‘Parasite’

Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2019 (as well as best film at the Sydney Film Festival), Parasite is a splendidly anarchic dark comedy about social divides and love of money.

As dirt-poor Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song – Snowpiercer, The Age of Shadows) and his family struggle to survive, an opportunity for his son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi – Okja, Train to Busan), to teach English at the wealthy Parks’ home leads to a scam that goes tragically wrong.

Director Joon-ho Bong (Okja, Snowpiercer) mixes humour, slapstick, drama, gore and suspense to masterful effect in his love of sociopolitical commentaries (Snowpiercer, anyone?) ably supported by a cast that excels.

Rating: 80%

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‘Burning’

A riveting slow burner from Korean director Chang-dong Lee (Poetry, Secret Sunshine), Burning evolves, on the surface at least, from a romance story into a metaphysical thriller.

The dow-eyed, stoical Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo – The Throne, Veteran) bumps into Haemi (newcomer Jong-seo Jun), a former school classmate, in the streets of Seoul. Spending time between the city and the impoverished family farm, Lee Jong-su becomes drawn into a menage a trois with Haemi and the wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun – Okja, TV’s The Walking Dead), an enigmatic playboy.

Adapted and expanded from a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning is a powerful psychological portrait with its distorted perceptions, building up to a shocking finale that it tragic but not wholly unexpected.

Rating; 81%

‘Hotel Mumbai’

The harrowing events of the coordinated terrorist attack on multiple targets across Mumbai in 2008 form the basis of Anthony Maras’ feature film debut.

The luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, where terrorists controlled the corridors for four days killing more than 30 people, was the highest profile target. And it is here that Maras focuses his occasionally gripping, predominantly bland, factional telling. Like many disaster films of old with large casts, it’s the lack of characterisation that’s the problem. Dev Patel (Lion, Slumdog Millionaire) as staff member Arjun is the film’s mainstay but with Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi and Carmen Duncan as guests, their stories need to be told – along with time spent with the (admittedly gripping) rampaging terrorists stalking the hotel.

Hotel Mumbai certainly has its moments, but in terms of a tribute to victims and survivors, it falls somewhat short as excess of killings and violence outweigh any attempt at a message.

Rating: 53%

Best of Year (2018 – Film)

The final list of the year – the top 10 films, and, to my mind, it’s something of a stunner, with non-English language films dominant. And just failing to make the top 10 were a number of much praised indie films – including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, The Florida Project and Lean on Pete. Last year’s Oscar winner for best film, The Shape of Water, just missed out on the top 10, as did my only animation for the year, Isle of Dogs.

My top 10 films of the year:
10: The Rider
9: BPM (Beats Per Minute)
8: Loveless
7: 1945
6: The Favourite
5: Roma
4: Custody
3: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
2: Shoplifters
1: Foxtrot

The final film I saw at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival slipped into 10th spot – an intense indie film of bravura performances beautifully controlled by director Chloe Zhao.

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (essentially the runner up for the Palme d’Or), BPM is a powerful, lyrical, emotional narrative that resonates on a much wider political level than its ACT UP AIDS awareness setting.

In Loveless, director Andrey Zvyagintsev continues to comment on contemporary Russian society as a Leningrad couple look to divorce. Their 12 year-old son, caught in the vindictive and argumentative maelstrom, disappears in the stark yet rivetingly sincere feature from the director who is responsible for the equally devastating Leviathan.

In seventh spot, a film that was completely under the radar and barely received commercial distribution. But this black and white story of two Jews returning to a small Hungarian village days after the end of World War II is a picaresque narrative of startling beauty and powerful commentary.

One of the favourites in the current Oscar race, The Favourite is a ribald delight as the English court of Queen Anne is the setting for the locking of horns by three women in an attempt to win the royal favour.

Another Oscar favourite (and odds-on to win the foreign language film nod) is another black and white beauty. Roma by Alfonso Cuaron is the gorgeously shot year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a middle-class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s.

Devastating and disturbing, debut director Xavier Legrand’s claustrophobic tour de force is no easy watch, but with superb performances from a relatively small cast, Custody is heart-wrenching in its pain, fear and anger.

