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 November 2017

30 November 2017
The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy and Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

While watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer I found myself trying to identify the deeper meaning behind its stylised acting, clinical visual style, and themes of hubris and revenge (taken from the classical Greek myth of Iphigenia). It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised the brilliance of Yorgos Lanthimos’s film was simply that it made me consistently laugh, often without exactly knowing why. While not quite as rich as his previous film The Lobster, this is still a remarkable achievement in its ability to play it straight and still present darker than dark material in a way that is perversely comedic.


Harry Dean Stanton as Lucky in Lucky

As the final film for beloved actor Harry Dean Stanton – and one of his very few leading roles – Lucky could not be more perfect. Playing an ageing, chain-smoking and reclusive old man who is musing on death and dying, Lucky is not exactly a stretch for Stanton and yet he still looses himself in the part with his distinctive understated charm. Lucky embodies the spirit of so many of the classic American films that Stanton appeared in over the decades in terms of setting, supporting cast and themes, resulting in something fittingly familiar. It’s a lovely farewell.


Domhnall Gleeson as A A Milne and Will Tilston as Christopher Robin in Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin comes with many of the standard characteristics of a conventional biopic in telling the story of how A A Milne came to create the much-loved Winnie-the-Pooh stories. However, what sets the film apart is not just its avoidance of whimsy and sentimentality (for the most part), but its thematic complexities. Milne’s PTSD and at times difficult relationship with his family are explored, as are the issues surrounding the way he used his son’s childhood to create the much-loved stories and by doing so turned his son into a reluctant celebrity.


James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist

Like so many, I had an incredible time when I saw the 2003 so-bad-it’s-good cult film The Room. The Disaster Artist depicts how writer/director/producer/actor Tommy Wiseau teamed up with struggling actor Greg Sestero to make The Room and while so much of what happens is hilarious, the film still acknowledges Wiseau’s pain, passion and triumph of sorts. Wiseau is not nearly as sympathetic a character as Ed Wood, the 1950s B-grade filmmaker who is the subject of the 1994 film Ed Wood, but The Disaster Artist does share some of that film’s affection for its respective delusional misfit filmmaker.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017


Films I loved in October 2015

31 October 2015
The Lobster

Colin Farrell as David and Rachel Weisz as Short Sighted Woman in The Lobster

The social satire The Lobster, by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, is an absurd and droll film that is specifically about the way we define ourselves according to our relationship status, but more broadly about the ridiculousness of any form of tribalism or absolutes. It mocks both the imposition of established social norms and the imposition of rules resulting from reactionary rebellion. It is violent, depressing and cruel, and the funniest film I’ve seen this year.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Similarly melancholic, absurd and darkly funny is A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final film in the loosely defined ‘Living Trilogy’ by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. A series of bleak and dead-pan scenes that are immaculately composed visually, there is still something strangely humane in this film even when it contains confronting imagery. The message I took home is that life is short, painful, depressing and thinking about atrocities done in our name can be unbearable, but in between all the terrible and banal bits, there are moments of joy and there are plenty of moments of humour.

Kate Winslet as Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage in The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in The Dressmaker

The film adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel The Dressmaker continually shifts between being a grotesque and camp comedy about small Australian towns, and being a dark insight into the hypocrisy and double standards of a small community where judgement is passed on the undeserving while perpetrators of abuse and oppression get away with their cruelty. Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse handles the dramatic tonal shifts magnificently, resulting in a film that combines stylistic flairs from gothic romances and westerns, and a brilliant homage to the iconic ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ scene from Gilda.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

It wasn’t all dark, cynical, existential social critiques this month, as October saw the release of two excellent Hollywood crowd-pleasers by established directors doing was I felt was their best film in years. Ridley Scott’s faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian maintains the Arthur C Clarke-inspired combination of hard science with a probable futuristic story and likeable human characters. The resulting science-fiction/survival film not only privileges and promotes intelligence, ingenuity and knowledge as heroic character traits, but is a celebration of human resilience and resourcefulness.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B Donovan in Bridge of Spies

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B Donovan in Bridge of Spies

And the other big Hollywood film of note from October is Steven Spielberg’s inspired-by-a-true-story Cold War film Bridge of Spies, where the contribution Ethan Coen and Joel Coen made to the script is both noticeable and welcome. As well as beautifully recreating Berlin in 1957 as the Berlin Wall was constructed and being an effective spy thriller, this is a film that champions justice, diplomacy and mutual respect as the key factors for ensuring that what you are fighting for doesn’t become compromised.

In brief, I was very impressed by the Australian documentary Putuparri and the Rainmakers, where the personal story of one Indigenous man’s struggles with his own demons is used as a launching point to tell a broader story about a compelling land title claim in the Kimberley’s Great Sandy Desert. And on a completely different note, I really enjoyed the independent American film Results, a sort of anti-romantic-comedy involving personal trainers that while undermining many of the conventions of the genre, was still sweet, charming and funny. All the performances are great, but Guy Pearce deserves a special mention for making his fitness guru character so endearing and adorably sincere.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015