Welcome back, Viscerati!
So, this was a huge year for us here at Cinema Viscera. In summary:
We won a place in Creative Partnerships Australia's MATCH Lab program, meaning the government would match up to $7,500 that we could raise for our new film. We premiered our first ever feature at a Melbourne film festival. We had our first public, non-festival cinema screening. We raised the money to shoot our second feature. We secured distribution for Trench (coming to DVD, iTunes and Amazon early 2019). Pez and I traveled overseas together for the first time (my first time ever out of Australia!) to London and Paris, the latter of which we fell hard for, rediscovering ourselves and cinema. I won an award for editing a webseries. Pez wrote for a television show. We wrote our second feature and had two live reads of the script, which received terrific feedback. We have cast, filled most crew roles and secured the major location for the new flick.
You bet your ass we're ready for 2019.
Our World Premiere of Trench in April, in a sold-out screening at the Setting Sun Film Festival in Yarraville's gorgeous Sun Theatre, was simply perfect. The film got a lovely response, Pez, Sam Hill and I had a fun Q&A afterwards, and we remain endlessly grateful to Anna Bourozikas and everyone involved with the SSFF and everyone who came out to see us.
Same goes for our excellent screening at Lido Cinemas in Hawthorn, which attracted over 100 people and saw Trench have another fine time, with a hugely positive response and a fun Q&A, hosted by none other than our great friend Guy Davis, who's wonderful in the film as shock comic Jimmy Kay. Again, we thank Eddie, Bridgette, Juanita and James at the Lido for all their help and hospitality, and everybody who attended. We love you all.
But enough about me and mine, you're all here for the countdown, right?
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON'S TOP 20 FILM DISCOVERIES OF 2018.
Every year, at this point in the post, I present my top 20 first-time viewings of films that are more than 2-3 years old. I will get to that in due course... but first, allow me to share something, by way of context, that was even more important to me this year...
So the photo gallery above might give you an idea as to what my major cinematic discovery of 2018 really was: the 5th and 6th Arrondissements of Paris, which contain over 20 cinemas between them (also, a shoutout goes to the BFI Southbank and Prince Charles Cinema in London)!
Cinema culture is truly alive and well in the City of Lights, with a veritable cinematheque (in addition to the actual Cinémathèque Française) screening in most districts every single day. Within a 30 minute walk of our AirBNB apartment, we were treated to everything from classic Golden Age Hollywood -- Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Westerns -- to '70s New Hollywood -- Dennis Hopper, Michael Cimino, a sidebar dedicated to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond -- as well as all the new releases. (Thankfully, most French cinemas play non-French films in "Version Originale", meaning, in their original languages with French subtitles... which meant, with our extremely limited knowledge of French, we were restricted to watching English language movies**, as the other retrospectives that were showing, films by Ozu and Pasolini, were in Japanese and Italian, respectively.) But there was so many options on offer, even with this minor restriction we were spoiled for choice. What's more, no matter what the film, the size of the cinema or time of day or night, every session had at least 15-20 people in it, right up to over 100 at times. Cinema, like art and literature, is in Paris' bones.
Our favourite cinemas were often the independent, what Parisians call "neighbourhood cinemas", tucked into side-streets and hotel/restaurant strips: Le Grand Action, La Filmotheque du Quartier Latin and the sister cinemas Christine 21 and Écoles 21 which, we only found out after we left, were owned by Isabelle Huppert and ran by her son! (We didn't get to go to the stylish Le Champo, nor see a film at the Cinémathèque Française, which closed for August holidays soon after we arrived. We did see its excellent museum and incredible gift shop, though.)
**We did get caught with one session, however: the Christine 21's Dario Argento retrospective played four out of five of his films with their English dub... until our session of Profondo Rosso/Deep Red unspooled and we suddenly realised we had to piece the dialogue together from the Italian language track and French subtitles! Thankfully, in a testament to this most boldly visual of directors, we were able to understand the narrative without much issue; we absorbed about 90% of the plot -- which wasn't much less than what made sense to me in its English language dub -- and Pez, seeing it for the first time, adored it, instantly becoming her favourite Argento picture!)
