What a cracker year!
I had a list of twenty faves a few months back. My honourable mentions was almost as long.
With a large number of debut features, and a lot of savage revenge at play, it was a darkly colourful selection, leaning heavily into the grim shadows, much of it requiring a strong sensibility, even an acquired taste.
The rare lightest hue coming in the form of a dysfunctional relationship searching for identity, yearning for freedom, whilst the most tenebrous, an expressionist nightmare of grief that has held my top spot from the moment the final image faded from the screen at its phenomenal Sydney Underground Film Festival Closing Night screening.
Note to self: I need to make more of an effort next year in reviewing ALL those movies that tickle my fancy with a heavy feather [Ed: excuses, excuses], so apologies that only half my selection have accompanying (click through) reviews in full.
Let the good darkness prevail.
Here are my twenty favourites from the past year.
Polarising audiences with the ferocity of a bad acid trip the second feature from Panos Cosmatos, featuring Nicolas Cage in Full Cage mode, is a tale of vengeance as studied and deliberate as it as free-form and expressionistic. Melding aching, romantic lament with supernatural, visceral horror, it’s a revenge nightmare that pushes the boundaries of tone, takes no prisoners, is stylistically demanding and drenched in atmosphere, with a powerhouse metaltronic score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. An acquired taste of pure cinema, that melted like exotic cured meat in my mouth.
Just as Lynn Ramsay has done with previous adaptations she has possessed a novel and made it her own, tackling the implosion of the psyche due to external forces, framing trauma as catharsis. It’s a disturbing, but stunning portrait, with Joaquin Phoenix at the top of his game. The violence seethes, both implicit and explicit, the tone grim as nails. Like a new millennial mutation of Taxi Driver a searing, blistering study of violence and fractured retribution that is, quite simply, a masterclass in cinematic technique.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Niggling issues over the time line of songs, and the use of dramatic licence are cast asunder, as the sheer heart attack ferocity of Freddie Mercury and Queen thunders across the screen. It’s an absolutely thrilling promo for the band’s history, and champions their brilliant singles - and concerts - with gusto. Rami Malek might have initially seemed a poor substitute for Sacha Baron Cohen, but he commands the movie, nailing the legendary frontman’s body language and personality.
Alex Garland continues to prove his talents behind the camera, having already proven his mettle on paper, as novelist and screenwriter. Tackling the existential cosmic darkness of Jeff VandeMeer’s superb novel and delivering some of the most frightening scenes of horror seen on the screen in ages - that bear scene, that intestine scene - with a beautiful, haunting beauty reminiscent of Tarkvosky’s Solaris and Stalker, and a deliberately enigmatic, yet disquietingly satisfying denouement. Another acquired elixir.
In much the same way Debra Granik did for Winter’s Bone, this is a slow burn drama, with a quiet intensity that smoulders like a camp fire. Where the movie excels is in the naturalistic performances - terrific work from Thomasin McKenzie - and the gentle, perfectly nuanced pace and tone of the narrative, much of it dialogue-free. A mediative, reflective, and deeply affecting study of unhinged souls, a kind of al fresco chamber piece. Not everyone’s chipped enamel mug of black gumboot tea, but ultimately one of the most emotionally resonant and rewarding movies in years.
For her third feature young director Carol Brandt has fashioned a beautifully understated observation on the search for closure and acceptance that charms effortlessly with wonderful, naturalistic performances from her two leads, Meredith Johnston and Rene Cruz. Johnston’s screenplay resonates with an authenticity that gives the movie a truly endearing edge. I do love a dysfunctional indie romance that captures the listlessness of summer, the fresh scent of desire, the sour odour of heartbreak, but especially those moments between the moments, that elusive, awkward poignancy.
Nicolas Pesce takes the guts of author Ryū Murakami’s sadomasochistic proclivities, sexual anguish, intense neurosis, acute anxiety, and exquisite agony, and fashions an utterly gorgeous and deliberately frustrating paean to the giallo movies of the late 70s/early 80s, especially the work of Dario Argento. It’s hard candy for cinephiles, and for anyone else, it’s likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth. A kind of psychosexual chamber piece, but a blackly comic (oh, so dark) study of deviance and duplicity with a precise command of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and heavily stylised production design.
Isabella Eklöf’s debut, Holiday, doesn’t become a revenge movie, though is it a study of violence. It is an observation, and a harrowing one at that, of the ghastly glamour bruising of the gangster underworld. How naïveté can lead to co-dependence - a kind of Stockholm Syndrome at play - how corruption can operate on an insular level. Certainly not for everyone, it has the uncompromising, savage, and realistic edge of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, with the cold precise vibe of Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke, and the beautifully sustained tension and release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy.
Employing a narrative slow burn, dripping with dread, this supernatural tale of the disintegration of a scarred and vulnerable family is one of the most genuinely nightmarish horror movie in ages. Conjuring the atmospheric intensity from the best of the 70s, armed with a most tenebrous resolve, Ari Aster’s debut feature projects a darkness that sears holes. A domestic drama riddled with dysfunctional behaviour that soon unravels into a full-blown phantasm of hellish ancestral vice. Toni Colette delivers a central career best performance.
