April was a huge #52FilmsByWomen month for me, the biggest since I started doing that last year. And female directed films provide the best (Queen of Katwe, The Edge of Seventeen) and worst (Twilight, Gang of the Jotas) of the month. Outside of that there was a bunch of excellent genre releases that are heartily recommended.
- Maggie’s Plan (2015), Rebecca Miller – There is such a spark here from Greta Gerwig which is very refreshing if all you’ve seen her in lately is Noah Baumbach films. The film jumps straight into the plot, with her character wanting to become a single mum. The script excellently reflects a life of parenting and academia. Though there is a jarring leap forward where it becomes a different film. One I didn’t love for much of the second half. Best when it focuses in on Gerwig’s character, her struggles and interactions.
- The Last Airbender (2010), M. Night Shyamalan – Found there was definitely more to like here than not. Dig the fantastical worldbuilding and vibe. It looks great for the most part. The performances are pretty decent overall and I particularly love Dev Patel here. He’s totally hamming it up. The fight scenes are logical and easy to follow, which is rare for a fantasy film. Look it’s clunky as all get out and thematically schmaltzy. But I had fun and am a little devastated the huge sequel setup never came to be.
- Scream 2 (1997), Wes Craven – Opens with a brilliant super bloody and brutal sequence in a cinema. Even if the rest of the film never reaches those heights, this is still a Craven film well worth your time. It also has one of cinema’s most iconic final girls in Sydney. The acting is really solid, especially from Courtney Cox and Neve Campbell who conveys the trauma she’s going through really well. The script is funny and smart, managing to still create real tension despite the humour. Thankfully the meta engaging with the concept of a sequel stuff is nice and doesn’t grate. Great long sequences of characters being stalked and preyed upon.
- Barbershop (2002), Tim Story – Loved this film. Essentially plotless for the first half hour, but the riffing and setting up the vibe of the neighbourhood and the place the barbershop has in it is great. A place of community and learning. Neatly shot with some cool use of close-ups. The performances are excellent. Cedric the Entertainer, so often annoying, gives such a fun and deep turn. And Eve should be in everything.
- Green Lantern: First Flight (2009), Lauren Montgomery – Doesn’t fuck around. Has the ring within three minutes. Plays like an absurd cop film – Sinestro the crooked hardass and Hal the bewildered rookie. Pretty basic plot. But despite the general crappiness of the Green Lantern gimmick, the action is pretty solid. Though the end sequence is a bit of a mess.
- Almost Adults (2016), Sarah Rotella – Starts a little rough, the script especially and the acting is a touch patchy. But after a little while it finds its groove and tone. Pretty funny in a well observed early-20s kind of way. Also good on the process of coming out and how hard that is, even if it goes ‘smooth’. Pretty fun this film. Really good comedy. Winning performance by Elise Bauman.
- Witness (1985), Peter Weir – The Amish connection sounds daft on paper. But actually provides an interesting cultural clash, particularly in their lack of interest/desire to be involved in laws. Weir really directs the shit out of this in a visual sense. Has a great score too. Also this Harrison Ford may be the best Harrison Ford and the supports are all really excellent too. A cracking, simple crime film with some great texture overlaid from the Amish/cultural clash stuff. And whilst the love story is a little forced. It handles the ‘from two different worlds stuff well. A seriously great crime film.
- The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Kelly Fremon Craig – This film reminded me how great teen films can be. The fun voiceover and charismatic performances from Hailee Steinfeld (who is simply amazing here) and Woody Harrelson help to give the film a charming teen vibe. Fuckin funny. Nails the awkwardness and doubt of being a teenager. This is really good. A fuckin great script. Very, very funny. Awesome soundtrack that complements the film without being forced. So damn watchable too. I loved it.
- Tank Girl (1995), Rachel Talalay – Immediately sets up a very unique tone – cheeky voiceover, animated interludes and the like. Love the performances here. Lori Petty’s slightly off-kilter look and delivery. Malcolm McDowell doing hammy, OTT menacing better than basically anyone else. The sci-fi visuals have a low-budget charm and bring a light post-apocalyptic aesthetic to the screen. The buddy dynamic between the boisterous Petty and the geeky pragmatic Watts is fun. Trippy as fuck too.
- Deidra and Laney Rob a Train (2017), Sydney Freeland – A really fun mix. Two put upon female teens as the leads, surrounded by comedic parents, cops and teachers. Asleigh Murray and Rachel Crow are excellent as the train robbing sisters of the title. Playful turns, but ones that make their plight realistic. It’s a little light on plot and tension. But there is a unique and quirky, though not overdone style that makes this a great watch.
- Barbershop 2 (2004), Kevin Rodney Sullivan – It starts with some of the best opening credits I’ve seen in a long time. Overall it perhaps lacks some of the spirit of the original, hamstrung by a too similar plot. And the humour is not as fresh, feeling a touch forced. But it also has its own charms. There are some looser, sillier bits of humour that land. Plus the characters are great and the relationships develop from the first film.
