Best of Year (2017) – Film

moonlight-poster-lgA very good year but not quite vintage. There were quite a few films that fell into the 70-80% bracket (including the best Australian film, Lion, and best animated feature, Loving Vincent) but 12 films comfortably headed the list, with the top three significantly clear of the rest of the field.

My top 10 films of the year (God’s Own Country and the best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, just missed out) are:

10: Detroit
9: The Salesman
8: The King’s Choice
7: Land of Mine
6: Baby Driver
5: Blade Runner 2049
4: Insyriated
3: Manchester by the Sea
2: Dunkirk
1: Moonlight

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a distressing powerhouse, an immersive experience of police brutality and racism during the 1967 riots. The film boasted an excellent ensemble cast although I singled out Will Poulter as the police officer in charge in my top five male performances of the year.

The second film by director Asghar Fahardi to win the Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar (the first was the magnificent A Separation), The Salesman is a surprisingly quiet narrative as a teacher looks to discover the identity of the person who assaulted his wife in their new home.

Based on historical fact, King Haakon VII of Norway is forced to make a decision that will impact on his country and millions of lives. It’s April 1940 and Nazi Germany has invaded under the pretext of protection from aggressive Allied Forces. The King’s Choice is whether to accept their protection – or declare war.

2017 was a good year for Scandinavian films – the Danish Land of Mine also features in the top 10 as young German POWs are forced to clear the land mines from the beaches immediately following the end of World War II.

An unexpectedly huge box-office hit, Baby Driver with Ansel Elgort as the ubercool getaway driver, is entertaining with a capital ‘e’ with a blast of a soundtrack. But following accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, Baby Driver could well be the last time we see Kevin Spacey on the big screen.

The original was one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Thirty years later a sequel was finally released – and its one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Blade Runner 2049 – thanks to its director Denis Villeneuve and the superb cinematography of veteran Roger Deakins – is a cerebral spectacle and makes my top five films of the year.

The shattering Lebanese/Belgian Insyriated is in fourth. My pick of films seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival, headed by Hiam Abbass (the female performance of the year), the claustrophobic drama finds a middle-class Syrian family (and a couple of neighbours) holed up in their Damascus apartment as civil war rages around the streets.

Casey Affleck may well have won all the awards (including my vote for best actor of the year), but the cast and creatives of Manchester by the Sea certainly picked up their own accolades. Emotionally destroyed by tragedy, Affleck returns to his hometown following the death of his older brother where he needs to face his demons to find closure.

Visually stunning, Dunkirk is a film of few words with its emotional sweep and visceral beauty and a jigsaw of narratives, separate but creating a cohesive whole as 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers are rescued from the beaches of northern France.

But top of my list – and Oscar winner for best film – is Moonlight. Yet another indie ensemble piece (it was a good year!), small in scale, ambitious in scope, Moonlight is a minor masterpiece, pure melancholic poetry. What a turn up for the books when it beat La La Land to best film!

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Best of Year (2017) – Female Performance

artworks-000241909670-zi4ra4-t500x500It’s list time! A review of films released/screened in Australia in 2017. And first off is female performance.

The year is reportedly a strong one for female roles but that’s based on films released in the States in readiness for Oscar and/or Golden Globe glory. In Australia, it’s been a so-so year with only a handful of obvious performances to make the list. My main quandary was the order of the top two.

So my top five performances by a female in 2017 were:

5: Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth)
4: Viola Davis (Fences)
3: Ruth Nega (Loving)
2: Sally Hawkins (Maudie)
1: Hiam Abbass (Insyriated)

Relative newcomer Florence Pugh was a revelation in the spare, minimalist Lady MacBeth, the tale of a young woman sold into an oppressive marriage in 19th century England. Initially (although reluctantly) accepting her lot in life, the story becomes progressively sinister, with Pugh firmly at the centre of the scheming.

Viola Davis is a powerhouse of an actress and her Oscar-winning performance in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1950s set family drama, Fences, is a dream. It’s the performances that carry the day (Denzel Washington plays Davis’ husband) as the film cannot shake-off its stage origins.

Understated and nuanced, Ruth Nega is quietly impressive in Loving, based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the dirt poor couple whose mixed-race marriage broke all the rules on the statutes and led to changes in the law via the US Supreme Court.

