Archive for the ‘Australia’ Category

1) TIMBUKTU (DIR. ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO, FRANCE/MAURITANIA)
TimbuktuA tremendously moving modern tragedy set in contemporary Mali, but filmed in director Sissako’s native Mauritania. Timbuktu tells a story of a community fractured by a group of power-hungry Islamist militants intent on controlling the population by undermining the people’s existing cultural and religious practices. In spite of its bleak outlook, the film also captures the incredible music of the region and possesses a sense of spirited defiance in the face of tyranny.

2) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (DIR. GEORGE MILLER, AUSTRALIA/USA)
Mad Max

In the hands of another director Mad Max: Fury Road would likely have been an unnecessary and unwelcome reboot, but in the hands of Mad Max originator George Miller it was a triumph. The film is a relentless post-apocalyptic dash from A to B (then B to A), in which Tom Hardy’s petrol head grunt overcomes his misogyny in the service of fighting totalitarianism. It felt surprisingly prescient.

3) SELMA (DIR. AVA DUVERNAY, USA)
Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 12.16.05
With Selma Ava DuVernay declared herself a directorial force to be reckoned with in 2015. Telling the story of the civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965, DuVernay marshals a remarkable ensemble of actors with a superb David Oyelowo as Dr King. The film is most exhilarating thanks to DuVernay’s focus on King’s tactics, making for a timely film that reveals both the tough decision making, as well as the sacrifice behind the cause.

4) A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (DIR. ROY ANDERSSON, SWEDEN)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceRoy Andersson’s latest work is a film of light amusement, deadpan wit and grandiose horror; as the final film in a trilogy about being human, it is an apt achievement. In Pigeon… Andersson’s view on humanity – as found in his advertising work – is one of stale compartmentalised existence, yet there are also moments of painful history, which intrude at uncomfortable intervals. It’s a telling take on modern Western life and a haunting look at our place in history.

5) A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (DIR. ANA LILY AMIRPOUR, USA)
A Girl Walks Home Alone At NightUndoubtedly the coolest film of the year was the brilliant directorial debut of Ana Lily Amirpour, who transitioned from a prolific career in shorts. Though an American production, the film is an Iranian vampire flick in spirit with Amirpour’s Farsi script and excellent troupe of Iranian-American actors. The real success of the film is Amirpour’s perfect blending of the vampire genre with film noir and Fellini & Leone-esque cinematic stylistics. It’s a film buff’s dream.

6) WELCOME TO LEITH (DIR. MICHAEL BEACH NICHOLS & CHRISTOPHER K. WALKER, USA)
Welcome To LeithWelcome To Leith is a brilliant example of how documentaries are becoming increasingly suited to the cinema environment. Telling the story of the residents of Leith as they face off against notorious white nationalist Craig Cobb, filmmakers Nichols and Walker use Western genre tropes to tell both sides of the story and build unbearable tension. It’s a disturbing tale of intolerant ideology and vigilante action in modern America.

7) WILD TALES (DIR. DAMIÁN SZIFRÓN, ARGENTINA/SPAIN)
Wild TalesBrilliantly pulling off perhaps the most challenging film format, the anthology film, Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales tells a number of disaster stories – from vehicular disasters to weddings gone awry – in an almost-continuously exhilarating two hours. Particular highlights include tales of a jaded demolition expert and a case of rural road rage.

8) IT FOLLOWS (DIR. DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL, USA)
It Follows 2The long held horror tradition of punishing the sexually promiscuous comes to its inspired conclusion in It Follows, in which a curse is passed on through the act of sex. Mitchell creates an atmosphere of dread seldom seen since Hideo Nakata’s Ring in 1998 and the direction recalls the artful horror tropes of John Carpenter, making this a rare American horror classic among recent genre entries.

9) PASOLINI (DIR. ABEL FERRARA, FRANCE/BELGIUM/ITALY)
PasoliniAbel Ferrara’s look at the life of Italian cinematic maestro and social critic Pier Paolo Pasolini is something of an oddity. It features a gravely Willem Dafoe and numerous fantastical sequences from an unrealised Pasolini project; yet it is also an atmospheric, passionate, even mysterious tribute from a student to a master. So evocative in style, it’s a film that begs to be revisited and Dafoe is captivating under Ferrara’s direction.

