Films I loved in April 2018

1 May 2018
Isle of Dogs

Rex (voiced by Edward Norton) and Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) in Isle of Dogs

I tend to like and admire Wes Anderson’s films from a distance, but the ones I really like, I adore: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and now Isle of Dogs, his glorious tribute to canines and Japanese cinema. This stop-motion animation tonally straddles droll humour, absurdism and emotional sincerity within its inventive dystopian world and enjoyably chaotic plot.

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John Krasinski as Lee in A Quiet Place

There is something gloriously old-fashioned about A Quiet Place, which quickly and efficiently establishes its innovative premise and small group of characters, to then deliver a finely crafted horror film that is both terrifying and moving. The characters are a family that the audience are able to quickly care about, the high stakes are always present and the scenario where sound is deadly, is used to its full potential.

Avengers: Infinity War

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Stephen Strange, Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, Benedict Wong as Wong and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in Avengers: Infinity War

I was expecting to like Avengers: Infinity War as directors Anthony and Joe Russo delivered two of the best previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, but I was not anticipating just how strong the storytelling and spectacle would be. The action sequences are exhilarating and inventive, the dramatic stakes are high and the huge cast of characters are expertly handled. This is my favourite film in the series to-date.

Gurrumul

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu in Gurrumul

The documentary Gurrumul provides a portrait of recently deceased Indigenous Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. It embraces his spirit, humour and of course, extraordinary talent. It is a moving, revealing and reverential film that serves to chart his career and highlight his cultural significance to his own community and the rest of Australia.

Loveless

Maryana Spivak as Zhenya in Loveless

Loveless is explicitly about a missing child, but it is implicitly about a generation destroying itself and the one after it through bitterness, apathy, self-absorption and a complete lack of empathy. As with his previous films, Andrey Zvyagintsev creates a compelling yet ambiguous drama through his use of visual metaphor, elegant camera movements and beautiful composition.

I Am Not a Witch

Maggie Mulubwa as Shula in I Am Not a Witch

Inspired by real events in Zambia, I Am Not a Witch is a startling film about a young girl accused of being a witch. The film’s general strangeness, deadpan humour and dreamlike tone capture the bewildering events that follow as she goes to live in a witch camp. While on the surface the film overtly highlights the shocking harm of witchcraft accusations, it’s also more broadly about the creation and exploitation of an underclass.

Last Flag Flying

Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon, Steve Carell as Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd andLaurence Fishburne as Richard Mueller in Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, an unofficial sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, is similarly a buddy road movie that blends humour, pathos and subversive cynicism about the damage done to men who become soldiers. While not entirely without hope, the prevailing melancholy stems from how a group of veterans broken by one war confronts a new generation of men being broken by another.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

 

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Films I loved in March 2018

29 March 2018
Annihilation

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr Ventress and Natalie Portman as Lena in Annihilation

Alex Garland is one of my favourite contemporary writers and directors of science-fiction films, and my admiration for him continues with Annihilation. Atmospheric and with just the right amount of explanation to not remove all mystery, its story of an expedition into the unknown is beautiful, terrifying and uncanny. Released in Australia on Netflix, it is disappointing it can’t be experienced on the big screen.

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Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov and Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan in The Death of Stalin

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as uncomfortable watching a comedy as I did with The Death of Stalin, where master political satirist Armando Iannucci savagely ridicules the Soviet regime while constantly reminding the audience that it was built on torture, sexual violence and murder. However, this uneasiness is part of its strength and it’s a timely reminder of the dangerousness and destructiveness of men who crave power.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in February 2018

26 February 2018
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Saoirse Ronan as Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson and Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson in Lady Bird

With its sensitive blend of humour and pathos, the coming-of-age film Lady Bird is an understated triumph of empathetic cinema. As the mother and daughter at the centre of the story, actors Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan deliver deeply nuanced performances as two people who know how to press each others buttons, but struggle to express just how deeply they love each other.

PHANTOM THREAD

Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson and Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread

Few filmmakers could do anything original or vibrant by making yet another film about a creative yet difficult man (who’s also in a relationship with a younger woman), but that’s what Paul Thomas Anderson does in Phantom Thread. With its blend of gothic romance, melodrama and Oedipal desires, it’s a mysterious, lush and ultimately playful film when it reveals how much it has been one step ahead of the audience.

A Fantastic Woman

Francisco Reyes as Orlando and Daniela Vega as Marina in A Fantastic Woman

For a film containing so much grief and prejudice, A Fantastic Woman is astonishingly sensitive and heartfelt. A lot of this is due to the superb performance by Daniela Vega as Marina, a trans-woman who after the death of her partner must contend with his family trying to exclude her. Marina’s humanity and resilience are beautifully amplified by the film’s delicate cinematography and score.

