Happy New Year, Viscerals!!
2020. Wow. Genuinely sounds like "the future", doesn't it? At some point soon-ish, I'd like to write an entry on just what this decade has meant to Pez and I -- and have her contribute her half for her own perspective -- but we just don't have the time right now. As years often do nowadays, this one sees us hit the ground running.
In lieu of that, which will be more personal and about what the first 10 years of Cinema Viscera has meant to us, changed us, challenged us and propelled us into the 2020s and our little production company's second decade, here is a quick snapshot of my Top 20 films of the 2010s.
SPECIAL MENTION: Despite being written, financed and directed as an 18-hour film to be released in installments, Twin Peaks: The Return (2017, David Lynch) was released via a cable TV network in weekly episodes, is the extension of a TV show and plays with the tropes and structure of that medium brilliantly, so while history will likely consider it a work for television, it belongs right here with every one of these as one of the "cinematic" works of the decade that meant the most to me.
As that weird, turbulent, tumultuous decade draws to a close, these 20 films (including two cinematic collages) are the ones that have meant more to me than any other:
#20: TERROR NULLIUS
#20: Ready or Not
(Directors: Radio Silence, aka Matt Bettinelli-Olipin and Tyler Gillett)
Brutally efficient, slickly made, deliriously satisfying horror-action-comedy, with a delightfully vicious, absurdist, slapstick bent, is another entry in the rapidly expanding “kill the rich” sub-genre (itself an intriguing development among recent major studio releases; responding to the times, or an opportunity to profit from discord? A question for another day). Silly as all heck and not especially deep, but twisty, bloody, angry and fun as all hell, with a terrific cast having a blast. Samara Weaving is becoming quite the scream queen!
(Directors: Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess)
Lovely, genuinely inspirational little documentary from Melbourne filmmakers Peppard (whose specialty is hand-crafted horror, in both her films and sculpture art) and Hess, about Morgana Muses-Coady, a woman who found her second act in life, and community, via making her own distinctive, flamboyantly artistic brand of pornographic videos. The directors add some neat visual flourishes here too -- the way Peppard uses sculptured dioramas to illustrate events in Morgana's life somehow compliment Morgana's own aesthetic perfectly, as well as Peppard's -- but it’s just a wonderful, unexpectedly inspirational portrait of a brave and extraordinary woman.
(Director: Lee Chang-dong)
Based upon the short story "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong's super slow-burn Korean drama deals -- as so much of it has so brilliantly -- with class and wealth disparity, unfolding as a gentle, and gently funny, tale of a young (seemingly slightly dim?) delivery guy reuniting with a girl he used to tease at school, who's grown up to surgically fashion herself (as many South Korean women do) into a woman he's now very much attracted to, only to find himself jealous of Ben, her new, seemingly hugely wealthy Korean-American boyfriend. A moment alone between the two men sparks a strange confession from Ben... and the film slowly begins to slide in a very different, much more malevolent direction. While its 148-minute runtime is a little excessive, there's a lyrical quality to the way its shot, staged and scored, all pulsating with a creeping sense of dread, that it's hard not to be riveted. All three leads are stunning, and Lee's direction is so attuned to small changes in the atmosphere -- of both the characters and the world around them -- that it manages a novelistic tone and grace that makes the place it finally ends up in hit even harder. This one will linger in your brain for days after.
#17: Iron Fists and Kung-Fu Kicks
(Director: Serge Ou)
Lively, impressively dense documentary in the Not Quite Hollywood vein whisks us on a blisteringly edited journey (from Hong Kong to the West to Uganda's 'Wakaliwood') to examine the seismic cultural ripple effect Kung-Fu cinema has had on so many cultures, from not only action cinema but hip-hop, dance and, well... damn near everything! Great to see the inclusion of films and folk like Cheng Pei-Pei, The Deadly Art of Survival, Cynthia Rothrock and Australia's own Richard Norton. You’ll leave with a huge watchlist.
#16: Tell Me Who I Am
(Director: Ed Perkins)
Genuinely startling documentary about an amnesiac man who sits down with his twin brother to fill in some gaps about his life. I won't spoil a damn thing, but what follows is emotionally searing, powerfully upsetting and confronting, but also overarched with incredible brotherly love between these two men. The film is also crafted with an elegance rarely seen in documentary, the interviews taking a cue from the direct-to-camera style of Errol Morris, but with an even more innovative spin, while reenactments of places and fragments of memory are also beautifully staged and composed. No, really, don't read any more about it. Just see it (it's on Netflix).
#15: Under The Silver Lake
(Director: David Robert Mitchell)
After It Follows became the festival horror buzz hit of 2014, David Robert Mitchell spent his newfound cachet on this mad, bloated, unwieldy Hail Mary pass of a film... and I'm totally here to catch it. Sure, it's often inexplicable, scarcely coherent and happy to amble from event to event, but Mitchell creates such an indelible mood, strong sense of place and scope-framed visual flourish, infused with a tangible feeling that all is coming to an apocalyptic head, with such a giddy love for cinema history and film noir genre tropes, that it's a bit intoxicating. Then he straps us to (the excellent) Andrew Garfield, playing a character that's as scuzzy and immature and kind of a schmuck as he is lovesick and inquisitive and even relatable (probably too much for me!). Mostly, Mitchell's combined what I liked about Southland Tales and Inherent Vice and threw out the rest I hated, making the hazy epic apocalyptic L.A. stoner perv cineaste party noir I never knew to ask for. It won't scratch everyone's itch, but it certainly did mine.
#14: Knives Out
(Director: Rian Johnson)
Rian Johnson returns from a galaxy far, far away to craft this playful, hugely entertaining blend of old-school whodunit with current-day sociopolitical commentary that weaves seamlessly, inextricably into the murder-mystery plot and making it look easy, with an all-star cast seemingly delighted to be given such colourful action and dialogue to bite into. Okay, so one of the leads is a bit too impossibly sweet and the family are barely more than caricatures, but considering we're in Clue territory, they're given more shading than one might rightfully expect. (Also, when did Jamie Lee Curtis become the heir to Robert Mitchum? She's gloriously terrifying.) Oh, and that final shot is pretty much perfect.
#13: 3 Faces
(Director: Jafar Panahi)
I like how Jafar Panahi’s post-filmmaking ban films see him get more and more brazen, stepping further out into the wider world; from being housebound in This is Not a Film to beachhouse-bound in Closed Curtain to staying inside the titular Tehran Taxi to now, with 3 Faces, driving actress Behnaz Jafari across the countryside — and even getting out of the car! — in search of a missing young actress who may or may not have committed her videotaped suicide (which bracingly opens the film, in a culture where such an act is considered inconceivable). Panahi centres his narrative around three actresses who represent the past, present and future of Iranian cinema, the acting profession and women in Iran. While it's as angry and committed as anything the director has made before, and even the most casual acts in the film are staunchly political, it's also very funny and satrical and Panahi and Jafari make a wonderful double act.
(Director: Sophie Hyde)
While this has been described as "Withnail and I for girls", upon closer inspection, Sophie Hyde's excellent follow-up to her 2013 debut 52 Tuesdays felt more to me like "Fight Club for girls" (without the violence, of course). After all, our lead, Laura (Holliday Grainger), has a charismatic pal named Tyler (Alia Shawkat), who spouts non-conformist dogma while doing all in her considerable power to have Laura all to herself and lead an anarchic life together, as Laura learns that the life she was raised and conditioned to believe she wanted may not be the one she actually desires. It's refreshing to see young women portrayed with complexity, unvarnished and ravenously carnal (there's definitely a female gaze at work here, and it's a delight) and, as a portrait of a co-dependent friendship growing up in different directions, it's both difficult and liberating. One of 2019's real sleepers.
#11: Everybody Knows
(Director: Asghar Farhadi)
Everything about this redolent of the Farhadi house style — class-driven social thrillers about outwardly happy, well-functioning families ripped asunder by a chilling act that outs hidden secrets which erode the characters’ relationships and social fabric completely — and gee, does he have this storytelling shape and social critiques sharpened to a fierce and piercing point. This time, Farhadi's style segues perfectly from his home turf of Iran to Spain, and the film’s four leads are excellent; most of all Bardem, who rarely gets to show such a gregarious, loving, bearish side of himself as he does here (his earring is an especially inspired choice). Just as compelling, intriguing and excoriating as Farhadi’s previous work, crafted with the same elegant style and naturalistic sense of behaviour and dialogue, this has me dying to see Farhadi -- perhaps Iran's answer to Arthur Miller -- take his act on the road to other countries: what would an American or British Farhadi film look like? An Italian one? Bring ‘em all on.
THE TOP 10
#10: Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson
(Director: David Gregory)
Are you a fan of documentaries about schlocky, DIY filmmakers? Are you addicted to all things true-crime? Welcome to your new jam, as David Gregory's doc is a terrific, exhaustive example of both: Digging deep into the life and bizarro career of micro-budget schlockmeister Al Adamson, interviewing his colleagues (some still alive, others in archive interviews), bursting with mind-boggling scenes from most of his 28 (or so) ramshackle, largely dreadful movies... and then, for its final third, a thorough true-crime examination of Adamson's tragic real-life murder, one almost as bizarre as anything in his films. A deeply satisfying experience that's both hilariously joyful (wait 'til you get to the anecdotes about just how decrepit some of Adamson's cut-price late-late-late career movie star hires were) and deeply sad, both for the premature loss of Adamson's wife, Regina Carrol, and the death of Adamson himself.
#9: Sorry We Missed You
(Director: Ken Loach)
The 83-year-old king of the feel-bad, big-hearted, call-to-action UK social realist drama and never-say-die-socialist Ken Loach follows up his heartbreaking 2016 stunner (and Palme d'Or winner) I, Daniel Blake with this raw, enraged indictment of our "gig economy", a modern workforce ever-demanding more for less, while somehow shilling it to us as empowerment, squeezing us (especially our most vulnerable) tighter and tighter until we crack. Not always subtle, but never wrong -- and its last 20 minutes is a hammer blow. As someone who's just started a freelance career and spent much of the last half of this year looking for work, this film hit a little too close to the bone, too often.
(Director: Nicolas Pesce)
While it's no surprise this film was given such a microscopic release, given it's such a wonderfully weird, acquired taste, this is a deliciously dark short story of a film (based on one by Audition‘s Ryu Murikami) about the most effed-up love connection -- although it certainly doesn't start that way -- one can imagine, between a budding serial killer and a torture-obsessed dom (played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska, who don't die wondering). Built upon disturbed characters and enigmatic behaviours, writer/director Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) gives this lurid little tale of twisted, inadvertent soul mates a comic book design with a precision and intertextuality reminiscent of Wes Anderson, scoring it to Giallo’s greatest hits. Yeah, this was very much my brand of jam.
#7: The Irishman
(Director: Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese's 25th narrative feature feels every bit like his testament film. It won't be his swan song just yet -- he's got far too much in the tank for that -- but The Irishman is undoubtedly a funeral for the gangster movie. An unexpectely austere film about dead men walking, mortality, sin and regret, it deals in themes as huge as its running time, and its cast and crew represents an honour roll of Scorsese collaborators past and present. Sublimely traversing an alternate history of the United States shaped by organised crime -- controlled by corrupt men believing themselves gods, only to be forgotten footnotes of history barely a generation later -- Steven Zaillian's elegant script boils their pointless lives down to two possible endings: either premature violent death or living their decrepitude behind bars. And all for what? More than anything, though, this feels like Scorsese's missive to all those similar powerful old men out there still clutching on to illusory patriarchal notions of power, believing themselves omniscient masters of the universe: Mind for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee. Your time is up. (Oh, and welcome back, Joe Pesci!)
#6: Pain and Glory
(Director: Pedro Almodovar)
Almodovar's lovely, gentle reflection upon personal and artistic mortality is an experience to luxuriate in; wistful, poignant and beautifully designed (that apartment! those colour-blocked costumes!), crafted in the classical style that's defined his late career, yet playful as ever, even questioning the reality of what we're watching on screen -- what is memory, what is cinema, what is truth... and what is the difference? Banderas, playing Salvador Mallo, a Almodovar-esque film director reuniting with a former star with whom he fell out, is brilliant, delivering a poignant, searching performance of superb understatement. (There's a sequence where Salvador reunites with an old flame, Federico, which is one of the more sublime, gorgeous and touching vignettes I've seen on screen all year.) While Almodovar's avatar, Salvador, contemplates ending his distinguished career, let's sincerely hope this is just Pedro taking a little dramatic licence and messing with us again, because we need more of his beautiful films in this world.
#5: In Fabric
(Director: Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland has always been an incredible director of style and intertextuality in dialogue with film history, but I've never loved any of his films... until now. Ravishing to the eye and ear, powerfully sensual, endlessly detailed yet deliciously bonkers, with homages both playful and reverent, Strickland's beguiling, darkly funny bifurcated story of a 'killer dress' is as absurd as you might expect, but also ferociously clever, weaponising its satire of fashion, advertising and department store culture (through a very specific lens of 1970s Britain) into, for mine, no less than the Dr. Strangelove of consumerism. Lots of terrific performances to watch out for here, as well, from Fatma Mohamed's grandiloquent sales clerk to Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Hayley Squires as the dress' owners and Steve Oram and Julian Barratt -- yes, that Julian Barrett -- as managers turned on by, uh, the mechanical workings of washing machines.
(Director: Mike Leigh)
On the biggest canvas of his long and singular career, Mike Leigh paints a devastating portrait of class warfare, political protest and the brutality of a police state -- sound familiar, anyone? -- only to receive the smallest of cinema releases before heading for the small screens of Amazon Prime. As observant and detailed with character and authenticity as any of his works, emotionally heartrending and uncomfortably visceral, this is not only a vigorously faithful recreation of a major historical event perhaps little-known outside of the UK, but an essential look back at a past which resonates all too sadly with our politically fraught present.
#3: Dolemite is My Name
(Director: Craig Brewer)
A pure joy from start to finish, this unlikely biopic of self-made Blaxploitation icon Rudy Ray Moore (penned by the lords of the unlikely biopic, Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski) is not only an enormously inspirational (and, for a DIY indie moviemaker, intensely relatable) story of the power of one man's self-belief and will to make his own work -- not to mention bringing together a community of artists and performers awaiting their own shot -- but also a supercharged comeback vehicle for three long-dormant major talents: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes and director Craig Brewer. It's thrilling to see Murphy so engaged, Snipes so loose and self-effacing and Brewer making the kind of exhilarating work he gave us back in the 2000s with Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. There's also some intriguing parallels between Moore's quest to make his own albums and films and the entire independent landscape today, which suggest that independent artists outside the system have always copped it in the neck. While the film steers clear of Rudy’s raunchier, more controversial material, it’s otherwise remarkably close to the real story as we know it and to see Moore so defiant, then succeed so wildly, is truly inspirational -- it had me actually cheering aloud. For anyone who's ever wanted to make a movie, see themselves onscreen, or just get together with their friends and have a blast making something crazy, Dolemite is My Name is your new valentine.
For in almost 30 years of counting down films (15 of those online), I've never, ever had, allowed, or even considered, a tie at #1.
MY EQUAL #1 FILMS OF 2019 ARE...
#1 (tie): ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and PARASITE
(or is that PARASITE and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD?)
Except, it couldn't unseat Parasite. Nor vice versa. They both give me different things, fulfiling two sides of exactly what I want out of filmmaking right now, and they absolutely had to share the throne. One is a film powered by place, by mood, by a feeling, underlined by joy, a lost art, melancholy, nostalgia and, ultimately, mortality; the other, powered by one of the best screenplays of modern times, by an endlessly, sharply twisting sea monster of a story and characters both defiant of and beholden to their natures, underlined by lifetimes of institutionalised resentment, speaking to struggles we as a society face right now (and have for far too long).
Class conflict and wealth disparity have been explored in a lot of films this year, but no film has nailed it quite as cogently or entertainingly as Parasite. As brilliantly assembled like a Swiss clock and stacked with outstanding performances (Song Kang-Ho is a Korean national treasure at this point), Bong Joon-Ho's hilarious, poignant, wholly unpredictable and deeply furious film is essential viewing and his best picture to date. From its knockabout, cheeky setup, the delightfully improbable but insanely skilful way the family insinuate themselves into this rich family's home is hilarious, satirical fun to watch...
And then they find a secret door.
Nothing will prepare you for what happens next, or where it goes, no where it ends up. Remember when we, as a culture, were most drawn to films with "a great story"? Not because they had the biggest and loudest ads, or the most expensive VFX, or because they were part of a 20-part overgrown TV series for cinema? Where you just went to get immersed in a world and have it take you to the most unexpected of places, while also resonating with fundamental truths about our own world? Parasite is that movie, and I want more of them. When it comes to filmmakers of the 2000s South Korean "New Wave", I've always been a Park Chan-Wook devotee, but this film sees Bong finally close the gap. It's sublimely crafted from top to toe (shout out to Lee Ha-jun and Mo So-ra, whose production design choices are exquisite) and sure to be frequently rewatchable. It's all too rare nowadays, but I found myself weeping tears of joy at the end, instantly convinced I'd just seen a masterpiece.
The qualities I was just ascribing to Parasite are similar to sentiments I've often held about the films of Quentin Tarantino. Anyone who knows me, knows the way his films -- ever since seeing Reservoir Dogs on its opening day of Australian release in 1993 (yeah, it took an age to get out here) -- hit me right in the heart. And the gut. And the brain. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has hit me unlike any other of the writer/director's films. The first viewing was hugely enjoyable, a party, a fantasy camp visit to film sets and the Los Angeles of 50 years ago, and a consummate "hangout movie" in the vein of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Death Proof. Of course, like every other Tarantino film, I went to see it again, and loved it just as much. But there was a feeling that, while I was thrilled and delighted by it... I wasn't sure I had my finger on why. But it kept swirling around in my head, for weeks after.
I needed to see it again, as soon as possible.
It was the third time that unlocked it for me. If Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's testament to the power of cinema to change the world, then Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees the filmmaker reckoning with death, mortality and the unique power of cinema (and television) to stave it off, even if it is only for a few precious hours of a given film's running time. Everybody in this film is facing the end of something, whether they're aware of it or not. Sometimes they just miss it. The film is populated almost entirely by ghosts; with few exceptions, most of the real-life figures dramatised in the film are now dead. The actors populating its world ply their trade in genres largely phased out of mainstream popularity. It's a memoryscape, a fairytale, an exhumation and a fever dream all at once -- perhaps this is why the film seems to hold a kind of hypnotic power. How much of this is happening? How much exists only in the characters' heads? How much is anecdotal? How much is nostalgia and how much is playing with the notions and fallacies of nostalgia? It reckons with the past and beckons to the future, often by presenting the world of 1969 Hollywood without judgement, letting the viewer to come to their own conclusions . There's no doubt that a working knowledge of the Manson Family murder case is key to appreciating this film, especially during its turbulent final act. Without it, I can't imagine the final shot packing the emotional wallop it gives me every time.
This is perhaps the most soulful, open-hearted and affectionate work of Tarantino's career and proves something that anyone watching the director closely all these years has known all along: beneath the bluster and myth-making, he's a loving, big-hearted, damn near sentimental dude. For him, movies are the best form of immortality we have, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his tribute to spending one last night with the people and time and work and town he grew up loving, one that is now lost, long since corrupted, upholstered, advanced, succeeded... but which will always exist in the movies.
Love and cinema,
Paul and Pez
The 115 eligible films I saw were...
A Boy Called Sailboat
Angel of Mine
At Eternity's Gate
Be Natural: The Untold Story of
Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly
Death of Al Adamson
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Color Out of Space
Come to Daddy
Dolemite Is My Name
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
Happy Sad Man
High Flying Bird
I Am Mother
If Beale Street Could Talk
Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks
It Chapter Two
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
King of Thieves
Matthias & Maxime
Minding the Gap
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Pain and Glory
Phantom of Winnipeg
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Rambo: Last Blood
Ready or Not
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Reflections in the Dust
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Sometimes Always Never
Sorry We Missed You
Stan & Ollie
Sword of Trust
Tell Me Who I Am
Terminator: Dark Fate
The Biggest Little Farm
The Day Shall Come
The Dead Don't Die
The Field Guide To Evil
The Night Eats the World
Toy Story 4
Under the Silver Lake
Varda by Agnès
Yellow Is Forbidden
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.
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...
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
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
20. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Martin McDonagh's third film rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but this felt like a bracing antidote to our troublingly binary good-bad/saint-pariah/exalted-cancelled times. The film doesn't do itself any favours early, with a tonally odd first half that feels wildly uneven, but, after a major plot turn, everything suddenly coheres and becomes something sublime; steering its confrontingly flawed humans through an abrasive, amusing, ultimately moving tale of rage, resistance and potential for redemption, even for those we despise. McDormand & Rockwell are spectacular. Ends on a perfect note, too.
19. DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE
From its opening scenes, it becomes clear that there's something very different about this than we're used to from modern pulp/genre movie fare. Its length and deliberate pace doesn't feel born of pretension or inexperience, but from complete confidence: writer/director S. Craig Zahler is writing a genuine cinematic pulp novel, a real 300-400 pager. It's gritty, murky, unfussy, morally flexible and non-judgmental in the way that great pulp fiction should be, with side characters who almost get their own "chapters" before being either instantly eliminated or becoming the movie's surprise leads. As well as a terrific slow-burn delight of a genre piece laced with dark humour and deliciously eloquent dialogue, it's also a sharp comment on the broken times we live in, how so many of us are being left behind and looking for a way out in a world where hard work isn't enough, where the system grinds us down until we become lazy, greedy, hateful or spiteful, which is when The System has us all where it wants us: pitted against one another. Only in true unity do we have any sort of hope, and Dragged Across Concrete gets that... even if its characters don't.
18. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
The rare anthology that’s worth collectively more than the sum of its parts; while there are a couple of stand-out stories — ‘Meal Ticket’ is as poignant a statement on the slow death of culture as I’ve seen, and ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is just a beautiful, sad story of the choices (or lack thereof) facing a woman in the Old West — when presented together, it all makes for an odd, funny, harsh, often incredibly violent, yet charming (in other words, Classic Coen) journey through the mythical beauty and actual cruelty of the American West and, even more so, the Western genre. There’s something so soothing about being back in the safe hands of the Coen Brothers, of being enmeshed in their oddball, fatalistic outlook, that’s like slipping into the warmest of blankets. Would've loved to have seen this on the big screen, though.
17. ISLE OF DOGS
Wes Anderson's rather lovely ode to (hu)man’s best friends charmed me to bits, full as it is of adorable animation, excellent voice work, heart-on-sleeve fondness for Japanese cinema and pertinent subtext about governments that demonise a segment of society in the name of “public interest” — urging us to look deeper into who profits from such measures.
16. KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN
Along with Not Quite Hollywood, King Cohen should be mandatory viewing for indie genre filmmakers. This incredibly warm, funny and affectionate tribute to the endlessly inventive filmmaker Larry Cohen is packed with hilarious and amazing anecdotes from an all-star roster of fans and collaborators (some of whom hilariously contradict Larry's stories), and is exhaustive to a fault as it slithers through his entire filmography. Perhaps unfailingly hagiographic and a little on the long side, but Cohen is such a fascinating, entertaining and sincere subject, his five-decade body of work so rich and bonkers, it’s justified.
15. PRIVATE LIFE
Like too many female directors in the American system, Tamara Jenkins only gets to make a feature film once a decade, which is damn near criminal considering how richly layered and deeply authentic her work is. This, an intelligent, often excruciating comedy-drama about an artistic couple in their 40s (the brilliant Kathryn Hahn, really getting to stretch her dramatic legs here, and the always great sad sack par excellence Paul Giamatti) on their relentless journey to conceive, which eventually draws in their college-age niece (Kayli Carter, who's terrific). There's an unvarnished level of reality here that's almost uncomfortable to watch (I couldn't help but wonder if Jenkins has forged this out of personal experience), bringing up conversations about why we want to be parents, what are acceptable lengths to go to, our ownership over and relationship to our own bodies and the way Generation X and Millennials process the world and what each generation feels they deserve. A low-key wonder of a movie, both funny and heartbreaking without ever sacrificing a refreshing maturity rarely seen in American cinema of late.
Much like the life of (Lee) Alexander McQueen himself, this excellent, intimate documentary is inspiring and tragic in equal measure. With access to home video footage as well as media and internal coverage of various fashion shows, it follows McQueen from his days as a working-class kid with little gift for school but a prodigy for fashion, and watching him craft his increasingly bold, brilliant designs as he struggles to find himself as an artist and as a person, all the while struggling to remain authentic to his art in the face of huge economic opportunities and increasing fame. Unlike most documentaries about artists, this one digs deep into his working process -- we're watching him at work, discussing his influences and impulses -- alongside getting to know him as a human being. Mandatory viewing for anyone creating any sort of art, in any medium; I defy any artist to not want to rush out and create -- and tell the commercial giants to go sod off -- after seeing this. A beautiful tribute to an incredibly gifted soul, gone far too soon.
13. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
For mine, Lars von Trier's 8 1/2. In his own sadistic, screwed-up way, pretentious serial killer Jack (loose, chilling, hilarious work from Matt Dillon) sees himself much like a director; composing, executing, evolving methods and processes, trying to get it all just right, ever building towards his masterpiece. Through this lens, von Trier gets into the nature and responsibility of art and creation, examining his own practice and career (even directly referencing his own movies at one point), being brutally honest about where he may have gone astray in the past, and touching on others' perceptions of him. Darkly funny, confronting and playfully provocative (what other filmmaker would compare himself to a serial killer?), it also touches upon issues pertinent to this moment, with Jack's female victims' pleas for help not heard or believed by those who should, and his ambition not being worth the mounting toll he leaves behind. Not all of it works -- it's shaggily paced, long stretches of the film are wallpapered with narration, and the repeated use of Bowie's 'Fame '90' is often jarring and on-the-nose -- but it's so thematically rich, such a wild metaphorical and metaphysical ride, that this ghoulish five-course banquet of a movie stands as a major work.
Well, damn, Spike. An incredible story, richly and thrillingly told, allowing us to laugh through rage while highlighting the everyday threats black America face, the small but epochal steps towards progress made, serious questions about the possibility (or even viability) of changing institutions from within — all crafted in a hugely entertaining and propulsive way that confirms Lee as one of his generation’s greatest and most enduring filmmakers — and surely society has moved on ahead, right...? That's when Lee hits you with a bucket of horrifyingly cold water, not a manipulation but a chilling, intensely moving reminder that plugs Ron Stallworth’s struggle right into us. Injustice never sleeps, it just bides its time, consolidates power and gets more creative. The struggle continues.
11. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT
How does this series continue to delight after 22 years?? Cruise's stuntwork and star gravitas are now a special effect of their own... but is it possible he's funnier and looser as a performer these days? (The way Ethan wearily responds to getting hit in these later films is a thing of comic glory.) Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust continues to kick ass and bewilder with her shifting agendas, Sean Harris' Solomon Lane has become a genuinely chilling adversary and Henry Cavill is a casting masterstroke as the swaggering alpha-male foisted upon Ethan by Angela Bassett's supercool CIA boss... then there's those incredible set pieces: That bathroom slugfest! That motorcycle chase! That helicopter chase! Cruise sprinting along rooftops! Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has such a sure-handed grip on this series now, having helped redefine what it is for a 21st century audience, away from the auteur-driven showcase it started out as to the definitive spy movie series of this era, delivering spectacle (combining practical stunts and excellent VFX), teamwork, propulsive action, equally cool female and male agents, and a deep well of character work and heart running beneath it all. I'm happy to accept any mission this series asks of me.
The Top 10
10. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
It's awesome to see Lynne Ramsay given the space and resources to unleash her skill at conjuring unsettling, hypnotic subjective realities, using mesmerising sound design, Thomas Townend's dreamy cinematography and Jonny Greenwood's pulsating score, which wouldn't be out of place in an early Michael Mann film. Then, there's Joaquin Phoenix’s staggering performance: a bruised lump of a man, quietly shuffling through the world... except for the occasions he's required to smash through it, when he gets to channel all that hurt and rage on deserving targets with devastating efficiency. He and newcomer Ekaterina Samsonov are remarkable together, and it's their grace and Ramsay's directorial virtuosity that take a very simple, well-worn, straight-ahead story and transcend it. (Well... all that and Charlene's ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’.)
9. LADY BIRD
Greta Gerwig’s solo debut as writer/director is a gem of beautiful contrasts; acutely observational yet immensely relatable, simply told but deceptively complex, breezy and funny yet, at key moments, crushingly sad. Saoirse Ronan is brilliant, Laurie Metcalf is perfect; their mother-daughter dynamic so beautifully, painfully, frustratingly real. They anchor an excellent cast, which Gerwig directs with confidence and her editor cuts at a breakneck speed — if I’ve any issue with this film at all, its that its first two thirds are a bit *too* choppy — but it’s the way her script weaves in the daily grinding pain of living in a modern capitalist society — from what Lady Bird’s parents are going through, to the constant, soul-crushing aspiration to have more than you do, be more than you are — that’s what’s particularly impressive. In the end, like the McPhersons, all most of us can do is own our choices and make it through this life, this gamed system, day by day.
8. I, TONYA
I didn’t expect this to be so poignant, upsetting or skilfully played. Tonally, it’s a high-wire act — blending inspiration, idiocy, injustice and flat-out tragedy — which director Craig Gillespie walks with almost as much skill as Tonya’s triple axel. But this complex tonal mix doesn’t land without a performance like Margot Robbie’s brilliant, fierce, open-nerved work here to let us in and anchor us. Sure, it’s a bit heavy-handed at times, the fourth-wall-breaking doesn’t always work and the needle drops — as on point as they often are — are sometimes distracting, but I, Tonya stands as not only an anxiety-inducing look at cycles of abuse and the myriad ways that can warp us, but as an eloquent rebuke to the binarily reductive state of today's media (mainstream, social and otherwise), where everyone is immediately boiled down to Hero or Villain without considering the nuances of truth, life or humanity. Tonya Harding may have been blithely complicit in her downfall — by the same myopic focus that made her a champion, by keeping the wrong people around her — but this isn’t why I, Tonya is a cautionary tale. As Harding states, down the barrel: We are the abusers. Let's try not to be, huh?
7. THE DEATH OF STALIN
As ever, Armando Iannucci wields his skill set — abrasive behaviourial comedy satirising petty, bumbling bureaucracies — like a weapon, but, in this timely satire of fascistic egos run amok, he is also completely unafraid to go dark... and even downright chilling at times. The entire cast are pitch-perfect, the asides and insults as blistering as anything in Iannucci’s previous work, and having the cast rock their own accents winds up as an inspired move — Stalin sounding like a North London gangster could scarcely be more appropriate. Yet, as absurdly funny, handsomely designed and screwball-paced as it is, Iannucci never loses sight of how utterly horrifying these people’s deeds were... and why we should be hyper-vigilant of the current powers that be.
6. THE FAVOURITE
This might be the best of Yorgos Lanthimos' demented character studies yet. Like the satanic spawn of Peter Greenaway and Armando Iannucci, Deborah Davis and Tony MacNamara's screenplay flings witty, profane and hugely quotable dialogue around like fireballs, skewering the craven inhumanity and manipulation that mutates in close proximity to power, and the petulant whims and pathetic isolation of the indulged, manipulated person at the top of the structure. These qualities are brilliantly personified by the film's four remarkable leads: Olivia Colman, whose Queen Anne is pure id, wretchedly childish and quietly heart-rending from one scene to the next, Rachel Weisz, achieving Bond-villain levels of deliciously diabolical swagger even as she clings to survival, Emma Stone, so sweetly naive and calculatingly monstrous that her character's true nature is tantalisingly elusive, and Nicholas Hoult, whose devious, self-satisfied character is a ridiculously coiffed shark reminiscent of an evil, alternate-universe Hugh Grant. The cinematography is wild; shot entirely with a small supply of increasingly exaggerated fish-eye lenses, which lend an absurd aesthetic eye to match the proceedings. And there's some insane choreography going on at Court. Just thinking about this, 2018's funniest film, puts a massive smile on my face.
5. LET THE CORPSES TAN
One of my happiest discoveries of 2018 has been the work of French-Belgian filmmaking couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Like all their work, this an eye-and-ear-gasm of the highest order — they may be modern cinema’s foremost texture fetishists, seemingly finding a sexual charge in, well, everything — but this time they’ve found a semblance of a plot to build their full-force-sensory barrage around. Look, they don’t always care about sticking to it, but nor did I. The shot composition, colour palette, location, cutting and score on display are exquisite, the story and characters are fun — Elina Löwensohn is a boss — and the non-linear ticking-clock structure is often hugely effective. It does stagger home a bit during the final stretch, but getting there is so much cheeky, delirious, hallucinogenic fun, you have to expect a sugar crash at some point. (Also gets mad props for being a genre piece that revels in the sexuality of 40/50-somethings!)
4. LEAVE NO TRACE
Debra Granik has been away from our screens for far too long, and we're all the poorer for it. Here, she has crafted a beautiful, inescapably poignant character study, rich in empathy and detail and often heartbreakingly sad, driven by sensitive, perfect performances from Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. Granik uses this tight focus to explore a multitude of ideas -- the notion of home, the struggles of tightening (and loosening) familial bonds, PTSD, the all-encompassing reach of technology and bureaucracy, tight-knit fringe communities, nations that irresponsibly send their young to war and break them and what this costs people, families and society -- but all of it is delivered between the margins, with an exquisite minimalism and simplicity that's astoundingly deft, never, ever losing sight of the characters at its heart.
3. TERROR NULLIUS
Is this really a movie? It's almost an hour long, was released to big screens at a moving image gallery and film festivals and does have a vague narrative... so I'm going to say yes. Could this razor-sharp repurposing of 100 years of Australian cinema from Soda_Jerk (aka sisters Dominique and Dan Angeloro) be the definitive remix/re-evaluation of — and challenge to — 20th/early 21st century Australian culture? It packs a staggering amount of social commentary into its 55 minutes, with a ferocious zeal. In a lot of ways, this feels like the direct progeny of Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968), surely Patient Zero for this kind of work; political, playful and prone to a callback, using our collective pop-cultural absorption to savage the political class and voters’ wilful indifference. The sheer physical feat of getting this kind of thing assembled is impressive, so the fact that the experience winds up being so hilarious, terrifying and, ultimately, mournful is a testament to Soda_Jerk as mixmasters, mischief makers, filmmakers and conscientious agitators.
2. FIRST REFORMED
Paul Schrader returns with a vengeance with his most urgent and resonant film in years (while serving as a spiritual companion to another of his greatest scripts), as he crafts a slow-burn character study (personified by Ethan Hawke in quiet, career-best form) that perfectly expresses the rage and powerlessness of our troubled times. Of all the films of 2018, no other one's images, conversations and arguments have lingered to haunt my thoughts more than this. Whether you're an atheist, believer or agnostic, the conversations Schrader digs into here are essential: faith's place in a world that all too often feels like it's hurtling toward self-inflicted extinction, the confused mix of anger and complicity we all share about this state, the possibility of finding a purpose in all of it, reaching the point where "thoughts and prayers" seem pointless and action is required, and the impotence and despair we can't help but feel when we realise it all may be too little, too late. Genuinely daring, unsettling, darkly funny and haunting, I'm dying to see it again.
...WHICH LEAVES US WITH MY #1 RELEASE OF 2018...
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.
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
PS. The 84 eligible films I saw were:
All The Creatures Were Stirring
Anna and the Apocalypse
Avengers: Infinity War
Bad Times at the El Royale
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Boy Downstairs
The Children Act
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Death of Stalin
Dragged Across Concrete
A Futile and Stupid Gesture
The House That Jack Built
How To Talk To Girls at Parties
Isle of Dogs
Jill Billcock: Dancing with the Invisible
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen
The Land of Steady Habits
Leave No Trace
Let the Corpses Tan
Lost Gully Road
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
McKellen: Playing the Part
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
The Old Man and the Gun
A Quiet Place
Set It Up
The Shape of Water
Sorry to Bother You
A Star is Born
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
You Were Never Really Here
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
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.
#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?
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
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
Vive le cinema!
Paul Anthony Nelson
PS. The 85 eligible films I saw were:
Ballerina (aka Leap!)
The Big Sick
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
A Cure For Wellness
David Lynch: The Art Life
The Disaster Artist
February (aka The Blackcoat's Daughter)
The Florida Project
A Ghost Story
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
It Comes at Night
It's Only the End of the World
Justice League Dark
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Manchester by the Sea
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
Most Beautiful Island
Murder on the Orient Express
My Friend Dahmer
My Life as a Zucchini
Rules Don't Apply
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
That's Not Me
The Trip to Spain
Win It All
The Woman Who Left
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Limited theatrical release.
Capsule review: Ergüven's smashing debut succeeds as a moving look at sisterhood, a thrilling escape tale and an angry indictment of an abusive culture, taking on the patriarchal tyranny of fundamentalist religion and its impact on young women, depicting despair, resignation and hope in equal measure – with incredible suspense, as it’s ingeniously structured like an escape thriller. Or, put another way: Wadjda meets Papillion.
Limited theatrical release.
Capsule review: Gripping outback noir shows you can make a film that’s thoroughly Australian, yet plays like 70s New Hollywood, as writer-director-everything-else Ivan Sen brilliantly racks focus from the racial tensions of Mystery Road, to the daily economic cruelty that keeps such divisions in place. Also: Aaron Pedersen is a goddamn movie star. I’m generally anti-sequel, but I’ll follow Jay Swan wherever Sen points him.
