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!

Advertisements

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.

 

 

‘A Man of Integrity’

dregs_poster_goldposter_com_1.jpg@0o_0l_800w_80qAn honest yet downtrodden fish farmer (a quiet, nuanced performance by Reza Akhlaghirad in his film debut) fights corruption and injustice in rural Iran.

A Man of Integrity is a scathing critique of contemporary Iran (“you’re either oppressed or the oppressor”) as Reza looks for his family’s survival in the face of corporate expansion and control. Director Mohammad Rasoulof (Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Goodbye) teases out stoically naturalistic performances and a surprising tension from an age-old David and Goliath storyline.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 76%

‘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%

‘The Salesman’

SalesmanThe best film in a foreign language Oscar winner, The Salesman is a confident, assured piece of cinema.

Surprisingly low key and minimal, to label it a revenge thriller would be doing Asghar Fahardi (A Separation, The Past) a disservice. Yet Shahab Hosseini (A Separation, About Elly) is determined to discover the identity of the man who assaulted his wife (a superbly resigned Taraneh Alidoosti – Modest Reception, About Elly) in their own home.

As with the magnificent A Separation, Fahardi builds the tension (without overly altering the pace) primarily through words, leaving you somewhat breathless as the narrative builds towards its compelling finale.

Rating: 81%

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.

‘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%

‘A Girl Walks Home at Night’

A-girl-walks-home-posterSo few surprises at the Oscars that hardly worth pausing to mention (although delighted for Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne and J.K.Simmons).

So on with the everyday – not that A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is what I would describe as an everyday feature. It’s probably (almost certainly) the first b/w Iranian vampire feature directed by a woman: throw into the mix the fact that whilst filmed in Farsi, locations were California…. That alone would make it seeing.

And it’s certainly interesting. Not sure I would go as overboard as some critics have (“a new vampire classic” – The Playlist) – beguiling is more appropriate. The feature-length debut by award-winning director Ana Lily Amirpour (shorts True Love, A Little Suicide) of taking itself a little too artily seriously at times – longeurs of nothingness in semi-lit streets. But you certainly get drawn in.

Rating: 58%

‘The Green Prince’

Green-PrinceWe oft hear that truth is stranger than fiction – and this powerful Israeli documentary certainly highlights the point.

A young Palestinian, Mosab Hassan Yousef was the star informer between 1999 and 2007 for Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. During that time he provided intelligence that thwarted dozens of suicide bombings and assassination attempts. The reason for his ‘regal’ position was that Yousef was the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas, sworn enemies of the State of Israel.

It’s an extraordinary tale that makes for an engrossing film (directed by Nadav Schirman), presented as it is as a tense psychological thriller that recounts the story of the prized informant and the Shin Bet agent who risked his career to protect him.

Rating: 71%