Based on true stories
1. BOY ERASED (110 mins) Streaming on Netflix
In 2004, 19-year-old Baptist preacher’s son Garrard Conley willingly entered a Love In Action facility in Tennessee to purge the homosexuality that put him at odds with his family’s religious zeal. Mr Conley’s nightmarish experiences of conversion therapy informed a best-selling memoir, Boy Erased.
Writer-director Joel Edgerton sensitively plunders this heartfelt text for a deeply moving and unsentimental dramatisation. The film-maker casts himself as the pious counsellor in charge of malleable minds, who are encouraged to chant “I am using sexual sin and homosexuality to fill a God-shaped void in my life”. Words cut to the bone and Lucas Hedges is heartbreaking as the teenage witness to controversial practices, including one harrowing scene of a family striking their terrified son with a Bible to drive Satan from his body.
The script comes down firmly on one side of the conversion therapy argument and preaches quietly yet powerfully to the outraged.
2. DARK WATERS (122 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
A dogged fight for justice lasting more than 20 years exposes shady business practices and corporate greed in Dark Waters. Inspired by The New York Times magazine article The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, director Todd Haynes’ slow-burning thriller details the ripple effect of a cover-up in 1970s West Virginia, where the man-made PFOA chemical used in the production of Teflon may have leaked into the water supply.
Screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan infuse a conventional David versus Goliath legal wrangle with jangling paranoia reminiscent of The Parallax View. Mark Ruffalo transforms from muscular Avengers superhero to a hunched, harangued lawyer, who shudders at the repercussions for his own family as he careens at sickening speed towards a physical breakdown.
By the time the end credits roll and a title card reveals the shocking extent of the chemical spill, our hackles are raised and any traces of PFOA in our bloodstream boil with indignation.
3. THE STRAIGHT STORY (107 mins)
Forget everything you think know about the weird and wonderful work of David Lynch and his obsession with exposing the perversity of American suburbia. The Straight Story is, just as its title suggests, a simple and linear tale.
No supernatural killers, no blood, no perverse sex – just a true-life yarn about 73-year-old Iowa resident Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) who made a pilgrimage to see his seriously ill 76-year-old brother in Wisconsin, travelling the several hundred miles that separated them on a petrol-powered John Deere lawnmower.
Very little happens, bar an incident in which the mower’s brakes fail on a steep hill, but this doesn’t matter a jot because Alvin is such a wonderfully expressive character, brought vividly to life by veteran actor Richard Farnsworth. The Straight Story is undoubtedly Mr Lynch’s most accessible and conventional film (if, indeed, there is such a thing). Beautifully photographed and acted, set against the greens and golds of rural Middle America, this is a thrilling, absorbing and poignant road movie in its truest sense.
4. UNBROKEN (132 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken documents the extraordinary true story of Louis Zamperini, who competed at the 1936 Olympic Games, survived a plane crash during the Second World War and then suffered at the hands of the Japanese in a PoW camp.
Director Angelina Jolie’s admiration for her subject is evident in every gorgeously crafted frame of this life-affirming biopic, which is blessed with Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography and an elegiac score from composer Alexandre Desplat. Wince-inducing scenes of cruelty warrant the film’s certificate but the violence always serves the narrative and is never gratuitous.
Emboldened by tour-de-force performances from Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini and pop star Miyavi as his Japanese tormentor, Unbroken soars close to greatness. Taking to heart the words of Louis’s brother – “If you can take it, you can make it” – we stare into the heart of darkness with Zamperini, willing him to overcome his horrific ordeal.
5. A WALK IN THE WOODS (100 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
For several years, journalist and author Bill Bryson returned to America from Britain. During this creatively fertile period, he hiked the physically demanding Appalachian Trail with good friend Stephen Katz, which provided the inspiration for the book A Walk In The Woods.
Ken Kwapis’ film version retains the writer’s wry sense of humour and episodic structure, gifting Nick Nolte a peach of a part as the crotchety sidekick, who wheezes and puffs in Mr Bryson’s shadow as they wander the 2200 miles separating Georgia and Maine. Robert Redford lends his dashing good looks to the lead role of family man Mr Bryson, who hopes to get himself out of a rut by trekking the arduous route. “Seriously Bill, even for you it’s ridiculous!” despairs his wife Catherine (Dame Emma Thompson).
