Best Movies of 2019

In what seems like barely any time at all, the year (and the decade) has come to a close once again. Though film content has been a little absent from my blog in 2019, my perusing has remained nonetheless ample, and my year wouldn’t be complete without a rudimentary list, which has been unwavering for six years now.

As before, all the films you’ll find below are chosen entirely by me, and represent my opinions alone. I’ve tried to watch a great deal of the years most celebrated, but no doubt some may have passed me by (Honey Boy, Ford v Ferrari, Sorry We Missed You). I choose films typically by U.K. release date, though this year I have been fortunate to view some features before their formal distribution in my country.

I hope you’ll enjoy my picks — please don’t get too wound up if not! I’d love to see yours (and any recommendations) in the comments here or on any variety of social platforms. Outside of my blog, you can follow my film activity and reviews on Letterboxd.

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.


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Special Mention goes to Swing Kids (dir. Kang Hyoung-chul)

Each year I like to give a ‘special mention’ to a film that is of high merit, but is absent from the list due to some technicality. In the case of South Korean film Swing Kids, it was released in it’s home country in late December 2018, with international releases following in 2019, but it was never formally released in my country, so I’m not sure where to place it. Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing ensemble piece that deserves a mention.

It’s a deceptively fanciful musical set during the Korean war, in which a wayward North Korean solider falls in love with tap dancing. He forms a troupe with some outlandish South Korean’s, led by an American officer. It’s imaginative and wonderful, with many enduring set-pieces, but steadily forms an unsparing tone the more it progresses, building toward a dazzlingly tempestuous final act.

Leading actor Do Kyung-soo (of Exo fame) has been on my radar ever since his breakout performance in 2016’s Unforgettable. His role in Swing Kids seems meant for him, melding his acting talent with his musical and dancing prowess. The plot is a little uneven and the tone may be too jarring for some but, for me, the final act cemented Swing Kids as one of the years most evocative films.


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#10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)

In this French period piece, a portrait painter named Marianne is commissioned to paint aristocrat Héloïse, so the image can be sent off to her suitor. Héloïse, less than enthusiastic about being married, refuses to pose, so Marianne subtly observes the noblewoman as the two go on walks, and paints in secret. Slowly and tenderly, the pair develop a passionate bond.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a ravishing film, filled with enchanting composition. Some of the most alluring sequences are when the camera seldom moves, with each shot stunningly vibrant and prepossessing. The steady camera, combined with the exquisite use of colour and positioning, create a sense of intimacy mixed with action, melding a film that is tenderly framed and completely arresting. The location, too, is both gorgeous and understated, captured in a wholly organic sentiment.

The plot and pace are finely assembled — you get the sense that no second is wasted — and the central cast are extraordinary, deftly revealing two spirited woman at pivotal moments in their lives. Director Céline Sciamma exhibits such a memorable vision, simmering with a quiet tension.


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#09. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)

Awkwafina stars in this drama about a Chinese family who decide to keep their grandmother in the dark regarding her cancer diagnosis, insisting: “It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” In an effort to gather as a family and see their grandmother one last time, the extended ménage organise an impromptu wedding.

The Farewell is such a warm-hearted film despite skirting around topics such as demise and dishonestly. It shapes this multifaceted story similar in ways to last years Crazy Rich Asians in its cultural and generational examinations. Awkwafina’s character Billi, a Chinese-American who resides in New York City, is against keeping her grandmother’s illness a secret. Yet writer-director Lulu Wang does a fine job of exploring the family’s dynamic at large, which leads to some hilarious exchanges and sequences.

It’s a charming film that manages to work many laughs into a story that is nonetheless emotive and introspective. Awkwafina is an endearing talent here, persuasively grappling between her heart and her head, in a nuanced tale that feels both personal and universal.


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#08. The Peanut Butter Falcon (dir. Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz)

Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz wrote The Peanut Butter Falcon for their friend, Zack Gottsagen. Starting at nothing, they shot a trailer to pitch with, and reached out to numerous insiders, eventually finding success and landing an all-star cast.

It’s an endearing road trip movie about a young man with down syndrome (played by Gottsagen), who dreams of joining a famous wrestling academy. By chance, he buddies up with Shia LaBeouf’s character, a troubled fisherman on the run after a confrontation with some rivals. As the two slowly begin to open up to one another, they form an unshakable bond, establishing an inimitable camaraderie.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a film that feels at once familiar and inventive. On paper, the plot doesn’t differ so much from movies of a similar vein, yet what sells it absolutely are the performances. Road trip and unlikely companion stories are well trodden ground, but the film benefits immeasurably from the writing and acting of its cast. Nilson and Schwartz, as friends of Gottsagen, clearly understand what makes him so compelling and fun to watch, with LaBeouf making for a brilliant comrade, whose flaws and at times questionable actions form a character who is attentively layered.


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#07. The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play lighthouse keepers in this claustrophobic horror set in the 1890s. Pattison plays the novice to Dafoe’s seasoned wickie, though nothing is quite as expected as the two descend into madness, seemingly bewitched by the lighthouse’s aura.

I loved the ambiance of The Witch, and whilst The Lighthouse is very much a different film, Robert Eggers manages to conjure a similar tone, where much of the unnerve and terror is derived from the mood. Shot in black and white with a narrow aspect ratio, the film exudes its antique time period, plunging viewers into a hypnotic tale that does not once lose its fascination.

Pattinson and Dafoe are stunning, their descent into mania rife with a fallacious clarity, steadily building an intoxicating ambivalence that keeps viewers guessing. Despite its distressing quality, The Lighthouse is also darkly hilarious. Some scenes made me laugh out loud whilst I was also on the edge of my seat. Lastly, there are a number of monologues from Dafoe which are, in the most candid sense of the word, extraordinary.


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#06. Ad Astra (dir. James Gray)

James Gray directs Brad Pitt in this brooding sci-fi about a stoic astronaut called upon to make an emotional plea to his father, a revered spaceman holed up on Neptune with delusions of grandeur. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure whether Ad Astra would make it onto my list right after I saw it, but my synopsis (and probably any single paragraph description) is terribly bare bones. It’s a slow burn without much explicit dialogue, but the longer it lingers, the clearer the brilliance.

It’s a profound tale of humanity, in which the pioneers are trained to restrain what makes them human in order to advance humankind. There are masterful juxtapositions and contrasts to this effect, and a terrific mirror image in the father and son characters. The entire film is hinged on one single person, yet the exploration of his psyche is sprawling, scrambling between the emotional and the logical, the primitive and the modern.

The film is gorgeous, yet perhaps more impressive than its effects alone are the degree to which they are utilised. Ad Astra is an epic film, but it is no typical ‘space opera,’ opting to avoid sensational imagery and instead ensuring it remains a solitary portrait, grounded in its plot and central conflict concerning the inner struggles of a sullen man.

The visuals are wonderful, but rarely are they glimpsed from glorious angles or lingered upon. Earth sports a colossal space antennae, the moon has been colonised, there are galactic wars, but the film does not manifest these details to any profound extent. There’s a brilliant contrast between the imposing setting and Brad Pitt’s restrained voyage, with the cinematography and mise-en-scene striking an expert balance between the two, composing a genuine and rooted vision over something which could have very easily been spectacular but vain. It’s a tightly knit, introspective film that I warm to a little more with every thought.


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#05. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne in this black comedy about two cousins — Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz, and Abigail, played by Emma Stone — vying for her attention. The film was released in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.A. at the end of 2018, but didn’t reach most regions (including the U.K.) until January and February of 2019.

I never felt much for The Lobster, but a lot of the same deadpan delivery and dry wit on display in The Favourite is suddenly riotous. There’s much to be said about the setting and production design — all the extravagance and pomp, the grandeur and majesty, make for a hilarious contrast to characters who are often stunningly direct and unfiltered.

It’s cast to a tee, with renowned faces who seamlessly meld into their roles. The dialogue, in all its piquant awe, reminded me of The Death of Stalin. It has the same sort of heavy subject whilst also being playful and deadly funny. Among the satire and cunning, there are some more gentle and moving moments involving Colman’s Queen Anne, with the actress bringing an incredible dynamic to the role, skillfully portraying tyrannical and sensitive sides.


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#04. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Set in 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s supposed penultimate work sees Leonardo DiCaprio play an actor struggling to stay relevant in a changing film industry. Brad Pitt plays his stuntman and rock of sorts, who finds himself on a series of escapades between work. They are joined by an ensemble cast in what largely amounts to a love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Much of the cast play characters based on or inspired by real-life people, but Tarantino deftly reimagines history, crafting a sprawling chronicle that is as funny as it is tense and lovely. It’s an epic work with a lot of spirit, tended to with clear passion. Tarantino involves many of his long-standing signifiers, yet Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is in the same instance more sober and wistful than some of his other recent work.

DiCaprio is on fine form, delivering a poignant performance that will be anchored and remembered for a number of stand-out scenes. The film’s characters are the draw more so than the plot, but Tarantino’s strenuous planning ensures it is no less engaging. Though DiCaprio is the stand-out, even those in much smaller roles are memorable compelling. More than any other Tarantino film, I get the sense that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is his most spirited and well directed work. Every aspect seems in tune with his vision.


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#03. Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)

I chose Gerwig’s Lady Bird as my number four pick in 2017. I’m exceedingly glad her and Saoirse Ronan are back this year in an adaptation of the classic novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which explores the dynamics and attitudes of four sisters (and the society of the time) in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

I am familiar with Little Women by name only. I haven’t read the novel, nor seen any of the other adaptations, so I can’t comment on its fluency as an adapted film, or compare it with any other version. Yet I get the sense that it is a wonderfully epitomised account, or at the very least, a highly accomplished rendition, judging by the critical response. The narrative is kneaded with care, and though Saoirse Ronan’s character Jo seems the clear lead, all four of the sisters have a distinct essence.

I loved the structure — exploring past and present in tandem. Rather than an inconsequential ‘Oh, they’re doing it this way’ sort of reaction, I felt it helped expound the narrative in an interesting and slightly ambiguous way. Further, Jo’s conflict as a headstrong woman unwillingly to diminish her liberty through marriage, who must navigate societal constraints and confront loneliness, is expertly divulged, with Ronan such a commanding and yet tender presence.

Florence Pugh’s Amy is another stand-out as a sort of counter-image to Jo, who accepts that in order to prosper in a restrictive climate, she must forego some autonomy. The film casts a brilliant dynamic here between sisters who are all, in some way, confounded by an unjust union, but tackle their liberation and happiness in distinct ways. It’s brilliantly cast and gorgeous to look at  — the locations and costumes are enchanting — with superb dialogue, particularly from Ronan and Pugh. The timelessness of the book seems captured and skillfully bestowed; it’s a film with true spirit and one with the aura of a warm embrace, that I am sure will echo and abide for time to come.


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#02. Uncut Gems (dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)

In this immaculately packaged follow-up to Good Time, the Safdie’s present a fabulously unnerving snapshot of an audacious jeweller looking to score big money on a rare mineraloid. Pursued by creditors, balancing his business, and in the midst of a familial breakdown, leading actor Adam Sandler seems as though he will stop at nothing to satisfy his desires.

