‘Never Look Away’

A rambling, occasionally insightful and thoughtful but ultimately superficial exploration of art and life, Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author, a much more appropriate title) follows artist Kurt Barnert (loosely based on Gerhard Richter) from his Dresden childhood at the end of World War II, the social realism of the GDR to free expression in the west via the Dusseldorf Academy.

Haunted by the loss of his beloved young aunt under the Nazis, frustrated by the artistic restrictions of the east, confused in 1960s West Germany under the tutelage of a modernist professor (a thinly veiled fictional Joseph Beuys) and a bullying, interfering father-in-law, Barnert (Tom Schilling – Oh Boy, Crazy) plods on regardless. It’s all a bit of a slog (188 minutes!) that lacks the magic of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. But, having said that, Never Look Away remains readily watchable.

Rating: 54%

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‘Burning’

A riveting slow burner from Korean director Chang-dong Lee (Poetry, Secret Sunshine), Burning evolves, on the surface at least, from a romance story into a metaphysical thriller.

The dow-eyed, stoical Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo – The Throne, Veteran) bumps into Haemi (newcomer Jong-seo Jun), a former school classmate, in the streets of Seoul. Spending time between the city and the impoverished family farm, Lee Jong-su becomes drawn into a menage a trois with Haemi and the wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun – Okja, TV’s The Walking Dead), an enigmatic playboy.

Adapted and expanded from a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning is a powerful psychological portrait with its distorted perceptions, building up to a shocking finale that it tragic but not wholly unexpected.

Rating; 81%

‘Green Book’

A predictable and conventional crowd pleaser, Green Book is the commercial, liberal side of addressing racism – more Crash than any Spike Lee film.

An out-of-work nightclub bouncer in 1960s New York, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic, Lord of the Rings) reluctantly accepts a two-month driver’s position. Based on a true story, he’s to drive renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali – Moonlight, Hidden Figures) on a tour of the Deep South.

Diametric opposites clash – a physical, Bronx, racist Italian; a sophisticated, judgemental, academic Afro-American. But experiences in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama et al slowly bring respect and friendship.

More known for comedies than issue-based dramas, director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Hall Pass) tells a good story but falls short on that extra punch the film so desperately needed. Surprisingly, Green Book won both best film and best original screenplay Oscars. Less surprising was best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali.

Rating: 64%

‘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%

‘If Beale St Could Talk’

The central love story is beautifully captured by writer/director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine For Melancholy) as newcomer KiKi Layne and Stephan James (Race, Selma) struggle with poverty and racism in 1970s New York. But pregnancy along with a false accusation of rape and imprisonment puts a strain on their relationship – in spite of support from her parents.

Adapted from James Baldwin’s seminal novel of the same name, it’s a poetic and stirring slow build. But it falls short of greatness – the stilted support roles and occasional slippage into indulgent arthouse cinematography fails to gel into a flowing narrative. A little more on the supportive parents (Oscar-nominated Regina King – Miss Congeniality 2, Ray – and Colman Domingo – The Birth of a Nation, The Butler) would have provided a welcome balance.

Rating: 74%

‘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%

‘Cold War’

A sublimely shot monochrome homage to 1950s European film, Cold War is an impossible tragic love story – a sad ballad of time and place across (east/west) frontiers.

With music the setter of moods (from traditional Polish peasant music to freeform jazz), Oscar-winning writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Summer of Love) focusses on the intimate within the narrative as a magnificent Joanna Kulig (The Innocents, Elles) sings her way to fame in 1950s Poland. A product of a post-war communist youth organisation, it is there she meets Wiktor (Tomasz Kot – Bikini Blue, Gods), music conductor at the folk-music academy. A doomed love affair from Warsaw to Paris, Berlin to Belgrade unfolds over the next 20 years.

Like the story itself, Cold War is starkly beautiful, its intimacy cold, its emotions constrained, distant. An intimate epic.

Rating: 84%

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.

Best of Year (2018 – female Performance)

This particular list of five was much harder to draw up than the male performance category, with a number of performances vying to feature in the five.

Rachel Weisz gave two powerful performances in The Favourite and Disobedience (she may well find herself nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination) and relative newcomer Jessie Buckley was fabulous in the little seen UK indie film, Beast. The youngest on the almost list is seven year-old Brooklyn Prince, who was a sensation in The Florida Project and the oldest is Glenn Close for The Wife – a performance that many are tipping for Oscar glory.

In previous years, non-English speaking roles have topped my list – but for 2018 there are none in the top five – Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) and Diane Kruger (In the Fade) were the closest, both featuring in the top 10.

So after long deliberation, my top five female performances for 2018 are:
5: Charlize Theron: Tully
4: Melissa McCarthy: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
3: Lady Gaga: A Star is Born
2: Frances McDormand: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
1: Olivia Colman: The Favourite

Charlize Theron was certainly helped by having Mackenzie Davis to play off against but with a script from back-to-form Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) and subtle direction from Jason Reitman, the quirky humour of Tully was perfect material for Theron to shine.

As literary fraudster Lee Israel, Melissa McCarthy turned in a perfectly dowdy, deadpan performance that is completely against the grain for this larger than life comedic actress – and she nailed it.

It’s one of the behemoths of the year, a critical darling and yet somehow missed out on numerous Golden Globe awards – including Gaga losing to Glenn Close. Gaga is very, very good – but just occasionally I wanted her not to be so Gaga on screen.

Foul-mouthed Frances McDormand was pitch perfect in one of my favourite films of the year – and understandably picked up last year’s best actress Oscar. But she was pipped to the top of the pile by –

Olivia Colman, a British character actress who, quite bluntly, is magnificent as the English Queen Anne in The Favourite, a dark, ribald, period-piece entertainment.

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.