Film Review: The Glass Castle

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Liam Nicholls on 22 Sep 2017

Based on the bestselling memoir of Jeanette Walls’ childhood, The Glass Castle explores the fraught and fractured relationship between a father and daughter, played superbly by Woody Harrelson and Brie Larson. Show the rest of this post…

The story follows Jeanette (Brie Larson), one of four flame-haired siblings living a nomadic, poverty-stricken life, dragged from shack to hovel by their free-spirited and eccentric parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). Cutting back and forth in time between her younger years and her life as a a successful gossip columnist in New York, her emotions unravel in the midst of a manicured existence with Wall Street fiancé David (Max Greenfield).

The first we see of her wild-eyed parents is scavenging in bins on the Lower East Side as Jeanette drives past in a taxi, setting the tone for the disconnected relationship she has with them, born from years of reckless abandon. Her mother is an artist, more interested in her work than the welfare of her children, brought into sharp focus early on when a young Jeanette badly burns herself cooking hotdogs on the stove. Rescued from the hospital by her family before she has properly healed, she bears the physical and emotional scars for the rest of her life as she becomes protector to her brother and sisters in the absence of conscientious parents.

The beating heart of the film is the relationship between Rex and his “Mountain Goat” Jeanette, who is played as a child with brilliant poise by Ella Anderson. Rex is the film’s force of nature; a poetic soul battling with an undercurrent of darkness and repression. A Jekyll and Hyde character, he’s charismatic, warm and wise when sober but volatile and vicious when drunk, suffocating his children while living in fear of them leaving him. His grand design of building a solar-powered glass house, which gives the film its title, connects him and Jeanette to a shared hope of a better future.

Whether it’s throwing her repeatedly into a swimming pool to teach her how to swim, or begging her for alcohol when chained to a bed while going cold turkey, Rex certainly lives up to his mantra of “You learn from living”. As Jeanette grapples with rising anger and despair as her life plays out, the film is a depiction of her journey in coming to terms with the suffering she endured and accepting the pain that has ultimately shaped who she is.

Both Harrelson, Larson and Anderson carry the story magnificently with powerful performances, but they’re held back by the jarring movements in time which hinder the development of the narrative, rather than building  it. A film full of poignant symbolism and several emotionally-charged moments, its story is one that deserves to be seen on screen, despite losing some of its power in translation.


Film Review: Wind River

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 15 Sep 2017

Wind River is the final part of what director Taylor Sheridan has called his “frontier trilogy”, which began with Sicario and continued with Hell or High Water. Although Sheridan wrote all three films, it’s the first he has directed, and his first directorial credit since a little-seen horror called Vile in 2011. Show the rest of this post…

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen star as Cory Lambert and Jane Banner, who become unlikely partners in a crime investigation. She works for the FBI and has been summoned to freezing Wyoming to run an investigation into a body that Cory discovered in the snow. Cory is a hunter/tracker and proves useful in assisting Jane who, while competent as an investigator, is not used to the extreme wintry conditions in the area.

The body is discovered on an Indian reservation – the titular Wind River – which causes jurisdictional issues for the investigation, while the harsh nature of the landscape becomes a driving factor in the narrative. Wind River is home to many disenchanted people, for whom the difficulties presented by the environment have either broken their spirits, or made them cynical. The world-weary inhabitants of the area, combined with the excellent sense of place established by Sheridan and his cinematographer, Ben Richardson, lift some of the film’s more generic elements into thoroughly watchable territory.

It also helps that Renner gives one his strongest performances to date as Cory, who clearly has an attachment to the area, but is nevertheless challenged by the toughness of the environment, which has not been altogether kind to him. Opposite him, Olsen is reliably strong as Jane, who despite playing more of a supporting role than we might initially expect, adds both vulnerability and strength to proceedings, albeit in different ways to Renner.

The film has a gritty edge to it, as we might expect from this loose trilogy, and is adept at establishing a scenario in which the vastness of the landscape serves to heighten the events being depicted. There are visual compositions that at times reminded me of the establishing shots in Sicario, and some of the recurring motifs in the soundtrack called to mind the whispered poetics of Andrew Dominik’s excellent WesternThe Proposition.

