Top ten films of 2019

As a new decade dawns and we look back on the last 12 months, it can be tough finding much to be positive about. The rise of fascism continues unabated and the world is on fire, but amidst all the horror, at least we got some good movies. With the Academy Awards having just past, it’s now the time of year for my annual appraisal of the best that cinema had to offer in 2019.

In many ways, it felt like a landmark year for the film industry. The increasing monopolisation of blockbuster cinema by the Walt Disney Company, and its emphasis on franchise-driven spectacle, has caused alarm among some cinéastes. Martin Scorsese himself started a debate on how we can even define the term “cinema” in this newly corporatised landscape. Despite these valid concerns, 2019 was still an exciting year to be a film fan. From the experimental and independent work of British directors Mark Jenkin and Joanna Hogg, to the epic scale of Sam Mendes’ new First World War epic, there was plenty of variety to be had in multiplexes. In fact, it wasn’t always necessary to journey to the cinema to see the best new releases; streaming behemoth Netflix continued its assault on Hollywood, producing films from the likes of Scorsese and Noah Baumbach (securing a place on my coveted top-ten list in the process). Narrowing down my favourite films of the year into a shortlist of just ten has proved to be an agonising experience, and a testament to the maxim that there is never a bad year in cinema.

Unfortunately, as I have limited myself to ten films, there are several which failed to make the cut but nevertheless deserve an honourable mention. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, although technically a 2018 release, didn’t arrive in UK cinemas until April 2019. A sympathetic coming-of-age story about the perils of adolescence in the social media age, my eyes were damp for most of the running time. One of the most anticipated pictures of the year was Quentin Tarantino’s latest and, as the director insists, penultimate film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Hugely atmospheric and featuring career-best performances from Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt, it’s an uneven but uncompromising love letter to the cinema of Tarantino’s youth. James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (known as Ford v Ferrari in the US) was a masterclass in old-fashioned, crowd pleasing film-making. Exhilarating and pleasingly practical racing sequences are anchored by charismatic turns from Christian Bale and Matt Damon, both of whom provide charmingly wobbly regional accents. And finally, Noah Baumbach returned with Marriage Story, a touching and nuanced chronicle of an artistic couple and their young son navigating a divorce from opposite ends of the United States.

Without further preamble, here are clued-down’s top ten films of 2019…

10. The Souvenir

sourvenir
Dir. Joanna Hogg

First love isn’t always romantic – sometimes the confused intensity of youthful romance can leave scars which persist for a lifetime. The Souvenir is a powerful account of a toxic relationship between a young film student, Julie, and an enigmatic older man, Anthony. Director Joanna Hogg has been forthcoming about the autobiographical nature of the film; from minor furnishings in Julie’s flat, to whole conversations between the two lovers, much of what we see is a facsimile of the director’s experience as a young film student in early 1980s Knightsbridge. As such, the film exhibits the tenderness of an open wound. Banal comments and imperceptible gestures carry a weight of immense meaning, much thanks to a vulnerable lead performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother in the film). Grappling with Hogg’s emergence as an artist, The Souvenir is ultimately a study in self-identity and artistic expression, and how those creative impulses can be stifled by those you love the most and then rediscovered in the face of personal tragedy.

9. 1917

1917
Dir. Sam Mendes

The disappointing 2015 James Bond adventure, Spectre, opens with an impressive single-take action sequence which is undoubtedly the highlight of the film. Little did anyone know at the time, but this moment of technical showmanship was a dry-run for director Sam Mendes’ next film. 1917 isn’t the first movie to digitally stitch its shots together to appear as one unbroken take – Iñárritu’s Birdman pulled the same trick in 2015 and was awarded Best Picture for its trouble – but it is probably the most compelling use of the technique yet. Following two corporals as they race to deliver a message across enemy lines, the film is a Homeric Odyssey through the devastation of the First World War. There’s a surreal and episode quality to proceedings, a feeling emphasised by the unrelenting gaze of the camera and real-time structure of the story. Comparisons to a video-game are not completely off the mark, but nor are they necessarily a criticism. Watching 1917 is a formidably immersive experience, from the thunderous sound design to Roger Deakins’ stupefying cinematography, everything works to bring the audience closer to the trenches and shell-pocked fields of Northern France. Crucially, this technical tour-de-force is grounded by the sympathetic characters who drive the story, particularly George Mackay’s powerful performance as L/Cpl Schofield. He provides a human face to the vast and incalculable suffering of a conflict which has long since passed from living memory.