- Queen of Katwe (2016), Mira Nair – The performances suck you in early. Oyewelo, N’Yongo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga are all excellent. As does the sense of place (Kampala Uganda). Film has all the sports film beats, but because it is an individual sport, they organically form a character study. Her self-doubt, her overconfidence. That up and down journey rings true. Also sketches out some nice gender, and especially class, issues. The film is happy to meander occasionally too. Not subservient to plot. I really dug this one.
- Namour (2016), Heidi Saman – A touch unfocused, most of it feels like set-up. But in a kind of nice way. A sketch if you will. Portrait of an Arab-American family, and by extension that segment of society. A complex, somewhat untrustworthy character at the centre of things which maintains interest, even when there are some noticeable story holes.
- Embrace (2016), Taryn Brumfitt – You can tell that Brumfitt is not a filmmaker by training. But she is fuckin inspirational which overcomes that. Quite confronting in its own way – laying bare how so many people think of themselves. She also speaks to a really great range of people. The film does a good job of giving those stories room to breathe too, not editorialising too much.
- Bridget Jones Diary (2001), Sharon Maguire – A really sharply written and funny script. Almost a touch heightened or surreal. Zellweger is perfect. Fully formed character. Film makes some good points on the societal expectations placed on women. Thankfully this is a film that never forgets to be fun. Some of the romance elements are a touch undercooked. But the characters and performances (including a great Hugh Grant one) carry that.
- Jason Bourne (2016) Paul Greengrass – Feel that I like this series less than most, but this film more than most. This has the clearest storytelling in a series that’s the perfect example of getting way overcomplicated. I’m a big Greengrass fan too. He is great at constructing these long, multifaceted chase sequences. A really nice piece of the characters arc brought to life, with the thematically resonant decisions he’s making. And Matt Damon is really good at drawing all that out.
- The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Tran Anh Hung – Delightfully shot with a smoothness to the visuals. Music plays a big part in the characters’ lives which is a point of difference. Quite gentle, at times cute storytelling. Sweet and true to life in its own way. Not all that much is the love story I was expecting. Notions of servitude and some very gentle touching on class issues more of a focus.
Not Worth Watching
- In a Valley of Violence (2016), Ti West – I’m a fan of both modern westerns and the films of Ti West I’ve seen, so this was a big disappointment. Starts pedestrian and really never elevates beyond that. The dialogue is bad, feeling like people are speaking as they do in 2017, while the stakes feel too low. The performances are also weak with only John Travolta really revelling. Ethan Hawke is ok but his character is averagely defined. Hollow. Feels like kids mucking around on some abandoned Western sets.
- Ratchet & Clank (2016), Jericca Cleland & Kevin Munroe – Maybe slightly less annoying than anticipated, but still pretty annoying. Looks ugly. Like a PlayStation game funnily enough. Quite charmless and there is nothing to the sci-fi elements aside from parroting much better sources. The characters grate badly too.
- Money Monster (2016), Jodie Foster – A disappointment. Clooney playing a bro-ey, no-substance host of a money show is a great fit. And there is some really nice patter with Julia Roberts. But the hostage situation on live TV thing feels a little contrived. And the ‘99%’ themes play tired. It’s not a total write-off. Jack O’Connell is really good, as he seems to be in everything. And when it trends a little absurd it works better. But the characters don’t stack up and the messaging becomes a little silly.
- I Spy (2002), Betty Thomas – There is decent chemistry between Eddy Murphy and Owen Wilson here, though neither of them are stretching themselves whatsoever. But the vibe of the whole thing is a little cheap and shoddy. Also goes some off-colour places with some jokes about mental illness, sexual assault etc. More dumb than mean spirited I guess.
- Red Riding Hood (2011), Catherine Hardwicke – Woah this is bad. Cheaparse lookin medieval sets. A weird sheen to everything. Gary Oldman delivers a mess of a performance. Truly craptastic allusions to whether torture is moral etc. Seyfried naturally has some spark and presence to her. But all that does is make everyone else look even more shit in comparison. The incorporation of the fairy tale it is named after is tame and adds nothing. There’s something that stops it from being totally awful. But not by much.
- Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke – As clunky as filmmaking gets. Voiceover exposition and Instagram teen emotion bullshit. Shoddily done. Ugly editing and shooting, plus a poor script. A couple of performances (Stewart and Kendrick) rise to the heights of being ok. But Robert Pattinson who is generally very good, plays this role terribly. The execution of the vampires and the level of connection in the main romance is utterly stupid. Really really bad.
- Gang of the Jotas (2012), Marjane Satrapi – Very low budget. Stilted to the point of being amateurish. Aiming for this madcap, fish outta water escalation vibe. With the mafia involved of course. But it’s just silly. Lacking setup or story or something. Script is horrid. Notion that these guys would go to any trouble to help this woman, is silly as presented by the script. An unwieldly attempt to combining serious drama and caper shenanigans.
