Rewatches: July-August

July saw me up my film intake to something closer to my desired level. Eighteen films in total, with eleven being first time watches. The other seven I had seen at some point in my life, and here are my brief second thoughts on them all:

JFK – Oliver Stone – 1991

Stone lets nothing get in the way of his telling the story he wants to tell. Compelling and passionate, with possibly Kevin Costner’s best performance and a whole load of terrific supporting performances, notably from Tommy Lee Jones.

Gangs of New York – Martin Scorsese – 2002

The first half is as good as Scorsese gets, the bloated second half as bad as he gets. Worth watching just for Daniel Day Lewis’ tour-de-force performance as Bill the Butcher.

Three Kings – David O. Russell – 1999

Prime Russell here, telling a serious story with good humour without taking away any of the levity. Great cast and entertaining from start to finish.

Birdman – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – 2014

Loses nothing away from the big screen. An imaginative and beautifully strange film with top class performances and breathtaking cinematography.

Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie – 2016

Simple yet subtly powerful. Nothing groundbreaking, just a strong story told well.

Moonlight – Barry Jenkins – 2016

Astounding in its ability to sympathize with such a specific situation and to tell a story through a perfectly synchronizes combination of character, sound and image.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Gareth Edwards – 2016

Successfully separates itself from the main plot-line and introduces new and engaging characters. The surprisingly powerful  final act elevates it and makes it an essential part of the Star Wars universe.

Movie Review – Dunkirk (2017)

I have something of a difficult relationship with Christopher Nolan films. The Prestige and The Dark Knight are among my all time favourite films. Yet Inception, Insomnia and Batman Begins left me completely cold. My problems with him are likely the same as most, notably heavy exposition and a lack of emotional connection. He has shown signs of defying the latter criticism, with Interstellar especially striving to find the humanity within the story. But most of his attempts to imbue emotion in his films feel forced and unnatural. He just seems to lacks something that prevents me from completely engaging with all of his work.

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Dunkirk is another example of this. There is absolutely no denying the film craft on display here. Magnificently shot and expertly pieced together; it’s the kind of work anyone setting out with their own camera hoping to one day make films aspires to produce. I felt trapped on the beach, jetty or boat when they were under fire. I felt like I was actually up in the air with Tom Hardy, on the lookout for enemy planes and desperately trying to shoot them down when they arrived. This is big time film-making that results in the audience nervously feeling as if they are actually involved.

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Where the film falters is in the story-telling. Nolan seems intent on telling the story through all these horrible events happening to a whole group of characters, as opposed to showing the characters going through the events. A small difference, but huge in terms of my engagement to the film. I also found the over-lapping and shifting timelines to be not only unnecessary, but they dulled the impact of events. Despite the excellent editing, the shifting back and forth between locations, characters and even time, on occasion took away from the tension of scenes.

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It was also a struggle to find a character to really get behind. None of the young soldiers really registered at all, let alone stood out. Tom Hardy is the closest we get to any one character but we see most of his action from his POV, giving him limited chance to emote. Even when the camera is focused on Hardy, he is covered up by a mask and even less coherent than Bane. Kenneth Branagh gets a couple of nice moments but again, a lot of the power of his moments are blunted by the nature of the story telling. Mark Rylance and Tom Glynn-Carney as his son get the best material but once again, aren’t really given the opportunity to capitalize.

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The main issue here may simply be me not understanding the story Nolan is aiming to tell with Dunkirk. I can’t believe he just wants to show the horror of war, and the collective hell that all involved go through; he is far more ambitious than that. In my view, the story here is all the British civilians using their own boats to cross the Channel to save their trapped soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk. The magnitude of what was actually happening is only clear in the final 10 minutes or so, with the focus on just one of the civilian boats and constant shifting to multiple other plot threads completely detracting for this. Branagh gets a lovely moment where the significance of what is happening really hits home. This tells me Nolan understands the key issue at play here, yet wasn’t sure how to make a film just about that.

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Dunkirk is a terrific achievement and my being in the minority, surrounded by enormous critical praise, shows that the film is a complete success for most. I was disappointed by the unfocused narrative and lack of engagement, but still had a great time in the cinema, watching a man in full control of his technical abilities making what is a spectacle for the ages.

Grade: B

Personal Rankings: Game of Thrones – Seasons 1-6

Following the terrific 4th episode of Game of Thrones’ Season 7, I thought I’d have a look back over the show’s first six seasons and see if I can throw together a top ten list. Forewarning- I am hugely biased to the books so anything honouring them will strike a cord with me and any massive changes will not.

*Seasons 1-6 Spoilers*

  1. Season 4 Episode 10 – The Children

Season Four saw the death of Joffrey, the debut of the Night King, Tyrion’s trial and The Mountain vs the Viper, surely leaving little to happen in the season finale. But instead of neatly tying things up ready for season 5, it just kicked into 5th gear. Stannis heads North and captures the King Beyond the Wall Mance Rayder. Bran reaches the Heart Tree and meets the Three Eyed Raven. Cersei has Qyburn “save” Gregor Clegane at any cost. Brienne and an injured Hound have maybe the best one-on-one duel of the series, with Brienne getting the upper hand and Arya leaving Sandor to die slowly as she heads for Braavos. To top it all off, Jaime sets Tyrion free. But before doing so, Tyrion visits his father’s chambers, finding and killing Shae before putting a crossbow into Tywin as he sits on the toilet. With the help of Varys, he then flees to Essos.

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It’s an action and plot packed finale that left viewers with a plethora of questions and theories as to where the story would be going in season 5.

Highlight: Tywin shits gold

  1. Season 6 Episode 5 – The Door

Hodor, the giant man-child, ever faithful to Bran and one of the show and novel’s longest running mysteries. Why is Hodor the only thing he can say? Here, we finally find out, and the impact of the moment completely blew most people away. Involving the most complicated time-travel plotting so far, finding out the reason for poor young Wylis’ deficiencies is not half as upsetting as realising current Hodor is sacrificing his life to ensure Bran’s safety.

