Some of the finest films

28 June 2010

Thomas Caldwell defends Australian cinema in Overland, issue 199 (Winter 2010)

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah

Supporters of Australian cinema have had a mixed experience recently. Last year, we were able to enjoy some of the finest films that this country has produced but we also had to endure the ongoing attack upon the industry by commentators accusing Australian cinema of ‘doom and gloom’, not being escapist enough, not attracting large enough audiences and not making enough money at the box office. Such attacks are nothing new, but the disturbing recent trend was the increase in declarations that in order to ‘save’ Australian cinema it would be necessary to produce films with a more deliberate commercial appeal, to make more genre films and to cater to broader tastes. If such suggestions were embraced then Australian cinema would really be in trouble.

Part of the problem with the discussion about Australian cinema is that it has become increasingly hijacked by scrutiny of box office returns. The sustainability of local cinema is by no means an unimportant issue, but placing so much attention on film as commerce devalues cinema as an art form and therefore devalues the worth of a film. As Tom Ryan noted in the Age, Hollywood classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, It’s a Wonderful Life and Blade Runner were all box office flops when initially released. Appreciation over time, not the box office returns of the day, has given these films their reputation as cinematic masterpieces. It’s time to reclaim the debate about Australian cinema and appreciate Australian films as something more than simply a source of revenue. In fact, such a shift in attitude is essential for the industry to survive.

Mary and Max

Mary and Max

Prevalent in the debate is the idea that Australian filmmakers are deliberately making obscure films that they don’t want anybody to see. It’s a typically conservative reaction that sees the industry as a sort of exclusive, culturally indulgent love fest that occurs at the expense of the hard-working men and women of Australia. Such attacks have predominantly come from frustrated journalists who don’t actually like cinema, film reviewers wanting to distinguish themselves as the great spokesperson for the average Australian and bitter filmmakers who (sometimes reasonably) feel hard done by. It’s a mixture of self-promotion, ‘bad boy’ journalist posturing, contrived indignation and philistine pettiness. None of it is helpful.

An example of this type of criticism is Michael Coulter’s opinion piece ‘Screening the same old dreary story’ in the Sunday Age in August last year. His main argument is that Australian filmmakers don’t make films that connect with Australian audiences because the availability of public funding removes the imperative for doing so. This is a common argument, and commentators such as Coulter like to remind us, in true tabloid style, that such funding comes from the taxpayers.

Coulter acknowledges that many of the films that he found so repugnant in the early 1990s are actually ‘masterful’ and he also admits to having avoided seeing Australian films since he watched Rolf de Heer’s acclaimed Alexandra’s Project on his television in 2004 (he didn’t like it). The belief that Australian films are miserable is now such a widely entrenched view that somebody who no longer sees them is nevertheless given a platform to deride them. A similar view is expressed by Louis Nowra in his piece ‘Nowhere near Hollywood’ from the December 2009–January 2010 edition of The Monthly: ‘the general consensus [among Nowra’s friends] was that Australian films were boring, grim and unsatisfying.’ Is it any wonder that nobody goes to see Australian films when it is simply assumed that they are all depressing and bleak?

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah

The Australian films released last year demonstrated that they do not deserve to be characterised as being miserable. The success of Samson and Delilah was often attributed to the film’s happy ending even though it was, for the most part, a harrowing depiction of extreme poverty, substance abuse and violence in an Indigenous community. Yet, through word of mouth and overwhelmingly positive reviews, Samson and Delilah was a breakthrough hit and attracted very large audiences who responded to its overall uplifting message.

However, Samson and Delilah was an anomaly when, in fact, its success should have been more widely shared. Beautiful Kate, Mary and Max, Two Fists One Heart, My Year Without Sex, Prime Mover and The Boys Are Back were all films that, like Samson and Delilah, arrived at a happy or at least life-affirming conclusion. When Bran Nue Dae opened in early 2010 the lazy response was to state how there was finally an Australian film that wasn’t depressing, a view that ignored the 2009 release of feel-good road movie Charlie and Boots and stoner comedy Stone Bros. All of these films were met with a range of critical responses, but none deserved to be dismissed as depressing and bleak.

