Films I loved in November 2014

2 December 2014
Marion Cotillardas Sandra in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night

The latest film by brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, is similar to their previous film The Kid with a Bike, where they take a highly structured story within a very precise setting and still deliver the naturalistic feel that they are renowned for. The structure is reminiscent of High Noon, where the protagonist has a short period of time to convince the members of the community to stand by her. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Sandra, battling depression and despair, as she lobbies her co-workers to vote in her favour so that she can keep her job – the company has given its employees the cruel choice in having to decide between her remaining employed or them all getting bonuses. It’s a complex and beautifully performed film that delivers a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like living with a mental illness as well as providing a potent social critique of systems that trample the rights of workers. It also has a conclusion that is close to perfect.

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

The other film released this month that commendably portrays the difficulties of living with a mental illness in a difficult environment is the outstanding New Zealand drama The Dark Horse. Cliff Curtis is a revelation as Genesis, an ex-chess champion who has been in and out of institutions due to his struggles with a bio-polar disorder. Based on a true story the film is about his volunteer work at a local youth chess club and his attempts to get his teenage nephew out from the violent gang life that his father intends for him.  Not unlike Shane Meadows’s excellent 24 7: Twenty Four Seven this is story of hope that doesn’t flinch from the grim realities that face the characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

The ultra cynical and darkly comedic Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal in fine form as a ruthless creature of the night akin to the alien from Under the Skin and pop-culture psychopaths like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In the case of Lou he profiteers from video taping tragedy to then sell to news stations, and he does so with no qualms about manipulating other people’s trauma to get the best footage possible. The result is a thrilling and voyeuristic ride alongside somebody completely lacking empathy, and a savage critique of the news that we consume, which is only made possible by people like Lou and our own morbid appetites.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I’ve enjoyed all The Hunger Games films and even though the new film is only half of one of the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is my favourite so far in the excellent franchise. With a focus on the propaganda war between the ruling class in the Capitol and the rebels in District 13, this film goes even further in its savvy critique of how celebrity culture, the media and popular culture carry political messages to influence the target audience. Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen who in this film starts to question the rhetoric of the side she’s been coopted to fight on.

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

The final film I really enjoyed this month is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which may overreach in some of its attempts to position itself alongside philosophical science fiction masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but still contains enough moments of awe and wonder for me to overlook any shortcomings. On a purely spectacle level it is a triumph and I admire its attempts to explore complex ideas such as how time could be represented as a physical space. I also strongly responded to its core question, which is also at the heart of Malick’s The Tree of Life, about what motivates humanity: a simple survival instinct that’s wired into our DNA or something less tangible or measurable such as – dare I say it – love. Corny to some perhaps, but I enjoyed it and also appreciated how much the film linked in such ideas with its celebration of scientific curiosity and the quest to discover something more in life than simple survival and acceptance of fate.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in October 2014

5 November 2014
Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Gone Girl is director David Fincher’s most scathing and most dangerous social satire since Fight Club. Taking a scenario that seems to have sprung from a Men’s Rights Activist’s wet-dream, and gleefully highlighting how inherently ridiculous such a scenario is, both the film and the novel it is adapted from uses the template of a whodunnit thriller to deliver a darkly comedic and borderline absurdist critique of gender roles, mainstream attitudes towards marriage, media sensationalism and materialism in a post-GFC America. Gone Girl is part of a long tradition of horror and thriller films where social anxieties of the era, in this case anxieties primarily concerned with gender, are manifest into the film’s monster or villainous character.

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Speaking of social satires that critique what is expected of men and women, the Swedish film Force Majeure by writer/director Ruben Östlund is a hugely entertaining drama, which also has a number of wonderfully borderline absurdist and comedic elements. Not unlike the far more minimalist The Loneliest Planet, the way somebody instinctively acts in a single moment of crisis completely ruptures the dynamic between a couple making them confront the ways in which they are expected and expect each other to behave.  The passive-agressive dialogue that flows throughout this film – and the very unusual way the film sometimes disrupts the tension – is compelling and confronting, not to mention extremely funny at key moments.

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

The final film that caught my attention this month – and judging from the critical response, the attention of pretty much everybody – is Whiplash, by writer/director Damien Chazelle. It’s another film that challenges social conventions, in this case ideas about the nature of genius and notions concerning the use of pressure as a motivational tool. While it is a film about playing music, and some beautifully edited and shot sequences really bring the music to life visually, it overall resembles a boxing film and a Full Metal Jacket style war film. Whiplash shows us how something like music can be made miserable when the focus is on perfectionism and competitiveness, it shows that while some talent may be natural it also requires passion and a lot of practise, and most importantly it shows us that the antiquated and militaristic push-until-they-break approach is nothing but destructive.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in September 2014

1 October 2014
Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

September was a great month in terms of the number of films that got me excited, but none more so than The Grandmaster, the most recent film by Wong Kar-wai, which has finally made its way to Australia. I’ve long adored Wong’s films and I’ve long been a fan of martial arts films, so I was already primed to embrace his take of the story of Wing Chun expert Ip Man. Set in 1930s China and 1950s Hong Kong, The Grandmaster is an exquisitely sensory film filled with beautiful people in beautiful clothes against beautiful settings, engaging in elaborate and breathtaking fight choreography that resembles dance. I was swept away by the exhilarating and sumptuous look and sound of this film, and moved by its romantic melancholy.

