UK RE-RELEASE REVIEW: NAPOLÉON

The Film: ★★★★   The Score: ★★★★

On 11th November 2016 the British Film Institute will release a new digital restoration of Abel Gance’s stupendous portrayal of the early years in the life of Napoléon Bonaparte. Ahead of the official release, I was fortunate enough to attend the first of several concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall in which the film was presented with a live performance of Carl Davis’ score – a moving and thrilling cinematic experience that simultaneously transported its audience through time to the French Revolution and to the heyday of silent cinema.

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Napoléon Bonaparte makes a heroic escape with the tricolour as his sail.Napoléon Bonaparte makes a heroic escape with the tricolour as his sail.

Napoléon Bonaparte makes a heroic escape with the tricolour as his sail.

Napoléon (a.k.a. Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, 1927, France – restoration: 2000/2016, France/UK) written, produced & directed by Abel Gance  / starring Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Nicolas Koline, Edmond van Daële, Alexandre Koubitsky, Antonin Artaud / cinematography by Jule Kruger & Joseph-Louis Mundviller / restoration: edited by Kevin Brownlow / music by Carl Davis

Clocking in at no less than five and a half hours, British editor Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Napoléon is the most complete version of this epic biopic to date. What is so special in 2016 is that the British Film Institute is now releasing the digital restoration of Brownlow’s reconstructed cut in cinemas, on DVD, on Blu-Ray and online. In so doing the BFI finally makes this daring, spectacular poem of silent cinematic language available to the masses, whereas it only previously existed on a handful of 35mm prints. The release of this digital restoration was given an appropriately grand gala at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 6th November, where Carl Davis conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in a live performance of his score for this near-definitive version of a film so huge that it belittles even D.W. Griffith’s magnum opus, Intolerance (1916).

A single image commanded me to see Abel Gance’s silent epicThe trailer for the 2016 re-release features an outstanding wide shot of a cloaked rider and his steed galloping across a hilltop, silhouetted against the shimmering, moonlit sea. Such a grand, dynamic image grabbed me in the same way as the image of a land speeder trundling past a crashed star destroyer in the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) did. It is the sort of image with which the filmmakers (and editor of the trailer) make a promise to the audience: this film is going to be MASSIVE. The action sequence in which the moonlit image features is one of many crown the jewels in a film the roars with outstanding action filmmaking and technical innovation – from mounting the camera of the back of a horse, to expressionistic montage on a triptych of three screens at the film’s finale! Projected on the big screen with the full power of Davis and his orchestra underneath yielded one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I have ever had.

Planned as the first of six films charting Bonaparte’s life, Napoléon was the third (but by no means the longest) film by Parisian writer-director Abel Gance, which was made with the support of Charlés Pathé and released to great critical acclaim (and no small amount of political controversy) in France in 1927. Notably, this was the same year that Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer electrified the film industry with the introduction of sync sound. Though the silent era birthed many more of its greatest works over the coming years, such as Metropolis (1927), Sunrise (1927), La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and City Lights (1931), it became clear that sound was the future of cinema. Even if the talkies had arrived much later, it is unlikely that Abel Gance would have had the opportunity to realise his complete vision: a definitive history of the life of Napoléon Bonaparte on film. The costs incurred by the massive scale of Gance’s production, from its technical innovations to the many thousands of extras needed for its breath-taking sequences depicting the French Revolution and Napoléon’s invasion of Italy, were too great, too unwieldy to make further entries in the series possible. The un-commercially long run time of the film did not help matters, and Napoléon was a flop abroad, where the mangled two-hours cuts released by British and American distributors were largely savaged by critics. What a shame it is that this should have been the fate of Gance’s vision. One can only imagine the heights that future instalments might have reached, had Gance been able to build upon the technical innovations and grand spectacle laid out in this entertaining, patriotic, if uneven first chapter.

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The unwashed masses of the French Revolution sing Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle's anthem, 'La Marseillaise.'The unwashed masses of the French Revolution sing Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle's anthem, 'La Marseillaise.'

The unwashed masses of the French Revolution sing Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle’s anthem, ‘La Marseillaise.’

Approaching a far more focussed timeframe than its 330-minute run time would suggest, Napoléon covers Bonaparte’s life from his adolescence as a cadet at the military academy in Brienne, up to his appointment as the commander of the French forces invading Italy to oust the Austrians in 1796. The story that follows Napoléon’s proud and fiery resistance of the boys that bully him at Brienne College takes him from the bloody streets of Paris during the French Revolution; to a thrilling escape from traitors in his native Corsica; to his first victory against the British on the muddy battlefield of Toulon; to his imprisonment during the Reign of Terror; to his marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais; to his successful defeat of the Royalist uprising; and eventually to his march over the Alps, into Italy, with the tricolour waving at the head of a column of soldiers and the eagle of destiny soaring overhead.

Albert Dieudonné’s virtues as a performer in the role of Napoléon are the same as those virtues that Dieudonné and his director decided Napoléon should impress upon the other characters. Dieudonné’s affectation of the stern, heavy body language with which this “stump of a man” dominates his opponents is both comical and genuinely convincing as a commanding presence. Dieudonné manages to nail the hard stare that neuters the over-inflated egos of arrogant generals and effects people in much the same way as Jesus Christ’s gaze on the Roman soldier in Ben Hur (1959). But the filmmakers are not ignorant of the silliness inherent in such a relentlessly serious character and they permit some fun at the expense of their hero’s preternatural authority. It is worth mentioning that Abel Gance and his cast take every opportunity to make Napoléon funny. From cute insert shots, such as a kitten hiding in the barrel of a rusty cannon, to dry banter, to the gallows humour of a seven-year-old drummer boy at the battle of Toulon cheerfully proclaiming that he must have at least six years left to live if the famous drummer boy, Viala, was thirteen when he was killed. Gance habitually disarms the audience and cuts his huge historic figures down to size with comic flourishes. Though largely humourless, and suffering from the same bland aloofness that has afflicted countless heroic leaders on screen, Dieudonné’s Napoléon knows how to deliver a joke when it is required of him. With the help of Gance’s exquisite visual stylisation, how could he not? In one of his earliest conversations with Joséphine (Gina Manès), Napoléon (and the audience) cannot help but be conscious of the black fan that Joséphine waves back and forth in the lower half of the frame. Joséphine asks the military man, “Which weapons are the most dangerous, monsieur?” Napoléon replies, “Fans, madame.”

Gance’s cast all have big shoes to fill, and often fill them with big performances. The boisterousness of the supporting characters, much in keeping with the acting style of the time, is infectious, but the real treat here is in the cast of villains. The so-called Three Gods of the revolution are introduced as a triptych, composed of perversion (Antonin Artaud as Jean-Paul Marat), zealotry (Alexandre Koubitzky as Georges Danton) and calculating inhumanity (Edmond van Daële as Maximilien Robespierre). This formidable trio is later joined by Abel Gance in the role of the Louis de Saint-Just, who Gance plays with great restraint as a cold-hearted dandy revolutionary – still craving blood, even as Robespierre’s conscience creeps up on him. Besides these four figureheads of the revolution, few of the villains get much in the way of dimensionality, which is hardly surprising in a film trading mostly in archetypal characters – some fascinating, some quite peculiar, but all performing in service of a story that aims to do justice to mythological figures, rather than social realism. But the talent that a film such as this attracts will inevitably yield memorable moments, even in fleeting roles. The wonderful Jean d’Yd stands out with his quiet comic performance as La Bussière, the self-appointed “eater of documents,” who saved the lives of countless victims of the Reign of Terror by consuming pages from the dossiers assembled against Saint-Just’s prisoners. In another display of understated grace, Percy Day as Admiral Hood sets a precedent for the universal trope of the dry English villain by calmly sipping tea from a China cup as he orders the French fleet to be set alight at Toulon.

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Vladimir Roudenko as the adolescent Napoléon.Vladimir Roudenko as the adolescent Napoléon.

Vladimir Roudenko as the adolescent Napoléon.

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Albert Dieudonné as the adult Napoléon.Albert Dieudonné as the adult Napoléon.

Albert Dieudonné as the adult Napoléon.

Dieudonné’s on screen prowess and nobility represents the hagiographic nature of this depiction of the anti-tyrannical hero to whom Ludwig van Beethoven once wished to dedicate his third symphony. Sadly we can never know how Dieudonné’s rigorously researched portrayal of Napoléon would have changed in future instalments of Gance’s series, as Napoléon transformed from a hero of the people to a tyrant in his own right. A particularly poignant but also troubling scene arrises in the final act, in which Napoléon stops his carriage at the vacant National Assembly building, to contemplate the history of the revolution before he rides to invade Italy. Standing in the vast, empty room, Napoléon envisions a conversation with the ghosts of Saint-Just and the Three Gods of the revolution. He tells them of his dream of a Europe without borders, where any man can roam freely and say that he finds himself still in his fatherland. The speech inspired laughs, cheers and a rousing moment of spontaneous applause at the Royal Festival Hall from an audience, who found out earlier this year that their country will soon leave the European Union. Napoléon’s reverie for the spirit of the revolution and his vision of a liberated Europe is true to the character but emotionally confusing in this scene. Narrative conventions and the real-life atrocities committed in the name of the revolution necessarily cast Saint-Just and the Three Gods as villains, yet here Napoléon looks to them as sanctified figures. It is not wholly inappropriate, especially given Gance’s conscious emphasis through-out the film on the bloody hands that forged the greatness of the French Republic. Still, one cannot help but feel that these revolutionary figureheads were ultimately underserved by the filmmakers. This is to say nothing of the irony that is imposed upon this scene by the ignominious history that follows the early chapters in the life of Napoléon Bonaparte.

