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Entries in Film Criticism (3)

Friday
Dec152017

SCREEN-SPACE’S BEST (& WORST) FILMS OF 2017

Not a list, per se, and certainly not anything more than one cranky, old, cross-eyed critic’s rambling opinion. But one can’t begrudge the editorial team here at Screen-Space (i.e., me) the opportunity to put into some perspective a year of relentless movie going. Check out these stats – at time of writing, 475 movies for a total of 810.6 hours at an average 9.5 movies a week (thanks, Letterboxd). So, with the Best of The Best broken into genres, let’s launch into the annual rummage through my increasingly foggy memory and muster our ‘Best Films of 2017’ parade….

BEST ACTION: Josh and Ben Safdie’s Good Time, starring Best Actor Oscar material Robert Pattinson, was more thriller than action, but it got the heart racing like few 2017 films. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver seemed to have the top spot sewn up, until Charlize Theron’s brutal, brilliant ATOMIC BLONDE from director David Leitch upped the ante. The stairwell brawl is the best bout of bone-crunching action all year. Also in the mix were Doug Liman’s American Made and Peter Berg’s Patriot Day.

BEST HORROR: No horror film was as universally acclaimed as Jordan Peele’s GET OUT. Shaping as an unlikely but very real award season contender, it was scary as hell, but also smart, funny, stylish and perfectly timed to rattle Trump’s America. Quality horror was abundant in 2017 – consider Andy Muschietti’s blockbuster It; M Night Shyamalan’s triumphant comeback Split; Coralie Fargeat’s blood-soaked French shocker Revenge; Tyler MacIntyre’s high-school murder romp Tragedy Girls; and, David Lowery’s divisive but stunning A Ghost Story. And for the record, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother is…brilliant!

BEST TRUE STORY: Bending the rules a bit here, as Steven Spielberg's THE POST, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep doesn’t drop in Australia until early January. But we got an early peek, and it is Spielberg at his most assured and fluent, a soaring drama that reinforces the crucial role a free press plays in a vibrant democracy (topical, much?!) Apologies to James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, robbed of our Best True Story crown. Also high amongst the recreation pics are James Gray’s majestic The Lost City of Z and, oddly enough, two tennis stories – Janus Metz’s Borg vs. McEnroe and Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of The Sexes, from directing duo Johnathon Dayton and Valerie Faris.

BEST SUPER HERO FILM: James Mangold’s Logan was Hugh Jackman’s Hamlet, and he should be all over the Best Actor categories, but isn’t. The biggest game changer of the year, and the best super hero film in ages, was Patty Jenkins’ thrilling and emotional WONDER WOMAN, starring the year’s biggest new star Gal Gadot. Taika Waititi’s Thor Ragnarok and James Gunn’s Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 kept the genre buoyant; biggest surprise was Dean Israelite’s smarter-than-expected Power Rangers (Ed: our guilty pleasure of 2017).

BEST COMEDY: Hard to believe, but there’s not a single contender to challenge Michael Winterbottom’s A TRIP TO SPAIN for the Best Comedy crown. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise their roles as thinly veiled versions of themselves, this time going a little darker as the realities of ageing set in. Kudos to Audrey Plaza, who made the most of the flawed but occasionally funny Ingrid Goes West and The Little Hours. If only to fill a bit more space in this category, we’ll admit to not hating Dax Shephard’s Chips as much as everyone else did.

