Films I loved in October 2019

1 November 2019
Aaron Phagura as Roops, Nell Williams as Eliza and Viveik Kalra as Javed in Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light is loosely based on the true story of a Pakistani British teenager whose life was changed forever when he discovered the music of Bruce Springsteen. Set in 1987 against the backdrop of Thatcherism, mass unemployment and the rise of the National Front, this upbeat coming-of-age film deals with culture clash, friendship, first love and the transformative power of music. It’s an unashamedly feel-good film with its combination of light drama, comedy and music montages, but it’s also heartfelt and sincere, exploring issues of race and class with compassion and integrity.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker in Joker

While Joker is an origin story for Batman’s iconic supervillain, its style and social commentary make it much more comparable to the God’s Lonely Men anti-hero films of New Hollywood cinema, especially Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Offering a disturbingly vicarious – and admittedly exhilarating – insight into the mind of a psychopath, Joker reflects the contemporary American psyche and political landscape, where wealth inequality, mental health neglect and bullying transform a figure who may have once attracted sympathy, into a monster of self-pity, nihilism and violence.

Jillian Bell as Brittany Forgler in Brittany Runs a Marathon

Brittany Runs a Marathon is a superb crowd-pleasing film about a woman at a dead end in her life, who turns things around when she begins training for a marathon. Inspired by the experiences of a friend of the filmmaker, it avoid inspirational cliches and unhelpful stereotypes about health and fitness. Instead, it’s a very funny and moving film that explores self esteem and friendship with empathy and intelligence. By tackling links between mental health and lifestyle with humour and sincerity, it’s an extremely rewarding and relatable underdog story.

José Acosta as Rapayet and Carmiña Martínez as Úrsula in Birds of Passage

A mesmerising variation of the organised crime epic, Birds of Passage portrays the Columbian drug trade from the 1960s to the 1980s from the perspective of the country’s indigenous Wayuu tribe. Containing many familiar gangster film tropes, the presentation of rituals and spirituality sets it apart, and contributes to its visual majesty. And while Hollywood gangster films often critique capitalism, this Latin American perspective uses the genre to examine how traditions and social structures are perverted and diluted by the pursuit of wealth and power.

Constance Wu as Destiny and Jennifer Lopez as Ramona in Hustlers

The based-on-a-true events crime drama Hustlers follows the rise and fall of a group of women who in the wake of the GFC conned thousands of dollars out of various Wall Street men. While the planning and execution of their cons is a fun and thrilling part of the film, the real enjoyment comes from the joyful camaraderie between the women who met while working as strippers and were then able to so successfully use their skills in manipulating men to flip the power dynamic between themselves and their targets.

Liron Ben-Shlush as Orna in Working Woman

Working Woman is an excellent drama about a woman having to contend with her boss’s unwanted attention. The film very effectively captures the difficultly she has in walking away from her harassment by portraying the ways in which the abuse is initially difficult to define, and the domestic pressures she has to remain in the workforce. It is a layered and complex film that looks at the ways in which so many social attitudes and workplace cultures facilitate the perpetration of sexual harassment against women by men, both overtly and through silent complicity.

Maiden

Maiden documents the experiences of the first all-female crewed boat that competed in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. Skipper Tracy Edwards and her crew not only faced the incredible hardship of enduring the physical and psychological demands of the race, but also the disproportionate scrutiny and chauvinistic derision of the media who did not take them seriously. Combining skilfully assembled archival footage with contemporary interviews from Edwards and her crew members, the documentary is an inspirational and thrilling story of triumph against the odds.

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy

Primarily focusing on Judy Garland’s tumultuous 1968 concert tour of London, to reflect on her life and legacy, is part of what makes Judy a more engaging biopic than most. The film sensitively covers the many facets of Garland’s life, including the self destructive behaviour and substance abuse that stemmed from her appalling treatment as a teen idol in Hollywood. Most rewardingly, the film pays tribute to her importance to her fanbase and the great power she possessed as a performer, with some truly stunning – and in one case completely heartbreaking – music numbers.

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate does what so many contemporary sequels based on beloved older franchises do: it mimics an earlier instalment (in this case 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day) where the new characters are proxies of the original characters, and some of those original ones show up anyway. And in this case, it works, delivering what is easily the most entertaining and satisfying Terminator film since the original two classics. It’s a terrific example of successful formulaic filmmaking where the new elements build upon a pre-existing groundwork, to deliver thematic and visual inventiveness.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019


Films I loved in September 2019

30 September 2019
Holliday Grainger as Laura and Alia Shawkat as Tyler in Animals

Fundamental to the charm of Animals is the the enticing energy of the fun and carefree friendship between two young women living in Dublin, the film’s protagonists. When that friendship is tested by one of the pair seemingly having to choose between living carefree and conventionally settling down, the film evolves into a sophisticated, increasingly melancholic and moralising-free story about confronting major crossroads in life. The fact that the film never abandons its high spirits nor resorts to binary oppositions is part of what makes it so refreshing, bold and entertaining.