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The events leading up to Hodor’s holding the door are excellent as well, with the Children of the Forrest and even his direwolf Summer meeting their demise, all to ensure Bran’s survival. Also of note in this episode is Euron Greyjoy taking control of the Iron Islands, something which will certainly have ramifications down the track.

Highlight: Hold the door

  1. Season 4 Episode 2 – The Lion and the Rose

After just over 3 seasons of rapidly escalating villainy, King Joffrey was almost certainly the most hated fictional character in the world. His death, all purple-faced and bloody-eyed, was the satisfaction audiences desperately needed following the Red Wedding of Season 3. An A-grade prick right to the end, Joffrey’s death was perfectly done and set into motion a season full of strong plot-lines in Kings Landing.

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We also get some strong Oberyn and Olenna Tyrell moments in the lead up to Joffrey’s end, two characters who would come to be firm fan favourites. The episode also features the development of Ramsey Snow/Bolton as the monster-in-waiting and the decline of Theon Greyjoy into the pathetic Reek.

Highlight: The final look on Joffrey’s face

  1. Season 6 Episode 10 – The Winds of Winter

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. Before we are a quarter of the way in, Cersei has used her vast supply of wildfire to blow up the Sept of Baelor and everyone in it, The High Sparrow, Margaery Tyrell, Loras Tyrell, Mace Tyrell and her uncle Kevan included. Grandmaester Pycelle also finally meets his end amidst the carnage. King Tommen, wholly unsuited to this ugly business, throws himself out of the Red Keep. Cersei is then crowned Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, finally achieving what she was willing to do anything for.

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In the North, Littlefinger reveals his end game to Sansa but is ceremonially rejected and Jon is reluctantly crowned King of the North. Arya uses her faceless tricks to exterminate the entire Frey family. Daenerys makes Tyrion her hand and they finally sail for Westeros. Bran just about makes it back south of the Wall but first has a vision of the events of the Tower of Joy which all but definitively reveal Jon Snow’s parentage. Probably the busiest episode of the series and jam-packed with gold.

Highlight: Seeing the Tower of Joy scene on screen

  1. Season 3 Episode 9 – The Rains of Castemere

The infamous Red Wedding; the episode all books readers were itching to get to as soon as the show started. And it is yet another example of audience favourites getting taken out in shocking circumstances. Robb and Catelyn Stark had their detractors, but they were quite clearly good people in a sea of evil. Robb’s wife Talisa, as an added/changed character, took a while for me to warm to, but I was sucked in eventually, even knowing what I knew was to come. The wedding itself is not quite the event as it is in the books, it is a smaller, more intimate affair. But this perhaps works to the show’s advantage, as as soon as things turn bad, the claustrophobic atmosphere makes it clear there is no escape.

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Orchestrated by the despicable Walder Frey and the treacherous Roose Bolton, with the help of Tywin Lannister of course, the Red Wedding is no easy watch. Robb is forced to watch as his pregnant wife is killed and in turn, Catelyn must watch her eldest son as Roose finishes him off. With some of the best acting of the whole series, Michelle Fairly’s Catelyn figuratively dies before she is actually finished off. There is some pretty good stuff in Yunkai and North of the Wall in this episode but really, nothing else matters following the slaughter of the starks.

Highlight: Watching my family’s reactions as it all begins

  1. Season 2 Episode 9 –Blackwater

In my view, Season 2 is neck and neck with season 5 as the worst. But it still features plenty of great moments, and many of these are in the Battle of the Blackwater. We begin with wildfire, which makes for a spectacular spectacle and quickly lets the audience know we’re in for something pretty full on. Set amongst a backdrop of the unextinguishable wildfire, the battle is dirty and bloody. The Hound literally chops people in half before the sight of fire overcomes him and he leaves the battle and his King. He attempts to convince Sansa to leave with him, in a terrific scene, but she is too naive.

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Written by GRRM himself, the episode features some of the more true-to-character dialogue of the series, notably from Cersei. But it is Tyrion’s episode to shine, as he (and in turn Peter Dinklage) takes control of proceedings. Finishing with Tyrion’s face being slashed by Ser Mandon Moore and Tywin bursting into the Great Hall to inform Cersei that they have won, it is start to finish excellence that set the tone for all big battles to come.

Highlight: Hard to go past Tyrion’s speech but The Hound throwing in the towel is a personal favourite moment

  1. Season 6 Episode 9 – Battle of the Bastards

Before we even get to the battle, this episode features Daenerys and her dragons torching the Masters’ fleet of ships and eliminating the Sons of the Harpy. Not enough on its own to make the list, but as a Dany agnostic, seeing her actually getting stuff done, particularly with the use of the dragons, is always satisfying.

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But this is all about the titular battle of the bastards. The very good Jon Snow against the very bad Ramsey Bolton. Jon is undermanned and underprepared. He is forced to watch as he brother Rickon runs in a straight line and is killed by Ramsey’s arrow. The battle begins and Jon’s army is overwhelmed; all hope looks lost. But then Sansa and Littlefinger lead the Knights of the Vale to the rescue. Wun Wun sacrifices himself to break through the Winterfell gates and Sansa gets the sweetest of revenge on Ramsey, via his own dogs. It is brutal, brilliant stuff.

Highlight: Wun Wun going out like a champ

  1. Season 4 Episode 8 – The Mountain and the Viper

In the lead up to Season 4, I told all who would listen that the novels’ best character was about to enter the gray. When Oberyn arrived and the show runners decided to throw his sexuality in our faces at every opportunity, I was at a loss to defend myself. By the time Oberyn declares himself as Tyrion’s champion, perhaps even before, everyone is completely on board with me. But as has become one of the series’ trademarks, the favourites often don’t last very long. Despite showing off his elite fighting abilities, Oberyn is too distracted with getting Tywin Lannister to admit he killed Oberyn’s sister, niece and nephew, and the monstrous Mountain quite literally smashes his face in.

