The 2 or 3 good films from 2016, and “Sunflower”, a lost De Sica classic.

Sunflower.

Sunflower.

Donald Clarke is one of the few consistently reliable film critics on these shores, so when in a recent Irish Times column he described Arrived as one of the best films of the year, I trotted along to the cinema confidently expecting to be wowed. A couple of hours later I came out scratching my head. It’s all right, and it certainly is one of the best Hollywood films of the year, but that surely is setting the bar at an embarrassingly low level.

So naturally enough, I set about compiling my own list of the year’s best films. And do you know what, he was right, though not I suspect in the manner that he meant. 2016 was a dreadfully disappointing year film wise.

Heroically, the Guardian managed to find no fewer than 48 films to recommend as their films of the year here. Including: the comic book pair of damp squibs Captain America and Deadpool, the Coen’s pedestrianly conventional Hail Caesar, the latest unnecessary film-by-numbers from Tarantino The Hateful Eight, Tom Ford’s there’s-no-there-there Nocturnal Animals, reviewed earlier here, and, yawn, Ghostbusters.

Love and Friendship.

Love and Friendship.

This being the Guardian they even managed to recommend a couple of Irish films. The, whisper it, hopelessly muddled Room – whose story is it, his or hers, and what do they want? If it’s to escape, then what’s the second hour about, and if that’s not what they want, then what’s the first hour about? And Sing Street, which would be fine in a TV listings for a Sunday evening as a marginally more lively alternative to The Antiques Roadshow, but should never have been allowed within a three hundred mile radius of an actual cinema.

And, inevitably, they warmly recommended I, Daniel Blake, which is, frankly, little more than a Ken Loach film. I know I know, you’re right, that is harsh, but honestly, that’s really all it is.

Son of Saul.

Son of Saul.

There were a handful of memorable films. Whit Stillman’s charming adaptation of a minor Jane Austen, Love and Friendship, László Nemes’ harrowing Son of Saul, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (reviewed earlier here), and Matteo Garrone’s majestic Tale of Tales (reviewed earlier here).

Tale of Tales.

Tale of Tales.

But if in ten years’ time you were watching a television somewhere and you recognized a scene from one of the above, which one of them would make you stop what you were doing to think, I hope I have time to sit down and watch the rest of this? Tale of Tales, just about, so long as the screen was sufficiently grandiose to do it justice. But there’s nothing there that would make your heart skip a beat at the thought of having the chance to see it again. What do I mean by that? Sunflower.

Sunflower was part of a last great hurrah that the truly great Italian film maker Vittorio De Sica enjoyed, but had the misfortune to be the first of two films that he released in the same year, in 1970. And it ended up being very unfairly eclipsed by his second film, the exquisite and heart-breaking The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which went on to win the Academy Award for best foreign film that same year, which I reviewed earlier here.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Sunflower is every bit as emotionally devastating though in a somewhat different way. Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni fall in love on the eve of the second World War and, despite their best efforts, he is eventually forced to do his bit and is dispatched to the Eastern front. When he fails to return, Loren sets off for Russia determined to find out what has become of him.

Very much a companion piece to Demy’s sublime The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, like that film Sunflower takes an apparently mundane, everyday story, and gives it incredible emotional resonance and depth by transforming it into an impossibly bold and dazzlingly brilliant melodrama. Almost as ravishingly colourful as Cherbourg and, though not actually a musical, it effectively feels like one such is the power of Henry Mancini’s devastating score.

Mastroianni and Loren.

Mastroianni and Loren.

I saw it a couple of years ago on Sky Arts, but I notice that, in their efforts to make it a 24 hour channel, in contrast to say the likes of BBC4, they rotate a number of their films and programmes throughout the night and into the morning. So you can still find it every now and then hidden in their schedule. If you get the chance, watch it. And in ten years’ time, when you catch a glimpse of it on a screen somewhere, you’ll know what I was talking about.

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3 new films, Arrival, Nocturnal Animals and a new Storyville.

Arrival.

Arrival.

Arrival divided critics when it reached cinemas this autumn, with some hailing it as a strong contender for film of the year and others wondering what all the fuss was about. It’s a scifi film from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve in which Amy Adams is given the task of trying to decode the alien language of the visitors who arrive here from outer space.