As for films ending on a sombre note, there were a range released recently, including Cedar Boys, The Combination, Blessed, Disgrace and Balibo, not to mention inventive horror films Lake Mungo and Van Diemen’s Land. Again, these are films of varied quality, but to outright disregard them for containing challenging material is childish.

My Year Without Sex

My Year Without Sex

Antony I Ginnane, the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) president, was one of the most vocal critics of the Australian film industry last year. During his presentation at the opening of the SPAA conference in Sydney, Ginnane declared that the ‘Industry and government need to accept [filmmaking] is a business, not a culture fest.’ Like Coulter, he believes that Australian filmmakers don’t cater to what local audiences want and this is largely due to ‘the subsidy drug’. On Radio National’s Australia Talks on 24 November 2009 he expressed his disgust at fellow producers who make films that only earn a million dollars, stating ‘they should be lined up and shot.’

This attitude of Coulter, Ginnane and many others was triggered by the unfortunate reality that less than 4 per cent of money at the Australian box office in 2008 was spent on Australian films. This is, of course, an issue of genuine concern, but the vocal opinions of people like Coulter and Ginnane are making the situation worse by reinforcing the myth that Australian films are dull and bleak.

The Combination

The Combination

Nowra is one of the many commentators who would like to see more Australian films with a Hollywood sensibility and his reasoning is partially personal and partially pragmatic: ‘In the 1960s and 1970s audiences wanted to watch serious movies seriously. But audiences and their expectations have altered, and the era of art films is over; like indie movies, they are finding it increasingly tricky to find screens and pick up word-of-mouth enthusiasm.’ While it is somewhat overly dramatic to declare the era of the art film as being completely over, Nowra has identified the current shift that contemporary audiences have made away from certain types of films.

This shift is not unique to Australia. Globally, films that do not fit the Hollywood mould are suffering from low audiences. In a recent editorial in UK film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James discusses how independent or ‘specialist’ cinema is now strongly marginalised and resisted in mainstream contemporary culture, when fifteen years ago this was not the case. In the same edition, Nick Roddick notes that even during the Depression when Hollywood strongly focused on producing escapist films, social realist films that had something of significance to say were still supported. This is not the situation now.

The Boys are Back

The Boys are Back

Ever since the rise of ‘critic-proof’, ‘high-concept’ cinema in the 1980s, there has been an increasingly global demand for unchallenging event films that are difficult for non-Hollywood studios to compete with in terms of scale and resources. During the development of the American independent film in the 1990s, smaller specialised films once again coexisted with big Hollywood productions and both had audiences to cater to. Not by accident, the ‘new’ interest in ‘alternative’ films in English-speaking countries meant there was once more an interest in Australia for home-grown films, and the 1990s saw diverse success stories such as Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

However, instead of independent and non-American films surviving as a competitive alternative to Hollywood, they were absorbed into the system. In his 2004 book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, Peter Biskind examines how studios such as Miramax capitalised on the interest in foreign and independent film by buying, often re-editing and then strategically marketing inoffensive European films such as Chocolat in a way that gave them an art-house credibility while simultaneously targeting mainstream audiences. The dilution of genuinely alternative and specialised cinema was made complete when Miramax then started making its own mainstream-masquerading-as-art-house films such as Shakespeare in Love.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer

‘Art-house’ and ‘American indie’ have since virtually become Hollywood genres, while genuine independent and specialised cinema, including the majority of Australia’s output, has been pushed right to the fringe. It therefore seems that the only way Australian filmmakers can compete with the current cultural demand is to mimic a blockbuster, as Baz Luhrmann did with Australia, or to mimic a mainstream-masquerading-as-art-house film, as with Mao’s Last Dancer. Indeed, both Australia and Mao’s Last Dancer were the best performers at the Australian box office in 2009, despite being overall critically considered very middle-of-the-road.

