Films I loved in April 2014

30 April 2014
Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious tribute to an imagined era of European civility and innocence before the onslaught of fascism. Channelling the spirit of Ernst Lubitsch, this is one of Anderson’s best films and certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most since The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001. For the most part a beautifully designed, cleverly structured and hilarious caper, the real triumph in this film is the final five or so minutes where Anderson delivers a heartfelt conclusion that acknowledges the fundamental tragedy of what fascism destroyed.

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

I have long been a fan of Jim Jarmusch – who like Wes Anderson is also a maverick with a unique and uncompromising approach to filmmaking – and Only Lovers Left Alive did not disappoint. This time Jarmusch applies his droll, minimalist and laid back style to the vampire genre to produce a film both visually and audibly rich in texture and atmosphere. The love and symbiotic relationship between the two creatures of the night reflects the delicate balance of the natural world that is slowly falling in decay due to human greed, selfishness and destructiveness.

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

On the other end of the spectrum comes the deliriously fun and subversive mainstream family comedy The LEGO Movie, which has a seemingly anarchic animation style that reminded me of A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009). It does seem incongruous that such an overtly branded and marketed film would contain such a strident message against consumerism, materialism and conformity, but it does and it does it well. It also smartly deconstructs several pop culture tropes including the rather regressive idea of the Chosen One. And it’s hilarious.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono and Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono as Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

In Like Father, Like Son director Hirokazu Koreeda finds considerable charm, humour and pathos in the potentially scandalous story about two sets of parents discovering their 6-year-old sons were mixed up at birth. Instead of melodramatics, Koreeda’s graceful style of storytelling allows for gentle social observations concerning class divisions and parental expectations in modern Japan. My favourite films of Koreeda’s are After Life (1998) and Still Walking (2008), but this is still an excellent film by one of the most consistently impressive filmmakers working today.

It was great to see the low-fi French romantic comedy 2 Autumns, 3 Winters get a number of screenings around Melbourne, as I really enjoyed its quirky and hyper self-referential style. Most of the time I find the device of having characters talk directly to the camera a bit too twee, but it worked for me in this film and I enjoyed its 20-something hipster angst.

Another film that had a few local screenings, just ahead of its DVD release, is the extraordinary Cheap Thrills where two friends are encouraged to compete against each other, in increasingly disturbing ways, for money. The blend of horror and dark comedy in this post-GFC film, delivers a biting social critique of the way middle and lower classes are conned into fighting against each other, while the powerful and wealthy upper class sit back and enjoy the show. The levels of depravity, humiliation and ruthlessness are built up extremely convincingly and are wonderfully excruciating to watch.

The other DVD release of note this month is  Starlet, a very impressive low budget American drama about an unlikely friendship between a 21-year-old woman and an 85-year-old woman. The film is very strategic about when it provides keys pieces of information about the background of both women, but when it does the timing is perfect and the effect is profound. Starlet goes into surprising and unlikely places to deal with subject matter that a lesser film would have sensationalised, but writer/director Sean Baker has an impressive grasp on the material and, like 2 Autumns, 3 Winters writer/director Sébastien Betbeder and like Cheap Thrills director EL Katz, is a talent to keep an eye out for.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 2

15 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

Here are some more of my recommendations for the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival based on what I’ve seen so far. Check out part 1 if you haven’t done so already and here are eight more feature films and two more short film packages that I recommend:

The Weight of Elephants

The Weight of Elephants

A heartbreaking and beautiful film about a sensitive 11-year-old going through some pretty intense abandonment issues against the backdrop of news reports about missing children. As good an insight into the anguishes of childhood as I’ve seen and featuring a stunning lead performance from newcomer Demos Murphy as Adrian.

The Crash Reel

A fascinating documentary about the world of extreme sports, and the causalities it produces, through the experiences of snowboarder Kevin Pearce who acquired brain injuries from an accident in 2009. The film also exposes the almost addictive nature of extreme sports and the problem where the demand for thrills from the viewing public is compelling competitors to push themselves further than what is safe to do so.


An understated yet surprisingly affecting story about an unlikely friendship between a young woman and an elderly lady. The film successfully holds back important character information so that all the reveals feel natural and startling at the same time.


An emotional expose on the history off orca attacks on their human trainers in sea parks. This is much more than a Save the Whales documentary as it reveals how the conditions in which orcas are captured and then kept at water-themed amusements parks is not only inhumane towards the animals, but puts the lives of the people who work with them at risk.

Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake

The single location – a beautiful lake and the surround forest used as a cruising spot in southern France – is used to its full potential to deliver a thriller, a love story and a story of platonic friendship. A mysterious film about ritualised behaviour and human connection.

The Spectacular Now

The generic conventions of the teen film are extremely well manipulated to make this into a sophisticated tragedy about a teenage boy throwing his life away and threatening to take down others with him. A surprising and extremely rewarding film.

Approved for Adoption

A beautifully animated memoir about the filmmaker’s experiences as a Korean boy growing up in Belgium as an adopted child. Avoids cliches and sentimentality to explore issues such as cultural identity, belonging and mental illness.

Capturing Dad

A droll and unstated film about two sisters attending their father’s funeral, despite never knowing him and feeling nothing towards him. Unexpectedly moving at times in the way it looks at family dynamics, while at other times containing wickedly dark humour.

International Shorts 1

Day Trip

The first package of international short films includes two films that screened at the Cannes International Film Festival: More Than Two Hours, a tense Iranian drama where a woman requiring medical attention is denied due to the ultra conservative laws, and Butter Lamp, a Tibetian-language film with a stunning final shot. Day Trip is the latest short film by Park Chan-wook and his brother Park Chan-kyong, and it is an odd yet sweet and compelling tribute to traditional Korean music.

International Shorts 2

Two films from Cannes are also in this package including Safe, which won the Short Film Palme d’Or. It is a claustrophobic thriller that gets increasing tense as the film builds to it alarming conclusion. Also nerve-wracking is that French film Just Before Losing Everything, which uses an everyday setting to construct a thriller out of an upsettingly commonplace situation. This collection of films also includes the experimental narrative film Beat starring Ben Whishaw as a man who dances through the streets of London to music only he can hear. It’s simultaneously amusing, confronting and melancholic.

Final recommendations next week…

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival