Favourite Films of 2016

20 December 2016

These are the films that I not only think are great and will stand the test of time, but they are films that got under my skin, made me want to see them again, continued to linger in my mind and reminded me why I love cinema.

My top ten films

Released in Melbourne, Australia, in 2016

ROOM_DAY8-0044 (3) (1)1. Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
Released January

92. Son of Saul (Saul fia, László Nemes, 2015)
Released February

elle_03_rgb3. Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)
Released October

the-arrival4. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
Released November

i-daniel-blake-still-45. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)
Released November

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS6. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016)
Released August

_DSC3602 Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell with Guns7. Goldstone (Ivan Sen, 2016)
Released July

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS8. Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)
Released November

CAROL9. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Released January

Spear10. Spear (Stephen Page, 2015)
Released March

 

Honourable mentions

Fifteen more films I loved this year, listed alphabetically:

BROOKLYNBrooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
Released February

Embrace of the SerpentEmbrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente, Ciro Guerra, 2015)
Released July

girl-asleepGirl Asleep (Rosemary Myers, 2015)
Released September

Hunt for the WilderpeopleHunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
Released May

nullLa La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
Released December

measure4
The Measure of a Man, (La loi du marché, Stéphane Brizé, 2015)
Released June

still_307692Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
Released June

still_478533Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)
Released December

DCIM101GOPROSherpa (Jennifer Peedom, 2015)
Released March

Day 25 21Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)
Released July

SpotlightPic#11Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
Released January

sullySully (Clint Eastwood, 2016)
Released September

sunset-songSunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
Released September

TNG-14668rThe Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)
Released May

weinerWeiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016)
Released September

Special mention

Most of the other notable films I saw this year will be released in Melbourne in 2017, so I’ll include them on next year’s list rather than here, but I do want to give a special mention to the following films screened at festivals that to my knowledge are not currently scheduled for release in Australia.

144507_24882_certain_w_stillCertain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

144231_24831_kate_play_stillKate Plays Christine (Robert Greene, 2016)

148081_25808_kedi_still
Kedi
(Ceyda Torun, 2016)

147440_25882_my_life_a_still
My Life as a Zucchini
(Ma vie de Courgette, Claude Barnes, 2016)

A070_C001_081319
Notes on Blindness
(Pete Middleton and James Spinney, 2016)

This list was compiled for the upcoming Senses of Cinema 2016 World Poll

Thomas Caldwell 2016

Films I loved in December 2016

15 December 2016
still_478533

Adam Driver as Paterson in Paterson

As Jim Jarmusch is one of my favourite living filmmakers, Paterson was one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It contains many of Jarmusch’s trademark characteristics, including an understated dead-pan sense humour, dialogue that sounds so conventional and direct it becomes strangely lyrical, and a overall minimalist approach that is captivating. While many of  Jarmusch’s films feel like the epitome of cinematic coolness, the story of a poetry-writing bus driver delivers a romantic and sweet depiction of American small-town working-class life. Adam Driver, as the titular bus driver observing life around him, is a perfect Jarmusch leading man and the scenes between him and Golshifteh Farahani, as his wife Laura, are unbelievably sweet.

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Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan in La La Land

While La La Land is clearly a homage to the musicals of the classical Hollywood era, especially the colour films of the 1950s by directors such as Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, it is also heavily indebted to Jacques Demy’s 1960s musicals, themselves homages to classical Hollywood musicals. As a Demy fan, this is not a problem for me at all, and it gives La La Land an extra layer of depth. The heightened use of colour, overt slides into fantasy and abstraction, and contrasting moods of whimsey and melancholy are all close to the spirit of Demy. Lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are a terrific on-screen couple, and the songs and dance choreography are great. This is a gorgeous and sincerely crafted love letter to the musical genre.

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Auli’i Cravalho voicing Moana Waialiki in Moana.

Walt Disney Animation Studios have been in incredibly strong form over the past few years and Moana is their latest success. Its story of a Polynesian girl on a quest with a demigod, delivers an exciting hero’s journey story with strong music numbers, fun gags, and inventive animation. It also continues the recent Disney tradition of critiquing the reductive representation of class and gender in so many of their earlier films about princesses. Moana is fun, exhilarating and moving.

