Imperium (Daniel Ragussis, 2016). The renaissance of Daniel Radcliffe (Swiss Army Man, Kill Your Darlings) seemed more myth than reality until his surprisingly strong showing in this unexpectedly topical undercover Nazi thriller. Radcliffe is a dweebish FBI agent turned shaven-headed Aryan warrior (he looks like a pocket-edition Henry Rollins) infiltrating neo-Nazi gangs who have – you will never believe this – been radicalised by a smarmy, conspiracy theory-peddling radio host.
February 20, 2017
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979) and Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016). Like both Stalker and Andrei Rublev, Silence could be understood as a long and introverted meditation on the gap between religious aspirations and ideals and the compromises made by those who must live in the world. It is profound enough to wear the comparison and there is a rare cautiousness, or maybe piousness or seriousness, in the way that Scorsese directs. It may be true that Andrew Garfield lacks the gravity or sorrow that Liam Neeson and even Adam Driver carry with them, or the thin-skinned anguish of Willem Dafoe in the more turbulent and vivid Last Temptation of Christ, but there are many consolations. A remarkable Japanese supporting cast is just one of them. A thoughtful screenplay (by Jay Cocks and Scorsese) is another. Like Tarkovsky (or recent Malick), this is religious art, and you have to meet it at least halfway.
February 11, 2017
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947). Where is that line between the too-much-ness of Welles as actor and the hamminess? To put it another way: between the actor caring too much and not caring enough? You can say (David Thomson does) that Welles put a lifetime of acting into Citizen Kane and everything after was a variation on parts of Kane’s corruption. And everything is informed for us now by biography. The unconvincing figure Welles plays here, the Irishman O’Hara, is smart but clueless, an insightful writer who is easily duped. Welles’ expressionist flourishes are daringly at work in the closing amusement park Caligari scene, despite studio edits, but I’m as taken with the hallucinatory aquarium scene. No one has ever made sense of the story.
January 27, 2017
January 25, 2017
Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016). It seemed impossible but everyone learned something. Deep within it, there is pioneering American religious separatism, the founding story, tribes of children and the possibility of innocence. Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay.
January 24, 2017
Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015). There is a 1970s feeling to Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama – not quite a horror, but nearly – Queen of Earth, both in its setting (a lakeside cabin with timbered interior) and its theme (a Bergman-ish descent into madness). The eerie score by Keegan DeWitt has echoes of Rosemary’s Baby and there is a similar sense of persecution and humiliation in the story of Catherine, a young woman who has lost her famous artist father, played with remarkable commitment and intensity by Elisabeth Moss. As in Perry’s previous film, the vicious literary black comedy Listen Up Philip, these are well-connected, creative, upper middle-class New Yorkers whose relationships have turned competitive and bitter – it can almost feel like the dark flip side of a privileged, whimsical Wes Anderson world.
January 20, 2017
Blood Father (Jean-Francois Richet).
Chapter 1: it begins and ends in churches, with confessions of hopelessness.
Chapter 2: the body artist, the dragon drawing and the meaning of Don Quixote.
Chapter 5: the missing mother.
Chapter 9: when he loses the biker beard, he reminds you of his most vulnerable and remorseful self.
January 19, 2017
Chasing Asylum (Eva Orner, 2016). “It sat with me for quite a number of months. And if I didn’t speak out, who was going to? I’ve got a conscience and I was brought up the right way. And I don’t understand how we can do this to each other. I felt that it was the right thing to do. People need to talk up.” Manus Island guard and whistleblower Martin Appleby.
January 18, 2017
The Captive (Atom Egoyan, 2014). The sad thing about Atom Egoyan is that we measure everything against the heights of his greatest work and find it lacking, time and time again – perhaps he peaked too soon. It doesn’t help when a (relatively) new film like The Captive seems to be a pallid, lifeless, poorly-constructed retread of his best films, with their deep explorations of loss and memory. Child abduction, disappearances, guilt, grief: it was all done so much better in The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica and Felicia’s Journey, which constitute the mature peak of Egoyan’s career. This has none of the sad, complicated feelings of those three films and Egoyan makes a confusing mess of the tricky timelines – the kind of thing that once came easily to him.
