Welcome back, Viscerati!
So, this was a huge year for us here at Cinema Viscera. In summary:
We won a place in Creative Partnerships Australia's MATCH Lab program, meaning the government would match up to $7,500 that we could raise for our new film. We premiered our first ever feature at a Melbourne film festival. We had our first public, non-festival cinema screening. We raised the money to shoot our second feature. We secured distribution for Trench (coming to DVD, iTunes and Amazon early 2019). Pez and I traveled overseas together for the first time (my first time ever out of Australia!) to London and Paris, the latter of which we fell hard for, rediscovering ourselves and cinema. I won an award for editing a webseries. Pez wrote for a television show. We wrote our second feature and had two live reads of the script, which received terrific feedback. We have cast, filled most crew roles and secured the major location for the new flick.
You bet your ass we're ready for 2019.
Our World Premiere of Trench in April, in a sold-out screening at the Setting Sun Film Festival in Yarraville's gorgeous Sun Theatre, was simply perfect. The film got a lovely response, Pez, Sam Hill and I had a fun Q&A afterwards, and we remain endlessly grateful to Anna Bourozikas and everyone involved with the SSFF and everyone who came out to see us.
Same goes for our excellent screening at Lido Cinemas in Hawthorn, which attracted over 100 people and saw Trench have another fine time, with a hugely positive response and a fun Q&A, hosted by none other than our great friend Guy Davis, who's wonderful in the film as shock comic Jimmy Kay. Again, we thank Eddie, Bridgette, Juanita and James at the Lido for all their help and hospitality, and everybody who attended. We love you all.
But enough about me and mine, you're all here for the countdown, right?
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 FILM DISCOVERIES OF 2018.
Every year, at this point in the post, I present my top 20 first-time viewings of films that are more than 2-3 years old. I will get to that in due course... but first, allow me to share something, by way of context, that was even more important to me this year...
So the photo gallery above might give you an idea as to what my major cinematic discovery of 2018 really was: the 5th and 6th Arrondissements of Paris, which contain over 20 cinemas between them (also, a shoutout goes to the BFI Southbank and Prince Charles Cinema in London)!
Cinema culture is truly alive and well in the City of Lights, with a veritable cinematheque (in addition to the actual Cinémathèque Française) screening in most districts every single day. Within a 30 minute walk of our AirBNB apartment, we were treated to everything from classic Golden Age Hollywood -- Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Westerns -- to '70s New Hollywood -- Dennis Hopper, Michael Cimino, a sidebar dedicated to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond -- as well as all the new releases. (Thankfully, most French cinemas play non-French films in "Version Originale", meaning, in their original languages with French subtitles... which meant, with our extremely limited knowledge of French, we were restricted to watching English language movies**, as the other retrospectives that were showing, films by Ozu and Pasolini, were in Japanese and Italian, respectively.) But there was so many options on offer, even with this minor restriction we were spoiled for choice. What's more, no matter what the film, the size of the cinema or time of day or night, every session had at least 15-20 people in it, right up to over 100 at times. Cinema, like art and literature, is in Paris' bones.
Our favourite cinemas were often the independent, what Parisians call "neighbourhood cinemas", tucked into side-streets and hotel/restaurant strips: Le Grand Action, La Filmotheque du Quartier Latin and the sister cinemas Christine 21 and Écoles 21 which, we only found out after we left, were owned by Isabelle Huppert and ran by her son! (We didn't get to go to the stylish Le Champo, nor see a film at the Cinémathèque Française, which closed for August holidays soon after we arrived. We did see its excellent museum and incredible gift shop, though.)
**We did get caught with one session, however: the Christine 21's Dario Argento retrospective played four out of five of his films with their English dub... until our session of Profondo Rosso/Deep Red unspooled and we suddenly realised we had to piece the dialogue together from the Italian language track and French subtitles! Thankfully, in a testament to this most boldly visual of directors, we were able to understand the narrative without much issue; we absorbed about 90% of the plot -- which wasn't much less than what made sense to me in its English language dub -- and Pez, seeing it for the first time, adored it, instantly becoming her favourite Argento picture!)
BFI Southbank's diverse and incredible programming had them playing seasons on Harold Pinter and Joan Crawford, and about to launch into a season called 'Black and Banned', on previously banned films by Black filmmakers and/or featuring progressive or provocative portrayals of Afro-English life. Leicester Square is also a hotbed of big screen treats, led by the amazing program of the Prince Charles Cinema, chock full of cult delights, nostalgia hits and special events, alongside the classy arthouse cinema Curzon Soho and the giant Vue multiplex.
This may read as a digression, but this trip truly made Pez and I rediscover our love of taking the time to see films on the big screen, especially older films. Pez fell hard for cinema, in a way even I had never seen before, and I recaptured the rush of discovery and the instant, powerful love of a place where downloading and streaming services weren't at the front of mind, where a smorgasbord of brilliantly curated cinema history was just a short walk away. Now, we just need to learn to fluently read French...
With this in mind, I give you my top 20 discoveries of 2018, counting down from 20 to 1...
#19-20: The inaugural Paracinema Fest -- Melbourne's brand-new film festival of the weird and wonderful -- was where I discovered the wonders of 'Wakaliwood' and Ramon Film Productions, Uganda's first and preeminent action filmmakers. I saw their first action epic, 2010's Who Killed Captain Alex?, and their 2016 action-comedy-drama BadBlack, in a double feature (they run for barely over an hour each) and enjoyed the most fun I've had in a cinema in years. Both rough as guts (Captain Alex was reportedly made for US$200) and surprisingly proficient, they're also extremely smart about their limitations -- the films are accompanied by a voice-over by a person named "VJ (Video Joker) Emmie", who hilariously hypes, explains and mocks what's on screen -- and, while I enjoyed the bonkers Captain Alex slightly more, BadBlack has moments of pathos that are genuinely affecting. These films bring back the sheer joy we felt when we first picked up a camera and told our friends to pretend, to make the kickass movies we always imagined ourselves in. Wakaliwood forever!
#18: While in Paris, I found a giant DVD box set containing the complete works of François Truffaut, which I couldn't buy at the time and coveted furiously -- it was a bit costly and too heavy to pack into our luggage -- but mere weeks after we arrived home, you best believe I secured that shit. With the possible exception of Agnes Varda, Truffaut has always been the French New Wave filmmaker for me. His mix of novelistic storytelling, observational asides, open-hearted humanity and kindness to his characters -- not to mention his affection for and subversion of cinema history and genre conventions -- has always endeared him to me. 1960's Shoot the Piano Player, his still-underseen sophomore effort after The 400 Blows, is full of the kind of puckish playfulness, unpredictability and romantic musings I love him for, and at 82 minutes, it's a breeze that captures the adventure and lawlessness of the Nouvelle Vague.
#17: Frank Henenlotter is a madman. For proof, look no further than his debut feature, 1982's Basket Case, which is as deliriously deranged as cult or 'grindhouse' cinema gets. In short, a quiet young man checks into a crumbling New York City hotel, unusually protective of his mysterious basket... which contains his deformed, seperated siamese twin, more vampiric growth than man, with a thirst for blood and vengeance. This delivers on everything its berserk premise promises, with blood and gore and sleaze aplenty, but there's also a humanity here, which also runs through Henenlotter's subsequent, equally bizarre work; the outsider community of New Yorkers who share the fleapit hotel with our brothers grim are hilarious, fascinating and bring a comic reality to the utterly insane goings-on... and we even feel a pinch of sadness for poor Belial, as well. He may be a toxic, possessive, screwed-up little tumour, but we know why he's angry.
#16: 1983's Betrayal was a welcome treat delivered by London's BFI Southbank (on 35mm) as part of its Harold Pinter season. A three-hander adapted by Pinter from his own play, which famously tells the story of an infidelity in reverse chronological order, it stars Patricia Hodge (perhaps known best nowadays as Miranda Hart's mother on TV's Miranda) and Jeremy Irons as the cheating couple, and Ben Kingsley as Hodge's husband and Irons' best friend. Beginning with Hodge and Irons meeting after their affair has ended, we're taken, months and years at a time, backwards through their seven-year affair, ending just before the affair begins. It's a novel device, making the usually rote and tawdry infidelity plot incredibly poignant, as the film ends with such hope and love despite all the hurt and, yes, betrayal we've been through. Also, this is Pinter, so the dialogue is consistently scorching, funny and full of secrets and lies, the characters achingly flawed and puffed up on their own middle-class visions of themselves -- and the three superb leads rip into every single moment of it, and director David Jones knows well enough to let them play. Not easy to find, but worth seeking out.
#15: The Leopard Man, legendary horror producer Val Lewton’s third and final collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur after Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, drips with just as much atmosphere but even more terror -- and, in 1943, just might have been Hollywood's very first Serial Killer thriller. Filled with exquisite chiaroscuro moments of pure dread courtesy of cinematographer Robert De Grasse, while Ardel Ray and Edward Dein's script presents every last one of its characters with hints of rich interior lives, which makes the suspense and kills incredibly effective and borderline upsetting. Sure, there's a couple of slightly silly moments, but on the whole, it's intelligently crafted, takes no prisoners and clocks in at a mere 66 minutes, with perhaps the very best set-pieces of all Lewton’s films.
#14: Something of a love letter to human beings — from the perspective of angels watching over us — emerging from a West Germany (the Berlin Wall was three years yet from falling) still wrestling with its past and its own humanity, Wim Wenders' 1987 classic Wings of Desire is beautifully played and touchingly sincere without ever growing sentimental. It ambles a bit at times — those trapeze sequences could do with a trim — and some of its characters’ voiceover monologues are more grandiloquent than they need to be (and this is coming from someone who just used the word “grandiloquent”), but this is such an utterly gorgeous, hopeful, thoughtful film... and if you need any more convincing, you get Peter Falk playing himself to loveable effect, Robby Müller’s luscious black-and-white cinematography and (in a fashion) Nick Cave playing Cupid. A gorgeous, big-hearted film, as relevant today as ever.
#13: Speaking of Truffaut, 1964's The Soft Skin must rank high among his most underrated films; this domestic drama of infidelity, laced with dark comedy, is a slow-burn to begin, following Pierre, a pompous, egotistical star academic, from his seemingly happy family home to barging his way into an affair with a flight attendant... Now, don't let this initial perspective scare you away -- it's borderline crazy at first, given how difficult it is to identify with this guy (even given Jean Desailly's excellent performance, somehow both hapless sad-sack and dominating blowhard) -- because we slowly discover that this is Truffaut lashing out at himself as a vainglorious artist who’s been careless with the women around him. From there, in a series of blackly comic calamities worthy of the Coens, not-so-lucky Pierre begins to feel his world collapse from beneath him — and it’s the women, brilliantly played by Nelly Benedetti and Françoise Dorleac, who take hold of the story as they begin to realise they’re better off without this jerk... manifesting in dramatically different ways, leading to a shocking ending that's as savage a self-criticism as any director has ever put on screen.
#12: Previous a lost film of some legend, Dennis Hopper’s second film, 1971's The Last Movie, may have burned all his credit with Hollywood studio credit to the ground, but I found it to be not only a more than worthy follow-up to Easy Rider but even better, and not at all the out-of-control drug-fuelled clustercuss we’d been led to believe. It’s an inspired, experimental, energetic, thoughtful and witty takedown of the desolation of Hollywood excess, movies’ effect on culture, misogyny (although, to be fair, the film falls on both sides of the line at times), Hopper himself, the end of the counterculture and Old Hollywood making way for the New — whether it liked it or not. It's shaggy and undisciplined, but also riveting and often thrilling. So glad this has been given the full restoration/rerelease treatment, to be rediscovered for the lost gem it is.
#11: A very special cinematic discovery we made in Paris were the films of Ernst Lubitsch. Seeing a retrospective of his films at the amazing Filmotheque du Quartier Latin proved that the once-famed "Lubitsch Touch" is not only a thing, but that it endures. A delightful and surprisingly progressive highlight was his 1933 comedy Design for Living, featuring a hilarious, winning Miriam Hopkins as Gilda, an American in Paris who can't choose between her two boyfriends (also struggling Americans in Paris), intellectual playrwright Tom (a brilliant Fredric March) and hot-blooded painter George (a surprisingly funny and loose Gary Cooper), who also happen to be best friends. How they begin to compromise and navigate this three-way relationship is both incredibly funny and enormously daring for the time -- hell, even by today's four-quadrant-seeking Hollywood standards -- it doesn't quite go where you may think, but, boy, it gets refreshingly close. As you'd expect of a play by Noël Coward adapted for the screen by Ben Hecht and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, it's also a screwball comedy of the highest order, matching even Howard Hawks' best work, providing some of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments I had all year.
At #10 is that man Truffaut again, with 1970's Bed & Board, the third film in his Antoine Doinel cycle, which started with The 400 Blows. Picking up just two years after Stolen Kisses, Bed & Board finds Antoine happily married, until he — still young, restless and pathologically unemployable — starts to chafe against the boundaries of married life... which is a problem, because there’s a baby on the way. Not as ebullient or hilarious as its predecessor, but emotionally true to two idealistic characters we love — one who dreamed and one who perhaps settled, both far too young — whose marriage seems to be deflating before our very eyes... or is it merely the pains of growth and compromise endemic to married life? Jean-Pierre Léaud and Claude Jade are charming as hell, and Truffaut injects impish gags amongst the emotional rollercoaster of his increasingly-semi-autobiographical tale (such as Antoine’s bizarre jobs, which become a constant source of hilarious bemusement). While it all ends on a hopeful note, whether Antoine and Christine will last the distance is no clearer then than at the beginning... but we know they’re in with a shot, which is only what all we can all hope for, really.
#9: For some reason, I'd never managed to catch up with Jocelyn Moorhouse's 1991 debut feature, Proof, and I'm now slightly ashamed that I slept on this modern classic of Australian cinema for so long. A wonderfully caustic three-hander about control and obsession, and how we can sometimes substitute those for love, with all three leads -- Genevieve Picot, Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe -- in cracking early-career form. Moorhouse makes a smashing debut that’s wryly observant of human nature, tightens the emotional screws at every turn and is hell of a lot funnier than one may expect.
#8: While we're on 'Modern Australian Classic' detail, I'm thrilled to have crossed paths with Rolf de Heer's beautiful 2013 collaboration with David Gulpilil, Charlie's Country. As achingly sad and thoroughly lived-in as it is infused with humour, humanity and hope, this compelling portrait of modern-day life for many indigenous Australians manages to both simmer with anger and be fiercely proud. It’s told through the eyes of Charlie, who’s very much informed by star/co-writer Gulpilil, people he’s known and the two worlds he’s straddled his entire life — the culture of his people, and the culture and rules that were forced upon them. In a career built upon wry, soulful performances, this might be Gulpilil’s finest hour.
#7: Another film I was shocked I hadn't seen before now was 1995's La Haine, a thrilling, absorbing, propulsive look at three underprivileged kids (electrifyingly played by Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui and Abdel Ahmed Ghili) living on the fringes of Paris, looking for a good time and finding trouble (sometimes prejudicial, sometimes self-inflicted) over 24 hours across the backdrop of a community about to explode... all careening towards one of the greatest, saddest, most chilling endings in film history. One heck of a debut (sadly, to date, never matched) by writer-director-actor Mathieu Kassovitz.
#6: How is Scarecrow, a Cannes Palme d'Or winner starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in 1973, mere moments after The Godfather and The French Connection, not considered a major work of the New Hollywood?! It's a character study of two itinerant men on the fringes, hot-tempered Max (Hackman), who dreams of opening his own car wash, and jovial, naive Lion (Pacino), who's returned from sea to reunite with his young son. Their initially wary alliance becomes an affectionate, co-dependent friendship as we follow them from California towards Pittsburgh, where Max's own Shangri-La -- the car wash he's saved what little he has to buy -- is located. It's a treat to see two great actors showing rare sides of themselves -- Hackman as a hair-trigger tornado right out of a Bukowski novel, and Pacino as a soft, loveable goofball -- to devastating effect. (Richard Lynch also makes a strong impression as a convict.) Unafraid to sit with its characters' flaws and imbued with real affection for folks living on the outside of the American Dream, this is a lovely, funny, tragic and ultimately heartbreaking film, which builds to a pitch-perfect ending.
#5: After watching it in fragments over the years -- never in one sitting, and every time at least five years apart -- I finally got to see Sam Peckinpah's seminal Western, 1969's The Wild Bunch, on the big screen and... oh boy. Wow, I was not prepared. The film is merciless, punishing and pitiless, presenting the good ol' American Wild West as a dystopian apocalypse -- self-mythologising and “legends” be damned. Everything about this West is damaged, decayed, dusty and decrepit, where death is easy, honour is hard, money is the goal, women are commodities, love is mocked and machismo is both a survival mechanism and a death wish. Legends are created because, often, that's all person has left to bargain with. The all-star cast are excellent from top to bottom, but the mood and tenor of this film belongs to Peckinpah. I’m surprised anyone made a western again after this. In terms of abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here bleakness, I’ll stack Peckinpah’s worldview up against any social realist filmmaker on the planet.