BFI Southbank's diverse and incredible programming had them playing seasons on Harold Pinter and Joan Crawford, and about to launch into a season called 'Black and Banned', on previously banned films by Black filmmakers and/or featuring progressive or provocative portrayals of Afro-English life. Leicester Square is also a hotbed of big screen treats, led by the amazing program of the Prince Charles Cinema, chock full of cult delights, nostalgia hits and special events, alongside the classy arthouse cinema Curzon Soho and the giant Vue multiplex.
This may read as a digression, but this trip truly made Pez and I rediscover our love of taking the time to see films on the big screen, especially older films. Pez fell hard for cinema, in a way even I had never seen before, and I recaptured the rush of discovery and the instant, powerful love of a place where downloading and streaming services weren't at the front of mind, where a smorgasbord of brilliantly curated cinema history was just a short walk away. Now, we just need to learn to fluently read French...
With this in mind, I give you my top 20 discoveries of 2018, counting down from 20 to 1...
#19-20: The inaugural Paracinema Fest -- Melbourne's brand-new film festival of the weird and wonderful -- was where I discovered the wonders of 'Wakaliwood' and Ramon Film Productions, Uganda's first and preeminent action filmmakers. I saw their first action epic, 2010's Who Killed Captain Alex?, and their 2016 action-comedy-drama BadBlack, in a double feature (they run for barely over an hour each) and enjoyed the most fun I've had in a cinema in years. Both rough as guts (Captain Alex was reportedly made for US$200) and surprisingly proficient, they're also extremely smart about their limitations -- the films are accompanied by a voice-over by a person named "VJ (Video Joker) Emmie", who hilariously hypes, explains and mocks what's on screen -- and, while I enjoyed the bonkers Captain Alex slightly more, BadBlack has moments of pathos that are genuinely affecting. These films bring back the sheer joy we felt when we first picked up a camera and told our friends to pretend, to make the kickass movies we always imagined ourselves in. Wakaliwood forever!
#18: While in Paris, I found a giant DVD box set containing the complete works of François Truffaut, which I couldn't buy at the time and coveted furiously -- it was a bit costly and too heavy to pack into our luggage -- but mere weeks after we arrived home, you best believe I secured that shit. With the possible exception of Agnes Varda, Truffaut has always been the French New Wave filmmaker for me. His mix of novelistic storytelling, observational asides, open-hearted humanity and kindness to his characters -- not to mention his affection for and subversion of cinema history and genre conventions -- has always endeared him to me. 1960's Shoot the Piano Player, his still-underseen sophomore effort after The 400 Blows, is full of the kind of puckish playfulness, unpredictability and romantic musings I love him for, and at 82 minutes, it's a breeze that captures the adventure and lawlessness of the Nouvelle Vague.
#17: Frank Henenlotter is a madman. For proof, look no further than his debut feature, 1982's Basket Case, which is as deliriously deranged as cult or 'grindhouse' cinema gets. In short, a quiet young man checks into a crumbling New York City hotel, unusually protective of his mysterious basket... which contains his deformed, seperated siamese twin, more vampiric growth than man, with a thirst for blood and vengeance. This delivers on everything its berserk premise promises, with blood and gore and sleaze aplenty, but there's also a humanity here, which also runs through Henenlotter's subsequent, equally bizarre work; the outsider community of New Yorkers who share the fleapit hotel with our brothers grim are hilarious, fascinating and bring a comic reality to the utterly insane goings-on... and we even feel a pinch of sadness for poor Belial, as well. He may be a toxic, possessive, screwed-up little tumour, but we know why he's angry.
#16: 1983's Betrayal was a welcome treat delivered by London's BFI Southbank (on 35mm) as part of its Harold Pinter season. A three-hander adapted by Pinter from his own play, which famously tells the story of an infidelity in reverse chronological order, it stars Patricia Hodge (perhaps known best nowadays as Miranda Hart's mother on TV's Miranda) and Jeremy Irons as the cheating couple, and Ben Kingsley as Hodge's husband and Irons' best friend. Beginning with Hodge and Irons meeting after their affair has ended, we're taken, months and years at a time, backwards through their seven-year affair, ending just before the affair begins. It's a novel device, making the usually rote and tawdry infidelity plot incredibly poignant, as the film ends with such hope and love despite all the hurt and, yes, betrayal we've been through. Also, this is Pinter, so the dialogue is consistently scorching, funny and full of secrets and lies, the characters achingly flawed and puffed up on their own middle-class visions of themselves -- and the three superb leads rip into every single moment of it, and director David Jones knows well enough to let them play. Not easy to find, but worth seeking out.