10) FORCE MAJEURE (DIR. RUBEN ÖSTLUND, SWEDEN)
Force MajeureNo film comes close to Force Majeure in the race for the most cringeworthy filmic effort of 2015. This story of a Swedish family on a skiing holiday in the French Alps becomes a hilariously excruciating watch, after the father fails to exhibit the expected alpha male traits in a crisis situation. Director Ruben Östlund amps up the tragicomedy with his use of glorious cinemascope, which makes every awkward line and humiliating detail seem embarrassingly colossal.

HONORABLE MENTION – JOHN WICK (DIR. CHAD STAHELSKI, USA)
JohnWickThe Matrix aside, Keanu Reeves has not exactly been a reliable source of cinematic greatness – but in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick he contributes so perfectly to the film’s understated wit and panache that we should probably think again. Based on a premise of such hilarious simplicity, this is the revenge flick that Nicolas Cage and Liam Neeson have been relentlessly competing to make for about a decade.

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1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, USA/UK)

An ultra-early release of 2014 in the UK (January 10th to be precise), Steve McQueen’s third film 12 Years A Slave has endured, in my memory, as the most moving cinema experience of the year. Prior to this film McQueen had established himself – with Hunger and Shame – as one of the most important feature directors in the UK, for his ability to merge demanding topics with fresh visual language. With 12 Years A Slave he proved himself capable of this on a much grander scale, earning a Best Picture Oscar, a $187.7 million box office return and widespread critical support. It is essential that we revisit history through the eyes of great artists and Steve McQueen is one such artist.

2) 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (DIR. IAIN FORSYTH & JANE POLLARD, UK)
In a strong year for cinema documentaries 20,000 Days on Earth expanded the paradigm. Composed of elements from dramatic fiction, observational documentary and the rock film this Nick Cave biopic, set over the course of a day, is an expertly framed Petri dish of fascinating ideas. While the film might primarily appeal to Cave fans, it should interest anyone who creates, or simply wishes to understand themselves and their human impulses. Cave’s transcendental live performances feature prominently, while the meaning of these occasions is explored in moments of fascinating examination, as the frank and eloquent Cave reflects on his life to a therapist and lives out his life in atmospheric Brighton.

3) THE WIND RISES (DIR. HAYAO MIYAZAKI, JAPAN)
The Wind Rises is the final film of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki and it is a bittersweet achievement, not only about about the cost of innovation, but the cost of dreams. Based loosely on the true story of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was responsible for designing fighter planes during World War II, the film surrealistically captures the glorious freedom of imagination and intellect and contrasts it with the devastation these powers can bring. In line with Horikoshi’s own attitude towards the futility of WWII, the film’s tone is one of profound melancholy. The film presents a man whose talent for innovation and love of flight is tragically undermined by the impulse, in others, for war.

4) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)
In the cinema, 2014 was a special year for the more esoteric side of rock n’ roll. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch took the horror genre into reverent territory and drew a line straight back through the history of art. The film, which centers around the reunion of a pair of vampire lovers (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston), resonates with a universe of fascinating culture for those ready to listen. With locations in Chicago and Tangier the film takes us on a poetic punk journey, into a world once inhabited by Shakespeare ghost writers, Nikola Tesla, William S. Burroughs & The Stooges. The film’s soundtrack, featuring Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, Jozef van Wissem and Yasmine Hamdan is also not be missed.

5) VIRUNGA (DIR. ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL, UK/CONGO)

This extraordinary film from prolific director Orlando Von Einsiedel is a thrilling piece of journalism and another fantastic expansion on the possibilities of documentary cinema. The film follows the current crisis of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the park’s security team and rangers attempt to hold off an onslaught from Congolese rebels who appear to be collaborating with British oil company Soco. The documentary creates extraordinary emotional stakes by telling the stories of Andre Bauma, who cares for the park’s gorilla population, park director Emmanuel de Merode and journalist Melanie Gouby. These individuals put their necks on the line for the park, which the film depicts as an integral element to the survival and autonomy of the DRC, while the filmmakers capture the unfolding violence and human displacement.

6) THE KIDNAPPING OF MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ (DIR. GUILLAUME NICLOUX, FRANCE)
Back in 2011 controversial French author Michel Houellebecq (Whatever, Atomised, Platform) disappeared during a book tour for The Map and the Territory, leading to media speculation that he had been kidnapped by al-Qaida. The contention created by the author’s works may have justified such a possibility, but director Guillaume Nicloux’s dramatic interpretation of the situation (starring Houellebecq as himself) speculates on a much different – and hilariously funny – scenario. The integral joke of the film is that Houellebecq, in sly deadpan style, rather enjoys the experience, as he encourages his surprisingly benevolent captors to cater to his whims and vices. However you may feel about Michel Houellebecq, this film riffs brilliantly on his dark humour and outsider status.

