‘The Sisters Brothers’

An easy going western as famed sharpshooting assassins the Sisters Brothers are dispatched to the Californian goldfields by the Commodore to deal with one Herman Kermit Warn.

Patrick deWitt’s award-winning The Sisters Brothers is a gripping, darkly funny and wholly compelling novel. Condensing the sprawling nature of the brothers journey from Oregon in its adaptation for screen, Jacques Audiard (Rust & Bone, A Prophet) cuts to the chase, with brothers Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Walk the Line) and John C Reilly (Stan & Ollie, Chicago) quickly catching up with Warn (Riz Ahmed – Venom, The Reluctant Fundamentalist). But not everything is what it seems – resulting in the boys reconsidering their long term prospects.

There’s a great deal lost in translation from page to screen – in particular Eli’s moral and ethical rumination of life as a gunslinger. But, in his first English language feature, Audiard has captured the boisterous, humorous gung-ho of the genre, supported by a great cast and, albeit foreshortened, an offbeat and garrulous storyline.

Rating; 72%

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‘If Beale St Could Talk’

The central love story is beautifully captured by writer/director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine For Melancholy) as newcomer KiKi Layne and Stephan James (Race, Selma) struggle with poverty and racism in 1970s New York. But pregnancy along with a false accusation of rape and imprisonment puts a strain on their relationship – in spite of support from her parents.

Adapted from James Baldwin’s seminal novel of the same name, it’s a poetic and stirring slow build. But it falls short of greatness – the stilted support roles and occasional slippage into indulgent arthouse cinematography fails to gel into a flowing narrative. A little more on the supportive parents (Oscar-nominated Regina King – Miss Congeniality 2, Ray – and Colman Domingo – The Birth of a Nation, The Butler) would have provided a welcome balance.

Rating: 74%

‘The Hate U Give’

It may slip into saccharine-sweet naiveté occasionally in terms of a commentary on racism in contemporary America, but The Hate U Give is nevertheless powerful and accessible.

High school student Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds, The Hunger Games) witnesses the fatal shooting of childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith – Detroit, Earth to Echo) by a white cop – and now faces the public consequences of expectations placed on her to do the right thing for justice.

A fine balance between coming-of-age and social commentary, director George Tillman Jnr (Faster, Notorious) may tie up all the loose ends a little too neatly, but The Hate U Give is a superior YA storyline that strives to be relevant and informative.

Rating: 73%

‘Dumplin’

Predictable yet heartwarming, overweight teenager Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$, Lady Bird) mourns the death of her beloved live-in aunt – and, in her memory, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest.

It’s a fun ride with an edge as mom, Jennifer Anniston (Cake, We’re the Millers) finds herself dealing with an escalation of tradition, a group of Dolly Parton drag queens and a better understanding of her own daughter.

Director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal) generally takes the middle road in a narrative that is smart and funny with more than a little melancholic sadness. The result is an engaging, predictable entertainment – more than helped by that Dolly Parton soundtrack!

A Netflix original.

Rating: 59%

Best of Year (2018 – Male Performance)

To be honest, on a personal note, 2018 was not a vintage year for standout male performances – with a couple of significant exceptions. There were a lot of ‘good’ performances (Charlie Plummer – Lean on Pete; Brady Jandreau – The Rider; Timothy Spall – The Party; Richard E Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Aleksey Rozin – LovelessWillem Defoe: The Florida Project) that in a quiet way added to the impact or narrative of the film. But for this list of five, I was looking for something more memorable (Defoe, incidentally, came sixth on my list).

My personal top five male performances for films released in Australia in 2018:
5: Nahuel Perez Biscayart: BPM
4: Sam Rockwell: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
3: Timothée Chalamet: Call Me By Your Name
2: Denis Menochet: Custody
1: Gary Oldman: Darkest Hour

In spite of its politics, the gay activist film BPM, set in Paris in the 90s, evolved into a tender love story with Biscayart an AIDS patient determined to raise the awareness of the disease to an intransigent general population.

Winner of the 2018 Oscar for best supporting actor, Rockwell is a personal favourite and he finally gained critical and awards attention for his role as the way-off-kilter cop in Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also saw Frances McDormand collect her second best actress Oscar.

It was a good year for French-Canadian Timothée Chalamet. Already touted as one of the best of his generation, the year saw the 23 year-old star in the Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, gain a 2019 Golden Globe nomination for Beautiful Boy (and which may gain him an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category) and found himself nominated at the 2018 Oscars for best actor in Call Me By Your Name, where, as Elio, Chalamet is pitch-perfect in capturing the nervousness of first love.

Custody is a devastating French film of domestic abuse and power – and as the estranged father, Denis Menochet is truly terrifying in this slow build of a feature by debut director, Xavier Legrand.

But it’s 2018 best actor Oscar winner Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour who carries the honours for me. A towering performance of a bigger-than-life man as the British prime minister bullies and cajoles colleagues and opponents alike at the onset of war with Nazi Germany.

‘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%

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

In spite of acclaim for her celebrity biographies, the irascible Lee Israel is best known for her fraudulent writing of some 400 letters by dead writers and celebrities to help pay the rent on her New York dive. 

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) explores the psychology of loneliness as an impoverished and out-of-fashion Israel finds solace in rudeness and alcohol.

As Lee, a nuanced Melissa McCarthy (Spy, Bridesmaids) is a revelation – all bitterness, vulnerability and caustic wit. The chemistry between her and Richard E Grant (Withnail & I, Logan), user, partner-in-crime and drinking buddy, is sublime joy.

Rating: 78%

‘Lean on Pete’

Quiet, sensitive, compassionate – director Andrew Haigh’s (45 Years, Weekend) latest is a wistful evocation of displacement and desperation.

A drifting lifestyle (from Wyoming to Portland) according to where contract work for his father is available, 15 year-old Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World, King Jack) has no school and fills his days according to his whims. A chance meet with horse-trainer Steve Buscemi (Fargo, The Death of Stalin) leads to casual work and the befriending of the horse, Lean on Pete.

But when Pete is due to be sold off, Charlie has other ideas. And so begins an unfolding narrative that takes us to the heart of this hard-edged state-of-a-nation  observation with a raw, painfully honest performance from Plummer. 

Rating: 79%

‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot’

Left as a quadriplegic following a car accident, alcoholic John Callahan discovers an unknown talent in the art of satirical cartoons.

Raw yet charismatic, Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, The Master) is the perfect fit for the complexities of an angry, cynical, addictive personality shot through with wry humour.

It’s a meandering biopic from director Gus Van Sant (Milk, My Own Private Idaho) from Callanan’s early, heavy drinking days through to finding some kind of personal redemption via support from his AA sponsor, wealthy gay Christian, Jonah Hill (War Dogs, Moneyball). 

Rating: 62%

‘Widows’

WidowsWhat it lacks in tension, Widows more than makes up for in its depth of characterisation (no surprise there – it’s adapted (and directed) by Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) along with novelist Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).

A cerebral heist movie as four women, led by the indomitable Viola Davis (Fences, The Help), look to pay off the debt incurred by their dead husbands, killed in a shoot-out with the Chicago police. It’s tough, serious-minded – and feisty, with Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale) as a single-mom driver the stand out.

It’s slick, it’s current – and it’s unexpected.

Rating: 71%