the13th_27x40_1sheetThe thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude – except as punishment for a crime. The stirring documentary 13th explores how, since the abolition, crime enforcement has perpetuated a link to modern day slavery and social inequity.

A hugely disproportionate number of black males are incarcerated in US prisons, many the result of the policies of US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton along with sentences handed out to black offenders as opposed to white. Statistics show a white male has a 1 in 17 chance of being imprisoned sometime during his life: for a black male this statistic is 1:3.

Director Ava DuVernay (Selma, Middle of Nowhere) explores the results of these policies alongside historically restrictive laws and practices in an Oscar-nominated documentary that ought to be mandatory viewing (particularly in the US).

Rating: 79%

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.


francofonia_posterThe visual feast that was Russian Ark, director Aleksandr Sokurov ‘s homage to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, is sadly missing in Francofonia.

Purportedly the history of the Louvre during the Nazi occupation of Paris, it’s something of a schizophrenic  documentary, uncertain as it is of what exactly is its focus. The story of the French director, Jacques Jaujard who worked with Nazi Franz Wolff-Metternich to prevent the Louvre collection being sent to Germany is a story in itself (Sokurov choses an odd re-enactment of pregnant pauses and furtive glances). But mixed in there is a superficial positioning of the Louvre itself and its collection (cue Napoleon) along with a meditation to the meaning of art. Result is Francofonia misses on all fronts.

Painfully dull.

Rating: 48%

‘Bill Cunningham New York’

Layout 1Finally caught up with this fabulous Richard Press directed  documentary, released in Australia back in 2012.

Photographer Bill worked the streets of Manhattan snapping his pics of New York couture for his The New York Times columns. In spite of his $40 workers jackets, bicycle clips and sellotaped waterproofs, Bill could access any runway in the city or fashion week in Paris – and usually front row. Surrounded by glamour, he was at his most comfortable in $3 sandwich shops.

Singularly dedicated to his art, this charismatic man plied his art for more than 40 years. He died in June 2016 at the age of 87.

Rating: 76%

‘Mr Gaga’

a1e0a2_48b07cbe9db5431bb73e2015d9921b86A fascinating biopic of the genius that is Ohad Naharin, one of the world’s most important choreographers and artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Co.

With the occasional input from other collaborators, early footage of childhood on the kibbutz and 80s archival footage dancing in New York, director Tomer Heymann (Paper Dolls, It Kinda Scares Me) wisely recognises the charm of Naharin himself speaks volumes. Intimate and insightful, its the celebration of the dance itself that makes Mr Gaga a truly glorious documentary.

Rating: 78%

‘Chasing Asylum’

Chasing-Asylum-PosterAustralia has some of the toughest policies in the world on refugees seeking to settle in ‘The Lucky Country’ – in spite of being a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention (which successive governments since John Howard’s ‘stop the boats’ campaign have thoroughly and repeatedly breached).

Oscar-winning producer and director Eva Orner (Taxi to the Dark Side) is herself a first generation Australian who lost three of her Polish Jewish grandparents to the Holocaust. And her latest documentary is an unapologetically passionate piece of agitprop. Chasing Asylum exposes the real impact of Australia’s offshore detention policies: it features never before seen footage from inside Australia’s offshore detention camps and the inhumane unsanitary conditions hidden from media scrutiny.

It’s a powerful and disturbing documentary – but which, sadly, will probably only be seen by the converted.

Rating: 70%

‘Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures’

46240A no holes barred look at the life and work of controversial American artist Robert Mapplethorpe, from childhood to a tragic early death from AIDS at the age of 42.

His imagery is as much iconic as it is provocative, his focus, ambition and determination as an artist unwavering.  Interestingly, Mapplethorpe became interested in photography almost be default.

Like so many biographical documentaries, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Inside Deep Throat) try to cover too much and, surprisingly considering the subject, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is a remarkably straight-laced film. But it still provides a candid insight into the man and his time, with interviews with the likes of Debbie Harry, Fran Leibowitz, Brook Shields as well as former lovers and family members.

Rating: 68%

‘The First Monday in May’

first-monday-in-may-lgThe Metropolitan Museum’s fundraising gala for the Costume Institute takes place on the first Monday in May – and director Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) obtained a much desired fly-on-the-wall spot to film behind the scenes.

It’s curator Andrew Bolton’s gig, but it’s very much Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s party. The theme for 2015 – China: Through The Looking Glass – takes over more than the usual basement galleries dedicated to fashion. But then raising $12 million for the institute tends to speak volumes!

As a documentary it tries to cover too much (and therefore covers little) but The First Monday in May remains an enthralling peak into the preparations for a gig where the tickets are $25,000 each…

Rating: 67%

‘Where to Invade Next’

where-to-invade-next-posterThe usual bombast from filmmaker Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) results in yet another generally enthralling documentary.

This is not an expose of American strategic military plans. Instead, Moore invades (mostly) European countries to colonise the best of social welfare programmes and civil rights to take back to the US.

He may have mellowed over the years and the planting of the Stars and Stripes after each ‘policy’ errs on the side of patronising, but in discussing Portugal’s successful war on drugs or the democratic fight for the rights of women in Tunisia, Moore has created another thought-provoking and engaging documentary.

Rating: 61%



Sherpa-347357340-largeIt’s a heartfelt tribute to those frequently forgotten – the Sherpas who do all the dangerous behind-the-scenes work to facilitate the wealthy mountaineers fulfil their dream of conquering the world’s tallest mountain.

Inevitably, Sherpa is awe-inspiring. How could it not be in one of the most dramatically beautiful places on earth? But it also has a story to tell and the daily dangers confronted by the guides. They traverse potentially lethal ice fields 20-30 times in one trip as they move supplies up and down the mountain (the ‘clients’ do it twice). But Sherpa was being filmed in April 2014 – on 18 April, a 14,000 ton ice block sheared away from the mountain, killing 16 Sherpas.

Australian director Jennifer Peedom (Miracle on Everest) revisits the Himalayas to see what is now a mass industry from the Sherpa perspective. It pulls no punches and firmly wears its heart on its sleeve. But, in doing so, Sherpa adopts a strangely singular mesmeric pace. The result is a moving story that becomes blandly told.

Rating: 51%