Author Archive: Beer Movie

Universal Monsters ranking

After getting my hands on the full Universal Monsters set, a watchthrough of the entire deal was in order. My favourite stayed the same, but there were loads of pleasant surprises in here. I would say the top 22 here are at least worth a watch, whilst the top 11 are highly recommended classical goodness.

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Mummys tomb poster

31. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Harold Young– The Mummy’s Hand set the template for what a crappy Mummy sequel looks like. This film perfects that formula. It uses more than a sixth of the running time excerpting and rehashing the previous film to kick things off. The whole thing is bog standard and goes through the motions blandly. And the performances and the look of the Mummy are worse than the earlier films. Whatever the opposite of electric storytelling is, this is that. 

Invisible mans revenge poster

30. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Ford Beebe – Bloody rough. Lacks the high concept of the couple that come before it in this series and geez it shows. A bland outing that feels like the laziest possible take on this character. The one saving grace – no surprises it’s a visual thing – is a very cool and creepy shot of him splashing water on his face.

Revenge of the creature poster

29. Revenge of the Creature (1955), Jack Arnold – A very very flat experience and the only low point in the Creature films. The standard trope of the creature grabbing a random woman again plays here. But for whatever reason it really bothered me this time out. And there is not enough of the action and underwater choreography that are such a highlight of the other two ‘Creature’ films. A very poor script, even by the standards of this franchise.

the invisible man returns poster

28. The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Joe May – The first one is not a film that lends itself to a follow up and that shows here. Retains the original’s real-to-life vibes but this is really quite bleak. Amazing effects but used to a flat overall effect. There’s a descent into madness that just feels tired here. A super uninteresting story.

spanish dracula poster

27. Dracula (1931), Enrique Tovar Avalos & George Melford – The Spanish version, shot on the same sets as the ‘western’ one is an interesting curiosity, but probably more worthwhile in that sense than as a piece of entertainment. Shares a lot of the same craft as Browning’s film, but also lacks a lot of the pop. Particularly the performances – old mate looks like a home-brand Lugosi and that comment goes for the performance too. He doesn’t have the presence. It’s a bloated, wooden and flat film. Rarely criticisms associated with this franchise, even the lesser entries. 

son of frankenstein poster

26. Son of Frankenstein (1939), Rowland V. Lee – This is one of the few sequels with much of a reputation, but this was really disappointing and kicks off a duo of crappy Frankenstein entries. Opens atmospherically, with Basil Rathbone doing the fish out of water thing nicely. But that character grows into something blander that we’ve seen before and whilst the atmosphere endures and the film looks amazing (one of the best visual experiences of the franchise), there’s little else to recommend it. The usually excellent Lugosi is bad here and it too often feels like a poor pastiche of the first film. But with added bummer of the monster being uninteresting and only a minor focus.

Frankenstein meets the wolfman poster

25. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Roy William Neill – The most promising title in the whole franchise fails to deliver. Which sucks even more given it has the spookiest opening in the franchise when some dudes decide to rob the Wolf Man’s grave. But after that barely anything happens. Chaney is the best actor in the franchise but he’s not great here, particularly the weird pantomime movement he has as the Wolf Man for some reason. The monster emerging from the ice is another cool moment. Lugosi plays the monster here and he looks utterly ridiculous and moves that way too. A shallowness to the characters cruels this one.

the mummys hand poster

24. The Mummy’s Hand (1940), Christy Cabanne – This is not a great sequel. There are some nice elements to grab a hold of – the set design is rad, Eduardo Ciannelli gives an excellent performance and the reworked mummy design is super creepy at times. But outside of that, this sets the tone for what a crappy Mummy sequel looks like – the plot is an almost comical rehash of the first, the comedy writing is tiresome and most egregiously of all there’s too much time spent on annoying Americans rather than cool mummy shit.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man poster

23. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1952), Charles Lamont – Definitely the weakest of the Abbott and Costello Universal entries. Starts nicely with them graduating detective school. But the way the Invisible Man character is incorporated feels flimsy and a bit of a waste. Whilst the leads are good, the material is just not there. Really drags despite the occasional funny visual gag. 

