Month: December, 2019

My favourite eleven films of 2019

ok here goes…

11. The Irishman (not reviewed): Forget the negative rantings about Paquin’s role as Peggy Sheeran. Her physical performance and seven lines of dialogue succinctly (but crucially) encapsulates the entirely of Scorsese’s slow-burning investigation into Frank Sheeran’s life. The anti-aging digital effects aren’t quite up to snuff, but otherwise, this is a fine (but long … you’ll need to attach a catheter) film by a craftsman who’s still got the goods.
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10. Midsommer (review): In his follow up to last year’s harrowing and unsettling Hereditary, Ari Aster has extended his cold touch into the warm reaches of a Scandinavian summer. With a prowling camera that keeps the cast at arm’s length, he has employed a bright canvas and ironically daubed darker themes of grief and shame with striking results. Pugh’s skill, once again, proves why she is one of the most impressive actors working today, with a nuanced performance that masterfully distills the suffocating effects of anxiety.
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9. Destroyer (review): Directed like a pump-action shotgun by woman-power maestro Karyn Kusama, Destroyer flew quietly under the radar during awards season earlier this year. Shame, because this nihilistic slow-burn deserved a lot better. What begins as standard police procedural becomes a primal cry of motherhood as the story investigates how crime has stained a mother’s relationship with her daughter. Kusama knows how to tell a hard-boiled story to lens-cracking effect and hung enough of the film’s driving force on Nicole Kidman’s nail-hard central performance. The result? A Kidman masterclass at the hands of a woman-centric director in utter control of her craft. 
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8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (review): The focussed intensity of love is explored in French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s latest film. A period piece that details the lives of two 18th century women over the course of one fateful week, Sciamma’s romantic drama feels modern despite its setting. It’s a brooding and simmering film that evokes themes of modern classics; the transcendent feminine gaze of Campion’s The Piano, the gay love of Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, even its exploration into forbidden lives echoes von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. And yet despite thematic similarities, Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels entirely fresh in its treatment of femininity, due most notably to the resolute absence of masculinity set within Sciama’s frame.
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7. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (review): Yes, Spidey just makes the cut with an early Jan 2019 NZ release. Drawing on its comic book roots, the same producers who brought us The Lego Movie have gone with an animation style that fizzes and crackles with explosive energy, creating the genuine feeling of a comic book leaping onto the screen. The banging soundtrack will have you buzzing and writer Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) brings a level of quick-witted irreverence and humour that manages to ground this preposterous tale. The result is an unconventional, vibrantly fresh and laugh-a-minute loving ode to the comics.  It’s really something special.
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6. Joker (review): Perhaps the most divisive film of the year, Joker gives us an introspective character study that belies its comic-book origins. Dark, gritty and full of rage, this deep-dive into Fleck’s psychological descent is undeniably an eye-opener. Joker elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance. I really, really, really liked this film.
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5. If Beale Street Could Talk (not reviewed): Barry Jenkins is one of the most important directors working today and if his Oscar-winning effort, Moonlight, wasn’t proof, then If Beale Street Could Talk certainly is. This film unapologetically meets America’s racist past head-on weaving into its fabric a mesmerising love story that is so heartfelt it made me sigh for days after. Jenkins brings black activist, James Baldwin’s novella into vivid focus with a softy trod diatribe (if there is such a thing) tempered by James Laxton’s breath-taking cinematography. It’s a symphony for the emotions and senses. Achingly beautiful and woozily sensual, If Beale Street Could Talk is essential viewing. 
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4. Apollo 11 (review): A marvel of technical filmmaking, exemplified most acutely with the launch scene—an undeniable high-point that cleverly ratchets tension through an orchestration of deft editing, stunning sound design and accompanied by Matt Morton’s spine-tingling score. It’s a mind-blowing experience that makes you sit back and simply gape in awe.
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3. Amazing Grace (review): If the technically dazzling Apollo 11, literally took you to the moon and back, then Amazing Grace metaphorically does the same with a cinematically enthralling and spiritually charged presentation of a titanic talent. If this film doesn’t move you then you might want to check your pulse.
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2. The Farewell (not reviewed): Perhaps the biggest (and most pleasant) surprise of the year. A poignant but ultimately heart-warming family drama, The Farewell broadsided me with bags of emotion and humour. Awkwafina is a revelation.
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1. Parasite (review): Korean director Bong Joon-ho has once again lanced the infected boil on the bum of society: inequality. Exhilarating and thrillingly portrayed, Parasite is elevated by Bong’s skill as a visual director as well as his dextrous use of satire to illuminate the more unsavoury side of class-politics. Pure brilliance.
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Righto, that’s me done. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Happy Ending

