Best of the Decade: 2015

The Best of the Decade series looks back over the most popular and beloved films of the past ten years. Each author chooses a film they believe to be the definitive film of the year, along with a wildcard favourite film of their own. For 2015, Eoin O’Donnell has chosen Spotlight as the definitive film of the year, with Creed as his personal favourite.


Best of 2015: Spotlight

Written by Eoin O’Donnell

An all-star cast brings the story of Spotlight alive.

When it comes to discussing a film of the year, or films of the decade for that matter, a best picture-winning historical drama about hard-hitting journalism is far from an exciting or unusual pick. However, 2015’s Spotlight really does deserve recognition above what you’d be tempted to dismiss as pure ‘Oscar bait’. Based on the true story of The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative journalist team, we follow a group of reporters as they uncover and break the story of systemic sexual abuse covered up by the Catholic Church.

Tom McCarthy’s direction for Spotlight could certainly be considered as no more than functional: a means to an end to efficiently tell an important story. That same efficiency is part of what makes the film work so well. A quick glance at his filmography will remind you that McCarthy is not an auteur or a visionary in the expected sense, but depicting a story like this necessitates the simplicity a grounded, down-to-earth writer/director like him provides. 

Almost every other department follows suit in this pursuit of simplicity, from the film’s editing to its cinematography, serving as little more than vessels to bring the story to the screen in as straightforward a way as possible. The script is direct and potent, delivering characters that feel genuine and compassionate with pacing that allows them to develop without outstaying their welcome. It’s not exactly a visual feast, with few shots as bombastic or impressive as Mad Max, The Revenant or any of the rest of the year’s ‘prettiest’ pictures, but the film’s consistency in its visual language fits the story’s tone, and allows room for the terrific performances on-screen to breathe. 

It’s the performances themselves that really are the driving force of Spotlight, though; Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber lead the stacked line-up of actors assembled to make up the Spotlight team, the real group of journalists who exposed the horrifying scale of the Catholic church’s abuse scandal in Boston. They’re the beating hearts and emotional core of the film, but with the possible exception of Ruffalo, none of the performances are as loud or distractingly over the top as you might expect from this type of showcase. Schreiber, Keaton and McAdams are at maybe their most reserved and subdued here, and when the mounting horror and realization of their investigation finally breaks down their defences, even the smallest gestures of vulnerability and humanity are heart-breaking to watch.

It’s not exactly a visual feast, with few shots as bombastic or impressive as Mad Max, The Revenant or any of the rest of the year’s ‘prettiest’ pictures, but the film’s consistency in its visual language fits the story’s tone, and allows room for the terrific performances on-screen to breathe. 

As an aspiring journalist myself it might be completely biased for me to latch onto a story about some of the most inspiring figures in the field, but in an age where reporters are maybe more under scrutiny than they’ve ever been, it’s important to be reminded of their impact. Spotlight’s impact is relevant not just to the world of journalism but also for Ireland and its own eerily familiar church scandals, some of which are even acknowledged in the film’s credits. 

I always tend to side with the voices who elevate the underappreciated and overlooked films of a year rather than the ‘safest’ Academy darlings hailed for their perceived ‘importance’ rather than their craft, but sometimes the simplest answer really is the right one. For me, and for Spotlight, that really is the case, and for my money a story as important as this told in such an effective way deserves its spot as film of the year, and one of the stand-outs of the decade.

Spotlight is available to stream on Netflix and to rent on the Google Play Store.


Critic’s Choice: Creed

Written by Eoin O’Donnell

Michael B. Jordan and an Oscar-nominated Sylvester Stallone in Creed.

Outside of the more self-serious award-season dramas, 2015 also turned out to be a stand-out year for action cinema. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation reached new heights for the series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens revived and reinvigorated the long-dormant franchise, and Mad Max: Fury Road was so good even the Academy couldn’t resist giving it a Best Picture nod, rubbing shoulders with what they’d consider the ‘real’ films of the year. Above all else though, the dark horse that turned out to be my favourite of the year was Ryan Coogler’s Creed

Unlike with many of the year’s other blockbusters, with Creed I had no emotional connection to the franchise. I’d never even seen a Rocky movie. What’s most impressive for me is that despite this, the arc and journey of the characters in Coogler’s film hit home harder than even my very own childhood icons returning to the big screen. The entire film is great, but Coogler’s eye for action really shines through in the boxing matches, culminating in a final fight that might go down as one of my favourites of all time, even with my frankly embarrassing knowledge of boxing. Michael B. Jordan’s lead performance and Ludwig Gorannson’s terrific score elevate the film’s finale beyond just empty spectacle, delivering an emotional gut-punch that never fails to be a knock-out for me. 

Creed is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and to rent from the Google Play Store.

Best of the Decade: 2014

The Best of the Decade series looks back over the most popular and beloved films of the past ten years. Each author chooses a film they believe to be the definitive film of the year, along with a wildcard favourite film of their own. For 2014, Luke Bradley has chosen Whiplash as the definitive film of the year, and Nightcrawler as his personal favourite.


Best of 2014: Whiplash

Written by Luke Bradley

Miles Teller and JK Simmons star in Whiplash.

In what I consider to be one of the best years for cinema in recent memory, it is impressive that the best film of the year is such an easy pick. Anchored by two of the best performances in recent memory, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is a truly extraordinary film. In equal parts a study on mental health and an exposé on the struggle of pursuing musical greatness, Chazelle delivers an exhilarating experience that earns its acclaim as an instant classic.