January 9, 2017
January 6, 2017
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016). Carrie Fisher died between my first viewing of Rogue One and my second, which complicates the already problematic decision to create a younger version of the actress for this so-called standalone story that is really a direct prequel to A New Hope. The digital Leia is only in it for seconds but a reanimated Peter Cushing gets more screen time and the effect makes him seem strangely shifty, like a lost ghost who isn’t sure if he should be there either. The other resurrection is more straightforward: unused A New Hope footage puts a pilot played by the late Drewe Henley back in the series. Maybe nothing can ever die in the Star Wars universe and not just because there will always be prequels, sequels, flashbacks, recastings and maybe even remakes one day, but because everything returns to the Force, in a Buddhist sense. Sometimes characters die and get to live again (Poe Dameron, Anakin Skywalker) so why not actors? But is there also something about George Lucas’ light, artificial conception of a plastic universe in which actors aren’t even necessarily human beings that jars with Gareth Edwards’ impressive ambition for Rogue One, which is to construct a realistic, behind-enemy-lines war movie within the confines of the greater, Lucasfilm mythology? That tension is interesting and it makes Rogue One more provocative, stranger and less obviously crowd-pleasing than The Force Awakens, which seemed perfectly designed to disappoint absolutely no one and had a remarkable lightness of touch (in that film, resurrections were limited to Alec Guinness’ voice). So I do agree with the critics of Rogue One who say that the story is complicated and even exhausting, and that important plot points and great actors (a Fury Road-ish Forest Whitaker, especially) are lost in the murk while Felicity Jones and Diego Luna feel like the gloomy flipsides of Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac in The Force Awakens, but there is plenty to like here as well: Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic is already one of the series’ great tragic figures and the duo of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen don’t just expand the idea of the Force across the entire series, they even seem to refer all the way back to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which is one of the things that kicked off all of this for Lucas in the first place. Like every viewer, I’m already thinking of other spin-offs I want to see from this spin-off.
January 4, 2017
“There, I had arrived. I had forgotten the cinema at the corner of the avenue. It was called Le Mexico and it was no coincidence that it had such a name. It gave you a longing for journeys, for running away or escaping … I had also forgotten the silence and the calm of avenue Rachel that leads to the cemetery, but you don’t think of the cemetery there, you tell yourself that right at the very end you will emerge in the countryside, and even with a bit of luck on a seaside promenade.” Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth.
January 3, 2017
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). The troubled single parent in highbrow science fiction: Interstellar, Midnight Special, Arrival, Signs. As with Arrival, Interstellar is more emotionally affecting on a second viewing. On a first viewing, you are awed by the scale (time, space), but on a second, by the smaller details and connections. Or: nothing gives a film longevity quite like a requirement to view it more than once. The single parent theme owes everything to Spielberg and at least two of the above are homages.
December 28, 2016
This was yesterday. I struggled to think of a connection, but there is one. Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977); Patrick Stewart in Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2016); Maria Callas in Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969).
December 27, 2016
Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969). The achievement, as I see it, is to put you not just in an ancient world (that seems relatively easy) but in the ancient mind, and its startling otherness. I can’t think of anything like the early sequences Pasolini stages in his imaginary Colchis, these elaborate and bloody ceremonial sacrifices in bright, dry landscapes.
December 23, 2016
Elvis & Nixon (Liza Johnson, 2016). Does it bother you if a historical figure is played by an actor who bears no resemblance? Michael Shannon looks nothing like Elvis Presley – a skinny, black-haired, insomniac speedfreak, his Elvis looks more like Sisters of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch – and he suggests an inner life more tortured or complicated than we usually expect of Presley. Such is Shannon’s gift. This slight and generally mediocre film imagines the circumstances surrounding a famous, or famously strange, photo of Presley shaking hands with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office in 1970, when he reportedly offered his services as an undercover narcotics agent. Kevin Spacey plays Nixon as a kinder, gentler Frank Underwood – his right-wing paranoia is nothing compared to that of the King’s, whose side of the story dominates. But one brief reflection on the psychic burden of being a surviving twin is as deep or memorable as it gets. This cartoonish Elvis mostly muses in cryptic silence. The sadness is interesting but is it Elvis’ sadness?
December 15, 2016
Arrival is better on a second viewing, once you know what its time structure is telling you. I said it bit off more than it could chew, but actually we need to see it twice at least to digest it. On your first viewing, it is a cerebral story about aliens, the military and language. The second time, it becomes more intimately focused on motherhood and even courtship: you notice when time leaks in and why, you notice the subtlety of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner’s physical performances, the growing closeness. The first time, I remembered the dark outlines of the alien ship and the powerful score and sound design; the second time I remembered the water on the lake and the years passing, all the Malickian stuff.
