Sunday, January 15, 2017

My Week in Cinema - January 7th to 13th 2017

New Films Seen This Week
Endless Poetry (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
What a loss it was for cinema when Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to get a single film made for over twenty years, and what a joy it is for us that he is now back behind the camera. Endless Poetry is the second film in a planned trilogy about his own past, and it picks up exactly where The Dance of Reality left off. Young Alejandro moves with his family to Santiago where his stern father insists that he must study towards being a doctor, but Alejandro aspires to be an artist, despite his father's repeated insistence that anyone who dabbles in the arts must be a “faggot.” Alejandro falls in with a bohemian band of artists, finds a muse (who leads him by the cock and is played by the same actress who plays his mother), and has a series of Fellini-esque encounters and adventures, which unfold in a collection of episodes that just about adds up to a narrative. Endless Poetry sometimes feels like an old man rummaging through his memory banks and tossing whatever he finds onto the screen, but this is a clearly deeply personal endeavour for Jodorowsky as well as being a family affair (both father and son in the film are played by the director's two sons), and as wayward as it can appear, the film feels grounded in truth. Even in some of the most outré moments, such as Alejandro's romantic encounter with a menstruating dwarf, Jodorowsky and his committed cast find something real that gives it an emotional weight. Jodorowsky is both reviving and reshaping his past here, and the director appears onscreen himself at numerous points, including towards the end of the film, when he movingly orchestrates a reconciliation between father and son. He is 87 years old now but his direction is full of youthful verve and spirit here; he has great fun with the theatrical mise-en-scène (I loved the shadowy ninjas who stealthily move props around the characters) and, with the help of Christopher Doyle, he fills the screen with vibrant colours and eye-catching compositions. By the end of Endless Poetry I was eagerly anticipating the promised third instalment in this trilogy, but one wonders how and when we'll seen it; after all The Dance of Reality never received UK distribution and Endless Poetry was only funded thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. We've failed Alejandro Jodorowsky enough times over the past couple of decades. He deserves the support required to bring this extraordinary late project to fruition.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
Pink Floyd: The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982) Prince Charles Cinema, 70mm
For all of the surreal and spectacular images and memorable music in Pink Floyd: The Wall, my favourite moment came late in the film from an unlikely source. Bob Hoskins, playing a rock star's manager, bursts into a hotel room to discover his client comatose, having trashed the room and shaved off his eyebrows. What can you say in a situation like? Bob responds with an inimitable, “Fuck me!” It's one of the few moments of dialogue in a film that is otherwise driven by The Who's songs, with a loose story being woven into it concerning rock star Pink (Bob Geldof), who is plagued by his memories of his childhood and his fear of nuclear war, and who eventually goes insane. The Wall is a visual expression of Roger Waters' lyrics, and the imagery that Alan Parker and the animator Gerald Scarfe concoct between them has a visceral, grotesque edge that often still feels bold and striking. From the dead and dying bodies on the battlefield of World War II to the iconic sequence in which schoolchildren are fed through the meat grinder, from Pink's hotel breakdown to the climactic puppet trial, the film's individual sequences each have a distinctive style and mood but are assembled by editor Gerry Hambling – the film's real star – into something that hangs together better than you might expect. Seeing The Wall on a 70mm print (that looked really good, aside from a little colour fade) emphasised Parker's often inspired shot composition and movement of the camera, and I found the whole assault on my senses more invigorating and overwhelming than I ever could have imagined. Of course, this being a 1982 Alan Parker film adapted from a 1979 Pink Floyd album, The Wall has inevitable dated in places, but parts of it still feel chillingly pertinent. Certainly, the image of a fascist mob marching down the street in a quiet English suburb slapping “Britannia Rules OK” stickers onto car windows seemed to send a noticeable chill through the room at this screening.

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993) ICA, 35mm
This is a very long film to be screened by the London Short Film Festival, but as part of the festival’s focus on Raymond Carver screen adaptations, it made sense to show Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which is essentially a collection of short individual tales woven into a extraordinarily rich and expansive whole. This was the first Robert Altman film I ever saw, catching it on BBC2 one evening about 20 years ago with no knowledge of who Altman was, and I was instantly bowled over by it, having never seen a film that sprawled in this way, containing so many characters, so many stories, so much life. It has been superseded in my affections by many other Altman films in the subsequent years – including his other great ensemble movie Nashville – but nevertheless, this was a welcome revisit, and a reminder that Altman made films like nobody else. The film feels relaxed in its construction – there is none of the strident, propulsive energy of the later Altman-influenced Magnolia here – but it is constantly moving, with camera always probing and shifting curiously around these characters and the editing skilfully sustaining a consistently involving rhythm as it flips between its numerous stories. It’s a sensational feat of filmmaking, but Altman would surely have been the first to tell you that this is an actor’s picture. More than anything else, Short Cuts is a fascinating examination of human behaviour, and Altman is always alive to capturing moments, reactions, gestures or line deliveries that reveal subtle details of character. Clear standouts include Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore and particularly Lily Tomlin and Tom Waits, but almost everyone is doing good-to-great work, and – given the size and range of the ensemble – the cohesive level of performance they achieve is remarkable. Not every performer here benefits from having the same richness to draw from in terms of their own plot or motivation, and Short Cuts has more false notes and unsatisfying payoffs than Nashville or Gosford Park, but taken as a whole cinema experience, and as a representation of Robert Altman’s unique philosophy and style, it’s still something special.