The runner-up for best film of the year is Shoplifters, the Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

But my favourite film of 2018 is the Israeli film, Foxtrot, a sublime mix of intense drama interspersed with flashes of surreal brilliance. It’s bold, it’s imaginative, it’s powerful – an appropriate follow-up from director Samuel Maoz and his visceral debut feature film, Lebanon.

‘Boy Erased’

Adapted for the screen by director Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Boy Erased is a poignant and heartfelt family drama as Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the SeaLady Bird), the son of a Baptist preacher, is forced to attend a church sponsored gay conversion therapy program.

Aided by superb performances from Hedges and Nicole Kidman (Lion, Moulin Rouge) and Russell Crowe (Gladiator, The Nice Guys) as his conflicted parents, Boy Erased is a confronting true story of a 19 year-old college student struggling to find himself whilst everything around him crumbles.

Respectful to his subject (including the parents), Edgerton treads possibly a little to cautiously in the telling of what is, essentially, abuse. But, like the recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased remains a damning indictment of the program.

Rating: 70%

‘Shoplifters’

An alternative family unit eking out a living in contemporary Japan through poorly paid contract work, shoplifting and bucking the system. Yet their compassion is such they take in a young girl found outside in the cold of winter.

The Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father Like Son, I Wish).

A faultless cast (four adults, two children), a beautifully modulated script and unobtrusive direction allows the narrative to unfold to its devastating conclusion. Shoplifters is a charming gut-wrencher of a film – and one of the year’s best.

Rating: 88%

‘West of Sunshine’

west of sunshineDesperation rears its ugly head as Damian Hill (Pawno, The Death & Life of Otto Bloom) juggles work, a gambling addiction, a $15,000 debt payable to a loan-shark by close of business and a day to be spent with his adolescent son.

It’s a small, warm-hearted feature from first-time feature filmmaker, Jason Raftopoulos, shot in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, with the focus on Hill and real-life stepson Tyler Perham. Whilst West of Sunshine would have benefitted from a harder look at gambling addiction and the impact it has on family and friends, the film is ultimately an intimate exploration of fatherhood.

Rating: 59%

‘Ash Is Purest White’

Ash_Is_Purest_WhiteIn spite of a powerful central female protagonist in Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart, Shun Li and the Poet), director Zhangke Jia (PickpocketMountains May Depart) and his latest film is a fascinating but odd misfire.

A woman used: Tao Zhao spends time in prison for her man, small-time gang leader, Fan Liao (Black Coal Thin Ice, The Master). Only there’s no sign of him on her release. She sets out to to find him.

A romantic tragedy, Ash Is Purest White is a mix of gritty social realism (when it is at its best) and surreal strangeness (mass shadow dancing in the town square to Village People’s YMCA). Zhangke Jia explores how everyday people were affected by major political and cultural changes in China 20 years ago at the the turn of the century in his films – and Ash Is Purest White continues that exploration.

Rating: 40%

Screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Brothers’ Nest’

brothersnestposterReal life brothers Shane and Clayton Jacobson team up to present an enormously entertaining family murder dramedy.

Things are just not going right for the brothers. The wife has left the not-so-bright Terry (Shane Jacobson – Kenny, The Bourne Affair), taking the kids with her whilst the older, more controlling Jeff (Clayton Jacobson – Animal Kingdom, Just Between Us) has lost his job – again. Now mum has months to live and their stepfather is threatening to sell the family home and move back to Queensland. But Jeff has a plan.

A slow beginning (just the two bickering brothers) evolves into a gloriously dark, mordant comedy, beautifully contained within the confines of an isolated weatherboard farmhouse.

Rating: 62%

‘Cargo’

cargoposterThe ‘Z’ word may not be mentioned, but enjoyable Australian film Cargo firmly falls into the zombie-horror genre, but with more than a little social commentary.

With suggestions of fracking and other environmental abuses the cause of the epidemic that has decimated the country, Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Black Panther) searches the outback for someone to look after his baby daughter.

Developed from a seven minute short by directors Yolande Ramke and Ben Howling (both making their feature film debut), whilst Cargo is occasionally plot and dialogue creaky, Freeman instils an engaging level of pathos to proceedings. And the final minutes are stirring and moving.

Rating: 61%