There are various levels to the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. The all-time classics everyone has heard of. The Hollywood stylistic experiments. His early formative British and silent work. But perhaps the most enjoyable of these groups to discover as a film buff are the ones not all that many speak about, but that are equally as brilliant to that first group. In my experience they are his best, most pure in genre terms thrillers. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is one, and happens to be my favourite of his films. And now to that I would add Strangers on a Train (1951), which if it doesn’t quite match that film for me, it manages to pack maybe the best character and best sequence of the director’s career into one film.
Perhaps equalled only by Psycho (1960) in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, this is a quite nasty film. There’s some fuckin menace bubbling along just below the surface. In perhaps the most brilliant sequence of his career, a tense and totally brutal murder takes place at a carnival. This follows a chase with all of Hitch’s hallmarks. The shadows and sounds of the tunnel of love as well as the bluster and bravado of the murderer on a test of strength, just feel so distinctly him. If it sounds utterly all over the shop and out there, it is. I’m not sure any other director could have made it work. The plot carries on, the characters swirling around one another. Hitchcock shows us he is able to elicit incredible tension, just through the length of a tennis match. The events come to a head back at the carnival from earlier in the film. This whole end sequence, sort of sums up his reputation for me. A wildly fun and crowd pleasing denouement to a perfectly, artistically constructed tense thriller. Without giving anything away, it mainly goes down on a carousel, a structure of fun taking on malevolent overtones in a stark way.
Strangers on a Train stands as a monument to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller. From the very start where our ‘strangers’ are identified only by their feet, the film almost overflows with creativity. But in a highly controlled manner, as Hitch is able to harness his highly original approach in a way that serves story above all else. There is something chilling about the psychological edges of the characters in the film, most notably Bruno. So much of the character comes from the great performance by Robert Walker. Something off with him from the get-go, his unsettling obsession with “people who do things”. The witty and quite modern script, the way Bruno helps a blind man cross the road, gives him psychopathic tendencies that feel both real and harrowing. The plotting of the film hangs off this character too, based around how each character will react to his manipulation. Just as the first trip to the carnival is maybe Hitchcock’s best sequence, Bruno is maybe his best character. Also excellent is Farley Granger, playing the charming tennis player Guy well out of his depth. He almost functions as a measure of normality to consider Walker’s Bruno against.
Verdict: Strangers on a Train is a legit classic Hollywood thriller and sees Hitchcock at the absolute peak of his creative powers. Anchored by a couple of very good performances, the plot gets you so invested in events it will leave you wanting to yell at the screen (or in my case, actually yelling at the screen). Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
A huge month as Januarys basically always are. A pretty positive one though. Plenty of catching up on 2016 releases as well as getting a really good start on this year’s #52filmsbywomen. This update is rather epic, rather late and filled with mainly rather good flicks.
- Bastard (2010), Kirsten Dunst – This Kirsten Dunst directed short looks great, and nicely invokes the classic road movie, even when on foot. A really nicely done piece. The acting is good, the structure is intriguing without being frustrating and the twist(ish) ending turns it into a very clever take on something we’ve seen a million times before. Liked it a lot.
- Chasing Asylum (2016), Eva Orner – A chilling exploration of Australia’s heartless asylum seeker policies. Chronicles the shift from looking after people, to the lust for ‘deterrence’. The huge human cost to ‘stopping the boats’. The direction is workmanlike, especially in the first half. But the film tells a well-rounded tale. It is especially noticeable for taking the time to sketch out the Indonesian side of things too. Crushing, depressing viewing – the fact our country imprisons people who everyone agrees have committed no crime. Shameful.
- The Witch (2015), Robert Eggers – Numerous horror films attempt to weave religion into their stories. And it rarely works. This is one of the best ever examples. The beliefs of the characters are fully weaved into what is frightening in the frontier world of the film. Very scary, but in a unique way. The acting is excellent, especially from the four kids who nail tough roles. The script and the parent characters embody a great religious stoicness and suffering under the weight of this world.
- Under the Shadow (2016), Babak Anvari – An immersive war film as much as a ghost story, situated in the Iran-Iraq war. Also particularly about the societal/parental expectations placed on parents, particularly mothers (which is heightened when the father heads to the front). It’s all filtered through Iranian post-revolutionary society. Some great use of style to suggest the supernatural. A lot of it is about evoking a certain mood rather than all out horror. Talky at times in establishing mythology. And unfortunately when the supernatural elements do erupt, some of the design is sketchy.
- The Conjuring 2 (2016), James Wan – All the elements that made the first one a legit great are here – Wan’s excellence, the highly underrated core provided by Farmiga and Wilson, assured visuals, evocative period trappings, spooky sound design and a solid build to the plot. And it’s a very good horror flick, but not a great one like the first. Not as immediately engaging or utterly terrifying throughout. And it really feels overlong. The script is a touch weak too, not quite holding the film together as a coherent whole.
- Alexandra (2007), Alexandra Sokurov – Slow paced, low narrative but evocative. A stark, isolated, militaristic world. An intriguing spot for the typical dottering grandma-grandson relations to play out. Lends it a sense of almost absurdism, or at least unease. Interesting use of the colour palette, veering from often washed out to overly bright flashes. Quiet and vaguely worthwhile.
- Divines (2016), Houda Benyamina – A brilliant ode to female friendship & rebellion. Follows an inseparable daughter of an imam and teenager living in a French shanty-style town as they deal with high school with a side of drug dealing. The two lead performances are great and nuanced. Can see the less than desirous circumstances and the ‘spunk’ they have in the face of that. Stylistic moments capture their spirit in a really quite beautiful way. Also about crushing economic reality in contemporary France. Repurposes a traditional gangster arc to totally new ends.
- Triple 9 (2016), John Hillcoat – I dug this film. Some great heist/bank robbing notes. Love Hillcoat as a director. The cast here is flat out incredible. Like so many crime films the plot is unnecessarily complicated. But the motivations of the characters are really solid. Along with Winslet hamming it up as a Russian mob boss, Ejiofor and Mackie give the best performances. Interesting to consider who, if anyone, the good guys are.
- Cinderella (1950), Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske – Haven’t seen this in years and adored it. There are some beautiful themes, especially early. Mainly playing out through her really quite delightful and important affinity with animals. Clean style, both in terms of animation and storytelling. Funny, with lovely songs and a cracker of a jaunty score. In kind of the way of these films, it does wrap up startlingly fast. Charming enough you won’t mind though.
- Coin Heist (2017), Emily Hagins – Cool, classic heist stylings collide with a high school film. Hagins really captures the teen environment beautifully and the actors are very well directed. It’s a flimsy setup for them to attempt such a hugely risky crime. But you just have to put that out of your mind. A unique vibe – all the usual teen film stuff filtered through something a little different. Teen romance you’re actually invested in. And whilst the heist is pretty standard, there’s reasonable tension to it.
- Point Break (1991), Kathryn Bigelow – A goofy classic. A fun script, classily shot. The cast are great. Keanu is full of youthful charisma. Gary Busey’s presence works here. The ‘xtreme’ dialogue is adorably dated. A fucking hot central romance and a freneticism to how the plot unfurls. A real weight to the action and consequences in a way that is rare for action films. Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah is my everything basically.
- The Great Mouse Detective (1991), Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener & John Musker – Thin, but fun. The villainous rat is a good presence. There’s no depth to the ripping off of Sherlock stories, but that aspect has some joy to it. Some great characters amongst the middling everything else. Story overall is pretty weak. But the character of Olivia is a great way into it for the audience.
- Krampus (2015), Michael Dougherty – A rather smart Christmas film. Takes aim at the debilitating and embarrassing consumerism of it all. Plus the horrors of family, especially those forced together despite sharing little life experience. Adam Scott is a great, charming presence. Also a good sense of fun to the horror, especially through the very cool & creative killer toy style creature design.