phantom of the opera poster

22. Phantom of the Opera (1943), Arthur Lubin – Always been difficult to see why they include this. In colour, WTF! But it’s solid. Looks stunning for its age – genuinely looks as if it was made 20 or so years later. Thematic tension between a life of artistry and one of ‘normalcy’ is nicely drawn. I’m no fan of opera but the music is pretty good here. The comedy is a bit shit and the all important reveal scene is a dud. But despite those drawbacks and it being an ill-fit in the franchise, this is entertaining enough.

she wolf of london poster

21. She-Wolf of London (1946), Jean Yarbrough – Quite a measured film. Turn of the century London, vaguely commenting on class and status. It’s an interesting approach but not exactly why you watch a werewolf film. Good sense of mystery though around who the werewolf is. There’s some interesting twists and machinations, just wish they were popping up in a better film. 

ghost of frankenstein poster

20. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Erle C. Kenton – This one is passable – mainly due to some fun creepy moments with the monster. Loved when it emerged from the sulphur pit in particular. Yet another son of Dr Frankenstein feels pretty tired by this point. But other elements of the plotting are stronger. Some of the broad paranoia from the village about being cursed by the family is astutely done and the general ups and downs of where this goes are fun too.

mummys curse poster

19. The Mummy’s Curse (1944), Leslie Goodwin – Apparently 1944 was a good year for Mummy sequels. This is pretty atmospheric, especially early on. The barroom chat about bayous, swamps and missing mummies early on really resonates. And the flashbacks that have been pretty crappy throughout the series are really nicely done and creatively edited with the main film. There’s a suitably overacted Egyptian priest character that actually adds a decent amount to the plotting. Some great shots, not least of which is Princess Ananka rising from the ground. It’s a great physical performance from Virginia Christine. Though one downside to this one is that the mummy looks super crappy.

werewolf of london

18. Werewolf of London (1935), Stuart Walker – Almost sits a little outside the Universal Monsters house style. Which is not altogether a bad thing. Fun and quirky opening set in the Himalayas. In many ways feels like a proto-Monsters film. The science, costuming and themes are all there, but it’s a little raw and lacks the distinctive character. Looks different with some lovely on location shooting. Quite dark and grounded too.

abbott and costello meet the mummy poster

17. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), Charles Lamont – As with the work a lot of very old school comedians, takes a while to really get used to the comedic sensibility. But after the first, hilarious interaction with the Mummy, this is pretty funny and rather charming. Obviously it’s hard to compare to the more straight horror films here. But the settings, atmosphere and characters are all analogous and add a little something. Needed more Mummy though.

mummys ghost poster

16. The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), Reginald Le Borg – the first couple of Mummy sequels are dire. Thankfully this is an acceptable romp. It’s a simple story of seeking to resurrect the Mummy’s girlfriend. Which is at least a little different to the earlier films. It’s a touch light on incidence, but this time around the obvious beats feel comforting rather than grating. There’s a good, early John Carradine performance too. This closes with a hell of a shocking ending that came totally as a surprise and that I really dug.

bride of frankenstein poster

15. Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale – Much like Whale’s first film in this series, when this is good it’s wonderfully inspired – the framing device featuring Mary Shelley and another poignant scene that mirrors the one in the original (in this case with a blind character). Plus the Bride is one of the greatest looking characters ever rendered onscreen. But she is only in the film for about four minutes (literally). The characters, both human and monster, don’t ring true – either simply in the world of this film or in comparison to where they ended up in the first. It gets interestingly very dark and the notion of a corrupted science partnership feels super modern. But it’s all just fine.

house of dracula poster

14. House of Dracula (1945), Erle C. Kenton – This one feels like a really key tipping point in the franchise’s growing obsession with immortality as a thematic concern. This has some wonderful music and the setup of all these monsters rocking up at the same place for treatment is delightfully quaint. The storytelling is a little unclear and the ending is pretty unsatisfying. Which is a shame because there’s some really good stuff here, it looks sharp full of shadows & moonlight, and the hunchback woman character feels unique and provides the heart of the film.

invisible agent poster

13. Invisible Agent (1942), Edwin L. Marin – Quite good, though one can’t help wonder what could have been done with such a stunning central idea – Invisible Man deployed in war. The wartime spy vibe is fab and it’s really well performed. A youngish Peter Lorre even shows up giving a deliciously sneering performance, tough unfortunately as a Japanese man. That wartime spy vibe is where most of the richness originates. Even though it could have done more with that, it’s still a thrilling atmosphere to be relatively immersed in.

