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**** (out of five)

There’s a sub-genre of the high-school flick, and it’s the female teen in high-school flick, of which there are three acknowledged classics, Clueless (1995), Mean Girls (2004) and Juno (2007); other  good ones include Easy A (2010), Bring It On (2000) and, of course, Pretty in Pink (1986). Each of these films combined comedy and pathos, and each featured a standout performance by its leading actress, each of whom either went on to become huge stars (Easy A’s Emma Stone will probably win the Best Actress Oscar next month for La La Land) or chose not to.

The Edge of Seventeen can hold its head very high in this exalted company, and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Begin Again) gives a performance that should allow her the kind of career promised to Lindsay Lohan and Ellen Page (indeed, Ellen Page’s performance in Juno is kind of a touchstone for Steinfeld’s here). A total home run as a first feature for writer/director/producer Kelly Fremon Craig, it’s consistently funny, moving and emotionally honest.

Nadine is 17; her dad died when she was 13 and there are plenty of leftover emotional scars. Things are okay because she’s got a loyal bestie and a calm and dependable older brother, but when those two hook up, she over-reacts and spins out of control.

Closer in tone to Easy A and Juno than the others – it’s rooted in realism, avoids cheap laughs and cheap sentiment, and isn’t flashy with its use of music, colour or costume – The Edge of Seventeen starts strongly and then keeps getting better and better, drawing you in deeper as you get to know Nadine more intimately. Steinfeld has excellent support from Kyra Sedgwick as mom, Blake Jenner as bro, and, most significantly, Woody Harrelson as one of Nadine’s teachers. Harrelson is superb; his performance feels effortless, but that’s only because he’s so damned good at this sort of character – a damaged charmer with compassion and integrity.

The plot isn’t revolutionary; in fact, nothing here is. You don’t see a movie like this hoping it will re-invent the wheel. It’s all about the execution and the performances, and The Edge of Seventeen excels with both. I saw it with a cinema full of, I suppose, its essential demographic, being teenage girls, and they loved it, laughing throughout and fully engaged. I was right there with them.

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**** (out of five)

The storytelling in Lion is a triumph of taste over temptation. The source material, the non-fiction 2014 book by Saroo Brierley A Long Way Home, was ripe for bombastic, sensational, sentimental treatment. Instead, director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies have delivered the tasteful version, one that avoids practically all the story’s potential landmines in lieu of honest emotion. It is a film of great integrity.

Brierley was brought up in Tasmania having been adopted from Calcutta at around five years old. He had been separated from his birth family in bizarre, practically tragicomic circumstances; twenty-five years later, he used Google Earth to attempt to find them again.

The film is structured in two halves. The first – and most successful – follows Saroo, at age five, in India. Saroo is played by Sunny Pawar, who is one of those kids – found after a massive casting process in India – who just nails it. He’s incredible, traversing a mostly dialogue-free hour without missing a single beat. Every shot he’s in contains emotional truth and credibility, but – like all great actors! – there’s a second, underlying layer going on, in which he deftly adds degrees of comic grace. It’s astonishing. There is one wordless close-up that took my breath away, before I practically started chanting, “Give him the Oscar, now!”

The second half sees a grown-up Saroo played by Dev Patel, who easily gives his finest performance to date. He’s completely believable as an Australian-raised Indian born fellow, Aussie accent and all, despite being a Brit. More importantly, the sometimes over-earnestness he’s delivered in many of his roles – the worst examples being in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise – is absent here. He gives a delicate performance of subtlety and grace.

Grace is also the word for the remarkable screenplay, which should definitely be a front-runner for the Adapted Screenplay Oscar come late February. Australian novelist / screenwriter / poet / critic Davies (Candy, Life) skips the expository scenes lesser films would show and rewards our intelligence with unexpected moments that are so much more revealing. Thus the salacious and sensational perils young Saroo faces as an orphan in Calcutta – forced mutilation as part of a begging ring, sexual slavery – are dealt with glancingly, almost quietly, certainly – here’s that word again! – tastefully. In the second half, Saroo forms a relationship with a fellow student, Lucy (Rooney Mara), but Davies spares us any scenes of them flirting, kissing for the first time, falling in bed together; he knows we understand all that stuff, and that it’s not what this story is really about. His screenplay is a monument to narrative elision.

The film comes close to being an instant classic. It’s hampered by two things. The first is almost unavoidable – that the underlying story, and the film’s promotion, have given us the ending in advance, which really does sap the film of suspense. It’s got a lot of elements – especially heart – but suspense isn’t one of them. It must be said, it would have taken an almost superhuman effort of collective restraint on the hands of marketers, producers and media to avoid this.