- Barry (2016), Vikram Gandhi – Really dig this biopic approach. Presenting the Obama of the early 80s basically just as a young man trying to find his way, as we all do. Nice, cruisy biopic writing with a cool early hip-hop soundtrack. And the casting is totally spot on too. Rapport and relationships between characters is so genuine and nicely drawn. Manages to straddle the line between not glorifying Obama and also not aiming for a shocking expose of him being a dick. Just a bloke finding his way.
- Steve Jobs (2015), Danny Boyle – One of my absolute favourite Danny Boyle films. Presents Jobs as utterly driven, but also an asshole. A total genius though. And the film is perhaps too keen to ensure you never forget that. But also paints him essentially as just a salesman, through the structure of the three press conferences. He was a complex dude and there’s an art to the way the script brings that out. Certainly shows his missteps. I found the third act to be just a smidge below the quality of the first two, with the melodrama a little strong and unbalanced. A great film though.
- Tales of Halloween (2015), Darren Lynn Bousman, Axelle Carolyn, Adam Gierasch, Andrew Kasch, Neil Marshall, Lucky McKee, Mike Mendez, Dave Parker, Ryan Schifrin, John Skipp, Paul Solet – A great concept for an anthology. The tales all occur in the same town on one Halloween evening. Relatively fun, brightly shot and for the most part light-heartedly gross. The quality is consistent and the efforts don’t feel repetitive. The acting never lets the stories down either. Whilst it’s a fun ride, the lesser entries are those that play it too silly.
- She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), Mary Dore – Fantastic history of the women’s liberation movement. Both situates it in relation to current struggles for reproductive rights, and delves deep into the history of how it came out of anti-war efforts. Not all glossy, readily exposing the sexism of the movement and its occasional overwhelming focus on middle class issues. Also shows that the movement was not one homogenous group, but a bunch of smaller radical ones. Gets across the sense of power that the movement held, as well as the complexity of concerns involved. Inspiring and emotional.
- Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising (2016), Nicholas Stoller – Really funny. Rose Byrne is an utter star. A rare comedy performer who does not rely on a certain shtick. Can play it different ways. There are bunch of hilarious female performances here. Whilst the story is a rehash, this is a better, funnier film than the first with some tops feminist messaging.
- The Meddler (2015), Lorene Scafaria – Writing is brilliant and true to life. Nails that certain kind of mother at a certain age too. Susan Sarandon manages to bring her to life without cloying. Would have liked more interactions between her and Rose Byrne in the first half. Byrne brings a world weariness to the role we’ve not seen before. Scafaria has this habit of taking you down apparently conventional paths you think you’re going to hate, but she does something so clever, you end up loving it.
- 13th (2016), Ava DuVernay – Basically a perfect piece of documentary filmmaking. Graphics, music editing are all so slick and function together so well. And the talking heads are so damn entertaining and clearly exceptionally knowledgeable in their fields. Tracks the roots of the prison boom all the way through to its explosion. Also examines the racial issues that abound in this space. There’s such a great power to the information being dispensed that it puts you on edge, like a thriller. Some of the facts are so absurd it’s hard to fathom. And at times it hits you in an actual physical way. Plus it has a fuckin incredible hip-hop soundtrack.
Not Worth Watching
- Down Under (2016), Abe Forsythe – Hands down the worst film of 2016. Makes no effort to place the toxic racist culture of the Shire at the heart of this story. Constant, utterly unnecessary homophobic writing. You can definitely make a comedy out of anything. But you have to do justice to the toxicity of the situation. Beyond awful. And not even funny. A problematic use of history.
- The Incredibles (2004), Brad Bird – Still one of Pixar’s very weakest efforts for me. It looks great, has one of my favourite designed worlds from the studio. And it has an ace heightened action/adventure score. But the story and characters just aren’t particularly memorable to me. Also, some of the messaging around exceptionalism is a little iffy. Script is really poor. And the female characters are the most disturbingly skinny I’ve seen in an animated film.
- Allegiant (2016), Robert Schwentke – Some of the younger cast – Woodley and especially Teller – bring a fair bit of charisma. The crumbling futurism visual aesthetic is intermittently cool too. The first smidge is utterly silly, schlocky sci-fi stuff. But then it comes crashing down in a wave of endless exposition and icky themes of genetic purity. Shitty world-building, really bad storytelling and muddled, dodgy thematic concerns.
- La La Land (2016), Damian Chazelle – Pretty insipid. The Gosling jazz stuff is nice and his is a great performance. The Emma Stone Hollywood dreams storyline couldn’t be more old-hat and bland. She is charming. But frankly it feels like the same performance she always gives. Forgettable songs and rubbish dancing. Chazelle seems to be a director with two or three visual ideas he just cycles through. Nothing plot. Ends beautifully though. A sequence that puts the rest of the film to shame.
- Split (2016), M. Night Shyamalan – Crap. Showcases a lot of M. Night’s eye-rolling tendencies – the unsubtlety, the attempted twists, the approach to scares. This film seems to really hate women too. The attempts to transcend a pretty tired subgenre are very uneven in terms of their success. The script is poor and the performances are only average. The use of mental illness to elicit horror is highly problematic.
- Between Cuba and Mexico, Everything is Bonito and Sabroso (2016), Idalmis Del Risco – I was really interested to understand the connections between parts of the two countries. But man this was flat and boring going. Apart from some early scenery, it’s basically all talking heads. Super unengaging for someone without a grounding in the history. Just a lot of academics sitting around talking which makes for pretty shit filmmaking to be honest. So bloody dry.
- Don’t Breathe (2016), Fede Alvarez – For me, a ho-hum, average film. Felt really conservative at times to me. It’s an inversion of the home invasion film, where we follow the intruders. Somewhere in there is an interesting idea about who the real villain is. But they do nothing with it. The style is shitty and there are simple storytelling flaws. Weighted down by logic flaws and the utterly horrific twist. Did not care for it at all.
If you only have time to watch one 13th
Avoid at all costs Down Under
I’m generally a bit of an Oscars Schmoscars kind of guy. But even I can’t help being a little interested when Australia has a nominee for Best Foreign Language film. It certainly doesn’t hurt when Tanna (2015), the film in question, is a wonderfully tender and unique love story.
The film is a somewhat traditional tale of forbidden love, but imbued with some really interesting texture from the society that it takes place in. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean are able to ground and immerse the viewer in a naturalism, through the approach taken to the shooting. The story is based on an actual event from the tiny island of Tanna (where the film was shot), and all dialogue is in the local Nauvhal language. All the performances in the film are from the Yakel people, who were clearly involved in almost all facets of the film. The result is cultural immersion, but not in a bland, anthropological sense. There’s a real spark to the people and their interactions that shines through. This is a world of taboo, forbidden places and arranged marriage, and there is a feeling that all of the characters are genuinely impacted upon by these. But there is also plenty of lightness in the film, humour and playfulness abound. Pretty sure this is the first film I’ve seen that featured the line “get her! She stole my penis sheath”. Don’t go in expecting this to be all serious all the time. The film looks great, colour popping off the screen, which is a remarkable effort given the lack of formal filmmaking infrastructure in Vanuatu. It’s a pretty impressive feat to pull off from two debut feature filmmakers.
