Tom Ford’s debut as a writer-director catalogued the woes of an extremely handsome gent wearing extremely well-cut suits, leading some detractors to mutter that Ford hadn’t looked much further than the mirror for inspiration. Seven years on, the fashion designer’s audacious follow-up proves that there is more to him than expensive tailoring. Nocturnal Animals delivers a merciless satire of the Los Angeles art scene; it is a grisly, white-knuckle thriller about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) being harassed by thugs in a West Texan desert; it is a wistful New York love story about a bohemian couple being pulled apart by economic realities. This is not just a genre-juggling exercise, though. Above all, “Nocturnal Animals” is a tender study of a woman (Amy Adams, above) who isn’t quite sure if she belongs in any of these three narratives. It has just as much substance as it has style – and, of course, it has style by the champagne-bucketload.
Opens in Britain on Nov 4th and in America on Dec 9th
Science-fiction blockbusters tend to be overlooked by those who hand out awards, but few science-fiction blockbusters are as haunting or as elegant as Arrival. Like so many alien-invasion films, this one features a fleet of enormous spacecraft hovering above the Earth. But in this instance the spacecraft don’t go around zapping national monuments into gravel, nor do their occupants speak fluent English. It’s up to a linguistics professor (Amy Adams again) to get aboard and try to talk to the seven-legged creatures she finds there. Denis Villeneuve’s film is mostly a fascinating, low-key chamber piece about the challenges of communication and the human urge to shoot first and ask questions later. But it’s the final twist that pummels the head and the heart with equal force. Considering that Adams is so touching in both “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals”, and that she has already been nominated for five Oscars and five Baftas, this could well be her year to win some prizes.
Opens in Britain and America on Nov 11th
Bringing up a boy
Like his first two films, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a piquant comedy-drama based on richly detailed and credible lives. Casey Affleck brings his animal-like wariness to the role of Lee Chandler, a withdrawn janitor who returns to his coastal hometown in Massachusetts when his brother dies. To his amazement, Lee learns that he has been appointed as the legal guardian of his brother’s teenage son (Lucas Hedges). But a tragedy in his own past makes it excruciatingly difficult for him to settle back into the community. “Manchester by the Sea” is strangely relaxed for a film about horror and grief. Lee meanders around the eponymous clapboard town, arguing, thinking, bumping into relatives and acquaintances. And yet Lonergan doesn’t waste a second.
Opens in America on Nov 18th and in Britain on Jan 13th
West coast story
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is so clearly the frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race that if any other film beats it to the Best Picture trophy it will go down in Hollywood history as an “upset”. It’s an elaborate Valentine’s card to Los Angeles, the movie business, and the dreamers (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling) who work there – and there is nothing that Academy voters enjoy more than seeing versions of themselves (remember “The Artist” and “Birdman”). It is also distinctive; quite apart from its colourful retro styling, its tricksy Pulp Fiction-ish structure, and its moments of magic realism, it is one of a vanishingly small number of recent big-screen musicals to have their own original songs. But the most important reason why “La La Land” is so successful is that it is too delightful for anyone to dislike. It’s a winning film, in more senses than one.
Opens in America on Dec 16th and in Britain on Jan 13th
When the BBC recently published a critics’ poll of the 100 best films of the 21st century, some pundits grumbled that no comedies had made it onto the list. But that wasn’t quite true. In joint 100th place was Toni Erdmann, a German film, written and directed by Maren Ade, which had international cineastes in stitches at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Its hero is a lonely 60-something divorcé (Peter Simonischek) who feels that the only way he can bond with his high-flying daughter (Sandra Hüller) is by donning an unruly wig and a set of grotesque fake teeth, and then meeting her corporate colleagues in the guise of Toni Erdmann, a life coach. What he isn’t expecting is that his daughter will calmly go along with the ruse. Over the course of two-and-a-half bittersweet hours, Ade balances bleak social realism with priceless comedy and several uproarious set pieces which Will Ferrell would give his fake eye teeth for. An inferior Hollywood remake is inevitable.
Opens in America on Dec 25th and in Britain on Feb 3rd