Sarm Heng as Chakra in Buoyancy

Buoyancy is a compelling and tense thriller about a 14-year-old Cambodian boy who is forced to work on a seafood trawler, highlighting the issue of modern day slavery within Southeast Asia’s fishing industry. The superb direction and cinematography create a powerful sense of claustrophobia within the boat, which as the film’s main setting functions as a prison for the characters, contrasting stunningly with the beauty of the surrounding open sea. Naturalistic and never shying away from the horrors – while also not revelling in them – this is a deeply humane film designed to raise awareness.

Awkwafina as Billi and Shuzhen Zhou as Nai Nai in The Farewell

In The Farewell a Chinese American woman travels to China with her family to visit her terminally ill grandmother, but they go on the pretence of being there for her cousin’s wedding, since the family have decided not to let the grandmother know she is dying. Based on a true story, this is an extremely charming film that deftly manages its shift from comedy to melancholy with integrity and empathy. It’s genuinely funny and the moments designed to tug on the heartstrings are also effective, but it also delivers many sly observations of family dynamics and social rituals.

Evelyn

Evelyn follows British documentary filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel and his siblings on a hike as they attempt to reconcile the suicide of their brother 13 years ago. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking and cathartic experience for the family and the viewer as the conversations captured in the film explore how relationships can be both broken and healed by grief. Most affecting are the scenes where von Einsiedel and his family encounter strangers who share relatable experiences, articulating just how many people are touched by suicide, but also the power of sharing personal stories.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Memory: The Origins of Alien is a fascinating and in-depth analysis of the iconic and groundbreaking 1979 horror/science-fiction masterpiece Alien. Going beyond the confines of a traditional making-of film, this documentary views Alien as a ‘cultural dream’ to dissect its literary and visual inspirations, and explore how it reflects classical mythology, our collective unconsciousness and cultural anxieties both at the time of the film’s original release right through to present day. This is entertaining and accessible film analysis that made me love Alien even more than I did already.

Jessica Chastain as Beverly Marsh in It Chapter Two

To my surprise and delight I enjoyed It Chapter Two a lot more than I thought I would, given that while I liked the first film, it didn’t stay with me. Set 27 years later to follow the Loser gang as adults returning to their hometown to confront Pennywise once more, this new instalment effectively builds on the foundation of the first film, not just to amp up the dread and uncanniness, but also to invest in the notion of how childhood trauma, often repressed and unrecognised, shapes us as adults. Hence there’s an emotional weight behind this film that I found immensely satisfying.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

Films I loved in August 2019

28 August 2019
Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace

Decades after Sydney Pollack shot footage of Aretha Franklin recording her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace over two nights in a Los Angeles Baptist Church, that footage has been assembled into what I feel might be the greatest live music film. Not only is Amazing Grace technically masterful in terms of audio and visual quality, but the footage has been beautifully edited to convey the sensation of what it must have been like to be in the church audience on those nights, in the presence of perfection. Due to the way I felt while watching this film, I suspect that sensation was euphoria.

Baykali Ganambarr as Billy and Aisling Franciosi as Clare in The Nightingale

The Nightingale, about an Irish convict and an Aboriginal tracker hunting down a British officer in 19th century Australia, delivers an expertly crafted and devastating thriller about the trauma at the heart of this country’s settlement history. Australia has confronted its violent colonial past before in films from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to The Tracker, but the unflinching and unrelenting brutality and rage the permeates The Nightingale results in a breathtaking film that is bursting with urgency and fury, which is going to be very hard to forget.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to a Hollywood that never was. By merging a fictitious story of a fading actor and his stuntman best friend with real life Hollywood personalities from 1969 – all against the backdrop of the growing presence of the Manson Family – Tarantino takes the classic ‘print the legend’ adage to a new extreme, delivering a film that is breezy and fun, but also sinister and ultimately extremely melancholic when reality sets in. Managing to be both sincere and ironic, it’s the auteur’s most ambiguous work to date.

Adam Goodes in The Australian Dream

The Australian Dream is an extremely accomplished documentary that unpacks a specific moment in Australia’s culture to tell a much bigger story about the nation’s psyche. The subject of the film is footballer Adam Goodes whose actions in calling out racism in sport led to a shocking backlash that revealed the country’s shocking attitude towards Aboriginal Australians. The film evokes a lot of pain and anger – as it should – but the film wisely allows critics of Goodes to dig their own graves while the voices of support ultimately deliver a message of defiance, awareness and reconciliation.

