Celebrating Great Films


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Spirited Away

#28 at the time of writing.

I'm overjoyed to see this film so high on the rankings - and deservedly so. It's a beautifully drawn coming-of-age story told in metaphor, peopled with a cast of spirits and monsters that is so delightfully other. It explores themes of alienation, fitting in, finding yourself, right and wrong, greed... and it carries you like its underwater train without you ever being sure of where you're going to end up next. It is so very strange, and yet resonates on a profoundly deep level.

Director Hayao Miyazaki is a master; this and My Neighbour Totoro are my favourite Ghibli films - they benefit, I think, from their relative narrative simplicity, whereas for me Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke despite also being high in the Top 250 are too complex and therefore don't hang together as well. (They are also darker in tone, which might be another reason I like them less.)

Incredibly, this film was apparently made without a script - the plot and characters developed organically via the storyboards.

Well, Miyazaki may finally have retired now (after five decades in the industry), but I still have plenty of unwatched Ghibli films to enjoy.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Room

#133 at the time of writing.

Wow. How do you take such a horrifyingly unpleasant subject and turn it into something so hopeful, compelling, complex, even beautiful? The writing and directing are excellent, but a large part of the credit has to go to Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay who deliver the realest possible performances.

This is the story of a woman who has been kidnapped and held captive for years in a windowless room, barred from the outside world, and treated as a sex slave. Her son, the product of one of the rapes, grows up thinking that this one room is the whole world. She longs to escape, but the outside world may prove more of a challenge than expected.

Yeah, I know, heavy right? And sadly inspired by real life crimes such as those perpetrated by Josef Fritzl, Ariel Castro and Phillip and Nancy Garrido. Yet this film manages to transcend its distasteful subject matter.

In preparation for the role Brie Larson reportedly isolated herself at home for a month, following a strict diet and cutting off contact with the outside world. She didn't think it would be too difficult, but towards the last week she became very depressed and would cry all day.

Interesting trivia: although it's not made explicit in the film, Ma continues to breastfeed Jack even at five years old. In a film about one of the most universal and instinctively correct taboos, it's refreshing to see a less axiomatic taboo ignored.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Arrival

#174 at the time of writing.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is my absolute favourite science fiction short story collection, with the possible exception of The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. In fact those two are probably my favourite short story collections of any type. (And I'm a big fan of short stories.)

I hugely enjoyed the film Limitless, in part because it may as well have been an adaptation of Ted Chiang's short story Understand, but I never expected an actual Ted Chiang story adaptation - least of all one of the "unfilmable" ones.

But no, someone actually made a film about trying to interpret an alien language. The director of Sicario, no less. So, yeah, I was pretty excited.

And despite the inevitable Hollywoodization (the world will end if we don't crack the code in ten seconds!) it's good. Not best-ever good, but thoroughly satisfying. And smart.

Mind you, having been familiar with the story, I had zero sense of whether the twist worked. I knew it was coming, so I might have missed out on some of the impact!

Alright, now do Division by Zero.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Zootropolis (or Zootopia if you prefer...)

#236 at the time of writing.

Yeah, outside of America this got a different name, possibly because of trademark conflicts with a Danish zoo, although Disney are not forthcoming with their reasons. Anyway, whatever you wanna call it, I loved it.


I have a soft spot for Walt Disney Animation Studios features, with Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph being my latest faves (and now Moana, of course - delightful!), and this one is wonderful. It's a joke-packed buddy cop film starring a rabbit and a fox, set in a stunningly detailed mammalian city (full of easter eggs), with none other than Shakira rocking the soundtrack. And yeah, Judy Hops is sexy. C'mon, it's not the first rabbit that has roused the blood - Jessica Rabbit got the eyes popping too...

The storyline is thoroughly right-on in a way that feels all the more urgent for having been released in the shitty year that was 2016. (And, interestingly, in a way that Moana avoided, being unabashedly a fantasy rather than a morality tale.)

