Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien mythology in 2012, he came armed with Prometheus, a beautiful, bold and often bewildering sci-fi blockbuster that felt far removed from the chapter that launched a wildly successful franchise. Alien was a trend-setter, of course, magnificent in its own lean and menacing way; Prometheus posed bigger questions, expensively assembled and wondrous to look at. 

Scott and his team were initially coy about the relationship between Prometheus and the wider canon, referring to shared DNA and obvious overlaps. Once the film opened, however, those doubts were cast aside. Prometheus may have trained its focus on other aspects of that universe – namely the mysterious Engineers and their part in the creation of both humankind and the iconic xenomorphs – but its ultimate trajectory was clear. 

There can be no pretence now. Alien: Covenant is every inch a descendant of its forebear. Yes, it is in effect a sequel to Prometheus, boasting the big-world milieu and direct timeline, but a grimy sense of dread, the weathered cosiness of its central crew and the spectre of that titular killer all appear strikingly familiar. Some of the series' enviable tension may well be lost in the opening up of time and place, but it nevertheless satisfies in scope and ambition.

It begins not with the standard motif of space explorers hurtling through the vastness of the cosmos (that will come later) but the sort of exquisite futuristic minimalism that underscored much of the Prometheus aesthetic. Flashing back to a day long before those of that picture, Michael Fassbender's watchful, quietly subversive android, David, fresh and still pliant, conjures Wagner on a piano in a blanched salon and discusses the meaning of existence with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the industrialist whose presence hovers in the background of the entire Alien landscape.

Cutting from there to the confines of the Covenant  a starship (featuring Alien's onboard computer, Mother) transporting over 3000 hyper-sleeping souls and human embryos, along with the team of spouses responsible for its passage, to the virgin colony of Origae-6 – Scott anchors his narrative in recognisable surroundings. 

When a random energy surge damages the ship, its awakened crew, which includes Walter, an updated model of David, must make repairs. In doing so, a faint communication is detected, the broken strains of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads drawing the Covenant to a nearby planet.

As he did with Prometheus, Scott introduces a desolate and Earth-like destination, all mighty valleys and mountain lakes, where obvious danger lurks from the moment the visitors touch down. He finds new ways to play on the icky fears that have always marked these films: infection, infestation, penetration, purging. Malevolent spores quickly invade ears and nasal canals; gestating fiends tear out of torsos and vomit from mouths with equal swiftness. As a means of revisiting the more recognisable aspects of the mythos, the director succeeds. Indeed, at its best, the franchise weaves a fabric comprising arresting savagery and an atmosphere of nightmarish terror. Early on, such a mix is never lacking. 

A middle section is slightly less assured, yet cannot be wholly faulted for crafting a grander tale. David resurfaces, his last chronological contribution being alongside Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) at the end of Prometheus. Last seen shooting off for the homeworld of the Engineers, the pair reached their destination, though Covenant's weighty screenplay (penned by John Logan and Dante Harper) leaves a number of questions hanging, even as it explains the events between the two movies, as well as the genesis of the ravenous xenomorphs. 

In its latter stages, Covenant is surefooted enough to combine classic tropes (the alien bursting from its terrible womb; the adult form hunting in scarlet-lit corridors) and updated elements (one sequence involving a flying cargo lift is impressive, as is the scale of the Engineers' ghostly metropolis). The creature itself feels refreshed also, a sleek CG-rendered update on the shadow-cloaked original, complete with a point-of-view framing device straight from the mind of the beast. Where animatronics and men in suits once seemed to stunt the visualisation of the alien's full physical capabilities – though the same cannot be said of its terrifying impact – this present iteration is a thrilling, marauding apex predator.

As far as its prey is concerned, the cast offers a mixed bag. As terraformer Daniels, Katherine Waterston excels in a role that is much more than Ripley lite. Carrying a heavy burden, she is the voice of caution in a leadership pairing with Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), a devout man who confuses risk and faith. While the price he pays for switching destinations is steep, the resonance of his fate fails to land. 

He and his fellow travellers are largely drawn in broad strokes, with only Danny McBride's wisecracking pilot, Tennessee, escaping those limitations. McBride is more familiar to audiences as the boorish alpha idiot in any number of modern comedies but he turns in a layered performance here and places a lid on his goofy sensibilities. It is a display that should not be ignored. 

