Mad Max: Fury Road
One of the most exhilarating action films in a very long time, Mad Max: Fury Road keeps plotting and CGI to a minimum in order to deliver one inventive action sequence after the other in what is basically a giant chase scene that evokes the finale of Mad Max 2 (my favourite of the series). It is also a thematically rich film, presenting a nightmarish vision of the patriarchy at its most grotesque, destructive and possessive, building on a lot of the perverse iconography of the previous films. Tom Hardy makes the iconic Max Rockatansky character his own, but the film belongs to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and both actor and character more than earn the right to be front and centre of the film. Director George Miller proves just how smart, progressive and well-crafted action films can be. It’s going to be hard settling for anything less for a very long time.
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina
One of the keys to what makes Ex Machina such an enthralling film is how deftly it changes focus thematically from being a Blade Runner-style musing on what it means to be human, to something closer to The Stepford Wives. A futuristic spin on the Bluebeard fairy tale, Ex Machina is a parable about the industrialised commodification of the female body, blending imagery that is both sensual and uncanny to constantly challenge the gaze that the audience have brought to the film. After writing so many great and varied science fiction films for a little over a decade, it’s exciting to see Alex Garland emerge as such a confident director. The cast is excellent, but Oscar Isaac really stands out as the manipulative and passive-aggressive Nathan – a hipster post-gamergate variation of the Alpha Male misogynist. This is a rich and smart film that is designed to provoke contemplation well after the end titles have finished.
Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria
Both accessible and ambiguous Clouds of Sils Maria is a multilayered film that references everything from German mountaineering films to contemporary superhero films; weather formations to philosophy. Similar to Birdman (despite being very different films) it’s about an older actor trying to accept the fickle and ruthless nature of the film industry, and includes debates about high versus low art, the pursuit of legitimacy, and the blurring of fiction and reality. Easily one of my favourite Olivier Assayas films, it features Juliette Binoche as Maria, a woman appearing as a different character in a remake of the film that once made her famous, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the rising star who has been cast to play her original role. Both Binoche and Moretz are excellent, but the real star of the film is Kristen Stewart as Maria’s loyal and protective personal assistant, who also acts as confidant, friend, symbolic daughter and symbolic lover to Maria.
Although The Tribe only received a handful of screenings in Melbourne rather than a full theatrical release, I couldn’t not mention it. A Ukrainian film set in a specialised boarding school for young people who are deaf, the characters only communicate in sign language and there are no subtitles. The result is something I found quite liberating as the meaning of nearly all the scenes was communicated to the audience without redundant dialogue. The film style adapts to the film’s unique concept so that most shots are medium shots done in long takes in order to show the characters’ entire bodies, thus allowing the full range of body language to be expressed. Key events also occur during the film that are only possible if the characters are deaf. A tough and sometimes extremely confronting film about tribal behaviour, institutionalisation, exploitation and violence, I found this a mesmerising experience.
Thomas Caldwell, 2015