As things unfold and we being to learn where the narrative is going, it’s perhaps a little disappointingly straightforward, and the final movement of the film feels a little less sure of itself than the rest, but the interest is held throughout, and the film doesn’t lose sight of the characters at its heart. There’s one late scene on top of a mountain that is a little too broadly played, but in general the film conveys a sense of realism and believability. There’s also an almighty Mexican standoff in the final act that is beautifully choreographed.

Wind River is a compelling watch, with a strong sense of place, convincing performances and a welcome, if subtle, undercurrent o f political awareness. It’s not perfect, and perhaps a little generic at times, but well worth a watch, particularly if you enjoyed Sicario and Hell or High Water.


Film Review: A Ghost StoryFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 7 Aug 2017

The title ‘A Ghost Story’ might put you in mind of any of the myriad haunted house films that have spooked cinema throughout its history, but David Lowery’s low-key drama is one of the few in which the protagonist himself is definitively a ghost. Show the rest of this post…

Casey Affleck plays that protagonist, who in an early scene is killed in an accident and from that moment on appears only as figure draped in a huge white sheet, with nothing more than a pair of pitch black eye sockets (and later some dirt and scuffing) for detail. After his death he stands vigil in his old house, watching his bereaved partner (Rooney Mara) struggle on with her life.

This is a melancholy meditation on death, clearly designed to inspire an emotional reaction, but without the cynicism that often hampers projects with that intention. Lowery’s film feels tender and honest, and while the score is relied upon to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of emotional delivery, it doesn’t feel manipulative. There are few characters in A Ghost Story, none of whom are named, and very little dialogue – indeed, for long stretches it plays like a silent film. Daniel Hall (who scored Lowery’s previous two films, Pete’s Dragon and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) conjures up a dreamy, emotionally rich sonic environment that blends well with Lowery’s very mannered, restrained direction.

Lowery and his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shot the film in the 1:33 ratio with unusual rounded edges – an intimate form closer to a square than most modern films – which gives the visuals a close-in feeling. The film routinely features shots that move into or out of a resting position that looks straight at the environment, framing the scene almost as if it were flat, accentuating intentional symmetries and quirks in the set design. This aesthetic brings out the fundamental weirdness of the ghost’s presence, offset as it often is against very ordered surroundings, and also lends a sense of loss when that order is fractured. There’s a simple but wonderful inversion of this aesthetic when a character drives away from the house.

All of this gives the impression that Lowery has really considered how to tell his story visually and sonically, leaving dialogue mostly in the background. In fact the most verbose scene in the film, set during a house party, is clearly the film’s weakest – an unnecessary addition that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

The design of the ghost is wonderful. He comes across as tremendously expressive even though he has almost no moving features (indeed, in some scenes, he doesn’t move at all), capable of looking both angry and threatening, although he primarily conveys a sense of profound longing. Again, the staging of the shots and the score play a big part in making the character work. There’s even a strange undercurrent of dark humour in his low-budget, Halloween-costume appearance.

Not every element of the film works – the second half isn’t as well paced, and features a central plot point that isn’t wholly satisfactory – but in general, A Ghost Story works on the level it is aiming for: emotional depth. I was moved by the picture and felt it had things to say about loss and death. Two scenes involving Rooney Mara’s character will certainly stick with me: in one, she listens to headphones in two time periods, and the simple movement of an arm had me unable to hold back the tears; and a protracted scene in which the consumption of a pie becomes a tough and emotionally draining ordeal.


The film won’t be for everyone, but it’s a unique take on the ubiquitous cinematic theme of death and what happens after it, and deserves to be seen.

Film Review: Baby DriverFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 27 Jun 2017

For all his obvious talent and the high esteem in which he’s held by British audiences, Edgar Wright – director of the ‘Cornetto trilogy’, which began with Shaun of the Dead – has yet to make a bona fide international box office hit. Show the rest of this post…

He probably would’ve done if he’d stayed on as director and writer of Ant-Man, a project he left for creative reasons, but with the release of Baby Driver, the clamour around what the Edgar Wright Ant-Man film would’ve looked like fades rather into the background.