The show, however, ultimately belongs to Fassbender. David retains his ability to unsettle and it is a testament to Fassbender's ability as an actor that he can paint in so contrasting a fashion two characters sporting identical physical traits. David, fixating on creation and fond of quoting Byron, exhibits a human-like personality replete with curiosity but lacking even a hint of empathy. Walter is a gentler article, a straight shooter whose fondness for Daniels could be mistaken for love in any other context. Beautiful moments flickering between them throughout are distilled in the dying moments and put to darker use, arguably the most profound emotional moment in a film that does not shy away from the ties that bind.  

If there is an obvious flaw it is that Covenant opts for contemplation over hallmark ferocity. The onslaughts that characterised Alien and Aliens never arrive, shoved aside to placate Scott's desire for world building. That which emerges is worthy of a place in the pantheon, no doubt, but opportunities for greatness will need to wait for the scheduled next instalment. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

It is now 12 years since Peter Jackson stepped away from The Lord of the Rings to release King Kong, his respectful and suitably epic remake of RKO's 1933 classic. The film garnered positive critical reactions and an enormous box office take. While often overlooked on the Kiwi's résumé, given his various Oscar-winning forays into Middle Earth, King Kong was an accomplishment worthy of its acclaim. 

In 2017, Kong has returned. Kong: Skull Island is the second instalment in Legendary's 'MonsterVerse' series, the first being 2014's Godzilla. The duo will eventually meet in a cinematic donnybrook likely to send fictional insurance premiums spiking, but for the moment, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has deployed the giant ape in a middling blockbuster that constitutes a spectacle as breathtaking as it is ultimately vacuous.

As with Godzilla, Kong's latest outing offers a cacophonous CGI blitzkrieg anchored firmly in the no-expense-spared brand of modern studio wisdom. Fleetingly entertaining, Vogt-Roberts's mainstream debut fails to match its pulpy source material. Instead it sputters, cursed by tonal inconsistencies, anaemic plotting and a stellar cast fed on crumbs.

A product of Hollywood's golden age, Kong has now been relocated to the early seventies and the fading embers of the Vietnam conflict. Monster chaser William Randa (John Goodman) receives government approval to explore an uncharted South Pacific outcrop and enlists the help of Samuel L. Jackson's Preston Packer, an embittered cavalry badass whose band of elite chopper jockeys are loyal enough to follow their leader into obvious danger.

Also on the expedition: golden girl photojournalist Mason Weaver (Oscar winner Brie Larson, stretching herself by brandishing a camera throughout) and urbane, elegant and briefly jaded SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddlestone, playing Tom Hiddlestone). No longer trudging through Vietnamese jungles on the QT for the Regiment, Conrad is now a mercenary and comes on board Randa's ramble as its tracker.

Initial scenes establish the usual clichés, few of which fit together: the disillusioned cynic (Conrad); the crusading reporter (Weaver); the believer seeking to heal his reputation (Randa); the hardened, haunted warrior (Packer); his band of wise-cracking, standard-issue grunts, few of whom appear particularly perturbed by the horrors of war in Asia.

As an event movie, few will best Skull Island for visual grandeur. It is boasts lazy summer hues and golden sunsets. Cinematographer Larry Fong, responsible for the gorgeous aesthetics of 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen, paints the titular landmass as a tropical paradise, a rich, verdant idyll beyond the borders of man's knowledge. 

One early standout sequence features Packer's squad plunging their Hueys through the roiling blackness of a thunderstorm. Later, Kong's great reveal, a savage meeting of kaiju and machine, will dazzle, his mighty frame (large enough to withstand Godzilla) drawing upwards against against a shimmering sunset.

Throughout these moments, laced with a wild kineticism, the excitement is undeniable. Vogt-Roberts has eschewed the usual building-destroying, skyscraper-scaling landmarks of this genre, introducing, instead, a cool retro vibe and a soundtrack to match. 

The narrative thrust, however, singularly fails to match the glitz and sheen. This is a picture that desperately wants to come at Kong from a different angle, yet is plagued by a coterie of players each as hollow as the next. A limited plot sees Conrad, Weaver, et al racing to escape the island's perils, but such is the dullness of the characters that their fates never illicit sympathy. Hiddlestone is a spare wheel, his swift transformation from money-seeking, cold-eyed Sandhurst cut-out to a barely plausible hero being propped up by a tight shirt, the ability to remain posh under pressure and one ridiculous motif involving a gas mask and a samurai sword. 