8. Little Women

little women
Dir. Greta Gerwig

The seventh adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, Little Women is a masterclass in the modern period drama. Following her superb 2017 directorial debut, Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig has breathed life into the classic text with an exuberant sense of pace and a reappraisal of the novel’s relevance for contemporary audiences. The ensemble cast is bursting with some of the most exciting young talent currently working in Hollywood, with Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet all following up a recent run of star-making turn with typically magnetic performances. Meanwhile, stalwart actors Laura Dern and Chris Cooper provide multi-faceted supporting appearances which leave an impact out of proportion to their screen-time. Gerwig’s script adopts a gently daring non-linear structure, which distinguishes the film from prior adaptations and expedites the narrative into a comfortable two hours. I’m less convinced by the addition of a meta-narrative in the third act, which interweaves the character of Jo March with biographical details from Alcott’s own life, but it’s to the film’s credit that it endeavours to push the boundaries of its source material without losing sight of its core themes.

7. Monos

Monos

Dir. Alejandro Landes

Capturing the child’s-eye-view of war is never an easy prospect, but recent years have seen a number of excellent films focusing on the horrors of child soldiery, from Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008) to Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015). With Monos, director Alejandro Landes looks at the ongoing brutality of the Colombian civil war from the perspective of a small group of teenage guerrillas. Little time is wasted explaining the history or details of the conflict, focusing instead on the lived experience of the teenagers at the centre of the story. The petty squabbles and clumsy romances of adolescence are contrasted violently with the brutality of war, while the squalid reality of their existence is presented in uncomfortable detail. It’s fantastically visceral film-making which overwhelms the senses, whether the inescapable chill of a desolate hilltop outpost or suffocating heat of a rainforest encampment. The heady experience is heightened by a discombobulating score from British composer Micah Levi. Essential viewing, just make sure that you have time to lie down afterwards.

6. Pain and Glory

pain and glory
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar

The latest film from veteran Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory follows a chapter in the life of Salvador Mallo, a reluctantly retired film director depressed by physical decline and personal loss. Borrowing elements from Almodóvar’s own experiences, it’s a loosely autobiographical look at the ennui of early old age and finding renewal through art. Much of the film’s power rests on a centrepiece performance from Antonio Banderas, reuniting the actor with the director who launched him to stardom some three decades ago. It’s an unshowy turn rooted in subtle glances and minute gestures, in which his very posture communicates a lifetime of physical and emotional pain. Despite the script’s introspective tone, Almodóvar constantly switches gears and moves his character into fresh territory. Mallo’s story is structured almost as a series of vignettes, echoing the restless dissatisfaction and search for meaning in his own life, while a parallel timeline follows his childhood in a sequence of flashbacks. Both of these threads, seemingly unconnected at first, are eventually tied together  in one of the most satisfying final shots of the year.

5. Parasite

parasite
Dir. Bong Joon-ho

The first film not in the English language to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Parasite is the movie on everyone’s lips at the moment. Although the Oscars have an admittedly sketchy record when it comes to picking the film of the year, this is surely to go down as one of the most deserving victors. A cutting satire of inequality and economic apartheid in modern South Korea, Parasite is a richly layered film which refuses easy categorisation and demands reinterpretation of every image and character. Director Bong Joon-ho moves deftly between acutely observed comedy and chilling psychological thrills, with each shift in tone following as a completely natural development in the serpentine plot. Similarly, Jung Jae-il’s exhilarating score dances between styles, from sinister and militaristic drum beats to baroque-inspired strings, while Hong Kyung-pyo’s crisp cinematography brilliantly contrasts the claustrophobic squalor of a crowded basement dwelling with the bright, clean space of a wealthy mansion. Between Parasite and the recent successes of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), Korean cinema is currently enjoying a well-earned moment in the sun among mainstream western audiences.

