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

 

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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

Films I loved in September 2017

4 October 2017
I am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro not only give voice to James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript about his memories of US civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, but it draws attention to the urgency of what Baldwin wrote and spoke about during his lifetime. Peck presents Baldwin as a writer, social critic and activist of extraordinary depth and complexity, and demonstrates how essential Baldwin’s analysis of racial divisions in American is to understanding – and acting on – what is happening in America today.

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Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes

Having really enjoyed the 2013 documentary The Battle of the Sexes, about the 1973 exhibition tennis match between retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs and the current women’s champion Billie Jean King, I was tentatively looking forward to Battle of the Sexes, a fictionalised account of the same story. To my delight it exceeded expectations to deliver a nuanced account of the entrenched chauvinism surrounding the event and a thoughtful examination of the motivations behind the actions of the various characters.

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Laure Valentinelli as Sarah in Nocturama

Recently added to Netflix, Nocturama begins feeling like a modern spin on The Battle of Algiers as the film follows a group of young people methodically planning a series of terrorists attacks in Paris. But then the second half of the film depicts what happens to the characters as they hide out overnight in a department store. As they indulge in the very luxuries they were seemingly fighting against, they unravel as boredom, paranoia and recklessness take over. Free from their idealogical drive, they revert back to being restless adolescents.

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Marion Cotillard as Catherine in It’s Only the End of the World

Having finally seen It’s Only the End of the World now it’s on Stan, I think it is one of Xavier Dolan’s best films. Dolan fully embraces the fact that the film is based on a play and allows the actors to run with theatrically heightened emotional states in order for them to convey the resentment, anger, jealously and bitterness that their characters have for one another. It’s a devastating portrayal of a family consumed with pain and betrayal, and Dolan’s decision to shoot so much of the film in tight close-ups so that the characters appear isolated from each other, is a masterful command of film style.

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Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

I can’t imagine ever writing about television again in these monthly summaries, but I also can’t imagine seeing anything on television that comes close to having the impact on me that Twin Peaks has had. The third series, or The Return, continued to go in unexpected directions throughout all eighteen bewildering and captivating episodes, but the final two episodes delivered the emotional pinnacles and thematic gravitas that I had been really holding out for. It will be some time until I truly make sense of it all, but I did attempt to express a few of my ideas on Part 17 and Part 18 of Twin Peaks The Return: A Season Three Podcast.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in August 2017

3 September 2017
God's Own Country

Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe Ionescu and Josh O’Connor as Johnny Saxby in God’s Own Country

God’s Own Country is one of those films where I didn’t realise how much I loved it until the end credits began and I became aware of just how moved I was and how well-crafted a film it is. The film begins bleakly on a windswept farm in Yorkshire in northern England, and the protagonist is Josh, a morose and bitter young man whose only outlets from the drudgery of farm life is binge drinking and anonymous sex. Farm life and his personal life are characterised viscerally with dirt, flesh and bodily fluids. When Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe first enters the picture to work with Josh it’s difficult to see what he or the audience will find appealing about his new surroundings and companion. By the end of the film, Yorkshire had become a place of sublime beauty, Josh had convincingly matured and evolved into a character of depth and compassion, and God’s Own Country had become one of the most touching, heartfelt and sincere films that I have seen all year. For a film that seemed impenetrable when it began, I ended up not wanting it to end.

The Big Sick

Zoe Kazan as Emily Gardner and Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick

While the title of the America romantic comedy The Big Sick identifies illness as the main source of drama in this based-on-a-true-story film, the real source of the film’s pathos and laughs is how well it navigates cultural clashes in contemporary America. Much of the film’s charm comes from how well it depicts the traditional Pakistani Muslim family that actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani (who plays a version of himself in the film) comes from. The difficulties Kumail faces in rejecting his family’s attempts to arrange a marriage for him with another Pakistani woman, to instead pursue his love for American woman Emily Gardner (played by Zoe Kazan and based on writer Emily V Gordon), is treated with humour, but never derision or condemnation. This is a film about navigating family as much as it is about finding love, and it’s refreshing, nuanced and very funny.