Baby Driver is Wright’s second attempt to crack the international mainstream market after Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a divisive film which I liked but some found difficult to get on with. Certainly the film was not a financial success, as with so many passion projects. Baby Driver, the story of a young man called ‘Baby’ (Ansel Elgort) who works as a getaway driver for a crook named Doc (Kevin Spacey), deserves to be Wright’s first smash – it’s an exuberant, infectiously entertaining film and, despite how ‘big’ a production it is, retains a sense of individuality.

Baby is a hero to cheer for, and Ansel Elgort makes him a likeable, witty presence

On the face of it Baby Driver looks like a heist movie, a genre hardly starved of entries, but Wright’s inventive script, with its music-obsessed antihero who constantly wears headphones to focus his mind, and his witty direction, which fleshes out Baby’s love of music so that it becomes part of the mechanics of the film itself, make this picture stand on its own. From the opening stages, in which the film embraces Baby’s musical obsession to the point that it visually and sonically interacts with it, to the later movements in which that relationship begins to break down, Baby is a hero to cheer for, and Elgort makes him a likeable, witty presence – adopting some of the moody cool of Ryan Gosling’s character inDrive, but with a more carefree attitude. The supporting cast of hired goons provides a colourful backdrop laced with both comedy and threat – from Jamie Foxx as the unpredictable Bats, to John Hamm and Eiza González as dangerous lovers.

The other significant cast member is Lily James, who is really great as Debora, the waitress with whom Baby forms a burgeoning relationship. Their interactions are a joy to watch, and there’s a short, standout segment in the second act depicting their courtship, which runs entirely on their chemistry and the witty script. If the final movement – which, though fun, is a little rushed and all-too-easily resolved – leaves this relationship a little underserved, it can be forgiven, because Wright ramps up the tension and thrills.

I haven’t even mentioned the numerous car chases, which are well shot and exciting, because for me the real action in Baby Driver took place in the dialogue; or indeed the excellent soundtrack, around which most of the action is choreographed. A common criticism of blockbusters these days is a perceived lack of wit or invention – the sense that big bu dgets and special effects are often used to paper over fundamental cracks. Baby Driver is an antidote to that feeling, and deserves to be one of the summer’s biggest hits.


Film Review: Dying Laughing

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 6 Jun 2017

The prospect of standing on a stage in front of strangers and trying to make them laugh is a terrifying one for most people, and is perhaps part of the reason why stand-up comedy is a good subject for documentary. Show the rest of this post…

It takes a special kind of person to want to do that, indeed to be able to do that, and Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood’s documentary Dying Laughing attempts to shed some light on who those people are, and why they put themselves through what for most of them seems to be a kind of beloved torture.

The film consists primarily of comedians – shot in monochrome in a basic setup – talking about their experiences on stage, and what makes them, and their art form, tick. Its treatment of the subject matter initially is fairly light, to the point of being somewhat unremarkable, but as the talking heads begin to discuss aspects such as hecklers and, most affectingly, the feeling of bombing onstage, it enters darker and more elucidatory territory, and becomes a vibrant, more interesting piece.

It helps that the majority of the talking heads are likeable people with interesting things to say. Bringing together a wide range of well- and lesser-known comics, including Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and Stewart Lee, the film’s diverse cast speak openly about themselves and their chosen profession. While many of the insights offered may not be revelatory, there are nevertheless moments of pathos and power in Dying Laughing, as well as some laughs – though perhaps fewer than you might expect, given the comic talent on show.

The film intercuts their observations with generic footage of crowds and street scenes, which doesn’t add a huge amount to proceedings and gives the film a somewhat televisual air, particularly at the beginning. The lack of footage of actual stand-up routines – whether was this was a decision borne of budget restrictions or artistic choice, I’m not sure – initially seemed like a chance missed, but as th e film moved towards its low key but rousing conclusion, I no longer felt the absence. The point of the film, after all, is that we are looking at an art form from behind the scenes.


