2016: New year, new films

You know, I didn’t do badly with my 2015 list. Some of the things on there (*cough* Pan *cough*) dropped off, a few move into this year, other things got added as I went along, I got a few really great bonuses courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival, and there were some other great experiences – most notably being in the first public audience to see the lost-for-decades Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short Sleigh Bells on the big screen – that I didn’t get to writing about.

I’ve finally also got round to joining Letterboxd (let’s stalk each other there!), so now I have a slightly more orderly way of keeping an eye on my watchlist – and seeing just how many things I still need to mop up from the year(s) before.

Here’s a screenshot of the most recent few I’ve added (sorted so the earliest release dates go last). What else should I be adding? You can probably tell I really enjoy ridiculous big-budget stuff, adventure, drama and animation; however, I’m very very definitely open to a much wider field than that (except horror. I just can’t. I have nightmares for weeks). My top films of 2015 included Mistress America, Mr Holmes and High-Rise, if it helps.


(Note: I have no idea when Artemis Fowl is actually happening, but I’m pretty sure the paroxysms of unearthly joy that I unleashed when I heard one of my favourite kids’ series was getting the directorial treatment from His Royal Bloody Brilliantness Kenneth Branagh were felt on the International Space Station. So much love for the K-Bran. Just saw him on stage in Harlequinade and it was outstanding.)

I need your recommendations, friends, family and randoms of the Internet. Don’t go letting me down.

My top films of 2015

When this year started, I made a list of films I wanted to see. Some have yet to be ticked off because I haven’t got round to them yet, a couple I changed my mind about, a few more I missed in the cinema and some others got added in my head but not on the list. At least one I wasn’t sure would actually come out this year and I was right to think so, so that’ll transfer to 2016 quite happily.

But now it’s mid-December, and in the spirit of the endless reviews of the year that are already a sprinkling and will soon become a deluge, I’ve been having a think about my favourite films of this year. Despite my quiet, semi-shameful addiction to award shows, I don’t actually like to rank films – in no universe does it make sense to pit some of my favourite films against each other: superhero flick, period drama and Issues Film cheek by jowl – but I do like to celebrate them. So here, with just one winner in each category, were my favourite films of 2015.


The Life I Lead: Mistress America

As is often the case with things I really, really, really love, I struggle to write about Mistress America. I feel like I’ll either end up writing 35 unnecessary, unwanted thinkpieces that get increasingly overwrought (“NUMBER 35: ONE FOR EACH YEAR OF MY WASTED POTENTIAL”) or I’ll just end up nagging people to “just see it so you’ll understaaaaaand”. This Guardian piece goes a long way towards unpicking some of the reasons why Mistress America was such a gem of a creation; all I know is, I could have sat in that cinema and watched it from beginning to end all over again without pausing for breath or to wipe away my tears. And it features one of my favourite OMD songs in the soundtrack. When it comes down to it, it’s practically perfect in every way.


Sister Suffragette: Suffragette (with an honorable mention to Carol)

At the heart of any debate about feminism lie issues surrounding the female body’s ability to bear children; it is no accident that each of these films features a child being ripped from their birth mother due to her unstoppable desire to be fully human. But, just as it is so often a mother that nurtures a sick child, these films delivered a much-needed dose of medicine to the UK and US film industries. Anyone who cares about battling sexism on screen rejoiced at seeing these films succeed, standing on the shoulders of all the female talent that has gone – frequently unsung – before to give an enthusiastic shove in the right direction. Yes, Suffragette could have better anticipated and avoided whitewashing claims, and Carol, I thought, needed to deliver more of a gut punch. But both were still unquestionably important films, and Suffragette had an undeniably profound impact on me.


Let’s Go Fly a Kite: Tomorrowland

Poor Tomorrowland. It received a drubbing from disgruntled Disney fans (mainly, actually, nothing to do with the content of the film itself, but its marketing). Reviews were so-so. The box office receipts didn’t set the world alight (although it actually did just about turn a profit). And yet I absolutely loved it. You can accuse me of Disney bias if you like, but I promised myself I would only include one of theirs and here it is. There is so much to love about Tomorrowland I wrote two separate – lengthy – posts on it and I could easily fill a few more sides of A4. The annoying thing is that whenever there’s a blatantly feminist film or TV programme people fall over themselves to say how they dream of a day when all of these things are just normal ways of making a film, without it having to be a Thinkpiece Issue. And then Tomorrowland comes along and there’s a girl in the lead role and she’s smart (but not a Strong Female Character) and she has no love interest and she wears jeans and a t-shirt throughout and there’s another girl and she’s a goddamn ass-kicking robot and the men are all drama queens. It turns everything on its head, and it’s gloriously, deliciously, overwhelmingly optimistic, and, and, AND it references two of Walt’s own flagship attractions. I mean for God’s sake, people, what more do you want?