What I love about Uncut Gems, and from what I’ve seen of the Safdie’s work thus far, is the sheer dynamism, recklessness, and total ingenuity of the central character. Sandler’s character Howard Ratner is somebody almost completely void of empathy — he’s rash, self-absorbed, almost maniacal — and yet you root for him all the same. There’s something wholly infectious about his obsessive, adrenaline-filled pursuit. The Safdie’s successfully plunge audiences into Howard’s world through an exhaustive combination of image and sound.

Even during relatively idle scenes, there is this imposing, compelling dread. Though the Safdie’s are working with a different cinematographer here, there’s a similar energy and vibe to Good Time — an almost blazing grittiness; ethereal tinged reality. This is helped in no small part due to the score, from regular Safdie collaborator Daniel Lopatin. The hypnotic visuals are augmented by a bewitching electronic soundscape, saturated with paranoia and wonder.

And just when it appears as though the film has reached boiling point, the director’s reveal another gauge during the final act, dialing up the tension and excitement to heights only the most immersive and moving films can. For me, the final sequence is on par with the ending of my number one pick as one of the decades finest. It’s an all-around triumph with an enduring, exceptional performance from Sandler.


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#01. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature follows a penniless family who live in a half-basement apartment, barely a part of society’s gaze. The son lands a job as an English teacher for the youngest child of a well-off household, and hatches a plan to infiltrate the prestigious family, crafting false personas for his own kin to slot into well-paying work unwittingly offered by the rich ménage.

Parasite is an ingenious and all-around entrancing work. It’s difficult to pin down one single aspect that ‘works’ above all else or which makes the film great, but that’s the brilliance of Bong Joon-ho. His films are harmonious in the way they blend genre and twist presumption, in how they’re both imposing and intimate, both sober and manic. Contrasts co-habit and converse with master precision. He weaves together these ensemble pieces from fragments here and there, saying and showing so much in a package that is impeccably wrapped, layer upon layer.

The same film that will have you gasping in horror will have you laughing riotously, with a stupid grin from ear to ear, beaming because you wonder just how on earth he does it so well. Bong Joon-ho’s films are like modern day fairy tales, each brandishing a hypnotic many-faced mask — they are equal sides twisted and pleasing, sometimes both at the same time. You never quite know what he’ll come out with next, and it’s this sort of boundless classification that shows his aptitude lies, not only as a director, but also as an expert writer and story-teller.

To say too much about Parasite would spoil the fun, but it’s a riotous, indelible tour-de-force of a thriller, with twists and turns that are at once outlandish and yet persuasively developed. Bong Joon-ho further instills his trademark societal critiques, attentively working meditative examinations into the film’s bone marrow.  It’s a smart, hilarious, and haunting film that, I believe, will abide in the memory of audiences for a long time.


Thank you for reading. Film in 2019 seemed a little underwhelming until the latter months, but come the end it wasn’t difficult to choose ten pictures that I really loved. Since it’s the end of a decade, I think I’ll conclude with some of the best films I have enjoyed these past ten years. On a different day, this list may well change ever so slightly, but here are twenty films from the 2010s that I adore.

My Top 20 of the Decade (in no particular order)
• Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
• Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)
• Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)
• Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
• 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)
• Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
• 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)
• The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
• Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)
• Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)
• Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
• A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Shunji Iwai, 2016)
• Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, 2019)
• Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)
• Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima. 2010)
• Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
• Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
• The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach, 2017)
• A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
• Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

Until next time!

Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

Title: Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein
Released: Feb 2019


Fishing through a scrapheap, a nondescript cyborg head, enclosing a human brain, is found by a cybernetics doctor named Ido. With memories of his own deceased daughter still weighing on his mind, he reconstructs the cyborg girl and names her Alita after his kin. Ido adopts a nurturing role after discovering Alita has no memories of who she is or where she comes from, but finds the girl is more than meets the eye. Thrown into the alien dystopia of Iron City, Alita strives to rediscover her identity and find contentment among the spiraling harshness and villainy beset around her.

Adapted from Yukito Kishiro’s long-running manga, but borrowing chiefly from the first four volumes, Robert Rodriguez’s rendition has been a long time coming. The author was approached regarding a film version of his series as early as 1994, with the rights eventually landing with James Cameron and Twentieth Century Fox in 1998. A feature-length adaptation has been all but sat on since then, with an inquisitive Robert Rodriguez ultimately procuring the project from Cameron, who finally deemed the visually complex film possible after technological strides were made through his work on Avatar.

For me, this film has been a near decade long wait. For others, it has been twice that amount. In many ways, it both has and has not met the expectations that have been orbiting the project for so long, it being an adaptation of a much loved manga, from two oft-referred visionary filmmakers.

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Alita: Battle Angel is a film of contrasts, both brilliant and substandard. From a visual standpoint, the film is particularly resplendent. The action is frantic and entertaining, amid a world that is — for the most part — wonderfully realised. The effects are all-around absorbing, with Alita herself an exceptional character in both personality and craft. However, the film is let down by crude writing and a disappointing lack of development for many of its secondary characters, notably the antagonists.

It suffers somewhat from the Ghost in the Shell syndrome with an overwrought union of sources. It wants to adapt the manga, and it wants to adapt the anime, and it wants to be its own thing. It’s kneaded together in a way that reveals its own artifice, with hammy dialogue and a lot of not-so-subtle exposition. The plot, while at times intriguing and generally admissible, is weighed down by convolutions and feels suffocated by details, whereas much of the cast besides Alita remain unfortunately shallow.

Even Hugo, the romantic interest, is little more than a husk. He’ll happily tell you that he has a dream, but you’ll be none the wiser as to why. If you want to find out more about him, or the father figure Ido, or the wicked Vector, then you need to read the official prequel novel. That the film has these gaps that need to be filled by going elsewhere is a major inadequacy.

And yet, in-between all of this, it is a fun film, in large part because of the charismatic and charming Alita, who is adapted well from the manga. She looks terrifically authentic, with the use of close-ups and focal shots on her in particular accentuating the finer details and distinct characteristics that make her seem so real. Rosa Salazar is very much the heart and soul of the movie, and worth the price of admission alone.

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There is a scene where Hugo describes her as the most ‘human’ person he knows. This is a bit of a meta-statement, as Rosa and the crew have clearly gone to great lengths to exhibit just how authentic Alita is. This could have proven uncanny and disastrous if the effects weren’t up to standard, but the character is so credible that the sentiment is well expressed. This is not solely the work of WETA, but also Rosa, whose performance is captured in all its profundity. Her journey from wide-eyed girl to hardened Hunter Warrior is easily the best characterisation in the film.

Sadly, every other character struggles to attain any notability. Ido and Hugo are given the second most screen time, but we’re given little reason to care about Hugo, and while attention has been given to Ido, the character’s depth is of little consequence. His relationship with Alita, while not entirely shallow, fails to avoid some degree of banality. Similarly, Jennifer Connelly’s character Chiren has such a negligible presence that her maternal dissonance has little time to form an effectual arc. Though this is a restriction of the runtime as much as it is a deficiency in the writing.

Likewise, villain Grewishka dithers here and there, and is ultimately a puppet that never acquires the depth and spectacle of his manga counterpart. In many ways, he is vastly upstaged by Ed Skrein’s Zapan, who is compelling but skin-deep. Mahershala Ali does what he can with the script, but the actor is underutilised, and his character mishandled. This leads to an ending that fizzles away before it gets going, ultimately making for a conclusion that is a far cry from fulfilling.

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However, what the film lacks in character and development, it has tenfold in action and zest. The Motorball set piece, while sadly shorter than I had hoped, is stunning. All of the action is well choreographed, with key weaponry, such as the Damascus Blade and Rocket Hammer, included much to the delight of manga fans. There are also a number of not-so-obvious details that work to set up potential future plot points that readers of the source material will enjoy. Sadly, however, one of the principal characters from the manga is horrifically shoehorned in and re-written to the point of obscurity.

The setting of Iron City is quite extraordinary, fittingly claustrophobic and ruinous as in Kishiro’s vision, but I wanted to see more of it. There’s a wondrous establishing scene, where the viewers glimpse the city at large for the first time with Alita, but it never seemed as lively or absorbing beyond this introduction. There’s also a sequence in some underground caverns which, in the manga, are glorious and imposing, but in the film this part felt a little too much like a set. Comparably, the film score by Junkie XL is at times a dash undistinguished, but at others marvellous and prominent.

If you can overlook the contrivances, there’s much enjoyment to be had with Alita: Battle Angel. It is let down by a number of shortcomings, but if you do take anything away from the film, it’s very likely to be Alita, and in that respect it has earned my adoration. Rosa Salazar is the ideal Alita, with her character and her journey given due care and attention. I waited for this adaptation for almost a decade, and while it’s not all I had hoped, the parts that it does get right do flourish in spite of the flaws.

For more film musings, you can find me on Letterboxd.

Best Movies of 2018

As another year comes to a close, another assemblage of lists, summaries, and rundowns begin to emerge. It has been half a decade since I began chronicling my favourites on this blog. Like most years, I wasn’t sure what to make of 2018 at first, but come the end, there are a number of films which I am confident will stay with me hereafter.

As usual, I typically go by U.K. release date for my top ten, in order to ensure continuity and inclusivity. If I were to include films based only on their initial release date, that would outright exclude a portion of popular late year U.S. releases, such as The Favourite, Green Book, and Vice, which don’t reach Britain until next year, and thus I have no actual way of viewing. Comparably, I have seen The Death of Stalin on a number of other lists, which was released in many territories this year, but is rather a 2017 film in the U.K. I do make exceptions for films that are widely available online before their British release.

Furthermore, whilst I make every effort to see as many films as possible in a given year, there are inevitably some which I miss. Thus, this is by no means a completely exhaustive list. Like all personal top tens, it is largely subjective and individual.

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.


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Special Mention goes to They Shall Not Grow Old (dir. Peter Jackson)

My special mention this year goes to Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking World War I documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. I know people who will simply not watch black and white films. I have always found this attitude frustrating, but Jackson’s astonishing documentary demonstrated to me not only the substance of colour in film, but also the prowess of modern frame rate and sound mixing techniques.

Many will have heard about the methods on display here, but words do little justice to the reality Peter Jackson and team have managed to uncover from the grainy archives. The film begins conventionally enough, with silent black and white footage, aided by a voice over. Part way through, however, the screen transforms. Colour, movement, and sound truly revitalises the aged footage, bestowing it an immediacy the dated annals seldom provide. It is utterly illuminating and unforgettable.


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#10. First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Most will know of the first moon landing, but knowledge of the Apollo 11 astronauts doesn’t seem to spread much beyond their names and nationality. Even the preceding Apollo programs, which led to the required capabilities, is seldom related, at least not in Britain. Damien Chazelle recounts these events expertly, avoiding melodrama and obvious structure by instead narrating a staunchly personal account of Neil Armstrong.

The film charts Armstrong’s professional career, beginning with his time as a test pilot, where he would experience some high altitudes flights which enabled him to observe the atmosphere. We follow his later vocation with NASA, up until the moon landing itself. In just as much focus, however, is his home life and personal time with his wife Janet.