frankenstein poster

12. Frankenstein (1931), James Whale – When this is good, it’s really fucking good. There are a couple of sequences in this film as good as anything else in the entire franchise – the entire “it’s alive!!!” bit as the storm rages outside; and the monster’s interaction with the little girl. There’s a reasonable amount of filler throughout the rest of the film though, and it often clunks, which makes this middling as far as the classic originals go.

invisible man poster

11. The Invisible Man (1933), James Whale – Whale gives us a different feel here to the other corners of the Universal Monsters world. This is grounded and real to life with a meaner streak than we’re used to. The character design is still some of the best in the franchise (the initial reveal remains jaw dropping) and the entire opening third is atmospheric as shit. It’s an effects masterpiece. Where it falls down a little is in the plotting. Feels that Whale was so busy thinking of the atmospheric and visual possibilities he neglected to create something above average on the story front.

invisible woman poster

10. The Invisible Woman (1940), A. Edward Sutherland – The best of the ‘invisible’ films also has the most sense of fun. It’s a tricky tonal balance to pull off, but Sutherland is really assured here. Even weaves in a mobster subplot without losing his handle on things. Wonderful design and keeps the themes interesting despite the lighter vibe overall. The effects are stunning, they get better with every one of these films.

abbott and costello meet frankenstein

9. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Charles Barton – Bloody hell this is fun. And good. This one taught me that it’s not just slapstick with Abbott and Costello. So much of the humour comes from the quieter moments, the dialogue and wordplay. Great to see Lugosi back as Dracula here, clearly having loads of fun. It’s a brilliant comedic script that weaves in the horror stuff really nicely. Plus, there’s also some delightful adventure beats and it’s fun to see Chaney Jr’s Lawrence Talbot almost in the heroic lead role in those sequences.

the mummy poster

8. The Mummy (1932), Karl Freund – This is one of the original batch of classics that fits into the really good rather than all-time classic category. The main reason to catch this one is Karloff, who gives a performance as good as any of his here. It’s quite subtle work from him too with his physicality straddling that line between human and non-human. There’s also some quite modern and creative shooting of the scares – your eye is drawn to the Mummy in the background, waiting for the movement. However, it’s let down by some of the story beats being not just over-familiar, but better done elsewhere.

draculas daughter

7. Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Lambert Hillyer – A good example of a sequel in a super mainstream series that does just the right amount of things differently. Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing provides some continuity. But this is very much the story of the titular daughter, or more accurately the Countess Marya Zaleska. Absolutely the woman wielding the most power up until this point in the franchise (and probably just overall). The script stands out amongst these films – it’s cerebral and interested in the world and people. Really great characters too, both new and returning.

creature walks among us poster

6. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), John Sherwood –  A lovely surprise after the bloody dire first sequel to The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Early on builds tension in really creative ways. There’s an extended sonar sequence that feels super innovative. Has a super strong second half driven by some more sci-fi feeling plot beats that see the creature evolving into something more human. Even the philosophical scripting and relationship angles work well. The action and underwater sequences are tops as well. A really wacky sequel that also functions as a meditation on the shittiness of man (as all good monster flicks should).

son of dracula

5. Son of Dracula (1943), Robert Siodmak – One key takeaway from this experience – the Dracula series of films is the standout. And if you wanted to tackle a smaller version of my undertaking, I’d work through those. This film is a big reason why. There’s something super charming about it – cobwebs being wiped away to reveal the title, Count Alucard being Dracula backwards. Super atmospheric and leans into the mystical more than most of these films. Actually gives something to consider on a thematic level. And the performance from Lon Chaney Jr is as good as any he gives in the entire franchise – super smarmy and creepy. Amazing effects, particular the ones involving the bat transformations. It’s probably the film here that looks the most modern and cool overall actually.

creature from the black lagoon poster

4. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Jack Arnold – Probably the most underrated of the main classics. Perhaps cause of how late it came. The design of the creature still stands up and is probably the design pinnacle of the series. There’s a nice mix of high concept and pulp storytelling here. But where it really shines (and again outshines any other film listed) is in the action, particularly the underwater shooting, choreography and use of space.