#4: At his best, Abel Ferrara is an exploitation filmmaker with an artist’s soul — but even given that, he really surprised me here: his 1981 thriller MS. 45 (formerly known in Australia as Angel of Vengeance) is thrilling, unsettling, witty and quite ahead of its time in a lot of ways (especially the way it depicts everyday sexist micro-aggressions) and a huge cut above in the r*pe-revenge genre I normally loathe — it’s not male-gazey or gross — led by a hugely effective performance by Zöe Tamerlis. It’s basically #MeToo: The Movie, fuelled by righteous rage, but one that eventually spirals out of control. Plus it’s all set in the gloriously grimy early ‘80s New York that I love — you could never get so many amazing location shots on a US$62k budget today! Brutal at times, but highly recommended.
#3: What if somebody made the best, most formally audacious horror film of the 2010s and nobody cared? Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani's 2013 giallo-gasm The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears is a stunner from beginning to end, crafted with surgical precision and an undeniable enthusiasm for the genre, deploying image, montage and sound with the playful inventiveness of experimental cinema, while also managing to draw us into its bizarro, persona-shifting murder plot. What’s more, the directors build some truly intense sequences of suspense and murder — often involving straight razors — while subverting and critiquing the film history they adore, luxuriating in their thematic and sensual pleasures. The way Cattet/Forzani play with truth, identity, time, the past’s relation to the present and the very way storytelling is delivered is consistently intriguing, beguiling and, more often than not, thrilling. Every aspect of this film, from Manuel Dacosse’s sublime cinematography, to the intricate production design and to-DIE-for locations, to the score (both original and repurposed), to the Argento-on-steroids lighting design and the way they use and isolate sounds, is exquisite — it’s a dark, devious, pervy pleasure ripe for rediscovery... and your total submission. <...cue creaking leather sound...>
#2: While not John Carpenter’s “official” debut, 1976's Assault On Precinct 13, his second feature, feels every frame like the director’s origin story. Both gritty little exploitation flick and supremely entertaining, surprisingly sharp ‘70s drive-in homage to the works of Howard Hawks, that puts all of Carpenter’s visual signatures — 2.35:1 widescreen frame, colourful expressionistic lighting, unnamed & unknowable assailants emerging from darkness — from day one. (Many of these qualities would show up, to devastating effect, two years later in Halloween.) The performances, dialogue and storytelling are much more sophisticated than anyone going into this would have any right to expect, and it’s this care and quality control — as well as his facility for action and suspense — that immediately marks Carpenter as a talent to watch. What’s more, with its African-American cop lead, defiant white crim and kickass female secretary — not to mention its surprisingly racially diverse street gangs! — its approach to casting and characterisation is disarmingly progressive. It’s a blast to watch characters in a micro-budget ‘70s drive-in movie doing a wonderful riff on Bogie and Bacall — if Bogie and Bacall we’re locked in a crumbling L.A. police station besieged by evil gangs. I literally applauded at the end.
For my #1 discovery of 2018, we return to Ernst Lubitsch and 1942's To Be Or Not To Be. Hilarious from the opening minutes, moving a million miles an hour yet giving us everything we need, we know we’re in safe hands — this indeed sees Lubitsch at his most laugh-out loud funny, but he’s also revealed here to be at his most deft, political and daring. The film was made before America entered World War II, when the US government and Hollywood establishment were still taking pains not to offend Hitler, so Lubitsch constructed this comedy as his plea to convince the US that the Nazis were a major threat the world needed to mobilise against. As non-stop funny as the film is, the fact that it never keeps the Nazis' very real atrocity far from mind is even more of a magic trick. While it runs like a sleek joke machine, this is, above all, a comedy based in character, irony, vanity and inherent decency. Given this monster of a script to play around with, Carole Lombard (sadly, this was her final film role, before dying in a plane crash) and Jack Benny give remarkable comic performances, surrounded by a wonderful ensemble. Fast, funny and truly furious, this might be Lubitsch’s most accessible masterpiece.
MY FAVOURITE FILMS RELEASED IN 2018.
As usual, the criteria for this list are feature films that received their premiere paid public release in Australia - whether via cinema, video, VoD or film festivals - during 2018, that I saw this year (as opposed to, say, seeing in festivals last year).
For the first time in years, the number of new films I saw didn't plummet from the previous year; I saw 84 new films in 2018, as opposed to 85 in 2017.
I should also let you know that I didn't catch such lauded or popular titles as American Animals, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Aquaman, Beirut, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Cold War, Creed II, Deadpool 2, Eighth Grade, Fahrenheit 11/9, Ghost Stories, Hotel Artemis, The Incredibles 2, Lean On Pete, Outside In, Ralph Breaks The Internet, The Rider, A Simple Favor, Searching, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Support the Girls, Sweet Country, They Shall Not Grow Old, Thoroughbreds, Three Identical Strangers, Under the Silver Lake, Vice, Won't You Be My Neighbor? or A Wrinkle in Time. (Some titles, such as Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk and The Tale, are due for 2019 releases here.)
Up front, I have to say 2018 was a damn strong year for cinema. I liked 44 of the 84 films enough to rate them 3.5 stars and up. Of course, it's easier to be positive about any year in movies when you're not forced to see everything, as a critic would, but in my experience, this has been one of the better years of the 2010s for cinematic offerings.
Okay. Less chatting, more counting down. Annnnnnnd go:
With Madeline's Madeline, writer-director Josephine Decker delivers the best prolonged cinematic anxiety attack since mother! and does an alarmingly great job of placing us in its lead character’s fraught, precarious subjective reality, and she both examines the rush of artistic discovery and the interpersonal boundaries (or lack thereof) of the artistic process, and skewers the hubris of creators that cast aside any duty of care toward their performers. Molly Parker, Miranda July and startling newcomer Helena Howard deliver a fascinating, deftly layered triangle of performances that threaten to combust whenever any combination of the trio share space together. To be honest, I was eating out of this film’s hand until the final ten minutes, where subjective reality tips over into pure fantasy and — while I think I can see why Decker did it — I wasn’t wild about the choice or depiction of this resolution. Still, this is a compelling, thoughtful and riveting personal drama, crafted like a psychological thriller, that’s absolutely worth diving into.
Tully sees Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman -- always bringing out the best out of one another -- dipping into magical realism to explore the everyday strains of motherhood, the point when you've given so much of your life to maintaining your family you begin to lose yourself, and emerge with a frank, funny and all-too-rare portrait of what a giant pressure and compromise motherhood (and marriage) can be. In a beautifully calibrated performance, Charlize Theron portrays a woman whose efforts to maintain a functioning family life have hit physical and emotional breaking point -- Theron's comic timing is excellent and continually underrated. Cody's screenplay again shows she's lost none of her hammer for nailing uncomfortable truths, and even a late development which feels fanciful at first, is, upon reflection, very much earned and well-placed. Reitman steers the ship with class and deft, unobtrusive skill, letting Cody's script do the heavy lifting. Sure, the pacing's a little floaty at times, and it ultimately lacks the acidic, take-no-prisoners bite of this trio's Young Adult, but this is a very funny, deeply felt take on a subject that few films are willing to tackle so honestly.
Definitely delivering what it says on the box, Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is as stylistically berserk and thrillingly dreamlike as any film we’ve seen in the 21st century thus far... but more unexpected, is the depth of emotion at play here. The first half of the film is dreamy, creepy and increasingly poignant, driven by the performances of Andrea Riseborough and, yes, Nicolas Cage, leading to a disarmingly moving scene where his character breaks down with grief (which, annoyingly, the audience around us seemed to find hilarious, presumably primed to cackle at watching Cage spack out, rather than actually sit in the moment with the character). Of course, this all explodes into a second half of righteous heavy metal vengeance (with a magnificent late title reveal!) that is as dark, bizarre and bloody as one had been led to expect, to a showdown that’s very effective, if somewhat protracted... but, to be honest? I kinda missed the sadness.
Cargo already had a head start for me, as Martin Freeman is one of my favourite people to watch on a screen right now, and the 2013 short this is expands upon is my favourite Tropfest finalist ever, but Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s feature debut is a tense, gripping and disarmingly lovely take on a tired sub-genre. Surrounded by an equally terrific cast, Freeman brings subtle grace notes of grief, anger and confusion to his role as a dying father who needs to find someone to care for his daughter in a world gone to hell. The way this film engages with Australia’s past and indigenous culture is intelligent and sensitive, while retaining a welcome empathy for even the worst of its characters. There are a few script moments that clang, a lack of clarity around some aspects of the story and world, but they only stand out because Ramke & Howling get everything else so right. In the end, it delivers all the emotional and sociopolitical beats it needs to, without sacrificing complexity.
Avengers: Infinity War might seem like a season finale of an epic TV show, but thankfully the Russo Brothers and Marvel have delivered a smashing entertainment, full of terrific character asides, genuinely epic showdowns, shockingly robust VFX, mostly coherent battles and curveball twists. Brolin’s Thanos eventually convinces as a flesh-and-blood character, the Guardians mesh with the Avengers surprisingly well, and — given its ridiculous scale — it deftly avoids character overload. (Oh, Thor is the film’s MVP, in case you’re wondering.) Given the entire thing was shot in IMAX, there’s far too much dark metal-on-dark metal and floating debris substituting for production design, but I found myself genuinely impressed by the writing. The way it gives every character something to do (except Black Widow, sadly), imbues its Big Bad with emotional depth and keeps all its plates spinning without losing a step, is quite something. All this and the sheer number of active participants means it's the rare blockbuster where the 150 minute running time feels not only justified, but goes by in a flash, barely stopping to race toward its somewhat audacious climax — and a wonderful final (pre-credits) scene that plays more like Brothers Coen than Russo.
Climax, Gaspar Noé’s latest descent into Hell, introduces us to a diverse troupe of young dancers at a private party, where, after a stunning dance sequence, we overhear conversations revealing festering tensions, toxic attitudes and sexual frustrations... then, after a customarily vibrant mid-movie credits sequence, a rogue element is introduced and everything goes to... well, you know Noé. As ever, he skillfully, if bombastically, uses every element at his disposal — swirling cinematography, segmented soundtracks, dancers’ bodies — to create a full-scale anxiety attack. But rather than empty style, Noé re-purposes a reportedly true story to present a microcosm of a modern France still grappling with immigration, globalisation and national identity, ever-struggling to live up to its credo of Liberty, Egality and Fraternity. It’s also a fractured study in humanity, and a vigorous assault on the senses... which can be frustrating at times: sounds, visuals and sentiments are repeated, like a thumping house track, to a numbing, even aggravating, extent -- but like any rave, it’s all part of the experience. Sometimes it’s best not to fight the chaos, but rather carve out your own corner of bliss on the periphery, dance to your own beat and forget the wolfpack.
A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, is agonisingly close to greatness, giving his wildly divergent cast room to play and bloom, while giving the film an impressive visual scope and momentum. Gaga delivers a hell of a turn — we know she’s got the voice and charisma, but it’s the quiet moments, anger and vulnerability that sell her as an actor — and Cooper is just beautiful, his character refreshingly gentle even as he slides into despair, and the two are genuinely affecting together. The song score does everything asked of it and the film sells every emotional beat... except one, which is where the film almost lost me; it seemed to arrive a few scenes too early to feel truly organic or earned. It feels petulant to hold this one thing against the film, but it gets everything else so right: the magic they bring out of each other, the rush of seeing your art performed and your voice validated, the struggle to stay authentic, the pain of watching a loved one crumble... while never descending to cheap melodrama or artificial conflict, crafting a moving love story that doubles as a plea to stay authentic in a hyper-commercialised world.
A Quiet Place was the shock horror box office bonanza of 2018 and, in hindsight, it's easy to see why. John Krasinski delivers Spielbergian sci-fi/horror in his third feature as director and, while it can be a little broad at times, he and his team have crafted a lean, tense experience, which admirably takes time to develop family dynamics and a backdrop of grief to fashion their parental anxiety narrative around, lending some weight to the otherwise wafer-thin story and questionable decisions (a pregnancy? In this world? Really?!). The cast are terrific, but Millicent Simmonds steals the show as their thoughtful, alienated daughter. Rad, unsettling creature design, too.
Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s lovely neo-realist memoryscape and tribute to both his childhood housekeeper and the overlooked underclass of Mexico is, like the director's Children of Men, a very, very good film with a three or four all-time great scenes. Cuaron’s own cinematography is beautiful, the performances are pitch-perfect, it’s loaded with period detail and builds to two of the most astonishing scenes in modern cinema history. It’s an incredibly easy film to sink into, but it is lengthy, and seems to wander about from time to time -- it's not always clear why we're spending so much time in a particular place; now and again it feels like Cuaron is lost in a fond remembrance rather than moving the story forward -- and one feels distant, like an observer, at all times (especially given Cuaron’s affection for single long takes), which is interesting given how personal and affectionate it is... but overall, this is a truly beautiful work.
Foxtrot is a searing indictment of war, toxic masculinity and generational sins (and the price that ultimately must be paid), as well as of a culture that conscripts its young adults. Returning to the homefront after his stunning 2009 debut Lebanon, writer/director Samuel Maoz places us in his characters’ heads with enough show-offy visual flourishes and camera angles to make Brian De Palma jealous, but still manages to pack an emotional punch — and there’s a handful of stand-alone set-pieces in here that say more on the subject than entire films.
THE TOP 20
The Top 10
...WHICH LEAVES US WITH MY #1 RELEASE OF 2018...
1. PHANTOM THREAD
Sometimes, an artist's greatest gift can be to deliver the right work at the right moment. In a landscape where so much film, TV, music and art is so politically overbearing, so intent on shouting at us in a manner uncomfortably similar to Facebook rants, Paul Thomas Anderson conjures a bewitching, engrossing and devilishly funny film that looks and feels like a 1950s romantic drama, weaving one of the most fascinating screen relationships I've seen in an age, one of the very best satires of the concessions, compromises and control measures we navigate to make relationships work... and, beneath it all, slowly and mercilessly dismantling the image of the exacting, egotistical Great Male Creator, brick by brick.
The performances in this film are extraordinary across the board, with Daniel Day Lewis giving his most delicate, subtle and funny performance in years, Vicky Krieps is just a flat-out revelation, her performance working on an alarming amount of levels, and, with each withering glance and weapons-grade line of dialogue, Lesley Manville is a giant-slaying gift. (Speaking of weapons, comedienne Julia Davis is also brilliantly deployed in her brief role.)
One of the most unpredictable screen stories of recent years, and 21st century cinema thus far, Paul Thomas Anderson's film is hypnotic, exquisite (Anderson shot the film himself, which, considering how luscious the film looks, is mind-boggling to me), beautifully layered, shockingly fun, even poignant at times and, much like the director's very different Punch-Drunk Love, bizarrely yet genuinely romantic -- accessing the truth of relationships in a way most conventional screen romances never dare, or even seem to understand. Even in a filmography stacked with modern masterpieces, this particular one seems to emerge damn near from nowhere, surprising even for a director many regard as the best of his generation.
And that's that! Thank you all for reading this gigantic wrap-up (even those of you who just skipped to the end -- don't worry, I feel you) and joining me to put a pin in 2018!
Here at Cinema Viscera, we're gearing up for a big year (for a start, we're shooting our second movie!!!) and we can't wait to let you in on all the cool stuff we've been cooking up.
(And personally, I'm counting down the days to the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which might be as well be The Matrix's algorithmic creation of a film very much For Me.)
Thank you all for reading, and, as always...
Vive le cinéma!
Paul Anthony Nelson
I don't know about you, but 2017 has been a strange, confounding, educational year 'round these parts.
Last year, we made a movie. (Well, mostly; the first quarter of this year was spent refining it and finishing it for good, but I digress...) Each stage of making a movie seems like the hardest; writing is like drawing blood, shooting left me physically wrecked and the 11 months of start-stop post-production seemed endless... so this year, it came time to send our baby out to film festivals and rattle tin in hand in search of distributors, sales agents and cinemas in order to release it.
So believe me when I say that 2017 taught me -- as much to my surprise as anyone else's -- that this is the hardest part of independent, micro-budget, self-financed and/or crowdfunded filmmaking.
We remain optimistic that we'll find a home somewhere, but I won't lie to you: it's been tough. A certain amount of it was expected; Trench has an emerging cast and unknown filmmakers, is shot in black-and-white, framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio and pays homage to a long-dead genre (film noir), while flirting with a few others (comedy, thriller). Needless to say, we figured distribs and sales folk wouldn't be elbowing each other out of the way to throw cash and screens at us. However, we did expect to catch some film festival fire, and this is where our journey thus far has been most disappointing -- particularly as we've received such truly wonderful and encouraging responses to the film from distributors and sales agents who have turned us down.
Industry folk are increasingly divided over the worth of film festivals. Naturally, a nod from one of the big ten (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Locarno, Toronto, Telluride, Sundance, TriBeCa, etc) remains a golden ticket with the ability to open all sorts of doors, and a Fantastic Fest, SITGES or San Sebastian slot can propel a genre film to similar heights, but it's the thousands of others that lie at the heart of this division. Do laurels mean anything to distributors and audiences, particularly if they're from festivals nobody's ever heard of? Do they still provide a great opportunity to get your film seen or, with the proliferation of tiny festivals the world over, is the 30 or so people they might pull to a screening not worth the hundreds -- even thousands -- of dollars one may spend on entry fees (or sheer time hustling for waivers)? Is it more worth one's while to get your film on to iTunes or Netflix through an aggregator, pimp it yourself and try your luck to reach people all over the globe? These are the kinds of questions all microbudget indie feature filmmakers need to ask themselves now. The industry has changed irrevocably since all your heroes' origin stories occurred, and the pathways they took have, more often than not, been co-opted or paved over. It's certainly got us looking at alternative pathways, as we look to release Trench and prep the next picture.