#15: The Leopard Man, legendary horror producer Val Lewton’s third and final collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur after Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, drips with just as much atmosphere but even more terror -- and, in 1943, just might have been Hollywood's very first Serial Killer thriller. Filled with exquisite chiaroscuro moments of pure dread courtesy of cinematographer Robert De Grasse, while Ardel Ray and Edward Dein's script presents every last one of its characters with hints of rich interior lives, which makes the suspense and kills incredibly effective and borderline upsetting. Sure, there's a couple of slightly silly moments, but on the whole, it's intelligently crafted, takes no prisoners and clocks in at a mere 66 minutes, with perhaps the very best set-pieces of all Lewton’s films.
#14: Something of a love letter to human beings — from the perspective of angels watching over us — emerging from a West Germany (the Berlin Wall was three years yet from falling) still wrestling with its past and its own humanity, Wim Wenders' 1987 classic Wings of Desire is beautifully played and touchingly sincere without ever growing sentimental. It ambles a bit at times — those trapeze sequences could do with a trim — and some of its characters’ voiceover monologues are more grandiloquent than they need to be (and this is coming from someone who just used the word “grandiloquent”), but this is such an utterly gorgeous, hopeful, thoughtful film... and if you need any more convincing, you get Peter Falk playing himself to loveable effect, Robby Müller’s luscious black-and-white cinematography and (in a fashion) Nick Cave playing Cupid. A gorgeous, big-hearted film, as relevant today as ever.
#13: Speaking of Truffaut, 1964's The Soft Skin must rank high among his most underrated films; this domestic drama of infidelity, laced with dark comedy, is a slow-burn to begin, following Pierre, a pompous, egotistical star academic, from his seemingly happy family home to barging his way into an affair with a flight attendant... Now, don't let this initial perspective scare you away -- it's borderline crazy at first, given how difficult it is to identify with this guy (even given Jean Desailly's excellent performance, somehow both hapless sad-sack and dominating blowhard) -- because we slowly discover that this is Truffaut lashing out at himself as a vainglorious artist who’s been careless with the women around him. From there, in a series of blackly comic calamities worthy of the Coens, not-so-lucky Pierre begins to feel his world collapse from beneath him — and it’s the women, brilliantly played by Nelly Benedetti and Françoise Dorleac, who take hold of the story as they begin to realise they’re better off without this jerk... manifesting in dramatically different ways, leading to a shocking ending that's as savage a self-criticism as any director has ever put on screen.
#12: Previous a lost film of some legend, Dennis Hopper’s second film, 1971's The Last Movie, may have burned all his credit with Hollywood studio credit to the ground, but I found it to be not only a more than worthy follow-up to Easy Rider but even better, and not at all the out-of-control drug-fuelled clustercuss we’d been led to believe. It’s an inspired, experimental, energetic, thoughtful and witty takedown of the desolation of Hollywood excess, movies’ effect on culture, misogyny (although, to be fair, the film falls on both sides of the line at times), Hopper himself, the end of the counterculture and Old Hollywood making way for the New — whether it liked it or not. It's shaggy and undisciplined, but also riveting and often thrilling. So glad this has been given the full restoration/rerelease treatment, to be rediscovered for the lost gem it is.
#11: A very special cinematic discovery we made in Paris were the films of Ernst Lubitsch. Seeing a retrospective of his films at the amazing Filmotheque du Quartier Latin proved that the once-famed "Lubitsch Touch" is not only a thing, but that it endures. A delightful and surprisingly progressive highlight was his 1933 comedy Design for Living, featuring a hilarious, winning Miriam Hopkins as Gilda, an American in Paris who can't choose between her two boyfriends (also struggling Americans in Paris), intellectual playrwright Tom (a brilliant Fredric March) and hot-blooded painter George (a surprisingly funny and loose Gary Cooper), who also happen to be best friends. How they begin to compromise and navigate this three-way relationship is both incredibly funny and enormously daring for the time -- hell, even by today's four-quadrant-seeking Hollywood standards -- it doesn't quite go where you may think, but, boy, it gets refreshingly close. As you'd expect of a play by Noël Coward adapted for the screen by Ben Hecht and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, it's also a screwball comedy of the highest order, matching even Howard Hawks' best work, providing some of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments I had all year.