Some liberties seem to have been taken in telling Neil Armstrong’s story, but the film still appears a stunningly deep account. Ryan Gosling is wholly convincing, and captures the temperament of a man facing a perilous mission into the unknown down to minute detail. I am glad the film avoided a typical heroism angle, and is instead quite a slow and psychological tale about a seemingly traumatised man who quells his anguish by obsessively striving toward an unsullied expanse. Like Gattaca, much of the film is grounded and sober (yet still undeniably well shot), until the final sequence, which is all the more gorgeous and breathtaking.


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#9. Searching (dir. Aneesh Chaganty)

Technology (and particularly social media) has had a discordant representation on screen. Corners are often cut to allow for exposition or plot conveniences, and what is so familiar to most becomes glaringly counterfeit. Searching has been touted as a film that does it right and, for the most part, it really does.

In this mystery thriller told almost exclusively from a computer screen, David Kim’s daughter, Margot, goes missing. He quickly informs the police and is assigned a detective, but finds he can do just as much diagnosis himself, by tracing his daughters whereabouts via her social media, which leaves a very distinct digital footprint.

Tech savvy viewers will have a couple of complaints, but Searching does a commendable job in forming a social age mystery. The cinematography (if you can still call it that) is ingenious; a monitor has never felt so unconfined. For a film shot in just two weeks, but which spent a year and a half in post-production, the vigorous attention to detail shows, with numerous Easter eggs and important plot components hidden away in the background, ensuring audiences — should they desire — are able to engage with the film to a profound degree. Coupled with an arresting performance from John Cho (who also had a stand-out last year in Columbus), this is surely one of the year’s best thrillers.


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#8. Liz and the Blue Bird (dir. Naoko Yamada)

Naoko Yamada is emerging as one of the top animation directors in Japan. Her adaptation of A Silent Voice in 2016 was a gorgeous and deeply affecting piece, so tightly knit and competently plotted, that I enjoyed it even more so than the manga. Her follow-up, Liz and the Blue Bird, is another distinct and striking entry.

The film — a tale of two friends in a high school music club, who must come to terms with their encroaching graduation — is a sort of side-story to the popular Sound! Euphonium anime series, itself based on a procession of novels, though any prior knowledge of these media isn’t required before you see Liz and the Blue Bird.

The film is quite brilliant in its in-between moments. The first sequence is largely without dialogue, as we observe one of the characters, Mizore, simply waiting for her friend Nozomi at the school gates. There’s a large emphasis on emotion and body language, which aren’t typically given such intricate but subtle attention in anime.

The plot could be easily retold in typical anime episode length, but the feature runtime here affords it a meditative quality, allowing emotions to teeter, stir, and linger to a greater degree. It’s a conventional story explored through an atypical, largely observational method unusual for the medium; the director and crew allow the characters room to simply be, and the film benefits from it immeasurably.


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#7. One Cut of the Dead (dir. Shinichiro Ueda)

Initially released in Japan late in 2017, One Cut of the Dead had a run of mere days in two small art theatres in Tokyo. After gaining popularity following positive word of mouth and triumphant appearances at film festivals, it was re-released in 2018 to over 200 screens, and has since travelled the world, becoming a runaway sensation. Filmed in just eight days, it has now remarkably grossed over one thousand times its budget.

The film follows an eccentric director and his crew who are recording a one-take zombie movie, but they find themselves embroiled in a seemingly real-life doomsday scenario, when members of the team become zombies for real. It sounds familiar, but to say any more would spoil the fun. There hasn’t been a zombie feature quite like this.

The first half of One Cut of the Dead is riotous fun, but it’s in the second half where it begins to display its true genius. There are so many layers, details, and nuances which may at first seem rather mundane or senseless, but these small features slowly reveal a wonderfully inventive plot which utilises the cinematic form and the very construction of film to such a masterful degree.

It’s difficult to elucidate the sheer brilliance of One Cut of the Dead whilst skirting around spoilers, but it is certainly one of the most fun and creatively self-reflexive films I have ever seen. It reminded me of my old college movies, and whilst I would recommend it to anybody, I feel those with a particular interest in film will love it all the more.


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#6. Journeyman (dir. Paddy Considine)

Paddy Considine is an inestimable talent. No matter the role, he can be counted on to deliver an esteemed performance. While his role in The Death of Stalin will deservedly find much attention this year, is was Journeyman — which he wrote, directed, and starred in — that left the most tremendous impression upon me.

The film is a character piece of sorts, which follows Considine’s part as Matty Burton, a middleweight boxing champion whose life is drastically changed after a devastating injury. It has less a plot than films of a similar ilk, such as Bleed for This, and rather focuses on snapshots of Burton’s trauma and newfound affliction, charting his changed reality.

I have seen Journeyman touted as a ‘boxing film,’ but it is much rather a studious drama. There is only one boxing sequence and it is far from ostentatious. Even Burton’s injury, the major event which dictates the matter of the film, occurs as a delayed incident outside the ring. The film is deeply affecting in this way — there’s nothing showy about Burton’s injury. Considine’s bedeviled character, and his friend’s and family’s reaction to his altered state, is devastating precisely because it feels so authentic and so close to home.

Almost the entire film is spent with Burton, who Considine captures with remarkable credibility. After his injury, which the audience can only tell is something to do with the head, there is barely a hospital scene, and certainly no doctor’s explanation or timely exposition. Burton returns home only a few cuts later, and it isn’t immediately obvious how changed he is. Though it treads familiar territory, Journeyman’s understated technique and exceptional performances solidify it as a haunting and indelible film that may demolish even the most stony of hearts.


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#5. Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu)

The romantic comedy isn’t typically the most inventive of genres, and I have seen many audiences deride Crazy Rich Asians as too predictable, but it honestly surprised me. Not so much through its characters or plot (there are certainly tropes there), but through just how captivating and charming it is.

Rachel and Nick are a couple of Asian heritage who live in New York City. Rachel is elated to accompany Nick to his best friends wedding at his family home in Singapore, where she discovers his ménage are exceedingly wealthy. As extended family and friends gather for the wedding, Rachel feels very much a fish out of water, due in large part to the repellent attitude of Nick’s mother, who feels Rachel isn’t good enough for her son.

Like Liz and the Blue Bird, the content here isn’t so much groundbreaking as it is absorbing. Crazy Rich Asians is expert escapist filmmaking — a feature that plays with tropes, rather than into tropes. It possess a layered framework, blending both East and West, past and present, tradition and modernity, in a story that is as funny as it is moving. This quality is accentuated by ravishing cinematography befitting of the luxury setting, and a formidable cast who offer even the less developed characters a lasting presence.


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#4. A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)

Whilst I haven’t seen any of the other versions to offer a comparison, this modern retelling of the classic story is an outstanding debut from Bradley Cooper. What abides most in A Star is Born, other than the music, are the characters. Cooper and his co-star Lady Gaga feel not an ounce manufactured; their characters embody such visceral and unrefined emotion; at once soothing and plummeting audiences into their world.

Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a successful musician with a reliance on alcohol. He discovers and falls in love with Ally, a female singer played by Lady Gaga. Maine convinces her to sing at one of his shows and she becomes an overnight sensation. Thrust steadfast into the music industry and into a relationship with a destructive drinker, Ally finds herself both perturbed and delighted with her new life. Maine attempts to sedate his habits, but finds his demons difficult to quell.

Lady Gaga’s casting was a stroke of genius; she and Cooper play off one another masterfully, not only on screen, but also as vocalists and musicians. The title track, ‘Shallow,’ is every bit as lovely and heart-rending as the couple themselves. Sam Elliot, in what is only a small (but pivotal) role, all things considered, also left a substantial impression as Cooper’s on screen brother. He and Maine share what seems a very cumbersome relationship, the history of which we feel without really having to know. Later in the film, they share a scene that is so well composed it left me in such awe.


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#3. Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong)

Haruki Murakami is my favourite author. His prose is gorgeous and his themes alluring. His wordsmanship is such that even the mundane takes on an ethereal quality. Yet many, if not all, of his live-action interpretations thus far have proven divisive. Murakami works heavily in metaphor and his plots are seldom conspicuous — they don’t lend themselves well to a direct adaptation. Lee Chang-dong understands this well and has brought along much of his own flair for his first adapted screenplay.

Burning chronicles the simmering love triangle between Jong-su, Hae-mi, and the enigmatic Ben, a playboy of sorts whom Hae-mi meets whilst travelling. The three share a vague bond, made all the stranger when Ben reveals to Jong-su his compulsion to burn down green houses, which begins to take on another meaning to the sceptical Jong-su.

Ok Gwang-hee, producer for the film, claimed they had only purchased the motif of the original story, and yet it feels a bona fide adaptation nonetheless, with many of Murakami’s signifiers, such as elusive cats, dried up wells, mysterious phone calls, and even a little jazz. However, Lee Chang-dong is too much the auteur, with his own voice staunchly present. He takes the central themes and ideas, the bare bones of the original story, and kneads them together with greater detail, to form what is arguably a more enriching narrative than Murakami’s own work.

It is certainly the best cinematic interpretation of Murakami thus far; mesmeric in both content and form, with enchanting imagery abundant with terrific vistas. The plot balances a fine line between ambiguity and lucidity, which is one of the film’s most appealing aspects. It is an enrapturing slow-burn where nothing is absolute, and it is in this ambivalence that Burning is so fulfilling. It is the first film in a long time where I wanted to watch it again almost immediately after it ended.


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#2. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)

Those who read my top ten last year will know Annihilation has been on my radar for some time. I love Garland’s screenplays for both Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, and Ex Machina, his directorial debut in 2014, showed he possessed just as much talent behind the camera. Nonetheless, Annihilation had a perturbed released in Britain, where it was absent from cinemas, supposedly for being too radical for the typical audience. Garland refused to make changes and it eventually debuted on Netflix.

The film follows an all-female expedition into the shimmer — a glossy rainbow coated area that forms following an impact event on the southern coast of the U.S. Inside, the crew attempt to locate others who had ventured in before them, but find vegetation and animals, and even perceived reality itself, mutated and warped beyond comprehension.

Annihilation is utterly creative and remarkable in so many ways, from the narrative, to the set dressing, sound design, visual effects, and beyond. Barrow and Salisbury’s score is of particular note. It is ever present and atmospheric from the onset, but swells into an ethereal haze, dense with synthesised sounds, as the film progresses, fashioning an exceptional nebulous soundscape which is truly befitting of the otherworldly imagery.

Film critic Devindra Hardawar said you will “miss out on the film’s epic scope and rich sound design” if you watch it on a TV or laptop, though he seems to disregard advancements in hardware. Whilst Annihilation was clearly made for the big screen, I don’t believe it is such a lost cause when viewed at home.

On the contrary, the film is perhaps best watched in utter seclusion, absorbed with some exemplary headphones that will safeguard you from any disturbances. Though it would have been a treat on the cinema screen, a closed environment may rather work to its benefit. In the stillness of my apartment, I found Annihilation utterly enthralling and, even on my laptop, it was likely one of the most immersive film experiences of my life. I have returned to watch the final act more times than I care to count, which I believe is testament to its artistry.


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#1. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

I was initially ambivalent toward Koreeda. Nobody Knows didn’t intrigue me as much as his reputation had led me to expect. Yet I watched Air Doll thereafter and fell so in love with it. This year I had the pleasure of seeing Shoplifters and now feel the director has perhaps a most wondrous filmography, of which I have barely scratched the surface.