Elsewhere, Larson is little more than a spikier version of the damsel required for any King Kong film. Hers is a meaningless presence. Samuel L. Jackson, too, is a conundrum. Spewing Pulp Fiction-like verse as he rides his war machine into hell's eye, this is a man for whom warfare equals life. That the genesis of this rage remains murky — though it is hinted at, clumsily, throughout — seems rather typical of the overall attitude to storytelling. 

Only John C. Reilly emerges unscathed. He balances crazed, eccentric and avuncular with a glint in his eye, gladly embracing his role as the jester of the piece and hitting the comedy beats otherwise missed by his co-stars. Introduced in the opening moments during a brilliant prologue, Reilly's Hank Marlow is undoubtedly the most rounded person on screen. 

But what of the King himself? On the one hand, Kong is magnificent. Played, via motion capture, by Toby Kebbell (who also appears in a truly pointless role), he is imbued with a scale and power that feels impressive, conveying menace in the defence of his own patch and a singular purpose in simply wishing to exist. There are delicate moments (his nighttime gazing at the southern lights is quite at odds with the prevailing bombast) as well as points of awesome power. 

Unfortunately, in spite of a potentially interesting history and relationship with the silent natives, Kong is rendered a mystery, his brutality the main defining characteristic. Peter Jackson's primate, presented with little backstory, lacked the scale of this new version but it was an infinitely more soulful, nuanced beast. 

Kong's nemeses are the 'skull crawlers', a gang of apex predator lizards who come and go without context or motivation (a strange anomaly given their obvious villainy). A final face-off is expensively assembled, but cannot escape the sense that this kind of third-act meeting has been done before, with superior results. 

Beautiful but bloated, undemanding but undernourished, Kong: Skull Island is a film asking little and delivering about as much in return. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Patriots Day

The 2013 Boston marathon bombing forms the backdrop of Patriots Day, the third collaboration between the Lone Survivor-Deepwater Horizon duo of Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg. The director's latest big-budget, ground-level take on serious real-world events, Berg's preference for building the action around ordinary people forms the core of this sprawling, forensic thriller.

Few movie stars can pull off as convincing a baffled-everyman-facing-mighty-challenges act as Wahlberg and it serves him well, his plucky cop caught up in a savage act of terrorism and its immediate fallout. Portraying homicide detective Tommy Saunders – hobbled by a barely explained knee injury and in the dog house for an unspecified infraction – Wahlberg channels the admirable spirit of his native city, displaying with brio its grit and willingness to weather even the most towering of challenges. 

Berg's schtick is well established at this stage of his career and the obligatory mix of shaky, intimate camera work, blue-collar dialogue and calming post-rock melodies is in place almost from the beginning. This overlays the careful construction of the disparate circumstances leading to the detonation of two homemade bombs at the finish line of Boston's biggest annual community gathering.

With Saunders and his wife, Carol (an underused Michelle Monaghan), at its centre, Patriots Day's jigsaw comes together: the terrorist Tsarnaev siblings (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), sucking in radicalism amongst their domestic clutter; Jimmy Yang's jolly entrepreneur pursuing the tangible benefits of the American dream; veteran copper Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons turning in a elegantly understated performance) observing terror from the safety of his sleepy suburb; Jake Picking's MIT policeman courting the girl he's sworn to watch over.

Each strand – and there are more beyond – feels real, an honest depiction of non-fictional characters, each with hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is to Berg's credit, then, that when the fires come, and carnage descends, that we experience their pain and despair. Interestingly, the director does not linger on the actual bombings. From a technical standpoint, they are stunningly violently, yet, with a nod to the obvious reality that many wounds will remain raw, the explosions avoid coming off as a cheap spectacle.

In their immediate wake, Berg conveys the slick efficiency of American law enforcement. Alongside civic leaders, the FBI is instantly in control, headed up by Richard DesLauriers, played by Kevin Bacon, a rottweiler of an investigator as quick to fasten onto the minutiae of a crime scene as he is to address the toilet shortage in his makeshift HQ. With Wahlberg's shaken eyewitness serving as an expert on the lie of the land, the investigators pursue their quarry. 

A relentless pace, even in these procedural moments, holds the attention. As the Tsarnaevs are identified, traced and located, the narrative paints their own experiences over those days, stitched together from the testimonies that eventually brought the younger brother, Dzhokhar, to his current residence on death row. There is no shying away from the savagery of those actions and concluding gun fight on the streets of small-town America is terrifying in its intensity. That said, the obvious bond between the pair will test sympathies. 

