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2017 Oscar-nominated films you must watch

In anticipation of the Oscars this month, we point you in the direction of the best films to catch in the theatres

Jackie
1/6

Jackie

In cinemas Feb 16

Dir: Pablo Larraín. 2016. USA. 99 minutes. Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, John Hurt, Greta Gerwig, John Carroll Lynch


Jackie starts with a face – more a mask than a face, puffy from crying and suffering a loss that few can imagine. It’s the face of Natalie Portman, playing 34-year-old Jacqueline Kennedy during the week after her husband’s 1963 assassination. Right from the beginning of Pablo Larraín’s near-experimental stunner, you can tell you’re in for a psychodrama of strange, hypnotic intimacy. And that's before you twig the orchestral smear heard on the soundtrack: a nauseating lurch of Psycho-esque strings provided by Mica Levi (Under the Skin), who better than anyone captures the film’s theme of sudden, shocking change.

Jackie is a political period piece, something this Chilean filmmaker is especially good at (his ’80s-set Pinochet-era electoral comedy No is better than a whole season of Veep). But more than any of Larraín’s movies, Jackie is a deep dive into personal catastrophe. Bettering her work in Black Swan, Portman flutters like a sail in a brisk wind, supported by a director who often places his camera inches from her nose. Her Jackie is scattered, tense, wrecked and defiant in the face of those who would prefer she act in a certain way.  

The smart script, by Noah Oppenheim, is built of disconnected moments. We see Jackie on the plane flying out of Dallas, shell-shocked as Lyndon B Johnson takes his emergency oath of office. We watch her later that night, shedding the iconic pink suit and washing the blood and brains from her hair. Some of these scenes are hard to endure. But the ones that stay with you communicate something unusual for a grief drama: forward-thinking savvy. There is JFK’s legacy to think about, as Jackie asks her aides about the scale of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. She seethes her way through a touchy interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup, superb), insisting on total control of the piece: ‘And I don’t smoke,’ she says, puffing on a cigarette.

‘We’re just the beautiful people,’ spits Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), furious at the thought of what his brother didn’t have time to achieve. Meanwhile, John Hurt plays a priest attempting to guide JFK’s widow through the worst of her black thoughts, although even he seems uncertain. Jackie pummels you with grandeur, with its epic visions of the funeral and that terrible moment in the convertible in Dallas. Yet the film’s lasting impact is dazzlingly intellectual: just as JFK himself turned politics into image-making, his wife continued his work when no one else could. JOSHUA ROTHKOPF

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La La Land
Dale Robinette
2/6

La La Land

Now showing at The Projector

Dir: Damien Chazelle. 2016. USA. 128 minutes. Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, JK Simmons, John Legend


The young writer-director Damien Chazelle has followed his Oscar-winning drama Whiplash with another entirely novel film steeped in the world of music. His soaring, romantic, extremely stylish and endlessly inventive La La Land is that rare beast: a grown-up movie musical that's not kitschy, a joke or a Bollywood film. Instead, it's a swooning, beautifully crafted ode to the likes of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain that plays out in the semi-dream world of Los Angeles and manages to condense the ups and downs of romantic love into a very Tinseltown toe-tapping fable.

La La Land boasts stars to fall in love with: Ryan Gosling is Seb, a brooding pianist and jazz purist who dreams of running his own nightclub, while Emma Stone plays Mia, a more sunny studio-lot barista and aspiring actor who dreams of putting on her own plays. The film follows them from winter to fall and back to winter as they meet, argue, flirt, fall in love and face a growing conflict between their personal passions and romantic hopes.

There are tender and imaginative moments to die for: Stone mouthing along to a cover version of 'I Ran' at a pool party; the pair watching their legs discover the power of tap while sitting on a bench; the two of them flying into the stars and waltzing while visiting Griffith Observatory - a moment inspired by a trip to see Rebel Without a Cause. There are songs, there are dances (and Gosling and Stone prove easy naturals at both), but there are plenty of straightforward scenes too, especially as the mood sours. Some of those can drag, as if they've floated away from the film's core, but there's usually a showstopper nearby: one late solo number by Stone - an unadorned, conversational singer and a hugely endearing presence throughout - is heartbreaking.