Film Review: The Shepherd

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 1 Jun 2017

Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s The Shepherd (or El Pastor) is pitched somewhere between kitchen sink realism, the naturalist leanings of a Terrence Malick film, and slightly misjudged thriller. The result is a compelling, well acted drama that doesn’t quite live up to its own high standards. Show the rest of this post…

Miguel Martin plays Anselmo, a shepherd who leads a simple life outside a village. He’d previously been offered a property in the village but rejected it to go on living in his little house without heating or electricity, and only his dog, Pillo, for company. He drinks wine, he reads, he herds sheep. The film begins in deliberately gentle fashion, allowing us to ease into Anselmo’s genteel way of life, which is soon to be disturbed by a pair of developers who want to buy up the local farmland to build a modern housing development. Anselmo’s house, they tell him with straight faces, is where the squash courts will be. Unsurprisingly, Anselmo doesn’t want to sell – he likes his quiet life – and politely refuses. What he doesn’t count on is the disgruntlement his decision will cause in the local neighbourhood.

From that point onward, Anselmo’s sleepy lifestyle gets more and more regularly interrupted. We feel his frustration as the world outside his little farm brings itself to bear on his innocent existence. This manifests itself not only in the drama itself, but in the pacing, which picks up as Anselmo begins to feel more and more put upon.

Martin, who won the best actor award at Raindance, brings quiet grace to Anselmo – it’s not a showy role, nor one that demands a massive range, but crucially we warm to him as a protagonist. This feeling is helped by his pleasant but brief interactions with the village folk, in particular with Concha (a very warm, if sparsely used, Maribel Iglesias), who clearly has an interest in Anselmo that is only partially reciprocated.

In the final act, Burley moves the narrative into something approaching thriller territory, at which point the film begins to lose its sheen of believability. The tonal shift struck me as a slightly laboured attempt to inject excitement, and I found it dramatically unconvincing, while the abrupt ending felt like it was doing a disservice to a well-established character. It doesn’t help that there are one or two contrivances brought into the narrative, in particular one involving a well, which disrupt the pacing.

But despite those issues, I still enjoyed The Shepherd. It establishes a lov ely atmosphere in its first half, benefits from some good performances, and it looks and sounds great. It’s just a shame that the film departs with a sense of what might have been.


Film Review: Mindhorn

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 5 May 2017

Richard Thorncroft, the character at the centre of Mindhorn, is clearly intended to join a very specific group of British comedy antiheroes. Show the rest of this post…

Along with the likes of Alan Partridge and David Brent, Thorncroft is a pitiable dinosaur trapped in a world in which he clings to the belief that he is a charismatic, well-liked person; what he lacks in talent he makes up for in ego.

In Sean Foley’s very British comedy, Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) is a washed-up actor who had short-lived success many moons ago with a now-cancelled TV show called Mindhorn, in which he played a detective with a bionic eye that could ‘see the truth’. Many of his co-stars went on to bigger and better things: Patricia Deville (Essie Davis), love interest of both Mindhorn and Thorncroft, is now a news presenter living with Thorncroft’s old stunt double (Simon Farnaby), and Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan), whose role in Mindhorn was miniscule, somehow had a hit spinoff series and became fabulously wealthy.

What makes Mindhorn a success in spite of its flaws is Barratt’s performance

The presence of Coogan, whose Alan Partridge is such a classic British comedy creation, reinforces the similarities between the two characters – even the plot, which sees Thorncroft asked to reprise his defining role when a killer emerges who will only speak to ‘Mindhorn’ – resembles some elements of Alpha Papa, the first big screen outing for Coogan’s character. But despite the obvious inspirations, Thorncroft manages to stand alone as a compelling comic force. Much of his success is down to Barratt’s winning performance and the high points of the script written by Barratt and co-star Farnaby.

