Saturday, 31 December 2016


It's almost the end of another year and that means it's time for the blog post which literally none of you have been crying out for. Of all the films I watched in 2016 here are my favourite ten and, as before, they're in alphabetical order.

I've almost certainly missed films which are just as great as those listed below so I apologise for not catching those and I'm happy for all of you out there to suggest other gems released this year which I should see (for instance, American Honey is already on my list).

Please don't ask me to decide which one of these I liked the most - it was difficult enough to pick a final ten.


It took a while for a really good sci-fi film to, ahem, arrive on our screens this year but when it did it was something special. Denis Villeneuve's smart "first contact" movie doesn't skimp on the effects but they don't overwhelm the proceedings. The film isn't at all concerned with widescreen destruction of entire cities so if you're looking for a variation on Independence Day this isn't it.

Arrival is much more of a thriller, putting Amy Adams' language expert front and centre as she attempts to decipher why aliens have set up camp all over Earth and, more pressingly for the authorities, what they may be about to do. This generates its own tension but Villeneuve rarely goes for the obvious shocks or reveals, apart from the suggestion that the biggest danger to humankind may be humankind itself. Even so, that's deftly handled and as the movie heads towards its climax there's an increasing sense of fear that the destruction of the planet could be triggered by almost anyone or anything.

This also has a mindbending resolution to the plot which, chances are, you're going to either love or hate. For me, the realisation of what it all meant was a really magical moment of discovery. The information was all in front of me but when it was finally explained my first thoughts were "Yes, of course" followed by all of the emotional ramifications which of course I'm not going to spoil it. Adams is as dependably excellent as usual, Renner's performance is every bit as accomplished and Villeneuve extends his run of impressive movies.


The economics surrounding the collapse of the U.S. mortgage market don't immediately appear to be the basis for an especially riveting movie but The Big Short manages to spin all of the number-crunching and financial market trading shenanigans into a riveting and darkly comic yarn.

The devices for explaining the technical jargon may not be to everyone taste but personally I liked the whole concept of "yeah, this might be quite boring to you, would it better if Margot Robbie talked about it while sitting in a bubble bath?". At the same time, the film's hinting that you should be interested in this without the Margot Robbie visual aid. I enjoyed Margot Robbie explaining it to me. I'm a dumbass.

That aside, there's plenty of snappy dialogue, great performances abound (Christian Bale is almost unrecognisable from his Batman days as a hedge fund manager who dressed like a beach bum) and the story never loses sight of the fact that the real losers in the whole sorry affair were millions of people like you and me.


Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to Blue Ruin may not quite have the distinctive vision and impact of that film (very few things do) but it still packs one hell of a punch as Anton Yelchin's punk band The Ain't Rights find themselves fighting for their lives against Patrick Stewart's band of neo-Nazis in a remote concert venue.

Green Room sets itself up nicely by giving the audience just enough time to get to know the band before plunging them into a nightmare where we feel the shocks more because very bad stuff is happening to people we like. The tension is almost unremitting, there's some startlingly gory violence and it has an entertaining way of dispatching its characters in an order you may not be expecting.

Patrick Stewart is excellent as a calm, cold and calculating villain and he looks like he had a great time making this. Imogen Poots' resourceful and spiky punk girl is a delight and Anton Yelchin shows just what a talent (not to mention a huge loss) he was.


For a novel that was thought by many to be unfilmable, director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump managed to craft a coherent, sharp, amusing and vastly entertaining adaptation of JG Ballard's allegorical tale of haves and have-nots struggling to co-exist in a high-tech tower block.

Packed to the rafters with excellent performances, notably from Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Elizabeth Moss, this is a hedonistic mindfuck of a movie painted in vividly garish splashes. It's hilarious and unnerving, often at the same time, and cements Ben Wheatley's position as one of the most fascinating directors out there right now. Clint Mansell's score is terrific too.


Initially I wasn't going to include short movies in the list but Katie Bonham's Mindless is so impressive that it would have been ridiculous of me not to. This focuses on Peter (Nicholas Vince), a middle-aged man suffering from dementia whose house is in fresh disarray each day when his carer Judy (Kate Danbury) arrives. Peter insists the damage was not caused by him but what other explanation could there be?

Mindless is a shining example of what can be achieved on a low, low budget, eschewing jump scares and gore in favour of characterisation and atmosphere. It's unhurried, perfectly-paced and thoughtful, boosted further by first-rate work from Vince who is able to elicit both sympathy and suspicion.