As a fan of heroic mythology and admirer of the techniques of cinematic storytelling I was constantly moved by Gance’s boundless invention. In many ways, Napoléon is a key text in the creation of modern cinema, and the action genre in particular. It begins in the heat of battle, where teen-aged military cadets range across a snow-covered landscape, engaged in a full-scale snowball fight. The young Napoléon (Vladimir Roudenko) commands a paltry ten boy soldiers against forty aggressors, while the monks and schoolmasters of the military academy look on with great interest. Even from this early age, Napoléon does not let overwhelming odds snatch victory away from him. Rather than cower behind the walls of his snow fort, Napoléon commands his tiny army to rush at the enemy. Mere minutes into the film, Gance is already challenging and broadening the conventions of cinematic technique with handheld camerawork and iconoclastic imagery of Napoléon’s tenacious id, driving him towards victory. Gance’s use of cross-faded images, rapid cutting and point-of-view shots throws the audience into the chaos and visceral thrill of something as laughable as boys playing at war in the snow. As the sequence sets up the boy, who will become France’s greatest hero, it also throws open the doors to the sequences of battles and marching armies yet to come, as well as revolutionising the practice of montage in cinema. Gance does not rest for long. As the proud but isolated Corsican cadet fights against the bullies tormenting him, Gance again takes the delightful chaos of a childish brawl as a spring board for further technical experimentation and splits the screen nine ways during a pillow fight in the boys’ dormitory. Seeing such an audacious and original assault on the visual language of cinema, all in service of an emotional narrative of mythological proportions, moved me to tears. I can only liken the thrill, dynamism and visceral impact of the sequence to that of a Jackson Pollock painting. To witness it in a vast auditorium with the rousing fanfare of Davis’ score beneath the flickering screen absorbs the viewer in the same way as seeing a Pollock painting in a gallery. Often it is silent cinema, more so than any other, that demands to be seen in a “live” performance. 

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POLYVISION: Abel Gance's three-camera, three-screen method for vastly expanding the scope of  Napoléon's  final act.POLYVISION: Abel Gance's three-camera, three-screen method for vastly expanding the scope of  Napoléon's  final act.

POLYVISION: Abel Gance’s three-camera, three-screen method for vastly expanding the scope of Napoléon’s final act.

Sadly the film’s latter half cannot live up to the impact of the first two acts. The third act sags terribly as a love-stricken Napoléon courts Joséphine in a drawn-out romantic comedy. The tonal shift here does not undermine the film’s cohesion but kills the film’s pace. In a similar way, Napoléon’s arrival at the French camp in Italy retreads the thrust of Naopléon’s arrival in Toulon: the army is poorly supplied, undisciplined and commanded by arrogant generals, who Napoléon must bend to submission through the strength of his personality alone. But it is reasonable to suspect that Gance was aware of this and so took the opportunity to vastly expand the scope of Napoléon’s triumph as a leader by adding two more screens! By using three cameras and three projection screens to create a super-wide triptych of images, Gance created what he called “Polyvision”, an early forerunner to Hollywood’s Cinerama system. Watching the vast expanse of the army rise as one to stand to attention for Napoléon amplifies the emotion of the sequence in a way that is unique to the vast canvas of cinema. Scenes such as these are rarely used tools in today’s blockbusters, belonging to an older age of dramatic staging. Witnessing the effect of thousands of extras performing a single gesture en masse makes the crumbling skyscrapers and explosive space battles of today’s big-budget entertainment seem hollow and dispensable by comparison. In this final act, as Napoléon stokes the fires of his army with the spirit of patriotism for France and a united Europe, Gance uses his Polyvision to layer cross-faded images of lands conquered and lands soon to be conquered over vast images of Napoléon’s army marching towards victory. The final coup de théâtre, using the Polyvision technique, is the creation of the tricolour through different colour tinting in each of the three frames. The resulting emotions are a testament to the power of cinema to stir up patriotism for the revolution, even in the hearts of France’s oldest enemies: the tea-sipping English! But all of this imagery would lack for lasting impact without music to accompany it, especially the unbeatable patriotic anthem of ‘La Marseillaise’, which Gance features prominently in the film and Carl Davis uses to maximum effect in his meticulously researched score.

The importance of Davis’ score to this restoration must not be underestimated – without it, the experience loses its authenticity and the film loses its spirit. Like the composers and conductors of the silent film era, Davis draws upon the beloved classics of composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn to create a montage of his own, which reaches back in time to the romantic history of 18th Century Europe. Davis also ensures that the score possess a heritage of French folks songs and classical compositions. But Napoléon‘s reliance on particular folks songs, marching songs, Corsican melodies and anthems of the period is pronounced in a way that is reflected on screen. The filmmakers have left composers-cum-cinema-historians various cues, which are easily interpreted by using Wagner’s principals of thematic musical narrative – principals which govern the composition of our best modern orchestral film scores. The inspiring spirit of the revolution is present and correct on screen whenever variations on ‘La Marseillaise’ can be heard. When the eagle of destiny is present at the climax of key moments in Napoléon’s ascent to greatness, the grandiosity of Beethoven can be heard. Throughout, Davis draws heavily from Beethoven’s third symphony, ‘Eroica’, which Beethoven initially wished to dedicate to Napoléon as a hero of the people in Europe – that is until Napoléon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. Davis is an seasoned composer and conductor of silent film scores, and a diligent scholar of the conventions of silent scoring in the early 20th Century. As one can imagine, comedy and action are among the toughest genres for which an orchestra can perform, and Davis and the Philharmonia deliver deft comic timing by pre-empting Abel Gance’s jokes, rather than reacting to them. The diametric opposites of the French Revolutionaries, the British, are ripe targets for mockery throughout the film, and the audience is primed for a good laugh by the orchestra’s introduction of pompous variations on ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Rule Britannia.’

But ‘La Marseillaise’ is the anthem around which the characters on screen and their audience must rally. It is key to inspiring patriotism for the ideal that the French Revolution represented, to which Napoléon once dedicated himself. Davis’ composition of the complex and rousing collage of anthems for the spectacular final montage sells us the dream in a way that is effortlessly emotional and un-esoteric, as all good anthems are wont to be. I suspect that this musical power is what Abel Gance was reaching for with his three-screen triptych, cross-faded montage and massive imagery. In this respect, Gance’s efforts were successful but, unlike Carl Th. Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, he could not have marched towards the future of cinematic storytelling without the might of Europe’s musical history behind him.

Napoléon comes out in limited cinematic release in the UK and on DVD, Blu-Ray and BFI Player on 11th November 2016.

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Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra celebrate the stars and director of  Napoléon  at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th November 2016.Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra celebrate the stars and director of  Napoléon  at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th November 2016.

Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra celebrate the stars and director of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th November 2016.

Watch the trailer for the BFI’s re-release of Napoléon below.

London Film Fest Reviews 2016

The BFI London International Film Festival is always a valuable opportunity for Londoners to discover little-seen gems from around the world and to get an early look at some of the films most likely to be essential viewing in cinemas early next year. The number of films I’m able to see at this year’s fest represents only a tiny portion of the programme of 248 titles offered in the festival’s 60th edition and I’ve found it hard to resist the impulse to mostly programme myself around the highlights from this year’s Cannes and Venice lineups. Next week I will be recording a special episode of the Films Of Every Colour podcast, in which we will be joined by some new voices and discuss the highlights of LFF. For now, here are reviews of the seven titles that I managed to catch in the first few days of the festival, ranked in order of preference.

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Toni Erdmann 2016Toni Erdmann 2016

Toni Erdmann   ★★★★★   (2016, Austria/Germany – dir. Maren Ade)

Maren Ade’s third feature, Toni Erdmann, was the critical favourite by a country mile at the 69th Cannes Film Festival but received no awards in the official competition. Whether or not you value thumbs-up from critics or laurels from a festival jury, it is difficult to argue against Toni Erdmann as a particularly stimulating and fascinating film, that never sacrifices entertainment value for depth or vice versa.

Sandra Hüller plays a stern, driven career woman, working in Bucharest as a consultant to an international oil company. When her estranged father, played by Peter Simonischek, pays a visit to Bucharest, her cold rebuffing of his attempts to reconnect with her have unexpected consequences. Rather than scurry back to Germany with his tail between his legs, the prank-loving father creates the persona of Toni Erdmann, a classless but gregarious image consultant with a goofy overbite and a brown wig. Through sheer moxie Toni is accepted by the white-collar expats of the consultancy firm as a quirky lifestyle guru with desirable clients, whose names he has pulled from the list of the local corporate figure-heads. As the Toni persona invades the high-pressure corporate environment, both father and daughter begin to articulate a shared emotional vocabulary, which both had previously ignored.

It is easy to picture the crass, mainstream Hollywood remake of Toni Erdmann. On paper, the synopsis reads like a high-concept family comedy, similar to the likes of Mrs Doubtfire. But Maren Ade doesn’t set out to make a heart-warming comedy, she sets out to tell a story that analyses and criticises her characters’ actions. The film’s hilarity is a symptom of the tension inherent in its characters using humour to confront the subjects most likely to harm their self-esteem, such as deficient self-image, the cruelties of ambition, abandonment by their families, and sexual discrimination at work. Hüller’s character is desperate for control in all aspects of her life and the presence of her father’s bizarre alter-ego in the background of her daily life challenges that desperation to great comedic and emotional effect. Like its eponymous character, Toni Erdmann can be many things to many people, and changes its disguise throughout, from a cheeky but abrasive critique of corporate exploitation and expat lifestyles in developing countries, to a sensitive domestic drama, to a door-slamming farce, to an observational comedy of manners. So far it is the film that has lingered most in my mind from this year’s fest, and I can only hope that its selection as Germany’s contender for the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film will draw wider attention to it as an outstanding example of what is happening at the forefront of contemporary European cinema.