At #10 is that man Truffaut again, with 1970's Bed & Board, the third film in his Antoine Doinel cycle, which started with The 400 Blows. Picking up just two years after Stolen Kisses, Bed & Board finds Antoine happily married, until he — still young, restless and pathologically unemployable — starts to chafe against the boundaries of married life... which is a problem, because there’s a baby on the way. Not as ebullient or hilarious as its predecessor, but emotionally true to two idealistic characters we love — one who dreamed and one who perhaps settled, both far too young — whose marriage seems to be deflating before our very eyes... or is it merely the pains of growth and compromise endemic to married life? Jean-Pierre Léaud and Claude Jade are charming as hell, and Truffaut injects impish gags amongst the emotional rollercoaster of his increasingly-semi-autobiographical tale (such as Antoine’s bizarre jobs, which become a constant source of hilarious bemusement). While it all ends on a hopeful note, whether Antoine and Christine will last the distance is no clearer then than at the beginning... but we know they’re in with a shot, which is only what all we can all hope for, really.
#9: For some reason, I'd never managed to catch up with Jocelyn Moorhouse's 1991 debut feature, Proof, and I'm now slightly ashamed that I slept on this modern classic of Australian cinema for so long. A wonderfully caustic three-hander about control and obsession, and how we can sometimes substitute those for love, with all three leads -- Genevieve Picot, Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe -- in cracking early-career form. Moorhouse makes a smashing debut that’s wryly observant of human nature, tightens the emotional screws at every turn and is hell of a lot funnier than one may expect.
#8: While we're on 'Modern Australian Classic' detail, I'm thrilled to have crossed paths with Rolf de Heer's beautiful 2013 collaboration with David Gulpilil, Charlie's Country. As achingly sad and thoroughly lived-in as it is infused with humour, humanity and hope, this compelling portrait of modern-day life for many indigenous Australians manages to both simmer with anger and be fiercely proud. It’s told through the eyes of Charlie, who’s very much informed by star/co-writer Gulpilil, people he’s known and the two worlds he’s straddled his entire life — the culture of his people, and the culture and rules that were forced upon them. In a career built upon wry, soulful performances, this might be Gulpilil’s finest hour.
#7: Another film I was shocked I hadn't seen before now was 1995's La Haine, a thrilling, absorbing, propulsive look at three underprivileged kids (electrifyingly played by Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui and Abdel Ahmed Ghili) living on the fringes of Paris, looking for a good time and finding trouble (sometimes prejudicial, sometimes self-inflicted) over 24 hours across the backdrop of a community about to explode... all careening towards one of the greatest, saddest, most chilling endings in film history. One heck of a debut (sadly, to date, never matched) by writer-director-actor Mathieu Kassovitz.
#6: How is Scarecrow, a Cannes Palme d'Or winner starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in 1973, mere moments after The Godfather and The French Connection, not considered a major work of the New Hollywood?! It's a character study of two itinerant men on the fringes, hot-tempered Max (Hackman), who dreams of opening his own car wash, and jovial, naive Lion (Pacino), who's returned from sea to reunite with his young son. Their initially wary alliance becomes an affectionate, co-dependent friendship as we follow them from California towards Pittsburgh, where Max's own Shangri-La -- the car wash he's saved what little he has to buy -- is located. It's a treat to see two great actors showing rare sides of themselves -- Hackman as a hair-trigger tornado right out of a Bukowski novel, and Pacino as a soft, loveable goofball -- to devastating effect. (Richard Lynch also makes a strong impression as a convict.) Unafraid to sit with its characters' flaws and imbued with real affection for folks living on the outside of the American Dream, this is a lovely, funny, tragic and ultimately heartbreaking film, which builds to a pitch-perfect ending.
