Top ten films of 2020

To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, it would require a great philosopher and historian to explain 2020 – let it suffice to say that it’s been a largely unpleasant ordeal for all involved. When it comes to movies, much of the year was defined by what we didn’t see; from the 25th James Bond adventure, No Time To Die, to Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, blockbusters have found their release dates postponed, sometimes repeatedly, into 2021 and beyond. We can only hope that there are still cinemas left by the time these films deem it safe to emerge. 

But despite the enormity of the last year, there remained plenty of great pictures to carry us through, on both the big and small screens. Indeed, 2020 was the year that television streaming came to dominate our consumption of new cinema, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and even the BBC gobbling up the rights to films which found themselves suddenly bereft of a conventional theatrical audience. The jury is still out on how positive, and permanent, this shift will prove to be.

But while all of us miss the spectacle and grandeur of a proper cinema auditorium, a great movie will captivate an audience just as effectively in a cramped living room as a packed IMAX. This is certainly true of each of my picks for the top ten films of 2020.

10. The Personal History of David Copperfield


Dir. Armando Iannucci

The third film from director Armando Iannucci, David Copperfield marks a departure from the caustic political satires for which the Scottish funnyman is known. Condensing the 600+ pages of Dickens’ novel into a running time just shy of two hours, the film is a breathlessly funny romp through Victorian Britain, but with an eye focused squarely on the country as it appears today. The supporting cast is a perfectly pitched ensemble featuring talent young and old, but it’s Dev Patel’s magnetic lead performance around which the film rotates. A celebration of Britishness at its most warm and inclusive, David Copperfield proves that even the most storied works of classic literature can be given new life when adapted for the screen.

9. Soul


Dir. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers

Pixar are no longer the safe bet they once were, as a recent spate of lacklustre sequels has dulled their once illustrious name and threatened their position at the forefront of American animation. It’s a relief, then, to report that Soul is a jubilant return to form. Director Pete Docter, a veteran of the studio and architect of their last great film, 2015’s Inside Out, has again delivered all the wonder and emotional depth of vintage Pixar. It helps that the film takes heavy visual and thematic cues from one of my favourite films, Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. Indeed, Soul is an unashamedly philosophical work, and its ambition in tackling big existential questions is matched only by its visual inventiveness. For anyone suffering a crisis of confidence in themselves or their accomplishments, this is a much-needed paean to the simple joys of being alive. For the children in the room, there’s a talking cat.

8. Red, White and Blue


Dir. Steve McQueen

The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series to make my list, Red, White and Blue tells the story of pioneering police officer Leroy Logan and his mission to force change from within the institutionally racist Metropolitan Police Force. The film asks searching questions about the relationship between the police and the communities they serve, and doesn’t presume to have any answers beyond the conviction that change must come. Finally freed from the shackles of disappointing Star Wars sequels, John Boyega provides a powerful leading turn which reasserts his claim as one of Britain’s most exciting young performers. His Logan is an utterly believable figure who straddles doubt and conviction, the essential goodness and compassion of his character struggling to contain the righteous rage bubbling beneath. Amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and recent demonstrations of anger against police brutality, it feels trite to call Red, White and Blue “timely”, but it provides a vivid and essential perspective on the unending struggle against racism in one of our most powerful public bodies.

7. Mank


Dir. David Fincher

A film about the making of the greatest film ever made was always going to be a tall order, but David Fincher isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. Six long years since his last feature, 2014’s Gone Girl, Fincher has brought to screen a script penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, charting the career of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. It’s simultaneously a celebration of the creative process and a condemnation of the corruption which lay beneath Hollywood’s golden age. Shot in sumptuous monochrome by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (what a name) and utilising an archaic mono soundtrack, the film is filtered through a reverent nostalgia for the era it depicts, without whitewashing its vices. Critics may quibble about the factual accuracy of its narrative, but Mank joins a pantheon of great movies about the movie business.

6. On The Rocks


Dir. Sofia Coppola

Reuniting director Sofia Coppola with star Bill Murray for the first time since their masterful 2003 collaboration, Lost In Translation, On The Rocks is another delicately incisive and brilliantly funny study of cross-generational understanding. Rashida Jones plays a procrastinating writer who suspects her husband of infidelity and, against her better judgement, enlists her womanising father (Murray) to investigate. Their ensuing misadventures swiftly begin to reveal more about their own relationship than anything the husband may be up to, while Jones and Murray are perfect foils for one another in these central roles. So much of their relationship is revealed through what goes unsaid, as their apparent closeness belies a deeper, obscured estrangement which is slowly interrogated throughout the film. Casting an eye upon the buried insecurities and parental hang-ups to which all of us would rather not admit, On The Rocks is a light yet quietly profound caper on the complexities of family.

