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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top 10 - an eclectic selection from a not-so-frequent film reviewer

It's been another hectic year where duties at the Australian Film Institute have sucked up most of my time and required me to watch a LOT of Australian features, documentaries, shorts and television dramas. I'm not complaining. Love it! But it makes my top ten a little skewed. Nevertheless, I managed to catch some festivals, some screeners, and even the odd regular film screening (radical!). Here's what I selected for my yearly wrap-up of films for The Big Issue magazine (edn. 396). Apart from the standout, they're in no particular order. They were selected from films that were on general release in Australia during 2011.

Standout Film: Melancholia

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia may well be the most perfect film ever made about the end of the world. The extended opening sequence, a masterpiece in itself, places the solemn strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde alongside extreme slow motion images that are gravely beautiful and strange: a huge green golf course overlooking the ocean; a sad and beautiful bride, floating dreamlike in a pond; a black horse sinking into the earth; and two planets, seen from space, on a collision course for disaster.

In a change of tone, the film reverts to the realistic and blackly comedic tone we expect from von Trier, as the newly married bride (Kirsten Dunst) and groom (Alexander Skarsgaard) giggle and kiss in the back of a ridiculously long stretch limo, which the driver is failing to maneuver around a bend. The seemingly happy couple is destined for a hideous wedding reception – complete with obnoxious guests and squabbling relatives (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling play the bride’s monstrously bitter parents). But the main problem is the bride. She’s suffering from a malaise that makes the term ‘depression’ seem like a picnic. Meanwhile, the bride’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is worrying about the rogue planet that’s moving closer and closer to Earth.

A grand and exhilarating work, Melancholia never abandons the human elements. The closing scenes are bound to have you in tears, reaching for the hand of a loved one.

Brad Pitt is the enigmatic patriarch in Tree of Life.
Tree of Life
Another hugely ambitious film about the grand state of things (including more magnificent images from space), Terrence Malick’s masterpiece tackles life, the universe, faith, grace and innocence. Tree of Life frustrated those who need a straight, clear narrative thread, but for lovers of beauty and mystery, this was one of the year’s must-see films.

Red Dog
The Australian blockbuster of the year, Red Dog was a nostalgic but knowing tale of a dog that united a West Australian mining community in the 1970s. Funny, heartwarming and accessible for all ages, this was true family filmmaking. Let’s have more of it.

Mad Bastards
Another film set in spectacular north western Australia, Mad Bastards was an uplifting musical journey about an estranged father and son, with a catchy toe-tapping score from the Pigram Brothers. Set in the heart of a contemporary Indigenous community the film was hopeful without ever shying away from reality.

Hordes of laugh-hungry women warmed to this story of a single thirty-something chick struggling to cope with her best friend’s wedding plans. Like Sex and the City’s wrinkly but more likeable cousin, Bridesmaids had heart and soul – and some genuinely fat people in it.

Part fairytale, part assassin thriller, Hanna was blood-pumpingly exciting chase tale. Saoirse Ronan shone as the flaxen-haired teen killer taught to survive by her father (Eric Bana), and hunted relentlessly by a red-haired Secret Service witch (Cate Blanchett). A jolly good action ride, all powered by a stunning Chemical Brothers soundtrack.

Saoirse Ronan in Hanna.

Bill Cunningham New York
An audience favourite around the world, this zesty documentary created an unlikely spiritual hero - the octogenarian bike-riding fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, whose passion and pursuit of beauty has an inspired and pure quality about it.

Jane Eyre
Mia Wasikowska was the perfect Jane Eyre in this adaptation of the beloved Bronte book. Serious and interestingly plain, her face lit up with genuine love and beauty when she encountered her glowering and mysterious Rochester (Michael Fassbender). This gets my vote for Best Sexual Chemistry on Screen this year. 

Passionate moments in Jane Eyre.

Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard
Certainly one of the year’s best music documentaries, this portrait of singer/songwriter Rowland S. Howard depicted not only a talented, self-aware and articulate individual, but a fascinating era in Melbourne’s early punk scene, with great interviews from the likes of Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Wim Wenders.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
An excellent adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling book, this film succeeded in conveying the puzzles and ambiguities at the heart of the novel: Are killers born or made? And what part does a mother have in making them so? A strange kind of maternal love story with Tilda Swinton as the mother of the ‘monster’.

So there they are. 

Below are some others not mentioned in the magazine wrap.

Honorable mentions to Source Code, Winter's Bone, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Blue Valentine, Julia Leigh's erotic fairytale, Sleeping Beauty, Ivan Sen's heartbreaking but humourous Indigenous tale, Toomelah, the very under-seen Australian thriller set at sea, Caught Inside; and The Trip with a memorable turn from Steve Coogan, but too many funny voices and impressions for my liking.