The story fundamentally changed in the development process*. Originally it was Nick Wilde's story (the fox), and secondary character Judy Hops was a seasoned and cynical cop. It must have been tortuous to work through that and get to this much better sounding version.

*The comments on that article are hilarious.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

#197 at the time of writing.

I've warmed to the original Star Wars since I blogged about it - ok, I admit, it is a brilliant film. (Though I've cooled to the sequel.) But I've never been excited about Star Wars.

Until this film came along.

J. J. Abrams did it with Star Trek, and I believed he could do it again. Perhaps I got caught up in the hype, but I was really looking forward to watching this, and it exceeded my expectations. It successfully walked the tightrope between modern and nostalgic, while keeping up a great pace and sharp wit throughout. Yes, it's basically a remake, but it's fresh, and it effectively reboots the franchise in a direction that has captivated new generations - and me. Without a Jedi in sight.

In particular, Rey kicks ass in a way that I - and my daughter - would love to see more of on the big screen.

I love that relatively untested actors were used. It's a testament to the legend that Star Wars has built up for itself that John Boyega was so nervous and frightened at the prospect of not getting the role that he didn't tell his parents he'd been cast until after a cast photo was posted online by the official Star Wars Twitter page, and Daisy Ridley nearly had a panic attack during her first day on set when she feared her performance wasn't up to scratch.

George Lucas, thank you for letting go. Bring on the sequels.

Neat trivia: John Williams received his 50th Oscar nomination for scoring this film. Oh, and this is the third movie in history to reach the $2 billion mark after Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997).

Saturday, February 04, 2017

La La Land

#40 at the time of writing.

There aren't many non-animated original musicals at the moment, and perhaps that's why this one has made such a splash. It's firmly in the tradition of Singin' in the Rain-era musicals. It's a love story, and a love letter to Los Angeles (to the point that the navel-gazing Academy nominated it for a record number of Oscars, equalling Titanic and All About Eve).


Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling give great performances - they are both utterly charming actors. It's particularly impressive that Ryan Gosling learned to play all the piano music by heart.

It's fizzy and peppy and sweet, with a thoughtful storyline. I liked it a lot. But I don't think I loved it. Too showy for my tastes perhaps? For offbeat musicals, despite being a much smaller film, Once made a much bigger impression on me.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Mary and Max

#181 at the time of writing.

How did this wonderful film pass me by? I hadn't heard of it, or I'd forgotten. Which might go to show how hard it is for Australian films to get noticed. Yet it was the first animated film to open for the Sundance Film Festival.

It's a darkly funny story about two misfits on opposite sides of the world who maintain a tumultuous relationship as pen pals, which ultimately changes their lives.

It has all the quirkiness of Amélie and the black humour of Harold and Maude, with lots of background jokes and a meticulous attention to detail.


After the film we watched the DVD extras, which show off the blisteringly wry Australian humour that gives this film its edge.

The best animated film for adults since Belleville Rendezvous.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Inside Out

#51 at the time of writing.

This is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl, and the personified emotions inside her head that shape her childhood and battle with the complexities of growing up.

Pixar excel at making films that work on multiple levels - in particular, children can enjoy them for the colourful characters and comic action, adults can enjoy the sly jokes and emotional undertones, and everyone can enjoy the stories that weave it all together.

This film is also experienced on a different level by adults than children, but instead of just laughing at different moments, the kids are laughing and the adults are slitting their wrists.

Yes, this film is depressing. It's core message is that growing up = loss; growing up is difficult and it's ok to be sad about it. This message is hidden behind storytelling and spectacle of the absolute highest calibre, but still, I left the cinema without the spring in my step that Pixar usually evokes. Instead, I left dragging my feet.

So I find this film difficult to judge. Well, not really, it is clearly wonderful, but I'm just not sure I want to see it again. It's going to be hard enough watching my own kids grown up without reliving Riley's loss of innocence.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

#30 at the time of writing.