The look of Los Angeles in La La Land could be called Demy meets Edward Hopper: all pastels, soft light, twilight and street lamps. It's set now, but only just, and the film somehow has a timeless 1950s vibe to it too, as if the golden age of musicals was playing out in our own time. The film's delirious, sideways, play-within-a-play view of Hollywood nods a little to the warped likes of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr or Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups. But this is a far sweeter, more generous film, offering up a place where artistic ambition and heady romance can co-exist, at least for a while, and breaking into song and dance can be both deadly serious and a whole lot of fun. DAVE CALHOUN

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Elle
3/6

Elle

Now showing at The Projector 

Dir: Paul Verhoevan. 2016. France, Germany, Belgium. 130 minutes. Isabelle Huppert, Alice Isaaz, Christian Berkel

At the start of Elle, the final credit to appear in the darkness (over the sounds of fucking) tells us that we’re about to watch a Paul Verhoeven film. Really? Call it a delicious redundancy. Elle might just be the most Verhoeveny film yet, due to its willingness to push buttons, explore transgressive territory and take constant delight in venturing where the vast majority of filmmakers would fear to tread even lightly. This is, after all, the man who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

Adapted by David Birke from the novel by Philippe Djian, Elle has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Isabelle Huppert, who gives a fierce (and impeccably dressed) performance as Michele, a video-game–company founder living in Paris. Those midcoital moans we heard? Michele is being raped in her living room by a ski-masked assailant. Already, her life’s been hard: She’s the daughter of a notorious mass murderer. Perhaps growing up despised by the media and the public is part of why she does not respond conventionally to her attacker but begins to seek him out, in a challenging story that will surely upset a lot of people (not that Verhoeven minds).

Elle is really at least three films at once: First, there’s the comedy of manners involving Michele’s adult son, mother, ex-husband and their respective other halves. A dinner party plays out exquisitely, with many tiny moments to cherish, not least Michele forgetting—or bitchily pretending to forget—the name of her Liza Minnelli–esque mom’s latest boy toy. At other moments, Elle plays like a sophisticated thriller, the mystery of the masked attacker shifting and reshaping itself as we share in Michele’s heightened state of cool appraisal, scanning every man onscreen to figure out whether he might be the one.

But it’s the third film, a complex psychological portrait of an unusual woman, that might be the most alluring. As it progresses, Elle takes a deep dive into dangerous territory that could be viewed as toxic misogyny or a disturbing provocation. The sheer brilliance and mastery of Huppert’s controlled, multifaceted performance will help to rally support to the latter perspective. Whatever your take, it’s a movie that will inspire debate for decades to come. CATHERINE BRAY

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Manchester by the Sea
4/6

Manchester by the Sea

In cinemas Feb 16

Dir: Kenneth Lonergan. 2016. USA. 137 minutes. Michelle Williams, Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges


That’s Manchester, Massachusetts, a small fishing community that’s the setting for this devastating tale of buried trauma from American director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). Casey Affleck gives a complex, brooding central performance as Lee, a Boston handyman and caretaker – for all his quiet capability with a blocked toilet, you wouldn’t want to cross him. Affleck burns the screen in the early scenes, building up a portrait of a solitary existence: this is a man who is long past giving a shit about anything.

Why? That remains a mystery – for now. While you sense that Lee is the kind of person who doesn’t need more bad news, it arrives in the form of a call telling him that a heart attack has killed his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, superb in flashbacks). As Lee drives up to the wintry town of his youth to make funeral arrangements, we begin to see what makes him ache. Once in Manchester, he learns that he’s been made the legal guardian of Joe’s son, seen in happier days fishing off the back off the family’s boat. Today, Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a typical gobby teenager, juggling two girlfriends, a pissed-off hockey coach and a rock band.