Yes, there absolutely will be a next Cinema Viscera picture, because we're just that crazy.
(We're currently in the midst of writing it, so I've no further details to share right now.)
But it's also been a rewarding year in many respects. Our last short film, Cigarette, screened to an excellent response at the Sydney Underground Film Festival, an event I've loved from afar and wanted to screen at for years. An earlier short film of ours, Scope, scored a surprise selection in the Los Angeles Neo-Noir Novel, Film and Script Festival, even being one of 15 nominees for Best Film! I received a promotion in my day-to-day job, something I've found much more enjoyable than I expected, and my work-life -- well, work-work -- balance is as good as it's ever been. I also celebrated the incredible (for me) milestone of 10 years of love and art with my favourite of all people -- the better half of my life and Cinema Viscera, Pez, aka Perri Cummings. (Here's to the rest of our days, Monkey Face.)
I'm not going to get into the sociopolitical landscape of 2017 -- there are much better, more incisive and well-researched places to find those takes -- except to say that it seemed to consist of the first blows back against the rising tide of hate and prejudice that marked 2016. Sure, that stuff's not going away anytime soon -- and there were plenty of terrible decisions driven by greed, deeply upsetting tragedies and political culpability in human rights abuses -- but there were some encouraging signs here and there -- from the worldwide Women's March, to the French election of Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen, to various US states agreeing to continue adhering to the Paris Accord (despite the White House's ridiculous decision to pull the nation out), to Australia finally voting Marriage Equality into law -- that we might have some chance in hell of starting to turn the tide.
As for the world of cinema, with US studio blockbusters continuing to suck all the air out of the conversational room, was there a similar narrative at play? An African-American US$1.3 million indie with queer themes took out the Oscar for Best Picture -- well, only after the title of a bigger, whiter movie, a US$30 million musical (and, it must be said, another indie itself), was read out incorrectly. Blumhouse, the horror mini-studio with the big-studio distribution deal, was the talk of the first half of 2017, with its under-US$10m hits, Shyamalan comeback Split and zeitgeist-buster Get Out, making huge profits as more traditional studios' efforts collapsed around them. Edgar Wright's idiosyncratic vision Baby Driver zoomed to success as Tom Cruise, Alien, Dwayne Johnson and Will Ferrell's new efforts couldn't get into gear, and a woman of wonders beat all comers at the summer box office in North America. Maybe a change really is coming...
How did I find the year in film? Stay tuned, constant reader...
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S UNEARTHED TREASURES OF 2017
Other than my personal and professional resolutions for 2018 -- to shoot our second feature, get our first feature released and travel overseas for the first time in my life -- I think I'd like to watch more old movies. The new stuff has been pretty good-to-poor, whereas my dips into the past have uncovered a wealth of gold.
The 'Pioneering Women' program strand at the Melbourne International Film Festival was my unquestioned highlight of the fest, and provided two of my ten favourite discoveries of the year -- the first, ranking at #10, was Tender Hooks, the sole film by the late writer-director Mary Callaghan, starring the luminescent Jo Kennedy (whose other film in the same strand, Gillian Armstrong's ebullient musical Starstruck, also wasn't far away from this list). A ramshackle romance between two itinerant young Sydneysiders with refreshing realism and buckets of charm, Tender Hooks is living proof that Australia can make movies about people on the margins with humour and heart, not abject misery.
At #9 is a film that eluded me for far too long: Abel Ferrara's mad, operatic NYC crime drama King of New York. Shot with Ferrara's usual misanthropic gaze with room for eccentricity and lashings of style, this tale of a crime boss aiming to close the past and secure his future as a different kind of city kingpin is a scathing, violent and often funny takedown of modern capitalist structures. Walken is in career-best form, but Laurence Fishburne steals the film right from under him.
#8 was my top film of my now-annual 31-horror-films-in-31-days Halloween at home film festival Shocktoberfest: Michael Haneke's original Funny Games. I'd seen his shot-for-shot remake, which did prime me a little for this, but man, does the O.G. version still pack a punch. I don't completely agree with its thesis -- that our complicity in and demand for on-screen violence implicates us as monsters caving in to our base desires -- but it's a fascinating, thrilling take on it; one that also (and this is surely no accident, given Haneke's wartime Austrian upbringing) doubles as a microcosmic look at life under fascism. Haneke's one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, excoriating human foibles and social conventions through his unsparing, unblinking eye, but also, perhaps, the greatest thriller director we never had.
Thanks to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, we were given the opportunity to revisit ten classics by the Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa, handpicked by the doyen of Australian film critics, David Stratton. It was this retrospective that provided two of my 10 picks for this list -- the first, at #7, is Ran, Kurosawa's brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, transplanted to feudal Japan. As its final scene so eloquently states, Ran reveals a human race abandoned by gods and men, standing lost and alone, cursed with mutually assured destruction.
At #6 stands a film that the Astor Theatre couldn't have programmed better for my birthday: Richard C. Serafian's counter-culture car-chase classic Vanishing Point. Thrilling chases and novelistic storytelling frame an absorbing outlaw tale, which ends up as a surprisingly powerful anti-establishment elegy, set amongst the early-'70s death throes of counterculture optimism.
My fifth-favourite discovery of 2017 was also facilitated by ACMI, and also long-overdue: Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, a horror film about the destruction of a relationship, which is so confounding, and pitched at such a berserk intensity, that it somehow manages to dig up profound truths of love turned acidic, crumbling institutions and destructive obsessions... all with a rad Carlo Rimbaldi-created tentacled sex beast. Zulawski asks everything of Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, and then some -- the latter, in particular, delivers a stunning performance that feels like Marina Abramovic via Lars von Trier. Desire is a monster, yo.
#4 is the second Kurosawa classic that floored me this year, the kidnap drama High and Low. Both a brilliant moral thriller of class division and as riveting a police procedural as you'll ever see, all superbly staged with breathless momentum, pitting Kurosawa's favorite megastars -- Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai -- head to head once again. Just the way Kurosawa blocks his actors in this thing should be taught in film schools.
At #3 is the most buried treasure on this list, again thanks to MIFF's 'Pioneering Women' strand (thanks must go out to programmers Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Michelle Carey for putting it together), a true lost classic of Australian cinema: Laurie McInnes' Broken Highway. Prestige, specialty or cult blu-ray companies, you're on notice: this is a title that absolutely should be on your radar for a 4K scan and release. Looking stunning on the big screen, in a pristine print courtesy of Australia's National Film and Sound Archive, Broken Highway is a truly hypnotic monochrome nightmare, set among a town of living ghosts, sucked dry and hollowed out by pathetic, destructive men. Not only does it star perhaps the quintessential early-'90s Australian cast (Aden Young, Claudia Karvan, David Field and, of course, Bill Hunter), it was also nominated for the Cannes Palme D'Or(!!), making its virtual disappearance doubly baffling. But here's the kicker: I wouldn't dream of using the Lord's name in breathless hyperbole, so let me be very clear how much I mean this... the filmmaking influence which McInnes' startling, emotionally bracing debut is most reminiscent of, is none other than David Lynch. The way she uses black-and-white film, textures, shadows, rusted-on eccentric behaviours, 1950s iconography, pauses -- in 1993, Laurie McInnes made the closest thing to a genuine Australian David Lynch film... and we seem to have collectively wiped it from our memory. So please: Arrow, Criterion, Eureka -- RELEASE THIS FILM IN RESPLENDENT BLU-RAY and give McInnes her due. Seeing this film on a big screen, being drawn into its web, left me physically trembling.
Either one of my top 2 discoveries could be #1, so I'll just say they're my favourite documentary and feature discoveries of the year: Jennie Livingston's seminal 1990 doc Paris Is Burning and Norman Jewison's 1975 dystopian sci-fi/sports/action/thriller Rollerball.
Paris Is Burning is a vital document of the then-fringe subculture of New York City drag balls, where gay people of colour could step from the mean streets, homophobia and the AIDS crisis of 1980s NYC and emerge into a wonderland where they could fully embrace their identities, and even rule, in a scene that has subsequently left us with a remarkable cultural impact -- everything from Madonna's 'Vogue' to terms like "realness" and "throwing shade" emerged from these clubs. By focusing on a number of performers, talking direct to camera, as well as capturing the fun, bold and often hilarious routines from the balls themselves, Livingston's lovely, remarkably intimate film -- which had me fully engrossed, even crying with laughter at times, but left me weeping inconsolably by the end -- remains a defiant, celebratory firecracker, even when it's haunted by tragedy.
Perhaps the polar opposite to that in every way, Rollerball was the dystopian, anti-capitalist, scifi-sports-movie-action-thriller I never knew I needed. A compelling look at a future where hyper-free-market culture has won, and wars have been replaced with global, corporate-backed Rollerball tournaments between nations, the USA's star player is Jonathan A (played by James Caan, who absolutely convinces as this athletic beast, a blunt instrument of a man), who is savvy enough to realise he's a disposable commodity being exploited by a corrupt system, but isn't clever enough to outsmart it, until he realises that the qualities that make him a great Rollerballer may hold the key to his ultimate bid for freedom. Both a thoughtful dystopian sci-fi picture AND a bruising sports flick with truly mindblowing stunt and choreography work -- watch these Rollerball matches and try to work out how nobody was killed or injured -- Rollerball's view on the commodification of both sport and our humanity is all too depressingly prescient.
Before we count off my favourite cinematic delights of 2017, allow me to direct you to...
The real best film of 2017?
When all is said and done, my favourite motion picture experience of the year wasn't even a film, in the traditional sense... nor was it a TV series in the traditional sense, given that even its creators made it as an "18 hour movie"...
From its bizarre, disquieting first episode, Twin Peaks: The Return required a recalibration of how one watches TV or film -- hell, any kind of storytelling media -- as each languidly paced, darkly eccentric scene that unfolded was another step leading the viewer back into Lynch-land; that place where time is elastic, dreams and reality are one and your nightmares are hurtling down a highway at midnight, getting closer by the second. I am an unabashed, unashamed, unapologetic David Lynch fan -- my path with his work began as a strange and difficult one, as my emerging 18-25 year-old film buff brain found itself continually willing to grapple with his work, but finding my reactions to his films landing at all points of the emotional spectrum. Over the ensuing decades, every time I would revisit Lynch's films -- especially the ones I hated upon first viewing -- I got something more out of them; whether that be nuance, context or just plain terror. But in 2015, my friend Thomas Caldwell opted to discuss Lynch's career on the film podcast I used to co-host with Lee Zachariah, Hell is for Hyphenates, which led me on a deep dive back into Lynch-land... and it is here, watching every scrap of Lynch ephemera I could lay my hands on, that I would become a Lynch devotee forever more.
As much as I love and trust Lynch and his writing/producing partner Mark Frost as artists, there was always a twinge of fear going into The Return. I'm not generally a fan of sequels, of going back to old, well-worn territory. But, as we know, the original Twin Peaks closed in the most existentially maddening way possible, in such a way that demanded some kind of resolution -- or at the very least, as Lynch-land is rarely a home to neat endings, some relief. After the first two episodes, all such fear had disappeared, and I was strapped in for the ride. Whatever dark path, odd floor-sweeping digression, city-halfway-across-the-nation-from-Twin-Peaks diversion or bonkers netherworld Lynch and Frost wanted to lead me down, I was right there with them.
Oh, and then there was that time Chapter 8 came along and smashed my brain into a million tiny terrified pieces.
I understand how absurdly long this blog post already is, so I won't go into all the things I loved about Twin Peaks: The Return. Let's just say I loved far, far more moments, performances, twists, meditations, metaphors and digressions than I didn't. I expected it to be bone-chillingly scary and hilariously funny, but what I didn't expect was how crushingly sad it could be -- especially seeing the world through the poor, addled, quite-literally-soul-searching gaze of dim Dougie Jones. Kyle MacLachlan's three-pronged performance in this show was continually a marvel to behold, and -- okay, this will sound like hyperbole, but screw it -- I feel that any TV acting award he doesn't win this year will be simply a fraudulent exercise in wasted praise. He's fucking spectacular in every frame: a shark in (barely) human skin as "Mr. C", a sweetly inquisitive child trapped in a body his flickering consciousness barely understands as Dougie, and when The Other Guy shows up, well... let's just say there were tears of joy.
It even somehow gave us the resolution we wanted, in Chapter 16, and the lack of resolution we needed -- as well as a chilling reminder of cycles of abuse and the irreversible permanence of violent acts -- in Chapter 17. I could go on, but I should probably just write a post all about this show one day, once I've watched the entire thing again. Even with its occasional imperfections and willfully unresolved story threads, every episode of Twin Peaks: The Return was a delight -- not to mention the week-to-week experience of sharing it with the world in an age of isolated binge-watching -- as it represented the kind of huge-scale artistic vision made with such a total level of creative control that, in our increasingly corporate media landscape, we may rarely, if ever, see again -- and for this, alone, it should be valued. (Showtime deserve a ton of praise for making this happen, by the way.) So, to David Lynch and Mark Frost, I say: THANK YOU. Thank you for pushing televisual art to a new level, for this strange, wonderful, absurd beast of an "18-hour film" -- and for allowing television to dream again.
Now... I reckon it's just about time we venture into the cinema, don't you?
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 FILMS OF 2017
I almost feel unworthy of compiling a best-of list this year. I only saw 85 new movies this year, down from 97 last year -- the total seems to plummet annually -- and have missed many lauded titles; you won't find the likes of Call Me By Your Name, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Wind River, Atomic Blonde, Detroit, Battle of the Sexes, Happy Death Day, The Square, Brigsby Bear, I, Tonya, American Made, Coco, Thelma, Phantom Thread, Downsizing, Wonderstruck, Mudbound and many more here, due to either my lack of time this year, or by virtue of them not being released in Australia as yet.
One last thought before I count down: This might be the year that made me realise that, with ever fewer exceptions, I may finally be done with the modern blockbuster. From Wonder Woman to Justice League to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, more and more I'm finding the $100 million-plus franchise behemoth a frustrating, fundamentally compromised form of filmmaking, with the constant struggle of a filmmaker with a point of view mashing up against the tired tropes and expectations of the form, such as epic posturing and endless repetition, to very specifically cliched set-pieces and ideological box-ticking -- not to mention, egregious over-length in damn near every case. Only two of these kinds of films made my list this year; one, an unmistakable work of epic cinema from one of the last true mega-budget auteurs left, complete with a near-experimental structure and big stars blending in with unknowns; the other, almost an IOU note from a studio, rewarding a star for spearheading an entire franchise of 8 films over 17 years of huge grosses and critical goodwill -- by finally letting him off the leash to go full berserker.
Without further ado...
Jordan Peele's smashing social horror debut Get Out deservedly smashed the box office and gained plaudits as the first film to be seen to punch back against Trump's America; while hugely thrilling, I found the actual mechanics of its horror concept to have a few too many moving parts, diluting the scares, and it seemed to mix metaphors a bit, making it a little clunky at times, but holy crap, does it end spectacularly well -- that scene towards the end elicited perhaps the greatest cheer of relief I've ever experienced in a cinema. I look forward to seeing it again, and to see what Peele does next.
I love me a great claustrophobic single-location thriller, and Clash delivers wildly on this count, as well as providing a terrifying glimpse -- based upon a real event -- of everyday life in a ideologically repressive, politically unstable region. The characters are well-drawn, the situation feels inescapably real, and it all leads to a horrifying conclusion.
I've always been terrified of seeing Lav Diaz's films due to their off-puttingly excessive running times, but his latest one, The Woman Who Left, a tale of a wrongly imprisoned woman released after 30 years, who slowly plots her revenge on the person who put her there, sounded relatively accessible... and it came in just under four hours, rather than his usual five-to-seven. So I gave myself over to all 227 minutes of it, and was rewarded with a quietly riveting tale of vengeance and societal prisons, which unfolds like a meditative, contemplative TV series, shot beautifully in mournful monochrome.
No-one does pass-aggress among the pretentious better than Alex Ross Perry. Despite being one of the few people somewhat disappointed with his last film, Queen of Earth, I found Golden Exits a welcome return to form. Perry's wicked writing is as arch as ever, but also witty and often achingly real. What's more, Mary Louise Parker, Lily Rabe, Chloë Sevigny, Analeigh Tipton and a surprising Emily Browning comprised damn near my favourite female cast of the year.
I so badly wanted to find a spot for Darren Aronofsky's stunningly original, utterly bonkers passion project mother! in my top 20, but I still don't know if this bold, florid, often funny, but hugely overblown take on religion and fame holds all the way up. What it works superbly as, without question, is a two-hour anxiety attack -- particularly if having strangers over at your house terrifies you more than, say, killer clowns. Will definitely revisit this one, sooner rather than later.