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One of the single most exciting parts of the books, the show more than does justice to the trial by combat and absolutely nails the shock ending. A relatively quiet episode otherwise, with Sansa adopting a new style and Jorah being exiled the only other real key points, but with one of the all-time great moments, the episode is right up there.

Highlight: In terms of impact, obviously squashed face

  1. Season 1 Episode 9 – Baelor

Often pin-pointed as the moment where Game of Thrones transcended traditional television, Baelor was as important to the story-line as it was to the show’s success. Ned Stark was the obvious hero, Sean Bean the show’s only well-known star. And they chopped his head off. King Joffrey Lannister embedded himself in the Villain Hall of Fame as he defied all those around him and beheaded Ned Stark. The show and popular culture would never be the same again.

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Elsewhere, Tyrion sleeps through a war, Jon Snow gets Longclaw and Khal Drogo’s injury worsens. We also get to see some shrewd military strategy from Robb Stark, as he tricks the Lannisters and ends up taking Jaime captive. A big episode with a very big moment and so masterfully done.

Highlight: Arya sees the pigeons flee as her father loses his head

  1. Season 5 Episode 8 – Hardhome

The notable deviation to my above rule is for me, Hardhome is the major game-changer for the series so far. This is where we see just how massive a threat the army of the dead pose, that Valyrian steel can kill White Walkers and the Night King literally raising the dead to join his already immense forces. Only talked about in the novels, and not involving Jon at all, seeing this event happen, and having known characters such as Jon, Tormund, Edd and Wun Wun involved, forces the audience to really stand up and pay attention.

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The first two thirds of the episode are not particularly amazing, with Tyrion becoming Daenerys’ advisor the only notable plot advancement, but once we get to Hardhome it reaches, in my view, the peak of the entire series. The frenetic pace of the wight onslaught, the godlike ability of the White Walker and Jon stopping him with Longclaw. The Night King raising the dead and the foreboding staredown of Jon as he and the Wildlings escape. Even one-episode character Karsi (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is able to make an impact, with the scores of wights highlighting the fact that there is a real enemy coming, and humanity must stick together.

Highlight: Jon vs White Walker

Still to come- my favourite GoT moments and characters.

Movie Review – Jackie (2016)

All films about real, well-known people have a few hurdles to leap before they are even made. The first is whether or not there is a story fresh enough to be told. The other is who is cast. Then once the film is made, issues of impersonations, fabrications and liberties must be overcome. The amount of things that can go wrong is probably why when a biopic comes off for me, it comes off in a big way. Jackie is one of these.

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Pablo Larrain, the Chilean director making his English-language debut, overcomes the first barrier quite easily, as the Kennedy Assassination, in fact the Kennedy’s in general, are endlessly fascinating to the general public. Everyone knows all the basics about the family and the events of their lives, but many aspects are still the subject of debate and confusion. Here Larrain poses the question- how did Jackie Kennedy, the definition of poise and dignity, deal with the tragic death of her husband?

Jackie’s tale is told through four simultaneous timelines. The first is shortly after the death of JFK, with a journalist (Billy Crudup, solid) visiting her home for an honest, upfront and hopefully publishable interview. The second is during the time immediately before, during and after the assassination in Dallas. The third is the aftermath and the organisation of her husband’s funeral. The last, and probably entirely unnecessary, is a reenactment of Jackie’s 1962 televised tour of the White House. The tour is continuously returned to and to be honest, I’m not sure why. Larrain clearly sees an importance in it that was completely lost on me. The other three sections however, work well together to show Jackie as a well-rounded person dealing with horrific circumstances as best she can.

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The casting of the film was another potential stumbling post that Jackie successfully negotiates. Natalie Portman looks nothing like Jackie Kennedy, but makeup and styling can go a long way in sorting this out. What the best of the Hollywood arts departments can’t do is make an actor emote in a convincing and impactful way. Portman, possibly underrated throughout her career, imbues Jackie with nerves, doubts, regrets, confusion and of course grief. She manages to take a widely idolized woman and give her more depth, more edges and angles, than I would’ve thought possible. The accent helps, but it is Portman’s acting talent that makes this work.

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Besides Portman, Jackie features a lot of very good actors who don’t get a lot to do. Peter Sarsgaard makes for a decent Bobby, the late John Hurt makes an impact as Jackie’s priest and Greta Gerwig provides a good sounding board as Jackie’s friend Nancy, but other than that, no one else really registers. It is the Natalie Portman show through and through, and the film probably benefits for it. Even JFK, played by lookalike Caspar Phillipson is barely noticeable here. It helps to keep the focus on Jackie and allow the audience to remain by her side at all times, as we try to empathize and understand what it may be like to be in her shoes.

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Whether or not liberties have been taken with the story here isn’t hugely important, as the film is striving to paint a picture of a person, not an event. The Jackie here is dealing with not only losing her husband, but being forced to assess everything he was and everything he meant to her. She sees her husband as a great man but now questions what she was to him, and the questionable things he did in his private life. Did Jackie really have these concerns? Did she have meaningful talks with her Priest? Historical accuracy takes a back seat in this case as Larrain ensures his film is about the person going through the processes, not what exactly they were.

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Larrain also puts a lot of style into the film, which combines with Portman’s performance to elevate it above standard biography fare. There is a heavy focus on closeups, generally of Jackie, that put the audience very much into her personal space, asking for empathy and/or sympathy. The almost complete emphasis on Jackie for an hour and a half doesn’t allow for the film to be anything other than an exploration of a particular person at a particular time in her life. But in this, it is an intriguing and intimate portrait and hugely successful on shining fresh light onto one of history’s most revered figures.

Movie Review – Wonder Woman

***Contains spoilers***

Set the enormous task of delivering not only the first big screen adaptation of iconic superhero Wonder Woman, but the first truly successful female superhero film, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have exceeded all expectations. The film has taken the world by storm, breaking female-directed box office records left, right and centre, winning almost universal critical adulation and empowering females worldwide. This is far from the best superhero film I have seen, but its cultural importance can’t be undersold, and it hasn’t done the DC film universe any harm either.

