This piece started as a quickly jotted down review intended to Letterboxd. But once I started jotting, I just kept going. And it evolved into something that I don’t think is quite a review (though elements of that remain), but more an attempt to work through my feelings of a film that greatly challenged me, but that also has creative shortcomings. One that I just wasn’t sure what I thought about it. This also evolved over the course of a few edits from a quite personal exploration of my feelings (that version of the piece probably fitted better with the title) to where it ended up which is more of a consideration of how the film approaches colonialism and it as an example of genre.
Just a few content warnings for this piece, the film depicts sexual assault and pretty extreme violence (including against a baby) and I discuss those elements below.
‘Colonisation is a brutal process, one in which everyone involved is debased.’ – Larissa Behrendt on The Nightingale
The first 30 minutes of The Nightingale are nigh on unwatchable. There’s a sense over this period that the film almost goes a little too far. But as Sam Langford pointed out in their astute analysis of the film on Junkee, the overwhelming nature is really the point and speaks to what the film is trying to say about colonialism generally, and specifically in Tasmania. Over this initial half hour of the film, the film shows the main character Clare being viciously sexually assaulted twice and then in a shocking punctuation point, her baby is murdered in front of her. There are different dimensions to both of the assault scenes. The first is all anger. A deliberate assault in which Sam Clafin’s Hawkins lords his power over Clare in a number of ways, culminating in the vicious physicality of the assault. The second assault is characterised by the methodical enjoyment. Preening over the details as a way to torture Clare’s husband Aidan, who is in the room with her. The sounds of sniggering intermingled with a baby’s crying and a husband’s wailing. Perhaps one aspect of that ‘too far’ thought is the way that we are situated inside the cramped room whilst rape and infanticide are being committed. The effect is not to make one feel complicit, though there are definitely hints of that as Clare looks straight as the camera during the second assault. It’s more being too close to these acts. Being held and forced to watch, as if looking away will be a betrayal of some sort.
“Whitefella way is shit way” – Billy
There is a sense that what Kent is attempting to sketch with the film is a picture of colonialism in its numerous violent manifestations. Run of the mill military bullying, the war being raged against the indigenous population, the sexual assault, the rampant misogyny. All are manifestations of colonialist control. It’s a film concerned with power dynamics, and it is not always Clare that is the victim. The overall racial prejudice of the time is starkly rendered through lynching and horrific language. But the writing of Billy, Clare’s tracker and the main indigenous character is at times lacking. The framing and arc of their relationship is ham fisted. At times their dynamic takes on a borderline ‘buddy’ dynamic in terms of the beats and way it evolves in a way that feels somewhat rote. They fight, they need each other at times, they let each other down, they hold each other up and they eventually deeply connect. Though there is a certain poignancy to elements of their relationship toward the end – particularly when Billy heals Clare (using methods that she had shortly before dismissed as “hocus pocus”). And that poignant payoff masks some of the issues of how the duo is written for the most part. At times (though not always, and especially on first viewing) Billy feels like a plot device rather than a fully formed character and agent in the film. There are also instances when the two also situated as equal victims of the colonialist crusade in a way that feels uncomfortable (without diminishing Clare’s personal ordeal in the film). As they sit by a fire, Clare pits her oppression as an Irishwoman against that of Billy. Coming in the midst of a journey through a stolen land, where black bodies have been seen hung from trees and claiming that you’ve “civilised the land, got rid of the blacks” is the main pitch to your commander when trying to score a promotion. Clare pushes this sense of being wronged so far that all Billy can exasperate is “bloody white people”.
‘The woods in The Nightingale are a dystopian maze of mayhem and terror’ – Inkoo Kang on The Nightingale
One thing often missed in considerations of the film is just how neatly it fits in the horror genre. Both as a period rape revenge film (with much of the structural template of that subgenre embraced), as nature horror and also in the use of dreams, that definitely play and are presented as supernatural, even if that is not the intended literal interpretation. Even in this film Kent shows that her strongest attributes are as a horror director. The film crafts a pit of dread and unease in the stomachs of its viewers that lasts the entire run time of the film. And even if the film is not totally immersed in the genre at all times, that’s an attribute that sits squarely at the heart of so much horror. Many films can achieve this for a short period, often through a sensory assault. But here there is a sustained intentionally oppressive atmosphere for the viewer. This is achieved in a number of ways. There is a share of that sensory assault, but also the vulnerability of Clare situated throughout in almost purely masculine environments, the revenge dynamic and perhaps most successfully the natural environment the characters find themselves enveloped by. Horrifying masses in the fog, the dead stalking through the forest, dreams springing to life, nightmares that haunt and invade, awakening at one’s lowest point cradled, dwarfed and awed by a fallen tree and attempts to escape the physical. All of these intermingle and dictate the middle act of the film (and well into the third act too) in a labyrinthine way. Nature it seems is both a oppressor and a potential avenue of escape – on more than one occasion the point of view of a character looks to the sky as they are assaulted, perhaps to the ‘heavens’, perhaps as a longing to be freed from their physical pain.
The morning after her second violent assault and the murder of her family, The Nightingale threatens to be a truly great rape revenge film, mainly through Aisling Franciosi’s performance as Clare. Franciosi’s face is pure spite, hate, anger and rage. She marches, motivated through the landscape full of incendiary action. For better or worse however the film does not maintain this fiery headlong march into action, preferring to delve into the reality of travelling through inland Tasmania at the time and that broader view of colonialism. Having said that, Kent does circle back to the beats of the subgenre a couple of times, most notably when Clare and Billy catch up with the first of the men she is hunting. Clare methodically stalks this already wounded man, via horseback and then on foot, eventually landing on top of him and stabbing the living fuck out of him over and over again, the camera lingering on her blood-splattered face. A clear moment of catharsis for the character and one enhanced by the shock of how it is portrayed for the audience.
At the risk of not considering the film as it was made, it’s interesting to ponder if it would have felt a more coherent vision if it more often leant into the simple generic tropes and provided a similarly simple sense of catharsis and release. As it is The Nightingale is messy, uneven and brutal and perhaps all the more worthy because of all that. A more straightforward horror film wouldn’t have given the multifaceted look at colonialism that Kent attempts and so often succeeds in bringing to the screen. As it is, it is Billy’s proclamation “I’m still here you bastards and I’m not going anywhere” delivered both as a personal statement and a broader claim, that probably lingers longest in the mind.
Living in Canberra Australia, with the pandemic as under control as pretty much anywhere in the world, a while back I returned to the cinema for the first time. I was fully intending to record an episode of Driving Home From the Cinema Reviews on this one. Instead, the approach to familiar material inspired me to write a review to a new release for the first time in forever. In the paragraph below starting ‘the result of all this’ I go into detail that may approach spoiler territory. But I don’t think in a way that will affect the experience for anyone. Just a heads up if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.
Sketching out the plot of Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth (2019) – terminally ill teen falls in with slightly older drug dealer much to the chagrin of her parents – calls to mind certain expectations. But this film is barely concerned with the narrative beats one would expect, the nature of the illness, or for most of the run-time, even the emotions generated by it all. Rather it is at its best when working at the level of change and emotion. It moves in tones and notes that range from the subtle to the euphoric. Dance, connection, unexpected presences in one’s life (that are also unwanted by others) that challenge and delight. At times this is all driven by the use of music as it’s used to fill the aural space, simultaneously disorienting and focusing. The chance meeting of the ill Milla and Moses at a train station leads to a deep, doomed connection. The performances from Eliza Scanlen as Milla and Toby Wallace as Moses are strikingly unaffected. Wallace in particular brings a distinctly ragamuffiny energy and charm to a role that could feel rote in a lesser film. Credit for this belongs equally to the inquisitive scripting of his character and the performance. Similarly the relationship between the two of them is nicely complex for a teen focussed film, having its ups and downs, but not those we would expect – driven by Moses’ erraticism and desire for drugs to sell; and Milla’s illness, yearning and self-sufficiency.