I enjoyed Mel Gibson's Mad Max when I was a kid, so I thought I knew what to expect with this, and initially I didn't intend to go see it at the cinema. But then I saw it rocketing towards the top of IMDb's Top 250, so I gave it a chance.

It felt like being in the front row of a thrash metal concert for two hours. Seriously intense.

I can't think of the last time a film packed so much over-the-top action into what is essentially one epically extended chase scene without giving almost any respite at all, and yet was still compelling. The stunts - mostly done for real - are impressive, the disdain for action movie conventions is refreshing, the acting is persuasive, and the story has surprising narrative heft.

It is surprising that this film got made after languishing in development hell for over two decades, and even more surprising that George Miller was at the helm, the same director of the last three Mad Max movies, even though the last action flick he directed was 30 years ago and since then all he's done is Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet.

It was originally conceived back in 1998, and slated to be shot in 2001, until the September 11 terrorist attack put the kibosh on that. Another attempt in 2003 failed because of security concerns related to trying to film in Namibia and the outbreak of the Iraq War. By 2007, after Mel Gibson lost interest in the role, Heath Ledger was rumoured to be the next Mad Max, before he died from an overdose in 2008. (Really - that was 7 years ago already?) In 2009 the project was briefly recast as a 3D animated movie. In 2011 principal photography started in Australia, but heavy rain (not great for a desert movie) forced a move at the last minute to Namibia.

Yet, somehow, it got made. And, somehow, it's a blockbusting hit. Bravo.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

#67 at the time of writing.

Two Japanese children try to survive alone after their parents are killed and their city firebombed towards the end of World War II. An unflinching tale of the terrible personal tragedies of war.

Our Western sensibilities have trained us to think of animated features, and films starring children, as being for children. Yet this is a most adult, and artful, and depressing picture. It was produced concurrently with the delightful My Neighbour Totoro, and the two were released as a double feature - but they could not be more different. One is about the loss of innocence, the other embodies the purest innocence. One is about the consequences of conflict, the other avoids conflict altogether.

If you get a chance to see this, don't watch the awful dubbed version. The voices are so silly it takes most of the impact away. Why couldn't they do a decent job with the dubbing, like they did with My Neighbour Totoro! (Probable answer: this is one of the few exceptions to the Disney-Tokuma international distribution deal.)

SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you haven't seen the film. Sadly, the film is based on a true story. Akiyuki Nosaka lost his little sister during the war to malnutrition and blamed himself for her death. His 1967 novel, on which this movie is based, was written to come to terms with the loss.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Whiplash

#38 at the time of writing.

I had mixed feelings about this one. It's about a young student who subjects himself to the fearsome tutelage of his mentor in his quest to become an all-time great drummer. It's a very good film, no doubt, but I don't like it when bullies are celebrated.

To be fair, the story stuck in my head, and the questions it raised. What does greatness cost? Does the end justify the means? When you're pushing for better, where do you draw the line? And actually it's exactly that ambiguity which elevates this film.

The tension runs high, and the lead characters are wonderfully played by Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons. The music is good, but it didn't really strike me as a music film - it's about other things. Anyway, full credit to debut writer-director Damien Chazelle for realising such a powerful film.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Birdman

#125 at the time of writing.

The most original film I've seen in a long time - probably in years. Having seen director Iñárritu's Amores Perros and Biutiful, I initially steered clear of this film, expecting it to be beautifully filmed, gritty, and soul-crushingly depressing. But more than once I heard friends say that this was something else - and indeed it is sublime. It's funny, hopeful, and always unexpected. The story fizzes along with captivating energy. I loved it.

It's about a washed up Hollywood superstar, famous for (long ago) playing Birdman à la Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man, who tries to reinvent himself as a respectable Broadway artiste. But he must overcome towering doubts, hubris and the bunch of wackos he calls family and friends. The style is very theatrical, with no visible cuts, plenty of backstage shenanigans and disarming magic realism.

I totally didn't realise until afterwards that Birdman was a real thing. That makes this movie the craziest adaptation since Adaptation. And that can only be a good thing.