Whiplash exemplifies the cinematic potential of a genre-clash done right. The film proudly displays its adoration of music, while never betraying its premise as a dramatic thriller. The litany of orchestral sequences never cease to amaze me, constructed in a manner as intense as a nail-biting action scene. The service paid to Miles Teller’s drum solos in particular is awe-inspiring. The film’s success in investing me in the landscape of backstage music school politics is perhaps its greatest triumph: what can be considered a niche subject matter feels instantly enthralling.

Miles Teller delivers a fantastic performance as Andrew Neiman, as he captures the anger and sense of inferiority present in any abuse victim. He’s electric on the drum set and effectively reserved during confrontations with JK Simmons’ Fletcher. Simmons himself is on another level, exploding on screen with chilling torrents of physical and verbal abuse. Fletcher’s ideology of how artistic perfection is achieved through trial-by-fire feels believable. Simmons triumphs where less nuanced actors would have failed, turning in a performance deserving of the awards season sweep that followed. The film’s standout scene (“Are you rushing or are you dragging?”) is carried by a raw intensity that Simmons is now known for.

Simmons triumphs where less nuanced actors would have failed, turning in a performance deserving of the awards season sweep that followed.

Damien Chazelle, for my money, pulled off one of the greatest directorial debuts since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane. Based on his proof-of-concept short film of the same name, Chazelle came out of film school with a bang. His zesty, energetic camera techniques make standard music sections thrilling. Equal attention is paid to the psychological effect on Teller’s Andrew under Fletcher’s constant berating, as Chazelle finds time for the subtleties of human drama. Composer Justin Hurwitz deserves the same credit in the film’s success, turning in a gorgeous jazz soundtrack to accommodate the plot. His adoration of jazz music is unquestionable, later exemplified in La La Land’s similarly fantastic score. Chazelle and Hurwitz’s dynamic partnership as geniuses on opposite ends of the filmmaking spectrum build a fundamental support on which Whiplash soars.

Whiplash, quite simply, is a cinematic masterpiece. It explores familiar territory with its ‘pursuit of dreams’ narrative, yet it does so with exciting originality. The narrative’s focus on the realities of achieving perfection and the toxicity that stems from this is fulfilled thanks to world-class talent in all aspects of production. The snappy jazz soundtrack is realised by brilliant work from Teller, Hurwitz and the film’s musical talent. It’s a gripping experience that plays with your emotions as ferociously as its lead plays the drums, and is undoubtedly one of the decade’s best.

Whiplash is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.


Critic’s Choice: Nightcrawler

Written by Luke Bradley

Jake Gyllenhaal as the troubled Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler.

The mantra of Nightcrawler’s lead character, Lou Bloom, rings true in the case of this film: “If you want to win the lottery, you have to earn the money to buy the ticket”. A simple but clever premise is propelled to cinematic greatness thanks to a world-class performance by Jake Gyllenhaal: a cameraman takes to filming increasingly shocking accidents and crime scenes as they happen in order to make money.

Gyllenhaal earns the film its lottery jackpot by delivering a career-best work. In order to believably portray the soul-sucking cynicism of news stringers in Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal lost over thirty pounds to appear gaunt and coyote-like. His wide-eyed, well-spoken demeanour is striking, and excellently reflects the nature of his work as well as his sociopathic behaviour. The Oscar snub for his performance is bordering on criminal.

Dan Gilroy soars as writer/director, presenting razor-sharp satire that is at its strongest when airing on the side of disturbing. Supporting performances from Bill Paxton, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed play off of Gyllenhaal’s burning ambition terrifically. The cinematography is gorgeous, the score appropriately melancholic. Nightcrawler cuts close to the bone, standing confidently amongst giants of social-critique-cinema.

Nightcrawler is available to stream on Netflix.

Best of the Decade: 2013

The Best of the Decade series looks back over the most popular and beloved films of the past ten years. Each author chooses a film they believe to be the definitive film of the year, along with a wildcard favourite film of their own. For 2013, Ellen Jacob has chosen Her as the definitive film of the year, and Prisoners as her personal favourite.


Best of 2013: Her

Written by Ellen Jacob

Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams star in Her.

In thinking about the films of 2013, Spike Jonze’s Her may not immediately spring to mind as the stand-out film of the year. A quiet and poetic story about love and loss, it’s far from the grand adventures of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). In spite of its understated nature, this deeply emotional film will linger in your mind long after watching. 

Her is a refreshingly warm, romantic look at the potential future of technology and our relationship with it. The film follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in the emotional aftermath of his divorce. In an attempt to organise his life, he installs an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that he then begins a romantic relationship with. While the premise sounds somewhat disturbing and Black Mirror-esque, Her sets itself apart from other science fiction with its personal and intimate story. 

Though Joaquin Phoenix is currently getting a lot of praise for his performance in Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019), and deservedly so, his acting in Her is equally skillful. It would be easy to dismiss a character that falls in love with a computer as creepy, but Phoenix plays Theodore with just the right amount of loneliness and vulnerability to create a sympathetic protagonist. Theodore begins the film as a loner longing for emotional connection and we gradually see him come out of his shell with Samatha. Scarlett Johansson’s voice acting is impressively on-par with Phoenix’s acting. She somehow manages to make an operating system feel like a person. Other cast members include Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, but Johannson and Phoenix steal the show as the emotional core of the film.

It would be easy to dismiss a character that falls in love with a computer as creepy, but Phoenix plays Theodore with just the right amount of loneliness and vulnerability to create a sympathetic protagonist.