But while there are certainly laugh-out-loud high points (including a running gag late on about Thorncroft’s physical incarceration in the Mindhorn costume), there are some elements that feel underdeveloped or misjudged. Some supporting characters, such as Thorncroft’s stunt double and manager, and his eventual sidekick, don’t bring much to the table in terms of memorable moments; while potentially amusing subplots, such as the runaway success of Coogan’s character, aren’t really played strongly enough. There’s also a fairly uninteresting plot holding all of this together, which, while it might not have been much of an issue in a more consistently funny film, means the story sections feel a little dull when they happen.

What makes Mindhorn a success in spite of its flaws is Barratt’s performance, a smattering of very good jokes, and the scant 90-minute runtime, which allows the material enough room to breathe but ties thing up b efore it runs out of steam. Those 90 minutes may be inconsistent, but there are enough comic high points, mixed in with just enough pathos, to make Mindhorn worth seeking out.


Film Review: Neruda

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 6 Apr 2017

Pablo Larraín’s unconventional biopic Neruda comes hot on the heels of Jackie, which saw Natalie Portman garner an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the title character, although it was actually made before that film. Show the rest of this post…

Neruda is a pleasingly left field entry in the genre – indeed, the term ‘biopic’ is perhaps a little misleading as regards this film – and while its eccentricities didn’t always work for me, I found it to be an entertaining and enjoyable piece of work nonetheless.

The film contrives a game of cat and mouse between the poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who publicly denounces the Chilean president and must go into hiding to escape arrest, and a fictional detective, Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). Larraín divides screen time between his two leading men, if not equally, then equally enough to build them both up as worthwhile presences. Neruda is shown to be flamboyant and popular but also stubborn and flawed. This works in the film’s favour. Larraín is not interested in claiming that Neruda was a hero, just a flawed and talented man. As Peluchonneau, Bernal brings charisma and dry wit to a roll that is perhaps made to feel more important by the film than it actually is.

The film isn’t afraid to flirt with darkness but most of the drama takes place in a fairly light hearted tone. Larrain uses noir voiceover, and old fashioned rear projection during many of the film’s driving sequences, to bring a jovial sense of fun to proceedings, even when the subject matter is comparatively serious.

Larraín presents the story as a grand chase (albeit one whose political importance is revealed to be questionable) between his two central figures, although the significance of that narrative sometimes gets a little lost in the style. The relaxed tone means that while the film is enjoyable to watch, the central thrust of the story doesn’t have the weight it seems to be searching for. I also felt that although Gnecco and Bernal are on good form, their characters, although interesting on a surface level, weren’t as deeply explored as perhaps they could have been.

As the film goes on, the fleet-of-foot pacing of the earlier stages gives way to a more mannered, focused style, and this suits the conclusion perfectly. There is a sense, as the two characters get closer together, that they have become increasingly single minded in their respective goals, and the story ends with more conviction than it begins with.

Neruda is an interesting film with good performances and a well-established sense of place and time. I felt a little distanced from it as I watched, and unable to connect with the characters the way it seemed to want  me to, but that said there are plenty of excellent scenes to enjoy along the way, and an unusual tone that makes the film stand out among other cinematic portrayals of real figures.


Film Review: Personal ShopperFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 13 Mar 2017

In this unusual psychological chiller from director Olivier Assayas, Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper – essentially a personal assistant, primarily responsible for sourcing clothing and accessories – to a high-profile celebrity whom she rarely sees. Show the rest of this post…

She, dislikes the job, but is persisting with it because the money allows her a flexible lifestyle in Paris, and the time to repeatedly visit the old, creaking house where her twin brother died. Maureen and her brother were not only twins, but twin mediums. Maureen is waiting for a sign from her dead brother to confirm that he has ‘moved on’.

The film is a concoction of multiple genres, and has a genetic connection to haunted-house horror films, although filtered through a lens of cerebral drama and Hitchcockian suspense. These elements blend into what is primarily a character study – just what is Maureen really waiting for, and why? To what extent is what we know about her true? These are clearly tropes of the psychological thriller genre, but Assayas renders them in a fresh, engaging drama.

