Films I loved in January 2016

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Jacob Tremblay as Jack Newsome and Brie Larson as Joy Newsome in Room

I’ve been a fan of Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson for a while, but with Room he has made his strongest film to-date. The events are mostly depicted from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy who has never known anything else other than the small room he is locked in with his mother who gave birth to him there. The information about the nature of their situation is carefully revealed so that the film never becomes too harrowing, while at the same time it is always clear what the stakes are. Similar to Abrahamson’s 2012 film What Richard Did, a major plot development halfway through the film results in a dramatic narrative shift, but the overall focus remains on what it is like for a child to experience the world after such a traumatic introduction to it. Parts of this film had me wound up extremely tight with its masterful command of tension while other parts were almost overwhelming with its emotional power.

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Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol

Todd Haynes’s ability to make films that challenge traditional film style and narrative structure is only matched by his ability to make films that are seemingly conventional on the surface, but just as provocative, bold and intriguing. Carol is one of his seemingly conventional films with its mannered story of an affair between two women – with significant class and age differences – in New York, USA, in the 1950s. Haynes used the themes and iconography of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas to great effect in his 2002 film Far from Heaven to explore social issues from the same period with a contemporary perspective. In Carol he overtly references David Lean’s 1945 drama Brief Encounter to tell a love story, which similarly plays out in key scenes through glances, gestures and other moments of unspoken communication. Considering the style, era it is set in and themes, Carol‘s supposed conventionality is what makes it so enjoyably unconventional.

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Cemetery of Splendour

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s  Cemetery of Splendour is a suitably dreamlike film, set in and around a make-shift hospital that cares for soldiers who cannot awaken from their sleep. This strange and gentle film does have a narrative, but it’s secondary to the film’s visual and thematic exploration of contrasts such as nature and science, dreaming and being awake, the human world and the spirit world, tradition and modernity. There are moments of sly humour and mysterious intrigue, but suggesting it delivers typical cinematic pleasures would be misleading as the joy of this film is not obvious or easily explained. A sequence where the light slowly changes colour is one of the film’s highlights and no words can do justice to such a sensory moment. The first time I saw Cemetery of Splendour I was exhausted and continually drifted in and out of sleep while sitting in the cinema, which was just as enjoyable a way of watching the film as the second time when I was fully awake and alert!

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Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in Spotlight

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a suburb ensemble drama about the team of investigative reporters from The Boston Globe who in 2001 uncovered the full scope of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston. The appalling nature of the abuse and coverup in other parts of America and the rest of the world, was explored in-depth in Alex Gibney’s 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, but Spotlight is more focused on the how the team of journalists were able to gain trust, uncover evidence and expose the crimes in a climate where their investigations were largely not welcomed. It is also a fascinating look at just how much technology, communication and journalism has changed in the fifteen years since the film was set. Most impressive is how Spotlight avoids being emotionally overwhelming, but allows characters to express feelings of anger, horror, betrayal and loss at key moments to remind us how high the stakes are.

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Christian Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short

The energy and sense of controlled chaos that Adam McKay brings to the various  Will Ferrell comedies that he has previously directed can be felt in The Big Short, a comedic drama about the people who foresaw and then effectively bet on the financial crisis of 2007-2008. And yet as much as I have enjoyed many of McKay’s previous films, I did not imagine that he was capable of so skilfully presenting the dry and dull details of the financial market in a way that is this accessible, entertaining and alarming. The Big Short joins the ranks of the growing number of excellent narrative films and documentaries to have emerged over the past few years to draw attention to the blend of greed, predatory behaviour, stupidity and egomania that allowed the global financial crisis to not just happen, but to then let the perpetrators off the hook so they can do it again. We should all be very angry and McKay helps us to feel that.

Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt in Bone Tomahawk

The western genre is undergoing a curious revival in independent cinema and one of my favourites of the recent batch is Bone Tomahawk, which has been released directly onto home entertainment in Australia. It’s certainly my preferred current western that features Kurt Russell in a slow burn narrative that focuses on the dynamics between a group of characters before culminating in scenes of ultra-violence. Combining the traditional storyline from The Searchers, about the search for a kidnapped white woman, with the graphic horror, psychological anxiety and brutal post-colonial social critique of the cannibal film, Bone Tomahawk is a seamless fusion of genres that completely won me over.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016
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