Our current Movie of the Month, the 2015 true-crime musical London Road, is a grim, misanthropic work adapted word-for-word from transcripts of suburban English locals reacting to the 2006 serial murders of prostitutes in their neighborhood. It’s an impressively odd, daring film considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactments portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. London Road really digs into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic by just letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves – a feel-bad emotional & political palette that’s unusual for a movie musical.
London Road is a little too unconventional to recommend other movies exactly like it. However, there are plenty of other musicals that touch on its grim urbanity & conversational song structure, even if only in flashes. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more dour, urban-set musicals on its miserable wavelength.
Jacques Demy’s gorgeous melodrama might be the pinnacle of the recitative movie musical as an artform. London Road‘s central gimmick is in adapting the natural rhythms of human speech into song, turning a real-life tragedy into a modern-day opera. Demy does the same in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, except with the gorgeous colors & soaring emotions of a Sirkian melodrama – tracking the tragic missed-connection romance of working-class sweethearts whose lives are disrupted by unwanted pregnancy & war. It’s a musical heartbreaker about the conflict between practicality & romance, and it’s sung in the same recitative style as London Road‘s real-life tale of serial murder.
Of his two Technicolor musicals, I still strongly prefer Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, simply because the more traditional musical numbers of that one are more fun to listen to than the conversational opera of this one. London Road faces similar roadblocks in its entertainment value; the songs themselves are too restricted by its recitative conceit to be especially memorable when considered in isolation. Like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, it’s a fascinating clash between artificiality and realism, and the two films glumly sing in tune when considered as a pair.
Les Misérables (2012)
2012’s movie adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables is much, much more traditional than London Road. The longest-running musical in the West End and the second-longest running musical in the world, Les Mis might be the very definition of tradition, which makes it an unlikely pairing. What the two movies have in common—besides their blatant Britishness—has more to do with theme instead of form. Like London Road, Les Mis is a grim-as-fuck reality check about harsh cultural attitudes towards sex workers and other societal cast-offs.
Making a Les Misérables movie turned out to be a logistical nightmare, getting stuck in production limbo for decades as the rights drifted from movie studio to movie studio. The 2012 version that eventually hit the screen earned great box office and Awards Season accolades upon initial release, but it’s mostly remembered now as a kind of pop culture punchline – mainly because of Russell Crowe’s awkward singing voice and director Tom Hooper’s follow-up musical disaster Cats. Personally, I enjoyed the film both times I watched it: in the theater in 2012 and on my couch almost a decade later. Anne Hathaway’s performance as a single mother who is punished for selling her body—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—for temporary survival is especially heartbreaking and feels totally at home with the pitch-black misery of London Road.
Chances are that if you’re looking for more musicals along the lines of London Road, Les Mis might be a little too traditional for a proper pairing. A major part of London Road‘s charm is its unconventional musicality and modern, urban setting. For another modern history lesson that sidesteps the movie musical’s conventional modes of song and dance, I’d look to 2018’s Leto, which chronicles the Soviet punk scene in 1980s Leningrad. Most of the actual music in Leto is diegetic, featuring bands from the time like Kino & Zoopark performing in heavily censored & regulated Soviet rock clubs. When it does break reality for traditional song & dance, the characters perform toned-down, conversational versions of classic glam & punk tunes from acts like The Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Then, a Greek-chorus type character called The Skeptic enters the frame to inform the audience that “This did not happen” just to keep the film as grounded to its real-life history as possible.
While not as much of an overt subversion of the movie musical as London Road, Leto upends expectation in its own small, laid-back ways. It’s more of a historically set hangout film than the all-out glam phantasmagoria of similar works like Velvet Goldmine or Lisztomania. It’s always a little alienating to watch a hagiography of musicians you’ve never heard of before, but I find the film solidly charming, if not only by the graces of its killer soundtrack. More importantly, it shares a downtrodden urbanity & casual demeanor with London Road that you don’t get to see in a lot of movie musicals – even stripping away the theatricality of over-the-top performers like Iggy Pop & David Byrne to make their work as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).
Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV.
In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015.
I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top Secret, God Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers.
The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling.
There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments.
I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich.
I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community?
Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.” The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart. I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense. Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place. Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds. London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.
This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end. Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes. It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny. Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do. It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.
The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat. There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech. The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV. What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee? Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?
Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.
London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.
Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?
Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).
This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.
Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.
Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.
Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing. He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead. I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic. A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth. Smart.
Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”
Upcoming Movies of the Month May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985) June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016) July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
A forewarning: this list is incomplete. As an annual list, it necessarily excises films that I haven’t managed to see this year but I am certain could appear here if I had: Moonlight and Lovingare foremost among them, although I also missed Kubo and the Two Strings while it was in theatres and The Edge of Seventeen seems to have flown by with little fanfare, although I thought it looked like a lot of fun. I’m also almost positive that Hail, Caesar! would be on this list, but my friend group has a bit of a procrastination problem, so we missed that when it was in theatres as well.
I’m also completing this list before most of the Christmas releases make their way to theatres (so there’s no Rogue One to be found here, or Passengers, which I am looking forward to seeing) so that I’m not trying to push to finish this list while traveling for the holidays. And, in case the inclusion of the divisive Jupiter Ascending on my list of favorite films from last year didn’t tip you off, this is a highly subjective list of my favorite films of the year, not necessarily those which were objectively the best.
There were also several films I saw this year that will definitely not be making this list, for various reasons. I don’t normally like to make a “worst of” list, but there were some definite stinkers this year. I didn’t care for Batman v. Supermanat all, and Independence Day: Resurgence and Deadpool (which I enjoyed more than Brandon did, but it didn’t exactly have me rolling in the aisles), while adequate-if-hollow representations of their individual genres, were nothing to write home about. I also was underwhelmed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is notably not on this list. I got a modicum of enjoyment out of Beasts, finding it to be perfectly serviceable and moderately magical, but overly reliant on CGI and lacking the charm that made the Harry Potter film series work for me, despite a few standout scenes and an main role for Katherine Waterston, who was in my number one movie last year, Queen of Earth.
Ghostbustersgot quite a lot of laughter out of me, but I can’t call it a favorite of the year, and the same can be said of Captain America: Civil War; I may have given it a 4.5 star review, but it hasn’t stuck in my mind the way that other films on this list have. I also found Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon quite unfulfilling; I know that Brandon gave it a 5 star review, but I was largely disappointed. Among my coven of aesthetes, I’m usually the one who makes the argument that, although we usually think of film as a medium with standard narrative conventions, film can really be anything (an idea we’ll revisit below in the number one entry). With that in mind, I was expecting to really enjoy Neon Demon, but even as an art house film, its Mulholland-Drive-by-way-of-Dario-Argento vibe didn’t quite work for me, even though that description should land it firmly in my heart. As much as I liked the “Are you sex, or food?” question that foreshadowed many of the events to come, and as beautiful and sumptuous the film’s color and direction were, it just didn’t work for me.
10. Pet: There’s very little that can be said about this film without discussing at least one of its intricate and baroque twists. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it is genuinely inventive and relentless in its growing unease and unpredictable (but mostly well-earned) path. There’s gore and home invasion and stalking, but none of that really matters once the ball gets rolling. I gently mocked the film as an attempt at doing a more radical “eXtreme” version of the similar story (“It’s like Hard Candy, but with a girl in a cage!”), but that’s not really a knock on the film or its ambition.
9. The Boy: I genuinely adore Lauren Cohan and have ever since her ill-fated recurring role in an early (read: good) season of Supernatural. That show already had one failed spinoff, but if they really want to get my attention, they’d have Cohan’s Bela return in her own program to act as Hell’s bounty hunter à la the 1998 series Brimstone. I’m genuinely pleased she was in two films this year (even if the other was Batman v Superman). With regards to The Boy, it’s worth noting that it’s not really a great film, although it is sufficiently suspenseful and genuinely creepy. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and this movie is fairly run of the mill other than one major element. I love horror, but if there is one thing that I hate about the genre, it’s the fact that the skeptic is always wrong. If a group of teenagers head out into the woods, there will be something scary lurking in the darkness, and the skeptical character will usually be the first to go; if a psychologist and a priest are at odds about whether a young girl is possessed or mentally ill, she will be revealed to have a demon beneath her flesh; if a person who is certain that phantoms are not real spends the night in a haunted house, he will be terrorized by ghosts; etc., etc. If a film juxtaposes an argument between rationalism and fantasy, the film always shows that the irrational is true. There’s only one franchise in the West that prioritizes skepticism over blind acceptance, and it’s for children: Scooby-Doo (which tells the realest truth– that the greatest evil in the world is done by greedy white landgrabbers). This movie is a breath of fresh air if for no other reason that the audience is presented with what is ostensibly a supernatural horror film about a doll that may or may not be alive, then reveals that there is a grounded, rational explanation, slightly goofy though it may be (and no, it’s not that Greta has lost her mind). For that alone, it deserves a place on this list.