4. Bait

bait
Dir. Mark Jenkin

Much of the publicity around Bait focused on the archaic technology with which the film was made. The 16mm monochrome cinematography and post-synced audio certainly harks back to a bygone era, but the substance of the story deals with fiercely contemporary concerns around the decline of the English fishing industry and the slow death by gentrification of the communities that supported it. This conflict between old and new, between the obsolete and the advanced, permeates through Bait in both it’s technical achievements and storytelling. Charting the tensions between locals and second home-owners in a Cornish fishing village, it’s a riveting and timely study of the division and inequality which has come to characterise so much of life in modern Britain.

3. Knives Out

knives out
Dir. Rian Johnson

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) was not only one of the best blockbusters of the last decade, it also established writer/director Rian Johnson as a film-maker unafraid to bend the expectations of his genre in pursuit of a good story. With his latest film, Johnson has drawn heavily on the work of Agatha Christie, but Knives Out distinguishes itself as a thrillingly contemporary take on the classic whodunit. It has all the tropes one might expect of a Poirot or Miss Marple story; a Gothic mansion, a quirky detective, and a smorgasbord of suspects, motives, and clues which all spiral towards a satisfying, final-act reveal. Underneath this slickly plotted murder mystery, however, is a caustic satire of the privilege and greed endemic to Trumpian America. Johnson’s script is also one of the funniest of the year, full of cutting exchanges and knowingly haughty monologues, and matched with a charismatic set of performances. A perfectly pitched ensemble cast is led by Daniel Craig, who savours the opportunity to stretch himself as the outrageously accented and flamboyantly dressed gentleman sleuth, Benoit Blanc. Just as Craig was due to hang up his holster as James Bond, he’s found another iconic character who is sure to be sustained in sequels to come.

2. Uncut Gems

uncut gems
Dir. Josh and Benny Safdie

If the exit poll of the 2019 general election was the most stressful thing I watched in the last year, then Uncut Gems takes a comfortable second place. Following on from their excellent 2017 thriller Good Time, the Safdie brothers have crafted another hyperactive  assault on the senses. It follows a hilariously intense few days in the life of Howard Ratner, a self-destructive jewellery store owner and chronic gambling addict, as he risks all he has in the pursuit of the score of a lifetime. Adam Sandler gives easily his best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 drama Punch Drunk Love, demonstrating what the much-maligned actor is capable of when paired with film-makers who appreciate the depth of his talent. The supporting cast is similarly impeccable, with newcomers and non-actors alongside rising stars and veteran performers, while a sharp script imbues every character, no matter how minor, with a sense of authenticity. The fast-paced dialogue is elevated by the Safdies’ dizzying camerawork and Daniel Lopatin’s relentless score, all of which combine to bum-clenching effect. Uncut Gems may have been inexplicably overlooked by almost every major awards body this season, but it’s a delightfully exhausting film which confirms Josh and Benny Safdie as two of the most exciting film-makers of their generation.

1. The Irishman

irishman
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Rumours of The Irishman‘s production floated around the internet for at least a decade before the project came to life, and it was always difficult to entertain as a realistic prospect. The idea that Martin Scorsese would team up with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci for one last gangster movie, when all four were into their seventies, seemed fanciful at best – and misguided at worst. We all saw what happened when the ageing has-beens of 80s action cinema tried a similar trick with The Expendables. Could The Irishman, with its septuagenarian cast and crew, ever amount to more than a tired echo of former glories?

Of course, you would have been a fool to bet against Scorsese. Those expecting a rerun of Goodfellas or Casino were to be disappointed, as The Irishman arguably owes a greater debt to Sergio Leone’s elegiac 1985 crime epic, Once Upon a Time in America. Unfolding over the course of three-and-a-half sumptuous hours, it’s a deliberately paced story following the gangsterisation of American politics in the mid-twentieth century and the personal costs of surviving in such a world. De Niro stars as the eponymous Irishman, Frank Sheeran, and delivers his best performance this side of the millennium. It’s a quietly devastating role that follows the gradual hollowing out of a man, his sense of humanity slowly eroded by decades of violence and a perverse code of criminal honour. Pacino, meanwhile, is at his scenery-chewing best as infamous union chief Jimmy Hoffa, all hoarse screams and flailing arms, but it’s Pesci who is given the opportunity to move outside his comfort zone, with astounding results. As mob boss Russell Buffalino, he is a controlled and commanding presence who belies a deeper, calmly psychotic menace. It is a subtle role totally divorced from the highly strung villains for which Pesci was known in his prior collaborations with Scorsese, and yet no less threatening.