#5: After watching it in fragments over the years -- never in one sitting, and every time at least five years apart -- I finally got to see Sam Peckinpah's seminal Western, 1969's The Wild Bunch, on the big screen and... oh boy. Wow, I was not prepared. The film is merciless, punishing and pitiless, presenting the good ol' American Wild West as a dystopian apocalypse -- self-mythologising and “legends” be damned. Everything about this West is damaged, decayed, dusty and decrepit, where death is easy, honour is hard, money is the goal, women are commodities, love is mocked and machismo is both a survival mechanism and a death wish. Legends are created because, often, that's all person has left to bargain with. The all-star cast are excellent from top to bottom, but the mood and tenor of this film belongs to Peckinpah. I’m surprised anyone made a western again after this. In terms of abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here bleakness, I’ll stack Peckinpah’s worldview up against any social realist filmmaker on the planet.
#4: At his best, Abel Ferrara is an exploitation filmmaker with an artist’s soul — but even given that, he really surprised me here: his 1981 thriller MS. 45 (formerly known in Australia as Angel of Vengeance) is thrilling, unsettling, witty and quite ahead of its time in a lot of ways (especially the way it depicts everyday sexist micro-aggressions) and a huge cut above in the r*pe-revenge genre I normally loathe — it’s not male-gazey or gross — led by a hugely effective performance by Zöe Tamerlis. It’s basically #MeToo: The Movie, fuelled by righteous rage, but one that eventually spirals out of control. Plus it’s all set in the gloriously grimy early ‘80s New York that I love — you could never get so many amazing location shots on a US$62k budget today! Brutal at times, but highly recommended.
#3: What if somebody made the best, most formally audacious horror film of the 2010s and nobody cared? Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani's 2013 giallo-gasm The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears is a stunner from beginning to end, crafted with surgical precision and an undeniable enthusiasm for the genre, deploying image, montage and sound with the playful inventiveness of experimental cinema, while also managing to draw us into its bizarro, persona-shifting murder plot. What’s more, the directors build some truly intense sequences of suspense and murder — often involving straight razors — while subverting and critiquing the film history they adore, luxuriating in their thematic and sensual pleasures. The way Cattet/Forzani play with truth, identity, time, the past’s relation to the present and the very way storytelling is delivered is consistently intriguing, beguiling and, more often than not, thrilling. Every aspect of this film, from Manuel Dacosse’s sublime cinematography, to the intricate production design and to-DIE-for locations, to the score (both original and repurposed), to the Argento-on-steroids lighting design and the way they use and isolate sounds, is exquisite — it’s a dark, devious, pervy pleasure ripe for rediscovery... and your total submission. <...cue creaking leather sound...>
#2: While not John Carpenter’s “official” debut, 1976's Assault On Precinct 13, his second feature, feels every frame like the director’s origin story. Both gritty little exploitation flick and supremely entertaining, surprisingly sharp ‘70s drive-in homage to the works of Howard Hawks, that puts all of Carpenter’s visual signatures — 2.35:1 widescreen frame, colourful expressionistic lighting, unnamed & unknowable assailants emerging from darkness — from day one. (Many of these qualities would show up, to devastating effect, two years later in Halloween.) The performances, dialogue and storytelling are much more sophisticated than anyone going into this would have any right to expect, and it’s this care and quality control — as well as his facility for action and suspense — that immediately marks Carpenter as a talent to watch. What’s more, with its African-American cop lead, defiant white crim and kickass female secretary — not to mention its surprisingly racially diverse street gangs! — its approach to casting and characterisation is disarmingly progressive. It’s a blast to watch characters in a micro-budget ‘70s drive-in movie doing a wonderful riff on Bogie and Bacall — if Bogie and Bacall we’re locked in a crumbling L.A. police station besieged by evil gangs. I literally applauded at the end.