Some of the film's more considered trappings succeed, some do not. The intermittent image of a state trooper standing watch over a dead child is beautifully understated, while at the other end of the scale Yang's sweary condemnation of the Tsarnaevs after they hijack his car is little more than a shot of gauche Americana.

As a chronicle of an attack that signalled to America the very real threat of domestic radicalisation, Patriots Day is stylish and worthy. It shouldn't be missed. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

When co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch released John Wick, their debut feature, in 2014 fleeting initial impressions might not have been particularly hopeful. As expensive and hyperactive as it looked, revenge tales starring sullen loners do not scream originality. 

What a pleasant surprise, then, that John Wick  was so outstanding, a neon-drenched action fable both knowing and surprisingly fresh. With Keanu Reeves on form as the eponymous avenging angel – the kind of apex predator none of us should ever aspire to provoke – the picture thrilled critics and raked in enough at the box office to justify a sequel. 

That follow-up has now arrived in the form of John Wick: Chapter 2 (a spare title at odds with the mayhem that garlands much of the 122-minute running time). Stahelski, now alone at the helm, has fine tuned his original work and conjured a vision that feels like a heightened, refined version of its progenitor. The film is far from perfect, lacking John Wick's rage and scorching momentum, but the world is expanded, feeling significantly more dangerous.

It picks up where the first instalment left off. Having taken revenge on his former Russian mob employers for stealing his car and killing his dog, former-not-so-former hitman Wick infiltrates the bad guys' HQ and reclaims the purloined motor. As the fearful kingpin (a cameoing Peter Stormare) assures his underling, stories of Wick's capabilities have been watered down. 

Later, having re-settled into his peaceful domestic life for a matter of hours, Wick – the villains' boogeyman – is visited by Riccardo Scamarcio's elegant Italian crime lord, Santino D’Antonio, the man who facilitated Wick's withdrawal from the underworld but now holds a promise to kill on instruction over his head. Wick, predictably, refuses, so D'Antonio torches his debtor's homestead. Realising he has no choice, Wick must hunt down D'Antonio's sister, a newly crowned member of the gangsters' 'high table'. That mission is complicated, however, when D'Antonio sends his mute, outrageously beautiful enforcer, Ares (Ruby Rose), to tie up the Keanu-shaped loose end. 

And so begins an inversion of Wick's previous tale. No longer the hunter but the prey, he is pursued through a bevvy of atmospheric locations by myriad assassins, all keen to cash in on the bounty. From the Roman catacombs to the New York subway, Wick must desperately fight off each new adversary. A series of hectic scenes depict him at his best. Punching, stabbing, shooting; he occasionally accomplishes all three in a single movement. 

His methods range from comic (he and Common's icy killer, Cassian, trade secretive silenced gunshots across a crowd concourse) to unbelievably brutal (never underestimate pencils again). He even seeks the aid of Matrix alum Laurence Fishburne – a rumpled beggar king – in the quest to cut off the head of a snake that stalks him. Boxed in by a house of mirrors, one late sequence involving automatic weapons and beards in sharp suits is beautiful as it is ruthless.

Like Reeves's other great thriller, Speed, Chapter 2's pace rarely slows. When it does, the proceedings are invariably girded by exposition that helps to build a sense of Wick's increasing desperation. Once the tightly observed rules of his subculture are breached, nobody, not even Ian McShane's urbane arbiter can stave off the consequences. A third volume is all but promised. Expect more gunfire.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Live by Night

Ben Affleck returns to the work of Dennis Lehane by adapting Live By Night, one third of a period trilogy within the author's wider, masterful collection of flinty Boston-noir tomes that has given rise to the likes of Shutter Island, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. 

The latter was the basis of Affleck's directorial debut, setting the stage for two further efforts – both featuring himself in the lead role – with the Oscar-winning Argo and The Town, a terrifically muscular heist drama mining much from the Beantown milieu so familiar to fans of Lehane's work. 

A sleeker beast than The Given Day, its mammoth prequel, Live By Night centres on the adventures of Affleck's Boston outlaw Joe Coughlin (a child in the first novel). Coughlin is a relatively low-level thief – though he springs from an ostensibly respectable family and wears the sheen of a Catholic education – who, as is the way of these tales, falls in with the wrong girl (Sienna Miller) and then, of course, ends up on the bad side of her crime boss lover, Albert White (Robert Glenister).

