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) – Male Performance

mbts_27111-e14852560476521My review of films released in Australia continues with my top five male performances.

As with female performances, there were a limited number of stand-outs – and looking through films seen in the year made me aware that many of the highlights were ensemble pieces (Moonlight, Dunkirk, Danish film Land of Mine etc).

But my top five male performances for 2017 are:

5: Hugh Jackman: Logan
4: Josh O’Connor: God’s Own Country
3: Will Poulter: Detroit
2: James McAvoy: Split
1: Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea

Number five is something of a surprise – it was a toss up between Jackman and Joel Edgerton in Loving. But in his final appearance as Wolverine, Jackman introduced a level of humanity and vulnerability to a character who, in previous films, was something of a two-dimensional superhero.

Set in Yorkshire, God’s Own Country was described as an English Brokeback Mountain, and lonely, isolated Josh O’Connor was suitably dour and monosyllabic prior to the arrival of the Romanian casual labour, Gheorghe.

Whilst Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was very much an ensemble piece, there was no ignoring that Will Poulter as the devastatingly sadistic white supremacist police officer and murderous psychopath was the stand-out.

A multiple personality disorder provides James McAvoy with a dream series of roles in Split – ranging from a nerdish nine year-old Hedwig, the reasoned Barry (a fashion designer) through to the menacing Patricia and disturbing Dennis. It’s a role McAvoy deserves to gain more accolades.

But it’s the quiet, nuanced Oscar-winning performance by Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea that gets my final vote.

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.

 

 

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

4AsH9jqVsmbsc3RKWj3FwK6gG8dIf you thought director Yorgos Lanthimos’ last film The Lobster was odd and more than a little confronting, wait for this, his latest truly absurdist feature.

Surgeon Colin Farrell (In Bruges, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice, the result of a mistake on the operating table. Looking for justice (or revenge), young Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, ’71) inveigles his way into the doctor’s privileged family, where Nicole Kidman (The Hours, Lion) is more than a little suspicious.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is magnificently and beguilingly uncomfortable, delivery of dialogue flat and emotionless (a Lanthimos trademark), pointed jet-black humour off-kilter, domestic horror and violence taken to an extreme. It’s a harrowing experience (the entire auditorium emptied in silence) yet strangely and unaccountably rewarding.

Rating: 70%

MV5BMTU1NzI5MDgzOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTUyODg2MzI@._V1_CR0,60,640,360_AL_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_lead_960.jpg37CCB40F00000578-3769655-image-m-47_1472759840823.jpgnicole-kidman.pngimages-w1400.jpgmaxresdefault.jpg

‘Loving Vincent’

a8513dbe6f8b58fc9e4bf0b3aa3fc134_300x442A world first – a fully painted animation where Vincent Van Gogh’s emotive impasto and bold brushstrokes effectively transfer to the screen.

A year after the artist’s death, Armond Roulin is sent by his father, Postmaster Joseph Roulin, to personally deliver a letter to Theo Van Gogh. Initially reluctant, Armond travels to Auvers-sure-Oise via Paris where he slowly becomes embroiled in the mystery that was Vincent Van Gogh.

The narrative itself may be stilted and slight but technique (more than 100 artists, 853 paintings and 65,000 frames in the 94 minute film) never fails to impress. Painted in the style of Van Gogh, actors (including Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan and Helen McCrory) are placed in the artist’s rendered landscapes, creating a living tableaux to tell the story of those tragic last days.

A UK/Polish co-production commissioned by Wroclaw: European City of Culture 2016.

Rating: 72%

4096.jpggroundbreaking-animation-loving-vincent-arttouchesart-london.jpegB99585267Z.1_20171012213047_000_G311MLEDD.1-0video-loving-vincent-us-trailer-videoSixteenByNine1050.jpgc16e12a0-98d2-11e7-a007-e5f7ede9697d_20170920_lovingvincent_exclusiveclip-2-e1511567211334.jpg5.jpg

‘The Snowman’

MV5BNDg1NjYyMTEyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY4MDMyMzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Detective Harry Hole is an iconic character in the novels of international best-selling Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, having featured in eleven of his books. This first transfer to film (starring Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave, Prometheus) is unlikely to lead to a rush for more.

Sumptuous it may be, set as it is in the winter landscapes of Norway (cinematography courtesy of Oscar-winning Dion Beebe –  Memoirs of a Geisha, Collateral), but the film simply does not gel. In telling its story, whole chunks of the source material have been abandoned, with crucial plot and character development simply ignored.

Hole’s search for a serial killer should have been a dark psychological chiller of a thriller. Instead, it’s uninvolving, predictable and a waste of a seriously classy cast (J.K.Simmons, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rebecca Ferguson, Toby Jones, Val Kilmer). Not what was expected from Tomas Alfredson, director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In.

Rating: 38%

‘Final Portrait’

fporAn uncanny likeness of the two leads to the characters they are playing and a beautifully modulated insight into the painting process itself within the artist’s studio are the highlights of actor Stanley Tucci’s debut foray into directing.

Tucci has chosen to restrict that process to the two weeks in 1964 it takes Alberto Giacometti (a nervous, full-of-energy but profoundly annoying Geoffrey Rush – Shine,  Pirates of the Caribbean) to paint the portrait of American writer, James Lord (a suitably waspish Armie Hammer – The Social Network, Nocturnal Animals).

The result is well-made but less-than-satisfying as the material (unlike Giacometti’s paint) is spread a little too thinly.

Rating: 54%

‘God’s Own Country’

Gods-Own-Country_OIC-Poster_webDescribed by many as a British Brokeback Mountain – and it’s hard to disagree.

Lonely farmer Josh O’Connor (Florence Foster Jenkins, The Program) relies on binge drinking in the local pub and casual sexual encounters as he labours on the family farm. His world changes when Romanian Alec Secareanu (Chosen, Love Bus) arrives as casual labour.

As remote as the stunning Yorkshire landscape, debut feature film director Francis Lee’s naturalistic treatment of farm life (including the ewe birthing season) and gay sexuality has resulted in a poignant, finely crafted, nuanced narrative with captivating performances from the two leads.

Rating: 80%

‘Lady MacBeth’

lady_macbeth-431569675-largeSold into a stifling marriage by her parents, Katherine (a superbly scheming Florence Pugh – The Falling) is confronted with oppression and prejudice by husband and father-in-law alike. But a passionate encounter with the new hounds man sees a steely change in the newly wed.

A Victorian melodrama with a very definite contemporary twist as the female empowerment early in the narrative turns into something much darker. Renowned theatre and opera director William Oldroyd makes his film debut with this spare, expertly told narrative – and in less than 90 minutes!

Rating: 72%

‘Dunkirk’

dunkirk-posterOh, oh, oh. It’s visceral magnificence on screen. Grand gestures aplenty but the minutiae of wartime claustrophobia, fear and defeat balance this superb, emotional sweep of a film.

Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) tells the true story of the rescue of 300,000 British, Belgian and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by an advancing German army. It’s the flotilla of weekend sailors and fishermen (and women) who save the day as the navy destroyers are picked off by the German air force.

A true ensemble piece – Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy along with newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are just a few – that is a jigsaw of narratives of few words and which makes up the whole,  building to a rousing crescendo. Exhausting!

Rating: 89%