The film is worth seeing for its production and set design alone, as it helps distinguish the film from others of the genre. Her differs from other sci-fis in that many others emphasise the cold, impersonal side of technology. This is often visualised through an emphasis on blues, greys, and the harsh light of computer screens. Her does the opposite, exploring the potential human and emotional side of technology. The colour palette is overwhelmingly warm. Rich reds and oranges fill the world, desktops emit a cozy yellow glow, and unfiltered sunlight wins over artificial fluorescent lights. The technology of the world is understated and natural: blocky desktops have wooden borders and handheld devices resemble metal cigarette cases. Jonze manages to set the film in the future without it feeling too distant. 

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography adds to the romance of the world and the story. Everyday actions are romanticised; Theodore’s face is dreamily captured as he drinks coffee while looking out the window, bathed in sunlight. Memories of his ex-wife are captured in soft focus and slow-motion, creating a series of hazy vignettes. Van Hoytema even manages to make the smog-covered city, a digital hybrid of Shanghai and Los Angeles, endearing and romantic. 

Over the past decade there have been a lot of films that examine our relationship with and the potential future of technology. From Black Mirror to Blade Runner: 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), writers and filmmakers have used sci-fi to ask what it means to be human. Her manages to set itself apart in its treatment of the same themes. Though the film is a sci-fi to some degree, it is the importance of intimate human connections that drives the story. The film succeeds in making you care about the relationship between a man and his computer through stellar performances, lush production design, and dreamy cinematography.

Her is available to stream on Netflix.


Critic’s Choice: Prisoners

Written by Ellen Jacob

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman head an all-star cast in Prisoners.

Denis Villeneuve has become associated with sweeping science fiction dramas over the past few years: Arrival (2016), Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), and the upcoming Dune (2020). His 2013 film Prisoners may seem small-scale in comparison, but it packs no less of a punch. It may be surprising to classify Prisoners as a “favourite film” because, though it takes place at Christmastime, it is as far from a feel-good festive film as one can get. Prisoners is a dark, depressing thriller that is challenging to watch.

It follows the emotional deterioration of two families after the disappearance of their two daughters and a detective’s increasing desperation to track them down. Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski test the flexibility of personal morals, pushing the viewer to ask how far one can go in the hunt for justice. The stellar cast brings humanity to even the most questionable characters, with performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Paul Dano. Despite the difficult subject matter and morally grey characters, Villeneuve manages to hold the audience’s attention throughout the entire two and a half hours of his film. Prisoners is an incredibly rich and layered film that deepens with every viewing.

Prisoners is available to stream on Netflix.

Best of the Decade: 2012

The Best of the Decade series looks back over the most popular and beloved films of the past ten years. Each author chooses a film they believe to be the definitive film of the year, along with a wildcard favourite film of their own. For 2012, Mary Tiernan chooses Beasts of the Southern Wild as the definitive film of the year, and Seven Psychopaths as her personal favourite.


Best of 2012: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Written by Mary Tiernan

Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a story about a father and a daughter living in “The Bathtub”: an enchanted and disadvantaged community cut off from the rest of the world. Directed by first time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, it is impossible for the audience not to feel connected to the plight of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and their close-knit but dysfunctional community in The Bathtub. The Bathtub is a remote community, isolated from the rest of the world somewhere in Southern Mississippi. They face constant threat from submersion if hit by a big storm or if global warming causes sea levels to rise. Despite this threat, the residents of The Bathtub refuse to leave and are adamant about protecting their community.

Beasts of the Southern Wild focuses on the complex relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink, which is often punctuated by aggression and physical confrontations despite their loving nature. Hushpuppy constantly daydreams and fantasizes about her life, particularly her mother who she has never met. When a storm hits The Bathtub, the residents who stay need to figure out how to survive. The threat of climate change underscores the film, as the community faces obliteration if the area is hit by a storm or local sea levels rise. This is aligned with Wink’s illness, which causes temperatures to rise and nature to become more chaotic. Thus, Hushpuppy begins to believe that the threat to her father’s life and the threats to her environment are linked. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild focuses on the complex relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink, which is often punctuated by aggression and physical confrontations despite their loving nature.

Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was for me one of the best movies of 2012. It tells a story about people who are struggling in a way which makes the audience admire the determination of the characters rather than sympathise with their unfortunate circumstances. The people of the Bathtub carry on with their daily lives, believing they are freer and better than people constrained by life in the city. Additionally, Dan Romer’s soundtrack for Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of my favourite film scores ever, and perfectly fits the defiant tone Zeitlin presents throughout the movie. At times, it is hard to believe that this story of resilience and hope is not a documentary. The moving portrayal of Hushpuppy by 5-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis is a striking image of heroism with a convincing depth of truth.

While the Bathtub is steeped in poverty, the audience views this through the eyes of a child. Despite the criticism the film has received for celebrating this, there is no doubt that the poverty presented is desperately real. There is a lack of healthcare, education and institutional structures, all of which contribute to the community’s degradation. However, the Bathtub is presented in a celebratory light through the imagination of Hushpuppy, who imagines melting ice caps when she hears thunder and envisions her world with stampedes of prehistoric Aurochs. This is indicative of the pain and wonder within Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film which sees the world through a strange, but beautiful lens. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and the Google Play Store.


Critic’s Choice: Seven Psychopaths

Written by Mary Tiernan

Christopher Walken as Hans in Seven Psychopaths.

As someone who loves dark comedy, I have been a fan of Martin McDonagh since I first watched his Leenane Trilogy, quickly followed by his 2008 feature In Bruges. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Seven Psychopaths was my personal favourite movie of 2012. Seven Psychopaths follows the search of protagonist Marty (Colin Farrell) for a screenplay. While he has a title, he has no story to accompany it, and thus the film follows Marty as he accompanies several psychopaths in order to gain a story for his screenplay.