We start in modern day Paris, where the Diana Prince established in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) receives a package from Bruce Wayne containing a photo of herself and a group of men from World War I. We move to the mysterious island of Themyscira, a place where it is quickly established Amazonian women rule and men play no part. Young Princess Diana is desperate to receive training from her formidable General Antiope (Robin Wright) but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), knowing her daughter is a demigod but unwilling to let her reach her destiny, is hesitant. Antiope and the determined princess persist anyway, and Diana is soon almost as capable a warrior as her aunt. Hippolyta finds out and eventually concedes Diana should be able to defend herself.

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Themyscira, created by Zeus to protect humankind from his son Ares, is a paradise (presumably somewhere in the Atlantic?) hidden to man. Following an escape from German forces, American pilot and spy Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes off the coast of Themyscira and is rescued by Diana. The pursuing Germans find the island and the Amazonians must defend their home. This sets the wheels into motion for Diana’s entry into the human world, as she arms herself with her people’s famed sword, the “Godkiller” and follows Trevor back to England to fight the war. There, Diana aims to kill Ares, whom she believes has corrupted the Germans, which will end the fighting.

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After this slow and steady introduction to Diana and her world, the film kicks into gear from this point on. We meet a number of characters first, including Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) and Steve’s ragtag crew of “soldiers”. The action and the film really takes off when Steve leads the team through the Western Front in Belgium, where the Allied Forces have made little to no ground in over a year. Diana, unable to simply accept this fact and carry on, takes matters into her own hands. She single-handedly crosses the barren field, deflecting all gunfire and allowing Steve and co to break through, defeat the Germans and take the nearby village. It’s a powerful moment not even just because it is a woman performing the act- the combination of empathy, courage and ability is rarely seen from any hero- and establishes Diana is not only a formidable force, but a character you can get behind.

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The final hour or so of the film is full of action set pieces and does feel a little same-same and overblown. Danny Huston’s evil Nazi General and Elena Anaya’s Doctor Poison make little impact besides giving the audience faces and names to root against. But Diana is constantly finding out just how capable she is and subsequently setting the Justice League wheels into motion. ***Sir Patrick is revealed to be Ares***, something which caught me by surprise, and Thewlis makes for a highly unorthodox super-villain. His un-believability as a physical threat may have caused problems for some viewers, but personally, I enjoyed seeing a world-class actor using his skills to create menace, and did find him to be a credible opponent to Wonder Woman.

What doesn’t work in Wonder Woman is pretty much the same as any superhero film: ridiculous characters, far-fetched storylines, heavy exposition, drastic leaps in characterizations and motives to suit the story and too much action. But these negatives are probably less apparent here than in most, or perhaps more accurately, they detract from the positives less. Credit for much of what works here must go to Jenkins. Having taken time off film-making to raise her son following writing and directing 2003’s Monster, Jenkins was handed the reins to a floundering monster. DC needed Wonder Woman to work and her sure hand enabled it to do so.

Of course, I’m sure Jenkins herself would tell us that the film’s success ultimately comes down to its star, Israeli model-turned-actress Gal Gadot. A strikingly beautiful and statuesque woman, Gadot was never going to struggle to look the part. But the character of Princess Diana demands someone who can be both believably formidable and vulnerable at the same time. She is a fish out of water among humans, but physically far beyond those around her. It’s a delicate balance and Gadot pulls it off with aplomb. She is doe-eyed and endearing when confronted with all the new experiences that come with venturing from a secluded island for the first time. Her complete nonacceptance of the damage war is doing to the innocent people is played to perfection. And despite perhaps being unnecessary, both her and Pine make the inevitable love story between Diana and Steve work simply by creating two characters who we can believe the other will be impressed by.

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But it is the physicality where I was most impressed with Gadot’s performance. ***She has the appearance of a modern day princess, yet when she was wielding her sword or lashing her whip, I was convinced that she really was someone who could be the “Godkiller”***. The connection between her acting and the stuntwork is almost seamless, a credit to the film’s production but also hugely attributable to Gadot’s  ability to inhabit the character both physically and emotionally. I’m not sure how far she can go as far as her acting career, but she’s certainly done herself no harm with her work here.

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It’s not as good a film as some will have you believe, but Wonder Woman is an excellent example of a film capturing the zeitgeist and really thinking about what it is trying to portray. It is obviously very female-empowering, judging from my girlfriend, sister and mother’s reactions, and that can only be a huge positive. Even I was able to walk away from the film empowered by the fact a simple superhero movie had the power to make people feel that way. The Justice League could be horrible (and I still think it will be),and it still won’t take away from the individual achievement that is Wonder Woman.

 

Movie Review – Baby Driver (2017)

When Edgar Wright makes a film, he doesn’t seem too interested in challenging thinking or breaking ground. He is a film lover who uses what he has enjoyed in his viewings to make films that honour the past while still remaining fresh and modern. But more than anything, he likes to make films that are fun. With Baby Driver, Wright is back in form and displaying all the best he has to offer.

The story here is not a strong point. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is an orphaned young man who is used by heist kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) as a getaway driver due to his godly ability behind a wheel. Baby owed Doc for a past misdemeanor and has been paying off his debt with his driving talent ever since. Baby, quickly established as a good kid in a bad situation, wants out, and Debora (Lily James), the lovely waitress at his local diner, is the catalyst that inspires him to break the shackles.

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Along the way he encounters the who’s who of Atlanta’s criminal underworld, because as Doc makes clear, he never uses the exact same crew twice, with Baby’s involvement being the obvious exception. Among them, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and in just 2 scenes, Jon Bernthal, make the most of their supporting roles. Foxx’s self-proclaimed unhinged, trigger-happy Bats is the most colourful of the criminals. Foxx relishes a chance to WHAT a stereotype and is given free reign to have a bit of fun. Hamm, one half of a Bonnie and Clyde wannabe couple, is solid early but gets a fair bit more to do during the third act and pulls it off nicely. Bernthal is in and out of the film in no time, but uses his now customary intensity to make his time count. Spacey too, fares well with some decent material.