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The Red Turtle 2016The Red Turtle 2016

The Red Turtle   ★★★★★   (La Tortue Rouge, 2016, Belgium/France/Japan – dir. Michaël Dudok de Wit)

This year I anticipated no other film at LFF more highly than The Red Turtle. Something about the simple story, the total absence of any dialogue and the collaboration between European animators and Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli got me giddy inside. I went into The Red Turtle expecting a full-spectrum of emotions, delivered in a way that only animation can achieve, and I came out with my expectations surpassed by the pleasant surprise that The Red Turtle was not merely the story of one man’s survival on a deserted island, but also a fairytale.

The film opens with a breath-taking sequence of a man fighting through giant waves to reach a capsized dinghy in a mighty storm at sea. He is washed up on a small tropical island and sets about planning his escape on a raft. But escape eludes our hero as each raft that he makes is destroyed at sea by pommeling from a giant red turtle. Flummoxed, the castaway despairs at his situation: condemned to live the rest of his life alone on this island, a prisoner of the red turtle. When the turtle comes onto the beach to lay her eggs, the castaway sees his opportunity to escape. What happens next lies in the realm of fairytales – a realm with the same governing principles and opportunities as animation. One of the reasons that I have always loved animation is its ability to deliver any combination of emotions, be they complex or elemental, with such economy and impact. To watch an animated character struggle and fail or succeed is to be immediately hooked by an empathy, which is divorced from any of the prejudices or emotional caution that can sometimes prevent viewers from connecting with flesh-and-blood actors on screen. The same can be said of simple objects in animation, and Michaël Dudok de Wit (making his feature debut after a long career of successful animated shorts) has clearly learned a great deal from the meticulous real-world detail that Japanese animators bring to their films. But this director is not in the habit of aping the Japanese style, and The Red Turtle distinguishes itself as an especially unique, universal story of life, love and death. Aesthetically the film benefits in particular from the use of tangible textures in the land and sky to evoke the grain of celluloid or the roughness of cartridge paper. The simple but consistently exciting story, the silent interactions of the characters and the richly detailed but not over-complicated animation has a cumulative emotional effect that is on-par with the best work of animation’s heaviest hitters, Studio Ghibli and Pixar. For animation fans it is absolutely essential viewing. For everyone else, it stands to be a revelatory experience of the power of animation and fairytales to portray the essential elements of mankind’s existence.


The Handmaiden 2016The Handmaiden 2016

The Handmaiden   ★★★★   (아가씨, 2016, South Korea – dir. Park Chan-wook)

Luscious, surreal, romantic and grotesque, The Handmaiden delivers, delivers and delivers again on expectations as another high-calorie banquet of sensual delights from Park Chan-wook. As always, Park blends Western genre sensibilities with East Asian narrative conventions, and a glutinous helping of his own kinks and aesthetic hang ups to deliver a tactile pulp storybook for grownups with a taste for the finer things in life – finer things both respectable and tawdry.

Wrapped as tightly, elegantly and with as many folds and patterns as a silk kimono, Park’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ transposes the action from Victorian Britain to Korea under the Japanese occupation. Two con-artists commence a plan to insinuate themselves into a wealthy Japanese household, marry the lady of the house and then jam her in a mental institution, leaving her fortune free for the taking. That all does not go to plan is hardly worth mentioning, unless things going to plan can be inclusive of the way that plans have a habit of changing under pressure from sexual desire. Told in an appropriately intricate three-part structure, that jumps back and forth in time and replays prior events with new light cast upon them, The Handmaiden will infuriate fans of thrillers in which the viewer is invited to speculate and partake in solving the mystery. For anyone willing to sit back and let themselves be swept along by the coyness and cheekiness of Park’s storytelling, the experience is beguiling, and yields the same satisfaction as watching the mechanism of a pocket watch click into place.

I have always been a huge fan of Park’s penchant for heightened drama at every moment in the story, be it a turning point in the narrative, or a character caressing a piece of fabric. His use of violence and eroticism to augment the melodrama and sadism of his characters’ lives is perversely enticing for its visceral power and its sheer cartoonishness. In this respect, and with respect to the erotic particulars of the plot, this is a film that only an East Asian director could make. Made in the UK or the US, this film would be laughed out of cinemas as steamy, melodramatic pap. In the hands of a provocative master with an understanding Korean and Japanese storytelling traditions and those countries’ traditions of high-brow erotic art, The Handmaiden is a smutty luxury item of the most enjoyable kind.

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Souvenir 2016Souvenir 2016

Souvenir   ★★★★   (2016, Belgium/France/Luxembourg – dir. Bavo Defurne)

The second feature from Belgian director Bavo Defurne is, in the director’s own words, a movie for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Gentle, sweet and straightforward, Souvenir is an ideal example of a film that knows what it wants to be and how to deliver the goods without a shred of pretence. Opening with the drab daily routine of a single woman in her sixties, who works at a pâté factory, Souvenir teases its central romance with the arrival of a handsome young boxer to the factory. Sporting a decidedly old-fashioned moustache and haircut and a pair of sparkling baby blues, Kévin Azaïs’ boxer, is immediately taken with our leading lady, played by Isabelle Huppert, whom he recognises as a former Eurovision contestant from the 1970s. As a tentative romance blossoms between them, the boxer coaxes the forgotten pop starlet into reviving her career and, eventually, to compete in the selection of Belgium’s next submission to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Defurne has said that he wrote the screenplay for Souvenir with Isabelle Huppert in mind. To cast Huppert as an ageing alcoholic chanteuse seems completely counterintuitive in such a camp story as a romance between an ageing Eurovision contestant and a boxer, who meet in a pâté factory, but the results prove this casting coup to be a wonderful piece of outside-the-box thinking. Huppert sings all of her numbers and her voice is as smoky and seductive as one might expect. As one of the single greatest actors working today, Huppert is quite comfortable in the role of a character capable of slipping from a private persona into a mysterious pop alter-ego as soon as the stage lights come on, and Defurne and Huppert create a nuanced personality for both sides of her character. The determination of the jaded singer to keep other people at arm’s length is sold effortlessly by Huppert’s signature iciness, which melts so convincingly under the warmth of Kévin Azaïs’ earnest enthusiasm and naïveté as a young man, who is convinced that the affection he feels for his lover will translate to public adoration.

A great deal of the film’s aesthetic is owed to the evident influence of Pedro Almodóvar, and one can hardly blame Defurne for referencing the cinematic grandmaster of tactile, intimate camp romance – especially as the Almodóvarian influence never overshadows the film’s own unassuming identity. The unavoidable cheesiness of the retro Europop songs (composed with great conviction by Pink Martini) may prove off-putting to fans of Isabelle Huppert’s more abrasive films but, to its credit, Souvenir is not nearly as nugatory and inoffensive as any association with the Eurovision Song Contest would suggest.

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Voyage of Time 2016Voyage of Time 2016

Voyage of Time – feature version   ★★★★   (2016, USA – dir. Terrence Malick)

Frequently spellbinding, occasionally hurried and clunky, inspiring and a little infuriating, often transportative but never quite achieving a transcendental grace, Terrence Malick’s long-gestating opus on the creation of the universe is a mixed bag for the better. Reportedly in development since the late seventies and shot over a period of several years, Voyage of Time takes the creation of the universe segment from Tree of Life and blows it up to feature-length, taking the viewer on a journey from the Big Bang to the destruction of the universe. Even without the poetic narration (delivered in the feature-length cut by Cate Blanchett) the film would be unmistakably Malickian in its impressionistic construction. Malick mixes spectacular footage of the natural world with galactic landscapes created in tanks of water, CGI imagery of microscopic organisms, and media-res mini-DV footage of the contemporary world and the chaotic human creatures, who struggle and writhe upon the Earth’s surface.

Malick’s intuitive editing style can result in a few jarring cuts between different formats, which is more of a criticism of the quality of the CGI images than it is of the editing. Still, Voyage of Time is a testament to the power of editing of images and music. The movements and angles captured by cinematographer Paul Atkins provide the ideal palette from which Malick and his editors Rehman Ali and Keith Fraase can assemble a thrilling rhythmic progression through the creation of the natural world. Atkins’ underwater photography yields the most impressive imagery in the film, not least because it manages to capture extraordinary aquatic animal behaviour of a level that one would only ever expect to see in the very best of the BBC’s documentaries on the natural world. Malick’s sequences on land are almost as striking and recall the similar cinematic triumphs of Ron Fricke’s Baraka and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, but falter slightly with the introduction of early man. A sequence of early humans exploring their brave new world is marred by the obviously American landscapes, which act as unconvincing stand-ins for Africa, the seat of mankind. Overall, the sequence fails to grasp the sublime qualities of Malick’s elemental depictions of human life and interaction in The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven. Similarly, the sparse, plaintive voiceover, in which the narrator converses with Mother Earth, never achieves the same impact as Malick’s previous voiceovers. This is due largely to the impact that these voiceovers created in the context of human stories. Voyage of Time goes far beyond any human story and, as such, renders the voiceover largely redundant.

