Directed by David Mackenzie
Set in the endlessly cinematic backdrop of West Texas, Hell or High Water is classic, bareknuckle filmmaking helmed by director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). It almost seems like the Western genre would find a difficult fit in contemporary times, but the economically-stunted locations (the film was shot in New Mexico) serve as fitting scenery for two brothers forced to push back against the banks that are bleeding both their family and their community dry. Ben Foster – arguably one of the best character actors working today – continues to chew the scenery like nothing else, as the loose-cannon brother who lives for the thrill. If that sounds like an archetype, it definitely is, but the film doesn’t seem to care to shy away from it. You also have the soulful, pragmatic brother played by Chris Pine, and the rugged deputy ranger on his last case before retirement, played by Jeff Bridges. Lo and behold, things turn out probably how you expect them to. But Hell or High Water sticks to its guns, and by taking time to shine a light on the forgotten citizens and communities of West Texas, the film transcends cliche to provide a far more authentic experience. The cops-and-robbers genre still has juice left in it.
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
The companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s last documentary The Act of Killing, Silence is yet another piece of brave, harrowing filmmaking that not only manages to be engaging, but ultimately finds itself in the elusive category of being a real document of human history. It’s a difficult film to stomach, but necessary viewing to perhaps understand the world a bit more, to see the effects of fear, hate, authority and rejection of responsibility that led to a genocide of more than a million civilians in Indonesia. No one sees themselves as an evil person, as the film argues, but anyone can assert that same evil onto their neighbours. Can we forgive those that have committed atrocities, that have murdered, and tortured, under the pretence that they were simply following orders, not knowing any better? Can we forgive ourselves for continuing our lives, not doing anything about it? Can we really resolve ourselves of guilt, and if so, at what cost? This is not simply a film about evil, but a film about being human. It’s a part of all of us, and it’s only up to us to be able to open our eyes and face up to our actions past, present and future.
Directed by Sean Baker
What could I possibly say about Tangerine that hasn’t already been mentioned? The little engine that could, Tangerine fires on all cylinders from the get go, with an infectious energy that practically bursts off the screen. Indie filmmakers everywhere surely must have let out a collective sigh of relief, knowing that a feature film produced for $100,000 and shot entirely on iPhones could still make it’s way around the world. But the magic of the film doesn’t bank on it’s use of technology – as it shouldn’t – but on the esoteric nature of it’s characters, story, and style. Clocking in at a brisk 88-minute running time, Tangerine somehow balances moments of complete hysteria and comedy with moments of pain and vulnerability, crafted by incredible performances and fully-realised, complex characters. This is one of the most authentic portrayals of Los Angeles I’ve ever seen. This film is Los Angeles.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
With two films released in the same year, Noah Baumbach could be the most productive director working at the moment. Following While We’re Young, Mistress America slots itself effortlessly into Baumbach’s previous explorations of growth and maturation, self-inflicted anxieties and disappointments – continuing his interest in the ongoing “coming-of-age-that-never-ends” that we all experience. Once again, Greta Gerwig injects a shot of puppy-dog adrenaline into her performance, at any time instilling responses of joy, loathing and sympathy. Noted as a screwball comedy by many reviewers – a genre that was at it’s height during the 1930’s and 40’s – Mistress America does feel like a throwback to the storytelling of early Hollywood, with farcical situations and rapid-fire dialogue that people should be able to enjoy once they let go of the idea that Mistress America is trying to present reality. It becomes clear that Mistress America is but an acknowledgement of cinema, a representation of reality that audiences can let go and lose themselves in the story and the characters, before the river runs dry and we finally do have to grow up.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
With a few feature films already snug tightly under his belt, Denis Villeneuve continues to be one of the most interesting directors working at the moment. Making films which could easily have become mild popcorn fare in a lesser-director’s hands, Villeneuve demands absolute control, with a tight focus on tension and drama, whilst bringing out the best of his actors. Bathed in darkness, the film – exquisitely shot by Roger Deakins – plays less like a procedural action thriller, and more like a slow-burning revenge western. The anti-hero in this case, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), absolutely chews up the screen in every scene he has – a modern-day Lee Van Cleef. Those perhaps looking for a more detailed examination into the cartels and the drug war should probably look elsewhere, because Sicario is more intent on being a work of art: an examination of fear, desperation, revenge and power. Sicario sets itself apart from other stories on the drug cartels with it’s amazing use of silence: there’s nothing more terrifying. Denis Villeneuve is currently set to direct Blade Runner 2, with Roger Deakins as director of photography. A cinephile’s wet dream.