It is just about worth seeing, but only because of the subtle twist it has in its tail and the less you know about that the more pleasantly surprised you’ll be by it. But it’s a very conventional film. One to put your feet up to with a calming cup of cocoa on a rainy winter’s eve.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is the second film from Tom Ford after his impressive debut with A Single Man in 2009. The latter, as well as being as exquisitely crafted as everyone assumed it would be, it being a Tom Ford film, was also a quietly moving film with significantly more in the way of emotional depth than many had expected.

His latest offering however is exactly the sort of vapid exercise in surface style that everyone had feared would be the result first time around. Amy Adams stars again, this time as a privileged gallery owner in LA whom we’re clearly meant to sympathise with. She gets sent a novel written by an ex and the film morphs into a neo noir tale of southern revenge.

Colin Firth in A Single Man.

Colin Firth in A Single Man.

It all looks impeccable of course, but all Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous photography does is to further emphasise how little there is here beneath the surface. Whether Nocturnal Animals is an aberration, and the real Tom Ford is the man who brought us A Single Man, or whether in fact that film’s success had more to do with Colin Firth and the source material provided by the Christopher Isherwood novel, only time will tell.

James Foley.

James Foley.

I promised myself that I would force myself to watch all and any Storyville docs that were screened on BBC4, but I really wasn’t looking forward to what I presumed would be a dull but worthy film on James Foley, the American photo-journalist executed by Daesh. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

p01q1kmxJim – The James Foley story was a riveting window into what life was like for the nineteen other journalists who were imprisoned with him in Syria, and an incredibly moving celebration of a life cut short. In a dignified and measured way it was absolutely devastating.

If you’re not familiar with the Storyville strand, I reviewed it and three or four of its remarkable films earlier here. And if you can, watch the James Foley Story. You can see the trailer for Arrival here and the trailer for Nocturnal Animals here.

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South Park S20 still relevant.

South Park Season 20.

South Park Season 20.

The Simpsons are in their 28th season, and the last time they were even remotely funny was around season 13 or 14. So for the last ten years they’ve been painting by numbers, and a once cutting edge show has rendered itself completely irrelevant. And Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, have clearly been thinking about this very carefully.

At the moment we’re up to episode 5 of the current season (20) on Comedy Central and it’s clear that it’s become a noticeably different beast to the South Park of five or six years ago. The main difference being, that instead of having neat, individual episodes that exist in their own bubble, independently of any episodes that come before or after, there are now three main story arcs that link each of the episodes across the whole season.

The yawn Simpsons.

The yawn Simpsons.

Inevitably, the main story arc gives us their take on the seemingly unsatirizable election, with the girls and the boys at the school divided into two factions hell bent on mutual destruction. Then there’s the internet troll story, which gets increasingly interesting the more it unfolds. And finally, there’s the Member Berries dig at J.J. Abrams and co and the never-ending stream of nostalgia-fuelled tedium we’re being subjected to because of their reliance on pre-existing franchises instead of ever coming up with anything actually original.

Much more riskily, as ever, they are reacting in real time to the events of the week which then get incorporated into that week’s episode. So last week they had Mr. Garrison – as the Trump stand-in – spewing forth a torrent of anti-female bile at his crowd of supporters. But when then a number of women get up to leave in protest, he quite reasonably asks them, so that’s where you draw the line? It’s fine for me to say all that stuff about all Mexicans being rapists and all Muslims being terrorists, but as soon as I start insulting women, well that’s when I’ve crossed the line?

That was the week that was.

That was the week that was.

They are down to ten episodes a season now, so inevitably you’re occasionally going to get the sense that they are just trying to jam too much into each episode. But taken as a whole, this is easily the funniest and the most relevant commentary on what’s going on at the moment in the US anywhere on television. You can follow it on Friday nights at 10pm on Comedy Central. But if you can, you should really try and see it from the beginning of the season. In the meantime, here’s a taster of what the debate looked like.

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Hell or High Water, a B movie western to savour.

Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water.

One of the reasons that film makers enjoy making genre films is that it allows them to use the pre-existing structure as a means of commenting surreptitiously on the present. Instead of asking the audience to sit through a social issues film with all that that implies, they get to see a western or a sci-fi film. And the themes that the film makers are really interested in are slipped in via the back door.

Hell and High Water is the ninth film directed by Scottish film maker David Mackenzie and is effectively a B movie western set in modern day Texas. A couple of brothers embark on a spate of low-end bank robberies and are pursued by the grizzled sheriff and his weary sidekick.

