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
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Films I loved in January 2019

24 January 2019
Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day in Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade presents the inner world of 13-year-old Kayla as she attempts to navigate the confusing world of boys, friends, parents, social media and sex. A lot of this film is funny, some of it is uncomfortable, some scenes are incredibly touching and there are many moments that may induce an anxiety attack. It covers very familiar teen-film material, and yet the way it presents the awkward phase of being caught between childhood and adulthood is incredibly refreshing and something to celebrate.

minding the gap

Kiere Johnson in Minding the Gap

In Minding the Gap filmmaker Bing Liu turns the camera on himself and two childhood friends who were brought together through a mutual love of skateboarding, but are now confronting the challenges of adulthood. The resulting documentary is an intimate and sometimes alarming portrait of the way three young men are examining their identities, confronting past trauma, questioning their own behaviour and making decisions to gravitate towards or move away from destructive aspects of masculinity.

how to train your dragon the hidden world

Toothless and Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World delivers an exciting, spectacular and emotionally satisfying finale to the impressive DreamWorks Animation trilogy about the village of Vikings who have learned to co-exists with dragons. It concludes the coming-of-age narrative for both protagonist Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and the community he now leads where the path to adulthood is not just defined by the acceptance of responsibility, but also by the development of empathy.

the kid who would be king

Louis Ashbourne Serkis as Alex Elliot in The Kid Who Would Be King

King Arthur mythology meets contemporary England in The Kid Who Would Be King when 12-year-old Alex and his fellow teenage knights are sent on a quest to prevent the return of Morgana. The talent that writer/director Joe Cornish displayed in Attack the Block for delivering exciting action scenes with plenty of humour and strong characterisation is once more evident in this family film, which also delivers a timely message of the power of unity and recognising that the future belongs to the young.

Glass

James McAvoy as The Horde and Bruce Willis as David Dunn in Glass

Glass is possibly M Night Shyamalan’s trickiest sleight of hand yet. By bringing together characters and plot threads from his 2000 film Unbreakable and his 2016 film Split, some viewers might expect a spectacle driven The Avengers-style team-up epic. Instead, Glass is a densely plotted, highly self-aware and low budget film about characters who are made to doubt their sanity and superhuman abilities. Both parody and pastiche, it’s an anti-comic book film that’s equally fascinated and cynical about superhero stories.

free solo

Alex Honnold in Free Solo

Free Solo documents American rock climber Alex Honnold’s preparation and execution of his record breaking free solo (no safety gear or harnesses) climb of the 900metre El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park. Honnold is a curious subject as he’s not traditionally charismatic, and a strength of the film is how it attempts to understand his motivation and method, as well as examining the logistics and ethics of filming him. The finale – the climb itself – is exhilarating, overwhelming and completely cinematic.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

Films I loved in December 2018

20 December 2018
Roma

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a brilliant fusion of personal storytelling with broader observations on race, class and gender with it’s stunningly photographed story of a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. It’s a slow burn drama that invites the audience into the inner world of the characters, making its ability later in the film to quietly devastate, all the more profound. A film of both sensitivity and unflinching honesty, it left me trembling long after the final credits rolled.

Climax

Climax

Climax delivers what audiences have come to expect from a Gaspar Noé film with its large offerings of drug fuelled transgressions, as a party for a troupe of contemporary dancers becomes increasingly nightmarish thanks to the LSD-spiked punch. It’s also the film where Noé displays the closest he has come to restraint, so that rather than being simply grim, the film’s hallucinogenic descent into hell is an exhilarating rush of black humour, astonishing dance choreography and gleefully vicarious nastiness.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E Grant as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? could have been a lighthearted it’s-funny-because-it’s-true film about the literary hoax committed by author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in New York in the early 1990s, but instead it’s a sweetly melancholic tale about failure, ostracisation and disappointment. While the stakes aren’t as high as they are in Midnight Cowboy, it has much in common with that 1969 classic, as it’s similarly a beautifully acted, heartfelt drama about how a friendship against the odds helped endure hardship.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller in First Reformed

Ethan Hawke is outstanding as a priest spiralling into destructive despair in First Reformed, the enticingly intense new film by writer/director Paul Schrader who has long explored the psyches of damaged and disturbed men. The starkness and existentialism evoke the early 1960s spiritual films of Ingmar Bergman, but this is nevertheless a distinctively contemporary and American work that captures the palpable dread of losing faith in the 21st century. Released in Australia on home entertainment.