BEST DRAMA: Nicole Kidman had arguably her best year ever, on screens both small (Big Little Lies; China Girl Top of The Lake) and big, first with Garth Davis’ breakout smash Lion and then with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (one of 2017’s great underrated works). Harry Dean Stanton’s final film, John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, was the perfect farewell; the best teen film of the year was Ry Russo-Young’s existential mystery/coming-of-age drama, Before I Fall, starring a wonderful Zoey Deutch. We can’t split the year’s best drama vote, so it’s a tie – Sean Baker’s study of a family living on the fringe of American compassion, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, and Luca Guadagnino’s profoundly lovely and compassionate CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

BEST AUSTRALIAN FILM: The kids are all right, at least as far as the local film sector is concerned. Best Australian film of the year was Jeffery Walker’s DANCE ACADEMY, a classic overcoming-the-odds drama that promised and delivered (not a boast many Aussie films can make in 2017). Other thoroughly energised, teen-themed winners included Neil Triffet’s Emo The Musical and Gregory Erdstein’s That’s Not Me (both of which will find appreciative audiences on home vid). The next wave of genre talents emerged in the form of Tristan Barr and Michael Godsen (the nerve-shredding, single-take illusion, Watch the Sunset) and Addison Heath (the bleak, beautiful The Viper’s Hex, co-directed by Jasmine Jakupi).

BEST NETFLIX FILM: If the most influential new production entity in the world is powerful enough to secure a slot at Cannes, it’s big enough to be given consideration on Screen-Space. It’s impossible to ignore such challenging works as Marti Noxon’s To The Bone, Dee Rees Mudbound, Chris Smith’s Jim & Andy, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (also Cannes endorsed), Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch and Joon-ho Bong’s Okja. The new network's greatest triumph was Laurent Bouzereau’s FIVE CAME BACK, a 3 episode/180 minute documentary series in which present-day Hollywood visionaries Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass and Francis Ford Coppola (with Meryl Streep providing narration) honour the wartime contributions of their industry forefathers, John Huston, John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: No factual film came close to Nick Broomfield’s tragic profile WHITNEY CAN I BE ME for emotional impact, but Brad Abrahams’ alien abductee oddity Love and Saucers, Jedd and Todd Wilder’s heartbreaking mystery God Knows Where I Am and Roger Donaldson’s Formula 1 biopic McLaren were standout performers in limited/festival release. The weirdest, most wonderful insight into unique creativity was Mike Brook’s Something Quite Peculiar: The Life and Times of Steve Kilbey, a bittersweet profile of the enigmatic frontman of cult band The Church.

BEST FESTIVAL FILM: Of the many wonderful films that were afforded one, maybe two festival sessions before disappearing back into the sales market ether, Kamili Andini’s Bali-set study in grief and fantasy THE SEEN AND UNSEEN proved cinematic perfection. Other mini-masterpieces that need further screen exposure were Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s dash-cam marvel The Road Movie and Joshua J Provost’s study in art-form co-dependence, Coalesce: A City Composed.

BEST REWATCH: The bigscreen session of Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND post-4K digital restoration was a bucket list event, though it was only one of the great retro-sessions in 2017. A 70mm screening of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff and co-hosting a Romero tribute double feature of Night of The Living Dead and Creepshow, both at the iconic Randwick Ritz in Sydney’s east, were rare privileges. Old favourites that still delighted and enthralled included Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria, Woody Allen’s Love and Death, Michael Apted’s Coalminer’s Daughter and Steve Barron’s Electric Dreams, a film that now seems 20 years ahead of its time.

And THE WORST FILM OF 2017: Look at this miserable, misguided parade of objectionable duds - The Dark Tower, Planetarium, Three Summers, The Cure For Wellness, Baywatch, The Circle, Snatched and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. That said, none of them really challenged the indecipherable serial killer snorefest THE SNOWMAN for sheer incompetence. Tomas Alfredson’s all-star, all-shite cast, including Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, JK Simmons and (oh dear) Val Kilmer, stare at each other in the hope somebody in frame will save the scene/film. Not even the likes of DOP Dion Beebe, editor Thelma Schoonmaker or EP Martin Scorsese…MARTIN SCORSESE!!...could polish this cinematic turd.

Saturday
Apr222017

SCREEN-SPACE @ 5: MY FAVOURITE SCREEN-SPACE MOMENTS.

