I’ve loved movies for as long as I’ve been conscious of having a brain. The first film I remember seeing was a taped-from-TV Betamax copy of Star Wars one of my mum’s patients had. I almost wore it out I watched it so many times. The cinema was, for the first chunk of my life, a foreign country. We didn’t have much money, the nearest one was 15 miles away and so on. But times changed, the 1980s opened their slow-motion explosion filled arms and bade me come in and I never looked back.
I have started looking around though.
Last year my friend and occasional editor Brendon Connelly, whose new book is fabulous and is getting reviewed here very shortly, asked what people had seen at the movies recently. My response wasn’t quite ‘Thor 2, KickSamurai 2:The Enkickpunching and Robocop. All of them. Simultaneously.’ But it was close. Brendon good naturedly suggested that showed my preferences and I good naturedly agreed and this year, I decided to do something about that. Costume dramas still break me out in hives (Know how a rural geek kid from the 1980s spells Merchant Ivory? HOMEWORK I DO NOT NEED TO DO. That’s how) but I’ve started the process of seeing movies I wouldn’t normally go near. It’s paid off. Here’s why.
The movie that absolutely proves Brendon’s point. Jack O’Connell, who’s had a blisteringly great couple of years, turns in arguably his best work to date here. He plays Eric Love, a young man sentenced to an extensive prison sentence for a staggeringly violent crime. He’s angry and fierce and brutal and utterly terrified and O’Connell shows us all of that. The film’s approach is summed up by an early sequence where another prisoner surprises him and Eric beats the man unconscious. When he’s calmed down he realizes firstly that he wasn’t being attacked and secondly that he’s about to be. He first tries to explain himself and when that goes wrong, panics, locks himself in his cell and picks a fight. It’s a long sequence and it’s almost all O’Connell taking the viewer through shock, embarrassment, horror and the fundamentally innocent element that this man somehow still possesses. It’s also really, horribly, funny and the consequences of the scene are a lynchpin for the second half of the movie.
David Mackenzie’s direction backs down as little as O’Connell does and he sensibly strips the movie down to its barest essentials, moving the camera through the prison like a documentary crew would. It works too, every element of Jonathan Asser’s paid down script brought to life by O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn as his dad in particular. It works so well in fact that you don’t notice the vast quantity of prison movie tropes in there. Each is presented less as a narrative beat and more as a moment in these men’s lives, all violent, all tense, all terrified and, somehow, still, all in it together. An intensely uncomfortable, but brilliant, piece of moviemaking.
Dan Stevens arguably had as good a year as Jack O’Connell. He’s on this list twice, but here’s he’s front and centre in a movie that did the bravest thing I saw a mainstream flick do all year;
Or at the very least participate in a campaign of wilful disinformation.
The Simon Barratt-scripted, Adam Wingard directed movie is set up as a fairly traditional stalker movie. David, a soldier, arrives at a family home, claiming to have known the son they lost in the war. He’s Jimmy Stewart with pectorals; polite, softly spoken and charming. They invite him to stay and, gradually, the guest inveigles himself into their lives. He’s clearly violent, clearly a little damaged and clearly at peace with his wounds. In fact, in between helping the dead soldier’s father get a new job, helping his son deal with bullies and taking showers at his daughter, he really starts to settle in.
It’s an impossible movie to write about because everything changes around the top of act two. It’s not a twist either, there’s no intellectual dishonesty on display. Instead you get a different story told from a different angle that takes the last remaining brake off and proceeds to have some good, nasty, blood-soaked fun. It almost doesn’t work, and the soundtrack in particular comes dangerously close to Drive’s ‘LOOK AT HOW COOL THIS IS!’ levels of self-indulgence but for me it’s a superior movie. That’s largely down to Stevens, who plays David as a Good Ol’ Iago; quiet, softly spoken, completely brutal and utterly at peace with what he is. It’s a stunning performance that, along with his other entry here, deserves to set Stevens up as a major character actor and lead in the next few years. It’s also the centre of the most fun movie I saw this year. Go see it, then read Wil Jones’ brilliant piece about it, then go tell someone else why it’s great.
The best movie about the war between the rational and believer approaches to parapsychology the WWE will ever make. And no that’s not a sentence I ever expected to write either. Oculus is that thing that everyone says they want and very few of us ever show up for; a smart horror movie. In fact it’s a blisteringly smart, consistently inventive horror movie that, in a year where other films released the jump scares so regularly you could set your watch by them, felt less like a relief and more like an air pocket in a sunken ship.
The premise is really simple; it’s an evil mirror movie. What makes it absolutely fly is the trust Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard’s script has in the audience, Flanagan’s deft direction and one of the strongest casts I saw this year. Karen Gillan in particular is phenomenal as the adult Kaylie, who has spent the last 12 years going to war with the thing that killed her parents. Gillan did a bunch of good work this year but this blows everything else out of the water. Kaylie’s covered every angle, thought of every eventuality and doesn’t just want vengeance, she wants a FIGHT. It’s a seething, clenched performance that’s the photographic negative of Brenton Thwaites brilliant, twitchy, puppyesque turn as the older version of Tim, her brother. The film’s best scene is the argument the pair have over what happened 12 years ago, rendered all the more unsettling by the fact the ‘sane’ one is the one talking about killing an evil mirror. They anchor every one of the film’s cross temporal, dimension shifting beats and their faces show us what the movie chooses not to. Together they’re the powerhouse that drives the movie forwards, aided by Annalie Basso and Garrett Ryan as their younger selves. Basso in particular is staggeringly good. The movie beats the crap out of both of them but it’s Basso as the younger Kaylie who’s the stronger and Basso who you remember after the credits role, arguably more than Gillan. Good female roles are still criminally rare. Good child female roles are functionally non-existent. Oculus has both.