I'm a huge admirer of the searching, character-based films of Joe Swanberg, and his latest film, Win It All (as well as his series, Easy) shows his relocation to Netflix is working out just nicely. This comedy-drama about a compulsive gambler who gets tasked with minding thousands of dollars of off-the-grid cash which -- surprise! -- he gambles away and has to win back, distinguishes itself from similar-sounding films via Swanberg's sheer warmth and empathy for his characters, even as the plot tightens the screws, and the level of ownership his actors have over their characters, giving wonderfully relaxed performances (Jake Johnson has found a serious groove with Swanberg, making a potentially grating character a joy to follow). It's also gratifying to see how far Swanberg has developed as a visual storyteller.
A film from 2014 making its low-key Australian premiere in this year's Human Rights and Arts Film Festival (a rare non-documentary screening for them -- more features, please), War Book is a thoroughly gripping, talky, mostly single-location thriller about a gaggle of low-level UK government aides drafted to play high-level government roles in a mock disaster situation. What begins as a bunch of bored bureaucrats going through a prescribed exercise soon becomes fiery, as they begin to embrace their mock roles (as PM, Foreign Secretary and so on), slinging ethical arguments and insults back and forth (and played by an excellent cast of UK character actors). With a keen eye on our fatal flaws, this sharply written and acted tale of mutually assured destruction is bracing, intelligent and claustrophobic, transcending its stagy, modest trappings.
Steven Soderbergh's return to the big screen, Logan Lucky, is as laid-back, fun and low-key ambitious (in regards to his choice to self-distribute the film) as anything he's ever made. Playing as a charming hick riff on his OCEAN'S flicks, with more than a few hints of Looney Tunes (especially in the design and colour scheme of the film) and the Coens' more benign work, this is a rollicking return for this most implacable of auteurs. It struck me that everybody in this story had integrity and/or value and/or a hidden gift, and this struck me as an important statement to take away in today's divisive landscape.
Can Agnes Varda please be all of our grandma? The irrepressible octogenarian auteur and French New Wave goddess keeps quitting movies but always finds a way back, unable to resist the impulse to document the everyday intrigue she sees around her. With her latest documentary, Faces Places, she's enlisted visual artist J.R. (known for his photography and collage work presenting everyday people as objets d'art themselves) to join her on an odyssey of interrogating art and images, throughout the French countryside. J.R. turns out to be a charming subject as well, and Varda's burgeoning friendship with him makes these two an irresistible dynamic duo, whose intelligence, optimism, warmth and sheer life remind us that, just maybe, the human race may not be so irredeemably awful after all.
This latter point is also evidenced by Kristen Johnson's alternately lovely and confronting documentary memoir, Cameraperson. A veteran documentary cinematographer, Johnson's directorial debut consists of, essentially, B-roll from many of the films she's shot for others, fashioning an utterly intriguing mosaic of impressionistic micro-documentaries from both unused interview footage and the intimate, unguarded, unpolished, even accidental moments that happen when the camera is rolling before "action" and after "cut". Covering everything from child victims of war zones to family life in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, to a day in the life of Nigerian midwife to Johnson's own mother's battle with Alzheimer's Disease, through the sum of everything she has seen and experienced through her camera, we see Johnson's life, in some fashion, as she has. It's damn near humbling to behold.
THE TOP 20
Actor-writer Alice Lowe (Sightseers, Hot Fuzz) makes an impressive debut as writer-director-star with this gleefully mordant horror comedy, with the irresistible premise of a pregnant woman submitting to the voice of her murderous unborn daughter. Shot for less than £80,000 in just 11 days -- with Lowe starring and directing while seven months pregnant (this will seem less condescending once you see what she puts herself through on screen) -- Prevenge is a rough little wonder, with lots of laughs, some decent jolts and one hell of a satisfying character journey, establishing Lowe as a charismatic, clever voice to watch.
#19: PADDINGTON 2
As worthy and joyous a follow-up as the first film was disarmingly great, turning its focus to how open-heartedness might be a more direct path to changing ways than aggression; which, as prosaic as that may sound, seems almost therapeutic in today's combative climate. Director/co-writer Paul King (he of THE MIGHTY BOOSH) seems to have made a James Gunn-GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY-Marvel style connection with this series and Michael Bond's books, the little Peruvian bear providing the perfect vehicle for his gift for finding sweetness and humanity in anarchy (and Britishness). It's adorable as hell, with a couple of emotional wallops and a perfectly cast ensemble having a ball.
Not as ceaselessly urgent as anticipated, but Christopher Nolan's powerful, near-Eisensteinian use of IMAX image and montage (and *that* soundscape) crafts a bracing tribute to bravery, while also lamenting the need for such action. Unquestionably the best filmmaker working on epic budgets in this day and age, Nolan tells this harrowing true tale via an almost-experimental structure -- a week in some characters' lives, alongside a day in another situation, alongside an hour in others, all happening concurrently -- and, somehow, it makes perfect sense. With Dunkirk, the director delivers his shortest, tightest film since his debut, and -- one wouldn't be out of line arguing -- his most emotional, intelligent and thrilling yet. (Personally, I ride or die with Batman Begins, Inception and Memento, but this is closing on them fast.
#17: SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR
Upsetting, rage-inducing document of four Latina lesbians falsely accused of gang-raping two girls, leading to a two-decade fight for exoneration. Incorporating home video footage of the women at the time it happened to intimate, gut-wrenching interviews with them today, as well as statements from defence and prosecution attorneys, director Deborah S. Ezquenazi's film methodically compiles an overwhelming defence of their innocence, not to mention a tragic indictment of rampant homophobia, '80s "satanic panic" and toxic masculinity. Despite an abrupt ending, this is a powerful, moving tale of injustice and resilience.
#16: THE BIG SICK
A big warm hug of a film, with an admirable commitment to creating a central relationship of real, adult complexity, which never skimps on any dilemma -- every issue the couple have in this film feels earned and thorny, as if it'll take forever for them to dig their way out of. This is a testament to Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon's smashing screenplay, which also explores cultural clashes with wit and charm. To be fair, it does meander at times and is a bit too long, but everything else -- the wonderful cast (especially Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), Nanjiani's developing stand-up routines, the screenwriters' (and director Michael Showalter, also no stranger to this environment) depiction of the stand-up comedy world -- is calibrated as perfectly as a modern romantic-comedy-drama can get.
From a franchise (two?) I'd long lost interest in, Hugh Jackman, director James Mangold and his co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green somehow fashioned a film that, nine months on, has stuck as far and away the best studio blockbuster I saw in 2017. This fierce farewell to Wolverine and Professor X feels like Fox's gift to Jackman and Patrick Stewart for 17 years of fronting the hugely lucrative X-franchise; after making eight for us, you can do one for you. Logan gives Jackman's Wolvie the broken, ultra-violent, profane, melancholic -- but ultimately hopeful -- coda he deserves, whilst deftly layering in an all-too-real vision of a crumbling America inhospitable to anyone different; the opening scenes seem directly lifted from the opening pages of Trump's America. Sure, there are some clunky metaphors at play, but the execution of this feels classical and sincere in a way most films produced at this budget level don't. Lastly, the film introduces us to a gale-force talent in the form of young Dafne Keen, whose fiery X-23's relationship with Logan and Xavier gives this picture its gravity. The fact such heart and brutality, such nihilism and hope, exist side-by-side is pure Wolverine, a testament to Jackman's genuine affection for this character who made him a superstar, closing with a beautifully elegant shot that, I won't lie, made me teary.
#14: A CIAMBRA
My partner in life and Cinema Viscera, Perri Cummings, is of proud Roma heritage, which means I'm always keen to check out any (all too rare) cinematic excursions into this unique, transient, but tight-knit and fiercely defiant culture. (I highly recommend checking out Laura Halilovic's 2014 comedy My Romantic Romani/Io Rom Romantica.) Based on his 2014 short of the same name, filmmaker Jonas Carpignano again looks at the same lead character, young Pio (Pio Amato, playing a fictionalised version of himself) as a likeable, clever, old-before-his-time Romani boy who bridges several cultural factions in his Calabria neighbourhood -- local Italians, African refugees and his Romani community -- which he navigates just fine, with an eye on emulating his older brother, until he's manipulated into a situation that will force him to choose a side, even if it means betraying a friend. Building upon his short films and his acclaimed debut feature Mediterranea (2015), Carpignano skillfully uses a modern neorealist approach and non-actors to craft a quietly heartbreaking tale of manhood and responsibility in a fringe Roma community.
#13: THAT'S NOT ME
Full disclosure: I know the star-director-writing team who made this film a little bit. Well, I met actress Alice Foulcher at a party last year, where we spent ages swapping stories about the micro-budget films we were making (then met her husband, director Gregory Erdstein, after seeing the film, close to a year later). More disclosure: While Alice & Greg are lovely and funny, and the trailer for their film looked peppy... I wasn't sure it was my kinda thing. What's more: It got into the Big Melbourne Festival that I really, really wanted our film to get into. So it's fair to say I approached That's Not Me with mixed emotions... which made me delighted that I fell so hard for it. By a huge distance the best Australian indie I've seen in years, Foulcher and Erdstein managed to craft a debut so winningly assured, I could only feel a surge of pride and joy for what they'd achieved (even more so, on such a threadbare budget). Foulcher makes an alarmingly confident starring debut, but it's her and Erdstein's screenplay that's the real magic trick, mired in the uncomfortable truths of so many an aspiring Australian actor/filmmaker's experience. I can't recall an Australian film so casually charming, so bright and funny, which has also felt so genuinely honest and thoroughly lived-in. Can't wait to see what these two do next.
#12: CERTAIN WOMEN
Kelly Reichardt has carved out a space in independent American film for creating small masterpieces of quiet desperation, but -- much as I admired Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff -- this is the first that really connected with me. Achingly precise, beautifully deliberate and everyday-poetic, featuring wonderful performances from Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, even Kristen Stewart and especially newcomer Lily Gladstone, Reichardt mines the short stories of Maile Meloy to dig into her characters' micro-struggles, continual concessions and prescribed roles, ultimately yielding heartbreak. (There are two unbroken shots of Gladstone towards the end of the film which will damn near bruise your soul -- and show why she should've been Oscar-nominated last year.) Really worth seeing on a big screen, if you can, where you can give yourself over to its gentle, wise cadences.
#11: MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI (aka MY LIFE AS A COURGETTE)
See the poster to this film, right there? There's no way in hell I was going to see that movie. I don't generally connect with (non-Pixar, non-Brad Bird) animation, and cutesy stop-motion kiddie faces? Hell NO. Thankfully, in my previous job as a cinema usher, I was rostered on to a session, and the rapturous reviews I'd heard from friends made me pay attention. Wow. This poster is not the film I got... and yet? It also kind of is. Claude Barras' debut feature (based upon Gilles Paris' novel and co-scripted French indie darling Céline Sciamma, of Tomboy fame) is a gorgeous, often incredibly dark and, sometimes, even upsetting animated tale of kids orphaned and abandoned, told with disarming frankness, a huge heart and admirable brevity (65 minutes!!), with a cast of beautifully written characters who'll stay with you long after you've finished watching it. If you can't see it in French, never fear: the US voice cast is actually great.
THE TOP 10
#10: IT'S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD
Anyone who knows me, uh, cinematically, knows I'm hook, line and sinker in the bag for Xavier Dolan. Every one of his films to date has a maturity, emotional rigor and confidence with both storytelling and the medium of cinema that belies Dolan's freakishly young age. Rather than hating on him out of pure jealousy, I've been powerless to deny the sheer ambition, curiosity and honesty of his films, culminating with the gobsmacking 2014 Cannes Jury Prize winner Mommy. So when It's Only The End of the World bypassed all forms of cinema release out here (save for a couple of French Film Festival screenings), sneaking onto home streaming service Stan, I had to worry: Had the Boy Wonder lost it? When I finally caught up with it, I was immediately engrossed. Why has this film been so marginalised? Not nearly as baroque as Mommy, Laurence Anyways or Tom At The Farm, this felt like a smaller, more theatrical chamber piece in between bigger movies (his US, English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donavan is due in 2018), albeit starring an all-star dream team of French cinema: Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel and Nathalie Baye (who is amazing here). If I had any complaint at all, it would be that, at times, its stage origins do show (based, as it is, on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce), but that'd be it; it deals with a combative, caustic family, but if that doesn't daunt you, jump right in: Dolan's surgical gift for dissecting flawed families see it soar, making this work as layered, affecting and propulsive as anything he's ever done.
When I saw this back in August, it was purely a joy to see Harry Dean Stanton play a star role again, some 30 years after Paris, Texas, but since his passing in November at the age of 91, it's a beautiful final chapter to one of the great American character acting careers. Actor John Carroll Lynch makes his directorial debut with this sweet, gentle, melancholy and amusing film, allowing Harry Dean to play a character very much informed by his own outlook -- he believes in "nothing", smokes cigarettes like they're disappearing, goes to the same bar every night and has a cheekily rambunctious streak a mile wide -- in a lovely look at mortality and freedom that's worthy of the great man. There's extra pleasure in seeing Stanton's old pal David Lynch in a rare acting role, playing an eccentric (you don't SAY) man obsessed with finding his escaped tortoise. In fact, Lucky feels all the world like Jim Jarmusch's Paterson at age 90 -- the two films seem connected by the same yearning, the same curiosity, the same satisfaction found in quiet lives lived authentically. RIP, Harry Dean -- hope you've got a guitar by your side and full deck of American Spirit at all times.
#8: FEBRUARY (aka THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER)
While I admired its commitment to its odd, aggressively static aesthetic, I really hated Oz (son of Psycho's Anthony) Perkins' second feature, I Am The Pretty Thing Who Lives In The House... but there was enough of a vision at work there to compel me to seek out this, his oft-delayed first feature. Another film which deserved better than to quietly sneak on to home video and streaming service Stan, February (known in the US as The Blackcoat's Daughter) is the most genuinely creepy horror film I've seen from the 2010s. The simple setup sees two girls (Lucy Boynton and Mad Men's sad-eyed Sally Draper, Kiernan Shipka) left behind at a snowbound girls prep school as everyone else heads on a weekend break. As it turns out, one of the girls is incredibly, increasingly, weird. Meanwhile, another, older girl (Emma Roberts) is on a journey of her own through the winter night... Honestly, I've never seen such a whiplash 180 between first and second features since Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko and Southland Tales. Somehow, here, Perkins makes one of the all-time great horror debuts, gently crafting a chilling yarn of creeping malevolence and a little satanic-panic menace, employing unnerving sound design, stark visual control and his brother Elvis' wonderful score -- not to mention the special effect that is Kiernan Shipka, who is straight-up terrifying here -- to deliver an arrestingly cinematic creepfest that demands to be watched in the dark, turned up loud, on the biggest screen possible. I'll now wander down any dark path Oz Perkins deigns to take me.
#7: HAPPY END
I think we can all agree that, regardless of whether his films appeal to you or not, Michael Haneke is one of the master filmmakers working today; the complete control evident in every frame of his glacial, jet-black, often score-free explorations of the worst aspects (or, best aspects in the face of mortality) of human nature is truly a wonder to behold. (Making a film, you become even more painfully aware of how difficult this level of control is.) For all of his formal rigor and moral exactitude, Haneke always struck me as the greatest thriller director we'll never have. Watching Haneke engage with genre is fascinating; his idea of horror film is Funny Games or Benny's Video, his take on a thriller is Hidden, his post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror is Time of the Wolf -- all tower as unsparing, unblinking journeys into anti-genre. So, one may wonder, what would a Michael Haneke comedy play like? Thanks to Happy End, we no longer have to: true to form, he goes comic with a family album of bourgeois sociopaths, played brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jean-Pierre Trintignant, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski and Toby Jones. His look at a toxic, wealthy family in Calais struggling to communicate with everyday human emotions, slowly imploding in various ways, is as riveting as layered as anything he's ever done -- this family's dramas, by turns mordant, melodramatic and even murderous, play out as the mounting refugee crisis, barely glimpsed by this lot, plays out in the far background -- but adds an extra dose of casually caustic humour that works surprisingly well, leading to a double-show-stopper of an ending. At the age of 74, Haneke's work is as fresh and bracing as ever -- and, now, even funny.
Barry Jenkins' Best Picture-winning triumph arrived under a hailstorm of hype, to the point where one's reaction to it felt like some kind of demand: you're with us or against us. The nature of online fervour felt a little out of control, and much too politicised, with the genuinely charming La La Land copping the brunt of a disproportionate backlash. So it's a testament to Moonlight that, even from beneath this suffocating hype, it manages to not only engage and impress, but leave a mark that stings, with images that stick fast. Using a seemingly endless array of cinematic elements at his disposal -- not just sensitive writing, intelligent direction and terrific actors (especially Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland and all three Chirons), but light, shade, texture and temperature -- Jenkins crafts an American original filled with pain, love, sensitivity and sensuality, more than worthy of his inspiration, Wong Kar Wai. A story of longing that isn't cloying, a story of desire that isn't indulgent, a boundlessly stylish film that never shows off or pokes you in the eye with it, it's a quietly powerful, surprisingly universal story that transcends some well-worn trappings to share an emotional, even profound, experience.