Friday, January 06, 2017

My Week in Cinema - January 1st to 6th 2017

New Films Seen This Week
Assassin's Creed (Justin Kurzel)
The films of Justin Kurzel have been relentlessly dour thus far, which is perhaps unsurprising given his choice of subject matter. Snowtown and Macbeth were both brutal tales full of violence, but Assassin's Creed is an action-packed, time-travelling video game adaptation! Shouldn't it be a little bit fun? Sadly, 'fun' doesn't appear to be in Kurzel's repertoire. In Assassin's Creed, a number of fine actors spend an awful lot of time standing around, peering impassively through windows and flatly delivering expositional dialogue. They all seem to be waiting for something to happen, and when it does it's not really worth waiting for. When Cal (Michael Fassbender) is transported back to 1492 and into the body of his ancestor, a shadowy assassin determined to stop the Knights Templar from finding the Apple of Eden, the film collapses into a series of CGI-enhanced fight and chase sequences – sometimes taking on the structure and style of a video game – that have been edited into complete incoherence. None of this overblown nonsense seems to sit well with Kurzel, and even the director's keen eye has deserted him here: the 15th century scenes are all cast in dull browns and yellows and shrouded in smoke, while the modern-day section of the film is set in a steely grey/blue generic scientific facility. There is some talk in Assassin's Creed of free will versus our willingness to give up our freedoms for our security, but it's hard to know what Kurzel, the three screenwriters, and the powers that be at Fox are trying to say or do here; the film is so stylistically confused and so bogged down with the dreary machinations of its own confounding plot. Perhaps Fox once had thoughts of starting a blockbuster franchise with this film – the ending certainly implies further adventures are forthcoming – but their decision to dump it in January feels like more of a mercy killing.

A Monster Calls (J. A. Bayona)
If the numbers available on the internet are to be believed, A Monster Calls cost roughly a third of Assassin's Creed, and yet the visuals are more impressive and imaginative than anything Kurzel's film can muster. The Monster at the centre of the film is a huge and strikingly rendered creature that emerges from an ancient yew tree outside the house of Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall), and when he tells Conor his fantastical tales they are brought to life on the screen through watercolour-style images that reflect the artistic bent shared by Conor and his dying mother (Felicity Jones). It's easy to admire the sense of ambition behind J. A. Bayona's adaptation of the novel by Patrick Ness, as it attempts to tell a story about the importance of facing up to grief that can appeal to a younger audience; in fact, there's plenty to admire about A Monster Calls – the filmmaking and the performances are solid throughout – but the film never really comes together at all. While he has been wonderfully animated, and is voiced with suitable gravitas by Liam Neeson, the Monster proves to be a bit of a one-note mentor, and his parables repetitively hammer home the same ideas, until it comes as something of a relief when the third story is oddly curtailed. The fantasy and reality elements of the movie fail to mesh in any interesting way and they feel like two disparate movies awkwardly stuck together. The film is on slightly firmer ground in the real world, but the characters have no sense of inner life and no dimensions beyond what we are initially presented with; only Sigourney Weaver – introduced as an uptight harridan, just so she can soften – gives her character any kind of emotional shading. A Monster Calls feels fatally torn between bombast and emotion, delivering spectacular set-pieces but failing to give the characters the depth required to make their wrenching situations hit home. It builds to a noisy climax that seems determined to extract tears from the audience by sheer force, and it's hard to avoid getting caught up in the spectacle, but instead of feeling moved by Conor's story I just felt bludgeoned and frustrated by a showy, empty spectacle.