April 22 marks the fifth anniversary of this determinedly ad-free and search-engine unfriendly labour-of-love. A warbling discourse of approximately 30,000 film-related words, as a start-up we covered a forgotten Werner Herzog classic, the revival of a kitschy 3D spaghetti western and a review of something called The Avengers – none of which represent the best work I have done. Which begs the question, “What is?” Under the guise of shameless self-congratulation, I zero in on my favourite articles from the five key categories collectively called Screen-Space…

BLOG / ...
The ‘Blog’ content stems from an immediate, instinctive need to write (REMEMBERING BILL PAXTON; TONY SCOTT: UPON REFLECTION…; TIFF AUDIENCES STILL WARM TO THE BIG CHILL) or often random thought patterns (THE FEVER DREAM THAT IS SHARKNADO; WHATEVER HAPPENED TO…? HOLLYWOOD’S MISSING MOVIES; THE RISE AND FALL AND RISE OF KEVIN COSTNER). I had fun taking the great filmmakers down a peg in my 2012 two-parter THE WORST 20 OF CINEMA’S BEST; I still get choked up when I re-read THE BEAUTIFUL WORDS OF MELISSA MATHESON and REMEMBERING HAROLD RAMIS; and, my animosity towards the terrible stereotypes in Madagascar 3 led to ANIMATION IN BLACK AND WHITE: ARE HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS RACIST? I enjoy the silly dialogue I have with myself called IN BOB WE TRUST, in which my sane, informed pro-De Niro voice stands against my dickish De Niro-detractor voice. But the grandest Blog folly I have undertaken is the THE TWELVE DAYS OF CINE-MAS, a mammoth 18,000 word dissection of the 2016 movie year. I had a concept going in, even a few of the categories headings (an In Memoriam list called TEN SOARING SPIRITS; a box office analysis titled SIX STUDIO SCORECARDS), but I soon realised that the daily output required to realise such a project was…daunting. Got it done, though. Earned four Facebook likes, too. 

REVIEWS / ...
If the Review pages have taught me anything, it is, “Don’t piss off misogynists or Seth McFarlane fans.” Scathing reviews of Cassie Jaye’s lopsided MRA doco THE RED PILL and Seth MacFarlane’s non-comedy A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST met a bitter backlash; “Simon, you’re a f***ing moron,” stated one eloquent wordsmith. Similar ill will from THE HOBBIT and MCU fans poured forth when I dissed their heroes, but I embraced their (mostly) respectful counterpoints. I take pride in supporting advocacy works that highlight crucial social issues (BULLY; GIRL RISING; GIVEN; LAST CALL AT THE OASIS; UNDER THE GUN; I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO) and little-seen indie work, for whom a good review can carry festival and marketplace cache (WHAT I LOVE ABOUT CONCRETE; ARROWHEAD; THE QUARANTINE HAUNTINGS; THE HUMAN RACE; SUNDAY; GIRL ASLEEP). Of the 297 reviews, two of which I’m particularly fond are the 2016 Cannes Film Festival opener, Woody Allen’s CAFÉ SOCIETY, and the personal perspective that infused my thoughts on the Brian Wilson biopic, LOVE & MERCY. None have flowed so freely as my 5-star rant for ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY; a childhood of conjuring my own expanded Star Wars universe was honoured by Gareth Edwards’ perfect tentpole blockbuster, which I think my words reflected.

