My 25th Anniversary as a Film Critic

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Today marks twenty-five years since my first publication as a film critic, which were a couple of capsule reviews of the 1993 Wellington Film Festival. 

I’ve loved the movies since I was a lad, especially after seeing Star Wars, aged nine. A few years later dad took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssesy. Around the same time my mates and I watched a bunch of cult/classic pre-cert “adult” movies on VHS (The Omen, The Changeling, Alien, An American Werewolf In London, Dressed To Kill, Midnight Express, Scum, The Deer Hunter). From my mid-teens onwards I started attending the Wellington Film Festival. At Victoria University I studied Film History, Analysis, and Production. In late 1991 I worked on Peter Jackson’s Braindead, and in the mid-90s I worked for two years as a script assessor for the New Zealand Film Commission.

In April of 1993 an independent weekly newspaper was launched, City Voice. Mark Cubey was the arts editor and David Geary was the film and theatre reviewer. It was leading up to the annual Wellington Film Festival and Mark gave me the break, inviting me to step into David’s role, as he was stepping down to concentrate on his own playwriting. Wisely, I opted out of taking on the theatre reviews.  

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I remained City Voice’s resident film critic until December ’97 when I moved to Australia. In early ’98 I joined the team of Sydney weekly street press Revolver magazine, with the support of arts editor Oscar Hillerström. I stayed with Revolver, chiefly as film reviewer, but also the occasional interview and club review, until mid-2000. It’s curious to note that I joined both City Voice and Revolver four months after they were each launched, and three years after I left they either folded (City Voice) or were re-branded (Revolver evolved into The Brag). 

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I continued to write reviews for lifestyle website RushTV.com, until the dot com explosion imploded, and then for the next few years I freelanced, writing reviews for other street press, including FilmInk and City Hub, and long-gone glossy mag DVD Now (later Total DVD). For a couple of years I must have been in the wilderness, as I don’t have any archived reviews. In August of 2006 I joined the blogosphere of Orble.com and started Horrorphile – The Pleasure Of Nightmares, where I indulged in horror movies and beyond. For the next six years I wrote hundreds of reviews on cult classics and contemporary flicks, mused on the art and artifice of the genre, and occasionally interviewed filmmakers and the like. But in the second half of 2012 disaster struck when the umbrella site suddenly crashed and burned, taking with it hundreds of blogs and creating thousands of dead links. I lay low for about six months, nursing my wounds.

In April 2013 I opened an account with Squarespace and launched Cult Projections, my parlour of vivid ciné dreams, focusing on genre movie recommendations, past and present, and continuing to interview industry shakers and movers. 

To mark the anniversary I’ve selected twenty-five [Ed: twenty-six, actually] essential viewings, personal favourites from each year I’ve been a film critic, 1993 - 2018. 

Romeo Is Bleeding, Crumb, Living In Oblivion, The Funeral, Another Day In Paradise, Black Cat, White Cat, The Limey, Memento, The Anniversary Party, Morvern Callar, Oldboy, Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind, A History Of Violence, Ils, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, The Children, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, Monsters, Young Adult, Killer Joe, Kiss Of The Damned, Nightcrawler, 99 Homes, The Eyes Of My Mother, I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore, You Were Never Really Here. 

My favourite movies of 2012

For me it was a year of mostly American film, with only one genuine foreign movie making my selection (although a couple were co-pros). There were two remakes (well, one re-envisioning and one re-interpretation), and just one documentary.

My overall favourite turned out to be the movie I knew absolutely nothing about (initially avoiding the screener as I didn’t like the title!), yet it resonated more strongly in the days following than any other movie has for a long time, and may very well turn out to be an all-time favourite in the long run.

Unfortunately I failed to get reviews for several movies on my list (due to a rather hectic year), but I plan to review them in 2013. So here then are my 25 favourites movies, ordered in some curious fashion.

BELLFLOWER

Bursting with the colour of a sunburnt summer’s edge, drifting with the curious irresponsibility of a dog off its leash, resonating like a tequila hangover after you’ve sculled the hair of the mutt that bit you, Bellflower is the cure for romance you never want to find, it’s the answer that never had a question, the kiss that leaves a scar you’ll cherish.

MANIAC (2012)

Beauty through the giallo prism, imagery infused with an almost abstract aesthetic; darkness and subjective perspective shot through with a vivid eye for texture, shape, and colour. But more importantly, Maniac is one of a rare breed of modern horror movie: it’s genuinely horrifying and uncompromising. It does not pander to any kind of poetic licence, but it does write its own nightmare poetry.

