The Neon Demon

Film Bouquets 2016

 

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It was an interesting year for film. Here, in order of release, rather than stature – and with the benefit of hindsight – are our favourite movies of 2016.

Room

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This superb adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel got 2016 off to a cracking start. There were powerful performances from Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay as the central characters in a tragic yet oddly inspirational story.

The Revenant

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu delivered another dazzling movie, this one as savage and untamed as the grizzly bear that mauled Leonardo Di Caprio half to death – but made up for it by helping him win his first Oscar.

Anomalisa

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Writer/director Charlie Kaufman gave us a quirky (and deeply disturbing) animation that was a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak nature of the human condition.

Dheepan

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Jacques Audiard’s fascinating study of the lives of refugees never fell into cliche. There was violence here, but it felt horribly real and totally devastating. There were affecting performances from a cast of newcomers.

Victoria

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Sebastian Schipper’s film really shouldn’t have worked. Delivered in one continuous take, the fact that it hooked us in so brilliantly was just the icing on the cake – a real ensemble piece but plaudits must go to Laia Costa as the eponymous heroine.

Sing Street

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John Carney may have only one plot but when it was delivered as beautifully as it was in Sing Street, we were happy to indulge him. This was a beautiful, heartwarming film with appeal to anybody who has ever dreamed about pop stardom.

The Neon Demon

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The fashion industry as seen by Nicolas Winding Refn is a hell hole and here, Elle Fanning as Jesse, was the latest recruit. A weird mash-up of sex, violence and extreme voyeurism, this was the director’s most assured effort yet.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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New Zealand director Taika Waititi offered up this delightfully quirky story about a troubled teenager (Julian Dennison) and his friendship with crusty curmudgeon, Hec (Sam Neill). This film reeled us in and kept us hooked to the end credits.

The Girl with all the Gifts

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Just when we thought the zombie movie had stumbled as far as it could go, Colm McCarthy’s film gave the genre a hefty kick up the backside – and there was a star-making performance from young Senna Nanua in the lead role.

Under the Shadow

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Babek Abvari’s film had all the tropes of the contemporary horror movie and a powerful political message as well. Set in post war Tehran, young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) struggled to keep her daughter safe from the forces of darkness.

I, Daniel Blake

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Ken Loach’s return to the screen resulted in one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year – a searing look at ‘benefits Britain’ that would have the most stony-hearted viewer in floods of tears. Should be required viewing for Tory politicians.

Train to Busan

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Another day, another zombie movie – but what a zombie movie! Korean director Sang ho Yeon gave us a galloping ‘zombies on a train’ thriller that nearly left us breathless. There were some incredible set pieces here and a nerve-shredding conclusion.

Paterson

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Jim Jarmusch presented a charming and quirky tale about a would-be poet living in a town that had the same name as him. Not very much happened, but it didn’t happen in an entirely watchable way. A delightful celebration of the creative spirit.

Life, Animated

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This compelling documentary squeaked in right at the end of the year – the true life tale of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy, initially unable to speak a word, but rescued by his love of Disney movies. It was funny, uplifting and educational – and our final pick of 2016.

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The Neon Demon

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The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are never less than thought-provoking. His thriller, Drive, had him teetering dangerously close to creating a mainstream hit, while the ‘mad-as-frogs-but-utterly watchable’ Only God Forgives offered a weird mash up of sex, violence and extreme karaoke. In The Neon Demon, Refn takes on the fashion industry and the result might be his most assured effort yet.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a naïve would-be model, newly arrived in the charnel house of Los Angeles haute couture, hoping to carve out some kind of career for herself. In her own estimation, she can’t write, sing or act, she has no talents at all but she is pretty and she can sell that. She is blessed (or possibly cursed) with an innate quality that makes casting directors look favourably upon her, much to the chagrin of others in the industry who only perceive her as a rival. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist who services top models in the daylight and attends to the look of the recently deceased by night. Jessie, meanwhile, lives in a sleazy motel operated by the world’s creepiest landlord (Keanu Reeves) but as her star begins to ascend, it looks as though she might just be on the verge of major success…

Refn’s cinematic influences are apparent at a glance. The ‘Gallo’ films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are referenced in the opulent use of colour and in the pulsing, electronic soundtrack, while the storyline has echoes of traditional fairy tales, particularly Snow White. (The Grimm brothers would surely have approved of the stomach-turning excesses displayed here – cannibalism, necrophilia and voyeurism all rear their unsavoury heads. Be warned, this is not for the faint-hearted.)

With so many potential pitfalls waiting to claim the film, it’s to Refn’s credit that he steers his story so expertly through the rapids. Yes, he seems to be saying, the fashion industry is a vile, sexist construct that feeds upon the objectivism of the female form and ultimately consumes and destroys those who dare to enter into it – and he’s not afraid to show exactly that; and yet, his film never feels gratuitous, never comes across as a case of the director having his cake and eating it. We are appalled by what we’re watching, which is just as it should be.

With its slow, languorous direction and eye-popping visuals, The Neon Demon is a stunning slice of contemporary cinema that will have you discussing its content long after you’ve left the cinema.

5 stars

Philip Caveney