8. Ten Cloverfield Lane: Far better than it had any right to be, this sequel in-name-only suffers from an overly elongated denouement that is so tonally dissonant from the film that precedes it that I couldn’t justify placing it any higher on this list. I felt much the same way about Super 8 several years back: 90% of both of these film is absolute perfection, but the unsatisfactorily Syfy Channel ending mars what could be otherwise be an unequivocal classic. Still, the bulk of the film that is spent in John Goodman’s bunker is relentlessly and intoxicatingly tense, and the strong performances from the three players give the film an intimacy that many films that would be called “character pieces” lack.
7. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film, the mockumentary Popstar is actually an incisive and withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Although some of my fondness for the film is no doubt informed by the loss of my beloved The Soup (I’m still in mourning) and the resultant general dearth of media that is aimed at mocking and disempowering the grotesque machinery of entertainment industry synergy, this is also a movie that rides high on hilarity, with jokes flying off the screen at a rapid pace. The narrative of a band member whose success and ensuing egotism destroys their relationships before realizing that interpersonal connection is more important than fame is a tired one, but at least Popstar is a parody, which makes it work at least as well as its spiritual predecessor Josie and the Pussycats. From mocking Macklemore and the way that his music is paradoxically homopositive and insecure about masculinity (“Equal Rights“), the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism (“Things in My Jeep”), and the creepy fetishization of military action and nationalism (“Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)“), the film delivers on a lot of levels.
6. London Road: Although I already spoke about the film in my review of it, I’d love to reiterate the intrinsic beauty of the way that this film is made and the voices that it uses to speak to us about human nature, in both its beauty and its spitefulness, its heart and its bile, while sidestepping the potential to be overly didactic. Tragedy can birth hope, or more tragedy, or both; communities can do good by creating solidarity and a desire for rebirth or evil by turning its back on those who need help most. The story of the people, in their own words, is at turns revolting and endearing, but never less than mesmerizing.
5. Arrival: I like Amy Adams, even if her rise to stardom is an utter puzzle to me. To be honest, the first thing I think of when I hear her name is the episode of Charmed where she played a potential Whitelighter who almost kills herself (complete with terrible green screen effect); the second thing I think of is her playing a fat-sucking vampire because of kryptonite in her garden in Smallville (complete with terrible fat suit); the third thing I think of is her appearance as a vaguely self-hating member of Tara’s family in a Very Special Episode of Buffy where magic equals sapphic love (complete with terrible accent). Maybe that says more about myself and my wasted adolescence than it does about Amy (it does), but she’s come a long way since 2000, and I’m glad to see her here in this beautiful film about the nature of existence, how life is transient and ephemeral but also powerful, with ripples and effects that echo into eternity. Some of the plot elements are a little belabored, and I could have done with a little less idealization of romance at the end, but overall this is a touching film that could one day be the Contact of our generation.
4. Star Trek Beyond: Nearly forgotten among the more high-performing comic book flicks and talking animal movies that made up the bulk of this year’s domestic box office successes, this third film in the reboot series actually feels more relevant now than it did at the time of its release. If the villain of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was Mike Pence (or, more accurately, amorphous forms of violence that are the direct result of suppressing one’s true nature due to political oppression, so… Mike Pence), then the villain of Star Trek Beyond is your average Trump supporter and voter. Krall is a man full of rage, a nationalistic fury forged to white-hot purity because of his viewpoint that the principles of unity and tolerance, the idealistic precepts under which the Federation flies its banner, are weak. In reality, the truth is that he is an anti-intellectual remnant of a bygone era, a time when strength and intimidation, not peace and acceptance, were the greatest of virtues; his madness and anger are the result of a society that has become more utopian in the time that he has been forgotten. Instead of finding a new niche for himself in this strange new world (as embodied in the way that Jaylah, who was born into Krall’s world but escapes it and finds a way to not only survive but thrive in Federation space), he would rather burn it all down than find a way to adapt. Ultimately, society is preserved because unity, peace, and compassion (and art!) are more powerful than the rage of the beast. At the time that the film was released, I could not have foreseen the outcome of the election, and when discussing this philosophical difference in my review stated that it was “not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it.” In the wake of all that has happened in the weeks since the election, it’s an ideal that is worth remembering and even cherishing, and Star Trek Beyond may ultimately be the most prescient Trek since Undiscovered Country.
3. Don’t Breathe: I wrote pretty extensively about this film in my review, so I’ll just paste over some of my thoughts from that piece: “[Director Fede] Alvarez’s beautiful cinematography and lingering camera work elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill horror movie. There’s an attention to detail that bespeaks a greater knowledge of the language of film, and Alvarez is obviously well on his way to being a master linguist. I can’t remember the last time, other than The VVitch, where I felt so much tension in my spine while taking in a fright flick, and I was haunted by the movie for hours after walking out of the theatre.”
