Films I loved in March 2017

1 April 2017
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Hugh Jackman as Logan in Logan

Despite enjoying the original 2000 X-Men film and its 2003 sequel, I’ve been mostly indifferent to the franchise and its increasingly complicated mythology. So I was pleased to discover that Logan was more-or-less a standalone film that only required a general knowledge of Logan aka Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) backstory. I was then exhilarated to discover that the bleak tone and strong violence allowed for some of the most captivating action sequences I have even seen in a superhero film, but most of all I was won over by the strong characterisation and tonal seriousness that made it the first superhero film to truly stand out from the pack since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. And while Logan is overt with its western iconography and even directly references Shane, the film the kept on coming to my mind was Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven, which like Logan is a beautiful, bitter and brutal swansong to an onscreen persona.

Clash

Clash

Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab uses a number of cinematic devices in Clash that I often respond well to, including setting the film over a limited period of time and bringing together a diverse group of characters who are then stuck together in single location. Taking place from one afternoon until early morning during the 2013 Egyptian riots, the entire film is set in the back of a police van that is filling up with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and opposing pro-military supporters. While a lot of the film is about the tension within the van between the characters, it also captures the growing instability outside that is witnessed through the van’s barred windows. It’s a sad and angry film about what has happened to the filmmaker’s country, but there are also brief moments of calm and humanity that transcend the divides.

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Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana in The Salesman

The Salesman once again demonstrates Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s mastery of layered cinematic drama. Various ethical questions are explored as actor/teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) becomes increasingly fixated in discovering the truth about what happened to his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) during a traumatic event that occurs early in the film. And as the audience – and Emad – constantly second-guess what took place, we also constantly shift position on how to best respond. Farhadi is able to generate enormous sympathy for his characters, while also being extremely critical of some of their actions. Farhadi’s ability to explore issues of morality within the framework of an engaging dramatic mystery makes him not just an immensely talented filmmaker, but also a deeply humane one.

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Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost in the Shell

Based on my limited knowledge of the Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell (I’ve only previously seen director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 and 2004 animated films) this new live-action USA variation by director Rupert Sanders is far more focused on using the franchise’s cyberpunk scenario to deliver spectacle rather than explore philosophical questions. Taken then on its own terms, this 2017 film is an exhilarating, beautiful and inventive science-fiction/action film that favourably evokes classics of the genre such as Blade RunnerRoboCop and The Matrix. For once the artificiality of the CGI setting and the uncanny quality of many of the characters works strongly in the film’s favour, but mostly this film continues to showcase Scarlett Johansson as one of the greatest action actors currently working in film.

A Man Called Ove

Rolf Lassgård as Ove in A Man Called Ove

The Swedish film A Man Called Ove is unashamedly a crowd pleaser, but with enough restraint and sincerity to prevent it from ever becoming saccharine or melodramatic. The concept of a grumpy rule-obsessed elderly man who begins to rediscover his humanity is hardly breaking new ground, but the combination of dark humour, and the strong performances by the protagonist and supporting cast, lifts it several notches above similar films. This sad, funny and entertaining film about coping with grief and finding empathy for others is ultimately very sweet.

Angela Davis

Angela Davis in 13th

And finally, while Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th has been available on Netflix for a while now, I only caught up with it this month and I’m extremely glad I did. While specifically examining how mass incarcerations in the USA is a modern manifestation of slavery, it more generally is a history of racism in America. What really struck me is how convincing DuVernay presents evidence to reveal that racism against African-Americans has long been a political and economic construct, which has relied on popular culture to create and reenforce hateful and harmful stereotypes. Often confronting, but always with integrity, this is essential viewing.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017
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Films I loved in February 2017

26 February 2017
T2: TRAINSPOTTING

Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton and Jonny Lee Miller as Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson in T2 Trainspotting

T2 Trainspotting is not the best film released this month, but it’s the one that had the biggest effect on me. As somebody who vividly associates seeing the original 1996 film with my early 20s, that’s exactly what it is calculated to do. Like a lot of the soundtrack featured in the film, it functions as both a remix and an update of the original Trainspotting as we are reintroduced to the characters to discover that none of them have moved on as much as they would have liked to. Thematically it is anti-nostalgic, while stylistically being deeply nostalgic which results in a film that is equal parts refreshing and euphoric as well as sobering and melancholic.