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Nakhane Touré as Xolani in The Wound

The Wound depicts an eight-day rite-of-passage ritual that Xhosa teenage boys in rural South Africa are expected to endure. While the film doesn’t necessarily critique the ritual itself, it does condemn the destructiveness and violence of the traditional attitudes regarding masculinity that surround it. Confronting and tough viewing at times, The Wound is not without much-needed moments of tenderness and compassion.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in January 2018

30 January 2018
Sweet Country

Natassia Gorey Furber as Lizzie and Hamilton Morris as Sam in Sweet Country

Sweet Country confirms yet again that Warwick Thornton is one of Australia’s most important filmmakers. Steeped in Australia’s brutal colonialist past and evoking other contemporary classics such as The Proposition and The Tracker, Sweet Country continually defies and undermines genre expectations with its masterful command of film style and its confronting tale of racism and injustice.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya

I, Tonya touches on many themes – including living in the media spotlight, competitive sport and class in American – but at its core it is film about abuse, resilience and obsession. The filmmakers skilfully manage the shifting tones and the often outrageous details in Tonya Harding’s story; oscillating between dark uncomfortable humour and moments where the tragic human face behind the sensationalism is revealed.

The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro’s best film in a decade, The Shape of Water is wonderful fantasy-horror-romance film that provides a new variation on one of my favourite tropes: the misunderstood monster. Reminding me of both Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton at their best, this is still distinctively a del Toro film where the horror, grief and beauty of humanity is expressed through a dark fantastic tale of love and desire.

Faces Places

JR and Agnès Varda in Faces Places

Faces Places is one of the end results of a glorious collaboration between iconic French filmmaker Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR. Following the pair as they create giant portraits of people they meet by chance in regional France, this sweet, moving, funny and playful film is an exploration of friendship, the artist process, personal identity and embracing the new.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas in Brawl in Cell Block 99

I’m still not sure if Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a nightmarish right wing nationalist fantasy or a brutal condemnation of the nihilism and toxic masculinity sweeping the USA under Trump. Either way, this ultra-violent descent into hell where a brooding self-righteous man fights his way through the prison system to protect his wife and unborn child, is a breath-taking visceral spectacle of shattered bones that I couldn’t take my eyes off.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in December 2017

23 December 2017
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Armie Hammer as Oliver in Call Me by Your Name

The mix of young love, lust, and summer in Northern Italy in Call Me by Your Name has allowed director Luca Guadagnino to deliver a film of immense beauty and emotional resonance. The film’s slow burn pace allows a wonderful build of tension and desire, to underpin the romance between 17-year-old Elio and his father’s student Oliver, both played to perfection respectively by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

The Florida Project

Christopher Rivera as Scooty and Brooklynn Prince as Moonee in The Florida Project

The Florida Project continues filmmaker Sean Baker’s spotlight on marginalised and invisible people living in the USA. Set in a low-budget motel, within walking distance of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, it follows the lives of mother and daughter Halley (Bria Vinaite) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) whose defiant struggle to get through every day is both gleefully audacious and heartbreaking.

Paddington 2

Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in Paddington 2

Paddington 2 maintains the original film’s blend of good natured humour and warm hearted message of acceptance and diversity, without losing any of the charm or stylistic inventiveness that defined the original film. While 2017 has seen the release of many films that capture the current grim mood of the times, the release of this child-friendly crime-caper/prison film right at the end of the year is a much needed tonic.

In Between

Sana Jammelieh as Salma, Shaden Kanboura as Noor and Mouna Hawa as Leila in In Between

In Between begins as an enjoyably light drama about three Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv, and then transitions into a more serious film to explore issues of religion, gender and sexuality. The joy of the film is the solidarity the women share with each other despite their differences, while the tragedy of the film are the ways patriarchal oppression under the guise of religion and tradition continues to assault them.

IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD

Suzu (voiced by Rena Nounen) in In This Corner of the World

In This Corner of the World begins as a domestic drama about a young woman in 1930s Japan entering into an arranged marriage, and then gradually becomes a powerful drama about living during wartime. The animation is impressive, especially when it incorporates the main character’s own artwork, and the restraint used to depict the horrors of war and losing loved ones is quietly powerful.

SAMI BLOOD

Lene Cecilia Sparrok as Elle-Marja in Sami Blood

Not knowing anything about the Scandinavian indigenous Sami people, most of what occurs in Sami Blood was new to me. However, it was also depressingly familiar as through the experiences of a 14-year-old Sami girl in 1930s Sweden, the films reveals how yet another indigenous group was expected to assimilate while also being made to feel inferior. This is an excellent drama and a bold new development in Swedish cinema.

Waru

Tanea Heke as Charm in Waru

The New Zealand film Waru comprises eight short films that all take place simultaneously during the funeral of a young boy who has died as the result of neglect and abuse. All eight films are single takes, all are directed by Māori women and all feature a different Māori woman who is directly or indirectly affected by the death. This is powerful and urgent storytelling.

Jim & Andy

Jim Carrey in Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

And finally, I caught up with Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond on Netflix, a documentary combining an interview with Jim Carrey along with previously unseen footage of the making of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. The result is a compelling portrait of both Carrey and Kaufman, and also a fascinating study of the artistic process that is at times hilarious, unsettling, disturbing and surprisingly moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

 


Films I loved in November 2017

30 November 2017
The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy and Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

While watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer I found myself trying to identify the deeper meaning behind its stylised acting, clinical visual style, and themes of hubris and revenge (taken from the classical Greek myth of Iphigenia). It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised the brilliance of Yorgos Lanthimos’s film was simply that it made me consistently laugh, often without exactly knowing why. While not quite as rich as his previous film The Lobster, this is still a remarkable achievement in its ability to play it straight and still present darker than dark material in a way that is perversely comedic.