The Lost City of Z

Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z

Since seeing James Gray’s The Lost City of Z I’ve since discovered that there is a lot of debate about the significance of 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett and the value of his various expeditions into the Amazon rainforest. The extent to which the film may be printing the legend over the facts didn’t really concern me as my interest was how the film worked as a sort of revisionist explorer film that downplayed the heroics and hardships of being in the jungle, and instead presented a critique of the colonialist spirit of conquering and taming supposedly uncivilised parts of the world. The film challenges attitudes towards gender, race and class while still celebrating the spirit of exploration and honouring the ultimate mystery and tragedy of what happened to Fawcett.

Twin Peaks

Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks

With only two episodes to go, the new series of Twin Peaks has continued to be continuously inventive, delightful, dark, hilarious, strange and brilliant. For the most part it has avoided indulging in nostalgia or fan service, often by referencing the original series only in ways that are completely unexpected. But that moment in episode 16 was executed brilliantly and completely worth the wait.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in July 2017

2 August 2017
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The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) and Lewis MacDougall as Conor O’Malley in A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls once more confirms my suspicion that films aimed at children and young adults often deal with difficult subject matter with far more sophistication and sensitivity than films designed for adult audiences. What makes A Monster Calls so compelling and moving isn’t the mystery of what will happen to 12-year-old Conor and his seriously ill mother, but the unknown nature of the monster that has started to appear before Conor. Is it there to help, guide, cure, punish, torment or nurture? This ambiguity allows the film to explore not just grief and associated emotions such as anger and fear, but even more complex ideas about what it means to a human with all the contradictions that come with it.

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Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a expertly orchestrated spectacle that showcases Christopher Nolan’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker, particularly his use of sound. Cutting between three stories that unfold across different periods of time, Nolan delivers an almost impressionist snapshot of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II. By only delivering snapshots of a small handful of characters caught up in events, and portraying a series of tension moments rather than a more conventional narrative, Dunkirk is an explicitly sensory film. It conveys feelings of bewilderment, disorientation, dread, fear, panic and despair, but it is ultimately a triumphant and exhilarating experience that celebrates what human beings are capable of even in the most desperate situations.

Ansel Elgort

Ansel Elgort as Baby in Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is cinematic pastiche at its best. It’s a fun and funny homage to heist and action films – specifically films from the 1970s, and even more specifically films featuring car chases – and yet it’s edited to and choreographed to an eclectic selection of songs that getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) listens to, as if the film were a musical. I cannot recall seeing another film that conveys the act of walking down the street with headphones on with the excitement of a full dance number. The combination of a pulpy crime plot with a sweet romance sub-plot along with beautifully orchestrated action and a killer soundtrack, won me over completely.

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Zucchini, voiced by Gaspard Schlatter (French version) and Erick Abbate (English version), in My Life as a Zucchini

My Life as a Zucchini is a warm and moving tale that deceptively resembles a kids’ film in production design and style, but explores difficult themes with nuance through well-developed and complex characters. I’ve now seen both the original French-language version and the English-language dub and while I probably prefer the original version, casting Nick Offerman as the voice of the kind police man who looks out of the film’s troubled 9-year-old protagonist, is inspired.

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Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming is my favourite cinematic outing for the likeable teen superhero character, possibly because it’s more of a teen-film/superhero hybrid. Combining Peter Parker’s awkward attempts to navigate high school and first love, with his over-eagerness to develop his superhero abilities as Spider-Man, allows for lots of fun teen angst and coming-of-age moments, punctuated with some of the better action sequences from the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. Tom Holland is great as Parker/Spider-Man and Michael Keaton makes a terrific villain, playing a working-class man who is sick of being screwed over.

