Film Mafia’s Top Ten of 2017

All films were released (with one exception, below) in Australian cinemas in 2017.

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10

HOUNDS OF LOVE – AUSTRALIAN FILM OF THE YEAR

A disappointing year in Australian cinema saw the only Oz entry at number 10 – highly unusual. As Justin Kurzel did with Snowtown, Ben Young has taken a tired genre and given it enormous life by applying intelligence, depth of character and just a damned fine script. Hounds of Love is not as “everything” as Snowtown – not as disturbing, not as bloody, not as brilliant – but it is another inspired and noble entry in Australian cinema’s rich ledger of suburban nightmares. In films like these, the villains wear thongs, and people get hurt while the sun brilliantly shines.

9

MOTHER!

Darren Aronofsky’s phantasmagoric fantasia on art, fame, success, religion, politics and the cult of celebrity erupts relentlessly and furiously. It is the angriest, most dynamic film I’ve seen this year, and probably the best film hailing from the US (although it seems to have been shot in Quebec). A fable or parable rather than a story centred in anything close to realism, utilising horror elements including an honest-to-goodness haunted house, mother! – the lower-case “m” and the exclamation mark are specific – is a wild and mesmerising ride, and should leave most engaged viewers with plenty to chew on. It is full of ideas.

8

THE SQUARE

Releasing in Australia March 2018, The Square has opened in the rest of the world and screened in multiple Australian festivals.

Ruben Östlund follows up his cringe-tension masterwork Force Majeure (which won Movieland Awards in 2014 for Best Film, Best Direction and Best Cinematography) with this Palmes D’Or-winning art world satire. At its best, it skims sublimely from scene to scene, arousing constant knowing humour, satirical appreciation and – Östlund’s speciality – ambiguous dread, before arriving at the scene of the year, in which Terry Notary, known primarily for motion-capture and particularly ape work in the vein of Andy Serkis, plays a performance artist with a particularly involving piece to present. Theatre actor Claes Bang makes a gigantic impression in the lead role of the curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm who may not be as cool as he looks; watch as he becomes a massive worldwide star (his spoken English, accented towards British, is perfect). Great fun.

7

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER – BRITISH FILM OF THE YEAR

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is gripping, creepy, intense and wholly original. It slots beautifully into 2017 as The Year Of Intelligent Horror; it is also, easily, one of the best films of the year. The film is thematically rich and pungent, looking deep into marriage, family, ethics, morals and trust. Most immediately, it asks that classic question, “What would you do to protect your family?” – but you’ve never seen it asked like this. Outstanding.

6

GET OUT 

Jordan Peele’s debut feature is a horror film without gore or jump-scares, a treatise on casual racism in America without being didactic or pointedly accusatory, and an intelligent and intense social satire without – or with very few – “jokes”, it feels closest in our immediate culture to an excellent American episode of Black Mirror, with a very American theme. Genres don’t so much collide as smoothly intertwine – copulate, even. And, like Black Mirror but unlike a lot of American “horror” cinema, everything has a point. This is a film with something to say, which uses pure entertainment to say it – which is its genius. You’re constantly too creeped out to realise you’re learning something.

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5

THE DISASTER ARTIST

Director James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is enormously proficient as a comedy – in terms of laughs out loud, it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years – while also displaying epic chops as a faithful adaptation of an intriguing memoir, an odd-couple buddy movie, a Tale of Hollywood, and a meditation on ambition. It may very well be the most purely entertaining film of the year.

4

THE FLORIDA PROJECT – AMERICAN FILM OF THE YEAR

I’ve seen two of Baker’s previous features, Starlet (2012) and Tangerine (2015). Both were original, often very funny, and determinedly empathetic for their characters who lived in the margins of society. However, The Florida Project towers above them as a major, mature work, one of the very best films of 2017. Like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight (1998), this is the big, confident, near-perfect film that delivers on a director’s enormous, already demonstrated, promise and potential.

3

PERSONAL SHOPPER

The movie is great value, because it’s at least three films in one: ghost story, American-in-Paris workplace drama and vaguely “Hitchcockian” thriller. We first meet Stewart’s character Maureen (such an intriguing, old-fashioned name for someone so young and hip; Stewart wears it beautifully, and a touch ironically) as she spends the night in a secluded house in order to see if it’s haunted. This scene, played straight – and with a ghost! – seems almost shockingly, literally “genre”; is Assayas really going there? The short answer is, he is, but he’s going other places too, and the movie keeps shifting gears with highly-engineered precision.

2

RAW – RUNNER UP FILM OF THE YEAR / FILM DEBUT OF THE YEAR 

Within its perverse take on coming-of-age, it examines peer pressure, burgeoning sexuality, academic tradition, accepted modes of living and social acceptance, while also being a mesmerising, totally compelling – and, yes, grisley – thrill ride. It’s high-octane, thrilling, compelling stuff that had me transfixed and excited. Director Julia Ducournau goes all-out with her imagery and use of a fantastically creepy score by Jim Williams, who scored Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. She creates visual moments that immediately brand themselves onto your psyche and sequences that are simply unforgettable. The story, as it unfurls, simultaneously bears a sense of inevitability but is also constantly surprising, and packs a supremely satisfying climax.

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1

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME – FILM OF THE YEAR

This is a film that stays with you. Its mood, its heart and its characters have been tickling my brain since seeing it. It feels nourishing and generous, like a meal that was delicious and has turned out to have ongoing health benefits. It’s briefly altered my perception of the world, reminding me that there is decency out there, somewhere. And I daresay, if I was a gay teenager right now, or even just a teenager, this would be the movie I needed. It may be one of those films that change many thousands of young lives for the better. For many, it will become a favourite, a classic, even a life-saver. It is sublime.