If you only have time to watch one The Edge of Seventeen
Avoid at all costs Twilight
GLOW (2017) hit Netflix a few weeks ago so the gushing about how great it is has passed us by. But this hard-working (sort of) Dad only just finished and feels the need to chime in with some love for it.
GLOW focusses on Alison Brie’s down on her luck actor Ruth as she tries to make it in 1980s LA and ends up joining an upstart all female wrestling troupe. That’s what the show focusses on initially in any case. As the series progresses, more and more of the supporting cast (almost all women) are folded to the forefront of various storylines. Particularly Debbie, the star of the show and Ruth’s former best friend, played excellently by Betty Gilpin. I fell in love with this show basically from the garish neon credits onwards. The show slaps on a proud feminist badge early on which certainly didn’t hurt the appeal. The storytelling is a little slow to get going. But from episode five or so onwards, I was totally hooked. This point also coincides with where GLOW makes its unabashed, innocent love of professional wrestling very clear as Brie starts playing a staple Russian heel. The show explores how wrestling is a very simple, pure form of stripped-down storytelling, in both good and bad ways. The preparation of the show within a show breaks down the questions and process of a storytelling approach that is focussed on “stereotypes not backstory”.
As much as the show is an ensemble, there is no doubting that Alison Brie is the star here. My main familiarity with Brie is from her excellent work in Community (2009-2015), but she is showing a lot of range here. Her performance is winning and hilarious, whilst the writing of the character makes her feel real and deeply flawed. There’s a weight to what she is doing here without it ever feeling overwrought or heavy handed. One criticism of the show that I have heard is that too much emphasis is placed on Marc Maron’s character Sam and his issues. It’s a fair comment and that focus does take away somewhat from some of the awesome wrestling women. But it also provides variety to the storytelling as the women go about their training. In future seasons, when the show within the show is up and running, perhaps it won’t be necessary to have such a heavy focus on Sam.
The entire cast of female wrestlers are brilliant. Both in the writing and performance. Special mention of real-life pro-wrestler Awesome Kong who plays Tamme aka Welfare Queen in the show. In her wrestling days, Awesome Kong was a genuine game-changer in terms of what a women’s wrestler looked like and could do in the ring. Given in this season she shows that she can hold her own on the performance front, I’m hoping she’ll be at the centre of plenty of season 2 as there is (presumably) more and more wrestling action. It is so great to see such a wide variety of female bodies and characters onscreen and performing in an athletic manner. Thematically the show picks up on this late in the season with a focus on the connection between wrestling and the ownership of women’s bodies. The athleticism of wrestling is all their own, no matter their background or current situation.
Verdict: Once it gets going mid-season, GLOW is an unstoppable combination of things that don’t usually go together – a sincere & serious affection for the world of pro-wrestling, stunning performances, consistently funny writing, a huge range of excellent female characters and extended showbiz making-of plotting. It also leaves us just as the show is going into production, meaning there are almost limitless places that the show can take us in season 2 and beyond. There’s an exultant quality to the show that I definitely want more of. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
I feel a little daft posting these so late. But really they don’t lose much by me doing so. All of these films are still out there somewhere for you to see. March was generally pretty positive, with some good to great new releases and some excellent Middle Eastern #52FilmsByWomen entries being the pick of things. I feel a little daft posting these so late. But really they don’t lose much by me doing so. All of these films are still out there somewhere for you to see. March was generally pretty positive, with some good to great new releases and some excellent Middle Eastern #52FilmsByWomen entries being the pick of things.
- Kong: Skull Island (2017), Jordan Vogt-Roberts – Very Big, very dumb and quite fun. The cast goes a long way toward that with Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and Thomas Mann all nailing it. John C. Reilly is decent too, saving a character that could have been abysmal. The film looks really good, though I could probably have done with more Kong and less of all the other monsters. In terms of plot, it’s stock standard, though I thought the attempts to make it a Vietnam War film were pretty tame. Overall mildly distracting, no more, no less.
- The Gunfighter (1950), Henry King – The direction, and gravitas-laden performance from Gregory Peck, immediately set up a mythology around the character of Jimmy Ringo. It’s a classic, focussed western tale with great interplay between the characters. Has a lot of those classic western themes going on, especially the struggle between family and the gun. Also when to ‘hang it up’. Though there is a disappointing sense of inevitability to how it all finishes up.
- Keanu (2016), Peter Atencio – Haven’t seen too much of Key & Peele but I loved this. One of the better film comedies of recent years. There’s a cool odd-couple vibe to their characters and both grow really nicely through the film. The film is always engaged with race, but the laughs come from a wide variety of sources. Funny as shit and insightful.