house of frankenstein poster

3. House of Frankenstein (1944), Erle C. Kenton – A fantastic monster mashup (it has quicksand and everything!). The find of this whole experience and one I think I’ll return to often. Brilliant effects in the service of character and atmosphere. Really creepy and dark in places, John Carradine is really impactful in that regard. Plays almost like an anthology, crossing tones and vibes throughout but somehow feeling both ramshackle and cohesive.

dracula poster

2. Dracula (1931), Tod Browning – To me this is sublime classic Hollywood storytelling. Really bloody artful and atmospheric. And Browning elicits the best ensemble of performances of any film on this list. Lugosi is rightfully iconic. His schtick is simultaneously rigid and incredibly menacing. While Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing is a cerebral hero and it’s a wonderful performance. This film is also plot and incident heavy throughout, not a slow build like some of the others.

the wolf man poster

1. The Wolf Man (1941), George Waggner – This is an utterly charming experience. Opens with a close up of the dictionary definition of lycanthropy and then jumps to a very fake castle. But somehow that functions as an immersive start. There’s a poignancy to the familial relationship as well as in Lawrence Talbot’s plight (which would carry through a lot of later films, mainly thanks to Lon Chaney Jr’s excellent performances). There’s a denseness to the plotting and characters here that sets it apart. As well as the wonderful effect of the werewolf transformation that is still a marvel of filmmaking trickery. The eventual costume feels more lo-fi than a lot of the franchise, but again, it’s charming.  Leans into the mystery genre in a really fun way too.

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Black Sunday

I like giallo films, but also don’t watch them that often. It’s just not something I feel in the mood for very much. So when I was searching for a horror 1001 film to review alongside the Universal list, I jumped on the only Mario Bava film on the list. As I mentioned I haven’t watched loads of giallo. But of the big names, it’s Bava’s films that I gave been most taken with.

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black sunday poster

The entry in the ‘1001 Movies to See Before You Die’ book for Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) notes: ‘The plot is the usual mix of secret passages, family curses, and sudden deaths, but Bava crams every frame with fascinating, horrid detail.’ The usual mix referred to there is one of the film’s predominant attractions. Even though this is a horror film, there’s comfort to be taken in some of these locations and storylines being brought to life by such a fantastic filmmaker, albeit one at the start of their career (and that youthfulness probably shows). The sets are reminiscent of the Universal Monsters films (or perhaps I just have them on my mind) and the makeup is bloody excellent. But as for every frame being filled with fascinating, horrid detail, it is more like 40% of frames. Those that are certainly are memorable – see the gnarly opening with a witch having a mask of nails hammered onto her face. In fact the opening period of the film promises a much more interesting experience than what follows. Grounded in traditional Christian stuff like Satan, hell and witches, a mythic feeling thread that could have been kept at the forefront more. Certainly the film lacks narrative drive throughout and having something like that to lean into a little more could have compensated for that.

Black Sunday does suffer coming to it as a fan of Bava’s other work. Nothing really sets this apart. Not the electric proto-slasher energy of Bay of Blood (1971) or the eye popping bold creativity of Blood and Black Lace (1964) or even just the charming tweaking of genre tropes in Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970). There is no similar achievement for this one which is best described as gothic solidity. It’s not a film that really holds the viewer’s interest. Perhaps because outside of the few high points that are shocking for a film of this age, it all feels too familiar. There’s no intrigue about what is happening here. The creepy imagery is perhaps what possibly sets it apart from those superior films mentioned above. And it is enhanced beautifully by the black and white shooting – it is a stunning looking film. Particularly at the start and when Asa awakes, her face pock-marked from the execution. There are also moments of style and imagery throughout that take you aback and snap attention back to the screen. Unfortunately the narrative is not there to maintain attention in between those arresting visual moments.

black sunday mask

Verdict: There’s no denying the artistry here. But this feels too low key throughout and is pretty dated. The visuals are definitely noteworthy but it’s only a firm recommendation for those intrigued by the gothic or big Bava fans. Stubby of Reschs

Progress: 151/1001

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Top 10(ish) of 2020

Time has come to wrap up a cinema year like no other. That’s true even for me, with my break of cinema-going of only around 4 and a half months being yet another reminder of how lucky I’ve been in terms of pandemic life. There’s certainly something of a different vibe to the list, even smaller scale than usual. The drought of big releases actually resulted in digging deeper and a broader consideration of what constituted a new release. Both good things I think. Ended up watching about 110 films from 2020. Here’s thoughts on my favourite 10(ish).