The second is that the film drops its energy for a long stretch in the second half. There are scenes where Mara’s Lucy – already the least defined character in the script – is, essentially, inaudible (and I was seeing the film in the best possible circumstances, a critic’s screening room), and around her, other members of the cast are allowed to deliver their lines so quietly as to cause one to strain to hear (which affects tremendously Kidman’s big monologue, which also feels – weirdly for a film of such taste – like Oscar-bait). During this section, the storytelling loses specificity. I was honestly but not deliberately confused for a period as to whether Saroo was living in Hobart or Melbourne, for example.

Ultimately though, the film is a triumph. You will weep like a ninny (I did) and it will feel good. I suspect it’s going to be an enormous financial success in Australia, where the Indian sections may sit more comfortably than, say, for a mass-market, mainstream American audience. I also think it has a very good chance of destabilising some of the front-runners at the Oscars. It is a very fine film, and Davis and Davies have proved an exceptional collaboration. See it.

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**** (out of five)

Barry Jenkins’ tale of a young man’s early life in three parts is a cinematic work of uncommon intimacy and integrity. Like the recent Jackie and the spectacular, micro-budget Krisha, it tells a simple, straightforward story with big, bold cinematic choices, particularly in its use of music, framing and colour. It is experiential as much as propelling, poetic as much as engaging. Like those other films, it feels like it is re-discovering the simple joys of image and sound; all three movies feel unburdened by any sort of “rules”, and they highlight the pedestrian way most films actually use mise-en-scene.

The film is about Chiron, played in the film’s three chapters by three different actors. In the first chapter, Chiron is a young boy living with his drug-taking mother (Naomi Harris, excellent) in Miami – and, subtly but definitely, gay. He knows it and other people know it, and it’s causing him confusion. Luckily, a local drug dealer (Marhershala Ali, showing the kind of powerful charisma exuded by Michael Kenneth Williams in The Wire and The Night Of) takes him under his wing.

In the second chapter, Chiron is a teenager, and in the third, a young man. The film’s dramatic crucible is how the third version of Chiron is created by the first two. His “gayness”, which is apparent to all (and in an example of the film’s subtle integrity, not at all to us) is an internal and external challenge for him; at his high school, his lone, outsider status has rendered him shy, awkward and vulnerable. Meanwhile, his mother’s drug use has developed into full-scale addiction, and his powerful mentor has (mysteriously?) disappeared, leaving behind his girlfriend (Janelle Monae), who can feed Chiron and love him, but still can’t get him to talk.

Chiron is a tricky character to engage with because his inherent character traits are so deliberately unengaging. Head bowed, silent, slight, he is trying to fade into the background or even disappear from the world, and the other characters’ frustration at his introversion is occasionally felt by us. But Jenkins’ bold decision to use three different actors pays off. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes obviously worked together to generate a set of physical and vocal characteristics for Chiron that provide a deep continuity for the character even as the film’s chosen narrative technique fractures him.

Miami is rendered exquisitely, as hot, colourful, exotic and edgy. We don’t often see Black American characters on beaches, staring at the ocean, and their stories are certainly rarely – if ever! – accompanied by the kind of score provided here by Nicholas Britell. Fuelled by big strings and piano, it’s evocative of classical European music – white man’s music. It’s another bold choice, almost of cultural appropriation (“reverse” cultural appropriation?) and it pays off gorgeously. Again, like Jackie and Krisha, the score here is integral to the experience of the film.

There’s a lot of hype around Moonlight; it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category, and is a front-runner, with La La Land, for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s worth going in knowing that the story itself is simple, clear and hardly revolutionary; it’s the execution here that matters. It’s one of those rare films that actually hits you the hardest the moment it finishes, when, all of a sudden, you realise what it is that you’ve actually been watching.

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****1/2 (out of five)

Australian Release Date: 12 January 2017

Jackie, a film about the preparations for John F. Kennedy’s funeral as experienced by his widow Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman), is a relentlessly sad hundred minutes, a close-up dissection of one person’s intensely painful grief combined with unique, almost unimaginable pressure. Fuelled by a baroque string-heavy score by Under The Skin maestro Mica Levi, the film, directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda) has almost unbearable extra resonance in these waning days of the Obama administration. As in this film, (at least I feel like) we are in mourning for the loss of a kindly, wise father, and scared of the brash, unpredictable one waiting on the doorstep.

Larrain and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Captain Fantastic) shot the film on Super 16mm, instantly giving it a grain (and aspect ratio) to complement the period. They are aided by astonishingly effective production and costume design, and by Portman’s tremendous performance.

