Ava_(2017_Iranian_film)An Iranian teenage girl rebels against the expectations placed upon her by religion, society and culture.

A quiet, nuanced debut feature film from writer/director Sadaf Faroughi, a loosely autobiographical narrative, as a young and resolute Ava (Mahour Jabbari) navigates the pain and frustration of her restricted adolescence with a controlling mother (Bahar Noonian) and oppressive school environment.

A dark, unpredictable coming-of-age story and family drama that is universal in its themes but specific to its time and place. An Iranian/Canadian co-production, Ava was awarded the best debut feature at the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards and the FIPRESCI Discovery Award at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Rating: 74%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival


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.




maudie_xlgCanadian folk artist Maud Lewis is centre stage of director Aisling Walsh’s (Song for a Raggy Boy) heartfelt biopic.

Sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis from a young age, orphaned in her teenage years, living in penury, little changes after her (late) marriage to Everett. Misfits in their Nova Scotia community, living in a one-room hut on the edge of town, Maudie becomes a success as an artist.

Essentially a two hander, with Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Happy Go Lucky) in fine form, ably supported by Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Boyhood), Maudie is something of a mixed-bag – a fine character study with superb performances but which loses its way in uncertainty as to which story to tell.

Rating: 68%

Best of Year (2016) -Film

i-daniel-blakeAs mentioned in an earlier post, 2016 was not awash, in my opinion, with great films. Lots of good ones, a few that didn’t quite live up to expectations or some abject failures. Hence my top 10 for the year is noticeable by its lack of US ‘studio’ films and dominated by European ‘sensibility’. There’s little room for last year’s big critical darlings – only Spotlight making the cut from the Oscar nominated best films. No The Revenant or The Big Short (the latter sitting just outside the top 10).

To be honest, I was a little surprised by the way my list panned out – but it’s all based on my own percentage rating and rings true. ‘Story’ dominated – whilst I’m not averse to action and adventure, it’s the narrative that is all-important. So the indie productions are well-represented.

My top 10 films for the 2016:

10=: Captain Fantastic (Canada) w/Viggo Mortensen
Mr Gaga (Israeli documentary) dir/Tomer Heymann
7=:    The Hateful 8 (US) w/Samuel L. Jackson
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand) w/Sam Neill
The Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)
5=:    Spotlight (US) w/Michael Keaton
Hell or High Water (US) w/Chris Pine
4:      Indignation (US) w/Logan Lerman
3:      Nocturnal Animals (US) w/Amy Adams
2:      Mustang (Turkey/France)
1:      I, Daniel Blake (UK) dir/Ken Loach

Quiet, social commentary films are there in numbers – the devasting Ken Loach Cannes Palme d’Or winner, I Daniel Blake sitting atop the list as my favourite film of the year. That was a little unexpected knowing La La Land was my last film of 2016. Going by critical response, I anticipated the Damien Chazelle homage to Hollywood musicals of the 50s to be the film of the year. It was good – but not that good, as indicated by its failure to feature in my top 10.

Both Mustang and The Embrace of the Serpent were nominated for last year’s best foreign language film – but they lost out to the Hungarian Holocaust drama, Son of Saul. You can see my opinion (Son of Saul came in around 15th for the year on my selection). The other foreign language film on the list, Mr Gaga, is the superb documentary focussing on Israeli contemporary dance choreographer, Ohad Naharin.

Both Hell or High Water and Nocturnal Animals share the presence of a Texan sheriff as crucial to the storyline – the underrated Michael Shannon in Tom Ford’s elegant suspense feature and the show-stealing Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.

Disappointing not to see a local Australian film in the list but the Antipodes is represented by the most successful New Zealand film ever made – the irrepressible Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And its back-to-nature setting is mirrored by the alternative upbringing of the (large) Cash family in the Washington State wilderness of Captain Fantastic.

Best of Year (2016) – Male Performance

the_founderPersonally, 2016 was not awash with great films (or at least not yet released in Australia). And the same can be said about male performances. Drawing up the list was something of a struggle. There’s lots of good performances (Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, Ryan Reynolds and Deadpool, Viggo Mortensen as Captain Fantastic, Tom Hanks in Sully and Don Cheadle in his personal labour-of-love that was Miles Ahead) but few that were that one rung up the ladder.