FEATURES / ...
‘Features’ has emerged as the flagship section of SCREEN-SPACE, home to the majority of the film festival and award season coverage; all those ‘BEST OF… / WORST OF…’ pieces surface here. It is here you will find the interview content, my favourite part of the job (well, not the transcribing). I recently boasted that my chat with the Raw director, called IN THE FLESH: THE JULIA DUCOURNAU INTERVIEW, was a favourite, which I stand by. Certainly those conducted on the rarefied ground of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival are a highlight, amongst them BOGDAN MIRICI, NICOLE GARCIA, KOJI FUKADA, BRUNO DUMONT and ANURAG KASHYAP. I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to chat with my film heroes, including actors MICHAEL BIEHN, TOM SKERRITT, TEMUERA MORRISON, MARLON WAYANS, CATHERINE KEENER and MICHAEL PARE; directors GASPAR NOE (Irreversible; Love), RAMIN BAHRANI (99 Homes), COLIN TREVORROW (Safety Not Guaranteed; Jurassic World); CATE SHORTLAND (Lore); cult hero STEVE DE JARNATT (Miracle Mile; Cherry 2000); and, Iranian auteur NIMA JAVIDI (Melbourne). My most enthusiastic interviewee was German director MAIKE BROCHHAUS, who couldn’t believe her X-rated romantic comedy Schnick Schnack Schnuck had been discovered in Australia; actresses ANNA MARGARET HOLLYMAN and NADIR CASELLI were also utterly charming. I am eternally grateful to the many independent sector auteurs who have contributed their time and personality. Arguably my most cherished interview was the face-to-face I had with an energised M NIGHT SHYAMALAN, whom I sat with just as his thriller The Visit was ushering in his career resurgence.

INDUSTRY / ...
Although envisioned as a ‘business section’, the ‘Industry’ pages have allowed for more personal writing. In R.I.P. DAVID HANNAY, I reflected upon the Australian producer’s remarkable career while lamenting the passing of a cherished industry presence; a work colleague from the VHS boom years, retiring distribution veteran Bob Wright granted me his only interview, titled 21ST CENTURY MAN. As he weathered the storm that blows in when a big-budget pic flops, director Alex Proyas vented to me in PROYAS CASTS DARK SHADE OVER OF GODS OF EGYPT DETRACTORS; similarly, Wyrmwood director Kiah Roache-Turner contributed an exclusive self-penned statement on the personal impact of film piracy in ZOMBIES, PIRATES AND ME: A DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT (the only content in our five year history not written by yours truly); and, THE HISTORY OF LGBT CINEMA IN AUSTRALIA PARTS 1 and 2 was the result of an immense research undertaking. The most satisfying of all Industry pages has been FOUNDER OF HANOI FILM HEAVEN REFLECTS ON REEL LEGACY, a melancholy chat with American expat Gerald Hermann and the movie memories he helped create as head of Hanoi Cinematheque, an arthouse outpost in Viet Nam’s bustling metropolis that was scheduled for demolition a matter of weeks after our interview.

HORROR / ...
I created the ‘Horror’ page to house edgier content from my beloved genre without fear of offending visitors. The search for content has led me to the organisers of such internationally renowned horror film festivals as The UK’s Frightfest, Brazil’s Fantaspoa, Toronto’s Midnight Madness, the Freak Me Out section of the Sydney International Film Festival and LA’s Hollywood Horrorfest. No mention of the ‘Horror’ pages would be complete without acknowledgement of Sydney’s A Night of Horror/Fantastic Planet and founder Dr Dean Bertram, who has supplied countless screeners and contacts since Day 1; check out this summary of the coverage I afforded ANOH/FP 2013. Ours is a relationship I undertook to honour with the sentimental piece, FEST ALUMNI RECALL GLORY DAYS AS GENRE LOVE-IN TURNS 10. Shout-out to the teams at SUFF, MUFF, Monster Fest and Revelations for all the reciprocal love over the years. ‘Horror’ has been home to young buck directors SEVE SCHELENZ (Peelers), BRYN TILLY (Umbra), DANE MILLERD (There’s Something in The Pillaga), JEFF RENFROE (The Colony), CHRISTOPHER AD CASTILLO (The Diplomat Hotel), JEREMY GARDNER (The Battery) and MICHAEL O’SHEA (The Transfiguration), as well as established greats JON HEWITT (Turkey Shoot, 2015) and TODD FARMER (Jason X). My favourite piece may be CANNES CLASSICS BOWS REFN’S RESTORATION OF BAVA BRILLIANCE, my account of that evening in Cannes when Nicholas Winding Refn presented the 4K makeover of Mario Bava’s Planet of The Vampires.