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The female characters don’t fare quite so well. Hamm’s Bonnie, Eiza Gonzalez, is given little more to do than deliver some hammy material and look good. James is quite good, completely endearing and alluring and believable as a girl who would take the sort of risks she takes. She also gets a chance to make an impact on the story besides just being the main character’s girl, but ultimately, it’s not a very memorable role.

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Elgort is solid, which may not seem like much of a compliment, but he does what he needs to. Baby is sympathetic and affecting, providing the perfect audience surrogate amidst all the chaos that unfolds. A stronger actor may have made more of some of the weaker dialogue, but he is generally good and holds the film together well. But at the end of the day, the real star is Wright. This is his show and has his fingerprints all over it. Fast editing, obscure music choices, regular doses of humour, it is a Wright film through and through.

But it also bares the effects of Wright’s weaker points as well. The story contains a few surprises and isn’t hard to follow, but at the same time, it is a bit messy and you’re always pretty confident where it will end up. There is a heavy focus on the action and making it as vivid and exciting as possible, and it is done really well. Set pieces flow nicely and Baby’s driving is made to look like it is a superpower, and it is great fun to watch. But it is to the detriment of the story as Wright’s focus on making things look cool draws the audience’s focus away from the characters and subsequently can lessen the emotional impact.

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As with a lot of underdog type action films, there is also the problem of the protagonist becoming too capable in the film’s final act. Not to give too much away, but Baby goes from being just a highly capable getaway driver who has never held a gun, to being able to capably handle some pretty full on situations with the skill of a pro. He doesn’t quite become the Terminator but his plot-induced accelerated development can be quite jarring.

So it’s far from a home run for Wright, but he has succeeded in making an engaging and seriously fun action film filled with enigmatic and entertaining characters. He’s never going to make a There Will Be Blood or The Shawshank Redemption, but if he churns out quality entertainment like this every couple of years, Wright will successfully be doing his part for film.

Rating: B+

Movie Review – Paterson (2016)

Jim Jarmusch is not a director I have had a lot of experience with. A viewing of Down By Law many years ago and about 20 minutes of Only Lovers Left Alive are all I lay claim to. So even when Paterson came and went, earning almost unanimous glowing praise, my interest was still barely piqued. But on a cold Winter’s night I though, why not.

Paterson is an unusual beast; extremely hard to pin down my own feelings for it, let alone putting them into words. What strikes me first is how unremarkable the story is. Paterson is a bus driver in the city with which he shares his name. He shares a small house in the suburbs with his endearingly sincere wife Laura and English Bulldog Marvin. Paterson is also a buddy poet, albeit with no outward interest in sharing his poems with anyone but his wife. He spends his days working, writing poems when he has time, going home to eat dinner with his wife and to see what quirky art she has worked on for the day, then takes Marvin for a walk to a local bar where he does a small amount of socializing.

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We spend a week with Paterson and this routine, half the time expecting something to happen that will kick the plot into motion. But besides a broken down bus, naughty dog and a man with a gun (not as exciting as it seems in context), the story steadily treads the line of a quiet man and his day-to-day life.

Thematically, Paterson is difficult to assess. Jarmusch is clearly more interested in simply shining a light on everyday, suburban America and the people who populate it. Yet I can’t help feeling he also aims to make a quiet statement on dreams and aspirations, and the way different people identify and work towards them. Paterson is an extremely even-tempered man, a world away from the Troy Maxson’s and Desmond Doss’s. Even Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler has a much more cinematic personality than Paterson. But he is a talented poet and seems to have the inner workings of someone who isn’t content to simply drive a bus. Despite this, his wife is constantly asking him to make copies of all his poems, while he is content to let them sit unread in his notebook.

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Laura on the other hand, who spends most of the week coming up with esoteric designs for their home’s door frames and shower curtains, is not afraid to outwardly express her grand ambitions. Be it a running a hugely successful cupcake chain or a world famous country western singer, she sets her bar high and doesn’t hold back in expressing so. Outside our main couple we see other characters outwardly expressing their goals: barkeep Doc aiming for chess success; a man deeply in love and unwilling to let rejection get in the way; and a young girl who also has a passion for poetry, and is willing to share her talent with Paterson. It is a stretch to say the film is about aspirations, but I would also be surprised if the theme didn’t weigh heavily on Jarmusch’s mind when writing the script.

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More broadly, Jarmusch seems like he wants to show the minutiae of everyday life and all its beats and rhythms, as a sort of cinematic poem, perhaps akin to one written by Paterson native William Carlos Williams. The film wanders and meanders like a Williams poem, never seeking to settle on meaning or definition, simply alerting the viewer to a man’s life, what is happening to him and how these events affect him. It is interesting how a small event such as a bus breaking down, when contextualized, can have relatively significant impact, due to the scale of the world we are shown. It is generally only in poetry and music, where small incidents only affecting one person, can be shared with any level of brevity. Jarmusch does a fantastic job here of defining and maintaining such a small and focused scope, that anything that happens to Paterson has every bit as much of an effect as a bomb going off in a war movie.

Technically, what strikes me most is the colour scheme, and the unusual effect it has on the film’s mood. You could maybe call it drab, not quite bleak, like an Autumn day where the sun is constantly threatening to break through the clouds. There is an air of melancholy, but never depressingly so. This colour scheme keeps you weirdly on edge, as if at any moment the monotony could be broken by a tragic event. It also helps makes the film strangely and utterly compelling, every small aspect of the story drawing you in like it could end in a thousand different ways.

This is assisted in no small part by a magnificent performance from Adam Driver. Clearly a talented actor, his odd features and distinctive voice have already made him a commanding screen presence. Yet here even his unique physicality is toned down. He is just a guy, with a background barely hinted out, just going about his life. Paterson has a sense of humour, he is loving to his wife and amiable to co-workers and acquaintances, yet there seems to be something constantly simmering inside him, way deep down. Is he holding back for some reason? Jarmusch subtly shows flashes of a younger Paterson in an army uniform- did something happen to make him withdraw and internalize everything? Or is that simply the way he is? Jarmusch and Driver do an amazing job at maintaining subtlety, giving this quiet suburban story an air of mystery.