Shoplifters — known as ‘Shoplifting Family’ in Japan — follows a family on the margins. They’re a ragtag group whose relationships to one another are vague and indirect, but they nonetheless form a unit. They live in an unassuming household far too small for them all, and support themselves day-to-day through shoplifting and part time work.

I am beginning to see Koreeda as a master of observation. His camera seldom intervenes; it rather lingers on the edges, framing delicate portraits, both hyperaware and understated. Shoplifters isn’t a flashy film in the typical sense, but it is profoundly intricate in how it is woven together, and in how Koreeda enables audiences to both empathise with and criticise the ensemble cast, who are attentively developed.

Though the characters are essentially criminals, Koreeda unravels their flawed complexions to such a fine degree that the film is stunningly layered. There is no right or wrong, or good or evil, here there are only people. The film speaks volumes on topics such as poverty, parenthood, and family, but Koreeda does not strive to provide an ‘answer,’ so to speak. It’s a beautifully told feature, plotted and staged so competently that it appears utterly spontaneous and natural, and even poetic in some instances.

The cast proffer their roles an enduring reality, ensuring the characters linger far beyond the runtime. Cate Blanchett spoke of how “intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision” at the Cannes film festival, which I think is an eloquent way to put it. A stand-out for me was Sakura Ando, in a role as mesmeric as her performance in 2014’s tour de force 0.5mm. Her character’s first dialogue is spoken whilst she isn’t even in shot, but in one of her final appearances, she essentially addresses the camera. This is the most overt example of the sheer magnitude in which these characters flourish as the film progresses. The latter scene is my most favourite in the entire film, and the moment I knew Shoplifters was my favourite feature of 2018. Sakura Ando here, in what is largely one take, is brilliant beyond measure. I cannot wait to watch Shoplifters again.


As ever, thank you dearly for stopping by. Unfortunately, I missed WildlifeWidows, and Roma, but I hope you found my choices compelling. These past twelve months shaped up to form an engaging year for film. I feel as though I’ve been saying this for the past two years, but soon we’ll finally see the release of Alita: Battle Angel — my most anticipated film for some time. I’ll be posting an in depth review when the time comes, and will continue to share many more film-related matters, so please swing by again, some time.

Happy New Year!

Movie Talk: Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I discovered Kenji Miyazawa’s novella Night on the Galactic Railroad just a couple of years ago, following the release of Shunji Iwai’s film A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. In the film, the protagonists’ internet handle is Campanella, after one of the central characters in Miyazawa’s work. This is a curious choice. Nanami, the character who uses the name online, comments that she is simply a fan of Miyazawa, but her handle seems to foreshadow her relationship with another character named Mashiro. Nanami and Mashiro’s relationship does bare some similarity to that of Giovanni and Campanella in Night on the Galactic Railroad, but ultimately Mashiro assumes Campanella’s semblance over Nanami. Looking at these characters in this parallel sort of way reveals another layer to Shunji Iwai’s film. I have always respected Iwai as a writer and I love that he references other art frequently in his work.

Night on the Galactic Railroad is perhaps Miyazawa’s most well known work, but was not actually published until a year after his death. It tells the tale of two young boys named Giovanni and Campanella, who find themselves aboard a train travelling through the cosmos. It’s major themes are death, happiness, and self-sacrifice. I have seen some other commentators describe Miyazawa’s philosophy as being naive, but I don’t believe another person’s sentiment can necessarily be defined in any unambiguous way. I’ve also read the author’s short work The Nighthawk Star and Signal and Signal-less and personally feel they are very profound in many respects, but it is Night on the Galactic Railroad that has stuck with me.

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Passages from the book are on my mind quite frequently and I have written previously about my favourite quotations. Given my adoration for this novella, I thought it was time I finally watched the 1985 anime adaptation. Now I’ve seen it, it is perhaps one of my most favourite book-to-film adaptations there have ever been. It’s a very respectful rendition, and contains all the poignancy and wonder of the book.

The source material is enriched by the haunting soundtrack, and despite the limited animation, there are some striking visuals. The main sequence with the Bird Catcher is a fine example of this. The plot occurs in segments, and unravels in a very steady and organic pace. It’s often ponderous and unhurried, but the segments are neither too brief nor too extensive, and neither are they unwarranted. Miyazawa’s sentiment and the themes of the original story have been handled and presented very tactfully.

There are many reflective passages in the book, which would have worked well as dialogue, but Giovanni’s monologue has been stripped down, with much emotion and sentiment expressed visually. I especially loved Giovanni’s fixed gaze as Campanella talks to the girl. In the book, Giovanni is very jealous, but here he comes across as solemn and melancholic.

I do think the book is more philosophical in areas (some of Miyazawa’s character’s are quite outspoken and inquisitive when they discuss topics such as happiness and pain) and it does present a greater sense of loss and sorrow in certain segments, but I appreciate the film’s more subdued and meditative approach all the same. It respects the audiences’ intelligence and rewards observation and thought.

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The scenes on the Galactic Railroad are of course most central, but I adored the first act and found almost all of the film mesmeric and enrapturing. Small little sequences, such as Giovanni spotting his classmates playing in the distance, but walking off broodily in the opposite direction, aren’t always the most prominent or memorable in written form, but here every scene seemed to have weight or an essence to it.

The plot is centered mostly around child characters, but its profundity is surely felt by audiences by and large. One of the biggest changes from the book to the film was to make almost all of the characters anthropomorphic cats. It seems a rather puzzling decision when you read it out like that, but somehow it feels so befitting of the story. Bizarrely, anthropomorphic cats have never appeared so human and so profound.

There are some tremendous ruminations in this film; it is beautiful and bittersweet; at once heartfelt and heartbreaking. Miyazawa’s words have transferred so brilliantly to the screen, and ultimately not only is this a fantastic adaptation, but also a fantastic companion piece to the original work.

Best Movies of 2017

It’s that time of the year again: the end. My arbitrary goal from last year was to watch over one hundred movies, and — somehow — I ended up watching two hundred. Of those some four hundred hours spent watching films, much time was dedicated to the motion pictures of this year. I feel it’s been quite an eclectic year for film, particularly the latter half. Thus, here is a list of my absolute favourites from the year gone by.

Before I begin, I must note…

Although it debuted in 2016, Silence is included on my list because it was released in the UK on the 1st of January. If I were to include films based only on their initial release date, that would exclude many of the late year U.S. releases, which don’t often make it to the UK before the year is over. An example this time around is The Shape of Water, which was released in the U.S. in December 2017, but isn’t out in the UK until February 2018.

Also, while I have seen a fair share of the most critically acclaimed movies this year, this is by no means an exhaustive list compiled after having scoured all contemporary cinema the Earth has to offer, thus it may be a recent film entirely deserving of merit is missing from my list. I ran into this problem last year with 20th Century Women, which I adore so much, but didn’t include in my top ten because I hadn’t seen it at the time. Nonetheless, I don’t want to get into the habit of retroactively altering my blog posts.

Now, onto the main event. As always, I’ll start off with a special mention, before working my way down from number ten to number one. Please enjoy!

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016.


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Special Mention goes to Bad Genius (Dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya)

Bad Genius just missed out on a spot in the top ten, but it left such an impression that I couldn’t let it go by unmentioned. In this film from Thailand, a group of students start gaming exams, which turns into a small enterprise with lucrative profits. However, as they gear up to cheat the international STIC exam in order to sell the answers, the risk becomes ever evident.

Bad Genius is a sort of caper movie — a heist thriller — only unlike any you have seen before. From beginning to end, it proceeds with tremendous panache. It’s slick and exciting, and doesn’t rely on any cheap flash-backs or sudden changes to the narrative arising from details previously hidden.

Come the end, it plays out as a sort of commentary on the education system in East Asia, and while the ending certainly seems divisive, it nonetheless feels part of the natural progression, and is skillfully built towards. I really loved the central character Lynn; she’s a young woman in conflict, who generally wants to do the right thing but is easily swayed. Certainly, this was one of the years most spine-tingling movies.


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#10. Good Time (Dir. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie)

I find Robert Pattinson to be a very captivating actor. Like Shia LaBeouf and Daniel Radcliffe, he could have easily been pigeonholed and typecast early on after being attached to a popular franchise, but has since amassed an impressive and diverse body of work, and Good Time is perhaps one of his most absorbing performances yet.

The film takes place over one night, and begins with Pattinson’s character and his brother botching a heist. The latter is captured, with Pattinson then grasping at straws to try and get him freed, which leads him on a series of escapades with a mixture of characters, each scrambling through the night.

Good Time has a terrific sense of immediacy — it’s shot mostly through a mixture of close ups, which gives it a frantic and almost intoxicating quality. The audience are pulled post-haste into an ever turbulent narrative, which grabs a hold of you, shaking, right up until the end. It’s an enchanting and visually alluring thriller, with Pattinson giving an intense and commanding performance.


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#9. A Ghost Story (Dir. David Lowery)

Out of all the movies this year, this is the one that gave me the shivers the most. A Ghost Story follows a bed-sheet-draped Casey Affleck, who arises after dying to observe the world as a spectre. At first he silently watches Rooney Mara’s character — the wife he left behind — but finds that, as a wandering soul, his sense of space and time is vastly different to a mortal being.

Casey has no spoken dialogue as a ghost, and his face is entirely obscured, but his disposition and emotions are communicated expertly through the camera and his movements — audiences really get a sense and feeling for this otherworldly presence, which I think is quite remarkable.

You must engage with A Ghost Story to get any sort of fulfillment out of it — the narration is about as far from classical as it gets. There are some scenes and shots in the film which force or implore the audience to ponder their inclusion, and think about why it is they’re watching what they are. It’s not the most accessible picture, but I found it incredibly absorbing. I’m trying to think of movies to compare it to, but I can’t quite make a connection. I felt it had a very profound uniqueness and imagination, and the fact that I’m still thinking about it months later is very telling. It takes a special kind of film to linger and abide.


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#8. Blade Runner 2049 (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

I feel Blade Runner 2049 was one of the most cinematic and atmospheric films this year — one of those pictures that goes beyond sole entertainment to become a sort of experience. I love that it’s a big budget, wide-release movie that takes its time to build and ponder its themes and ambiance. It respects the audiences’ intelligence, and is a very solemn and poignant piece of cinema that lingers long after viewing.

Set thirty years after the original film, audiences follow K, a Blade Runner played by Ryan Gosling who is tasked with eliminating rogue replicants. He himself is a replicant, and lives a structured life with a rather stern disposition, but his personality and a larger purpose begin to form when he stumbles upon a secret related to Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford’s character from the original film, whom he must locate.

Blade Runner 2049 has this miraculous and fascinating setting that feels almost contradictory — somehow very large and imposing, but at the same time small scale and intimate, where glimpses of the ‘off world’ remain glimpses. It’s very much a character piece, in which the focus remains almost entirely on Ryan Gosling’s character, with a tremendous sense of scope and wonder ever-present in the background. The sound is booming and dramatic, and the visuals are striking and at times lyrical. It’s a steady and unabating film, certainly one of the year’s most impressive, and a spectacular and awesome treat on the big screen.