Despite its smattering of shortcomings, Voyage of Time does exactly what it says on the tin. It follows the life of the universe from start to finish, discovering astonishing, moving images along the way. As always, Malick’s use of classic music, ranging from Gustav Mahler to Arvo Pärt, is effective in steering the audience towards a transcendental experience but the film as a whole lacks the overall finesse needed to achieve such a result. It is very difficult not to compare Voyage of Time to Baraka, as it covers a great deal of similar ground, but at no point does Malick’s film lose its own identity or sense of purpose and it is absolutely worth experiencing this journey on the big screen, be it in the feature-length cut or the truncated IMAX cut.

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Wolf & Sheep 2016Wolf & Sheep 2016

Wolf & Sheep   ★★★   (2016, Afghanistan/Denmark – dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat)

Using non-professional actors from the mountainous Afghan region in which it is set, the debut film from Iranian director Shahrbanoo Sadat tells the story of a small, remote shepherding community and the children, who are coming age within it. The boys obsess over making slings to hurl rocks across the gorge in which they drive their sheep. The girls are in the process of crossing over from playing at being grown-ups to simply being exactly the same as the mothers and grandmothers, whom their games impersonate. Only Sediqa shuns the trivial interests of the other girls in favour of a more responsible and pragmatic approach to tending her flock, and she seems content to be a loner. Behind the day-time world of the shepherds lurk the local myths of the Kashmir Wolf and the Green Fairy, both of whom haunt the landscape while the villagers are sleeping.

On the one hand, this is a promising debut, in which Sadat shows a talent for composition, pacing and, crucially, an ability to elucidate themes and ideas in the words and behaviour of her child cast. The arresting, eerie mythical imagery also gives the nebulous narrative a shot in the arm – but only to a certain extent. Sadly, the film (and the viewer) suffer greatly for want of a story. Wolf & Sheep unfolds like a morality play about young people on the cusp of adulthood, each of whom is unwittingly choosing which kind of person they are going to be in this brusque, unforgiving society. But, unlike a conventional morality play, conflict and conundrum are conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, any and all events in the narrative happen off-screen, leaving us with one interminable day after another in the life of an adolescent shepherd. When night falls and folkloric creatures walk the ghostly mountain landscape, one’s imagination cannot help but respond to the stimulating, dreamlike imagery with a growing sense of anticipation that something surely must now happen! That is until sunlight floods the screen and we awake to another day of herding goats and sheep from one side of the gorge to the other.

In spite of the frustrating experience of watching Wolf & Sheep eschew dramatic tension, I will be first in line to see Shahraboo Sadat’s next feature. Her talents for narrative storytelling and striking imagery are apparent, and she clearly has an interest in telling old stories in new ways. I only hope that next time, she will apply her talents to a narrative story, rather than an opaque thematic exploration that seems determined to keep the mechanisms of storytelling at arm’s length.

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Elle 2016Elle 2016

Elle   ★★   (2016, Belgium/France/Germany – dir. Paul Verhoeven)

For the first time in a long while I am completely stumped by the critical reaction to a film – in this case, the wide-spread approval of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It has been hailed as an outstanding and empowering depiction of a woman’s reaction to rape, and the plaudits for Isabelle Huppert’s strong central performance are well deserved, as anyone familiar with Huppert’s formidable performances might expect. But the film is so muddled and poorly shaped that I can’t help but wonder how anyone can interpret what the filmmakers are actually trying to say about their subject matter.

Elle opens halfway through a brutal rape scene. A masked man has broken into the home of our heroine, the CEO of a video game design company. He is there for the sole purpose of beating and raping her and he makes a swift exit, once his objective is accomplished. Rather than report the assault to the police, the victim covers up any evidence of what happened to her and calmly returns to her daily life. The reasons behind this can be guessed at, as it is revealed that she is the daughter of a famous mass murderer. Media coverage of his killing spree in the late 60s heavily implied that she was somehow involved in those crimes, aged only twelve. An affair with her best friend’s husband, jealousy over her ex-husband’s new squeeze, the exploitation of her son by his unhinged girlfriend, and sexist office politics all underscore our heroine’s secret investigation to uncover the identity of her rapist. So far, so fascinating, yet Verhoeven’s apparent apathy towards exploring the psychology of his characters is disturbing and frustrating. When the identity of the rapist is uncovered and Huppert enters into a tense courtship with her attacker, it seems that Elle is finally getting to the meat of its central premise: what if a rape victim actively pursued a relationship with her attacker? But even at this point Elle does not cohere because it does not have the insight or the guts to delve deeper into the motivation of either character in the equation. No stimulating comment is offered on the nature of control in any part of our heroine’s life, nor is the psychological fall-out from her father’s crimes explored. Instead we are forced to endure the infuriating and downright stupid behaviour of one horrible person after another, be they the string of useless male characters or the callous and manipulative female characters. Though the abject worthlessness of the men around Huppert is clearly a deliberate and effective choice on the part of the filmmakers, none of this ugliness progresses towards a deeper understanding of what is going on in anyone’s head, let alone any actual exploration of the empowerment of victims against men obsessed with dominating women.

Despite my affection for Starship Troopers and recognition of that film’s basic cerebral qualities, I have never subscribed to the view that Paul Verhoeven is a particularly gifted satirist or a filmmaker with much insight into his characters’ motivations. Though Verhoeven crafts Elle into an engaging piece of blunt entertainment, his lack of interest in psychology and realism simultaneously ruins the film’s entertainment value and thwarts any loftier ambitions inherent in its premise. The fact that Huppert plays the CEO of a games company preparing to launch a sexually violent game (complete with gruesome tentacle porn sequences) is a mere coincidence. Gaming culture is just an area of interest for Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke, not territory they feel they should explore. Several critics have hailed this as a timely comment on the 2014 Gamergate controversy but any film so unwilling to engage with the issues that it depicts is undeserving of the argument that it has something to say about the issues of misogyny in the gaming community or is making any deliberate reference to Gamergate, in which several women in the video game industry were repeatedly harassed by gamers through social media with threats of rape and murder. The visceral impact of the rape scenes (of which there are several) is severely undercut by the lack of realism in the results of the beatings that Huppert endures. Struck repeatedly with the considerable force depicted in the film, any person’s face would be so damaged that it would be impossible for them to avoid a trip to the hospital emergency room, yet Huppert’s face emerges from each assault with little more than a single bruise, which swiftly disappears. This is not nit-picking, not in the context of a film that sets-out to turn the tables on male domination of women. Part of the dominance that any attacker exerts upon their victim is the leaving of scars and bruises that cannot be covered up. The physical effects of assault expose the victim to the world and humiliate them. This is the disturbing central objective of the increasing practice of acid attacks on women, a subject conspicuous by its absence in cinema. Mainstream filmmakers across the world have consistently shied away from honestly portraying the physical effects of abuse on women, and Elle does not buck this trend. How, then, can the film claim any sort of integrity in its attempts to confront and upend depictions of violent abuse in mainstream entertainment? The end result is little more than slick sensationalism, just barely pulled through its over-long run time by a compelling performance from a world-class actor – one who has trodden similar ground in the past to far greater effect.

UK RELEASE REVIEW: THE NEON DEMON

★★★

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Nicolas Winding Refn reaches a new level of preciousness with this grisly poison pen letter to the fashion industry.

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Elle Fanning in  The Neon Demon.Elle Fanning in  The Neon Demon.

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon.

The Neon Demon (2016 – Denmark/France/USA) directed by Nicolas Winding Refn / written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham / starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee / cinematography by Natasha Braier / music by Cliff Martinez / companies: Bold Films, Gaumont, Space Rocket Nation, Vendian, Wild Bunch

The Neon Demon opens to the haunting pulse of synthesisers and the morphing of a spectrum of deep colours on frosted glass. Textured, vibrant and seductive, we are now in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Los Angeles, where sixteen-year-old Jesse has just arrived from Georgia to become a model. Played by Elle Fanning, Jesse is immediately noticed by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), high-end fashion photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and fellow models Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), not to mention top fashion agent Roberta (Christina Hendricks), who signs Jesse up right away. Jesse has that intangible but essential quality that allows natural beauty to stand on a pedestal above the synthetic charms of industrialised beauty. Beauty is all that Jesse has – even money is a problem for her, as evidenced by the shitty, dangerous motel in which she has a room. But everyone who is anyone in fashion will happily tell her that beauty is all she needs. The only people more aware of the need for “The Thing” are those women who once had it and now want it back. Jesse’s rapid ascent past models whose beauty has already been strip-mined by the fashion industry awakens in her an ultimate level of narcissism and inhumanity. One warning after another appears, telling her to leave this place and return to the world, but she is content to rely on the kindness that her beauty seems to inspire in strangers. But her beauty also inspires a perverse level of avarice in men and women and Jesse’s downfall is the result of her willful ignorance of what lies at the thin end of the wedge, where possession meets desperation.

As someone who is prone to flurries of self-indulgence (this review is 1200 words long), I am willing to give a lot of rope to directors with a penchant for navel-gazing, as long as they are such consummate visual stylists as the man behind modern-day classics like Bronson and Drive. But with The Neon Demon, the rope has gone out so far that it has slipped from my fingers and completely disappeared up Nicolas Winding Refn’s anus. The stylisation of NWR’s initials in homage to the logo of Yves Saint Laurent is charming until it becomes apparent that NWR’s lampooning of the fashion industry has crossed into self-parody. I can think of few directors better suited to putting the current aesthetics of the fashion industry on film and NWR does a fine job of delivering a rare beast: a satirical horror film. But to satirise the fashion industry is to risk alienating your audience with the sheer vacuousness of the setting. NWR frequently keeps his audience at a distance but the most problematic aspect of the experience of this film is that for all its visual splendour and its outstanding soundtrack, The Neon Demon is no more effecting than most fashion editorial photography. Millions of kilojoules of energy are pumped in the direction of a single model and what radiates back at the viewer is an aesthetic, rather than something human. This seems to be of little concern to NWR but it casts an unflattering light on the simplicity of the story, instead of utilising the tremendous energy inherent in that story to create a film that moves forward and looks good doing it.