Highlights from festival films, one-off screenings and DVDs: Xavier Dolan's I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats; Amiel Courtin-Wilson's extraordinary HailJohn Curran's much maligned Stone; the already awarded Irananian drama A Separation; the beautiful documentary about Sydney dancer Tanja Liedke, Life in Movement; and the surprising and frank French drama set in a police child protection unit, Polisse. I was thrilled too, to see on the big screen Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast - though the final scenes made me giggle at the now-dated special effects and costumes.

Heartbeats - from the precociously talented and beautiful Xavier Dolan

Greatest disappointments and bores: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Wim Wenders Pina (I know, controversial!). Also, went to sleep in Kung Fu Panda 2, The Hunter (should I admit that? Might get me fired) and The Cup

Here's to another year of films. Happy New Year!  

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Year in Films: 2011

We all know that the whole point of these "Year's best and worst" lists is to get you all annoyed that your fave films didn't make the list while I get even more angry that I wasted so much of my life watching rubbish. So in an attempt to defuse the hate, let's loosely group the year's best and worst into vague categories rather than singling out individuals for the love… or the hate. So to kick off this (content-free) list (united by my vague emotional feelings towards various films rather than rigorous argument) with the love, 2011 was a good year for...

1): Westerns: True Grit / Meek’s Cutoff. Very different films – the former a traditional western, the latter a sedate look at a wagon train that’s hopelessly lost - but both used the landscape of the America west to unsettling effect.

2): Social degeneracy: Kaboom / Limitless. One’s about sex, the other’s about drugs, and they both say their respective vices are good and fun. Hurrah!

3): Dancing: Black Swan / Footloose. One involves dancing to feel good. The other… doesn’t.

4): Superheroes: Captain America / X Men: First Class / Fast & Furious 5 / Rise of the Planet of the Apes / 13 Assassins. Yes, Caesar the ape in Rise counts. So does Vin Diesel. And the samurai in the overlooked but amazingly action-packed 13 Assassins.

5): Comedy: Bridesmaids / The Trip. Yes, Bridesmaids was a massive hit (and rightly so), but for mine the Steve Coogan vs Rob Brydon battle of the Michael Caine impersonations was the funniest thing this year.

6): Spirituality: Higher Ground / Tree of Life / 127 Hours. Hey, if sawing your own arm off doesn’t put you in touch with a higher power, what will?

7): People dying: Fright Night / Source Code / Senna. The first was a great re-working of a horror classic; the second was a video game that reset every time our hero failed to defuse the bomb; the third was a brilliant documentary about a race car driver that… well, you can guess how that story ends.

8): Robots: Drive / Real Steel / Hanna. Okay, only the boxing robots in Real Steel were actual robots. But the leads in the other two were so blank (and so efficient at killing), it’s hard to credit them with humanity.

9): Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris. Hey, it’s nice to see Woody get one right after his hit and miss run of late.

10): Best film of the year: Take Shelter. Because this story of a man either losing his mind or having visions of the end of the world is one of the most haunting and terrifying things I’ve seen in a long, long time.

But just in case you were thinking 2011 was the dawn of some kind of new golden age of cinema, rest assured the stench of utter rubbish continued to billow out of cinemas at a steady rate. Especially cinemas screening the following, for which it was a very bad year…

1): Comedies about f**k buddies: No Strings Attached / Friends With Benefits. Because there’s no possible way to guess how all this is ever going to work out.

2): Comedies about anything else: Horrible Bosses / What’s Your Number: Yes, they contained the occasional laugh. With so much good comedy around, they didn’t have enough.

3): Young people: I Am Number 4 / Wasted on the Young / Abducted. Kids: either they’re on the run from aliens, on the run from spies, or on the run from their own despair at being super-rich yet socially isolated.

4): Sequels: Johnny English Reborn / Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Oh good, it’s another chance to get it right… that these films totally threw away.

5): Remakes: Arthur / The Thing / The Mechanic. What better way to salute the classics of the past than by turning them into slightly more polished turds?

6): Musicals: Sucker Punch / A Heartbeat Away. While Sucker Punch was a musical without the music; A Heartbeat Away was… just terrible. Another low point for Australian film

7): The olden days: Red Riding Hood / Burke & Hare. It seems that in the past, people were even worse actors than they are today. Nice outfits though.

8): Jim Carrey: Mr Popper’s Penguins. And the schmaltzy kids’ movie genre claims another once-great comedian. By the look in his eyes, he knows it too.

9): Cowboys & Aliens: Cowboys & Aliens. Two great tastes that taste like aimless, dull crap together.

10): Worst film of the year: Anonymous. Yes, there were others - many others - that were more painful or misguided or stupid. But this sloppy, meandering, pointless take on “what if Shakespeare was, uh, someone else” was the most boring film for 2011. And I’ll forgive a film anything but being boring.

Anthony Morris (this appeared in Forte #523)