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Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi and Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi in Toni Erdmann

On paper the concept of Toni Erdmann sounds patronising and condescending – an older man follows his daughter on a business trip to disrupt her ordered corporate life with pranks and jokes to make her find joy in life again. Instead, this is an impressive drama/comedy about the relationship between parents and their children that also comments on the dehumanising effects of capitalism. It is also a film of surprises with the ability to trigger strong emotional responses with the many scenes that are unexpectedly deeply moving plus and the many, many scenes that are deliriously funny. The escalation of humour in key moments results in some of the finest cinematic comedy in recent years.

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Michelle Williams as Randi and Casey Affleck as Lee in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a beautifully written, directed and acted drama about living with grief, guilt and regret. The use of flashbacks to convey the memories of the lead character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as they come back to haunt him means that for a lot of the running time the audience don’t know the full details behind what has made him into such a shadow of a person. The climax of the backstory is heartbreaking and makes the events in the current time period all the more poignant.

cameraperson

Cameraperson

Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson assembled various outtakes from the documentaries she has filmed, as well as some personal home movies, to create her deeply personal and very moving film Cameraperson. Through the juxtaposition of footage taken all over the world during different time periods, Johnson reflects on how humans cope with tragedy and horror – whether experiencing it directly or witnessing it – and the blurred lines between objectivity and subjectivity she has experienced in her professional life.

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The Family

The Family documents the widespread power and influence of the Melbourne-based cult The Family from the 1960s to the 1990s. It’s an extremely accomplished documentary that includes extensive interviews with survivors of the cult, who were children at the time, and members of the police who were instrumental in rescuing them. Perhaps most shocking are the revelations about the degree to which cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to infiltrate legal, medical and political institutions throughout the decades.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in January 2017

25 January 2017
Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie.

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie

Jackie is set after the assassination of United States President John F Kennedy as the former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, speaks to a reporter about her time in the White House and the aftermath of her husband’s death. Far from the trappings of conventional biopics, this is a dreamlike film about mythology, memory, living in the public eye, grief and dignity. Filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s camera and composition at times evokes Yasujirō Ozu; at other times Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. Natalie Portman delivers the best performance of her career in this deeply moving and poetic film.

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Alex Hibbert as Little (Child Chiron) and Mahershala Ali as Juan in Moonlight

On paper, Moonlight covers a lot of familiar ground in its snapshot of a gay black man, who is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) during three defining periods of his life. However, Barry Jenkins’s film presents the subject matter in a way that makes it feel fresh and vibrant. From the music choices to the unexpected ways the cinematography is used to change perspectives to the use of stillness, this is exciting cinema. And while Moonlight is specifically about black identity and queer identity, it also captures broader themes about how the male psyche is constructed. But most of all, it’s a film about the prevalence of hope and love.

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Sunny Pawar as Young Saroo in Lion

Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, who as a 5-year-old boy was accidentally separated from his Indian family, sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. After 25 years of growing up in Australia, Saroo set about trying to find his birth family back in India. This is a beautiful film that is confronting and heartbreaking. It touches on themes such as the vulnerability of children, the responsibility adults have to children, what family means and how we form our identity. Lion is a deeply humane film and watching it is an incredibly rewarding experience.

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Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin and Woody Harrelson as Mr Bruner in The Edge of Seventeen

I’m a fan of any film that treats the experience of being a teenager with respect, so I was very impressed with  The Edge of Seventeen. Filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig captures the loneliness and awkwardness of being an unpopular teenager with sincerity and humour, and without the angst or twee whimsey that often creeps into teen films. The entire cast is excellent, but Hailee Steinfeld especially stands-out in the lead role as Nadine, a young woman learning how to juggle responsibility and asserting her own individuality, while navigating friendship, family, love, sexuality, grief and happiness.