In NWR’s Drive Ryan Gosling radiated seething potential energy from underneath his super-cool scorpion jacket. Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson could have provided the world with a new source of green energy if only it had been properly harnessed. In The Neon Demon Elle Fanning has only a handful of moments in which to radiate anything at all before she is smothered in NWR’s overwrought stylisation. The vacuum in which NWR’s characters live is more oppressive than liberating, and while this can be subtle and artful in conveying a distinct lack of trust in human interaction, it dampens the drama in the script and the actor’s performances. As with Only God Forgives, NWR seems more interested in making his protagonist inert and letting the supporting players carry the story by reacting to the protagonist’s very inability to actually do anything.

At his best, NWR can construct drama through atmosphere almost as ably and with as much flair as David Lynch, whose greatest film, Mulholland Drive, exerts tremendous influence over NWR’s portrayal of Los Angeles as a shiny bauble that lures purity and things of incalculable value towards the jaws of corruption. In The Neon Demon, NWR seems adamant that drama is best conveyed in a vacuum, while energy and atmosphere should have their own separate space in which to run wild, preferably to the strains of Cliff Martinez’s outstanding electro-creep score.

The cast navigates NWR’s grizzly fashion world with aplomb, particularly Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as the three women, who most covet Jesse’s powerful natural beauty. Each actor has her moments served up to her on a platter, sprinkled with gold dust, but each of them also forms a persona within the constraints of their hard-edged outlines. Elle Fanning is more than capable of this, as well, and displays flashes of brilliance when placed in one of NWR’s constructions of energy and atmosphere. That she has “The Thing” is of no doubt, but NWR permits no flourishes or embellishments of “The Thing.”

The Neon Demon is more thematically coherent than NWR’s other ponderings on the inertia of the protagonist, namely Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives, yet more incoherent than either in its construction. Frequently, the film feels like a series of music videos interspersed with excerpts from a stage play. But what is most alarming, besides the film’s hair-raising final act (it’s worth mentioning that this is decidedly not a date movie), is the way that NWR suddenly doesn’t seem to know what to do when he has two characters talking face-to-face. Put two girls on a bed or a whole bunch of them in a huge, empty space and NWR will deliver the most sublime montage of arresting, gently beautiful images. Stand two characters in front of each other and make them talk and NWR is suddenly a first-time filmmaker with little or no sense of spatial relationships. It is as if so much effort has gone into choosing the right lens and the right angle for one particular frame that no thought at all has gone into staging the conversation, let alone how to cut it together. Given that this is a film about fashion, one could argue that this is oddly appropriate but the film’s slow and deliberate pacing and its draconian emphasis on restraint makes it so that the montage cannot afford to be so sloppy. Even during the less important scenes between Keanu Reeves as a scuzzy motel manager and Karl Glusman as the doe-eyed hunk trying to protect Jesse from the nastiness of LA, one would expect a filmmaker of NWR’s level to show more finesse.

The Neon Demon is a luxurious feast of morbid scenarios and atmospheric dread, worth a look for hardcore NWR fans and fans of the stylish directors he admires, such as Dario Argento and Brian de Palma. But by dousing the verve and dynamism of his own storytelling style in gold paint, NWR has sadly cheapened a film that would be dripping with an eternal beauty of its own if it didn’t reflect the disposability of the fashion industry so well.

Gareth Evans’ Welsh Chanbara flick

Have you ever seen a Welsh samurai film? Well now you can! Gareth Evans, writer-director-editor of British-Indonesian martial arts action hits The Raid: Redemption (2011) and The Raid 2: Berandal (2014), has posted a five-minute-long test sequence in the style of a mini-samurai movie.

Along with the test video, Evans also posted details of the work that went into the five-minute film and the reason for making it. Known for bone-crunching bloodbaths, Evans and his Indonesian martial arts performers use Pre Vis Action (2016) to prove that they can keep the violence family-friendly, in order to achieve a 12A/PG-13 rating, without compromising their style of fighting and filmmaking. Gareth Evans’ regular choreographer, Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog from The Raid and the vagrant hit man from The Raid 2), and Cecep Arif Rahman (the knife-wielding assassin from the Raid 2) chase down newcomer Hannah Al Rashid in this meeting of the trappings of Japanese fencing and Pencak Silat, the Indonesian martial art, which Evans, Ruhian and Iko Uwais popularised with The Raid series.

In a time of civil war, a young warrior is given the task of delivering a treaty between two rival lords. During her journey through the woods however, she finds herself hunted by two assassins intent on intercepting her message of peace in a bid to maintain the fear, instability and violent rule of their leader.

Watch the video below and enjoy…

Evans shot this test himself in South Wales’ Cynon Valley. Watching the film without this knowledge reveals just how great an effect the choices of shooting, casting, costume and music have on the viewer’s perception of any film. Even though this is merely low-budget test footage, shot in temperate woodland with overhead power lines in the background and Crocs on the actors’ feet, the good storytelling sells itself. Good storytelling makes the viewer take all the hard work behind the scenes for granted and look past continuity errors. In fact, nowhere is this more important than in action genre narratives, where disbelief needs the most elastic suspension.

The backstory Evans wrote could be just enough to motivate the elegantly composed short story needed for the gang’s choreography test or it could be a piece of a larger plot. Who knows what Evans might have bubbling away for future martial arts mayhem? To see Evans and co. take a run at a feature-length samurai period piece is an enticing prospect for the future, but the fact is that Evans has been entrenched in the style of Japan’s samurai action genre, Chanbara, for his entire career. The Raid and its sequel exemplify the very particular kind of suspension of disbelief required for the Japanese Chanbara flicks from which Pre Vis takes its cues. 

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Iko Uwais vs. Cecep Arif Rahman in  The Raid 2: Berandal  (2014)Iko Uwais vs. Cecep Arif Rahman in  The Raid 2: Berandal  (2014)

Iko Uwais vs. Cecep Arif Rahman in The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)

Chanbara literally means “sword fighting” and the genre typically includes period-set action stories about samurai, such as Yojimbo (1961), Samurai Assassin (1965), Sword of Doom (1966) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). As popular in 20th Century Japan as Westerns once were in the United States, the Chanbara genre also gave birth to massive film series, like the Lone Wolf & Cub series, two series about real-life samurai Musashi Miyamoto and the Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman series; not to mention modern-day genre riffs, like Takashi Miike’s Seven-Samurai-meets-The-Wild-Bunch mash up, 13 Assassins (2011).

Though his feature films are Indonesian martial arts actioners, set in modern-day Jakarta, Gareth Evans’ work with Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais stick by the structural principles of pure Chanbara. Even the nightmarish bloodbath that he contributed to V/H/S/2 (2013) is constructed from Chanbara’s same principal rhythmic blueprint of tension, which invariably begins with a long build-up, in which we gain widely spaced, valuable plot and character information. Then our characters enter an increasingly tense, interminable moment of initial confrontation, in which each weighs the possible consequences of every decision they could take. Finally, we arrive at an explosive, on-going fight scene, containing separate emotional and narrative climaxes, as well as a final, unifying climax (a thematic climax). Key to the success of any number of cinema’s finest Chanbara flicks and to all of Evans’ films, from the modest Pre Vis to the epic Raid 2, is modulation. No single fight scene builds to its climax without allowing the fight to slow down momentarily, while the balance of power is adjusted, and one character shifts from the front foot to the back foot.

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Tatsuya Nakadai is the psychotic badass at the centre of  Sword of Doom  (1966)Tatsuya Nakadai is the psychotic badass at the centre of  Sword of Doom  (1966)

Tatsuya Nakadai is the psychotic badass at the centre of Sword of Doom (1966)

It’s especially generous of Evans to post his own mini-Chanbara flick online, not only as a short piece of violent entertainment for lunchtime viewing, but also as an insight into the process that he and his performers go through in working out the astonishing action sequences that make them the most innovative action filmmakers working today. Shooting Pre Vis required a crew of one (Evans) and three days near his home town of Hirwaun with his three performers. Doubtless, the broad strokes of the choreography had been worked out in advance, but it isn’t until the performers and their cameraman are in the final location that the real work can begin. It’s like building a piano: sure, you can build it anywhere, but you can’t do the fine tuning until it has reached the concert hall.

The third and final part in The Raid series isn’t expected until 2017 (if we’re lucky). If you like what Evans’ films have to offer, then why not break up the anticipation on the way to The Raid 3 by exploring the Chanbara classics from which Evans has taken the rhythms and structural tension of the samurai showdown and re-applied it (with minimal alterations) to the finest martial arts action of today. Below is a three-step introduction to the elegant, action-packed world of Chanbara. Anyone concerned about spoilers may want to skip the last two trailers below, and just take my word for it that these three films are among the greatest actioners ever made and well worth seeing!

MUST-SEE FILMS IN 2016

THe Brand new testament

Read my picks for the most exciting films coming to British and American cinemas in 2016! Hit the links to go to FOEC Prime for 15 English Language Films for 2016 and 15 Foreign Language Films for 2016.

Heightened Anticipation: 15 Foreign Language Films for 2016

It should be clear from my list of English language releases to look forward to this year that 2016 is already shaping up to be proof (if proof was needed) that we live in a golden age of cinema. More filmmakers have access to funding than ever before, and a wider range of film distributors make more and more diverse and exciting films available to the viewing public with every passing year. So what have we to look forward to from the new year’s foreign language output?