While this short description doesn’t accurately reflect the humour and intelligence integral to Seven Psychopaths, there is no doubt it is one of the most original films I have seen since In Bruges. Added to this are the performances from an all-star cast (Colin Farrell, Tom Waits, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell), which while male-dominated, are undoubtedly outstanding. Sam Rockwell’s embodiment of Billy, an actor-turned-dog thief, is one of my favourite performances in the film, as he somehow creates an endearing and lovable psychopath. These strong characterizations are helped by McDonagh’s witty dialogue, contrasting the darkness and intensity of the tone. As a tongue-in-cheek, morose comedy, Seven Psychopaths seemingly winks at its audience one moment and allows genuine empathy to creep in at the next. After this, and 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I can’t wait to see what McDonagh comes up with next. 

Seven Psychopaths is available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

The Two Popes

Review by Conal Scullion

The Pope is a unique figure in the political world: elected in an undemocratic vote by fellow Cardinals, they are both a President and a King, while also embodying the spirit of the Catholic Church. The Two Popes is a spiritual yet political film, displaying the struggles of both Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, and Francis (formerly Jorge Bergoglio), played by Jonathan Pryce.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins play the former and current leaders of the Catholic Church in The Two Popes.

The Two Popes seems hyperbolic in how it depicts both its leads: the unseen Benedict is clouded with scandal and Nazi accusations, while instead of engaging with the glamour of the Papal summer residence, Bergoglio would rather speak to the gardener outside. Benedict is the embodiment of the wealth and power of the Catholic Church, while Bergoglio sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s more comfortable building a church under an Argentine highway than living in the Vatican’s priceless walls.

I expected their meeting to be a dull affair, so I was happily surprised to see things turning deliciously tense when Bergoglio meets to offer his resignation to Benedict. The film becomes a vicious political drama as Bergoglio verbally strikes the Pope over the numerous scandals the Catholic Church faced during his reign. This scene is electric in how the two figures attack each other, as the camera lingers on close-ups of the actors’ excellent facial and vocal control. Bergoglio describes Benedict’s absolving of clerical abusers as “magic words”, while Benedict claims that Bergoglio’s way of life damages the Church’s image. The irony, of course, is that the opposite is true: the film makes it clear that Benedict’s way of life is the damaging element here. At this point, the viewer could be led to believe that this is a classic hero versus villain story, with Bergoglio’s ideology and heart winning out over the elder Pope.

[Anthony] Hopkins at first plays Benedict in a villainous style, hungrily eyeing the papal votes and dictating to his aides with a cold authority.

In an unexpected turn, however, The Two Popes embraces the Christian ideal of forgiveness as Bergoglio and Benedict enter a timeless bromance. Hopkins at first plays Benedict in a villainous style, hungrily eyeing the papal votes and dictating to his aides with a cold authority. However, he blossoms into an endearing old man who begins to accept the warmth of Bergoglio’s dogma into his own heart. The camera humanises him by observing him alone, watching Formula One in his study and drinking a worrying amount of Fanta. He may seem a hardline traditionalist wedged into the past, but even his own exercise watch constantly urges him to keep moving. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten depicts his unprecedented resignation as the culmination of his character arc: in resigning, he breaks Catholic tradition to such an extent that even Bergoglio argues against it, showing that he has learned from Bergoglio that the Church needs to change.

The Two Popes is an excellent character study in two central figures to the Catholic Church. This is a film that argues for the change happening under the rule of Pope Francis.

The Two Popes is currently streaming on Netflix.

From the Archives: Overrated – Calvary

Originally published 2014 | Written by Liam Farrell

Calvary has an admittedly brilliant premise. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), is faced in his confession box with a man who says he was a victim of sex abuse as a child at the hands of a Catholic priest. He tells Father James that he will murder him the following Sunday as a symbolic act of vengeance for his own suffering. However, rather than be a catalyst for the kind of tense thriller that one might imagine, the opening gambit is left unpursued for the most part, serving more as a cross for Gleeson’s character to bear than a driving force of the action.

Instead, the bulk of the film is taken up with Father James wandering around his Sligo parish, conversing with a variety of locals, as the film shifts between broad social critique, satire, and strong doses of grave introspection.  This is the film’s central problem: it really can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it wants to be. Is it a character piece about Father James reconciling with his suicidal daughter (played by the conspicuously English-accented Kelly Reilly) and searching for his faith in the face of his oncoming death and a crumbling Church? Is it an acerbic black comedy about the struggles of being a priest in a post-Celtic Tiger society? Or is it a commentary on the ills and excesses of the same society?

The film flirts with each of these ideas but never satisfyingly settles on one. The first avenue would seem the wisest to have followed, given Gleeson’s performance is the film’s strongest suit. Father James is the sort of ‘cool priest’ only found in works of pure fiction, striding around authoritatively in his flowing black cassock while trying to coax people down from their various moral ledges, driving a red convertible and even brandishing a vintage revolver in a handful of scenes. Gleeson has the necessary ability to go between sarcastic sangfroid and raw rage to make this hybrid of Jesus Christ and John Wayne credible, as well as the warmth and sensitivity to humanise him. Calvary is at its best when Gleeson’s character is the one drawing our attention, particularly as the film moves towards its emotional climax.

