By Esther McCarthy @Esthermccarthy
1. The Revenant
Essentially a tale about living in the moment and survival at all costs, The Revenant is a ground-breaking two and a half hours of cinema, an experience quite unlike anything on the big screen before.
It’s a tough watch – some scenes are graphically violent and you endure every sense of cold, pain, fear and tension as you go through it with these characters.
But boy, are the rewards abundant. Its immersive quality makes it a gripping experience, as thrilling as it is exhausting. And this story of revenge unfolds in a spectacular way. Leo Di Caprio, aided and abetted by a fine cast including Domhnall Gleeson, is super.
2. Sing Street
Sing Street is a joy of a film, a richly detailed love letter to Dublin, to youth and to romance.
There’s real depth, too, in the struggles (bullying, rejection, family strife) that its protagonists face, and great humour in their interactions.
But mostly, Sing Street is about the redemptive power of music, and what music – as well as The Cure and Duran Duran, there are some wonderful original tunes.
Like all of the best comedy and drama, it’s free of cynicism and true to the core, and you’ll identify with the dilemmas and banters its characters have.
Teenager Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, whose first film this is, is a revelation as Conor, a fifteen year old whose life is in a state of chaos. The constant rows at home suggest his parents (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) are headed for splitsville, while money problems mean he’s been moved from a fee-paying school to Synge Street.
The inner-city school run by the Christian Brothers is not a happy place. But there is hope, in the form of the beautiful Raphina who lives opposite the school. They make a connection when she agrees to star in a music video for his band. Now all he has to do is actually set up a band.
Spotlight is a film that champions good, old-fashioned, dogged, investigative, foot-in-the-door journalism – and a reminder of how it is vital to bring those who believe themselves untouchable into account.
Set in early 2000s Boston, the film tells how the Boston Globe’s investigative team – Spotlight – look at how the Catholic Church routinely moved and reassigned abusive priests around city and the state, leading to wide scale sexual abuse of children.
What emerges is an instant classic in the vein of All the President’s Men. It’s an important film, but never a wearisome, worthy one – Tom McCarthy, directing his own script, does a super job of upping the ante and the tension as the full extent of what is being exposed unveils.
It will strongly resonate with Irish audiences, too. We’ve our own shocking experiences of clerical abuse in this country, while the roll call of priests’ names investigated in Boston are as Irish as they come.
4. A Date for Mad Mary
Think Bridesmaids, but set in Drogheda, with more grit and more sass, and you’re about halfway to describing A Date For Mad Mary, the stunning first feature from Irish director Darren Thornton.
Co-written with his brother Colin and adapted from the award-winning stage play, the movie successfully pulls off that rare combination of humour and drama – it’s a film that feels almost note perfect, and a story with real depth and heart. It’s bloody funny, too.
Thornton is aided and abetted by a terrific young female cast, and of these, Seána Kerslake, as Mary, deserves every bit of the hype she’s getting.
On returning to her home town of Drogheda to help organise the wedding of her closest and lifelong friend, Charlene (Charleigh Bailey), she gradually realises that both friends and family have been getting on with life without her.
Undaunted and stubborn, Mary sets about writing her bridesmaids speech and catching up with her increasingly reluctant friend. One of the best Irish movies of the year in a year of great Irish movies.
5. Hell or High Water
David MacKenzie is rapidly becoming one of my new favourite filmmakers. Here, he follows up on the gritty prison drama Starred Up with one of the best indie films I’ve seen this year.
He’s also coaxed terrific performances out of an up-for-it cast out of this contemporary Western/heist thriller. It’s a nice clash of genres, and the wry observations of its characters make it reminiscent of the Coen Brothers. But MacKenzie, working with a script from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, puts his own stamp on the story.
Set in Texas, the movie centres on the exploits of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) who join forces to rob several branches of the same bank, taking smaller notes to avoid detection.
Their plan? To illicitly use the money to pay to the same bank, which is threatening foreclosure on their family home, in what is a neat plot device.
Their warped form of justice appears to be possible, until they fall under the radar of a Texas ranger (Jeff Bridges at his best) who doggedly pursues them in the hope of cracking one last big case before retirement.
It’s a familiar tale but one that builds wonderfully thanks to MacKenzie’s assured direction and some super cast performances.
6. Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford’s film is a mischievously told account of an imploding marriage. But Ford, who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel Tony and Susan, blends fiction with fact.
From when we first meet wealthy and successful art gallery owner Susan Morrow (a fine Amy Adams) it is evident that all is not well with her.
She is surprised to hear from a person in her past – her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) who she hasn’t spoken to for years following a bitter break-up.