- Mustang (2015), Deniz Gamze Ergüven – A brilliant film. An excellently established portrait of overriding moral conservatism at a societal level, contrasted with the individual spark of the girls. The film flows really nicely. Not plot heavy but still engaging and has stakes. Very good at expressing heightened moments of joy against a torrid backdrop. Technically the cinematography is bright and really reflects each scene whilst the nice brooding score adds weight throughout.
- Somewhere in Time (1980), Jeannot Szwarc – Starts with an awesomely creepy moment – an old woman comes up to Christopher Reeve and implores him to “come back to me”. Reeves is exceedingly charismatic. He fills the screen and physically embodies his character. His performance really carries the film and what could have been an awkward tone. This works really well as a magical realist love story. The time travel elements are explained in-depth but never weighed down with rules. And there’s a great tension to how these elements will resolve themselves.
- Family Plot (1976), Alfred Hitchcock – Late Hitch with a really great ensemble cast. A very different vibe from the director. Crime-comedy in genre terms with hints of farce. There’s a car chase sequence here that’s madcap in a way very unlike anything else the director has ever done. But at the same time very tense. I love how the film and plot just unfold and it’s here that the director’s trademark control really shines. Barbara Harris and a very young Bruce Dern stand out performance wise. It also has a really nice John Williams score that merges nicely with the director’s approach.
- Kung-fu Master! (1988), Agnes Varda – A really interesting thematic exploration of motherhood, with a main character who is a ‘bad mum’. For complex reasons sure, but the interrogation of her heart-wrenchingly poor decisions gives the main drive of the film. She undertakes an affair with a young teenager, the same age as her daughter (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, a remarkable performer even at this age). Deeply disconcerting, the way she treats him as both a little boy and lover.
- Moonlight (2016), Barry Jenkins – Quite simply: as brilliant as advertised. The script is masterful. Each act uniquely bringing the character to life at a different age. The acting is excellent with the three Chirons all succeeding in bringing what the script is doing to life. There’s something quite masterful in the way Jenkins gets the three sections to interlock and inform one another. Flow of the characters throughout is special. Feels as though it is some form of American classic. Uniquely situated as a film about African American homosexuality.
- Logan (2017), James Mangold – A hell of a film. Focused. You can feel it – my jaw dropped, my fists clenched. Deeper emotional complexity to the main character than any comic book film ever. This is the first realistically vulnerable superhero we’ve seen on screen. Three incredible performances – Jackman, Stewart and newcomer Dafne Keen. Feels both small and meaningful. Refreshing contrast to the MCU with a self-contained story and uniquely sparse worldbuilding. Great, extra bloody, action. And villains that actually fit the aesthetic of the film. Really excellent score too.
- Mascarades (2008), Lyès Salem – Algerian film with a great sense of life from the get-go. Liked it a lot. A couple of great female characters. But also some very silly slapstick that comes out of nowhere. Tonally flicks a switch half an hour in. Thematically about pride and saving face within your community. The thrill of being accepted even if you know it’s a shallow acceptance. Also the hilarious heightened consequences of a lie that spirals out of control.
- Wadjda (2012), Haifaa Al-Mansour – Beautifully simple world and character building. Builds this very clear patriarchy, anchored in casual misogyny all round. Such a great, cheeky outlook on life from the main teen girl character. Interesting to consider the parts of this that are universal, and those that are quite Saudi specific. Profile of a young hustler, a schemer. An unfeeling, teen edge to her at times. I adore this film. Especially the second half which is a ripsnorter. A character study of a character I adore.
- Les astronauts (1959), Walerian Borowczyk & Chris Marker – Trippy music and cool bleep bloop sound design. Marker’s technique and aesthetic employed to suggest Melies’ style sci-fi. Cartoony space exploration fun. Visually mixes in high art and silliness.
- Captain Abu Raed (2008), Amin Matalqa – Really nicely composed, both in terms of story and visuals. A character that you really like too. Elderly cleaner becomes a cult hero with the local kids when he convinces them he’s an airline pilot and recounts tales of adventure. Charming, but goes some dark places toward the end. But these two opposites nest together well. Love the unlikely friendship between Noor and Abu Raed. Resolves the different story threads really well with a quite emotional ending.
- Son of Babylon (2009), Mohamed Al Daradji – Takes place in Iraq just after the fall of Saddam. Incredibly desolate, sparse expanses of earth. Conveys very well the early days of the occupation and what that would have felt like. In essence it’s an Iraqi road movie. Captures nicely, without forcing, the ethnic factions and sectarianism of Iraq.
- Paradise Now (2005), Hany Abu-Assad – Two amiable but aimless friends are willing (?) suicide bombers. Really well performed, especially from the two main dudes. An interesting love interest and the occasional nice aside about cinema. The simplicity in the portrayal of prepping for the bombing makes it quite stark. Harrowing. Examines notions of normality and if it’s even possible for that to exist in Palestine. Weaves the emotional, spiritual and political into the plot level of things really well.