New films are expected on the 2016 festival circuit from Belgium’s premiere social realists the Dardenne Brothers, the maddeningly young Quebecois prodigy Xavier Dolan, Iranian maestro Asghar Farhadi and the incredible Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. Not to mention the latest from Lav Diaz and Mia Hansen-Løve, which will premiere in Berlin next month. I’m also still holding out hope that Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer’s latest half-animated, half-live-action oddity will emerge from its chrysalis this year. But I have no room on this list for speculation, so (apart from one notable exception) I’m sticking with titles already slated for release in 2016, either in the UK or the US.

Let’s get to it.

ARABIAN NIGHTS VOLUMES 1 – 3 (a.k.a. AS MIL E UMA NOITES, Portugal/ France/ Germany/ Switzerland, dir. Miguel Gomes)

Do you have room in your life for a six-and-a-half-hour Portuguese epic? If your answer is ‘Yes’ then this year you will have the pleasure of a UK release for Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, a grand political statement on the state of modern-day Portugal, structured around the skeleton of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. Gomes’ lyrical magnum opus was keenly awaited by critics after his 2012 success Tabu, and promises an unforgettable experience. The film was already released in three parts in the US, all of which will play in the UK in the spring. After the ginormous Russian epic Hard To Be A God last year, I’d say I’m ready for another challenging, absurdly long film. Mercifully, this one will be presented in bite-sized chunks: Vol. 1 – The Restless One (UK release on 22nd April) Vol. 2 – The Desolate One (UK release on 29th April) and Vol. 3 – The Enchanted One (UK release on 6th May).

THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (LE TOUT NOUVEAU TESTAMENT, Belgium/ France/ Luxembourg, dir. Jaco van Dormael)

Jaco van Dormael’s fourth film is a high-concept comedy that posits that God is not dead — he lives in Brussels with his daughter. On top of that, he is a complete arse. When God’s daughter tires of his ill treatment of her and of humanity at large, she takes it upon herself to sabotage his cruel torture of the human race. God is played as a mean-spirited schlub by Benoît Poelvoorde, the charismatic, mugging psychopath at the centre of Belgian classic Man Bites Dog, and Catherine Deneuve hops into bed with a gorilla. Colour me intrigued. The trailer over-eggs the film’s broad comedy a little too much for its own good, but the promise of Van Dormael’s film is that it doesn’t begin and end merely as a series of crazy gags: beneath the surface is a story about a young girl challenging the behaviour of her father and forging her own sense of morality à la une farce majeureUK release on 25th March / US release TBA

CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR (a.k.a. RAK TI KHON KAEN – LOVE IN KHON KAEN, Thailand, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethacul)

First, watch the trailer above — WOW. Thailand’s premiere cinematic auteur, nicknamed ‘Joe’ for the sake of the foreign press, follows up his Palme D’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives with another mysterious story rooted in the spiritual mythology of Thailand. Atmospheric, stimulating and layered with narrative and psychological meaning, Weerasethacul’s work stirs thoughts and feelings that few filmmakers can reach. Jenjira Pongpas stars as a woman caring for soldiers afflicted by sleeping sickness, who falls in love with one of her charges. Lyrical, sinister and peculiar in all the right places, if the trailer is anything to go by, then this is likely to be a contender for my best of 2016 list (if someone would just hurry up and set the UK release date). UK release TBA / US release on 4th March.

EL CLAN (Argentina, dir. Pablo Trapero)

Pablo Trapero has the Ricardo Darín Stamp of Approval (the director and star worked together on critical hits Carancho and Elephante Blanco). Frankly, that’s good enough for me, but Trapero is also one of Argentina’s most celebrated living filmmakers and it is comforting to see that his work is returning to UK cinemas. El Clan is based on the true-life crimes perpetrated by the Puccio family, who became serial kidnappers in 1980s Buenos Aires. Beyond extorting money from wealthy families, the Puccio family’s crimes extended to murdering their victims after the ransom was paid. A strong cast of Argentinian stars and a stylish, politically vocal writer-director like Trapero make this yet another enticing release from Latin America’s largest film industry. (Sorry, no English subtitles on the trailer above). UK release on 27th May / US release on 29th January.

EL CLUB (Chile, dir. Pablo Larraín)

Also on its way from Latin America is the first of four forthcoming films from Chilean provocateur Pablo Larraín. The success of his knock-out 2012 film No and TV series Prófugos for HBO Latin America has clearly paid dividends by leading Larraín to two new productions in Chile (El Club and Nerruda, which will hopefully pop up on this year’s festival circuit), as well as attention from Hollywood in the form of the Natalie-Portman-starring Jackie Onasis biopic and the modern-day remake of Scarface. Admittedly these last two films sound a bit dodgy, but there can be no doubt that any new release from a talented left-wing firebrand like Larraín is a must-see, and El Club has a particularly great hook. Four priests have been hidden away by the church in a remote community in Southern Chile to ponder their quite considerable sins, which include child abuse and baby-snatching. Into this group comes a fifth man, who forces the priests to relive the past and assess whether or not they are truly repentant. Larraín is an uncompromising filmmaker and a master of suspense in scenes that pit adversaries against each other with only words as weapons and no armour whatsoever. Though it is modest in its scale, it would probably be sensible to brace yourself for El Club. UK release on 25th March / US release on 5th February.

CROCODILE GENNADIY (USA/Ukraine, dir. Steve Hoover)

Much to my disappointment, this is not a big-screen outing for the characters of Roman Kachanov’s delightful Cheburashka (Чебура́шка) shorts, but a documentary about the controversial Ukrainian pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko. The pastor does indeed compare himself to the wise crocodile, Gena, who befriends the peculiar little creature Cheburashka, and there is an obvious significance in this metaphor, given that Gennadiy Mokhnenko is known for his uncompromising methods of rehabilitation for teenaged drug addicts in Ukraine. These methods enter vigilante territory with the abduction of homeless youths from the streets of Mariupol and their forced enrolment in the pastor’s rehabilitation programme. Crocodile Gennadiy debuted to glowing reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and comprises years of footage shot by documentarian Steve Hoover. Executive Produced by Terrence Malick, scored by Atticus Ross and examining Mokhnenko’s activities from a close vantage point, Hoover’s documentary is sure to be a thought provoking portrait of a remarkable public figure, but let the title serve as a warning. “Crocodile” does not merely refer to a cartoon character known to children throughout the former USSR, it is also the street name for the flesh-eating designer drug Desomorphine, that has spread like wildfire through Russia and Ukraine, and is the substance that Mokhnenko is attempting to help many teenagers kick by any means necessary. Delightful, it ain’t. UK release on 10th June / US release TBA

DHEEPAN (France, dir. Jacques Audiard)

Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a celebrated playwright and novelist in France, where he found political asylum in 1993. In his first leading film role Jesuthasan draws on his own experiences as a child soldier with Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers for the story of an ex-militant, who moves to the Le Pre-Saint-Gervais housing project in northeastern Paris. In order to do this he must adopt the identity of a dead man, Dheepan, and take with him a woman and a girl, whom he barely knows, in the roles of Dheepan’s wife and daughter. In the concrete jungle of Le Pre, Dheepan finds himself compelled to encourage peace by the introduction of no-conflict zones, where the criminal gangs of the deprived community are forced to tolerate each other. Dheepan took home the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, a gratifying success for Jacques Audiard, whose highly regarded crime classic Un Prophète (one of my most egregious cinematic blindspots) received the Grand Prix (second place in the main competition) in 2009. Reviews have been almost universally positive for Dheepan, and praise for Audiard’s highly cinematic depiction of Le Pre certainly whets my appetite for a dynamic slice of contemporary French social realism. UK release on 4th March / US release TBA

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (EL ABRAZO DE LA SERPIENTE, Colombia, dir. Ciro Guerra)

I have been singing the praises of this film ever since I saw it at the London Film Festival last October (you can read my full review here) and it is worthy of inclusion on this list, not only as a film that I believe every self-respecting cinephile should see, but also as a film certain to reward its audience with repeat viewings. I could care less about seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the cinema again, whereas Embrace of the Serpent is a film I am anxious to mark on the calendar (no UK release date is yet set). Quite deservedly the film is also on the shortlist of candidates for the Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar category and it would be a crime for the Academy to overlook this incredible cinematic achievement. Interpreting the true-life story of two scientists, who travelled to the Amazon jungle in search of the sacred yakruna plant, Embrace… takes as its protagonist a native shaman, who encounters both scientists at different stages in his life and is compelled to help each of them in their quest for the yakruna. Embrace of the Serpent confirms Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra as one of the most distinctive film artists working today, on par with Roy Andersson, Werner Herzog, Yorgos Lanthimos and Lucretia Martel. UK release TBA / US release on 17th February. 

GOODNIGHT MUMMY (a.k.a. ICH SEH, ICH SEH, Austria, dir. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)

This nasty-looking barb from Austria opened in the US in September last year to strong reviews and much praise as a creepy, nightmarish horror. The trailer does a lot to support this, setting up the concept of a horror film about two identical twin boys, whose mother returns from cosmetic facial surgery and begins to display unhinged behaviour. As she becomes increasingly cruel and threatening towards her children, the two boys begin to suspect that she is not, in fact, their mother. Boasting not one, but two kinds of creepy masks, plus creepy twins, plus creepy-crawly insects, plus creepy head shaking antics in the woods, Goodnight Mummy looks like a vile treat for horror fans. UK release on 4th March.