Rep Cinema Discovery of the Week
Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957) Prince Charles Cinema, 35mm
There's not much to beat black-and-white CinemaScope on a nice 35mm print. What surprised me about this simplistic but enjoyable star vehicle is how unlikable Elvis is for most of the film’s running time. He kills a guy (albeit accidentally, and in defence of a woman) in the film’s opening moments, he is sent to jail where he becomes a star through a nationally televised talent show (?), and then he is freed to begin his singing career, where he arrogantly discards anyone who helped him along the way. “How dare you think such cheap tactics would work with me!” Peggy (Judy Tyler), his promoter and partner, complains after he has roughly kissed her. “That ain't tactics, honey. It's just the beast in me,” he replies. He’s surly and inconsiderate to everyone he meets, and the comic highlight of the movie comes when he causes a ruckus at a dinner party after the posh guests ask him for his opinion on Jazz (“Lady, I don't know what the hell you're talking about!”). A punch in the throat eventually straightens this young buck out right at the end of the movie. In his third feature, Presley is actually pretty good in the lead role. His undeniable star quality carries the movie and everyone else involved the picture is conscious of the fact that they are simply there to support him. MGM workhorse director Richard Thorpe doesn’t do anything imaginative with the CinemaScope frame, he simply keeps things chugging along from one scene to the next, and the only person who threatens to steal the young king’s limelight is the charming Tyler, with whom he shares a sparky chemistry. Tragically, what looked set to be a breakthrough role for the young actress proved to be her swansong, as she and her husband were killed in a car crash before the film opened. “Nothing has hurt me as bad in my life,” Elvis later said. “All of us boys really loved that girl… I don’t believe I can stand to see that movie we made together now, just don’t believe I can.”

Rep Cinema Rediscovery of the Week
The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese, 1986) BFI Southbank, 35mm
The Color of Money might not be peak Scorsese, but it’s certainly undervalued Scorsese. A studio gig that the director took in the mid-80s as he tried to get The Last Temptation of Christ off the ground, the film feels more inconsequential than most of his pictures but it also feels loose and liberated. It’s a fun movie, and part of the fun is in watching two very different movie stars at the opposite ends of their career playing off each other. Reprising the ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson character 25 years after The Hustler, Paul Newman has a weary, seen-it-all quality here, but a chance encounter with Tom Cruise’s sensationally talented Vince gets his juices flowing again. Cruise is all cocky swagger, but there’s also a naïve, petulant quality that comes through in his performance, particularly when Eddie toys with his emotions over his relationship with the savvier Carmen (an excellent Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Vince knows how to play pool, but Eddie knows the secret is to play people, and the film is very absorbing when it focuses on these three complex, vividly realised characters and the fascinating dynamic between them (Helen Shaver, as Eddie’s on-off girlfriend, never quite comes to life). The pool sequences are exhilarating, with Michael Ballhaus’s camera roving around the players and Thelma Schoonmaker cutting shots together into a blizzard of clicking balls. The Color of Money runs a little too long but it’s a great piece of entertainment; slick, smart and superbly made. In an age when unnecessary sequels resurrecting decades-old characters are de rigueur, we can only dream of them being made with such artistry, being aimed at adults, or being built around a movie star who can command the screen as effortlessly as Newman does here.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Moonlight in The Skinny

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight arrives in UK cinemas on February 17th and I recently had the pleasure of meeting the affable and articulate director to talk about his beautiful film. You can read my interview with him as well as my reviews of Martin Scorsese's Silence and Jeff Nichols' Loving in the current north of England issue of The Skinny, which is available in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester now.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Films of 2016

The countdown has already begun on Twitter

25 – Tunnel (Kim Seong-hun)
A number of Korean thrillers were widely acclaimed this year, and with good reason – The Handmaiden, The Wailing and Train to Busan were all impressive features – but here's one that deserved a lot more love and attention than it received, Tunnel is a classic disaster movie scenario. Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) is driving home for his daughter's birthday when the tunnel he's travelling through collapses on top of him, trapping him inside his vehicle, and the film follows both his desperate fight for survival and the race against time outside the tunnel to save him. It's familiar genre territory and director Kim Seong-hun is not afraid of embracing clichés (a small dog becomes Jung-soo's unexpected companion), but the three key characters feel fully realised, with the outstanding Ha Jung-woo receiving excellent support from Bae Doona as his wife and Oh Dal-su as the head of the rescue team, and the film is expertly balanced between Se-hyun's claustrophobic environment underground and the increasingly expensive, confused and politically charged rescue project outside. Parts of Tunnel are clearly intended as a commentary on poor construction practices and management in Korea, but primarily the film simply works as a tense, moving, funny and very satisfying piece of genre filmmaking. 

24 – Further Beyond (Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor)
Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy may have begun their latest project with the desire to make a biopic of Ambrosio O’Higgins, the Irish explorer who later became the Captain General of Chile and the Viceroy of Peru, but what they have produced instead is something much more fascinating and valuable. Further Beyond is an inquisitive essay film about the very act of making a biopic, with the filmmakers exploring their own storytelling techniques in a variety of ways. What does it mean to take on the responsibility of telling a person's story? How do you decide what story to tell? When should fact give way to fiction? As the filmmakers delve deeper their subject connects with the story of Lawlor's own mother – seen in archive footage of an art project from the early '90s – and through her extraordinary personal experiences the scope expands to become a meditation on home, history, family, loss and exile. Further Beyond is only 90 minutes long and yet the filmmakers manage to cover so much intellectual and artistic ground without ever allowing the film to feel heavy or overstuffed. It's consistently playful, curious, stimulating and alive with ideas. 