The plot itself is one of a couple choosing to chase their love against the backdrop of societal pressure for arranged marriage. You’ve seen/read it before no doubt, but not like this, not performed by these people and in this culture. The use of non-professional actors does not always succeed, but it does beautifully here. Especially from the two romantic leads Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain. Whilst most of the other cast members are essentially playing versions of themselves going about their daily lives, these two are able to convey an incredible amount of longing, intrigue, nervousness, deep joy and desire. This is often wordlessly achieved through stolen glances and simple physicality. It is so well realised that it is remarkable they are not trained actors. There is something really uncontrived about their love scenes together too. They are totally sweet, genuine and, for lack of a better word, loving. The film builds up the tenderness between the two of them very efficiently. From this central romance, the film circles out a lot, which gives you a really excellent sense of culture. Particular in terms of Kastom, the role that tribal law plays in everyday lives and how it impacts on our lovers. Perhaps more than anything else it is these tribal law elements that provide the extra layer of texture to this traditional plot.
Verdict: This film will immerse you and transport you wholly into the Yakel culture. From that starting point, there is a quite beautiful, poignant and classic love story being told here that is delightful and moving to go along with. Pint of Kilkenny
Here it finally is. It took me longer than I would have liked, but I still wanted to publish a best of the year list. I always find narrowing down my favourites to be a very fun/stressful exercise. 2016 was a strange year film-wise. The first six months felt pretty dire, but the latter half of the year, as well films via non-traditional forms of distribution, meant that in the end it was tough to keep this to 10(ish). Usual rules apply, these are films that had their first wide release in Aus in 2016 (i.e. generally no festival films) and the ish refers to a few trends from the year that captured multiple films.
As always there were plenty of films I loved that didn’t quite make my final list. It was the best year for comedy in a long time. Usually I’m lucky if there are a couple of mainstream comedies I like, but this year I dug Bad Moms, Zoolander 2, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and hell I even liked The Boss a lot. The highest grossing film in Chinese history, The Mermaid, also got a 2016 cinema release in Australia and it was a dose of absurdity quite unlike anything else. On the biopic front, the trend of the genre not totally sucking continued, with Barry and Steve Jobs both giving unique takes on the lives of two men we’ve already heard too much about. It is great to see artistic choices and thoughtful writing being used to bring these true live tales to life. There were a number of drama films that told a real variety of stories in affecting ways, specifically The Divines, The Meddler, Tehran Taxi and the romance Echo Park which finally popped up in these parts.
There was a lot of talk about how great a year it was for horror, though some of the year’s most beloved efforts didn’t quite blow me away. That said there are horror films on the list below, and the Netflix original Hush was exceptionally close to making the list too. It’s one of the best home invasion films I’ve ever seen. Another genre focused Netflix original I was a big fan of is the sci-fi flick Arq which re-imagined some pretty tired storytelling tropes nicely. Again there are a couple of docos below and I’d add Jennifer Peedom’s exceptional Sherpa and Tig (which I think was a 2016 release here) as very different, must watch films. Perhaps along with comedies, quality was highest in the realm of family films. Though a couple of the major animated films I either missed or didn’t like, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Red Turtle and The BFG are all films I look forward to showing my son someday. Finally it was a crap year for the blockbuster, one of the worst in a long time. But Shin Godzilla was an excellent reboot, whilst I utterly utterly adored both Ghostbusters and The Magnificent Seven, the last two films to drop off my final list.
10. The Witch
Religion is something that a huge number of horror films like to invoke and engage with. But a vast majority of them do it in a way that is simply surface level, or often downright dumb. Robert Eggers’ The Witch engages with religion in a terrifying and unique way, perhaps achieving this better than any film since the The Exorcist (1973). The beliefs of the characters are fully weaved into what is frightening in this world. The horror is situated in the isolation of the American frontier, with elements of that brought out by the score as well as the performances. A uniquely terrifying horror film.
9. Point Break
To some, the good-bad movie does not exist. I do not fall into this camp, and watching this film was perhaps the most enjoyable film experience I had all year. In time, I believe this will sit alongside hall of fame good-bad movies, it is that good, it is Troll 2 good. The dialogue in this film is the worst I’ve ever witnessed, making it genuinely hilarious. If a can of red bull ever gained sentience and wrote a film, this would be it. Bursting at the seams with extreme sports for very little narrative reason and the clunkiest, most third-rate spiritual musings. A couple of beers and this film is a recipe for a great night in.
8. J is for Justice
My son’s favourite book is the incredible “A is for Activist” where J stands for Justice. These two quite incredible documentaries zone in on two despicable cases of injustice, wrought by two countries who would like to posture that they are above this kind of thing.
Eva Orner’s Chasing Asylum looks at the chilling pride that a succession of Australian Governments have taken in locking up legitimate refugees in squalid prison conditions. The film makes every Australian complicit in these human rights abuses, both through allowing these prideful politicians to prosper, and in allowing our money to be spent in the millions upon millions on these grievous acts. The film takes a while to get going, but once it does, it’s incredibly strong. It helpfully offers the view from Indonesia to give a fuller account of the system that results in people smuggling. It also lays bare our country’s betrayal, as we have shifted from looking after people, to ‘deterrence’.
I generally don’t like to use the word perfect when describing a film. But Ava DuVernay’s 13th is in many ways a perfect documentary. It lays out the explosion in the American prison population, punctuated by an incredible hip-hop soundtrack and reserved but powerful use of graphics. At times it plays like a thriller, and it hits you in a borderline physical way. The central thesis, that slavery essentially continues in the USA due to a loophole in the 13th amendment to the constitution, is brilliantly and interestingly articulated by an incredible selection of talking heads. The result is a country where “crime stands in for race”. A simple fact that should make every American as angry as the film above made me.
7. Auteurs Unfiltered
Queen of the Desert
A lot of the general narrative around film is that it’s all done by committee these days and originality is punished. Whilst there is no denying that is often the case, it is also worth celebrating that this year a number of auteurs released films that whilst certainly imperfect, were undeniably original and worth seeking out to be challenged by. It felt like there was a direct line from what these filmmakers had in mind, unfiltered by interference (for better or worse you could argue), right onto the screen.
Perhaps more than the other three, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert has the most issues. But it was great to see the veteran German director is clearly still interested in telling original and engaging fictional stories and, at least for now, has the clout to get them made. It verges on failure at times. But in attempting to be a grand throwback in cinematic storytelling terms, it somehow manages to feel fresh. Nicole Kidman gives an excellent performance and is ably supported throughout, whilst the score is an intriguing mix of traditional Hollywood and Middle Eastern instrumentation. The film has a lot to say about colonialism too, even though I’m not totally sure it’s all intentional.
There is no film I’ve thought about more since seeing it than Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It is a very challenging watch, in part because it refuses to buy into the storytelling and thematic conventions we are so used to. Often, I think rather clumsily, referred to as a rape-comedy, the film rather examines sexual assault from a viewpoint we’ve never seen before. It perhaps never quite comes together, but it is always engaging. The film re-purposes horror tropes in a wholly unique way and Isabelle Huppert gives one of the performances of the year. It’s also one of the best couple of directed films of the year.
The Handmaiden, from Korean maestro Chan-wook Park, is one of the year’s most divisive films. And I can see why. An erotic lesbian thriller with a non-linear labyrinthine plot and a dash of torture thrown in, this is a strange concoction. It frustrated me at time, often too oblique. But once it reveals what it is going for on the narrative front, I was really taken by it. Artfully staged with performances that suck you into the world of the film. This is a wild, occasionally silly ride that feels like a truly singular take.
The name Ivan Sen may not be as immediately recognisable as the three directors above. But given he wrote, directed, scored and edited Goldstone, I think he has earned his auteur badge. Add to that the fact that he is making crime stories like no one else working today and they have so much to say about the state of my country. Aaron Pederson returns as Detective Jay Swan, or rather the shell of him. This film really ramps up the Western elements of its predecessor Mystery Road (2013). The first two acts are perhaps a little in the shadow of the third. However I think Sen is the best crafter of third acts in the world right now, here it’s a pitch perfect crescendo of violence and thematic resolution.