But my top five male performances of 2016 are:

5: Leonardo di Caprio (The Revenant)
4: Geza Rohrig (Son of Saul)
3: Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
2: Dave Johns (I, Daniel Blake)
1: Michael Keaton (The Founder)

Keaton’s renaissance over the last couple of years continues (Spotlight, Birdman) although chances are he will be overlooked again for his less than flattering portrayal of Ray Croc, CEO of McDonalds.

Part-time actor Dave Johns is riveting – and completely carries Ken Loach’s latest deeply humane British social commentary, I Daniel Blake. Jeff Bridges is in the supporting role for Texan sheriff in Hell or High Water – more screen time may have elevated him higher on the list. Like Johns, Geza Rohrig is rarely off-screen in the Hungarian Holocaust Oscar-winner, Son of Saul. And last year’s Oscar winner for best actor, Leonardo di Caprio, makes my top five for his role in The Revenant – narrowly beating out Tom Hardy who starred alongside him.

The list would have undoubtedly looked very different if the Australian release schedule mirrored the US – Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Denzel Washington (Fences), Joel Edgerton (Loving), Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Dev Patel (Lion) could well have formed the top five.

‘The Witch’

THEWITCH_PAYOFF_WEB1We’re in Salem witchcraft country with The Witch, a visual success buoyed by excellent performances. But in its exploration of black magic, witchcraft and possession, the denouement lets down the genuinely menacing tone established early on.

A cast of six (two adults, four kids) hold the 1630s storyline well as the family’s own fears result in their faith questioned and lives ultimately unravel. Anna Taylor-Joy (Vampire Academy) as the eldest daughter and Ralph Ineson (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the father are standouts.

Oozing confidence, director Robert Eggers collected the 2015 Sundance Directing Award for his feature film debut.

Rating: 59%


11201971_oriBrooklyn is a classically constructed melodrama and something of a tearjerker, a real George Sirk (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows) Sunday afternoon matinee.

Like its Oscar competitor, Carol, Brooklyn is set in the 1950s and transports us to a very different world with its ‘old-fashioned’ social mores and values. Exploring love and a sense of home, it’s a universal story of belonging.

Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) brings an elegant poise to Eilis, torn between family in Ireland and a new life (and love) in New York. And with support from the likes of Jim Broadbent, Julie Waters, Jessica Pare and Fiona Glascott, the heartfelt love triangle between Eilis , Italian boy Tony (the unrecognisable Emory Cohen from The Place Beyond the Pines) and Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson – Ex-Machina, The Revenant) builds to its believable climax.

Rating: 67%



room-2015With the screenplay adapted by Emma Donaghue, the author of the best selling novel, Room was always likely to follow pretty closely the outline of the book. What surprised me was that, in many ways, its actually better.

The story of the bonding between mother and child (and not just Ma and Jack), Room is a film of two halves. The initial claustrophobic enforced captivity is followed by the world at large as seen through the eyes of five year-old Jack.

Structurally, the reworking has paid dividends – a key cinematic event takes place much later than in the book, which makes much more sense. But it’s the performances that are the standout – Brie Larson (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now) is exemplary and as a result likely to pick up the best actress Oscar. And, as Jack,  nine year-old Jacob Tremblay is astonishing.

Rating: 71%


20289458968_3935c4d72a_oFlat, emotionless, sexless. No sign whatsoever of the moody James Dean’s appeal that captured photographer Dennis Stock’s belief in him as a future star. (The film is set in the weeks leading up to the premiere of East of Eden in 1955.)

Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Kill Your Darlings) struggles and is unconvincing in playing one of the most iconic figures of a generation – and Robert Pattinson (Twilight, Water For Elephants) is only marginally better as the somewhat straight laced Stock.

A huge missed opportunity and major disappointment from director Anton Corbijn, responsible for the standout bio of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Control.

Rating: 39%


579120Mommy is the latest energetic, thrilling, powerfully performed coup-de-theatre from award-winning French-Canadian writer/director Xavier Dolan (Heartbeats, I Killed My Mother).

Original, funny, heartbreaking, Dolan is never afraid of shying away from what he wants to say – and he has a lot to say in a story of intense (single) mother love and her ADHD son, Steve.

Rating: 68%