Midsommar

Midsommar draws from a variety of horror tropes to deliver an experience that is unsettling, humorous, traumatic and gleeful. A riff on folk horror and the tradition of arrogant American tourists abroad being preyed upon by the locals, Midsommar follows the fate of a grieving college student who travels to a Swedish commune with her less-than-supportive boyfriend as his academic bro friends. The creeping weirdness of the scenario deftly transitions into something more disturbing before then delving into borderline absurdity that’s both grotesque and exhilarating.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

Films I loved in July 2019

27 July 2019
Kaitlyn Dever as Amy and Beanie Feldstein as Molly Booksmart

Booksmart follows the misadventures of two best-friends as they attempt to cast off their studiousness and sense of responsibility during the night before they graduate from high school. It is not unusual for a teen film to be funnier, more insightful and more heartfelt than most romcoms and dramas aimed at adults, but this is a particularly special example of the genre. The performances are excellent, the depiction of the various social subgroups is refreshingly overhauled and made to feel contemporary, and the film effortlessly blends the laughs and the pathos.

Apollo 11

If nothing else Apollo 11 is a brilliant example of how to assemble archival footage of a historical event to construct an engaging narrative through editing and sound design. The fact that the footage covers one of humanity’s most extraordinary achievements – the space mission the resulted in the first people to walk on the moon – compounds this film’s intense power and beauty. Despite the outcome of the mission being known and documented for five decades, this incredible documentary still delivers an exhilarating and profound experience that left me breathless.

Hail Satan?

The US documentary Hail Satan? examines how the provocatively named The Satanic Temple began as a group of social misfits exposing the hypocrisy of the Christian right through pranks and trolling, to a diverse and sometime fractured political organisation fighting against the erosion of the separation of church and state, and the growing creep of what one interviewee calls Christian supremacy. A lot of the film is highly entertaining, but it also seriously examines the Temple’s work in challenging how religion institutions threaten social justice and rational thought.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

Films I loved in June 2019

27 June 2019
Jang Hye-jin as Chung-sook and Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek in Parasite

Few filmmakers are able to so artfully slide from one genre to another as Bong Joon-ho, who once again demonstrates his mastery of tonal shifts in Parasite. Beginning as a mix of social realism before moving into something that comes close to farce – and then to something entirely different – the initial set-up concerns a family of hustlers who find a way out of poverty by taking various service jobs for a wealthy family. The question of who is being as a parasite to whom is part of the film’s rich social satire and sophisticated class critique, which underpins so much of the action.

Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) and Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) in Toy Story 4

While Toy Story 3 was the perfect conclusion to the deservedly much-loved and acclaimed Pixar trilogy about the secret lives of toys, Toy Story 4 is a brilliant coda. The winning mix of characters from the original films and a great ensemble of new characters, maintain the blend of heartfelt sentiment and humour. Most interestingly – and satisfyingly – is how this new film expands on the theme of companionship, which is so central to the previous instalments, to suggest that even for toys there are different ways to form bonds and family units, and needs change over time.

Robert Pattinson as Monte in High Life

High Life explores the tenuous boundaries between what are and are not acceptable social norms when it comes to sexual desire and procreation, juxtaposing the body in all its abject glory against the sterility of outer space. Claire Denis creates a bewildering and intoxicating science-fiction fever dream that is as transgressive, ambiguous, beautiful and confronting as any of her previous works. And while the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky is very much felt as a key influence, this is still a film that is distinctively from Denis’s non-linear and sensory cinematic world.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

Films I loved in May 2019

31 May 2019

Aga

Mikhail Aprosimov as Nanook in Ága

Ága is a true big-screen experience that at first resembles an ethnographic film with its gentle study of an elderly Inuit couple living off the ice on the Siberia tundra. As the film unfolds it becomes increasingly apparent that the impact of climate change is permanently affecting their culture, tradition and way of life. The result is a quiet tragedy, but also a tribute, to a way of life that is not continuing with younger generations, mostly because the modern world has made it impossible. The final shot of this film left me shattered in a way I did not see coming.

The Heiresses

Ana Ivanova as Angy and Ana Brun as Chela in The Heiresses

Chela (Ana Brun), the reclusive middle-aged protagonist in The Heiresses, is coping with looming bankruptcy, having to sell off her prized possessions, the incarnation of her partner and having to make ends meet by becoming a car service for her wealthy friends. Despite the bleak premise (and visual style) this is a sweet and subtly uplifting film as Chela realises that her partner and the trappings of her social class have been stifling her, and she develops a new lease on life. The result is a restrained feel-good film about transformation and new beginnings.