The last ten years have produced some of Scorsese’s finest and most varied work, and it seems appropriate that he should conclude the decade by returning to the gangster movie milieu with which he is most identified. Ultimately a rumination on the ravages of time and coming to terms with one’s legacy during the twilight of life, The Irishman is as much a commentary on Scorsese’s own career as it is a study in the life of a criminal. More than a great film, it is a deconstruction of the myth of the American gangster – the final word on the crime film from the genre’s own Godfather. A masterpiece.

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

hero_beale-street-talk-2018
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

sorrytobotheryou
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

widows
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.

The 2018 clued-down Movie Awards

Say what you like about the last year, but it’s been a marvellous time for movies. Whether you’re into blockbusters, art house, or anything in between, there’s been something for every film fan, and it feels unfair to single out any one film or film-maker for praise – but that’s why I’m here. Below you will find my nominees and winners for the best achievements in film of 2017/18.

Best Film

Nominated

Call Me By Your Name

John Wick: Chapter 2

The Death of Stalin

Get Out

Good Time

The Shape of Water

Lady Bird

Paddington 2

Phantom Thread

Winner

Dunkirk

dunkirk1

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a miraculous cinematic achievement, a perfectly executed tour-de-force of visual storytelling. Its technical triumph in recreating the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk is matched only by its narrative ambition, weaving together three competing perspectives from the land, sea, and air. Nolan makes no effort to clumsily tackle the moral or political implications of the conflict, only the senseless terror of its experience, and the result is a heart-pounding deconstruction of heroism, tragedy, and triumph in the face of defeat.

Best Director

Nominated

Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

Winner

Guillermo Del Toro – The Shape of Water

shapeofwater2

This year’s selection of directors represent a refreshingly diverse mix of voices and artistic ambitions, and any one would be a worthy winner. Nevertheless, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a technically stunning and emotionally uplifting masterwork which could only have spawned from the brilliant, demented brain of this Mexican auteur. Del Toro manages to weave together elements of thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and romance into a single, spellbinding tale of tolerance in the face of prejudice.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Nominated

Vicky Krieps – Phantom Thread

Soarise Ronan – Lady Bird

Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water

Meryl Streep – The Post

Winner

Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

threebillboards

Frances McDormand has never been known for playing your typical big-screen heroines. Before now, she was probably best known as the kind hearted and heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996), for which she won her first Academy Award. Now, over two decades later, she has at least matched that performance with an wholly different but no less affecting role. As grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, McDormand provides a nuanced portrait of a physically and emotionally aggressive woman, yet she manages to imbue her performance with a hint of repressed vulnerability beneath the surface. The result is a wholly believable and multi-layered rendering of a person’s journey through loss, anger, and forgiveness.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Nominated

Daniel Day Lewis – Phantom Thread

Chris Kaluuya – Get Out

Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Robert Pattinson – Good Time

Robertpattinson

The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time was entirely overlooked by most major awards bodies this year, perhaps unsurprisingly for a film so unashamedly rough around the edges. Nevertheless, it’s an unusual and aggressively compelling crime-caper, thanks in large part to the efforts of Robert Pattinson. He stars at the centre of the film as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a morally unscrupulous bank-robber determined to show his disabled brother a “good time”. It’s a restless performance which demands attention, particularly as the camera lens pushes into insistent close-ups to capture every twitch of a muscle or bead of sweat. The London-born actor entirely disappears into the part of a New York lowlife, and it’s exciting to see the bloke from the Twilight films continue to prove himself as a compelling lead performer.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Adam Driver – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Craig – Logan Lucky

Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Michael Stahlberg – Call Me By Your Name