Step in Time: Mr Holmes

Maybe it’s because I watched it in Baker Street, but Mr Holmes was simply delightful. It’s quite the precarious tightrope walk to balance dementia, suicide, missing parents, near-death experiences and strained familial relations without ending up dropping into a quagmire of cloying, saccharine predictability. Mr Holmes, however, steers well clear, deftly avoiding the soft-focus glow that suffuses so many period dramas in favour of a more timeless story of personal regret. It’s one of the most restrained and beautiful performances I’ve ever seen from McKellen, eschewing the kind of deliberate scenery chewing we’ve become so used to in his more recent fantasy roles. A chocolate box that’s full of  decadently rich and bitter pure cocoa – as good for you as it is occasionally hard to swallow.


A Man Has Dreams: High-Rise

If I had to choose a film to stay with me, one that opens with a battered but still beautiful man catching and eating a friendly dog probably wouldn’t be high on that list. But for all my misgivings and squeamishness, High-Rise left a lasting impression. I could probably come up with some distressingly insightful self-analysis around sometimes feeling rather blank and grey and battling to keep up with my own expectations. Or I could sagely examine the blistering satire on modern living that’s as relevant now – if not more so – than it was when the source material was written. But peeling back my own public face wouldn’t be done with half as much elegance, so I’ll just say that of all the films I saw this year I’m not sure any other one surprised and unsettled and (frankly almost grudgingly) impressed me as much as this one. Now, if only I had the balls to watch more Wheatley…


And with that, I’ll leave the cinematic pontificating for, oh, a few weeks, and eagerly look forward to more time spent sitting in the dark and avoiding reality next year.



Matchy matchy: vintage BFI London Film Festival looks

As I might have mentioned at the end of each of my BFI London Film Festival posts this past week: I’m an enormous nerd.

That means I have really nerdy ideas. Like, say, thematically matching what I was wearing to each of the three galas I was lucky enough to snag tickets to. But since I know I’m talking to a similarly nerdy audience – at the point at which my photos of frocks overtook my admittedly grainy photo of the actual Tom Hiddleston on Instagram I knew it wasn’t just me that thinks this shiz is important – I thought I’d share the looks together here, too.


Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette

Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette. I don’t know why I look worried and I hate that my hair was wet.

Well, I don’t have any turn of the last century dresses, and if I did I’d probably be too terrified to wear them (and frankly too tall and broad around the waist). But I know my women’s movement colours, and I really like green. This Collectif checked dress – a couple of seasons old, but a version is still available – offered a bit of a bluestocking twist. Together with a white scarf and a hint of purple eyeshadow, the only thing I regret was missing the opportunity to throw in some pin curls.



All “model’s” own, including the comedy pose.

This was a bit of a struggle. Until the last minute I had my Tomorrowland black 1940s sheer dress lined up, but it didn’t feel quite right. For one, the film is late enough into the 1940s that a 1950s look felt more appropriate; for another I just wanted an excuse to wear a different dress. The day before this gorgeous shirtwaister arrived from Cheshire Vintage, and I knew its moment had come. What’s not clear from the photo are the gorgeous gold threads running through the red (not actually intended as a reference to Communism at the time, but hey…).


Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

I don’t really do 70s. But I will do glam. This 1960s lurex dress felt exactly right, particularly as the fabric actually has starbursts and swirls in it on close examination. Topped off with a blocky statement necklace but tamed with thick tights and a cardi, it turned out to be pretty well-judged as a summary of the film: a brash, violent message tempered by nuanced, sometimes muted performances.

I feel rather delighted to have gone three for three and seen films that were vastly different but all thoroughly enjoyable. I only have one festival experience left, right at the other end – a selection of short films for young viewers with which I’ll introduce our daughter to the festival. This year was actually my first ever attendance because I always thought of it as something I’d never get a chance to do – but with patience, a glacially slow website and a BFI membership as a Christmas present, diving in was one of the best decisions I ever made. I intend to take Ramona every year and make her every bit the nerd I am; I only look forward to the day when she might be persuaded to dress up with me.

