It’s the end of the first half of 2022. Here are the best films of the year so far, as released or screened in Australia. Many of these are now available on streaming. Enjoy. Don’t forget, when you look at this list, you can join Letterboxd and follow me there. It’s a film-logging platform that I recommend. CJ
Octavia Barron Martin and I discuss Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS on Movieland:
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In an earlier life, I spent nine months (with some breaks) playing the ghost of Elvis Presley in Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. During the rehearsal period and then throughout the run, I immersed myself in all things Presley: I read the books, watched the specials and the movies and the documentaries, and, far most importantly, I listened to the music. I got obsessed, in a good way, and had a whale of a time. I appreciated the man from every angle, and in every way.
So too, clearly, does Baz Luhrmann, and his epic Elvis is a love letter to an artist he admires and obviously finds a deep connection with. It’s very Baz; like most of his work, the dialogue scenes are spare and fast, and deep characterization always gives way to visceral visual and audial spectacle. That’s his way, and that’s this film. Another could give us more insight into Elvis’ pains, traumas and (in particular) family relationships. This one gives us the talent and the sex appeal.
It also gives us The Colonel (Tom Hanks). It actually gives us too much Colonel, including the film’s absolute worst element (and essential misfire), a truly badly written, on-the-nose VO narration. Elvis is told from The Colonel’s point of view, in hindsight from a hospital bed, as an answer to his critics. The approach is valid, the writing is way off (which is not to say Hanks’ performance is; it’s fine, if a little fruity. But what in a Luhrmann film isn’t a little fruity?)
Love him or hate him, Luhrmann is a unique, visionary auteur, and one of very few on the planet who works on a mega-budget, populist, global scale. This is his best film since Strictly Ballroom; on its own terms,it is simply magnificent. It may be that the material is so suited to Luhrmann’s sensibilities; it is certain that Luhrmann found his perfect Elvis in Austin Butler. You spend the first half in awe of Baz but the second in awe of Butler, and that’s a compliment to both. The Vegas sequences are mind-bendingly well performed (and shot). This movie soars. Expect an Oscar for Best Hair and Make-Up and possibly Sound, and Oscar nominations for Best Film, Director, Butler, Tom Hanks, Production Design and Editing. Outstanding.
After a hiatus, my podcast Movieland is back up and running, with three episodes so far dropped in Season Two. I’m exicted that my friend and colleague Octavia Barron Martin will be joining me to discuss, on a weekly basis as the episodes drop, the new HBO series Irma Vep. To catch up and get into it, we discussed the big fizzle that was The Many Saints of Newark, a film Octavia, a huge Sopranos fan, was greatly looking forward to. Here’s the link on Spotify; otherwise search for Movieland within your favourite podcast app or service. Make sure you subscribe (to the podcast) too.
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Asghar Farhadi’s latest feature A Hero continues his trademark examination of the stresses of everyday life in Iranian society, constructed as suspenseful, captivating social thrillers. This one focuses on a twenty-something man who’s found himself in ‘debtor’s prison’; allowed out on two-day leave, he tries to take up an opportunity to rid himself of his debt, only – of course – to find himself getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Farhadi’s typical themes of responsibility, morality, personal ethics and the law all get a full workout here; once again his schematic script is tight as a drum. Involving, challenging, and a terrific after-movie conversation starter.
ANGELYNE and THE STAIRCASE
Two new shows dip into the ways we display ourselves in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Angelyne, a real Los Angeles ‘character’ played here in an astonishingly entertaining performance by Emmy Rossum, has displayed herself on billboards throughout Los Angeles for decades; her only product is herself. Meanwhile (in The Staircase), Michael Petersen (played beautifully by Colin Firth) allowed a documentary crew to follow him while he was on trial for his wife’s murder in 2001; the original resulting TV series of the same name essentially gave birth to the modern true-crime docuseries. Both shows are compelling; Angelyne is witty while The Staircase is thematically ambitious and very well directed by Antonio Campos.
THE OFFER (Paramount +)
When I heard about The Offer I couldn’t believe it: had someone made a TV show just for me? Of course, I’m not the only one obsessed with The Godfather, and not the only one who’s read many, many books and articles about its making. But the idea that someone would produce an entire TV show about the production of your favourite movie… well, wow.
Trouble is, the script feels directly lifted from those books and articles, giving rise to that dreaded ‘illustrated wikipedia entry’ feeling. But it’s fun to see spiritual heroes like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Evans come to life (Dan Fogler and Matthew Goode, respectively) and the story itself, for those who haven’t obsessively read about it, is a good one. The show errs on spoon-feeding the mechanics of movie-making, but thats its nature and its flaw: it tries to serve the novice and the nerd.
THE INNOCENTS (Cinemas)
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Likewise, The Innocents, a Norwegian supernatural creeper about kids gradually becoming aware of their telekinetic powers, may scare the bejesus out of you, and I may have been less affected purely by having been exposed to so much of this kind of stuff before. Certainly to get performances like this from a cast this young is no small achievement. There are some pacing problems, and the autism of one of the main characters feels, unfortunately, exploitative at worst and misguided at best. But it’s strong on tone and vibe and features some genuinely creepy moments.