The result of all this is that when Murphy does choose to engage with the stark emotions involved in the illness and death of a teenager it crushes. The filmmakers have somehow crafted it all without us noticing and all of a sudden the full force of what this means is nakedly, starkly real. This is done in a couple of scenes. First, we find out from Moses that Milla is dead. The scene then splits in two and Murphy cuts between them with the characters are paired up in the opposite way to what one would expect – again the film subverting the norm of these kinds of experiences. It is Milla’s father who rushes to her bed and lies with her body, overcome with grief. Then in the other strand of the scnee, Moses is paired off with Milla’s mum Anna (an amazing Essie Davis), the unapproving adversary. The realisation here for Anna is twofold – that Moses has been the most important person in her daughter’s final weeks and that she is gone. Murphy chooses not to end the film there. The next scene, that closes the film, takes place on a beach. Most of the characters from the film are there. And during that scene, coming when it was apparent to them all that Milla would soon die, she simply, gently asks her dad to look after Moses. The reaction from Ben Mendelsohn is utterly heartbreaking. It is this request that has brought into stark clarity for him what the near future holds for him and his daughter. This final piece of planning, the most important request she can fathom. As Mendelsohn has grown into his fame and found adulation worldwide, he has also grown into somewhat of a meme, with the emphasis on the concept of ‘full Mendo’ being ubiquitous. But it is here, in a piece of acting as far from ‘full Mendo’ as you can imagine, that he delivers his best work ever. The reaction is so well done that it cracked something deep inside me as a viewer. The ache of this father. They symbolic weight of his daughter’s final request.
Verdict: With its interesting, non-narrative approach to familiar material, Babyteeth surprises without feeling like that is what it is aiming for. The approach to death and emotion feels radical, simply because it is thoughtful and considered. And the closing sequences made me feel so so much, so deeply, in the way that only the most affecting of film can. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Time for another year end wrap-up. As per tradition, it’s a solid month after everyone else has done theirs. 2019 was a bit of a funny film-watching year for me. There were lots of really long stretches of not seeing anything due to family and work things. But I ended up watching around 85 releases for the year. Which is more than enough for most people, but a little down on recent years for me. Here’s some thoughts on my favourites. Hyperlinks are to podcast reviews.
First up the honourable mentions. I saw Booksmart after much of the hype and was pleasantly surprised at how silly funny it was. Toy Story 4 was a strong, character driven effort from Pixar. In terms of docos, Eva Orner’s shocking and methodical Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator was the best that’s not listed elsewhere here. It was a strong year for drama. The Hate U Give, Atlantics, Galveston and the Florence Pugh starring wrestling biopic Fighting with my Family were all excellent. Conversely it was a pretty crappy year for the blockbuster following a couple of strong ones. Godzilla: King of the Monsters the only one worth mentioning for me.
Guava Island had some of my favourite moments of the year even if it didn’t totally come together as a whole. In terms of shorts, Oscar winner Hair Love and Chris Elena’s latest Audio Guide were both films I absolutely loved. I can’t recall the last time I had no Australian films or horror films on my list. Slam and The Final Quarter, two sharp examinations of race, were the best of the former. While Tumbbad was my favourite horror film of the year (and was on the list right up until the last moment when I realised I had forgotten something), just in front of Jordan Peele’s excellent second feature Us. Doctor Sleep was very good for the most part and the shortfalls are really down to elements outside of the filmmaker’s control I feel.
Really liked this. Mixes the dramatic and the comedic really well. The latter with some nice elements of farce. Thematically focusses in on difference: Chinese, Chinese-American, Chinese-Japanese, generational. How all of these factors intermingle. It’s all stylishly directed and shot with a script that avoids the obvious beats. Awkwafina gives one if the best performances of the year with a surprising sense of quiet.
9. Teen romance
I genuinely believe we are in a golden age of both the teen film and the romance film, due in large part because a broadening of the voices telling the stories. Neither of these films represent the pinnacle of either of those genres. But I think they both serve as interesting mashups of the two and are also idiosyncratic, thoughtful attempts at mainstream fare.
After their creatively brilliant 2018, Marvel had a pretty average year. Both of their big releases didn’t rise above simply ok levels. But I had such a blast with this. Wryly avoiding multiverse complexity and serving up a romantic comedy in the MCU was a great choice after the big Avengers blowout. More delightful teen romances with a splash of superheroey stuff on the side please. Delightful and energising, this captures the overwhelming feel of being a teen, let alone a superhero one. And Zendaya’s MJ is an exceedingly cool character too and different to the usual love interest. Her performance was one of my absolute favourites of the year too.
Five Feet Apart
Friends I cried like three times watching this movie. It opens with this bloody lovely little treatise on the importance of touch and it just kept on being unexpectedly thougftul and melodramatic the whole way through. Haley Lu Richardson has an incredibly presence as Stella and even if Cole Sprouse can’t quite always match that, their chemistry in the film’s big moments is excellent. This a teen romance film that absolutely nails that angle, but that also engages with death and super serious chronic illness in a way that is both beautiful and genuine.
It is hard to combine clear autobiographical connection with storytelling as often it becomes indulgent or cloying. But Almodovar’s consideration of an ageing director reflecting back manages to avoid that. The physicality of Banderas as he inhabits a man breaking down on a number of different levels is nothing sort of stunning. The second half of the film is so rich in its examination of drugs, ageing, the complexities of mother son relationships and people. Thanks to the wonderful script, plus one of the year’s best performances from Banderas, this is a quite beautiful examination of both life and the place of art (in this case film) in it. The way that something you’re passionate about interacts with, and is impeded by, the crushing sadness of life.
7. Jenny Slate: Stage Fright
Some may not even consider this a film. But I do and it’s my list. The comedy is a mix of the silly and super thoughtful, which is a winning combo when delivered by Slate who has a gifted range with which to convey her material. But the aspect of this that really sets it apart from a lot of stand-up specials is the deep storytelling approach. I mean there’s a great, weird segue into analysis of a haunted house, which leads to some really interesting considerations of family and growing up. Her vulnerability as she discusses her stagefright is the kind of insight that I’ve not seen in this kind of thing. And I got really emotional when Slate discusses love.
6. Hooray for Array
You know if all we had Ava DuVernay to thank for was the work her distribution company does, she’d be one of the essential people in the film industry today. Array continue to find cinema from a diverse range of voices all around the world, and thanks to their arrangement with Netflix they have access to a super wide audience.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
This is a film so steeped in realism it almost feels brazen. A magnetic lead performance from Violet Nelson. What could have been a clinical and distant film is rendered meaningful and close by the performances and the building up of fragile, shallow relationships and alliances. These are built and fracture against a backdrop of deep yearning and high personal stakes. Showing how difficult the little moments are in domestic violence situations. Builds slowly, through dialogue and decision points to a really fucking hard, but methodical closing.
The Burial of Kojo
To me this film encompasses so much of what makes Array important. First time filmmaker, made in Africa on a miniscule budget. Yet on our radar because of who is putting it out and the ease with which it can be seen. All stuff I’m very happy about because this is an amazing film, visually haunting with unique storytelling. There’s a definite magical realism dynamic, but the human interactions are grounded in real shit. And rather than jarring, these two elements mingle and enhance one another. A film about grief, illusion and guilt. There’s a shitload to unpack and consider here.
5. If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins is a hell of a filmmaker and romantic storyteller. Baldwin’s book is amazing, but does not lend itself to simple adaptation. Jenkins turns in a boldly lyrical adaptation in response. One that utilises voiceover, gentle montage, black and white still images and the like to recall literature without breaking the engagement with the film’s story. In the hands of a lesser artist this could have felt clunky. A strong central romance sits alongside a through line of the weaponised racist biases of the criminal justice system. The lead performances from Kiki Layne and Stephan James drive all of this and the whole thing is set to the best score of the year which is brilliantly incorporated.
As far as I’m aware, this Kyrgyz film that functions as a companion piece to a classic novel from that country, got its first Australian release on Mubi in 2019. Shot on (awesome looking) Super 8, it’s a film that probably does require you to read the 1958 book by Chingiz Aitmatov, to get the full experience. But its amazing cultural insight to see women discuss this central figure from the novel, who is predominately beloved, especially as the film provides a vision of a particularly patriarchal society. They talk about her (a woman who left her husband) as a heroine and dig down into the ramifications of what she did. Its super artistic, with a strong sense of place for a doco like this. Love stories that are not straightforward, with the telling driven by complex considerations of a novel. There’s a poetic diversity to the stories told as well.
Karyn Kusama’s best film to date is a fierce crime flick. I don’t usually go in for the physical transformation thing. But here Kidman looks haggard and chilling and the nuanced performance brings all of that out. It’s a fantastic, pretty dark, emotional performance. Invokes a lot of LA crime fiction in the way it’s also portrait of the city, particularly Michael Connelly’s work. Gives an excellent sense of traversing LA. The plot is grounded heavily in the harshness of that location. A crime story that is also a portrait of how a person deals with guilt and trauma over a long period of time, here processing it through (misguided?) obsession. The best crime storytelling takes the standard beats and twists them to a slightly different end. And this does that beautifully on a couple of different levels.
A striking feat of filmmaking and storytelling, particlualry in the way that the central romance builds with pacing and a sense of intrigue. Incredibly shot – I have thought more about the image of a naked woman smoking a pipe in front of a fire, drying her canvasses, than any other this year. Painting and art infuses the rest of the film. The way the camera lingers on individual parts of the body. The craft and painstaking progress of art. The script is poetic, but also blended with light and funny turns of phrase. A seriously good film about regret, lament, absence and togetherness. It’s possible this is the film that will linger most in the mind from 2019.
1. Free Solo
This portrait of Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan is a modern documentary masterpiece. There is tension here that belongs to the finest genre films in cinema history – even if as I did you know the result of the climb before you see it. Much of that is down to the shooting of the film, which is a combination of sporting prowess, ambition and creativity. But underneath all of that, and the feat at the centre of the film, is a deep well of human focussed analysis. There are insights into process and planning. Rumination of the nature of risk, both for the one crashing into it face first, but also for those around him. Particularly effective are the scenes showing the effect of shooting the climb on Alex’s close friends who are undertaking it. It’s also an unsanitised study of Honnold as a person. Some dismiss him as an asshole, but the film considers what his level of singular focus, obsession and genius leave for personality and relationships. Wildly good.
This year has seen more and more streaming services land in the Australian marketplace. It’s becoming a pain to juggle these on a limited budget. But on the plus side there’s so, so much content. Much of it Christmas related. This is certainly not comprehensive, I didn’t even touch on some of the Christmas related stuff on Amazon Prime, SBS on Demand, Tubi and others, but I’ve tried to get a mix of stuff on a few different services.
I’ve always loved Christmas films and TV, even as I got older. There’s something about those simple, lovely themes that I do think can add some beauty to what has become an overwhelming consumerist vibe to the season. All of these have something of that vibe of togetherness, love and reflection, though not always in the most obvious of ways.
Santa Clause (1898) – whilst YouTube is not a streaming service in the way we generally consider, I had to include this curio. Directed by British film pioneer George Albert Smith, this is a one minute 16 second long piece of early cinema trickery as Santa visits a couple of kids. You can see a nice copy from the BFI here.
This Aussie service continues to creatively fend off the bigger international names. That vibe carries through a little into their offerings.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – I reviewed it right here today. It’s an absolute classic.
Christmas TV – One of the cool things Stan does is curate the Christmas episodes of a huge number of TV shows. Some favourites (episode numbers here are how they appear in the Stan Christmas collections, not standard ep numbering):
- Community: ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ (ep 2): This may be my favourite thing on this entire list. The spirit of the season examined through the exploration of one (Muslim) person’s mental health and search for the meaning of Christmas. A hilarious take on the Christmas musical in super cool stop motion animation.
- Parks and Recreation: ‘Ron and Diane’ (ep 3): The Parks and Rec Christmas episodes probably don’t stand alone as well as some others. But this still has giggly awed at woodworking royalty Ron Swanson which is beautiful. And the focus on Jerry Gergich, always an underrated supporting character, and his famous Christmas party is a cute way to bring in those traditional themes.
- The O.C.: ‘The Best Chrismukkah Ever’ (ep 1): This was in the brief golden period when this show’s dynamic was so sharp. Seth Cohen’s energy comes to the fore here with the made up holiday and Summer/Anna. Even now, so far removed from this show the music still rules. And Ben McKenzie gives a good emotional performance here as Ryan, which delivers a lot of the thematic goods.
Bad Moms 2 (2017) – This is a solid film that never quite lives up to the promise of having a hitchhiking Susan Sarandon play the mother of Kathryn Hahn (what film could). But this is a solid comedy that is actually pretty thematically rich – zeroing in on the mental load on women during the season. Let’s face it, Christmas can be fuckin stressful and most of that falls on mums. Those themes, some really nice performances and some interesting romantic stuff make it worth a look. Note: Looks like this has also popped up on Aussie Netflix as A Bad Moms Christmas since I drafted this.
The streaming behemoth seems to be pretty all in on the Christmas thing, with an endless array of films and specials of their show.
A Very Murray Christmas (2015) – I’ve watched this every December since it came out. Murray’s schtick, which can be hit and miss for me, works really well in this. There are some cool songs that add to the storytelling and Sofia Coppola infuses some of her visual style in here as well. Importantly it’s also super funny.
The Christmas Chronicles (2018) – AKA Kurt Russell Santa The Movie. This is actually quite a meaningful take on the Christmas mythos. Plus it looks really ace and is well acted all round. A lovely sense of magic and wonder to the world created here.
Klaus (2019) – This is an absolutely stunning looking animation. There is an interesting out of time quality to this, there’s no hint as to when it is set. It’s a super interesting take on the character of Santa too, how they reframe it. The film at times falls into the pitfalls of contemporary animation and having too modern a sensibility, with glib winking montages making multiple appearances. But I’ll be revisiting this one for the reinterpretation of the Santa character and the really quite poignant ending.
Nailed It! Holiday! – Nailed It absolutely rules. It is somehow the kindest reality show that pokes fun at people truly awful at what they are attempting. Charming, unserious and Nicole Byers is the perfect host.
- ‘We’re Scrooged’ (season 2, ep 1): A Christmas Carol themed episode with co-host Jason Mantzoukas. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of his comedic energy. But he’s fucking hilarious here. And there’s some delightful riffs on Dickens’ work. The hosts, and I, basically had a laughing fit at one of the cakes presented.
- ‘A Classic Christmas’ (season 2, ep 2): The great Maya Rudolph brings a dry wit to this one that complements Byers and Jacques absolutely perfectly. I could listen to Rudolph riff over stellar incompetence such as not being able to open the fridge every day of the year.
The most recent entrant in the market unsurprisingly already has a huge library of Christmas junk.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – The best Muppets movie and maybe the best adaptation of Dickens’ work (which is one of my favourite pieces of art ever). So charming. Captures that snowbound sense of (northern) Christmas. Shows the class situation of the masses well too and Michael Caine is a really excellent Scrooge. It’s a very funny script but laces it with direct lines from the book to give it the Dickens vibe. Never shies away from the absurdity that it’s the Muppets doing this story.
A Christmas Carol (2009) – Robert Zemeckis is the man and this is a criminally underrated adaptation of the source material. The performance (or four) from Carrey is the best use of his wonderful physicality in the last 20-odd years. And it doesn’t forget this is a ghost story, some of the horror beats are chilling. The script is an excellent, emotionally resonant rendering of Dickens’ novella.
One Magic Christmas (1985) – First the good stuff (and it’s mostly really good stuff). Harry Dean Stanton as a cowboy Christmas angel! An excellent Mary Steenburgen performance as an utterly worn-down mother figure, in a film that is super concerned with class. Another film that digs into the load on mothers at this time of year. Quite an adult film thematically. Now the bad (which is a bit of a spoiler): The film has a woman believe her whole family is dead so she’ll get some Christmas spirit… that’s super super fucked up. But the fact I still recommend this shows how strong (and original) those good elements are.
Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999) – Donald Duck is the worst fuckin character. But despite that, this Disney anthology is a good, easy Christmas watch. Some nice slapstick and traditional Christmas messages presented in a slightly different way. And the final segment functions as a quite sad indictment of what the consumerist nature of Christmas forces us into.
For this first review back (and first longform written review for over two years) I take a look at the most famous Christmas film of all.
It is interesting to consider Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as a Christmas film. It is not until an hour and a quarter in that it even becomes apparent the film is taking place at Christmas time. The lofty reputation as a great seasonal film essentially stems from a single scene – Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey skipping down the main street of small town Bedford Falls joyfully yelling “Merry Christmas” at anyone or anything that crosses his path.
Despite that, it’s still a pretty easy argument to make that this is the best Christmas film ever, simply based on that one scene. The film has built up to it for the best part of two hours and the cathartic, release of exaltation is exhilarating. A release that is similar to the best feelings of the holidays. In this way, the themes of the film are not always the stock standard Christmas ones. Rather they hint at the season and invoke it’s best qualities, the idealism of it. The film also focuses on the virtues of being a good person and above all a kind friend. But the film also notes how everything takes on a harsher intensity at Christmas. So much so that it reaches the point where George is openly considering committing suicide by launching himself from a bridge on Christmas Eve. There’s something obviously very confronting to that. Particularly as it comes toward the end of a film with an incredibly deep emotional core and resonance. This is melodrama, but melodrama that somehow makes the viewer feel in a very real and grounded way.
This is thanks to a seriously great script that builds ambition and dry wit on top of that melodramatic base. In terms of shooting craft, it is a combination of classical chops and innovation. It looks really beautiful, though often the angles are a bit funky. The visual storytelling, particularly early, has some more experimental flourishes. A paused image as voiceover progresses the story and a static shot of angels (represented by pulsing galaxies) discussing the goings on of earth are two of the more notable examples.
There’s a unique pain in the readjustment one must undergo from thinking you’re going to conquer (or at a minimum explore) the world, but in the end never even leaving a small town. This is what Stewart’s George Bailey goes through in this film. It’s a very good performance to convey all of that. He nails moments of rage, heartbreak and crushing stress. Those big emotion driven dramatic moments are not always his strong suit. But here he delivers them, whilst still nailing the lighter comedic beats such as the dancing into the pool, with his masterful timing. His George is utterly beset by bad luck. That, along with the fact he becomes exceedingly conflicted by being trapped in his small town, allow for the wonderful catharsis that the film closes with.
The notion of what constitutes a wonderful life is so artfully and beautifully rendered in the film’s last 15 minutes here. A stark, sobering display of the difference a ‘normal’ life can make. These are the ideas and moments that make this a real classic. It’s just a little more wonderful that they culminate at Christmas time.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
It has been the best part of a year since I published anything on this blog. Whilst I’ve been podcasting regularly for my show Driving Home From the Cinema Reviews and tweeting endlessly about movies, I have not been moved to write anything.
Part of that came from the grind of trying to write about everything I watched in my monthly ‘worth watching’ posts. Especially once I fell so far behind on those, they became a real grind. Plus maintaining my viewing and ratings on Letterboxd, meant I no longer needed those posts to function like a diary as I had in the past.
But over the past little while, I’ve been devoting a little more time to my writing. Not a whole lot, but enough to know there’s still writing I would like to put the time into. As such I’ll be around here a little more from here on out. Every so often, I’ll be publishing two pieces at the same time (with the exception of my best of the year post that will be a one off). One of those will be a review, often (though not always) of a 1001 film. And the other piece will be something different. A piece of analysis, an opinion style piece, a viewing guide. I want to challenge myself to push my writing in other directions, not just stock standard reviews. I’d like to say these publication days will be monthly. But more realistically I’m hoping to get something out there every couple of months.
Hopefully you enjoy them.
Here’s my top 10(ish) for 2018. I saw about 110 films released last year, either in cinemas, streaming or on VOD. As with every year, I did miss a lot of stuff. Even more so on the cinema side of things this year, given I had a three month break after my daughter was born. But as always there was plenty of radness to sift through and everything below I adored. This list, as always with mine, is based on Australian release dates.
First off, the honourable mentions. I really dug everything here. It was a great year for the blockbuster (as you can see from my main list). In addition I also really dug James Wan’s Aquaman, whilst Batman Ninja was a super different take on the animated superhero flick. Crazy Rich Asians was my favourite rom-com for years and the excellent Ideal Home has shades of that genre too. The tonally out there I, Tonya was an early film in a year of incredible drama – Phantom Thread, 6 Balloons, Blackkklansman and The Favourite were all ace. Horror film The First Purge, actioner The Equalizer 2, thrillers Widows and Searching, as well as the bit of everything The Cloverfield Paradox all brought me joy. So did Kurt Russell Santa The Movie aka The Christmas Chronicles. Nick Offerman and co delighted with Hearts Beat Loud. Everyone rightly loved Hannah Gadsby’s amazing Nanette, as did I. As for docos, Human Flow, Dawson City Frozen Time and We Don’t Need a Map were all powerful and for the most part important. The last of those is part of an under-the-radar solid crop of Aussie features that also included the low-budget genre excellence of Trench and Lost Gully Road.
10. Ultimate teen double bill
Films aimed at teens – especially getting a blend of meaningfulness, plot and fun – is bloody hard to pull off. These two very different films do it incredibly well. I watched them back to back at the cinema and I’m looking forward to doing the same at home soon.
A Wrinkle in Time
I loved this film. Ava DuVernay follows up Selma with something totally different. Visually expansive and meaningfully scripted. This one is a more traditional teen film, a YA adventure film. The visuals give a brilliant sense of wonder, complemented by the characters (giant goddess Oprah anyone?) There are strong teen themes here of anxiety, strength and growth. The aforementioned Oprah as well as Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon bring gravitas, whilst young lead Storm Reed is exceptional. Conveying the mix of fragility and strength within someone of this age, and the way they inform each other.
A billion times better than the ‘parents set out to stop their teenagers getting laid’ premise we were sold. Sex positive and the agency lying firmly with the kids. Also: bloody hilarious. The characters actually feel different to each other, different personalities, desires and confidence levels. All six leads give absolutely delightful and textured performances. A great queer subplot. Indeed all comedies should have Ramona from The Santa Clarita Diet as a queer love interest. It is so hard to make something worthwhile feel as fun as this and I just wish more mainstream comedies had the heart and boldness to attempt it.
9. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
God I loved this. I’ve watched this film more than any other on this list. I was immediately immersed in the world. Silliness of a volcano on the island is counterbalanced by some poignant imagery and really well done thematic stuff – most notably the treatment of animals. The first faltered when leaving the template of the initial films. But here the wilder plot elements, including the weaponisation of dinos, is where the most enjoyment comes from. Helps too that the characters are less annoying. Bayona was also given the freedom to integrate some horror imagery which makes this look fresh. Just the right amount of silly, and one of the greatest sequel bait endings ever.
8. Mary Magdelene
I’m a fan of films that approach religious and biblical stories from an interesting, and honestly liberal, perspective. Once Joaquin Phoenix shows up ,there’s a lovely rhythm to this attempt at illuminating an hidden chapter of early Christendom. Jesus is a tough role, but Phoenix channels and conveys both the spiritual depth, and the effort that is expended in passing that on to his followers, including physically. Equally as good is Rooney Mara as a woman of great spiritual insight, who the film gives real agency to. I liked this a lot when it was quiet and low on drama. Reflecting the quietness and inquisitiveness of faith against stunning location visuals shot in slightly washed out widescreen. A sense of righting history here, telling the tale of a confidant of Jesus, who grows to be a great teacher themselves. Perhaps the most underseen film on my list.
7. Marvel’s best year
I’ve always been a fan of the MCU. But even I had grown tired recently. Too many samey movies and the team-up films never worked for me the way they did for others. I was excited for the first of these films. And even then it totally exceeded expectations. As for the second I was kind of dreading it. But I liked it on first viewing and on second it improved out of sight. These are both probably top 5 MCU films for me (plus Ant-Man and the Wasp was fun too).