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James McAvoy as Kevin in Split

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an M Night Shyamalan film and even longer since I’ve seen one I’ve enjoyed, so I was very pleasantly surprised by how much fun I had with Split. It’s a B grade exploitation film made to look far more respectable than it is and filled with disarming stylistic choices that are used to alternate point-of-view and create unease. The concept of the villain being a collection of Jekyll and Hyde type identities residing in the mind of a man with dissociative identity disorder is taken to such an extreme that it’s impossible to take seriously, not unlike the way Lucy in 2014 took its premise to such preposterous lengths. I had a ball with this well-crafted and ridiculous film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Favourite Films of 2016

20 December 2016

These are the films that I not only think are great and will stand the test of time, but they are films that got under my skin, made me want to see them again, continued to linger in my mind and reminded me why I love cinema.

My top ten films

Released in Melbourne, Australia, in 2016

ROOM_DAY8-0044 (3) (1)1. Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
Released January

92. Son of Saul (Saul fia, László Nemes, 2015)
Released February

elle_03_rgb3. Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)
Released October

the-arrival4. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
Released November

i-daniel-blake-still-45. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)
Released November

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS6. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016)
Released August

_DSC3602 Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell with Guns7. Goldstone (Ivan Sen, 2016)
Released July

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS8. Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)
Released November

CAROL9. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Released January

Spear10. Spear (Stephen Page, 2015)
Released March

 

Honourable mentions

Fifteen more films I loved this year, listed alphabetically:

BROOKLYNBrooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
Released February

Embrace of the SerpentEmbrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente, Ciro Guerra, 2015)
Released July

girl-asleepGirl Asleep (Rosemary Myers, 2015)
Released September

Hunt for the WilderpeopleHunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
Released May

nullLa La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
Released December

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The Measure of a Man, (La loi du marché, Stéphane Brizé, 2015)
Released June

still_307692Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
Released June

still_478533Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)
Released December

DCIM101GOPROSherpa (Jennifer Peedom, 2015)
Released March

Day 25 21Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)
Released July

SpotlightPic#11Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
Released January

sullySully (Clint Eastwood, 2016)
Released September

sunset-songSunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015)
Released September

TNG-14668rThe Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)
Released May

weinerWeiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016)
Released September

Special mention

Most of the other notable films I saw this year will be released in Melbourne in 2017, so I’ll include them on next year’s list rather than here, but I do want to give a special mention to the following films screened at festivals that to my knowledge are not currently scheduled for release in Australia.

144507_24882_certain_w_stillCertain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

144231_24831_kate_play_stillKate Plays Christine (Robert Greene, 2016)

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Kedi
(Ceyda Torun, 2016)

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My Life as a Zucchini
(Ma vie de Courgette, Claude Barnes, 2016)

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Notes on Blindness
(Pete Middleton and James Spinney, 2016)

This list was compiled for the upcoming Senses of Cinema 2016 World Poll

Thomas Caldwell 2016

Films I loved in December 2016

15 December 2016
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Adam Driver as Paterson in Paterson

As Jim Jarmusch is one of my favourite living filmmakers, Paterson was one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It contains many of Jarmusch’s trademark characteristics, including an understated dead-pan sense humour, dialogue that sounds so conventional and direct it becomes strangely lyrical, and a overall minimalist approach that is captivating. While many of  Jarmusch’s films feel like the epitome of cinematic coolness, the story of a poetry-writing bus driver delivers a romantic and sweet depiction of American small-town working-class life. Adam Driver, as the titular bus driver observing life around him, is a perfect Jarmusch leading man and the scenes between him and Golshifteh Farahani, as his wife Laura, are unbelievably sweet.

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Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder and Emma Stone as Mia Dolan in La La Land

While La La Land is clearly a homage to the musicals of the classical Hollywood era, especially the colour films of the 1950s by directors such as Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, it is also heavily indebted to Jacques Demy’s 1960s musicals, themselves homages to classical Hollywood musicals. As a Demy fan, this is not a problem for me at all, and it gives La La Land an extra layer of depth. The heightened use of colour, overt slides into fantasy and abstraction, and contrasting moods of whimsey and melancholy are all close to the spirit of Demy. Lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are a terrific on-screen couple, and the songs and dance choreography are great. This is a gorgeous and sincerely crafted love letter to the musical genre.