The future? A long-overdue refit is in order; I’ll be launching the SCREEN-SPACE Online Store in the weeks ahead; and, in true Sally Field fashion, I’ll continue to harangue and harass everyone I meet to LIKE, really LIKE my social media platforms (Facebook here, Twitter there). Thank you, for indulging me this outlet and responding with your kind words of encouragement. And, most importantly, a special thanks to a certain lady friend of infinitely superior talent and standing for supporting all I do here. X  

Wednesday
Dec312014

IN HINDSIGHT...: MY YEAR IN FILM

Reflecting upon the cinematic year, I recalled not so much the movies I saw (681 in total, with thanks to the awesome Letterboxd site) but the lively discussions, heated debates and vast opinions I enjoyed with those I am fortunate to call colleagues and friends. So below you won't find my Best/Worst of the Year opinions (if you're inclined, you can find that here), but more a revisiting of the issues and events that left an impression upon me...

“Another round, bartender…”
In 2014, ‘Hollywood Blockbusters’ mostly resembled drunks in a seedy bar early on a Wednesday afternoon. There was the refined gentleman acting above his fellow patrons yet, deep down, fully aware he was the just like them (Captain America: The Winter Soldier); the increasingly haggard old broad (The Hunger Games: Mockinjay Part 1) who dragged along her innocent daughter (Divergent) for her first sip; the hulking, brooding boozer who threatens to erupt but mostly just mumbles to himself (Godzilla); the fading 40-somethings who loudly reminisce about the good old days when they were relevant (X-Men Days of Future Past; The Amazing Spiderman 2; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, top); the violent, obnoxious jerk who everyone hates (Transformers: Age of Extinction); the douche-bag hipster, covered in brand names, who gets less funny the longer he drinks (The LEGO Movie); and, the sad little nobody that no one talks to and most forget is even there (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). But then there were the films who peeked into the bar, saw the worst that they could be and said “no”; blockbusters that instead developed vibrant, funny personalities (Guardians of the Galaxy; 22 Jump Street; Neighbors), serious smarts (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Edge of Tomorrow, above) and human, empathetic souls (The Fault in Our Stars).

Film Critics Can Make of Break Your Movie. Except if you’re The Babadook. Or These Final Hours. Or Tracks. Or Predestination.
Respected Australian critic Margaret Pomeranz had a lot to say in the wake of director/star Josh Lawson’s A Little Death (pictured, below) tanking domestically. Pomeranz, who called time in December on a 28 year career as the yin to David Stratton’s yang on the iconic At The Movies show (the pair; pictured right), penned an op-ed piece in which she took her peers to task for bagging the sex-themed rom-com (on which her son, Josh, was an EP). Toronto critics liked it (it had its US premiere there, so the festival mood was...festive), while Australian journos largely derided it. “(When) effort is made and talent is discernible, I think it ought to be acknowledged rather than have its undeniable flaws recklessly highlighted,” Pomeranz opined. It was an embarrassing outburst of self-serving personal opinion by Pomeranz; she has bagged innumerable films with one or two star reviews, most of them made with good intentions and plenty of talent attached, though few of them Australian (“I have become well-known for supporting Australian films, I've been accused of being too generous, of awarding half a star too many, whatever,” she deflects in her rant). It was one of the many bewildering contradictions in the piece. “What is it with Australian critics of Australian films? Are we setting the bar so high that no one can possibly jump over it?” she bleats. Well, Australian critics loved The Babadook, These Final Hours, Felony, Galore, Charlie’s Country, Tracks and Predestination; they mostly liked Healing, The Rover, The Infinite Man and The Turning. But shitty marketing and outmoded distribution strategies hurt them all. Pomeranz should have used her profile to force answers from decision-makers in the sector and worried less about the general opinion of a minor work in which she has personal investment.