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Dir. Céline Sciamma

It’s difficult to separate Portrait of a Lady on Fire from the circumstances in which I first saw it. Little did I know at the time, it was to be my last experience in a cinema before the oncoming Coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of every screen in the country. The memory of this screening has sustained me throughout the past few months of drought, as Céline Sciamma’s stunning film represents everything I love about the cinematic experience. It’s a tender depiction of a passionate but lamentably fleeting romance between an artist and her subject. Sciamma herself has referred to the film as a “manifesto about the female gaze”, and as such she crafts a refreshingly frank and sympathetic vision of lesbian sexuality. The emotional and physical longing of new love is captured in excruciating intensity, along with the deep and emotionally disfiguring scars which are left by its passing. Bearing the same power of the inclement waves which smash against the rocky, windswept outcrop of the film’s setting, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an awe-inspiring ode to the overwhelming joys and pains of love, which will you shivering and shell-shocked by the final reel.

4. Mangrove


Dir. Steve McQueen

As the opening gala of the London Film Festival, Mangrove was the showpiece of Steve’s McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Tracing the Metropolitan Police’s vindictive campaign against Notting Hill’s Mangrove restaurant and it’s owner, Frank Critchlow, the film is an explosively impassioned tour-de-force of a legal drama. Simultaneously the story of a community under siege and of one man’s reluctant charge at the spearhead of a struggle he never wanted to fight, the film vividly captures the cheerful vibrancy and oppressive cruelty that went hand-in-hand for people of colour late 60s/early 70s West London. Amid the typical trappings of the courtroom drama, there are beautifully idiosyncratic touches which bring to mind McQueen’s background as a visual artist, such as the strangely intoxicating visual of a fallen colander ceaselessly rocking back and forth on the floor of a kitchen following a violent police raid. In the same year that Aaron Sorkin’s enjoyable but by-the-numbers Trial of the Chicago 7 resorted to melodramatic monologues and orchestral swells to illustrate it’s righteous outrage, McQueen’s brilliance as a visual storyteller stands alone.

3. Da 5 Bloods


Dir. Spike Lee

One of the most important and brilliantly incendiary American film-makers of the last thirty years, Spike Lee has nevertheless had a somewhat uneven filmography. Fortunately, Da 5 Bloods sits closer to the Do the Right Thing end of the spectrum than that of Oldboy. This is Lee at his most exciting and confrontational, posing complicated questions about America’s past and present. Following four black Vietnam veterans as they return to the country in which they fought as youths, the film dissects the legacy of the Vietnam War and adopts it as a lens through which to view the complicated racial and cultural divisions of Trumpian America. Meanwhile, Delroy Lindo provides my favourite male lead performance of the year, his physically imposing presence and outward machismo gradually crumbling to reveal a shattered and exhausted soul. It’s a cine-literate work which wears its inspirations on its sleeve, dropping knowing references to the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Apocalypse Now. Indeed, alongside it’s political proselytising, Da 5 Bloods indulges itself in action and adventure genre thrills, particularly as it unfolds a marvellously outlandish final act.

2. Saint Frances


Dir. Alex Thompson

Written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan, Saint Frances is a tender coming of age comedy for millennials in their mid-thirties. Focusing on the messier and more complicated aspects of modern womanhood, the film paints a warm and embracing picture of femininity which feels boldly honest. Despite dealing with a number of taboos and hefty issues, O’Sullivan’s consistently funny script retains a deft lightness of touch and evinces guffaws at even its bleakest moments. Alongside the screenwriter’s charismatic lead performance, 6-year-old Ramona Edith Williams commands the screen as the eponymous Frances, while Jim True-Frost delivers a hilarious cameo which will delight fans of The Wire. Tackling everything from the existential abyss of working a dead end job, to abortion, depression, and the relentless anxiety of parenthood, Saint Frances throws its arms round the audience in an uncompromising embrace. At a time when the basic rights of women across the world are under attack and archaic stigmas are being reinforced, the affirmative spirit of Saint Frances is all the more welcome.

