The Eyes of Orson Welles
Great cinema has a way of making the viewer feel that it was made specifically for them; and that peculiar feeling has never hit me as strongly as it did after watching The Eyes of Orson Welles. I loved every frame of Mark Cousins' enchanting, emotive and captivating film, structured as a letter written to Welles by the Irish filmmaker. His trademark narration is drenched in a refreshingly uncynical sincerity that is rapidly disappearing from the world, and was a joy to behold. Structured around a hoard of previously unseen sketches and paintings from the legendary filmmaker, Cousins' documentary cuts through the bombast and mythology, instead focusing on the creative and emotional choices behind Welles’ life and work. A fittingly playful, enigmatic and creative tribute that, for my money at least, is the best Welles documentary ever made.
One of the most intriguing documentaries I’ve seen for a number of years, Netflix original film Voyeur is the story of two men, and a battle to find the truth. On one side is Gerald Foos, a Colorado motel owner who has spent three decades spying on female guests engaging in sexual acts through a series of secret grates, keeping a meticulous journal of every encounter. The other is Gay Talese, a legendary journalist looking for one final story to crown off a glittering career. As Talese prepares to release Foos’ story in The New Yorker, factual discrepancies begin to appear, exposing Foos as a compulsive liar and threatening to topple the stellar reputation Talese has built during his lengthy career, all whilst driving a wedge between the two. I’ve watched it three times now, and still don’t know what is true and what isn’t, but I do know that Myles Kane and Josh Koury made a fascinating, enigmatic and brilliant film about an endlessly compelling journalistic train wreck.
The Other Side of the Wind
After almost 50 years in production, Orson Welles’ great unfinished film was finally released this year. Surely anything that you’ve been made to wait half a century for could only disappoint? Not only did The Other Side of the Wind meet expectations but, somehow, it exceeded them. We’ll never know if this was the film he intended it to be, but it simply feels every inch a Welles film, in all its frustrating, mischievous, enigmatic brilliance. John Huston is excellent as aging auteur Jake Hannaford, the part Welles, part Hemingway filmmaker we know is about to die, attempting to forge one last comeback with a film that is an incomprehensible Antonioni parody. Peter Bogdanovich, who deserves immense credit for his role in bringing the film to screen, is equally great as Brooks Otterlake, his young protégé. This film will be debated and reappraised for years to come, but for right now, it feels like a beautifully satisfying bookend to the remarkable career of Orson Welles.
Slow and wise as a tortoise, Lucky was actor Harry Dean Stanton’s final film before his death earlier this year. He plays a cantankerous nonagenarian, forced to update his lonely routine after taking a fall. We follow him in a series of encounters with the residents of his sleepy town, which eventually soften his steely exterior. Highlights include David Lynch getting upset about his lost pet tortoise, the happiest Spanish birthday party ever, and a war veteran reminiscing. It is hard to put a finger on what makes Lucky so charming, but the majestic cinematography helps. Seeing Harry Dean Stanton’s gracious, unsweetened acceptance of old age somehow makes death feel a little less scary.
Is there anything that doesn’t turn to gold when Maxine Peake touches it? Told from the perspective of a female comedian in the 1970s, Funny Cow isn’t just funny – she is strong, brave and hard as nails too. The film brings to life the working men’s clubs of northern England, right down to the un-PC jokes of the time. It’s unflinchingly bleak, tackling domestic abuse and suicide, and the characters are satisfyingly flawed and complex. You feel like you could run into them down your local boozer. Meandering and arty at times, its abstract timeline elevates it into more than a biopic. Look out for cameos from British comedy royalty Vic Reeves, John Bishop and Kevin Eldon.
My Friend Dahmer
Based on a graphic novel by one of the notorious serial killer’s school friends, My Friend Dahmer is an uncomfortably interesting film. A painstakingly accurate portrayal of the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer’s last year of high school, down to using his real house. Far from being painted as a monster (although by no means letting him off the hook either), the film explores the cocktail of events leading to Dahmer’s first murder. Sometimes feeling like a 1970s high school comedy, then lurching to the darkest of corners, but always evoking a feeling of unease. Not an easy film to watch and a negative reaction is healthy, but it does dare to ask if Dahmer could have been helped.
A Quiet Place
This film features an intriguing but simple concept that adds much needed invigoration to the post-apocalyptic film genre, in which zombies are the usual go-to threat. A family is forced to live in silence as they try to live in a world that has been taken hostage by huge, illusive creatures that attack when they hear the slightest sound. To make matters worse, this family have a newborn baby and, as anybody who has seen a 12A film at the cinema knows, babies have no idea how to be quiet during important moments. The film partially reminds me of the 2010 film Monsters, where the humans are the focus point, and the threat is disappointedly consigned to the background. A Quiet Place has a similar structure, but it is to this film’s advantage – the creatures make themselves known with alarming immediacy when a sound is made, but their occasional appearance is acceptable as it is balanced expertly with well-crafted storytelling that focuses on the day to day tribulations and mundanity of the family who must survive.