6. Girl Asleep
How refreshing to see films like this being made in Australia, or indeed anywhere. Perfectly invokes the anxieties of being a teenager. A fun period piece, with the set design and costuming brilliantly capturing a certain type of Aussie suburbia that many of us will recognise. The film is as stylish as any on the list. Perfectly framed and shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, the style never overwhelms the story or emotion. It’s not easy to make a film that will resonate emotionally with teens and 30 year olds like me. But Matthew Whittet, adapting his own play, achieves that really well. The film takes risks with its approach too. There is an extended fantasy sequence that in less assured hands would have stood out as totally unnecessary, but here serves to deepen the themes the whole film is about. A really charming film.
5. Midnight Special
I’ve always sort of pushed back on the notion that parenthood fundamentally changes the moviegoing experience (though there are no doubts the change in worldview has some impact). But without a doubt this film impacted me very differently now that I am a father than it would have beforehand. It is certainly the most powerful film about parenthood I’ve seen since entering that stage of my life. It is an allegory for the time that a child spends with you, for how to manage that time, what is important in it and how that will hold you in good stead when the time says to say goodbye for the good of the child. The film also captures the experience of non-traditional forms of parenting, such as fostering, situating them in the grander scope of parenthood as a whole. All of this is not to say that the film is only for parents. Even just as a sci-fi film, it works really well, melding in adventure, mystery and road film elements. Plus the performances are great all round from the likes of Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon and Adam Driver. The cherry on the top is the spooky and melodic score, which was one of the best of the year.
I usually shy away from films like this. All too often a best picture Oscar is a badge of mediocrity more than anything else. But this is the best straight drama film in a long time. Simultaneously very specific to Boston (particularly in its focus on the problematic ties between the church and numerous aspects of the community), but depressingly becoming more and more universal. It is also a film that makes us realise what we have lost with the (almost) death of investigative journalism. The incredible ensemble cast brings to life a tale of meticulous research and persistence, as they build the case against the city’s pedophile priests in a way I fear would not happen today. It is a swirling build of an investigation that is captured with clarity through the script and direction. Everyone is brilliant as is the score (I’m actually listening to it as I write this piece).
Have you ever tried to describe what love is to someone? Now imagine trying to accurately render that in a film. Todd Haynes’ Carol does it as well as any film ever. It is achingly beautiful in it’s shooting, evocative of 50s New York. It is remarkable what the script, direction and performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett (both of whom simply could not be better) are able to achieve, drawing the viewer into their relationship and giving it a depth truly reflective of real-life love. The film also stands apart from most film romances in that there is not a hint of contrivance, somehow managing to feel totally unmanufactured, despite the director not skimping on the style. A quite simple film that pins down something intangible in a beautiful way.
2. Train to Busan
My favourite zombie film ever. No film this year built the tension and events of its narrative quite like this one. Escalation is hard to get right, but this film brings you up and down in a way that is relentless, yet with the odd moment to breathe. Character moments at the start which I was not sure about, by the end resulted in tears as the emotional weight of the events took hold upon the characters we’d rode alongside. The restricted train location results in some excellently staged set-pieces. They somehow manage to be utterly intense, without the over-the-top manic nature of many zombie battles and the action is always clear. The performances are creepy and the whole film is just brilliantly designed and realised. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, this is the one I am most keen to sit down and revisit.
1. I, Daniel Blake
It is undeniable that there is a creeping tide of conservatism fucking up life for all of us, but especially the most vulnerable in our societies. Leave it to Ken Loach then to viscerally lay bare the class war conservatives are happily carrying out. But this is not my favourite film of the year because of it’s politics, but rather its power. This is heart-wrenchingly good, focusing on a couple of personal stories to both anger and inspire the audience. These stories show how the state humiliates and dehumanises those less fortunate. The acting, from close to unknowns, is stellar and the storytelling is straightforward, clear and acutely well judged. And all the while Loach is always empathetic to his characters and the real life people they reflect. Crushing, infuriating and quietly devastating viewing.
Like plenty of folk, last year I started doing #52filmsbywomen, attempting to watch at least a film a week directed by a woman. There is a huge range of great films to choose from and I easily filled my quota. But I was also keen to check out some older films directed by women, which are not as immediately findable as those on my Netflix queue. Which led me to the career of Ida Lupino, generally regarded as one of the true pioneers when it comes to female directors.
The Bigamist (1953) is one of Lupino’s most famous films and shows her willingness to take on material that is challenging, or was considered taboo at the time. The film subtly and effortlessly sets up the core plot machinations. A husband and wife, unable to conceive a child, are undergoing the adoption process. They are both presented with a form, allowing the powers that be to look into every detail of the private life. He’s aghast. She signs immediately. And from this simple, yet great sequence the audience is hooked, wanting to know where his hesitation stems from. The plot is not all that big on tension. When it is, the film plays like Double Indemnity (1944), but about adoption rather than insurance fraud. If the film does sag a little, it is during a very lengthy flashback. This is partly an issue because it sidelines the character of Eve Graham, played by Joan Fontaine who is perhaps the most interesting in the film or at least the character impacted by the events of the film in a most meaningful way. There is a lot going on in Eve’s relationship with her husband. Their inability to conceive a child and the business bent their relationship takes on because they work together. Perhaps most important is the fact that she’s so capable, better at his business than he is, a fact that clearly wounds his masculine pride. Fontaine delivers a great, emotional performance here, in a role that could have been kind of thankless in lesser hands.
Eve’s husband Harry is the bigamist of the title and Lupino delivers a very complex character. In a way he is set up as an almost sympathetic figure. Or perhaps more accurately a figure of pity. We see different sides to him – the doting enough husband, an annoying womanising cad – as the film progresses and depending on which woman he is with at the time. However for all the back and forth Lupino gives you with the character, it is clear that he is a weak scumbag and that is the overwhelming impression she wants to leave you with. In the end, the adoption inspector is the one who nails him and verbalises the audience’s feelings when he rebukes Harry by saying: “I despise you and I pity you.” The intricacies of the characters are one of the film’s real strengths. They are all interesting to some degree and Lupino establishes layers to them. The director controls the narrative in such a way that we are given fleeting peeks at these different elements when she chooses.
Verdict: The Bigamist starts out as a crime story with a difference, quietly morphing into a flashback heavy character study. The gender politics are pretty forward and Lupino excels at delivering complex characters that will challenge you as to exactly how you react to them. Pint of Kilkenny
Yet another huge month volume-wise for December and it turned out to be a relatively mixed bag. I’m really struggling to find the time to write at the moment, hence this being so late. But what is here is a good mix of catching up on 2016 things I had missed and a random assortment of older films.
- Finding Traction (2014), Jaime Jacobsen & Charles Dye – 55 minutes is really not enough time to capture the scope of an ultramarathon record attempt. This is ok and inspirational, but probably one only for runners. The filmmaking is workmanlike and any attempts at style flounder. But it does capture the mental aspect (i.e. trauma), of ultrarunning quite well.
- Tehran Taxi (2015), Jafar Panahi – High concept, yet organic feeling structure bears out the issues and differing viewpoints in contemporary Iran. Basically a dash-cam and Panahi talking to his passengers. Almost a strange car-bound melodrama at times, with some notes of farce too. Is meta in a way that I really dug. An ode to classic film in a very reserved, technically constrained way. A film about filmmaking from someone not allowed to make films. But more playful than you’d expect, and pulls no punches politically.
- Arena Azteca Budokan (2014), Orlando Jimenez Ruiz – Punk style doco about a specific wrestling gym in Mexico. Huge family dynasty, all living in apartments at the gym. Rambunctious – both the low-fi filmmaking and the atmosphere there. Also some great insight into Japanese wrestling culture. Very much focused on the female elements of this family, their worldwide achievements and legacy.