#5: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
In what seems to be a recurring theme in this year's list, I really didn't dig writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos' previous film, The Lobster, which felt like a great short stretched out to two laboriously strained deadpan hours to me. Turns out, the secret to Lanthimos making a genuinely great film was this: keep the idiosyncratic, dark-as-hell worldview, be a little less funny and even more horrifying. Bourgeois narcissism and seething sociopathy collide head on in Lanthimos coal-black morality tale, influenced by ancient Greek myth, embodied by a brilliant cast who are almost uniformily in career-best form (Farrell is brilliant, Barry Keoghan is something really special and I don't think I've ever loved a Nicole Kidman performance as much as this -- she is f-i-e-r-c-e). I won't go into story points or characters, as you should see this one as cold as possible. It may circle the drain longer than it should, but Lanthimos delivers a chilling, near-Kubrickian social horror film of diabolical proportions, which builds to one truly terrifying finale.
#4: IT COMES AT NIGHT
I haven't seen Trey Edward Shults' debut feature, Krisha, but heard that it played domestic social-realist drama like horror, so I was interested to see what he did with an actual horror film. Beyond that, though, I had no idea what to expect -- and what I saw just floored me. It's a small, dark, intimate film with buckets of atmosphere, filled with terrific, naturalistic performances from its small but well-credentialed cast (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Egojo, Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott and Kelvin Harrison Jr). While its setup is very much that of the kind of post-apocalyptic, post-zombie-outbreak movies and shows we've seen, Shults' film goes to a completely different place, crawling under our skin by traversing this emotional terrain in a way I've rarely seen drawn this compellingly, economically or frighteningly. As the two families at its centre bond and form a micro-community in a world gone to hell, the insidious force that proves their undoing, that sees them baying for blood, is, more than any other... love. In this divided, fiercely protective, you're with us or against us age we currently live in, if that's not a heady, disquieting concept to keep you awake at night, I don't know what is.
#3: THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Sean Baker manages to top his idiosyncratic, shot-on-iPhone indie wonder Tangerine in every conceivable way with this beautiful, big-hearted, social realist tale of kids and families (both real & makeshift) living in Florida's "welfare hotels", under the shadow of the capitalist mecca of nearby Walt Disney World. I'm generally dubious of stories told through the eyes of children, but the kid cast here is astonishing -- Brooklynn Prince as Moonee is so effortlessly natural, yet, somehow, enormously charismatic, and Valeria Cotto as red-headed Jancey just cracks your heart in two at all times, she's just adorable -- and Baker has a real feel for capturing kids doing the everyday stuff kids do, at how they create their own world within the one they've been saddled with. With his crew and wonderful cast of newcomers, non-actors and a lovely Willem Dafoe, Baker unearths everyday wonders, modes of survival and cycles of behaviour through a kind, unflinching, enormously empathetic lens. His characters are flawed, troubled, limited, abrasive, outcast, and yet, all seen with the utmost sense of love, openness and lack of judgement. The Florida Project is tragic, funny, truly social realist -- and exactly the kind of film I never knew I needed so badly.
#2: THE WORK
This simply shot, straightforward documentary follows an intriguing proposition: Twice a year, California's Folsom State Prison opens up its doors to civilians, to observe and participate in their inmates' regular four-day group therapy sessions. We follow three men into the prison -- an African-American bartender confronting his lifelong fear of prison, a white hipster type looking for something but unsure what, and a swaggering Latin-American man looking to see how he "measures up" alongside hardened cons -- but as they discover, this isn't like any kind of group therapy session you've ever seen. Because these aren't just any convicts: they're "level four" prisoners -- murderers, rapists, notorious gang leaders, all inside for interminable stretches -- burdened with a seemingly insurmountable tonnage of emotional trauma, inherited toxic masculinity and psychological baggage to work through. As the sessions get underway, we see that these kind of patients employ a form of -- dare I say -- brutal sensitivity, as the cons shout, clutch, cajole, shove and scream their way through some dark, desolate, deeply wounded emotional landscapes. Along with the convicts, the three civilians we follow in also learn something confronting, primal, surprising and important about themselves. It's not an easy watch by any means -- the discussions are candid, profane, confronting and almost uncomfortably intimate -- but don't be misled: The Work is not a depressing dirge of wall-to-wall pain. In fact, watching the way these men reveal themselves, and have each other's backs (sometimes literally), is incredibly powerful to watch -- and, ultimately, important. Because this is the kind of rehabilitative experience our prison systems need to aspire to: Prisoners confronting their misdeeds, their guilt and their culpability, but also the people, influences and environments that led them there... and then using that knowledge to help others battle their demons. Undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking, potent documentaries I've ever seen -- tears were streaming down my face just 30 minutes in -- Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous' film should be compulsory viewing -- particularly among men, young and old, who battle with the spectre of inherited, toxic behaviour every day: you don't have to give in to it. You can be better than that. You can confront it, confront yourself, and heal. You'll see even the baddest of badasses can cry... and that, more often than not, they're the ones who need to do so the most.
...which leaves us with my #1 release of 2017...
#1: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
This film tore me in two. I didn't see it coming, but surprise was not the only factor -- just thinking about its small moments, its low-key confrontations, its emotional clarity, I know a second viewing would propel me to the same raw, uncontrollably tearful place. I'm not sure if it is just me getting older, or a reaction to the increasingly fraught world around us, or a reaction to the compromised, corporate-mandated and market-tested blockbuster cinema we're being fed year after year, but as 2017 went on, I started to discover that what I need most out of art these days is to be moved. Not in an overbearing, sentimental, not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house type way, but in films and TV and stories that seem to have a direct line to truth. Characters and situations that, whether straight-dramatic or genre-fanciful, are grounded in a recognisable form of human behaviour and connection; ones that don't seem like they're acting in service of the plot, or genre conventions, or posing for the trailer. This is what has always appealed to me about the films of the 1970s -- a decade in which indie dramas, absurd exploitation films and studio comedies all seemed to reflect an unvarnished, tangible, authentic quality. This is terrain writer-director Kenneth Lonergan understands. While I was divided on his epic, troublesome drama Margaret from a few years back, his first film, 2000's You Can Count On Me was a little gem, and all three of his films draw upon his extensive background writing and directing for the stage, a background steeped in mining the minutiae of human behaviour, of human frailty. Using small observations of people struggling through enormous personal tragedy, Lonergan teams with his peerless cast to burrow deep into these primal truths. Casey Affleck (we'll set aside his problematic personal life for the purposes of this review) finds another gear in this performance, deeply inhabiting this bereft man, permanently broken and almost unbearably open-nerved with self-immolating guilt. Michelle Williams -- much more at home in such surrounds -- makes a nuclear impact with relatively little screen time, Kyle Chandler is a damn-near angelic presence in this thing and Lucas Hedges is assured and just about perfect, marking him as someone who's career I'll be following from here on in. Rather than wallow in grief -- which, in my truth-seeking state, would utterly repulse me -- Lonergan and his cast know the ebbs and flows of life, the everyday joys and fuck-ups and wins and losses and loads and struggles and dumb baggage and macho bullshit and compromises and passion and indignities and loves and bruises of the whole damn thing. For a film that made me barely suppress howls of tears, Manchester by the Sea also features some of the laugh-out-loud funniest, and most warmly affectionate, moments I saw anywhere -- on film, television or otherwise -- all year. Because that's the way life is. You never see it coming. But when it does, you will be unprepared. It may even destroy you. What Manchester by the Sea shows us is, there is no outcome. There's just getting through life, until it ends. But we've got a hell of a better chance of getting through it together. We just have to have the empathy, and the stamina, to try. With Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan has, for me, unquestionably crafted a true American masterpiece.
Thank you all so much for reading my annual ramblings, and for supporting us here at Cinema Viscera throughout the year! I want you to know how much it all means to me, and I can't wait to return the favour by showing you our film next year... and the one after that.
Vive le cinema!
Paul Anthony Nelson
Hey there, Viscerals!
What a year, huh? Shame it was so uneventful. Nothing of social or artistic or political consequence happened and we all lived happily ever after!
Okay, I'll dispense with the sarcasm. Honestly, I'm not sure what I can say about this year that hasn't been said already, repeatedly and more eloquently. We lost titans of the arts -- from David Bowie and Alan Rickman, to Prince and Leonard Cohen, and then some -- while the far-right swept to power in a depressing majority of developed nations as fears around economic disparity and radicalised terrorism took hold (boosted and manipulated by a media often all-too-willing to seek clickbait headlines and controversial soundbites over facts, but that's another conversation for another forum). I mention this as the major events of 2016 have left a lot of people around the globe uncertain at best -- and terrified at worst -- at what awaits us in 2017, and this climate can't help but find itself reflected in the art we saw and heard this year.
As a consequence, my favourite films of 2016 list boasts some choices that, while still great films on their own terms as art, entertainment or documentary, are undeniably politically motivated; cinema that aims to illuminate, educate and/or shock us out of our reverie (if the news hasn't done that already). Many of my favourite film experiences of this year were, in some way or another, reflections of where we're at as a society right now, and, while we've come so far, highlight symptoms of a society still in need of many cures.
However doesn't mean I've gone all self-righteous and shit. Some killer big-and-small-screen entertainments made my faves of 2016 as well, because I'm a human being who enjoys popcorn and a good time like everyone else. So, without further waffling, let's jump in by busting a widely-spoken myth, straight up:
CINEMA IS NOT DEAD.
Breathless obituaries were issued for cinema/movies/feature films/the theatrical experience in 2016; everyone from the Huffington Post to the Boston Globe (you'd think a Best Picture Oscar about their workplace would stay their hand) and Bret Easton Ellis told Movies to kindly step aside, your time is over, Television is now the dominant screen art form, forever and ever, amen. I respectfully disagree.
Every art form bursts with valid perspectives and fresh takes on old themes each and every year. The first flaw most of these articles make is assessing "Cinema" by looking almost solely at blockbusters and awards season titles, which is like assessing literature by focusing on E.L James and Stephanie Meyer -- based upon that criteria, the novel is well dead and buried, too! Just because gargantuan promotional budgets try to force blockbuster behemoths into the zeitgeist, doesn't mean they represent the art form, or, indeed, that they were of any worth in the first place. If you look around, even a few inches either side of your local multiplex, you can see vital, exciting cinema to prove the seventh art is as thrilling as ever. (After all, for every Mad Men or Stranger Things or The Night Of, there's a Luke Cage or a Keeping Up With The Kardashians or, well, most of the soapy dross that continues to flood network prime time TV. Again, it conveniently suits these arguments to focus on the top 1% of great works, ignoring the garbage it floats atop.)
Okay? Are we all agreed? While, yes, there is some brilliant television, and, yes, gee whiz it can tell stories in such a different way to cinema (well, being a different art form, of course that's true) -- my own highlights of the year include the brilliant final season of Mad Men, the adorably fun Stranger Things, the claustrophobic real-world terror of The Night Of (welcome back, Richard Price!), the salty, kickass (if somewhat overlong) Jessica Jones and the beautifully melancholic first season of Transparent -- let us come to our collective senses and agree that the reports of the death of movies have been greatly exaggerated. (Read on, to find some supporting documents as to the continued health and life of the art form.)
SOME GOOD -- NO, GREAT -- STUFF HAPPENED TO ME THIS YEAR.
Doom and gloom, sturm und drang, was not hard to find in 2016, with no shortage of people calling for the year's head, as "Fuck you, 2016" became a popular refrain. But here's the thing: while, yes, in a lot of ways (especially in the realms of politics, socioeconomics and celebrity passings), the year did suck for a lot of people... I actually had a pretty great 2016. Perhaps the best year I've had this decade.
For starters, we made a movie. I've wanted to make films for 25 years, only got serious about it 8-9 years ago and, after making five short films during that time, finally got lucky enough to be given the chance to make my very first feature, Trench, this year. We set up and shot the film for $15,000 over 16 days during a balmy April in Melbourne, and -- daily heart-into-throat stress attacks aside -- it was a truly special, memorable time of my life, surrounded by a small cast and crew of the most lovely, giving, talented and beautiful souls I've had the pleasure to know and work with, who pulled together their incredible skills (for whatever reason!) to help my partner and I make our crazy little modern Melbourne comedy/noir picture. This circle of kindness opened wider still, when we raised almost $14,000 for post-production mid-year, thanks to 230 wonderful people who wanted nothing but to help us realise our dream (and, yes, get a tax deduction as well). To my ears, no amount of thanks I can give these people -- cast, crew and donors -- sounds adequate. The reason Trench exists is because of you. As the time of writing, we have a fine cut locked in, and we'll be spending January getting the picture and sound sorted, aiming to complete the film by the end of that month, to screen for sales agents, distributors and festivals! (Not bad for a film we didn't start writing until late August 2015.)
I also got to attend a film festival as a filmmaker for the very first time, as my most recent short film, Cigarette, was selected to screen at this year's Monster Fest -- Australia's premier genre and fantastic film festival! -- in Melbourne this November. The job festival director Kier-La Janisse and her team have done over the last two years in raising the game of this relatively young festival has been nothing short of awesome: the program featured the very best films to emerge from the world's major genre fests, such as Sitges, Fantasia and Fantastic Fest, as well as shining a light on emerging Australian talents. From Opening to Closing Nights, I made full advantage of my VIP lanyard, seeing 9 films in 4 days, being roped into an impromptu session of the VHS board game Nightmare and meeting all manner of cool people, from filmmakers to festival programmers to film fans alike. I got to be the subject of my very first recorded interview and Q&A as a filmmaker, and got to sit in an audience with my cast and crew, watching our hard work beam onto the big screen. The entire festival treated me beautifully, and it was a wonderful experience I shall forever treasure... and, I dare say, felt like the turning of a personal corner.
Another professional delight this year wasn't even mine: it was watching my great friend Tim Egan's short horror/sci-fi/thriller, Curve -- unbelievably, his first short film in over 15 years -- conquer the world, premiering at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, before going on to screen and win major prizes at Fantastic Fest, Toronto After Dark and, most notably, Sitges, where its award win qualified it for the Academy Awards(!). Every week for the last six months, it seems, Curve was selected to screen at another festival across the world. My proudest moment, however, was sitting in the audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival -- a key Melbourne event Tim and I have attended, both together and apart, for the best part of 20 years -- and watching the screen extend from a 16:9 aspect ratio, extending further, seemingly to infinity, to handle the sheer visual heft of Curve's 2.35:1 ratio, before the film exploded onto screen in all its darkly thrilling glory. Tim and I have worked together on various projects in various capacities over the last ten years, and he's always struck me as a singular talent -- I count him as a key creative mentor, which is unusual to say about someone five years younger than you, but Tim's no ordinary cat -- and the fact that Curve has made such a far-reaching impression, effectively announcing Tim Egan to the world just confirms everything I've ever thought about him, and it couldn't happen to a nicer dude.
One last professional joy for me also wasn't my own, nor was it even cinematic: another of my closest friends, Lee Zachariah, turned the toughest emotional time of his life into his very first book, Double Dissolution: Heartbreak and Chaos on the Campaign Trail, which sees him covering the 2016 Australian Federal Election whilst recovering from the disintegration of his marriage. I'm still in the midst of reading it, but thus far it's everything I expect from Lee and then some: honest, insightful, brilliant and hilarious. Double Dissolution is available in bookstores throughout Australia, or at the link I've helpfully laid into the book's title above. If you haven't yet, I urge you to grab one for yourself, and more copies for others.
But enough about me and my friends...
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2016
Some disclaimers to start:
1) As always, this countdown reflects my own personal thoughts, and not the views of our production company or any other people within it.
2) As ever, the films eligible for this countdown were every feature film to receive a paid public non-invitation screening of any kind: so, everything released to cinemas, home video, video on demand, streaming channels or film festivals. In 2016, I saw 97 such films (33 of them at festivals), the first time in recent memory I've not hit the ton. (Something something I've been making my own damn film, etc.)
3) After emerging shattered, enraged and gobsmacked from the absolute worst film I saw this year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice -- I don't like announcing my worst-of-the-year, but I'll make an exception for this comically inept, aggressively mean-spirited, chronically misjudged ten-ton turkey -- I implemented a new rule I would stick to for the rest of the year (and possibly beyond): I would see no more blockbuster sequels, reboots or remakes. (I saw Captain America: Civil War beforehand, and the only four blockbusters I saw for the remainder of the year were what I've taken to calling "Lateral Blockbusters", that is, original films set in existing universes: Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Rogue One. None of which came anywhere close to making this list, just so you know.)
4) Past readers of these year-end blogs may be expecting a wrap-up of my favourite retrospective screenings of the year. Unfortunately, I'm just not able to do one this time around. What with making Trench and generally being busier than ever, I just didn't have the chance to see as much stuff this year. Another reason for this paucity is the fact this was my first year not co-hosting the Hell Is For Hyphenates podcast, which forced me to explore the career of a different great filmmaker every month. Yet another was, I watched a stack of film noir both new and old in research for Trench, but very few (of those I hadn't seen before) excited me. You can see the list of what I watched here -- for fun, when Trench comes out next year, see if you can find any trace of them in it! But also... while I saw a lot I liked and some I loved, there just wasn't a truly revelatory experience like I had felt in past years, like discovering Robert Altman, or Masaki Kobayashi's Human Condition trilogy, or being blown away by the restoration of William Friedkin's Sorcerer or seeing Pulp Fiction on the big screen for the first time in 20 years.