7) NIGHTCRAWLER (DIR. DAN GILROY, USA)
Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The FallReel SteelThe Bourne Legacy) made his directorial debut with Nightcrawler and doing so brought to the screen a career best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, as aspirational anti-hero Louis Bloom. The film takes it’s cue from the post-recession job crisis, with Bloom as an ultra-opportunistic news cameraman who dispenses with all moral values to succeed in the business. His ambition leads him to film increasingly grisly crime scenes, as he simultaneously loses contact with the reality of what he films. The film is a thrilling romp, starring an unusually manic Gyllenhaal, which also works as a critique of the potentially exploitative nature of American news broadcasting.

8) 22 JUMP STREET (DIR. PHIL LORD & CHRISTOPHER MILLER, USA)
22 Jump Street is an unexpectedly great sequel, to an unexpectedly great feature adaptation (21 Jump Street), of a late 1980’s TV police comedy primarily remembered for kicking off Johnny Depp’s acting career. The beauty of 22 Jump Street is the way in which it comedically writes itself off as a pointless sequel. The irony of the film is that this bold sense of flippancy (embodied through the perfect buddy-chemistry of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) is precisely what makes the Jump Street films relevant. After years of terrible sequels, remakes and computer game adaptations, these films are the evidence that someone in Hollywood is finally thinking what the audience has been for a long time.

9) BELLE (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, UK)
Following her 2004 debut A Way of Life, Streatham born writer/director Amma Asante made a strong return with Belle. The film tells the story Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British career naval officer – who encouraged her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (and Lord Chief Justice) to recognise slavery as illegal in England and usher about its formal end. The film is directed with elegant style and frank sincerity, influenced no doubt by the 1779 Johann Zoffany painting that it was inspired by, in which a headstrong Belle appears animatedly alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray.

10) THE ROVER (DIR. DAVID MICHOD, AUSTRALIA)

David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom was one of the most striking debuts of 2010, showing Michôd to be one of the most gifted directors of contemporary Australian cinema. The film was a dense and engaging drama of a Melbourne crime family, made with an impeccable grasp of tension and great style. With The Rover Michôd stripped down the scope of his vision, focusing primarily on Guy Pearce’s mysterious protagonist who harbours an undisclosed agenda. The minimalist approach to his second feature pays off, with Michôd delivering a lean, bleak and thrilling film with excellent performances and a beautifully simple central conceit.

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If you ever need a change from the humdrum assembly line of Hollywood movies, it is always worth checking out the Academy Award Foreign Language film winners, nominees and submissions. Nearly every year there’s a gem or two to be found in the selection; in this case it’s the Australian submission (sadly not entered for competition), The Rocket. The feature debut from Kim Mordaunt is a sweet, uplifting and often shocking account of a family in Laos. Mordaunt brings his knowledge of the land (after directing documentary Bomb Harvest that looked at the remaining bombs from the US attack on Laos) along with a magic-realism tone and Spielbergian child character to create a truly enchanting film.

With a land destitute, lacking a particular age, Laos has a fascinating beauty. Due to its scarred land, it is also a place of solemnity. These are the two key aspects of Mordaunt’s film – a joyous depiction of splendour combined with heartbreak and toil. It begins with the birth of Ahlo and his still-born twin brother; the former being tagged “little balls” comically before the latter’s bereaved entrance. This juxtaposition continues throughout, making The Rocket an honest and therefore affecting film.

In a nutshell Ahlo’s twin genetics marks him as a figure of bad luck. In his young life he experiences this continually, yet he always strives to overcome it. When his family are moved out of their homes due to planned construction, the trek to a new life leads them to an unfit area of living. Ahlo then hears about a rocket-building competition that offers money to the winner. With his intellect and spirit he plans to win it, keeping his family safe and able to move them to a better property.

The simple storyline expands beyond its perimeters to explore notions of innocence, discrimination and the bonds we find in life. As a family film (with a 12A certificate), The Rocket is affirming and intelligent, worthy of comparison with some of the Capra and Disney greats. Not only does it keep your attention fixated on the determination of one boy, it reminds you of the scarcity in some people’s lives that can be overruled on the strengths of family and virtuousness.