- Into the Inferno (2016), Werner Herzog – Immediately feels totally Herzog at his best. Though there are less of his interjections overall than I perhaps would have liked. Totally fearless, a little unhinged at its best. Stunning natural imagery, including some heart stopping historical imagery. A globetrotting volcanic adventure of Werner and his volcanologist mate Clive Oppenheimer. He doesn’t do it a lot here, but he is a master of combining imagery & voiceover in a poetic way. Unsurprisingly given the director, the mythical connotations of volcanoes are much more interesting than the scientific study of them.
- Green Room (2015), Jeremy Saulnier – The first half is perhaps a little stronger than the second. Mainly due to its depiction of band life on the road and the feeling of being steeped in a particular muso culture. Beautifully shot. It’s a great genre setup – cash strapped band take a gig at a skinhead bar. There’s a coarseness to the film that works but also makes it an at times tough watch. We’ve all had nights that get a little out of hand and this amplifies the shit out of that idea. Tense, nasty and brutal. Perhaps even a little too much so at times because it overwhelms some of that earlier texture.
- Arq (2016), Tony Elliott – I usually hate the time-loop plot conceit, but it’s built organically here. And it throws in a cool early twist which I’m always quite fond of. Solid sci-fi actioner that does a lot well – the production design is tops, I like both leads (Rachel Taylor & Robbie Amell) and they do good work here, and the machinations and shifting alliances are relatively enthralling to watch. It’s a nice slow burn that was not as schlocky as expected. Really tense by the end too.
- Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), Steve Box & Nick Park – You can see there is so much love and care in every frame of this film. It’s completely disposable, with no thematic concerns. But there’s something almost refreshing about that these days, where every film feels like it is meant to mean something deeper. Love the classic riffing on classic horror films and the visual approach is as grand as you’d expect from Aardman. A surprisingly excellent score too.
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone – Hilarious music mockumentary, led by the unstoppable Andy Samberg. Inclusion of big name, real life musos is inspired. I just had a smile the whole time. Samberg is this totally unassuming dude who is doing the greatest comedy out there at the moment. Quality of writing in general, but particularly the songs is brilliant. Does lose a little momentum in the second half, but there are lots of big laughs.
- Scouting in Palestine (1965), Pier Paolo Pasolini – Great insight into Pasolini’s headspace prior to the making of The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964). Can see his perceptions of the Middle East being changed the more he experiences it, his frustration apparent at the modernity which doesn’t gel with his needs. Also a view into his artistic process, assessing everything for its filmic worth. Though Pasolini does sort of ‘other’ the locals in a way that’s problematic, talking of “savage, pre-Christian faces”.
- Forty Guns (1957), Samuel Fuller – There’s a really cool suaveness to the whole thing that you don’t expect from a Western of this vintage. The dialogue utterly snaps. Really creatively shot with a focus on the body, close-ups of eyes and hands etc. Stanwyck is great as you would expect, playing a really strong character. I like the construction of the story too –keeping the leads apart for such a long time, then when they finally meet they crackle. Interesting themes of the pressure for people to settle down as the frontier is finished. Any sense the central romantic intrigue is perfunctory is so well performed you’ll get over it quickly.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Gareth Edwards – Decent rather than amazing. Feels like Edwards’ film which is good. Storytelling is solid, especially the pretty ballsy ending and the dogfighting action is great to take in as always. The phenomenal cast is the main attraction. Felicity Jones convinces and inspires, Diego Luna is an able assistant and folks like Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Mads and Mendo do a great job at rounding it out. But it’s for sure the weakest score in the franchise’s history. The universe is starting to feel a little tired. And to me this sits unsteadily to the side of the main franchise.
- A Teacher (2013), Hannah Fidell – An immediately discomforting situation as a female teacher undertakes a relationship with a male student. Plenty of style here. The use of music is amazing and the shooting lends everyday sequences a heightened sensibility. The lead performance from Lindsay Burdge is very good, capturing someone who is naïve and out of their depth. An illicit affair as an outlet for fucked up shit in her life, a distancing thing. Like the running we see in interludes. Builds up the deep sadness of her character as someone who really does not have it together. The inevitable fractures do come, but in a very realistic way from both parties.
- Viva (2007), Anna Biller – Totally commits to its conceit – music, shooting, stylings. Awesomely, intentionally laboured. Riffs on TV/film of the period and classical advertising. Wholly unique and kinda audacious. There are so many ways this over-stylisation could be fumbled, but it’s well brought to life and never becomes too self-aware. There’s a real dark edge to the film too. The performances are great. Focusses on gender attitudes and skewering them. A pastiche both of genre (musical, farce), as well as style.
- Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), Rick Morales – Basically 70 mins of shtick. Which eventually runs out of charm. But it is still just worthwhile because it’s good fun for a while. The silly, pithy dialogue transports to the 60s, while the music and gadgets are brilliant. Cutely plays on technical differences between then and now. But the fight scenes really go on and are bland. The inconsequential nature of the plot really tells as it goes along too. As does the fact it’s a little painful in its self-awareness.
- Miss Stevens (2016), Julia Hart – There’s an America singalong, so that’s an automatic thumbs up from me. Another portrait of a person in a role of responsibility struggling. Good characters, with the teens instantly recognisable to us all. Lily Rabe lands the tricky performance of a teacher very much inside her own head. Occasionally becomes too trite and the film stumbles when examining relationship grey areas. But there is some really solid examination of mental illness here and lots to like.
- Salut Les Cubains (1971), Agnes Varda – A quite incredible mix pf photography and film. A mix of Varda’s personal history/reflections, with a more objective overarching history of the revolution. Smartly delivered with two separate voiceovers. Incredible use of photos and beautiful craft to it all. The soundtrack is really great too.
- The Finest Hours (2016), Craig Gillespie – A Disney film that feels almost painfully wholesome at times. Effects are incredible, there’s an epic scale to the waves and boats, with none of the shittiness that generally comes with generating that kind of scope. It’s good, though you get the feeling it’s aiming for something a little more epic/great. There is a nice romance at the heart of it, well brought to life by Chris Pine and Holliday Grainger. Casey Affleck is a little over-actey though. Whilst it never threatens to raise the tension at all high, this is perfectly passable stuff.
- Vagabond (1985), Agnes Varda – Opens with the death of the ‘vagrant’ main character, which lends a sad inevitability to it all. Very little care shown throughout as she is basically dismissed by though around her. Structurally a touch cluttered. But the lead performance from Sandrine Bonnaire is dynamic and just the right amount of enigmatic. About loneliness and the necessary, or otherwise, nature of societal interactions. Love how her idealism is challenged or played on as she moves through the film. Due to her status, people see her as a novelty rather than a complete person. Also, all elements of society feel able to proffer some judgement on her. Really great stuff
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Taika Waititi – Wry kiwi humour. A much more poignant setup than I was expecting. Film is quite grounded in the character of Ricky and what he has lived through. Charming and really sharply written, mixing in a lot of heart nicely. Waititi has a real eye for a shot or sequence, often combined with music (for example one of my favourite ever car chases which occurs late on). And both the lead performances are great and complement each other perfectly.
Not Worth Watching
- Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016), Jake Szymanski – A hard one for me. There were lots of laughs and some good performances. Aubrey Plaza & Anna Kendrick are super good and their characters bring a lot, whilst Zac Efron & Adam Devine have a good rapport. But it’s really aggressively hetero-normative at times, which definitely lessens the appeal. A bit one-note too.
- Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), Werner Herzog – Perhaps my least favourite Herzog doco. Siberia such an intriguing place, but this is very specific but also very quiet and reserved. Also this is totally focused on hunting and that really ain’t my thing. None of his usual insight. The happiness of the title is very much a form of back to basics freedom Herzog is advocating. Though of course there are some spectacular pieces of nature photography throughout.
