Films I loved in September 2017

4 October 2017
I am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro not only give voice to James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript about his memories of US civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, but it draws attention to the urgency of what Baldwin wrote and spoke about during his lifetime. Peck presents Baldwin as a writer, social critic and activist of extraordinary depth and complexity, and demonstrates how essential Baldwin’s analysis of racial divisions in American is to understanding – and acting on – what is happening in America today.

Battle of the Sexes.jpg

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes

Having really enjoyed the 2013 documentary The Battle of the Sexes, about the 1973 exhibition tennis match between retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs and the current women’s champion Billie Jean King, I was tentatively looking forward to Battle of the Sexes, a fictionalised account of the same story. To my delight it exceeded expectations to deliver a nuanced account of the entrenched chauvinism surrounding the event and a thoughtful examination of the motivations behind the actions of the various characters.


Laure Valentinelli as Sarah in Nocturama

Recently added to Netflix, Nocturama begins feeling like a modern spin on The Battle of Algiers as the film follows a group of young people methodically planning a series of terrorists attacks in Paris. But then the second half of the film depicts what happens to the characters as they hide out overnight in a department store. As they indulge in the very luxuries they were seemingly fighting against, they unravel as boredom, paranoia and recklessness take over. Free from their idealogical drive, they revert back to being restless adolescents.

It's Only the End of the World.jpg

Marion Cotillard as Catherine in It’s Only the End of the World

Having finally seen It’s Only the End of the World now it’s on Stan, I think it is one of Xavier Dolan’s best films. Dolan fully embraces the fact that the film is based on a play and allows the actors to run with theatrically heightened emotional states in order for them to convey the resentment, anger, jealously and bitterness that their characters have for one another. It’s a devastating portrayal of a family consumed with pain and betrayal, and Dolan’s decision to shoot so much of the film in tight close-ups so that the characters appear isolated from each other, is a masterful command of film style.

Twin Peaks.jpg

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

I can’t imagine ever writing about television again in these monthly summaries, but I also can’t imagine seeing anything on television that comes close to having the impact on me that Twin Peaks has had. The third series, or The Return, continued to go in unexpected directions throughout all eighteen bewildering and captivating episodes, but the final two episodes delivered the emotional pinnacles and thematic gravitas that I had been really holding out for. It will be some time until I truly make sense of it all, but I did attempt to express a few of my ideas on Part 17 and Part 18 of Twin Peaks The Return: A Season Three Podcast.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in April 2015

3 May 2015
Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado in The Salt of the Earth

Wim Wenders’s documentary about photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, co-directed with Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, has already become one of my all-time favourite documentaries. The Salt of the Earth demonstrates yet again how good Wenders is at using cinema to capture the spirit of another art form. The film puts Salgado’s photographs into both a historical and personal context, creating an intimate dialogue between Salgado and the audience in sequences where the reflection of the photographer’s face appears over works being discussed. Most powerful is when the content of the photographs overwhelms all other considerations and the film simply consists of the images and Salgado’s commentary, where he still today attempts to make sense of the inhumanity he witnessed and documented in his belief that, ‘everybody should see these images’. This is a profoundly moving film about a humble, kind and remarkable man who turned his passion for photography into a powerful humanitarian tool to alert the world about situations where humanity was at its worst, but to also celebrate humanity at its most resilient and beautiful.

Maika Monroe as Jay Height in It Follows

Maika Monroe as Jay Height in It Follows

I loved the dreamy and dread-filled atmosphere of teen-horror film It Follows. It’s an extremely successful pastiche of classic horrors such as RinguHalloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street that also seems to have been influenced by non-horror films Blue Velvet and The Virgin Suicides as well as Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole and the Slender Man internet meme. Set during an undefinable time period in American suburbia, it draws upon numerous primal anxieties surrounding sexuality, preferring to evoke and reference the treatment of gender in horror rather than explicitly commit to any clear statement of its own. Most effective is its cinematography where slow zooms, tracking shots and circular pans are designed to constantly suggest something in the shot that the audience and characters are yet to notice. This is the uncanny made beautiful and I was mesmerised.

Anne Dorval as Diane 'Die' Després in Mommy

Anne Dorval as Diane ‘Die’ Després in Mommy

The key to what made Xavier Dolan’s new film Mommy work for me was the symbolic family unit that forms between the titular mother, her troubled son and their neighbour – a woman who has lost of voice after years of inattention. The bond between the trio challenges notions of gender roles and the idea of fixed sexuality, which suits the film’s hyper-real and kitsch visual aesthetic in the way that evokes the traditions of melodrama and subversive cinema that Dolan draws from, from Douglas Sirk to Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Todd Haynes among others. The radical decision to use a 1:1 aspect ratio successfully gives the film a cramped and claustrophobic feel, allowing for moments of much needed respite where the aspect ration changes to express a sense of joy and freedom.