This is Stewart’s second role in an Assayas film, and there are cosmetic similarities between the characters she plays, most obviously that Maureen, like Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria, is in the service of a celebrity. This is a different, more tightly wound performance, though, and Stewart again is very convincing. Whereas in Clouds of Sils Maria she was required to spar intellectually with Juliette Binoche’s actress, here she is very much the centre of the film, both physically and emotionally. She, along with the convincing tone established by Assayas – helps carry the film through its potentially risible elements.

Personal Shopper is a balancing act between the supernatural and the real, and Assayas handles the switches in tone well. Maureen believes her job is simply a necessity to keep her ticking over while she deals with her brother’s absence, but we quickly realise there may be more to it than that. It’s impressive that the atmosphere is maintained whether Maureen is wandering around a spooky house or sitting on a train reading text messages (in what is an effective, if overly protracted, sequence) and Assayas and Stewart hold everything together right up to the nicely staged conclusion.

If there is a significant issue with the film, it’s that the disparate elements work together only up to a certain point, and as a result Personal Shopper is neither truly scary or emotionally involving. But having said that, I enjoyed the blend of genres and appreciated the fact that Assayas was trying something bold. That boldness, couple with Stewart’s winning lead performance, make Personal Shopper worth a look.



Our favourite films of 2016

Posted in Film
By Martin Roberts on 28 Dec 2016

It’s that time of year again, when critics struggle valiantly to put together lists of the best films released in the preceding year. Show the rest of this post…

My own list comes with the usual caveat that, as a part-time critic, there are a lot of films I haven’t seen. I still haven’t caught up with critical darlings such as Room, Son of Saul and Spotlight, and am sad to say that I’m yet to see, among others, Embrace of the Serpent, Hell or High Water and Julieta. There are also two Japanese animations – When Marnie Was There and Your Name – that are high on my list of must-sees.

But even without those titles, 2016 has been a strong year, and I was reminded, looking back, of how varied and unpredictable a year it has been. The list was difficult to assemble and I wrestled with some titles that, even now, I’m not quite sure deserve to be left out. The strength and variety of 2016 is summed up by the ‘honourable mentions’ list at the bottom of this article, which in itself represents a high-quality watch list of 2016.

The top 10 below, presented in alphabetical order, is comprised of the best 10 films I saw in 2016. Enjoy it, and be sure to catch up on these if you haven’t already.



A smart, touching sci-fi from Denis Villeneuve, who is currently on a strong run of form that bodes well for next year’s Blade Runner 2049. Amy Adams, who will appear again on this list, stars as a linguistics expert called in to help the US military communicate with a mysterious race of aliens who appear without warning or explanation, hovering in giant egg-shaped ships above the Earth. Jóhan Johansson’s eerie score – reminiscent of Mica Levi’s work on Under the Skin – and Villeneuve’s restrained direction combine with strong central performances for a sci-fi that is intriguing, thrilling and ultimately rewarding.


Bone Tomahawk

S Craig Zahler’s directorial debut is one of those films that surprises and entertains in equal measure. Considering it was Zahler’s first feature, it’s remarkable how Bone Tomahawk manages to shine on so many levels. It’s a gritty Western at heart, and a convincing one, but Mahler’s script is infused with playful black comedy that really hits home, artfully shifting the tone as we follow a posse, lead by Kurt Russell’s sheriff, through the desert on a mission to rescue kidnapped townsfolk from the terrifying Troglodytes – a tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals. The central performances are terrific; the action nerve racking; and there are moments of genuine horror that will shake you to the core.


The Hateful Eight

It’s been a good year for Kurt Russell. His second appearance on my list sees him playing another sheriff – this time John Ruth in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a taut Western over half of which takes place in a single room. Tarantino’s decision to shoot an enclosed location in super widescreen 70mm format initially raised a few eyebrows, but watching the film it makes complete sense. The haberdashery in which the action unfolds is shot in such a way as to make it feel like a landscape, a microcosm of the US, and a playground for the actors to spar with Tarantino’s crackling script. It may not be perfect, and like a lot of Tarantino’s work it does have moments of indulgence, but its a thrilling ride.


