Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin
One of the American cinema’s most revered auteurs, Martin Scorsese’s career has been marked by a series of long-gestating projects. The Last Temptation of Christ, Gangs of New York and Silence all sat with the filmmaker for many years before he was finally able to realise them. Likewise, his latest film, The Irishman, spent twelve years on his to-do list. The result of that time, though, is a film which, technologically and tonally, he likely could not have made a decade ago. Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, it tells the story of Frank Sheeran, a mafia hitman who claimed to have murdered the Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. The Irishman brings Scorsese back to the gangster genre with which he is intrinsically linked, but offers a different perspective. Where Mean Streets was a young man’s film, alive and overflowing with energy, The Irishman is an old man’s film, introspective and contemplative. 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: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issei Ogata, Liam Neeson
Martin Scorsese has, in the last decade or so, enjoyed the most commercially successful period of his career, with The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street all making an impact at the box office. In contrast, his newest film, Silence, is his most unashamedly uncommercial film in decades. This adaptation is, however, a project that the great director has been trying to realise since he first read Shusaku Endo’s novel in 1989. It is the textbook definition of a passion project, and the resulting film is a breathtaking and thought provoking crystalisation of some of the key themes that have persisted through Scorsese’s life and work.
Silence takes us into the world of the Kakure Kirishitan, the ‘hidden Christians,’ of Imperial Japan. In 1640, two young Jesuit priests from Portugal, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) head to Japan in search of their old mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They have heard rumours that he has apostatised, renounced his faith, and is living as a Japanese, rumours they simply cannot believe. Continue reading
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujarden
In recent years, with films like The Departed, Shutter Island and Hugo, Martin Scorsese has ventured into the world of narrative-driven filmmaking. However the films upon which his lofty reputation is based – films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino – were never so concerned with narrative. They were films that created a world and dropped us into it, introducing us to the people, the language and the rituals of that place and time. They had an almost anthropological feel to them. Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a return to this type of storytelling. It has that old-fashioned Scorsese flavour to it with one additional ingredient, humour.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a biting satire of a culture that values personal gratification above all else and gives little thought to the consequences. The film explores the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort. We meet Jordan on his first day working at L.F. Rothschild where he starts at the bottom of the ladder. On the very day that he gains his trading license, 19th October 1987, the stock market crashes and he finds himself out of a job. He starts to rebuild by selling “penny stocks,” hustling suckers who can’t afford it into buying worthless stocks at huge margins. Things really take off when he founds his own firm, the evocative but meaninglessly named Stratton Oakmont, and employs the same tactics with blue chip stocks to land much bigger fish. The film doesn’t require you to understand how their operation works, it doesn’t even try and explain it, just to know that it was all quite illegal. With Jordan and his team of hucksters making a lot of money very quickly it was only a matter of time before they caught the eye of the FBI.
Based on the confessional memoir of the real-life Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is told entirely from Jordan’s point of view. It is DiCaprio’s voiceover narration that guides us through the film and he regularly turns to the camera to directly address the viewer. It is in this subjectivity that the root of much of the film’s controversy lies. As in the past, when sections of the audience have accused Scorsese’s film of celebrating gangsters, The Wolf of Wall Street has been attacked for the way in which it indulges in the extravagant excess of these characters lives, an excess which is funded by illegal practices. Despite being a cautionary tale, it is not a didactic or judgemental one. With Belfort himself showing no genuine remorse or contrition for the effects of his actions, the subjectivity of the film likewise does not judge him or apologise for him. The victims of Jordan’s crimes are as invisible to us as they are to him. Instead, the character of Jordan Belfort, through telling his own story, tries to charm, schmooze and woo us as viewers into siding with him despite our understanding of the despicable selfishness of his lifestyle.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a confronting film in its examination of a completely amoral life of excess. Much has been said about the over the top sex, drugs and in particular language of this film – it was well documented that it had set a new record with 506 variations of the F-word – but arguably the more confronting aspect of the lifestyle on display is its misogyny. Whether The Wolf of Wall Street is a misogynistic film, a film about a misogynistic world, or a bit of both is open to discussion. Regardless, it is an intensely male film in which women, regardless of their relationship or role, are regarded primarily as commodities and sexual objects. There is only one female character, Joanna Lumley’s Aunt Emma, who has a level of authority equal to that of the male characters.
Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the finest actors going around at the moment, but this fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese has afforded him the opportunity to display his versatility. Much of his success in the past has come from playing tortured loners, but Jordan is the ultimate people person. He thrives on the energy of having people around him and being the centre of attention. So DiCaprio is called upon to play the extravert in a way we don’t regularly see. The bigger surprise though is the ease with which he handles the film’s comic material. DiCaprio has always radiated seriousness as an actor, but here he gets to have some fun. In doing so he shows a surprising talent for physical comedy, bordering on slapstick, which very few would have imagined was in his repertoire.
DiCaprio is ably supported by a strong cast. Jonah Hill continues to show he has serious acting chops, while his background in improvisational comedy adds to the spontaneity of some exhanges. The relatively unknown Australian Margot Robbie turns heads as Belfort’s trophy wife more than holds her own in a number of scenes with DiCaprio. Rob Reiner threatens to steal the movie at times as Belfort’s short-tempered father, and cameos from the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujarden and Jon Favreau add colour to intricately constructed world.
While The Wolf of Wall Street is undoubtedly Scorsese’s funniest movie, it is by no means a comedy. It is a drama with humour – there are plenty of laughs while Jordan is living the high life, but when things turn bad its gets serious. While it won’t be to everyone’s’ liking, it is arguably Scorsese’s best film in two decades.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Anthony Mackie, Nick Nolte
Warner Brothers is the spiritual home of the gangster picture. Back in the golden era of the 1930s and 1940s it was Warner Brothers who gave us the early classics of which helped established the genre, films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Fast-forward to the 1960s and it was Warner Brothers who gave us the film which redefined the genre, Bonnie and Clyde, and their association continued through Martin Scorsese. While he has worked with a number of different studios through his career, it is no coincidence that it is with Warner Brothers that he made Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Departed.
Warner Brothers’ latest offering in the genre, Gangster Squad, returns to the classic formula. Director Ruben Fleischer, best known for his comic work in films like Zombieland, takes us to post-war Los Angeles, a city that has lost its innocence inhabited by men who, having returned from the battlefield, can’t stop fighting. Los Angeles is under the thumb of Mickey Cohen, and Sgt. John O’Mara is given orders to put together a crack squad and go to war with him. However, despite its rather classic premise, unfortunately Gangster Squad will not be joining the list of classic Warner Brothers’ gangster films.
Gangster Squad has been getting a tough rap from critics – an unfairly tough rap in my opinion – primarily for two reasons; its lack of originality and shoddy writing.
First, the writing. The screenplay is indeed pretty terrible. Based on Paul Lieberman’s book of the same title, Gangster Squad is the first feature film for screenwriter Will Beall, a former LAPD officer whose only previous writing credits were a handful of episodes of Castle, and it does sound a bit like a first time screenwriter. The film is overly reliant on clichéd dialogue and scenes (there is actually a scene where a pensive police officer throws his badge into the ocean). The substandard writing is a shame because it means that the film doesn’t get to take full advantage of the quite stellar cast that they’ve managed to assemble. The actors all seem to be trying their hearts out but the chemistry isn’t quite there on the screen because it obviously wasn’t there on the page.
The primary cause for accusations of unoriginality is that Gangster Squad plays exactly like The Untouchables. If you are in any way familiar with De Palma’s film you can’t help but seeing the parallels as the movie goes along. Both movies have a city at the mercy of a corrupt gangster. In both cases that gangster is played by a big name, respected actor – Robert DeNiro as Capone and Sean Penn as Cohen. Both movies involve an honourable, Irish detective putting together a special squad to take down that gangster. In both cases that squad ends up being a bit of a motley crew. The parallels continue, but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory. When the parallels are so constant, you can’t help but compare the two and, unfortunately for Gangster Squad, The Untouchables is a great movie, well written and performed, and as such Fleischer’s film suffers by comparison.
Visually, Fleischer and Aussie cinematographer Dion Beebe (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) have given us a stylised version of the classic gangster aesthetic. You still have all the iconography you expect, and that beautiful Art Deco vibe that drops you straight into the era, but through the combination of some interesting camera angles, a colour palate that is dominated by blues, and some digital alteration, you end up with something that looks a bit like a cross between a classic gangster film and The Watchmen. I’m not really sure if I liked it or just noticed it, but it is distinctive.