Winner

Hugh Grant – Paddington 2

hughgrant

Having long been typecast into bumbling romantic leads, Hugh Grant is an actor of underestimated versatility. As the villainous Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, he is finally given the opportunity to flex his theatrical muscles in a delightfully camp romp across a plethora of accents, prosthetic disguises, and song-and-dance numbers. Paddington 2 wasn’t eligible for this year’s Oscars, having only arrived into American cinemas in early 2018, but here’s hoping that Hugh Grant receives the recognition he deserves in next year’s ceremony.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Nominated

Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird

Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

Mary J. Blige – Mudbound

Allison Janney – I, Tonya

Winner

Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread

lesleymanville

A veteran of stage and television, Lesley Manville is nonetheless a remarkable cinematic presence, even when going to-to-toe with the fearsome Daniel Day Lewis. In Phantom Thread, she does just that in the role of Cyril Woodcock, sister to the obstinate Reynolds Woodcock (Day Lewis) and matriarch of the haute couture House of Woodcock. She regularly steals the scene from her venerable co-star, as their ambiguous relationship plays out with all its affection and conflict. Every put-down and backhanded compliment is delivered with satisfying bite, but this acerbic façade is only part of the story. Indeed, Manville takes what could have been predictable old crone and develops her into something much more interesting and sympathetic. It’s a delicate performance which reveals more upon repeat viewings, as the true nature of Cyril’s intentions become less transparent.

Best Original Score

Nominated

Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk

John Williams – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daniel Lopatin – Good Time

Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water

Winner

Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread

phantomthread2

Arguably better known as the lead guitarist and co-songwriter for Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood’s contribution to the world of film has been every bit as essential as to that of rock music. A long-term collaborator of director Paul Thomas Anderson, Greenwood was previously robbed of an Oscar nod for his work on There Will Be Blood (2007). Fortunately, this is no consolation prize; his score for Phantom Thread is his best work yet. Managing to be both whimsical and sinister at the same time, the music provides almost every scene with a heft and intensity that never feels intrusive. It’s a magnificent, sweeping evocation of Bernard Hermmann’s best work, cementing Greenwood and Anderson as one of cinema’s great director/composer partnerships.

Best Cinematography

Nominated

Hoyte Van Hoytema – Dunkirk

Sean Price Williams – Good Time

Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour

Rachel Morrison – Mudbound

Winner

Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049

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I’m not sure if Blade Runner 2049 really is the best achievement in cinematography from the last year – after all, Dunkirk did stick an IMAX camera onto a Spitfire – but this award still goes to Roger Deakins, more for his incredible body of work than any single film. Probably the greatest living cinematographer, Deakins lends each of his films a picture-postcard quality, from the snow-swept vistas of Fargo to the intimate brutality of Sicario. Characteristically, every shot of Blade Runner 2049 is a masterclass in framing, colour, and lighting, with an expertise that goes beyond just looking pretty and weaves itself into the fabric of the storytelling.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominated

Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Jordan Peele – Get Out

Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird

Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water

Winner

Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career writing complex, languorous character studies; from a Californian oil magnate at the turn of the century to a porn star in late-70s Los Angeles. Phantom Thread delivers a story in a similar mould, dropping the audience into a dizzying slice of 1950s London and its lavish haute couture scene. What begins as a familiar study of artist and muse is quickly subverted into a richly rewarding tale of love, passion, and control. While asking profound questions about the very nature of human intimacy, the script also manages to feature more laugh-out-loud zingers than most comedies. Phantom Thread cements Anderson’s place as one of the finest writer/directors currently working in American cinema.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated

Paul King and Simon Farnaby – Paddington 2

Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows – The Death of Stalin

Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green – Logan

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist

Winner

James Ivory – Call Me By Your Name

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Adapted from the novel by André Aciman, James Ivory’s screenplay for Call Me By Your Name is an affecting, delicate, and occasionally painful portrait of a fleeting summer romance. In a story where the characters rarely have the words for what they truly feel, Ivory manages to communicate their innermost desires and conflicts. It articulates the confusing and overwhelming sensation of being in love, and the inevitable agony of knowing that it must come to an end. The power of the script lies in its abstraction, functioning as both an intimate study of gay discovery and sexuality, and a universal tale of love, passion, and heartbreak.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

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A mature yet blackly comic study of personal trauma in middle-America

The title of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri places the film within an oddly specific setting, but this emphasis might be misleading. Although the story is confined within the small, fictional town of Ebbing, the events which unfold seem to stand for American society as a whole – and it is not a flattering picture. Depicting a community where ugly tensions simmer beneath a benign exterior, writer and director Martin McDonagh clearly has something to say about the rage and disharmony which has come to characterise the modern United States. The film offers no easy answers to the broken society which it observes, but endeavours to ask where all this anger has come from – and how we might find our way back.