Not Worth Watching
- The Long Riders (1980), Walter Hill – The stunt casting of real life brothers is cool. But the film never really immerses you in the world of the old west. Sets and costuming feel really thin and there’s no real weight to anything that happens. Feels like it skips over a lot of the plot, almost skim-reading. Dennis Quaid is unrecognisably young and quite good, whilst Randy Quaid proves that he was never a good actor. A shaggy dog of a film. Wastes a really good Ry Cooder score too.
- Waterworld (1995), Kevin Costner – The first 20 mins or so of this are maybe 90% tops and 10% wild, wild missteps. But by the end that has basically reversed, descending into an inexplicable mess of references and actions that make no sense in the world of the film. Prospects of being a ‘good-bad’ film are hampered by Costner’s character being a misogynist asshole and his emotional arc is dumbfounding. Women are just treated awfully throughout. Which I’m sure they would be in a dystopia, but I don’t think that’s what the film is aiming for. It looks bloody beautiful though, can see why it was so prohibitively expensive. Also I wanted more giant sea monster. So much more.
- A Private Collection (1973), Walerian Borowczyk – Quite literally a tour of ol mate’s smut collection. Gross. Male gazey puppets through to him just rotating old nudey paintings on an easel. Dude gives off a pretty creepy vibe. Though not sure how to avoid that when you just standing there talking about your porno collection whilst hiding your face. Vaguely illuminating about the depiction of sexuality through the ages. Too creepy though.
- Psychohydrography (2010), Peter Bo Rappmund – Shows promise early, but interminable. The use of photos feels contrived here and lacks the ‘animation’ of other films that have used the same technique. Doesn’t tell a coherent story about water flow (or anything else). Though there is the occasional cool piece of haunting, unique imagery. A real battle to get through.
- Equity (2016), Meera Menon – Cool to see a financial crisis story told through the female lens. But it struggles to ever look and feel like anything more than an average TV show. Clunky script never manages to integrate the story strands. And the writing is not strong enough to pull off the shocking big picture intrigue stuff.
If you only have time to watch one Mustang
Avoid at all costs Psychohydrography
Get Out (2017), the most hyped horror release of the year, emanates from an unlikely source – Jordan Peele of Key and Peele sketch comedy fame. On the basis of this first directorial effort, even though he initially seemed like an unlikely horror maestro, let’s hope he has a bunch more ideas stashed away because I want to see them all.
Peele has talked of being a horror fan and you can see the affection for the genre early on. A bunch of clever allusions to classic horror plant the seeds beautifully for what is to come – the unfriendliness of suburbia, a boarded up basement, psychologists with ominous skills. The film also uses (very clever) jump scares early on to put the viewer firmly on edge. This is very effective because even the ‘straight’ plot that unfurls early still just feels a little off. Adding in these sharp moments of terror only emphasises that feeling. But for all this riffing, the romantic weekend away to meet your girlfriend’s parents feels like a unique setup. Especially given how genuine the relationship between the two leads feels. And the traditional family history aspect to the film’s setup is given a wrinkle when a family anecdote about a beloved grandfather being beaten by an African American sprinter is recalled. The nature of the threat in the film evolves and escalates from a feeling of not being quite welcome, to more overt forms of mental and physical control.
Someone on my facebook posted that they were now scared of white people after watching Get Out. After my initial shock that this person was only now becoming scared of white people, I began to feel that it was a pretty decent distillation of the movie’s thematic concerns. Or concern, because racism (though different dimensions of it) is really the full focus of what is taking place, and there is a whole lot to break down on that level. Peele examines racism in the film in both subtle and more obvious ways. Which is not to say the latter are bad in any way. One of the film’s best sequences is where the film quite directly invokes notions of African Americans being property and the way that racist mindset classically manifested itself. Even just from an optics point of view, the film abounds in scenes of many white people in the frame with a single African American person. In addition, the intersection of class with racism is a focus as the film takes place in a very upper class environment. Here Peele skewers the notion of reverse racism with the most privileged lamenting some perceived physical or societal advantage being held by people of colour generally. The film never stops to make any of these points, nor does Peele needlessly draw attention to them. They are not hidden away but are organic to the story, and frankly organic enough to contemporary society that they never jar.
So much of what Get Out does well is as a result of the script, which juggles a lot of different elements very well. The racial themes are incorporated into and reflected by the plot. And it also brings to life both very grounded and quite supernatural forms of horror, without either jarring. Unsurprisingly the film uses humour well, with some very funny moments lightening the mood but never undermining it or the very real horrors of the film. There’s lots of humour but the film is in no way a comedy. Peele is adept enough behind the camera to scare the viewer in different ways – slow creepiness and visceral fast jump scares accompanied by a burst of noise. Both of these scared the shit out of me at different times, usually accompanied by the incredible atmosphere of the score, which is adept at accentuating the two very different types of horror. The performances across the board are excellent, especially from the leads Daniel Kaluuya and Alison Williams, as well as LilRel Howery as a comedy relief TSA agent. In addition to those, Catherin Keener and Bradley Whitford pull off tricky, key supporting roles as Williams’ Rose’s parents really well.