23 – Divines (Houda Benyamina)
It's hard to avoid seeing echoes of La Haine in Houda Benyamina's blistering debut. This is another story of disaffected teens from the banlieues getting involved in drugs, gangs and violence, but it is much more than simply a female spin on Mathieu Kassovitz's iconic film. The director's sister Oulaya Amamra delivers a sensational performance as Douna, a young tearaway who becomes a drug trafficker in the hope of making some quick, easy cash, and her friendship with Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), who she drags along with her, is the beating heart of the movie. In one glorious scene they escape their bleak surroundings by imagining themselves drinking champagne while driving a Ferrari, the camera enabling their fantasy by gliding above the ground. Along with Benyamina's beautiful use of dance in a seduction sequence between Douna and Kevin Mischel's character Djigui later on, it's one of the transcendent moments that elevate this picture beyond the familiar setting and subject matter. Divines is passionate, intense, defiant filmmaking, with Benyamina displaying unwavering confidence and skill in her direction, and while I'm not sure if the film finds the right way to end, I can't deny that I was utterly gripped and deeply moved all the way up to the tragic denouement.

22 – Dog Eat Dog (Paul Schrader)
Paul Schrader is back! After the grievous blow of having Dying of the Light taken out of his hands and re-edited against his wishes, this great director has reunited with Nicolas Cage for a film that is uncompromised, unhinged and unlike anything he has ever made before. An adaptation of the novel by Edward Bunker, Dog Eat Dog follows three unrepentant ex-cons as they embark on a get-rich-quick scheme that involves kidnapping a baby, but which rapidly spirals out of control. The tone is set in a lurid and violent opening scene, which you'll either find repulsive or hilarious, and from that point onwards Dog Eat Dog makes no concessions to the audience – you're either with these guys or you're against them. Schrader has always been a bold filmmaker, but I've never seen him go for broke – visually, tonally, sctructurally – like this, and I've never laughed so much at one of his movies. One visual gag in particular, involving a police car, had me giggling for days afterwards whenever it came to mind, and the performances are perfectly attuned to the delirious mood, none more so than Willem Dafoe, whose performance here as the alternately psychotic and needy Mad Dog is one of his best.

21 – Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
A film of two halves, Nocturama opens with a thrillingly fluid and involving set-piece that follows a group of young radicals as they criss-cross Paris and execute a series of simultaneous bombings that plunge the city into terror and chaos. Bertrand Bonello orchestrates this hour-long sequence masterfully, cutting to different points in the timeline as he switches from one character's perspective to another and gradually ratcheting up the tension; it is exhilarating filmmaking. The second half is quieter and more static, but just as absorbing, with the culprits taking refuge in a department store overnight, making use of the designer clothes and gadgets as they wait for the heat outside to cool off. We don't know much about the motives behind their action beyond a sense of an underlying malaise waiting to erupt (“It was bound to happen, right?” "We did what we had to do."), and this vagueness of purpose kept me at a slight remove from the film, although I'm eager for a second viewing to see if it clicks. Nevertheless, as a piece of pure directorial artistry, this is as brilliant as anything I've seen all year; Bonello's use of space and his editing rhythms constantly astonish, and the climactic section is stomach-churning and unforgettable in its clinical finality.

20 – Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie)
Given the prominent erections that featured in Alain Guiraudie's The Stranger by the Lake, the title of his new film Staying Vertical might suggest more of the same, an impression that is strengthened when Léo (Damien Bonnard) stops his car in the opening scene and attempts to pick up a sullen youth. But Staying Vertical quickly spins off in a series of completely unpredictable directions – on a scene by scene basis, it’s impossible to tell where this film is going to go next. Staying Vertical feels like Guiraudie's own spin on a Charlie Kaufman-esque creative crisis film; Léo is a screenwriter trying and failing to make progress on a script that was apparently due months ago, but his every attempt to run away from his responsibilities only leads him further into trouble, and the film unfolds as an elliptical series of incidents that grow increasingly strange as Léo finds himself trapped in a nightmarish and apparently inexorable downward spiral. Played in a similar deadpan register to the work of Bruno Dumont, Staying Vertical is consistently disorienting, surprising and funny, and it contains a number of scenes that you won’t forget in a hurry – not least the extraordinary assisted suicide scene that is largely baffling to comprehend but, in the context of this film, makes a weird kind of sense.

