Films I loved in February 2015

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastainas Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year
Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) works in an industry dominated by organised crime and yet refuses to live like a gangster in JC Chandor’s  A Most Violent Year, a film that refuses to behave like a gangster film despite bearing many of the characteristics of a gangster film. In some ways, A Most Violent Year is the film that The Godfather Part III wanted to be as it is about a man who aspires to run his oil-heating business legitimately, but whose connections to the underworld undermine him at every turn. Isaac even channels the energy of a young Al Pacino and the whole film, which is set in New York City in 1981, feels like a New Hollywood film, in particular the ones that starred Al Pacino and/or were directed by Sidney Lumet. However, I think Chandor is looking even further back to Elia Kazan’s films of the 1950s and 1960s, which were also character driven pieces that were considered realist at the time, and were full of social and political commentary. The shot of Issac as Abel standing on top of an oil truck echoes the shot of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront standing on the rubble heap. In both shots the Manhattan skyline is behind them in the distance, suggesting how both characters loom large in their small pocket of the world, but are still a long way from the life they dream of.

A Most Violent Year is most effective in its explanation for why Able is struggling so hard to achieve his goals despite working hard and maintaining a sense of honour and decency: he believes the myths of capitalism and the American Dream. He thinks honesty will triumph over ruthlessness and deceitfulness, and he believes fair competitions exists as opposed to an ongoing cycle of people just trying to screw each other over. As his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) tells him, he only has the success that he has because her father was once a powerful and wealthy criminal. Anna is the voice of reason in this world of moral compromise while Abel is naive. The tragic lesson of this sophisticated drama is that in the end its more important for many to plug the flow of oil than the flow of blood.

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

I’ve never read anything by Mark Millar, but I really enjoyed Wanted and Kiss-Ass, which like Kingsman: The Secret Service are based on comics he’s written.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (who also directed Kick-Ass) it follows what has become a familiar Millar storyline, where somebody ordinary and a bit hopeless gets the chance to become extraordinary in a world filled with ultra violence. In Kingsman the ordinary person is Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), an unemployed English teenager living on a council estate. Under the mentorship of secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) Eggsy is given the chance to join the elite secret intelligence agency, the Kingsman. While the results are designed to be a parody and homage to some of the sillier films in the Bond franchise, the kinetic action and ridiculously high body count feels more like what a Bond film would resemble if Takashi Miike were the director.

While the violence is excessive and inventive, the real subversion is found in the narrative. The villains of the film are the 1%  – leaders of business and government who are happy to sacrifice the other 99% of the world’s population to maintain their lifestyle. And while the gentleman spy premise seems to initially exist to deliver the exploitive spectacle of the upperclass beating the shit out of the lower-class, the film soon establishes the notion that a gentleman is defined by a person’s attitude, not their class or gender. And as for the now controversial gag at the end of the film? It’s there to mock and highlight the absurd sexism of how so many Bond films end, but I don’t think the joke is particularly good nor does it suit the tone of the rest of the film. It’s a small detail and doesn’t overall detract from all the other giddy visual pleasures. The scene in the hate-group church alone is enough for me to want to revisit Kingsman again soon.

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma
David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma

There are several reasons why Selma rises above many other based-on-true-story films. Writer/director Ava DuVernay focuses on the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights in Alabama in 1965, but places the events as just one chapter within the ongoing US civil rights movement. At the centre of the film is Dr Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo), but the film also acknowledges the many other leaders and supporters of the movement. The film is set in the past, but DuVernay contains several moments, in particular the scenes between King and President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to draw parallels between the historical events and contemporary issues. Both the moral and pragmatic dynamics of the movement are explored, and instead of resorting to sentiment the film allows the events to speak for themselves.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour
Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

At first Citizenfour seems like a matter-of-factual and almost dry documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations to the media about the extent in which the  United States National Security Agency is spying on its own citizens. However, the moment when it becomes clear that filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras was one of the first people Snowden contacted and spoke to, and that Poitras taped those meetings that are now in the documentary, the significance of this film becomes apparent. The events Poitras has documented have since had profound effects on political discourse and debate surrounding the use of technology and personal liberties. Citizenfour reveals Snowden to be a rational and intelligent man who had wrestled with the decision to reveal his information and ultimately decided to sacrifice life as he knew it for the greater good, arguing that a government willing to sacrifice the freedom and privacy of its citizens ‘limits boundaries of their intellectual freedom’. By the end of the film we see scenes that suggest that the paranoid Cold War thrillers of the 1970s and the high tech surveillance thrillers on the 1990s were grounded in far more factual detail than imagined.

On a much lighter note, a couple of really fun films came out on home entertainment in Australia in February. The New Zealand film Housebound  is one of the best horror/comedies I’ve seen for a long time (I regard the equally brilliant What We Do in the Shadows as more of a comedy deriving humour from horror tropes than an actual horror/comedy).  Great characters, droll humour and an effective escalation of scares and gore; this variation on the haunted house story is terrific.

I also had a great time with the latest film by Japanese maverick Sion Sono, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? While Suicide Club and Love Exposure are still my favourite Sono films, this one comes a close third. A large ensemble of characters, multiple storylines and a hyperactive style, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? brings together a team of renegade filmmakers and rival yakuza gangs for a delirious and hilarious climatic bloodbath. Within all the chaos Sono is also able to express his fondness for the dying art of shooting films on 35mm, which is fair enough as even fake blood spurts look better on film than CGI blood.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

On a quick personal note, I am thrilled and honoured to have recently been awarded the Ivan Hutchinson Award for writing on Australian cinema at the AFCA 2015 Film & Writing Awards, for my article ‘Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. Thank you to the Australian Film Critics Association, all the writing award judges and Senses of Cinema.


  1. Very interesting comments on A Most Violent Year, Thomas, as you place it in the stream of cinematic history.

    One thing that sticks with me about the film (I saw it in a theater) was the relentlessly brown cast to the cinematography, as though the pollution from burning all that heating oil had cast a pall over the city, even on the sunniest of days. In some ways, the eighties felt like that in New York City, as I recall it from visiting my sister there a few times in the winter in that decade.

    I liked the way the child’s birthday party was shot against the sun coming through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the late afternoon. It made the sun look depressing–seemingly a contradiction, yet a typical winter mood in the northeastern U.S. (For something equally worthy in its maintenance of tone, yet set in the seventies, see Ang Lee’s, The Ice Storm, an underappreciated masterpiece of its time and place, cast in depressing greys.)

    I think the only time Chandor and his D.P. broke with the gloom was when Abel has just made a certain discovery–a major plot turn–about the nature of his company, The scene in the bathroom of their designer home shows white tile and fixtures as pure white. The pall of brown lifts temporarily.

    It’s a moody, unsettling, workmanlike, and effective film, very much of the era it portrays–that of second (and third, I guess) generation organized crime and its attempt at a more respectable veneer in the eighties. And just as an aside, it has one of Albert Brooks’ better roles.

  2. I posted this on Facebook as well, and I just wanted to add my congratulations, Thomas, on the occasion of your winning the AFCA Hutchinson Award. Writing is something of a solitary endeavor, and it’s wonderful to be acknowledged by others in your profession for a work well done.

  3. Thanks Tom and thanks for your thoughts on A Most Violent Year. As always, what you have to say makes for insightful reading. I think the tonal comparison to The Ice Storm is very perceptive. I must watch that again someday as I certainly loved it at the time.

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