2018 has been a good year for horror. Devoid of the cheap jump scares that are lazily sprinkled over most modern horror offerings that any horror fan worth their salt can predict, for years there has been a generic void that has now been populated with Hereditary - a film that has carefully crafted an ominous sense of dread. Giving an emotional performance, Toni Collette leads a talented cast, including Alex Wolff as her son Peter whose failings lead to possibly one of the darkest tragedies I have ever seen realised in a film. Milly Shapiro makes her standout feature film debut, playing the unsettlingly bizarre daughter Charlie. I feel Hereditary partially loses its way in the final act, but it contains scenes that are so strikingly disturbing and memorable - more so than scenes I have seen before in contemporary horror - that I have measured its success somewhat retrospectively, and could not omit it from my list.
Avengers: Infinity War
The impact of Avengers: Infinity War has not lessened as the initial hype has settled – I still herald it as the best superhero film ever made, in a year that has seen a number of superhero films of varying quality. The villain Thanos is the dominating force of this film, with a plan to balance the universe by killing half of its inhabitants indiscriminately, a plan while seemingly twisted has provoked fan discussion on his rationale - fans who felt it heeded such consideration, buoyed by Josh Brolin’s three dimensional and convincing performance. As well as the impressive feat of giving such a huge cast adequate screen time, I believe Infinity War succeeds for providing a villain of such high calibre, at a time in film history where this has proven to be no easy task.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen brothers’ anthology Western presents a series of six sublime vignettes with masterful direction, skilful shifts in tone, and an ensemble cast of eyewatering quality. In ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ we meet Tim Blake Nelson’s titular gunslinger in a blackly comic slapstick send-up of the singing cowboy movies of the 1950s that glamorised the Old West. In ‘Near Algodones’, James Franco’s increasingly unlucky bank robber faces a series of punishments for his crimes, while proceedings take on a more sombre, Beckettian atmosphere in ‘Meal Ticket’ as travelling performers Harry Melling and Liam Neeson hope to scrape a living. Tom Waits steals the show as a lonely prospector ravaging the natural beauty of ‘All Gold Canyon’, while Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck shine in the romantic and brutal tale of a wagon train ‘The Girl Who Got Rattled’. Finally, strangers Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross share a carriage ride with an unsettling pair of business associates played by Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson in ‘The Mortal Remains’.
A Quiet Place
In this film, a family tries to survive in a world ruled by fearsome monsters that hunt using sound in a ravaged wasteland. John Krasinski’s inventive and gripping horror had an exhilarating effect on audiences thanks to its complete commitment to its concept and its grounding within the lives of rounded characters who genuinely care about each other. Its use of sound and visual storytelling combined with strong performances, brilliant cinematography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen, and an almost interactive quality (in the sense that it both encouraged and needed the people watching it to be quiet) created a thrilling and communal experience that was original, fun and full of heart.
They Shall Not Grow Old
Using previously unseen footage, Peter Jackson and his crew have crafted a documentary that brings new resonance to images of the First World War. Technology was employed to bring the frame rates up to speed (cameras at the time shot at around 10 frames per second, whereas the standard for much of the history of cinema was 24 frames per second) and sound designers and actors from the regional areas of the battalions shown were used to create a soundtrack matched to transcripts compiled by lipreaders. Meanwhile, the archived testimonies of soldiers who fought in the conflict were used to structure the narrative of the war and offer as close to a first-hand account of the events as possible. The result is a film of staggering achievement, intricacy and ingenuity that has a particular poignancy in the year of the Armistice’s centenary.
Cold War, directed by Pawel Pawilkowski and starring Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, focuses on two musicians who are tied into an ill-matched relationship with a shared interest in music. Set in 1950s post war Poland, Berlin and Paris, and filmed in black and white, the razor sharp cinematography evocatively captures the harsh, sterile and austere period of the Cold War where oppression is ever-present. Venues resounding with sultry music in which the characters perform add to the creation of an evocative atmosphere as the flow of jazz music further contributes to this historical referencing, setting the film firmly in its time and culminating in the freedom of expression offered in the West after their escape. The performances of Kulig and Kot make the film exceptional; the characters are made very real as their imperfections shine through. They are worthy of our empathy.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Directed by Martin McDonaugh, Three Billboards... stars Frances McDormand (who steals the whole show) as an aggrieved mother and Woody Harrelson as the long suffering chief of police and the butt of Mildred’s (McDormand) rage. The narrative is straightforward, however it is in the presentation of everyone’s emotional turmoil that gives this film its edge. Mildred’s daughter has been murdered and, in her opinion, the police have done nothing to find the killer. Mildred uses her pent up rage to provoke the police in any way possible, forcing them to act. She harangues them constantly, verbally and abusively but also takes tangible action. She hatches the plan of using a couple of defunct billboards as vehicles to inform anyone and everyone of her plight. Of course, this inevitably leads to a variety of reactions which form the main structure of the film. There is certainly humour present, as well as plenty of foul language but, it is also achingly sad. One feels the grief and impotence of Mildred, we admire her grit and determination.
Directed by Ali Soozandeh, Tehran Taboo was an animated film that really caught my attention. It was brave in its subject matter and presented a completely different perspective on Iranian society. Of course, the usual criticisms are levelled at the Iranian regime - people living in fear of the military, evidence of corruption, drugs, prostitution, the subjugation of women, and the hypocrisy of religion and how it is used for manipulation. However, the film does not focus on despair and despondency. The narrative centres on three women who find their individual ways to live within these restrictions and not only survive but thrive. They are strong, they are strident, they are in control and demand our respect. It is this hope that gives the film its power.