Directed by Marielle Heller
Self-absorbed, stubborn and terribly insecure: weren’t we all like this as teenagers? Minnie, Diary‘s protagonist, is all of these things to an almost excruciating level, and for almost two hours, I saw a part of myself that I’m so terrifyingly glad to have now grown out of. Diary, first and foremost, doesn’t hold back any punches. It doesn’t try to make you love the characters with forced sentimentality or catharsis, or sugarcoat any of the situations Minnie experiences: she makes mistakes, she hurts people and she faces the consequences. The performances in the film are outstanding, with each actor superbly channeling their own methods of self-destruction (seriously though, Kristen Wiig is on a roll right now). Ultimately, it’s a relatively breezy film with quite a thin plot, but it’s made with a raw, truthful honesty, as painful as that truth sometimes may be to watch.
Directed by Crystal Moselle
Almost certain to find a residual place in film culture history, The Wolfpack examines the result of a life lived indoors, with the only window out being that of a movie screen. A twisted Plato’s cave of sorts, we see the unsettling effects of a sheltered world, with the escapism of cinema taken quite literally. As a directorial effort, the sound design works well to emphasise the discordant nature of the subjects’ situation, but to a degree, I feel as though we’re always kept distanced from the family of subjects, as opposed to understanding them a bit more by the end, thus our characters still remain portrayed as not much more than “subjects”, like a special feature on The Discovery Channel. The Wolfpack ultimately has a devastatingly interesting story to tell, but to maintain an air of mystery and voyeurism, we’re forced to stay stagnant, trapped inside the first act.
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Clouds of Sils Maria feels like a film that rewards multiple viewings. It constantly feels like it’s a few steps ahead of you, which may irritate depending on who you are, but for those who enjoy a bit of mental gymnastics, Clouds should prove a satisfying, Bergman-esque experience, if not becoming a bit too self-reflexive and insular on occasion. A voyeuristic look into the process of fading stardom within the film industry and the struggle to stay relevant within a system that thrives less on artistic skill as a commodity, but rather current trends and the celebrity zeitgeist. The lead performances are mesmerising, and rightfully so, as the pain their characters feel becomes more and more apparent as they slowly come to terms with how little control they ultimately have in deciding their fate.
Directed by F. Gary Gray
I feel like no other film this year surprised me more than Straight Outta Compton. The film manages to transcend the standard cliches of musical biopics to deliver a standalone cinematic experience. Straight Outta Compton manages to be more than just a retelling of NWA’s story, but also a compelling narrative on police brutality and racial politics in the US, which is sadly just as relevant as ever. Every scene felt dramatically authentic, and was shot to perfection by Matthew Libatique. The film carries a constant energy throughout, capturing the intensity of actually seeing them perform live. If this is the new standard for music biopics, I couldn’t be more excited.
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my favourite filmmakers. Somehow, he manages to consistently craft films that portray both life and death in such a gentle, humanist way. His films tend to feel more like dreams – never rushing the viewer through scenes, but letting small, intangible moments wash over you, quietly and patiently. His newest film, Our Little Sister, is his first adaptation, based on the manga series, “Umimachi Diary”, which is perfect source material for Koreeda’s meditative style and penchant towards family relationships. While the narrative isn’t quite as strong as his other films, it still has wonderful, heartbreaking performances and exudes that same grace and lullaby-like pacing that permeates through his filmography. It makes me miss Japan.