Films I loved in April 2019

1 May 2019
Mid90s

Sunny Suljic as Stevie in Mid90s

In the coming-of-age film Mid90s Johan Hill (making his feature film debut as a writer/director) beautifully captures the moment where young teenager Stevie (Sunny Suljic) embraces an identity attached to a friendship group as opposed to his family. Set at the height of the street skateboarding scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s, the film is less an exercise in nostalgia and more an empathetic portrait of a distinct subculture and its appeal for a somewhat lost soul who is seeking approval and a sense of belonging.

Burning

Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su and Steven Yeun as Ben in Burning

Burning is a film rich in ambiguity both in terms of what the lovesick working class protagonist Lee Jon-su (Yoo Ah-in) believes to be happening and the film’s subtext. On the surface it is a love-triangle drama that becomes a paranoid thriller, but throughout the film there are issues of sexual jealously, fragile masculinity, class exploitation and even questioning the perception of reality. While the film unfolds over a surprisingly long running-time there is still a sense of urgency that is completely captivating.

Woman at War

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla in Woman at War

Woman at War is a wonderful blend of self-reflexive absurdity, touching family drama, and droll humour, and a gleefully defiant thriller about radical environmental activism. Filmmaker Benedikt Erlingsson and lead actor Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir have created a magnificent cinematic hero in Halla, a woman who conducts the local choir and is preparing to adopt an orphaned child, while carrying out missions to sabotage the pylons on the Icelandic highlands, blocking the electricity supply to an aluminium plant.

The Sisters Brothers

John C Reilly as Eli Sisters and Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie Sisters in The Sisters Brothers

For his first English-language film, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard brings an off-kilter outsider’s perspective to the American western with The Sisters Brothers. As interested in character interaction as it is with plot, the film follows a pair of brother on a job as hired assassins. Like most post-classical Hollywood westerns, it challenges the conventions and ideals of the genre, but the most distinguishing characteristics of this continually surprising film are its moments of humour, melancholy and tenderness.

1985

Cory Michael Smith as Adrian Lester in 1985

There are many interesting comparisons between 1985 and Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World as they are both films about young men returning to the family home and struggling to reveal a secret. However, while Dolan’s film utilised the techniques of melodrama, 1985 is low key, subtle and shot on grainy black-and-white film, thematically and stylistically evoking many of the films associated with 1990s New Queer Cinema. It’s a work of great sincerity and huge emotional power.

Gloria

John Turturro as Arnold and Julianne Moore as Gloria in Gloria Bell

With Gloria Bell Sebastián Lelio’s successfully adapts his 2013 Chilean film Gloria, about a divorced woman entering into a new relationship after a chance encounter in a nightclub. Relocating the action to Los Angeles and starring Julianne Moore in the titular role, this new version loses none of the original film’s blend of tenderness, high spirits and bittersweet tone in its portrayal of a woman battling feelings of loneliness and regret, but also fiercely determined to bounce back from whatever life throws at her.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019


Films I loved in March 2019

31 March 2019
Destroyer

Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell in Destroyer

While rapidly approaching rock bottom, former undercover cop Erin Bell attempts to track down a sinister figure from her past in Destroyer. Nicole Kidman is astonishingly good as Erin, giving her character just the right amounts of toughness, pathos and despair to make her a classic anti-hero detective figure in this gritty hardboiled crime thriller, which delivers all the meticulous plotting, low-life supporting characters, sun-drenched cynicism and fury that you would want from a Los Angeles-set neo noir.

Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland

Leaving Neverland is a devastating documentary about two boys who were allegedly sexually abused by Michael Jackson. The film looks in depth at the grooming process, the manipulation of parents, the coaching that resulted in the two subjects originally defending Jackson for many years, and the long term effect it had on the boys – now adult men – and their families. It also raises many issues about how children experience abuse and the way the law and public opinion often fail them. Streaming on 10 play.

Hotel Mumbai

Dev Patel as Arjun in Hotel Mumbai

Hotel Mumbai dramatises the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, focusing on the incidents inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras makes the film both a gripping thriller, as the audience follow the nightmarish experiences of multiple characters, and a moving tragedy about the senseless loss of life. Highlighting the actions of guests, hotel staff and police, it is also a sombre tribute to the extraordinary heroism by everyday people in an extreme situation.

Sometimes Always Never

Bill Nighy as Alan in Sometimes Always Never

As retired tailor and Scrabble enthusiast Alan, Bill Nighy delivers what is possibly a career-best performance in Sometimes Always Never. While being overtly stylised and theatrical, the film often unexpectedly resonates extremely deeply during its tonal switches from deadpan humour to something far sadder as it delves into exploring an estranged father/son relationship and the nature of loss and grief. This funny, charming and poignant film is a wonderful surprise.

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Dumbo

Tim Burton‘s Dumbo, which is a remake and expansion of the original 1941 Disney film, delivers everything I wanted as an unashamed Burton fan who adores the original. It’s Burton’s best live action film since he so fully embraced CGI at the start of this decade, and it’s full of the auteur’s trademark style and favourite theme of championing society’s misfits and outsiders who overcome adversity. It is also a very touching tribute to the bond between children and parents. This is cinematic comfort food for me!

The Green Fog

The Green Fog

The found footage film The Green Fog has recently been released on a handful of streaming platforms in Australia. Filmmakers Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson reproduce Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo through a super cut of clips from over 100 other San Francisco-set films and television shows. The result is something that most cinephiles will find utterly delightful, if for no other reason than for the playfulness and humour on display in the shot selection and editing.

Blaze

Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley and Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen in Blaze

The Ethan Hawk-directed Blaze, a biopic of the largely unknown American country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, is also now streaming in Australia. The film takes an unconventional approach to deliver a series of non-linear impressions of Foley capturing his contradictions as a musician of great talent who was also completely self-destructive. The real highlight of the film is the tender relationship between Foley and partner Sybil Rosen, who wrote the film with Hawk and is played beautifully by Alia Shawkat.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

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

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.

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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