Lucky

Harry Dean Stanton as Lucky in Lucky

As the final film for beloved actor Harry Dean Stanton – and one of his very few leading roles – Lucky could not be more perfect. Playing an ageing, chain-smoking and reclusive old man who is musing on death and dying, Lucky is not exactly a stretch for Stanton and yet he still looses himself in the part with his distinctive understated charm. Lucky embodies the spirit of so many of the classic American films that Stanton appeared in over the decades in terms of setting, supporting cast and themes, resulting in something fittingly familiar. It’s a lovely farewell.

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Domhnall Gleeson as A A Milne and Will Tilston as Christopher Robin in Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin comes with many of the standard characteristics of a conventional biopic in telling the story of how A A Milne came to create the much-loved Winnie-the-Pooh stories. However, what sets the film apart is not just its avoidance of whimsy and sentimentality (for the most part), but its thematic complexities. Milne’s PTSD and at times difficult relationship with his family are explored, as are the issues surrounding the way he used his son’s childhood to create the much-loved stories and by doing so turned his son into a reluctant celebrity.

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James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist

Like so many, I had an incredible time when I saw the 2003 so-bad-it’s-good cult film The Room. The Disaster Artist depicts how writer/director/producer/actor Tommy Wiseau teamed up with struggling actor Greg Sestero to make The Room and while so much of what happens is hilarious, the film still acknowledges Wiseau’s pain, passion and triumph of sorts. Wiseau is not nearly as sympathetic a character as Ed Wood, the 1950s B-grade filmmaker who is the subject of the 1994 film Ed Wood, but The Disaster Artist does share some of that film’s affection for its respective delusional misfit filmmaker.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

 


Films I loved in October 2017

1 November 2017
Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling as K in Blade Runner 2049

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is one of my desert island films. I will never tire of its visual aesthetic and poetic blend of dystopian science-fiction, hardboiled film noir, and philosophical musings on what it means to human. Denis Villeneuve’s sequel Blade Runner 2049 may not capture the same magic that makes the original so electrifying, but it comes closer than I ever dared hope for. Remaining true to the spirit of the original film without overly indulging in nostalgia, this is a mediative, measured and haunting film of overwhelming visual pleasures and thematic richness where humanity has been further diluted, but still prevails.

Good Time

Robert Pattinson as Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas in Good Time

I first began to really take notice of filmmaking brothers Joshua Safdie and Ben Safdie after seeing their 2014 film Heaven Knows What, but their new film, Good Time, confirms that they are two of the most exciting contemporary independent American filmmakers. Channelling the rawness and high energy of early Martin Scorsese films and the spirit of John Cassavetes, Good Time is a visceral and anxious crime drama that had my heart racing throughout so much of its running time that I felt shattered by the end credits in the best possible way.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz and Ben Stiller as Matthew Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

With the very notable exception of France Ha, I’ve never really been able to fully embrace Noah Baumbach’s films so I was not expecting to be so impressed by The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which is now easily my favourite film of his. While it treads the very familiar ground of exploring intergenerational tensions and resentments among the members of a dysfunctional family living in New York, it is elevated by its impressive performances, pathos and sincerity. It was especially great to see Adam Sandler return to dramatic acting, and he delivers his strongest and most endearing performance since Punch Drunk Love.

Brigsby Bear

Kyle Mooney as James Pope in Brigsby Bear

The biggest surprise I had this month was how much I adored Brigsby Bear, especially considering how much I assumed I would not. After hearing it was about a man obsessed with a kid’s television series that he wants to recreate for himself, I imagined something unbearably whimsical and twee. I was surprised and delighted to discover that the tone and themes of the film were in fact far closer to something like The Truman Show, resulting in a sweet and melancholic story about family and identity. These days it is easier said than done, but this is one film where I recommend seeing it knowing as little as possible beforehand.

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

Bill Nighy as Inspector John Kildare in The Limehouse Golem

I wasn’t going to see The Limehouse Golem, but after hearing my Plato’s Cave co-hosts speak about it, I was persuaded to do so. I’m extremely glad I did. On the surface it is a serial killer/detective story set in Victorian London, but as the film unravels it becomes increasingly apparent that its extremely masterful hidden-in-plain-sight twists and turns are used to explore issues of class, gender and sexuality in ways that are integral to how the story develops. It is a shame and a bit of a mystery to me as to why a film this well-crafted and atmospheric has had such little attention.

FAH2017And finally, on a personal note, the second edition of my secondary school textbook Film Analysis Handbook is now available. Originally written in 2005 as a resource for school students and teachers studying and writing about film, this 2017 edition is fully updated with new film examples, new writing samples, new terminology and a new design.

Available now from Insight Publications.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017