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Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in Rogue One

I was a big fan of the 2014 Godzilla, especially the way director Gareth Edwards stayed true to the spirit of the original films while bringing something new; namely giving the large scale action scenes an immediate and gritty aesthetic. With Rogue One Edwards does something similar by making it a very faithful prequel to the original 1977 Stars Wars film while also ensuring it works as a standalone film. One of the darker entries into the franchise (both thematically and visually) it contains a wonderful ensemble of flawed anti-hero characters and a series of gripping action sequences. This was the most I’ve been entertained by a Star Wars film since seeing the original trilogy as a child.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in November 2016

30 November 2016
the-arrival

Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks in Arrival

I’ve admired the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve for some time now, even when I haven’t completely embraced all aspects of some of his films, so I approached Arrival with cautious anticipation. It has turned out to be one of my favourite films this year. Arrival belongs to the long tradition of science-fiction that provides a potent political allegory, in this case it is one of the less common alien-themed films that argues for social cohesion rather than promoting fear of outsiders. It also belongs to the hard science-fiction traditional of seriously exploring its premise, in this case the implications and practicality behind communicating with aliens. It also belongs to the more philosophical tradition where its premise is used to explore more abstract concepts such as language, communication, memory and time. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s a very emotional and personal story driven by the film’s protagonist, linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks played by Amy Adams in one or two outstanding performances from her in a film released this month.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals

The other film this month featuring Amy Adams at the top of her game is Nocturnal Animals, the second feature film by the multi-talented Tom Ford. The story-within-a-story structure and ambiguous ending demands that the audience ask themselves how the fictional neo-western revenge story being read by Adam’s character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow, relates to her own stylish neo-noir story of lost love and bitterness. I was captivated by all aspects of the film and I’m still wrestling with its themes of revenge, catharsis, suffering and finding meaning through art (or perhaps more troubling, the inability of art to do anything more than symbolise and reflect).

i-daniel-blake-still-4

Hayley Squires as Katie Morgan and Dave Johns as Daniel Blake in I, Daniel Blake

In I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach along with long-term collaborator screenwriter Paul Laverty do what they do best by delivering a moving and angry film about inequality, poverty and social injustice. The Kafkaesque scenario of a man being made to look for work to maintain his benefits despite being told he is unfit for work will only seem implausible or exaggerated to those who have never fallen on hard times. This is one of Loach’s best films and the scene in the food bank is one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in a film this year.

american-honey

Sasha Lane as Star and Shia LaBeouf as Jake in American Honey

American Honey showcases everything Andrea Arnold excels at: seamlessly combining professional and non-professional actors, creating visual intimacy and naturalism, and underscoring the energetic ‘in the moment’ feel of the film with class and social commentary. Newcomer Sasha Lane is a revelation as the 18-year-old Star who joins up with a group of young travelling salespeople who like to party and express their pursuit of the American Dream through motivation business rhetoric and hiphop lyrics.

Joe Alwyn

Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk projected at 120 frames per second or in 3D, but I still got the sense through its use of sound, editing and camera positioning of how this off-kilter film was experimenting with a new style of heightened character subjectivity. The way Lee collapses the disorientating spectacle of soldiers being used as stage decoration during a football halftime show with Lynn’s (newcomer Joe Alwyn) intruding memories of battle is captivating and disturbing, providing a powerful critique of the treatment and exploitation of young men sent off to war.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I more or less enjoyed the Harry Potter films, but by no means would I consider myself a fan. So I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a new prequel franchise directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films. The beautifully realised 1930s New York setting and inventive action sequences certain helped to win me over, but this is a strong character driven film with timely themes about persecution and the folly of making sweeping generalisations about groups of people (or creatures).

ella

Ella Havelka in Ella

Douglas Watkin’s Australian documentary Ella, about dancer Ella Havelka, is a warm and and inspiring film that through its story of personal accomplishments explores issues of cultural and personal identity. Havelka is a compelling and likeable subject with a fascinating background as a young girl from the country town of Dubbo, whose passion for dance lead her to learn ballet, but also to train with the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, before becoming the first Indigenous dancer to join the Australian Ballet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in October 2016

31 October 2016
elle_03_rgb

Isabelle Huppert as Michèle LeBlanc in Elle

I’ve previously never really embraced the non-science-fiction films by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, but his latest film – Elle – is one of his best. A lot of the credit for why it is such a triumph needs to go to Isabelle Huppert who is essential in making lead character Michèle LeBlanc such a complex and intriguing character. The film begins shockingly with Michèle being raped and from there it continually goes in unexpected directions as she reacts in ways that often seem at odds with how the audience may expect her to behave. It’s dangerous and provocative material, made all the more so by how enjoyable and frequently humorous the film is. But there is nothing flippant or exploitive about Elle and within all its unexpected moments there is a biting satire about class, gender and moral hypocrisy, all held together Huppert’s commanding performance.