Unfortunately, Gleeson’s excellent work is offset by the film’s wildly inconsistent tone, and bizarre cast of supporting characters. Calvary seems to regard itself as a grand inquiry into the Ireland of today, a country which lost its way during the excess of the Celtic Tiger and has been reduced to an amoral quagmire in its wake. But the film paints in broad strokes, and the minor characters which inhabit the town seem to be little more than thinly veiled ciphers for one societal trouble or another. Dylan Moran plays the obnoxiously aloof banker with pretensions towards aristocracy, and his scenes may as well be accompanied by the words ‘financial crisis’ being flashed on the screen in giant red block capitals, such is the lack of subtlety with which the subject is approached. Similarly the appearance of Isaach de Bankolé as Simon, the sole non-Irish character, allows the film to flag up the problem of racism, and Aidan Gillen delivers a curiously hammy performance as the sneering, coke-snorting, atheist doctor. Adultery, domestic abuse, and prostitution also rear their ugly heads through various parishioners. In one utterly head-scratching scene Domhnall Gleeson appears as the local convicted cannibal and is subjected to an interrogation from his real-life father on his fantastical crimes. It exemplifies the film’s haphazard approach, one of a number of strange and irrelevant digressions.

The black comedy the film aims for sits uneasily beside the ethical and moral grandstanding, often falling flat. While satire is all well and good, jokes are often crudely inserted into or immediately following key emotional cadences. Scenes dealing with sex abuse are peppered with jokes, and other sequences see grief followed by tasteless humour, muddling up the film’s tone. Calvary expects us to care when characters introduced as comic relief have great spiritual epiphanies in the film’s third act, the objects of ridicule being hastily elevated in an attempt to flesh them out.

Director John Michael McDonagh caused a minor furore a number of months ago by claiming in an interview during the film’s U.S. press tour that Calvary is not, contrary to all appearances, an Irish film. Despite the County Sligo locations playing a huge role in the film’s visual makeup, a majority Irish cast and crew, the partial funding of the film by our own Irish Film Board, and the film picking up a number of awards at this year’s IFTAs, McDonagh has every right to categorise the film as he sees fit. However, his comments raise the question of how the film would have been received had it been made by a foreign film company, without as many Irish ties. Would such a negative depiction of the region have offended Irish viewers? It’s impossible to know, though I would imagine it may have tempered some of the commercial and critical success the Calvary saw overseas.

Calvary often feels like it is ticking off a shopping list whilst throwing topical issues into an already overflowing basket. Despite the didacticism, it never seems like Calvary has anything interesting to say about society beyond merely paying lip service to its dilemmas, with a pervading fatalism its only unifying message. The film is technically well crafted, and a great Brendan Gleeson performance just barely keeps the thing holding together, but the finished product is little more than an overcooked hodgepodge of weighty themes, thin characters, and misplaced humour.

From the Archives: The Look of Silence

Originally published 2014 | Written by Cathal Kavanagh

50 years ago, helped along by Cold War paranoia about apparent communist threats, the Indonesian army staged a coup on the road to eventually seizing control of the country in 1968. As part of the ‘spontaneous’ uprisings on behalf of the citizenry, up to a million ‘communists’, largely landless farmers and ordinary people without links to leftist politics, were butchered. Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence picks up  decades later, visiting the groups who oversaw the genocide and remain in command of Indonesia. The country’s official discourse seems to remain unwilling to consider the killings in anything other than a righteously glorious light. 

 Stick around for the credits; they say a lot about the nature of this ongoing project, which first saw the light of day with 2012’s brilliant The Act of Killing. Fading to black after 103 minutes of searing, beautiful, confrontational investigation, names of crew members file up the screen, up to half of them marked merely as ‘Anonymous’. Look no further for a potent illustration of the startling immediacy of this film. No showy talking heads-fest or stern-faced critique from afar, this documentary, in how it was made and in what it says, strikes frightfully close to home for millions of people, not least those who feature in and helped bring it to fruition. The fear of retribution, arrest, or worse, still hangs over the people telling this story, half a century after the events they are trying to come to terms with what took place.

The Act of Killing saw Oppenheimer track down members of the original death squads, remarkably giving them funds to allow them recreate their murders on screen. This companion piece comes at it from the other side. ‘Adi’, a spectacle salesman in his early 40s, was born a couple of years after his brother, Ramli, was murdered in the genocide. After being taken from a local prison, he escaped the killers’ clutches, was tracked down, and eviscerated in any number of horrendous ways by the banks of a local river. Adi lives near his parents, still distraught decades later, unable to fully comprehend or come to terms with what happened, not least because the killers remain free to roam about the local villages unmolested and treated as heroes. After watching Oppenheimer’s archival footage (largely about a decade old) of various killers and affiliated accessories recalling their glorious heyday, Adi goes to interview the men depicted to hear their take on the events first hand. 

Rarely has evil seemed more banal. Two aged members of a death squad pose for a smiling picture directly after describing cutting off a man’s penis, and discussing the merits of hacking someone to death from behind rather than the front. All this is carried out with the hearty, doe-eyed nostalgia of relating a cup final or a harmless youthful escapade from “back in the day”. Archival footage shows another sporting the picture book he produced to relate the actions of the period. The leader of one squad encourages Adi to depart once things get heavy, as he wants to hurry along to the mosque. 

There is of course plenty in the way of forgetfulness, intentional or otherwise, and plenty avoiding ultimate responsibility when confronted with the horror of their actions. All involved give a masterclass in communal buck-passing. Orders were being obeyed. Someone else, somewhere, was responsible. More than once, Adi is warned about the perils of opening old wounds, of acting subversively, warned that it may happen again if people like him continue to pry. Running counter to Adi’s endeavours, the militaristic slant of the country’s education system is laid bare, as what actually went on in 1965 is roundly denied and ignored by civil society.