1. Education


Dir. Steve McQueen

This was the final instalment in the Small Axe anthology to reach British televisions, and Steve McQueen saved the best for last. Education is a fierce exposé of a cruel and callous schooling system which condemned the life chances of a generation of disproportionately black children. Young newcomer Kenyah Sandy is a revelation as Kingsley Smith, an absentminded 12-year-old boy who finds himself discarded into a school for the so-called “educationally subnormal”. Equally spectacular is Sharlene Whyte’s performance as Kingsley’s exhausted mother, Agnes, whose gradual discovery of her son’s neglect leads to one of the most powerful and heart-breaking moments in all of the cinema released last year. Indeed, the film is not just a denunciation of a segregationist education policy, but a celebration of the men and women of British-West Indian communities who mobilised to fight the injustice being done to their children.

Beyond the Education‘s significance as an historical testament, it is a technically exquisite work of cinema. The painterly elegance of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s camera work and McQueen’s penchant for unbroken single takes lends the visuals a rich and arresting texture, regardless of the domesticity of the film’s setting. A prolonged and affecting musical sequence in the second act, to name one example, betrays a greater depth of meaning than a thousand lines of dialogue.

Despite it’s individual brilliance, Education should not be considered as a purely singular work, but as one weave within the rich tapestry of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Having shone a series of piercing spotlights onto the black British experience, Small Axe contributes to a much-needed refocusing and reappraisal of our country’s history and who we are today. It is a triumph and a cultural landmark which will be studied and celebrated for decades to come.

Top ten films of 2018

This Sunday heralds the arrival of the 91st Academy Awards, and with it the interminable horror/delight of the annual movie awards season draws to a close. In honour of this fact, I’ve assembled a list of my ten favourite films of the last twelve months – and it’s been another fantastic year for film fans of every variety. Untested film-makers like Boots Riley and Bradley Cooper dazzled audiences with spectacular directorial debuts, while experienced masters like Lynne Ramsay and Paul Schrader returned to screens in stellar form. As a human being with responsibilities and limited time on this Earth, I can’t claim to have been comprehensive in my selection, but I nevertheless hope that I’ve distilled a varied range of the brilliant films which have graced our screens this year, and shed light on a few lesser-seen gems in the process.

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

mission impossible
Dir. Chris McQuarrie

Far and away the best blockbuster I’ve seen this year, the sixth instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a masterclass in big-budget action cinema. Now approaching his hundredth birthday, Tom Cruise continues to astound as the world’s most charismatic crash-test dummy, but it’s the slick work of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie which sets the film apart from its competitors. The plot is a plainly absurd mixture of well-worn genre tropes and contrived techno-babble, but it works perfectly as a stage for the most awe-inspiring stuntwork and special effects since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s exciting, crowd-pleasing cinema which doesn’t require leaving your critical faculties at the door, and I can’t wait to see what McQuarrie does next with his next two Mission: Impossible sequels, due for back-to-back release in 2021 and 2022.

9. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Dir. Barry Jenkins

Adapted from James Baldwin’s acclaimed novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story which chronicles the black experience in modern America, in both its joy and its injustice. Following on from his stunning 2016 directorial debut, Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has again demonstrated a knack for immersive cinema, pulling his audience through the frame into an authentic vision of 1970s Harlem. The characters who populate this world are compelling and full of life, while Nicholas Britell’s delicate score provides a sultry backdrop. The result is a deeply atmospheric experience which pays tribute to the human capacity for love and denounces our complicity in cruelty and prejudice. For a much more eloquent and insightful perspective on the film than I could ever produce, I heartily recommend checking out Tayler Montague’s review for Little White Lies.

8. A Star is Born

A STAR IS BORN
Dir. Bradley Cooper

It’s not often that remakes are among my favourite films of the year, but there’s a reason A Star is Born is now in it’s fourth iteration. As an exploration of the music industry, its themes are simultaneously contemporary and timeless. Making his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper has offered a deeply affecting meditation on art, artist, and how celebrity can bring about both the making and the destruction of a person. But all this would be meaningless if the romance at the centre of the film didn’t feel utterly believable. Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are astonishing in the lead roles, disappearing into their characters and fizzling with chemistry during intimate moments as well as bombastic musical numbers. Significantly, the film’s tactful depiction of male mental health feels relevant and essential at a time when such conversations are much-needed.

