‘Vice’

More engrossing and informative than entertaining, director Adam McKay (The Big Short, The Other Guys) and his latest political exploration will leave you dumbfounded by the manipulation of power by former Vice President, Dick Cheney (a transformed Christian Bale – The Dark Knight, The Big Short).

From the Nixon years through to the George W Bush presidency 40 years later, Cheney and wife Lynne (Amy Adams – Arrival, Doubt) sought power as he became intern, analyst, chief-of-staff at the White House, senator, secretary of defence, VP. Arch conservative, Cheney is regarded as the eminence gris behind Bush and the tenuous reasonings in the invasion of Iraq and the US’s extreme policies of its war on terror.

It’s a fascinating insight – biting satire and a true acting masterclass that, outside the Cheneys, includes Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry – even an uncredited Naomi Watts. No surprise Bale won a Golden Globe and the film has received eight Oscar nominations.

Rating: 71%

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‘Loro’

Bombastic, MTV-style telling of the life and times of scandal-plagued Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi (Toni Servillo – The Great Beauty, Consequences of Love) or at least a period in his career as his marriage to second wife Veronica fractures.

Nudity, raucous poolside parties, coke-snorting bacchanalia is the order of the day as director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, TV’s The Young Pope) controversially speculates on what may or may not have taken place behind both political and private closed doors as characters attempt to win the favour of the billionaire politician.

The Fellini-esque excess of debauchery, sex and depictions of unfettered wealth grate and ultimately bore – even if, unlike it’s two part release in Italy, the 150 minute international version switches at the halfway stage to a more in-depth, serious exploration of the corruption of power and money.

Sadly, too little too late – I’d switched off caring before then as Sorrentino delivers, once more, artifice rather than depth.

Rating: 34%

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%

‘Peterloo’

Award-winning director Mike Leigh (Mr Turner, Happy-Go-Lucky) makes a rare foray into period drama, choosing to focus on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.

It begins in rhetoric, shifts from a drawn-out history lesson and ends in violence as the government of the day uses the troops against the people, a peaceful 100,000 strong pro-democracy rally in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. The result is the death of 18 demonstrators and hundreds more injured.

It’s an austere canvas, with talk the order of the day, both in the parlours and inns of the reformers and the offices of the ruling classes. But then, on the big day itself, Leigh releases the tight reins of dialogue and produces an immersive panic, claustrophobic in content as the yeomanry and cavalry run amok in the confinements of the rally.

A superb ensemble piece (with Maxine Peake – Funny Cow, The Theory of Everythinga standout ‘everywoman’) that is as current today as 1819 when austere taxation measures and policies were in place to keep power in the hands of the few.

Rating: 67%

‘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%

‘Beautiful Boy’

beautiful boyQuietly directed by Felix von Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Misfortunates), Beautiful Boy is a humane and deeply moving (true) story of drug addiction and father/son bond.

Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird) embodies the tragedy of addiction and wasted opportunity as his loving father, Steve Carell (Foxcatcher, The 40 Year-Old Virgin), is forced to dig deep to continue the emotional support so desperately needed.

The support cast is forced to take a back seat in what is essentially a two-hander. And, whilst a cycle of rehab, relapse, recovery results in the emotional impact lessening as the film progresses, the two leads are riveting in their performances.

Rating: 71%

‘Donbass’

donbassRaw and uncompromising, award-winning director Sergey Loznitsa, known for documentaries (Maidan) and social commentary features (A Gentle Creature), draws together a montage of several unrelated stories and events in a war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Moments are disrupted by sudden mortar explosions, armed militia flag down a local bus in search of food, residents are forced to live in squalor in the basement of their apartment block to avoid shelling.

It’s oppressive but sadly all-too-familiar viewing as (Ukrainian) Loznitsa comments on Russian policy in their support of a war in the former Soviet State that’s disrupted the country since 2014. Individual vignettes are powerful but there’s little historical or political context provided to help understand exactly what is unfolding in front of us.

Rating: 51%

‘First Man’

first manIn spite of knowing the outcome of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and his taut telling of the historic moment teases out every thrill, tension and suspense.

Somber, claustrophobic and with a focus on the men and their families (a controlled, nuanced Ryan Gosling – La La Land, Drive – as Armstrong, a riveting, scene-stealing Claire Foy – Unsane, TV’s The Crown – as his wife, Janet), First Man is intimate and deeply humane. But it is also a technical tour de force, with particular reference to the editing by Tom Cross (La La Land, Whiplash), and a likely swag of behind-the-scenes Oscar nominations.

Rating: 68%