Finding himself in prison, Coughlin vows revenge and upon his release entreats Remo Girone's mafia don, Maso Pescatore, to back him in his bid for retribution against White. Coughlin is swiftly dispatched to fortify Pescatore's rum operation in prohibition-era Florida, next to old stickup partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina on crackling form), and quickly establishes himself as a giant in the South's criminal underworld.

Or so he says. As passable as Live By Night is in many respects, the film makes the fatal decision to tell and not do. Affleck's flat Boston twang narrates events by way of exposition, overlaying significant periods of time that are barely explored or depicted solely via brief montages. In just over two hours, the director covers the better part of a decade; it feels like barely ten minutes. 

While the question of Coughlin's innate goodness constitutes a major strand of the narrative, the violence of his occupation – referenced in the occasionally earnest dialogue more than once  seems abstract. When it does flare up, such as during the closing hotel-set firefight, the savagery would appear almost casual and, strangely for a picture aiming itself firmly at the gangster genre's heart, out of place. It is almost as if Affleck has committed to making so lovely a piece of cinema (this is, undoubtedly, a beautifully rendered, assuredly acted film) that the darker elements have been neglected. 

Consequently, a host of themes end up competing for time: faith and family (personified by Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper's tortured zealots), race and prejudice, vengeance and murder, corruption and criminality. Each rears its head as the overarching message; all fail to emerge victorious. In concert, the effect is a somewhat untidy lack of focus. The movie could be compelling, though it is ultimately distracted by its own diverging ambitions. 

Affleck has not produced an utter disaster by any means and there are enough flourishes to impress – an early car chase involving roaring Model Ts and coppers wielding tommy guns registers as particularly excellent. His nod to the multi-ethnic composition of 1920s Tampa is also interesting and Coughlin's Celtic outsider is often cast as the exotic flower in the garden. 

Nevertheless, a finale that accomplishes the rare feat of rushing and crawling to its conclusion is clumsily handled, carrying the weariness of a party that really wants to end.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017


Religious symbolism has always been central to the work of Martin Scorsese. From Boxcar Bertha to Dalai Lama biopic Kundun, with Mean Streets, Cape Fear and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ in between, Scorsese, the one-time seminarian, has never shirked from matters spiritual.
His latest movie, Silence, is arguably an apogee of this ever-evolving relationship with religion. In gestation since 1990, and long considered a passion project, this is the second filmic adaptation of the novel by Shusaku Endo, published in 1966, which centres on the travails of Portuguese Jesuits in 17th-century Japan. Boasting weighty overtones and themes of sacrifice, contrition and faith, there can be no denying Scorsese’s direction of travel.
The result of the director’s efforts is, as one might expect, a monumental, courageous historical epic, as powerful as it is arduous. Silence simply cannot be ignored.
The picture’s holy trinity is delivered in the shape of Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), Francisco Garrpe (a superb Adam Driver) and the duo’s erstwhile mentor, Liam Neeson’s Cristóvão Ferreira. When reports filter back to the Society of Jesus that Ferreira has, under torture during the anti-Christian purges of the Tokugawa shogunate, disavowed God, Rodrigues and Garrpe are dispatched by their superior, Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), to search for truth in the murk of a Japanese society insanely hostile to Christ’s teachings.
The chronicle of their quest is an astonishing one. Scorsese weaves a tapestry of tribulation and torment, plunging his idealistic padres into an unforgiving landscape, one that immediately tests their learning and adherence to the power of the almighty.
This is a tale made for the big screen, luxuriating in its director’s archly cinematic tendencies, yet there is little effort here to toy with the structure. Instead, a largely straightforward plot’s challenges arrive via a focus on the meaning and efficacy of blind acceptance.
Scorsese does not linger in bringing it to the fore. His opening scene features Neeson (the white whale of the piece’s 161-minute running time), broken and detained, witnessing a band of fellow missionaries undergoing one of the shogunate’s many inventive methods of torture — subtlety is no obstacle.
Indeed the trials of Rodrigues and Garrpe seem just as intense. Landing under the cover of night, they immediately begin ministering to the Christians who greet them. Forced to cower behind closed doors and conceal their practices from all but a few, these haunted natives receive their European visitors as saviours, a reality that, at first fulfils the young priests, only to turn sour when the local inquisitor, enacting the nation-wide pogrom against the ‘Kirishitans’, sniffs out this evangelising.
From this point, events become increasingly fraught. Garfield, an assured presence, carries the weight of the film on his shoulders. Forced to answer for his steel-clad convictions, even in the face of others’ suffering, he soon begins to ruminate on those ideas. ‘The weight of your silence is terrible,’ Rodrigues whispers towards heaven, the once high walls of his faith shaking beneath the weight of doubt. Scorsese pulls no punches in dragging him towards the edge, capturing moments of savagery with an unblinking eye. Men are decapitated, martyrs are crucified and drowned; families form human pyres as their neighbours watch on.
More unsettling is the frigid calculation behind these cruelties. The authorities do not seek to terrify, rather they wish to humiliate and degrade, using the tenet of sacrifice against the very people who so willingly espouse it. Later on, Tadanobu Asano’s urbane translator squirrels inside Rodrigues’s mind, questioning the sense of his beliefs with calm efficiency. This is no story of Christendom’s triumph over the distant unbelievers. The opposite is underlined more than once: while the Japanese readily grasp Christianity’s precepts, they’re simply not interested in embracing them.
As a work of artistic endeavour, the film ably succeeds. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto conjures more than one arresting image, be it a floating overhead view of the priests’ sea vessel, the Messiah’s visage in a reflecting pool or the mist-shrouded verdancy of rural Japan. 
On a more profound level, however, Scorsese’s commitment allows for an immersion in the material that other filmmakers might otherwise fail to accomplish. Silence is no easy watch, but, with a multitude of urgent questions demanding equally urgent answers, it is an essential one.