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Although I’ve had mixed feelings about Xavier Dolan’s previous films, Tom at the Farm has converted me into a card-carrying admirer of the young French-Canadian filmmaker. Dolan not only directs (and writes, produces and edits) but also plays the lead character, a young man named Tom who travels to the country to attend the funeral of his dead boyfriend. Tom becomes drawn into an intriguing power play with his boyfriend’s crude and violent brother Francis, where both men are attracted and repulsed by each other. The end result is a compelling psychological thriller that evokes many of Roman Polanski‘s early films.

Ellar Coltrane asMason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Not only is Boyhood a remarkable conceptual and technical achievement – having been shot over twelve years so that the cast could age in real time – but it is also a beautiful portrait of childhood and growing up. Writer/director Richard Linklater has long had a fascination with how the lives of everyday people are a tangle of the extraordinary and the mundane, and here more so than ever he creates a convincing portrait of ordinary lives as they traverse through the years, being subjected to both gentle change and dramatic upheavals. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke in particular are outstanding as the divorced parents of Mason, the boy we see age from 6 to 18-years-old.

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

This has been a fantastic year for bold feature film debuts by Australian filmmakers with Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man being one of the films I had the most fun with. The complex time travel narrative is gleefully tricky and very effectively used to facilitate the theme of destructive obsession, where the control freak protagonist desperately tries to repair a ruined relationship. The two leads – Josh McConville and Hannah Marshall – are wonderful, and Alex Dimitriades as the rival love interest delivers one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in Australian cinema in years.

Taika Waititias Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

Taika Waititi as Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

And speaking of comedic performances, not a single person involved in the the droll New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows puts a foot out of place. Directors/writers/actors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have created a superb comedy that very effectively works within the conventions of its faux-documentary format and vampire mythology. This is an endlessly inventive and funny film with a glorious low-fi aesthetic that no doubt must have involved meticulous craftsmanship to achieve.


Otherwise, two extremely strong coming-of-age films about teenage girls were released in Australia recently. The Georgian film In Bloom presents a very sad portrait of a culture where patriarchal values are so heavily entrenched that customs that horribly infringe on the rights of women are treated as everyday occurrences. Meanwhile the teenage girls in the Swedish film We Are the Best! also have to confront the condescensions and restrictions of regressive attitudes to gender. Their weapon of choice is punk music resulting in a film bursting with fun and rebellious energy, by filmmaker Lukas Moodysson whose 1998 feature debut Show Me Love is one of the greatest films ever made about teenagers.

While I am highly sceptical that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision for the film version of Dune would have worked as well as he and his fans imagined it would, I really enjoyed Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which examines the history of the so-called greatest science-fiction film never made. Finally, I loved Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (and Luke Wilson for that matter) delivering great performances in this familiar but extremely endearing spin on the dysfunctional family narrative.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in August 2014

3 September 2014

Jarvis Cocker in Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

Jarvis Cocker in Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

Although Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets isn’t technically an August 2014 release, it received a number of festival and special event screenings as well as getting a Digital Home Entertainment release (the DVD and blu-ray release is September). It is also a film I adored. It helps that I’ve long been a fan of the band so was overcome by nostalgia, but regardless this is still a very strong documentary that manages to provide an insightful context for the band and their music. By providing a portrait of the English city of Sheffield (where Pulp original hail from) and its residents, director Florian Habicht goes beyond the fact-listing and anecdote-telling formula of most music documentaries, to explore the time and place that produced the music and investigate why it still resonates with its fans. The concert footage is also extremely dynamic and some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Nicolas Cage as Joe and Tye Sheridan as Gary in Joe.

Nicolas Cage as Joe and Tye Sheridan as Gary in Joe.

Part of the growing number of Southern Gothic films that are coming out of the United States at the moment, which I am fascinated by, Joe is both a coming-of-age story about men and masculinity, and a portrait of a community that is rarely depicted on screen other than to be ridiculed. Director David Gordon Green’s use of non-professional actors was inspired, especially Gary Poulter who sadly died shortly after the film was made. Teenage actor-on-the-rise Tye Sheridan is great and continues to impress after Mud and The Tree of Life, and Nicolas Cage in the titular role gives one of his best performances in years.