19 – Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilović)
Over a decade on from her stunning debut film Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilović has returned with a film that feels like a companion piece to that earlier feature, and which is just as singular an achievement. Once again she presents us with an enclosed community governed by very specific rules, but this time there are young boys at the centre of it whose curiosity takes us deeper into this strange world. I saw Evolution nine months ago but what comes to mind even now whenever I think of the film is its unique texture; its clammy, skin-crawling quality. Evolution is stunningly effective as an atmospheric horror film that creates an environment both otherworldly and completely convincing, and there is hardly a scene or shot wasted in its tight 80 minutes. I was so engrossed in Hadžihalilović's vision the abrupt ending came as a shock, as if I had just woken from a nightmare. One hopes we won’t have to wait another decade to see more Lucile Hadžihalilović. On the basis of her work to date, she is a rare and brilliant artist.

18 – Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
The combination of Jane Austen and Whit Stillman seems ideal in theory – after all, what are his previous works but thinly veiled Austen riffs? – and in practice it lives up to all expectations. Stillman’s decision to adapt the novelist’s early and relatively obscure Lady Susan proved to be a brilliant one. It features some of her most biting and witty dialogue and Stillman makes the most of that quality, while ditching the epistolary nature of the source material to give himself more narrative freedom. The result is a film that easily ranks as one of the best screen versions of Austen’s work, and it is unquestionably the funniest, with Stillman’s dry comedic style sparking wonderfully in this refined period setting. It’s also a pleasure to see him reuniting with Kate Beckinsale almost two decades on from The Last Days of Disco; her performance here as the Machiavellian protagonist is probably the best work she has ever done. Still, it’s hard to see past Tom Bennet as the film’s standout performer. His scene-stealing role as the oblivious Sir James Martin – delighted by peas, confounded by the Ten Commandments – is the most remarkable comedy turn I’ve ever seen in a film of this type. It feels completely out of place and yet, paradoxically, completely perfect.

17 – Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
You’ll hear a lot about Toni Erdmann being a great comedy, and it’s true that the climactic party sequence made me laugh harder than almost anything else I saw this year, but for most of Maren Ade’s 162-minute oddball creation I was perplexed, intrigued and moved rather than in hysterics. As a film about a woman whose life is consumed by her work and her lonely father’s attempts to connect with her through humour, the film is frequently incisive and uncomfortable, and although it occasionally seems to be meandering in a directionless fashion, it eventually becomes clear than Ade’s loose style is essential for allowing her characters’ messy emotional journeys to play out in an organic way. It took me a long time to feel like I could get to grips with what Toni Erdmann was doing – and it took a second viewing for the film to really connect with me – but even on that first confounding experience I could tell that there was something unique and vital happening here. The whole film is a high-wire act and Ade needed world-class performances to help her pull it off, which is exactly what she got from Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, whose astounding work makes this bizarre shaggy-dog tale feel completely real and often very moving.

16 – The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
The best debut movie of the year. Anna Rose Holmer is a first-time filmmaker with a clear and specific vision, and she executes it with astonishing grace, intelligence and efficiency. It’s reminiscent of Carol Morley’s recent The Falling, but I found this story of a mysterious fainting illness affecting a group of girls to be much more effective because of the way Holmer skilfully sets up the group dynamics and the themes of the story. The Fits is a powerful portrait of a young girl simultaneously trying to fit in and trying to find the path in life that’s right for her, and the film touches on a number of fascinating ideas about gender, race, adolescence and peer pressure in its scant 72-minute running time, but everything is done with remarkable intuitiveness and elegance. Holmer and her cinematographer Paul Yee create a visual scheme through their use of location, colour and bodies in motion that is consistently arresting, and in the magnificently named Royalty Hightower The Fits presents us with one of the most commanding and charismatic child performers I’ve seen in years.

15 – Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
When I watched Kubo and the Two Strings the film was preceded by a series of trailers for kids’ films that all looked barely distinguishable in their loud, antic, pop culture-referencing noise. All of which made the subsequent experience of watching Laika’s latest beautifully crafted tale feel even more invaluable. Aside from the stunning craftsmanship that goes into the making of these pictures, this studio’s dedication to telling complex, intricate, character-driven stories with real stakes continues to impress. Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings is both their most ambitious film yet and their most accomplished; a gorgeous fable about the power of storytelling, about parental love, and about the importance of remembering those we’ve lost. The film boasts some spectacular action set-pieces, but everything feels geared towards pushing the narrative forward and deepening our understanding of the characters. As ever, a Laika production features excellent work from the voice cast – notably Matthew McConaughey’s absent-minded beetle – but the real stars here are the animators whose work is highlighted in the closing credits. It takes a lot of arduous and work and dedication to make a film like this, but when the end result is as brilliantly realised as Kubo and the Two Strings, it’s worth every minute.