5) However, one of my most fun film experiences this year was what I termed 'Shocktoberfest 2016', where I watched 31 horror films (and the Charlie Brown Halloween special!) in the 31 days of October on the flimsy excuse of celebrating Halloween. I really dug a lot of what I saw, and it was fun to rekindle my true love for horror again. You can find the full list of what I watched here. (The biggest revelation of the whole thing, for me, was how brilliantly Cujo held up. A claustrophobic nightmare about the erosion of the modern American family. Everyone in the film, even poor Cujo himself, is a victim. It's frightening and poignant stuff.)
6) All right, real quick: my favourite first-time retrospective viewings of 2016 were...
THE TOP 20 FILMS OF 2016.
Firstly, ten Honourable Mentions, all of which could have secured the #20 ranking on any given day:
Louis Theroux's customarily funny yet quietly frightening big-screen debut, MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE; Shane Black's colourfully intoxicating, razor-sharp return to L.A. neo-noir, THE NICE GUYS; Grant Scicluna's beautifully slow-burning rural Aussie noir debut, DOWNRIVER; Park Chan-Wook's sexy, twisted, bravura return to form, THE HANDMAIDEN; Jesse Moss' unexpectedly lovely look at the friendship between Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds (and, thus, 1970s American machismo), THE BANDIT; Rock Baijnauth's charming, affectionate document of coffee-crafting excellence, BARISTA; Jennifer Peedom's astonishingly right-place-right-time debut documentary and damning examination of class and exploitation, SHERPA; David Farrier & Dylan Reeve's insane, hilarious and increasingly unnerving exploration into the world of "competitive tickling," TICKLED; Mattie Do's deliciously complex, Laos-set modern gothic drama of class warfare, DEAREST SISTER; Ben Wheatley's caustic, visionary and all-too-uncomfortably relevant Ballard adaptation, HIGH-RISE.
1) THE HATEFUL EIGHT
General theatrical release.
Review: Funny how the first film I saw in 2016 was also the one to most accurately frame the violently toxic, tumultuous socio-political landscape to come. Anyone who knows me knows Quentin Tarantino is my favourite filmmaker and artistic idol, but even I didn't quite expect him to come up with this. (Also, for those who see this atop this year's countdown and find it painfully predictable, allow me to correct you: The last QT film to top any of my yearly best lists was KILL BILL VOLUME 1, waaaay back in 2002.) The Hateful Eight is not only Tarantino's purest spaghetti western to date, but also his most political film yet: a gleefully nasty, unflinchingly nihilistic mirror to a racist, misogynistic United States of America. It has something on its mind in a prominent way that Tarantino's films have always downplayed; they're always about something, but only lately have the works themselves been brazen and pissed off enough to openly admit it. It's a beautifully bilateral film: both thrillingly entertaining -- bursting with witty scripting and indelible, complex characters, -- and teeth-baringly vicious, out to leave a deep and painful mark. In an often painful year full of intelligent, angry films about the world we find ourselves in right now, I couldn't help but find this one of the most truthful. But it's no tract: The Hateful Eight is a big, blasting, booming cinematic tableau writ large -- quite literally, in its full 168-minute-plus-15-minute-interval, 2.76:1 aspect ratio, Ultra Panavision 70mm film glory -- with work from its cast (particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Walton Goggins) that ranks among the best of their career. And while we're discussing "career-best work", can we talke about il maestro Ennio Morricone, who delivered the year's most distinctive, thrilling, even bone-chilling, musical score? I saw this behemoth three times on the big screen -- something I've not done since, well, Death Proof -- and it wouldn't take much coaxing to lure me into a fourth. Although it made its world premiere at the tail end of 2015, The Hateful Eight has proved to be the definitive film of 2016, and the ultimate summation of the obsessions, concerns and filmmaking powers of Quentin Tarantino to date. Perhaps this might just be his masterpiece.
Thank you for reading my wrap of the films of 2016! If you want to know everything I saw (and where on my list it landed), check out my entire list on Letterboxd, right at this link: http://letterboxd.com/cinemaviscera/list/my-best-to-worst-new-releases-of-2016/
I look forward to seeing you around these parts in 2017 -- visit cinemaviscera.com and trenchfilmnoir.com for all the exciting developments on what promises to be our biggest and best year yet!
Love, peace and cinema,
A brief summation to begin.
Another year, and another promise to blog more has been broken. Why do you all keep believing me?
(NB. Regarding the banner picture up there: Only two of those five films made my list. Care to wager which before you keep on reading? Meet you at the end.)
2015 has been a crazier year than most. Perhaps even the craziest of my life to date. Here's hoping the madness doesn't stop here.
The year opened with me in pre-production on my short film Cigarette, seeking freelance video work and creative inspiration, editing Cigarette, had me turning 40 bang in the middle, then really kicked off, with my partner in life, crime and creativity, Perri Cummings, and I writing a feature screenplay and shooting a "rough draft" version of the entire 83-minute thing in two days before showing it to a small audience, departing as co-host of the film review podcast Hell is For Hyphenates after five-and-a-half wonderful years, rewriting our movie script, re-shooting some scenes and screening it again, readying Cigarette for festival release and ended with us working on writing our third draft of said feature film -- by now called Trench -- and gearing up to shoot it -- yes, to make our very first feature-length movie -- in early 2016!
The prospect of 2016, with a short film going out to festivals, a feature film shoot (and likely going out to festivals itself by year's end!) and more semi-regular freelance video work -- as well as all the new stuff I'll learn and films I'll see (what with new works by Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, Todd Haynes and Aaron Sorkin heading our way... and that's just January!!) -- thrills me with prospective delight.
And now... the films.
2015 has been an odd duck of a year, feature film-wise (at least, the ones I've seen): Films with massive reputations that underwhelmed, films that made full contact with greatness but didn't know when to quit, largely unheralded films that quietly stunned and -- most shockingly, for me -- a clutch of mega-budget blockbusters that were so great, they pushed the form forward.
But let's hop in the wayback machine, real quick:
My Favourite Unearthed Treasures of 2015.
One delight of being a movie fan in this day and age, with unparalleled access to films from bygone eras, is being able to explore film history at your own pace and temper. Being co-host of the fabulous* podcast (*I can say that now, as I'm no longer on it) Hell is For Hyphenates was one hell of a way to have this exploration curated, thanks to a different guest choosing the filmmaker whose career I'd spend the next month examining. While I don't regret my decision to leave Hyphenates after over a half-decade, I will miss being pushed toward some corners of film history I may not have thought to explore.
Case in point: my first big discoveries of 2015:
Most people are more likely to think of Kobayashi as a character in The Usual Suspects than a master of Japanese cinema, but this needs to change. Masaki Kobayashi was a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa and Keisuke Kinoshita, which may explain why he got lost in the shuffle a little. (Great trivia note: this titanic quartet were all friends, and even formed a production company in the late 1960s known as Yonki no kai, which translates as "The Four Horsemen Club"!) While Kobayashi's filmography was perhaps slightly more uneven than at least Kurosawa's, I was stunned and delighted to find his peaks stood shoulder to shoulder with even Akira's best.
HARA-KIRI (known in Japan by its original title SEPPUKU -- both terms meaning ritual suicide; the latter, the more traditional Japanese term) is a searing critique of Samurai culture and the hypocrisy inherent within all systems believing themselves beyond reproach, whether political or patriotic (or, by inference, patriarchal). Kobayashi's film starts with a seemingly humble, broken-down ronin in feudal Japan offering his services to a wealthy family, which has apparently been happening a lot of late. The deal is, they offer employment or seppuku, and whichever one the house chooses, the ronin must obey. Your more greedy families, not wanting to potentially pay some layabout claiming to be samurai to loaf about their houses, tend to choose the latter... as they do with this ronin I introduced earlier. But, in preparing to kill himself for this proud and wealthy house's gratification, our ronin has a story to tell... I won't say any more, except to say it's both thrillingly exciting and crushingly sad, one of the greatest revenge yarns ever told and, despite revolving almost entirely upon obsolete social structures, is as relevant and excoriating now as ever. It's astonishingly good.
Also astonishingly good is THE HUMAN CONDITION, the trilogy -- yes, trilogy -- of films Kobayashi made right before HARA-KIRI. Kobayashi was an avowed pacifist who refused to enlist for World War II, was promptly drafted and thrown into the conflict, and, after refusing to take a rank above private, was captured and detained into a POW camp. So, when he discovered Junpei Gomikawa's epic novel about Kaji, a pacifist whose wartime experience weirdly mirrored his -- albeit with a few more horrific trials of mind, body and spirit thrown in -- it was small wonder Kobayashi took it upon himself to devote three years of his life to adapting Gomikawa's book to the screen. Both personal and sweeping, intimate and grand, THE HUMAN CONDITION, watched in its 10 hour entirety, is, quite simply, not only one of the greatest anti-war statements, but greatest achievements in cinema history. If Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune as his ever-malleable muse, Kobayashi found his own in Tatsuya Nakadai, who is simply phenomenal as Kaji. It's a masterpiece that will shatter you. I have screenwriter Mark Protosevich to thank for this discovery, and you can listen to our Hell is For Hyphenates chat here.
My other favourite discoveries of 2015 include:
- Don Herzfeldt's beautiful tryptich of animated shorts combined into one indelibly heartbreaking 62-minute feature, IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY. By following Bill, a man whose perception of reality and memory is becoming increasingly blurred and untethered, if there's a better, more deeply felt film about hopes, dreams, dealing with mental illness and just struggling through day-to-day life, I've yet to see it. Pretty incredible when you consider it's a film populated entirely by stick figures. One of the great works of the 2010s -- and would have been my favourite film of 2012 if I'd seen it that year.
- Not technically a discovery, but a film I'd seen some 25 years ago as a teen and (clearly) fundamentally didn't understand, seeing Spike Lee's definitive "joint" DO THE RIGHT THING on the big screen in bright, blazing, clarion call colour was an incredible experience. I now know why there was such a furore over its Oscar shutout in 1990, and why it appears on so many Best Films of the 1980s lists -- because it's a masterpiece. Angry, hilarious, blissful, bruised, beautiful and unstoppably exuberant, DO THE RIGHT THING is everything we love about Spike Lee as a filmmaker, all at once. But what's both wonderful and awful about this film, is how brand new it feels, even 26 years later -- for the best (Lee's vibrant, immediate cinema, the lived-in performances, the somewhat timeless Brooklyn/Bed-Stuy archetypes) and worst (America's seemingly endless struggle with racism and identity, police brutality and persecution of African-Americans) reasons.
- Sometimes, you're ridiculously late to the best parties... but the great thing about cinema is those parties never have to end. Case in point: me finally getting around to seeing the films of French New Wave titan Agnes Varda, again thanks to Philippa Hawker and Hell is For Hyphenates. A million miles away from the pretentious essayist provocations of Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda is such an irresistibly puckish, inquisitive filmmaker, her films so alive with humour, curiosity, creativity and humanity, they can't help but be instantly engrossing. The best of her considerable body of work is tough to choose, but for me, her career-defining second feature, CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, is the one. Following a popular singer (played by the gorgeous Corinne Marchand) on a pivotal day in her life, as she waits for some potentially terrible news, struggles with creativity and ego and maybe even falls in love -- all in real time (the 90-minute film's title should actually be CLEO FROM 5 TO 6:30, but I understand that's not nearly as catchy). It's all those adjectives I assigned to Varda's work earlier, but also impossibly cool, raw, sensual and adorable. The only film Varda made that, I would say, equals CLEO would be her final feature documentary, the self-reflexive retrospective THE BEACHES OF AGNES... but that is best viewed after seeing everything she's done, which you should absolutely do, because there are no duds in this deck. She's amazing.
- Speaking of cinematic masters, the more Ingmar Bergman films I see, the more I'm gobsmacked. Like Varda, his films are always so heartbreakingly human, inquisitive about humanity and surprisingly funny -- or frightening. His 1960 masterpiece THE VIRGIN SPRING fits firmly into the latter category. Set in medieval Sweden, it's the story of a devoutly religious family whose beloved daughter is raped and killed by a roving band of thugs... who then, unbeknownst to all, are taken into the family's home to stay the night. The almost unbearable sadness of the situation, the even-nowadays-grueling attack scene and growing tension over who will discover what about whom and when, all adds up to a brilliantly claustrophobic fable of human nature, crime and punishment and who we all really are when pushed. It's an astonishing work in a career of them by the Swedish master. (I also saw FANNY AND ALEXANDER this year, which was also brilliant, and full of so many unexpected moments and flourishes.)
Now, let's jump back into the wayback machine and return to...
My Favourite Films of 2015.
As I do every year, I must preface my list with a few caveats:
1) Films eligible for this list include any feature-length fiction/narrative or documentary film given its first paid public release -- that includes cinema releases wide and exclusive, DVD/Blu-Ray, VoD, streaming and film festivals -- anything any member of the public can pay to go see -- in Australia in 2015.
2) Except for one film which was released on Boxing Day last year, but I only saw this year, which came oh-so-close to finishing in my Top 20 this year. You'll find him, his marmalade sandwiches and his hard stare in my Honourable Mentions.
3) The eligible field this year was bang on 100 films -- down from 115 last year, 145 in 2013 and a whopping 155 in 2012 -- hey, I told you up front it was a busy year for me!
As I said earlier, 2015 was an odd duck of a movie year: I liked the vast majority of what I saw, only loved but a few and pledged my unquestioned allegiance to fewer still. First, I give you my...
30) A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (Dir: JC Chandor)
Low-key, 1970s-style study of struggle for integrity in the face of capitalist greed and gun violence slowly grips tight.
29) PUTUPARRI AND THE RAINMAKERS (documentary, Dir: Nicole Ma)
Hurt but hopeful record of a tribe -- and its troubled but inspiring, constantly evolving leader's -- long quest to regain their native land. Incredible access to our oldest culture.
28) THE WOLFPACK (documentary, Dir: Crystal Mozelle)
Fascinating documentary of an especially odd family makes its potentially very dark material relatable -- even adorable -- by choosing to focus on the resilience and enthusiasm of its loveable subjects.
27) MI ROMANTIC ROMANI (aka IO ROM ROMANTICA) (Dir: Laura Halilovic)
Lovely family comedy set amongst Romani culture in contemporary Italy, tackling topics of adaptation and prejudice with gorgeous subtlety and economy.
26) THAT SUGAR FILM (documentary, Dir: Damon Gameau)
Think you knew sugar? Actor-turned-filmmaker Gameau spoils your party with some genuine shocks and revelations in this rigorous, highly entertaining documentary.
25) CITY OF GOLD (documentary, Dir: Laura Gabbert)
Lovely, well-crafted portrait of famed Los Angeles food writer Jonathan Gold proves as much a love poem to L.A and multiculturalism as it is to its big-hearted subject.
24) ARABIAN NIGHTS, VOLUME 1: THE RESTLESS ONE (Dir: Miguel Gomes)
Opening chapter to Gomes' playful epic is digressive and elliptical -- even maddening -- to a fault, but also wildly creative, hilariously droll and touches troubling political chords.
23) 99 HOMES (Dir: Ramin Bahrani)
Bracing, unbearably tense drama set amongst global economic crisis shows human face of those crumbling and prospering, refusing to judge -- at least, until the climax.
22) PADDINGTON (Dir: Paul King)
Adorable adaptation of beloved bear is stacks of fun, yet gently, powerfully weaves in themes of refugee experience and prejudice.
21) JOY (Dir: David O. Russell)
Engrossing, moving study of a modern self-made woman starts in heavy exposition overload, but rouses -- even genuinely thrills -- once everything clicks into place.
The Top 20 (at last).
20) THE MARTIAN (Dir: Ridley Scott)
Who knew Ridley Scott could be this playful?? A hugely entertaining blockbuster that doesn't dial down the smarts, steering a brilliant, TOWERING INFERNO-level cast through a rollicking, riveting sci-fi tale of scientific can-do. And awesome disco tunes.
19) LISTEN UP PHILIP (Dir: Alex Ross Perry)
Misanthropic jerks are rarely so fun to watch, as Perry and his ace cast dig deep into character with wicked humour and withering insight.
18) AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (Dir: Joss Whedon)
Unjustly maligned follow-up is by far the better Avengers movie, bringing the kind of character detail and dynamics that only Whedon can provide, along with kinetic, splash-page thrills in ways the first film didn't -- and channels comics like no film before.
17) THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Dirs: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
Cinema's mad genius Guy Maddin is unfiltered and unstoppable, delivering a cinematic fever dream that hurtles relentlessly through lost cinematic genres, in astonishing -- if kind of exhausting -- style.
16) BRIDGE OF SPIES (Dir: Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg's most classical, humanist work in years unearths a most worthy biopic subject in insurance-turned-unwitting-human-rights lawyer John Donovan, and towering work from Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks.
15) CHRONIC (Dir: Michel Franco)
Crisp, confronting character study of living with illness -- both physical and emotional -- demands attention, with sparse dialogue, brilliant performances -- one of Tim Roth's very best, which is saying something -- and elegant storytelling.
14) A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (Dir: Roy Andersson)
The best of Roy Andersson's savagely mordant "Living Being" trilogy swings from hilarity and tenderness to human cruelty, with fearless confidence.
