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Entries in Year in Review (2)

Friday
Dec142018

THE SCREEN-SPACE YEAR-IN-REVIEW: THE BEST (& WORST) FILMS OF 2018

I decided late in 2017 that the New Year theme was going to be ‘change’. I was going to lose weight (didn’t happen); watch less/play more sport (got my diving licence, so that’s something); and, most importantly, turn my back on the alpha male heroic arc that has dominated film narratives since…well, forever. So I'm proud to say six of my Top 10 films headline female actors, eight if you count co-lead roles (amongst them, below, from left; Zoe Kazan in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Helena Howard in Madeline's Madeline, and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade).

I admit to swimming against the current on Black Panther (I understand its importance, but…no, sorry) and Roma (gorgeous pictures do not a story make) and at time of writing, I’ve not seen award season frontrunners Vice and The Favourite (both out December 26 in Oz). Finally, apologies to Phantom Thread and I, Tonya, which I saw very late last year and which came out very early this year, slipping between the 'list-crack'. I only hope that the reputations of all involved with those fine films are not sullied by their careless omission from a Screen-Space list…

THE BEST FILMS OF 2018

10. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (Dir: Bryan Singer; USA, 134 min) Detractors went after it for sugarcoating the man's homosexuality and a rather conventional structure, but Bryan Singer’s adrenalized celebration of Freddie Mercury and the music he created with Queen was finely tuned for maximum crowd pleasure – like Freddie (brought back to life by the wonderful Rami Malek). Like the great myth-building musical biopics of yore (The Glenn Miller Story, 1954; Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980; La Bamba, 1987), Singer’s exuberant song’n’dance act acknowledges the darkness but shines its spotlight on the talent. 

9. PROTECTION (Dirs: Phillip Crawford, Gemma Parsons; Australia, 91 min) Shot by kids mostly under 12 living in subsidised housing in the Illawarra/South Coast region of NSW, Protection conveys fear, hope, sadness and joy in a manner few films ever have. Directors Phillip Crawford and Gemma Parsons were on hand to assist and ultimately corral the footage, but Protection remains purely the vision of ordinary children with vivid imaginations and profound insights into the community and friendships that binds them.

8. MADELINE’S MADELINE (Dir: Josephine Decker; USA, 93 min) Josephine Decker’s coming-of-age drama takes no easy paths – Madeline (Helena Howard) lives on the razor’s edge of teen sanity, hoping a stint in experimental theatre under director Evangeline (Molly Parker), will help her deal with an increasingly erratic mom, Regina (Miranda July). The often non-linear narrative and visual histrionics will drive some to distraction; for others, it will be exhilaratingly abstract and achingly emotional. Howard may be the acting find of 2018. 

7. LETO (SUMMER; Dir: Kirill Serebrennikov; Russia, 126 min) “There is a sprawling sense of time and place to Leto…yet there is not a frame of the film one would want to see excised. The anti-establishment themes and love-conquers-all story beats inherent to the rock/pop biopic genre have been previously explored in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), but rarely with such heartfelt melancholy, pained romanticism and evocative rendering of time and place.” Read the full SCREEN-SPACE review here.

6. (Dir: Johann Lurf; Austria, 99 min) A master of montage storytelling, Johann Lurf has edited celluloid visions of the night sky and galaxies stretching into deep space from 550 films, creating a record of how directors have pictured the universe since cinema began. No actors and only incidental sound and dialogue as it fits the Austrian’s constructural parameters, ★ is both a breathtaking technical marvel and deeply emotional journey for science-fiction purists. Read the SCREEN-SPACE interview with director Johann Lurf here.

5. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Dirs: Joel & Ethan Coen; USA, 133 min) Playing like a greatest hits package of Coen Bros film styles filtered through their adoration of the western genre, …Buster Scruggs captures Joel and Ethan perfectly melding their consummate craftsmanship with their love for classical American cinema. The mid-section story, ‘The Girl Who Got Rattled’ with Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck, is the most perfect part of a near perfect movie. (Yes, it’s a Netflix film, but it played Cannes first, so watch yer mouth, stranger). 

4. PROSPECT (Dirs: Christopher Caldwell, Zeek Earl; USA, 98 min) Lo-fi tech, pulpy flavoursome dialogue, a dirt-encrusted Star Wars-like aesthetic and a complex surrogate daddy/daughter central relationship are just some of the elements that made Prospect the most engrossing sci-fi thriller of 2018. In a year peppered with breakout star performances from young actresses, Sophie Thatcher as the hard-bitten prospector’s daughter Cee is a revelation. Read the SCREEN-SPACE interview with the actress and her directors here.

