Here marks the conclusion of our mid-year roundup of the Arts section. We've certainly enjoyed piecing these lists together for you all, and regardless of whether you enjoyed them or not, we'll be doing it again in December for the entirety of 2016. Might even do a couple more than the four we've had this week. Anyway, here's to a great year for the Arts so far, and hopefully a great second half to come. Louis Chilton & Sam Thoburn guide us home with their films so far.
The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino continued a strong run of form with stylish boilerpot western The Hateful Eight. The script, crackling with the director’s distinctive dialogue, traps eight larger-than-life characters in a mysterious cabin, pitted against each other for the propriety of Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a notorious fugitive with a lucrative bounty on her head. Tim Roth is laugh-out-loud funny as an overblown Englishman, and Samuel L. Jackson reels off his lines with typical panache, but it is Walton Goggins (of The Shield and Justified fame) who leaves the most indelible mark. The Hateful Eight is a piece that thrives off the humour in the dialogue, and Goggins (along with Roth and Leigh) squeezes every laugh to its fullest. As has become the norm with Tarantino films, it is overlong (clocking in at roughly three hours), excessively violent, and subject to legitimate criticism over its representation of women and race. It is, however, thematically interesting, uncharacteristically ambiguous, and while the ending fails to quite satisfy the build-up of tension and mystery, The Hateful Eight remains a cut above nearly all releases of its magnitude. It would also be remiss not to mention either Robert Richardson’s beautiful cinematography or Ennio Morricone’s utterly brilliant score; both are examples of first-rate craftsmanship, with the music in particular certain to endure for decades to come.
10 Cloverfield Lane
This film owes its wide audience, in large part, to two irresistible draws: its rekindling of the Cloverfield name, and its big-name star, John Goodman. In truth, however, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tense, essentially stand-alone thriller that relies on the interplay between its three lead actors to generate great tension and entertainment.
After an apparently random car accident incapacitates her, Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakes in a room, bound on all sides by concrete. Her only contact is with the authoritarian Howard (John Goodman), a man who considers himself her saviour from an outside world that has become toxic and uninhabitable following a chemical attack. So begins an edgy, claustrophobic story of tight enclosure and attempted escape. 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a horror film, and may be compared to David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) in its focus on enclosure and, perhaps, one or two kinds of entrapment. The threat of violence is always at hand, but director Dan Trachtenberg is patient, and executes moments of dramatic climax only sparingly. It is a film of taut nerves, for both character and audience, and is well worth watching now that it has been released both digitally and on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Room is a film refreshingly free of genre expectations, an intriguing and emotionally potent work for which Brie Larson deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress. Based on the book of the same name by Emma Donoghue, who also penned the screenplay, Room is a genuinely affecting story of maternal love in the face of the bleakest of circumstances. The plot is compelling, and best approached from a position of complete ignorance. But without diminishing the thrill of the gradually unspooled mystery (and, certainly for the first part of Room, there is nothing but mystery), the film’s narrative function is ultimately left playing second fiddle to its extraordinary character insight. In situations that outstrip the measures of regular human existence, Room, and Larson in particular, manage to depict a disarmingly authentic emotional landscape. In less capable hands, Larson’s extremes of emotion may have appeared as mere technical box-ticking, a protracted courtship of Oscar voters. However, the film’s essential recognition of human evil, of the world’s bleakness, ensures that Room rarely ever feels like an ‘Oscar film’. It also boasts the rare quality of featuring a child lead (Jacob Tremblay) who is not only tolerable, but wholly and winningly believable.
In the tradition of Coen brothers’ comedies that have come before (think Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski), Hail Caesar! is, on one level at least, the story of a bungled kidnapping. Set in 1950s Hollywood, studio facilitator Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) is the narrator and common thread of various plotlines, foremost among them being the disappearance of his most bankable star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), from the set of Capitol Pictures’ latest epic feature. Seemingly unrelated to this central mystery, subplots are generated with remarkable speed throughout the first half of the film as Mannix must mediate in disputes between the actors and directors in his employ, while satisfying as well the demands of the studio bosses.
There is a sense, at times, that with so many characters and narratives to introduce and maintain, the film spreads itself a little too thinly. But it has no great point to make, and does not hold any more than comedic ambitions. To that end, it is marvelous: between Ralph Fiennes’ uproarious role as disgruntled director Laurence Lorenz and Scarlett Johansson’s performance as a highly-strung musical theatre veteran, Hail Caesar! is a fast-paced, cerebral satire, and the funniest film of the year so far.
Low budget period horror The Witch sustains ice-cold tension from start to finish, in a triumph of tone and suggestion over jump scares. The film is the directorial debut of Robert Eggers, and features Ralph Ineson (a.k.a. Chris “Finchy” Finch from The Office) as you’ve never seen him before. Ineson stars as the head of a rigidly puritanical family, cast out from society in seventeenth-century New England. When the family’s baby mysteriously disappears, fears of a witch’s influence begin to proliferate. As tensions build, the family members are driven to extremes of emotion, with the audience left to decide where the line is drawn between paranoia and satanic intervention. Ineson’s acting is an unexpected masterclass, and there’s not a weak performance in the lot. The setting is prime real estate for a horror; a looming, ominous forest is rarely out of view. Eggers toys with classical horror tropes and symbols, while retaining a keenly unique aesthetic. The dialogue is all imitation-period, with many lines lifted from contemporary witch-based literature, and the result is staggeringly effective. The Witch is chilling, patient, and arresting in its use of imagery. You’ll never look at a goat the same way again.