The third film from the British-Irish film-maker, Three Billboards is McDonagh’s most mature and rewarding work yet. Anyone familiar with his previous comedy-dramas, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, will be well acquainted with his acerbic and often profane wit, but this film also relies on a weighty sense of tragedy. Indeed, the story functions primarily as a study of personal trauma, and how far we allow it to define ourselves and our communities. Almost every character within Ebbing is afflicted with their own, private tragedy, and none more so than Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes.

The tough and abrasive Mildred is McDormand’s meatiest role since her Oscar-winning turn in the Coen brother’s 1996 crime-caper, Fargo. With a permanent scowl and a John Wayne swagger, Mildred always cuts a fearsome presence, but McDormand also inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability beneath the harsh exterior. The result is a multi-faceted performance which feels as authentically lived-in as her battered blue overalls.

McDormand inhabits her character with the merest hint of vulnerability

Opposite McDormand, Woody Harrelson is routinely excellent as local Sheriff Bill Willoughby, but Sam Rockwell captivates as his moronic deputy, officer Jason Dixon. An utterly reprehensible and unscrupulous personality, Dixon represents all that is wrong with American law enforcement, yet Rockwell imbues his performance with a surprising degree of humanity. In many ways, Dixon feels like the emotional heart of the film; angry, morally confused, but ultimately a product of his environment.

In this way, McDonagh’s script refuses to allow any of its players to revert to cliché or predictability. Ebbing is a community populated by characters who are continually one-step ahead of the audience’s expectations. It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities and shades of grey, and it allows the drama to move into satisfyingly unexpected territory. In refusing to accommodate a binary world of heroes and villains, Three Billboards makes a case for the value of empathy and understanding over anger and cynicism.

It’s refreshing to see a film defined by moral ambiguities

Fortunately, despite the film’s philosophical aspirations, Three Billboards also finds time to be very funny. The ease with which McDonagh moves between hilarity and heartbreak is something to behold, much thanks to the phenomenal range of McDormand and Rockwell. The blackly comic tone never feels like a betrayal of the film’s sombre subject matter, but a natural extension of Ebbing’s peculiar world. Nevertheless, Ebbing represents more than an idiosyncratic setting – it stands for all the communities which live in fear and resentment of one another, where violence and corruption is accepted as a matter of fact. These three billboards might as well be outside anywhere.

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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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Oscars 2016 Recap – The Big Short Review

The Big Short provides a wry look at the financial crisis that’s both entertaining and educational.

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Christian Bale as socially awkward Michael Burry. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

With The Big Short, director Adam McKay’s heritage as a comedy helmsman is clear, never taking himself too seriously despite a thoroughly depressing subject. For a story that could have been enormously hard going, there’s a lightness of touch throughout that makes The Big Short a joy to watch, if a little hard to follow, complemented by an ensemble cast of heavyweight performers.

Documenting the run up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, The Big Short is a fictionalised account of a few individuals who predicted the crash and sought to cash in on their foresight. The events are fast paced and wordy, with regular breaks in the fourth wall to ensure you’re keeping up with the jargon-heavy dialogue. Indeed, from the erratic cinematography to the constant cutaways, The Big Short walks the line between documentary and drama. There’s a sense of both Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, admittedly with fewer orgies and more Collateralised Debt Obligations than the latter.

The Big Short is focussed around a small number of characters, with independent but inter-connected stories, and as such the central cast hold the film together. Both Steve Carell and Christian Bale are deserving of particular praise, playing outside of type in the film’s two most complex roles. They are supported by an effectively smug performance from Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt in what amounts to an extended but welcome cameo. As the film weaves between their individual narratives, no one outstays their welcome and the pacing maintains excitement in a topic that you may have otherwise dismissed as interminably dull.