Just as it grapples with the nature of truth, the film is a thing of beauty. Lush cinematography merely reinforces the sense that terrible things happen in the most normal of places. If criticisms can be applied, they are fleeting. Certain scenes between Adi and his parents seem a trifle too polished to properly pass for reality. Oppenheimer never closes the door entirely on accusations of voyeurism, as uncomfortable scenes with Adi’s ailing father in particular will attest. These probably miss the point however. The Look of Silence aims in another direction altogether, and deals with questions and problems that largely transcend any questions of style.

This is essential cinema.

Best of the Decade: 2011

The Best of the Decade series looks back over the most popular and beloved films of the past ten years. Each author chooses a film they believe to be the definitive film of the year, along with a wildcard favourite film of their own. For 2011, Cait Murphy has chosen Drive as the definitive film of the year, and Shame as her personal favourite.


Best of 2011: Drive

Written by Cait Murphy

Ryan Gosling plays the nameless protagonist in Drive.

Few films this decade have garnered the distinction of being a constant source of cinematic comparisons, sometimes accurately and oftentimes flippantly. Drive wasn’t the first of its kind and definitely not the last. Neo-noir existed before 2010, but arguably flourished in this decade as it did in the ‘70s. Oscillating between art house and the Netflix landscape, to international interpretations of what loosely appropriates noir. Drive follows an unnamed ‘Driver’ (Ryan Gosling) living a dual life of stunt-driving for Hollywood by day and getaway-driving by night. He becomes involved with neighbours Irene (Carey Mulligan) and the recently imprisoned Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Drive‘s plot moves poetically between a slowed-down sensitivity and rapid aestheticized violence.

Based on the James Sallis novel, Nicolas Winding Refn’s film is neo-noir because it so unashamedly is, self-consciously evoking Jean-Pierre Melville and the canon of Los Angeles-set odysseys of crime and deceit. Drive has become that film that reviewers and filmgoers have used to define others like Nightcrawler (2014) and Inherent Vice (2014) with varying degrees of accuracy. Even Refn himself can’t seem to escape words of acute observation: Only God Forgives (2013) was mercilessly derided at Cannes in the red-tinted shadow of its looming, much-loved predecessor (which received a 15-minute standing ovation). Popular upon release, Refn received the Cannes’ Best Director award but was shunned at the 84th Academy Awards.

However, Drive remains relevant to cinephiles. The film’s lasting success is measured by its stitching of the fissure between art house and mainstream tastes. Some filmgoers can’t stomach the violence, others find it to have more style than substance and even lack nuance in its representation of women and the Latino as criminal. For those who don’t know me, I can watch Gaspar Noé’s films exhaustively and yet wince at the sight of a musical. Lucky for me and my tastes, blood-spilling has marked Refn’s oeuvre, from Gosling’s elevator head-stomp to eyeball-gobbling in The Neon Demon (2016). Refn is, undoubtedly, a significant director to emerge in this century, his works alluding to gialli, American grindhouse, ‘cinéma du look’ and European Extremism. It’s fair to say that Drive is his most ‘accessible’ film, alongside Bronson (2008) and his earlier Pusher trilogy (1996-2005). Since 2011, Refn has become notorious in the film world for his Alejandro Jodorowsky-esque ambitiousness.

I first saw Drive when I was fifteen and immediately adored it, although teenage boys were surprised when I expressed such. It’s become a quasi-cult film which bears an ‘aura’ beyond the actual text, translating to bedroom posters, special screenings, and fandom merchandising, like Gosling’s iconographic silk jacket or pink soundtrack vinyl (which I’ve gradually worn down). Its representation of machismo is misinterpreted by those who see Drive as ‘for men’. While you could say Drive privileges a male point-of-view (precisely an Anglo-Saxon saviour’s), the soundtrack privileges the female voice as a form of narration. From Katyna Ranieri to Desire’s ‘Under Your Spell’ and College and Electric Youth’s ‘A Real Hero’, music comments on the identity of a protagonist who utters very little. Drive’s selective soundtrack was key to Refn’s directorial vision, and coincided with the rebirth of synth pop and its derivatives – making college parties that bit more memorable. Gosling’s Driver falls seductively into the ‘melancholy masculinity’ heap of cinema’s lonely men who’ve come before, but his egoism and Travis Bickle-esque saviourhood are made gloriously camp by the sheer excess of ballet-like violence and shiny surfaces.  

Drive’s selective soundtrack was key to Refn’s directorial vision, and coincided with the rebirth of synth pop and its derivatives – making college parties that bit more memorable.

While Refn can at times be eccentric, or even narcissistic for his self-awareness that what he makes is consistently ‘art’, there is admittedly something satisfying in cinema that loves cinema. The scorpion on Gosling’s jackets refers partly to Kenneth Anger’s queer short, Scorpio Rising (1963). The premise of ‘driving’ echoes those B-movie-like films, The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978) and Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971), and its hot-pink Mistral font evokes ‘80s poster typography. There’s something tangible, textured, and ‘feely’ about Drive that any filmmaker aims to achieve for their audience: the pure ecstasy of cinema we occasionally experience. Perhaps you haven’t felt it since Drive.

Drive is currently available to stream on Netflix, Google Play, and Amazon Prime.


Critic’s Choice: Shame

Written by Cait Murphy

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame.

