Archive for December, 2016

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

SING STREET

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.

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

Gareth Edwards’ (and, it must be acknowledged, Tony Gilroy’s) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is sensational, a thrilling, spectacularly crafted action-adventure tale set in the Star Wars universe. Unburdened by the weight of expectation, and J.J. Abrams’ almost pathological addiction to fan service, this “stand-alone” romp is more fun, more thrilling and just a better movie than The Force Awakens.

If you don’t know by now that the plot involves stealing the plans for the original Death Star, you’re probably not particularly interested in seeing the film. It’s a terrific story idea, though, allowing Edwards and his unbelievably talented team to assemble a motley crew on a stealthy raid with stakes as big as the universe. Essentially, the model here is The Dirty Dozen and so many films that came after, involving a wartime assault by a small group with big hearts against, well, Nazis – because that’s what the Empire is, right? Stormtroopers and all.

The film looks, feels, sounds and smells astonishingly like a Star Wars film, right down to its grain (in this it neither surpasses nor underperforms against The Force Awakens, which would have been responsible for constructing all the tech that allow these films to be so evocative of the texture of Lucas’ original three movies). It has the right rhythms, the right dialogue style and the right kind of story beats, but, unlike Force Awakens – which was, let’s face it, a remake of A New Hope (the first one, from 1977) – the story here is fresh. It also doesn’t seek to aspire to being Epic (with a capital “E”, see?) and so feels a lot tighter and more structurally satisfying.

The tone is more serious, or dare I use that dreaded word… “darker”. Force Awakens was so jam-packed with jokes as to be easily labeled comedic; Rogue One has very few. These people have too much on their mind to crack wise. Jyn (Felicity Jones, continuing the series’ fetish for very petite posh British brunettes) has a missing father who has designed a genocide machine; Cassian (Diego Luna) has, in one of the film’s rather excellent dialogue moments, been fighting against the Empire “since I was six years old”. Even this film’s droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, but doing an English accent!) is no-nonsense, and also kicks butt. (He’s also ugly; Rogue One scrupulously avoids the cute).

Characters from A New Hope appear, including, astonishingly, Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin – and not just for a moment but in whole scenes, with many lines of dialogue. This is the most extended use of a dead actor’s likeness I have yet seen. There was a hint of uncanny valley to this most special of special effects, but I’m willing to bet a teenager who didn’t know Cushing died in 1994 wouldn’t pick it. It’s pretty amazing, and Actor’s Equity should be very, very afraid.

Jones and Luna have superb chemistry; as they fell for each other, I fell for them. It’s hard to describe how satisfying Rogue One is. As craftsmanship and story-telling it’s superb, but it is something else, something magical. It really does offer a kind of welcome regression to the thrill of the movies as only children experience them. Perhaps seeing it on my birthday had some influence on my state of mind, but I felt like a kid again, giddy with pleasure, excitement and a warm heart. I guess like I felt after seeing the first one. What higher praise for A Star Wars Story can there be?

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**** (out of five)

La La Land arrives with a lot of hype. If you’re in the business of Oscar prognostication, it’s in a 50/50 race for Best Picture with the very different kettle of fish Moonlight. (Neither of these, of course, might come to pass; momentum could easily arise for such bigger fare as Sully, Arrival, Fences, Live By Night or the tiny and bleak Manchester By The Sea.)

It is Damien Chazelle’s dream project, the script he already had in his drawer when his film Whiplash was not only made, but became an Indie hit, a critical darling and a Best Picture nominee. J.K. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Chazelle had his moment, his blank cheque, and he cashed it on his Dream Project, an old-school musical he had been developing for years with his musical collaborator (and old school chum) Justin Hurwitz. He’d originally hope to make it for less than a million dollars; ultimately, he had at least thirty times that.

It shows. The opening number, a (perhaps digitally aided) one-take wonder involving an enormous amount of singers, dancers, cars and an LA freeway, is jaw-dropping, a statement of intent that fills the viewer with trust: This is gonna be great! For much of the film that trust is constantly rewarded. Emma Stone, tasked with carrying the film emotionally, appearing in about eighty percent of the scenes, singing, dancing and stealing your heart, is sensational (she must be the Oscar Best Actress front-runner, along with Isabelle Huppert for Elle). Ryan Gosling, very much supporting her, does so with characteristic grace – and a lot of heart. They’re a terrific team.

She plays Mia, an aspiring (and perhaps talented) actress in Los Angeles; he plays Sebastian, an aspiring (and definitely very talented) jazz musician (Chazelle’s signature motif). They fall in love, manage their careers and partake in a stack of original musical numbers along the way.