So is this the solution? Should Australian filmmakers stop fighting against the tide and simply give in to the current demand for bland and mediocre cinema? Theoretically, in the short term such an approach could yield results. In the long run it would be devastating, as the survival of the Australian film industry depends on the continual production of excellent films in order to regain its sustained credibility. The problem at the moment is not the quality and content of the films but the public perception.

There are many Australians who are capable of appreciating high-quality cinema but who are kept away from locally produced films by the tidal wave of negativity. As for the audiences who do crave mediocrity, deliberately making bland, saccharine and trashy films for them would be like feeding an obese child junk food instead of encouraging them to develop a more selective diet. Besides, it is not as if Australia is lacking in widely available, imported rubbish.

Balibo

Balibo

The obvious solution would be to make films that have both a commercial appeal but also depth and credibility. That is something far easier said than done, and the disappointing performance of a widely acclaimed film such as Balibo is evidence of its difficulty, especially within Australia. Balibo’s star power, historical interest and combination of the political thriller and buddy film genres should have made it a hit. It contained a similar level of energy, characterisation, action, tight writing and dynamic direction to Bruce Beresford’s much loved and admired 1980 film ‘Breaker’ Morant. Yet despite the awards and glowing reviews, Australian audiences largely overlooked Balibo. Perhaps they stayed away due to the ‘heavy’ subject matter or because of the ‘depressing’ inevitable conclusion. Such rationalisations do not, however, account for the success of Hollywood films such as Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda or even Titanic. Balibo was the victim of an overall negative attitude towards – or, at best, disinterest in – Australian films that aspire to be something other than easy crowd-pleasers.

Disgrace

Disgrace

The obsession with film as commerce is doing more harm than good. Despite what Ginnane suggests, funding for Australian films is already very commercially driven, with new projects needing to meet a guaranteed level of assured foreign sales and distribution before funding is awarded. The current regulations created significant setbacks for Fred Schepisi to receive the money he required to begin production on The Eye of the Storm. Not only is Schepisi a successful filmmaker both in Australia and Hollywood, but his film is also an adaptation of a Patrick White novel starring Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. If such a project struggles to appear suitably commercial within the current regulations, what would it be like if those regulations become even more weighed towards commercial demands?

Another ‘solution’ that is often put forward is for Australia to make more genre films. Ginnane certainly argues for more genre films over what he describes as ‘literally hundreds of social realist Australian films [that] fail’. This is a rather incredible statement considering that one of 2009’s biggest success stories was the social realist Samson and Delilah, which Ginnane himself applauds, without realising the irony.

Ginnane seems confused not only about what social realism is but also about the definition of genre, although his understanding does coincide with the common misperception that genre means science fiction, horror and exploitation. A genre film is, in fact, any film containing specific narrative and stylistic ‘rules’ that filmmakers adhere to in order to meet specific audience expectations.

Beautiful Kate

Beautiful Kate

If we use the correct definition of genre then we can see that most Australian films are genre films, although some conform more strongly to genre conventions than others. Making a film that does not follow a set genre is extremely difficult. In fact, part of the problem with Australian cinema until recently has been the lack of diversity, due to funding bodies giving money to films that conform to the genre of a recent box office hit. This in turn means that too many overly cautious and unambitious projects were getting the green light over more adventurous and interesting ones.

This tentative approach to what films should be funded, made and distributed accounts for the dominance during the 1990s of quirky romantic comedies after the popularity of Love and Other Catastrophes, all the crime films that came after Chopper and Two Hands, the large volume of Australian television personalities and stand-up comedians who had money thrown at them to try and recreate the working-class comedy magic of The Castle and, more recently, the glut of serious and ‘meaningful’ dramas aimed at older audiences post-Somersault and Lantana. The results were bland and did little to help the cause of getting Australians to see films from their own country.

Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo

However, when commentators get upset about the lack of Australian genre films, they are really saying that they’d like more of the sort of stuff that falls under the exploitation banner. The renewed interest has a lot to do with Mark Hartley’s excellent 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Hartley brilliantly drew attention to the unappreciated and forgotten Australian sex comedies, action and horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet somehow this appreciation has been taken by some to mean that such films should be made again. Nowra, for instance, writes: ‘The nudity and sex of those cheap movies could be gratuitous and even misogynist, but it was mostly good fun with a strong hedonistic sense of sexual pleasure.’

Pushing aside Nowra’s dismissal of misogyny, he seems to ignore the fact that, while the clips compiled in Hartley’s film are widely entertaining and fun indulgences, the bulk of the films were not all that good. Many are, indeed, completely disposable – hardly models for contemporary commercial filmmaking.

Australia doesn’t need to make more genre films; rather, it needs to make bolder and more daring films that mess with generic expectations or defy them altogether. This comes with artistic freedom and the courage and support to do something original rather than try to appease the business-minded folk who believe that mimicking the last success will equate with new success.

Government support is also required. In a country as small as Australia, it is simply a necessity if expressions of local culture on the big screen are to continue. Attempting to not make films that are distinctive from imported Hollywood content would make the point of a national cinema redundant.

Last year, you could have been forgiven for not noticing that Australia produced so many outstanding films because too many of them undeservedly went unnoticed. For the industry to survive, Australian filmmakers need to continue to make diverse and interesting films in order to win back the public. This will not happen while critics naively call for more commercial filmmaking and while Australian film is inaccurately dismissed as all ‘doom and gloom’.

OverlandOriginally published in issue 199 (Winter 2010) of Overland and originally posted online here.

This article received the Ivan Hutchinson Award for Writing on Australian Film in the 2010 Australian Film Critics Association Film Writing Awards

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Top Twenty Films of the 2000s

25 March 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I’ve been wanting to put together a best films of the 2000s list for a while now but felt it was appropriate to allow some distance before doing so (plus I’ve been a bit slack). I also wanted to catch up on many of the important films that I had missed over the past decade but I quickly came to my senses and realised that was an almost impossible task as the list of films that I must see is forever getting longer rather than shorter. After creating a short list of 100 possible films I was able to get down to a list of my personal favourite twenty films from the past decade.

My methodology was to simply list all the films that I’d given 5 or 4½ stars to and go from there. I tried not to pay too much attention to how I preferentially ordered films in my yearly best-of lists as my feelings about films do change upon reflection and repeat viewings. In the end the films that I included are the films that have long continued to linger in my mind, compelled me to watch them again or simply get me excited just by thinking about them.

Mulholland Dr.

Apart from one or two left-field selections I am aware that my list is hardly revolutionary but in the end I went with personal choices rather than attempt to make an all encompassing list of the most significant, important or influential films, which has been done very impressively elsewhere. So here are my top twenty films from the 2000s:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
2. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
3. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
4. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
5. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)
6. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
7. Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009)
8. Hero (Ying xiong, Zhang Yimou 2002)
9. Lost In Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)
10. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
11. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2007)

12. Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg, Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
13. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
14. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
15. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)
16, Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
17. Conversations with Other Women (Hans Canosa, 2005)
18. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)
19. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
20. Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir, Ari Folman, 2008)


Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Even though in 2004 I originally listed Irréversible above Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Irréversible was released late in Australia) subsequent repeat viewings of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind established it for me as a masterpiece of modern cinema. It’s a film that I can engage with on a deeply emotional and critical level as well as being able to appreciate just how well crafted a film it is.  To an extent the same can be said of all films on this list.

Mulholland Dr, Kill Bill: Vol.1, No Country for Old Men and Eastern Promises aren’t the best films by their respective directors but nevertheless reflect the incredible ongoing contribution that those directors have made to modern cinema. Unexpectedly Paul Thomas Anderson is the only director to appear twice with Punch-Drunk Love that, along with Lost in Translation, Donnie Darko and Mysterious Skin, represents the remnants of the 1990s American indi at its best while There Will Be Blood reflects a bold throw back to the grand narratives of classical Hollywood cinema.