Director Mr Kwapis savours the comical set-pieces, including Mr Katz’s laundromat seduction of a woman whose silky smalls are snagged in one of the washing machines. Hearty guffaws are nicely balanced with moments of introspection and regret.
Flights of fantasy
6. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (163 mins)
Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking 1982 fantasy honours the past and respectfully expands the nihilistic universe imagined by Philip K Dick in his novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
In Blade Runner 2049, androids dream of wooden horses and possessing the one thing that cannot be coded into their meticulously crafted bodies: a soul. “You’ve been getting along fine without one,” rebukes one human to her melancholic replicant underling. A pedestrian pace allows us to second-guess Ryan Gosling’s laconic hero and beat him to a couple of narrative punches. His restrained performance contrasts with Ana de Armas’ luminous embodiment of a holographic companion, who yearns to connect on the most primal level.
Harrison Ford eases back gruffly into a familiar role, noticeably with less spring in his step, while composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer crank up the volume on their bombastic score. Mr Villeneuve’s muscular, brooding film does not fade quietly.
7. DRIVE (97 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
For the opening 10 minutes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s nail-biting thriller, the lead character – a Hollywood stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver – says nothing. He lets his skills behind the wheel do the talking, accelerating smartly through the streets and alleyways of Los Angeles as police cars and a helicopter give chase.
Cliff Martinez’s insistent orchestral score merges with the heavy breathing of two robbers in the back of the car as Refn’s camera nervously surveys the streets. The tension is agonising … then rubber burns, the engine revs and we hold on tight.
Adapted from the novel by James Sallis, Drive hits the accelerator in opening scenes and barely touches the brakes as the plot skids with sickening inevitability towards its bloody resolution. Mr Gosling is mesmerising as the speed-freak loner, catalysing smouldering screen chemistry with Carey Mulligan. Director Mr Refn punctuates their doomed romance with scenes of graphic violence including an assault in a lift that will test the strongest stomachs.
8. HIS GIRL FRIDAY (92 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Director Howard Hawks is at the height of his powers in this 1940 screwball comedy, which pairs the sublime Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a former husband and wife who rediscover their love on the job as editor and ace reporter, covering the impending execution of a man accused of killing a police officer.
Adapted from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 stage play The Front Page, His Girl Friday is a potent reminder of the glories of cinema past. Charles Lederer’s script demands frenetic verbal gymnastics from a flawless ensemble cast including Ralph Bellamy and Gene Lockhart. The breathless pacing of rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue is a marvel, demanding split-second timing from the central double act as they spark a molten on-screen chemistry that threatens to melt celluloid.
Mr Hawks directs with the same vim, sharing the glowing headlines with his luminous on-screen talent.
9. SWEET SIXTEEN (102 mins) Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Ken Loach reunites with screenwriter Paul Laverty for an affecting portrait of shattered lives on the periphery of modern British society. Sweet Sixteen pulls no punches in its depiction of desperate, resourceful people, who risk everything to drag themselves out of the gutter. Martin Compston is the film’s heart and soul, playing a 17-year-old dreamer, who joins forces with his enterprising best pal (William Ruane) to take over the local drug scene as a means to reunite his fractured family. The plan backfires with terrifying repercussions.
Mr Compston beautifully captures the lost innocence and bullish determination of a grifter with dreams of a fairytale future, who learns to his peril that history has a nasty habit of repeating. Mr Loach and Mr Laverty set the central character’s odyssey against the backdrop of Port Glasgow, with its hulking disused cranes towering ominously above the housing estates.
10. THE WAY WAY BACK (12, 103 mins)
Drawing obvious comparisons with Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back is a bittersweet coming-of-age story that strikes a perfect balance between laughter and tears. First-time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash fashion a delightful portrait of adolescent angst that eschews mawkish sentimentality yet still manages to tug the heartstrings with aplomb.
Our affection for the film’s painfully shy teenage hero (Liam James) is galvanised in a blistering opening scene in which the lad is asked by his mother’s new boyfriend to rate himself out of 10. “I don’t know … six?” responds the lad nervously, after a considerable amount of deliberation. “I think you’re a three,” coldly retorts the boyfriend, who clearly hasn’t read the chapter on positive encouragement in his parenting handbook.
The directors navigate a haphazard path through their hero’s growing pains with tenderness and affection. The script spares the characters few blushes as they seek the tiniest glimmers of self-fulfilment.
Have you watched any of these? Do you prefer true stories or fantasy films? What is your favourite film?
– With PA
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