13) ARABIAN NIGHTS, VOLUME 2: THE DESOLATE ONE (Dir: Miguel Gomes)
Obscure opening chapter segues to relentlessly engaging, melancholy tales of complicity and community in hard times, anchored by an astonishing trial scene, and the most heartbreaking little puppy you ever did see.
12) MY LOVE, DON'T CROSS THAT RIVER (documentary, Dir: Jin Mo-Young)
With astonishing access to their lives, Jin crafts a lovingly observed, emotionally gruelling record of nonagenarian couple facing mortality together. (Bring all the tissues.)
11) MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION (Dir: Christopher McQuarrie)
Expanding upon the excellent GHOST PROTOCOL, the latest in the Best Superspy franchise of all is a blissfully silly, twisty and ingenious blast -- and, in Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, packs a female match for Hunt in kickassery. The best MISSION since De Palma's original -- which is probably no accident, given they're the two most Hitchcock-influenced of the series.
The Top 10 of 2015.
10) NASTY BABY (Dir: Sebastian Silva)
Silva again proves himself to be a puckish master of rug-pulling tonal shifts, as his darkly funny, riveting descent into moral quagmire explores class tensions and shifting sands of generational fortune.
9) CITIZENFOUR (documentary, Dir: Laura Poitras)
Essential, stunning reportage of Edward Snowden's NSA leak (as it was happening!) and its implications terrifies as much as it enlightens... and HOW it was made astounds. The very act of making this film feels like a risky, heroic act.
8) WELCOME TO LEITH (documentary, Dirs: Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K Walker)
Terrifying account of a tiny town's struggle to quash an Aryan terrorist takeover manages to both inspire and sicken. This and CITIZENFOUR make for the best horror movie double feature of 2015 -- because it's all horrifyingly true.
7) EX MACHINA (Dir: Alex Garland)
This Thoroughly Modern Prometheus skilfully tackles big issues around technology and free will, with admirable rigour and visceral discomfort. There is no programming more human than self-interest. Best riff on Frankenstein in years.
6) WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (Dir: Noah Baumbach)
Baumbach's sharp, funny and sometimes confronting look on the gap between Generations X and Y may be the definitive take on it so far -- and could cut too close to bone for some, as gleefully, but honestly, critical as it is.
5) FOXCATCHER (Dir: Bennett Miller)
Sublime direction and brilliant performances drive this chilling true-life tragedy of lives destroyed by wealthy male privilege run amok. Less a tale told than observed, through fragments of behaviour.
4) BIRDMAN, OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (Dir: Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Bracing, perfectly played and wildly entertaining theatrical headtrip through a thespian superego, hilariously tackling artistic relevance and fame's corrosiveness. Michael Keaton is sublime, and I could watch him and Edward Norton play acting tennis all day long.
3) BEASTS OF NO NATION (Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga)
Fukunaga follows up his TRUE DETECTIVE triumph with a boldly cinematic, relentlessly confronting child's-eye-view of the West African conflict, as we follow a boy from happy kid to child soldier and beyond. An almost unbearably sad account of a broken cycle of despair, driven by political greed, overseas interests and power-mad ideologues. Abraham Attah and Idris Elba give incredible performances.
2) INSIDE OUT (Dirs: Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen)
Lovely, perceptive and remarkably complex examination of emotion and experience, through a supreme family entertainment. Key viewing for kids and adults, mining the most primal of human experiences to show us why all emotions, even sadness, are not only useful, but essential. Pixar's greatest magic trick to date and their best film in years hits raw nerves, earning its crushing, mass-sob-inducing finale. Beautifully designed with a retro flavour and perfectly voice-cast, too. (One last word: Bingbong.)
1) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (Dir: George Miller)
Was there ever any doubt? From the second George Miller's exhilarating sequel/reboot/reinvention began to the moment it concluded, I was in the hot, hard grip of its pure, astonishing mania. Astoundingly visceral, FURY ROAD is the place where next-level practical stunts and choreographed action meets insanely detailed, almost surreal design (it felt to me like Jodorowsky on all the crack at times) and sinewy, locomotive scripting. How refreshing, in this backstory-obsessed age that spends forever (even entire trilogies) explaining how everyone got to where, to have this movie throw us mercilessly into a world we barely recognise, with characters we don't know, left to adapt to this world or die.
From Junkie XL's stirring, percussive blast of a score, to John Seale's kinetic, seemingly-positioned-everywhere cinematography, to Charlize Theron heisting the film in broad daylight from an already terrific Tom Hardy with her already-classic one-armed super-heroine Furiosa, to the wonderfully powerful feminist subtext laid throughout, George Miller has created the new millennium's second definitive action epic (Tarantino's KILL BILL -- another with feminist overtones -- being the first, for mine). I love that, in Miller and cinematographer Seale, two 70-year old Australians created such a powerfully immediate, modern work, one captured in bracingly vivid visual tones that seem to echo not what MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR were like, but what it felt like to watch them for the first time, three decades ago.
Fourth entries in film series are not meant to be any good. In fact, they're almost uniformly terrible. But, in echoing but not aping, linking but not continuing, honouring but not seeking to recapture the initial trilogy, George Miller has made The Exception That Proves The Rule: A fourth film that shows that sequels don't have to be repetitive, that blockbusters can be thematically interesting, that broad emotional strokes don't have to be reductive, that action can be physical and awe-inspiring, and that mega-budget cinematic entertainments, when entrusted to true artists equipped to paint on a grand canvas, don't have to suck. They can be inspiring. They can push the form forward. They can inspire the next generation of filmmakers.
Thank you for reading this year's countdown, hope you enjoyed it! To check out the 100 films I saw that were eligible for this countdown, click here: http://letterboxd.com/cinemaviscera/list/my-best-to-worst-new-releases-of-2015/
Please let us know your favourites of the year in the comments below, and we'll see you in 2016, for our most exciting year yet, where Cinema Viscera will dip our collective toe into the big screen universe!
Cheers -- and vive le cinema!
Paul Anthony Nelson
December 30th, 2015
Hope you all had a killer Christmas and are shaping up for a huge new year (we certainly are)! How was your 2014? Personally, it's been kinda big; I moved one feature film script closer to completion and started another, wrote my first short film in three years -- which we'll be making, frighteningly soon -- started forming a team of awesome collaborators to take Cinema Viscera to the next level, and basically lined up a shitload of dominos to knock over in 2015, all going well. But more on all that in other posts to come soon. Today, I'm here to extol the virtues of what 2014 gave me in cinema, and other filmic discoveries I had along the way -- broken up into helpful chapters.
Are you kidding??! Yes, I am, and no, we didn't: once Lee and I reconstructed our exploded brain matter from around the room, we leapt at the chance. A good two months before our chat date, we began the herculean task of watching all 36 of Altman's features (Lee also -- insanely, in my personal medical opinion -- took on the great man's 10 made-for-TV movies and two Tanner TV series as well!).
What followed was one of the defining film-viewing experiences of my life. The attention to character, the love of actors, the dexterity of staging, the fluidity of camerawork, the cacophony of sound… his films were so urgently, thrillingly alive.
Watching M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park and countless other classics, you feel as if life is unfolding in front of you, a life that began before the film unspooled and continues after it ends, a life we've just been privileged to jump into for two hours, yet all filtered through incredibly unique takes on genre. Western, War, Horror, Thriller, Science Fiction, Costume Drama, Crime, Drawing Room Melodrama -- there isn't a genre he didn't successfully tackle.
What's more, Michael Altman was a lovely man, a most obliging guest with plenty of great stories and insightful perspectives on his father's films. Studying the method of Bob Altman's madness, immersing myself in his intoxicating, quintessentially New Hollywood aesthetic -- watch M*A*S*H again and tell me that it isn't the American Cinema of the 1970s beginning in front of your very eyes -- felt like an adrenalin shot to the way I think about making films, and, while I don't believe I could ever be brave enough to replicate the gloriously disintegrated chaos of his sets, his intuitive, collaborative, generous way with actors will forever inform the way I direct mine.
Voyages of Discovery.
Not to knock the films of 2014 -- as you'll soon see, they've more than pulled their weight -- but many of the most invigorating movie experiences of this year have been older films I finally got around to seeing, or all-time favourites I was fortunate to rediscover on the big screen.
Chief among the latter, was the thrill of seeing my #1 favourite film, The Godfather, on the big screen at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, on a glorious 35mm print sourced from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (yes, the folks who give out Oscars) in Los Angeles. Same goes for ACMI's screening of their likewise acquired 35mm print of The Godfather Part II, (my all-time #5), which proved to be more amazing than ever on this viewing. These two films present American cinema at its optimum: grand yet intimate, planted firmly in genre yet laced with timelessly relevant social commentary about how we live and what we do to each other, forged with flawless craft and embodied by an explosive cast who all get a moment to make an impression. More than ever, The Godfather felt like a precursor to the prestige TV shows that obsess the culture today; Michael's sorry story isn't a million miles away from, say, Walter White's journey in Breaking Bad. The Godfather Parts I & II find Francis Ford Coppola operating at the peak of his godlike 1970s powers, and how one can witness 375 minutes of cinema, and not find a one of them wasted, is one of cinema's true miracles. Masterworks both, and a big screen viewing is not an offer you should refuse.
The whole Jack Rabbit Slims sequence wrought actual tears of joy. The musical way QT and his editor Sally Menke build and deliver such an array of centrepiece scenes into a cohesive, irresistible whole is masterful. And amongst the gunplay and monologues, there's something actually damn near poignant about Jules' final act turnaround; a man who has operated on power and violence his whole life suddenly finding he's no need for any of it -- and truly no idea what to do next.
It reminded me just how much of Pulp Fiction is about human connection. The conversations between Vincent and Mia, Jules and Vincent, Butch and Fabienne, Jules and Pumpkin/Honeybunny -- they're all just people trying to make sense of a world that's always perched precariously on a gun barrel, where the most desperate choice is always the easiest and violence literally lurks around every corner. In his larger-than-life way, Tarantino is often most interested in seeing his characters find fleeting pockets of inspiration within the madness that is their lives.
Just as I saw it on its second day of release in 1994, I want to devote my life to making movies that make others feel the sheer elation that Pulp Fiction brings to me. It was a wonder way back then, and remains so today -- and will endure.
Meanwhile, my biggest non-Altman discoveries of 2014 were two films that actually lived up to their hype as cinematic masterpieces of the highest order, and another that was bafflingly considered a failure for too many years…
Let's start there.
Fritz Lang's M (1931) is an phenomenal work in every way, and holds up like crazy today. From its truly chilling opening, to its astonishing tracking shots and composition -- 60 years before we met David Fincher, and even presaging Hitchcock -- to its ZODIAC-style interrogation of what a crime wave does to us on a psychological and socioeconomic level, to never forgetting the comic possibilities inherent in cops and crims hunting for the same perp, to Peter Lorre setting the tone for his long and distinguished career with his terrifying yet pitiable performance, to the powerful kangaroo court finale, from minute to minute M had me wondering how a film from 83 years ago can say so much, in such innovative style, so entertainingly. A jaw-dropper from start to finish.
Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) opens like a Lars von Trier film -- there's a sentence I never imagined myself ever typing -- and only gets nuttier from there. This exploration of identity and inverting traditional female roles is a closet full of mysteries, bewitching and bewildering in equal measure, yet resonating powerfully on a primal, subconscious level as cinematographer Sven Nykvist's luscious monochrome compositions envelop your senses. One could make a solid argument for Persona being the archetypal "European Art Film", even out of sync with the rest of Bergman's career -- I've never seen him this angry or experimental, and seems to emerge just as much from the turbulence of the mid 1960s as anything else, influencing generations of filmmakers and blowing countless minds. Essential cinema.
But enough trips down memory lane. It's time for the show!
Paul Anthony Nelson's Unsolicited Countdown of the Best Films of 2014
Every year has its share of good and bad, but 2014 was, by any measure, a strong year for movies; perhaps the strongest of the twenty-teens thus far. Once again, most of the year's best were found well outside major US studio fare, but -- credit where it's due -- there was some solid multiplex fare, too. Although they didn't make my cut, much fun was to be had with such spunky blockbusters as BIG HERO 6, GODZILLA, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and EDGE OF TOMORROW, among others. Likewise, despite box office woes doomed by an industry slow to embrace change, 2014 was the best year for Australian cinema this young century, with CUT SNAKE (which screened at festivals this year, with a wider release due for early 2015), THE ROVER, THE BABADOOK, THE INFINITE MAN and the last of Mark Hartley's energetic alternative film history documentaries, ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD HISTORY OF CANNON FILMS, all providing memorable moments.
As usual, I duly sidestepped most major US comedies, films that looked particularly bad, or anything Cameron Diaz was in this year. And, naturally, there were quite a few critically or commercially popular films I just plain missed as, well, I can't see everything and, often, didn't really want to. This year kept me pretty damn busy, forcing me to miss a number of screenings I actually did want to attend, so why waste my time with things I didn't? Still, I think you'll agree that I've absorbed a broad spectrum from which to choose my year's finest (my full list of eligible films can be found in the comments).
As always, my countdown arrives with disclaimers:
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
(Because this year in film was so strong, I've had no choice but to forgo the usual 5-10 honourable mentions and name a record 12. I just didn't have the heart to kick any out, so rest assured that the 32 films -- my Top 20 + 12 Honourable Mentions -- you're about to read about were all films I genuinely loved in one way or another. I can't think of another year in the decade I've been doing these lists that I've loved so many. Okay, now I'll shut up and count down.)
THE TOP 20 FILMS OF 2014
…and then there were 10...
…which can only mean my #1 film of 2014 is...
1. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
The Coen Brothers have outdone themselves. This will not be a movie for everyone; it's wintery, melancholy, low-key and features a miserable protagonist… but it may be my favourite work of their incredible career thus far. Following belligerent, bereaved folk singer Llewyn Davis over one particularly awful week as his life and career continue to unravel, it struck me -- and has so over three viewings now -- as one of the best films ever made about the psychology of an artist. In the Coens' customarily clever, caustic, quirky way, it asks all the big questions that keep artists of all stripes up at night: Are you as talented as you think you are? Does the world really want to hear what you have to offer and, if they don't care, does it all even matter? What if you're the right person in the wrong time? Is your integrity and unwillingness to "sell out" helping or hurting you? Are you selfish and/or your own worst enemy? Watching Llewyn, sad, sarcastic and beat down (a phenomenal performance from Oscar Isaac, fast becoming one of my favourite actors), losing and using the last friends he has left, trying to get by day-to-day and struggling to hold on to what remains of his dignity, is both darkly funny and a moving, humbling experience. The world of early '60s Greenwich Village and folk music is beautifully recreated, which cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shoots through a cold, ghostly sheen that gives everything a spectral quality, like we're witness to a culture that's already dead but doesn't know it yet. Forged of harsh truths, the pain of creativity and human frailty -- but it's not all sturm und drang: there's some genuinely hilarious moments here -- when Llewyn is roped into a recording of the novelty song Dear Mr Kennedy, for one, or the egotistical, dark-arts-worshipping jazz legend (John Goodman) and his Kerouac-wannabe chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund) Llewyn finds himself driving cross-country with. With every new film, it feels to me like the Coen Brothers' entire career, when all said and done, will end up looking like the Great American Novel On Film, such as they so perfectly capture the foibles, follies and futility of humanity, spanning so many timeframes through experiences that seem so uniquely American yet, somehow, hit us all right where it matters.
Thanks for reading, and for supporting us here at Cinema Viscera this year. Looking forward to showing you all kinds of mad and glorious films in 2015 and beyond!
Viva la cinema,
Paul Anthony Nelson
Hello, my dear Viscerati!
Firstly, allow me to apologise for being so rubbish at blogging. Here I was, ready to get all Peter Jackson and document my every move during pre-production… and then, like that, six weeks just tumbled off the clock. Which is exceedingly indicative of my life, really.
Hey, what do ya know? I really AM blogging my process.
So, as you can guess, I've been hunkered down writing: Developing the micro-budget script, redrafting MENTOR, reviewing HYDE for Pez (aka Cinema Viscera's other engine room, Ms Perri Cummings) to redraft. And so it goes.
But something's been bugging me. I'm generally really good at coming up with titles. As you can probably guess from, well, every film I've made or proposed as writer/director, I've a particular love for pithy, catchy one-word titles that both tease and encompass everything I want to say with the film...
…and do you think I've been able to think of one for the micro-budget flick? Nothing. Nada. Bupkis. I've been referring to it as "The New Thing" or #microbudgetdebut, which, cryptic as they are, aren't great film titles.
This struggle to dream up a title led to the heart of my problem: I've had issues with my micro-budget screenplay idea. Story points really stuck out at me, some of it felt really lame, and it was only until a couple of story meetings with Pez that really brought home what I needed to change. I really needed to drill down to what I wanted to say. What kind of dynamic we were going for with our leads. Did I really want to make a blind date movie? While I wanted an element of the internet and social media's impact of how we meet new significant others, not really. So things had to change.
