A decadent tale of swindle and counter-swindle, The Handmaiden (from Oldboy and Stoker director Park Chan-wook) was by far the best picture at the New Zealand International Film Festival and somehow remains the best film I’ve seen all year. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, it is a comedy of manners, a romance and a thriller in equal parts. Blackly funny and blackly perverse, ostentatiously sumptuous, erotic and deranged.
I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach – cinema’s great cattle-prod pamphleteer – returned to our screens with a savage polemic against the futility of Austerity England. With a rising, cumulative power, I, Daniel Blake deploys social realism not as a deceptive tool but to underline the withered and crushed condition of its characters. Utterly essential and thoroughly deserving of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s novel and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Room could easily have been insensitive and tasteless. Instead, this captivity story gave us two of the year’s best performances, from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. With profundity and devastating power, it exalts the best qualities of humanity – a mother’s pure, incontestable and undefeatable love above all.
Todd Haynes’ masterpiece sheds some of Patricia Highsmith’s more noirish sensibilities to revel in the warm glow of a romance between two women, their passion borne in a time of restrictive conservative morality. The snatched glances between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, shot like dream sequences, are delectable and electrifying. Carol remains an untouchable golden bauble, strung high in the heavens. A film of quiet, tremulous beauty.
Ever held your breath for 90 minutes? Jeremy Saulnier’s pulverisingly brilliant thriller about a hardcore band locked in with machete-throwing neo-Nazis will surely make you attempt such a feat. Although gut-churning and brutal, Green Room is thankfully never exploitative. Its ruthlessness has a point: violence begets violence, and even resistance to it can have a corrupting influence.
Science fiction from Sicario director Denis Villeneuve that knocked me sideways for a good few days. With an introductory tableau as gorgeous as it is ominous, Arrival considers its alien visitors with a dignified respect – a quality often missing in similar pictures. For all its peripheral busyness, it is an inward-looking film, toying with memory and time in provocative ways. Intelligent, taut and astonishingly ambitious.
Ornate, restrained and adapted from Colm Tóibín’s 2009 book, Brooklyn has an evocative quality that conjures up whole worlds. Centuries of Irish immigration to the US are embodied in one young girl (played gorgeously by Saoirse Ronan), an entire history of struggle contained in her cardiganed frame. Mirrored between the Old World and the New, Brooklyn is richly novelistic.
Hell or High Water
It takes an outsider to look honestly at the proudest parts of the US to see the wreckage and destitution. Scottish director David Mackenzie updates the Bonnie and Clyde motif to ride alongside two bank-robbing Texas brothers and the gravelly lawman on their tail. Ben Foster, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges give outstanding performances, becoming lovable rogues despite their numerous flaws. Elegiac, unhurried, strangely funny and ultimately masterful.
The latest from Dutch master Paul Verhoeven is provocatively illusive. A comedy about rape? No, that label would be too easy. Elle tumbles through tones and timbres, provoking indignation with every slippery shift. At its jigsaw heart is Isabelle Huppert, chilled, brittle and mercury-smooth, finessing every scene. The conclusion is outrageous, forcing us to entertain the unthinkable and sending us home with a gnawing discomfort.
Although Zootopia is ostensibly a children’s film, its mature brilliance rests on wrapping an anti-bigotry message in good-natured, candy-coloured adventure. Littered with satirical barbs (a knowing glimpse of “Lemming Brothers Bank”), irreverent winks (Vito Corleone done up as an Arctic shrew with polar-bear bodyguards) and an earnest intention to delight and educate in equal measure.