7. Sorry to Bother You

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Dir. Boots Riley

In the best possible way, Sorry to Bother You is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. It drifts between razor-sharp satire of modern capitalism and python-esque absurdist comedy – and often both at the same time. With shades of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Sorry to Bother You is a consistently hilarious but damning critique of the consumerist rat-race in which we all live. Writer and director Boots Riley, a veteran rapper and activist but unproven film-maker, helms the film with a lightness of touch which results in an enjoyably surreal experience, despite the script’s earnest subtext. Constantly second guessing its audience, Sorry to Bother You is not the film you expect going in, nor is it the film you think it is after watching for an hour – and you won’t see anything like it this year.

6. Widows

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Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen has never been known to shy away from sensitive subjects. His previous films have dealt with the Northern Irish troubles, sex addiction, and slavery, and Widows follows in a similar vein. The film confronts the issues of politics, race, gender, and violence which plague modern America, but all within an exciting and deftly executed crime thriller. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV television series, Widows masterfully follows the heist movie textbook, complete with a chalkboard planning sequence, a vehicle chase, and a last minute twist, but McQueen gives the genre a contemporary makeover. It’s probably his most accessible film yet, but that doesn’t mean it has any less to say. All this is supported by a magnificent ensemble cast including Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall, and a typically aggressive score from Hans Zimmer.

5. First Reformed

first reformed
Dir. Paul Schrader

No one makes films about disturbed and reclusive men like Paul Schrader does, and First Reformed marks a welcome return to form for the seasoned film-maker. It’s a slow-moving and deeply contemplative film which stars Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance as Reverend Toller, the pastor of a small-town church who has become a husk of himself following the death of his son and collapse of his marriage. As he tries to reconcile his faith with the cruel and decaying world he sees around him, Toller finds a new and obsessive purpose upon meeting an expectant mother called Mary (no points for subtlety there, Paul). There are undeniably shades of Travis Bickle in Toller, but the quiet rural parish of First Reformed is a world away from the scum-filled streets of Taxi Driver‘s New York. More than a character study, Schrader’s script examines the role of faith and the church in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, and a discomforting sense of impending disaster appropriately permeates the whole film. What begins at an unhurried pace gradually builds in intensity until a breathless climax and the best cut-to-black ending of 2018.

4. The Favourite

favourite
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The reign of Queen Anne has never been a popular arena for cinema, and it feels appropriate that the idiosyncratic talents of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos should be directed towards this neglected era with The Favourite. As usual, he brings his subtly disorientating camera work and an acerbic script, but this time he’s joined by three fine leads in the form of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, who bounce off each other with alacrity. It’s a subversive take on the costume drama; from the foppish absurdity of almost every male character to the liberal use of the word “cunt”, this certainly isn’t Pride and Prejudice. Although the results are generally hilarious, there are sudden and very effective moments of tragedy which are handled masterfully by Lanthimos and give real depth to characters who might otherwise seem caricatured. It’s also fantastic to see Olivia Colman receiving the roles and recognition she deserves as one of this country’s finest actors. Having followed her career since the days of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s difficult not to feel a peculiar sense of pride in watching her ascent to international stardom.

3. Cold War

coldwar
Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Probably the most difficult film of the year to find on Google, Cold War perfectly demonstrates the simple power of visual storytelling. Following the tumultuous romance of two lovers in Communist-era Poland, the film is an epic tale which spans across years and borders, as the two suitors drift passionately, and often destructively, through each others’ lives. Despite this tremendous scope, the film runs slightly less than an hour and a half in length, an admirable effort in brevity from co-writer and director Paweł Pawlikowski. Above all, he is a film-maker who understands the primacy of the image as a means of telling his story, avoiding the need for lengthy exposition or protracted dialogue. Each frame of the film is more beautiful than the last, but more impressive is how these images capture the unspoken intensity of true love and the cruel world which seeks to extinguish its spirit. The power of Pawlikowski’s approach would have been dulled  were it not for the subtle work of his two lead performers, Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, who, with barely a word, communicate both the excitement and melancholy of love.

2. Roma

roma
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

A loosely biographical tale of a housemaid in early 1970s Mexico City,  Roma is a study of both the personal and the political, and how these two worlds intertwine in powerful but almost imperceptible ways. The experience of a single woman, and the family for which she works, is placed against a sweeping historical backdrop of economic and social turmoil, without ever losing focus on the human drama at its core. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation in the central role, while the film around her is crafted with Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark finesse. Every movement of the camera is executed with a deliberate, almost ethereal omniscience, placing the viewer into an strangely voyeuristic role. As a Netflix production, Roma also represents a turning point in how major films are made and distributed; the much-maligned streaming service is knocking on Hollywood’s door.