Namely, some of the stuff I told you in my last blog. Jon is now Tim. Becky and the newly christened Tim are now estranged siblings and, while he's still a "slacker" in the Gen-X sense, he' s also a stand-up comic. His social media meltdown is now an onstage meltdown that goes viral -- so it still hooks into our central conceit, of social media being a cocoon for some and an inferno for others. Becky's pretty much the same -- a reclusive features writer for lifestyle and pop culture websites who hasn't left her house in years -- but she's not actively looking for a date any more. Tim's life pretty much collapses after his meltdown, and the only place he's left to go is the city apartment that his parents left to him and his sister when they died. Of course, he arrives to find that Becky has been living there for years, unbeknownst to him. He's been following her on Facebook and thinks she's living la vida loca -- he's as fooled as everyone else.
No, I'm not telling you anything else. You'll have to see the movie.
But it has also proved to me that there's no point being precious about your story, even when you're a little humbled by sharing the concept with others, only to change it all up. Evolution is good, natural and keeps it all getting better.
Oh, wait, I'm forgetting something.
After that story breakthrough, something funny happened. I found a title. It was one I'd thought over before, but it didn't ring my bell… but it kept recurring to me, and took on greater weight, as to what it meant for my characters, for Generation X, to a generation living their lives through the dopamine hit-driven prism of social media...
I'll leave the interpretation to you. But we kinda like it, and I hope you do, too.
And I started writing the script yesterday. I want to try a lot of different things on this film -- making a feature film ourselves, from inception to ancilliary -- and one thing I've always wanted to do is just shotgun a draft. Bang it out in two or three weeks, Corman-style. As we'll be extensively rehearsing with our actors and seeking their input on their characters' development and dialogue, it actually benefits me to not be precious with my screenplay, so if I can't practice shotgunning this script, then when? BUFFERING will be fast, cheap and in control.
Can't wait to show you more in the new year. In the meantime, I'll report back about HYDE and MENTOR's progress, and perhaps we'll have some video treats in store between now and Christmas. Until then…
Viva la cinema,
Greetings, my dear Viscerati!
In the ten long months since my last entry, work has continued apace on building our little film micro-studio that could! However, some meetings and odd jobs aside, a good 90% of that work has been writing. Our slasher epic MENTOR has been ran over with the red pen and is heading into its second draft, as is our real-world, real-creepy adaptation of HYDE -- which will kick off our web-series project, MONSTROUS; adaptations of classic horror novels given a 21st century, all-too-real flavour -- not to mention the other stories and outlines we have in the pipeline. But, as these projects all inch toward production… something felt missing.
It is now three years since I made my last "proper" film, the short flick TALKBACK (aka T IS FOR TALK RADIO). By "proper", I mean a real creative project of my own, with a point of view, that I had written and directed for public consumption. As those three years have passed, I felt my track record receding further into the rear view mirror with them. I've shot nothing but a few online promos and showreels since and, while I am proud of this work, none of it suggests I'm about to step up and helm a feature film, which is what we're all here to make. So I needed a new idea. Not another short film, because (and you may disagree, as this is just one jerk's opinion) I feel the Australian filmmaking landscape is somewhat overburdened with those. I've always found my real inspiration as a filmmaker in the American independent scene: Privately financed, few if any grants, a lot of grit and grassroots appeal. But I needed that idea. Something I could shoot completely with tools -- cameras, lights, actors and locations -- that I had immediately to hand. Something that, if I had the script ready, I could shoot, like, next week. But something super-frugal that wouldn't feel cheap and nasty, or like a big film squashed into a small one. Something whose budget complemented its ambitions. A kick-starter. A flood-buster. A micro-budget feature film debut.
As my MENTOR screenplay took shape, it became increasingly clear that it would not be this first feature, as I'd hoped. It's still a low-budget idea, but would take a little bit of financing outside of my threadbare accounts or the crowdfunding sphere. And to get that kind of cash, I need to show that I can tell a story. To hold an audience captive for more than, say, half an hour. So I grabbed my pith helmet and pickaxe and resumed searching for that idea. I won't kid you: it was tough. I think I tend to have 1-4 million dollar ideas: cheap enough to qualify as low-budget, but waaaaaayyyy out of the reach of the valley of the micro-budgets. Until I found it.
At least, I thought I did. A series of short sketches, filmed in black and white, on location around Melbourne, all involving just two people, having a conversation over a table or side by side, which would eventually be combined into a kind of COFFEE AND CIGARETTES-style feature -- albeit something considerably more ramshackle. But it was only when devising one of those, that I became obsessed with one character: an odd woman in her late thirties who was still tentatively making her way through the world, largely agoraphobic and quaintly yet seriously odd. She had very loosely sprung forth from a neighbour I briefly had a few years back, a nice enough but strange woman who lived alone, left her house only to ride her bike to the shops and left lengthy handwritten notes telling me to turn down the noise in my flat, despite her loosely adjoining wall being four full rooms away from where the not-particularly loud noise was coming from (my TV. I think). I started combining this character with other traits I found interesting -- I made her a shut-in, looking for a date online -- when, without warning, I was now sketching a completely different movie.
This character's overly structured attempts at manufacturing and manicuring her online profile went from dating sites like RSVP and Tinder to her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles… and suddenly, I had my first inkling of a subject: Social Media. How it has changed the way adults behave, relate and filter. Why people in their thirties and forties were so willing to adopt the abbreviated, often narcissistic customs of those much younger. And how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But it was in creating her back story, that I created her foil -- a man in his late thirties who didn't leave his creative or emotional inertia behind with his twenties -- and in creating said foil, I had my inspiration. He felt like he'd stepped straight from those 1990s indie films I had so identified with during that time of my life, but this was a good 15 years later, and he -- like our female lead -- had spent that time burying himself inside a social media cocoon. By this point, I was overjoyed, because I finally stumbled upon my theme: Where are Generation X at now, in the post-social media age?
So, here is what I can tell you right now:
- This new script will be Cinema Viscera's feature film debut.
- It will be made for the smallest budget humanly possible, but still look pretty and bring delight to all.
- We're hoping to shoot this summer (between Dec-Feb), all things going well.
- It will be a comedy/drama, with more than a little awkwardness and only-slightly-surreal satire.
- The lead characters' names are Becky Holt and Jon Wade.
- Perri Cummings will play Becky.
- I'm still getting a handle on Jon, but when I do, we'll scour the city (ie. my contacts list) for the right actor.
- It will be shot on digital, and in black and white.
- It doesn't have a title yet…
- …but it does have a synopsis, which is:
"A lonely shut-in, living behind a vivacious alter ego, and an immature slacker, shunned via social media after an outburst, connect on a dating website and decide to meet, where they discover more about each other – and the shifting online social minefield that has redefined them – than they bargained for. "
When it gets a title, I'll let you know. You may have also noticed by now that I'm being much more forthcoming about this project than any I've had before. Because it's our first feature, because it's small and needs all the support it can, and because it's about the way we make connections online which flourish in the great wide open, we've decided to opt for full transparency. We'll be posting semi-regular updates on the progress of this project, as a diary of the journey into madness of making our first born. As a proud expectant parent, I hope you'll join us every step of the way.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need Becky and Jon to start doing stuff.
With love and widescreen dreams,
Paul Anthony Nelson
Hey there, stranger! Where have you been these last twelve months?
2013 has been a strange year professionally. While I didn’t make a short film of my own this year, I began the year in a rather alien position for me -- shooting ‘B’ camera on my good pal Shane Dunlop’s sitcom LEONGATHA (which screened on C31 in Melbourne and Sydney mid-year). I say “alien” as I’ve rarely been a Camera Operator outside of one of my films or a school environment. It was a fantastic experience, working with a lovely crew on a fun, fast-paced shoot. I learned a lot, got some nice footage -- and the shoot introduced me to the glory of the 50mm lens, for which I shall be forever grateful. So a huge thanks from me to Shane, Luke Morrison and the Sengsouvanh (aka Scallions) brothers for having me along. It’s a funny show, too, and all available on YouTube.
Then, thanks to the gale-force powers of Rubia Braun, I lent my services to the Armed With The Arts Peace Crane Project, shooting some footage of origami cranes and kids playing in Melbourne for the Australia arm of this excellent project. Supported by the United Nations, no less, the project aims to get children all over the world engaged in artistic pursuits, and exploring its potential to understand other cultures, start a conversation and find alternative ways to express emotions and resolve conflict. It’s a brilliant initiative, and the video we shot in the US, India and Australia was screened in New York, before the UN. Here it is, and it’s pretty darn cute.
There was also the usual work of shooting and editing pitch videos for friends’ TV projects and actors’ showreels... but the most exciting development for me this year was writing my very first feature film screenplay. I’ve been developing my “inverted slasher film”, MENTOR, for a little while now, but finally put Courier New to Final Draft (the new “pen to paper”, in case you’re wondering) this year and, by September, was able to hold an 88 page printed document, that included a beginning, a middle and an end, in my hands. Needless to say, this was a massive thrill for me. Literally decades of starting feature film scripts and hitting the wall at page 30 are now over. It feels like a new era has begun. I’ve since started work on my “official” first draft, cleaning the script up and turning it into the movie I want to make. It’s going slowly... but brilliantly. I’m even surprising myself, which is nice. I’m looking to have this draft locked in by March 2014, which is when things will start to get really exciting!
But enough about me. I know you’re all here for...
If I had to vote for a collective cinema MVP of 2013, it would be American Independent Cinema. The US Indies have killed it this year, showing more than ever that you don’t need a big budget, special VFX or even a script to get to the truth: you just need to find your own way there, in the way that speaks to you. Films in among my favourites this year include a midnight movie take on the 1%/99% divide, a completely improvised comedy of unresolved tension between friends, possibly the greatest feminist rom-com ever made and a look at a care facility for at-risk kids that manages to dodge all sentimentality for beautifully lived-in truth - and breaks your heart anyway. What’s more, 2013 is also the year where the spearheads of the so-called “mumblecore” film movement -- Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski -- finally graduated with honours, making films that were funny, touching, inventive, scarily relatable and beautifully crafted.
As always, this countdown arrives with disclaimers:
145 films enter... how many will leave?
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 FILMS OF 2013
Thank you for joining me again (or, if for the first time - welcome!) for my annual epic journey into my movie year! Hope you found my picks interesting, and are encouraged to seek out the films here you’ve not seen! Have a happy, healthy and cinematic 2014!
Viva la cinema!
My Top 10 Pleasant Surprises of 2012
So, here we are again, dear readers: Christmas gifts opened, dinners consumed and Boxing Day films viewed as we’re but hours away from closing the book on another year. Which means only one thing to film blogs, of course...
2012 has been an odd year, personally, professionally and cinematically. Personally, it’s been a year of finding my way: of testing what does work, what doesn’t work and examining what I want most out of life. Professionally, it’s been a year of constant activity entwined with -- somewhat paradoxically -- stagnation, which ultimately served as the chrysalis for a rebirth of professional goals and future projects. We started the year aiming to make two shorts, made none, instead creating a heap of trailers for various projects and purposes, before announcing to the world our big plan: Two shorts in 2013, followed by our first feature film, MENTOR, in 2014. Yeah, I’m pretty excited.
Cinematically, what promised in many ways to be an epochal year in modern cinema turned out -- for me, anyway -- to be one of cold disappointments and pleasant surprises, with only a few exceptions. It was a year where I became a radio film critic for ABC Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast FM stations in Queensland, and therefore going to more screenings and seeing more new films than ever before. Whether this contributed to my relatively ambivalent view of cinema in 2012 is something only time will tell, since I’ve now hung up my radio critical boots (after, it must be said, having a wonderful time chatting with respective morning hosts Nicole Dyer and Annie Gaffney).
It was a year where many of my favourite filmmakers released new works: Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, for starters (although the latter’s effort is excluded from this chart as it releases in Australia in 2013 -- which is a shame, as it would have made a huge impact on the list). Who of them made my list of favourite films of 2012?
Quick answer? Not as many as you would think.
So let’s dig in to it. What you will find below are my Top 10 Pleasant Surprises and Top 10 Films of 2012. As always, the rule of eligibility is this: Only feature-length narrative and documentary films that received a PUBLIC, NON-INVITATION-ONLY Cinema, DVD/Blu-Ray, Television or Video On Demand release in Australia for the first time in 2012 are able to be included. Basically, any feature film that Joe and Jane Public could buy a ticket to is in (so this includes films screened at film festivals). Got it? Okay. So, from a record 155 eligible films, here are my…
Paul Anthony Nelson's Top 10 Films of 2012
First, the runners-up:
15) THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
14) KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND
12) THE RAID
11) A SEPARATION
...and then, there were ten…
So, that draws the curtain on 2012! If you haven’t seen any of these, I implore you to rush out and do so! Thank you all for your support this year, and we welcome you all to join us for the wild ride to come…
Now bring on 2013!
Viva la cinema,
Paul Anthony Nelson
Firstly, Happy New Year!
Secondly, welcome and thank you for joining me at the new blog! I’m aware many of you read my past year-end posts on my old PULP FRICTION AUSTRALIA page, which I discontinued in favour of this much more *ahem* self-promotional portal. But mainly because it made sense to put everything in one place. Feel free to go back and read my old pieces at PFA, however -- they’re not going anywhere.
Emerging from a cinematic year with optimism for the next, as I did at 2010’s end, is a risky proposition. Dreams and expectations, in this internet-driven age of hyperbole and rock-or-suck impunity, can be shattered in a cold, orphaned instant. Or, the impossible can happen: Your expectations could be exceeded...
Yeah, okay. So that didn’t happen in 2011.
But… my expectations weren’t reduced to rubble, either.
If nothing else, world cinema in 2011 – at least, the relatively infinitesimal speck of it I managed to see – was remarkably well played, for the most part. Sure, the stinkers were out there if you wanted to find them: THE HANGOVER PART II, ABDUCTION, BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE: LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, NEW YEAR’S EVE, GREEN LANTERN, RED RIDING HOOD, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, ZOOKEEPER, THE ROOMMATE, BUCKY LARSON: BORN TO BE A STAR and, well, anything starring Adam Sandler or Nicolas Cage, had more than their fair share of vocal detractors. But you know what?
I didn’t see any of them. Potential dodged bullets, all.
But I also didn’t see such acclaimed efforts as A SEPARATION, SENNA, MONEYBALL, INCENDIES, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, RANGO, HIGHER GROUND, PROJECT NIM, THE FUTURE, THE HELP or BEING ELMO, so, y’know… swings and roundabouts.
Before I count down my (newly expanded!) favourite films of 2011, allow me the indulgence to get personal for a moment…
My nascent filmmaking career has had its own twists and turns this year. In a year where everything seemed to take me three times as long as it should (post-production on past shorts, development on future projects), I managed to make my fourth short film – and first horror film – to compete for a place in an upcoming anthology picture called THE ABCS OF DEATH. Shot in two days and edited over two weeks with a small and fantastic team, T IS FOR TALK RADIO may not have made the competition finals, but proved to be the most artistically fulfilling project I’ve originated thus far, and won our little production company lots of new fans around the world.
Which means I’ll have to make something even better next time. <gulp>
But it has given me the confidence to head into 2012 with a small head of steam, at least.
Now… enough about me – let’s hit the list!
(WARNING: Everything before this paragraph was written a couple of days before New Years Eve, as I was beginning to come down with a savage case of the ‘Flu. Everything after this paragraph was written in a haze of Lemsip, Neurofen, Echinacea/Vitamin C/Garlic/Zinc and Ease-a-Cold tablets. So, while the rankings were decided beforehand, if the reviews make little grammatical/conceptual sense… I blame the drugs.)
In a first, I’ve opened up my usual top 10 films to 25, as I felt at least ten films I saw this year were worthy of more than an “Honourable Mention”. But then there another five which wouldn’t go away, either. Doesn’t usually go down like that, so I thought I’d acknowledge it this year. A gold star to stick on 2011’s yearbook, if you will.
As for which films qualify, any film I saw which was commercially released to the public in cinemas, on DVD or at ticketed film festival screenings during 2011 is eligible. My field this year? 117 feature films and documentaries.
I’ve also done away with my Bottom 10 list this year, as a) I’ve purposely avoided the worst releases of the year and b) I’d prefer not to focus upon the negatives in what was, largely, a pretty strong year for movies. Also, I kind of like to celebrate why we love to go to the pictures in the first place.
Speaking of which:
Let’s do this.
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON’S TOP 25 FILMS OF 2011
And now… My #1 film of 2011…
And before we go…
THE WOMAN, KNUCKLE (documentary), MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, BRIDESMAIDS.
BEST AUSTRALIAN FILM:
SLEEPING BEAUTY, by a nose over MAD BASTARDS.
One more thing: Loosely connected to MELANCHOLIA and watching movies, I so wanted to put this picture at the beginning of the post -- Yes, it’s Udo Kier at Austin, Texas’ Alamo Drafthouse cinema... salivating.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: YES.
Please leave any thoughts you may want to share on this list, of 2011 film in general, on Twitter at @mrpaulnelson or @cinemaviscera, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Before I sign off, I would like to extend a massive THANK YOU to everyone who made it through to the end of this epic tome, and to those who have followed me on Twitter, or Liked our Facebook page, visited this site, or just lent their support to Cinema Viscera this year!
Paul Anthony Nelson
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and scabrous opinion from CINEMA VISCERA chief maniac, Paul Anthony Nelson.