3. LUZ (Dir: Tilman Singer; Germany, 70 min) It was just to be the thesis submission for film school grad Tilman Singer (hence the 70 min running time), but word soon spread that his chilling horror vision Luz was something special. Through hypnosis, a young cabbie (Luana Velis) recalls the events that led her to a stark meeting room in an undermanned police station. Shot on 16mm and skimming between realities past, present and supernatural, Luz is a bewildering, unique nightmare of a film.

2. CLIMAX (Dir: Gaspar Noé; French | Belgium, 95 min) The old high-school prom “Someone spiked the punch!” dilemma gets the Gaspar Noé spin in Climax; the punch is sangria, the prom is a dance troupe rehearsal peopled by international hotties and the spike is LSD. Frankly, everything seems on acid in this film, even before the sangria is served; the opening dance number, a single-take marvel of twisted limbs and swirling cameras that positively lifts you off your seat, sets the tone and things amp up from there. In his best film since Irreversible, Noé crafts a hallucinogenic descent into drug-induced psychosis, fuelled by the disintegration of social, sexual and moral mores. Enjoy…

1. EIGHTH GRADE (Dir: Bo Burnham; USA, 93 min) Elsie Fisher (hand her the Oscar, please) plays Kayla, a schlubby, pimply, sullen nobody/everybody who springs to life as the star of her own upbeat YouTube show. She espouses life lessons to her audience yet struggles to apply them in her own school or domestic reality. Bo Burnham’s heartbreaking, often harrowing drama has been compared to Todd Solondz’s misanthropic masterpiece Welcome to The Dollhouse, but there is a singular central hopefulness to Kayla’s journey that demands you never lose faith in her; her arc is the most real and affecting in a year of cinema.

     

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: FIRST REFORMED; TULLY; A STAR IS BORN; FIRST LIGHT; COLD WAR; ANNA’S WAR; BLACKKKLANSMAN; AMERICAN ANIMALS; JURASSIC WORLD: FINAL KINGDOM; TRAUMA; MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT; LOVE, SIMON; SUPA MODO; STUCK; MEKTOUB, MY LOVE; CARRIBERRIE; ALPHA.

AND THE WORST…:

5. UNSANE (Dir: Steven Soderbergh; USA, 98 min; pictured, right) and 4. THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB (Dir: Fede Alvarez; USA | UK, 117 min) After TV success in The Crown, Claire Foy was poised for breakout success. Soderbergh’s gimmicky B-clunker Unsane (“Shot on an iPhone!” boasted the marketing) and the DOA franchise reboot The Girl in The Spider’s Web put the brakes on that momentum. She was good in First Man, but it tanked. Tough year for the young starlet.

3. THE PREDATOR (Dir: Shane Black; USA, 107 min) Hopes were high when alumni Shane Black opted back into the Predator franchise, the studio determined to resurrect the series after one too many crappy sequels. Post-production tinkering, tonal clashes and idiotic plotting resulted…in another crappy sequel.

2. OCCUPATION (Dir: Luke Sparke; Australia, 119 min) Overlong, overwrought, overbaked local grab at ID-4 level spectacle, Luke Sparke’s alien invasion malarkey is a fatal miscalculation of the Australian sector’s ability to pull off an effects-heavy actioner. The rubber-suited alien’s attack on a country football match aside, there isn’t an original or coherent thought in the entire shrill, shrieking mess, despite more cornball subplots and clichéd characters than a season of Neighbours. 

1. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (Dir: Brian Henson; USA, 91 min) About 10 minutes into Brian (son of Jim) Henson’s scummy alternate-LA puppet-private-eye dirge, the audience vibe had changed. We had already moved past the “Oh, this isn’t funny at all” stage, and were beginning to realise that, with 80-odd minutes to go, this Melissa McCarthy vehicle (what was she thinking?) was actually becoming grotesquely unwatchable. And, no, not even bong-pulling fratboys will dig it; no weed is that good.

DISHONOURABLE MENTIONS: THE NUTCRACKER & THE FOUR REALMS; FIFTY SHADES FREED; ELLIPSIS; A WRINKLE IN TIME; PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING; THE MEG.

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