2. Anomalisa: This one is a bit of a technical cheat, since its release date (December 30, 2015; who the hell does that?) meant that there was no way to see the film in time to include it on my list of my favorite films from last year, but also meant that it shouldn’t properly be included in this year’s list since it was technically released in 2015. In case you missed it, Anomalisa is classic Charlie Kaufman madness, filled with quirky characters and sly character development that desperately wants (and often succeeds in having) the viewer sympathize with a main character who is ultimately morally bankrupt and unlikable, but pitiable in his mental dissolution. In my review of the film, I expressed my weariness with the seemingly endless “paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui” films that are littering our cultural motion picture landscape; in the ensuing year, I’ve moved past irritation into hostility, but I still recall this film with a great fondness. It’s atypical Kaufman in that it lacks much of the magical surrealism of Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York (minus the conceit that all characters other than Stone and his love interest have identical faces), but the intricacy of its stop-motion beauty far outweighs the mediocrity of its unappealing protagonist.
1. The Witch: A New England Folktale: How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways! It’s a cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last; I’m still anxiously awaiting a second-by-second breakdown by Every Frame a Painting, because each captured moment is elegant and haunting. The film acts as a kind of newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, what with its ruminations on faithfulness and faithlessness, acting as a kind of companion piece to both “Young Goodman Brown” in the way that both highlight the apparent Calvinistic truth that depravity is the true nature of man, and that the carnal world and its temptations must constantly be guarded against lest the smallest of sins (white lies, sexual curiosity, and even neglecting one’s prayers) snowball immediately into damnation. It’s a true New England American Gothic piece in this way, and that voice is clear and revelatory. The only real problem with the film is that it’s at once both a character driven drama, a horror flick, a mood piece, and an art film, and it’s that last one that I think is the biggest hangup for the film’s detractors. Unlike other movies that might fall under the generous “art film” banner, The Witch is not a hard film to follow or understand. If you recommend, for instance, Mulholland Drive to a friend, they may watch but not enjoy it, saying “I didn’t get it.” The danger with The Witch is that, despite its dense layers of subtext and meaning and its reliance on a basic understanding of Puritan morality, many may come away saying “I get it, I just don’t like it,” even though they fail to actually grasp the width and breadth of its mastery.
Let’s get one thing straight: I do not like musicals. Please don’t break your string of pearls by snatching them too quickly. It’s not a topic worth dwelling upon but, even aside from any logical problems that I have with regards to musicals vis-à-vis people bursting into song and suspension of disbelief, I personally find them to be a relic of a bygone age of theatre. That having been said, however, I recently saw London Road and absolutely loved it.
London Road stars the always amazing Olivia Colman (Peep Show, Hot Fuzz, Broadchurch) and the original London cast from the stage production (as well as a very tiny cameo by Tom Hardy, despite his prominence in the sparse marketing for the film). The plot concerns itself with a real-life series of prostitute murders that occurred in 2006 in the small British town of Ipswich, and the film plays out almost like a documentary, with “talking head” segments scattered throughout. The central gimmick of the production is that all of the dialogue (and songs) are taken from real witness statements and interviews, down to the “errs” and “umms.”
The statements provided begin with the viewpoints of the people of London Road, a street located in an area of Ipswich that saw a large upswing in prostitute activity following nearby construction. Each of them has a different view of the influx of women, ranging from sympathy to scorn and outright derision (one woman even later says that the serial killer who murdered five sex workers may have done the neighborhood a public service). All of them, however, admit to feeling that the street felt less like home after this “invasion” and recalling unpleasant encounters with said women, saying (and singing) that they were discomfited by these outsiders even before the violence began.
We then swing around to hear the story from the point of view of the prostitutes, their struggles and tribulations, including addiction, interaction with the police, and fear of the modern day ripper. They tell a harrowing story about how it took the murder of five women for anyone to care enough to try to get them off the street. “I want to get myself clean, if I could do anything,” one woman sings, while another praises how far she’s come from the days when she would spend hundreds on drugs every day: “all I do is like £15 worth of drugs a day now.” Mixed in is the giddy song of two teenage girls that alternates between thrilled and terrified, and a chorus of people who await the arrival of the killer at the courthouse. A community that has been torn apart by both murders and the discovery that their neighbor was the perpetrator find themselves existentially fraught, but find a way back from the brink.
I really liked the music in this film. Generally, one of the things that I dislike most about your traditional stage or film musical is the taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative. Here, however, the naked emotions present in the admissions that London Road’s residents make and the simple language thereof lend the film a realism that more standard musicals cannot approach. Although the movie wanders into sentimentality at the end, it manages to warm the heart without being too treacly and cloying, a feat which many “uplifting” works can’t manage irrespective of the presence of belabored songs.