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Auli’i Cravalho voicing Moana Waialiki in Moana.

Walt Disney Animation Studios have been in incredibly strong form over the past few years and Moana is their latest success. Its story of a Polynesian girl on a quest with a demigod, delivers an exciting hero’s journey story with strong music numbers, fun gags, and inventive animation. It also continues the recent Disney tradition of critiquing the reductive representation of class and gender in so many of their earlier films about princesses. Moana is fun, exhilarating and moving.

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Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in Rogue One

I was a big fan of the 2014 Godzilla, especially the way director Gareth Edwards stayed true to the spirit of the original films while bringing something new; namely giving the large scale action scenes an immediate and gritty aesthetic. With Rogue One Edwards does something similar by making it a very faithful prequel to the original 1977 Stars Wars film while also ensuring it works as a standalone film. One of the darker entries into the franchise (both thematically and visually) it contains a wonderful ensemble of flawed anti-hero characters and a series of gripping action sequences. This was the most I’ve been entertained by a Star Wars film since seeing the original trilogy as a child.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in November 2016

30 November 2016
the-arrival

Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks in Arrival

I’ve admired the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve for some time now, even when I haven’t completely embraced all aspects of some of his films, so I approached Arrival with cautious anticipation. It has turned out to be one of my favourite films this year. Arrival belongs to the long tradition of science-fiction that provides a potent political allegory, in this case it is one of the less common alien-themed films that argues for social cohesion rather than promoting fear of outsiders. It also belongs to the hard science-fiction traditional of seriously exploring its premise, in this case the implications and practicality behind communicating with aliens. It also belongs to the more philosophical tradition where its premise is used to explore more abstract concepts such as language, communication, memory and time. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s a very emotional and personal story driven by the film’s protagonist, linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks played by Amy Adams in one or two outstanding performances from her in a film released this month.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals

The other film this month featuring Amy Adams at the top of her game is Nocturnal Animals, the second feature film by the multi-talented Tom Ford. The story-within-a-story structure and ambiguous ending demands that the audience ask themselves how the fictional neo-western revenge story being read by Adam’s character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow, relates to her own stylish neo-noir story of lost love and bitterness. I was captivated by all aspects of the film and I’m still wrestling with its themes of revenge, catharsis, suffering and finding meaning through art (or perhaps more troubling, the inability of art to do anything more than symbolise and reflect).

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Hayley Squires as Katie Morgan and Dave Johns as Daniel Blake in I, Daniel Blake

In I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach along with long-term collaborator screenwriter Paul Laverty do what they do best by delivering a moving and angry film about inequality, poverty and social injustice. The Kafkaesque scenario of a man being made to look for work to maintain his benefits despite being told he is unfit for work will only seem implausible or exaggerated to those who have never fallen on hard times. This is one of Loach’s best films and the scene in the food bank is one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in a film this year.

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Sasha Lane as Star and Shia LaBeouf as Jake in American Honey

American Honey showcases everything Andrea Arnold excels at: seamlessly combining professional and non-professional actors, creating visual intimacy and naturalism, and underscoring the energetic ‘in the moment’ feel of the film with class and social commentary. Newcomer Sasha Lane is a revelation as the 18-year-old Star who joins up with a group of young travelling salespeople who like to party and express their pursuit of the American Dream through motivation business rhetoric and hiphop lyrics.

Joe Alwyn

Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk projected at 120 frames per second or in 3D, but I still got the sense through its use of sound, editing and camera positioning of how this off-kilter film was experimenting with a new style of heightened character subjectivity. The way Lee collapses the disorientating spectacle of soldiers being used as stage decoration during a football halftime show with Lynn’s (newcomer Joe Alwyn) intruding memories of battle is captivating and disturbing, providing a powerful critique of the treatment and exploitation of young men sent off to war.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I more or less enjoyed the Harry Potter films, but by no means would I consider myself a fan. So I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a new prequel franchise directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films. The beautifully realised 1930s New York setting and inventive action sequences certain helped to win me over, but this is a strong character driven film with timely themes about persecution and the folly of making sweeping generalisations about groups of people (or creatures).