My top two are potentially interchangeable. Both actresses were the central character in their respective films – and both were charismatic and beguiling in their own way.

Sally Hawkins is one of the most extraordinary actresses working today (and will likely feature in next year’s list with her acclaimed role in The Shape of Water): she was sensational in Maudie. If it wasn’t for The Shape of Water, Hawkins would likely be appearing in any number of ‘best of’ lists for the year, although the indie-feature, a fine character study with superb performances, loses its way as a narrative.

But year’s best performance belongs, to my mimd, to Hiam Abbass in the claustrophobic feature, Insyriated. Sadly unreleased commercially in Australia, the Belgian/Lebanese film was my personal highlight of the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival.

A middle-class Syrian family is barricaded in their second-floor Damascus apartment as the civil war rages around them. A deeply impressive Hiam Abbass controls the household – and a film that is devastatingly direct in highlighting the impact of war.

 

 

‘The Dancer’

The-Dancer-posterLittle remembered Loie Fuller, toast of fin de siecle Folies Bergere, finds herself dealing with a very ambitious young American dancer – Isadora Duncan.

Some of the choreography (lots of diaphanous fabric, mirrors, clever lighting and Vivaldi played loud) is showily spectacular, innovative for its time. But overall the episodic biopic is strangely unengaging with a lack of clarity of events creating a somewhat incoherent storyline.

Soko (Augustine, In the Beginning) toughs it out as Loie whilst Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp (Planetarium, Tusk) is suitably ethereal (with a streak of malicious ambition) as Isadora.

Rating: 43%

‘Insyriated’

2017_Panorama_INSYRIATED_02_286Intense, claustrophobic, gripping – a middle-class Syrian family are barricaded in their second-floor Damascus apartment as the civil war rages around them.

Every sound and movement outside the apartment is enough to cause panic. With her husband unreachable somewhere in the city,  a deeply impressive Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, The Visitor) controls the household, consisting of her three children, father-in-law, the boyfriend of one of the daughters, the maid and a young couple with their baby, displaced from a top floor apartment in the building.

Director Philippe Van Leeuw (The Day God Walked Away) poses pertinent questions in light of extreme situations and limitations of reason and emotion as the family look to survive.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 83%

‘Marguerite’

getmovieposter_margueriteExtraordinarily, Marguerite is a second film based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (see previous posting here), dubbed ‘the worst singer in the world.’

This French version  is ‘inspired’ by true events and takes considerable liberties. A wealthy French comtesse in the 1920s, Marguerite Dumont is certainly a terrible singer surrounded by sycophants and hypocrites. And a misconceived public recital leads to her death. But that’s about it in terms of following the life of the heiress and the plot of the ‘other’ film.

Directed by Xavier Giannoli (The Singer, In the Beginning), Marguerite is placed in the context of the emerging Dadaist art movement, lauded by some, abhorred by the establishment of which she is a part. Her obsession, bordering on madness, is superbly realised by award-winning Catherine Frot (The Page Turner, Haute Cuisine), oblivious as she is to the mutterings of her ‘friends’ to her off-key voice.

Marguerite is a celebration of the music beloved by the comtesse. She may murder it, but others around her do not. The film itself outstays its welcome and slips dangerously close to farce towards the end, but its sumptuous telling of the story and superb performances outstrip anything offered up its ‘competition’.

Rating: 63% 

‘Madame Bovary’

madame_bovary_xlgStilted and stagey with no natural flow of rhythm or narrative realism. Emma Bovary may well have been in a stultifying marriage but it did not mean we had to sit through a stultifying film.

In spite of a powerful cast, including Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are Alright), Paul Giametti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) and Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spiderman, Anonymous), Madame Bovary is a major disappointment.

Rating: 46%

‘Two Days, One Night’

fid13933A superior slice of ‘everyday experience’, Two Days, One Night draws us into the debate unfolding on the screen. It’s another feather in the cap of the Belgian auteurs, the Dardenne Brothers, whose trademark exploration of social conscience results in natural and unsentimental features.

Given a weekend to save her job rather than a bonus payment to the 16-strong workforce, Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Midnight in Paris) once again gives a powerfully convincing central performance.

Rating: 71%