What is never quite clear, however, is if these canny investors are more interested in making themselves rich or teaching a lesson to the corrupt system, and indeed the film itself doesn’t seem very sure if it wants to be a fun romp through a topical backdrop, or a damning indictment of capitalist greed. This results in a somewhat inconsistent tone and a sharp left turn in the film’s final moments, as everything becomes quite serious once the housing market tumbles. It’s a reflective denouement that feels necessary, but could have been handled in a more fitting manner.

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Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

However, in dealing with these hugely complex issues, The Big Short doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. The picture takes a nuanced and surprisingly in-depth approach to the financial crisis, doing its best to explain the complexities in simple terms. It’s probably best to brush up on a basic overview of the real events if you want to come away with a full understanding of what happened, but the script makes a valiant effort to introduce beginners. Although McKay’s comedic style does much to elevate this heavy material to something highly watchable, the documentary-style footage can be distracting at times. His camera work is often reminiscent of TV comedies The Office or Parks and Recreation, incessantly zooming and dropping out of focus in a faux-amateur manner, which was usually more distracting than immersive.

Nevertheless, The Big Short is a film that’s much easier to like than it is to criticise. It points an accusing finger at the banking classes, and will leave you feeling rightly outraged at the greed and carelessness of a system that brought the world to its knees and got away with it. Underpinning all this are some excellent performances and a genuinely funny script. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the economy is in the state it is, or who was to blame, The Big Short is essential viewing. It’s fun, clever, and above all, important.

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Oscars 2016 Recap – Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern classic of the action genre. Unashamedly bombastic from beginning to end, George Miller effortlessly blends the old-school with the state-of-the-art.

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Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

The original Mad Max may have been released in 1979, but it was the 1981 sequel that rightfully secured its place as a pop culture phenomenon. Anyone familiar with Mad Max 2, or The Road Warrior as it is alternatively known, will remember the seminal, climactic chase involving an oil tanker and a bunch of leather-clad bastards in pursuit. If you’re wondering what Mad Max: Fury Road is like, it’s basically that, but extended over two hours.

And that’s a wonderful thing. Decades since the misjudged Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome, director George Miller has returned to the Australian action franchise that made his name, and he delivers with aplomb. Mel Gibson has been replaced by Tom Hardy as the eponymous Max, but the violent, visceral world around him remains unchanged. Set in a post-apocalyptic Australian desert, Fury Road tells a familiar tale of one man’s fight for survival and, eventually, redemption, in a world gone to hell. But this is really only half the story. Max may have his name in the title, but it’s Charlize Theron’s Furiosa who takes the front seat for much of the film, providing most of the substance both narratively and emotionally. Although Furiosa has a lot more to say and do than Hardy’s half-mute protagonist, it is to the latter’s credit that he provides a powerful screen presence despite his limited role. These two leads give effective, world-weary performances, saying as much in their actions as their words.

Ostensibly, Fury Road is composed of a single, extended car chase, with occasional lulls and highs in the action. But it is a mistake to consider the film in such simplified terms. Yes, the action rarely relents, and you’re likely to emerge exhausted when it’s all over, but there’s more going on behind the crashes and explosions. The main characters all feel refreshingly complex, despite their cartoonish exteriors; they give the impression of real and lived-in people, and there isn’t any need for clunky exposition to tell you. Fury Road is a visual experience, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of development. The plot may be lightweight, but it serves the action and characters admirably. It’s an action film, first and foremost, but you don’t need to leave your brain at the door.

Essential to its success is the fact that Fury Road feels real. There is a constant sense of physicality throughout that allows you to connect with the events on screen. It’s an insane, exaggerated world, but the gritty façade keeps everything grounded and engaging. Certainly, it is a tribute to Miller’s talents that he was so seamlessly able to blend physical stunts with visual effects, with the film a sure shoe-in for awards recognition in this regard.