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#7. Silence (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

I am a fan of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. I don’t consider myself a religious person at all, but found it nonetheless terrifically revealing and affecting. I actually picked up the book a couple of years ago after hearing that Andrew Garfield would be involved in a film version, so to see this now feels as though things have finally come full circle.

Endo’s novel is told mostly from the first-person perspective of Father Rodrigues, who is in tremendous conflict with himself throughout much of the novel. It is by no means an obvious or unambiguous tale, and Scorsese and Garfield have managed to portray the disharmony surrounding Rodrigues to a stunning degree. It is of my humble opinion that Father Rodrigues is one of Garfield’s best performances.

I don’t think Silence is a very accessible film, but for me it was everything I wanted. It’s an adaptation done right, that aptly captures all the conflict and profundity of the novel, whilst adding a little more detail here and there, confidently molding prose into a truly cinematic experience. It was a real treat to see Yosuke Kubozuka involved, too. He was one of the first Japanese actors I knew by name, after seeing him in Ping Pong almost a decade and a half ago.


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#6. Columbus (Dir. Kogonada)

I went into Columbus knowing very little about the plot or contents of the film, and it completely wiped me out. It’s a rather subdued picture — almost like a sleepier version of Lost in Translation. Haley Lu Richardson plays a young woman both astray and trapped, as she resigns herself to a life in Columbus to succour her mother.

She bonds with John Cho’s character, who is himself stuck in Columbus after his father falls ill. The two roam the city, observing architecture and making small talk, slowly developing a more sincere dialogue as they begin to fill a void in each others lives.

The film has some stunning aesthetics, with the beautiful and intriguing scenery of Columbus lending itself to several of the films most alluring shots, but it was Haley Lu Richardson who really stole the show. Her character has bottled up all her distress and worries for later attention, with the film gradually loosening the lid as it progresses. The ending scene in the car is seemingly burned into my mind — it left such an impression on me. It’s profoundly emotive and moving, but is composed in such a way that it’s subdued and almost pacifying. Columbus is such a beautiful and authentic tale, and I am very glad I went into it blind.


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#5. Logan (Dir. James Mangold)

The story of Wolverine and the X-Men has been told and developed on-screen to a point where it’s almost excessive, and yet here is a new entry that feels markedly bold and different. The X-Men have always overcome adversity, so to see the last remnants in such dire straits felt entirely refreshing. They are the underdogs in a whole new light.

After playing the character for almost two decades, Hugh Jackman gives it his all in this final outing as Wolverine, where an aging Logan is ready to hang up his claws for good until he finds kinship in a young mutant girl who is being hunted by a savage gang.

At a time where many of its counterparts are free of tension and stacked with quips, it’s nice to see a Hollywood comic book movie which dares to be bleak and somber and moody. The plot itself is relatively simple, but it carries so much weight through the characters. Logan benefits from eight movies of ‘backstory’ and emotional baggage, which steadily erupts throughout this entirely raw, tender, perturbing, rousing, mesmeric farewell of a film. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are heartbreaking.


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#4. Lady Bird (Dir. Greta Gerwig)

Saoirse Ronan is an absolute dream in this eloquently written coming of age drama, that is such a confident and striking debut from Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird is a film after my own heart, and one which seems to have touched the souls of many. My only remorse is that I can’t watch it again with a fresh mind.

Ronan plays the self-dubbed ‘Lady Bird,’ a somewhat oddball student in a Catholic high school who wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento. She’s an outspoken and often rebellious youth who values her individuality, who is frequently at odds with her mother, whom she shares a precarious but doubtless relationship with.

Although Lady Bird is essentially the tale of Ronan’s character, there are many layers and nuances to it, and while the supporting cast do not take the spotlight, they are nonetheless attentively written, well expressed, and very wholesome personalities, each embodying their own issues and identity. It felt similar in ways to last years 20th Century Women in its exploration of the mother-child relationship, which seems both dubious yet unbreakable. Saoirse Ronan elevates it to another level — although I am aware that I am watching the actress, Saoirse Ronan, performing as a character in a film; I am completely enraptured and lost within her performances, without fail. She is an incredible talent.


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#3. A Taxi Driver (Dir. Jang Hoon)

In their fight for proper democracy and representation, the people of South Korea have gone through numerous periods of strife, some of which led to violence and deadly conflict. A demonstration against the government in the city of Gwangju in 1980 turned into a merciless struggle when government troops intervened — ultimately shutting off the city and brutally attacking civilians.

In this film based on a true story, Song Kang-ho plays a taxi driver from Seoul who unexpectedly stumbles upon the bloodshed in Gwangju after ferrying a German journalist to the city. He struggles to come to terms with what he witnesses, and grapples with his survival and morals as he fluctuates between helping and escaping.

The film opens with Song Kang-ho singing along to a song by Cho Yong-pil, amid the escalating student demonstrations. It’s an excellent piece of characterisation right from the beginning — Song is an everyday man, somebody who lives day to day, without the luxury to worry about the larger picture. So when he is confronted with such an extreme situation, there’s a tremendous weight placed on his character, and Song portrays all the nuances of a man in conflict with both his surroundings and himself. His performance was completely entrancing, and the film itself was both a horror and a delight.


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#2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

I find Noah Baumbach to be a rather hit-or-miss director — a lot of people seem to like him, but I personally haven’t loved a film of his, that is until The Meyerowitz Stories. The film tells of a dysfunctional family led by Dustin Hoffman, whose three estranged children all received vastly different upbringings. As the family gathers to celebrate their fathers work, they begin to unravel and resolve past differences.

I knew I was going to love this film from very early on. There’s a scene about ten minutes in, where Adam Sandler’s character and his daughter duet on the piano. It is one of my favourite scenes in any movie this year. It’s so tender, portraying so much love and compassion between the two, but with Sandler revealing slight vulnerabilities and anguish just below the surface. It’s terrifically shot, and the embrace between them both just five minutes later pounded me right in the heart.

Adam Sandler is so wonderful in this film — the entire principal cast are, in fact. Hoffman is incredibly engaging, with such natural delivery and impeccable timing in his comedic scenes. Stiller is able to merge both charisma and anxiety, and Elizabeth Marvel masters a distressing temperament where, even in the more tranquil scenes, her character still looks vaguely dejected and burdened. It’s a very touching and bittersweet story about family dynamics, nurturing and legacy, and I loved it.


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#1. Okja (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Last year my top film was A Bride for Rip Van Winkle from Shunji Iwai, and this year it’s Okja from Bong Joon-ho. These are two filmmakers whom I adore very much. Like Iwai, Mr. Bong produces incredible work on such a consistent basis, but unlike Iwai, I find it extremely taxing to pick a stand-out favourite from Mr. Bong. His pictures do share similarities — mostly thematically — but they are, at the same time, so distinct and impressive for vastly different reasons.

With that in mind, I can’t say that Okja is my favourite film from Bong Joon-ho, but I can say with confidence that it is my favourite film of 2017. In it, a young Korean girl named Mija and her genetically engineered super pig Okja must evade the clutches of a pitiless corporation, who want to duplicate and harvest Okja’s meat for mass production. In ways, it’s an amalgamation of elements from Snowpiercer and The Host, chock-full with social themes and tonal shifts, disclosed through a eyes of a charismatic if quirky ensemble cast.

It tackles some heavy themes, but is balanced in its commentary. It’s anti-capitalist more so than anti-meat or anti-industry; the film opens with Mija capturing a medley of fish to eat, but she takes only the amount necessary and releases the others. Okja preaches moderation and ethics, but doesn’t overstep the mark to become heavy-handed or overbearing. It’s a critique disguised as an action-adventure tale, with a plot that is thrilling, layered and profoundly emotive.

The final act is so tremendously moving and well composed that I kept returning to it for weeks; it’s a very powerful film and hits all the appropriate beats, ensuring drama, action, pain and pleasure. Ahn Seo-hyun is entrancing in her first lead role, and holds her own against veterans Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano. Swinton is especially hypnotic in a duel role as the villainous Mirando twins — her antagonists have such personality and presence, and are somehow persuasive personas who are yet both detached and peculiar. This on-going collaboration between Bong and Swinton is another compelling entry into Mr. Bong’s impressive catalogue of actor-director partnerships. If you ask me, the director has yet to put a foot wrong.


There we have it. Another years goes by; what will the next one hold? When it comes to what I’m looking forward to in 2018, mostly I want to see Alita: Battle Angel. I am an enormous fan of the manga, and have been waiting for this adaptation for so long. A couple of details leave me anxious, but there were some promising moments in the trailer and the cast look terrific. I hope so much that it is a success.

Otherwise I am eager to see Duncan Jones’ new film Mute, along with Alex Garland’s Annihilation, both of which look most intriguing. I can’t wait to see The Shape of Water, and Thoroughbreds has my attention. I always look forward to anything with Andrew Garfield, so Under the Silver Lake is on my radar, which also stars Riley Keough. I am very interested in Wildlife, in which Paul Dano directs Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, and I am curious to see Vox Lux with Rooney Mara, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties with Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. I am also aching to see Ready Player One, The Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, and Jang Joon-hwan’s film 1987: When the Day Comes, which is about the tragic true story of Park Jong-chul.

I am sure I’ll be writing about all those and more in the coming months. As always, thank you dearly for stopping by, and please check in again for more movie related musings.

Happy New Year!

Movie Review: Death Note (2017)

Title: Death Note
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Willem Dafoe
Released: 25ᵗʰ August 2017


In the process of adapting a book or television show to film, there are undoubtedly numerous considerations. However, before deciding what material to exclude, what to include, and how your version will differ in getting from point A to B, the first point of call is surely to read, watch and understand the source material. Once you know what makes the original work so compelling and unique, you can focus on those components when moving it over to a different format.

This is a terrible adaptation, pure and simple. It’s an utter bastardisation of the Death Note manga and it’s anime adaptation, and barely resembles what it is apparently based on. It’s as though the original work were a third or fourth reference, rather than the immediate source.

The major issues are in the plot and characterisation. The original version of Death Note is a psychological thriller and part police procedural, in which law enforcement attempt to track down a seemingly supernatural serial killer known as Kira, who begins cleansing the world of criminals. But at it’s heart, it’s a game of cat and mouse, where Kira and an enigmatic detective named L exchange metaphorical blows as they strive to put an end to each other.

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The Netflix film contains none of what made the original so compelling — no cat and mouse play, no cunning machinations, and none of what you loved about the characters. It is vapid, with the Death Note itself a gratuitous weapon that exists simply to set up a series of elaborate and violent deaths as the movie crudely maneuvers from one beat to the next. Tsugumi Ohba, the original writer of Death Note, employed the notebook in involved and Machiavellian ways, but its use here is neither ambitious nor inventive.

The characters are a crowd of husks which exhibit very little range. Audiences enjoyed watching Light in the original for the same reason they enjoy watching Frank Underwood; because he is utterly devious, compelling and charismatic. This new interpretation is simply unremarkable, and L has devolved from a calculated and level-headed oddity into an irrational hothead who lacks any sort of distinctive personality.

The characters are wearisome and banal when following them should be thrilling. Willem Dafoe and Shea Whigham give respectable performances, but their parts are extremely minor and Ryuk has been reduced from an amusing and impartial observer to something resembling a devil on the shoulder, which takes away all his quirks and charm.

