‘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%

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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 Rider’

The_Rider-1A tender, poetic story and what is essentially a scripted, heightened documentary as real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau comes to terms with a life-threatening head injury. In a culture that lives and breathes horses, Brady and his family struggle with his displacement and loss of status.

The vast, wide-open South Dakota Badlands adds to Brady’s sense of isolation as writer/director Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me) patiently explores the meaning of masculinity in the physical world of rodeo and its backwater setting.

Rating: 79%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Beast’

beastSmall in scope (a product of writer/director Michael Pearce’s television experience in his feature film debut), Beast flits between a (dysfunctional) middle-class family drama and psychosexual horror story.

Unquestionably flawed, a remarkable performance from Jessie Buckley (TV’s Taboo, The Last Post) as Moll is the highlight. Desperate to escape her cruel, oppressive family, she becomes involved with Johnny Flynn (Clouds of Sils Maria, Love is Thicker Than Water), a convicted poacher living on the margins and suspected of being a serial killer of teenage girls.

A cold, windswept Jersey – far from its halcyon summer tourism – is the setting for Pearce’s intriguing drama packed with (mostly) unpleasant characters.

Rating: 58%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Woman at War’

womanatwarEntertaining enviro-political narrative as an eminently watchable Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Metalhead, The Seagull’s Laughter) takes on the aluminium industry polluting the beauty of the natural Icelandic countryside.

With the inadvertent help of a twin sister and a lonely farmer, Halla quietly gets things done, in spite of the establishment reacting in the belief it’s the actions of organised international terrorism.

Writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men, Polite People) avoids overtly agitprop political speak, allowing wry humour and understated opinion speak for itself – along with the juxtaposing of the ruins of a Ukraine destroyed by over-industrialisation (a gentle subplot to the story).

Rating: 64%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘When the Trees Fall’

when treesAn odd, fractured, surreal rebellion of a feature, an angry, multifaceted narration of aimless, unstructured poverty in contemporary Ukraine.

Director Marysia Nikitiuk, in her feature film debut, mixes urban and rural poverty, violence and passion, eroticism and misery, realism and fantasy. Several interlinked stories evolve at the same time – a four year-old girl living with her nanna in a rural setting that descends into violence; a teenage Larysa (a powerful and convincing Anastasia Putovit) rebelling against her home life with her young lover on the run from the mob.

Sadly, Nikitiuk’s grim realism is too unfocussed in its storytelling, creating a confusion of intent – which is a pity, as the stunning, febrile opening scene and its lyrical eroticism created a high expectation.

Rating: 38%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

the-kindergarten-teacherLacking the political pertinence of the original 2014 Israeli film from Nadav Lapid, the English-language remake is nevertheless an enthralling psychological thriller.

A superb central performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart, The Dark Knight), the kindergarten teacher recognises the precocious talents of cute five year-old Parker Sevak (a revelation) and sees it as a ticket out of mundane, privilged suburbia. But she goes more than a little too far.

Adapted and directed by Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents), The Kindergarten Teacher is an unhurried, slender drama that, whilst lacking that edginess of the original, remains a tense character-study of desperation and obsession.

Rating: 64%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘The Harvesters’

the harvestersA stark, red-neck Christian Bible-belt story, Afrikaans-style.

In his directorial debut, Etienne Kallos’ powerful feature, set in the vast isolated open spaces of the Free State, looks to the threatened demise of an Afrikaan way of life. A quiet, brooding 15-year old Janno (Brent Vermeulen) and his position in his deeply religious farming family is threatened by the adoption of a troubled (Afrikaan) street boy (Alex van Dyk).

In spite of the threat, there is an understated intimacy between the two as separately and together they fight to find/retain their place in an environment where the mother follows God’s will and is fervent in her belief in salvation for the unsaveable.

Austere, shot with the muted colours of early winter, a minimal score and nuanced performances create a restrained yet simmering drama of quiet intensity.

Rating: 76%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘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