Films I loved in April 2014

30 April 2014
Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious tribute to an imagined era of European civility and innocence before the onslaught of fascism. Channelling the spirit of Ernst Lubitsch, this is one of Anderson’s best films and certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most since The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001. For the most part a beautifully designed, cleverly structured and hilarious caper, the real triumph in this film is the final five or so minutes where Anderson delivers a heartfelt conclusion that acknowledges the fundamental tragedy of what fascism destroyed.

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

I have long been a fan of Jim Jarmusch – who like Wes Anderson is also a maverick with a unique and uncompromising approach to filmmaking – and Only Lovers Left Alive did not disappoint. This time Jarmusch applies his droll, minimalist and laid back style to the vampire genre to produce a film both visually and audibly rich in texture and atmosphere. The love and symbiotic relationship between the two creatures of the night reflects the delicate balance of the natural world that is slowly falling in decay due to human greed, selfishness and destructiveness.

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

On the other end of the spectrum comes the deliriously fun and subversive mainstream family comedy The LEGO Movie, which has a seemingly anarchic animation style that reminded me of A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009). It does seem incongruous that such an overtly branded and marketed film would contain such a strident message against consumerism, materialism and conformity, but it does and it does it well. It also smartly deconstructs several pop culture tropes including the rather regressive idea of the Chosen One. And it’s hilarious.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono and Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono as Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

In Like Father, Like Son director Hirokazu Koreeda finds considerable charm, humour and pathos in the potentially scandalous story about two sets of parents discovering their 6-year-old sons were mixed up at birth. Instead of melodramatics, Koreeda’s graceful style of storytelling allows for gentle social observations concerning class divisions and parental expectations in modern Japan. My favourite films of Koreeda’s are After Life (1998) and Still Walking (2008), but this is still an excellent film by one of the most consistently impressive filmmakers working today.


It was great to see the low-fi French romantic comedy 2 Autumns, 3 Winters get a number of screenings around Melbourne, as I really enjoyed its quirky and hyper self-referential style. Most of the time I find the device of having characters talk directly to the camera a bit too twee, but it worked for me in this film and I enjoyed its 20-something hipster angst.

Another film that had a few local screenings, just ahead of its DVD release, is the extraordinary Cheap Thrills where two friends are encouraged to compete against each other, in increasingly disturbing ways, for money. The blend of horror and dark comedy in this post-GFC film, delivers a biting social critique of the way middle and lower classes are conned into fighting against each other, while the powerful and wealthy upper class sit back and enjoy the show. The levels of depravity, humiliation and ruthlessness are built up extremely convincingly and are wonderfully excruciating to watch.

The other DVD release of note this month is  Starlet, a very impressive low budget American drama about an unlikely friendship between a 21-year-old woman and an 85-year-old woman. The film is very strategic about when it provides keys pieces of information about the background of both women, but when it does the timing is perfect and the effect is profound. Starlet goes into surprising and unlikely places to deal with subject matter that a lesser film would have sensationalised, but writer/director Sean Baker has an impressive grasp on the material and, like 2 Autumns, 3 Winters writer/director Sébastien Betbeder and like Cheap Thrills director EL Katz, is a talent to keep an eye out for.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 1

8 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

The full 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival program was announced last week so I thought I’d start sharing my recommendations from what I’ve seen so far. This list is by no means exhaustive, there’s no order or system to what I’m listing, I may repeat some of the films listed in my post about the Next Gen program, and there will be more to come as the festival gets closer. So for now, here are eight films and two short film packages that I recommend you get along to:

The Rocket

The Rocket

This is a wonderful Australian production, set in rural Laos about a ten-year-old boy who believes he is cursed and whose family is being forcibly relocated from their home. The critique of the way entire cultures are of secondary importance to the business interests of multinationals never overwhelms the film’s moving and dramatic story about childhood.

Mystery Road

Another sensational Australian film is the latest by Ivan Sen, which mixes many of the themes Sen has previously explored, regarding the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians, with a slick and slow burn murder-mystery thriller narrative. Immediately after seeing this film I wanted to see it again.

The Act of Killing

This documentary about the Indonesian perpetrators of war crimes during the 1965-1966 anti-communist purges has to be seen to be believed. The participants happily speak about and reenact the horrors they inflicted on others in what is a fascinating and disturbing look at a recent example of the banality of evil.

Stoker

It is not that Park Chan-wook has toned down his approach to cinema in his first English-language film, but he has made the guilty-pleasure nastiness more psychological rather than visceral. And it works brilliantly, maintaining the filmmaker’s meticulous and bold approach to film style.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

We don’t fully understand why the protagonist is homeless, possibly mentally unstable and driven to kill a man just released from prison, but the economic storytelling in this low-key yet utterly gripping revenge thriller means that we are captivated the entire time.

Cheap Thrills 

This is what happens when a violent exploitation film with a dark-as-dark-can-be sense of humour is injected with a searing critique of class and capitalism. The build up to the extreme moments is plausible, the message of the film is never compromised, and watching it is disturbing and fun.

What Richard Did 

A  strong Irish drama that if transposed into an Australian context would contain the same amount of relevance and power in its examination of masculinity and personal responsibility. The first half of the film endears the audience to its Alpha-Male ‘good bloke’ protagonist and then the second half looks at the aftermath of an incident committed in the heat of the moment that changes everything.

The Day of the Crows 

A beautifully animated fantasy film that delves into some painful and dark themes concerning parental abuse, persecution and death. A great example of how animated films from non-English speaking backgrounds are capable of appealing to a wide range of age groups with sophistication.

Desire Shorts

Undress Me

For this collection of short films  about sex, sexuality and gender, the concept of desire seemed to be a suitably broad umbrella term to encompass them all. Protective parents have to accept that their children are sexual beings in For Dorian and The Gift, fidelity and sexuality are explored in Summer Vacation, Clay is a sensual film starring Édith Scob and Undress Me is a particularly arresting film featuring raw and honest performances from its actors.

Documentary Shorts

There are numerous great documentary shorts scattered throughout the MIFF program as pre-feature films, but the collection of films put together in this program showcase  how diverse documentary films can be. Not Anymore: A Story of a Revolution captures the immediacy of the Syrian civil war with confronting war footage and interviews from its two highly articulate subjects. Deco Dawson’s Keep a Modest Head is a glorious blend of animation, experimental film and documentary that pays tribute to Jean Benoît, the final living member of the French Surrealist group. Ebb and Flow is a beautiful observational documentary on a Brazilian man who is poor, hearing impaired and a single father, yet continually finds joy in life.

More recommendations to come…

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

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