The story itself follows a similar premise as the original, but does not contain any of the same progression, set pieces, or plot points, and is utterly forgettable and at times so terrifically brainless. The plot is essentially complete within fifty-one minutes, and the rest of the movie is a very dismal, convoluted and ungainly effort to weave some twists and action into the film, which ultimately makes for a crudely dramatised and terrifically tedious culmination.

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It contains numerous holes and many scenes that appear very manufactured and coarse. It’s one of those movies were events occur and are set up in ways that make you question the integrity of the plot — it doesn’t have any fluency or sense to it. It is extremely rushed and hesitant with details, and appears more concerned with getting to the end rather than telling a coherent and developed tale.

For example, how serious is Light about cleansing the world of criminals? We don’t really know. Such little time is spent establishing the motivation and clout of Kira himself, and we barely even see Light write in the Death Note. Further to this, how can the law enforcement even reliably keep track of Kira’s victims when the vast majority appear as accidental deaths? How does Kira gain a following and become an entity unto himself? In the original, Kira’s victims are identifiable by their shared fate (sudden heart attack), which is not the case here. It’s as though the writers just expect you to follow along, without adding a sense of comprehension to the plot. It’s all very vague.

It’s difficult to take the movie seriously when it lacks so many components, no only from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective, but also as an adaptation. Events that were so astounding, atmospheric and dramatic in the original work are all too often glossed over or missed entirely here. There were so many opportunities, and the story was already written, it need only be condensed. How such an absorbing and well-plotted thriller was moulded into something so tedious and inadequate is beyond me. What’s even more insulting is the ending, which is a major cop out and seems to lead into a sequel. If two movies were planned, there is just no excuse for how rushed, yet barren this movie is.

So, is there anything that actually works in this film? Well, it’s competently shot. The cinematography is not bad, and some shots were quite alluring and stylish. The score was rather unexceptional, but it is passable, although the music played during the climax came across to me as rather cheesy. That’s about it, though. Even as a stand alone movie for someone unfamiliar with Death Note, it’s lusterless. The original work was so groundbreaking and captivating — it’s a travesty this adaptation exists. It is Death Note in name only.

Watched This Month: April 2017

Hello there. Welcome to Watched This Month. May is just around the corner, which means some of the years most anticipated movies are edging ever closer, although May itself doesn’t have too much to offer besides Alien: Covenant. But it’s difficult to gauge a real overview of the year, since there are so many worthwhile films that seem to pop up from nowhere. I wonder what this year’s unexpected hits will be. This month, I managed to squeeze in seven new releases, which include Colossal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Ordinary Person, The Boss Baby, The Discovery, The Fate of the Furious and Their Finest. On to the commentary!

Previous: March 2017

Film Rating
A Beautiful Mind (Dir. Ron Howard)

A biopic based on the life of John Nash, a Noble Prize-winning mathematician whose theories have influenced areas such as global trade and evolutionary biology. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are both mesmeric in this film, but I felt at times it failed as a biography due to certain liberties taken in order to streamline the plot.

It is indeed coherent and engrossing, but seems to follow a rough guideline of events rather than a detailed timeline. It’s more ‘based on’ than straight adaptation, but is nevertheless a fascinating film with performances alone enough to captivate and charm you through the runtime.

★★★☆☆
A Fistful of Dollars (Dir. Sergio Leone)

Sergio Leone’s unofficial remake of Kurosawa’s classic jidaigeki film Yojimbo. It’s a competent feature and Clint Eastwood is always very watchable, but it’s just too similar to Yojimbo to appraise on its own merits.

Here’s a fun fact — after the release of a Fistful of Dollars, Leone received a letter from Akira Kurosawa which read as follows: “I have seen your film and it is a very fine film, but it is my film.” Kurosawa demanded payment from Leone and the case was eventually settled out of court, with Kurosawa receiving 15% of A Fistful of Dollars’ worldwide box office.

★★★☆☆
Collateral Beauty (Dir. David Frankel)

Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena operate a successful business, but find themselves in dire straits when Will Smith’s character loses his daughter, forcing him into a deep depression. His co-workers then hire actors in an attempt to alleviate the situation.

Looking beyond the deceptive marketing, I felt Collateral Beauty was a solid, if unremarkable film. It’s not winning any awards, but was in essence a worthy melodrama. It has a terrific cast and a lot of heart, but tries to do and say too much in some roundabout and offbeat ways that don’t play out authentically. If reigned in slightly or honed in a particular direction, it had potential to be far greater.

★★★☆☆
Colossal (Dir. Nacho Vigalondo)

Anne Hathaway plays an unemployed alcoholic who’s forced to return to her home town after being kicked out by her boyfriend. There, she meets up with old pals and finds part time work, but struggles to quit her heavy drinking lifestyle, until she finally gains some perspective after realising she’s responsible for the kaiji currently destroying Seoul.

The first half of Colossal is creative and fun, but as though in an attempt to find purpose, it ventures down a wobbly path, swapping out comedy for heavy drama and messy metaphors. Nonetheless, it’s a very original film and worth watching despite its more off kilter moments. Anne Hathaway is brilliant.

★★★☆☆
Denial (Dir. Mick Jackson)

A historical drama based on the legal case between American historian Deborah Lipstadt and British author and renowned Holocaust denier David Irving, who sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books for libel.

It’s a classic courtroom drama, with terrific performances from both Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkison. Rachel Weisz was also riveting for the most part, but faded into the background somewhat during the second half. It’s competently shot — with a perpetually rainy London — and remains terrifically captivating throughout its duration, with organic dialogue and some brilliant rebuttals in the court sequences.

★★★☆☆
Destruction Babies (Dir. Tetsuya Mariko)

A nihilistic film about an eighteen year old boy who wanders Japan, picking fights and breaking noses. It’s an interesting premise that doesn’t really go anywhere — the entire film felt like an opening act. The characters are explosive and cynical, but Destruction Babies doesn’t really have a distinctive voice or anything particularly new to add to Japan’s cinematic catalogue of youthful rebellion.

It lacks the heart of the classic taiyozoku films and the impact of something like All About Lily Chou-Chou or Kids Return. I wasn’t a big fan of Nijiro Murakami either, whose performance felt rather stilted, but I applaud its depiction of violence, which felt raw and authentic.

★★☆☆☆
Guardians of the Galaxy (Dir. James Gunn)

Another superhero escapade, this time following a well-meaning group of ragtag aliens as they travel the cosmos in search of bounty and vengeance. I’m terribly burnt out on Marvel movies, but Guardians of the Galaxy was a pleasurable experience.

It does little to leave the mold, but the characters are incredibly charismatic and fun. I like that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, as I feel some of the other Marvel movies have a very awkward tone due to their jarring blend of drama and comedy. Here, the balance between comedy and drama is much more seamless, and all-in-all, it has a consistent and largely compelling pace.

★★★☆☆
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Dir. James Gunn)

Sequel to the much loved Guardians of the Galaxy, this time following the group as a more firmly established galactic defense force. Old favourites return and the cast expands with the introduction of Quill’s father, along with his companion and a new race.

Sadly, it doesn’t best the first installment, with a weaker villain and a more trying pace. There’s some great action, but also a lot of excessive colour and undue explosions. However, it succeeds in broadening its setting and characters — though there is an abundance of exposition — with Yondu a real stand-out. Ultimately, it’s a worthy sequel, but still doesn’t offer anything challenging or unexpected.

★★★☆☆
May 18 (Dir. Kim Ji-hoon)

Kim Ji-hoon’s decade old debut depicts the Gwangju Uprising, which saw thousands of citizens rise up against a brutal onslaught by South Korea’s government troops in 1980. The film is very evocative in its portrayal of the massacre, focusing in particular on the lives of some key — albeit fictionalised — people within the uprising.

It captures horror and despair, but also displays the unrelenting strength of community. Some circumstances were a little contrived and the romance aspect felt rather artificial, but it is nonetheless a striking film that does its duty as an educative and engaging piece of cinema.

★★★☆☆
Millennium Mambo (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)

A hazy, neon-toned chronicle from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, charting the life of Vicky, a young woman floating through a turbulent existence, torn between two men. It’s a lot more unfocused and itinerant than I expected, but was nonetheless a striking picture.

Shu Qi is both captivating and convincing as the leading character, who is introduced and bid farewell as a bit of an enigma. It’s wandering pace was at times hypnotic and at others tiring, but it has an ethereal quality rarely matched. It’s certainly a film I look forward to revisiting.

★★★☆☆
Moving (Dir. Shinji Somai)

A drama about a girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. The mother is thrilled, the father seems indifferent, but the girl is stuck in-between, struggling with emotions and sensibility. The anguish sends her on a rite of passage as she comes to terms with her new reality.

Moving is a remarkable film, with such a fluent and unspoiled pace. Emotions arouse and fester with terrific authenticity as the subject matter is attentively developed and explored. It never lays blame, which allows all characters to retain a degree of sympathy, but Tomoko Tabata who plays the young girl is a real stand-out, both ferocious and fragile. The last thirty minutes are truly spectacular in every sense of the word.

★★★★☆
Nerve (Dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost)

Video technology and connectivity are abundant, thus enter Nerve — a truth-or-dare styled mobile app in which users compete against each other for cash prizes, engaging in increasingly difficult challenges set by their ‘watchers’.

The premise certainly has potential, but ultimately I feel Nerve was just too vague and unfocused to really garner any true investment. An effort has been made to ground the film in reality, but the rules and plausibility of the game are extremely far fetched, making the plot seem too silly to engage with.

★★☆☆☆
One Hour Photo (Dir. Mark Romanek)

I remember first watching One Hour Photo when it was released on DVD in 2003. I was too young and callow to notice its subtleties and finer details then, but every time I have watched it since, Robin Williams’ Sy has stood out as such a terrifically formed character.

He is disturbed and at times frighteningly ominous, but is at the same time, pitiful and misunderstood. He’s a tragic miscreant, a societal outcast who lives his days unnoticed and unloved, with the late Robin Williams bringing such substance and finesse to the role. The actor once said he was drawn to Sy because he wanted to play a character so unlike himself, but he embodies the character with such tenacity and persuasion​, it’s surely one of his finest performances.

★★★★☆
Ordinary Person (Dir. Kim Bong-han)

Kim Bong-han’s sophomore feature tells of government corruption amid South Korea’s impending constitutional reform in 1987. Kang Seong-jin is a hotheaded Police Detective with a loving family, whose morals are questioned and stretched when government officials persuade him to fabricate the country’s first serial murder case.

Ordinary Person is one of those movies with the hardiness to travel down a bleak and desolate path, subjecting its protagonists to brutality and torture that isn’t necessarily warranted nor requited. It’s in this harshness that the film is terrifically organic and raw, with main character Seong-jin sporting a tremendous character arc — the film charting his odyssey with terrific clarity and vehement emotion.

★★★★☆
Rushmore (Dir. Wes Anderson)

Ambitious and well-spoken student Max — who attends the prestigious Rushmore preparatory school — finds himself enamored with new teacher Rosemary. He attempts to win her heart, turning to the father of two of his classmates for advice.

Wes Anderson’s sophomore feature contains all the charming eccentricity and lovable wit audiences have since come to expect. It’s such a pleasing film, with an indelible tone and an expert screenplay, featuring some of Mr. Anderson’s most memorable characters and dialogue. Schwartzman, Williams and Murray form such a humorous and fascinating love triangle, and the supporting cast is comprised of so many engaging, outlandish and memorable personalities.

