The introduction of my original draft was the cynical, frustrated, and disappointed rant of a grumpy old man. I decided positivity was a better direction as we end the year, with a hint of acceptance and resignation.
As hugely important as the story and script is, I’m a champion of movies that engulf you with the singular, pure elements of cinema: rich atmosphere, imaginative use of sound and/or score, and striking use of mise-en-scene. Many of the movies on my list this year are examples of this kind of artful, more abstract and expressionist cinema. The kind of movies that demand repeat viewings, in some cases, again and again.
My selection is a mix of film festival screenings, general theatrical, and a bunch that were given a belated Australian release (usually on BD/DVD/VOD). Increasingly I find less time to see movies and even less time to write reviews, as parental duties, work commitments, and other projects take prescience over what has essentially become a hobby, and at the end of each year I make a promise to myself to watch more features and deliver more content in the new year.
Apparently nostalgia is heroin for old people, and many of the movies on my list this year are retro-vibed in one way or another, so I’m definitely a nostalgia junkie.
So, here are my twenty favourites from the past year.
Dream-nightmare as cinema art. Darren Aronofsky has conjured something beautiful and grotesque, one of the most immersive, at times overwhelming, portraits of dream-logic I’ve ever experienced, exploring the nature of creation, tackling xenophobia, wrestling with faith, fucking with the fabric of time and space. As enigmatic and obscure as David Lynch, as visceral and symbolic as David Cronenberg, as studied and precise as Stanley Kubrick, as chaotic and sensorial as Dario Argento.
Denis Villeneuve is a true visionary, a brilliant stylist, capturing much of what makes cinema so delicate and powerful. Blade Runner 2049 is a truly beautiful thing. It is far-fetched and it is immediate, it is intimidating and gorgeous, it is perfect and flawed, it is immense and detailed, epic and intimate. It is a rare creature indeed, a sequel that can exist on its own, but also expands gently on the original, capturing the same sense of melancholy, loneliness, futility… and hope. As rich and frustrating as Scott’s original, soaked in the aesthetics of design, with an epic electronic score-scape.
Pablo Lorraín’s speculative biopic on the first few days of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life immediately following the assassination of her husband is an acquired taste, at once artfully removed and elusive, yet utterly intimate and immersive. Natalie Portman, in a career performance, is spellbinding in the titular role, as is the overall mood, sombre, almost bewitching. Indeed, it is a harrowing portrait, but captured with exquisite elegance.
War for the Planet of the Apes
It is rare for a re-imagining, that also happens to be a sequel, to have such a profound effect, but Matt Reeves’ third (and final?) part to the Planet of the Apes series re-boot is a brilliantly told tale of megalomania, retribution, and resignation, with stunning production design and cinematography. Andy Serkis commands as Caesar, but also equally excellent are Woody Harrelson, and Karin Konoval as Maurice, Caesar’s faithful friend. For a science fiction blockbuster, it’s dark and confronting, but it brings the trilogy to a fitting and emotionally-charged end.
One of those disquieting drama-thrillers that smoulders away, threatening to fully ignite. It catches, and singes, and it’s those surface burns that always seem to linger the longest. Clothing obsessions and nightmares don’t always mix, but Simon Rumley has fashioned a terrific low-budget piece that razzle-dazzles in a way those big budget affairs could never hope to pin. Inspired by the films of Nic Roeg, especially the fascination with femininity vs. masculinity, the hallucinatory, surrealist touches, and the obsessive-compulsive natures of the central characters.
Benedict Andrews has done an exceptional job of turning David Harrower’s play Blackbird, essentially a two-hander, into a powerful piece of dramatic cinema. It’s a dual character study that burns with the ferocity of a psychological thriller. A provocative and delicate tale of manipulation, and sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse, but also a story of damaged love. The fragility and resilience of character, the nuances of trust and betrayal are exposed with intelligence, but not without risk of controversy. A sombre and disquieting film, indeed, with two outstanding performances.
If there was ever a prime cut example of a movie that excels and succeeds brilliantly on a very simple premise, then Ben Wheatley’s nod to the great 70s exploitation shoot ‘em ups is the one. It's an unbridled genre joy. The comedy is dark as motor oil and most of it is pooled from the humour school of Bruce Robinson; the Withnail and I character-based cumulative-style that builds through behaviour and interaction, with short retorts, pithy wisecracks, not lengthy pop-cultural referential monologues. Oh, and it’s violent and foul-mouthed as all hell.
The kind of perverse vanity project that completely blows that hairy pretence to pieces. Written as a direct result of finding it incredibly difficult to get work as a pregnant actor, and as a sly slice of irony, Prevenge is as much an adult fantasy as it is a comedy-horror, dark and hilarious, and entirely original. It crackles with savage wit and warbles with absurd clarity; one woman’s descent into pre-natal and post-natal madness. Alice Lowe delivers one of the most entertaining, perfectly pitched performances I’ve seen in a while.
Floating with the aloofness of Bret Easton Ellis and anchored with the ennui of Tom DeLillo, Axolotl Overkill moves and feels something Fellini might have made if he was a young contemporary. It’s La Dolce Vita in the jaded modern world, Christiane F. with the nihilism kept in check. While the title appears to be an obscure reference to being trapped in excessive youth, the movie is bracingly fresh, achingly awkward, deliciously sensual; a real cocktail of fervour and affectation.