The Beguiled

Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney and Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Morrow in The Beguiled

The dreamlike spell of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled owes a lot to its mist-filled, over-grown-garden, swampy Virginian setting during the American Civil War, where the sunlight is constantly fighting to penetrate the overgrowth and darkness. The strange and disturbing tale of repressed sexuality and violence is more muted, less sensationalised and less seedy than Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of the same source material, and for that reason many will prefer Siegel’s version, but I like Coppola’s more. Siegel’s film contains plenty of aspect I like and in same cases prefer, but I feel there’s more mystery and richer characterisation in Coppola’s film.

It Comes At Night

Joel Edgerton as Paul in It Comes at Night

It Come at Night is a film with all the tropes of a zombie apocalypse horror film, but plays out as a psychological thriller crossed with an indie family drama. It’s utterly gripping and suspenseful throughout, and the acting is superb, and yet it wilfully defies easy categorisation and easy explanation. Is it an exercise in using as much ambiguity as possible to deliver as much tension as possible, or it is a clever subversion of audience expectations, which allows it to provide a grim commentary on the nature of paranoia? Either way, it’s a film I keep thinking about it.

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story is a small film with grand themes that feels both highly ambitious and very humble. And to be honest, I was not on board for a while, but once it clicked into place for me, I feel under its spell. The image of a man’s ghost being visualised as an actor wearing a bed sheet with cutout eyes, is on screen for so long that it moves past looking twee or ridiculous, to become oddly moving as the droopy eye holes increasingly suggest a profound melancholia. Moving forward and back in time, meditating on the meaning of life (including a superb scene featuring Will Oldham as an insufferable party guest on a nihilist rant), and at its core being a story about love and loss; it somehow all works, making this a thoughtful and graceful piece of cinema.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in June 2017

5 July 2017
Graduation

Adrian Titieni as Romeo Aldea in Graduation

Graduation is about the hypocrisy of well-meaning people doing the wrong thing. In the case of Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a Romanian doctor living in a small town, he resorts to corruption to help his daughter pursue a better quality of life. Like many critics, I was astonished by filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s tense and confronting 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but I think Graduation is even better. Despite the film’s grim beginning, it is not an ordeal and it even offers a glimmer of hope that the younger generation may break the cycle of cynicism, opportunism and self-interest that the older generation have taught them. Not unlike the films of The Salesman filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, there are no overly bad people in Graduation, just a range of characters with different breaking points and limitations.

The Villainess

Kim Ok-bin as Sook-hee in The Villainess

‘Kinetic’ and ‘visceral’ are two words I sometimes worry I over use, but I can’t think of anything better to describe the delirious and thrilling action sequences in The Villainess. The gleefully convoluted tale of revenge, a secret assassins’ agency and double-crossings contain many familiar themes and plot points from films such as La Femme Nikita and Kill Bill, but it is the superb ultra-violent action choreography and cinematography that makes The Villainess stand out. While the film’s gritty yet slick aesthetic has seen it compared to things like The Raid and some of the more intense moments in Park Chan-wook’s films, I also thought of Gaspar Noé and the way he manages to float the camera through scenes in a dreamlike and often seemingly impossible way.

Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields and Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie Fields in 20th Century Women

I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point while watching 20th Century Women I became aware of just how much I was loving being in the company of the five main characters. Inspired by writer/director Mike Mills’s own childhood, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is at the centre of the narrative, but the film really belongs to his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who lives in the same boarding house, as well as William (Billy Crudup). They are a fascinating, likeable and vulnerable ensemble of characters trying to make sense of the complexities of family, love, mortality and aging against the backdrop of the sexual revolution, the emergence of punk and the impending presidency of Ronald Reagan. While tinged with melancholy, this is ultimately a warm and embracing film about how experiences and relationships shape us.