- Red Dawn (1984), John Milius – This is such a totally over the top conservative piece of work. Some nice scenery is brutally and frequently interrupted by really gross violence. Silly plot as you flick a montage switch and some kids are suddenly amazing guerrilla bandits changing the face of World War III with farcical effectiveness. Zero character development which particularly hurts the female characters, meaning Jennifer Grey & Lea Thompson are wasted. And the storytelling of a war within a war is poor, with no sense of the scope as to where it fits in.
- Gods of Egypt (2016), Alex Proyas – No weight to it at all. Looks cheap and awful. And there is no faster way to get me offside than to kill Bryan Brown, who is totally hamming it up, in the first 10 minutes. The action is a cartoony mess and the performances range from a totally lifeless Gerard Butler to the moderately ok Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Awful, but too shoddy and especially charmless to be a good bad movie.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016), Dave Green – Equally as awful as the first. Action is a too fast, cartoony mess while the voice work of the turtles is really poor. These films have completely sidelined and ruined the character of Splinter. Because everything feels so light and weightless, nothing means anything, even on a simple plot level. Stephen Amell is at least some fun as Casey Jones. Legit one of the ugliest films I’ve ever seen.
- Man vs Snake (2015), Tim Kinzy & Andrew Seklir – Sick of these boringass docos. Someone does something vaguely interesting or impressive. Then someone puts together a bog standard doco on it. There is potential to do something different here – explore the hold video game arcades still have on small-town America. But nope. The incredible endurance aspect of the feat is never conveyed, even if you do get invested in his quest by the end.
- Anomalisa (2015), Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman – A visually interesting film about an entitled white guy is still a film about an entitled white guy. About a yearning for a stage in one’s life with a much greater intensity. Occasionally works as a collection of themes but never as an interesting narrative. Bella is a much more interesting character than the direly bland male lead who has a hugely inflated view of his own self-worth. More than a bit gross. Plies a woman with so many mojitos she can’t stand, before having sex with her.
- Nerve (2016), Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman – Like ‘truth or dare’ for the social media generation… but more obvious and crap than that premise suggests. Awful dialogue. Emma Roberts and Dave Franco work relatively well together. But the film is really poorly plotted with no balance to how it flows. And some woeful, tacked on attacks at anonymous internet culture.
If you only have time to watch one Tehran Taxi
Avoid at all costs Anomalisa
Like everyone who saw it, I was a huge fan of the first season of Rick and Morty. However the busy Dan Harmon and crew would leave us all hanging for a couple of years until they got around to delivering Season 2. Thankfully the wait was more than worth it.
The first season of the show embraced the concept of a foul-mouthed animated Back to the Future (1985) featuring the drunk, obnoxious super-scientist Rick and his grandson Morty full-tilt. The second season continues that with more space-based adventures, here delving into a multiuverse style concept that I don’t recall being so prominent in the earlier season. But it also does a whole lot more. Much of it hinges on Rick, for me already one of the greatest TV characters ever, and his blend of crassness and genius, as well as how Morty interacts with that. The latter is now showing shades of world-weariness to go along with the wide-eyed wonder of new worlds opening up to him that we saw in the first season. Rick is just utterly laugh-out-loud though, episodes such as the one focusing on Tiny Rick had me legitimately crying with laughter. One thing this show does that very few others attempt, let alone succeed at, is to blend silliness and seriousness. Some episodes are more uniformly one rather than the other. But most of the time the show blends the two in a way that really shouldn’t work, but the exceptional writing ensures it does. The show also pushes boundaries in terms of just how dark humour can be, mining some exceptionally grim sources for laughs. Though there is just as much silliness delivering laughs as well. A fair amount of my note-taking boiled down to recording zingers such as ‘Couchferatu’.
In many ways this feels like a culmination of all adult-focused TV animated comedy that has come before. There is the crassness of South Park, but here it rarely feels like simplistic blunt attempts to shock. It riffs on the same episode setup as The Simpsons, where often what the first five minutes of the episode is not at all what the rest is about, but here that often spirals out into absurdist realms. But where this takes the form somewhere new is that this is a challenging show in a totally different way to the others mentioned. Dense sci-fi ideas touched upon in Futurama are here taken to mind-boggling ends. These, and other aspects of the show, challenge viewers regarding what it means to be human and what it means to be a good one, Notions only flirted with in the most superficial way by these other shows. The ambition level is so high on some episodes that I think repeat viewings will be rewarded to help take some of it in. There is sort of a trade-off at play here. The more ambitious stuff is often the least funny. And occasionally the show becomes a little too intense, undermining enjoyment of individual episodes. But frankly it is genuinely beautiful and challenging in a way that elevates the whole show in any case.
Verdict: Crass, well written, geeky, self-referential, tapped into pop culture and fuckin funny. If that sounds like your thing then this season of Rick and Morty certainly won’t disappoint. Brilliant. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
You know how last month I mentioned personal stuff going on that made that piece so late? Well the same personal stuff has left me with a lot of time to watch movies, mainly in chunks around 3:30am, which means this month’s effort is a monster. Heavy on light viewing fare though, so expect loads of action flicks and a really surprising number of sequels too.
- The Good Wife Season 7 (2015), Michelle & Robert King – An up and down, but worthwhile close to The Good Wife It’s basically back to the same old firm, abandoning the charm the smaller Florrick Argos had brought. And the constant dropping of characters with no mention is deeply frustrating. But Lucca is a great addition to the cast. Pays off big emotional setups from seasons earlier with devastating effectiveness. The courtroom storytelling aspect has gone downhill a fair bit this season though, in no small part due to the continued sidelining of the character of Cary. But despite frustrations, this season satisfies and even delivers a monologue moment that’s one of the show’s finest.
- Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 3 (2015), Daniel J. Goor & Michael Schur – Continues to be a truly great TV comedy. More of the same this season. But when the same is hilariously silly writing and an ensemble cast of incredible characters, that isn’t a bad thing. The surprising depth to the characters is the show’s secret strength I think. And the cast which seems it throws up a new MVP each season. Here it is Melissa Fumero as the hilarious ‘straightwoman’ Amy Santiago.
- Black Mass (2015), Scott Cooper – Takes a lot of inspiration stylistically from Goodfellas (1990). But based on an even more incredible true story. I really like the score and how much it is used. The script it not the best, though the performances minimise the impact of that. Depp is really good. He reigns in his bullshit and brings a fierce, quiet menace that is amplified by his wasted, cruel appearance. Sketches out the hero to worship on the part of Edgerton’s deluded bum of an FBI agent. Depp’s vicious character, with him embodying the required demeanour and physicality, is very much the focus of this violent film.
- FE26 (2014), Kevin Jerome Everson – Dynamic short documentary portraiture of two guys stealing unused copper to sell. Pained as a bit of a victimless crime (which it probably is) to get by. Two really interesting dudes and you get a sense of why they do this and how. As well as illustrating the financial crisis as the cause of all the empty houses, but through the perspective of these two guys.
- Semi-Pro (2008), Kent Alterman – Better than I recall, one of the best uses of Ferrell in full blow silly mode. Helps that Woody Harrelson is playing it pretty straight, functioning as a perfect foil. Cast is all good, Andre 3000 and Maura Tierney bring a lot too. Riffs on, but is not beholden to the sports film structure. Also does some fun stuff with the period setting. Has perhaps a lower jokes per minute count than a lot of Ferrell’s films, but some of the laughs are huge.