Messages and morals aplenty, The Rocket is never preachy. It has a very clear set of values and an unquestionable elegance. The first 30 minutes are laced with stunning cinematography and a finely tuned score. As the film becomes more of a character study the visuals become less styled, thankfully reintroduced in the finale. It is a work of class, with Mordaunt making a terrific name for himself. He has the wit, humanity and wisdom to make the right sort of film, and The Rocket is already an excellent example of that.

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Much like the forlorn, tortured soul of Rambo and the brainwashed mind of Danny Stevenson in Split Image, Wake In Fright‘s disorientated lead character once again proves Ted Kotcheff’s ability to capture torment and dread with finesse. With the original negative thought to be lost, the classic, cult film, has now had its restoration, a re-run in cinemas, and is newly available on DVD and Bu-Ray. The stunning visuals and meticulous accent on atmosphere has now got glorious definition, making this a must-buy for film fans.

Marked by controversy and the story of its print’s loss, Wake In Fright has had a life of its own outside its plot. Within that plot, however, are a far more gripping and shocking set of events. It leaves the film both historically and artistically striking. With a pivotal scene including the cull of many real kangaroos, Wake In Fright acquired a notoriety. Thankfully, that notoriety also earned it a lot of followers. You watch the film now and you can see the influence it has had not only on Australian cinema but the entire sub-genre of hallucinatory horror.

We follow a polite, smart Brit (John Grant’s Gary Bond) planted in the Australian outback before his holiday. What begins as a simple pit-stop turns into an invitation into the very heart of Bundanyabba – a town where everything feels off yet the townspeople see no abnormality in their actions. Those actions include copious drinking, a habit that leads Gary to sweaty men’s clubs, kangaroo culls and witness to far-from lucid behaviour.

Gradually building on the tension, Kotcheff’s piercing eye on all this is wonderfully stylistic. Some may view it as over-the-top, prime for parody, yet it’s also contained in the 1970’s setting, where there still remained archaic, ignorant laws and bizarre characters. At one point we see Gary walk down the street, dishevelled, and with a rifle in his hand; passers-by just look on in bewilderment rather than fear – an odd image if you tried to think of it in contemporary terms.

Despite sensing some of the time lapse, Wake In Fright still resonates, overall. The notion of getting drawn into a culture or giving in to peer pressure is universal and timeless. Set in the Outback, it also allows for the extraordinary backdrop to be married with this common theme. If Gary is the everyman we are keen to follow and support, the Outback is something we’re intrigued about – especially given its effect on the protagonist. In sum, it keeps you thoroughly gripped; a series of unpredictable incidents collaged together with gorgeous cinematography and palpitating edits. There’s a life to the film – one than could have been forgotten and buried along with its nearly-destroyed print – that needs to be experienced.

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Boys on Film: Youth in Trouble is the ninth edition of Peccadillo Pictures’ successful series of gay themed short films. This collection looks around the world to Brazil, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, France, Canada and the UK, to explore the challenges of being a young gay man in a wide variety of scenarios.

At its most interesting Youth In Trouble shows us the inside of an Australian prison, in The Wilding by director Grant Scicluna. Recalling Alan Clarke’s prison masterpiece Scum, The Wilding is a gritty and naturalistic short in which two inmates develop an intimate relationship amid a culture of prison violence. The film thrives on its realistic casting, particularly lead Malcolm (Reef Ireland), and it feels that director Scicluna has potential amongst the burgeoning Australian crime cinema.

Pariah director Dee Rees’ intriguing Colonial Gods looks with bite upon the racist treatment of Somali and Nigerian immigrants in Wales. While somewhat meandering in its plotting, this is a rich film in its social commentary, performances and visual ideas. It also makes for a great sonic tapestry of voices, with Arabic, Nigerian and English dialogue spoken in a variety of accents.

The collection occasionally lapses into an excessive tendency for earnestness. Canadian short Deep End does very little to dramatise its moral dilemma, in which young boy Dane struggles with his older brother coming out. Swiss/German film Prora also wears thematically thin in its exploration of sexual tension, on a backdrop of a derelict Nazi holiday camp (presumably a metaphor, but for what exactly?) Brazilian short Family Affair never breaks free of its limited location to say anything pertinent, in spite of its convincingly claustrophobic atmosphere.

However, UK director James Cook creates some incredibly tense moments in psychodrama Together. Though the film suffers from a few directorial missteps (odd angles and overly flamboyant lens choices) and an abrupt twist in the tail, it is clearly made by a director with a sense to entertain.