Chris Pine and Ben

Chris Pine and Ben Foster.

The brothers are played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, with the former as the sensible, strong but silent one who calls in desperation on the help of his loose cannon of a brother, who’s just got out of gaol, to help him with the plan that he’s hatched.

Whilst Jeff Bridges, as the sheriff, gives us a gleefully prickly curmudgeon, who particularly enjoys the racial points he scores at the expense of his long-suffering sidekick, the stoic Gil Birmingham.

Two decidedly bad seeds.

Two decidedly bad seeds.

What elevates the film, at least for the first hour or so, is the script. Written by Taylor Sheridan, it’s based on an original story by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and their haunting score is the first thing that gives the film an added sheen.

Then there’s the fact that the backdrop against which the robberies take place gives the film a decidedly murky moral hue. Because the brothers are only robbing the branches of the bank that has used the financial crash of 2008 to force them out of their family home – a crash of course that was caused by the banks in the first place

And most of all, the script produces a series of deft one liners that are delivered with the kind of insouciance perfectly in keeping with the very Texan feel of the film.

Still the dude.

Still the dude.

Inevitably, once things turn violent the film has to take sides, and that moral ambivalence is sacrificed. But for the first hour or so, it’s all impressively dark and surprisingly nuanced. And even after that, the performances are so strong that you find yourself happily going along for the ride. It’s the sort of film that Sam Fuller or Fritz Lang used to produce when the studio that had hired them weren’t really paying attention. A classic B movie then, but a classic all the same. You can see the trailer for Hell or High Water here. And there’s a moody video for the Cave Ellis track Comancheria here.

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“Julieta” a return to form for Almodovar.

Almodovar's Julieta.

Almodovar’s Julieta.

After the dizzy heights of All About My Mother in 1999, the films of Pedro Almodóvar hit something of a plateau. The next four were all just a little too convoluted, while the two most recent, The Skin I Live In (reviewed earlier here) and I’m So Excited were, for all their surface glitz and glamour, just plain poor. So his latest offering, Julieta, comes as a huge relief.

We first meet Julieta as a middle aged mother who has been catastrophically estranged from her only daughter. And for the first two thirds of the film, we discover in an extended flashback what it was that caused the breech between them as we delve into Julieta’s past. And then in the film’s final third, we return to Julieta as she is today, alone and abandoned and drowning in guilt.

The film is based on three short stories by Alice Monroe, who is far from an obvious fit for the exuberant Spaniard. Like the other great short story writer of our age, William Trevor, Monroe’s characters lead apparently drab and so say ordinary lives, in which small gestures speak volumes, and many of the conflicts that haunt their lives remain unresolved.

Almodovar stalwart Rossy De Palma channelling Mrs. Danvers.

Almodovar stalwart Rossy De Palma channelling Mrs. Danvers.

Almodóvar on the other hand is the modern day master of the 50s melodrama, and it’s hard to reference any of his best films without sighting Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock. So like them, he too likes to propel his narratives with broad, brushstrokes that produce an outpouring of emotion, which he brings to fruition thanks to his exuberant, cinematic expressionism.

So there is a slight sense of incongruity about the way he tells this story, and the kind of stories he has used to source the film.

That Obscure Object of Desire.

That Obscure Object of Desire.

Furthermore, in yet another nod to Vertigo and, more obviously, Buñuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire, he has cast two different actresses in the title role, with Emma Suárez playing the older Julieta, and Adriana Ugarte playing her as the younger woman. Which further adds to our sense of distanciation, as you occasionally find yourself thinking of the older and younger actresses as representing the mother and daughter relationship. And you have to remind yourself that the actual mother and daughter in question are the character of Julieta and her daughter.

All of which was very much a conscious decision on the part of Almodóvar. He was trying, if you like, to make a stripped down Almodóvar film. One in which the emotional highs and lows you normally associate with his films have been reigned in.

Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

What you think of the resulting film will largely depend on what you think of that decision. It’s still, for all its relative restraint, a wonderfully engaging film on an emotional level. It’s just not quite as emotionally explosive as you might have hoped for, especially given the story it tells.

But I quibble. To all extents and purposes, this is a welcome return to form for one of Europe’s most talented film makers. And you can see the trailer for Julieta here.

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