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
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Films I loved in October 2014

5 November 2014
Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Gone Girl is director David Fincher’s most scathing and most dangerous social satire since Fight Club. Taking a scenario that seems to have sprung from a Men’s Rights Activist’s wet-dream, and gleefully highlighting how inherently ridiculous such a scenario is, both the film and the novel it is adapted from uses the template of a whodunnit thriller to deliver a darkly comedic and borderline absurdist critique of gender roles, mainstream attitudes towards marriage, media sensationalism and materialism in a post-GFC America. Gone Girl is part of a long tradition of horror and thriller films where social anxieties of the era, in this case anxieties primarily concerned with gender, are manifest into the film’s monster or villainous character.

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Speaking of social satires that critique what is expected of men and women, the Swedish film Force Majeure by writer/director Ruben Östlund is a hugely entertaining drama, which also has a number of wonderfully borderline absurdist and comedic elements. Not unlike the far more minimalist The Loneliest Planet, the way somebody instinctively acts in a single moment of crisis completely ruptures the dynamic between a couple making them confront the ways in which they are expected and expect each other to behave.  The passive-agressive dialogue that flows throughout this film – and the very unusual way the film sometimes disrupts the tension – is compelling and confronting, not to mention extremely funny at key moments.

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

The final film that caught my attention this month – and judging from the critical response, the attention of pretty much everybody – is Whiplash, by writer/director Damien Chazelle. It’s another film that challenges social conventions, in this case ideas about the nature of genius and notions concerning the use of pressure as a motivational tool. While it is a film about playing music, and some beautifully edited and shot sequences really bring the music to life visually, it overall resembles a boxing film and a Full Metal Jacket style war film. Whiplash shows us how something like music can be made miserable when the focus is on perfectionism and competitiveness, it shows that while some talent may be natural it also requires passion and a lot of practise, and most importantly it shows us that the antiquated and militaristic push-until-they-break approach is nothing but destructive.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014