We all love this film. It’s fuckin rad. Coogler continues to prove that he’s one of the best young filmmakers, crafting a unique blockbuster that totally blew minds. Afrofuturism powered by a range of awesome female roles and ace performances from Boseman and Michael B. Jordan. It’s so cool to see the women portray a range of characters – scientist, spy, genius. And all of them front and centre of the action too. Jordan’s Killmonger is probably the best villain that Marvel has had and they fully commit to a bold ending involving him as well. It is wild to me that this safest of franchises commits to a villain militantly dialed into the worldwide struggle for people of colour. A different vibe to really anything in the blockbuster realm, driven by the score and mix of action, political drama and spy film genres (in a much more satisfying way than any of the Captain America films managed). And Leticia Wright’s hilarious and charming performance as Shuri almost steals the show.
Avengers: Infinity War
I often feel that the lauding of Marvel achievements is overblown. But wow this is an achievement. Especially after the long stewing build of Thanos kinda sucked. It’s a huge beast of a film to wrangle and is by it’s nature vignetty. But it feels like basically all the characters get enough time. And without that approach, we wouldn’t have gotten elements like the heartfelt team up of Rocket Racoon and Thor. The ending bothered me on first viewing, due to factors outside the world of the film. But on rewatch I thought it worked and just made me excited for the next. Some massive, awesome blockbuster moments, a number of them anchored by Chris Hemsworth’s dramatic chops. Tom Holland’s Spider-man works well here too, bringing levity and meaning in his relationship with Tony Stark.
6. Sweet Country
Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009) is for me the greatest Aussie film ever made. This one is similarly amazing, though operating on a more epic plane. A whole lot comes together here – the biblical, ideology, war, PTSD and neo-western genre stylings. It’s a tribute to the incredible director that it all holds together. A slow bubbling epic with bursts of violence and consequence. The wide empty landscapes, especially the salt plains, look amazing. Themes that are often clumsily presented through a white lens – theft of lore and land from indigenous Australians – are in Thornton’s hands rendered meaningful and nuanced. Tale of clash of cultures as well as within culture that it feels like only he could tell. Makes plain what he thinks of contemporary race relations in Australia. Masterful stuff.
Very few films live up to the tired ‘one of the scariest movies ever’ marketing… this does though, it’s fuckin terrifying. One of the few films I literally felt on a physical level. Somehow grows from psychological family strain to broad supernatural chills whilst feeling cohesive and frightening on different levels. Toni Collette brings shade and dimensions to her performance here that are rarely seen in a horror film. The other performances that seem to have gotten a little lost in the (rightful) buzz around Collette are also excellent. Alex Wolff is excellent in a tough role, as he gradually becomes more of a focal point whilst Milly Shapiro is haunting. A film about loss, grief and motherhood, all of these seen in a dizzying array of forms. A great score, and innovative in the way it scares, twisting the jump scare formula. Oh and did I mention it’s super fuckin scary?
4. The Shape of Water
This feels like a film only Guillermo Del Toro could make. It’s hard to conceive of the control of story, tone and character that were required to make this work. Visually beautiful, green-filtered period imagery. There’s a delightful throwback atmosphere to the mystery and shadiness of it all – spies and mysterious laboratories. But against that backdrop is this story of an inter-species sexual relationship. The performances are uniformly brilliant. Sally Hawkins character handles the more difficult storytelling beats beautifully, same with the easy friendship with Richard Jenkins. A chatty, gossipy Octavia Spencer has maybe never been better and draws out elements of the Hawkins’ character. Michael Shannon is very good as the villain too, being sufficiently Michael Shannony without resorting to mugging. And Doug Jones’ simple mannerisms give the feel of personality with the creature. A lovely mishmash of drama, romance, spy film and heist film.
3. You Were Never Really Here
This is a lean, quite vicious film. But also feels quite stylish at the same time, driven by the score and sound design, as well as the imagery which occasionally dabbles with horror vibes. Awesomely raw with minimal plot. No plot, but it spirals and escalates from a simple spot into a cacophony of violence emanating from an unknown source. At the core of it is Joaquin Phoenix, giving maybe his best ever performance. It’s a tough role, showing the effects of childhood trauma subtly and realistically, balancing being both a fuckin hard bastard and a tender, loving son. Feels like the work of a master director.
2. Faces Places
A super meaningful and personal cinematic meditation from Agnes Varda. Much of her best documentary work has derived from her openness as part of the process, and she has never been more vulnerable than here. Her advanced age and day-to-day physical struggles. It’s both confronting and beautiful to see her this way. The stuff at the end with Godard is so raw and real. All that couples beautifully with this ruminative journey with her friend JR to make images in two totally different ways. Lovely to see how they reach people, both through the process and with the outcomes.
1. The complete 2018 cinematic works of Sebastián Lelio
Directors releasing two films was a bit of a trend for 2018. Warwick Thornton’s two have already been mentioned, we also got two from Spielberg, Haifaa Al-Mansour and Timo Tjahjanto. Not Monty did Sebastián Lelio do the same, he released two of the very best films of the year. Both searingly examining LGBTQ themes and the lives of folks in those communities, driven by brilliant performances, thematic concerns and his storytelling chops.
A Fantastic Woman
Trans woman Marina has just lost the love of her life. Yet she still cannot escape the constant micro-aggressions against trans people, despite the horrific period. She is treated to constant aggressive questioning as well as assault, both physical and sexual, all whilst attempting to grieve. The perceived ownership by CIS people of trans bodies. There’s a lot for actress Danielle Vega to portray and she does it excellently. Despite the tough themes, it’s also a quite beautiful portrait of love lost. The contemplation of the void of their no longer being there-ness. A sad movie. Lelio mixes in elements of magical realism which intrigue rather than bewilder It’s a pretty film, with the director showing a talent for the artfully constructed single frame that lingers long in the mind.
This one was more hyped, but seemingly not as well received. I watched it the night my nan died, and perhaps it was that headspace that made me appreciate the early section of this. The rituals of faith and mourning, their meticulousness and their exclusion in this instance. Their weight of meaningful power for those who partake in them. A returning to ceremony and ritual that’s only half familiar in the case of Weisz’s character. How the shared nature of mourning is not a universally positive experience. Against this, I was expecting the rekindled lesbian relationship to jar horribly. It’s very good though. The second half has to be considered in light of the first and doing so reveals layers of meaning and relationship. And eventually the two parts of the film all crash together powerfully. It’s all delivered through three really good performances.
More catchup from last year here friends. This was a pretty big and mixed range of stuff. But there’s a nice range of films I dug. As always, hyperlinked titles will go through to my podcast reviews.
- American Psycho (2000), Mary Harron – This is a pretty remarkable achievement of adaptation. A heightened, exaggerated vibe that is so essential to the success of the film. Way it weaves themes in from the start is a testament to the writing and Bale’s performance. His misogynistic control of women, money, status, classism and racism. Nails the competitiveness of capitalist shitbags in basically everything. Bale’s edge of menace is so off-putting, especially when coupled with the kind of absurdist comedy tone. Interesting how it rolls through genres. The first half is mainly a comedy, then turns into a horror, slasher then something psychological. A cerebral film.
- Junkopia (1981), Chris Marker, John Chapman & Frank Simeone – Have also seen this billed elsewhere as just a Marker film. He is super hit or miss. I liked this one though. The sea, human/art interaction. A succession of abandoned looking structures that at times hint at faces or other things. Sharply edited and scored, with a suggestion of narrative the result.
- Monster (2005), Jennifer Kent – Beautiful black and white, often shot unnervingly close. Covers similar ground as Kent’s later work – mother & son, overawed, monsters. Super scary, I dropped an f-bomb at one utterly chilling scare.
- How the ‘Dook Stole Christmas (2014), Jennifer Kent – A delightful, bloody Christmas tale in less than a minute! I would so watch a full length Babadook Christmas special.
- Grammy (2015), Jill Gevargizian – I liked this. Has a pretty standard short film structure. But does something different with it. Ominous suburban score. Plays with expectations of a grandmother nicely. Crams a great score, one killer effects shot and a funny coda all into less than two minutes.