chevalier

Giorgos Pyrpassopoulos as Yannis and Efthymis Papadimitriou as Dimitris in Chevalier

I haven’t been engaged with the current wave of frequently absurdist films coming out of Greece, but after The Lobster last year and now Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier I am becoming a convert. This deadpan comedy about six men on a fishing trip, who begin to compete with each other to find out who among them is The Best in General, is a perceptive and funny satire about middle-class masculinity. What I liked the most is that while the film ridicules competitiveness and pack behaviour among men, there is something very gentle and kind about it as well. Tsangari provides plenty of examples of bad behaviour by the various men and a few moments of superb cringe comedy, but with a sense of affection that I found both endearing and clever.

jcc

Jerome Meyer as Joe Cinque and Maggie Naouri as Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s Consolation

I was unfamiliar with the story of the death of Joe Cinque, which resulted in Anu Singh, his girlfriend at the time, being convicted of manslaughter. This didn’t prevent me from finding Sotiris Dounoukos’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation to be horrifying and riveting viewing. What sets the film apart from other true life crime films is the almost mundane build-up to Cinque’s death. Singh was open about her plans to kill Cinque with many of their mutual friends, most of whom were educated university students living in Canberra, Australia, and from middle-class backgrounds. The film conveys the collective rationalisations and  complicity of the characters by successfully portraying them as being slightly removed from reality as they play-act at being adults in the bubble of university life. It’s confronting and revealing in a way that for me felt closer to the films of European filmmakers such as Michael Haneke rather than other Australian films.

under-the-shadow

Avin Manshadi as Dorsa in Under the Shadow

Set in a Tehran apartment during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war Under the Shadow is an effective horror film where the supernatural threat articulates anxieties over the devaluing and oppression of women in Iran post the Iranian Revolution and the ever present threat of being killed during a missile strike. The scares are effective and unsettling, and the film uses its premise and allegory to full potential.

the-handmaiden

Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee in The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is one of Park Chan-wook more light-hearted films, but it is enormously fun and decadent to watch. An adaptation of Welsh writer Sarah Waters’s Victorian novel Fingersmith with the setting changed to colonial Korea during the beginning of the last century, it is a tale of con-artists, double-crossings and forbidden love. Many of the techniques Park has used previously for bodily horror – especially the heightened use of sound – is used here to full effect for accentuating the sensuality of the film.

winter-at-westbeth

Dudley Williams in Winter at Westbeth

Ever since his debut feature film T is for Teacher, Australian filmmaker Rohan Spong has excelled in making deeply humanist and entertaining documentaries. In Winter at Westbeth Spong profiles three aged residents from a New York housing project for arts practitioners. Dancer turned filmmaker Edith Stephen, dancer Dudley Williams, and writer and poet Ilsa Gilbert light up the screen as they discuss their lives, reflect of their pasts and interrogate the work they are doing today. Charming, warm, sincere and ultimately deeply moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in September 2016

2 October 2016
sully

Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger in Sully

Despite regarding myself as a Clint Eastwood fan, I’d started to think his best work was long behind him. When I saw Sully I was thrilled to discover that I was wrong. The film depicts the emergency water landing of a commercial passenger flight on the Hudson River by Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks in the film) on 15 January 2009. It is also a fictionalised dramatisation of how Sully in the immediate aftermath coped with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the incident and the media attention on him. The film is nonlinear, shows events more than once from different perspectives, and depicts Sully’s anxieties and nightmares. The purpose is to convey the bewildering enormity of what Sully did and the anxiety and self doubt that followed. Rather than focusing on the spectacle of the incident, Eastwood focuses on the emotion, making Sully a heartfelt and moving introspective film about the nature of everyday heroism.

sunset-song

Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song

Terence Davies’s Sunset Song is an adaptation of a classic 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It’s about Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a young Scottish woman growing up in a farming community in Aberdeenshire in northern Scotland during the start of the twentieth century and the start of the First World War. Not unlike Davies’s previous film, The Deep Blue SeaSunset Song is a love story and a story of the resilience of a woman facing enormous turmoil and hardship, against the backdrop of war. Chris is a wonderful character and true to form, Davies does a excellent job presenting her as somebody vulnerable, strong, open to love, and able to do what she needs to do to survive – these aren’t presented as contradictory character traits, but part of what constitutes a fully rounded character. And it almost goes without saying that the film looks stunning.

