Thursday 22 August 2019

Film: Mixed bag of let-downs and small surprises

Hell or High Water was the crime drama of the year
Hell or High Water was the crime drama of the year
A Date For Mad Mary was the best Irish film
Hail Caesar! was too clever for its own good
Mustang was one of the best films of 2016
Paterson was the best film of 2016
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

A year of disappointments and small surprises began with the awards race. In a very strong 12 months for Irish cinema, Lenny Abrahamson's Room led the charge, earning four Academy nominations and winning Brie Larson a Best Actress Oscar. She deserved it, but Abrahamson has made better films, and Room fell apart a little for me during a shrill and formulaic second half.

Quentin Tarantino's much-vaunted excursion into western territory, Hateful 8, was also tipped for big things, but turned out to be all talk and no trousers, a violent, stylised and relentlessly superficial intellectual exercise. The Danish Girl seemed tailor-made for awards success, and starred Eddie Redmayne as a Scandinavian artist whose desire to become a woman is at odds with 1920s mores. It was chocolate-box nonsense.

Much more substantial were awards big-hitters like The Revenant and Spotlight. Alejandro G Inarritu's Revenant was based on a true story starring a bearded, scarred and all-but-recognisable Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, an early 19th-century trapper who's leading a party of hunters along the Missouri River when he's attacked by a bear. Left for dead by treacherous colleagues, he crawls slowly back towards civilisation, and revenge.

It was a riveting, unrelenting film, and so, in its way, was Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's painstaking examination of the Boston Globe's 2002 clerical sex abuse expose. A brilliant ensemble cast that included Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams demonstrated the value of rigorous, old-fashioned journalism - a dying art. It won the Best Picture Oscar, and deserved more.

A Date For Mad Mary was the best Irish film
A Date For Mad Mary was the best Irish film

Spotlight was a film of real ambition, and so was The Big Short, Adam McKay's heroic attempt to explain the 2008 global economic crash through the medium of comedy. It was a lot of fun, and angry behind the laughs.

A Rocky sequel in 2016 sounded like a really bad idea, but Creed turned out to be a hugely enjoyable boxing opera.

The spring was full of damp squids, comedies that failed to spark like the ill-advised remake of Dad's Army, and Sacha Baron Cohen's unspeakably crass Grimsby.

The Coen brothers' comic take on the McCarthy era, Hail Caesar!, was too clever for its own good, Terrence Malick disappointed many with his navel-gazing drama Knight of Cups, and the less said about Zack Snyder's overblown superhero yarn Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the better.

Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa was many critics' film of the year. Bracingly original from start to finish, it was an unflinching and very funny adult, stop-motion animation about a middled-aged self-help guru who has an existential crisis at a Cincinnati hotel. Nobody went to see it, but they should have.

Most horror films are tacky and derivative, so an original one is always worth celebrating. Robert Eggars' directorial début The Witch was so good it almost felt as if William Friedkin had decided to have a pop at Arthur Miller's Crucible. In 17th-century New England, a man called William is banished from a Puritan settlement and retreats with his family to live in the forest. Bad idea.

Hail Caesar! was too clever for its own good
Hail Caesar! was too clever for its own good

In Sebastian Schipper's Victoria, a young Spanish woman had the even worse idea of hooking up with a group of men she meets outside a Berlin nightclub. They turn out to be criminals, and all sorts of madness ensued in Sebastian Schipper's extraordinary film, which was shot in a single take.

Victoria premièred here at the Dublin International Film Festival, as did Jacques Audiard's tough and timely immigrant drama Dheepan, and Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul, a film that recreated the madness of the Nazi death camps so effectively that I never wish to see it again. Mustang also screened during the festival: a beautifully shot Turkish drama about five orphaned sisters who are locked away by their over-protective guardians, it was one of my films of the year.

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Mary Elisabeth Winstead was also held captive, by a man who insists he's protecting her from an alien invasion outside. Was he mad, or a saviour? It was one of the smarter Hollywood thrillers to emerge this year, while the British film Eye in the Sky cleverly explored the ethics of remote drone strikes, and featured a lovely performance from the late, lamented Alan Rickman.

Hugh Grant was back to his very best in Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears' charming comic drama based on the true story of a tuneless diva, played by Meryl Streep. Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship was even better, a delightful period piece based on a Jane Austen novel.