Hunt for the Wilderpeople

This offbeat coming-of-age comedy from Taika Waititi, in which juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is placed in the foster care of a new family and ends up lost in the woods with Hec (Sam Neill), was an unexpected gem in 2016. Newcomer Dennison’s performance is so good that Ricky Baker is sure to become a cult hero, and his chemistry with Neill’s grouchy Hec is a winning combo. The film has heart and laughs and, just when it begins to look like it might be running out of steam, Rhys Darby shows up in a hilarious cameo to help carry the film to its conclusion.


I, Daniel Blake

Treasured British director Ken Loach may now be 80, but I, Daniel Blake is charged with the same political fury that has powered much of Loach’s career. This Newcastle-set drama, which depicts a man’s struggle with the UK welfare state, is thoroughly convincing in its portrayal of stultifying bureaucracy, and will frustrate and charm in equal measure. Dave Johns is excellent in the title role, and opposite him Hayley Squires, as a young single mum trapped in the same system, is equally good. The film proved too polemical for some, but the lives it depicts ring true, and the relationships are entirely believable. Loach and his team did significant research for the film and most of what we see is founded in truth. An important work not to be ignored.


The Neon Demon

After the misstep that was Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn made a triumphant return this year with The Neon Demon, a twisted fairytale set in the fashion world of Los Angeles. Starring Elle Fanning as a beautiful young model who immediately makes an impact on the LA scene – and in doing so inspires jealousy in her older, more sculpted peers – The Neon Demon immediately establishes a brooding atmosphere and runs with it right up until the inevitable exploitation trappings of the final act. The cast are on great form, fitting beautifully into Refn’s hyperreal sensibilities, and the technical aspects are a delight; visually and sonically, the film is totally absorbing.


Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s second feature came seven years after his first, but was very much worth the wait. This adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, in which a woman’s ex-husband sends her a manuscript of a novel he’s written depicting thinly-disguised versions of their younger selves, masterfully juxtaposes the present day with dramatisations of the novel itself. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent in the lead roles; the rest of the cast provides winning support; and Ford successfully blurs together time periods while holding the emotion core of the film intact, right up to the beautifully judged ending.



A beautifully reserved tonal piece by Jim Jarmusch starring an understated Adam Driver as Paterson, a poetry-writing bus driver living in the town that shares his name. We follow Paterson through seven days of his life, most of which is entirely ordinary and for the most part uneventful. The drama in Jarmusch’s touching film comes not from big statements but in the gentle depiction of a man’s thoughts as he goes through life. It’s a lovely film that captures something profound in the everyday.

Sing Street

Sing Street

Few films in 2016 made me as happy as John Carney’s Sing Street. I grinned practically all the way through it, shed a tear or two, and wished the projectionist would start it up again. Starring Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor, a down-on-his-luck kid who starts a rock band to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton), the film is full of laughs, catchy tunes, touching teen romance and the odd splash of kitchen sink realism. Walsh-Peelo and Boynton are great, and their chemistry effortlessly ushers the film through its drama and musical sequences. A real treat.



Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to the much garlanded The Great Beauty didn’t receive quite the same level of critical acclaim, but Youth, which stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as 70-plus best friends staying at a luxury retreat in the Swiss Alps, has a strange and profound magic. It isn’t perfect and takes a while to settle down, but once it does, the impressive cast (including Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano) and Sorrentino’s magical storytelling blend into something truly memorable. The emotional conclusion is one of the most rousing sequences of the year.

Honourable mentions:

Anomalisa, The Big Short, Captain America: Civil War, Green Room, Love and Friendship, Under the Shadow, The Witch, Zootropolis

FAN THE FIRE is a digital magazine about lifestyle and creative culture. Launching back in 2005 as a digital publication about Sony’s PSP handheld games console, we’ve grown and evolved now covering the arts and lifestyle, architecture, design and travel.

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