Zoe Saldana	as Gamora and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy

Zoe Saldana as Gamora and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series that really stayed with me and it’s probably no coincidence that it is more in the spirit of the original Star Wars films and the television series Firefly, than the superhero-driven films from the rest of the franchise. Director James Gunn has previously demonstrated that he has the ability to playfully subvert and draw attention to generic conventions, without resorting to parody or blatant self-awareness, which is why Guardians of the Galaxy is so much fun while still taking itself seriously as an ensemble-driven space opera. Most importantly is the character development where the audience are quickly endeared to the anti-heroes of the film so that most of the enjoyment comes from them riffing off one another and even occasionally having exchanges that are genuinely touching.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in July 2014

6 August 2014

As I’m currently caught up in the thick of the Melbourne International Film Festival and didn’t get this summary done beforehand, my notes on my favourite films from July are briefer than ever. I also didn’t even get to see all the films I wanted to see, particularly A Most Wanted Man, so maybe that will appear on my August list. But for now here’s what I did see in July, better later than never…

Tilda Swinton as Mason in  Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton as Mason in Snowpiercer

I first saw Snowpiercer while travelling abroad late last year and I was thrilled to see it again recently as I think it’s become my favourite film to-date by Bong Joon-ho. I love the visceral and exhilarating action, I love the production design, I love the dark humour and I love the social satire. Not only is the film a savage condemnation of class politics, but it examines the conditions under which class-based oppression thrives with all aspects of the film designed to facilitate that critique.

Brendan Gleeson as Father James and Chris O'Dowd as Jack Brennan in Calvary

Brendan Gleeson as Father James and Chris O’Dowd as Jack Brennan in Calvary

I have to keep reminding myself that Calvary is a blacker-than-black comedy, because it left me devastated. This is extremely sophisticated storytelling that transcended all expectations I had for writer/director John Michael McDonagh. The insights into personal and collective guilt, and the mix of ideas concerning redemption, forgiveness, sin and martyrdom, make this an essential film for trying to understand just how much damage the centuries of sex abuse and cover-ups committed by the Catholic Church have done to individuals and communities.

David Gulpilil as Charlie in Charlie's Country

David Gulpilil as Charlie in Charlie’s Country

I have been a fan of Rolf de Heer’s films for over 20 years now and Charlie’s Country yet again validates my belief that he is one of the most important Australian filmmakers of all time. After making so many progressive films, often about marginalised people, including two previous films with an Indigenous focus but set in the past, this is the film I’ve been waiting for de Heer to make for some time. And it doesn’t disappoint. Closely collaborating with co-writer/lead actor David Gulpilil, de Heer delivers an insight into the extent to which white Australia has continually intruded upon the lives of the First Australians on all levels. While this is overall a sobering film, it also contains a lot of humour thanks to Gulpilil’s performance and just the right amount of hope to prevent the audience from throwing their hands up into the air and declaring the issues to be all too hard to deal with.

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy in Lucy

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy in Lucy

I feel vaguely guilty for including Lucy here, but I had such a great time with this B-grade mash-up of junk science, stoner-philosophy and Hong Kong action-inspired spectacle. The film’s conceptual audacity and the way it fully embraces its internal ridiculousness is completely exhilarating, and it’s by far the most fun I’ve had watching a Luc Besson film since Léon: The Professional 20 years ago.


Otherwise, I really enjoyed Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which is a sort of Hindi In the Mood for Love/Brief Encounter with interesting insights into some of the social issues within contemporary India. I found the Australian documentary All This Mayhem very compelling, having next to no knowledge of the rise and then very disturbing fall of skateboarding champions Tas and Ben Pappas. It’s been a year since I saw The Selfish Giant, which is now on general release in Australia, but at the time I was extremely impressed by the way it transformed a parable by Oscar Wilde into a very moving social-realist film set in a poverty stricken part of northern England. And I was finally able to catch up on Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, which has recently been released on DVD, with Paradise: Love from 2012 being the standout film from that trilogy. Set at a Kenyan beach resort where older Austrian women go to have sex with the young locals, the cocktail of gender, race, class and body politics on offer in this film results in a wonderfully uncomfortable, provocative, confronting and darkly funny film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in June 2014

30 June 2014
Ernest & Celestine

Ernest & Celestine

I feel a bit odd including Ernest & Celestine at the top of my list of favourite films for this month, as I originally saw it two years ago and I saw the original French-language version as opposed to the English-dubbed version that is currently screening in Australia. Nevertheless, this is a gorgeous animated film about friendship that also works very effectively as a parable about not fearing others simply because they are different to us and we don’t know much about them. I’m looking forward to revisiting it once the DVD comes out (hopefully in the original language with English subtitles!)