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Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

It must come as something of a wake-up call to the Hollywood establishment that a 70-year old man,  whose most successful films include Babe and Happy Feet, was able to make the best action film of 2015. There is a palpable lack of complacency throughout the picture; an abundance of on-location shooting and intricate set design, practical stunts and effects, and human characters with motivations that feel believable and multi-faceted. You feel that there was a desire to do something different, as the frame rate purposefully stutters and the camera manoeuvres unconventionally through the action. Not all of these artistic flairs are necessarily successful, the colour palate is distractingly over-saturated, for example, but they all amount to a bolder and more interesting film than could have been.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in a word, spectacular, and should be seen on the largest screen possible. Considering its lack of pretension as anything more than an action film, it was pleasing to a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Considering the usual predictability of the awards, I would be more than happy to see it win, if anything for a little variety. Alas, such an outcome is unlikely, as the category is full of worthy and more conventional Oscar material. Fury Road’s most obvious talents lay in the technical realms, and this is where it should yield the most results.

The fourth Mad Max may not be the most thought provoking work of 2015, but it succeeds magnificently on its own terms and demonstrates the huge cinematic potential of the action genre. I would still rank it below its aged predecessor, Mad Max 2, which probably has greater depth despite its humble origins. However, this is a more than worthy sequel, invigorating a franchise most would have considered, at best, moribund. There’s still life in the old, mad dog yet, and I can’t wait to see more.

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Oscars 2016 Recap: Bridge of Spies Review

As part of my Oscars 2016 season, I’ll be reviewing some of the most popular nominees of 2015, weighing up their chances to win big at the awards this year. For the first entry, a review of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is a tense, captivating experience with a stellar lead cast and some beautiful set-pieces. Maybe Spielberg has set himself to autopilot, but he remains a master of suspense.

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Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The opening ten minutes or so of Bridge of Spies is undoubtedly its stand out sequence. Hardly a word is spoken as a group of FBI agents stalk their prey, Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), moving through the crowded subways and peaceful parks of circa-1957 Brooklyn. Nothing on screen is obviously amiss, but there is a pervasive feeling of unease cutting through the atmosphere. It’s a scene that might feel inane in less competent hands, but the technical prowess of 69 year-old Steven Spielberg remains evident. Within the first few frames, it is clear that atmosphere serves as the key to this film; from the snowy back streets of East Berlin, to an air force base in Pakistan, Bridge of Spies feels authentic to its cold war backdrop, helping to create a thoroughly believable world.

The picture’s greatest strength however, is in its emphasis on character; there is little time spent on the technicalities of international espionage, or the American criminal justice system. Fundamentally, it’s a human tale, the story of individuals who are both out of place and out of depth in an unforgiving world. The cast is primarily held together by its two leads; Tom Hanks is excellent as James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer unexpectedly thrown into the world of espionage and international negotiations when he is called upon to defend an exposed Soviet spy. However, particular praise must go to Mark Rylance, who gives a sympathetic and understated portrayal of the accused spy, Rudolf Abel. It’s a performance that casually moves from vulnerability, to stoicism, to humour, and does so in a restrained, quiet manner, which has thankfully been recognised with a supporting actor nomination at the Academy Awards.

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Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The story revolves around the 1960 U2 crisis, blending real history with cinematic embellishments to heighten the stakes. It all makes for an enjoyable and rewarding cold-war thriller, although it’s difficult to shake a sense of rigidity in Spielberg’s style. As with much of the director’s work since the turn of the century, there appears to be an aversion to taking any real risks. Bridge of Spies won’t leave you guessing, and the film’s final few moments fall into by-the-numbers Spielbergian sentimentality. It’s beautifully shot, superbly-acted, and the story is competently told, but the opening sequence of the film promises a style that doesn’t quite deliver.

Bridge of Spies has been produced with a masterful level of craft. Spielberg and his collaborators, including usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and featuring the Coen Brothers on script-duty, have fashioned an entertaining and character-driven story. John Williams is notably missing from the roll-call, with Thomas Newman serving as an able replacement, but otherwise its business as usual for the aged auteur. When the credits roll, there simply isn’t much food for thought. The history is depicted semi-faithfully, while the final few sequences create a palpable air of tension, but it’s difficult to find yourself engaging on an emotional level. Despite its few nominations, Bridge of Spies is unlikely to make waves at the Oscars. Perhaps not Spielberg’s best, but for taut spy cinema done properly, look no further.

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