It can’t have been easy. Being confined to the hours between her husband being shot and seeing him put in the ground (outside of a framing device, an interview with a reporter a week later), Portman’s Jackie is not just in grief but in shock. She’s drinking, popping pills and smoking a million cigarettes. More than anything, she is alone. The next President is sworn in in front of her while she still has her husband’s blood on her face, the Secret Service think her plans for a funeral are an insane risk; essentially, her existence in the White House is a burden to a lot of men in suits who’d prefer the grieving, strong-willed widow to just float away quietly.

She will not. Constantly referencing the three other presidents murdered in office, she insists on a State Funeral to rival a British Monarch’s coronation (or, much more specifically, Lincoln’s own funereal procession). Her motivations are complex and vexing to anyone who isn’t her, being everyone – even Bobby Kennedy, one of her only allies, and played admirably by Peter Sarsgaard. She has one other true ally, her Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig, showing not one iota of Brooklyn hipsterism) but Nancy’s a girl’s name, and this is a man’s world. Even the journalist interviewing her, and trying as hard as he can to be empathetic (Billy Crudup), cannot help but reveal the underlying, inbuilt, horrendously demeaning sexism of the time.

The themes are big but the focus is tight as a drum; Larrain and Fontaine keep their nearly-square, unyielding frame tight on Jackie’s face, on her limbs, at one point – somehow achingly revealingly – her seemingly fat-free, spiny back while she has a shower, the first since the event that shook America and the world. The water runs over that nobbled back, that tight, white skin, that tiny frame, awash with her husband’s blood that remains matted in her stylish dark hair.

Best Film:

Krisha

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Set in a roomy Texas house on Thanksgiving and taking place entirely within that day, Krisha is a serious, creepy, ambitious, moving, uncompromising and wholly successful cinematic work. Krisha, played by Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt, returns to the bosom of her family – played almost entirely by members of Shults’ own family – for the holiday. The trouble is, under the welcoming surfaces, everything is cracked, and as the day progresses, the glass starts to splinter. It’s seemingly simple yet, in just 83 minutes, enormously, profoundly compelling and quite terrifying.

Best Direction:

Trey Edward Shults, Krisha

The film was shot in Shults’ parents’ home in nine days for around sixty thousand dollars, but it is fully realised as a piece of cinema, with bold, elaborate cinematography, astonishing creepy original music by Brian McOmber, and absolutely superb acting that deliberately combines pure naturalism with a heightened style as the film demands. It has won sixteen major awards including the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at South by Southwest and was nominated for the Critics Week Grand Prize and the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Best Feature Documentary:

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, Tickled

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If the definition of a good film is one that keeps you wanting to know what happens next, Tickled is among the greatest ever made. You cannot look away. Don’t drink a batch of water, coffee, beer, whatever before you go in, because woe-be-tide you have to go to the toilet and miss a moment. This is breath-taking stuff.  I want it to be nominated for Best Feature Length Documentary at the next Academy Awards. That may sound like a long shot, but only because of the subject matter’s inherent weirdness. In terms of proficiency and engagement, Tickled is an instant classic, one that will appear on “Top 50 Documentary” lists forever.

Best Lead Performance by a Woman:

Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake

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The scene that got me crying takes place in a food bank. Thankfully, I’ve never been in one. But thankfully, too, they exist. The scene is a masterpiece – a perfect confluence of script, direction and acting, particularly and specifically by Hayley Squires, who plays Katie, a young single mother of two befriended by Daniel Blake (UK stand-up Dave Johns), a carpenter who, after a heart attack, is finding it impossible to get out-of-work benefits from the Kafkaesque clutches of the bureacratic State. All this, of course, in a hardscrabble Northern (English) town.

Best Lead Performance by a Man:

Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

img_0191Thematically massive, tonally bold, determinedly non-formulaic and featuring a preternaturally perfectly cast leading man at the top of his game, Matt Ross’ second feature film as writer/director is one of the best of the year. Viggo Mortensen – and, once you’ve seen the film, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role – plays Ben, the father of six kids living off the grid in the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He’s brining them up with a philosophy combining intense survival skills, intense physical training, intense learning (his eldest speaks six languages) and intense moral introspection. Ben is intense, and so are his incredible spawn.

Best Supporting Performances by a Man:

Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash and Hail, Caesar!