No, television is not ‘The New Cinema’…
Television continued its highly touted ‘renaissance’ in 2014, which led many to declare that film would soon be dead in the water. Which is, of course, nonsense. Television is offering up some terrific entertainment, such as 2014 newbies Gracepoint, Broad City, Peaky Blinders and Olive Kettridge and holdovers The Walking Dead, Masters of Sex, The Americans and Orange is the New Black. But television, by its very nature, is bound by convention, from the 43 or 22 minute commercial framing to the very platform on which it is seen (no matter how big TVs get, they will always be ‘the small screen’). What has improved is the boldness of the writing; not the quality per se, just the themes and narratives being tackled by some of Hollywood’s best wordsmiths. But television can never mimic the scale and scope of cinema, the fully immersive sensorial experience, the all-consuming atmospherics. In his popular podcast, Bret Easton Ellis chatted with director James Gray (on-set of his 2014 film, The Immigrant; pictured, right) on the essential value of seeing films on the biggest screen possible. “The specialness of the event, of going to the theatre, with a lot of people, in a big room where you (eat) your warmed popcorn with the bad butter,” said an impassioned Gray, “well, that was amazing. I don’t think anything tops that. Certainly not watching it on my iPad."

The Booming Irrelevance of The Oscars…
Actually, that needs clarification. The Oscars circus is still crucial to the movie-making industrial complex. The award season madness, which culminates with the glitz and glamour of the Academy Awards ceremony, provides a point-of-difference for Hollywood’s marketeers, allowing them to cover their respective studios in the glow of socially redeeming, issue-based films, the kind that can make money without fast food tie-ins. The films need not be very challenging, very insightful or even very good; earlier this year, such earnest, average voters-bait as 12 Years A Slave and Dallas Buyers Club triumphed, while Her and American Hustle were elevated far beyond their worth to provide an element of ‘cool relevance’; in a few weeks, the vastly over-rated Boyhood, this year’s BIG issue-pic Selma and obligatory Brit contenders The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything will dominate the 2015 line-up; we can only hope Birdman (pictured, left), Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Nightcrawler brighten Oscars’ podium with their unique visions. Of course, I’ll clear my calendar to watch it live. 

Also, it just crossed my mind that...

Scarlett Johansson is in a very good place. From the fearless ferocity of Under the Skin, the lunacy of Lucy and the sexy, good-time physicality she exuded in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the actress (pictured, right) had a great 2014.

Shailene Woodley will be America’s next great film actress. Two big hits in 2014 (the franchise-starter, Divergent; YA phenomenon The Fault in Our Stars), a hotly-anticipated indie (Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard) about to roll-out, and the lead in the new Oliver Stone film locked in, Woodley is on track for super-stardom.

Indie Horror is where it’s at! Studios have bailed on horror fans (Annabelle? Ugh, puh-leeze; Eric Bana's Deliver Us From Evil was terrible) but the independent sector delivered the year’s most memorable midnight movie-going moments with nerve-rattlers like Honeymoon, Starry Eyes, The Sacrament, How to Save Us, Oculus and Inner Demon.

Keanu Reeves is back. Not just because he was in the year’s bloodiest, most exhilarating action film, John Wick (pictured, left), but also because he handled with grace the wave of ill-will about his actually-quite-awesome flop 47 Ronin, took on the new technological paradigm of digital filmmaking as frontman on the doco series Side by Side and directed the martial arts bone cruncher, The Man from Tai-Chi (yes, 2013, but saw it this year).

Subtitles rule. Iranian Nami Javidi made his directing debut with the unnerving, compelling drama, Melbourne. Other foreign sector must-sees were Cannes favourites Leviathan and Winter Sleep; the dialogue-free social document, Manakamana; the 5½ hour Filipino drama, From What is Before; and, Ida.

And, from the desk of Amy Pascal. Change all your passwords, now.

Thanks for all your support in 2014 and have a happy and safe New Year.
Simon Foster, Managing Editor