It’s a true musical, in that characters break out into song and dance when they’re feeling big emotions, and when a musical number is on, anything goes: shoes can appear out of nowhere, skies can lighten or darken, walls can disappear. Certainly the lighting can get jiggy. And, in its depiction of a dame and a dude up against the bright lights of show business in Hollywood, it’s utilising tried-and-true musical formulae, constantly. What’s fascinating is that it’s totally contemporary; the style may be 1953, but the potholes in the freeway are 2015. LA has been art-directed to look magical (there aren’t that many old-school street lamps, I know it) but it’s still modern, lonely, dusty, car-cramped LA, and the casting directors suck.

The original songs by Hurwitz are very good and some are great (if you’ve seen it, I bet you’re humming City of Stars right now). They express the characters’ inner thoughts, they allow them to comment explicitly on their frustrations and longings, they speak of hopes and dreams and, of course, of love. They’re at times plaintive, at times bold and brassy; motifs shimmy throughout. Indeed, it’s a little jarring when Hurwitz’s compositions are supplanted by known music (a sequence at a party incorporating a swathe of famous ‘80s hits) and deliberately different-sounding music (the songs attributed to and performed by a colleague of Sebastian’s, played excellently by John Legend). Stone and Gosling both have fine pipes, Stone in particular, and something about their singing sounds authentic, as though if it were more perfect, it would be less real.

At 128 minutes, the film does feel a little long, and the story definitely slows and muddies in the second act. Because it’s a story based on a thousand others, a story that is part of our collective moviegoing DNA, we’re generally ahead of it, which contributes to the problem. But the ending – and it’s an extended one, a big, ambitious epilogue – is tremendously satisfying. I could feel the large group of critics at the screening I attended sitting on their hands, resisting the uncouth impulse to applaud.

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*** (out of five)

Office Christmas Party is about an office Christmas Party. It’s the Chicago branch, part of a larger corporation with headquarters in New York. The founder of the company is dead; his daughter Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is now the CEO while son (and younger brother) Clay (T.J. Miller from Silicon Valley) runs Chicago. She’s uptight and awful and not only wants to cut 40% of Clay’s staff, she wants to cancel the Christmas party! Clay is similar – very, very similar – to Miller’s character on Silicon Valley, so that’s not going to happen. Shenanigans ensue.

That’s all you really need to know about Office Christmas Party, a big Hollywood Studio comedy Christmas offering, at least on a plot level; indeed, the plot is about as unimportant as plots get. What’s important is that Aniston and Jason Bateman, playing Clay’s much more conscientious right-hand man, are simply Big Names designed to attract a budget and an audience, while the film’s real agenda is to allow a huge swathe of television second-stringers and up-and-comers to audition for Big Screen Comedy Stardom: steal your scene, the film seems to be chanting, and we’ll give you your own (smaller) movie!

Thus we not only have Miller (who single-handedly provides about seventy percent of the film’s energy), but the strange and wonderful Kate McKinnon from Saturday Night Live (she will have her own movies, unless her comedy is simply too esoteric for a mainstream audience or Hollywood’s conception of one); Randall Park (Fresh Off The Boat), Rob Corddry (Children’s Hospital), Olivia Munn (Attack of the Show!), Matt Walsh (Veep), Karan Soni (Blunt Talk), Oliver Cooper (Red Oaks), Fortune Feimster (The Mindy Project) and Vanessa Bayer (also Saturday Night Live)… among many others. It’s sink-or-swim, thrive or perish, with the constraints of the uneven script and the edit these combatants’ fiendishly random gladiatorial weapons. Thus Corddry – a terrific comedian – is hamstrung by an underwritten and unlikeable character, while Bayer and Park get to shine, sharing, as they do, one of the film’s simplest but funniest scenes.

Stupid Hollywood formula ruins the last act, but until then it’s an amiable ride, resting squarely on Miller’s ample shoulders. He’s a unique comic entity, with a fair chunk of Belushi’s wild anti-authoritarianism tempered by an almost Bateman-level sweetness. It’s a winning combo and makes Office Christmas Party bearable and occasionally mood-enhancing.

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***

Ira Sachs had a bit of a circuit hit a couple of years ago with Love Is Strange, his bittersweet tale of a mature gay couple wrenched apart by the price of New York real estate. That demon rears its head again in Little Men, this time specifically examining the effect Brooklyn’s gentrification is having on a personal level.

Greg Kinnear plays Brian, a New York actor married to a surgeon (Jennifer Ehle). They have a young teen-age son, Jake (Theo Taplitz). When Brian’s dad dies and he is left his Brooklyn apartment, it comes with a tenant, a new best friend for Theo, and some heavy choices to make.

It’s hard to make the film sound at all exciting from its premise, but Sachs deals in realism, minutiae, and the kind of dilemmas actual people face. His is the opposite of Superhero Cinema. As it moves calmly but deliberately along, the power of the dilemmas facing each of the main characters grows stronger. Inexorably, you can’t help but be drawn in.