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Ella Havelka in Ella

Douglas Watkin’s Australian documentary Ella, about dancer Ella Havelka, is a warm and and inspiring film that through its story of personal accomplishments explores issues of cultural and personal identity. Havelka is a compelling and likeable subject with a fascinating background as a young girl from the country town of Dubbo, whose passion for dance lead her to learn ballet, but also to train with the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, before becoming the first Indigenous dancer to join the Australian Ballet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in October 2016

31 October 2016
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Isabelle Huppert as Michèle LeBlanc in Elle

I’ve previously never really embraced the non-science-fiction films by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, but his latest film – Elle – is one of his best. A lot of the credit for why it is such a triumph needs to go to Isabelle Huppert who is essential in making lead character Michèle LeBlanc such a complex and intriguing character. The film begins shockingly with Michèle being raped and from there it continually goes in unexpected directions as she reacts in ways that often seem at odds with how the audience may expect her to behave. It’s dangerous and provocative material, made all the more so by how enjoyable and frequently humorous the film is. But there is nothing flippant or exploitive about Elle and within all its unexpected moments there is a biting satire about class, gender and moral hypocrisy, all held together Huppert’s commanding performance.

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Giorgos Pyrpassopoulos as Yannis and Efthymis Papadimitriou as Dimitris in Chevalier

I haven’t been engaged with the current wave of frequently absurdist films coming out of Greece, but after The Lobster last year and now Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier I am becoming a convert. This deadpan comedy about six men on a fishing trip, who begin to compete with each other to find out who among them is The Best in General, is a perceptive and funny satire about middle-class masculinity. What I liked the most is that while the film ridicules competitiveness and pack behaviour among men, there is something very gentle and kind about it as well. Tsangari provides plenty of examples of bad behaviour by the various men and a few moments of superb cringe comedy, but with a sense of affection that I found both endearing and clever.

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Jerome Meyer as Joe Cinque and Maggie Naouri as Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s Consolation

I was unfamiliar with the story of the death of Joe Cinque, which resulted in Anu Singh, his girlfriend at the time, being convicted of manslaughter. This didn’t prevent me from finding Sotiris Dounoukos’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation to be horrifying and riveting viewing. What sets the film apart from other true life crime films is the almost mundane build-up to Cinque’s death. Singh was open about her plans to kill Cinque with many of their mutual friends, most of whom were educated university students living in Canberra, Australia, and from middle-class backgrounds. The film conveys the collective rationalisations and  complicity of the characters by successfully portraying them as being slightly removed from reality as they play-act at being adults in the bubble of university life. It’s confronting and revealing in a way that for me felt closer to the films of European filmmakers such as Michael Haneke rather than other Australian films.

under-the-shadow

Avin Manshadi as Dorsa in Under the Shadow

Set in a Tehran apartment during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war Under the Shadow is an effective horror film where the supernatural threat articulates anxieties over the devaluing and oppression of women in Iran post the Iranian Revolution and the ever present threat of being killed during a missile strike. The scares are effective and unsettling, and the film uses its premise and allegory to full potential.

the-handmaiden

Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee in The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is one of Park Chan-wook more light-hearted films, but it is enormously fun and decadent to watch. An adaptation of Welsh writer Sarah Waters’s Victorian novel Fingersmith with the setting changed to colonial Korea during the beginning of the last century, it is a tale of con-artists, double-crossings and forbidden love. Many of the techniques Park has used previously for bodily horror – especially the heightened use of sound – is used here to full effect for accentuating the sensuality of the film.

winter-at-westbeth

Dudley Williams in Winter at Westbeth

Ever since his debut feature film T is for Teacher, Australian filmmaker Rohan Spong has excelled in making deeply humanist and entertaining documentaries. In Winter at Westbeth Spong profiles three aged residents from a New York housing project for arts practitioners. Dancer turned filmmaker Edith Stephen, dancer Dudley Williams, and writer and poet Ilsa Gilbert light up the screen as they discuss their lives, reflect of their pasts and interrogate the work they are doing today. Charming, warm, sincere and ultimately deeply moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016