Irréversible

Australian cinema peaked twice in the 2000s with The Proposition representing the middle spike and Balibo representing the incredible spike right at the end of the decade. Dancer in the Dark is von Trier’s masterpiece, Hero was the pinnacle of the ‘art house martial arts’ films and Control is the best musical biopic ever made (although I will admit to my heavy bias due to my love of Joy Division). Finally, some of the most distinctive cinema from the 2000s are the films that successfully did something original and daring with film form and style and they are represented on this list with Irréversible, Russian Ark, Conversations with Other Women, Hunger and Waltz with Bashir.

Here are the remaining 80 films from my shortlist, ordered alphabetically:

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile, Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
Artificial Intelligence: AI (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo, 2007)
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô, Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)
Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)

Capturing The Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki 2003)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004)
Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
Code Unknown (Code inconnu, Michael Haneke, 2000)
The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher, Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007)
The Cremaster Cycle (Matthew Barney 1995-2002)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (Wo hu cang long, Ang Lee, 2000)
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Downfall (Der Untergang, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Elephant (Gus Van Sant 2003)
Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, 2008)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Flags of our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
Forgiveness (Ian Gabriel, 2004)
Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008)
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (Scott Hicks, 2007)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, 2008)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann 2004)
INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006)
Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)
The Jammed (Dee McLachlan, 2007)
Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003)
Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006)
The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006)
Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang 2003)
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006)
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, Shion Sono, 2008)
Lust, Caution (Se, jie, Ang Lee, 2007)

Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Men’s Group (Michael Joy, 2008)

Monster (Patty Jenkins 2003)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, 2007)
Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)

OldBoy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Once (John Carney, 2006)
Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003)
Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
The Piano Teacher (La pianiste, Michael Haneke, 2001)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2002)
Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)
Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)
Silmido (Kang Woo-suk 2003)
The Spanish Apartment (L’auberge espagnole, Cédric Klapisch, 2002)
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom, Kim Ki-duk 2003)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot, Park Chan-wook, 2002)
The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002)
Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

[EDIT 8/1/11 and 2/10/11: Since creating this top twenty and shortlist I have seen several films that in retrospect I would have included. Rather than re-editing the lists and running the risk of endless tweaking, I’ll simply list those new films here:

Enter The Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, 2009)
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, Juan José Campanella, 2009)
Son of Babylon (Mohamed Al Daradji, 2009)
Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

Enter the Void would have probably made the top twenty.]

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Top Ten Films of 2009

6 January 2010

Balibo

Instead of writing the usual apology or disclaimer for creating a Best Of list, I’m just going to confess that I love creating these lists as they provide a snapshot of what films I was most immediately impressed by from the year that has just finished. As time passes many of these films will fade from memory while some continue to resonate and establish themselves in film history so it will be nice to be able to refer back to such a list and remind myself of films that may be forgotten.

Top Ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australian in 2009

  1. Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009)
  2. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
  3. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
  4. Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008)
  5. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
  6. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)
  7. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
  8. Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
  9. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
  10. Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, 2008)

Rachel Getting Married

The film that left the biggest impression on me in 2009 was Balibo, which left me initially feeling completely shattered and later left me in awe of how skilfully crafted it is with its combination of human drama, international politics and historical detail. The only two films I saw twice in the cinema in 2009 were Rachel Getting Married and Avatar; films at almost the opposite end of the spectrum to one another in representing what cinema can achieve. The ultra small scale Rachel Getting Married provided a deeply emotional examination of family dynamics and my love of cinema that captures a sense of place and something deeply human is further reflected by my inclusion of Genova, Samson and Delilah, Two Lovers and Every Little Step. The extravagant spectacle Avatar created one of the most immersive cinema experiences to date and my love of cinema as a visual art form is further reflected by my inclusion of Antichrist, Up and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Honourable mentions

Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)
Gomorrah (Gomorra, Matteo Garrone, 2008)
Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été, Olivier Assayas, 2008)
Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

Top Ten unreleased films (in Melbourne)

Love Exposure

While Melbourne is a tremendous city for film, especially with cinemas such as Cinema Nova that are very much committed to independent releases, a number of exceptional films still miss out on getting general theatrical releases. Fortunately for the Melbourne based film lover there is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and what seems like an endless stream of film festivals picking up the slack. For this reason I’ve separately listed films screened in Melbourne in 2009 but not given a general theatrical release (and to date not scheduled for a 2010 release).

  1. Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, Sion Sono, 2008)
  2. 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008)

  3. Paper Soldiers (Bumazhnyy soldat, Aleksei German MI., 2008)
  4. Thirst (Bakjwi, Park Chan-wook, 2009)
  5. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, Kim Ji-woon, 2008)
  6. Public Enemy Number One (Part 1) (L’instinct de mort, Jean-François Richet, 2008)
  7. Mother (Madeo, Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
  8. Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
  9. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)
  10. T Is for Teacher (Rohan Spong, 2009)

Dogs in Space

Melbourne also benefits from a wide range of retrospective screenings and in a year that was already spectacular for Australian cinema it was an added bonus to have screenings and then long overdue DVD releases of Richard Lowenstein’s 1986 masterpiece Dogs in Space and Ted Kotcheff’s ‘lost’ 1971 classic Wake in Fright. Watching a newly restored print of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West, 1968) at The Astor Theatre was another highlight on the cinematic year as was visiting ACMI’s Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood exhibition. The Melbourne Cinémathèque once again provided a terrific program in 2009 and it was great to finally catch-up on some previously unseen films by Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Fuller as well as discovering for the first time the under-appreciated cinema of Frank Borzage.

Also appears here on Senses of Cinema, Issue No. 53, 2010.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Cinema Autopsy on the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards Winners

13 December 2009

Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) from Samson and Delilah

While I would have liked to have seen Balibo pick up a few more of the major awards at the 2009 Samsung Mobile Australian Film Industry Awards, I am nevertheless thrilled by how well Samson and Delilah did. As a professional voting member of the AFI I did vote for Balibo to win Best Film (in both the industry choice and the AFI’s member choice categories) and Best Direction as I truly think it is the most remarkable film I have seen this year. Nevertheless, I am also extremely fond of Samson and Delilah and since I gave it my second vote in the above mentioned categories I was more than happy to see it come out on top.

My original reviews of Samson and Delilah and Balibo.
My interviews with Warwick Thornton and Kath Shelper (Samson and Delilah) and Robert Connolly (Balibo)

José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) from Balibo

Among other things Samson and Delilah also picked up the awards for Best Original Screenplay (Warwick Thornton), Best Cinematography (Warwick Thornton) and Best Sound while Balibo also won Best Adapted Screenplay (David Williamson and Robert Connolly), Best Lead Actor (Anthony LaPaglia) and Best Editing (Nick Meyers ASE). All these awards reflected the way I voted. I also voted for Blessed to win Best Lead Actress (Frances O’Connor) and I was pleased to see that come through as well. While the Best Supporting Actor award for Balibo (Oscar Isaac) and Best Supporting Actress for Beautiful Kate (Rachel Griffiths) did not reflect the way I voted, I thought they were the strongest categories in the awards this year with little separating the nominees.

My disappointments were minor but I would have much preferred to see the Production Design and Costume Design awards go somewhere other than Australia. It always frustrates me the way these awards tend to automatically go to period films rather than to films that use production design and costumes to subtly convey character information. I also wasn’t impressed with Mao’s Last Dancer getting the Best Original Music Score as its music was merely serviceable. Finally, I was a bit sad that Mary and Max didn’t pick up any awards and as I mentioned in my previous post about the feature film nominees (and the following comments) it was a real shame that Disgrace didn’t even get any nominations.