Spanish director Carlos Montero smartly builds a darkly numerous psychological thriller in Easy Money. The film sees Spanish rent boy Jamie (Mario Casas) in too deep, when he arrives to service a middle aged client who mistakes him for a hitman. Montero brilliantly keeps us guessing for the entire 15 minute duration.

Finally This Is Not A Cowboy Film is a comical tribute to Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain. Set entirely in school toilets the film amusingly captures a group of male and female teenagers grappling with the frontiers of sexuality.

Boys on Film: Youth in Trouble is a shorts collection that walks the thin line between issues and entertainment, but when the two coalesce it is a real success.

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1. BADLANDS (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK. USA, 1973)

There are filmmakers, and then there is Terrence Malick. On the surface this is a fairly conventional road movie following two young lovers on a crime spree. But Malick subverts the story of murderer Charles Starkweather for his own purposes; this is a dreamy, timeless film that hints at abstract emotions that transcend mere happiness or sadness. With his beautifully photographed Hopperesque landscapes and mute characters, Malick gives us something otherworldly and genuinely odd.

2. PARIS, TEXAS (DIR. WIM WENDERS, USA/GERMANY, 1984)

A letter of both love and hate to America, German auteur Wenders perfects the road movie with his tale of Travis, a loner who seeks to reunite his estranged family and rediscover the American Dream. A clever distortion of both the American road movie and the Westerns of John Ford, Paris, Texas really soars as a piece of melodrama. Harry Dean Stanton’s movingly hangdog central performance holds the film together, while the final monologue is both heart breaking and cathartic.

3. ANDREI RUBLEV (DIR. ANDREI TARKOVSKY, RUSSIA, 1966)

Alongside Kubrick, Russian director Tarkovsky is perhaps the only filmmaker to really push cinema to its limits on a large scale. This epic film follows the tribulations of painter Andrei Rublev through a period of religious strife and violence. While some of Tarkovsky’s other works veered too much towards introspective worthiness, this film utilises the director’s inventive technical vision to his greatest heights. The opening balloon sequence and the pagans on the river count as two of the most extraordinary set pieces committed to film. Existentialism and technical vision collide with aplomb.

4. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (DIR. PETER WEIR, AUSTRALIA, 1975)

Once voted the greatest Australian film of all time, this Peter Weir film is arguably one of the most curious and beguiling works in history. Based on the disappearance of several schoolgirls on a mountain in 1900, the film revels in it’s languid, strange atmosphere and sugar coated visuals. Bravely, Weir never seeks to solve the case- but in this case, it doesn’t matter. Weir challenges the audience to consider the idea that sometimes there are no easy answers, that not everything in this world can be categorised and put into boxes.

5. COME AND SEE (DIR. ELEM KLIMOV, SOVIET UNION, 1985)

Francois Truffaut once said that all war films end up glamourising war, despite their best intentions. Come and See is one of the few films which genuinely challenges this theory. Set in Nazi occupied Belarus during WW2, the film follows the young Flyora as he seeks to evade the army which has killed his family. While most war films tend to lend an air of nobility to the fighting (cough Saving Private Ryan cough), Come and See shows wartime as it really is; a nightmare-ish hell where confusion and inhumanity reign. The film is redeemed as a genuine piece of art by the frequent touches of poetry, both in the vivid imagery and striking sound design. The shot of Flyora lying shellshocked by a dead cow will stay with you forever.

6.  THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, MEXICO, 1973)

Once you’ve seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll start to wonder how every other filmmaker is so bloody….mundane. Jodorowsky’s films touch on religion, sex and death, but it is the striking visuals and mind boggling set design which mark his work as cult gems. The baffling plot revolves around the ‘thief’ and his quest for immortality, leading to a series of wild adventures. If Dorothy had taken a tab of acid on her route down the Yellow Brick Road, this film would probably have been the result.

7. TRUST (DIR. HAL HARTLEY, USA, 1990)

Hal Hartley came to prominence in the late 80’s in US independent cinema, embarking on an inexplicably good run of films, like Scorsese/Coppola in the 70’s. His De Niro is Martin Donovan, a chiselled jawed, verbose actor who stars alongside the late, elfin-like Adrienne Shelly. The film follows Shelly as the brattish teenager who discovers she’s pregnant and homeless, and her chance meeting with Donovan, an older man undergoing his own existential crisis. Hal Hartley is extremely influenced by Godard and Bresson, even taking scenes wholesale, yet he is much warmer than Godard and funnier than Bresson. His films have often been compared to choreographed dance, where the characters waltz around each other in torment and lust, and in Trust we have his most defining film.