14 – The Bacchus Lady (E J-yong)
What a surprising journey The Bacchus Lady takes us on. The opening scene is startling and seems to set us up for an incongruously comic tale of an ageing prostitute, a transgender performer and a one-legged man being forced to look after a young child. There are laughs to be had here, sure, but E J-yong’s film is a much deeper and more serious-minded film than you might initially expect. Exploring the plight of Korea’s elderly women who live in poverty and are forced to sell their bodies to get by, The Bacchus Lady is a film that sneaks up on the viewer, and by the time I watched the kind-hearted and humble So-young (the astonishing Youn Yuh-jung) performing one last service for the elderly men she has been in service to for her entire life, I was heartbroken by her story. E’s film gives us a sense of a whole woman’s life passing her by – the child that she gave away, the relationships that died, the dreams and desires that she never had the chance to fulfil – and the deep well of sadness that builds up in the film is topped by the ironic and shattering closing image. 

13 – No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Chantal Akerman may not have originally intended No Home Movie to be her swansong, but there is the inescapable feeling of a chapter being closed with this film. Akerman’s mother Natalia was always a key presence in her work, and as she films her for the last time it feels like a fitting final statement from a filmmaker who always poured herself into her work and shared so much of her life and experience with us. As we watch Chantal and Natalia in conversation here we get the sense that every moment is precious for a daughter who knows that the time she has to spend with her mother is rapidly running out. Much of the film consists of static shots of Natalia’s apartment, which she occasionally wanders around until, later in the film, she is too weak to move. Your reactions to No Home Movie will likely be coloured by your familiarity with her past work, but anyone who recognises that we lost one of cinema’s unique and most vital artists last year will find this devastating. “Where is Chantal?” the ailing Natalia croaks in one of the film’s most piercing moments. Through her extraordinary body of work, she remains by our side.

12 – Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
A life in three acts. Barry Jenkins’ beautifully crafted Moonlight follows a gay black youth through his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, with his story becoming an overwhelmingly moving portrait of a lonely and broken soul yearning to be loved. It is a work of great compassion and sensitivity that feels rooted in specific memories and experiences, but also feels vast in its emotional scope and in its examination of masculinity, sexuality and the way our environments shape us us. I have some issues with the film, notably the character of Chiron’s mother who never feels fleshed out, and a narrative choice at the end of the second act, but I was willing to forgive all minor flaws as I held my breath through the perfectly judged final scene. Jenkins’ framing and his attention to intimate details is hugely impressive, and both cinematographer James Laxton and editor Nat Sanders deserve high praise, but the truly remarkable thing about Moonlight is the way the three very different actors cast as Chiron together create a sense of a complete person. This effect is partly achieved via repeated gestures and camera angles, but it primarily emerges in the deep sense of vulnerability and longing that they each express through their eyes and their silence. 

11 – A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
The opening scene of A Quiet Passion is set in a Christian boarding school, where the students are asked to step to one side of the room or the other depending on if their soul has been saved or needs to be. Only Emily Dickinson stands alone in the centre of the room, defiant of any conventions, expectations or constraints. Terence Davies’ second long-cherished passion project in as many years (following the magnificent Sunset Song) is a portrait of Dickinson that celebrates her fierce artistic and spiritual independence while also counting the cost that such choices can have on an individual’s ultimate contentment. The first half of the film is a delight, with the witty asides from Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) and her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) being frequently hilarious. But time moves on, people die, friends marry (depicted here as much the same thing as death) and the second half of the film is as tragic as the first is joyous. Davies is in his element here, both in the way he uses Dickinson’s poetry and how he depicts her life passing her by as she watches, helplessly; Davies’ uncanny ability to compress the passage of time into a single camera movement is as potent as ever. It’s an extraordinary film possessing an intelligence and thematic complexity that shames most attempts at biopics.

10 – Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s impressive debut film Neighbouring Sounds was about a group of people living in an upscale apartment complex who are unsettled by changes around them. Aquarius follows a similar theme, but instead of an ensemble piece this film is focused on one woman; in fact she’s the only woman still living in the Recife block that gives the film its title. Clara (Sônia Braga) is the sole resident who has refused to move, and her obstinate stance is holding up both the planned building works and payment to the others who have already left. Nevertheless, Clara stands firm against all pleas and intimidation, and why shouldn’t she? This is her home, she has lived here for decades, every room is filled with memories of those she has loved and lost. Long before the film reaches its rousing climax, there’s no doubt whose side Kleber Mendonça Filho is on, but Aquarius is far more than a polemic about society’s practice of erasing the past in favour of something shiny and new. This is first and foremost an extraordinarily substantial and involving character study of a woman who has lived a full life, who has suffered and bears the scars, who still has dreams and desires. As Clara, Sônia Braga is simply magnificent. One look at her and you wonder how these developers ever though they could steamroller her into submission.