He has finally completed his first novel, dedicated it to her, and sent her the first copy. Intrigued, Susan starts to read, and soon finds herself overwhelmed by the dark tale within its pages.
The novel tells the story of a man (also played by Gyllenhaal) who is distraught when his family come under threat by criminals, and joins forces with a top detective (Michael Shannon) in the hope of tracking them down. Shannon is terrific in support here and deserves a lot of love come awards season.
7. I, Daniel Blake
Legendary filmmaker Ken Loach is at his angriest – and sometimes, his funniest – with this Cannes Palme D’Or winner.
It’s one of his finest films in years, examining, as Loach has so often in the past, the struggles faced by Britain’s working classes. For Irish people coming through years of recession and austerity, it will truly hit home.
Dave Johns is terrific as the title character, a talented carpenter from Newcastle who has worked all his life but is urged to take leave by his doctor following a heart attack.
Attempting to negotiate a social welfare system that’s bureaucratic and seems designed to trip him up no matter what approach he takes, an increasingly frustrated Blake navigates queues, automated phone calls and the internet in a bid to get an income.
In doing so he befriends a young mother (an excellent Hayley Squires), who has been forced to move from London to Newcastle with her two kids to take up an offer of a council house, but is struggling on every level.
Loach’s films are sometimes dismissed as populist, but there is nothing false about the characters we meet and their efforts to better their lives while navigating a “one size fits all” social welfare system.
8. The Young Offenders
For a movie about two petty criminals on the hunt for washed-up bales of cocaine, The Young Offenders is surprisingly charming.
Writer/director Peter Foott has brought two great talents out of Cork in the form of young actors Chris Walley and Alex Murphy, who play our leading lads Jock and Conor.
Their bromance unfolds in the form of matching hoodies and haircuts, and their days are spent robbing bikes in the city and getting up to mischief with the local hoodlums.
There’s a reason they spend so much time together and are so dependent on each other – life at home’s not great for either of them. Jock is in a running battle with his violent, alcoholic dad, while Conor’s mother (a very good Hilary Rose) has become snippy and stressed due to the pressures that single motherhood bring.
When they hear reports that dozens of bales of cocaine has been washed up during a failed drugs smuggling operation (Foott’s film takes the real-life event from 2007 as a jumping off point for the movie) the duo head for West Cork in the hope of finding a bale and using the money to better their lives.
The movie succeeds or fails on the draw of its two leads – and Murphy and Walley, both starring in their first feature film – are delightful. Best of all, The Young Offenders is an absolute hoot – packed with hilarious one-liners and absurd comic moments.
9. Midnight Special
Batty and fantastical sci-fi dramas don’t come much better than Midnight Special, a movie that requires you to leave your scepticism at the cinema foyer and get on board with its (initially) outlandish premise.
If you can make the leap, the rewards are numerous. Jeff Nicols’ film is tense and riveting, and a true original.
Young Jaeden Leiberher is terrific as Alton, a strange little boy, who, we learn, wears those earphones and sunglasses for very unusual reasons.
Alton, you see, has special powers that are not always within his control, and the film opens with him on the run with his father (the brilliant Michael Shannon) and his dad’s mysterious friend (Joel Edgerton).
That’s because everyone wants a piece of Alton, not least the cultish community who’d taken him under their wing in a place called The Ranch (run by an underused Sam Shepherd). Their entire belief system functions around the boy, and with doomsday coming, they are desperate to bring him back to save them.
The movie has strong echoes of the classic Spielberg sci-fi movies of the 1980s (I found myself thinking of ET many times) and it has a power and energy.
10. Love & Friendship
Jane Austen gets the Whit Stillman treatment to delightful effect in Love & Friendship, a comedy written and directed by Stillman and based on Austen’s source letters.
Filmed on location in Ireland, with venues like Newbridge House doubling for UK period locations, the movie features terrific performances from Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett.
Beckinsale is Lady Susan Vernon, the conniving widow who hasn’t let bereavement prevent her social climbing. Glamorous but down on her luck, she visits the estate of her in-laws to wait out the colourful rumours of her dalliances – and add a few new ones of her own.
Her manipulation doesn’t stop at her own love life – Lady Susan is also keen to match up her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) with the wealthy but dim Sir James Martin (a terrific Tom Bennett).
Austen screen adaptations are generally mined for their sweeping romance, but Stillman parks the heaving bosoms for pure comedy, and the resulting film is a joy.
We are reminded what a witty, socially observational writer Austen was, and how she and Stillman make great collaborators two centuries apart.
Droll, funny and refreshingly unsentimental, Love & Friendship is one of the sharpest and wittiest takes on Austen yet.