Films I loved in April 2017

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Lily Gladstone as Jamie in Certain Women

While re-watching Certain Women (having first seen it last year when its fate in Australia outside of the festival circuit was unknown) I was struck by how much I have come to adore filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. Her understated vision of small town American life, often featuring characters living on the fringes of society, shares a lot with the Belgium Dardenne brothers in that their films appear minimalist and naturalistic, but they are finely crafted and filled with pathos and human drama. Featuring three of America’s most interesting and unpredictable women actors – Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart – plus the very promising emerging actor Lily Gladstone, Certain Women consists of three overlapping stories about characters obsessing after unobtainable and romanticised notions of justice, authenticity and love.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart as Maureen in Personal Shopper

One of the reasons I like Olivier Assayas’s films so much (and possibly the reason I didn’t initially) is because his films are so difficult to pin down; they defy easy categorisation or explanation. In Personal Shopper Kristen Stewart (who was also in Assayas previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria) plays Maureen, a woman who works as a personal shopper for a wealthy celebrity. The importance and significance of objects in people’s lives has played an increasingly prominent role in Assayas’s films and here the focus is on the clothes that Maureen selects and how wearing them herself is forbidden and therefore desirable. Maureen is also a spiritual medium trying to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother in the parts of the film that resemble a haunted house movie. The end result is a film about the material and immaterial worlds in relation to Maureen and her attempts to preserve her own identity in the wake of her grief.

Raw

Garance Marillier as Justine in Raw

I feel that a lot of the advance hype for Raw – making all sorts of hyperbolic claims about how extreme and shocking it is –  has been a little bit misrepresentative of what kind of film it is. Fortunately, it is a strong enough film that the pre-hype – accurate or not – doesn’t damage it in the slightest. Raw combines the body horror of cannibal films with a sexual coming-of-age story about a young woman attending veterinarian school, where a hazing ritual awakens all manner of new appetites. There is such an immediate and visceral feel to the whole film that the taboo desires depicts are often both sensual and repellant, beautiful and gruesome, life-affirming and destructive. I think what I really loved about this film is how so many ideas and themes are intertwined to define easy analysis. It’s not even always clear what is imagined and what is real, what is symbolic and what is literal. This is exciting stuff.

Anne Hathaway as Gloria in Colossal

I love it when a film with an outlandish premise focuses on the implications of that premise, rather than get bogged down with providing lengthy explanations and backstory. It’s an approach that privileges things like characterisation and themes over the duller mechanics of story development. Colossal is one such film, as rather than delving too deeply into why Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is connected to a giant monster terrorising Seoul in South Korea, it uses the scenario to explore issues of addictive behaviour and abusive relationships. Most impressive is how its use of satire – both playful and serious – toys with monster movie conventions and subverts the expectations of America indie rom-coms.

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Teresa Palmer as Clare in Berlin Syndrome

I was a huge fan of Australian director Cate Shortland’s previous film Lore so I was very keen to see Berlin Syndrome and went in knowing next to nothing about it. So I wasn’t expecting its story of a young Australian women visiting Berlin to develop into the very particular type of thriller that it did. What impressed me the most is how effectively it worked as a white-knuckled genre film while at the same time undermining expectations and subverting conventions. Not only is the salacious and sensationalist male gaze, which is often present in films of this nature, completely absent, but Shortland avoids going through the motions of delivering the obvious plot points to instead focus on the subjective experiences of the character.

Their Finest Hour and A HalfDirected by Lone Sherfig

Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole in Their Finest

I’ve long admired the way Lone Scherfig makes feel-good romance films that have a strong subtext exploring darker and more serious themes. In Their Finest Scherfig not only tells a story about the difficulties women faced working in the English film industry in the 1940s, but she is also examining how cinema is emotionally manipulative for idealogical impact. Their Finest is a reminder of the devastating effect that World War II had on the lives of everybody who lived through it, while also working as a behind-the-scenes comedy, with a lot of very satisfying laughs about how films are made and the egos involved. And while some of the plot turns feel overly melodramatic, they also work as self aware moments that remind us how easily films can evoke emotions from us.

Casting JonBenet

Casting JonBenet

Making its Australian debut on Netflix is Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet. Similar in approach to Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (which has so far only screened locally at festivals) Green blurs the line between documentary and fiction, to make a film about the making of a film. In this case, the subject matter is the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old child beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey. Casting JonBenet consists of interviews and auditions with various hopeful actors, all of whom live in Boulder, Colorado, USA where the murder occurred. Green’s film isn’t interested in finding out who did it, it is interested in revealing all the various theories about the case, and more importantly, understanding why those theories have manifested. As the film progresses the interviewees increasingly relate aspects of the case to their own lives, which is when this film truly becomes a work of great beauty, insight and sadness.

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Sidney Warbrick as Thomas and Dan Skinner as John M Hull in Notes on Blindness

Finally, Notes on Blindness was released on home entertainment this month. It’s technically a documentary that consists of reenactments, but describing it as such doesn’t really do justice to its scope and ambition. It’s a portrait of the Australian-born theologian John M Hull who in 1983 began keep an audio diary to describe his experiences going blind. The film maintains the original audio recordings with actors playing Hull and various other people in his life, occasionally lip-synching to the pre-existing audio. Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney use sound and visuals to create an impressionist work that conveys Hull’s inner-world in this gentle, poetic and immersive film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017
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