December 11, 2016
THE 10 BEST
1 The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015).
A different kind of horror movie, made with historical fidelity and Bergman or Dreyer-like seriousness – and a rare economy and a gradual increase of dread throughout. This small masterpiece may be the greatest religious film in years – relatively calm and steady where Lars Von Trier’s more personal Antichrist was psychologically overwrought and fiercely anguished, but it is just as deep. And it was even timely in ways no one could have expected: in a year of Satanic child-abuse conspiracies in the basements of pizza restaurants, maybe it’s useful to go back to the source of America’s founding Puritan terrors.
2 Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016).
The funniest film of the year is nearly three hours long and German. Peter Simonischek in wigs and false teeth is the disruptive father who acts as a mischievous prankster within the carefully controlled professional life of his daughter (Sandra Huller), a German businesswoman in Romania. The comedy unfolds within the drab non-places of EU commerce: hotel lobbies, meeting rooms, serviced apartments.
3 The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016).
As though Dario Argento and Kenneth Anger had collaborated on a far-too-beautiful horror film about a Los Angeles modelling world that apparently chews women up and spits them out. There are elements of Lynch as well in its Hollywood occult gothic – you might wait for someone to say “this is the girl”, Mulholland Drive-style. Watch this as the second half of a double bill with Terrence Malick’s esoteric LA film Knight of Cups.
4 Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015).
People leaving and arriving, crossing roads, half-hidden, seen through car windows or behind the wheel: this marvellous and subtle Todd Haynes film of a Patricia Highsmith novel both opens up the mystery of romance and lets it remain enigmatic. Haynes’ rock biopics (I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Superstar) turned lives into complicated mysteries to be solved or not solved – the same may apply here.
5 Julieta (Pedro Almodovar, 2016).
Just as Haynes adapts Highsmith, Pedro Almodovar adapts Alice Munro and produces his most mature and melancholy film so far. These are stories about estrangement and forgiveness that allow Almodovar to demonstrate once again that he is a subtle master of film narrative who can move effortlessly between different iterations of characters, times and locations. Tendencies towards camp are entirely suppressed.
6 The Revenant (Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015).
Nature is a cathedral and the temporary works of man are a ruined church, a fort on the edge of the wilderness and, most notably, a mountain of buffalo skulls. Look beyond the western: in this intimate epic of struggle and revenge, Apocalypse Now and the Mad Max series seem like natural predecessors, and by building on and deepening the fluidity and ease of Birdman, Inarritu avoids the pretentiousness that threatened to sink the likes of Babel and 21 Grams.
7 Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016).
Extending cleverly from his collaboration with Kristen Stewart on the more classical Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper has Assayas asking that most contemporary of questions: can you be trolled by the dead? This film is both an up-to-the-minute ghost story and an almost experimental character study developed for the precise talents of Stewart: that hurt loneliness, that sullenness.
8 Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016).
You didn’t make the mistake of thinking Verhoeven had mellowed, did you? This remarkable rape-revenge story, with a mesmerising performance from Isabelle Huppert, is the wildest thing he has made since … we probably have to say Showgirls, but we would rather say Starship Troopers.
9 Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016).
Better than Stranger Things, more intimate than Arrival. This under-rated film is so deeply American in its story of religious persecution, so packed with early 21st century anxiety and terror despite its deeper yearning towards the more innocent 70s/80s science-fiction of ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman, and it contains Michael Shannon’s most tender work so far for Jeff Nichols. Watch in a double bill with 10 Cloverfield Lane.
10 Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson, 2015).
Laurie Anderson’s deeply immersive essay film plays like a complicated dream about death, family and memory. Despite what it is about, and the person it never directly addresses, it feels joyful at times and even hopeful. That rare commodity.
Honourable mentions: Anomalisa, Arrival, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I, Daniel Blake, Knight of Cups, One More Time With Feeling, Paterson, Son of Saul, 10 Cloverfield Lane.
1 Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
2 Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
3 Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)
4 Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5 River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986)
6 Damnation (Bela Tarr, 1988)
7 Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
8 Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006)
9 Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007)
10 Enemies of the People (Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009)
11 Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2010)
12 Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010)
13 Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)
14 Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)
15 Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)
Some of these were seen for the first time (Chimes at Midnight at the NZFF) and some were revisited (River’s Edge nearly 30 years after seeing it at probably the Paramount, Wellington).
November 30, 2016
I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016). Ken Loach has been so consistent for 50 years that we almost risk taking him for granted or feeling we know what to expect. But still, I, Daniel Blake is very powerful and moving in its plainness and compassion. We see the deep, personal humiliations of austerity; this is almost a culture of humiliation. What Loach does here, and elsewhere, is more European than British: his use of non-professional actors in important roles, his commitment to quiet realism.