★★★★☆
The Age of Shadows (Dir. Kim Jee-woon)

A thriller set in Korea during Japanese colonial rule. Lee Jung-chool is a member of the resistance turned police captain, whose allegiances are tested as he’s tasked with rooting out his old comrades.

The Age of Shadows was South Korea’s entry to the Oscar’s last year and finally I can see why. It’s a terrific film — tremendously gripping and cinematic, with fantastic cinematography, employing great use of shadow and light, alongside fabulous set design. It’s also very unpredictable, with some completely unexpected character deaths and the need for a lot of second guessing.

★★★★☆
The Boss Baby (Dir. Tom McGrath)

In a world where babies seemingly come into existence in their own world above the clouds, some find themselves more attuned than others — these are Boss Babies. Their mission is to ensure the love and attention of babykind isn’t being stolen away by other cute things, but recently puppies have begun to gain more prominence.

Thus, one particular Boss Baby is sent to the home of two Puppy Co. employees in order to learn about the unveiling of a new puppy that will surely capture love from the world over. It’s a rather standard animated tale that includes all the usual plot beats and fanciful comedy you would expect. It wasn’t drab, but it wasn’t remarkable. I wish Jimbo was given more screentime.

★★☆☆☆
The Discovery (Dir. Charlie McDowell)

The Discovery is an interesting premise gone wrong. It’s set in a reality where the existence of an afterlife has been scientifically verified, but it’s far from compelling science fiction or intriguing philosophy. It avoids discussions of science and an actual look into the state of society following such a revelation.

Instead, it focuses on an undeveloped love story that feels completely banal compared to its surroundings, with characters that don’t feel particularly organic. The perturbed trailer implied a tone that was completely absent from the actual film, which has led to much disappointment.

★★☆☆☆
The Fate of the Furious (Dir. Felix Gary Gray)

Street racing messiah Dominic Toretto is living the high-life on the lawless island of Cuba, hurtling around in flaming balls of metal by day and making love to his woman by night, until he’s whisked into another tale of conflict and cars, this time himself the adversary.

Definitely leave your brain outside for this one; the plot is wholly contrived and the set pieces — while entertaining — are completely absurd. At this point the franchise has almost become a parody of itself, but it’s a blast for what it’s worth. My major gripe is with the villain, who I found incredibly disengaging and shallow.

★★☆☆☆
The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster is set in a reality where single people are stigmatised and turned into an animal if they’re unable to find a new partner within 45 days. In this predicament is David, a sullen middle-age man whose wife left him for another man.

It’s a bizarre film with dialogue and characters intriguingly deadpan despite undertones of psychological horror, making it darkly comical. However, despite the fascinating premise and unconventional performances, I didn’t find The Lobster particularly engaging on first viewing. It’s interesting satire but I expected far more given the acclaim.

★★★☆☆
The Yellow Sea (Dir. Na Hong-jin)

Na Hong-jin’s second feature is a terrifically violent and superbly gripping thriller. Gu-nam, an ethnic Korean living in poverty in the Chinese city of Yanji, is thrown a lifeline after being offered money and passage to South Korea in order to carry out an assassination. It’s a bleak film with a sinuous plot that seems a little too convoluted on first viewing, but it all comes together masterfully in the end.

There are some contrivances and a bit of an over-reliance on shaky-cam (and Kim Yun-seok’s character — who at one point dispatches assailants with some meat on a bone — was absurdly superpowered) but it’s a remarkable and terrifically engaging film, with an incredible performance from Ha Jung-woo, who I find blends into almost every role he tackles.

★★★★☆
Their Finest (Dir. Lone Scherfig)

Set during the early years of World War II, before American involvement, a British film crew attempts to boost morale by making an inspiring picture based loosely on a true story.

All in all, it’s a very competent and watchable film, but I feel it discredits itself towards the end. All fiction is emotionally manipulative to a degree, but certain events in the final act felt terribly forced, abrupt and tasteless. As the result, the climatic drama just didn’t feel particularly persuasive. However, the cast were all very engaging and Bill Nighy is an absolute treasure.

★★★☆☆
What We Do in the Shadows (Dir. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi)

A frequently hysterical mockumentary about a group of vampires who share a New Zealand apartment, which also stars its two directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

It’s very naturalistic in its comedy, with the modern setting allowing for some brilliant absurdist humour given some of the vampires are hundreds of years old. The characters — eccentric as they are — feel tremendously authentic, expressing their dialogue and rapport with terrific plausibility.

★★★★☆

Twenty-three films this month, an improvement over last month’s nineteen. I can hardly recall where I found the time. Ninety-six for the year so far — looks like I’ll be reaching my goal in no time.

Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell

Title: Ghost in the Shell
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenplay: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt
Released: Mar 2017 (US & UK)


Well, what do you know. They’ve only gone and made a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. This would have been a dream come true for my teenage self, but sadly the Rupert Sanders film is a far cry from the original manga and its various incarnations.

The main problem with the new Ghost in the Shell is its simplicity. The 1995 film isn’t as philosophical as it’s often remembered being, but it has a meditative ambience and the idea of the ‘ghost’ is well expressed and worth pondering. Here, the ‘ghost’ is reduced to a simple noun — a word for an individual’s consciousness and nothing more. There is no commentary on humanity or singularity; in fact it bares such little weight on the plot, they could have done away with the concept of the ghost and simply given the principal character drug-induced amnesia. Here, the main theme is how actions rather than memories define a person.

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By doing away with the philosophy and changing the film into a mystery-vengeance story, where Motoko is the “first of her kind” and seeks answers about her obvious past, they’ve gone a well trodden and thoroughly uninspired route, which is bolstered by some terrifically mediocre writing that is filled with clunky exposition and many contrivances. At one point, the head of the company behind Motoko’s synthetics orders her to be terminated, after which there’s a disagreement between the head and a cybernetics doctor who clearly cares about Motoko. The company boss then instructs the doctor — the sole person who sympathises with Motoko — to do the honours. Where do you think this is going? It’s painfully predictable and lacks so much of the nuances present throughout the franchise.

There’s also a scene where the cybernetics boss says to one of his creations; “you came close, you freak.” I don’t know if the character is supposed to be a supercilious ass who doesn’t quite realise he made the ‘freak’ or if the writers just don’t think about the implications of certain dialogue. Either way, the dialogue is often heavy-handed, inconsistent and partial on details.

The plot itself is an amalgamation of various Ghost in the Shell products, but namely the 1995 film and the Stand Alone Complex series. There are a couple of shot-for-shot sequences that match well the aesthetic of Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation, along with some subtle references only fans of the franchise are likely to notice, but sadly they serve more as a reminder of better material than a homage. Still, the ‘shell’ is at least present. The world of Ghost in the Shell is fully realised and they include direct reference to the prevalence of cybernetic enhancements, though there is little commentary on transhumanism.

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The visual effects are top-notch and the practical effects and props made by Weta — though utilised far less than I expected — were impressive. I thought much of the cast had a good likeness to their anime and manga counterparts, too. Effort had gone into making Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk and Takeshi Kitano resemble their illustrated equivalents. The performances and the action scenes were satisfying, but nothing particularly applaudable.

One aspect that was tremendously unsatisfactory was the score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. I generally enjoy Mansell’s music and adore his work on The Fountain, but here the music just isn’t notable. It lacked a presence and was neither emotive nor thrilling. At certain points, it contains tiny fragments of Kenji Kawai’s original Ghost in the Shell score, but does not attempt to hone or replicate the composers enthralling sounds. Then, almost as a joke, Kawai’s prominent ‘Making of a Cyborg’ theme from the 1995 film is played during the credits, as if to say — this is what you could have had.

As a generic action movie, Ghost in the Shell is passable, but relatively unexceptional. However, as an adaptation of such a breathtaking and esoteric franchise, it misses the mark entirely. It is formulaic and devoid of any substantial philosophy — ultimately another great concept dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator. It’s frustrating, as the allusions to the prior material generally translate well to live-action, but the vast alterations and perplexing union of sources hindered what could have been a terrific film. They couldn’t even commit and go whole hog with the ending, which seemed to be going the direction of Oshii’s initial adaptation before fizzling away and becoming completely vapid. It seems the ghost was far too much for them.

Watched This Month: March 2017

Good day to you, wherever you may be. Welcome to Watched This Month. You may have noticed that I have been much more restrained with these posts lately. This is to make them a lot more readable and accessible. When I started Watched This Month over a year go, it was supposed to be concise and informative, but sometimes I would write so much that I felt the posts became unsightly and difficult to discern at a glance. So, from now on, anything I am particularly enamored with or irked by will likely have it’s own review in a separate post, while Watched This Month will return to its intended function as a terse and instructive monthly run-down. Hooray!

Previous: February 2017

Film Rating
20th Century Women (Dir. Mike Mills)

20th Century Women shows that, no matter how old, we are always coming of age, absorbing new traits and moulting others. Continually, we gain fresh knowledge and learn about new things, all the while imparting and perfecting our wisdom as we traipse through a turbulent existence. It is a film about growing and living, depicting the relationships and the fleeting emotions that form our lives.

I feel like I could have sat through many more hours of those wondrous Californian vistas, accompanied by that dreamy principal theme, observing those truthful people, with their routine thoughts and emotions that feel so keen and touching and real.

★★★★★
A United Kingdom (Dir. Amma Asante)

A biopic chronicling the events leading to the formation of Botswana, following the lives of Prince Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, who shook the world by going against their families and culture in order to marry one another. It’s a fulfilling film that is both entertaining and instructive, as biographies should be.

I felt it lacked quite tremendously in the initial development of Seretse and Ruth’s relationship — a proposal is made within what seemed like the first fifteen minutes — but David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike truly embody their characters and make a terrific pair. Nothing seems too manufactured and the film displays well the conflict between emotion, politics and society.

★★★☆☆
Beauty and the Beast (Dir. Bill Condon)

Neither astonishing nor stagnant. Beauty and the Beast tells a complete and mostly content tale that is at times amusing and at others pedestrian, but it doesn’t offer anything you won’t find in the animated fable. Emma Watson was mostly agreeable, but largely forgettable and Dan Stevens as the Beast felt a little hollow to me, but otherwise the cast are the film’s biggest draw and many of the characters are very charismatic and enjoyable to watch.

The songs were neither too sparse nor too abundant, but they seemed to me — like most Disney music — more a show of falsetto and some easy exposition rather than anything particularly creative or even intriguing, though the choreography was quite eye-catching, at times. It’s all very Disney and knows well its target audience, which sadly isn’t me.

★★☆☆☆
Breathe In (Dir. Drake Doremus)

A largely convincing drama about an exchange student who begins to fracture the relationships of her host family by falling for the sullen husband, who dreams of the perceived freedoms of his former life and desires to be whisked away. As wrong and deceitful as their romance is, it was well developed and felt very authentic and sympathetic to a degree.

It explores well the fluctuations and fragility of the heart and though Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones are the clear focal points, their romance doesn’t feel one-sided and the film portrays very keenly the needless despair and anguish inflicted upon loved ones due to betrayal and duplicity. However, there are some coincidences in the plot that feel slightly contrived and the ending leaves a little to be desired.