8. MAUVAIS SANG (DIR. LEOS CARAX, FRANCE, 1986)

Leos Carax is regarded as some kind of renegade in French cinema, with his films usually set around outsiders from society. Mauvais Sang, his second film revolves Alex (Denis Lavant), a prodigious lock picker who gets involved in a heist with Marc (Michel Piccoli) and his young lover Anna (Juliette Binoche). Tensions between the three of them grow as Alex begins to fall for Anna, and the film is essentially a romantic thriller. Denis Lavant is one of the most unusual actors around, his reptilian features and penchant for acrobatics and impromptu dance routines making him irresistible. Binoche has never been more radiant as Anna. Edited in a poetic, elliptical style, Mauvais Sang is a cult gem, full of vitality and life.

9. L’ HUMANITE (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE, 1999)

Bruno Dumont is another French filmmaker influenced by Bresson’s stark humanism and obsession with faith. Yet, Dumont has his own style influenced by his time as an industrial corporate film maker; static images of desolate Northern France and vivid cinematography give the impression of thereness. Pharaon De Winter is the detective of a small rural town where a young girl has been found murdered. A childlike man, De Winter struggles to solve the case, and all the time the audience is questioning his role in the film.  L’ Humanite deals with sex and violence in a non-judgemental, matter of fact way, and the film veers between tenderness and brutality with ease. A sinister, disquieting film yet strangely invigorating in it’s realness.

10. GUMMO (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA, 1997)

One of a handful of films that could have potentially hinted at a new direction for cinema. There is nothing quite like enfant terrible Korine’s debut, save perhaps his idol Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small,which has a similarly scant plot and improvisational feel. Set in the fictional town of Xenia in small town America, the multi stranded film meanders through a series of vignettes of the distinctly dysfunctional inhabitants. Mixing pop culture as diverse as Roy Orbison and Sleep, naturalistic performances and moments of poetry, Gummo is a singular oddity that lingers in the mind long after the end credits. While some have labelled it exploitative, there is a sense of compassion and genuine affection running through the film from Korine.

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Derided by the public upon its release, Wake in Fright looks today like something of a father figure to contemporary Australian cinema. With recent Australian films such as Snowtown, Animal Kingdom and The Proposition achieving critical and box office success despite their challenging subject matter, it is interesting to think that in the early 1970’s such candid self-reflection was out of bounds. Today Wake in Fright is ready for due consideration as a prominent piece of Australian filmmaking, but the question remains – was it tough for its time or is it still today?

Wake in Fright tells the tale of a middle-class school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who works at a tiny school in a township called Tiboonda in the Australian Outback. Upon closing school for Christmas, Grant gets the train to a local mining town known as “The Yabba”, from where he plans to fly to Sydney. Stopping at a cavernous, yet heaving bar Grant meets a policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who encourages him to drink numerous glasses of beer and gamble, whereupon he loses all his money. Unable to leave “The Yabba” Grant enters into a journey of Heart of Darkness proportions as he begins to mix with the local people, most of whom share the same infectious drinking habit.

Director Ted Kotcheff creates an image of hell out of the outback. The world of “the Yabba” is geographically barren, saturated with alcohol and male-dominated (with only one prominent female character called Janette, who seems to have had relations with all the local men). The situation Grant finds himself in makes it easy for anyone, including the well orientated, to slip into disarray. The film contains a number of distressing scenes including a ruthless cross country Kangaroo hunt and brutal brawls, as well as implying disturbing relations between various characters including a local doctor and alcoholic Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), who Grant befriends.

Grant’s journey from upstanding school teacher to crazed maniac feels swift and it is naturally portrayed by Gary Bond. The film has pace and like a roller-coaster we are flung through Grant’s descent. The film gives us the feeling that not only is any man susceptible to base behaviour but he has it innately in his physical and psychological make-up. This is emphasised by Grant’s encounters with Doc Tydon, who is respected as a local doctor despite his alcoholism. The direction their relationship takes towards the end is unexpected but not entirely surprising.