But Lonergan’s film isn’t about rebounding as much as coping. That’s what makes Manchester by the Sea so dark and courageous; it says that, for some people, there won’t be any moving on from grief. These sad people will walk into another day, perhaps with more openness and a nephew to bear the burden. For that honesty alone, almost unbearable yet expressed with rare poise, this movie is a profound, meaningful gift. JOSHUA ROTHKOPF

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Hidden Figures
5/6

Hidden Figures

In cinemas Feb 23

Dir. Theodore Melfi. 2016. USA. 127 minutes. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner.

As inspiring as the red glare of rockets heading into space, this huge-hearted crowd-pleaser has a sophisticated idea running through it: by and large, busy scientists don’t have time for racism or sexism. So it proved at Virginia’s Langley Research Center when, at the height of the 1960s space race (would ‘Space Race’ have been a better title?), African-American female mathletes were promoted to positions of critical importance to the Mercury programme, years before the flowering of the civil rights era.

Hidden Figures takes this underreported chapter of black history and makes it big, overplaying an already powerful scenario. Teetering bespectacled whiz Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) finds herself correcting the calculations of scowling white men, while aspiring supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) learns computer language in her spare time, and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) campaigns to attend college classes. They’re a trio of incredibly likeable nerds. If the movie puts them on equal footing with the astronauts and capsule designers themselves, it’s a corrective that can be forgiven.

In its best moments, Hidden Figures supplies the same work-the-problem thrills of Apollo 13 (if not the reach-for-the-stars rapture of ‘The Right Stuff’), and benefits enormously from Kevin Costner in full lefty righteous-rage mode as the Nasa director who smashes the sign off a segregated bathroom: ‘Here at Nasa, we all pee the same colour!’ To get to these stand-up-and-cheer moments, though, you have to endure a comic montage to an anachronistic Pharrell Williams song called ‘Runnin’’ and several painfully Aaron Sorkin-esque verbal showdowns. The film aims for the stars but might have gone stratospheric if it cooled its jets ever so slightly. JOSHUA ROTHKOPF

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Arrival
6/6

Arrival

Now showing at The Projector

Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 2016. USA. 116 minutes. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker.

Sicario
 director Denis Villeneuve's colour-drained, mournful sci-fi drama Arrival plays like a more mainstream filmmaker got his hands on Jonathan Glazer's experimental alien masterpiece Under the Skin and added moments of international intrigue, hints of romance, memories of past grief and shots of soldiers stomping about just in case the heady avant-garde stuff all got too much. There are plenty of smart ideas and bravura visuals in this maudlin, ponderous and slightly ridiculous tale of aliens coming to Earth, adapted from a Ted Chiang short story. But to enjoy the film's arresting musings on language, time and how much we can ever understand others, you'll have to close your eyes and ears to the wealth of schlocky hokum surrounding them. 

An ambiguous, moody prologue layered with Jóhann Jóhannsson's Michael Nyman-esque score begs us to take Arrival seriously long before there's any talk of heptapods. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams, strong and sombre) is alone in a lakeside house with only images of her past life for company: she once raised and lost a daughter. Then the sci-fi kicks in: alien pods are hovering above several sites around the globe, and the US government hauls in Louise, who is a top linguist, and a theoretical scientist (Jeremy Renner, a bit of a spare part) to help them to understand what's going on. Their mission is to enter these creatures' giant egg-shaped craft and to discover what the pair of seven-legged uglies inside want and what they're doing in a field in Montana. 

You might roll your eyes when Forest Whitaker's army colonel explains to Louise that it's her past experience translating Farsi that made her perfect for this project. Do aliens and Iranians share a linguistic heritage? That aside, the scenes of Louise and co entering the alien pod and meeting the inhabitants are strong on spooky tension and the production design is especially stellar, all of which bodes well for Villeneuve's upcoming Blade Runner sequel. 

When the film lingers on Louise's attempts to 'translate' the language of her new extraterrestrial friends (there are nods to ET), it's strange, gripping stuff that does what great sci-fi should: offers new perspectives on our own world. Villeneuve also has a show-stopping reveal up his sleeve that revives our interest in the film late on. But much of Arrival focuses on baser stuff – ticking bombs, rolling TV news commentary, social breakdown as window-dressing – and in those moments it feels caught between a brainless big-budget movie and a smaller, much more thoughtful one. DAVE CALHOUN

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