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
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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


Films I loved in March 2019

31 March 2019

Destroyer

Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell in Destroyer

While rapidly approaching rock bottom, former undercover cop Erin Bell attempts to track down a sinister figure from her past in Destroyer. Nicole Kidman is astonishingly good as Erin, giving her character just the right amounts of toughness, pathos and despair to make her a classic anti-hero detective figure in this gritty hardboiled crime thriller, which delivers all the meticulous plotting, low-life supporting characters, sun-drenched cynicism and fury that you would want from a Los Angeles-set neo noir.

Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland is a devastating documentary about two boys who were allegedly sexually abused by Michael Jackson. The film looks in depth at the grooming process, the manipulation of parents, the coaching that resulted in the two subjects originally defending Jackson for many years, and the long term effect it had on the boys – now adult men – and their families. It also raises many issues about how children experience abuse and the way the law and public opinion often fail them. Streaming on 10 play.

Hotel Mumbai

Dev Patel as Arjun in Hotel Mumbai

Hotel Mumbai dramatises the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, focusing on the incidents inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras makes the film both a gripping thriller, as the audience follow the nightmarish experiences of multiple characters, and a moving tragedy about the senseless loss of life. Highlighting the actions of guests, hotel staff and police, it is also a sombre tribute to the extraordinary heroism by everyday people in an extreme situation.

Sometimes Always Never

Bill Nighy as Alan in Sometimes Always Never

As retired tailor and Scrabble enthusiast Alan, Bill Nighy delivers what is possibly a career-best performance in Sometimes Always Never. While being overtly stylised and theatrical, the film often unexpectedly resonates extremely deeply during its tonal switches from deadpan humour to something far sadder as it delves into exploring an estranged father/son relationship and the nature of loss and grief. This funny, charming and poignant film is a wonderful surprise.

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Dumbo

Tim Burton‘s Dumbo, which is a remake and expansion of the original 1941 Disney film, delivers everything I wanted as an unashamed Burton fan who adores the original. It’s Burton’s best live action film since he so fully embraced CGI at the start of this decade, and it’s full of the auteur’s trademark style and favourite theme of championing society’s misfits and outsiders who overcome adversity. It is also a very touching tribute to the bond between children and parents. This is cinematic comfort food for me!

The Green Fog

The Green Fog

The found footage film The Green Fog has recently been released on a handful of streaming platforms in Australia. Filmmakers Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson reproduce Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo through a super cut of clips from over 100 other San Francisco-set films and television shows. The result is something that most cinephiles will find utterly delightful, if for no other reason than for the playfulness and humour on display in the shot selection and editing.

Blaze

Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley and Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen in Blaze

The Ethan Hawk-directed Blaze, a biopic of the largely unknown American country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, is also now streaming in Australia. The film takes an unconventional approach to deliver a series of non-linear impressions of Foley capturing his contradictions as a musician of great talent who was also completely self-destructive. The real highlight of the film is the tender relationship between Foley and partner Sybil Rosen, who wrote the film with Hawk and is played beautifully by Alia Shawkat.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

Films I loved in February 2019

3 March 2019

Border

Eva Melander as Tina in Border

The blending of fairytale, horror and social realism in Border results in a wonderfully uneasy film about a Swedish customs officer whose animalistic characteristics become further heightened when she mets another like her. At times romantically and erotically charged, and at other times confronting and disturbing when it delves into humanity at its worst, it’s an intriguing mix of tones and textures that works as both a compelling mystery and a sinister allegory into the nature of social tribalism.

Stan Ollie

Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy in Stan & Ollie

The extremely endearing Stan & Ollie follows the legendary Classical Hollywood comedy duo Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly) as they embark on a live stage tour of Britain towards the end of their careers.  A gentle and bittersweet drama about friendship, fame and performance, the film portrays the various pressures that familiarity, ageing and professional disagreements placed on their relationship, while ultimately celebrating the bond between them and their comedic talents.

The Guilty

Jakob Cedergren as Asger Holm in The Guilty

Set in an emergency-services call centre with the focus almost entirely on a police officer responding to a call about a kidnapping, The Guilty is a superb example of creating cinematic tension by withholding narrative information. As the officer juggles making and responding to calls, and his frustration at his relative powerlessness intensifies, the film drops bombshells about the nature of the case that takes the film further and further into dark and devastating territory.

The Rape of Recy Taylor

The Rape of Recy Taylor

Screening on SBS On Demand, The Rape of Recy Taylor is a powerful documentary about an African American women who was raped in 1944 by six white men, and her pursuit for justice. By incorporating footage from films by black filmmakers, which were traditionally the only films to acknowledge sexual violence against black women by white men, filmmaker Nancy Buirski explores broader issues of race crimes and sexual abuse, and looks at the power of media and culture to shape attitudes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019