- Parks and Recreation Season 7 (2015), Greg Daniels & Michael Schur – Love the simple twist of Ron and Leslie being enemies. Has a fair amount of Kathryn Hahn which is always a massive bonus. Exceedingly astute on politics as Ben enters the congressional race. Ron Swanson may well be my favourite TV character ever. The show is so good at creating a full cast of characters, and this season is particularly good at that.
- Gerald’s Game (2017), Mike Flanagan – Flanagan is a really strong director. Here he uses a lot of visual clues as setup. Which could annoy, but he pulls it back just in time. The performers are really good at conveying that awkwardness of trying to rekindle the sexual side of a relationship, and importantly the stock they have placed in that. Camera brilliantly creates a sense of space and perspective. Carla Cugino is out of the world good here, in a rough role. Turns into bloody chilling, horrific stuff. Almost too much so, with some of the child abuse flashbacks. Creatively puts internal monologue onscreen, though it gets a touch silly with the personification of death. Wrapped up in a clumsy way, but not before a sequence that affected me more on a physical level than any other I can recall.
- The Graduation (2016), Claire Simon – Doco focusing on the entrance process for a major French film school. Huge number of people trying to get in. Remarkable how many different study streams there are – exhibition, cinema running, promotion as well as the more obvious filmmaking crafts. Cool to see this broad cross-section of the French film community discuss film in this detail. Also examines the difficulty (fallacy?) in trying to apply logic to film and its consideration. You can sense the overbearing pressure on these young people. Kind of hard to watch at times. Passion for cinema that comes through makes it very worth a watch.
- Song to Song (2017), Terrence Malick – Malick for me is a total master. Immediately know you’re in one of his films. This concept of film as atmosphere. And here, character as archetype. Fassbender the rich manipulative asshole, Portman’s country normal gal, thoughtful Gosling and relatable Mara. Interesting to see the performers who sink or swim with the director’s approach. Mara has the right vibe, able to project levity despite the obliqueness. Feels like Gosling struggles with the process though. A film about intimacy. Recalls it, suggests it and makes you reflect on it.
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Taika Waititi – Really the first Marvel film with an authorial voice. The best parts of this are very much a Taika Waititi film. Quite hilarious. Hemsworth’s comedic timing is excellent. And the director’s character is hilarious. Dig the full fantasy start. After the bold first 45 minutes, it does fall into some of the same old Marvel territory plotwise. Performances are all excellent. Tessa Thompson is a badass while Cate Blanchett delivers one of the stronger Marvel villains. Does ever so slightly feel less than the sum of its parts.
- Battle of the Sexes (2017), Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris – Situates Billie Jean King as the revolutionary she was. Not always been the biggest Emma Stone fan and here she doesn’t immediately disappear into the role. But as the film progresses she gets more comfortable. So much to love: Alan Cumming as a confidante/designer, Margaret Court as a villain and a really positive presentation of queer romance. The irresistible physical connection between two people. Do think there’s a little too much of a focus on Riggs. Perhaps gives him a pass at times. Symbolic weight of what was a silly exhibition match is established. How it is used as a tool of the patriarchy.
- Good Time (2017), Benny & Josh Safdie – A unique fuckin heist film and entry into the ‘one really shitty day’ genre. Bit of an idiosyncratic film. Can feel the desperation reeking off the characters. It’s frenetic, driven by technical aspects – shooting, sound design. Beautifully and boldly cut together. A remarkable soundtrack of like late 80s synth superhero soundscapes. R Patz continues to show he’s one of the best. Jennifer Jason Leigh is dynamic in a small role. A hell of a film.
- I Confess (1953), Alfred Hitchcock – Cool, whodunnity style opening. Though immediately puts a twist on that. We see who the murderer is as he confesses to the priest. Which is cool. Really well performed .The plot is quite simple, but Hitchcock controls it well into one of his signature shock endings. Montgomery Clift is exceptionally good.
- Josie and the Pussycats (2001), Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan – This is awesome. Subversive from the start. The cast is great. Rachel Leigh and Rosario Dawson in particular absolutely slay this material as two of the Pussycats. And Alan Cumming is born to play this manager role. He and Parker Posey are a cracking villainous duo. Cool catchy songs. And hilarious self-referential moments. A bit silly but all so charming. And finishes with a totally adorable, utterly silly fight scene.
- Geostorm (2017), Dean Devlin – Such a pure dang joy. Your favourite apocalyptic weather movie, but with shitloads of space stuff. Gerard Butler plays a polly-punching genius scientist. Also a massive ‘countdown to Geostorm’ countdown clock. If you believe a bad film can bring joy, this is absolutely your thing. Charming cast. Abbie Cornish is ace as a badass secret service agent. Deeply silly and delightful, right down to the deliciously dumb, adorable, feel-good ending.
- The Girl With all the Gifts (2016), Colm McCarthy – One of the best zombie films ever. Militaristic opening with kids being experimented on. Glimpses of the zombie overrun outside world. Young lead Sennia Nanua is wonderful. Small group travelling thought the zombie wasteland. Excellent zombie transformations and performances. Very little CGI. Nanua brings this incredible, slightly inhuman physicality to her role. Great ensemble – Glenn Close, Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton. Film very coded, uses the iconography of the war film to great effect.
Not Worth Watching
- Evolution (2015), Lucile Hadzihalilovic – Really did not get the creepy vibe that I think I was supposed to. Not at all atmospheric despite the incredible locations and underwater shooting. Gradually builds this environment of single women with a single male child. An implication of religiosity it feels. Chaste, bland village life. Really didn’t get into it. And a lot of the horror seems to simply focus on the ickiness of surgery. Meandering, uneventful and sleep-inducing. Not enough minutiae to grab onto.
- Free Fire (2016), Ben Wheatley – Found this super contrived, particularly the dialogue and music choices. Plus the much vaunted action was pretty pedestrian. The use of space is very poor, you can’t tell who is shooting at who. It had no weight. Both the action and presence of the performers. Looked and felt like people standing around acting. Brie Larson is good though. Her calm presence brings something different. Overall though there was no real sense of character, and as a style piece I didn’t find it very flashy.
- The Bye Bye Man (2017), Stacy Title – Starts with a 1960s dad Leigh Whannell, but unfortunately it’s all downhill from there. Low key and not particularly engaging. The first half is plain whilst the second is painfully awful. Builds up some decent mythology, but the eventual reveal of the Bye Bye Man is real shitty. There is no real consistency to the internal rules of the film. All of it is not helped by really bad performances by the three leads and an awful script.
- I Know How Many Runs You Scored Last Summer (2008), Stacey Edmonds & Doug Turner – Some promising signs early with the way it combines cricket and horror. But the commitment to the cricket connection wanes. Looks pretty decent and slick for such a low budget. But you can definitely see the budget in the acting and sets. And a gross shower scene that serves less narrative purpose than maybe any nudity in cinema history. The script is rubbish and lowkey offensive. Charming at times such as the hilarious final battle, but mainly bad.
- To Our Loves (1983), Maurice Pialat – Sandrine Bonnaire is so great. Character’s approach to sex is interesting. No real exposition to explain her interest in it. It’s just part of the snippets we get of her father’s overbearing nature and violence. She’s remarkable in what is not an easy role. Aside from that the film didn’t really hold my attention though. The family dramas and lack of plot are a drag. Perhaps down to the lack of early focus on character.
- The Captured Bird (2012), Jovanka Vuckovic – Cool style combo of old and new with wild production values. Bugs flowing from pipes and blood bubbling from stones. But unfortunately it has that ‘effects reel’ vibe of a lot of shorts. I was not taken by it really.
- #Horror (2015), Tara Subkoff – A failure, but an interesting one. Cool locations and visuals. A totally weird, omnipresent and overbearing soundtrack that doesn’t really vibe with what’s onscreen. Super creative, even though it doesn’t work. The cool sheen of slight unreality to it all. Animated social media burst onscreen are crass rubbish though. Kids like their phones. We get it. Does attempt to ground things in the meanness of teen girls and the turmoil of teendom. Acting too weak to pull it off though. Kinda fucked up that a bunch of 12 year old girls get murdered.
- Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve – I dug the early part. Where we see something different, something remote and isolated. Not urban. But damn, this thing is sooooo long. I like how CGI is used to enhance the dystopic streetscapes. Epic and sprawling. The plot doesn’t do a whole lot though, there’s some hokey narrative paths. Establishes and explores the hierarchy of humans>replicant>VR maid. This hierarchy of realness. But not explored in that interesting a way. And I think the film does have an issue with women. Notion that the foundation of women is to make men happy. Violence against women as cheap symbolism. Also fuck Jared Leto. He makes every film he’s in worse.
If you only have time to watch one The Girl With all the Gifts
Avoid at all costs The Bye Bye Man
Here we go with September of last year thoughts. All in all a pretty positive month, that skews quite heavily to newer (at the time) releases. Enjoy.
- It (2017), Andy Muschietti – I really liked this, despite finding the scares to be pretty ineffectual. Builds this nice 80s small town with a dark past vibe. This is nicely shown through sketching out the different experiences that kids can have in a place like that. Liked the adventure vibe, a group of buds taking on something massive. But the horror elements are too scattershot. Sort of works in the world of the gfilm, but no cohesiveness in frightening the audience. Plus there is too much CGI on Pennywise. Some dark stuff to consider. Bullying and the face that all the adults are either distant at best or a whole lot worse. It’s a film about the experience of childhood divorced from the experience of adults.
- The Dark Tower (2017), Nikolaj Arcel – Given this is based on a (extremely beloved) series of books, it’s super slight. But given I have no connection to the source material, I actually had an ok time here. It’s light on plot for a fantasy film with minimal mythology. Builds nice dual worlds though. Both of the older leads are really excellent. McConaughey mixes cool reserve and genuine evil. Elba rocks as a fuckin badass action hero with presence and bravado. A strange mix of kid-led adventure film with some legit darkness and intensity. This actually left me hanging out for the supposed TV series.
- The Fate of the Furious (2017), F. Gary Grey – As someone who hasn’t enjoyed any of this franchise since #3, this was a really nice surprise. Crackingly awful dialogue. Grey harnesses the silliness and self-parody into something super fun. Which is not easy to do when not only do you know where the plot is going, you know every single beat. Gloriously stupid stuff. The Stath doing an action scene holding a baby is an underrated high point of the series.
- Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (2016), Yousry Nasrallah – I didn’t quite capture some of the tonal stuff. But there was a lot to like here. The performances, especially from the two leads, are really good. There is a great sense of character, which comes much more strongly from these performances than the writing. There’s a really strong sequence at a wedding, storytelling wrapped up with a pivotal life ceremony. A quite horrific late shift that jars with what has come before and then the film ends on a comedic bee attack.
- The Incredible Jessica James (2017), Jim Strouse – I’m a big fan of Jessica Williams, especially her podcast ‘2 Dope Queens’. Here she plays a struggling playwright going through a breakup. Going in, thought Chris O’Dowd would be a bad fit opposite Williams. But it works really well, despite the uninspired script. Gentle, nice and worth it for the lead performances..
- The Girlfriend Experience (2009), Steven Soderbergh – Big fan of this one. Like the way it is shot – small, intimate and utilises focus. Sketches out the ‘girlfriend experience’. I thought Sasha Grey was really good. Like the construction, plotless in a way but the narrative sort of builds through encounters. Actually as more plot got added in, I liked it less. Still one of my favourite Soderbergh films though.
- Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colours (2015), Stephen Herek – This has the spirit of Dolly Parton running through it and is fucking delightful as a result. Be warned, it does get a little churchy at the end. But it’s really well acted, from the young lead and her parents in particular. And it’s a lovely weaving of her song into movie form. Slight and clearly made for TV, but lovely.
- Fly Away Home (1996), Caroll Ballard – A huge dose of schmaltz from minute one. Scraggly Jeff Daniels is all kinds of ace. Lots of cute baby geese. Look it’s pretty run of the miss stuff. But I like the motley crew vibe that pops up. Above average, solid, family fare.
- Hidden Figures (2016), Theodore Melfi – Perhaps not as revolutionary as the story demands. But dies make plain the intense racism and sexism being confronted. Simple, but good storytelling elevated by bloody good performances from the three leads. It’s a good script. More focused on Taraji P. Henson’s character than I was expecting. She is great here, but I think a more ensemble approach to the story would have made for a more satisfying film.
- Lego Batman Movie (2017), Chris McKay – Much better than its predecessor. Hilariously and cleverly pokes fun at the conventions of the character, tapping into his loneliness, arrogance and privilege. Also looks super, super cool. Even the really self-aware moments are very funny. Silly, but canny enough to poke at the seriousness of the character.
- Deadly Blessing (1981), Wes Craven – Underrated Craven goodness here. Smoothly crafts the ominous aspects of the Hittites – costuming and choral singing take on a creepiness. Plenty of this feels unremarkable, especially the whodunit elements. But Craven can’t help putting his touch of brilliance on things. Ernest Borgnine is really quite good in this. He adds layers to the presentation of the Hittites I think. Sort of lulls you along, then suddenly something like a slamming door scares the shit out of you. Also feels like Craven is riffing on his own career at times – the bath scene recalls his most famous film.
- Malcolm (1986), Nadia Tass – Colin Friels stars as a shy dude fired for building his own tram. Nice portrait of an ingenious and awkward outsider. Settles into an odd-couple crime caper with class commentary. Great script, that constantly makes you smile. I think something quite beautiful to it, depth to the characters and relationships. A fun, strikingly absurd tale of friendship and bank robbery.
- Patti cake$ (2017), Geremy Jasper – In a way not what I was expecting. It’s grimmer and more true to lie than the triumphant musical underdog story it was sold as. It’s a really great lead performance from Danielle Macdonald, transcends the cliché it could have become (large white girl trying to do hip-hop). Elicits the confidence that she has the fortitude to achieve what she is yearning for. All culminates in one of the best musical moments in a film for a long time. An awesomely exultant release of the film’s build-up.
- Ali’s Wedding (2017), Jeffrey Walker – So incredibly charming. Teen romcom tropes – nervousness about exams, talking to girls – filtered through a Muslim-Australian lens in a way that feels quite meaningful. It also makes this part of the humour. Really solid filmmaking, the way the harsher flashbacks are crafted. Also laugh out loud funny, with some really clever and fun music cues. Hits all the beats you expect in a way you haven’t seen.
- The Good Fight Season 1 (2017), Robert King, Michelle King & Phil Alden Robinson – Plays like a heart-warming remix of its predecessor. Baranski’s Diane provides such a comforting connection, while Lucca really becomes the focus here. The case of the week format means there are duds. But the overall theme of a predominately African American firm taking on police violence lends it a cohesiveness. I found this to be a warm, fun ride.
Not Worth Watching
- Hatchet (2006), Adam Green – I do love how Adam Green has made his own way, and this seems to be a particularly beloved film in the horror community. But it did little for me. Starts muted, even with the presence of Robert Englund. The script has some nice humour to it and it actually works pretty well as a comedy. Unfortunately it’s totally forgettable as a horror film. The kills are weird, not sure what they are going for. Neither played for laughs (despite the silly effects) or particularly creative.
- Death Ship (1980), Alvin Rakoff – Sort of OTT and hilarious, but not at all fun. There is an ominous presence to the visuals of the titular ship. But as soon as it is boarded, that atmosphere essentially evaporates. A muted and gross experience, neither of those in a good way.
- XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017), D.J Caruso – Sold to me by people I trust as a fun ‘good-bad’ movie, this is unfortunately junk. Utterly stupid from the first second. The action, even with dudes as talented as Donnie Yen, is super slow and a bit shit. Quite stilted overall. Very much a failed Bond riff. Occasionally certain cast members give it a shot of life, but there’s an equal number of them who explode onto the screen with a meh. A chore.