Though sometimes preachy, Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake gave us a deeply moving account of two lives that fall through the growing cracks in Britain's welfare state. It won the Palme d'Or.

Nothing much lit up the summer, except perhaps for Pixar's winning sequel Finding Dory, which my little boy Max thought so good he went to see it four times. Otherwise it was a sorry tale of disappointing blockbusters, like Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad and Independence Day: Resurgence, which were alright I suppose, and Gods of Egypt, Absolutely Fabulous, Ben-Hur and Legend of Tarzan, which really weren't. Jason Bourne was pretty good, especially a brilliant chase sequence through yet another Greek anti-austerity riot, and Disney's family adventure Pete's Dragon was nothing short of excellent.

The real pleasures this summer, though, came from smaller, more obscure films, like the sumptuous and soulful Studio Ghibli animation When Marnie was There, and Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's weird and wonderful Thai drama about a mysterious sleeping sickness that seems to connect the living and the dead.

I liked Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry's psychological thriller starring Elizabeth Moss as a histrionic, attention-seeking woman, and Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone's fabulously gothic retelling of 17th-century Italian fairytales. And Rebecca Miller produced her best work yet in Maggie's Plan, a witty drama that cleverly subverted romcom conventions. Ethan Hawke was excellent in this, playing a needy and childish college professor, but equally good as tortured jazz legend Chet Baker in Robert Burdeau's hazy and underrated biopic, Born to be Blue.

As he's done so often before, Pedro Almodovar blended the conventions of TV soaps and art-house cinema with effortless aplomb in Julieta, a psychological thriller with echoes of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hell or High Water was my crime drama of the year, a kind of modern-day western set in the wilds of west Texas and starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers who embark on a bank-robbing spree. It was terrific, as was Captain Fantastic, a refreshingly eccentric feature from Matt Ross in which Viggo Mortensen played a dedicated anarchist who's raised his children in the wilderness but must re-enter the real world to attend his wife's funeral. It had clever things to say, and said them well.

If we have to have superhero movies, then why not intelligent ones? Doctor Strange was one of my favourite Marvel productions so far, a weird and well constructed fantasy about a brilliant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) who discovers a secret spirit world after his hands are destroyed in a car crash.

Denis Villeneuve's Arrival ranks with the very greatest sci-fi movies, and used imagination rather than special effects to brilliantly depict an extraterrestrial invasion. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner played scientists trying to find a way of talking to aliens who seem ominously uncommunicative.

Not much wrong, either, with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, JK Rowling's exuberant re-entry into the magical world of Harry Potter. It looked great, and did big business.

There were some very fine documentaries in 2016, too, from Hitchcock/Truffaut to the all-too-prescient political documentary Weiner and Werner Herzog's mad and visionary exploration of the internet, Lo and Behold. And let's not forget Laurie Anderson's playful and thoroughly winning Heart of a Dog.

My favourite film of 2016, though, was Paterson, Jim Jarmusch's sublime and oddly soothing drama about a New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry in his spare time. It eloquently celebrated the virtues a life lived small.

The best of Irish

If you wanted a crash course in Northern Irish politics in the early 1980s, you could do worse than Bobby Sands: 66 Days, Brendan J Byrne's measured and informative documentary. Risteard Ó Domhnaill's Atlantic was another strong Irish documentary, exploring the environmental damage being done to the north Atlantic. Grimmer still was The Survivalist, Stephen Fingleton's lean dystopian drama starring Martin McCann as a man who's learnt to survive in a post-apocalyptic wilderness.

John Carney's Sing Street was impossible to dislike, and told the story of a teenage boy in 1980s Dublin who struggles to adapt when he's taken out of private school and committed to the tender care of the Christian Brothers. I liked Mammal, Rebecca Daly's nightmarish thriller starring Rachel Griffiths as a woman paralysed by grief. And Paddy Breathnach and Mark O'Halloran's Viva was a real breath of fresh air, set in Havana and suffused with the haunting rhythms of Latin torch songs. But for me the best Irish film of 2016 was A Date for Mad Mary, Darren Thornton's spare and sensitive comic drama starring Seana Kerslake and Charleigh Bailey as old friends whose lives have taken very different paths.

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