JULIETA (a.k.a. SILENCIO, Spain, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Pedro Almodóvar is back in the rich dramatic territory of films about women. Shot in Madrid and multiple locations in Andalucia and Galicia, Almodóvar’s twentieth film charts thirty years in the life of the titular heroine, Julieta, played as a young woman by Adriana Ugarte and as an older woman by Emma Suárez. According to Almodóvar’s recent interview with the Financial Times the film was originally titled Silencio “because that’s the principal element that drives the worst things that happen to the female protagonist.” In November Almodóvar retitled the film in order to avoid confusion with Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming film Silence, an interesting peccadillo that draws attention to the joyous fact that we have new films from A-list auteurs Pedro Almodóvar and Martin Scorsese likely to drop in the same year! (Sorry, no English subtitles on the trailer above). UK release on 26th August / US release TBA

MUSTANG (Turkey/France, dir. Deniz Gemze Ergüven)

Turkish director Deniz Gemze Ergüven’s debut film is another must-see from Cannes 2015, which has already garnered plaudits from critics on its Stateside release. Beginning with an incident drawn from her own adolescence, Ergüven’s film tells the story of five sisters, whose deeply conservative family punish them for an afternoon’s innocent tomfoolery with some school boys by locking them away and confiscating any objects likely to “pervert” the girls, such as mobile phones, make up and revealing clothing. From there the family begins the process of forcing each girl into an arranged marriage. Praised for the performances of its five unknown young stars, who shared the Sarajevo Film Festival Award for Best Actress among them, Mustang is pitched as a vibrant depiction of adolescent sexuality and educated young minds being literally imprisoned by the arcane morality of religious conservatism. As the only debut film on my list this year, Mustang will hopefully announce the arrival of an exciting new filmmaker to European cinema. UK release on 13th May.

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NO HOME MOVIE (Belgium/France, dir. Chantal Ackerman)

On 6th October 2015, French newspaper Le Monde made an unconfirmed report that the sudden death of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, aged 65, was suicide. Ackerman’s death is undoubtedly a profound loss to the world of cinema, as her career encompassed groundbreaking films like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), I, You, He, She (1976) and Nuit et Jour (1991) and influenced the work of filmmakers like Todd Haynes and Michael Haneke. Her last film, No Home Movie, is the product of several recorded conversations between Ackerman and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor from Poland, who settled in Brussels after World War II. Ackerman’s film unfolds on consumer-grade video, navigating conversations both banal and revealing. The film was booed by some members of the press during its premiere at last year’s Locarno Film Festival (surely continental Europe is the only place where booing is a part of the festival experience) but has since gained traction among many critics’ circles. In a film that is bound to be reminiscent of her portrait of housewife Jeanne Dielman, Ackerman has chosen to pay tribute to her mother, who died aged 86 in 2014, and it seems inevitable that Ackerman’s own sudden death will lend a new contextual dimension to the experience. UK release TBA / US release on 1st April.

RAMS (HRÚTAR, Iceland/Denmark, dir. Grímur Hákonarson)

I freely admit that an Icelandic black comedy about two elderly shepherds is going to be a hard sell, but hear me out. Rams won top honours in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and is pitched as a dry comedy about two estranged brothers, who must help each other to prevent the slaughter of both their flocks of sheep by the local health authorities. Scandi/Nordic region films that make the crossover to British and American theatres often represent the finest work from a region blessed with a history of exceptional filmmaking, where what might at first appear to be a quirky deadpan comedy is often only the upper layer of a far deeper, richer experience. UK release on 5th February / US release on 3rd February.

SON OF SAUL (SAUL FIA, Hungary, dir. László Nemes)

The most talked about foreign film of 2015 is finally coming to UK cinemas. It would seem that the next Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language is Son of Saul’s to lose after a run of overwhelmingly strong reviews that began with the film’s premiere in competition at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix last year. Son of Saul also received accolades from Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah and Last of the Unjust, who praised the film’s accuracy in depicting the living hell of the Jewish Sonderkommandos — inmates of concentration camps, who were forced by the Nazis to dispose of the bodies of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. Son of Saul adopts the viewpoint of a Sonderkommando, who believes that he has found his dead son, and spirits the body away so that he might find a rabbi willing to give the boy a proper Jewish burial. Critics of all stripes have drawn attention to the way in which director László Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély use the camera to simultaneously lock the audience in with the emotional numbness of their protagonist and comment on the very inexpressibility of the inhumanity that took place during the Holocaust. It would seem that a film such as this simply has no need of a trailer, and yet, somehow, one exists. UK release on 1st April.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (a.k.a. 思い出のマーニー OMOIDE NO MĀNĪ, dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Japan)

The Secret World of Arrietty, Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Mary Norton’s book ‘The Borrowers’, announced the arrival of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who would supposedly succeed Hayao Miyazaki as the principal creative force in Japan’s most beloved animation studio. The future of Studio Ghibli has been in doubt for some time now, and its founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, both retired on high notes with The Wind Rises and Tale of the Princess Kaguya, respectively. It is uncertain whether or not Yonebayashi’s second film as director is going to be Studio Ghibli’s swan song or the first step towards a new era, but it is a comfort to know that there is at least one more Ghibli film coming to UK screens. When Marnie Was There adapts one of Hayao Miyazaki’s favourite children’s novels, written by Joan G. Robinson, and tells the story of Anna, an orphan, who is sent to the coast in the hope that the sea air will soothe her asthma (a strong parallel with the human boy in Arrietty). There she strikes up a friendship with Marnie, an otherworldly girl, whose absent parents leave her in the care of their unkind servants. IMDB lists the film as having an unspecified limited release in the UK and Ireland in 2016. I have included this film here by way of proffering a plea to the powers that be: let us, the great unwashed of Britain and Ireland, see this film in the cinema! Please! For fuck’s sake! Why films from one of the most respected animation studios in the world are not released to British theatres in the same year as they are in Japan is beyond me, and highlights the short shrift given animated films by UK distributors. If When Marnie Was There interests you at all, and appears at a cinema near you, then vote with your pounds and go see it in the cinema! Take a friend, for that matter — perhaps one who doesn’t mind you blubbing on their shoulder. UK release TBA

Click ‘Older’ below to go to my list of 2016’s most promising English language releases and, as always, say ‘YES!’ to going to the cinema in 2016!

Heightened Anticipation: 15 English Language Films for 2016

Another year, another 600-700 cinematic releases in the UK and US. Oh, what to watch? It simply isn’t possible to see every worthwhile film that comes out in any given year, and 2016’s release schedule is already filling up. I am certain that I will reach 2017 with dozens of movies from this year still languishing on my “To Watch” list. At the very least I would like to catch each of the English language releases mentioned here, whether for the pedigree of the director, the consistently sound choices of the stars involved or the novelty of an unbroken 140-minute take.

To make my selection for this list a little easier, I’ve only chosen films that have a release date scheduled for British or American cinemas (if not both). Werner HerzogJohn Michael McDonaghKelly Reichardt, Martin ScorseseTaika Waititi, and Nicholas Winding Refn all have films heading to festivals this year, but there can be no way of predicting whether or not these films will receive distribution in 2016. Bearing this in mind, I’ve decided to stick with those films already placed on the calendar and I’m picking up the calendar from February.

A MONSTER CALLS (Spain/USA, dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)

Between the trailer for A Monster Calls and the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG, it would seem that the film industry has a warning for children that like to hang out by open windows. Novelist-turned-screenwriter Patrick Ness adapts his own book, in which a lonely young boy is told three stories by a monster that lives nearby his house. In exchange for these three stories the boy must tell the monster about the nightmare he has each night. A psychological fairytale that recalls the tradition of spoken fables, A Monster Calls comes across as a dark fantasy drama that should pique the curiosity of gothic genre fans. The presence of Spanish genre maestro J.A. Bayona behind the camera and an all-star cast, led by the gravelly baritone of Liam Neeson, inspires a great deal of confidence in this left field piece of family programming. UK release on 21st October / US release on 14th October.

ANOMALISA (USA, dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)

Already given a limited release in the US and expanding wider this month, Charlie Kaufman’s return to the director’s chair has been greeted with giddiness and swoons by American critics. Based on a play that Kaufman wrote for a series by composer Carter Burwell (who provides the score here) Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation directed by Kaufman in collaboration with seasoned animator Duke Johnson. Character actor Tom Noonan voices the entire supporting cast, whilst David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh voice the two leads, and the result is reportedly an astonishingly humane story about the nature of being human. This is partly what animation exists to achieve. It sometimes takes a certain remove from the characters on screen for us to see facets of ourselves in their actions (hence the enduring popularity of anthropomorphised animals in film and literature) and if ever there was a humanist that could maximise the potential of synthetic humanity, it’s Charlie Kaufman. UK release on 11th March.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (USA, dir. Richard Linklater)

After twelve years shooting a child coming of age for Boyhood, fifteen years making the Before… trilogy with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, and releasing roughly one film each year since he turned forty, you would think that Richard Linklater had earned himself some time off. Apparently not, but at the very least he’s earned himself the right to make a bawdy campus comedy. Returning to a world of vintage cars and baseball diamonds, Linklater’s 18th film follows a gang of college freshmen as they negotiate keg stands and hazing ceremonies in the 1980s. It doesn’t exactly look like high art – more like a playful cross between Dazed & Confused and National Lampoon’s Animal House. In other words, it looks like a shitload of fun. UK release on 13th May / US release on 15th April

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GHOSTBUSTERS (USA, dir. Paul Feig)

Director Paul Feig scored himself seemingly bottomless good will from critics and audiences alike with the surly, women-behaving-badly comedy Bridesmaids (2011), which launched Melissa McCarthy to stardom. Columbia Pictures’ re-tooling of the beloved Ghostbusters series with an all-female crew will be the toughest test yet for Feig and McCarthy’s reputation as shining lights of American comedy. The principal draw here is not the revival of the Ghostbusters concept but the prospect of seeing four very funny female comedians run riot in a film world built on pithy one-liners, cartoon shocks and funky special effects. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones will be donning the proton packs as the titular crew of blue collar heroes, and fans of the original films will be treated to appearances from original cast members Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver. The real question in my mind is not how reverent this film will be to the nature of the 1984 original, but what the filmmakers will do with the theme song. Do you remix Ray Parker Jr’s original tune or come up with a new song that might run the risk of not being as joyously catchy? UK/US release on 15th July.

