Films I loved in December 2016

15 December 2016
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Adam Driver as Paterson in Paterson

As Jim Jarmusch is one of my favourite living filmmakers, Paterson was one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It contains many of Jarmusch’s trademark characteristics, including an understated dead-pan sense humour, dialogue that sounds so conventional and direct it becomes strangely lyrical, and a overall minimalist approach that is captivating. While many of  Jarmusch’s films feel like the epitome of cinematic coolness, the story of a poetry-writing bus driver delivers a romantic and sweet depiction of American small-town working-class life. Adam Driver, as the titular bus driver observing life around him, is a perfect Jarmusch leading man and the scenes between him and Golshifteh Farahani, as his wife Laura, are unbelievably sweet.

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Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan in La La Land

While La La Land is clearly a homage to the musicals of the classical Hollywood era, especially the colour films of the 1950s by directors such as Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, it is also heavily indebted to Jacques Demy’s 1960s musicals, themselves homages to classical Hollywood musicals. As a Demy fan, this is not a problem for me at all, and it gives La La Land an extra layer of depth. The heightened use of colour, overt slides into fantasy and abstraction, and contrasting moods of whimsey and melancholy are all close to the spirit of Demy. Lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are a terrific on-screen couple, and the songs and dance choreography are great. This is a gorgeous and sincerely crafted love letter to the musical genre.

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Auli’i Cravalho voicing Moana Waialiki in Moana.

Walt Disney Animation Studios have been in incredibly strong form over the past few years and Moana is their latest success. Its story of a Polynesian girl on a quest with a demigod, delivers an exciting hero’s journey story with strong music numbers, fun gags, and inventive animation. It also continues the recent Disney tradition of critiquing the reductive representation of class and gender in so many of their earlier films about princesses. Moana is fun, exhilarating and moving.

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Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in Rogue One

I was a big fan of the 2014 Godzilla, especially the way director Gareth Edwards stayed true to the spirit of the original films while bringing something new; namely giving the large scale action scenes an immediate and gritty aesthetic. With Rogue One Edwards does something similar by making it a very faithful prequel to the original 1977 Stars Wars film while also ensuring it works as a standalone film. One of the darker entries into the franchise (both thematically and visually) it contains a wonderful ensemble of flawed anti-hero characters and a series of gripping action sequences. This was the most I’ve been entertained by a Star Wars film since seeing the original trilogy as a child.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016
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Films I loved in December 2014

23 December 2014
Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6

Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6

Walt Disney Animation Studios have been doing some extremely impressive work over the past few years with Big Hero 6 being my favourite film of theirs in recent times. The animation looks great, it contains a refreshingly diverse cast of characters and it contains just the right mix of pathos, humour and excitement. It doesn’t contain any naturally gifted or Chosen One characters, as instead the young heroes are all intelligent and studious who use science to solve problems. It also warns against the destructiveness of pursuing vengeance rather than justice with its story of a 14-year-old boy who enlists the help of a healthcare robot to uncover the truth behind a personal tragedy. While attempting to teach the robot humanity, the boy himself learns what it means to be human, and along with the villain effectively being a shape-changing robot, this makes Big Hero 6 a family-friendly variation of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in Paddington

Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in Paddington

The other terrific family film for this month is Paddington, which is filled with charm, and child-friendly sight gags and word play. It’s a gorgeously designed film that blends together director Paul King’s comedic avant-garde style with some pleasing nods to Wes Anderson and Jacques Tati. Best of all, the tale of a marmalade-loving bear who has lost his home in darkest Peru and seeks somewhere new to live in London, very successfully conveys timely messages about the harm of racism, the inhumanity of turning away those who seek help and the true meaning of family – all just in time for Christmas!

Sheila Vand as The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Sheila Vand as The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Combining the hip spirit of 1960s Iranian New Wave cinema as well as the equally hip spirit of 1990s American independent cinema (in particular channelling the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley), Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an ultra cool vampire film, which for good measure is also inspired by spaghetti westerns. If nothing else it is remarkable that a film that is bursting with so many references to so many other films should come across as having such a distinctive voice of its own, but it does and that voice is subversive, smart and stylish, announcing Amirpour as an exciting new talent to have emerged this year.

Robin Wright as Robin Wright in The Congress.

Robin Wright as Robin Wright in The Congress.

It’s been over a year since I’ve seen Ari Folman’s The Congress and while I’m not sure what I may make of it watching it now, I thought it still worth mentioning since it’s a film that has stayed with me. Blending live action and animation, it stars Robin Wright playing a version of herself who sells her digital-self to a Hollywood studio and then later enters an animated dream-world. It’s a perplexing and disorientating film that touches on ideas concerning memory, identity, reality and authenticity. The early-20th century-style animation used throughout the middle section of the film is realised on a grand and spectacular scale, and the overall strange and melancholic tone of the film is haunting. The Congress is admittedly a mess of a film, but it’s a glorious mess.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014