weiner

Anthony Weiner in Weiner

I suspect that Weiner will be referred for many years to come as the benchmark for documentary filmmaking about politics. Through their incredible access to the film’s subject, filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a fascinating and compelling portrait of the charismatic, outspoken and disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner as he ran for mayor of New York in 2013, under the shadow of a sexting scandal. This is a compelling examination of the nature of political scandals, questions concerning personal privacy for public figures, and issues concerning moral hypocrisy and pathological behaviour. To say that during the course of the film my sympathies shifted and my stance on the various issues it raises were challenged, would be an understatement.

miss-peregrin

Eva Green as Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton is another director I adore, but over the past decade I’ve found myself liking his new films less and less. However, my faith began to return with Frankenweenie in 2012 and it’s now fully restored thanks to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Like the source material (a 2011 YA novel by Ransom Riggs) the majority of the film concerns setting up the characters and world of peculiar children, through the eyes of troubled teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), to then lead up to the big finale. Burton’s film expands on both the world building – allowing the audience to hang out even longer with the wonderful ensemble of characters – and the finale, providing a spectacular (albeit somewhat bewildering) extended conclusion that visually evokes Burton’s beloved old fashioned Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation and contemporary Slenderman imagery. Burton knows when to hold back his sometimes overwhelming visual style to allow the characters to take centre-stage, and he also knows when to let himself go off the leash to deliver some glorious sequences.

girl-asleep

Harrison Feldman as Elliott and Bethany Whitmore as Greta in Girl Asleep

Girl Asleep is a highly stylised Australian film that is adapted from a youth theatre production, both directed by Rosemary Myers. Set in the 1970s the focus is on 14-year-old Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) who has just started at a new school after moving house with her family, and having to contend with an unwanted 15th birthday party where fantasy and reality converge. Despite its origins and the degree to which it incorporates a high degree of theatrically, Girl Asleep never feels stagey. Instead, this glorious bold, funny, imaginative and creative insight into the anxieties of the teen mind is one of the most welcome breaths of fresh air in Australian cinema for a long time.

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Elliot the Dragon (vocals by John Kassir) and Oakes Fegley as Pete in Pete’s Dragon

Pete’s Dragon is the latest remake by Walt Disney Pictures of one of their own films, in this case the 1977 musical that mixed live action and traditional 2D animation. A variation on the ‘wild child’ trope, the film is about 11-year-old Pete who has been raised by a dragon since being stranded in the woods six years ago after a car crash that killed his parents. Pete’s discovery by the local small-town logging community creates divides about how to respond to the discovery of the dragon. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints writer/director David Lowery delivers a gentle, moving and warm family film that is ultimately about reconciliation across class and ideology lines – something that feels very timely for a major USA film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in August 2016

31 August 2016
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), and Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) in Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest film by American stop-motion animation studio Laika Entertainment, whose 2012 film ParaNorman was for me on par with the very best films from Pixar. I feel the same way about Kubo, if not more so. This dark, exciting, dreamlike and moving film is not only a triumph in animation, but in sophisticated storytelling that resonates with a huge range of age groups. It’s about a young boy’s quest to protect himself from his malevolent extended family – tapping into the growing contemporary awareness that harm to children all too frequently comes from within the family and community, rather than just externally. It is also a powerful film about forgiveness and reconciliation, all within an inventive hero’s journey narrative. Rich characterisation, beautiful measured and paced with humour strategical used to diffuse more intense moments, and truly wondrous. Kubo is one of my highlights of 2016.

Indignation

Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner and Sarah Gadon as Olivia Hutton in Indignation

Indignation has the veneer of the type of prestigious period dramas that usually win Academy Awards. However, as it is an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel and the feature film directorial debut of James Schamus (who among many other things has written and produced many of Ang Lee’s films), it is not overly surprising to discover it is a far bolder and disquieting film than appearances would suggest. Set in a small college in Ohio, America, in 1951, it is about the experiences of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), whose academic pursuits and attraction for troubled fellow student Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) puts him into conflict with most people around him. So much of Indignation is crafted to make the audience second guess the full extent of Olivia’s background as well as question our own assumptions and judgements about her. And yet despite the subtle storytelling Schamus does not shy away from delivering lengthy conversation scenes such as a riveting confrontation between Marcus and the college’s dean (Tracy Letts). This is a powerful film, a lot of which is about the double standards and unfairness of what is now known as slut-shaming. The really upsetting aspect is how much the dynamics at play in the film, set in an era notorious for its conservatism, still feel all too recognisable today.