THE FAVOURITE

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite

The Favourite is a sort of All About Eve for contemporary audiences, but set in 1708 and loosely based on the love/power triangle between Anne, Queen of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), and two women who competed for her affection. While a lot more grounded than director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films, there is still a sense of heightened absurdity brought to the style and narrative, which effectively enhances the film’s wicked sense of humour and biting social satire about political power and the patriarchy.

Cold War

Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in Cold War

Cold War is a classic story of an impossible love affair that plays across four decades of 20th century Europe, where two lovers are continually thwarted by the dehumanising and long-lingering effects of war, but are still continually drawn together, often through the overwhelming power of music. Based on the experiences of writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s actual parents, this is a bittersweet personal reflection on the recent past that is romantic and bleak, nostalgic and sobering.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in November 2018

30 November 2018
Shoplifters

Ando Sakura as Shibata Nobuyo, Jyo Kairi as Shibita Shota and Lily Franky as Shibata Osamu in Shoplifters

Shoplifters once again demonstrates writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda’s ability to deliver a warm and leisurely character-driven drama where class and the family unit are gently critiqued without any trace of heavy handedness. The story of a family of petty thieves who take in a young neglected girl to care for as one of their own contains plenty of drama and heartbreak, but it is the sense of humanism and compassion that lingers long after viewing the film that makes it yet another triumph for Koreeda.

The Old Man And The Gun

Sissy Spacek as Jewel and Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker in The Old Man & the Gun

It’s hard to ignore that The Old Man & the Gun is reportedly Robert Redford’s final outing as an actor, as the entire film feels like a homage to his onscreen persona, legacy and the New Hollywood era that helped define him. It’s a fun, sweet and good-natured based-on-a-true story about an elderly gentleman bank robber who finds love. It delivers a loving throwback to the era of counter-culture Hollywood films that celebrated charismatic anti-heroes, where cynicism sat comfortably with star-power charm.

Lean on Pete

Charlie Plummer as Charley in Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete is on the surface a story about a teenage boy bonding with a horse as a response to parental absence, a common theme in films for and about adolescents. In the hands of the masterful British writer/director Andrew Haigh the film is free from sentiment or obvious plot development, and is a sophisticated and subtle character study about the loneliness and quiet despair of a young person in a desperate situation. It’s a slow burn yet mesmerising film that I haven’t stopped thinking about.

Fahrenheit 11:9

Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 11/9

Fahrenheit 11/9 contains a lot less of the levity and stunts that have characterised Michael Moore’s previous works, as it is a much more urgent and angry film. Moore may not present heaps of new information or analysis, but he skilfully and persuasively consolidates a lot of the almost overwhelming details about how Donald Trump’s presidency is both the symptom and cause of the erosion of democracy in the USA. There are some elements of hope, but this is mostly an engaging call-to-arms.

The Children Act

Emma Thompson as Fiona Maye in The Children Act

The main reason to see The Children Act is for Emma Thompson as a British High Court judge contending with her marriage falling apart while she is in the spotlight presiding over a case involving a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witnesses boy refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. Thompson’s incredible performance aside, this is still a compelling and moving film with a thematically rich script that offers a lot for the audience to unpack without feeling didactic.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in October 2018

31 October 2018
First Man

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man

The Neil Armstrong biopic First Man is a film of contrasts where the vast emptiness of the moon is juxtaposed with Armstrong’s cramped conditions on Apollo 11, the methodical precision of the space missions sits alongside the emotional upheaval felt by the astronauts’ families, and Armstrong’s stoic outward appearance masks his inner grief. The attention to detail and factual information is balanced perfectly with the film’s more soulful moments, resulting in a glorious blend of drama and sensory spectacle.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Jeff Bridge as Father Daniel Flynn and Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet in Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale contains one of my favourite scenarios where a group of strangers filled with secrets converge at a single location and things get increasingly out of control. This felt like a glorious throwback to the mid-1990s where clever, violent and funny genre films were a staple of the American indie scene. However, it doesn’t feel like a homage nor does the narrative dexterity slide into self-awareness or smugness. Instead, the terrific performances and smart filmmaking make it refreshing and fun.

