Loveless, from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a masterpiece, a brutal, uncompromising, stunningly well crafted and extraordinarily observant depiction of modern life, relationships, parenting, and society. At every turn it is revealing and stunningly precise about the human condition. It offers the viewer a chance not only to reflect on their own life but to truly search their soul. Like the very, very best films, I believe that if I listen to it, I can be a slightly better person for it.



The film is epic and intimate; in the seemingly simple story of Cleo (the stand- in for Libo) and her unusual year, we are driven to contemplate huge issues and major themes: class and ethnicity, the nature and dignity of work, what actually constitutes a family and parenting; what it means to love. It is a film of constant compassion and absolute humanity. It is totally, essentially personal to Cuarón, but it is also fundamentally universal. It is filmmaking of the highest order.



Deservedly taking out a swath of awards at this year’s Césars, including Best Film, Editing, Music, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and “Most Promising” Actor, Robin Campillo’s portrait of Act Up-Paris in the early 1990s is sweeping, compassionate, funny, angry, ambitious and full of the kind of detail and incident that can only be drawn from life. Campillo was a part of the movement at the time, and wrote his screenplay based on his own experiences, while allowing himself dramatic freedom.



Aster’s judgement is confident, mature, unerring. The film’s casting is precise and evocative, and includes a striking find in young Milly Shapiro, playing Collette’s daughter. The cinematography is beautiful, unnerving and deliberate, emphasising shadows, moonlight and dusk (the film was shot in Utah) that evokes the feel of the great American horror cinema of the 1970s. The music is unobtrusive yet consistently effective, the production design immaculate and vital. Most satisfying of all is the pace, which is stately. Aster doesn’t rush a thing. He’s written a brilliant script and he’s brought it to the screen with the respect it deserves.



The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.



Armando Iannucci created three of the funniest television sitcoms of all time: I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep (which has one season to go, but whose reins he has let go). He is a master political satirist and my favourite screenwriter. The Death of Stalin, his first feature film as a director, is, as befits his leap from the smaller to bigger screen, an ambitious effort: Iannucci boldly gives us a whale of a time with enormously witty dialogue, but also the very violent history of the political infighting that occurred in the days and weeks after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.



The dialogue is supremely witty, the design glorious, and the acting sublime. Colman, despite having such a distinctive look and vocal quality, is utterly convincing as every character she plays, and her Anne is one of her finest creations. This Queen is complicated, contradictory, confounding: childish at times, wracked with gout and sadness, she seems utterly malleable, yet the question of just how much she is aware of the intrigue around her is one of the film’s most compelling tensions. Colman owns the role; it’s a triumph for her.



In 2012 British TV documentarian Bart Layton made the leap to the big screen with feature documentary The Imposter, and blew my, and a lot of other, minds. It stands as one of the great documentaries; if you’ve not seen it, don’t google it first. Like Tickled, the less you know, the more you’ll get. Now he’s back on the big screen with a docudrama about four well-off young Kentucky men who got together, in 2004, to commit a crime. He interviews the actual men, their parents, and some other connected parties, but the bulk of the running time is dramatization, which is to say, a proper scripted filmic take on the events. The result is wildly, gleefully entertaining and I can’t recommend it enough.



Loveless was, in its quiet way, an epic, a scathing indictment of modern humanity. Custody examines the day to day affect of joint custody and is far more contained and seemingly modest. Yet by the end, it has achieved momentous power. It is meticulously constructed, building with painfully specific intent. Ultimately, it is shattering. This is a film where strangers (at a general public screening at the French Film Festival) and I all checked in with each other afterwards, because we were all so moved, and shaken. A spectacular debut.



This is a movie to gush over, to see again, to buy the soundtrack to, to urge others to see, to dream about. It’s classic material, but not all the versions have been classic. This one is. There are absolutely ways you could find fault with aspects of the film; you could pick apart elements of the plot, or have problems with the specificity of its music and how it relates to the modern market. Or, you could do as I did, which was to fall deeply for its charms, and let yourself get swept away. As another critic noted, “The way to like this film is to love it.” I love it.