For my #1 discovery of 2018, we return to Ernst Lubitsch and 1942's To Be Or Not To Be. Hilarious from the opening minutes, moving a million miles an hour yet giving us everything we need, we know we’re in safe hands — this indeed sees Lubitsch at his most laugh-out loud funny, but he’s also revealed here to be at his most deft, political and daring. The film was made before America entered World War II, when the US government and Hollywood establishment were still taking pains not to offend Hitler, so Lubitsch constructed this comedy as his plea to convince the US that the Nazis were a major threat the world needed to mobilise against. As non-stop funny as the film is, the fact that it never keeps the Nazis' very real atrocity far from mind is even more of a magic trick. While it runs like a sleek joke machine, this is, above all, a comedy based in character, irony, vanity and inherent decency. Given this monster of a script to play around with, Carole Lombard (sadly, this was her final film role, before dying in a plane crash) and Jack Benny give remarkable comic performances, surrounded by a wonderful ensemble. Fast, funny and truly furious, this might be Lubitsch’s most accessible masterpiece.
MY FAVOURITE FILMS RELEASED IN 2018.
As usual, the criteria for this list are feature films that received their premiere paid public release in Australia - whether via cinema, video, VoD or film festivals - during 2018, that I saw this year (as opposed to, say, seeing in festivals last year).
For the first time in years, the number of new films I saw didn't plummet from the previous year; I saw 84 new films in 2018, as opposed to 85 in 2017.
I should also let you know that I didn't catch such lauded or popular titles as American Animals, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Aquaman, Beirut, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Cold War, Creed II, Deadpool 2, Eighth Grade, Fahrenheit 11/9, Ghost Stories, Hotel Artemis, The Incredibles 2, Lean On Pete, Outside In, Ralph Breaks The Internet, The Rider, A Simple Favor, Searching, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Support the Girls, Sweet Country, They Shall Not Grow Old, Thoroughbreds, Three Identical Strangers, Under the Silver Lake, Vice, Won't You Be My Neighbor? or A Wrinkle in Time. (Some titles, such as Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk and The Tale, are due for 2019 releases here.)
Up front, I have to say 2018 was a damn strong year for cinema. I liked 44 of the 84 films enough to rate them 3.5 stars and up. Of course, it's easier to be positive about any year in movies when you're not forced to see everything, as a critic would, but in my experience, this has been one of the better years of the 2010s for cinematic offerings.
Okay. Less chatting, more counting down. Annnnnnnd go:
With Madeline's Madeline, writer-director Josephine Decker delivers the best prolonged cinematic anxiety attack since mother! and does an alarmingly great job of placing us in its lead character’s fraught, precarious subjective reality, and she both examines the rush of artistic discovery and the interpersonal boundaries (or lack thereof) of the artistic process, and skewers the hubris of creators that cast aside any duty of care toward their performers. Molly Parker, Miranda July and startling newcomer Helena Howard deliver a fascinating, deftly layered triangle of performances that threaten to combust whenever any combination of the trio share space together. To be honest, I was eating out of this film’s hand until the final ten minutes, where subjective reality tips over into pure fantasy and — while I think I can see why Decker did it — I wasn’t wild about the choice or depiction of this resolution. Still, this is a compelling, thoughtful and riveting personal drama, crafted like a psychological thriller, that’s absolutely worth diving into.
Tully sees Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman -- always bringing out the best out of one another -- dipping into magical realism to explore the everyday strains of motherhood, the point when you've given so much of your life to maintaining your family you begin to lose yourself, and emerge with a frank, funny and all-too-rare portrait of what a giant pressure and compromise motherhood (and marriage) can be. In a beautifully calibrated performance, Charlize Theron portrays a woman whose efforts to maintain a functioning family life have hit physical and emotional breaking point -- Theron's comic timing is excellent and continually underrated. Cody's screenplay again shows she's lost none of her hammer for nailing uncomfortable truths, and even a late development which feels fanciful at first, is, upon reflection, very much earned and well-placed. Reitman steers the ship with class and deft, unobtrusive skill, letting Cody's script do the heavy lifting. Sure, the pacing's a little floaty at times, and it ultimately lacks the acidic, take-no-prisoners bite of this trio's Young Adult, but this is a very funny, deeply felt take on a subject that few films are willing to tackle so honestly.
Definitely delivering what it says on the box, Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is as stylistically berserk and thrillingly dreamlike as any film we’ve seen in the 21st century thus far... but more unexpected, is the depth of emotion at play here. The first half of the film is dreamy, creepy and increasingly poignant, driven by the performances of Andrea Riseborough and, yes, Nicolas Cage, leading to a disarmingly moving scene where his character breaks down with grief (which, annoyingly, the audience around us seemed to find hilarious, presumably primed to cackle at watching Cage spack out, rather than actually sit in the moment with the character). Of course, this all explodes into a second half of righteous heavy metal vengeance (with a magnificent late title reveal!) that is as dark, bizarre and bloody as one had been led to expect, to a showdown that’s very effective, if somewhat protracted... but, to be honest? I kinda missed the sadness.