Not only did Katie Bonham direct but she also wrote the screenplay which deftly weaves social commentary into its horror trappings and leaves you with plenty of food for thought long after the final rewarding reveal. It's a fantastic achievement and demonstrates the wealth of film-making talent we have in the UK. I'm eagerly awaiting Mab, which is Katie's next short. And you should be eagerly awaiting it too.


Arguably the most divisive film of the year, Nicolas Winding Refn's take on the fashion industry upset some people, confused some people, bored some people and thrilled some people. I loved it, which should come as no surprise because it's here in a list of my top ten films.

NWR will probably enjoy the fact that, although The Neon Demon is firmly entrenched in my Top Ten of 2016, I can only recommend it with extreme caution. The final act launches into a series of button-pushing moments which will either amuse or offend and there's one particular sequence involving the amazing Jena Malone where the fight or flight response of the audience is cranked up to 11 (for two people at the screening I attended it was definitely "flight", accompanied by loud complaints all the way to the exit).

Hey, if people are walking out of a movie how could I not love it to bits? And yet, even with all of the depravity taking place on screen, I did get the feeling of being played by a director laughing up his sleeve at how far he's decided to push me. And I have no problem with that. Bring it on!


2016 got off to a somewhat ferocious start thanks to Alejandro González Iñárritu's immersive wilderness nightmare which sees frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, nothing short of incredible here) relentlessly pursue the man who murdered his son. Not even a terrifying - not to mention up close and graphic - bear attack will stop him.

From the opening sequence in which the hunting party tries desperately to reach the safety of their boats as they are attacked by Arikara Indians, The Revenant puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures a dizzying number of "how the hell did they do that?" set-pieces and at two and a half hours it's an exhausting experience but an unforgettable one.

Totally deserving of its Best Actor, Director and Cinematography Oscars, this is a film which, on the big screen, took my breath away. Like the landscape in which it's set, The Revenant is stark, brutal yet somehow beautiful. An astonishing achievement.


After Excision and Suburban Gothic, Richard Bates Jr. makes it a hat-trick of must-see movies with this beyond pitch-black yarn about the somewhat abrasive Owen (Adrien Grenier) who decides to pull himself together, make his relationship with partner Isabel (Angela Trimbur) work and, reluctantly, build bridges with what remains of his estranged relatives.

Now I've made this sound like a fairly standard relationship drama let me stop you right there and say that the word "standard" is that last term you should attempt to apply to Trash Fire. It's a hugely enjoyable blend of drama, black comedy and horror which features the most excoriating, brutal yet laugh-out loud funny dialogue of the year. You'll be in situations where you'll want to use one of a dozen lines from this but you won't dare.

Grenier and Trimbur are thoroughly engaging as the central couple attempting to deal with the increasingly bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves, as well as also having to deal with Owen's daunting grandmother (superbly played by Fionnula Flanagan) who has a knack of casually tossing out stinging and jaw-droppingly offensive remarks to all and sundry. Funny, creepy and with an ending I didn't see coming (though you might), this is another glimpse into the brilliantly skewed world of Richard Bates Jr. I can not wait for his next movie.


A real diamond in the rough and, for me at least, the standout film at this year's Abertoir Festival, this takes the idea of The Invisible Man and sends it in a number of intriguing directions, ultimately paying off in an incredibly satisfying way.

The Unseen touches upon many familiar themes (estranged parents, troubled teenagers, small town life) but gives them a fresh, interesting, lo-fi spin and the lack of histrionics throughout makes for an involving and effective story that, like its main character Bob Langmore (wonderfully played by Aden Young), has real heart and emotional depth under its grungy exterior.

The film doesn't descend into a Hollow Man-style effects extravaganza either and is all the better for it. We're given glimpses of Bob's condition along the way and this makes the eventual big reveal all the more startling and impressive. For those of you who wouldn't normally "do horror", give this one a whirl, I think you'll really enjoy it.


Another standout movie from this year's Celluloid Screams festival in Sheffield, this is a cautionary tale about Miles Grissom, a man who's so scared of there being no prospect of life after death that he offers a reward for irrefutable proof there's something on the other side. Predictably he gets his fair share of wild claims but he narrows down the field to three people who may be able to provide an answer.

We Go On has the feel an old-fashioned, plot-driven chiller given a very modern slant and proves that cramming dozens of CGI monsters and jump scares into a film is never a match for great ideas and atmosphere. There's some genuinely marrow-freezing stuff in We Go On (and one genuinely awesome WTF? moment) but this kind of thing only works if you're invested in the characters and at the beating heart of it all is the winning double act of Clark Freeman and Annette O'Toole as Miles and his formidable mother.