9 – Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
I’ve enjoyed everything that Mia Hansen-Løve has made so far with the exception of her last picture Eden, which felt strangely hollow to me. Thankfully, I’m back on board the Løve train with Things to Come, her best film to date. The most appealing thing about her films has always been the way she processes time in a fluid way, and here we experience a tumultuous year in the life of a philosophy teacher whose comfortable existence is upended by her husband’s affair, her difficult mother’s death and her books being discontinued. Rather than shrink in the face of misfortune, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) takes the opportunity to reinvent herself and explore her newfound freedom. It’s an ideal role for Huppert, whose subtly revealing work is a perfect match for this director’s style, and her performance is full of wonderful moments; from her startled reaction to spotting her husband out with his other woman, to the wonderful way she stonewalls him towards the end as he drops hints about being invited to Christmas dinner. This is a wonderfully measured, intimate and touching film that barely contains a single false note, and it builds to one of the year’s loveliest endings. 

8 – Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu)
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” a priest exclaims in Sieranevada, and it feels like a sly in-joke given the way Cristi Puiu’s film sprawls across three hours while also being consistently very funny. Set almost entirely within the cramped confines of a Romanian apartment, Sieranevada makes us feel as trapped as the characters of this extended clan who have come together to mourn their deceased patriarch, but despite the crowded frame, the manner in which Puiu orchestrates the action – with around a dozen characters being involved at any one time – is nothing short of extraordinary. Without introductions, we gradually learn who each character is and piece together the various relationships as we watch theme interact and listen in on their conversations. It’s rare to see a film capture the ebb and flow of family arguments as adroitly as this one, and by the end of the film we feel that we know these characters intimately, almost as if we are part of the family. Many of the debates centre on notions of truth and deception, and the film builds to a very moving scene between Lary (Mimi Brănescu) and his wife (Cătălina Moga), when they finally escape from the apartment only have an emotional confrontation in the car outside.

7 – Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
I often hear people lamenting Terrence Malick’s recent work and pining for a return to the simpler days of Badlands and Days of Heaven. Forget it, that filmmaker is gone, and his constant evolution is something to cherish rather than to comolain about. I almost put his transcendent documentary Voyage of Time on this list, but I’ve given Knight of Cups because it is an extraordinary film that still inhabits my thoughts on a regular basis, and because the short shrift many gave this film upon release was criminal. Both of Malick's 2016 films are spiritual journeys and both find the director again reaching for something ineffable, something beyond words. Knight of Cups immerses us in the world of a highly-paid Hollywood screenwriter whose life is full of material wealth but whose soul is lacking. A classic premise, but one rendered in abstract terms here through the freewheeling visual language devised by Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki (doing more daring and innovative work here than anything in The Revenant) and impressionistic editing. If you’ve been dismayed by recent Malick then nothing in Knight of Cups is likely to sway you, but this film has grown for me with every viewing and it represents another singular achievement for one of the most radical and exciting artists in American cinema.

6 – Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
It’s hard to think of a more perfect combination of director, star and material than Paul Verhoeven, Isabelle Huppert and Elle. The film opens with a rape and it is often very funny, but the description of a “rape comedy” that has dogged the film is wide of the mark. Elle is an examination of power, desire and trauma, with Michèle refusing to define herself as a victim and instead turning the tables on her attacker, who is utterly disarmed when she tells him that she wants him to rape her. The brilliant screenplay by David Birke (an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel Oh…) surrounds Michèle with characters who each want something different from her, and the film turns on the different power dynamic in each interaction, with one raised eyebrow or sly glance from Huppert often being enough to give her the upper hand. Verhoeven originally planned to make this film in America but couldn’t find an actress willing to take on the role  but who else in the world could? It almost seems to have been conceived with Isabelle Huppert in mind from the start. Elle is a deliriously great film – funny, shocking, gripping, beautifully directed – and it’s a joy to have Paul Verhoeven back on such sharp, provocative form.

5 – Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda)
Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have never exactly traded in high-stakes action, but even by his unassuming standards Our Little Sister is an extraordinarily gentle film. The real drama happens off screen, with the death of an old man bringing three sisters in their 20s into contact with the 14 year-old half-sister their father has left behind from his second marriage. The film is about this family coming together and connecting with each through a series of rituals and conversations, and overcoming their minor squabbles and differences to create a new family unit; and the film is further proof – if it were required – that no other contemporary filmmaker depicts family life with the perceptiveness and emotional richness of Koreeda. Our Little Sister is the kind of film that is so deceptively light and simple it might be easy to dismiss as a minor work, but the film pulled me into its world so effortlessly and made me care about its characters in the way only a master filmmaker can do. I saw two wonderful films by Hirokazu Koreeda this year, and After the Storm would be just as worthy of a place on this list. He’s always great. Our Little Sister might be his greatest.