Long Shot

Charlize Theron as Charlotte Field and Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky in Long Shot

It’s hard to believe there is common ground between Knocked Up and VEEP, but Long Shot finds it. It’s a superb rom-com that manages to be actually funny and romantic, plus it slides in doses of both cynical and sincere political commentary. Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) and speechwriter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) are clearly mismatched in terms of social status, but their mutual respect for each other results in an enjoyably refreshing dynamic, and Theron and Rogen have magnificent chemistry.

Knock Down the House

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Knock Down the House

Following four women campaigning against the Democratic establishment in the 2018 US midterm elections, Knock Down the House inevitably focuses on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who unsurprisingly is an engaging documentary subject. While this is an extremely US-centric film, it’s a compelling and inspiring story regardless. The themes of women and people of colour rising up to challenge the conventions of entrenched political discourse with grassroots campaigns of sincerity and authenticity is something to celebrate and draw some hope from. Streaming on Netflix.

The Night Eats the World

Anders Danielsen Lie as Sam in The Night Eats the World

The Night Eats the World, which I enjoyed a lot, is yet another take on the zombie film; this time taking a more low key or even minimalist approach. It functions more as a lone survivor film with the majority of the action taking place in a Paris flat where a musician has barricaded himself after sleeping through an overnight zombie apocalypse. We watch him explore his surrounds, figure out how to adapt to his new life, and fight boredom and losing his sanity. More melancholic than thrilling, it’s a welcome variation on a much-loved, but well-worn genre.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

 


Films I loved in April 2019

1 May 2019

Mid90s

Sunny Suljic as Stevie in Mid90s

In the coming-of-age film Mid90s Johan Hill (making his feature film debut as a writer/director) beautifully captures the moment where young teenager Stevie (Sunny Suljic) embraces an identity attached to a friendship group as opposed to his family. Set at the height of the street skateboarding scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s, the film is less an exercise in nostalgia and more an empathetic portrait of a distinct subculture and its appeal for a somewhat lost soul who is seeking approval and a sense of belonging.

Burning

Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su and Steven Yeun as Ben in Burning

Burning is a film rich in ambiguity both in terms of what the lovesick working class protagonist Lee Jon-su (Yoo Ah-in) believes to be happening and the film’s subtext. On the surface it is a love-triangle drama that becomes a paranoid thriller, but throughout the film there are issues of sexual jealously, fragile masculinity, class exploitation and even questioning the perception of reality. While the film unfolds over a surprisingly long running-time there is still a sense of urgency that is completely captivating.

Woman at War

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla in Woman at War

Woman at War is a wonderful blend of self-reflexive absurdity, touching family drama, and droll humour, and a gleefully defiant thriller about radical environmental activism. Filmmaker Benedikt Erlingsson and lead actor Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir have created a magnificent cinematic hero in Halla, a woman who conducts the local choir and is preparing to adopt an orphaned child, while carrying out missions to sabotage the pylons on the Icelandic highlands, blocking the electricity supply to an aluminium plant.

The Sisters Brothers

John C Reilly as Eli Sisters and Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie Sisters in The Sisters Brothers

For his first English-language film, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard brings an off-kilter outsider’s perspective to the American western with The Sisters Brothers. As interested in character interaction as it is with plot, the film follows a pair of brother on a job as hired assassins. Like most post-classical Hollywood westerns, it challenges the conventions and ideals of the genre, but the most distinguishing characteristics of this continually surprising film are its moments of humour, melancholy and tenderness.

1985

Cory Michael Smith as Adrian Lester in 1985

There are many interesting comparisons between 1985 and Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World as they are both films about young men returning to the family home and struggling to reveal a secret. However, while Dolan’s film utilised the techniques of melodrama, 1985 is low key, subtle and shot on grainy black-and-white film, thematically and stylistically evoking many of the films associated with 1990s New Queer Cinema. It’s a work of great sincerity and huge emotional power.

Gloria

John Turturro as Arnold and Julianne Moore as Gloria in Gloria Bell

With Gloria Bell Sebastián Lelio’s successfully adapts his 2013 Chilean film Gloria, about a divorced woman entering into a new relationship after a chance encounter in a nightclub. Relocating the action to Los Angeles and starring Julianne Moore in the titular role, this new version loses none of the original film’s blend of tenderness, high spirits and bittersweet tone in its portrayal of a woman battling feelings of loneliness and regret, but also fiercely determined to bounce back from whatever life throws at her.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019