Cargo already had a head start for me, as Martin Freeman is one of my favourite people to watch on a screen right now, and the 2013 short this is expands upon is my favourite Tropfest finalist ever, but Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s feature debut is a tense, gripping and disarmingly lovely take on a tired sub-genre. Surrounded by an equally terrific cast, Freeman brings subtle grace notes of grief, anger and confusion to his role as a dying father who needs to find someone to care for his daughter in a world gone to hell. The way this film engages with Australia’s past and indigenous culture is intelligent and sensitive, while retaining a welcome empathy for even the worst of its characters. There are a few script moments that clang, a lack of clarity around some aspects of the story and world, but they only stand out because Ramke & Howling get everything else so right. In the end, it delivers all the emotional and sociopolitical beats it needs to, without sacrificing complexity.
Avengers: Infinity War might seem like a season finale of an epic TV show, but thankfully the Russo Brothers and Marvel have delivered a smashing entertainment, full of terrific character asides, genuinely epic showdowns, shockingly robust VFX, mostly coherent battles and curveball twists. Brolin’s Thanos eventually convinces as a flesh-and-blood character, the Guardians mesh with the Avengers surprisingly well, and — given its ridiculous scale — it deftly avoids character overload. (Oh, Thor is the film’s MVP, in case you’re wondering.) Given the entire thing was shot in IMAX, there’s far too much dark metal-on-dark metal and floating debris substituting for production design, but I found myself genuinely impressed by the writing. The way it gives every character something to do (except Black Widow, sadly), imbues its Big Bad with emotional depth and keeps all its plates spinning without losing a step, is quite something. All this and the sheer number of active participants means it's the rare blockbuster where the 150 minute running time feels not only justified, but goes by in a flash, barely stopping to race toward its somewhat audacious climax — and a wonderful final (pre-credits) scene that plays more like Brothers Coen than Russo.
Climax, Gaspar Noé’s latest descent into Hell, introduces us to a diverse troupe of young dancers at a private party, where, after a stunning dance sequence, we overhear conversations revealing festering tensions, toxic attitudes and sexual frustrations... then, after a customarily vibrant mid-movie credits sequence, a rogue element is introduced and everything goes to... well, you know Noé. As ever, he skillfully, if bombastically, uses every element at his disposal — swirling cinematography, segmented soundtracks, dancers’ bodies — to create a full-scale anxiety attack. But rather than empty style, Noé re-purposes a reportedly true story to present a microcosm of a modern France still grappling with immigration, globalisation and national identity, ever-struggling to live up to its credo of Liberty, Egality and Fraternity. It’s also a fractured study in humanity, and a vigorous assault on the senses... which can be frustrating at times: sounds, visuals and sentiments are repeated, like a thumping house track, to a numbing, even aggravating, extent -- but like any rave, it’s all part of the experience. Sometimes it’s best not to fight the chaos, but rather carve out your own corner of bliss on the periphery, dance to your own beat and forget the wolfpack.
A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, is agonisingly close to greatness, giving his wildly divergent cast room to play and bloom, while giving the film an impressive visual scope and momentum. Gaga delivers a hell of a turn — we know she’s got the voice and charisma, but it’s the quiet moments, anger and vulnerability that sell her as an actor — and Cooper is just beautiful, his character refreshingly gentle even as he slides into despair, and the two are genuinely affecting together. The song score does everything asked of it and the film sells every emotional beat... except one, which is where the film almost lost me; it seemed to arrive a few scenes too early to feel truly organic or earned. It feels petulant to hold this one thing against the film, but it gets everything else so right: the magic they bring out of each other, the rush of seeing your art performed and your voice validated, the struggle to stay authentic, the pain of watching a loved one crumble... while never descending to cheap melodrama or artificial conflict, crafting a moving love story that doubles as a plea to stay authentic in a hyper-commercialised world.