1. You Were Never Really Here

you were never
Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Eight years since her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, director Lynne Ramsay has again proved herself to be one of the finest film-makers in the business. Visually dazzling with a dark and uncompromising character study at its heart, You Were Never Really Here simply could not have been made by anyone else. Joaquin Phoenix is a brutish and enthralling presence as Joe, a violent enforcer barely clinging to his grip on reality, who must embark on a rescue mission into a depraved underworld he cannot begin to comprehend. Ramsay’s films have always had a preoccupation with the internal experiences of her characters, with their singular perspectives providing a stark new lens through which to see the world. As such, every shot in this film is filtered through Joe’s confused and erratic psyche, enveloping everything in a suffocating intensity. The effect is heightened by Paul Davies’ cacophonous sound design and Jonny Greenwood’s entrancing score, and it all combines into a sensory assault which is experienced as much as it is watched. It may clock in at a lean 89 minutes, but You Were Never Really Here is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about for almost a year.

New Articles on Den of Geek!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to write a couple of pieces for the amazing people over at Den of Geek. Hopefully this relationship will continue for the foreseeable future, but to find everything I’ve written for the Den so far you can click here.

Alternatively, I will be using this blog to curate all of my work which has been featured on other websites, just head over to the Other Stuff I’ve Written page for the full list.

For now though, here are my first two articles for Den of Geek:

Bond 25, and the untapped stories of the novels – Den of Geek
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Putting the film back into films – Den of Geek
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Keep checking back for more content!

Lots of Love,

Mark.

Hacksaw Ridge Review

Occasionally rousing but mostly unexceptional, Mel Gibson’s battlefield drama is a confused tour of war movie clichés.

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Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss. Copyright 2017 Lionsgate.

When Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, it revolutionised the modern war film. It was by no means the best that the genre had to offer, but the first to convincingly capture the shattering sights and sounds of the battlefield. Spielberg launched a generation of imitators, from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down to David Ayer’s Fury. Following in the same tradition, Mel Gibson has returned to the director’s chair with Hacksaw Ridge, a bloody and visceral tale of courage in the face of incomprehensible horror. Ultimately it’s a messy, if ambitious, film which stumbles upon moments of greatness in an otherwise by-the-numbers tale of the Pacific war.

Hacksaw Ridge focuses on the remarkable true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a profoundly religious young man who enlists in the US Army during the Second World War but refuses to carry a weapon into battle. We follow his journey from small-town Virginia to the battlefields of Okinawa, where his bravery as a combat medic made him the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

From its opening frames to the biblical final shot, Hacksaw Ridge is laughably heavy-handed, which is not always a terrible thing. The central cast of characters, including Garfield’s Doss, are all fairly one-note, but just about well-drawn enough to be worth investing in. Dialogue is consistently on the nose and the soundtrack is always sure to remind the viewer how they should be feeling. It’s compelling enough and never quite insults the viewer’s intelligence, but don’t expect to be dealing with complex moral dilemmas.

Structurally, the film is split very clearly into two halves, spending time to introduce Doss’s home life before he ships off to the Pacific. This first portion of the film follows a series of familiar clichés, all of which call to mind other, better films. There’s a portrayal of a naïve young romance which would feel at home in The Notebook, so suffocating is the layer of schmaltz. Then comes a brutal boot-camp training sequence, borrowing heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket but accompanied by an extra side of cheese. Following this, the film even collapses into a predictable court-room drama for an inexplicable ten minutes. These early vignettes aren’t poorly done, but disappointingly simplistic; it feels perfunctory and a little bit useless, as if Gibson is itching to get the boring stuff over with before the violence starts.

And blimey, does it start. More or less from the moment the film shifts to Okinawa is the audience thrown into the maelstrom of battle. The carnage and bloodshed of war are represented here in unrelenting detail. Desperate young men are riddled with bullets and blown to pieces with abandon, while the camera repeatedly switches to slow motion as squads of Japanese soldiers are engulfed in flames. At times, these combat sequences feel like they would be more at home in a horror film, and it’s to Gibson’s credit that he creates such an overbearing sense of confusion and dread. His obsession with graphic violence, exemplified in his previous work from Braveheart to The Passion of the Christ, remains as present as ever, but it’s just nauseating enough to avoid feeling pornographic. At its best, Hacksaw Ridge features some of the most impressive reproductions of war ever put to film, which is why it’s such a shame when it falls into incredulous moments of action movie cliché. A superfluous duel with a Japanese sniper is just one forgettable encounter which feels tonally incongruous with the rest of the film, and it diminishes the otherwise immersive effect.