* * * * (out of five)

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a major event. It signals the return to the mainstream for one of America’s finest, most distinctive and important filmmakers. Lee has never stopped making films, but, for whatever reasons, they’ve been quieter, in release and audience reach, in recent years. Films such as 2014’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, 2015’s Chi-Raq and this year’s Pass Over haven’t even been released in Australian cinemas, tied up in a notion that films centred on the black American experience don’t “play overseas.”

BlacKkKlansman is gonna play. While continuing Lee’s grand theme of addressing race in America, it is undeniably ‘accessible’, thanks in large part to its enormous comedic entertainment value. Lee has always been a comedic filmmaker, and always combined righteous anger with comedy – look at Do The Right Thing – but sometimes his comedy isn’t foregrounded by the people selling his films. This time around, if Lee’s people can’t sell the humour here, they should all lose their jobs. Black KKKlansman is funny.

It’s also deft, surprising, strange and revelatory. The buy-in – a black cop, in 1979, working out of an otherwise all-white precinct in Colorado Springs, manages to ‘infiltrate’ the local Ku Klux Klan chapter when they assume, speaking to him on the telephone, that he’s white – is enough of an extraordinary, and very true, story to carry a film, but the intricacies of the telling, let alone the impactful modern resonances Lee draws, make the film very special. Just one intriguing layer among many: in order to actually meet the Klan members he’s fooling, agent Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) has to enlist one of his white colleagues, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to ‘be’ him for face-to-face meetings. This is bizarre enough – two cops going undercover as one – but what gets really interesting is that Zimmerman thus discovers the Klan hates Jews as much as black people, leading him down his own path of self-realisation, as he takes his own Jewishness seriously for the first time.

In many ways, it’s a straightforward (true) story, very well told, but Lee nevertheless allows his formidable cinematic imagination to bloom in intriguing and satisfying ways. One of the most powerful scenes is early on, when Stallworth goes, as his very first undercover assignment, to a speech at the college campus given by Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). Lee not only allows the excellent Hawkins to deliver a massive chunk of the actual speech – possibly six or seven minutes’ worth! – he stylistically manipulates the image of the students’ faces receiving Carmichael’s words, most powerfully when Carmichael talks of ‘black beauty’, and frames the ‘African-ness’ of their features against a deep black background (along the lines of the famous cover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody LP). It is a bold sequence whichever way you look at it, and it absolutely works.

The Klansman of the local chapter are depicted as a combination of ignorant and stupid (Paul Walter Hauser, so brilliant in I, Tonya), ignorant and scary (Jasper Pääkkönen, a Finnish movie star doing amazing work as a Coloradan) and unnervingly appealing (Ryan Eggold). Then there’s David Duke, played by Topher Grace. He doesn’t arrive into the picture until the second act, and when he does, everything shifts. Suddenly, Stallworth has the biggest fish on the end of his line, and when Duke announces he’s coming to Colorado Springs for a Klan convention, the already too-good-to-be-true plot lifts into cosmic excellence, propelling Stallworth and Duke towards a head-to-head confrontation. (Don’t forget, this really is a true story, and very, very faithful to real events; as such, the confrontation, when it comes, features a truly truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist you’d never dream up in screenwriting class.) Grace’s performance is excellent, portraying Duke as smooth, charming, well-spoken and glacially calm, which makes him, of course, the most dangerous Klansman in the room even without his position as the Klan’s ‘Grand Wizard’.

Early critical response to the film seems slightly more enthusiastic outside of the US than within, which isn’t surprising. Lee has always been a global player – She’s Gotta Have It was at Cannes – standing on the rooftops urging us to comprehend the deeply troubled relationship his country has with itself. Perhaps, when you’re on the inside, his message can be too tough to bear. BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes this year. Let’s see how it fares at the Oscars, where it deserves, but may not get, nominations across the board, including best director and best film. This is American filmmaking at its best: urgent, angry, innovative, loud and funny.