3) TONI ERDMANN
Film festival screenings only. (Due for release in 2017.)
Capsule review: "Don't lose your humour." Christ, is there a single quote more helpful to surviving the clustercuss that was the 2016 news cycle? A daring exercise in form, cranking up the social cringe comedy to epic proportions; its final act prompting a thunderous release of laughs and tears like few I can recall. Disarmingly expansive, bizarre take on life, work and the need for levity. Kind of glorious.
2) THE NEON DEMON
Limited theatrical release.
Capsule review: Nic Winding Refn’s most screw-you moment to date is an exquisite neo-giallo that plays like a 21st century Grimm’s Fairy Tale of pride and envy. Many hated it, but I found it a cornucopia of ugliness staged so beautifully I wanted to bathe in every frame... and I love that NWR wouldn’t give a damn either way. Also, Evil Sleazy Keanu might be my favourite Keanu.
1) THE HATEFUL EIGHT
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.
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.
(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.
But let's hop in the wayback machine, real quick:
My Favourite Unearthed Treasures of 2015.
Case in point: my first big discoveries of 2015:
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.
- 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.
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...
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The Long Goodbye.
So: you may or may not know that I co-host a monthly movie podcast with my filmmaker/critic pal Lee Zachariah, called Hell Is For Hyphenates. We invite a different special guest on the show to discuss the career of a filmmaker of their choosing, film by film. We've talked to everyone from Joe Swanberg to Julia Zemiro, about everyone from Luchino Visconti to Michael Bay. If you haven't listened to it, you really should! But enough of the advertorial: we'd been talking with the lovely Mathieu Ravier, eminence grise of the Sydney Film Festival Hub, about doing a show there for a while, so it was our huge pleasure to fly up for this year's fest to record our first ever live-audience podcast. But who would our guest be?
Well, it just happened that the festival were screening a retrospective of films by the late, iconoclastic American director Robert Altman, with introductions and Q&As with his son, Michael. So Mathieu approached us with the indelible proposition: would we like to discuss the films of Robert Altman with Michael Altman?
Of course, we turned him down flat.
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.
But, of a bounty of endless discovery that includes California Split, HealtH, That Cold Day in the Park, 3 Women, Fool For Love, Brewster McCloud, Images, Streamers, Secret Honor, and The Company -- really, the man has more hidden gems than most directors have good films -- one rose above them all: Altman's 1973 trailblazing take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.
Starring a magnetic, laconic Elliott Gould at the peak of his movie star powers (seriously, you'll wonder why he didn't rule the rest of the decade), the film's caustic dialogue, gymnastic narrative, evocative sense of place, snatches of everyday quirkiness and loose reinvention of genre will make you feel like you're watching the Coen Brothers' entire aesthetic being born in front of you, ten years before they emerged. It's a furiously entertaining, meta-before-"meta" blast of ganja-clouded L.A haze that arrived two decades before its time, and provides the perfect launching pad to explore this towering filmmaker's astonishing career.
Voyages of Discovery.
If the Godfather Parts I and II are the bookends of my all-time top five films ever seen, Pulp Fiction is the greatest of what's in between. It's fair to say it had a seismic effect on me upon release (I saw it four times, still a PB!), as a paragon of the kind of films I loved to watch and those I'd love to make. It's pretty much my Star Wars, and seeing it projected from a slightly battered 35mm print of the huge Astor Theatre screen in Windsor, alongside some of my closest friends, was like reacquainting myself with a great love.
The Elmore Leonard influence felt much more present this time around, now I'm more familiar with his work, while the scene where Vincent arrives to pick up Mia struck me as unbelievably sensual, edging into Wong Kar Wai territory with its fixation on objects, mirroring and gentle flirtation. In fact, I'd never found the Mia-Vincent sequence so gorgeously charming before. I had always dug it, but this is the first time I truly fell for her and their beautiful, almost innocent, flirtatious chemistry.
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.
Previously most famous for the misfortune of opening the week after Star Wars, the life of Sorcerer -- William Friedkin's ambitious 1977 remake of the 1953 classic The Wages of Fear -- as a pejorative cinematic footnote ends now, and should be rediscovered on the biggest screen, with the biggest sound, humanly possible. Newly remastered in 4K digital for a Venice premiere and prestige Blu-Ray release, Sorcerer is as powerful a sensory experience as any film I've ever seen, a white-knuckle thriller of peerless skill, and an optimum example of politicised 1970s American studio filmmaking. The first hour sets up the four protagonists in near-wordless economy -- almost feeling like four different short films -- before throwing them together in one of the most pitiful hellholes ever committed to screen (the dilapidated production design is relentless), firing a still-timely broadside at the way multinational resource firms exploit third world nations ripe for the picking. The entire second hour is devoted to our Four With Nothing To Live For driving wet nitroglycerin in beat-up trucks across rickety bridges and rocky, washed-out terrain, and it is terrifying; a stunningly executed, perfectly played journey into madness to rival Apocalypse Now (which was still two years away). It's time for this neglected classic to finally get its due and become a fixture on repertory cinema calendars the world over.
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
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:
- My list is restricted to films that had their paid premiere screening to the Australian public (whether in cinemas, on home video, online or at film festivals) during the 2014 calendar year.
- A certain film about an actor who used to play a superhero, who is played by an actor who used to play a superhero, would have placed third on this list if it didn’t officially release in Australia 'til January 15th, 2015. So look for it on next year's list -- which I guarantee, it will make.
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
Filmed only on Tuesdays over one year, this seriously impressive drama about a mother starting a gender reassignment transition to become male -- and managing to shut out her daughter, shuttling her off to her father and restricting her to just one visit a week, every Tuesday, for a year -- smartly avoids sweeping generalisations and saintly portrayals of its characters, opting instead to show us nuanced, difficult, dysfunctional people trying their level best to be authentic to themselves, without always considering -- or trusting -- the people they love most. An innovative, deeply personal work of uncommon frankness and emotional complexity, and the very best Australian film I saw this year.
This Norwegian effort from debut director Eskil Vogt is one of those great film festival surprise packets. Writer Ingrid (the terrific Ellen Dorrit Petersen) loses her sight and refuses to leave her apartment, despite the urgings of her husband, preferring to ensconce herself in a self-constructed cocoon of memory, desire and imagination. Fantasy and reality coexist, collide and dovetail with a deftness matched only by Charlie Kaufman's work, creating a playful, funny, sexy, even poignant character study whilst wielding a surgical knack for human observation. I'm unsure whether Blind will ever find a local release, but I strongly urge you to seek it out. It's a pistol.
Threatened by an unknown confessor looking to kill a good priest in exchange for the collective sins of the Catholic Church, Father James (a never-better Brendan Gleeson) spends his next seven days wondering just who the hell wants him dead. Not easy as a rare good man in a town of bad apples. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh's (The Guard) aggressively dark humour is all over this, lulling us into thinking this is yet another quirky, sharp-edged portrait of a small town Ireland where colourful abuse and casual violence lurk around every corner… But McDonagh has a lot more on his mind beneath his seemingly quirky conceit, finally revealing the damaged psyches of his bruised, beautiful characters, building it all to a profoundly sad, emotional wallop of a close.
A one-time superstar chef is fired from his big-time restaurant and finds redemption -- and reconnection with loved ones -- through weaving his own culinary magic from a beat-up food truck. Having been through the Hollywood ringer of writing and directing hits and flops for indies and studios -- and walking both sides of the critical street --writer/director Jon Favreau knows a thing or two about the modern commercial artist's journey, which lends this, his gorgeous ode to creative independence, a welcome dose of gravity. It's also just plain fun, filled with delicious-looking food, irresistible Latin rhythms and an excellent, affable all-star cast having a ball -- not to mention being one of the few films to understand the reach and power of social media.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Walking and talking like the Persian-speaking bastard child of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, the English-born of Iranian-heritage, US-raised writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour cooks up a beautiful, bewitching romance-with-a-pinch-of-horror that takes its cue from the above filmmakers, with a little Sergio Leone composition and musical taste stirred in. Leads Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi make a strong impression as the loveable, attractive leads, and Amirpour goes about crafting her tale in a spare, sparse but always interesting way that transcends her influences -- showing a gift for small sensual moments, beautiful imagery, subtle yet very pointed social commentary and a Tarantino-esque feel for matching music to image -- that marks her as a huge talent to watch.
Elderly and ornery, Woody Grant (a wonderful Bruce Dern) seems convinced his bogus Publisher's Clearing House-style slip is going to net him the million dollars it promises, and is determined to travel the country to fetch it -- with his youngest son David (Will Forte, a revelation here with his sad-eyed turn) in tow to make sure Woody doesn't get himself into mischief. Writer/director Alexander Payne crafts another excellent, bittersweet portrait of all-too painful family dynamics and the tyranny of ageing, laced with his particular brand of truth and acidic, often uncomfortable humour, all shot in glorious black & white. Payne has a serious eye and ear for the tragic dignity of middle America, honing it ever more from film to film, all at once beautifully simple, utterly ridiculous and quietly heartbreaking.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Vampire lovers Adam and Eve (the exquisite Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) reunite in Adam's Detroit home after years apart and amble through their undead lives, trying to find something to keep them engaged after soaking up centuries of culture. Complicating matters is Adam's party girl sister Ava (a delightfully devilish Mia Wasikowska), as impulsive as her elders are considered and incognito. For all his filmmaking gifts -- all on brilliant display here -- writer/director Jim Jarmusch doubles as a sort of Hipster Patient Zero, and his vamps initially strike us as insufferable too-cool seen-it-all types, until it becomes clear Jarmusch is slyly making affectionate fun of the hipster's studied melancholy -- yet has his cake and drinks its blood by mining the genuine sadness of these two as the film draws on, growing ever more beautiful, all framed by a broken Detroit that echoes the wreckage -- physical and emotional -- we all leave behind, along with our own mortality.
Due to his inability to be controlled within the juvenile detention system, ultraviolent teen Eric (an alternately boyish and fearsome Jack O'Connell) is "starred up" -- transferred to an adult prison, where his equally explosive father (Ben Mendelsohn) is an inmate. The surprise of director David McKenzie's film is that it's a riveting father-son melodrama, with genuine heart and soul -- but never, ever sentimentality -- dressed up as a bracing, sobering social realist prison drama, electrified with a keen eye for detail, the intelligence to highlight connective tissue between the failure of the state to support its staff and the prisoners their institutions produce, and builds it all upon cracking performances from a brilliant cast.
THE TRIP TO ITALY
Real talk now: I could just watch these two all day. I'm not one for sequels -- only three appear on this list -- but revisiting these two brilliant, strangely loveable comic actors, both indulged and reigned in by the sure hand of director Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, 24 Hour Party People), was an absolute pleasure. The film also presents a clever turn on the sequel ethos, by essentially giving us more of the same -- the brilliant impressions, the mid-life crisis acting-out and struggle between perceived freedom and family commitments -- but cleverly, subtly inverts the leads' dynamic: suddenly, it's Coogan on the phone to his loved ones & Brydon daring a dalliance, and it works brilliantly. Even more picturesque than the first -- those Italian countrysides are luscious -- it cloaks its eloquence on the impending threat of ageing we all face with some of the funniest scenes of one-upmanship and friendly ribbing you'll see. I almost never say this, but: bring on a third.
UNDER THE SKIN
A nameless woman drives around the grey streets of rural Scotland like a serial killer, picking up random guys. When she takes them home, you won't believe what fate awaits them… yet, that's only the hook for this endlessly odd, completely beguiling film. Straddling science fiction and social realism is no mean feat, but writer/director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) manages it with a chilly, Nic Roeg-esque eye for human darkness and frailty. Scarlett Johansson is subtly brilliant, pulling off an excellent british accent and taking us on an indelible, chilling headtrip with her enigmatic character. Rarely does a film start off so terrifying and end up so sadly, but Johansson's journey from hunter to hunted, seemed -- to my eyes, anyway, I could be wrong -- to be exploring nothing less than the cavernous gulf between the general perception and painful actuality of the female sexual experience. You'll feel like a dunce while watching it, but just try and get this darkly beautiful, haunting film out of your head afterward. Oh, and Mica Levi's musical score may be the best you'll hear in 2014.