To make a film about sex addiction is to make a film that will deter a significant fraction of filmgoers from the outset. I am not one of those people. Steve McQueen’s Shame enjoyed festival success in 2011 but was commercially sidelined. Amongst the Oscar bait feel-goods and period dramas, there was McQueen’s sex-themed melodrama. But really, the film isn’t about sex. Its protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) experiences sex as more of a damaging opioid. If McQueen’s glorious Hunger (2008) wasn’t transcendental enough for you, the director puts further emphasis in Shame on bodily suffering (specifically Fassbender’s). Brandon’s body is, alternative to Hollywood convention, the to-be-looked-at in Shame: a vessel experiencing not starvation and decay like in Hunger, but moral masochism. 

McQueen’s direction of performance is sublime, and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematographic style is wickedly overlooked. Blues and greys dominate Brandon’s clothing and apartment bereft of personality, with the colour red marking his troubled yet vibrant sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). The score swells with melodramatic poignancy to fill silent, repressive spaces. Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’ plays ironically in a bar where Brandon has sex with a stranger. To contextualise it, it’s like a Bergman melodrama with flickers of Bresson and Schrader in a fantastic quagmire of a psychoanalysis textbook. At times Shame can rely too much on moralism for its tragic narrative trajectory which culminates ambiguously. However, moralism doesn’t detract from the feeling of utter despondency Shame grinds into the viewer who ‘ashamedly’ identifies with a character who sees people as mere implements for momentary relief. 

Shame is currently available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

From the Archives: Most Memorable Visions of the Future

Originally published 2014 | Written by Thomas Emmet, Eoin Moore, Louie Carroll, Luke O’Reilly and Sean Nolan

WALL E 

THOMAS EMMET

Pixar is a visionary studio, creating arguably the best animation for both children and adults, but it never mistakes itself for not pleasing the masses. Wall.E (close to being their best film) is their only film to come within the proximity of an indie vibe. In its near silent first twenty minutes the titular character tidies and cubes the waste element of earths wasteland entirely on his own. The predominant colour is sandy brown and the tone is post apocalyptic and smoggy. Desolation abounds. Aside from an insect and a seedling there is no obvious sign of life. There is something serene about the landscape, however isolated it may be, that sits in total contrast to the theory of a litter covered planet. The silence and emptiness is appealing for a while. And the debris from satellites having formed an ozone layer over the planet creates a night skyscape that is absolutely beautiful.

Above the earth humanity resides in spacecrafts equipped with modern and colourful technology that caters to their every need, an assault on the senses. They are carried around by floating armchairs with a drink holder and a television screen, oblivious to everything else outside their own bubble. As a result they have become morbidly obese, lazy and self obsessed. Around them billboards in loud neon announce drinks, fashion and other capitalist propaganda from the behemoth corporation “Buy ‘n’ Large” that spirited them away from their home planet due to their own carelessness. The colours are as false as the lifestyle the citizens, formerly of earth, seem to be living. This is Pixar’s attempt to lampoon our current culture, but it is never heavy handed. It serves the story of a humanity rediscovering how to be human again, while letting Wall.E have his own stab at human feeling.  

The burgeoning romance between Wall E’s rusted 700 year old waste disposal bot and his love interest Eve, a sleek white droid, forms the crux of the film but it is the deserted dustbowl earth and its floating substitute that steal the film and leave one pondering long after leaving the cinema.

TRON

EOIN MOORE

The 80s were a time for massive, incredibly inaccurate speculations. With the arrival of arcade machines, breathtaking cinematic special effects, and the first not-that-shit computers, it seemed like the future had finally arrived. How exactly this future worked was still a bit vague. People were enamoured with the idea of a “digital world”. It was understood that so many mechanical parts, flashing lights, and complex wires on one end led into something entirely different within the computer screen, and people’s imaginations were left to fill in the blanks.

The world of Tron explained computers about as well as can be expected, for the era. Programs were sort of just people. Programming and playing video games were basically the same thing. The concept of using an “experimental laser” to “digitise” someone into a computer was totally within the bounds of poetic license. Disney turned the unknown world of computer software into The Land of Oz, and it was beautiful. As ludicrous as the neon-disco blue/red design combined with the uncanny human faces looks today, at the time it captured something about that magical, scary, digital world, bounding with potential. While the audience didn’t (necessarily) believe that inside of every computer system there was a despotic totalitarian society built on gladiatorial combat, Tron offered one of the first feasible allegories for the limitless computer world that was growing around them. A world of science fiction, even if it wasn’t necessarily populated by light cycles and Jeff Bridges, had finally arrived at society’s fingertips. What Tron captures, in its laughable inaccuracy, is the excitement of this growing revelation. Tron is an artifact; a cave-painting attempting to make sense of the unknowable. Its a perfectly crystallised vision of the future in the eyes of the past. 

BACK TO THE FUTURE PT. II 

LOUIE CARROLL

This vision of the future is unique by virtue of the fact that it’s actually only a year out from our present. For director Robert Zemeckis, way back in 1989, October 2015 must have seemed distant enough that anything was possible. In terms of the futuristic landscape on show, the town of Hill Valley is a far cry from the typically dystopic visions of the future in the likes of Blade Runner and Terminator.

Back to the Future II’s…future is a more fun depiction then we are used to seeing. The most amusing element of this future is various gadgets on show. The most iconic of these gadgets is the pink hover board on which Marty Mcfly escapes his pursuers. Zemeckis and co may have been optimistic about the arrival date of hover boards, however most of what the film predicts has pretty much come to fruition, giant tv’s, video calls and even shoes that lace themselves (exact replicas are available). The greatest shame is that we have yet to witness the majesty of Jaws 19 in “Holofilm” (At least we have 3D now) directed by Max Spielberg, son of Steven.