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As always, we take a deep breath and start with the honourable mentions: in a year uniquely bereft of the superhero film the cerebral Superman: Red Son and not-cerebral Bloodshot gave us a different take on the tired genre; plus despite its major flaws Wonder Woman 1984 took the very fun route with a huge property in a way that was refreshing. Twas a great year for the rom-com with The Love Birds, The Broken Hearts Gallery, Emma (rom-com right?) and yes Holidate all brought me joy. Keeping with the seasonal theme, The Christmas Chronicles 2 was an excellent follow-up that I seemed to like lots more than other folks. Horror was good as always – the small scale and creative Sweetheart, haunted dress film In Fabric, bombastically mainstream and relevant The Invisible Man and the clever fairy tale reimagining Gretel & Hansel all really worthwhile. Just Mercy and The Way Back were bloody good takes on dramas we’ve seen before and Spike Lee’s super bold Da 5 Bloods was one we haven’t seen before. And I’ll close with one I think I’m in the minority on: Downhill was tops, excellently performed and I liked it more than the film it’s based on.

10. Sea Fever

sea-fever

Textural, regional aquatic horror trading in superstition and creeping fear. Appreciated the way in which it weaves in faith and Christian iconography, the impact of those when combined with labour, and overlaid with a setting as mythological as the open seas. One of those films that took on a new meaning in this pandemic age even if filmed beforehand. Love how the unknown, natural danger is subtly introduced. Shocking turns of events abound. Features very strong performances from Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott and Jack Hickey amongst others. Really quite emotional and ends fantastically. Super atmospheric stuff.

9. Capone

capone

Utterly absurd and pretty fantastic. Capone is a mythic figure, and rarely has one of those been explored onscreen in a manner such as this. There’s something almost unhinged about the filmmaking choices here. The gross elements that you probably heard about are some of the weakest, as they mask an intelligent and poignant examination of a man getting old and losing their faculties. There are subtle horror elements too – Capone is essentially decaying, losing what once made him great and feared. Tom Hardy’s Al Capone vigorously defending The Wizard of Oz to Matt Dillon is maybe the funniest and most inspired scene of the year. All in all this is a fever dream of weirdness and excellence. Evocative and rocking a fab Tom Hardy performance. 

8. Queer History

We still need loads more, but it feels like every year there are a greater number and a greater variety of stories of LGBTQI history showing up on screens. These two excellent films serve as a tiny example of that variety.

Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

ellie and abbie

The history in this one comes from the titular dead aunt. Having a lesbian aunt giving love advice to a teenager just coming out from beyond the grave is a choice that could have gone either way. But it is one of the strongest elements of this excellent Australian comedy and is also used to shed light on LGBTQI history in this country. And brings the generational differences between queer people to life in a playful way.  Super funny, with a delightful tone. Specifically it contains the optimal level of awkwardness for a teen film. And it’s super well performed throughout.

Circus of Books

circus of books

A chronicle of the role a gay bookshop plays in early(ish) gay history and the surprising owners of the store. Elevated by the relationship between filmmaker daughter and parent subjects – exchanges such as “well mum you’re not someone who makes documentaries” “well neither are you!” and “I don’t like all this filming …. I don’t know what you’re going to come up with from all of this” really change the vibe. Fascinating and sharply made history. Weaves in a lot. Interviews with siblings. Unique and maddening perspective on the AIDS crisis. Portrait of people who are both strait-laced and fuckin radical at the same time. Complex people, extending to their hostility and struggles in response to their son coming out.

7. The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

What a strange film. The unfamiliar sound design and intriguing visual style are immediately immersive rather than distancing. It all feels really finely crafted but is not pretentious about it. Both Robert Pattinson and particularly Willem Dafoe handle the tough material fantastically well. The horror elements, though designed to be mysterious rather than invoke terror, are folded into the landscape and vibe seamlessly. Has a strange quality where it feels meandering but is actually meticulously constructed. Singular stuff. A daft masculine pissing contest the likes of which we have rarely seen.