A determined girl named Wadjda wants her own bicycle: this may sound like the stuff of Italian neorealism -- and there's definitely a thematic DNA there -- but this girl lives in Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to drive, vote… or make movies. The fact that not only is this the first film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, but that it is written and directed by a woman -- the talented Haifaa Al-Mansour -- is cause for celebration alone, but the fact this landmark work is so relentlessly entertaining is quite something else. A simple story well told, Wadjda is affecting enough, with a wonderful lead character (played by the endearingly cocky Waad Mohammed), but where it really excels is in Al-Mansour's writing. There's a lived-in quality to this world and every character in it, of such uncommon depth you'll find yourself wondering about the pasts and futures of even the most incidental characters. Considering Hollywood studios' often failed obsession with "world building", watching a woman from Saudi Arabia just rock up and do it like it ain't no thang is truly inspiring.
Aspiring Jazz drummer Andrew (an impressive Miles Teller) is accepted to the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory to further his path to greatness… but here he must contend with the cruel tutelage of Fletcher (a demonic J.K. Simmons), whose idea of teaching would make Hannibal Lecter blush -- a never-ending cycle of verbal, physical and psychological abuse to break people down, build them- nah, just keep breaking them -- which takes a serious toll on Andrew's psyche. Descending into the Crimson Tide of inspirational teacher movies, Whiplash asks if greatness really does require a certain shunning of humanity and empathy -- and where this notion even comes from (as much from a teacher's indulgent power-trips as likely apocryphal myths and anecdotes). Above all this, the film is a showcase for writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir, who assemble one of the most unbearably tense, pulsatingly rhythmic, stunningly shot and cut films of recent years -- the film's ending alone is its own symphony. Chazelle's blazing command of craft will linger long after his often over-the-top story (the car crash scene, in particular, loses me, metaphor or not) fades from view.
THE TOP 20 FILMS OF 2014
One night, Ivan Locke leaves work to take responsibility for the biggest mistake he's ever made. Over the course of an 80 minute drive, it's just him, his car phone and his conscience as he tries to save everything: the biggest concrete pour of his construction career, his marriage and that mistake. The very conceit of taking a family/work melodrama and fashioning it like an airtight thriller is a masterstroke in itself, but seeing it unfold, as this honourable professional can't help but bargain as his life is being slowly taken apart, adds it an unexpected poignance. Steven Knight's script is rich with detail and wastes nothing, and the film is beautifully shot (could've used a little more bokeh, really)... but all of this doesn't work without an intensely charismatic, relatable, bruised performance in the lead, which is what Tom Hardy provides. He's done some extraordinary work in his short career, but this ranks near the top. The voice cast on the other end of his phone line provide able support, too; particularly Andrew Scott as his particularly nervous foreman. Strap yourself in for one of the year's best thrillers.
19. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
I've never seen any of the original Planet of the Apes movies or the TV series, but I did suffer through the awful 2000 remake, and, Caesar aside, I wasn't that jazzed by 2011's Rise reboot… so I'm more shocked than you that this is here. The film's form is so impressively odd for a modern blockbuster: barely a word is spoken for the first 13 minutes, most of the lead characters are computer-generated apes, and there's precious little destruction, instead opting for huge stretches of quiet, contemplative scenes of drama. Matt Reeves directs the hell out of Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver's thrilling screenplay; both a sensitive personal drama and a whip-smart sociopolitical conspiracy thriller. But it all crumbles if the visual effects fail in any way, and this is the film's greatest magic trick: it creates hordes of photorealistic apes, rendered so seamlessly, the leading ape characters so affectingly, achingly lifelike, that it feels like you're watching a new frontier being crossed. 25 years of computer generated visual FX has finally led us to a place where an angry ape can blaze two machine guns while riding horseback, and I am delighted by this.
18. NEXT GOAL WINS
American Samoa are relatively new to the world of professional football, but, even amongst fellow newbies, their ability to lose spectacularly is unique. Rock bottom arrives when they suffer a world record loss to the Australian national team -- hardly a World Cup superpower themselves -- 31 goals to nil. This film begins as an inside look at their road back to national respect, but as we meet the American Samoa players, it soon transcends the sports documentary narrative to become a bigger story about inspiring individuals, preserving an admirable culture that embraces diversity -- a key member on the team's roster is the world's first transgender player to suit up for a World Cup qualifier -- and the point where teamwork and self-expression can meet and even flourish. It's not only the best underdog story you'll see this year, but also a sweet ethnographic study of one of the world's smallest cultures.
17. LIFE ITSELF
Film critic Roger Ebert lost his voice to cancer in 2006, but found a new, even more powerful one through his blog afterward. The At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert guy found a renewed global following through his long-form op-ed pieces, political views, interesting links, personal pieces and, yes, his film reviews. By the time cancer finally claimed him in 2013, aged 70, the outpouring of condolences and goodwill was huge. Using Ebert's memoir as a springboard, world-class documentarian Steve James creates a loving tribute to Ebert's journey from newspaperman to drunk to critic to sobriety to TV stardom to illness to Twitter, posing a series of pointed questions to the man himself, but also talking to family and friends (and even a few enemies) from all of these eras, unafraid to show Ebert's sharper edges. A highlight of the film is the examination of his complex, combative, almost brotherly relationship with Gene Siskel, not least for some fascinating outtake footage. Ebert may have been prickly, but as he grew older, and ego ceded to love, his indomitable voice is what endures -- which never blazed brighter than when he lost it.
Under the threat of catastrophic job losses, miners from small towns all over the UK spent the majority of 1984-85 standing up to Margaret Thatcher's draconian rule, and suffered dearly, as her government found new ways to squeeze them into accepting her terms: mostly involving violent police action. As fate had it, the striking miners found an ally in another group familiar with such harassment: a particularly politicised corner of the London LGBT community, who started collecting money for the miners' cause. Writer Steven Beresford and director Matthew Warchus' dramatisation of these events -- of an alliance that began uneasily, to say the least, but wound up becoming an example for us all -- is so perfectly judged, never shying away from the political, social and personal stakes at hand, expressing them through a range of beautifully written characters played by the best assembly of UK actors seen in years. The ads and posters make it seem twee, but this story of the power of protest, of finding kindred spirits in unexpected places during times of adversity, is as politically vital as any film I saw this year. It will also make you cry buckets, so be warned.
There are few sights so pleasing to this film buff as watching a mad auteur being completely unleashed. It's fair to say that Luc Besson's career has been flagging in recent years, which means it's such a joy to see him recapture a large slice of his '90s-style Nikita/Leon/Fifth Element form here. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson, enjoying an unstoppable year) is a party girl who finds herself forced to be a drug mule for a South Korean crime lord (Oldboy himself, the great Choi Min-Sik). A beating at the hands of a reprehensible type sees the package burst and the experimental drug enter Lucy's system in gigantic quantities, expanding first her intelligence, then her consciousness… and her power. What follows is both the silliest, most ambitious and most thrillingly unhinged action film seen in an age, where LSD-trip profundity rubs shoulders with comic book insanity. It's quite literally like no action film you've ever seen, with a nutty script that does some really interesting things with the idea -- this ain't Limitless -- anchored by a Johansson performance that's honest, affecting and kickass all at once. Welcome back, Luc: we missed you.
In the far future, a second ice age has obliterated the planet, leaving the only survivors circling the Earth on a giant train that runs on an engine that processes snow. Inside, the last remaining humans are segregated in terms of class: the poorest at the back, the train's president at the front. But young firebrand Curtis (a never-better Chris Evans) has other ideas; he rouses the downtrodden to make their way to the front and take the train. If this sounds like an implausible comic book, it's because it's based upon one... but there's nothing implausible about the social dynamics at play. Snowpiercer's politics are its third rail: the one where all the power is. Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Mother) navigates his audacious English language debut's elastic tone with aplomb and creates a structure that reflects his characters' struggle: opening with the year's most visceral first act, he leads us through insane action and absurdist humour before taking a turn for the intellectual -- like Curtis, Bong pushes us from the gut to the head. Such genius choices are legion in this, the kind of bold, witty, brutal, politicised action/sci-fi/thriller you'd never see out of a Hollywood studio.
13. JODOROWSKY'S DUNE
After kicking off the midnight movie era and gaining serious cult attention with his wittily surrealist headtrips El Topo and The Holy Mountain, iconoclastic Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky found himself holding the keys to a giant science fiction property: Frank Herbert's epic novel Dune. He set about making the most incredible science fiction picture ever made -- made only with collaborators Jodorowsky considered "spiritual warriors" -- which would do nothing less than expand the consciousness of all who saw it. Frank Pavich's irresistible documentary, overflowing with brilliant/crazy ideas, boundless enthusiasm and hilarious anecdotes, follows the process of how this grandest of visions collapsed, had its bones picked over by Hollywood and all-but-sidelined Jodorowsky's filmmaking career for 14 years. But where does a document of a failed, unrealised film get off being so damned inspiring? Improbably, this tale makes you want to pick up a camera, surround yourself with spiritual warriors and charge on to set. But, hey, that's the kind of mad messianic genius Jodorowsky is. And you'll want that massive book.
12. THE OVERNIGHTERS
A fracking boom brings itinerant workers from all over America -- as there's no damn jobs where they've come from -- to the oil fields of North Dakota, only to find their positions are already filled there, too. Faced with a homelessness epidemic, local pastor Jay Reinke decides to let them stay in and around his church, which raises the ire of his parish. Some of these men have criminal records, including serious sexual offences, and as a wave of fearmongering sweeps its way through the town, Jay must continually defend, adjust and bargain his position -- to him, it's the church's duty to look after their wayward flock. As we follow the lives of Jay and a selection of the workers, personal secrets gradually emerge that threaten to bring everything they're fighting for crashing down around them. Jesse Moss' intimate, well-balanced documentary never wavers in its journalistic conviction, even as it morphs from an interrogation of a church's societal role into a damning document of a modern America crumbling under a capitalist nightmare, fearing even thy neighbour all the while. Riveting stuff.
11. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
The horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from New York abducted into slavery, forced to endure twelve years of unfathomable abuse from plantation owners is an emotionally numbing but essential document of man's inhumanity to man... none worse than Edwin and Mistress Epps (a chillingly petulant Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson). Chiwetel Ejiofor has shown talent and charisma for some time now, but his performance as Northup propels him to greatness; most of the film plays out on his face, processing the enormity of the horror that's been thrust upon him, as his dignity and identity is slowly stripped away piece by piece. Steve McQueen's spare, clear-eyed direction is undercut slightly by Hans Zimmer's constant cribbing from his own Inception score, but where the film -- and John Ridley's screenplay -- proves most effective, is as an examination of how systemic human violations flourish. This kind of mass injustice needs more than stone cold racism to perpetuate: more often, the potential loss of power, status or community stops perhaps otherwise "good" people from challenging the status quo, which -- as Edmund Burke told us long ago -- is the only thing necessary for evil to triumph.
…and then there were 10...
10. NYMPHOMANIAC - VOLUMES I & II
Too often slandered as a misogynist -- curiously, most often by male critics -- instead Lars von Trier has become the foremost chronicler of man's inhumanity to woman, and of the female experience of moving through a brutal patriarchal world. Here, he turns his attention to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, sublimely going all in), a lifelong self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who recalls her sexual history to the man (Stellan Skarsgaard, gentle, open and affable) nursing her back to health after a beating. (Joe is also beautifully played as a younger woman by a very game Stacy Martin, in a stunning film debut.) Nymphomaniac roars with formal audacity -- structurally, aesthetically, narratively and sensorially -- but, as ever with von Trier, his coldly unsparing knack for human observation grounds his film in an all-too-real emotional reality. 8 the film's 9 chapters are different shades of incredible -- career-best turns from Uma Thurman and Jamie Bell distinguish the two best chapters -- until the weirdly contrived, gratingly absurd spy-movie-style final chapter damn near derails the entire thing… until von Trier plays his trump card: a truly shattering conclusion that puts his point -- men damning women merely for their sexuality -- into stark, poignant focus.
9. THE ONE I LOVE
We meet young marrieds Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, both pitch perfect) in their therapist's office. Things aren't going well, so their doctor (the terrific Ted Danson, in a sharp cameo) recommends a retreat he sends all his patients to; one weekend there and it'll fix their marriage right up. Ethan and Sophie oblige, but after their first night there, very strange things start happening. To say any more would be unfair… Charlie McDowell's directorial debut is both a nimble genre-mash and stunning example of low-to-micro-budget filmmaking, working from Justin Lader's razor-sharp screenplay (helped along, amazingly, by Moss and Duplass' astonishing improvisational work), which remains airtight due to never wavering from its thematic concerns, mixing up the kind of film you think you're watching, and speaking smartly observed, often uncomfortable truths about relationships in a fashion both funny and tragic, all leading to a conclusion that packs an unexpected emotional punch. Seek it out.