Despite its eccentric protagonist, then, Hacksaw Ridge is relentlessly conventional. Gibson clearly has a story to tell, and he does so without complication or restraint. Punctuated by spells of excellence and a convincing central performance (Garfield’s Oscar nomination is well deserved), Hacksaw Ridge is a worthy entry in the war movie annals, but as a whole it fails to move far beyond mediocrity.

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Life on Film – Tokyo Story and Boyhood

Tokyo Story
Tokyo Story (1953)

I recently watched Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) for the first time. It’s an interesting and quite slow paced portrayal of life in post-war Japan, telling the story of an elderly couple visiting their grown children in Tokyo. Although there’s little in the way of plot, the film masterfully contrasts the hurried indifference of a new generation with that of the old Japan – through the experience of a single family, Ozu captures a moment of transition for all of Japanese society.

While watching the film, I found myself drawing comparison to a much more recent picture; Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Filmed intermittently over a 12-year period, Boyhood chronicles over a decade in the life of a single boy, from elementary school to university. While the backdrop of these two films would struggle to be more different, both Boyhood and Tokyo Story attempt to capture and portray life as it truly happens, without a strictly structured plot or the usual embellishments of cinema – they simply provide a snapshot of the human experience. The two films were also critically acclaimed; Tokyo Story was rated as the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors’ poll, while Boyhood has the rare honour of a perfect 100 score on metacritic.

Despite the acclaim, Boyhood is a film I have never been able to get behind – on both of my viewings I’ve found myself achingly bored. I’ll accept that my opinion resides within the minority, but Boyhood is an interminably dull tale of very normal things happening to a slim selection of non-characters. What’s more, every shot is framed in a flat, televisual style which, as far as I can see, is devoid of any real craft or cinematic value. As a result, it’s difficult to engage with the film on either a technical or an emotional level, and I find myself longing for an injection of melodrama. Indeed, my criticisms of Boyhood were only accentuated by the achievements of Tokyo Story.

Byhood
Boyhood (2014)

The essential success of Tokyo Story is that Ozu is able to take life and make it worth watching. Although the film is heavy on dialogue, it’s always staged in a visually interesting manner, disposing of the typical shot-reverse-shot approach and confidently breaking the 180-degree rule to bring the audience closer. Moreover, it consistently feels like the events on screen, no matter how mundane, have a point to them; the characters and their separate stories all contribute to an understanding of Japanese society as a whole, giving you something palpable to take away from the experience. The existence of this over-arching narrative means that Ozu’s social-realist approach is anchored to a story that is worth telling.

Boyhood, on the other hand, fails to be anything more than a series of events occurring, and the result is a film that’s crushingly dull. It may have taken twelve years to make (and the advertising wouldn’t let you forget it), but I fail to see how this contributes anything when the aging characters are such uninteresting husks. Admittedly, Linklater’s long production time is a technical triumph, allowing the audience to experience the passage of time in a way that feels tangible, but it’s impact is hollow against a script that is devoid of genuine drama or effective character development.

In recording reality, Linklater appears to have forgotten the essential truth that most people go to cinema to escape the depressing reality of life, not watch it unfold over an excruciating two-hour-forty-minute period. Of course, a realist approach can be a powerful storytelling tool, ably illustrated by Tokyo Story, but Boyhood has none of the artistic weight or social commentary that makes Ozu’s film so valuable. Much like the visual effects of today’s comic-book sequels, the realism of Boyhood is undeniably impressive, presenting life itself with a plainness rarely seen. Underneath, however, there simply isn’t enough substance to justify the feverish praise with which the film was lavished.

At least that’s what I think.

Top Ten… Movie Endings

We are living in an age of lists, so I thought it was only appropriate that I threw my hat into the ring. Below you’ll find my top ten film endings of all time. I don’t intend for it to be exhaustive; I’m only human and I haven’t seen everything, but I hope you’ll enjoy this selection of the movie finales that I have found most impressive, or the ones that have left the greatest impact upon me. Selecting just ten was more difficult than I imagined, and there are an awful lot of brilliant conclusions that I had to leave out. A few honourable mentions include; Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather (1972), The Shining (1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), The Wicker Man (1973), The Searchers (1957), The Italian Job (1969), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Beware, spoilers below!