Jason Schwartzman as Philip Lewis Friedman in Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman as Philip Lewis Friedman in Listen Up Philip

In interviews filmmaker Alex Ross Perry has cited novelists such as Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth as major influences on his films, so it’s curious to note that the protagonist of Listen Up Philip is a brilliant young novelist who hates doing publicity and is an unpleasant, short tempered, arrogant, resentful and boastful bastard. I think the reason I found a film about such an unlikable person to be so enjoyable is because it functions as a darkly comedic exposé of cry-baby self-entitled men who believe their own hype and blame everybody but themselves for their troubles, imagined or otherwise. These are guys who will inevitably descending into a self-important misery spiral they have created for themselves, and witnessing this happening is strangely captivating.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in September 2014

1 October 2014
Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

September was a great month in terms of the number of films that got me excited, but none more so than The Grandmaster, the most recent film by Wong Kar-wai, which has finally made its way to Australia. I’ve long adored Wong’s films and I’ve long been a fan of martial arts films, so I was already primed to embrace his take of the story of Wing Chun expert Ip Man. Set in 1930s China and 1950s Hong Kong, The Grandmaster is an exquisitely sensory film filled with beautiful people in beautiful clothes against beautiful settings, engaging in elaborate and breathtaking fight choreography that resembles dance. I was swept away by the exhilarating and sumptuous look and sound of this film, and moved by its romantic melancholy.

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Although I’ve had mixed feelings about Xavier Dolan’s previous films, Tom at the Farm has converted me into a card-carrying admirer of the young French-Canadian filmmaker. Dolan not only directs (and writes, produces and edits) but also plays the lead character, a young man named Tom who travels to the country to attend the funeral of his dead boyfriend. Tom becomes drawn into an intriguing power play with his boyfriend’s crude and violent brother Francis, where both men are attracted and repulsed by each other. The end result is a compelling psychological thriller that evokes many of Roman Polanski‘s early films.

Ellar Coltrane asMason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Not only is Boyhood a remarkable conceptual and technical achievement – having been shot over twelve years so that the cast could age in real time – but it is also a beautiful portrait of childhood and growing up. Writer/director Richard Linklater has long had a fascination with how the lives of everyday people are a tangle of the extraordinary and the mundane, and here more so than ever he creates a convincing portrait of ordinary lives as they traverse through the years, being subjected to both gentle change and dramatic upheavals. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke in particular are outstanding as the divorced parents of Mason, the boy we see age from 6 to 18-years-old.

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

This has been a fantastic year for bold feature film debuts by Australian filmmakers with Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man being one of the films I had the most fun with. The complex time travel narrative is gleefully tricky and very effectively used to facilitate the theme of destructive obsession, where the control freak protagonist desperately tries to repair a ruined relationship. The two leads – Josh McConville and Hannah Marshall – are wonderful, and Alex Dimitriades as the rival love interest delivers one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in Australian cinema in years.

Taika Waititias Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

Taika Waititi as Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

And speaking of comedic performances, not a single person involved in the the droll New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows puts a foot out of place. Directors/writers/actors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have created a superb comedy that very effectively works within the conventions of its faux-documentary format and vampire mythology. This is an endlessly inventive and funny film with a glorious low-fi aesthetic that no doubt must have involved meticulous craftsmanship to achieve.

Otherwise, two extremely strong coming-of-age films about teenage girls were released in Australia recently. The Georgian film In Bloom presents a very sad portrait of a culture where patriarchal values are so heavily entrenched that customs that horribly infringe on the rights of women are treated as everyday occurrences. Meanwhile the teenage girls in the Swedish film We Are the Best! also have to confront the condescensions and restrictions of regressive attitudes to gender. Their weapon of choice is punk music resulting in a film bursting with fun and rebellious energy, by filmmaker Lukas Moodysson whose 1998 feature debut Show Me Love is one of the greatest films ever made about teenagers.

While I am highly sceptical that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision for the film version of Dune would have worked as well as he and his fans imagined it would, I really enjoyed Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which examines the history of the so-called greatest science-fiction film never made. Finally, I loved Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (and Luke Wilson for that matter) delivering great performances in this familiar but extremely endearing spin on the dysfunctional family narrative.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014