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GREEN ROOM (USA, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

Jeremy Saulnier’s pensive, touching and extremely nasty revenge thriller Blue Ruin quite rightly scored near-universal critical acclaim in 2014. His follow-up, Green Room, confirmed Saulnier as a critical favourite after its debut in Cannes last May. Breaking out the fake blood and viscera once again, Saulnier stages a siege thriller in a Portland music venue, where a hardcore band must battle for their lives against a violent crew of local white supremacists, led by none other than Patrick Stewart. Seeing Stewart in a rare bad-guy role is enticing enough and the cast is made all the more attractive by young stars-in-waiting Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots (the woman with the best goddamned name in show business). UK release on 13th May / US release on 15th April.

HAIL, CAESAR! (USA, dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)

Screwball comedy has always been a significant part of the Coen brothers’ filmography and the characters they have created. From Raising Arizona to The Big Lebowski to O Brother Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens have been the only American filmmakers to consistently work within this genre and Hail, Caesar! could be their most manic, purely entertaining screwball comedy since The Hudsucker Proxy in 1994. Josh Brolin leads as a studio fixer in 1950s Hollywood, who is trying to locate a matinée idol (George Clooney) after he is abducted from the set of the studio’s latest epic. The ensemble cast is made up of performers with an excellent comic pedigree and includes the welcome return of Scarlett Johansson to Coenland, fifteen years after they launched her career with a plum role in The Man Who Wasn’t ThereUK release on 4th March / US release on 5th February.

HIGH-RISE (UK, dir. Ben Wheatley)

Anticipation is running high for Ben Wheatley’s first American film, the Boston-set crime drama Free Fire, which is expected to surface on the 2016 festival circuit. But let us not forget that Britain’s premiere director of dark thrillers has an even more highly anticipated film coming to UK theatres this year: the long gestated adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise. Starring Tom Hiddleston (who else?) as an upper-middle-class doctor, who moves into a self-contained ecosystem for London’s elite, High-Rise received mixed reviews after festival screenings last year. Nonetheless, who can deny the allure of seeing a talented director like Wheatley working with his biggest budget yet to adapt a beloved classic of anarchic, extreme literature? If the trailer is anything to go by, this will be a film that requires a towering screen and broad, luxurious seats in which to squirm about. UK release on 18th March / US release TBA.

KNIGHT OF CUPS (USA, dir. Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s latest cinematic poem premiered at last year’s Berlin Film Festival to mixed reviews, but the fact that there’s a new film from one America’s greatest living storytellers coming to the unwashed masses (hopefully a UK release date will soon be set) is always cause for celebration. Malick was completely absent from filmmaking for twenty years and since 2005’s The New World he has steadily approached something like a prolific output. Fuck the plot, fuck the all-star cast – we’re getting a new Malick film every two to three years! Jump for joy! Not only does Knight of Cups see its release in 2016, but it looks more than likely that Malick’s next film Weightless, which was shot partly on-the-fly in the milieu of the Austin music scene, may appear at one of the major film festivals this year. UK release TBA / US release on 4th March.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (USA, dir. Travis Knight)

Travis Knight, the co-founder and CEO of LAIKA Inc. takes to the director’s chair for the beloved stop-motion animation studio’s fourth feature film, a fairytale adventure set in ancient Japan. Kubo is a young boy, who must find his father’s magical suit of armour to help him fight back against the monsters and spirits that are pursuing his family. The all-star voice cast and luscious design suggest that, at the very least, this will be a sold piece of family entertainment. Given LAIKA’s pedigree as one of the world’s premiere animation studios (rivalled only by Aardman in the stop-motion field), Kubo and the Two Strings may well transcend the trappings of the animated blockbuster genre to be a fantasia par excellenceUK release on 9th September / US release on 19th August.

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LA LA LAND (USA, dir. Damien Chazelle)

Damien Chazelle, the 30-year-old writer-director of Whiplash, has made a new film and it’s a musical. That’s all you need to know. BE EXCITED! You need more? Alright, it stars Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and JK Simmons, who won an Oscar for his terrifying performance as an abusive band leader in Whiplash. Excited yet? You should be. It will surely be a pleasure to watch Chazelle try to clear the impossibly high bar that he set himself with his sophomore film, even if his romance about a jazz pianist and an actress trying to make their careers in Los Angeles doesn’t soar to the giddy heights that made Whiplash the most talked about indie of 2014 and 2015. UK/US release on 15th July.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (USA, dir Jeff Nichols)

As if John Carpenter weren’t already getting enough love from today’s young filmmakers (2015’s It Follows being the most outstanding recent example) American filmmaker Jeff Nichols decided to use his first studio outing for Warner Bros to make a Carpenter-style “sci-fi chase film”. Midnight Special will see its premiere in-competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. It stars Michael Shannon as a father trying to get his son to safety and evade the attentions of a religious cult and a government task force, both of which want the boy for his supernatural powers. Jeff Nichols is fast becoming one of America’s foremost filmmakers and will soon be releasing yet another film, Loving, about the real-life story of Mildred and Richard Loving, who were jailed in Virginia in 1958 for their interracial marriage. To see a rising talent like Nichols keep one foot in indie cinema, whilst edging towards bigger budget fare, is comforting and exciting. UK release on 15th April / US release on 18th March.

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MILES AHEAD (USA, dir. Don Cheadle)

Don Cheadle was considered by Erin David and Vince Wilburn (Miles Davis’ son and nephew, respectively) to be the ideal choice to play Miles Davis on film. Not only did Cheadle agree to play Davis, he chose to direct the film himself. What emerged from the process (with a helping hand from crowdfunding site Indiegogo) is a film that pays tribute to Davis by taking its visual and narrative cues from the modal jazz form that Davis pioneered in the late 1950s and would make him into the music legend he is known as today. The film also stars Emayatzy Corinealdi as Davis’ long-suffering wife Francis and Ewan McGregor as music journalist Dave Braden, who finds himself riding along with Davis on an odyssey through New York City to find a stolen session tape. Taking this as his framing device, Cheadle explores Davis’ past and his turbulent relationship with his wife. Early reviews indicate that Cheadle essentially sets out to blow the doors off the period biopic format and capture the invigorating energy of Davis’ life and music. Though Cheadle is a first-time director, the prospect of seeing him portray Davis in a bold, rule breaking film is immediately compelling. UK release on 22nd April / US release on 1st April.

TALE OF TALES (IL RACCONTO DEI RACCONTI, Italy/France/UK, dir. Mateo Garrone)

If there is a more eccentric film coming in 2016, then I have yet to see any sign of it. Based on tales collected by Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile, Matteo Garrone’s latest film adapts three tales, each playing-out in a pre-Renaissance setting with a cast that includes Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel and a man who appears to be a dead ringer for Dobby from the Harry Potter films. I could not be more excited to see Garrone’s juicy, visceral take on the kind of folktales and fables that are the connective tissue between modern storytelling and the mythologies of old Europe. and the dash of Fellini-esque imagery in the trailer only makes Tale of Tales that much more seductive. UK release on 1st July / US release on 22nd April.

VICTORIA (Germany, dir. Sebastian Schipper)

This one-take marvel has already finished many of its theatrical runs in the rest of the world but comes better-late-than-never to UK screens this spring. Victoria won the Achievement in Cinematography award at last year’s Berlin Film Festival for the obvious but astonishing reason that it was shot in an unbroken 140-minute single take, which took three attempts on three consecutive nights of shooting on location in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Only Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 film Russian Ark has achieved such a feat before. If the positive critical response is anything to go by, Victoria (like Russian Ark) transcends the novelty of its production to deliver a pulse pounding heist thriller that literally rides along with a Spanish expat as she becomes embroiled in her friends’ plans to rob a bank. Certainly it is a film that demands to be seen in the cinema, where hitting the pause button is not an option. UK release on 29th April.

THE WITCH (UK/Canada, dir. Robert Eggers)

The trailer for this period horror promises one very reassuring thing for 2016: there will be at least one nightmarishly terrifying film this year. It Follows filled this space in 2015 but the general lack of hair-raising, jump-out-of-your-fucking-skin horror in UK cinemas is an unfortunate state of affairs in this otherwise rich era of contemporary cinema. But between The Witch and Austria’s Goodnight Mummy we should be in for at least one really good scare at the cinema this year. Production-designer-turned-writer-director Robert Eggers took the Best Director award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for his story of a family of British Puritans, whose infant child is abducted by a mysterious evil force in 17th Century New England. Ralph Ineson (a.k.a. Chris Finch from the original series of The Office) and Kate Dickie play the parents, who suspect their daughter of witchcraft, played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. UK release 11th March / US release 26th February.

Click ‘Newer’ below for my list of 15 Foreign language films to look forward to in 2016!