SHAME

Steve McQueen’s second feature after the harrowing prison movie Hunger, also starring Michael Fassbender, is just as simple, just as confronting, just as powerful. Whereas religion and survival formed an uneasy relationship in Hunger, in Shame sex and love share the same bed, as entwined as they are at each other’s throats.

DREDD

Dredd kicks proverbial arse into the middle of next week. Forget that overblown disingenuous tripe that Sylvester Stallone made nearly twenty years ago (you probably had anyway), this is the real deal, or at least as close to the dark ruthless spirit of the original 2000AD comic series … The action movie of the year.

LORE

Cate Shortland’s follow-up to Somersault is an altogether far more accomplished drama that looks just as ravishing, but penetrates just as deeply as a thriller. Succeeds at being the least Australian movie of the year, and simultaneously the best foreign movie of the year.

PROMETHEUS

Ridley Scott's return to science fiction polarised audiences, but was championed by the quiet few hardened sf cinephiles that admired how damn good it looked and felt. Admittedly the most disappointing movie of the year in terms of screenplay, yet still a masterful display of cinema on its purest level.           

SKYFALL

Another audience polariser; those who prefer their Bond with tongue-deeply-lodged in cheek and with more gadgets than you shake a stick at vs. those that dug director Sam Mendes’ dramatic approach. Easily the best-looking Bond movie in yonks (thank you Mr. Deakin), and Daniel Craig owning the role.

EXCISION

Richard Bates Jr. wears his influences on his sleeves, and that’s fine with me. Excision starts with a shock dream/nightmare sequence and ends with a reality check guaranteed to reverberate with horrific intensity for those looking for something a little left of centre. A fantastic moody score from Steve Damstra II and Mads Heldtberg pins the movie harder to the cult board. Excision cuts deep to the marrow of the funny bone, and lets the artery spray hard.

SAMSARA

Ron Fricke’s follow-up to the magnificent Baraka is essentially Baraka Part 2, albeit more confrontational. Sublime use of music and some of the most stunning imagery of the natural world, the civilised world, and the not-so-civilised world, in all its beauty and karmic tragedy. Demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can find: shot in 70mm.

LOVE

Love exudes sophistication, yet remains unpretentious, despite its overwhelming dependence on musings and ponderings. There is a strange chemistry at work in this tale of the pursuit of meaning in life. But this isn’t a theological exercise, or purely existential in study. Love radiates music, literally – in sound and noise – and figuratively, in rhythmic structure and acoustical grammar.  

CRAWL

Slithering haphazardly across the filthy floor like a snake blitzed on the booze-addled blood of a desert drifter who pulled up the wrong rock, Crawl (2011) is the nightmare thriller that slides down the throat like a shot of Black Crow bourbon; potent and oily, like a viscous bad dream, this tale of fucked-up vengeance will slap your pretty ass into the middle of next week (again).

ARBITRAGE

A career performance from Richard Gere, this is one of the best thrillers of the year, which no one saw (admittedly the “Huh?” title would have put off many people). Great support from Susan Sarandon and Laetitia Casta, for a 25-year-old director’s debut, this movie kicked proverbial arse! [ed: enough with the arse-kicking, already!]

LOOPER

Bordering on too clever for its own good Rian Johnson delivers a highly original causality concept movie that slaps time and identity around for good measure. I'm a sucker for time travel movies, especially retrograde ones, and when Emily Blunt co-stars, then I’m home and hosed.

FRANKENWEENIE

Frankenweenie is the feel-good movie for the horror-challenged, Tim Burton’s welcome return to prickly, wicked form, and the perfect all-rounder … it’s only a PG, but there is more than enough sly adult humour coursing through its veins to keep parents entertained. I’d even go so far as to recommend Frankenweenie as a date flick. There’s more than enough to keep both the boy and the girl charmed and amused in equal measure.

YOUNG ADULT

Comedy of the year, albeit black as a bruised eye. Diablo Cody might have fucked up with her attempt at a horror movie (Jennifer’s Body), but she nailed the dysfunctional character study brilliantly, knocking her adolescent, over-rated quirk Juno to the curb with this searing anti-romance (and joined by the same director, Jason Reitman). Charlize Theron should be nominated for an Oscar.