The Cat Piano

As well as voting in several feature film categories, I also was pleased to vote for Best Feature Length Documentary, Best Short Fiction Film and Best Short Animation, and the winning films in all these categories reflected how I voted. While The Cat Piano was by far the best film in the Best Short Animation category, I found most of the films nominated in the Best Short Fiction Film to be very strong this year. Although I did vote for the winning film Miracle Fish, Water and Burn were not too far behind. I voted for Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts for Best Feature Length Documentary but Bastardy was also an incredibly strong contender for that award.

A complete list of all nominees & winners from the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards

AFI 2009 Best Short Animation The Cat Piano (Ari Gibson and Eddie White, 2009)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Cinema Autopsy on the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards Feature Film Nominees

29 October 2009
Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton in Balibo

Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton in Balibo

The nominations for the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards have come out and in a year that has been very strong for Australian cinema the nominations have nicely captured the diversity of Australian films that were eligible. This was the first year that I voted in the individual categories as a professional member of the Australian Film Institute and while the nominations don’t 100% reflect how I voted, I would have never expected them to and I’m overall pleased with the outcomes.

Among the feature film nominees I’m particularly happy to see Balibo, Samson and Delilah and Mary and Max – the three films that I regard as easily the best Australian films of 2009 – to be nominated for both the AFI Members’ Choice Award and the Samsung Mobile AFI Awards for Best Film. I’m less enthusiastic, but not surprised, about Beautiful Kate and particularly Mao’s Last Dancer also getting nominations in both these categories but I certainly don’t begrudge the fact that are included. Having said that, I would up upset if Mao’s Last Dancer won anything over the far superior films that it is up against.

Blessed_D03B_0025.jpg_cmyk_scaled

Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) and Katrina (Sophie Lowe) in Blessed

The interesting point of difference between the two best film categories is that Australia got the sixth nomination for the AFI Members’ Choice Award while Blessed received the sixth nomination for the Samsung Mobile AFI Awards for Best Film. Both films are flawed but nevertheless contain elements of considerable merit. They also curiously represent the growing divide between the different types of films that various commentators argue we should be making more of or less of depending on where these commentators stand on the whole art versus commerce debate.

There were a number of films not represented in the nominations that I would have liked to see included but in the majority of cases their absence is understandable. I only saw Newcastle recently and was completely bowled over but its energetic depiction of youth surf culture, however I am aware that I am somewhat on my own with just how highly I regard Newcastle. Lake Mungo, Van Diemen’s Land and $9.99 are other films that I wish had picked up at least a couple of nominations each but they are all niche films and their absence is hardly surprising.

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David Lurie (John Malkovich) and Lucy (Jessica Haines) in Disgrace

The real shock this year is the complete lack of nominations for Disgrace. While it is a film I had issues with (although I am increasingly realising that was exactly the point) I am still very surprised not to see it represented at all. It is an acclaimed film, technically very impressive, it contains strong performances and it is adapted from a well-renowned novel. So what went wrong? Perhaps it was too challenging and confronting. This is an unlikely explanation considering the number of nominations for other ‘challenging and confronting’ films such as Balibo, Samson and Delilah, Mary and Max, Blessed and Beautiful Kate. Maybe Disgrace wasn’t considered Australian enough (which is reasonable) and didn’t attract votes as a result (which is not so reasonable). Again, if that was the case then how do we explain the large number of nominations for Mao’s Last Dancer? I honestly have no brilliant explanation but the complete exclusion of Disgrace is the only significant sour note in the nominations this year.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to discuss each category in more detail closer to the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards Ceremony on Saturday 12 December and I’ll also then mention the mostly brilliant feature length documentaries, short fiction films and animated shorts that have been nominated this year.