A Quiet Place was the shock horror box office bonanza of 2018 and, in hindsight, it's easy to see why. John Krasinski delivers Spielbergian sci-fi/horror in his third feature as director and, while it can be a little broad at times, he and his team have crafted a lean, tense experience, which admirably takes time to develop family dynamics and a backdrop of grief to fashion their parental anxiety narrative around, lending some weight to the otherwise wafer-thin story and questionable decisions (a pregnancy? In this world? Really?!). The cast are terrific, but Millicent Simmonds steals the show as their thoughtful, alienated daughter. Rad, unsettling creature design, too.
Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s lovely neo-realist memoryscape and tribute to both his childhood housekeeper and the overlooked underclass of Mexico is, like the director's Children of Men, a very, very good film with a three or four all-time great scenes. Cuaron’s own cinematography is beautiful, the performances are pitch-perfect, it’s loaded with period detail and builds to two of the most astonishing scenes in modern cinema history. It’s an incredibly easy film to sink into, but it is lengthy, and seems to wander about from time to time -- it's not always clear why we're spending so much time in a particular place; now and again it feels like Cuaron is lost in a fond remembrance rather than moving the story forward -- and one feels distant, like an observer, at all times (especially given Cuaron’s affection for single long takes), which is interesting given how personal and affectionate it is... but overall, this is a truly beautiful work.
Foxtrot is a searing indictment of war, toxic masculinity and generational sins (and the price that ultimately must be paid), as well as of a culture that conscripts its young adults. Returning to the homefront after his stunning 2009 debut Lebanon, writer/director Samuel Maoz places us in his characters’ heads with enough show-offy visual flourishes and camera angles to make Brian De Palma jealous, but still manages to pack an emotional punch — and there’s a handful of stand-alone set-pieces in here that say more on the subject than entire films.
THE TOP 20
The Top 10
...WHICH LEAVES US WITH MY #1 RELEASE OF 2018...
1. PHANTOM THREAD
Sometimes, an artist's greatest gift can be to deliver the right work at the right moment. In a landscape where so much film, TV, music and art is so politically overbearing, so intent on shouting at us in a manner uncomfortably similar to Facebook rants, Paul Thomas Anderson conjures a bewitching, engrossing and devilishly funny film that looks and feels like a 1950s romantic drama, weaving one of the most fascinating screen relationships I've seen in an age, one of the very best satires of the concessions, compromises and control measures we navigate to make relationships work... and, beneath it all, slowly and mercilessly dismantling the image of the exacting, egotistical Great Male Creator, brick by brick.
The performances in this film are extraordinary across the board, with Daniel Day Lewis giving his most delicate, subtle and funny performance in years, Vicky Krieps is just a flat-out revelation, her performance working on an alarming amount of levels, and, with each withering glance and weapons-grade line of dialogue, Lesley Manville is a giant-slaying gift. (Speaking of weapons, comedienne Julia Davis is also brilliantly deployed in her brief role.)
One of the most unpredictable screen stories of recent years, and 21st century cinema thus far, Paul Thomas Anderson's film is hypnotic, exquisite (Anderson shot the film himself, which, considering how luscious the film looks, is mind-boggling to me), beautifully layered, shockingly fun, even poignant at times and, much like the director's very different Punch-Drunk Love, bizarrely yet genuinely romantic -- accessing the truth of relationships in a way most conventional screen romances never dare, or even seem to understand. Even in a filmography stacked with modern masterpieces, this particular one seems to emerge damn near from nowhere, surprising even for a director many regard as the best of his generation.
And that's that! Thank you all for reading this gigantic wrap-up (even those of you who just skipped to the end -- don't worry, I feel you) and joining me to put a pin in 2018!
Here at Cinema Viscera, we're gearing up for a big year (for a start, we're shooting our second movie!!!) and we can't wait to let you in on all the cool stuff we've been cooking up.
(And personally, I'm counting down the days to the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which might be as well be The Matrix's algorithmic creation of a film very much For Me.)
Thank you all for reading, and, as always...
Vive le cinéma!
Paul Anthony Nelson
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and (more often) year-end wrap-up and opinions from CINEMA VISCERA's co-chief, Paul Anthony Nelson.