- Take the 10 (2017), Chester Tam – Oof. A lot of the Netflix original movies are underrated I feel. No chance of that here. It’s exceptionally bad. Mind-numbingly horrible and arch dialogue. I barely made it through which is very rare for me. Super uninspiring, crass and cheap. Unfunny with no plot as well. You know things are dire when not even Andy Samberg can inspire some laughs.
- Girls Trip (2017), Malcolm D. Lee – I didn’t get what so many others got from this film. Instantly establishes the four main characters. Which means no time wasted on backstory. And the casting is uniformly great. Four ace leads headlined by the breakout performance from Tiffany Haddish. But for me, it didn’t really transcend standard comedic stuff. The pee jokes and long drug trips felt tired, even with the refreshing characters and performers. Plus it was super overlong.
- Annabelle Creation (2017), David F. Sandberg – Supposedly an improvement on the first but I don’t see it. Really average rather than abrasively awful. Builds a decent ‘world’ – older couple with secrets, big ol house, orphans and nuns. But does zero with it. Boring. Feels like the many Waniverse tropes of slamming doors, use of framing and focus to generate scares, folks getting dragged away, people floating, are really only any good in James’ hands.
If you only have time to watch one Ali’s Wedding
Avoid at all costs Take the 10
Here’s more worth watching from last year. Some solid new releases from last year and a whole bunch of really arty stuff as well. As always hyperlinked titles go through to full (though short) podcast reviews.
- Denial (2016), Mick Jackson – Really well performed, if unsympathetic, look at a trial involving holocaust denier David Irving. Timothy Spall is chillingly good here, one of the best performances of the year. A cerebral courtroom script that teases out legal complexities without making you fall asleep. The ventures to Auschwitz, whilst not the film’s focus, are harrowing and haunting. There are certainly moments of clumsiness. But the performances of Spall, Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott mean this is well worth your time.
- Mulheim/Ruhr (1964), Peter Nestler – A town portrait built up through sheer mass of images. Very fast cutting and the images feel almost like stills. The jaunty score didn’t work for me and perhaps more coherent thematic thread would have been nice. But it’s unique and the black & white is lovely and crisp.
- Scream 3 (2000), Wes Craven – Even in this reference laden series, Craven remains the master of suspense. The meta stuff here is legit funny and not too distracting. It also lulls you into a false sense of security at times. A blinding mix of the terrifying and very funny. The camera placement in the film is so spot on, showing how much can be achieved through that. Neve Campbell is incredible as Sidney as always, whilst there is a hilariously written Carrie Fisher cameo too.
- The Burning (1981), Tony Maylam – Camp based slasher. Gross and intense at time, heightened by Savini’s genius. Gardening shears are involved. Decent at capturing that sense of teendom. Surprisingly, does an excellent job at depicting (and attacking) toxic masculinity. Skewers it in a way that I’ve not really seen before in a slasher. The main villain is a bit weak though.
- Live by Night (2016), Ben Affleck – I’m a huge fan of both Affleck as a director, and the work of Dennis Lehane that this is based on. Solidly enjoyable rather than great. Does a decent job of evoking atmosphere, a Boston of Italian and Irish mobs. Solid take on an attempt to have disdain for authority in a world riddled with it. A little laboured, with some strange narrative diversions, but enjoyable.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Tobe Hooper – I really dug this. A strange cacophony of a film. Wild, with a totally different tone to the first. Dennis Hopper, industrial vibe, comedy and Savini effects. Hopper is really excellent. The comedy is achieved surprisingly through quite classically constructed jokes. Remarkable that a sequel so tonally different as this not only gets made, but also feels quite true to the first. Feel the tonal choice says a lot about Hooper as an artist. Caroline Williams gives a great performance as the female lead, balancing being a scream queen with some very funny and silly stuff. A rare film that works both as a horror and a comedy.
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), Luc Besson – Saw in 3D which I think added a lot. Colour popping, wondrous vision. The planets feel tactile despite the otherworldliness. Damn creative design of cities/worlds/beings. I though Delvinege was really impressive, she has a real charm. DeHaan’s too cool riff on Han Solo takes a while to warm to, but it works well I think. It’s flabby as fuck, but that sort of just added to it being pretty adorable I thought. Full of delightful diversions just to explore the world that Besson had built up. Besson controls the whole thing pretty well.
- Atomic Blonde (2017), David Leitch – Old school cold war spy flick. Really excellent, heavy use of the compilation soundtrack. The action is supremely well done, which makes up for the story being pretty cold war 101 type stuff. Theron is really good and excels with the action. I found James McAvoy’s character wasn’t played quite right tonally. There is some interesting enough filtering of the story through the reliability (or otherwise) of the narrator. Bummer it ends on a pretty tame twist.
- Starship Troopers (1997), Paul Verhoeven – Derided on release, beloved now. This is pretty great. Really sharp stuff. Analyses the interaction between the media and military complex super astutely. Denise Richards is pretty good aye. Loved this film. Very funny. Takes place I a slightly absurd but anchored world. There’s an interesting superficiality to the film. On one level, can kind of understand why it was dismissed upon release. On the more genre side of things, I dug the effects and they hold up perfectly well, whilst the schlocky sci-fi battling is also great. Rather fab.
- Towards Mathilde (2005), Claire Denis – Love when a film interrogates a different artistic process. Analysis of dance is great, but not all of the rehearsal footage feels particularly worthwhile. That said, there is something hypnotic in observing the work – performance and the construction of performance merging. Interesting to see and consider the final product in relation to the disparate bits of preparation and construction that went into it.
- Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), Doris Wishman – A earnest shoddiness to the film as encapsulated by the particularly sketchy ADR work. But this still has a fair bit to offer. Very stark, astutely rendered sexual assault scene. Sudden and shows the grossness of the male gaze, with its power and ownership. Hard to watch and quite terrifying. The film functions as an examination of the violent expressions of the patriarchy. Low on plot details which means it feels quite real. Though the intrusive and incessant jazz score works against that. Overall a sickening (as it should be) profile of a woman brutally beaten down by society.
- Motel Hell (1980) Kevin Connor – Something so endearing about a ‘Motel Hello’ sign with a dicky ‘O’. A funny vibe to it all. Crusty old dude plays it perfectly and there are some cool visuals. And some nice little wrinkles in the background. The isolated setting is particularly excellent. Some surprisingly wry stuff about people as animals. Glorious schlock with bonus chainsaw points.
- A Cure for Wellness (2016), Gore Verbinski – About as weird a mainstream film as has been released in recent years. Great, jarring sound design and use of soundtrack to set the mood. A different Dane DeHaan performance from the other one this month – he’s callous and weary here. All atmosphere, creepy imagery (eels and shit) really does go a long way. It is sloooow and looong though, often going around in circles. Disappointingly wanders into some overfamiliar territory around questions of sanity and builds to an underwhelming (though gross) reveal. One weird movie.
Not Worth Watching:
- Logan Lucky (2017), Steven Soderbergh – This was a disappointment. A South of West Virginia, John Denver and construction work. Threatens to be a different vision of the American working class, but then falls into some of the same stuff we’ve seen before. Performances are a mixed bag. Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterson and Channing Tatum are excellent at inhabiting this vibe. But Adam Driver struggles with the Southern shtick, whilst Daniel Craig makes little impression. The heartfelt character moments are nice. But too much time is spent on the tensionless, humourless heist.
- Sunday in Peking (1956), Chris Marker – Day in the life style observation. Market an outsider here to an almost orientalist degree. Glib ignorance rather than anything particularly malicious. Coupled with rapid fire voiceover that more overwhelms than informs. Aside from the early point of Marker viewing a place memorialised from childhood postcard, there’s nothing noteworthy about the imagery or his thoughts on it.
- Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (2017), Michael Showalter & David Wain – This was a major bummer, I’ve loved all the other ‘Wet Hot’ stuff. Feels too arch/knowing. Lacks the character bits that made earlier iterations work so well. Misses the mark wildly, aside from the occasional individual performance (chiefly Josh Charles & Alyssa Milano).
If you only have time to watch one The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Avoid at all costs Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later