Films I loved in December 2018

20 December 2018


Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a brilliant fusion of personal storytelling with broader observations on race, class and gender with it’s stunningly photographed story of a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. It’s a slow burn drama that invites the audience into the inner world of the characters, making its ability later in the film to quietly devastate, all the more profound. A film of both sensitivity and unflinching honesty, it left me trembling long after the final credits rolled.



Climax delivers what audiences have come to expect from a Gaspar Noé film with its large offerings of drug fuelled transgressions, as a party for a troupe of contemporary dancers becomes increasingly nightmarish thanks to the LSD-spiked punch. It’s also the film where Noé displays the closest he has come to restraint, so that rather than being simply grim, the film’s hallucinogenic descent into hell is an exhilarating rush of black humour, astonishing dance choreography and gleefully vicarious nastiness.


Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E Grant as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? could have been a lighthearted it’s-funny-because-it’s-true film about the literary hoax committed by author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in New York in the early 1990s, but instead it’s a sweetly melancholic tale about failure, ostracisation and disappointment. While the stakes aren’t as high as they are in Midnight Cowboy, it has much in common with that 1969 classic, as it’s similarly a beautifully acted, heartfelt drama about how a friendship against the odds helped endure hardship.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller in First Reformed

Ethan Hawke is outstanding as a priest spiralling into destructive despair in First Reformed, the enticingly intense new film by writer/director Paul Schrader who has long explored the psyches of damaged and disturbed men. The starkness and existentialism evoke the early 1960s spiritual films of Ingmar Bergman, but this is nevertheless a distinctively contemporary and American work that captures the palpable dread of losing faith in the 21st century. Released in Australia on home entertainment.


Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite

The Favourite is a sort of All About Eve for contemporary audiences, but set in 1708 and loosely based on the love/power triangle between Anne, Queen of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), and two women who competed for her affection. While a lot more grounded than director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films, there is still a sense of heightened absurdity brought to the style and narrative, which effectively enhances the film’s wicked sense of humour and biting social satire about political power and the patriarchy.

Cold War

Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in Cold War

Cold War is a classic story of an impossible love affair that plays across four decades of 20th century Europe, where two lovers are continually thwarted by the dehumanising and long-lingering effects of war, but are still continually drawn together, often through the overwhelming power of music. Based on the experiences of writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s actual parents, this is a bittersweet personal reflection on the recent past that is romantic and bleak, nostalgic and sobering.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in September 2015

4 October 2015
Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte Worthington in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte Worthington in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an extremely impressive portrayal of teenage sexuality, especially that of a teenage girl. Emerging actor Bel Powley gives a wonderful performance as 15-year-old Minnie Goetze whose sexual coming-of-age includes having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. She is neither a victim nor a Lolita-style nymphet, she is simply a curious and sexual young person who has found a convenient way to explore her desires with an older man who probably should know better, but is more passively opportunistic rather than being an exploitive predator. This was a fun and funny film exploring all the complications and difficult terrain that such a scenario creates, without overt judgement or moral panic.

Olivia Colman as Julie in London Road

Olivia Colman as Julie in London Road

After Broken I was keen to see what theatre and director Rufus Norris would do next, and yet I was still surprised by how much I liked London Road. It’s an adaptation of a theatre show where interviews with the residents of the UK town of Ipswich, during the aftermath of the Ipswich serial murders in 2006, were set to music. This is a bold and compelling way of presenting the pain of a community in a way that resonates emotionally. It uses heightened artificiality to highlight that it is a reconstruction of actual interviews and events, and somehow this gives it a powerful authenticity.

Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee in Tangerine

Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee in Tangerine

Sean Baker is another filmmaker whom I’ve been keen to see what he does next so I was very much looking forward to Tangerine. While not as focused as his excellent 2012 film Starlet, it similarly depicts a side of Los Angeles that is typically marginalised and can attract instant judgement. In the case of Tangerine it is about the subculture of transgender women who are sex workers. Made in collaboration with the transgender women who also star in the film, the result is a loud, hyperactive and frequently very funny ride through a series of misadventures on Christmas eve. Completely unapologetic in attitude and shot on iPhones to create a new style of guerrilla filmmaking for the digital era, this reminded me of some of Gregg Araki’s more audacious films from the early 1990s.

Bob Hunter in How to Change the World

Bob Hunter in How to Change the World

If nothing else, How to Change the World is astonishing for the wealth of archival material it brings to light for the very first time, depicting the beginnings and early years of Greenpeace. It is mostly a conventional documentary that chronologically depicts the known facts behind Greenpeace’s origins and its visionary ideals and strategies, managing to also incorporate different sides of the various arguments over the many disputed areas. However, it also delivers an engaging discussion about the nature of leadership, the ethics of documenting versus intervening, and the struggle between pragmatism and idealism. And it also highlights how its reluctant leader Bob Hunter was a remarkable person whom we all owe a large debt to for his part in making us give a damn about the planet we live on.

I also caught up with a number of films on home entertainment that I felt worth mentioning, including Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel about a filmmaker trying to make an ethical film about a real-life murder. I completely understand how its refusal to conform to generic expectations has been infuriating for so many, but I was engrossed by how well the form of the film reflected the values it was endorsing.

I also enjoyed the South Korean drama/thriller Haemoo, very loosely based on a true story from 2001 about a group of Korean-Chinese illegal immigrants travelling by boat. While far from being a perfect film, I was impressed by the measured build, the severity of the situation when the film takes an extreme turn into something darker than expected, and the moral conflicts that play during the tense second half.

And finally, I was really pleased to see Heaven Knows What, by brothers Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie. A low fi film about a young woman addicted to heroin and her unrequited love for her boyfriend. It’s free from sensationalism and romanticism, and yet still contains moments of beauty among all its rawness. Most revelatory is the lead performance by newcomer Arielle Holmes whose own experiences inspired the film. After watching the film I was extremely pleased to discover she has continued to act and will appear in Andrea Arnold’s upcoming new film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015