite panned out. Seventeen years after being named high school valedictorian she is stuck in a hole, providing for her chaotic family Continue reading
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Natalie Dormer, Elden Henson, Mahershala Ali, Willow Shields
An important chapter in the career of one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars comes to a close as Jennifer Lawrence picks up the bow and arrows for the last time in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, the final adaptation from Suzanne Collins wildly popular young adult series.
With Panem’s districts united in revolution under President Coin (Julianne Moore’s), the fight to overthrow President Snow (Donald Sutherland) moves to the Capitol. Snow has put the game makers to work setting booby traps throughout the streets with the aim of making sport of the rebels deaths to galvanise the citizens of the Capitol. Feeling that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has largely served her purpose as mascot of the revolution, Coin encourages her to take a back seat. But Katniss is determined to join the fight, motivated by revenge for the torture and brainwashing of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). She, along with some other former games victors and recognisable faces – Finnick (Sam Claflin), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Cressida (Natalie Dormer) – is put into an all-star non-combat unit whose job is to hang a couple of miles behind the frontline, exploring abandoned streets of the Capitol in (relative) safety and shooting propaganda videos. Continue reading
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Stanley Tucci
After two films which have netted a combined $1.56 billion at the international box office, Lionsgate’s Hunger Games franchise has followed the lead of the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hobbit franchises, in becoming the latest to break a single book into multiple movies for seemingly no other reason than to inflate profits. And so we have The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I, aka ‘The Hunger Games Part 3A.’
Mockingjay – Part I picks up where Catching Fire left off, with Katniss having been rescued from the arena by a band of rebels who have been hiding away in District 13. Katniss’ act of defiance which ended the Quarter Quell has inspired the people of Panem’s districts, and the rebels are now attempting to harness this groundswell of action and unify the districts against the Capitol. To help them achieve this, they need Katniss to serve as their standard bearer, their Mockingjay, but Katniss is more concerned with the fate of those victors who were not rescued and now find themselves prisoners of the Capitol; Johanna, Annie, and most importantly, Peeta, who the Capitol are using as their PR weapon. After failed attempts to film staged propaganda ads, the rebel leaders realise that it is Katniss’ authenticity which people most respond to, and as such she needs to get out in the field and experience firsthand the destruction the Capitol has wreaked.
Mockingjay – Part I is a very different film to the first two in the series; The Hunger Games and its superior sequel Catching Fire. For starters, this time around there is no games to serve as the centrepiece for the film, and this really changes the dynamic of the movie. Mockingjay – Part I is a darker film, both thematically and visually. Director Francis Lawrence chooses to tell the story almost entirely from the point of view of the rebels. We are rarely privy to what is going on in the Capitol. That means that we as an audience are working off the same assumptions the rebel characters are. But as it was the scenes in the Capitol and arena which gave the first two films much of their visual flair, it means that Mockingjay – Part I lacks the colour and vibrancy of its prequels. Instead, we spend the majority of the film in the subterranean bunker of the rebellion, making for a less expansive, more claustrophobic film.
Mockingjay – Part I is a war movie but not a combat film. Instead, its focus is on the behind the scenes mechanisms that are at play in war. The film explores the significant role of propaganda and messages, of symbols and songs, in unifying people in times of conflict. This is quite a topical area of exploration. As we watch the rebels and the Capitol engage in a back-and-forth through public addresses and viral video releases one can’t help but think about the parallels to the media wars between the West and Al-Qaida and now ISIS.
As their Mockingjay, their unifying symbol and standard bearer, Katniss is the revolution’s primary weapon. Peeta is the Capitol’s. His gaunt appearance leads us to assume that Peeta is being coerced and used by the Capitol to speak out against the rebellion. But is Katniss being just as used? From the start of the film we can see that she is tapped out, an emotional wreck after two rounds in the arena. But the rebellion needs her. How much, though, is this rebellion an extension of what Katniss represents and how much are the rebels simply co-opting her image and the people’s goodwill towards her to benefit their cause. The rebel leader President Coin is a cold and determined woman and we are only slightly more trusting of her than we are of President Snow. Our uncertainty of her is reinforced by her proclamations to the rebels, which are greeted with aggressive war chants in scenes that feel eerily reminiscent of Nazi rallies.
It is the performances from the deep, high quality cast that elevates the film, as it has done for the entire series. This starts with Jennifer Lawrence, who again does most of the heavy lifting. By then end of this series Lawrence’s Katniss will undoubtedly stand alongside Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor as one of the cinema’s greatest action heroines. While Mockingjay – Part I is less physically demanding of Lawrence– she only fires one arrow in the whole film – it is still her character’s emotional journey we are on. The Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle is again prominent; a love triangle that is saved from cliché by the fact that it is entirely unromantic. Katniss’ interest in both guys is much more about emotional support than it is romance or passion. Most of the previous characters return for this instalment – some with bigger roles, others with smaller roles – and it is the presence in these supporting roles of veteran, high quality actors like Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman (to whom the film is dedicated) that fleshes out this world and gives it weight.
The themes of rebellion against the machine that are central to Mockingjay – Part I feel slightly insincere when presented in such a formulaic major Hollywood blockbuster. The film lacks the rebellious spirit of its narrative. There is nothing the slightest bit subversive about the film, as evidenced by the cynical, money-grabbing decision to split Collins’ final novel into two instalments. Mockingjay – Part I suffers from all of the problems that are to be expected of a ‘Part I’ movie, a film which only tells the first half of a story. The film is light on narrative events and action. The games are gone and have not been replaced with an equivalently satisfying action source. The film is much more about character development than narrative action, and while it does succeed in building up some tension it obviously lacks any sort of resolution. You leave this film feeling like you’ve only watched the first half of a movie, though you’ve paid for a whole one.
Katniss continues to be a strong heroine, Collins narrative is as engaging as it has always been, and Mockingjay – Part I performs its function within the overall Hunger Games franchise by setting up the final film quite well. However, what seems to often get lost in Hollywood studio thinking when dealing with their money-spinning franchises is that each piece should, first and foremost, function effectively as a film in its own right. Mockingjay – Part I feels like the first half of a pretty good film. Ultimately, it will fall to Mockingjay – Part II to show that there was creative and not just economic justification for the decision to break the final instalment into two films rather than a single two-and-a-half to three hour movie.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.