Michael Fassbender as Frank in Frank

Michael Fassbender as Frank in Frank

I haven’t seen Lenny Abrahamson’s first feature film, but I remember being really impressed by Garage in 2007 and I loved What Richard Did, which I mentioned a few months ago when it got released on DVD in Australia. And going by his latest film Frank, Abrahamson is clearly a director who is getting stronger and stronger. Inspired by the film’s co-writer Jon Ronson’s experiences playing in a band with Frank Sidebottom (an alter-ego of English comedian and musician Chris Sievey), Frank is both a funny and melancholic tribute to marginal figures. While several real-life experimental musicians were inspirations for the character of Frank as presented in the film, I often thought of Scott Walker whose creative process was captured so well in the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. While Frank is for the most part quite a fun film, its real strength lies in its final half hour where it sidesteps several cliches common to films about bands and musicians to instead de-romanticise the link between artistic genius and mental illness.

Emily Blunt as Rita and Tom Cruise as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Emily Blunt as Rita and Tom Cruise as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is an extremely satisfying and mostly smart high concept blockbuster that uses the cultural baggage of its star Tom Cruise to cleverly develop the main protagonist from somebody the audience has contempt for to a plausible action hero. It’s also refreshing to see a film that champions the idea of having to learn and master skills rather than simply rely on some kind of Chosen One or naturally gifted hero narrative. And in terms of spectacle cinema, director Doug Liman really delivers in creating a sense of chaos without sacrificing coherence. The second half of the film may not maintain the same level of interest as the first, but otherwise I loved this mash-up of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Aliens and Saving Private Ryan.

Macon Blair as Dwight in Blue Ruin

Macon Blair as Dwight in Blue Ruin

My favourite film this month is one that didn’t get a theatrical release in Australia, but has instead gone to DVD, and that’s the masterful American thriller Blue Ruin. The film very skilfully conceals narrative information from the audience regarding character backstory and motivation without ever becoming obtuse, so that the viewer only ever needs to know just enough about what is happening to make every scene achieve the most tension as possible. The revenge story that emerges is as engaging as it is due to the film’s ability to maintain plausibility with the core idea that the protagonist is an ordinary person, albeit an ordinary person who’s suffered severe emotional trauma, and is therefore likely to make all the mistakes that a typical person would make.


I also finally caught up with the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which was released on DVD in May. A really beautiful insight into the lives of artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko Shinohara, the film touches on their art and the difficulties of making a living as artists, but it is mostly a study of a relationship where the demands and dominating personality of one person has overshadowed the aspirations of another. This is a sensitive, revealing and very moving film that ultimately possesses a very empowering message.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in May 2014

2 June 2014
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

The more I think about Under the Skin the more I find myself falling for the visuals and soundscape that fuel its stripped-down story of an alien harvesting men from the streets of Scotland. The eerie and the avant-garde imagery in this film are difficult to shake off, being both sublime and disturbing. Combining the formally experimental moments in the film with scenes that employ such a bold cinéma vérité-style approach to filmmaking, has resulted in a truly unique work.

Veerle Baetens as Elise and Johan Heldenbergh as Didier in The Broken Circle Breakdown

Veerle Baetens as Elise and Johan Heldenbergh as Didier in The Broken Circle Breakdown

I experienced intense  joy and sorrow while watching the highs and lows of the relationship depicted in The Broken Circle Breakdown. Similar to the masterful Blue Valentine, this Belgium/Dutch film is cleverly non-lineal in order to contrast the happiness at the start of a relationship to the trauma that comes later. Included in the mix is a great subtext about religious faith and loosing faith in what America stood for during the Bush Administration, and some amazing bluegrass music.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy

While I enjoyed The Trip I loved The Trip to Italy, which not only features funnier interactions between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves travelling around Italy for a food article, but is overall a tighter, better structured and better developed film. It not only gave me some of the biggest laughs I have had watching a film for a very long time, but the melancholic observations on mortality and morality were surprisingly effective.

Godzilla

Godzilla

The new Godzilla film somehow manages to stay true to the spirit and basic mythology of the original Japanese films, while also feeling like a fresh and sincere reincarnation of the legendary franchise. And while in hindsight the film suffers from some weak characterisation, the spectacle and action sequences more than compensate. The restraint used in key sequences made those moments genuinely frightening and exhilarating.

Del Herbert-Jane as James and Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Billie in 52 Tuesdays

Del Herbert-Jane as James and Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Billie in 52 Tuesdays

The Australian film 52 Tuesdays is a highly inventive and sophisticated coming-of-age film. The various limitations that the filmmakers set for themselves has resulted in a fascinating film that continually challenges the audience to reassess their perceptions. Shot over 52 Tuesday afternoons, the story of a teenage girl coming to terms with her mother’s transition to a man touches on issues of adolescent sexuality, gender identity and ideas of privacy with sensitivity and complexity.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

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