DSC_3773.dng

Bradley Cooper as Jack and Lady Gaga as Ally in A Star Is Born

Similar to the versions that have come before it over the previous decades, the new adaptation of A Star Is Born explores the nature of show-business, fame, addiction and self-expression through a dramatic romance story. The power of this new version comes from both how electrifyingly the musical performances are filmed and the incredible dynamic between its two lead characters, one on the decline and one on the ascent. The result is a thoughtful and empathetic film that is enormously engaging and moving.

Halloween

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween

The latest Halloween film operates as a direct sequel to the original 1978 film (bypassing all previous sequels and remakes) both in terms of picking up the story 40 years later and by brilliantly adopting the same style as John Carpenter’s hugely influential slasher classic. The focus is on establishing characters and then using lighting, framing and camera movements to beautifully build tension to gleefully unbearable levels in order to take the audience on a rollercoaster ride of suspense-based horror.

Wajib

Mohammad Bakri as Abu and Saleh Bakri as Shadi in Wajib

Gently unfolding over one day, Wajib follows a Palestinian father and son (played by a real-life father and son) as they drive around Nazareth, Israel, handing out wedding invitations. Through their conversations while alone with each other and while visiting various family and friends, filmmaker Annemarie Jacir explores generational, class and cultural divides with humour, sensitivity and nuance making the film a very accessible insight into some of the complex political tensions in contemporary Israel.

Westwood

Vivienne Westwood in Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is an energetic documentary about fashion designer Vivien Westwood, celebrating her as trailblazer. There is some great analysis of the punk era and her role in defining the punk look, the focus on her hands-on approach to designing and making clothes brings the process to life, and her reluctance as an interviewee becomes part of the film’s charm. More a reflection of her life and beliefs than a comprehensive biopic, this is a triumphant film about an extraordinary person.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018


Films I loved in September 2018

29 September 2018
Custody

Thomas Gioria as Julien Besson in Custody

Xavier Legrand follows up his masterful 2013 short film Just Before Losing Everything with Custody, continuing the story of a woman and her children escaping from her abusive husband. Slowly revealing the ways the abuser continues to intimidate his family, the film is a deeply emotional social realist drama with an almost unbearable build-up of tension. Custody is a call to arms about the insidious ways violent and entitled men manipulate others, while also functioning as an expertly crafted thriller.

Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot

Jack Black as Dexter and Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

The biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is one of the more conventional films by the eclectic and unpredictable filmmaker Gus Van Sant, but it’s also his best film in the past decade. An insightful and often darkly humorous drama about addiction and recovery, its biggest triumph are the performances from supporting actors such as Jonah Hill and Jack Black, as well as Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role as cartoonist John Callahan.

you_were_never_really_here

Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix is also the protagonist in the dreamlike and deeply subjective You Were Never Really Here where he plays Joe, a vigilante for hire with a traumatic past who is on a mission to save a young girl. The combination of filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s stylised direction, which is used to convey Joe’s inner turmoil, combined with Phoenix’s intense performance, heightens the film’s brutal foundations into a powerful sensory and visceral cinematic experience.

Ghosthunter

Jason King in Ghosthunter

Ghosthunter begins as a documentary about a man investigating the paranormal, but quickly evolves into something quite different as he starts to undercover and confront personal demons from his childhood. This is a complex, troubling and powerful film that delves into issues surrounding trauma, abuse and repressed memories. Among the unearthed horrors of the past, there is some humanity and hope for the future, but not without complications, which makes the film all the more richer and challenging.