Special mention also has to go to veteran genre players Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as their parents. Both play on the absolute razor’s edge between the collapse of a marriage and the infection of a marriage and both the kids, and you, are uncertain of the truth throughout. That’s aided hugely by the three card monte the movie does, combining reality, perception and influence to create something unique and chilling. The best horror movie I’ve seen in five years, at least and one that rewards a return visit.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. What you choose to do that with knowledge can be an apocalyptically dangerous thing. Jon Schiefer’s movie is on the surface level, a wonderful piece of Bay Area hacker noir. The main character downloads something he shouldn’t and the ripples from that choice spread through his polite, not especially functional circle of friends. It’s one of those pared down story engines that has six moving parts, all of which work beautifully. The characters are all rounded, interesting people who will feel familiar to anyone who’s moved in compsci circles. The locations are classic Bay Area; crystal clear, drenched in light, always busy, always somehow calm. The pacing is clinically perfect. It’s one of the most complete, gripping, perfectly tuned thrillers I’ve seen in a long time.
But then there’s the fact Jon made the movie using the Lean Startup model so everyone involved was on a profit share. And then there’s the innovative release model he’s used that’s meant that, right now, the movie’s on youtube, for free, thanks to him. That’s it up there, go watch it it’s great. There’s a dedication to the DIY culture here that’s as much punk as it is cyber and it’s created a movie that’s deeply individualistic as well as gripping and tightly built. Plus, it has the single best So I Married An Axe Murderer joke ever. Proof you can approach the whole system differently and not just make it work but make it better.
A Walk Among The Tombstones
Liam Neeson has a type. He’s become the go to for ‘Physically imposing, emotionally compromised older action hero’ and it’s easy to see why. Neeson’s a big guy, articulate with it and brings the weight of experience, including real grief and tragedy to any given role. That led to his revelatory work in The Grey and, I was immensely relieved to see, notably lighter roles following that.
His work here is the embodiment of that. Matt Scudder is a textbook Neeson character; troubled, blood on his hands and all too aware of it, but he’s also something very new. Scudder’s made his piece with his devils and the entire movie is really about what happens when that peace is challenged. It’s a really smart, subtle piece of writing and performance that marks the film out as something both very new and a little old fashioned. Were Chandler writing today, Philip Marlowe would nod at Matt Scudder across the bar or eat at the same diner. It’s a quietly epochal role for Neeson and, along with Denzel Washington’s turn in The Equalizer this year, takes the ‘lone hero’ role into more mature and more interesting territory.
That, along with an excellent, buttoned down supporting turn by Dan Stevens puts the movie on this list. Scott Frank’s buttoned down, elegant direction and excellent, pared down adaptation of Lawrence Block’s tight, noirish fist of a book keeps it there. Oh and here’s the excellent cover of Black Hole Sun used in that trailer.
This is the eighth opening to this section I’ve written for Interstellar. The others dealt with how divisive Interstellar was for the critical community this year, the moment that closes the end of Act 1 oh and there was a line about Nolan’s movies being leviathans for some reason too. I deleted them all. Firstly because none of them were great and secondly because none of them were the point.
The point, for me, is the way Nolan throws the myth of the Astronaut as the pinnacle of heroic achievement on the table and dissects it. Everything here serves that myth at the same time as either parodying it or straight up tearing it apart. The entire crux of the movie; NASA as a scrappy insurgency with a plan to save the world is built on quicksand and the story is at its best when it shows this coming apart. McConnaughey in particular turns in revelatory work here and the film’s best scene is locked off on his face as he watches decades of accumulated messages from home. It’s a great performance but the movie, on every level, isn’t about that. It’s about Jessica Chastain’s angry, tired adult Murph and Mackenzie Foy’s firecracker teenage incarnation.
This is a story not about the astronaut as plateau not pinnacle. The old heroic myths fall away and something very different, finally high enough to launch, ignites its engines and starts its run. The only movie I’ve wanted to see twice this year, and one of the only ones I still find myself thinking about. It’s blisteringly ambitious, often very clever, often very angry stuff and plays unlike very nearly every other western science fiction movie of the last few decades. Also, the best robot characters ever.
Those are my six movies of the year. Multiple genres, multiple styles and approaches and not a KickSamurai 2:The Enkickpunching in sight. Yes there’s still a blockbuster in there and a remarkable amount of stuff clustered around the action movie/science fiction/thriller hub but it’s a definite step out into a broader world from last year. I’ve tracked the movies I’ve seen this year on Pinterest and the board’s over here if you fancy taking a look. Next year I may even make a run at an EM Forster adaptation. Rock and ROLL!