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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.