This article was first published here

Friday, 30 December 2016

My 16 best films of 2016

16. 10 Cloverfield Lane

A sort-of sequel to 2008's Cloverfield, this Dan Trachtenberg-directed potboiler came as something of a surprise when its true title was suddenly announced in February. Sharing DNA, rather than clear narrative continuity, with its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane makes much of its deliberately obscure plot and restrictive location, the story of a young woman held captive by John Goodman's hearty survivalist switching direction with maximum impact.  

In spite of his small cast, Trachtenberg manages to craft a film that comes off as less claustrophobic than first signs suggest. Its mix of genre hallmarks purrs as Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr riff on the palpable paranoia that lurks menacingly at the edges. With a finale that belongs somewhere else, yet satisfies nonetheless, this finds its identity in unexpected places.

15. Anthropoid

This depiction of the events surrounding the assassination of SS bigwig Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during the height of World War Two initially registers as a routine period actioner, but there is, in fact, much more lurking beneath the surface. Driven on by an atmosphere of foreboding that sees its leads (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) never more than a single misstep away from their own destruction, Anthropoid is occasionally beautiful, slickly drawn and tightly executed.

The brilliant concluding stanza, a firefight that tears through the sanctified confines of a grand cathedral, sees both actors come into their own. Themes of courage and mortality are weighty, no doubt, yet director Sean Ellis handles these deftly, imbuing the finale with an emotional heft that feels truly profound.

14. Everybody Wants Some!!

Sprouting from the same ground as his woozy calling card, Dazed and ConfusedEverybody Wants Some!! is Richard Linklater's return to the campus genre, a spiritual sequel to the former work and his more recent masterpiece, Boyhood. As Dazed and Confused played out over the final day of high school, so does Everybody Wants Some!! capture the halcyon days of the last weekend before college begins.

Set in a fictional Texan university, testosterone-filled members of a college baseball team traverse the student ecosystem, each as brash, insecure and arrogant as the next. Crucially, though, none is particularly unlikable and to witness their ambling progress is nothing short of a joy. That Linklater manages to stage something so incredibly watchable, in spite of an almost non-existent plot, is a testament to our unchecked fondness for cool music, period nostalgia and the sweetness of summer. 

13. Eye in the Sky

The ambivalent complexities of the War on Terror abound in this taut drama directed by South African helmer Gavin Hood and boasting Helen Mirren on mesmerising, iron-willed form. Its plot spans the globe, but the details are etched in vivid human colours, torturous decisions of life and death punctuating a hodgepodge of action tropes, political scheming, human conflict and even sly comedy. Eye in the Sky should be a mess. It is quite the opposite.

Given the provocative subject matter, Hood could be suspected of seeking to editorialise on the efficacy of the West's crusade against militant Islam. He never goes quite that far, however, weaving instead a morality play that observes rather than comments. Along with Mirren, the late great Alan Rickman gives his final onscreen performance. His cerebral and upstanding army officer attempts to hold it all together as bureaucrats and politicians squirm under the weight of their terrible responsibilities. 