I should also mention the performance of Jay Dunn as Nelson, who becomes more and more important to the story as it, er, goes on. I'm going to spoil this no further because fans of both horror films and movies in general should seek this out. It's a finely-crafted, brilliantly structured mix of chills, laughs and drama and for a movie which is so much about death the focus is ultimately on how amazing life is.


And here's another ten, all well worth tracking down and all in alphabetical order:

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe - André Øvredal's classy exercise in suspense sees the father and son team of Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch carry out a post mortem which starts off in creepy fashion and only gets more scary as it goes along. The leads are excellent, the mystery is intriguing and the tension is cranked up expertly.

Ghostbusters - Not only did this not ruin my childhood, I thought it was very good indeed, pointing up the comedy and banter between the ghoul chasing team while still containing a pleasing amount of supernatural action. So what if the Ghostbusters are women? Why would you fixate on that? Also, if you don't like Kate McKinnon in this you're just looking for things to complain about.

Hail, Caesar! - This is prime Coen Brothers material as a number of crazy plots unfold around a movie studio at which Josh Brolin's fixer cuts a constantly unflappable dash. With George Clooney having a blast playing an absolute dolt, Alden Ehrenreich warming up for young Han Solo as a charismatic singing cowboy and Ralph Fiennes as a hilariously exasperated director, what more could you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked, because it's also got Channing Tatum in the best song and dance number you'll have seen in a long time.

I, Daniel Blake - If you're not angry before you watch Ken Loach's unflinching, impassioned howl at the benefits system here in England, you may very well be afterwards. This isn't a feelgood movie by any means but it's one which deserves to be seen and shows how an utterly frustrating, bureaucratic and demeaning process can take its toll on those who are unfortunate enough to be caught up in it.

The Love Witch - Anna Biller's beautiful, bizarre take on Technicolour melodramas of previous decades with some big laughs, Wiccan practices aplenty and fine performances from the stunning Samantha Robinson as the title character and Gian Keys as the detective investigating the mysterious goings on. 

Nocturnal Animals - Amy Adams again, this time as a gallery owner in Tom Ford's "story within a story" which moves back and forth between Adams' personal life and the tale within the novel her ex-husband has just completed and has given her to read. The shocks here are resonant and the cast is top-notch, including Michael Shannon who, let's face it, is marvellous in everything.

The Stylist - Jill Gevargizian's fabulous, gorgeously-lensed short about a visit to the hairdresser's that takes a horrible and gruesome turn. An even more expansive, more thoughtful, more accomplished follow-up to previous short Call Girl, which was pretty damn good in its own right. 

Sing Street - A joyful, funny coming of age tale set in Dublin during the 1980s, this is the sort of movie a lot of people think someone like me doesn't like. Well, I really liked this. It's the classic "boy tries to impress girl" story only this one has an album's worth of great tunes and a convincingly clunky portrayal of awkward teen romance.

Swiss Army Man - Or, to put it another way, the "farting corpse movie". A very dead Daniel Radcliffe washes ashore to help Paul Dano's castaway find his way back to civilisation and learn about himself in the process. It's a strange, surreal, sweet journey which is definitely worth taking. And there's a Dano/Radcliffe cover version of the Jurassic Park theme. You've got to see it now I've told you that.

The Witch - I first saw this in 2015 but as I also saw it again in 2016 I'm allowed to include it. Robert Eggers' slow-burning period piece (complete with olde-worlde dialogue) drips with dread from start to finish and builds to a stunning climax which is likely to alienate as many as it delights. Outstanding performances too from Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and newcomer (at the time) Anya Taylor-Joy.


Cat Sick Blues - People walking out of the cinema? Someone sobbing audibly through an entire sequence? Yes, all of this and more happened when I watched this movie and I'm not going to sugarcoat it, Cat Sick Blues is a challenging film. It's also incredibly well-made and although it's been a couple of months now since I saw it I still can't shake it. This should be a clue as to whether you want to see this or stay well away.

Friday, 30 December 2016


Starring: Najarra Townsend, Jennifer Plas
Writer: Eric Havens
Director: Jill Gevargizian

Lonely hairstylist Claire (Townsend) has one more client she must attend to before closing the salon for the day. Mandy (Plas) is that client and her aim is to create a lasting impression at a work-related party so all she needs is to "look perfect". What Mandy isn't aware of is that Claire has a somewhat different look in mind...

A while back I reviewed Jill Gevargizian's previous short movie Call Girl and thoroughly enjoyed it, closing by saying how much I was looking forward to The Stylist. Was the wait worth it? Absolutely.

Everything about The Stylist feels like an evolution of the previous piece and that's saying something because Call Girl was pretty damn good. The visuals are even more gorgeous, with the distinctive colour scheme perfectly matching the mood of the piece. It's one of the most, ahem, stylish films - short or otherwise - you'll have seen in a while.