Film review: High-Rise – Empire Gala and UK Premiere, BFI London Film Festival

Not even quite all of the massive ensemble cast of High-Rise.

Not even quite all of the massive ensemble cast of High-Rise.

“I went in with no expectations, and came out with no clue.”

My fellow attendee’s bafflement was in some ways at complete odds with my own experience – I went in with fearful expectations came out inspired and relieved – but at the same time I could relate. High-Rise is a beautifully bewildering experience, as well any combination of Ballard and Wheatley might be.

Confession: I’ve never read any Ballard (I shall, I shall, hold the nagging). I’ve also never seen any of Wheatley’s previous films. I’ve read about them, lingeringly, fascinatedly – and then backed off wondering if I have the stomach for them. My colleague Suni, when he heard what I was going to see, gleefully told me about how far out of his comfort zone Kill List  had taken him. Yet this one seemed like the one to take the plunge with. The lure of the star was there, of course, but more than that what I knew of the book seemed to suggest now was the perfect time for it to come to life on screen.

Ben Wheatley, Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Elizabeth Moss field questions after the screening.

Ben Wheatley, Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss field questions after the screening.

Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the 25th floor of a beguiling and beautiful new high-rise block, quickly discovering the hierarchy within via the bewitching Charlotte (Sienna Miller) – herself only on the 26th floor but still apparently a door to the architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), safely cushioned in the rarefied air of the 40th. Along with his neighbour Wilder (Luke Evans) – a mass of neurotic, barely concealed rage complete with perma-pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss) – Laing is swept up in the social climbing until the lights literally start to go out, and the social infrastructure disintegrates as rapidly and catastrophically as the physical.

Following the canny yet childishly naive everyman through the nightmare landscape where everyone else seems to hold the puzzle pieces without ever revealing the whole picture is always an unsettling experience; with the 1970s setting, the drugs, debauchery and dog-eating, it would be easy for High-Rise to just be an exhausting mass of colours, of noise. Wheatley, however, is far, far too skilled to fall into the trap of directing an extended music video. Far from being a technicolour descent into madness, it’s the shades of grey – metaphorical and literal – in High-Rise that make it so compelling.

More Q&A - Hiddleston possibly answering questions about preparing for the role with a pathologist visit.

More Q&A – Hiddleston possibly answering questions about preparing for the role with a pathologist visit.

Hiddleston provides the almost perfectly calm centre around which the madness swirls; his rare moments of violent animation are almost immediately countered – withdrawn by an apology or an outstretched hand. Jarring against this is a spectacularly eerie performance from Evans who paints a figure both shambolically laughable and terrifyingly unhinged. In between Miller dances on the edge of disaster, switching roles as easily as she changes outfits: doting mother, louche party girl, mysterious stranger.

In many ways, High-Rise could best be described as a full-length McGuffin. As much as it doesn’t shy away from the grotesque or graphic, you’re left with the lingering suspicion that almost everything of note has happened where you – and Laing – can’t see it. Notes are written and screwed up without the contents being revealed. People are carried away and reappear some time later changed – but exactly what’s happened in the interim is unclear. When it comes to some of the most vile acts, including a particularly violent rape, almost nothing is seen – but a central suicide is lingered over in almost unbearable detail. The film’s priorities are Laing’s selfish, confused, insecure priorities – ours, in other words. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about the messages here, but – odd as it is to say in a film that includes a dream sequence with dancing cabin crew and a bludgeoning fist fight over a can of paint – there are layers of nuance in the delivery, and there can be a delicacy and beauty in the brutality.

I thought that at best I might emerge from High-Rise not traumatised. Instead I was oddly energised. In the Q&A afterwards, all the cast agreed that if they moved into the building they’d all have been out and in a hotel after the first night. But I think they might be lying to themselves just a little bit. After all, as they looked out onto the avid faces of the audience eagerly hanging onto their every word, they must have known that to us mere mortals they do, to some extent, represent the 40th floor. And the top is always the last bit to come toppling down.

No disclosure: I attended in my own capacity as a BFI Member. And because I’m an enormous nerd, I wore a vintage 1960s gold lurex dress. See thoughts on Suffragette here; Trumbo here.

See the program and get tickets for further #LFF events here.