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Even halfway through the film I didn’t expect to end up liking it half as much as I did. But when the week ended and subsequently the film with it, I was disappointed. I wanted to carry on with Paterson, Laura, Marvin and the people of the city. Does Paterson ever try and publish any of his poems, does Laura’s cupcake business take off, did Doc win that chess tournament? Jarmusch and his wonderful cast draw you in by simply showing life as it is, with a muted tone leaving us to fill in gaps and make of it what we will. The film has to potential to create in its viewer a desire to think about, and perhaps even write about, the things all around us. Something very rare, especially in a film about a bus driver.

Rating: A

My Favourite Films of All Time

By 2007, as an 18 year old, I was already a seasoned film watcher. But I wasn’t yet a true film lover. That was all to change when I watched the next film of my series…

No Country For Old Men – The Coens – 2007

Since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, Ethan and Joel Coen have had a string of successes (and failures), and more than won their share of acclaim. 1996’s Fargo was in my view their most complete film. That was until No Country For Old Men came around. Possibly best described as a neo-western/crime-thriller, this is the film that contains perhaps the least of the Coens’ signature quirk but also the one that best displays their prodigious film making ability.

The story, adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, is not complicated- caravan-living 30 something Vietnam Vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across a drug deal cum shootout and a bag containing 2 million dollars. The people who want their money back hire assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to track Moss and the money down. Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the Sheriff following the trail of blood and cruelty in hope of stopping Chigurh and saving Moss. How the story plays out isn’t all that surprising, it is the reading between the lines that sets the film apart from the rest.

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Bardem steals the film with his remarkable turn as the killing machine with his own twisted code and rightfully walked away with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and basically every other award going), but it is in the scenes featuring Sheriff Bell that we really begin to understand what McCarthy and the Coens are after here. Set in 1980 in the barren Trans-Pecos region of Western Texas, where the reach of the modern world is belatedly taking hold. Bell is a relic of another time, unable to fathom the iniquity of the violence around him and seemingly powerless to stop those involved. He feels the world around him has moved beyond him and there is nothing he can do to change that. It is the nihilistic view common to Coen films, but this time with added edge that Bell had hope and desires for what the world was but they escaped him and he was left with what it truly is.

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Of course, that is only one of the major themes of the film, or at least the one that best fits the title. I could spend hours discussing them but the other I want to focus on is that of morals and choices. The film, never judging in its depictions of any character, puts forward the three main characters and challenges the audience to decide who is doing right and wrong. Sheriff Bell is the most obviously morally sound character. A lawman who shows every intent of wanting to catch the bad guys and help the victimized, he makes sound choices throughout and never chooses the easy way out. What stops him is a crippling sense of helplessness. He feels outmatched and unable to keep up with the changing world, or his perception of it.

Moss is also mostly portrayed as moral. He seems to have a good relationship with his wife, those who know him question his ability to do wrong and he even gets in trouble by going back to the shootout to give a dying man water. But he does take the money and he refuses the help of the police when his quest is all but lost. He makes morally questionable choices due to circumstances, not because he is or isn’t a bad person. He is the classic ‘wrong place wrong time’.

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Chigurh is the other side of the coin. A man so morally corrupt that he scarcely seems human. He takes choice completely out of the equation, operating on fate and the deranged use of a coin toss to put someone’s life to chance. Killing at random and posing philosophical questions to people who know he is about to kill them- he is evil incarnate and a good reason to side with Bell’s point of view that it has all got out of hand. Yet, as Bell’s Uncle Ellis tells him, Chigurh is nothing new, monsters have been around since day dot. It is whether or not a man chooses to stand up to what he can’t comprehend, something Bell is obviously no longer able to do.

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On the technical side of things, the Coens are operating on a very high level here. Besides their directing (mostly Ethan), they also edited the film together. The nearly 2 hour run time flies by, the brothers showing exactly what they want to show us and nothing else. It is economical and purposefully paced. Likewise, Carter Burwell’s score can only be described as minimalist. There are regular intervals with no score at all, the Coen’s deciding the tension created through silence was all that was needed. A risky gamble that pays off in spades. The great Roger Deakins, who was nominated for his 6th of 13 Cinematography Oscars (for 0 wins), is typically brilliant. Once again, there are no great flourishes here, as there are in his other nomination for 2007, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is just tight and masterful cinematography, with Deakins in full control of his work and he and the Coens knowing exactly how they want this film to look.

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I’ve really only scratched the surface of what is one of the more thematically interesting films of recent years. I’ve barely touched on the acting besides Bardem, which is excellent across the board. Brolin does the best work of his career and TLJ brings the film together perfectly. In smaller roles, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin all do excellent work. It is just one of those rare occasions where everything works exactly as it should, culminating in one of the finest films I’ve ever seen.

Movie Review – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Five or so years ago, Marvel Studios surprised everyone when they announced they would be venturing beyond Asgard to make a film about…the Guardians of the Galaxy? Even to those with a decent understanding of the Marvel Universe like myself, it raised eyebrows. Star Lord, Gamora and Drax would regularly feature in cosmic events and had their fans, but they hardly seemed obvious choices for Marvel to rely on as their gateway into the cosmos. But a terrific script, winning combination of humour and pathos and perfect casting made the film a rousing success.

Fast forward three years and the team are back again, this time with expectations far beyond the first. With writer-director James Gunn back on board, I was fairly confident the sequel wouldn’t disappoint. And it doesn’t; it remains funny, charming, visually exciting and above all else, enjoyable. Gunn basically does more of what works in the first film- perhaps overdoing some things (Drax one liners for example)- but more or less succeeding in giving the audience what we want.