- Elle (2016), Paul Verhoeven – Totally challenging filmmaking. Storytelling in a way that I think our brains are not programmed to comfortably deal with. A horror film. Adapts many facets of the genre – basements, score, jump scares, horrific childhood events – to say something about sexual assault. A lot of the film chronicles someone working through the trauma of rape. But it’s not only about that. Isabelle Huppert is otherworldly good here and it’s difficult to imagine the film working as well with another actress. Amongst everything else, the best directed film I’ve seen this year. Verhoeven has his audience on a string.
- Eldridge Cleaver (1970), William Klein – Portrait of a Black Panther leader in exile. An incredible talker, impassioned and confrontational about the process of the American system. Has deep ideas and the words to engage you with them. Openly militant in his desired approach. Also functions well as a potted history of Afro-liberation struggles, told by those doing the struggling. Relevant too as we can see the U.S. establishment using the same tactics of propaganda against supposed Islamic extremism as they did against the Panthers. A rumination on the connections between violence and policy.
- Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016), Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni – Looks great. A creative, if not totally innovative, visual approach. These films are good at nailing that theme of being totally out of one’s depth. But there’s some super unnecessary stuff in here about beauty standards. The action is so well choreographed and animated though. And all the voice cast are really solid.
- Zoolander 2 (2016), Ben Stiller – Feels like it slips smoothly into that same comedic groove as the first. Quite funny and there are lots of cameos done with great spirit (Kiefer Sutherland just pips Sting for my favourite of the film). The performances are really strong and it is sharply written. Rehashes beats from the first film sparingly and when it does, they’re fresh and funny. I laughed a lot.
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), David Yates – Like most middle films, this one meanders a lot. And it struggles to feel anything but perfunctory and make the plot meaningful. I think that’s a lot easier to do at this stage of a franchise in book form. But there’s some really strong thematic attacks on conservatism I loved. And some nice casting, especially Imelda Staunton playing against type, Gary Oldman being damn good and Radcliffe & Watson just having their roles downpat at this point.
- F/X (1986), Robert Mandel – Very 80s. Nice, clean action film setup. Bryan Brown has real leading man charisma. Some of the effects plotting is fun, if a little silly. It’s a touch unremarkable, but the acting puts it over the top. The villains are all good and Brian Dennehy has a really great presence.
- F/X2 (1991), Richard Franklin – Very 90s. Really follows on from the ramifications of the first which I like in a sequel. Brown’s Rollie now makes toys, which is nowhere near as cool as doing movie special effects let’s face it. Has some really tense moments, almost in a horror style. But also has a man fighting an animatronic clown suit. Return of Dennehy as Leo is an awesome addition. Plotwise, it’s basically a remake, but with the job change making it a little sillier. And with a lot more Home Alone (1990) overtones. There is also a real nasty, brutal side to this one.
- Bad Moms (2016), Jon Lucas & Scott Moore – Such a winning cast. Kunis is really good as the lead. Pinkett-Smith and especially Applegate, nailing the uppity PTA president, are great in supporting roles. And Kathryn Hahn is a pitch-perfect piece of casting. The soundtrack really pops. There is so much to like about this film. Open and unembarrassed in its raunchiness, riffing on white dude entitlement and the struggles of parenting. Not at all mean spirited which feels so nice. An inclusive, funarse film.
- Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt – A lot of biblical stuff – landscapes, direct references in speech, search for a new promised land and the placing of faith in divine providence. Michelle Williams plays a very good character, she sees through the idiotic Meek much more astutely than the others. Film delineates the genders in a strange, interesting way. Characters are basically all sketches which works for this film. The character of Stephen Meek seems out of place though, an almost comical note to him. Film as a journey. Starts out as a quite ethereal one. Then very much a real one. Those two intermingle.
- Amanda Knox (2016), Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn – Really well constructed and broad ranging true-crime storytelling. All talking heads means the lack of authorial intervention does allow some claims to go un-interrogated. But it really sketches out (in their own words often) the sense of ego on the part of the local police force, and their shameful rush to arrest because the eyes of the world are on them.
- The Equalizer (2014), Antoine Fuqua – It’s a slow start. But Denzel’s presence and Fuqua’s visual style lift it. The early interactions between Denzel and Moretz crackle. So it’s a shame she disappears from the film for so long. It meanders too much from what should be the core story. Loses that heart. But individual scenes are really well paced and there’s great style to it all, especially the extended action sequences. Exceedingly, incredibly violent though.
- Tallulah (2016), Sian Heder – The main attractions here are Ellen Page being excellent and some really well drawn themes on the struggles of being a new parent (including the emotional brutality of post-natal depression). Page has a really personable screen presence and that comes through here, even when playing a drifter who steals a neglected baby. Her interactions with Allison Janney’s disapproving kinda mother in law provide both the film’s best parts and its most trite. Slight, but good.
Not Worth Watching
- Raiders (2015), Jeremy Coon & Tim Skousen – Such a rich story for any film lover, but they don’t do much with it. Filming of the final scene decades on feels like a vanity project and it’s hard to get invested in it. There’s also something quite upsetting about the dude getting hurt in the explosion they put on to complete the film. Cowboy filmmaking. The storytelling is slipshod, even if the historical stuff is of more interest. Which is a bummer because things like how they all bonded over their similar tough upbringings is really interesting.
- Robocop 2 (1990), Irvin Kershner – Certainly not a bastion of subtlety. But also scarily relevant – privatisation and treatment of public servants core concerns. Robocop is comically slow and clunky. Doesn’t stop him unleashing loads and loads of really over the top, indiscriminate violence. Effects work is totally shoddy. The script makes very little sense and the politics around the nature of police work are pretty chilling given where we find ourselves now. And the use of the kid is totally disquieting. Not just bad, but really nasty as well.
- Into the Storm (2014), Steven Quale – It starts totally underwhelming with no exhilaration to the opening action sequence. And that’s basically where it stays. There are some great storm special effects that deserve a lot better than to be attached to this dud, which is really just a wannabe Twister (1996). Not wholly awful I guess, but damn close. Nothing lands with the impact you suspect the filmmakers were hoping for.
- Jenny’s Wedding (2015), Mary Agnes Donoghue – ‘Seems like an interesting premise for a Katherine Heigl film’ was a thought I would come to regret. So chaste, afraid to realistically present the lesbian relationship that should be the film’s focal point. The script is awfully clunky too. For all its faults, it does some stuff well. Tom Wilkinson is incredibly good, but it’s glaring how much he stands out in a mediocre cast. And some of the big emotional moments late on do land quite well.
- Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015), Wes Ball – Really kinda awful. Just a lifeless zombie flick with nary a maze to be found. The sexual politics are shitty too, with the minuscule number of female characters being constantly rescued by the dudes. Direction and storytelling are inept, whilst they really don’t bother with characterisation at all. Middle films are tough, but this is a monumentally bad piece of franchise storytelling, that barely progresses the overall arc in 2 hours.
If you only have time to watch one Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 3
Avoid at all costs Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
As far as female arthouse directors go, Agnes Varda is right at the top of most lists. With a career that has stretched from La Pointe Courte (1955) to today, she has directed around 50 films. A remarkable achievement for any director, let alone a female one, given the system seems to be set up to deprive women filmmakers of multiple chances.
Perhaps her most famous film, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) is the first I’ve seen from Varda. It opens on a tarot reading, the cards on the table the only parts of the film shot in colour. From there it delivers a fantastic character study with a great sense of a specific time (the 60s) and a specific place (Paris). The latter two achieved in large part through the sequences of Cleo simply roaming the city. The main character is an increasingly famous singer, living in opulence and facing a health crisis of some form or another. For most of the run time, the audience is kept in suspense as to whether it is a legitimate illness or something minor exacerbated by hypochondria. The film is about a woman’s experience as she navigates a couple of tense hours but also a life. She may be a hypochondriac. But it may also be that she is merely being dismissed as whiny and attention seeking because she is a woman. It is notable just how much we see the action through a female lense, because it is so rare in film. There are interactions with cat calling bogans, brief loving portraits of toughass female taxi drivers and a focus on beauty and societal beauty standards. “When I am still beautiful, I am alive” Cleo reflects early on, intoxicated by her own beauty. But this is also the film pondering the importance of superficiality to this character, and women more broadly.