The enduring impression of Wake in Fright can be seen in 2011’s Snowtown (based on the true story of John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer) and Animal Kingdom (a crime family story equivalent to Australia’s Goodfellas), in that they represent a national cinema that is fearless in its representation of dark but valid cultural themes. The difference, however, is that Wake in Fright portrays an entire community with an undercurrent of madness; it therefore suggests a disturbing cultural trend on a much larger scale than that of a serial killer or even a crime family. Wake in Fright does not allow the audience member to entirely disassociate themselves with the themes of man’s barbarism – some audience members may feel that it points the finger. For that reason it was controversial in its day and is potentially still a shocker today.

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1) DRIVE (DIR. NICHOLAS WINDING REFN) – USA

Drive is a Hollywood film directed by a distinctly European director. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn rethinks the Hollywood crime thriller with minimal dialogue, strong colour, offbeat casting and an idiosyncratic soundtrack. While embracing it’s influences Drive also subverts numerous cliches and Refn shows a remarkable talent for crafting scenes that are emotionally gripping and utterly tense.

2) ANIMAL KINGDOM (DIR. DAVID MICHOD) – AUSTRALIA

David Michod’s debut feature feels like the work of an accomplished Australian equivalent to Michael Mann. Animal Kingdom tells the story of a naive young man in the midst of a dangerous crime family and the havoc he causes them. With an impressive cast including Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver, Michod rarely puts a foot wrong, from the staging of each scene to his choice of music. Not only an extremely impressive debut, but a great Australian film.

3) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR. WERNER HERZOG) – GERMANY & CANADA

Werner Herzog has been working hard lately, with the release of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss premiering at various festivals in 2011. Out of the two unique documentaries Into The Abyss hits the hardest, with some of the best interviews Herzog has ever conducted. Probing the subject of death row Herzog puts together a restrained, yet unmistakably Herzogian investigation, which places moral  questions centre stage.

4) THE SKIN I LIVE IN (DIR. PEDRO ALMODOVAR) – SPAIN

Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is an intriguing, intelligently structured and stylish film that successfully pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet in a manner that is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Almodovar blends classic horror with the themes he is famous for and gains great performances from his cast. Antonio Banderas turns in a dark, well judged portrayl and Elena Anaya brilliantly gains the audiences empathy within an utterly bizarre scenario.

5) MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (DIR. WOODY ALLEN) – USA

Midnight In Paris sees Woody Allen at the top of his game. Owen Wilson plays a screenwriter (Gil), who aspires to become a novelist. He falls in love with Paris while on holiday with his fiancé (and her parents) and begins wandering the streets at night revelling in the city’s mythology. Upon meeting a number of unlikely personalities, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Salvador Dali among others, Gil becomes far removed from his normal life to wonderfully Allenesque effect.

6) TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (DIR. TOMAS ALFREDSON) – UK

Where Drive was an American production directed by a Dane, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a British one directed by a Swede. Tomas Alfredson brings a distinctly Scandinavian approach to this classic cold war story. Like his vampire film Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor makes use of wide open spaces juxtaposed with dingy interiors to create an appropriate paranoia. Alfredson’s remarkable ensemble cast create numerous memorable performances, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

7) HUGO (DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE) – USA

An ode to cinema by Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the tale of French film director George Meilies through the eyes of a young boy called Hugo Cabret. Directed with a youthful flare by Scorsese, we follow Hugo’s journey to fix an automaton left behind by his late father, which leads him to a discovery of Meilies forgotten cinema career. The story of a young man discovering cinema and it’s possibilities for the first time is clearly one close to Scorsese’s heart; that’s why Hugo is such a good film.

8) DREAMS OF A LIFE (DIR. CAROL MORLEY) – UK

Dreams of a Life and it’s central character Joyce Vincent captured the hearts and minds of cinema goers this Christmas. Joyce Vincent died in 2003 in her North London bedsit and went undiscovered for three years. She had been a popular, outgoing and successful young woman who became increasingly alienated in the years preceding her death. Director Carol Morley investigates the circumstances that lead to Joyce’s death and meets with friends, boyfriends, colleagues and others to paint a portrait (using excellently performed reconstructions and talking head interviews) of a woman who no one would expect society to leave behind.

9) SNOWTOWN (DIR. JUSTIN KURZEL) – AUSTRALIA

John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer is the subject of Snowtown. Directed by Justin Kurzel, with cinematography by Animal Kingdom DOP Adam Arkapaw, this film is a gruelling telling of a series of crimes orchestrated by Bunting between 1992 and 1999. The film’s graphic style is tough going even for hardened film viewers, but Daniel Henshall’s intelligent and rounded performance as Bunting demands the audience’s attention. Along with Animal Kingdom, Snowtown shows contemporary Australian cinema in a very good light.