WE OWN THIS CITY (HBO / Foxtel)
David Simon and George Pelecanos, who created The Wire, return with a spiritual sequel, the real-life tale of police corruption, brutality and criminality in Baltimore in the 2000s. Featuring some returning cast members from The Wire (in different roles), and many more of those astonishingly authentic performances that made that show feel almost like a documentary, We Own This City is typically gritty, robust and never less than totally engaging. Exceptional.
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Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is, if anything, even better, and the best film I’ve seen at the cinema thus far in 2022. It is a perfect, gentle jewel, precise, concise (72 minutes!), warm, heartfelt, witty, moving and ultimately profound.
At a crucial point in her young life, an eight-year old girl, Nelly, meets and befriends another eight-year-old girl, Marion. Their brief relationship is rendered with astonishing authenticity, reflecting a deeply astute understanding of the inner life of children and young girls in particular.
Sciamma gets extraordinary naturalistic performances from young sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, neither of whom have any other screen credits. Joséphine, as Nelly, portrays a world of curiosity, understanding and thought that, as the father of an eight-year old girl, I recognised implicitly. Every frame of her performance rings true, as though she is living the part. At one point her father shaves his beard, implying that perhaps the film was shot in sequence, which would make perfect sense. You absolutely and fundamentally go on Nelly’s small-but-massive journey with her, days that will change not so much her life as her understanding of it.
Sciamma’s direction is sublime and her writing heartfelt. In its modest ambition, Petite Maman achieves a kind of delicate monumentality. Do not miss it. I can’t wait to show it to my own daughter, who will recognise its integrity more than I ever can.
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Like its title, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent aspires to witty referential parodic clever meta-comedy, and falls flat. While Nicholas Cage and Pedro Pascal give amiable performances, the script consistently lets them down with references rather than honest jokes.
Cage plays a version of himself who gets caught up in the kind of action scenario a Nicholas Cage character might get himself caught up in; Pascal plays the buddy who may be the baddie. They certainly develop a chemistry – and Cage certainly shares the screen – but only to the extent you wish they were in a better film – perhaps a real Nicholas Cage film.
Highlights of this kind of thing are Being John Malkovich, JCVD and the Kate Winslet and Ben Stiller episodes of Extras. This laborious effort doesn’t come close to matching the wit displayed in any of those. It’s a shame, because everyone seems to be having a great time, and there is clearly a lot of affection for the subject, who plays along gamely and warmly. Maybe I’ll check out his other recent work; he seems surprisingly sane.
THE WARHOL DIARIES (Netflix Series)
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Netflix’s six-part extrapolation of Andy Warhol’s posthumously-published Diaries is superb and gripping. I was hugely into Warhol and read the Diaries twice, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting this to be revelatory to me. It was. It’s an interpretation of the diaries, a deep reading, and as such is informed, passionate and intelligent. It digs beyond the parties and the personalities into Andy’s love life, his response to the AIDS crisis, and even his faith. Fantastic.
THE GOOD BOSS (Cinemas)
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The Good Boss, about a, well, ‘good boss’ of a successful scale company (that is, it manufactures scales of all kinds) facing a week of increasing pressures and challenges, has one of those extremely well-structured screenplays that is almost too well crafted; the pieces are put into place so well that most of us will be able to predict the endgame before it comes, leaving it as a slight anti-climax. But the action along the way is extremely well modulated, gathering pace organically and exponentially, and Javier Bardem, the good boss himself, is superb. In almost every scene of the movie, he displays enormous range while also presenting a highly specific character. Place this performance alongside his Desi Arnaz in Being The Ricardos to be reminded that he’s one of the most versatile – and, simply, one of the best – screen actors working today.
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Gruelling but compelling, this early-1960s France-set abortion drama joins the other movies of its kind on the tougher side of the ledger: more 4 Months, Three Weeks and Two Days than Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Knowing going in that it’s based on a memoir will make it more meaningful.
THE SOUVENIR PART 2
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Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her sublime autobiographical rendering of a troubled relationship she had in her early adulthood maintains an air of artful exquisiteness while shifting the focus from love to art. This time, her young self completes her film school training by working through the events of Part 1. It’s a glorious, intriguing film, thoroughly engrossing and deeply personal.
DJANGO AND DJANGO (Netflix)
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If you think nothing could be more entertaining than watching Quentin Tarantino celebrate the career of the “second Sergio of Spaghetti Westerns,” Sergio Corbucci, then this is the film for you. The kind of film you’d once only ever see at film festivals, now on Netflix!
THE DROPOUT (Disney+)
Extremely entertaining look at the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes anchored by a career-best lead performance from Amanda Seyfried.
A SONG CALLED HATE
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VOD Now through iwonder.com
Everyone loves a feature-length documentary about an Icelandic techno-heavy-BDSM band’s political coming-of-age during the Eurovision Song Contest, right? Ok, it sounds niche – and it is, of course, on the surface – but Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdottir’s film following the band Hatari as they navigate the complexities of Israeli / Palestinian politics and attempt to stage a protest while participating in the 2019 show in Tel Aviv is eye-opening, compelling and thoughtful. The band members are aggressively political at home in Iceland, but the situation in Israel clearly rattles them, and watching them try to maintain their position in the face of actual fear makes for honest, universal drama.
FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
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Opening 10 March in select cinemas
James Vaughn’s modest feature debut is a beguiling, entrancing, sunny Sydney jewel with a hum of strange menace. A bit Rohmer and a bit microbudget Lynch, it’s its own thing, an odd, and oddly magical, original.