★★★☆☆
Cafe Noir (Dir. Jung Sung-il)

A colossal three and a half hour film about a man who roams the streets of Seoul after breaking up with his lover, whose husband had just returned from overseas. Some of its imagery is rather pretentious, but ultimately it’s a majestic tale of love and loss, with cinematography and dialogue so captivating I would have gladly watched another hour.

The main character played by Shin Ha-kyun is like the French archetypes of the New Wave, a romantic loner who is rather tragic and almost nihilistic. There are also some tremendously long shots; in one a character charmingly recounts the tale of her past love over eleven minutes. It’s a mesmerising picture with some striking sequences, but certainly not for everybody.

★★★★☆
Chang-ok’s Letter (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

A series of shorts produced by Nescafe, featuring the talents of Bae Doona and Shunji Iwai; two of my favourite people. Bae plays a housewife at the beck and call of her family, who rarely show her their appreciation. Her mother-in-law purposely makes her life difficult, but Bae pushes on regardless, living a selfless existence.

It includes many long takes that exemplify Iwai’s quaint camerawork, as we weave around the cast in fluid and unobtrusive motions. The cast act out these theater-esque scenes with great naturalness, as Iwai builds an understated but nonetheless moving portrayal of an ordinary family divided. It’s masterful, as ever. I loved the final tinges of melancholy.

★★★☆☆
Get Out (Dir. Mike Mills)

A young black man goes with his white girlfriend to visit her family for the first time, only to find them and their acquaintances bemusingly unsettling. Get Out is a movie I watched based entirely on the positive word of mouth — I avoided all trailers and synopsis. Initially I felt the characters were a little too outlandish, which made them seem rather unauthentic, but this was clearly the point as it built a brilliant sense of uneasiness and irregularity.

I felt the film was masterful in its suspense; it was able to maintain a particularly disconcerting atmosphere throughout. It was also well written, with dialogue that plays with your preconceptions, though I do have some gripes with certain character motivations and wasn’t entirely behind the final act. All-in-all a decent thriller with a couple of horror elements, but I didn’t feel it lived up to the hype.

★★★☆☆
Ghost in the Shell (Dir. Rupert Sanders)

As a generic action movie, Ghost in the Shell is passable, but relatively unexceptional. However, as an adaptation of such a breathtaking and esoteric franchise, it misses the mark entirely. It is formulaic and devoid of any substantial philosophy — ultimately another great concept dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator.

It’s frustrating, as the allusions to the prior material generally translate well to live-action, but the vast alterations and perplexing union of sources hindered what could have been a terrific film. They couldn’t even commit and go whole hog with the ending, which seemed to be going the direction of Oshii’s initial adaptation before fizzling away and becoming completely vapid. It seems the ghost was far too much for them.

★★☆☆☆
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

After being institutionalised, a girl who believes she’s a cyborg sets about trying to lose her sympathy so she can wreak vengeance on the white suits who took her grandmother away to a sanitarium. I’m a Cyborg is a very peculiar film that is at times funny and charming, but it was far from as engaging as Park Chan-wook’s other work.

It focuses less on plot and more on its characters and their interactions, and while the characters are quirky and unpredictable, they are essentially caricatures and are compelling mostly on surface level. The film has some great moments of comedy and delight, along with a couple of tender scenes with the two main characters, but it grows tedious and ultimately lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

★★☆☆☆
Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Mike Mills)

A glimpse into the life of a struggling folk musician. In ways, Inside Llewyn Davis reminded me of a Shunji Iwai movie with its meandering plot and expert use of soft focus. It is perhaps the Coen brothers’ most poignant film, with tragic character Llewyn David played with tremendous finesse by Oscar Isaac.

The movie saunters between encounters as Llewyn struggles to subsist, presenting a wandering pace that may deter some viewers, but Llewyn’s life unravels with such terrific emotion and spontaneity that it’s easy to become lost in his world. The dialogue and the characters are very reflective, ultimately forming a splendid film with striking introspection.

★★★★☆
Jack Reacher (Dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

A competent if predictable action movie, in which Tom Cruise stars as the eponymous Jack Reacher — a former Military Police Corps officer hell bent on tracking down a sniper who murdered five innocent civilians.

The action is engaging and there are some terrific surprises within the cast (Werner Herzog plays the topmost villain) but it’s rarely daring and sticks to a very linear, undemanding plot that is full of tropes. Decent for its demographic.

★★☆☆☆
Kong: Skull Island (Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

If you want to see a giant ape punching helicopters out of the sky and slamming creepy two-legged lizards into a mountain, then this is the film for you. There is much spectacle in Kong: Skull Island, but sadly not much else. The cast are impressive, but struggle to breathe much life into the undeveloped characters.

Much of the dialogue is woeful, with an eerie tone jarringly interrupted by frequent occasions of comic relief. While the action is thrilling, it is at times gratuitous and oddly out of place, with character deaths included at regular intervals to seemingly appease the lowest common denominator. There’s not much in the way of intelligence and originality here, but there’s a giant ape kicking ass so who cares.

★★☆☆☆
Logan (Dir. James Mangold)

An exemplary send off for both the Wolverine and Professor X characters, with incredibly moving themes of depression and hopelessness, handled with accuracy and care. It’s in stark contrast to the other X-Men movies, with characters weak in body and mind and a lot of very authentic human drama. Jackman and Stewart are the clear stand-outs and have the best characterisation.

The only thing that irked me was the plot concerning the mutants’ safety across the border. It felt very simplified and shallow to grant them immunity from such ruthless villains just because they passed into a different territory. Nonetheless, Logan is a tremendous picture. It likely won’t be the last X-Men movie, but it would be so bittersweet and poignant if it were — that last shot is impeccable.

★★★★☆
Paterson (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Paterson is a film with a stunningly pensive ambience. It’s introspective and meditative, not so dissimilar to Inside Llewyn Davis, though the two central characters are opposites. Whereas Llewyn sought fame as a singer-songwriter, Paterson is a talented poet but remains content simply creating art, never sharing it. We follow his life for a week, watching him converse with his wife, meet people walking the dog, and observe the world from the drivers seat of a bus.

Paterson is juxtaposed well with his wife Laura and the character is well articulated and developed through his mannerisms, dialogue and the set decoration — there isn’t any contrived or particularly obvious exposition; the city and its inhabitants uncoil very organically. It’s a leisurely film without an overarching plot, but it has a beautiful and understated message about the creativity of individuals.

★★★★☆
Split (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

The apparent resurgence of M. Night Shyamalan. Split is definitely one of his more engaging films, with James McAvoy playing a man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder, whose dangerous alters begin to take over. I felt it started a lot stronger than it ended, with the final act becoming almost comical and more fantasy than thriller.

I also feel it’s a film that suffered from oversaturation — the marketing gave away far too much. Nevertheless, it’s a solid film from a director who proves he has some amount of genius left. The two central performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy were also rather brilliant and very persuasive. The last scene was a little hokey, but also curious at the same time.

★★★☆☆
Spring Breakers (Dir. Harmony Korine)

A group of teen girls can’t afford to go on spring break, so they decide to rob a diner. Armed with sledgehammers and pretend guns, they motivate themselves with rudimentary dialogue about pretending to be in a video game. It’s all so shallow and gratuitous, with characters that barely possess a conscience.

Half the movie is monologue and ambience, with an abundance of intercut shots and a montage here and there — it creates a sort of video diary effect where the film is more a sequence of events rather than anything with substance. It’s horribly pretentious and the characters are irritating and frivolous. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

★☆☆☆☆
Stoker (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

A terrific tale of innocence lost. India Stoker has just turned eighteen, but is met with the news that her father has been involved in a fatal traffic accident. Shortly thereafter, an uncle she never knew existed comes to stay. While initially cold towards him, India grows curious and fascinated by this enigmatic man and his motives. Stoker is gorgeously shot and rich with symbolism — it’s tantalising to observe and enjoyable to interpret.

Chung Chung-hoon continues to offer much allure as Chan-wook’s cinematographer in residence and the script — penned by Wentworth Miller — unravels with tremendous intrigue, never revealing too much or too little. The main cast all hold their own as mesmeric, morally ambiguous characters and a number of scenes are very briskly edited, creating a spine-tingling succession of imagery. It’s bewitching on many levels and feels as though it will charm all the more with every viewing.

★★★★☆
The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

A biographical film following the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who made a fortune through corruption and fraud. It’s a movie absolutely held up by its performances, with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill terrifically charismatic and entirely captivating. I thought DiCaprio displayed an even more tremendous calibre here than in The Revenant.

The plot and the dialogue developed and unfurled very naturally, with the lengthy runtime going by in an instant. The characters are crooks and fraudsters, but Scorsese and co. entice viewers through curiosity. It’s a fascinating tale with remarkable magnetism, told with incredible passion, ferocious drama and rapturous wit.

★★★★☆
Undulant Fever (Dir. Hiroshi Ando)

An adaptation of Kei Nakazawa’s early novel When I Sense the Sea. It’s a tale of love, sex, femininity and perversion, with leading actress Yui Ichikawa giving a stellar performance. The narrative swaps between past and present as the central relationship is examined at a rather leisurely pace, with many long takes and static, observant camerawork.

It’s an interesting film, with a great depiction of the struggles and undulating emotions that come with romance, but it isn’t particularly engaging. Though I do admire it’s quiet, watchful moments; there’s less a reliance on dialogue than there is on the visuals and the expression of silence.

★★☆☆☆

Nineteen films this month and over seventy for the year so far. I’m well on my way to that one hundred goal and we’re not even half way through the year! See you next time.

Movie Review: 20th Century Women

Title: 20th Century Women
Director: Mike Mills
Screenplay: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Released: Dec 2016 (US), Feb 2017 (UK)


“My mom was born in 1924. When she was my age, people drove in sad cars to sad houses, with old phones, no money or food or televisions. But the people were real.”

20th Century Women shows that, no matter how old, we are always coming of age, absorbing new traits and moulting others. Continually, we gain fresh knowledge and learn about new things, all the while imparting and perfecting our wisdom as we traipse through a turbulent existence. Never stationary, we come to terms with past experiences and see old memories anew, forever revealing new layers of ourselves. No one is too old nor too young to teach or to learn. 20th Century Women is a film about growing and living, depicting the relationships and the fleeting emotions that form our lives.

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Annette Bening is mesmerising as Dorothea, a single mother attempting to understand and nurture her son in a time that seems so distant from her own childhood. She’s backed by two younger women, each with stunning individuality who are going through their own instability.

The film possesses such a terrific authenticity, which is bolstered by its use of prose and historic footage. It deftly avoids contrivances with a cast of well-written, fully-fleshed out personalities who embody their own thoughts are desires, and the cinematography and production design capture well the ambience of the late 1970s.

The plot unravels with great finesse and fluidity, with dialogue that is tremendously pensive and poignant. It’s depiction of the highs and lows and the confusion and comprehension of life is so fervent and genuine — it’s one of those movies that goes far beyond sole entertainment.

I feel like I could have sat through many more hours of those wondrous Californian vistas, accompanied by that dreamy principal theme, observing those truthful people, with their routine thoughts and emotions that feel so keen and touching and real.