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.

 

 

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‘Ali’s Wedding’

19983521_1884953185091404_3701407671146097916_oVoted as The Age newspaper’s best Australian film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Ali’s Wedding is a dire rom-com that, based on true events, mistakenly plays everything for laughs.

The son of a popular cleric at the local mosque, Ali (Osamah Sami, writer of the film) lies his way through his exam results, inflating his score to the point he needs to study medicine at the prestigious University of Melbourne. A non-enrolled attendee at lectures, he falls in love with the Australian-Lebanese Dianne (Helana Siwares – Banana Boy), even though he, as an Iraqi, is due to marry to Yomna. How is he going to get out of this?

Squirm inducing humour that encourages laughter at points of difference, lack of character development that results in seeming stupidity (Ali’s mother in particular) and the occasional comedic moments that are poorly or overly developed in an (ill-conceived) attempt to maximise the humour: Ali’s Wedding is very disappointing.

Rating: 36%

‘Human Traces’

human traces.jpgNot everything is what it seems when handsome Riki (Vinnie Bennett – Ghost in the Shell, Fantail) arrives at a remote New Zealand research station as the new conservationist volunteer.

Mark Mitchinson (The Hobbit, Mr Pip), leader of the small team, is threatened by Riki’s presence and his ideas – especially as he feels his young wife (Sophie Henderson – Fantail) is paying too much attention to the newcomer.

Secrets, lies and misunderstandings unravel as writer/director Nic Gorman in his feature film debut creates a tense psychological thriller against the backdrop of a stunning New Zealand coastline.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 63%

‘Faces Places’

MV5BNmE1MTJlM2QtM2JmZC00ODVlLTgzMzctYTkxZDVkOGYzODI2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDY2NDMxNDY@._V1_A charming documentary with multi-award winning Belgian director Agnes Varda (The Beaches of Agnes, The Gleaners and I) teaming up with photographer/muralist JR. A picaresque road trip ensues as filmmaker and stills maker create large scale works they plaster in public places in rural France.

A ruminative piece as the two form an unlikely friendship – she, the 88 year-old grande dame of the French New Wave; he, a cool and hip Parisian. And whilst ultimately lacking any depth, the art for art’s sake odyssey is witty, compassionate, warm and life-affirming.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 67%

‘Family Life’

large_MV5BZjllOWE1YzYtZDlhZi00ZDdiLTk3MTctMjhlZDRkNGU0ZTZlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjQ1NDQyNjQ_._V1_SY1000_CR0_0_678_1000_AL_Overtly commercial family comedy drama as a feckless Martin (Jorge Becker – Thursday ‘Til Sunday) house sits for a distant (successful) cousin in a cool part of Santiago. With three months accommodation on offer, a directionless Martin soon starts to take on the lifestyle of his cousin’s family.

Based on a short story by Alejandro Zambra and shot largely in director Alicia Scherson’s (Play, Il Futuro) own apartment, Family Life is something of a whimsical kitchen-sink dramedy which fails to significantly ignite.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 30%

 

‘Marjorie Prime’

lsjfeieSet in the near future, artificial intelligence comes to the home, allowing death to be not quite the final answer.

To help 85 year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith – The Nice Guys, Twister) deal with the last years of her life, daughter Geena Davis and son-in-law Tim Robbins arrange for a Prime, the fortysomething version of her late husband (Jon Hamm) to talk over their lives together. For Marjorie, ‘it’ offers comfort. For her daughter, it’s not quite right.

A Black Mirror-style storyline for the big screen, director Michael Almereyda’s (Cymbeline,  Twister) provocative adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s stage play is a quiet, reflective chamber drama.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 64%

‘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%

‘Closeness’

Closeness_(film)A raw, uncompromising narrative set in the bleak underbelly of an impoverished neighbourhood of Nalchik, a Russian industrial city in the northern Caucasus.

Living in a predominantly Muslim area, a young Jewish couple are abducted. The ransom is too high for either parents to reach. Family and community relations reach boiling point, particularly as independent-minded Ila (a powerful debut by Darya Zhovnar) continues with her relationship with Zalim, a man ‘not from the tribe.’ But the question remains – how far is the family willing to go to save their son, David?

The directorial debut from Kantemir Balagov is seedy, confronting and simply unpleasant, populated with a series of characters that are simultaneously overbearing and deeply unlikeable.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 25%

 

‘Ellipsis’

ellipsisA Sydney-shot dramatic rom-com, with Emily Barclay (The Light Between Oceans, In My Father’s Den) finding herself without a phone after colliding with Benedict Samuel (The Walk, The Stanford Prison Experiment). A night of adventure unfolds before she must return to her fiance in London.

Like the unfolding night, Ellipsis is something of a meandering narrative as the two find themselves in various locations around Sydney. It’s pleasant enough – and debut director David Wenham pays homage to the city itself. But the real drama and human interest lies with the phone repairman (Ferdinand Hoang – Mao’s Last Dancer, The Quiet American) and his family.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 42%

‘The Road to Mandalay’

MV5BZGFiZjI5ZjAtNWZhMy00ZTQzLWIyNDUtMjM3MmU1MTM2MjE5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzY3MTQ1NTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_A quiet, understated reflection on Burmese immigrants illegally working in Thailand as Lianqing (Ke-Xi Wu – Poor Folk, Ice Poison) escapes her impoverished rural home life. Sending money home and obtaining a work permit in any way possible is her focus, even at the cost of her relationship with Guo (Kai Ko – You Are the Apple of My Eye, When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep).

Both are in search of a better life, but their contradictory personalities inevitably lead to conflict. Director Midi Z (Poor Folk, Ice Poison), a rising star of Asian cinema, focuses on the everyday events and hardships faced by the pair – making its denouement in the final seconds even more unexpected and shocking.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 69%