KILLER JOE

How you like your fried chicken? Rammed down your throat ‘til ya gag on all that spicy seasoning? Yup, so guzzle that pissy beer, and shut the fuck up! You’s gonna get some sweet apple pie later on, sweet as forbidden fruit, you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. But before you git any kind of lip-smackin’ satisfaction, I’s a gonna slap your ass in ta a middle of next week [ed: for the third time!]. Knock you outta yer filthy, lyin’ boots, so wipe that grin offa yer face. This here, is the dark heart o’ Texas.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY

Performances are all on the money, the dialogue crackles. Killing Them Softly reeks of flat ale, stale cigarette smoke, hair lotion, sweat soiled shirts, and gunmetal. Oh, and blood. And that’s just the way we like it around here. Oz director Andrew Dominic achieves the rare trifecta. 

DREAMS OF A LIFE

A documentary that burns deep into the soul. At once an utterly compelling and contentious look at how no one really knows anything about anyone, how all relationships are ultimately superficial. It is also a damning indictment at how modern civilisation is crumbling, how, with savage irony, in the age of a communication revolution (keeping in mind Joyce died before online social networking exploded) someone as “memorable” as Joyce Carol Vincent can slip between the tracks and her disappearance not noticed for three years.

WISH YOU WERE HERE

One of the best mysteries of recent years, and like another superb Aussie flick Burning Man, it operates with a non-linear narrative. This is the holiday from hell, a nightmare slowly unfolding with expert control. Featuring sensational performances, especially Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer, and co-written by husband and wife team Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price (another great performance), truly nail-biting.

WE ARE THE NIGHT (Wir Sind die Nacht)

There’s nothing original here, except that there are no male vampires, and there’s an undeniably Euro-trashy ambience, but somehow We Are the Night rises above itself and resonates in a most curiously satisfying way. Yes, no surprises, but lots of fun, and it oozes style like it’s going out of fashion. Vamp on!

THE AVENGERS

I haven’t seen The Hobbit, yet, so I’m quite happy to declare The Avengers as the most spectacular entertainment on the big screen this year. Joss Whedon outdid himself with a wham bam thank you ma’am rollercoaster comic book flick. I enjoyed all the origin movies (Iron Man,ThorCaptain AmericaThe Incredible Hulk [ed: well, the first fifteen minutes]), but The Avengersdelivered in spades, and then some.

THE GREY

The Grey bays into the icy wind under a pale moonlight and then tears your throat out. Easily the best movie Liam Neeson has made in years. He chews the scenery, he commands the screen, he owns the movie. Forget about those bitchin’ grey Arctic wolves, this oil rigger with a torn conscience is a man to be reckoned with. The Grey barks hard, bites harder.

THE RUM DIARY

The director of my favourite comedy of all time finally returned behind the camera! Bruce Robinson was coaxed back and made his first movie in nearly twenty years! Adapting Hunter S. Thompson’s early memoirs with a stellar cast including Johnny Depp (his second time as the gonzo journalist), Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi, and Aaron Eckhart. Comedy soaked in fermented sugar cane! Puerto Rico, yeah!

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

One of the most blatantly entertaining horror movies I’ve seen in a while. Yes, there are shameless nods to countless other horror movies (by the end of the movie you'll have lost count!), but these hat tilts are worn like badges of serious flair. The movie works exceptionally well as a balancing act, between genuine horror and horror comedy. The comedy shifts between visual gags and darker cerebral humour. 2012 was Joss Whedon's year alright! 

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2012)

Despite all the flack, David Fincher delivered an excellent adaptation of the original Swedish novel, rather than being a remake of the Swedish movie. I’m a hypocrite I suppose, as I dissed Matt Reeves’ Let Me In for being totally unnecessary, and one can argue the same point here, but Fincher gets an amazing performance from a fearless Rooney Mara in the role made famous by Noomi Rapace.

Notable contenders:

LOVELY MOLLYSLEEP TIGHTBEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILDMEN IN BLACK 3,HEADHUNTERSJOHN CARTERABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, and PROJECT X. 

Worst movies of the year:

BAIT and PIRANHA 3DD gave horror a very bad name (in the worst possible way), and Julie Delpy dropped the ball so profoundly with TWO DAYS IN NEW YORK that I literally choked on the humourless void.

NB: All movies I saw were either screened at a film festival, or had a theatrical or domestic release down under, in 2012.