Truman

Javier Cámara as Tomás and Ricardo Darín as Julián in Truman

The Spanish-Argentine film Truman is about two old friends spending what will probably be their last four days together as one of them is terminally ill. The film derives its title from the name of the dying man’s dog. What could have been either hugely depressing or horribly saccharine, is instead an endearing, thoughtful and surprisingly entertaining drama about friendship, life and facing mortality. Both the prolific and acclaimed Ricardo Darín as the dying man and regular Pedro Almodóvar actor Javier Cámara as his old friend give warm and humane performances that are never melodramatic, but also not afraid to be sincere or emotional either. I felt pleasantly sad and content after seeing Truman, which is perhaps an unusual combination of sensations to seek out, and yet I felt the better for it.

Tickled

Tickled

What began as a quirky human interest story about the phenomenon of online videos depicting ‘competitive endurance tickling’, became something far more sinister for New Zealand filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve when their initial enquires were met with abusive messages and legal threats. Their resulting feature documentary  Tickled is partly an investigative piece into the people behind the videos and partly an act of defiance against bullying and harassment. Tickled does look into the nature of tickling as a fetish, but it is mostly a film about exposing exploitation and fantasies of control that manifest in the real world as something far more manipulative and harmful. Tickled is compelling viewing that relies significantly on the series of revelations it hits the audience with it, but it is also a compelling portrait of a type of psychopathic behaviour committed by people in positions of power towards the powerless.

Train to Busan

Gong Yoo as Seok-woo in Train to Busan

I struggle to stay up-to-date with Asian genre cinema as much as I would like to as what does get screened in Melbourne is mostly promoted to ex-pat and international student audiences rather than general film audiences. So I almost missed the fact that the very entertaining South-Korean zombie film Train to Busan was being shown on a number of screens around town. It’s a terrific horror/action film that makes excellent use of its train and train station locations to enhance the dread, terror and overwhelming odds of a zombie outbreak. And like the majority of great zombie films, it isn’t just the undead who threaten the progressively smaller and smaller group of survivors, but also the unscrupulous and selfish human characters who are just as dangerous in what they will do to survive at the expense of others.

The Little Prince

The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) and The Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges) in The Little Prince

And speaking of films whose release I almost missed, after over a year of speculation and uncertainty about what was happening with the animated feature The Little Prince in English-speaking territories, it finally shows up in Australia on Netflix. Directed by Mark Osborne, who directed the original Kung Fu Panda, this French/Canadian production combines an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic 1943 novel within a contemporary story about a young girl wanting to break free of a life dictated by expectations and restrictive routine. This narrative strategy beautifully fleshes out the themes of the original story and presents them in a way that makes them accessible to contemporary audiences. After Kubo and the Two Strings, this comes a very close second to being my favourite animated feature for the year. I hope I one day get the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in July 2016

29 July 2016
_DSC3602 Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell with Guns

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan and Alex Russell as Josh in Goldstone

Goldstone is Ivan Sen’s follow-up to his 2013 outback thriller Mystery Road, with the return of troubled Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), this time arriving in a small mining community to look for a missing Chinese girl. Mystery Road was one of my favourite films of 2013 due to how Sen blended the style, tone and archetypes of classical Hollywood film noir and westerns with distinctive Australian iconography and themes, especially concerning attitudes towards gender and race. Goldstone is on par with Mystery Road for all the same reasons, but still functions as a powerful stand-alone film.  Sen’s cinematography is stunning whether it’s the haunting arial shots, the gorgeous use of light in the scenes set at dusk and dawn, or the tension he generates during the action sequences towards the end of the film. I would love to see more Jay Swan films, but frankly I’d watch anything by Ivan Sen regardless. He’s a masterful filmmaker who ranks alongside the greatest this country has produced.

Embrace of the Serpent

Antonio Bolivar as Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan in Embrace of the Serpent

The Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent by writer/director Ciro Guerra is a startling film about two expeditions through the Amazon. The two journeys occur over 30 years apart and were inspired by the real-life journals of two foreign scientist explorers who travelled with a shaman  to find a rare plant – the first, a German ethnographer in 1909 and the second, an American botanist in 1940. The mix of striking black-and-white cinematography, the way the physical journey mirrors the characters’ psychological journeys, the scenes depicting psychedelic hallucinations as well as the themes and imagery concerning exploitation, colonialism and religious missions have seen Embrace of the Serpent compared to Gomes’s Tabu, Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and at least half a dozen Werner Herzog films. And yet it stills feels like a unique cinematic vision by Guerra, heralding him as a major emerging talent to watch.