4 – Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)
Dawson City: Frozen Time is a staggering work of archival research, but more importantly is a wonderful piece of storytelling. As director Bill Morrison recounts the story of the nitrate film reels found under a frozen lake in Dawson City in 1978 he gives us so much background and historical information it almost feels like we’re about to drown in facts, but gradually these details come together to reveal not just the history of the film reels and how they ended up buried in Canada, but the history of the city, the gold rush, the people who lived there, and all of the triumphs and tragedies they faced. These stories are illustrated by footage taken from the recovered reels themselves – often showing inevitable signs of damage but still full of flickering beauty – and accompanied by Alex and John Somers’ enveloping musical score. The combination of the images and the stories being told build into something profoundly moving; a resurrection and a celebration of the power of cinema. Dawson city: Frozen Time is a stunningly realised film and one of the rare documentaries that demands to be seen on the big screen.

3 – Silence (Martin Scorsese)
You don’t make up for your sins in church in Martin Scorsese’s films, you do it in the streets, and throughout this director’s long career his characters have been asking questions about faith, doubt, guilt and redemption on the streets of New York. But the two most profound and challenging explorations of these themes have been passion projects that have taken him far from home. Almost thirty years after The Last Temptation of Christ was condemned by the Vatican, Scorsese’s long-gestating adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel tells another story of a conflicted young man of God praying for a word from above to reassure him that he has chosen the right path, only to be met with a deafening silence. This is a searching interrogation of what it means to be a man of faith, to hold onto that faith in times of duress, and to impose it upon others. It is a film full of suffering and anguish, which Scorsese films with stark detachment, his mist-shrouded compositions recalling the work of Japanese masters, and in combination with the understated musical score it is his most ascetic film. It is a powerful, moving, serious-minded work of art and it feels like the picture that he has spent his whole career trying to make. It is one of his greatest achievements.

2 – Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s latest film was adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, and the film captures the experience of reading a great short story collection; of dipping into these lives, of the emotions that go unspoken, of the themes that resonate beyond the first and last page. The three stories that Reichardt has chosen to adapt for this triptych fit together beautifully. In the first, Laura Dern plays a lawyer dealing with a difficult client. “It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen. That would be so restful,” she says in a line that echoes into the second story, where Michelle Williams is a mother building a house and struggling to be heard by the men around her. There are no male characters in the third film, which details the relationship between a lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) and a young teacher (Kristen Stewart), and while I loved each story, this is the one that really stands out, particularly the way the rhythms of the rancher’s daily chores interrupt those fleeting moments of happiness with Stewart’s character. Reichardt edits her films herself and she is an immaculate judge of when to cut away and when to linger on a moment, while Christopher Blauvelt’s grainy cinematography is among the great achievements in American film this year.

1 – In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman)
In Jackson Heights was never officially released in the UK. It screened at the 2015 London Film Festival, where I missed it, and then it had a one-off showing in March of this year at the Barbican as part of their Architecture on Film series. Maybe it’s easy to see why a film like this wouldn’t be released here – it’s a three-hour documentary about a specific area in New York – but its failure to be seen by more people here saddens me because I feel it is as much a film about London as it is about New York. It’s about what it means to live in a diverse community, it’s about how different cultures enrich the places we inhabit, and it’s a film about those cultures being threatened by gentrification and commodification. In a time when immigrants are anyone who can be regarded as ‘other’ are being routinely demonised, films this warm, humane and empathetic feel more crucial than ever. I’ve thought of In Jackson Heights often since I saw it and how I felt enriched by experiencing its vision of a place where different people live side-by-side and live as one. If there is one film that I could persuade everybody to watch this year, then In Jackson Heights is it, but whether or not people will have the opportunity is a different matter. Nobody makes films like Frederick Wiseman, and while it was great to see him receive an honorary Oscar this year, a greater tribute to him would be to simple screen his films.

The Best Lead Actresses of 2016

10 – Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Yalini in Dheepan

9 – Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin in The Edge of Seventeen

8 – Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon in Love & Friendship

7 – Haruka Ayase as Sachi Kōda in Our Little Sister

6 – Annette Bening as Dorothea in 20th Century Women

5 – Oulaya Amamra as Dounia in Divines

4 – Youn Yuh-jung as So-Young in The Bacchus Lady

3 – Sônia Braga as Dona Clara in Aquarius

2 – Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc in Elle

1 – Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi in Toni Erdmann