Verdict: This is an incredible film. A thematically rich riff on classic horror from a voice that feels totally new. It’s also fuckin terrifying, always a good selling point for a horror flick. It’s also one of the first screenings I attended where there was a genuine spontaneous outburst of applause during the film, which was very well earned. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
These just keep getting later and later. February was a veeery up and down month for me. I’m a pretty happy dude, so it’s not often I see 12 films I don’t like. But there was also plenty of stuff that I really dug too, and a really diverse range of cool films too. So hopefully something in here everyone will like.
- Whip It (2009), Drew Barrymore – What a great female ensemble. There are about 10 performances here I love. This film totally kicks ass too, I love it. A nice reimagining of the coming of age story, set in the world of roller derby. So charming. There’s a beautifully drawn romance on top of everything else and Ellen Page has perhaps never been better. So fucking fun and life affirming.
- Masterminds (2016), Jared Hess – Driven by a very funny, focused comedy script. Sticks nicely to the trashy late 90s conceit. Kirsten Wiig is quickly becoming one of my favourite actors. Really well performed by everyone. Kate McKinnon is a delight, though underused. I didn’t even find Galifinakis too painful which is weird. Dig how different the performances are, but they don’t jar when put together. A very fun way to interpret real-life events on screen.
- Fences (2016), Denzel Washington – Quite brilliant. Anchored by three very good performances. Early it feels a little too much like a play, as it is based on. But the central character played by Washington is such a complex one it takes hold. Feels like a deep, specific portrayal of the African American experience. We don’t directly see this play out, just the result. The result is not pretty, likeable or sympathetic. But it’s a product of these roots. The film never gives you an easy read on the character and the entire film swirls around this one deeply flawed individual. A tough watch.
- The Princess and the Frog (2009), Ron Clements & John Musker – A great retelling of a fairy tale, with some nice inverting of traditional Disney princess tropes. A city with a racial divide. Helps there to be a much stronger send of (real) place than is the norm. Feels immersed in New Orleans, with the food, locations and cool songs. Brilliantly repositions Prince Charming to also be the animal sidekick. One of the funnier Disney films. Also has the wonderfully realised camaraderie and joyful supporting characters of the studio’s best. Thankfully never becomes pastiche.
- The Book of Mary (1985), Anne-Marie Mieville – A really clever short film about divorce, but from a kid’s perspective. Different images cut together in a thought provoking way. Smart script that articulates a break-up conversation with realism. A focus on how the kid handles this, acting out like an adult. Also examines how the adults choose to relate to her.
- Pete’s Dragon (2016), David Lowery – A simple film, though at times bold in its choices and bloody beautiful. I love that there is never any doubt that the dragon actually exists. Cool for a family film to feel so deeply rooted in mythos. The CGI creature is integrated into the forest visuals seamlessly. Great exposure for kids to themes of environmentalism, deforestation, land use and ownership of animals. Occasionally there’s some dreary sentimentality and shallowness to the examination of human greed. But overall it’s a cracker.
- Medea (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini – A funny script with wry performances help to make the labyrinthine, bemusing mythology not a deal breaker. Actually it’s almost a little charming in the end. Great location and imagery like so many of Pasolini’s films. Long stretches of silent, intriguing images as worldbuilding. Stark, lean brutality that sits alongside some almost gaudy costuming. A strange concoction that works somehow. Much of it is the joy in watching how the characters interact with the space. Didn’t really know what was going on a lot of the time. Still really dug it.
- Green Street Hooligans (2005), Lexi Alexander – There are elements here that don’t work – how the Elijiah Wood character enters the scene, contrived tiffs in the group, the family dramas and an annoying voiceover. But the positives outweigh those. Particularly the action which is shot with a great, controlled kineticism. The film is at its best when really steeped in football culture. Charlie Hunnam is really good, has a great presence.
- Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), Hark Tsui – It takes you a little while to adjust to the visual stylings. A comic book vibe. Deeply entrenched style to the film, even in just the way people move. It’s a world of a female empress and magic deer. Radness basically, with a nice note of schlock. Unique fight sequences. Almost a little silly, but at the same time engaging and a weight to them. The performances are all really good. The story is a red herring laced reimagining of the traditional detective narrative structure.
- Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013), Hark Tsui – There’s a really well realised brash cockiness to the way Dee is written here. There is perhaps not enough grounding in story before leaping into the action. Perhaps even more stylised visually than the first. It’s great fun, with a real spark to the performances. More of a sherlocky vibe than the first one – Dee has an unmatched genius and there’s even a Watson type character. Plus there’s the sea monster is awesomely (and originally) designed.
- Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011), Lav Diaz – Probably a good idea for my first exposure to Diaz to be one of his shorter efforts. Endlessly interesting, though even at this length not all that easy to make it through. Use of movement within a static frame is challenging and beautiful. No doubt I missed aspects of this due to my lack of knowledge of Filipino history/politics/culture. Strange conceit – an ethereal figure from the revolution occasionally, but not always, observes events. Haunting at times. Weaving of dreams and reality. The camera lingering on her face as she perhaps comprehends the revolution led to the disappointing modern Phillipines.
- The Ninth Configuration (1980), William Peter Blatty – Delightfully strange. Takes place in an asylum for Vietnam vets housed in an old castle. Heavy influence of dreams. Lots of off-screen voices giving them a disembodied vibe. Stacey Keach is really good. The mix of serious and silly grates for a fair while but grows on you. The nonsense of the patients is actually very well written. Darkly funny, with mania seeping out of the corners of this castle. A slog at times that really comes together. Very much a statement of the impact of the war on soldiers.
- Rams (2015), Grimur Hakonarson – Almost wordless, at least between the humans. Focuses on men with a strong connection to their flocks and the results when that is threatened. As expected with an Icelandic film, every bit of scenery is breathtaking. At times funny in a very wry, dark way with even a hint of absurdism. A very different set of stakes that we are used too as well, just a pack of sheep. But here they are of life and death importance to the characters. Very well acted and quite emotionally challenging. A rather strange mix of pathos, drama and comedy.
Not Worth Watching
- War Dogs (2016), Todd Phillips – I got basically nothing out of this, even though Jonah Hill has really turned into quite the actor. I usually like Teller too, but he’s an empty presence here. The script is kinda crass but too dry to be a rollicking adventure comedy. Also doesn’t really saying anything. Just exists in an average middle ground. Flat. You know where it’s going all along and it’s not fun or exciting getting there.
- Hail Mary (1985), Jean-Luc Godard – Too obtuse. Toying with the allegory and relationship between scientific logic and religion. Choppy and too vigenetty. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the constant biblical references, this feels like a painstakingly crafted piece of meaninglessness. Worthless really and the totally overt correlations by the end are just silly.
- The Wave (2015), Roar Uthaug – Disappointing. The start is promising, with the monitoring of the lake for any signs of seismic activity grounded nicely in science, including invoking a real life event from the early 1900s. Also some cool/terrifying imagery of them checking monitoring equipment literally inside the mountain. But the slow burn goes on too long and is too quiet. There’s not enough plot which impacts on the underdeveloped emotional leaps and the special effects are a little shoddy too. There’s some nice enough stuff in there but pretty underwhelming overall. Also struggle with these film that depict such wanton destruction.
- Central Intelligence (2016), Rawson Marshall Thurber – Anyone, even The Rock, in a fat suit is a bad way to start. And whilst there are some better moments, this is not consistently funny, or engaging on the action front. The Rock’s charisma gets the film so far, but he struggles with the silliness. Just feels too sluggish and it’s a little cringy how little edge there is to the humour.
- A Hologram for the King (2016), Tom Tykwer – Feels like an old-fashioned ‘cultural clash’ comedy. Clunky, almost crass at times. There’s some interesting supporting characters and the love story elements are nice. As is the kind of otherworldly feel to it all. But I found it to be pretty standard white dude at a middle age crossroads type of fare.
- Jackie (2016), Pablo Larrain – A hard one for me. I think structurally it’s disconcertingly put together with the non-linear approach. The journo framing device is hacky too and the script overall delivers little. Portman is undeniably powerful, but the performance is often distractingly full of affectation. Though the boldarse score is a chance that really pays off. Peter Sarsgaard gives the film’s best performance as an incredibly Bobby Kennedy. And as if John Hurt’s death was not crushing enough, he is masterful and complex here. It’s a tough sit. Constantly on a knife’s edge of an explosion of unfathomable grief that never comes.
- Heathers (1988), Michael Lehmann – Another where I loved a lot of aspects of it, but it doesn’t work as a whole. The design is ace. Really interesting sound design and the colour pops. Winona Ryder is utterly excellent too. Feels like she is conveying more than everyone else onscreen. Very much a teen film, with something slightly off, as conveyed through the style. But there’s a Burton style eccentricity here that does not work. And Christian Slater gives a very strange performance as a dreary, hateable character that drags the whole film down. A really gross, totally manipulative dude.
- Tamara Drewe (2010), Stephen Frears – A bummer given how good the graphic novel it’s based on is. Starts off fun with some good insight into the writing process. And even works as a very sad portrait on the state of a marriage. But then it starts to take itself too seriously. Also can’t make the teenager or love triangle elements of the story work as well as the novel. Really tapers off. Feels like there’s no insight beneath the soapy goings on.