Unsurprisingly, the “future” here has a distinctly 80s vibe. Apart from the fact that the clothes dry themselves, the style doesn’t appear to have progressed far past the decade in which the film was made. Most egregious of all the misjudgments about the future on show is the use of fax machines. Who knows, maybe these artifacts from the eighties will have a resurgence, we still have a year.

GATTACA

LUKE O’REILLY

Gattaca is a movie about perfection, and although it is far from perfect itself, like the best sci fi films it reflects the neuroses of its time. A film set in a near-distant ‘utopia’ (they never are real utopias are they?) Gattaca is about the long reaching effects of eugenics on society. The world is divided between two social classes; valids, those born after genetic tampering, and invalids, those born naturally. Although discrimination is illegal, the best jobs are given to the biologically superior valids, while the inferior invalids do menial tasks. with improvements in our understanding of genetics seemingly occurring on a near weekly basis the idea of eugenically improving humans to be better has had a resurgence in the popular consciousness. Gattaca is an attack on the fallacy of meritocracy, all men are not born equally, we are born with distinct differences in ability. 

Preferencing those who are the most intelligent and physically able over those who are less so still creates class divisions. But what is there to love about this depiction of the future, if a whole class of people are disadvantaged from birth? Indeed, with such a social set up how does it differ from our own? It is precisely because I believe Gattaca is both an allegory for the social divisions of our present as well as an indictment against our dream of a scientifically improved future that I like it so much. This is best captured in the swimming competition between two brothers Anton, a valid, and Vincent, an invalid. Every time they compete Anton wins. Yet one day a surge of determination comes over Vincent. Through sheer will he beats Anton, and nearly saves him from drowning. This invigorates young Vincent to pursue his dream of becoming an astrophysicist against the norms of his society. As far as cinema goes, you don’t get a finer depiction of the indomitable human spirit than this.

A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

SEAN NOLAN

Steven Spielberg’s A.I Artificial Intelligence is the Pinochio inspired story of David, a robotic young boy, and his search for the “blue fairy” whom he believes has the power to make him a “real boy.” The film’s production was led by Stanley Kubrick before being passed on to Spielberg and the depiction of the 21st century we are offered is an odd mesh of the two directors’ distinct visions. This might account for the incredibly broad spread of concerns about the future the film expresses. On the one hand there are references to global warming and the flooding of coastlines, on the other is probably the more obvious of the film’s concerns, the question of what it means to be human as machines become more sentient.

A.I is considerably more restrained than much science fiction fare when it comes to visualising the future. The film offers us very few establishing views of the cities, instead we tend to see only glimpses in the background, as the camera emphasises the characters. When we are given a slightly deeper look at the society in which the story takes place the results seem to focus on its banal and familiar nature. The interiors of the buildings of the late 21st century look eerily similar to those of the late 20th century. The “flesh circus” a traveling sideshow in which old, unregistered robots are destroyed for the entertainment of a crowd, looks particularly shoddy and unimpressive just as one would expect the current equivalent to be. More often than not we are simply told, not shown how the world of the film is unlike our own. A.I depicts a future which is familiar to us but something is slightly amiss, just as David has the appearance of a human boy but is not human. 

Honey Boy

Review by Barry Murphy

Shia LaBeouf has seemingly forever lived his life at a hurtling pace. Even in some of his less acclaimed turns in Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, his darting eyes always seemed to be teetering on the edge of an emotional outburst. His visceral physical output in his infamous Just Do It motivational video and his renegade performance art collaborations are proof of his passion.

Shia LaBeouf portrays a fictionalized version of his own father in Honey Boy.

His latest work, Honey Boy is a stunning self-examination of family, trauma and childhood. So much could have gone wrong with a larger-than-life personality like LaBeouf writing and starring in a film about his own childhood, all whilst playing his own father. However, not for one second of its tight 94 minute run-time does Honey Boy descend into naval-gazing self-indulgence. In this regard, much credit is due to director Alma Har’el, who helms the story with the appropriate amount of distance and intimacy. 

The film introduces us to Otis, a tormented former child star and actor battling with anger management issues and substance abuse.  The film begins with a heady, disorientating montage of an ill-fated night of excess, after which he finds himself in rehab. He is told that he has PTSD. Otis denies the existence of any trauma and the film embarks on an examination of his childhood. The performances are pitch-perfect. Lucas Hedges is the volcanic yet vulnerable present-day Otis, while Noah Jupe gives the younger incarnation of the character a wonderful innocence and malleability. There is a thread that runs through these two performances, and although they have two different faces, they are so believably the same person. Elsewhere, FKA Twigs provides some of the film’s most memorable moments in her silent, ethereal performance as ‘Shy Girl’.

Lucas Hedges is the volcanic yet vulnerable present-day Otis, while Noah Jupe gives the younger incarnation of the character a wonderful innocence and malleability.

Unsurprisingly, it is LaBeouf who is the star of Honey Boy. He pulls no punches in playing his own troubled father – and it is a move of absolute genius.  LaBeouf’s father is a man with subtle nuances that only his own son could truly understand and recreate. He was a man hampered by addiction and haunted by inadequacy who had a burning drive to give his son a shot in life, but with all the wrong ideas as to how.  At times abusive, at times charming, he is a multi-faceted character of immeasurable depth that could only be drawn from real life. It is a career best from LaBeouf. 

Shia LaBeouf has been grossly misunderstood for much of his career, and anyone who sees Honey Boy will realize that he is something to be treasured. It is a touching story of how what we are exposed to in our youth remains with us forever. At just thirty three years old, Shia LaBeouf has found his feet, and is one of the most exciting voices in film.