6. The Assistant

the assistent

It’s not often that a film that is pulled from the headlines topical (focusses on sexual harassment in a studio office) is as methodical as this. Initially focusses on establishing office minutiae and general rudeness of a self-importance work environment. Snippets of meaningless camaraderie that don’t really mean anything humming in the background. Then it moves into laying bare the power and structure of the machine that is used against people in this situation. It’s a very clever expose on dynamics, brutal bullying and how they are enabled and excused. Kitty Green is excellent in a tricky lead role. An intriguing, tough experience of death by a thousand cuts.

5. Film History We Finally Got

Documentary film about film is a tough medium. The lazy (though on occasions merited) critique that it feels like a DVD extra is right there. But when the subject is fascinating and care and creativity are injected into the filmmaking, it can spark. Such is the case with these two, that finally made their way to wide release in Australia this year.

Varda by Agnes

varda by agnes

I’ll caveat this one by saying this choice speaks to my adoration of the life and career of Varda. It’s probably not the best place to start if you are new to her work. But for those of us who held Agnes Varda so dear, it is the perfect ending point, showing so much of the passion and personality that made her one of cinema’s most essential directors. Varda seems almost wearied here, summarising her life’s worth. In that sense it’s a fitting follow up to Faces Places.  She has always been a filmmaker totally attuned to the world around her, and the way she looks back in this film shows that has always been the case. An artist to the end, a great film about filmmaking that closes on a profound note.  

Horror Noire

horror noire

“We’ve always loved horror… unfortunately horror hasn’t always loved us.” Stark filmmaking, invested in history both filmic and real life. Examines the horror genre through a wholly African American lens. Helped along by a perfect selection of talking heads. The personal impact of specific films articulated in a range of ways. The breaking down of tropes and their clear explanation is almost academic at times. But in a good way. Plus it has Jordan Peele talking about People Under the Stairs so it’s worth it just for that. The arrival of this film was the undoubted high point of Shudder’s first year in Australia.

4. Dark Waters

dark-waters-poster

Sometimes when things have been done well a shitload before, we forget to acknowledge when they are done exceptionally again. That feels like the case here as Todd Haynes helms this incredible Mark Ruffalo led film based on real life lawyer vs corporate conspiracy drama. Ruffalo absolutely stars in this, but it is really well acted across the board. The failings of self-regulation is not exactly a foolproof recipe for sterling cinema. But it is elevated to the moon in the hands of Haynes. Even the long stretches of exposition are somehow delivered with a light touch, even coming across poetic at times. A great score. Storytelling that ruthlessly exposes the evils of industrialisation and capitalism. It’s also a human tale – the pursuit of justice overwhelms the life of Robert Bilott (played by Ruffalo), but he performs inarguable good. But where is the balance there, both for Bilott and his family? 

3. ‘Elevated Action’

There’s a certain segment of people who frustrate the rest of us by referring to horror they deem worthy of legitimate consideration and criticism as ‘elevated horror’. I dislike the term for many reasons, so the name of this entry is somewhat tongue in cheek. I love straight action films and quite a few of them have appeared on these end of year lists. But these two films stand out for me because of the non-action elements that differentiate them a little.

The Old Guard

the-old-guard

The script and clever ideas being examined set this one apart. It also features loads of kickarse violence, with Charlize Theron doling loads of it out. A couple of high concept set pieces stand out (a chase and a sequence in a plane) but every piece of action is smartly shot, easy to follow and kind of beautiful. Super interesting mythology built up here – focuses on immortal beings who are not really superheros. An action script that engages with themes and ideas very well. Concept of being incredibly incredibly old is far from a new one but it’s very cleverly presented and explored here. Can tell Gina Prince-Blythewood has been at it for a very long time because this is put together so well, particularly in the use of music and cleanness of the shooting.

Tenet

tenet

Chris Nolan’s silly, awesomely overwrought time travelling riff on James Bond shenanigans is utterly fab. Right from the beginning, the large-scale action is electric. Narratively it builds up a mystique, and some of that is definitely confusing. But that never took away from my glee. The vagueness and archness of the dialogue could be off-putting and it’s a film that probably takes itself too seriously. Still loved it though. It’s an incredibly smooth film. The lead performers suit the vibe of the thing really well. This is whacky in a way that I would not have expected from the director involved.