heVerdict: A lightweight but pleasant romantic comedy with a satisfying final kick.

Although Happy Ending’s prophetic title might give away how this Danish dramedy finishes, the ending mightn’t be quite what you’d expect. For a film that traverses the well-trod topic of a retired couple breakup, Happy Ending does its best to break with traditions before the final credits roll and what is predominantly a lightweight fluffy meringue of a film ends as something a little more thought-provoking.

Married couple Helle (Birthe Neumann) and Peter (Kurt Ravn) see retirement quite differently. Peter is a silver fox suffering (or blossoming, depending on how you look at it) from a late-life-crisis and unwilling to give up on his masculine agency. However, Helle sees retirement as a time to reconnect with an-all-but-absent husband previously consumed by his work. With opposing philosophies thrust upon them, their marriage begins to blow in the breeze as the two go down very different paths.

In her eighth feature Danish director Hella Joof (Shake It, Bitter Sweetheart) has taken the retired couple marriage breakup routine—something that has almost become a cliche—and updated it for the modern age. Joof is an experienced director; black, female and lives in a progressive Nordic country—plenty of reasons for her to have carte blanche on topics of feminism and race. Yet, despite a few pointed barbs Happy Ending is surprisingly reserved, opting instead to gloss over the gloomier and gender-weary battlegrounds of marriage.

Acting veterans Neumann and Ravn (who have previously worked together) provide a good amount of chemistry and run through an even-keeled screenplay that keeps the story predictable but pleasant. That is, until the film’s final stanza where things take a curious but satisfying turn.

Happy Ending isn’t a particularly demanding watch, nor will it crease you over with laughter, but it manages to push juuuust enough boundaries to keep things interesting. And the happy ending? Well, that depends on your definition of happiness.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Good Liar

tglVerdict: A con trick flick with an ending that doesn’t stick.

Royalty of the British acting talent pool, namely Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren duke it out in a game of intrigue, skulduggery and lies … delivered with the best possible manners, of course. The Good Liar is an adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel of the same name, a story about old people lying to each other (a topic Searle no doubt garnered from his time spent working for the NZ Government).

McKellen plays Roy, an elderly man whose pleasant nature belies his shady past. He is a con-artist who prays on victims seduced by his seemingly harmless age and impeccable manners, but his latest victim, a money-flush widower named Betty (Mirren), proves to be a trickier prospect than he had first anticipated.

Director, Bill Condon, has worked with McKellen before (Mr. Holmes, Gods and Monsters), and with far better results than this misdirected disappointment. What begins as a promising con-artist tale built on two unlikely candidates unravels itself to reveal a disjointed, illogically told farce.

Screen-writer Jeffrey Hatcher (who also worked with Condon and McKellen on Mr. Holmes) has made a dog’s breakfast of his adaptation of Searle’s book. Good mysteries deliver their “big reveal” from a collection of lies and truths. To decipher fact from fiction is the game the audience must play. But when a film throws back the curtain on its mystery without allowing its audience the remotest chance of figuring it out, then there is a sense of cinematic betrayal going on. I can’t mention specifics without divulging spoilers, suffice to say that The Good Liar offers two key twists; The first delivered at such glacial speed, environmental scientists could’ve seen it coming. The second twist is such a head-scratcher that it requires a subsequent lengthy flashback (setup that should’ve come a lot earlier) to explain itself. Not quite an “it was all a bad dream” moment, but it feels like it. Shame, because The Good Liar starts out so well, but in the words of the good Sir Ian McKellen “You shall not pass!” Indeed, his movie doesn’t get one either.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.