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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You might think I’m talking about the opening of the Ark scene, when a bunch of Nazis have their faces melted off by the might of God. But no, I’m talking about the last thirty seconds of the film, and that shot. Having been recovered by Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant is sealed away and buried within a vast government facility, never to be seen or opened again. The effect is accomplished through an ingenious matte painting, and it manages to brilliantly conjure a sense of both intrigue and humour. Its mystery may have been diminished somewhat by the misjudged opening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it remains a powerful and thought provoking end to an excellent film.

  1. Roman Holiday (1953)

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Roman Holiday is arguably the definitive bitter-sweet ending. As much as we may wish that Princess Ann and Joe Bradley could give two fingers to the world, run from the palace, and be together forever, their separation was always inevitable. As she goes back to being a princess, and he a reporter, they are left with nothing but a few candid photos and cherished memories. In a film full of celebrated images and scenes, none is so lasting as the sight of Gregory Peck strolling towards the camera, an ironic smirk on his face, as he leaves the princess behind forever.

  1. Casablanca (1942)

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Drama, romance, suspense – the ending of Casablanca has it all. It’s a scene that has become almost laughably iconic, a symbol for tragic love itself. The brilliance of this ending is that it’s exactly the opposite of what the audience wants to happen; it’s a harsh, realist picture of love in a time of adversity, an ending that says, sometimes, love can’t conquer all. Painful to watch, it exists as a testament to the unmatched chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Director Michael Curtiz shot this iconic ending without a finished script and unsure of how he even wanted it to end. Watching Rick and Louis walk into the mist, I think you’ll agree that he made the right choice.

  1. Raging Bull (1980)

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An aged and overweight Jake LaMotta stares at himself in the mirror, quoting On the Waterfront as he prepares for his next stage show. He psyches himself up, straightens his bow tie, and steps out of the dressing room. Once the screen has cut to black, Raging Bull closes with a quote from a biblical passage, specifically John IX, 24-26, followed by a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s mentor, Haig R Manoogian. An extract reads “ ‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’ / the man replied. / ‘All I know is this: / once I was blind and now I can see.’ ” It’s an ending that has stuck with me profoundly, ever since my first viewing. Having just seen the sum of this man’s life, we are forced to ask if it is really our place to judge. Indeed, seeing LaMotta backstage is a reminder that he is, above all, a man, as complex as he is formidable. And that’s entertainment.

  1. Bicycle Thieves (1948)

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Bicycle Thieves is a relatively low-key film; the tale of a man, Antonio Ricci, and his young son desperately searching for his stolen bicycle in post-war Rome, in which bursts of emotion are rare and potent. In the film’s final moments, Antonio’s exasperation boils over as he attempts to steal an unattended bike, only to be caught and condemned as a thief himself. When his son’s pleading causes the mob to let Antonio go, the pair disappear into the crowd, holding hands and unsure of their future. It’s a forlorn picture of life in Italy’s war-torn capital, giving a captivating and very sympathetic face to what was mass human suffering.

  1. Planet of the Apes (1968)

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It is difficult to consider the original Planet of the Apes now without thinking about the ending. It’s shock factor has largely worn off, as the final shot has become probably the most iconic image from the film – parodied in The Simpsons and showcased on the cover of the DVD. Nevertheless, the final, shocking discovery of the film – that the planet in question is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic Earth – is an excellent and unexpected twist. Playing on contemporary fears of nuclear annihilation, the closing image of a destroyed Statue of Liberty and Charlton Heston’s infamous cry of “Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” still resonates powerfully today.

  1. The Godfather Part II (1974)

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It was difficult choosing between the endings of the first two Godfather films, but the second entry just tops the first upon repeat viewings. With all of Michael Corleone’s enemies lying dead, including his brother, Fredo, the film flashes back several years to the morning of 9 December 1941, the day of the attack upon Pearl Harbour, and Don Vito Corleone’s birthday. The younger Michael’s patriotic dedication, and resentment of his family, draws a powerful contrast against his later, tragic descent into a murderous and patriarchal figure. However, the flashback also highlights Michael’s continued isolation; in 1941, his idealism had left him shunned, sitting alone at the dinner table. Years later, Michael remains a solitary figure, despite all his efforts in the name of family. Now greying at the temples, he continues to exist as an outsider to all those who loved him. A powerful and inspired juxtaposition.