8. THE GRANDMASTER
Wong Kar Wai's return to the screen seven long years after My Blueberry Nights sees cinema's prime sensualist in fine form, working his magic on the life story of Ip Man (embodied by the brilliant Tony Leung), who would go on to train and mentor no less a titan than Bruce Lee. The fight scenes that populate the first hour of this film are almost overwhelming to watch, visually stunning and godlike in their depiction -- in a potentially played-out genre, I've never seen fight scenes staged like this before; like the bastard offspring of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but vastly different, more tactile than both. When the Second Sino-Japanese War forces Ip Man to leave his family to migrate to Hong Kong, he becomes increasingly obsessed with a martial artist he once considered his equal -- the beautiful Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, making a huge impression) -- following her and piecing together what her life had become now. At this point, the film drifts away from Ip Man's story and becomes fixated on Gong Er, a decision that troubled many viewers but I found emotionally true: as Ip Man becomes consumed by her, the very trajectory of the film does, too. It's a clever, if risky, decision that pays off, with the profound, slo-mo, deep-focus romanticism Wong has made his trademark, standing alongside those astonishingly crafted battle tableaus -- all of which makes The Grandmaster a work of uncommon grace and emotionally resonant beauty.
7. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Three ancient vampires living in Wellington invite a documentary crew into their sharehouse to film their everyday (after)lives and explore their culture -- until they wind up turning a new vampire and have to show him the ropes. Longtime friends and collaborators Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) -- formidable talents alone -- join their considerable forces to write and direct this wickedly hilarious mockumentary, bursting at the seams with cheekily clever spins on popular vampire tropes. The sheer volume of great jokes alone would make it the year's funniest comedy, but it's its deft touch with character, making these monsters so relatable and endearing, that really shoots this picture to another level. The film's performances are also disarmingly human, particularly Waititi as the lovestruck peacemaker Vlago. What's more, there's an uncommon rigour applied to maintaining the documentary conceit; rarely for the mockumentary subgenre, not a single shot feels false or impossible. The sheer loveable spirit, blood-soaked abandon -- don't think for a second this film shies away from the bloodier aspects of vampiric horror -- and originality of the writing on display here ensures repeat viewings will be essential for years to come.
6. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
As professionally crafted as Marvel's movies are, they often feel like product, each with interlocking parts, action accessories and little-to-no concerns below the surface. But Captain America: The Winter Solider, brilliantly directed by frequent Community directors Joe and Anthony Russo -- who knew? -- feels like a film, the best kind of modern blockbuster; breathlessly speeding from one set piece to the next, yet taking care to give both lead and supporting characters moments of humanity and iconic beats to savour, whilst weaving in thoughtful subtext reflecting the world in which we live. The selling out of civil liberties to stop a faceless, insidious terror, using drones and fear to do it, creating soldiers by first robbing them of empathy -- these are some weighty, intelligent issues to be smuggling into your superhero flick, but it's done perfectly; I've not seen 1970s paranoid spy films and very 2010s blockbusters merged in such a satisfying way before. And it's not afraid to be sexy, showing off its almost unbearably gorgeous cast to excellent effect without ever feeling exploitative; there's enough flirtation and unresolved sexual tension -- and not just between opposite genders -- to fill seventeen blockbusters. Marvel's best yet.
5. TOM AT THE FARM
Although he landed on my radar last year with Laurence Anyways, French-Canadian actor/writer/director/producer/editor/costume designer/wunderkind Xavier Dolan has been the cinematic MVP of 2014 for me, starting with this disquieting psychological thriller. Dolan also plays the titular lead, who heads to the country for the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume, only to find upon arrival that Guillaume's family only know him as their son's friend, and have no idea about his sexuality. What follows is a journey into madness that echoes the best work of Polanski and Clouzot, but with a very modern queer twist, digging into sexual repression, homophobia, the rural/urban social divide and the destructive power of secrets. Dolan impresses just as much in front of the camera as behind, and Pierre-Yves Cardinal gives one of the year's most menacing portrayals as Guillaume's violent, manipulative brother, Francis. Tom is both terrified and drawn to Francis, and their bizarre Stockholm Syndrome-style dynamic leads to some incredible scenes -- a tango in a barn chief among them. From its opening scenes of quiet rural menace, to the casual brutality of the dairy farm to the haunting end credits, Tom At The Farm ensures you'll bite your nails to a nub.
4. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Dazzled by the bright lights of the New York financial district, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is eager to learn the ropes, but quickly learns that playing by the rules doesn't pay. Soon, he's hustling rubes into buying dud stocks, building a company on the backs of empty promises and rising rapidly to wealth, power and even fame. Martin Scorsese is in full Goodfellas mode here -- it's essentially Goodbrokers -- showing an enthusiasm and pumped-up, pulsating style not seen in his work since the 1990s. But for all the rush and wildly inappropriate fun contained within the film's propulsive three-hour running time, there's also a palpable rage running through the entire thing, something else we've not seen from Scorsese in an age. Both an explosive satire of Wall Street Master-of-the-Universe get-rich-quicker culture, and furious indictment of unregulated machismo -- as depicted here, Belfort's firm Stratton Oakmont feels like the natural career destination for America's most entitled, monstrous white college fraternities -- and works like gangbusters on both levels. The cast are top-notch, but DiCaprio is astonishingly good, unleashed like never before; even throwing himself into some Jerry Lewis-level physical comedy. Never mind Scorsese's "Mob trilogy": The Wolf of Wall Street feels most like the third corner of an unofficial "Fuck You, Pay Me" trilogy with Goodfellas and Casino, about the ways we casually destroy one another for our vision of the capitalist dream, blind to the wreckage we leave behind until our day comes, too. But unlike the mob films, the real sting of this film is that people still don't learn: Take down one Belfort, and millions of others are all too ready to take his place.
3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
A young woman pays homage to her favourite writer. Years earlier, the writer recounts a story he heard as a young man. This younger man travels to the land of Zubrowka, nestled within Eastern European peaks, at the centre of which lies The Grand Budapest Hotel. Within, Concierge par excellence Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) oversees his domain as charming bon vivant, confidante, lord and master. Throw in changing aspect ratios and you've an idea of the babushka doll storytelling structure at play -- and how gloriously playful it all is. Writer/director Wes Anderson crafts an idealised, fictional pre-WWII world, enjoying its last days as a fascist threat looms large to change everything. Gustave H is the living embodiment of this world of opulence, courtesy and jolts of cathartic vulgarity, and he fits Fiennes like a glove, displaying a hitherto unseen gift for verbal and physical comedy (leading a wonderful all-star -- and I do mean all-star -- cast). Anderson's achingly precise filmmaking design finds its perfect setting in this pre-war diorama, creating both the year's wittiest, most purely pleasurable film -- but, also, a deeply sorrowful elegy to a lost age, before tyrants, despots and presidents threw out the etiquette rule book.
Widowed mother Diane Després (a towering performance from Anne Dorval) has mixed feelings when her loving but erratic, violent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, perfectly balancing charisma and vulnerability) moves back home after being ejected from another institution. But Diane gains an unexpected ally when their new neighbour, the sweet, seemingly brittle Kyla (a brilliant, beautifully contained Suzanne Clement), is drawn into their lives. They make an instantly irresistible trio, and Dolan isn't afraid of getting up to his elbows in complex territory as his characters' best efforts to overcome their emotional deficiencies to a happier life build and collapse. From Laurence Anyways to Tom At The Farm to this, Dolan just seems to improve and expand his cinematic gravitas with each film, and Mommy sees his signature blend of lived-in social realism, perceptive melodrama and bold cinematic flourish swell to a perfect storm -- not to mention his perfect use of popular music to punctuate his characters' journeys -- fashioning a shattering experience that roars to a conclusion that left me astounded and emotionally spent. I've not been this consistently thrilled by a new filmmaker in years, and I'm on tenterhooks to see what sorcery Dolan will conjure next.
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.
Viva la cinema,
Paul Anthony Nelson
PS: The 115 eligible films I saw this year were…
12 Years a Slave
A Girl At My Door
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
A Hard Day
Among The Living
An Honest Liar (D)
Any Day Now
August: Osage County
Big Hero 6
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Blue is the Warmest Colour
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Catch Me Daddy
Dallas Buyers Club
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her
Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him
Edge of Tomorrow
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (D)
Finding Vivian Maier (D)
KEY: (D) = Documentary
Guardians of the Galaxy
How To Train Your Dragon 2
In Order of Disappearance
Inside Llewyn Davis
Into The Woods
Jodorowsky’s Dune (D)
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Life After Beth
Life Itself (D)
Magic in the Moonlight
Maps To The Stars
Mr Peabody and Sherman
Next Goal Wins (D)
Only Lovers Left Alive
Reaching for the Moon
Sin City: A Dame To Kill For
Sunshine on Leith
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Hobbit: The Battle of the 5 Armies
The Hope Factory
The Infinite Man
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq
The Lego Movie
The One I Love
The Overnighters (D)
The Raid 2
The Trip To Italy
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Zero Theorem
Titli (aka Butterfly)
Tom At The Farm
Trespassing Bergman (D)
Under The Skin
Velvet Terrorists (D)
Welcome To New York
What We Do In The Shadows
White Bird in a Blizzard
Why Don’t You Play In Hell?
Wolf Creek 2
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...
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,
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
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...
As always, this countdown arrives with disclaimers:
- My list is restricted to films that had their premiere screening to the Australian public (whether in cinemas, on home video, online or at film festivals) during the 2013 calendar year.
- The #1 film I saw this year won’t be appearing on this list, as it doesn’t officially release in Australia until January 16th. (But let’s just say the Coen Brothers have outdone themselves.)
145 films enter... how many will leave?
2013 began with a deluge of 2012 awards contenders... but it was a 2012 festival title, Abbas Kiarostami’s mysterious Japanese-set investigation of romantic lives, LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, that seduced me with its beguiling mystery, commentary on what different forms of love mean to us, touching observations and gorgeous visuals. But what really makes it soar are little snapshots -- a girl too ashamed to face her grandmother, who waits alone and patiently for her, a bereft old man tentatively inviting a young escort to his flat for some semblance of company, a young man with love and passion to give but no maturity with which to handle it -- observations that burrow into your head and stay there.
At 77 years old, most actors are fading gracefully into retirement, let alone appearing in every frame of a physically gruelling survival tale... but Robert Redford isn’t “most actors”. ALL IS LOST is a gripping, terrifying yet almost meditative examination of humanity’s boundless struggle for life in the face of near-divine hopelessness, told without dialogue, exposition or other cast; just JC Chandor’s taut direction and intelligent writing plus one great movie star -- quietly, stoically, poignantly standing against insurmountable odds.
Andrew Bujalski has been at the forefront of the so-called “mumblecore” group of independent American filmmakers since the early 2000s, but his aggressively awkward, observational style has never come together for me before until COMPUTER CHESS, where his sublimely lumpy B&W VHS visuals underscore the film’s emotionally stunted, ultimately loveable tech-obsessives and the nervous dawn of a changing landscape, a new era they may finally fit into. It’s also funny as hell, playing on egos and social mores of the time, as well as a clever look at how we express ourselves through technology -- even long before social media - before taking a turn for the deeply weird.
Ethnographic documentaries set in remote villages can often be dry and clinical, but VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD -- with its look at Niaqornat in North Greenland, one of the most isolated villages on Earth -- proves they don’t have to be. Director Sarah Gavron’s crew follows a charming handful of the country’s 59 citizens over a year as they go about their lives, and finds an inspiring collective both surprisingly fluid and powerfully resolute in the face of impending modernity.
At 82 and having not made a film since 1990, it seemed quite reasonable to assume that Chilean surrealist tearaway Alejandro Jodorowsky was done as a filmmaking force. But the fact the ridiculously spry trickster managed to return to the screen with a big, bawdy, bonkers, autobiographical effort like THE DANCE OF REALITY shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. The thing that is surprising about this colourful, hilarious, warm-hearted film is how utterly sweet and straight-forward it is, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. This may disappoint fans bracing for the indecipherable, balls-out insanity of The Holy Mountain or the mordant grotesqueries of Santa Sangre, but I’m here to tell you: the weirdness is still there -- this is Jodorowsky, after all -- but he’s being reflective this time, thinking about his past and, in casting his freakishly lookalike son, the future. At his age, I reckon the guy’s earned it, don’t you?
While it may have been made for US cable TV giant HBO, we all know BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic swansong (for a while, anyway) -- even down to its climactic Liberace exit scene -- and what a glorious finale it is. Michael Douglas is remarkable as the flamboyant, emotionally manipulative but fiercely publicly closeted pianist and Matt Damon damn near matches him as his immature but heartbreakingly sincere lover, Scott Thorson. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns could’ve made Liberace look like a monster, but they and Douglas really humanise him, even if the results are rarely pretty. But while sadness underpins every scene, the film is also often uproariously funny, and I won’t lie: it’s awesome to see two straight major movie stars dive into gay roles with such enthusiasm.
