‘Capernaum’

A compassionate tour-de-force set in post-Civil War Lebanon, Capernaum is a narrative of lost hope, poverty and sorrow. With its mostly non-professional cast, it’s a raw and emotional telling.

Twelve year-old Zain, serving five years imprisonment for attacking his brother-in-law, sues his parents for a lifetime of neglect. It’s a tragic story of a sassy, streetwise survivor and the people he meets – Ethiopian migrant worker Rahil in particular.

Zain al-Rafeea as the boy is extraordinary and his relationship with Rahil (Yordonas Shiferaw) and her baby son is absorbing and deeply moving. It’s no wonder the film received a 15-minute standing ovation at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival (and collected the Grand Jury Prize). It also won the Audience Award at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival.

In only her third feature, writer/director Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) is proving to be one of the most consistent filmmakers in the Middle East.

Rating: 88%

Advertisements

Best of Year (2018 – Film)

The final list of the year – the top 10 films, and, to my mind, it’s something of a stunner, with non-English language films dominant. And just failing to make the top 10 were a number of much praised indie films – including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, The Florida Project and Lean on Pete. Last year’s Oscar winner for best film, The Shape of Water, just missed out on the top 10, as did my only animation for the year, Isle of Dogs.

My top 10 films of the year:
10: The Rider
9: BPM (Beats Per Minute)
8: Loveless
7: 1945
6: The Favourite
5: Roma
4: Custody
3: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
2: Shoplifters
1: Foxtrot

The final film I saw at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival slipped into 10th spot – an intense indie film of bravura performances beautifully controlled by director Chloe Zhao.

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (essentially the runner up for the Palme d’Or), BPM is a powerful, lyrical, emotional narrative that resonates on a much wider political level than its ACT UP AIDS awareness setting.

In Loveless, director Andrey Zvyagintsev continues to comment on contemporary Russian society as a Leningrad couple look to divorce. Their 12 year-old son, caught in the vindictive and argumentative maelstrom, disappears in the stark yet rivetingly sincere feature from the director who is responsible for the equally devastating Leviathan.

In seventh spot, a film that was completely under the radar and barely received commercial distribution. But this black and white story of two Jews returning to a small Hungarian village days after the end of World War II is a picaresque narrative of startling beauty and powerful commentary.

One of the favourites in the current Oscar race, The Favourite is a ribald delight as the English court of Queen Anne is the setting for the locking of horns by three women in an attempt to win the royal favour.

Another Oscar favourite (and odds-on to win the foreign language film nod) is another black and white beauty. Roma by Alfonso Cuaron is the gorgeously shot year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a middle-class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s.

Devastating and disturbing, debut director Xavier Legrand’s claustrophobic tour de force is no easy watch, but with superb performances from a relatively small cast, Custody is heart-wrenching in its pain, fear and anger.

The runner-up for best film of the year is Shoplifters, the Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

But my favourite film of 2018 is the Israeli film, Foxtrot, a sublime mix of intense drama interspersed with flashes of surreal brilliance. It’s bold, it’s imaginative, it’s powerful – an appropriate follow-up from director Samuel Maoz and his visceral debut feature film, Lebanon.

‘The Insult’

The_Insult_(film)Proving that nothing in the Middle East is straightforward, writer/director Ziad Doueiri (The Attack, Lila Says) has produced a powerful feature where a Lebanese Christian (an angry Adel Karam – Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) takes a Palestinian refugee (a quietly nuanced Kamel el Basha – Love, Theft and Other Entanglements) to court for assault.

It’s highly political as what starts as a seemingly minor issue escalates as memories of events from the civil war come to the fore. It may lack subtly in its telling and is a tad overlong but The Insult remains an enthralling insight into conflict and potential reconciliation.

The Insult was nominated for the 2017 Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar (it lost out to Chile’s A Fantastic Woman).

Rating: 76%

‘Ava’

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

‘Wajib’

wajibThe Palestinian custom of hand-delivering wedding invitations leads to estranged father and son reconnecting as Shadi (Saleh Bakri – Water, The Band’s Visit) returns from life in Italy to support his father in the arrangements for his sister’s wedding.

Modest and understated, real life father (Mohammad Bakri – American Assassin, Water) and son drive the streets of Nazareth in northern Israel, sitting side by side. Extended family, friends – even the occasional Israeli – make brief appearances to drive the narrative (and gentle humour) forward but Wajib is essentially the interactions of two leads, their clashes of values, politics – even Shadi’s wardrobe.

A slice of everyday, of life of Christian Arabs living in Israel, of Palestinian customs,  Majib (directed by Annemarie Jacir – When I Saw You, Salt of This Sea) is as much a film about relationships and generational expectations as it is a political commentary on Israeli/Palestinian co-existence.

Rating: 71%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Foxtrot’

Layout 1A sublime mix of intense drama interspersed with flashes of surreal brilliance, the latest from writer/director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) is bold, sombre and shot through with occasional wit.

A split narrative spread over a few days where a grieving Tel Aviv couple (Lior Ashkenazi – Footnote, Late Marriage – and Sarah Adler, The Cakemaker, Jelly Fish) come to terms with the death of their son in the line of duty as the drama at the isolated military outpost where he was stationed unfolds.

Superb performances along with poignant, claustrophobic close-ups, sparse dialogue and poetic imagery all combine to create an emotionally gripping film of devastating subtlety.

Rating: 90%

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!

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%