The Good, The Bad & The Strange
At this time of the year, with dark days and long nights, I try to catch up with as many films as possible, and thought I’d pass on my personal favourites, ie. they won’t match anything Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian likes. This year there were a number of worthy, serious films about weighty issues that managed to be interesting without being enjoyable, while still being worth seeing. Among them I would count ‘The Square’, about pretensions in the art world, ‘The Children Act’, about the right of a judge to overrule faith, and ‘The Wife’, with a superb performance by Glenn Close, about a writer’s wife with a rather guessable secret. We’ve also had crisis films about identity, sexuality and race, the best being ‘Sorry To Bother You’. All of them are necessary and in many cases, urgent viewing.
In ‘First Reform’, pastor Ethan Hawke goes far, far beyond losing his faith in the church to arrive at an unthinkable place that’s both shocking and horrific. Paul Schrader’s return to form is bleak, heartfelt and a tough watch.
The favourite to win Baftas is most likely ‘The Favourite’, about spiteful, hilarious intrigues in the court of Queen Anne, with its killer cast of strong female leads. I loved Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’, another showcase for great female roles, starring the brilliant Viola Davis. It manages to be a strong heist movie with a social message.
‘American Animals’ is another heist film of a very different nature, a playfully fictionalised account of a true story concerning four students who set out to steal Audobon’s book of American birds and prove to be the most inept thieves of all time. It’s about the moment in your life when you make a bad decision, and has a sobering grace note at its conclusion.
Adam McKay, who made ‘The Big Short’, has created a post-modern collage of a biopic looking at Vice President Dick Cheney’s manipulation of George Bush that’s deeply depressing yet exhilarating. Cheney switched the phrase ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’, allowed torture, bombed Iraq, killed hundreds of thousands, ended presidential democracy and paved the way for Trump (as made clear in a post-end credit sequence), although whether he did it all to please his daughter is open to question. It stars an unrecognisable Christian Bale, who put on 40 pounds to make the film.
In a thin year for horror we did at least get ‘Hereditary’, a film so filled with dread that it couldn’t quite fulfil its promise, the underrated SF puzzler ‘Annihilation’, the thrilling ‘A Quiet Place’ (a film that could have had its premise shattered if the cast had simply worn trainers) and ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, which started surreal and funny, and eventually played out like an Amicus anthology.
There was ‘First Man’, with stunningly filmed space sequences and rather predictable earthbound scenes, ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, both terrific, but also a reminder that their storylines date back to the more chilled 1960s. So long, Stan Lee, who was still calling my partner to strike deals until just before his death.
On the pure pleasure front, ‘Mowgli’, ‘The Incredibles 2’, ‘Ralph Breaks The Internet’ and ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ all delivered top family entertainment, and ‘Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse’ suggested that the webslinger has finally found his perfect home – as animation. There are a few films I’ve yet to catch up with, like ‘BlacKkKlansman’ and ‘Aquaman’.
For me the two misfires were ‘A Star Is Born’, for which I’m simply not the core demographic, and ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’, a series that lost me when they killed the M:I team at the opening of the very first film, thus destroying the premise of the TV show. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ went for pleasing the crowd rather than telling the truth, and ‘Ready Player One’ was a peculiar tonal misfire that wanted to demonise cyberspace while revelling in it.
But the year’s big film news was that Netflix, in its world domination plan to be the global brand for movies, will be releasing more films than any major studio next year.
It’s both good and bad news. The good part is now, while hard to find French, German and Spanish films appear on the Netflix EPG. The bad comes later, once Netflix dumps its buy-ins and concentrates solely on its own product. For now, though, entertainment is going through a period that’s varied if not always rich.