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Chris Pratt, as space pirate cum leader of the Guardians Peter “Star Lord” Quill, probably the single biggest reason for the success of the first film, is every bit as good here. Even minus the substantial paunch, he is the likable every-man that people can get behind; full of flaws but more or less a decent person. He is again the main focus in Vol. 2, but perhaps get less of the great lines. Pratt is a natural with comedy, but with more drama to do here he is perhaps slightly underutilized. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and the Bradley Cooper voiced Rocket Raccoon both fare much the same as the first. As is one of the charms of the films, both are also deeply flawed. But they are also highly capable, and both again get moments to show why they are valuable members of the team.

Dave Bautista’s Drax is the one who most benefits from the success of the first film. Bautista nailed Drax’s completely literal personality and provided the film with a lot of its biggest laughs, making it inevitable a sequel would feature him more. It does, and mostly works well, Drax again drawing a lot of the bigger laughs. But there is perhaps a little too much which only saturates his impact. On the flip side, the first film’s real breakout star was Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). A humanoid tree (or something), who is only capable of saying “I am Groot”, he gave his life in order to save the team at the end of the film. Inevitably, he is back in Vol. 2 and Baby Groot. This time, he remains a very cool character but has the added appeal of being adorable. He is given roughly the same amount of screen time and as a result, is just as effective as he was in Vol. 1.

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The plot is solid yet unspectacular. Quill’s long lost father, Ego, finds him and wants to be part of his life. A walking, talking planet, Ego is typically well cast and played by Kurt Russell. Many smaller plot threads of varying effectiveness abound, but the best one features another returning cast member. Michael Rooker’s Yondu, leader of the Ravangers, is part of a mutiny and comes to the realization that he really cares for Peter and needs to save him. Rooker is very good in a quite difficult role, giving depth to a character who on the surface seems to just be a nasty bad guy. But with the connecting of these two plot threads, it becomes quite clear that fatherhood and identity are the major issues at play here.

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As successful as this rehashing is, it’s hard to deny the film is held back by its inability to further the internal and external story-line. The character development in the first film left little to do here, and even saving the universe again doesn’t push the Guardians nor the Marvel Universe any further forward. As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is actually very little point to Vol. 2. Even Thanos, so often mentioned in previous Marvel films, is only mentioned as a very personal matter for Gamora and her sister Nebula. There are a few little easter eggs, such as an appearance from the Watchers, but I struggle to see anything from this film having any meaningful impact on what’s to come for The Avengers and co.

Not every Marvel film has to develop the Universe though, and as a stand-alone film I can’t really criticize Vol. 2 too much. It’s great fun and like the first film I expect it to have great replay value.

Rating: B+

The Best Leading Performances of the 2010’s

Coming in just ahead of photography, acting is my favourite element of cinema. A lot of actors will tell you writers and directors make them good but at the end of the day, they are the ones through whom the audience receives the story. If an actor is able to convince us of what they are saying then half the battle is won.

The 2010’s kicked off with Blue Valentine, The Social Network, Black Swan, The Fighter, Another Year and many more providing actors with terrific material to sink their teeth in to. Right through to last year’s critical darlings La La Land, Manchester By the Sea and Moonlight, the decade has been rich with amazing performances. Here are what I consider the best leading performances since 2010.

Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine – 2010

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Raw, heartfelt and honest, few performances of recent years combine amazing acting ability with legitimate true-life heartbreak. Filmed barely a year after the death of Heath Ledger, the father of William’s daughter, this story of the crumbling of a marriage must surely have been difficult for her. But as sad as it all is, her real experiences hugely benefit the performance, as her character’s frustrations and sadness come across as completely genuine. What’s even more impressive is that this is almost a dual role. As young Cindy, unburdened by the weight of age, Williams is bright and bubbly, a completely different person. Hardly a joy to sit through, but a pleasure to have seen.

Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine – 2010

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Michelle Williams probably could’ve acted with anyone here but with Ryan Gosling to bounce off, both actors and the movie lucked out big time. One of the great Oscar robberies of my time, Gosling is able to simultaneously dial down and use his natural charisma to advantage as a man with an eternal internal struggle to do what’s right. Young Dean is typical Gosling, full of charm and humour and making it very easy for us to believe someone like Cindy would fall for him. As the older Dean, he makes it just as easy for us to see why she would fall out of love, whilst still showing us he’s a decent guy. A difficult juggling act that few could handle but one Gosling hits out of the park.

Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network – 2010

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To this day, The Social Network and Zombieland are the only Jesse Eisenberg movies I’ve been able to watch without him irritating the hell out of me. In Zombieland he was fresh and fairly toned down. With The Social Network, it is simply a case of a role being the ideal fit. As tech wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg, Eisenberg is certainly irritating, but it fits the role perfectly. Depicted as having a pretty severe personality-disorder, Mark’s social skills are as bad as his coding skills are brilliant. Eisenberg, undoubtedly a skilled actor, is able to give the dickish character layers, and at no point are we able to truly hate the man. I don’t imagine he’ll ever top this performance, but it is a mighty high peak to climb back to.

Emmanuelle Riva – Amour – 2012

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Riva’s long and distinguished career culminated in a quietly powerful piece of work in Michael Haneke’s tale of an elderly woman dealing with the effects of a stroke. Already 84 at the time of filming, Riva does a fantastic job of depicting the physical effects of a stroke, at times making it very hard to forget you are actually watching a film. But it is the mental effects- the strains of her face, the looks of her eyes- that really set this performance apart. Riva and co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant have beautiful chemistry and while not an easy watch, they and Haneke come very close to illustrating just what it the title means.

Joaquin Phoenix – The Master – 2012

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Another example of an actor able to physically embody his character is Joaquin Phoenix’ Freddie Quell. This is a desperately damaged man, yet there is still a heap of fight and spark left in him. Phoenix is able to show an unusual, awkward man that has lived a hard life and had more than his share of problems. But never gone is the glitter of his eye; Freddie possesses a childlike cheekiness that can be simultaneously infuriating and endearing. One of cinema’s great characters requiring an actor of huge talent to pull off, something Phoenix undoubtedly has in spades.