William A. Kirkley has fashioned a superb documentary, as both date-stamp and cultural history piece, it is a beacon of the strength of friendship and community and a sobering reminder that as curious and good-hearted as humans can be, we are not invincible, but we are resilient, and we are industrious, to a fault. Tracing the social and cultural history of the hippie movement, and the creative influence of LSD on the arts, Orange Sunshine, with all its wonderful Super-8-flavoured recreations, is as endlessly fascinating as it is, ultimately, moving.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Actor Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Green Room) turns his hand to directing and delivers a surprisingly affecting first feature about a strange relationship, infused with criminal intrigue, and spiked with black comedy. It’s as eccentric as it is unpredictable, with terrific performances, and intense graphic violence. A wacky cup of tea, not to everyone’s taste, but more refreshing than most brews of the same quirky intent. Think Coen Brothers meets Jeremy Saulnier. Then don’t. This one doesn’t play by the rules.
One of the funniest, most heart-warming stories of tenacity, fool-hardiness, desperation, and perverse joy within the often cruel, relentless, and unforgiving realm of DIY, independent, low-budget filmmaking. The horror genre is full of these endeavours, but few, if any, have been captured from go to woe to hey-ho with such grotesque charm, cringe-inducing outrageousness, and sheer championship, as Gary Doust’s fly-on-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, warts-and-all account of making Red Christmas, Craig Anderson’s feature debut as writer and director.
Jordan Peele’s screenplay is an absolute cracker. His understanding of horror tropes is bang-on, and he knows exactly how to ply them within his own take on the “everything seems right, but there’s something horribly wrong” scenario. Get Out plays a fresh game on an age old nightmare; the hapless good person being pushed back and trapped by a steadily tightening screw of evil. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. A fantastic cast, tight direction, and Peele has woven is keen sense of humour through the movie with expert control.
Ducournau has fashioned a sleek, minimalist relationship drama with a sharp spine of horror, and a sense of humour as black as pudding. It burns slow like a thriller, and peels back the layers of a dysfunctional sororal bond that eventually snarls like an angry dog and bites like a vicious snake. This is not your average visceral horror movie, not conventional in the way it shocks, for there is something intrinsically - psychologically - disturbing with its primary theme - cannibalism - and the section it tears off and chews feverishly on. Beautifully composed in widescreen, alternating with quiet moments of clean, elegant lines, and then juxtaposing those with intense, claustrophobic moments of anarchy and brutalism.
Taking the successful elements of Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus, and stirring the pot of extraterrestrial stew fast and furiously. There’s the nightmarish claustrophobia and suspense of the first movie, the action-orientated military shoot-em up of the original sequel, and elements of the prequel’s intrigue and mystery. There’s no doubt about it, Ridley Scott makes superb movies, that frequently rise above their script issues. Yes, Alien: Covenant is flawed, but it’s still beautiful and awesome cinema.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s followup to their bleak, lo-fi heroin caper Heaven Knows What further indulges their convincingly naturalistic docudrama-style of storytelling with this gripping, wayward, coal-black comedy of errors, following two brothers and their botched bank robbery. One brother (played by co-director and editor Benny Safdie) is mentally handicapped, whilst the other brother (played by Robert Pattinson, in his best performance to date) is the manipulative, street-not-so-smart criminal. Stunningly shot, with a dynamic electro score from Daniel Lopain, credited as Oneohtrix Point Never to boot.
Taylor Sheridan’s Contemporary Western followup to the brilliant Hell or High Water, only this time Sheridan is directing as well as writing, and doing a fine job behind the camera. It’s a vehicle for Jeremy Renner who holds fort as a seasoned tracker pulled in to help a rookie FBI agent solve a murder on frozen Native American ground. A murder mystery in the Gorky Park mold; cold, poetic and brutal, with great work from co-star Elizabeth Olsen, and a mostly unknown support cast. The stats at movie’s end are heartbreaking.
There are two kinds of superhero movies; those that take themselves very seriously, and those that don’t. Taika Waititi’s take on the Mighty Thor is the most refreshing and purely entertaining superhero movie since 2008’s Iron Man, but with tongue even more firmly lodged in cheek. It’s designed like a flamboyant cartoon, all bright fluorescent colour and hammy delivery, Flash Gordon (1980) for Millennials and X-Gen geeks. Waititi voices a rock dude named Korg, and steals every scene he’s in (why are we not surprised?), whilst Cate Blanchett chews scenery as the Goddess of Death, Tessa Thompson spunkily owns the role of Valkyrie, and Jeff Goldblum channels Jeff Goldblum with aplomb.
The Evil Within
There are dream projects and there are nightmare projects, and then there is The Evil Within, trapped somewhere in between. Andrew Getty’s only feature (he died before post-production was completed) is a surrealistic, chaotic horror tale seen from the perspective of a desperately lonely, mentally handicapped, and psychologically tortured young man who is driven to extreme measures in order to keep his inner demon at bay. It took fifteen years to make, with Getty supervising the $6m self-funded production fastidiously. The central (dual) performance from Frederick Koehler is extraordinary. A damaged, but truly original and visionary descent.
Boyle is the English Scorsese, a master of mise-en-scene. T2 is proudly a sequel, working alongside the first movie, and interweaving with it too, but it is also a bold stand-alone tale of opportunity and betrayal, of stories told, remembered, re-lived, discarded, treasured. John Hodge’s superb screenplay subversion is a very clever manipulation of giving audiences that nostalgia fix, yet also playing on the universal angst and ennui of “What the fuck have I done with my life?” The soundtrack is bang on, and the cinematography is fantastic too. Another stone cold instant cult classic. Well, definitely for us nostalgians.
Honourable Mentions: Berlin Syndrome, Ingrid Goes West, American Made, Morgan, Whitney: Can I Be Me, 78/52, Wonder Woman, The Lego Batman Movie, Hounds of Love, Logan.
Slipped Through the Net: Detroit, Shot Caller, The Florida Project, The Disaster Artist [Ed: I feel I need to watch The Room first]