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Damian Callinan as Troy Carrington (far left) and other cast in The Merger

Starring and written by the always likeable Damian Callinan, The Merger is about a small-town outcast who tries to save the local football club by enlisting the help of the town’s new refugee population. It’s not exactly subtle in its messaging of community and acceptance, but it doesn’t matter when it’s this heartfelt, not to mention timely. This crowd-pleasing and feel-good Australian comedy also contains some great commentary on sport, mateship and masculinity. And most importantly, it’s very funny.

Beast

Jessie Buckley as Moll in Beast

A troubled young woman living in an oppressive small community has her lust for life awakened when she falls for a mysterious man who may or may not be a serial killer. While not shying away from the thriller aspects inherent in such a scenario, Beast is more a slow burn psychological drama with a focus on atmosphere that allows the film to beautifully transition back and forth between being sensual and sinister as it depicts the excitement and danger of awakening primal desires.

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR

Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Like I suspect many Australians, I’d never heard of the legendary US children’s television host Fred Rogers, but that didn’t stop me from being deeply moved by the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Exploring Rogers’s life, career and more importantly, his philosophy of love and compassion, this film transcends the limitations of most biographical documentaries to present an urgent and compelling message of the power of respect, understanding and kindness for all children and all adults.

The Rider

Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn in The Rider

Based on a true story and starring non-professional actors, The Rider is a gentle and mesmerising film set in the American midwest about an upcoming rodeo star adjusting to life after having suffered a serious injury. It presents a perspective of masculinity and rural life that is affectionate and understanding, but not without subtle critical commentary. Sadly not getting a full theatrical release in Australia, The Rider is well worth tracking down through an HD video-on-demand service.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in August 2018

30 August 2018
My Abandonment

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom and Ben Foster as Will in Leave No Trace

One of the most distinctive things about Debra Granik’s masterful drama Leave No Trace is the degree of empathy she has for all her characters even though they are all grappling with circumstances that may put them in opposition to each other. The film concerns a war veteran with PTSD who is attempting to live off the grid with his 13-year-old daughter. Granik gives so much dignity to the many marginalised characters in this film, and the father/daughter bond is powerful and profound.

BlacKkKlansman

Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman andJohn David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee is one of the USA’s most important and distinctive filmmakers, and his latest film, BlacKkKlansman, is one of his best films to date. The based-on-a-true story about an African-American cop and a Jewish cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan deftly manages the bewildering humour offered by the scenario, the police procedural genre elements, and the rage towards the institutionalised racism at the heart of the story. And true to form, Lee ensures the audience is aware of how this story relates to the present.

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

The documentary Three Identical Strangers begins as a fun novelty story about a trio of separated-at-birth identical triplets who found each other when they were nineteen, before evolving into something far darker. Often playing out like a mystery film where information is careful withheld then revealed at key moments, and footage is often replayed to be reappraised after new revelations, it becomes a shocking yet undeniably compelling examination of the nature-versus-nurture debate.

Summer 1993

Laia Artigas as Frida in Summer 1993

The naturalistic Spanish drama Summer 1993 provides a gentle insight into the experience of a 6-year-old girl who after the death of her parents has to adjust to a new life living in the country with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin. Free from melodramatics, the film gradually reveals the stages of grief and coping mechanisms that its young protagonist navigates while trying to make sense of the world, culminating in a final scene that is heartbreakingly brilliant in its understated simplicity.

Mirai

Kun (voiced by Moka Kamishiraishi) and Mirai (voiced by Haru Kuroki) in Mirai

Filmmaker and animator Mamoru Hosoda once again uses fantasy to explores issues of family and childhood in Mirai, an incredibly sweet animated drama about a 4-year-old coming to terms with the arrival of his baby-sister and the changing dynamics between his parents. The sequences that initially suggest an elaborate make-believe world become increasingly metaphysical as time-travel and different planes of reality come into play resulting in a truly remarkable and unexpectedly moving finale.

 

Thomas Caldwell, 2018