Also, whereas I found Call Girl to be a brash, full-on, wham-bam kind of short with an amusingly bloody exclamation point at the end, The Stylist allows itself to breathe a little more, to leave more questions unanswered, to leave clues as to what may be going on in Claire's head but not tell. It's a confident approach which left me wanting to see how her story continues.

That's not to say it's all suggestion, there's some overt horror too as things take a supremely gruesome turn. I won't actually say what happens but you might wince. As with the rest of the film it's attractively shot, it also happens to be pretty disgusting at the same time - a combination of which I fully approve.

In the lead role, Najarra Townsend is splendid, giving Claire just the right mix of strength and vulnerability as well as a slightly distant quality where I felt the character wasn't fully connected to her surroundings. This could have been overplayed but it isn't, Claire feels like someone real and without wishing to drown this review in spoilers it's the kind of part which could be taken to extremes in less careful hands.

In short (sorry about the pun), it's another winning Eric Havens script brought to vivid life by the exceptionally talented Jill Gevargizian and it's currently playing on the Shudder streaming service, which you can subscribe to for free on a trial basis - if nothing else you'll get to see this chilling and rather fine fifteen minutes of beauty and blood. The only thing that's left for me to say is: how long do I have to wait for Ms Gevargizian's next film?

Saturday, 24 December 2016


Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Writer: Jon Spaihts
Director: Morten Tyldum




Okay, I'm going to quote imdb's brief description of the plot of Passengers, which is as follows: A spacecraft travelling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Spacecraft travelling to a distant colony planet? That's true. Transporting thousands of people? That's also true. Malfunction in its sleep chambers? Well, there's initially a malfunction in one of the sleep chambers and, as a result, mechanic Jim Preston wakes 90 years too early. And it's true that two passengers are awakened early but the sleep chamber of Aurora Lane (Lawrence) malfunctions because Preston faffs around with it.

So why does he faff around with it? Well, after a year of wandering the ship with only android barman Arthur (Sheen) for company he takes a shine to Aurora, reading up on her from the files on the ship and hanging around her sleep chamber. Not creepy at all. So, despite the fact that Preston knows that bringing Aurora out of her sleep will basically condemn her to spending the rest of her life on the ship, he goes ahead and does the deed.

Of course, there are sequences in which Preston agonises about whether or not it's the right thing to do but this film isn't going to have Jennifer Lawrence asleep for 116 minutes so Preston reads the manual on how sleep chambers work (or don't) and hey presto! There's Aurora, striking up a friendship with the only other person awake on the spacecraft, completely unaware of the stalkery behaviour we've had to sit through.

It's at this point Passengers attempts to sell itself as an unlikely romance between Lawrence and Pratt, which can't work on any level because of how Pratt engineered the whole thing in the first place. I didn't want to see him wooing her because he shouldn't have being wooing her to begin with. "Yeah, I'll condemn this woman to almost certain death on this ship because I'm a bit horny".

The dramatic ante is eventually upped when Aurora gets wind of how she came to be awake and understandably she doesn't want to see Jim again, not before she's physically attacked him in the only scene that comes close to being convincing. In my view she should have flushed him out of the airlock and got us home a lot earlier but that doesn't happen.

What does happen is that the spaceship begins to break down in a big way, throwing Jim and Aurora together as they desperately try to work out how to avert the disaster. This final act shall henceforth be known as the "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?" section of the movie, abbreviated to AYFKM.

So there must be hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of systems and components on the ship. So it makes sense that they find out what's wrong within a ridiculously short space of time. AYFKM? Turns out the way to sort out everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - is to open a vent which has jammed shut. AYFKM? But hey, even if they do make it through alive, Aurora is still going to hate Jim, right? Right? No? AYFKM?

Okay, surely after all of this, there can't be any more AYFKM moments. What, there's one more? AYFKM?

And yet, with a few tweaks, all of the issues I have with this film could have gone away. The first 30 minutes, with Jim waking up, trying to find a way out of his predicament and coming to terms with being the only guy on a floating paradise, is interesting, intriguing and fun. It's the decision to have him "own" Aurora's existence that's thoroughly problematic and it's a plot turn from which the story can never fully recover.

It's a shame because Michael Sheen turns in a finely tuned performance as the bartender, the spaceship is beautifully realised and there are some nice jokes about the technology on board. However, I want to see Jennifer Lawrence kicking arse, not simpering over some bloke for the flimsiest of reasons. In short, Passengers should be entertaining and exciting but ends up just being vaguely unpleasant.