_ABS5434.NEFFiennes, whose out-of-the-box comic performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel gave Luca Guagagnino the clever idea to cast him in his loose remake of 1969’s French film La Piscine, gives us something we’ve never seen from him before, with gusto and huge energy. His character Harry is a big big character and Fiennes gives a big big performance that is spellbinding and – the cursed cliché of the film critic – revelatory. And in Hail, Caesar!, he shares (with Alden Ehrenreich) the funniest scene of the year.

Best Supporting Performance by a Woman:

Lucy Boynton, Sing Street

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John Carney’s Sing Street is a total delight from start to finish. It is also a completely engaging, hugely romantic love story. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as Conor, and Lucy Boynton, as Raphina, are superb; Boynton in particular will be a massive star by next year, mark my words. Like Carney’s Once, the film crackles with the excitement of discovery: Walsh-Peelo and Boynton, like Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the earlier film, will, quite simply, steal your heart.

Ensemble Performance Award:

Captain Fantastic

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The kids are all – well, fantastic. George MacKay, as that eldest with the six languages, is one of those “I can’t believe he’s English!” English actors – I recognised him from an excellent little Brit Mini-Series called The Outcast (2015) after getting past the likelihood that, despite appearances, he probably wasn’t Mortensen’s actual son – he’s that well cast. And Annalise Basso and Samantha Isler are tremendously believable as spookily precocious sisters. The scene in which one of them (I’m not sure which!) gives her own take on Lolita is worth the ticket on its own. And the rest of the supporting cast are perfect. Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, Missi Pyle, Erin Moriarty – I mean, come on. They’re all superb, and even when they’ve only got a scene, they contribute a multi-dimensional character. It’s really rather remarkable.

Best Original Screenplay:

Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic

Road trip movies are inherently episodic, but Ross’ astonishingly rich script allows each stop along the way to contribute to the film’s larger thematic texture with deeply satisfying construction. Indeed, the rhythms of the film are so singular that you are almost upbraided (well, I was upbraiding myself) for trying to predict them. The road in this road movie is not the length you expect, and doesn’t lead you where you may possibly think it will. Don’t try to out-guess this film; you can’t. It’s pretty plain that Ben’s extreme parenting methods are going to come into question, but exactly how they are questioned – and answered – is the stuff of near-genius screenwriting.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

David Birke, Elle

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It’s relentless. I can’t recall a recent movie with so much plot, so many things going on. Each scene piles on more incident, more character intrigue, more development, as if, like a shark, the film would die if it stood still. This is not a bad thing.

Audacity Award:

Abe Forsythe, Down Under

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On the eleventh of December, 2005, a hot sunny Sunday, a series of racially-motivated attacks at Cronulla Beach in Sydney lead to some pretty serious national shame and soul-searching. Now, finally, a filmmaker has examined the incident – as a comedy. It’s a brave, brazen and bold move, and it pays off mightily. Writer / director Abe Forsythe’s last feature was the deliriously funny Ned Kelly spoof Ned way back in 2003. That film was a gag-fest in the vein of Airplane! or The Man With Two Brains, but Down Under has much more serious concerns. It’s an extremely angry film, spewing vitriolic rage at the kind of people who spew vitriolic rage. Basically, it’s a war on idiots, of every ethnic stripe.

Best Edit:

Julia Bloch, Green Room

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Joins the canon of “under siege” movies – Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, The Mist, From Dusk Till Dawn, Panic Room, Home Alone etc – not with louder bangs, scarier invaders or more bloodshed but with originality, wit and subversion. As the story hits the most essential beats this sub-genre demands, the screenplay and direction and editing surprise us with off-beat timing and unusual methods: people die at odd times in odd ways. It is jarring only in that it upsets the rhythms we’re used to: it bucks formula even as it adheres to it, and vice versa.

Best Cinematography:

Chung-hoon Chung, The Handmaiden

img_0201There is an excellent series of YouTube videos about filmmaking called Every Frame a Painting. I kept thinking of that delicious phrase during The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park’s exquisitely beautiful new potboiler. Every shot is stunning, and many are breathtaking. It’s the gorgeous movie of the year.

Best Production Design:

Mark Tildesley, High Rise

img_0204[Director Ben Wheatley’s] coup de theatre is to set the film not in “the future” but in the future as a film director working in 1975 might be able to visualise it. Thus it’s both “futuristic” and retro, with sideburns, wide ties and big moustaches accompanying concrete bunkers out of Logan’s Run. It’s a brilliant conceit brilliantly realised on the production design side; the “high rises” themselves look exactly as I’d always imagined them (the novel is one of my all-time favourites).

Best Original Score:

Brian McOmber, Krisha

The film was shot in Shults’ parents’ home in nine days for around sixty thousand dollars, but it is fully realised as a piece of cinema, with bold, elaborate cinematography, astonishing creepy original music by Brian McOmber, and absolutely superb acting that deliberately combines pure naturalism with a heightened style as the film demands.