  1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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The only appearance of a Bond film on the list, the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not only a break from the series’ tradition, but a genuinely risky move for a franchise so steeped in convention. 007 had defeated the villain, destroyed a mountain-top base, and fallen in love. But this isn’t where the story ends; as Bond and his new wife, Tracy, drive off into the sunset, a botched assassination attempt leaves Tracy with a bullet in her skull. Instead of pursuing the villain, a tearful Bond cradles his dead wife and tells a passing policeman “It’s quite alright… We have all the time in the world.” Although now an iconic moment, it must be remembered how genuinely shocking such an ending would have been in 1969, depriving audiences of the triumphant conclusion that had become standard. It remains a travesty that subsequent Bond films would abandon this gritty approach for years to come.

  1. The Third Man (1949)

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The closing shot of The Third Man lasts for around two minutes, neither moving an inch nor cutting a frame as our hero, Holly Martins, stands waiting at the roadside for the heartbroken Anna to emerge from the horizon. As she walks past Holly and out of his life without so much as a glance, the camera lingers excruciatingly, forcing us to share in his pain and solitude. Although a desperately sad conclusion, there’s a wry humour in Holly’s resignation, as he lights himself a cigarette and tosses away the match. Anton Karas’ melancholy music perfectly complements Graham Green’s gorgeous photography, providing for a profound and lasting image.

  1. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

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The final sequence of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is not only one of the greatest endings of all time, but one of the best examples of film making – ever. It plays out with almost operatic grace, a perfect blend of music, cinematography, acting, and direction. This concluding chapter begins as Tuco desperately bounds across a graveyard, searching for a buried hoard of gold, while Ennio Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold swells in the background. It ends as three title cards contrast the fates of the titular gunslingers; one dead, one alive, and another on horseback with four bags of treasure. Sergio Leone weaves a scene that is both beautiful and unbearably tense, perfecting the western as only he could.

Deadpool Review

With a script that isn’t funny and action that fails to excite, Deadpool falls well short of expectations.

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Ryan Reynolds in costume as Deadpool. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

There’s a peculiar self-confidence to Deadpool. It’s a feeling of assuredness, not only in the film’s eponymous hero, but permeating throughout the events on screen. For its entire duration, the script is all too eager to break the fourth wall, wink at the audience, and remind you just how clever it is. The jokes are crass and fly in your face without much subtlety, while references to pop culture and other comic book movies are incessant. It’s akin to an irritating friend, nudging you all the way through to make sure you’re getting his jokes. Despite all this, there really isn’t much in Deadpool to warrant  such self-assurance. Beneath a veneer of gimmicks, genital jokes, and non-linear sequencing, there exists a very average superhero film.

From debut director Tim Miller, Deadpool is a story of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a foul-mouthed former mercenary who dons a red suit and takes on an alter-ego following a medical procedure that leaves him horribly disfigured but enhanced with super-human abilities. Swearing revenge upon Ajax (Ed Skrein), the psychopathic mutant who ruined him, Deadpool pursues a bloody campaign to track down the villain and exact his bloody justice. If that story rings a surprisingly conventional tone, that’s because it is. Where Deadpool attempts to distinguish itself is with an adult sense of humour and a mocking, self-referential attitude towards comic book cinema.

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Ed Skrein as Ajax. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The problem is that Deadpool simply isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. The jokes arrive thick and fast, but more often than not they outstay their welcome or rely on a somewhat outdated knowledge of popular culture (a female with close-cropped hair is hilariously referred to as “Ripley, from Alien 3!”). Admittedly, such a sense of humour certainly has an audience, and my screening of the film wasn’t short of laughter. But for a script that seems so pleased with itself, much more should be expected.

Of course, Deadpool involves as much action as it does comedy, but in this regard the viewer is served the same unengaging, computerised spectacle that has become commonplace in the genre. The violence quotient has been substantially increased, but the total lack of excitement remains the same. In a film that takes such pleasure in mocking the tropes of superhero films, it is inexcusable for Deadpool to equally succumb to their failings. Miller’s pedestrian visual style simply has none of the distinction that his script requires, and the result is a conclusion that descends into protracted tedium rather than a triumphant finale.

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Even Deadpool himself was shocked by the quality of the script. Copyright 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Even if joy can be found in its humour, there’s little else in Deadpool to encourage repeat viewings. Ryan Reynolds may provide a convincingly charismatic performance, but he’s given little to work with next to a plot that’s barely there and a cast of one-note supporting characters. The action set pieces are unrelentingly dull, while Deadpool’s crude one-liners become an exhausting annoyance within an otherwise uninspired script. As Careless Whisper plays out and the credits roll, both comedy fans and action enthusiasts are likely to find themselves disappointed. I know I was.

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