2. Babyteeth

babyteeth

This film covers familiar ground – teenager facing both terminal illness and young love. But there’s something about how it presents this material that we’ve seen before which works so well. At its best when working at the level of change and emotion, there’s a radical disinterest here towards narrative beats that feels revelatory. The doomed pairing at the heart of the film is nicely complex for a teen relationship. And the interest of director Shannon Murphy here is not so much on the relationship itself but on the impact of it on the terminally ill Milla’s soon to be grieving parents. However the result of this unique buildup is that when the emotions are examined in a more straightforward way, the effect is almost unbearable. And at the heart of this is a performance by Ben Mendelsohn that is almost certainly the best of his career.

1. A Hidden Life

a-hidden-life-poster

This was one of those years where my #1 film was not a close thing. Terrence Malick is one of the three most essential filmmakers to my journey of loving film. A Hidden Life may be his best. Slightly more narrative focused, but really it’s just a clarity of theme which drives the film, one containing lashings of his artistry and poetry. Takes some of that unique montage style of his and spreads it over three hours. That thematic clarity makes for crushing impact as the film crescendos, a tale of personal integrity in the face of evil that has rarely been presented with such purpose. But it’s a more complex hero story than that suggests. Shows the isolating impact of the main character’s choices on those he loves the most. That ostracisation is a real focus of Malick here. Some of the greatest war films have shown that war is hell. But this film tells us that even opening yourself up to the possibility of war is. A stark, sad even harsh film that totally wrecked me.

The 2020 guide to good Christmas shit on Aussie streaming

This is an update of a list I put together last year of Christmas films and TV streaming in Australia. I was hoping this would be a bigger update. But I ran out of time as with everything and more frustratingly, a lot of the additional things I watched for this one ended up being super crappy.

This is certainly not comprehensive, I barely touch on some of the Christmas related stuff on some of the services available, but I’ve tried to get a mix of stuff on a few different services.

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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.

Stan

  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – I wrote a full review of this one last year that you can read here. 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 decent 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: This one is also on Aussie Netflix.

Netflix

  • 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. Another favourite I watch pretty much every year.
  • The Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020) – Not as good as the first, but a more than worthwhile continuation of the characters and themes. Slick but in a not altogether bad way as there’s plenty of charm here. Goldie Hawn brings such joy and compliments Russell’s Santa very well. Leans into the elf stuff here, giving us loads more of that mythology.
  • 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 different 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 that take on Santa and the really quite poignant ending make it worthwhile.
  • The Polar Express (2004) – I’m certainly in the minority with this one as most people hate it. But I think it’s excellent. Something about the sensibility of it appeals. Christmas vibes and themes (particularly the role of belief in the season) mixed with some adventure film beats. One of the great cinema Santa’s Workshops too.
  • Holidate (2020) – Not strictly a Christmas movie. But it features and in terms of schmaltzy rom-coms this is extremely good. Plus there’s a grand romantic Christmas payoff. The sublime casting helps a lot, Emma Roberts is always ace (seeing her spit “fucking holidays” whilst smoking a durry makes this worth a watch by itself) and Like Bracey is solid too. It’s kinda raunchy and there are loads of good laughs.
  • Jingle Jangle (2020) – Love the storytime vibe to this one. The whole vibe around the songs is great too. Musically interesting, great dancing and they flow beautifully with the film. Design and costuming is absolutely spot on. There’s some charming relationships built up throughout the film as well, particularly a grandfather-granddaughter one.
  • The Grinch (2018) – I revisited the Jim Carrey film and was struck by just how much it massively sucked. Then out of the blue my eldest chose this animated version for movie night. I intended to watch the first 10 minutes then get some stuff down but ended up watching it all. Cumberbatch is a bland main voice. But aside from that it’s colourful, wry, fun and even a little thoughtful. It’s also pleasant for adult viewers which I don’t usually associated with Zeuss adaptations and the messaging is lovely but not laboured.  
  • 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. 