Adele Exarchopoulous – Blue is the Warmest Colour – 2013

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At just 20 years old, Exarchopoulous was able to convincingly show years of trials and tribulations of a young woman, plus the growth she would go through as a result. This is a very adult film and role, one which would seemingly require an actress of experience and skill. Director Abdellatif Kechiche obviously didn’t care about the former as he cast an actress barely out of her teens with less than 10 film credits to her name. His call paid off as Exarchopoulous gives one of the rawest, most human performances you will see on screen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave – 2013

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Another difficult piece of material- man is forced into slavery and must fight his way out- where the actor is forced to really connect with material that would be so far from everyday, modern life. Ejiofor, previously known more for supporting roles, is just as at home with the big speeches and showy material as he is when just using his face to emote. A career highlight for Ejiofor that is clearly the Best Actor winner of 2013 in my revisionist Oscars.

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine – 2013

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I am usually the first to criticism these kinds of performances; the showy, look-at-me ones where actors are so keen to show everyone all the tools they have at their disposal. But there is something about Cate Blanchett here- her smudged make-up, the distasteful looks on her face and her ability to retain some arrogance despite her situation- that gives it another layer. a bit of an outlier on my list, but deserving all the same.

Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt – 2013

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A more fitting example of the kind of performance I like is Mads Mikkelsen as a man wrongly accused of the most sickening of crimes. The film, one of the best of the decade, shows us how quickly society can turn on someone so quickly and with so little evidence. Mikkelsen, natural blessed with a pain, well-lived face, is perfect as the everyman put into the most trying of circumstances.

Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014

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Another showier performance, but Fiennes best moments in Wes Anderson’s esoteric comedy are when he tones it down a bit. He is a fine dramatic actor with a terrific sense of comedic timing, and it is used to full effect here. Sharing tremendous chemistry with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), it is an endlessly watchable piece of work that may be the one we look back on and point to as the crowning moment of a stellar career.

Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl – 2014

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Possibly more a case of a great role, but the actress still has to nail it. Rosamund Pike, no stranger to grittier work but more at home as the English rose, does just that as the fed up Amy Dunne. Although ostensibly a psychopath, the use of Amy as narrator helps to almost justify her questionable actions. But without Pike’s ability to humanise the character, it simply wouldn’t have worked. Pike is a hugely capable actress and it was great to see her able to show what she’s got in a big role such as this.

Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler – 2014

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Although he was winning critical acclaim as far back as 2001 (for Donnie Darko) and was an Oscar nominee in 2005 (Brokeback Mountain), Jake Gyllenhaal’s career really took off in a big way in the 2010’s. Nightcrawler is I think, his best work. Another domestic psychopath, his Lou Bloom gets his kicks out of following the trial of violent events in LA and selling the stories to newspapers. Gyllenhaal uses his hugely emotive face to perfection, always imbuing Bloom was a constant sense of menace, even when there is a giant smile stretched across his face.

Rooney Mara – Carol – 2015

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The craziest thing about the 88th Academy Awards is not that Rooney Mara was in the Supporting Actress category, it’s that she wasn’t even able to win that! Her work as the delicate, “alien” Therese is my pick as the best performance of 2015. A small role in The Social Network showed the talent in Mara and she has exploded since. Her career still has potentially decades left, but she shouldn’t be disappointed if she never tops this. Delicate yet strong, reserved yet driven, a girl yet a woman, it’s a lovely performance that helps push the film into great territory.

Cate Blanchett – Carol – 2015

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The most impressive aspect of Blanchett’s performance as the eponymous Carol is that she is basically playing a role within the role. It is only when she is with Therese that the veil is lifted and Carol is able to be Carol. Blanchett is still able to do her showy best, but it’s a layered, complex performance that really allows the audience to believe and root for the two women’s relationship.

Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs – 2015

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When they land, roles depicting real and well-known figures are critical and awards gold. But for whatever reason, they seldom hit the spot for me. As notorious billionaire and founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, Fassbender is able to nail the impression, if you will, without ever having to sacrifice selling the story. Possibly the preemptive actor of his generation, Fassbender’s work here would be very close to my favourite male performance of the decade so far.

Saorise Ronan – Brooklyn – 2015

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After nailing a supremely difficult role in Atonement at the age of 12, it was evident to all that Saorise Ronan would be a force be reckoned with for years to come. Really great roles eluded her until Brooklyn came along. Able to speak in her native Irish accent, Ronan is hugely effective as a young woman torn between not only two men, but two entire countries. In lesser hands both the film and role could’ve been sappy, but Ronan and director John Crowley know just when to hold back and when to give it their all.

Emma Stone – La La Land – 2016

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Since bursting onto the scene in Super Bad and Easy E, Emma Stone has lit up the screen no matter what she does. In La La Land, Damien Chazelle harnesses that “ability” to full effect, using her effortless spark, relatability and likeability to light up the screen whenever lightness is needed, and to effectively move you when the shade is come. Much like Chazelle’s film as a whole, Stone is serious when she needs to be but never loses that sense of fun. Whilst secondary in my view, her singing is also strong, and her delivery of each number is spot on.

Ryan Gosling – La La Land – 2016

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Not a great singer or dancer, but as talented an actor as is around right now, Gosling forms a perfect pair with Stone to play a huge part in the great success of the film. His Sebastian is in turns petulant, arrogant and pretentious, yet Gosling never allows us to dislike him. Just the opposite, we root for him to succeed, in life and love. A second appearance for Gosling here, and The Nice Guys was very closing to getting him a third.

Casey Affleck – Manchester By the Sea – 2016

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Right up there with Fassbender and his good friend Phoenix is Casey Affleck’s heartbreaking turn in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Flashbacks allow us to see the easy-going, happy young Lee, enhancing our take on his performance as we see what he has become following unspeakable tragedy. Say what you will about his personal life, there’s no denying just how great Affleck is here.