- Victor Frankenstein (2015), Paul McGuigan – The Max Landis script is the main issue with this film. Shocker. We are never transported to the time and place of the film. The plot is just tepid and it feels as though there is very little reimagining of Shelley’s novel, with minimal escalation to the events. The atheist riflings that go outside serving the themes of the film are tiresome too. As for the performances, McAvoy has his moments, whilst Daniel Radcliffe is fine though playing a very muddled character.
- Sausage Party (2016), Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon – Fucking awful. A painfully obvious, desperately dull religious satire. Most of the jokes just feel like the crassest thought possible rather than containing any wit. It all feels pretty clumsy. Though there is no denying chewing gum Stephen Hawking is pretty funny.
- The Great Wall (2016), Yimou Zhang – Starts super strong – rollicking awe-inspiring adventure with a bold monster storyline and spectacular visuals. The early extended battle sequence had me giddy with excitement. But it’s all downhill from there. The film slows, I guess in order to tell some story. But it just bores. And Damon’s character gets a little white savioury. A shame that the early promise just totally fizzles out.
- Mad Money (2008), Callie Khouri – Very grounded in the financial crisis. Asks us to care what happens to this rich white woman which is pretty grating. Most interesting on the occasions that it examines the structural elements that impact on Queen Latifah’s character. She is really good, as is Katy Holmes who is really underused. Keaton plays it a little silly and having her as the brains of the operation annoys. As a heist flick it’s lifeless. A bummer, as you could do something interesting with these performers and even these characters.
If you only have time to watch one Whip It
Avoid at all costs Sausage Party
An extremely gruesome female directed feminist cannibal film is a unique sell. So perhaps it is unsurprising that Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) amassed a huge amount of festival hype over the past year. Even filtering out the usual bullshit about how many people fainted at each screening, this is a film that impressed and excited film fans, both horror fiends and otherwise. Festival hype can derail many a film and this seems particularly true of those in the horror genre. Thankfully though, Raw is as unique as it sounds on paper, meaning it is next to impossible for smug fans to dismiss it as something we’ve seen before. Whilst the film is notably gross and visceral, the overriding sense of the experience is deeply disquieting. The way a horse is manoeuvred whilst under sedation is as disturbing as anything far more gruesome that takes place.
Justine, a committed vegetarian, leaves home to attend vet school. There she undergoes a series of hazing rituals that culminate in her being forced (under pressure from her older sister who underwent the same rituals) to eat a rabbit’s kidney. Even before this moment the raucous college environment is confronting and unsettling. The sound design is oppressively loud and there is an inescapable intensity to the place that you desperately want to escape. Following the forced feeding, Justine develops a very gnarly rash which is the first step in a slide that will eventually lead to cannibalism. Ducournau builds this slide steadily as Justine makes small though increasingly disturbing decisions. But perhaps the two grossest, in your face pieces of body horror in the film actually precede the cannibalism. Firstly as the doctor peels away swathes of skin to assess Justine’s rash, and secondly as she brings back up huge amounts of her own hair she has been swallowing to satiate her forbidden desires.
Thankfully the thematic interest of the film goes a lot deeper than these forbidden desires being a cipher for pre-marital sex or some such trite rubbish. This is not to say consideration of taboos and the consequences of breaking them is not a very real interest that the film has. It is just that this is a really thematically dense film that does not settle for that. There is a heavy focus on sisterhood, both literal (her relationship with her sister who is attending the same vet school) and figurative (feminist empowerment). Justine does burst through the bonds that both herself and others have placed upon her through her life. And her actual sister plays a role in that. There is a sense of empowerment as she comes into her own. Much of that plays out in how she fights her sister, but also how together they fight a world that wants to dictate how they should act and what they should be. This is particularly stark as it all occurs in a vet school where the heavily ingrained misogynist culture is so well established at the beginning of the film.
One of the great achievements of Ducournau’s film is just how watchable it remains, despite the graphic flesh eating and faint-inducing hype. There is a character focus that helps with that. We never lose Justine as a young woman, finding her way in a frightening new environment that many of us have experienced, beneath the gore and chomping. The character is brought to life excellently by Garance Marillier, initially conveying the dual naïveté and drive of an ambitious uni student. Then later she is also great at conveying discomfort, embodying physical agitation in a way that is hard to watch. The film is shot beautifully, pulling your eyes into certain parts of the frame where the director wants to focus your attention. The characters move through this space at times like dancers. Early that’s ethereal, adding a strange dimension to that unsettling vibe, later it’s harsh and aggressive. The soundtrack, often coming in abrasive bursts, is noticeable from the start. It’s melodic, with the tiniest hint of malice always running underneath. The moment where Justine first tastes human flesh provides the best single piece of scoring in years, perfectly amplifying the exultant and triumphant feeling of that moment.
Verdict: Feminist, gross, dense, disquieting and still really watchable, Raw really does feel like something unique in a genre where it is so rare to say that. Even though I almost feel like I need a second viewing to properly process it all, I wholeheartedly recommend it on this first experience. Pint of Kilkenny
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.