10) PINA (DIR. WIM WENDERS) – GERMANY

Wim Wender’s tribute to the late Pina Bausch contains perhaps the best use of 3D seen in 2011. The film, made after Pina’s death, sees Wenders stage the choreographers work in a manner that complements her work effectively. The juxtaposition of Pina’s choreography and Wender’s choice of locations, camera work and music creates a kind of posthumous collaboration, which functions as both a moving tribute to and preservation of Pina’s remarkable style of choreography.

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Honorary mention:

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Dir. Mark Cousins) – UK

A remarkable television series for Channel 4 telling the history of film in Mark Cousins’ unique style.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-story-of-film-an-odyssey

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Snowtown, a film based on a series of murders committed near Adelaide, Australia between 1992 and 1999, is a gruelling take on its source material. First time feature director Justin Kurzel casts Daniel Henshall as John Bunting, the domineering serial killer at the centre of the true crimes. Initially Henshall portrays Bunting with a surprising charm and affection towards a family who fell victim to a local paedophile. He takes revenge of behalf of the family, before setting out on a crusade against any person he takes a disliking to. Ultimately Bunting becomes a junky to the violence he creates, enlisting those around him to carry out horrendous acts.

Kurzel’s approach is to maintain a gritty sense of realism, juxtaposed with a heavy dose of tension. He creates a number of particularly violent and disturbing scenes, with characters inflicting shocking acts on humans and animals. He combines these with frequent scenes of characters smoking cigarettes and eating. It creates a sense of squalor in which murder becomes as common place as lunch. Snowtown’s visual motifs bring to mind another recent Australian success, Animal Kingdom. Both films often portray important events in wide shots (sometimes opting for slow motion); this does not overemphasize the intensity of the action and creates a disturbing sense of detachment.

However, despite the comparison to Animal Kingdom being part of the praise for Snowtown, this is also where the film comes unstuck.  Where Animal Kingdom had pace, punctuated by moments of extreme tension Snowtown feels somewhat incoherent and meandering. This problem partly stems from Kurzel’s tendency to create moments with a somewhat contrived sense of tension, relying too heavily on sound rather than action, as well as the film’s passive (though well acted) main character Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway).

With its brutal scenes and occasionally difficult pace Snowtown is challenging on several levels. Nevertheless it is well cast and impressively acted, showing moments of great directorial technique. All in all it is a flawed but worthwhile addition to contemporary Australian Cinema, which as a national cinema shows itself capable and willing of taking on tough subjects with creative ingenuity.

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Over the years the Australian film industry has produced a particularly striking set of gritty and engaging films (from Mad Max to The Proposition). This year sees Australian short film director David Michôd burst into the world of feature films with the crime drama Animal Kingdom, which won the World Cinema Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival.

This tale of a crime family in meltdown has lead some critics to compare it to The Godfather. However while the films may bear some slight narrative semblance Animal Kingdom, set in the sweltering Melbourne underworld, tells a tale that is far more tragic and absurd.

Josh aka J (James Frecheville) loses his mother to a heroin overdose and with no one else to turn to he moves in with his extended family, comprised of his grandmother and four uncles. The uncles all operate as criminals and seem to live with a great respect and dependence for their mother (Jacki Weaver), who bizarrely insists that they kiss her on the mouth. When one of the uncles is killed by police the family wreak their revenge and consequences follow suit.  The naive J finds himself and his girlfriend in the middle of the chaos as his unhinged heroin addict uncle ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn) begins to call the shots.

Things become even more complicated when J is called in for questioning by the police and gradually develops a rapport with Detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). The family recognise that it is J who is putting them in the most danger and when ‘Pope’ is imprisoned J’s grandmother becomes the last person he can trust.

The cast bring the group of colourful characters to life with great aptitude and Michôd’s taught and creative direction tells the story with masterful suspense and subtle humour. It would be easy to relate this film to American crime classics but this would not do justice to this distinctly Australian production.

Watching the film one gets the sense that Michôd had done his research to create a realistic portrayal of the Melborne crime landscape; the characters all feel like natural developments of this setting. It is this brilliantly creative approach to time and place that makes Animal Kingdom such a fresh addition to the Crime Drama genre, though it also seems that this time and place are the reason for such tragedy in peoples lives.

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