Disney +

  • 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.  
  • Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) – Until the ghosts appear, this is not great at all. Aside from Scrooge being amazing casting as Ebenezer Scrooge (funny that). Looks a little cheap and some of the changes fuck up the messaging. But once the three ghosts stuff starts, this rules hard. Absolutely crushes the messaging through all three. Gets really bleak and frightening (seriously I will never understand how Dickens’ book came to be for kids) but the second half of this is as good as any of the other adaptations on the list.
  • Santa’s Workshop (1932) – A rad little short. Old fashioned Disney hand-drawn animation and music at its best. It’s all nice and jauntily done, particularly the lovely rhyming script.
  • Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Christmas (2002) – A good one for the smallest of Christmas fans. Uses carols well and Eeyore is quite funny. Some of the messaging – spirit over presents – is really nice.
  • The Simpsons – I was sort of surprised when I went looking that there were actually very few Christmas episodes in the show’s golden age. The ones that do exist are only ok really and I think in a way the show is too cynical to totally embrace the spirit of the season. But these two are decent enough if you really want a fix:
    • ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ (season 1, ep 1): Rough as guts animation and voiceover. But it’s a passable Christmas storyline with a nice finish to it.
    • ‘Miracle on Evergreen Terrace’ (season 9, ep 11): Nice and Christmassy with lots of the iconography. A reasonable arc for Bart too which is rarely a a strength of the show.

Amazon Prime Video

  • The Field Guide to Evil (2018) – This is a good not great horror anthology, held together by the commitment to the folklore vibe. And importantly for the purposes of this piece, the fifth short from Greece titled ‘Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan’ is a Christmas story. A very cool little one at that, with a nice mixture of and new themes and imagery. The creature is super creepy too.
  • Black Christmas (2019) – This is a solid Christmas slasher that has the added bonus of making a certain subset of horrible dudes irrationally angry. A rare proudly (if unsubtly) feminist flick that would fit rather nicely in a Christmas horror marathon.
  • Jack Frost (1997) – Stories about killer snowmen should be fun, and this one really is. An absolute silly delight. Plays in the slasher space. Incorporates Christmas iconography very very well (and bloodily). Though one word of warning: there is one crappy assault scene in here involving the Shannon Elizabeth character.

SBS on Demand

  • Tangerine (2015) – Recently revisited this one and it was much more Christmassy than I recall. This is all about Christmas themes as we generally don’t see them: something in the personal drama of the film that speaks to the heightened nature of the season, notions of chosen family, burdens of oppressive family, Christmas for migrant communities and the way that all the shit coming to a head at Christmas causes us to reflect.

YouTube

  • Santa Clause (1898) – A fun little 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.   
  • Star Wars Christmas Special (1978) – I can’t in good conscience recommend you sit down and watch this. As a piece of art it’s wildly misjudged. But it’s a hilariously ‘good-bad’ choice to have on in the background as you wrap presents or even at a Christmas party. It’s well known that Disney will never release this officially. But given the version here has been up for 5 years and been watched a couple of million times, it’s clear they don’t give a shit enough to have it pulled down.
  • A Luchagore Christmas (2015) – Two minutes of very atmospheric Christmas horror. Cool set dressing that gets darker quickly. Really dig the reinterpretation of Christmas imagery and tropes here, particularly the carol on the soundtrack. There’s a rad, gross kicker to finish it off. You can watch it here.

Grappling with The Nightingale

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.

Babyteeth

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

Top 10(ish) of 2019

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.

10. The Farewell

the farewell poster

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.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spidey far from home

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 ApartFive 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.

8. Pain & Glory

pain anf glory poster

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

jenny slate poster

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

body remembers poster

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

kojo poster

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

beale st poster

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.

4. Jamilia

jamilia poster

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.

3. Destroyer

destroyer posters

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.

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

lady on fire

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

Free solo poster

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.

Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: Top 10(ish) of 2018 and Top 10(ish) of 2017.

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A brief guide to rad Christmas shit on Aussie streaming

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.

Youtube

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.

Stan

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):

Abed Christmas

  • 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.

Netflix

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.

Christmas Chronicles poster

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.

Disney +

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 poster

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.

It’s A Wonderful Life

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.

***

its a wonderful life poster

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.

Its a wonderful life happy christmas

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
Progress: 150/1001

Plans for this site

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.

Tim