10. Sing Street
(written and directed by John Carney)
10 years ago, John Carney gave the world a little music film Once that has gone on to yield an Oscar-winning song Falling Slowly and a Broadway musical. 10 years on he went back to Dublin and made another music film. This time about a teen forming a band in the 80s to impress a girl who introduces him to the genre of happy-sad with this wake-up call: “Your problem is that you’re not happy being sad.” My favourite ingredients are all there: original and good 80’s sync-pop, a celebration of (cheesy) video making and songwriting as a form of escape, a huge heart in the story, and a declaration of how lots of happy-sad eyeliner in pop culture can inspire a generation. What’s not to love!
9. Road To Mandalay 再見瓦城
(written and directed by Midi Z)
Not a common and easy story to tell – the desperation of illegal immigrants seeking a better life in another city where officials are corrupt and life is cheap. Stunningly beautiful cinematography – the opening border-crossing scene, the crying in the rain in peak-hour traffic scene, just to name a couple – and a well-handled sombre ambience by Taiwan-based Burmese filmmaker Midi Z 趙德胤 elevates the engaging story. Both leads shine too – Kai Ko 柯震東 capitalises on his innocent lovelorn postures and Patty Wu 吳可熙 uses her inner strength and steely determination to hook us along, until the abrupt and shocking end.
(adapted for the screen by David Birke, based on the novel by Philippe Djian, directed by Paul Verhoeven)
All of us have some sort of sexual fantasy or fetish indulgence. No? (Oops!). Here’s one CEO in her 50s who is raped at home, (a close-up shot of her cat looking on emotionlessly), and then realizes she is kinda drawn to the rapist, or the unpredictable act of rape itself, or the danger of it all. The layers unfold, quickly and furiously, to reveal a psychologically complex woman – brilliantly played with watchful eyes and an analytical mind by Isabelle Huppert. Out comes her issues with age, sexuality, desires, and the complications with the men in all directions of her life – her serial-killer father and her under-achieving son, her ex-husband and her part-time lover, her rebellious employee and her religious neighbour. Fire, well-played.
(written by Emma Donoghue based on her own book Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson)
There are pros and cons to each side of any situation. In this case, to each side of “the room”. There is normalcy and routines despite being locked in a fearful hostage/prison environment. On the other hand, in spite of being free and out, there will be judgment and non-acceptance. To have freedom does not mean you are truly free. This is an emotional roller coaster from start to end. The mother, performed with devastating vulnerabilities, fearless strength and a fierce love by Brie Larson, is one hella a well-written character. So deserving of all the accolades earlier this year.
(written by Charlie Kaufman based on his own play Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
Charlie Kaufman blew my mind twice in my life with the screenplays of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He did it again with this. Making us care and feel genuinely for clay-figurine characters. I feel for their past disappointments, their insecurities, their self-perceived unworthiness, and the yearnings in their little clay hearts. Jennifer Jason Leigh particularly nails it with her bitter-sweet voicing of Lisa: those self-conscious lines and that stripped-down version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Speaking of stripping down, the intimacy between these animated characters is so real and honestly done, and the melancholy that follows lingers long after the screening. Very special.
5. Your Name
(written and directed by Makoto Shinkai based on his own book Your Name)
There is the bold concept of a boy-girl body swap between Tokyo and countryside, AND between the past and the present. There is the gorgeous animation that literally glows; you could feel the morning sun reflecting off skyscrapers and hear the winds in the quiet of the countryside. There is young love, youthful ambitions, and the theme of longing. There is the plot rush to save the town and each other in the disaster. There is a contemporary Asian sensitivity towards both the new and the traditional. The teens exchange their experiences on smartphone apps, yet they also perform age-old rituals in temples and at home. Above all, there is a gentle surrender to space and time, and an unspoken affirmation for the cosmic wonders of the universe. Magical.
4. Train to Busan
(written by Park Joo-suk, directed by Yeon Sang-ho)
The Koreans are always good with their dramas. Couple that with a strong grip on CGI and a slick handling of the epic disaster genre, you have a commercially attractive package and a fun blockbuster. The premise (zombies on a moving train!), the storytelling, the characters, the acting, AND the action are all on point. Like George Miller of Mad Max franchise, director Yeon Sang-ho started his career in animation before this crossover to live-action. Each shot captures the action succinctly, and each action serves to keep you at the edge of your seat. Then there is the socio-political commentaries – how governments under-pronounce the severity of crises, and how at the end of the day, the most evil ones are our fellow humans.
3. Steve Jobs
(written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, directed by Danny Boyle)
Despite quiet fanfares and subdued reviews, I really like this film! I like it so much that I want it to be in my top 3 for sure. It’s a power team of 4 – Aaron Sorkin as screenwriter, Danny Boyle as director, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet as leads – firing on all cylinders. Especially impressed with the clever and wicked 3-acts structure, each act taking place strictly backstage moments before a key product launch. Clever because the world knows product launches are so pivotal in Jobs’ life, and we get to see how demanding, exact, micromanaging, ‘diva’ Jobs can be. Wicked because there is only so much one can do backstage to advance his relationships on all fronts – may it be with his co-developers, partners or his daughter out of wedlock. Yet this team delivers a tight biography. Michael Fassbender plays Jobs and all his inadequacies with such a commanding intensity. And Danny Boyle brings such signature visual energy to the storytelling. Unreasonably snubbed at the Oscars.
2. After The Storm
(written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)
When I grow up, I want to make films like this! A family drama without the melodrama that is poignant and funny, often at the same time. “How did life turn out this way?” A flawed man trying his best, especially in figuring out how to be a father and a son. Myself being an adult son to an aging mother, the scenes between mother and son hit me the most. And Hiroshi Abe and Kirin Kiki - a pairing with disparate physical heights, reuniting after playing son and mother in Koreeda’s Still Walking – have immaculate chemistry and rapport. There is subtlety in conveying life’s disappointments, and grace in the eventual acceptance of life’s imperfections. Interestingly, this is the second film on this list that features an act of nature that somehow brings people together, and both are Japanese.
1. La La Land
(written and directed by Damien Chazelle)
It’s all about the feeling in the there and then, right? If there was a camera on us while we were watching this in the cinema, there would be footage of us grinning with joy, tapping our feet, and emo-ing all over our faces because our hearts were swelling with the exuberance of the music and the visual energy not felt since Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. While Baz has Craig Armstrong as his regular music collaborator, Damien Chazelle has Justin Hurwitz. Partnering again after Whiplash, they breathe fresh fire into the movie musical genre – with original songs (not covers of pop songs like in Moulin, or stage-to-screen ones like Les Mis). Love the big production numbers like the opening scene Another Day of Sun which is shot in one long take, or the way the lights dim around the characters like theatre. So inspiring, so rejuvenated, yet so heartbroken by the circumstances that lead to the could’ve been should’ve been of this big love. Been listening and humming the irresistible soundtrack ever since, I’m totally under its spell! To paraphrase the track Audition (The Fools Who Dream), it captures a feeling, sky with no ceiling. Sunset inside a frame. This one is for the fools who dream. To the hearts that ache, and to the mess we’ve made.