A masterful performance from Tom Hiddleston, whose character, Dr. Robert Laing, reluctantly inhabits the angular, decaying, dystopian grey world of vast tower blocks that director Ben Wheatley (A Field in England) renders from J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name. A sense of ill-defined, almost comical oppression suffuses the film, and is most clearly given shape by the class struggle within the high-rise. Anthony Royal (played by Jeremy Irons), the architect of the high-rise project, resembles a colonial official inspecting the native people under his command as he descends from his rooftop garden to inspect the curious starving proletariat, who huddle in a roiling mass on the lowest floors of the building
Laing is as close to an unbiased spectator as is depicted in High-Rise, trying gamely to navigate the masquerade balls of the wealthy while maintaining sympathy for those who only dream of such luxury. As he is caught up in the greater narrative of the high-rise, the film gathers pace and begins to rush towards an ending that almost tips over into the absurd. Distinguished by its consistent, pitch dark humour, High-Rise is a film that bears few close comparisons.
More than just an exercise in form, Victoria’s stunningly executed cinematography imbues the whole experience with a palpable urgency. Victoria centres, literally, on a young Spanish woman (Laia Costa) alone in Berlin, as she meets a group of rebellious but alluring German men, and gradually (but surprisingly convincingly) gets embroiled in a bank heist. The kicker: using one long, continuous tracking shot, the whole story transpires in real time. For the entire two hour and 20 minute duration of the film, the camera never leaves Costa’s side. The transition from romance to thriller seems infeasible on paper – to get from initial, drunken introductions outside a nightclub, to driving the getaway car, all within the space of a real-time hour or so, has every right to feel ridiculous – but somehow, you are never aware there is any disbelief to suspend. Victoria drags you round the streets of early-morning Berlin with a sense of immersion like no other, and as the situation escalates beyond any control, the camera’s sheer ability to keep pace is in itself an achievement. Maybe the best piece of action cinema all year, and a blistering demonstration of filmmaking technique, Victoria is not to be missed.
By rights, it should not be surprising that a film like Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture: it is intelligent, it is gripping, and it carries a painful message with lightness and grace. Set in early 2000s Boston, the film follows the true story of the ‘Spotlight’ special features team at the Boston Globe as they slowly unearth a culture of child sexual abuse by priests in the local Roman Catholic diocese, one which has been accepted and willfully hidden by those in positions of great responsibility. Several moments in the film carry great resonance far beyond the cinema, not least the scene in which the journalist Sacha Pfeiffer interviews an abusive ex-priest on his doorstep; the man freely admits to his pederasty, but sees no harm—his words seem unthinkable, until he mentions, with crushing simplicity, that as a child he too was raped by a priest. The dreadful power that authority can bring hangs over the film like a pall.
Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams are excellent as dogged reporters Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer respectively, and veteran actors such as Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci round out a peerless ensemble cast. Nothing in Spotlight is unnecessary: each shot carries great meaning, and every little step in the story begs ten more difficult questions. It is a monumental film, and it deserves your time.
The apparently final film from Japan’s revered animation house Studio Ghibli, When Marnie was There is poignant and visually lush. Marnie is distinctly more grounded in reality than some of Ghibli’s most widely-known productions (2001’s Spirited Away representing the high-watermark of international recognition), but retains the infective sense of wonder and spiritual possibility which has so characterised the studio’s output. The plot is simple, verging on fairy-tale, but suffused with an underlying honesty and significant subtext. As far as conventional animation goes, Studio Ghibli’s resplendent swansong is unlikely to be bettered this year. Read our full review here.
Charlie Kaufman’s daringly unique stop-motion animation delves deep into the human psyche, transcending any accusations of gimmickry in a story brimming with ideas and substance. Anomalisa focuses on Michael (David Thewlis), a customer service expert who is unhappy, lonely, and self-centred, as he embarks on a business trip to Cincinnati, to deliver a speech. Michael’s evident disengagement with the world at large is rendered expressionistically, the soundscape no less important than the puppetry; other than Michael, every single person in Anomalisa’s distorted universe is voiced in a dry monotone by Tom Noonan. That is, until he meets Lisa at his hotel, whose unique voice (that of Jennifer Jason Leigh) sparks a powerful, possibly life-changing attraction.
This is by no means a film for everyone; the humour is black and bleak, the main character is relentlessly unsympathetic. His relationship with Lisa is an uneasy mix of the romantic and the predatory. Moments of genuine tenderness (most notably a remarkably honest sex scene) dovetail with surreal and postmodern flourishes. Particularly for an animation, Anomalisa is a heavy, sombre watch, but it carries an intellectual and emotional richness which unfurls in the mind for days after viewing.
Images: Paramount Pictures; Weinstein Company; A24; Universal Studios; StudioCanal; Senator Film; Open Road Films; Toho Co., Ltd.