These films were released in the United States and/or Australia in the calendar year 2016. They do not include certain highly praised films which I have not seen yet, such as Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea, and Jackie, which I have seen and which is a truly brilliant film, but which I have not published a review for yet and which doesn’t open in Australia until January 12.

Your comments – and your own lists – are welcome and appreciated!

THE TOP TEN IN ORDER:

Krisha

Set in a roomy Texas house on Thanksgiving and taking place entirely within that day, Krisha is a serious, creepy, ambitious, moving, uncompromising and wholly successful cinematic work. Krisha, played by Krisha Fairchild, director Trey Edward Shults’ aunt, returns to the bosom of her family – played almost entirely by members of Shults’ own family – for the holiday. The trouble is, under the welcoming surfaces, everything is cracked, and as the day progresses, the glass starts to splinter. It’s seemingly simple yet, in just 83 minutes, enormously, profoundly compelling and quite terrifying.

Tickled

One of those documentaries where the less you know, the better, because every single twist in the tale is surprising, and the best of them are head-spinning, jaw-dropping, and hysterical. Suffice to say that it’s a Pandora’s Box with results both funny and deeply disturbing.

Captain Fantastic

Thematically massive, tonally bold, determinedly non-formulaic and featuring a preternaturally perfectly cast leading man at the top of his game.

Sing Street

A total delight from start to finish, and the best film about the pure joy of making music since We Are The Best! (2013), with which it shares similarities.

Goldstone

Simultaneously a small story set against a massive landscape and a huge story told within the world’s smallest community, Goldstone is a stunning, original piece of cinema.

Weiner

This sensational – in all senses of the word – feature documentary is thus a scintillating glimpse into a unique political marriage. But more than anything, it is a film whose camera is there at those moments you never see: the ones immediately proceeding what we do see, when what we do see is decided for us.

Hell or High Water

The sad, dusty towns against which this classically-oriented story play out are breathtakingly evocative, as are the bodies and faces of all the Texans we meet along the way. It’s its own universe. Details are tremendously revealed through an almost perfect union of character and dialogue.

David Brent: Life On The Road

It is exquisite to watch a performer / writer re-visit his greatest creation again with such precision. The original songs are brilliantly awful; they’re not only full of hilarious and spot-on lyrics but the music itself is perfect, exactly what would come from the pen of David Brent. Indeed, the whole film, despite its air of improvisation, is terrifyingly precise.

Elle

A mesmerising, frenzied abomination, a thrilling, propulsive, lurid provocation that is simultaneously classy and grotesque, refined and coarse, arthouse and grindhouse.

Down Under

An extremely angry film, spewing vitriolic rage at the kind of people who spew vitriolic rage. Basically, it’s a war on idiots, of every ethnic stripe.

TOP FIVE TELEVISION:

The Girlfriend Experience

High Maintenance

The Night Of

Fleabag

The People Vs O.J. Simpson / O.J.: Made In America

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***** (out of five)

As the end of 2016 hurtles toward us like a US/China War, critics are making lists, generally of the top ten variety, but also lists of other “bests”: actor, director, cinematographer, new talent. I certainly am.

As I prepare them I realise that one film that will feature prominently has gone unreviewed in the pages of Film Mafia, since it never got released in Australia and I “missed it” until deep into the year. That film is Krisha, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults as his feature debut. It’s astonishing, and the only film I watched this year for a second time within a week.

Set in a roomy Texas house on Thanksgiving and taking place entirely within that day, Krisha is a serious, creepy, ambitious, moving, uncompromising and wholly successful cinematic work. Krisha, played by Krisha Fairchild, Shults’ aunt, returns to the bosom of her family – played almost entirely by members of Shults’ own family – for the holiday. The trouble is, under the welcoming surfaces, everything is cracked, and as the day progresses, the glass starts to splinter. It’s seemingly simple yet, in just 83 minutes, enormously, profoundly compelling and quite terrifying.

The film was shot in Shults’ parents’ home in nine days for around sixty thousand dollars, but it is fully realised as a piece of cinema, with bold, elaborate cinematography, astonishing creepy original music by Brian McOmber, and absolutely superb acting that deliberately combines pure naturalism with a heightened style as the film demands. It has won sixteen major awards including the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at South by Southwest and was nominated for the Critics Week Grand Prize and the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Krisha is similar in tone to a horror movie, set within the structure of a “home for the holidays” family drama, and entirely unforgettable. I could not recommend it more.