Day 25 21

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor and Mark McKenna as Eamon in Sing Street

From a distance John Carney’s Sing Street did not seem like my kind of thing, but neither did his 2007 film Once nor his 2013 film Begin Again and I loved both of those. As with Carney’s previous films Sing Street is about musicians and the music they make. This time the setting is Dublin 1985 and the protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenage boy inspired by the post-punk, New Wave and New Romantic music of the era and motivated by a girl he has a crush on to start a band. At many points this film reminded me of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other films by John Hughes in that it takes the dreams and obsessions of teenagers seriously to deliver a sincere teen wish-fulfilment film. The music is great, it’s often a very funny film and the depiction of the bond between Conor and his older brother is touching. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from serious issues such as poverty, violence, abuse, family breakdown and disempowerment. This is a feel-good film build upon a very strong foundation.

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Camila Márdila as Jéssica and Regina Casé as Val in The Second Mother

The premise of the Brazilian drama  The Second Mother by writer/director Anna Muylaert is brilliant – the estranged daughter of a live-in-housemaid comes to stay with her mother and her wealthy employees. While the family’s father and son certainly don’t seem to mind having this young woman around the house, her own mother and the family’s mother find her familiarity extremely uncomfortable as her presence beings to rupture the polite divisions between master and servant. Writer/director Anna Muylaert uses this scenario to great effect to create a film that’s both an observant class critique as well as a tender drama about a mother/daughter relationship.

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Paul Dano as Hank and Daniel Radcliffe as Manny in Swiss Army Man

In a recent interview I heard actor Paul Dano say that directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert wanted their film Swiss Army Man to begin with a fart that makes the audience laugh and end with a fart that makes them cry. I think they succeeded with this truly original, bizarre and hard-to-classify film about the friendship between a lost man (Dano) and the highly flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) he befriends. What begins as an  excessively abject absurdist comedy ends up as something poignant and moving. Whether the film is read as a projection of an internal examination of the troubled soul belonging to Dano’s character or an unusual exploration of male friendship that goes far beyond the restrictions of the bromance formula, this film is wonderfully puerile and profound.

Melissa McCarthy;Kristen Wiig;Kate McKinnon;Leslie Jones

Melissa McCarthy as Dr Abby Yates, Kate McKinnon as Dr Jillian Holtzmann, Kristen Wiig as Dr Erin Gilbert and Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan in Ghostbusters

Like many I am nervous about remakes, but I also believe that they have their place when either the original film is average to begin with or when the new film sets out to do something significantly different from the film they are remaking. So I embraced the idea of a new Ghostbusters film, not because I thought Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film needed improving (it’s one of the great all-time modern comedies in my books) but because director Paul Feig decided to create all new characters and as per his previous films, he cast a group of terrific contemporary comedic women actors to play those parts. Not only does the gender-flipping give a new spin to the formula, but any opportunity to showcase the talents of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, along with stars-on-the rise Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, is worth embracing. And while the resulting film does not match the brilliant original, it is still a lot of fun. The dynamics between the four leads is terrific and visually I especially enjoyed the use of a false framing to give the impression of the 3D special effects bursting out of the cinema screen. The new Ghostbusters contains a lot of nods and tributes to the original film, but otherwise it very much feels like it is doing its own thing and I really hope we get a sequel.

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Kumatetsu (voiced by Kōji Yakusho) and Ren (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) in The Boy and the Beast

I also caught up with the Japanese animated film The Boy and the Beast, which has just come out on home entertainment in Australia. I’ve long been meaning to check out the films by Mamoru Hosoda and on the strength of this one I’m even more keen to do so. Evoking the Harry Potter series, The Boy and the Beast features Ren, an orphaned 9-year-old boy who stumbles from our regular human world into the Beast Kingdom where he becomes the disciple of the grumpy bear-like beast Kumatetsu. Both boy and beast are stubborn and short-tempered, but they are also both lonely and resilient. While the fantasy elements are fun, this is ultimately a film about parenting, specifically, the way children are shaped by care-givers, whether they be biological parents or not. This was surprising complex and moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016