12. The Jungle Book

Somewhat different from the mature update presented by its pre-release materials (Scarlett Johansson's sinister, molten-toned Kaa barely features), Jon Favreau's take on the Disney opus is, nevertheless, an assured spin on a classic, every inch the spectacular it intends to be. Given the turgid state of 2016's tent-pole blockbusters, it seems pleasantly fitting that the House of Mouse, faithful and reliable as it is, should exceed in reviving something so familiar to so many.

The film's strengths are undeniable. Cutting-edge and photorealistic CGI combine with a stellar cast, generating a vision both joyful to behold and worthy of digestion. From Neel Sethi's uninhibited offering as "man cub" Mowgli to Idris Elba charging Shere Khan with a level of cunning and darkness not obviously aimed at pre-teens, this peddles undistilled wonder like few others.

11. Kubo and the Two Strings

The outstanding animation of 2016 came not from Disney or Dreamworks, but from stop-motion house Laika, the brains behind Boxtrolls and Coraline. Tackling ancient Japanese folklore, director Travis Knight infuses this wondrous adventure with a sense of scale and profound emotional resonance. Few stories of childhood abandonment will have been pulled off with such elan. 

Putting a talented voice cast (Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes and Game of Thrones alum Art Parkinson) to work, Kubo and the Two Strings builds itself around cutting-edge stop motion that few can rival. A sophisticated plot elevates this above childish diversion, flowing freely and confidently towards a graceful conclusion.

10. Green Room

The sudden death of Anton Yelchin threw a tragic focus upon summer blockbuster Star Trek Beyond, but it would be another project that played out as a fitting tribute to his gifts. While Green Room's unusual premise undermined its mass appeal, this bleak effort turned out to be one of the year's nastiest surprises.

Catapulting Yelchin's punk bassist and his youthful bandmates into the middle of a murderous Nazi drinking den in rural Oregon, director Jeremy Saulnier ratchets up the tension with a potent brew of killer dogs, Trump voters and Patrick Stewart as the establishment's bespectacled owner, Darcy. A film that veers off in grisly and unwanted directions, Yelchin's unexpectedly heroic performance is especially impressive. 

9. Disorder

Moving past his noble turn as Gabriel Oak in last year's Far From the Madding Crowd, Matthias Schoenaerts returns to the kind of shifty blue-collar hero that made him so watchable in Bullhead and Rust and Bone. Here he is Vincent, a traumatised soldier hired to guard the wife (Diane Kruger) of a wealthy businessman in the French Riviera. Unsurprisingly, things do not go to plan and with the vague, if very real, threat of violence hanging over them, Vincent must act.

Schoenaerts is, as ever, magnetic – that haunted visage, obscuring a core of decency, has never been more pronounced. Director Alice Winocour locates fearful intensity within the lonely luxury of the seaside location, exposing her leading man's already frayed nerves and fragile temperament to the rigours of this sumptuous, slow-burning thriller. Fascinating.

8. Creed

Just when the Rocky franchise looked dead – 2006's enjoyable, though entirely needless, Rocky Balboa could easily have served as a pleasant final round – brilliant young filmmaker Ryan Coogler arrived to come at the series from a new angle and reinvigorate a tale that had become the very essence of fond cliché. Taking on the legend may seem quite a step up from Coogler's scorching debut, Fruitvale Station, but he and that film's star, Michael B. Jordan, miss not a step in the transition from racial polemic to mainstream hit. 

Aided, of course, by Sylvester Stallone as Balboa, Coogler and Jordan soar, the latter perfectly inhabiting the character of Adonis Johnson, aspiring pugilist and illegitimate son of Rocky's late friend, Apollo Creed. Creed eschews melodrama, opting instead for a picture of genuine style and poignantly observed humanity. Taken together with Stallone's often heartbreaking portrayal, there can be no doubt that this represents something new and very special. 

7. Room

Brie Larson rightly grabbed the plaudits and the awards but the spirit of Lenny Abrahamson's delicate movie is Jacob Tremblay as the innocent at the core of this thoughtful look at life beyond a nightmare. Portraying Jack, the offspring of his captive mother and her rapist, Old Nick (the owner of Room, the four walls constituting their whole world), the precocious Tremblay conveys joy, fear, confusion and a child's determination for knowledge. His achievements are every bit the equal of Larson's.

Based on Emma Donoghue's novel of the same name, Room's effectiveness comes not just from having its central players endure and rise above their experiences, but in peeking at how life and one's future is moulded by the most terrible of circumstances. In spite of the tightness of its setting, this is film with mighty things to say.