In the meantime, below is a personally ranked list of all the feature films that were eligible for nomination:

✭✭✭✭✭
Balibo
(Robert Connolly, 2009) 14 nominations

✭✭✭✭✩
Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009) 11 nominations

✭✭✭✭
Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009) 4 nominations

✭✭✭✩
Disgrace (Steve Jacobs, 2008)
Newcastle (Dan Castle, 2008)
Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008) 
Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan auf der Heide, 2009)
$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008)
Cedar Boys (Serhat Caradee, 2009) 1 nomination
The View from Greenhaven (Kenn MacRae and Simon MacRae, 2008)

✭✭✭
Blessed (Ana Kokkinos, 2009) 4 nominations
My Year Without Sex (Sarah Watt, 2009) 2 nominations
The Combination (David Field, 2009)
Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) 10 nominations
Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) 6 nominations
Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer, 2008)

✭✭✩
Last Ride (Glendyn Ivin, 2009) 2 nominations
Charlie & Boots (Dean Murphy, 2009)
Two Fists, One Heart (Shawn Seet, 2008)
Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, 2009) 9 nominations
Stone Bros. (Richard Frankland, 2009)

✭✭
Lucky Country
(Kriv Stenders, 2009) 1 nomination
Closed for Winter (James Bogle, 2009)

✭✩
Under a Red Moon (Leigh Sheehan, 2008)


Beautiful (Dean O’Flaherty, 2009)


Sweet Marshall (Eva Acharya, 2009)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Interviews from The Casting Couch available as podcasts

15 September 2009

After a short absence The Casting Couch podcasts are up and running again so if you haven’t done so already you can subscribe to the podcasts by either clicking the link at the bottom of The Casting Couch program page or by going direct to the podcast hosting page. MP3s of the shows can also be played from these pages.

Podcast feed URL: http://www.cpod.org.au/feed.php?id=147

Some of the featured interviews from the show are also saved as separate audio files, which I’ve listed below:

Interview with Blessed director Ana Kokkinos from 5 September 2009
http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=1998

Interview with Balibo writer/director Robert Connolly from 15 August 2009
http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=1796

Interview with The 10 Conditions of Love director Jeff Daniels from 18 July 2009
http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=1621

Interview with My Year Without Sex writer/director Sarah Watt from 23 May 2009
http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=1525

Interview with Samson and Delilah writer/director Warwick Thornton and producer Kath Shelper. Recorded 10 March 2009 and broadcast 2 May 2009
http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=1660

Interview with Mary and Max writer/director Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs from 4 March 2009
http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=1615

You can find more information about The Casting Couch and what is coming up each week on the On Air and Podcasts page.

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Robert Connolly interview (Balibo)

20 August 2009
Writer/director Robert Connolly

Writer/director Robert Connolly

I meet writer/director Robert Connolly on the day that his latest film, Balibo, received a general theatrical release all over Australia. Connolly’s extraordinary film depicts what happened to the Australian journalist Roger East in 1975 when he went looking for five younger journalists after they went missing while reporting on the impending Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Connolly has just come off a gruelling three-week promotional tour all over Australia and although very keen to chat with me, he is irked by the criticism about the film’s occasional use of handheld cameras.

“The handheld in Balibo is so not overt,” Connolly tells me, “but it’s what we did because that was how those guys filmed.”

Connolly is referring to the fact that a lot of technology from the 1970s was used to film the Balibo Five scenes.

“I used ingenue lenses from the ‘70s, standard 16 lenses not super-16 lenses, I graded it – using Brett Manson, an amazing grader who also did Tsotsi – to make it look like reversal, we used a faster stock that had more grain in it and a whole range of things. We emulated the style of that time with the camera movements – handheld!”

Gyton Grantley as Gary Cunningham and Thomas Wright as Brian Peters

Gyton Grantley as Gary Cunningham and Thomas Wright as Brian Peters

I have to admit that I was surprised to hear that other people had made such comments because the use of handheld in Balibo is minor and when it is used it feels stylistically correct. Perhaps the issue has less to do with the film itself and more to do with the people making the criticisms?

“Filmmakers took the camera off the tripod four years ago – continuing to complain about that is getting embarrassing.”

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