As someone who lived next to the Italian-Australian suburb of Carlton for a long while, I was curious to find what LYGON STREET: SI PARLA ITALIANO would tell me about this much-documented suburb that I didn’t already know. The short answer was “plenty”, but what really knocked me for six was the parallels the film subtly makes between these pioneering 1950s immigrants and today’s refugees -- the Italians of Carlton changed not only Melbourne, but Australia, in such a deep, fundamental way that we can scarcely imagine life without them -- and it’s important to consider what positive impact the African and Middle Eastern migrants of today will have on our landscape, if only we have the humanity to give them the room and encouragement to flourish.
Three decades of sifting through reams of footage to juxtapose sound and image in music video -- not to mention his Zelig-like omnipresence in the UK pop cultural firmament -- seemed to have prepared Julien Temple for this moment, as he pulls off an astonishing, herculean feat of montage in his stunning feature-length collage LONDON: THE MODERN BABYLON. Comprised of often jaw-dropping footage -- cut with toe-tapping tunes both scathing and affectionate -- of London over the last 100 years, I’ve never seen a filmmaker so utterly encapsulate the truth of a city -- good, bad, ugly -- and end on a note of genuine hope that, hey, maybe this constantly turbulent, implosive, resilient mass of humanity may actually work this whole society thing out. It’s nothing less than a major document of one of our planet’s great metropolises.
Somber, meditative Soviet films set during World War II aren’t usually my bag, but there’s something urgently terrifying about Sergei Loznitza’s IN THE FOG that grips right away. Perfectly capturing the insidious paranoia of the wartime psyche, turning lifelong friends against each other because of a stupid assumption, a lie, a word said out of place, the film launches you into the gentle protagonist’s nightmare as he goes from respected family man to unjustly captured traitor in the blink of an eye. The film splits its focus between the man and his captors -- and while it does fall off slightly in the second half, as one character isn’t nearly as interesting as the other two -- it nails the compromised moral quagmire that wars create, encourage and almost never repair.
Has there been a cinematic image as utterly blissful as a monochromatic Greta Gerwig leaping down Manhattan streets to the booming beats of Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ this year? Thing is, the rest of FRANCES HA is pretty damn wonderful, too; a sweet, sharply observed look at what it’s like to fumble around trying to find your place in the world, largely failing miserably, only to try and try again because, well, what choice do we have?? Gerwig is simply incandescent, surrounded by terrific, lived-in performances, in a film whose lightness of touch is defied by the humanity it shows its characters who, in lesser hands, could have been annoying, self-absorbed, privileged jerks. The fact that Noah Baumbach’s film (co-written with Gerwig) makes us laugh through recognition, then break our hearts a little at unexpected moments, feels more like a magic trick each time I think about it.
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 FILMS OF 2013
20) MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Working under the huge shadow of Kenneth Branagh’s glorious 1993 screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s fanciful, farcical play, Joss Whedon decided to invite his affable, ever-growing repertory company of actors around to his house to shoot his own version -- retaining the Bard’s text -- over a couple of weeks he had free during post-production on Avengers. Was this lunacy or genius? All the mythologising in the world would have been all for naught if the cast weren’t up to it, or Whedon was just serving up a self-indulgent folly... but what resulted was a little bit of magic. Despite being a fan of the cast in general, their skill with Shakespeare’s dialogue still surprised me. The film is effortlessly charming, beautifully shot, a great modern take (Whedon’s decision to have the characters constantly imbibing is genius, as their wild assumptions and flights of fancy finally make sense!) and shows that, every once in a while, even Americans can get Shakespeare right.
19) OH BOY
A black-and-white portrait of a young man out of sync with his city, what appears a German companion piece to Frances Ha is actually far more. What elevates Jan Ole Gerster’s film over Baumbach’s is its deft allusions to the act of emotional and psychological evolution through first reconciling one’s past. As Niko, our protagonist (the excellent Tom Schilling), finds himself being pulled along by old friends, awkwardly encountering old flames and confronting the lies he tells his father -- all the while on the seemingly impossible quest to find a coffee -- we get a picture of a very familiar, very real crossroads of anyone who’s been through their twenties... until, in the film’s final act, it drops an emotional bomb on us that shows Niko that his own struggle to evolve is reflected, and eclipsed, by Berlin -- and Germany -- itself. It’s a quietly devastating moment that reminds us that by facing and forgiving who we were, we have a real shot becoming who we’re meant to be.
18) PROMISED LAND
A sharp, perceptive and surprisingly balanced look at oil company representatives (played by Matt Damon and Frances McDormand) campaigning for the hearts, minds and -- most importantly -- land of a small American town, the people who stand in their way (Hal Holbrook and John Krasinski) and those caught in between (Rosemarie DeWitt). Corporate greed, the global economy, the separation between what one does and who one is, and even pro-environmental lobbying come into question in one of the year’s most intelligent, even witty screenplays (written by Damon and Krasinski, clever dicks both). While some critics have maligned the film’s third act twist, it’s actually a bracing reminder of what multinationals will do to get what they want. It’s great to see big stars and a director like Gus Van Sant take on these huge issues in such an crisp, accessible fashion. Like most of the films on this list, it deserves a much bigger audience.
17) SHORT TERM 12
It’s been a superb year for American indies, and this touching, funny portrait of a young woman supervising a foster home for troubled teens feels so real it stings. Brie Larson is excellent as Grace, a committed, empathetic rock for these kids, but an unreconciled mess inside. John Gallagher Jr is a sweetheart as Mason, her co-worker, boyfriend and her own rock, and the teens themselves are beautifully well-drawn and complex. The whole film is crafted with winning sensitivity -- but never, ever sentimentality -- from debut feature writer/director Destin Cretton, and the result is a window into broken hearts but spirits unbowed, but with humour, heart and a punky, scrappy attitude that makes this film an emotional, unexpected pleasure that will leave a bruise or two. Beautiful stuff.
16) REWIND THIS!
Well, this is just geek nirvana right here. A feature-length oral history of the birth of home video, the seismic impact the humble VHS cassette had upon the way film would be consumed and the way it would inspire impressionable young film loving minds, this documentary is a compulsively watchable delight from start to end. Filmmakers, critics and video company honchos who were there at the ground level cheerfully share their memories of the VHS explosion -- how it democratised all possible strata of films and filmmakers, the lost art of evocative (and frequently fraudulent) video box art, the weird and wonderful delights that only this format could make possible and the rush of going to your video store and having all of film history at your fingertips for the first time in history. For any film buff, or any kid who grew up renting tapes from your local, this is a wild, hilarious, insightful and exuberant trip down memory lane.
15) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
After breaking my heart with Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance nearly repeats the effort with this poignant, compassionate emotional epic of moral consequences, thinly disguised as a crime drama. Once motorcycling bank robber Ryan Gosling crosses paths with rookie cop Bradley Cooper, their lives -- and those of their children -- are changed forever. There’s a bold, big-hearted scope to this film which elevates it above others working in this territory, as it’s more interested in how our choices today can reverberate through time -- what seems right now may destroy someone later, and what an enormous responsibility we carry to ourselves and those we love. Yet its real power is frequently delivered in small moments: a line, a look, a gesture. In a year of stellar Bradley Cooper performances, this may contain my favourite, but the searing, damaged soul of this beautiful, multi-layered drama is contained in the sad, drawn face of Dane DeHaan. You’ll see.
For years, we’ve been hearing how the effects for this film would mark a new level in visual effects storytelling. Boy, did it ever live up to the hype. But what I didn’t expect is what a powerfully primal, almost spiritual experience seeing it on the biggest screen possible, in 3D, would have. Through the most basic of escalating survival narratives, in the most unforgiving environment known to humanity, director Alfonso Cuaron and his son/co-screenwriter Jonas Cuaron have fashioned a tale of one woman’s rebirth through complete despair, as stirring as it is broad. Sure, the screenplay gives us a little more exposition than we need, and plays it a bit too cute at times, but any deficiencies are obliterated by the soulful, rock-solid performance of Sandra Bullock, who has never utilised her natural relatability and star power better than here. Bullock, Alfonso Cuaron’s meticulous vision and the often startlingly immersive work of his crew and VFX team are the juice behind this refreshing reminder of the raw power of the big screen experience.
13) THE SELFISH GIANT
Just when you think British social realist cinema has outdone itself, someone else comes along and redefines the form. Clio Barnard made a striking debut with her docudrama bio of playwright Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor, but she takes a quantum leap toward greatness with this disquieting, deeply sad tale of child grafters in Bradford. She never wastes a shot, her characterisations are sublime and her cast -- particularly her child leads -- are scarily, heartrendingly perfect. Watching these children, on the cusp of their teens, seeing their potential eroded action by action before your very eyes, driven by the cyclical circumstance of the environment they’ve inherited, is one of the distressing things you’ll see on screen this or any other year. Brilliant, honest filmmaking.
12) DRINKING BUDDIES
This was just a delight. Joe Swanberg has directed/co-directed sixteen feature films since his 2005 debut, KISSING ON THE MOUTH, forging a loose, freeform improvisational style which hunts relentlessly for cinematic truth, with mixed results at times. Which is why DRINKING BUDDIES feels like a graduation film of sorts. The method is classic Swanberg: wholly improvised dialogue, framing a story assembled from snatches of life... but the actors are better -- it’s his biggest name cast yet -- the shooting is assured and the all-too-real shifts and nuances of personal relationships captured here hang together as a wonderful story. We know actors like Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston can bring it, but Olivia Wilde is the revelation here. Her sheer physical beauty has seen her shoehorned into all-too-conventional hot-girl roles that don’t exploit her intelligence, humour or adorably rangy presence, but Swanberg just gets it, and lets her run, uh, wild. It’s a star-making performance, as her and Jake Johnson (an actor I’ve seen little of) are note-perfect in this look at two friends whose long-ignored sexual tension reaches a crucial point. How much of their friendship is attraction? Would they even work as a couple? Playing like the WHEN HARRY MET SALLY of its generation, but with even more bone-deep honesty and less sentiment, DRINKING BUDDIES is a winner. Oh, and you may fancy a drink afterwards, too.
Where the Cronenberg family are concerned, it seems the pulsating apple doesn’t fall far from the fleshy tree. With his father David having now abandoned the distinctive brand of twisted body horror sci-fi he invented, ANTIVIRAL announces the arrival of Brandon Cronenberg to pick up the mantle -- and how! More of a stark, Kubrickian stylist than his dad, Brandon creates a chilling, all-too-believable world, not too far from our worthless celebrity-saturated culture of TMZ, where fans can purchase the diseases, bacteria and re-grown living tissue of their favourite celebrities. Get closer to your favourite pop idol by sharing their herpes. But it’s also a brilliant, scathing satire of the managers, marketers and TMZ-like forces that perpetuate this culture that fools people into giving over their own lives to follow and approximate the apparent lives of exalted others. But it’s not all metaphors and white vistas splattered with red: Brandon inherits the old man’s gift for visceral bodily eruptions and creepily invasive terrors as well -- as brilliantly icky as any seen since VIDEODROME. It’s nice to see the Cronenberg name is in good hands.
10) IN A WORLD…
Lake Bell has been an actress I’ve liked for a few years now, cursed with the continued indignity of gracing middling projects that weren’t up to her charm or ability. So it’s a pleasure to see her take the reins as writer/director/star and smash it out of the park. But not only has Bell created one of the funniest, sweetest films of the year, but also one of mainstream film history’s most cogent feminist statements. She has the genius notion to set the film in the little-explored but famously male-dominated world of movie trailer voice-over artists (hence the film’s title) and casts herself as the daughter of an industry legend, trying to break in. With deft skill, Bell packages a rousing, relatable feminist manifesto as a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Men need to see this, and listen up. The cast (stocked with US comedy royalty) are uniformly excellent, Bell’s script is witty and on-point, and her direction seamlessly navigates the path from laughs to tears and back again, never compromising the gravity at her film’s core. In a world where cinematic entertainment as art gets its due, Bell would be lauded as a thrilling new American independent voice.