6. The Witch

Blair Witch was the hag-centric horror movie that grabbed headlines in 2016 but for those who saw the feature debut of rising talent Robert Eggers, there can be no comparison between his film and the frenetic scares of its more famous contemporary. Never completely terrifying, The Witch instead aims at something much more subtle, a communion of stressed, angular drama and unremitting dread.

In concert, these things are equally unnerving and unsettling, the evil lurking just beyond the boundaries of the Puritan homestead (overseen by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) forming a silent, watchful character in its own right. Eggers does not eschew every horror conceit and a late encounter with Satan himself borders on hypnotic, yet it is his conjuring of mood that cannot be ignored. Chilling and shot through with darkness, The Witch animates our deepest fears.

5. Spotlight 

Let not the Oscar-winning worthiness of Tom McCarthy's film blind you to its deep-seated excellence. As a chronicle of systemic institutional corruption, there can be few to challenge it, but Spotlight mines a good deal more from its source material, namely the investigation into the cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese, carried out by The Boston Globe's eponymous unit. 

Gripping, beautifully spun, wielding grace and restraint, this puts its sizzling lineup to work as serious people battling determined foes. Springing from the same well of journalists-as-crusaders that made the likes of All the Presidents Men so 

electrifying, Spotlight's triumph is to locate its heroism in truth and integrity as they appear in the real world, rather than any cloying Holywood interpretation of those qualities. 

4. Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer Tom Ford's sophomore feature appears, at first, cold and watchful, but dig down deeper and the truth of the matter is entirely different. Adapting the 1993 novel Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, Ford sports an unsurprising visual flair, one every bit as elegant and arresting as his sartorial leanings. Traversing styles and storytelling devices, Nocturnal Animals is a moody and searing psychological concoction unbound by convention. 

In Amy Adams, Ford possesses a trump card, her impressive range and place as an unwitting antagonist helping to paint every frame in murky uncertainty. The director deploys his stellar cast with aplomb, but it is the multiplicity of form – unfolding flashbacks rest effortlessly alongside a realer-than-real tale within a tale – that fuels this intoxicating, astonishing fable.

3. Hell or High Water

This magnificent heist thriller enjoyed a low-key theatrical run that belied its startling brilliance. Directed by Scottish auteur David Mackenzie and penned by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is that rarest of beasts: a spectacle that connects on many levels. With a plot that feels real, dangerous and genuinely original, it is far from the meandering arias that otherwise define the western brand. 

Jeff Bridges dominates as the grizzled Texas Ranger pursuing one last job before retirement, his homely turn of phrase never quite hiding the gimlet-eyed resolve beneath the stetson. If anything, however, the bank-robbing siblings (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who form his quarry bring a deeper, almost elegiac element to Mackenzie's film. Blasted by debt and by dust, the plains of West Texas are the arena in which they stage a reprisal against the forces that have ensnared generations of their kin, sparking chaos and justice in equal measures. 

2. Arrival

A quieter, more contemplative sci-fi epic than Christopher Nolan's towering and transcendent Interstellar, the latest picture from Dennis Villeneuve approaches its fantastical subject matter in a similarly sober manner. If Nolan sought to meditate on the nature of our species's survival, then Villeneuve has something more transformative in mind. Grand, gracious and poetic, his is a film replete with a yearning to understand.

Anchored, crucially, by Amy Adams in the metronomic central role (her arc, and not that of the mysterious visitors, dictates the narrative thrust), Arrival locates its heart firmly in mankind's potential, rather than its base instinct to exist. The fundamental tension between embracing joy and fearing unimaginable pain might seem out of place, yet as all concerned struggle to divine the outsiders' intentions, they ultimately know us better than we do ourselves.

1. The Revenant

However the Oscar race finally worked out, there should be no doubt about the identity of 2016’s finest film. The Revenant, a survival saga brought to the screen by Alejandro González Iñárritu, may have been harsh in style and apparently torrid in its behind-the-scenes travails, but the results would prove to be undeniable. An adaptation of Michael Punke’s based-on-real-life historical novel about legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), Iñárritu’s creation is extraordinary, a labour of rare power, as brutal as it is inspiring, boasting a level of originality to which we should all bear witness.

Carried on the back of DiCaprio’s awards-gobbling display, this is a striking feat of creative endeavour, intense enough to snatch the breath from your lungs. The director’s ultimate triumph in exploring the awesome scope of his ambition is to provide a bravura cinematic spectacle unlike anything witnessed before.