What were yours? Your comments welcome in the Comments Section.

IT COMES AT NIGHT

**** (out of five)

IMG_0450Trey Edward Shults made the best feature film of 2016, Krisha. His follow-up is an intensely personal, extremely precise meditation on fear, grief, family and community. It creates, along with Get Out, Raw, Hounds of Love and Personal Shopper, a quintet of horror-adjacent films this year that have far more to say, and say it far better, than any “non-genre” releases. These auteur thrillers are, thus far, the films of 2017.

Shults is an auteur indeed. Krisha was made in his parents’ house using family members for around thirty thousand bucks. A24, the best distribution company working today (Moonlight, 20th Century Women, American Honey, The Lobster, Green Room, The Witch, Room, Amy, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, Locke, Under The Skin, The Spectacular Now… to name a few!) saw the film, recognised prodigiousness (Schults is only 28) and gave him five million bucks, with, it seems, total creative control. May they keep on doing so; may he be to them as Tarantino is to Miramax. Shults is uncompromising, delivering his film; it may not appeal to a mainstream genre audience, but for cinephiles, it is sublime. Every moment of the film is determined and exact, including its ambiguity. It is a distinguished work of cinema from a serious artist.

Joel Edgerton gives his finest performance to date as Paul, a man trying to keep his wife, son and dog safe in the shadow of a plague. They live in a boarded-up house in the middle of some woods, somewhere in the United States, under strict isolationist protocols; when circumstances determine those protocols to be ever-so-slightly altered – when things change – they change for the worse.

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The overriding tone here is dread. The film is relentlessly bleak, often sad, and frequently creepy, but more than anything, it’s anxious. Paranoia reigns. Paul’s determination to protect his small family has caused him to be jumpy, edgy and hard. He was a history teacher before the plague; now he’s an armed sentinel. His choices in this desperate situation are completely relatable, and the film achieves enormous power putting us in his shoes: “What the hell would I do?”

This is a lean film in every aspect, including its running time of 97 minutes (which may be all you can take). The craft across all departments is impeccable; Shults knows how to marry vision and sound. The script has many surprises and, as mentioned, some deliberate ambiguities. I gather some audiences have not exactly embraced the latter; I found them wholly satisfying (as I did the ending, which I think is brilliant). Your takeaway from It Comes At Night may really depend on what you want out of cinema. This is challenging stuff that bears intellectual rigour, or, to put it another way: if you’re not willing to think about it, you probably won’t like it.

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HOUNDS OF LOVE

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Watch my interview with writer / director Ben Young here.

**** (out of five)

Six weeks ago the Australian film Berlin Syndrome gave us a pretty genre-standard version of the “girl in captivity” thriller. Now, Hounds of Love offers its own variation, but one with depth, complexity, emotional resonance and something to say. It is far superior.

Berlin Syndrome, like most similar films, focused on a young attractive woman held captive – for various reasons but mainly sexual ones – by a single, troubled (obviously) male. Hounds of Love gives us a young attractive female – indeed, a teenage schoolgirl – kidnapped and held as a sexual captive by a couple. And – here’s the rub – it is the woman within that couple who is the protagonist of the story. While her older, male partner runs the show, she is nonetheless complicit, and asking us to sympathise with her as a lead character is a delicate dance indeed. With awe-inspiring assurance, debut feature writer/director Ben Young and actor Emma Booth pull it off.

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Booth is astonishingly good as thirtysomething Evelyn, whose relationship with John (they’re both called “White” in the credits, so it can be assumed they’re married) is as toxic as it gets. Together they have kidnapped, sexually tortured and killed at least one schoolgirl; the film focuses on their abduction of Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings, last seen in Pork Pie in a significantly brighter role). It is Perth, Western Australia, in 1987, in December, and it is hot.

The heat pervades the film, adding to its dread and the specificity of its milieu. Late 80’s Perth is brilliantly evoked in all its isolation, casualness, and suburbanity. The Whites are as mundane and banal as their car and their street, but, like the palm trees and brilliant blue skies surrounding them, they are not unattractive; if they weren’t so fucked up they could probably make good swingers. But… they’re really fucked up.

hounds-of-love-cinema-australia-1John is the monster, and we never get to know him too deeply; he is not the point. Evelyn’s dependence on him, her need for his approval – masquerading as “love” – is the point. We get many glancing glimpses into her life before John – including having two children – that give us enough of a complex picture without ever tipping over into pseudo-Freud, pseudo-Jung or pseudo-domestic-abuse community service announcement. The script paints in enough, and (Perth-born) Booth exquisitely fills in the rest. Did I say she’s astonishing? She’s astonishing. May awards be heaped upon her.

Cummings is also always believable and commanding as Vicki. Lord knows what it must be like to play such roles, tied to beds, relentlessly abused, covered in bruises, frequently near-naked and more frequently in tears or screaming. I imagine you do it once, as a demented acting rite of passage, and never again. Then you wait for a role like Evelyn, which unfortunately comes along as often as that darned blue moon. As John, Stephen Curry’s performance is appropriately cold, manipulative and creepy, but doesn’t equate to the revelatory castings of predecessors Nicholas Hope in Bad Boy Bubby (1993), David Wenham in The Boys (1998) and Daniel Henshall in Snowtown (2011). He’s menacing, but your throat doesn’t tighten at his mere presence.

Photo by Jean-Paul Horré

As Justin Kurzel did with Snowtown, Young has taken a tired genre and given it enormous life by applying intelligence, depth of character and just a damned fine script. Hounds of Love is not as “everything” as Snowtown – not as disturbing, not as bloody, not as brilliant – but it is another inspired and noble entry in Australian cinema’s rich ledger of suburban nightmares. In films like these, the villains wear thongs, and people get hurt while the sun brilliantly shines.