9) MAGIC MAGIC
Since Roman Polanski nailed the paranoid-fantasies-of-a-socially-repressed-woman subgenre with works like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, few filmmakers have managed to capture that delicate balance of mania, reality and empathy those films achieved... but Sebastian Silva may have cracked the code. MAGIC MAGIC is a gradual nightmare of social discomfort that digs deep into your brain and flatly refuses to leave. It sets up its situation quickly and clearly, drawing us into the fragile psyche of Juno Temple’s Alicia -- one of the year’s best performances -- far from home in Chile, as the group around her seem forever in on a cosmic joke she’s not privy to. Even when her hosts try to reach out to her, or Alicia to them, watching their dynamic decay and distort is all too unsettling for anyone who has ever felt socially awkward, unwelcome or out of their depth. Also worth mentioning is Michael Cera -- as the lecherous, sexually ambiguous Brink, his performance hilarious, sadistic and ultimately sad. But the scariest thing about MAGIC MAGIC is that every situation here feels so plausibly, unnervingly natural, that when Silva keeps twisting the screws ever tighter to the film’s startling conclusion, you’re left breathless, speechless, hopeless. Chilling stuff.
8) DJANGO UNCHAINED
As I’m sure you’re all aware, I’m a massive fan -- nay, acolyte -- of Quentin Tarantino’s work. His patient storytelling, graceful craft, explosive violence, movie mixmaster sensibilities and deeply personal take on cinema are like catnip to me. DJANGO UNCHAINED, with its fierce spaghetti western rebuke to slavery and the Confederate South, doesn’t disappoint. It’s a finely crafted triumph of the genre, full of savage imagery, witty asides and rousing comeuppances, but also has the testicular fortitude and -- it must be said -- sincerity to flip off Old White America in a big bad way. Django (an effectively taciturn Jamie Foxx) may be a hero for the Old West, but his nonchalance and fuck you insouciance are forged from very modern rap/hip-hop culture. He’s an individualist focused on rescuing his love (the adorable Kerry Washington) -- not out to lead or inspire his people; if that’s a happy side effect, great, but Django’s out to get his own life back. What happens after that, we’ll see. But as badass a hero as Django is, there are three incredible performances in this film that eclipse him: Christoph Waltz’s lovably honourable yet hubristic Dr Schultz, Leonardo DiCaprio’s hideous Calvin Candie and -- perhaps the most stunning of the lot -- Samuel L Jackson’s insidious Stephen, major domo to Candie and perhaps the most dangerous “Uncle Tom” the screen’s ever seen. DJANGO may be Tarantino’s most straightforward “popcorn picture” to date -- and certainly entertains like one -- but the sheer rage steaming from every pore certainly makes it the year’s most deeply felt blockbuster.
7) SLEEPWALK WITH ME
Perched somewhere between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Jon Favreau’s Swingers, comedian Mike Birbiglia and actor Seth Barrish’s hilarious, poignant, endlessly engrossing directorial debut is -- in the tradition of great American indie cinema -- so distinctly odd and personal, yet somehow manages to resonate with damn near everybody. Ostensibly a feature film extension of Birbiglia’s longform stand-up performance, detailing his struggle to find his voice as a comedian whilst battling a chronic sleepwalking disorder that starts off cute and funny, until it winds up threatening his life. Weaving these real-life events into the metaphor of “sleepwalking” through one’s life could’ve been painfully on-the-nose, but Birbiglia, Barrish and his co-writers Joe Birbiglia and Ira Glass (yes, that Ira Glass) manage it so deftly, imbuing the film with such an immediate, authentic anecdotal approach, that you don’t draw that thread until well after the film ends. Birbiglia makes an insanely affable screen presence and his supporting cast (welcome back Lauren Ambrose! Carol Kane! James Rebhorn! Marc Maron!) are terrific. Co-writer/producer Glass’ radio show This American Life presents stories of ordinary people that take on a fascinating, unique, unpredictable shape, and this is no different, and no less beguiling. Birbiglia’s gift for oral storytelling translates so naturally to the screen that a long and brilliant Albert Brooks-style career awaits him, if he wants it.
6) BLUE JASMINE
While many filmmaker/comedians have followed in the style of Woody Allen, BLUE JASMINE is here to remind us that there is still no substitute for the man himself. Woody’s cockeyed New Jersey riff on A Streetcar Named Desire is his best film since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry, marrying hilarity and pathos in the sublime fashion of his very best works. But this stunning exploration of class divisions and delusions in modern day America is given its true power and haunting resonance through the performances of Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins. The stellar supporting cast are wonderful, too, but these women are something else entirely. Watching Blanchett’s broken, strident protagonist trip and fall over her fantasy of the privilege she once had is heartbreakingly great. Hawkins is the film’s stealth missile; her character lives her life honestly and morally true to herself, yet she is scarcely more powerful than her sister. As well as a wonderful comedy-drama, it’s also a strong look at what today’s society still does to women -- the choices it forces upon them, the options it robs them of -- and all the more alarming as it’s written and directed by a 77 year old man. As wry as it is dark, yet not averse to a hilariously silly aside or two, it reaffirms Woody Allen as an American cinematic treasure.
5) CHEAP THRILLS
God damn. This film is one knuckle-dusted sucker punch from outta nowhere. On one hand, E.L. Katz’s stunning directorial debut plays like the ultimate midnight movie: hilarious, bawdy, vicious, violent and allegorical. But on the other hand, it’s also a brilliant microcosm of how debased modern day capitalism has become, the extremes of what people will do for money and the blurred lines between who is more to blame -- the “haves” setting these dehumanising terms, or the “have nots” willing to go along with it? And can this balance of power ever be shifted? Not that you have any time to chew on this during the film, as the creeping dread of the laugh-aloud funny first half cedes to terrifying, unceasing tension in the second. David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga’s script is a marvel of angry satire, cheeky invention and dead-on, plausibly evolving characterisation. The cast are superb, from Pat Healy’s put-upon everyman and Ethan Embry’s edgy brute, to Sara Paxton’s dead-eyed hedonist and David Koechner’s gaudy, alpha male manipulator. It doesn’t play nice or fair, but is a breathlessly visceral treat from its all-too-real beginning to its mordant, pitch-perfect ending.
4) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
A shocking thing happens in the opening minutes of this film: the first two scenes, depicting Tom Hanks’ Captain Richard Phillips suiting up, then talking about everyday mundanities with his wife (Catherine Keener) while driving to the airport, are straight-up awful. Wracked with robotic dialogue and hack-handed exposition, these first few minutes had me terrified: was this going to be the worst kind of Hollywood cinema? Then, as we meet the Somalian village from whence the eventual pirates will emerge, and Phillips arrives upon the deck of the his ship, the Maersk Alabama, a magical thing happens. Director Paul Greengrass’ trademark verisimilitude with camera, performance and dialogue take over, Hanks disappears into his role -- and the rest of the film becomes the very best kind of Hollywood cinema: Constantly, unbearably tense, brilliantly acted, large-scale yet claustrophobic, directed with total control. But what one doesn’t expect are its thoughtful, even-handed depiction of both the Somali pirates and American crew -- the Somalian characters, in particular, are drawn with distinctive personalities and motives -- its small character nuances, attention to minutiae of life on a container ship, anti-piracy measures and how a post-Iraq-war SEAL operation is executed. The film is not in any way a celebration of anything -- US military might or committed terrorism -- but rather a depiction of how and why a situation went down: a symptom of fundamentally ill global disparity. Never is this collision of pain and confusion more apparent than in Hanks’ final scene; he destroys you with the finest acting moment of his long career. Those first two scenes aside (I don’t recall ever seeing a film do a 180 so quickly and dramatically), this may also be Greengrass’ finest hour.
3) LAURENCE ANYWAYS
First, let’s get something out of the way: Where the HELL does a 23 year old kid get off directing a film this sprawling, emotional and ambitious?? Seriously, I’m baffled. Okay. Ageist rant over. I’ve not seen a Xavier Dolan film before, but I’m damn sure up for anything he makes after this. Laurence (Melvil Poupaud, injecting as much wry humour and spirit as pathos into his brilliant performance), a straight schoolteacher dating the impetuous, artistic Fred (the amazing Suzanne Clement), arrives at a life-changing decision: he’s a woman born as a man, and will seek gender reassignment. He still loves Fred, and wants to continue their relationship, but he can’t live as a man any longer. From there, Dolan’s film tracks the peaks and considerable valleys of their decade-long relationship: Laurence’s slow journey to becoming the woman he needs to be, and Fred struggling to adapt and moving through various phases of acceptance, rejection and reconciliation. The emotional maturity of the writing is startling, even more so considering Dolan’s age. We are so in love with both of these characters, and watching them conflict and rise and collapse and back again was the most moving, complex and transcendent relationship on screen this year. What’s more, the film is boldly, brashly cinematic: shot in classic 4:3 ratio, bursting with flourishes of colour, music (including the best use of Visage’s ‘80s hit ‘Fade to Grey’ ever) and slightly surreal imagery leap out at you, but feel completely diegetic to the film’s 1980s/90s setting. It’s an emotional epic on a scale I’ve not seen since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Think Almodovar meets Fassbinder meets Van Sant (who “presented” the film in the US) and you’re getting close to the glorious journey Dolan has created.
2) STORIES WE TELL
It sounds like the most self-absorbed idea ever: An actress makes a documentary about her family. Good thing for us, the decidedly not self-absorbed Sarah Polley is behind the lens, crafting one of the most bewitching documentaries -- and most stringent examinations of the form -- ever made. Starting as what she calls an “interrogation” of her family history -- focusing on her loving, bereft father, and her lively, quixotic mother who died when Sarah was a child -- becomes an affectionate memoir of her parents’ relationship, evolving into a bittersweet recollection of her siblings growing up with said parents... then, as recollections begin to differ wildly and offer more questions than answers, things start to get really interesting, culminating in a revelation that proves fundamentally confronting to Polley herself. If the film simply played like a great episode of This American Life, it would still probably make this list, but it actually evolves into something much greater: through memory, inconsistency and artifice, it turns into an exploration of narrative -- in particular, personal narratives: why we create them, what we leave in and shut out, whether we create stories to reinforce truth or assuage ourselves. In some way, STORIES WE TELL is almost to documentaries what Cabin In The Woods is to contemporary horror films; a reconstruction and investigation of the form, as well as the motives of the makers, a comment on all documentaries that have come before while being a bloody great and absorbing doco itself. Polley has long been creative and somewhat precocious, but we can mark this as the moment we all learned she was a proper genius.
The film of 2013 for me was a film -- truly, no hyperbole now -- unlike any you’ve ever seen. (And, hopefully, will scarcely see again.) After hearing about the mass murder of over one million communists in 1965-66 Indonesia, co-directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn went to speak to the survivors of this little-known holocaust. Strangely, they found them silent and uncooperative -- at least publicly -- before discovering why: even today, the genocide was still celebrated by Suharto’s Indonesia. A real-life exemplar of “history is written by the winners”, they found the leaders of this movement, former gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, and those beneath them, all-too-willing to boast loudly about their war crimes. (Imagine a world where the Nazis won WWII, the Hitler Youth continue to hold rallies and Hermann Goering appears on morning talk shows to chat about what a service he did by killing the Jews -- that’s what this is.) But the form the film takes is even more startling: how do you even begin to persuade these murderers that they’ve done something so wrong, when they lack even basic empathy for their victims? Anwar and his cohorts were all huge movie fans -- they used to sell black market movie tickets before spearheading a genocidal death squad -- so the directors decided to conduct what amounts to art therapy on an epic scale: Getting these gangsters and paramilitary stand-over men to reenact their crimes in the idiom of classic movie genres. They gave them cameras, extras and only the most limited assistance to film their ghoulish deeds in musical/western/war/noir fashion. Watching this startling, weirdly-amusing-despite-itself, yet fundamentally distressing footage is as confronting, conflicted as anything you’ll see, and will leave you pondering all manner of ethical questions. The scenes are interspersed with Anwar and co showing us around their everyday errands; going on TV, walking the streets like heroes, shaking hands, shaking shopkeepers down. It’s like seeing Goodfellas: Indonesia Style, but chillingly real. Also intriguing is the variation of responses from the war criminals involved, running the gamut from internal struggle, to moral justification, to unshakeable belief. We’re shoved, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, into a front row seat to the crass humanity and banality of cruelty, and makes us watch for 159 gruelling minutes... but something amazing happens toward the end of the film. I won’t say what, but it will stay with me forever. As a tragic postscript to the legacy of the Suharto regime, Oppenheimer and Cynn make sure to include the hundreds of “Anonymous” credits in the final scrawl: Indonesians who helped make the film but still can’t be credited due to fear of persecution -- hoping to see a day when their names can finally be reinstated. A singularly horrific, fascinating and important film, THE ACT OF KILLING is nothing short of a landmark documentary work.
Viva la cinema!
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.
(Disclaimer: The opinions found within are my own, and not shared by any employer, employee, colleague or association.)