15 January 2019

Straight outta Gonville

Wistful bedsit-electro-pop purveyor, rail history aficionado and Whanganui resident Anthonie Tonnon playing the Gardens Magic outdoor concert at the Soundshell in the Wellington Botanical Gardens, 12 January 2019. Tonnon's excellent set was followed by veteran Ontario singer-songwriter Jane Siberry, who had just flown in from touring in Japan.

05 January 2019

My top 10 films of 2018

I took in 206 movies in 2018, which equals a bumper year for film-watching. Probably the most I've ever managed. Of the total, I saw 89 at the cinema, or 43 percent. The Film Society and the Film Festival were, as always, reliably excellent sources of great film artistry. I also experimented with the Australian documentary streaming site Docplay (definitely worth a look), the ever-interesting French Film Festival, and for the first time I also ventured into the daunting realm of that omnipresent sideshow barker, Netflix. In 2019 I'm probably going to give the movie streaming site Mubi a go too.

While it's challenging to select a mere 10 titles from a year of viewing, the ones below stayed with me the most. As usual, the criteria is new films I've seen for the first time in 2018, so the list will include some titles released in more important countries in the dim and distant era known as 2017. But simply because it feels out of place, I'm sadly omitting the wonderful Armando Iannucci black comedy, The Death of Stalin, which is a must-watch in anyone's book - and which gets a mention just below! While it was released in the UK on 20 October 2017, I didn't see it on cinematic release here in New Zealand until 20 March 2018. You should definitely see it, but it just doesn't feel right in a list of 2018 films. There are a couple of other 2017 features in here, but the gap in time between release and viewing didn't feel as exaggerated for those.

So from top to bottom, here's my favourite 10 films I saw in 2018:

1. Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, trailer)
Cuarón's Roma ranks alongside Iannucci's The Death of Stalin as a recent film with the stamp of genius. Every frame is expertly conjured, beautifully shot and sensitively written by Cuarón himself, and the attention to detail in conveying the Mexico of 1970-1 is breathtaking. What a thrill it must be to people who are personally familiar with the era to see it realised so convincingly on screen. And the heart of the film, the hard-toiling and gentle housekeeper Cleo, illustrates the simple truth that ordinary lives abound in stories that befit cinematic attention, if they are handled delicately. Key crowd scenes are spectacularly ambitious and hugely memorable, but in its many quieter moments illustrating family life and the love the tireless Cleo offers and receives from her employers and their children, Roma also shines every bit as much as Richard Linklater's Boyhood or Carla Simón's Estiu 1993. While many will experience this film on Netflix, thereby bringing it a wide audience, its sumptuous cinematic spectacle justifies the effort of seeing it on a proper theatre screen - you won't regret it.

2. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Another classic modern drama from longstanding favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda, charting a year in the life of an atypical family unit living on the semi-legal fringe of Japanese society - a society that takes great exception to grifters who don't pull their weight and toe the line. Encountering a charming five-year-old girl, Yuri, who is living with abusive parents, the father Osamu 'adopts' her (which could be characterised as a voluntary abduction), taking her into the initially wary but ultimately loving and caring ramshackle household. Yuri's new 'older brother' Shota takes her under his wing and finds an able accomplice in his regular shoplifting forays; these scenes are superbly handled, being both poignant and utterly charming. As Yuri encounters love and affection for the first time she brings the family closer together, but ultimately the real world invariably intrudes. Shoplifters bears all the traditional hallmarks of Kore-eda's productions - absolutely winning performances from child actors, a genuinely powerful evocation of familial affection and the power of companionship and kindness, and a wry humour for the challenges of modern life. But in its conclusion Shoplifters takes the examination of family bonds further than in any of his previous films. With a bravura plot twist he pulls the rug out from what was already a compelling and warm family drama and turns it into a searching and even haunting moral quandary. Like his other films, Shoplifters asks 'what is family?', but this film also asks some troubling questions about society's expectations, surviving modern poverty and the nature of parenthood itself.

3. Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik, USA)
A very fine depiction of a close father-daughter relationship, which benefits from accomplished and naturalistic lead performances from Ben Foster and the teenaged Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie who flew half-way across the world from little old Wellington to the US Pacific Northwest. The off-the-grid wilderness life the two live out is largely driven by the father's PTSD, but when they are involuntarily returned to life within the bounds of conventional society it becomes increasingly clear that despite their love, father and daughter may not want precisely the same way of life. There are no bad guys here, and it's so pleasing to see an American film that avoids the easy route of establishing an antagonist as a villain to unite against; the social services and random strangers the pair encounter all display the unfailing generosity of spirit that Americans often exhibit. The acting never descends into melodrama or milks what could easily turn into histrionics - rather, the quiet struggle of these very real characters is allowed to evolve organically without showboating. It was a real treat to have director Debra Granik (Winter's Bone) and hometown co-star McKenzie at the Embassy for a film festival Q&A session, in which both offered generous explanations of their film-making process and the spirit of the film. Like recent films Captain Fantastic and Walking Out, Leave No Trace portrays family bonds purified by nature, but while the former two films are solid and appealing portrayals, Leave No Trace is an even more enduring artistic achievement.

4. Paddington 2 (dir. Paul King, Nationality: Very British)
It should not detract from the enjoyment of this charming, big-hearted film that I saw it on a plane: while I relished it on almost the smallest screen possible, I would champion this film as a must-see on any screen, at any time, by almost any audience. I hadn't seen the original Paddington film when I chose this sequel, but I have watched it since, and can report that it's every bit as lovely, warm and funny as this one. It's so refreshing to see an animated cinematic hero whose super powers are politeness and good manners, and the film's celebration of British fellowship and multiculturalism that is clearly a dig at Brexiteering xenophobia is delivered with the lightest of touches, preferring as the film does to focus on the most positive aspects of both humanity and ursinity. While children will relish the tale of Michael Bond's resourceful bear, grown-ups of all ages would be foolish to miss it, if only for Hugh Grant's splendid turn - a real career highlight - as nefarious thespian Phoenix Buchanan.

5. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, USA)
A top-flight directorial debut and a highly engaging lead performance by Saoirse Ronan are the core assets of this big-hearted coming-of-age tale that, like the films of Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda, features no villains, just flawed humans in all their glory. The teenage drama it's most akin to is Marielle Heller's Diary of a Teenage Girl, in which the flaws of the lead character are conventional and everyday in nature. Chief amongst these is the deftly-drawn and perpetually thorny relationship with the self-named Lady Bird's long-suffering and demanding mother (Laurie Metcalf), which sees two quite unreasonable women pitting themselves against each other, to no-one's benefit. The cumulative effect of a long run of winning scenes between the two, and between Lady Bird and her school friends, eternally patient Catholic school teachers, and her first boyfriends, elevates the film above other more pedestrian stories, and its semi-autobiographical nature is nothing but an asset. By its close, Lady Bird feels as if it's achieved just what its creator, Greta Gerwig, sought to achieve - a positive, emotionally engaging vision of a young woman's life, to stand rightfully alongside the pantheon of all the many, many similar films Hollywood has made about young men.

6. They Shall Not Grow Old (dir. Peter Jackson, UK/NZ)
A vital antidote to the depiction of war movie heroism, in which the most convincing advocates for peace - the soldiers themselves - provide the entire narrative. Peter Jackson's film gives a real sense of the endurance and shell-shocked numbness that were required to survive the WW1 trenches with sanity intact. As a technical achievement it's remarkably convincing. The century-old silent film footage is patched, cleaned and edited to a naturalistic tempo, and in the early stages the subtle 3D works wonders with the silent black-and-white footage of Britain's war preparations and the journey to the front line. But then the technical magic really kicks in, with the stunning transition to expertly colourised film with full recreated audio tracks, giving the film a memorable visual impact. Essential viewing for anyone who has remotely romantic notions about the dirty, unforgiving business of war.

7. Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
It's a delight to see a film devoted to allowing its narrative to develop in such an unhurried yet purposeful way as this Korean drama/thriller. I'm so glad I managed to avoid trailers and preview articles because I'm guessing they'd reveal elements of the plot that are better left discovered on the big screen. The investment of time makes the film's desperate, shocking conclusion exponentially more powerful and memorable. With skilled direction, unshowy performances, a top score and restrained yet beautiful cinematography, Burning is a subtle, languid gem.

8. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, US/UK)
An intriguing, surprising offering from Anderson, with valuable performances from its three main players (Day-Lewis, Krieps and Manville) and a courageously obscure milieu to focus on - high fashion London couture in the first half of the '50s. The subtle intricacies are played out between a young amanuensis Alma entering the life of a gifted, obsessively habitual and much older dress designer Woodcock, and 'Cyril', the daunting, controlling sister of the designer, who hitherto has provided all the female attention the 'incurable bachelor' Woodcock has ever needed. The period detail and reverence for the rituals of fashion are compelling, and while I confess to being mildly perplexed with the direction Anderson takes the characters, it's never less than convincing and always expertly crafted. Also, does this make the lovely Vicky Krieps the world's most famous Luxembourger?

9. Woman At War (dir. Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland)
Benedikt Erlingsson's deft comedy-drama shows his growing skill and confidence as a director, and offers a superb central performance from the very game Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as unstoppable environmental saboteur Halla and her yoga instructor twin sister Asa. The film benefits from the playful inventiveness of its director, with plenty of tricks to keep the audience guessing, particularly in a masterful Icelandic wilderness chase scene in which the 49-year-old Halla evades her would-be captors using her splendid ingenuity. While I didn't relish it as much as the rest of the audience, Erlingsson's choice to have incidental music provided by an on-screen trio of Icelandic musicians and three Ukrainians folk-singers is suitably Scandi-quirky. Also featuring the return of the Spanish cycle tourist from Of Horses & Men (Juan Estrada) to provide light comic relief, Woman At War is both a great deal of fun and a successful exemplar of how to depict environmental activism both sympathetically and honestly.

10. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Greece)
A great cast of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, and superb staging in the little-filmed 18th century provides a rich palate for Yorgos Lanthimos to emulate the costume black comedies of Stanley Kubrick and Peter Greenaway. It's pleasing that the dandified, titivated males take a back seat amidst the ruthless machinations of supremely ambitious women in this depiction of the tragic Queen Anne's court of the early 18th century, and the comic prowess of all three leads is in fine form. Lanthimos' fondness for fisheye lenses is perhaps a trifle overdone, given it distracts from the acting and makes it harder to frame a shot, and one early dance number is broadly ridiculous as if it were from a Mel Brooks farce. But altogether this is a highly entertaining game of courtly oneupwomanship, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't win Colman another Bafta.

See also:
Blog: My top 10 films of 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

David Niven

'Bonnie Prince Charlie was one of those huge florid extravaganzas that reek of disaster from the start,' star David Niven admitted. Halfway through the nine-month shoot, Niven cabled producer Sam Goldwyn: 'I HAVE NOW WORKED EVERY DAY FOR FIVE MONTHS ON THIS PICTURE AND NOBODY CAN TELL ME HOW THE STORY ENDS STOP ADVISE'. Goldwyn couldn't help: according to Niven's biographer Sheridan Morley, he thought the movie was called 'Charlie Bonnie' and was 'apparently under the mistaken impression that it was to be the story of a lovable Scots terrier'

- Alex von Tunzelmann, Reel History: The World According to the Movies, London, 2015, p.141