Kevin MacDonald is one of the great modern documentary filmmakers. With his latest he has fashioned a documentary about the life and career of one of pop’s brightest flames, Whitney Houston, a teenage ghetto girl pushed hard by her industry-worn mother Cissy, held fast by her family ties, especially her two older brothers, held even closer by her confidante and secret lover Robyn, championed by the world, and ultimately brought down by the personal demons and drugs that overwhelmed her. It’s one of pop culture’s great tragedies, brilliantly told.
Forget the implausibilities - the movie is riddled with them - this is one of the most stylish and engaging exploitation flicks in ages. With charisma to burn, star Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz owns the movie. Directed with an equal abundance of chutzpah Coralie Fargeat is yet another French writer/director chewing the horror scenery and delivering the raw, delicious goods. Revenge pings off the screen, becoming more and more outrageous as it travels, until the OTT final confrontation. The kind of bubblegum cinema you keep on chewing until the very last bit of flavour is gone.
Australian director Julius Avery, on his second feature, whacks the genre hybrid into the middle of next week with a violent World War II actioner that halfway through mutates into an even more violent zombie horror flick. The set-pieces are awesome, especially the harrowing opening paratrooper drop, and the production values, especially the mostly practical gore effects and zombie design, are fantastic. Mostly unknown cast are solid, but Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie’s son) is a standout. A surprising, big budget, kick-arse horror movie.
A highly accomplished debut feature from writer/director Michael Pearce, who weaves the machinations of a macabre psychological thriller with the poignant, delicate elements of an illicit romance, ultimately creating a hybrid creature that slinks and slithers slyly, then bites savagely. Its slow burn technique belies its truly dark heart. Beast plays with familiar tropes and conventions, whilst it gently tugs the rug from under your muddy feet. Gorgeously shot, a bristling, captivating score, and terrific performances from the entire cast.
Debut feature from writer/director, Matt Palmer is a Scots/English co-production, and is an absolutely nail-biting thriller about a friendship tested to the very limits. It’s the kind of realistic scenario - old buddies on a hunting trip - turned onto its terrifying head, and once the deed is done, every moment becomes more and more desperate and ghastly. Jack Lowden and Martin McCann are superb in the dual lead roles, but are provided with excellent support from the locals, including Tony Curran. Perfect ending.
The kind of dynamic biopic that re-iterates what I mentioned with Bohemian Rhapsody. There are the facts, and then there the half-truths and then there’s the hearsay. Leave all the cold hard facts for the documentaries. Craig Gillespie delivers a thoroughly entertaining portrait of disgraced champion ice-skater Tonya Harding (career performance from Margot Robbie), with her abusive mother - an extraordinary, scene-stealing performance from Allison Janney - threatening to steal her daughter’s wayward thunder every step of the way.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
It often takes an outsider to extract ugly, accurate truths from another country’s guarded foibles. British writer/director Martin McDonagh tackles small-town American hypocrisy and prejudice with expert narrative ease, eliciting top shelf performances from an awesome cast, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, to name a few. McDonagh weaves his way through Coen Brothers territory, but paints his own uniquely high contrast picture, brilliant and dark in equal measure.
Hold the Dark
Contemporary master studier of violence, Jeremy Saulnier, has his actor muse, Macon Blair adapt the novel by William Giraldi into a cold, blistering murder mystery that provides no easy answers. Jeffrey Wright is the wolf expert pulled into a small Alaskan community to help solve the vanishings of several children, presumed taken by wolves. But there is a human darkness below the animal fur, and there will be much tears spilled before the cold dawn of truth is exposed. As much a perilous odyssey as it is savage tale of vengeance, demanding and frustrating, but superbly made with top notch performances.
Based on the novel by Lynda La Plante, and scripted by director Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, this is a crime-drama-thriller made with consummate skill; superb direction, cinematography, and a terrific central performance from Viola Davis, Widows packs a punch, the narrative unraveling with expert control. It’s a heist movie where an inevitable heist is not the important dramatic element, but the elements that bring a group of wounded, wary women inexorably together. McQueen creates the kind of striking visual and narrative style that feels part Tony Scott, part Martin Scorsese, part Martin McDonagh.
Eugene Kotlyarenko’s egocentric take on a fizzled relationship and the couple’s sexual misadventures is ripe indie fruit worth biting into. Co-written with his co-star Dasha Nekrasova, it’s a comedy of manners - or errors, to be precise - shot through an endearing gauze of melancholy, enhanced by Sean William Price’s gorgeous cinematography, a wash of vibrant colour and retro flare. Though its characters might likely irritate the pants off of some, the movie is poignant, engaging and frequently amusing, with genuinely memorable performances, especially Nekrosova, she’s one to watch for sure, and effervescent dialogue.
The Night Comes For Us
Forget The Raid, or its sequel, writer/director Timo Tjahjanto’s tour-de-force of combat violence is the action thriller of the decade, a no-holds-barred Indonesian blitzkrieg, which sees a gangland enforcer (Joe Taslim) embroiled within a Triad clusterfuck of treachery and insurrection. Basically it’s kill or be killed, using all manner of ballistic and blade weaponry and martial arts know how. Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle co-star, delivering the vicious goods, but big nod to Hannah Al Rashid and Dian Sastrowardoyo as Elena and Alma, formidable foes. This is ultra-violence on an astonishing, outstanding scale.
Honourable Mentions (I restricted myself to ten):
Mission Impossible: Fallout, Blackkklansman, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Tully, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, That Summer, Mega Time Squad, Luz, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Disco & Fashion, Totem.