Surprise hits, tired conventions – another film year to remember

Surprise hits, tired conventions – another film year to remember Tahar Rahim (Judas) and Rooney Mara (Mary) in Mary Magdalene

Satires, rom-coms, sitcoms, documentaries, cartoons, blockbusters, art movies, actioners, screwball comedies, retro noir dramas, earnest social issue statements, experimental failures and sleeper successes…the year was the usual mixed bag of surprise hits and tired conventions.

Two papal films were released: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word and John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace.

They were as much socio-political ventures as religious ones. That’s probably why they received more attention from the secular press than usual. The latter had ‘the Troubles’ in the North  as a backdrop. The former – released to coincide with Francis’ visit here in September – also had a pacifist motif: his role model and namesake St Francis of Assisi.

Mary Magdalene sought to rehabilitate the reputation of that Biblical character but in doing so ran close to canonising her. Surely this was over-compensation. Rooney Mara played her far too coyly.  Joaquin Phoenix lacked a sense of divinity as Jesus.

I also had problems with The Apparition. It was ill thought out in its portrayal of a young woman who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. Nothing was resolved or explained.

Fundamentalism within the Jehovah’s Witness world was a theme of two films, Apostasy and The Children Act.  Jacques Rivette’s The Nun starred Anna Karina as a young woman forced to enter a convent against her will after her mother reveals that she was the product of an adulterous affair.

Ethan Hawke gave an intense performance as a priest who has an existential crisis about climate change in First Reformed. The film proved a welcome return to form for Paul Schrader. He handles sin and redemption themes almost as well as his friend Martin Scorsese.

National treasure Katie Taylor appeared in a documentary about her life, Katie. She talked about her devotion to the Bible. It featured her mother reading passages from it to help her in times of need. A picture on her mantelpiece bore the legend: “He trains my arms to fight.” (“He” being God.) The film went from her early career – she had to disguise herself as a boy to enter competitions then – to her decision to go pro. This was a move many people (this writer included) had misgivings about considering the greater risk of injury.

Sequels

Sequels rained down thick and heavy: Creed II, Mary Poppins Returns, etc. The all-female Oceans 8 was too gimmicky for my taste. Incredibles 2, The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story brought the terms “flog” and “dead horse” to mind. Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born earned rave reviews for Lady Ga-Ga but isn’t it time to call a halt on this timeworn tale now? It’s been filmed umpteen times with only minor variations.

The same applied to Halloween. ‘Scream queen’ Jamie Curtis took up where she left off in the original, conveniently ignoring all the other features in the interim. Another sequel, Johnny English Strikes Again, was forgivable because of the antics of the inimitable Rowan Atkinson. These rarely wear thin.

I was intrigued by Unless, moved by Michael Inside and Kissing Candice, quietly impressed by Rosie and Black 47, bored by Book Club  and I Feel Pretty, intermittently amused by Tully, scared (a lot) by  The Cured and (a little) by The Secret of Marrowbone.  There was less to The Image You Missed than met the eye. Widows blew my mind.

{{Glenn Close was fantastic as a woman who ghost-writes her husband’s books while he gets the glory”

Then there was Abba’s Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. I live in hope that the ‘real’ Abba will one day grace our screens instead of having all these Johnny-Come-Latelys jumping on the bandwagon and telling us how brilliant they were way back when. Where were these people when those of us of a certain age were being jeered for dancing our socks off to the Swedish superstars? And please, Hollywood, less dodgy plotlines to make them ‘relevant’ for modern audiences. Great music never needed to be relevant. It’s just great.

Alan Gilsenan’s The Meeting had a woman who was raped in real life  (Ailbhe Griffith) playing herself. She confronts her attacker in prison, the ultimate victim impact statement. It was stilted in parts but stirringly appropriate in a year dominated by the abuses of people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.

One of the best biopics released was I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s study of the figure skater Tonya Harding. She was played compellingly by Margot Robbie, a much under-rated actress. Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Citizen Lane was an absorbing portrait of art aficionado and gallery founder Hugh Lane.

Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles wasn’t too shabby either. Nor was Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince. This dealt with a hitherto unexplored part of Oscar Wilde’s life, his post-prison one. Kevin McDonald’s Whitney was an attempt to explain Whitney Houston’s descent into psychic meltdown. It didn’t plumb the full depths of this inscrutable icon but it had something Nick Broomfield’s more standard issue Can I Be Me didn’t: a family input.

Political films like Darkest Hour and The Post were of a high calibre. So was The Final Year. Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her victory denied our own Saoirse Ronan for Greta Gerwig’s autobiographical comedy-drama Lady Bird. Ronan was also on top form in Chesil Beach, doing a faultless British accent in the Ian McEwan adaptation.

Glenn Close may get an Oscar next February for The Wife. I wouldn’t grudge it to her. She was fantastic as a woman who ghost-writes her husband’s books while he gets the glory. First Man, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land, may also  feature at the Oscars. A mesmerising account of the 1969 Moon landing, it didn’t try anything too clever, content with telling an old-fashioned story of a man pushing himself to his limits.

The most unusual film of the year was The Shape of Water. It had a sea monster falling in love with Sally Hawkins. What could he possibly have seen in her?

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