Okja

An Seo Hyun as Mija in Okja

Bong Joon-ho has always excelled in his ability to mash-up genres and perform radical tonal shifts within a single film, and Okja is no different. It starts like a kids film (but with more swearing) focusing on Mija, a young girl wanting to be reunited with her beloved super pig. Okja then shifts gear into camp and comedic action when Mija falls in with a group of animal rights activists, and then finally ends up as a confronting and moving critique of industrialised meat production. Emerging child actor An Seo Hyun gives a grounded performance as Mija, while the manic performances from the supporting cast – which includes Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano – successfully conveys the madness of the world she encounters when she gets caught up in the machinery of capitalism and media hype.

Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman fulfils the potential shown by Man of Steel in 2013 when the DC Extended Universe kicked-off with Superman’s origin story. Both films concern godlike superhero characters with childlike emotional intelligence who have to learn to make sense of the world, especially when it comes to difficult moral choices. Wonder Woman is a far less angst-ridden affair, and it charts Diana Prince’s journey from the secret island of Themyscira where she grew up, to the Western Front in Belgium during World War I, where she is convinced she will meet and defeat Ares the god of war. As well as delivering several exhilarating and beautifully choreography action sequences, what gives Wonder Woman its edge is the way is grapples with issues of morality concerning what it means to act for the greater good, and the complicated nature of war where defeating the big super villain won’t sudden bring war to an end overnight.

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Kedi

I’m not sure if you have to be a cat-lover to enjoy the Turkish documentary Kedi, as I feel it does explore broader ideas about the relationship between humans and domesticated animals. On the other hand, as somebody who grew up and continues to live with cats, I’m not the slightest bit objective. I adored this charming, beautiful and surprising soulful film about the thousands of street cats living in Istanbul and the city’s human residents that some of the cats deem worthy of their affection. Kedi showcases a beautiful city from a cat’s perspective, examines the symbiotic bond between people and cats, and muses on deeper questions regarding life, god and love, and how cats fit into all that. Brilliant.

David Lynch

David Lynch in David Lynch: The Art Life

I’ve had the good fortune to attend two exhibitions of David Lynch’s artwork – The Air is on Fire in Paris, France in 2007 and more recently David Lynch: Between Two Worlds in Brisbane, Australia in 2015 – and both demonstrated how Lynch’s art runs parallel to his work as a filmmaker, exploring and expanding on many of the themes in his films. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life is an excellent portrait of Lynch the artist, exploring how his childhood experiences and early influences helped shape his artistic obsessions. I’ve never heard the notoriously secretive director talk so candidly about himself and his work, and the film contains a lot of footage that I (a massive Lynch fan) had never seen before.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

And speaking of Lynch, the new series of Twin Peaks continues to soar above and beyond my expectations.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in May 2017

30 May 2017
Get Out

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in Get Out

Get Out is a remarkable film that manages to do several things at once. It’s a horror/comedy that is actually both frightening and funny. It is also an effective piece of easily consumed entertainment that still works as a smart commentary on race. It’s not didactic, yet its examination of how middle white America regards African Americans is hardly subtext – it’s the main focus of the film. It engages sympathy and identification from the audience for its black protagonist, while also portraying several uncomfortable observations about how the dominant white culture both condescends towards and fetishises black culture. It’s a significant accomplishment when a film this fun is also so smart, thought-provoking and challenging.

Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks

I’m cheating by including a television series, especially considering that as a rule I don’t engage with television like I do with cinema, but Twin Peaks is a massive exception. The original 1990-1991 series is possibly my favourite piece of visual entertainment/art and as much as there are a number of TV shows I adore, it remains the only series that for me has ever transcended the limitations of television (maybe I could also say the same about some of Dennis Potter’s work, but I’ve never regularly rewatched those show like I have with Twin Peaks). I could not be happier with the four episodes of this new series that have been released so far. There’s enough that is recognisable about this new series to connect it to the original series, but like the brilliant 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, it is very much its own thing, and showcases co-creator David Lynch‘s ongoing creative evolution. It’s got a slow burn intensity that perfectly delivers Lynch’s humour, sense of mystery and darkness. A lot of it is familiar and a lot of it makes me feel way out-of-my depth, and that’s how I like it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017