The greatest feat of Varda with Cleo from 5 to 7 is the way she conveys the inner state of her characters. This is done through form, style and music. A disconcerting camera with quickly repeated shots. Mesmeric reflections upon reflections. The settings providing a contrast between inner and outer spaces. Cleo ‘suffocates’ in her huge opulent apartment. The white, clear spaces not reflecting the tumult of her mind as she ponders her potential sickness and mortality. Similarly her aimless roving over the cityscape is evocative of the swirling, concerned inner life. The editing also helps reflect the place of a celebrity in society, everyone staring at Cleo. Again the discomfort the viewer feels as a result of these stares situates the film as emanating from the female gaze. The film is shot really nicely, the camera often situated closer than expected, putting us right in the action feeling what Cleo is feeling. This is helped by the great lead performance from Corinne Marchand – intense but at times charming, troubled and physically embodying the character.
Verdict: Totally focused on the female experience, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a study of character, time and place. Varda is a master of conveying the inner state of a character in a subtle, technically brilliant way that is well worth checking out. Pint of Kilkenny
Later than usual this time around as has been an exceptionally busy time for me personally. A vast majority of positive experiences here, the standouts being a surprisingly excellent remake and a few docos. However I continue to get less and less out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, films I have for the most part loved over the past decade-ish.
- The Secret Life of Pets (2016), Yarrow Cheney & Chris Renaud – Accusation of this being Toy Story (1995) with pets are (slightly) harsh. Above average fun, mainly due to the quality of the writing. There were some clever flourishes that got some hearty laughs out of me. The visual approach, especially the characters design, is really fun. And the simple adventure plot is enough to serve the joyful turns of phrase and charming characters.
- The Magnificent Seven (2016), Antoine Fuqua – Hell of a nice surprise. Looks great and is suitably epic. Unashamedly a Western, embracing the tropes and traditions of the genre in a way that is nicely familiar but not tired. The cast is exceptional and so diverse. Denzel is great and leads with movie-star magnetism. Haley Bennett provides a simple but effective emotional hook for the film. And Chris Pratt is here doing his thing where it probably shouldn’t work, but does. Everyone else brings a lot and creates a good sense of character with the screen time they get. A light, but never silly joy.
- Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), Mike Flanagan – Flanagan is a really sharp filmmaker and it shows. Less a Ouija film and more a general love letter to classic horror – mirrors, creepy kids, priests etc. The period elements add a lot, the settings and production design are really great. It does get a touch silly with some unnecessary CGI and attempts to ramp up the scares. But it is nice to see a filmmaker clearly given huge amount of freedom with this kind of property.
- A Lego Brickumentary (2014), Kief Davidson & Daniel Junge – Feels like a doco for kids. In a good way. Thought on occasion it feels a fair bit like an ad. All quite creatively presented. It’s a fun film and conveys a good sense of the intense passion of people who work there and fandom of convention goers. There are some nicely drawn connections of projects on different scales and examination of the changes the company need to make to survive. A little fractured at times, but worthwhile for fans.
- La Paz in Buenos Aires (2013), Marcelo Charras – Wrestling documentary with a quiet, process focussed start. Making ring attire, creating posters on a home computer, the very grassroots marketing approach. Insight into the science and technique of telling stories in the ring is great. Nice portal into a world of a backyard wrestling ring that doubles as a clothesline. There’s also an interesting father/son dynamic with the dad offended his son would even consider working as a heel (bad guy). A nice film that may have been better with a stronger focus on a particular narrative.
- The Seahorse (1934), Jean Painleve – Very scientific study that voices broader themes and connections. A little shabbily shot. And contrived. But there are some genuinely stunning pieces of footage such as the male seahorse in labour. Worth it solely for those images. Which is a good thing cause it peters out. Saved by a cool montage with race horses. Although one of Painleve’s signature totally unnecessary and gross dissection scenes makes an appearance. Yuck.
- A United Kingdom (2016), Amma Asante – Good, but a little stuffy in the telling and workmanlike in terms of craft. Gets by though. The real life story is stunning and emotive which helps. Well cast too. Pike is excellent despite murmurings from some she is miscast, whilst Oyelowo is a standout. Especially in the delivery of one crushing monologue. He also really helps to envelop the audience in real life emotion of the story. Which is at times hampered by a rushed approach to narrative and character. But as a portrait of the petty meddling destructiveness of 40s-50s British Empire, it’s an effective & great one to see onscreen.
- Tig (2015), Kristina Goolsby & Ashley York – A film about Stuff, but perhaps not the stuff you were expecting. Tig Notaro sees the stand-up set where she announced she had cancer explode. And much of this is about the weight of attempting to follow up a truly great, transcendent piece of art. A remarkable love story here too as she explores new love and attempts to start a family. A wonderful doco, maybe the best I’ve seen all year.
- The Barkley Marathons (2014), Annika Iltis & Timothy James Kane – An examination of the infamous, borderline mythical ultra-marathon. Even how to enter is a secret. That desire for secrecy does mean that it is hard to give a sense of the course and how the race is progressing. But you still get enough to understand why it took 10 years for someone to even finish. The storytelling gets really good toward the end when it comes down to the last few competitors.
- Julieta (2016), Pedrot Almodovar – Does a lot of things I loved. And a lot I hated. But that makes for interesting viewing. Too arch and meandering at times. But the central relationship, which takes maybe three quarters of the film to coalesce, is rich, meaningful and complex. Actually there are a series of relationships throughout the film with complexities running underneath them. Awesomely performed, especially by the two titular performers.
- Broadway By Light (1958), William Klein – Experimental short with Alain Resnais and Chris Marker involved. Americans invented Broadway to “make up for nightfall”. A garish and striking montage barrage of branding and yellow neon light. Some interesting examination of light, both the neon and natural varieties.
- The Good Wife Season 6 (2014), Robert King & Michelle King – This is just so well acted. Matthew Goode, Michael J. Fox and Mike Colter are the regular guest stars. Not to mention Alan Cumming just doing stunning work. The political aspects of the show, in the past some of the weakest, are really good here as Alicia attempts to enter public life. Though that does mean the characters are split, so we see less of Diane and Cary than I would have liked. It’s a little unfocused, with a number of characters just disappearing. Still, worthwhile for the ensemble.
Not Worth Watching:
- Meet the Patels (2014), Geeta & Ravi Patel – Found this far more cynical than I was expecting. Chronicles the very specific pressures of a certain culture with its insistence on marriage and annual trips to India. Felt flat. The animated interludes are annoying and unnecessary. The character at the centre is also not a particularly interesting or likeable dude. Occasional examination of generational differences are the best parts. Film boils down to a guy being too scared to tell his parents about his girlfriend… but then he does.
- Doctor Strange (2016), Scott Derrickson – This sees Marvel try something new. Unfortunately it’s really bad. The storytelling is flat and uninteresting, even for a Marvel flick. And it’s basically one we’ve seen countless times before. The script does nothing to elevate the thrust of the narrative and the decently written spiritual elements toward the start disappear fast. The only real achievement is it opens up the MCU to a more mystical realm pretty well. None of the characters are well developed, aside from Strange. And it’s a weird turn from Cumberbatch, seemingly not knowing how to play it tone-wise. The visuals and some of the creative chase scenes feel original and fun though.
If you only have time to watch one Tig
Avoid at all costs Meet the Patels