As I said before though, I think the harshness with which some critics have met this film has been a bit excessive. Gangster Squad is pure escapism and suffers in the eyes of some because so many great gangster films before it have aspired to more than just escapism. But there has always been a place for escapism at the movies. It is not a hugely original story, but the foundation of the genre system is the joy of familiarity. If you are a lover of gangster movies, as I am, there is an enjoyment that comes from revisiting a traditional gangster premise and seeing today’s stars playing roles straight out of old Hollywood. You don’t always need to be rewriting the rules and breaking new ground. Gangster Squad is not going to rock your world, but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
1. Argo (Ben Affleck)
People have to stop talking about Ben Affleck “being on a hot streak” or “enjoying a purple patch” as a director and accept that perhaps he is just a really talented director. Maybe he didn’t ride Matt Damon’s coattails to that screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting all those years ago like so many joked. Argo, Affleck’s third film, is the year’s best thriller and mixes moments of extreme tension with some great laughs. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are fantastic as the CIA’s Hollywood collaborators.
2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Scorsese was going to adapt a children’s book as his next project, but with David Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret it made perfect sense. Hugo was Scorsese’s love letter to the early cinema. A visually stunning film it is also one of the few films that have been made which have convinced me there may be some merit to 3D.
3. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Of course, Hugo was not the only film in cinemas this year which celebrated the early days of cinema. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist went one step further, engaging with the long-lost art of silent storytelling. This was such an ambitious project, but it was just so endearing and charming that it won people over. It also came out at exactly the right time for me as I’d recently been watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin films and my interest in silent cinema was peaking.
4. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
With MGM’s financial troubles we were forced to wait four years to see James Bond back on our screens after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, but boy was it worth the wait. Skyfall had everything you want in a Bond film, some great action sequences, a bit of humour, a fantastic villain. But on top of that, having a real filmmaker in Sam Mendes at the helm meant that the film also had an attention character development and an emotional depth that we’d never seen in a Bond before. Skyfall is not just a great Bond film, it is a great film.
5. Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
This was not going to be everyone’s cup of tea just because of the sheer volume of singing, but Tom Hooper’s ambitious film is a cinematic achievement, successfully translating one of the West End’s most successful and most tragic musicals to the screen. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gave two of the year’s best performances in this gut-wrenching story of poverty and injustice, rebellion and redemption.
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The thing that struck me about this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel was its stillness and quietness. You feel like it is moving slowly, but when you stop and think about you realise that a lot has been happening. We are so used to seeing spy movies in the James Bond mould, that the stillness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is quite intriguing. An absolute all-star British cast led by a great performance from the chameleon-like Gary Oldman.
7. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film through and through, which means some people will love it and others will hate it. Many of his usual collaborators are back with the key additions of Bruce Willis and Edward Norton. Anderson’s films are always deadpan and contain a touch of darkness, but this ups the ante on that. As always, the use of music, in this case Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams, is very clever. But for me, the sight of Harvey Keitel in shorts alone makes this film noteworthy.
8. The Muppets (James Bobin)
This may look like a strange pick alongside the other films on this list but The Muppets was a hard film not to love. No other film this year projected pure joy the way The Muppets did, and that should be celebrated. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay showed a real love for these classic characters and, along with Bret McKenzie’s songs, found the perfect balance between nostalgia and contemporary comedy.
9. Looper (Rian Johnson)
There is nothing better than being genuinely surprised (in a positive way) by a film, and for mine Rian Johnson’s Looper was the surprise movie of the year. I saw it on a whim, expecting it to be a reasonably run of the mill sci-fi romp but what I got was the most original and interesting science fiction movie since District 9. The story of an assassin from two different periods in time going head to head with himself also engaged with that moral conundrum “If you could go back in time to when Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot was a baby, would you kill them to save the world future suffering?”
10. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh’s comedy isn’t going to appear on a lot of Top 10 lists but this is my list, dammit, so I’m including it. This sharply written comedy about a screenwriter who finds himself in a tough situation after his friend kidnaps the beloved dog of a local crime boss is a strong follow-up to McDonagh’s 2008 debut In Bruges. Yes there are some holes and some problems, but there are also some big laughs, with terrific comic performances from the always brilliant Sam Rockwell and the always quirky Christopher Walken carrying the film.
Not far off: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), Shame (Steve McQueen), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher), The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
The Worst Movie of the Year: Act of Valor (Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh). Not even close really. This military propaganda film in disguise (and not much of a disguise at that) proudly trumpeted the fact that all the major characters were played by real life Marines as though that were a good thing. It wasn’t.
Cinematic Highlight of the Year: Getting to see Steven Spielberg’s Jaws on the big screen as part of its high definition re-release. It was the movie which started the whole blockbuster movement, and which launched Spielberg into stardom, and it still holds up. Similarly, it was good to see Titanic on the big screen again. While the 3D transfer didn’t do much for me it was interesting to see that enough time has passed that we are all over our anti-Titanic bias and can accept that, while it has its faults, it is actually a very good film.