(I just read that Antonio Sanchez's musical score, performed almost entirely by drums, was disqualified by the music branch of the Academy Awards. Why?! It's great!)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Interstellar

#15 at the time of writing.

Wow. I continue to be in awe of the grandeur and ambition of Christopher Nolan's (and his brother's) vision and their ability to bring it to the screen in epic style. For me, Inception was impressive but ultimately unsatisfying. Interstellar is just as impressive if not more so, but with a stronger emotional core than catapults it into the highest echelons of cinema.

The film starts slowly, on a farm struggling to survive in a world suffering from lethal dust storms and chronic food shortages, and then shifts gear (almost too quickly) into SPACE! But out of the nearly three-hour running time of this film, I reckon I spent a good hour on the edge of my seat with tension and emotional tumult, to the point where I found myself trembling and exhausted - but desperately wishing for another hour to allow the story to play out. When we finally left the cinema it took me a good ten minutes to decompress before I could string a sentence together.

So, yes, I think it's brilliant. Clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also a better adaptation of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War than any adaptation of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War would have been. The representation of space as stark, brutal and indifferent to human emotion; the rigorous hard science fiction; and the unexpected, uplifting twists of hope that burned the story into my heart.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Paths of Glory

#61 at the time of writing.

The futility and irony of the trench warfare of WWI is shown as a unit commander in the French army must deal with a mutiny and a glory-seeking general. I was lucky enough to watch this early Kubrick masterpiece at my local cinema recently, and the film's story and message have lingered with me for days.

As the closing credits rolled I found myself both exhilarated and depressed. Could Colonel Dax have done anything differently? What would I have done in his situation? Who was most to blame, and to what degree was any kind of justice served? These questions roiled around in my head afterwards.

Kubrick's early reputation as a prodigy was richly deserved. There is no sentimentalism here, no "patriotism" clouding the absurdity and cruelty of war. It is simply but cleverly filmed. The long tracking shots build tension and heighten emotion. There is a subtle emphasis on the stark contrast of the safe and opulent château where senior officers planned the war, and the stinking trenches where men followed orders with fear and loyalty knowing that death was their ultimate reward. And the final scene was extremely moving - nothing to do with the rest of the story, but underscoring the message that war makes us forget our humanity.

Impressive also, is that Kirk Douglas was in his 40s when he starred in this 1957 movie, and he's still around today. One of the last remaining stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood

The brief essay at the Criterion Collection provides an enlightening insight into the film.

Some interesting trivia from IMDb and other sources (if you believe it):

Winston Churchill claimed that the film was a highly accurate depiction of trench warfare and the sometimes misguided workings of the military mind.

The epic battle sequence was filmed in a 5,000-sq.-yd. pasture rented from a German farmer. After paying for the crops that would have been raised that season, the production team moved in with eight cranes and as many as 60 crew members working around the clock for three weeks to create trenches, shell holes and the rough, muddy terrain of a World War I battleground.

For box office reasons, Stanley Kubrick intended to impose a happy ending. After several draft scripts he changed his mind and restored the novel's original ending. Producer James B. Harris then had to inform studio executive Max E. Youngstein and risk rejection of the change. Harris managed by simply having the entire final script delivered without a memo of the changes, on the assumption that nobody in the studio would actually read it.

Concerned by its negative portrayal of the French army, the French government urged distributors United Artists not to release the film, and so it was not submitted to the censors, and not shown in France until 1975. Switzerland also banned the film (until 1978), accusing it of being "subversive propaganda directed at France." Belgium required that a foreword be added stating that the story represented an isolated case that did not reflect upon the "gallantry of the French soldiers."

Director Stanley Kubrick met Christiane Kubrick (then Christiane Harlan) during filming; she performs the singing at the end of the film. He divorced his second wife the following year to marry her, and they remained married until his death in 1999.

Actor (and colourful off-stage character) Timothy Carey was fired during filming, allegedly for some disruptive attempts at self-publicity including a staged kidnapping. His final scenes were shot with a double.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

#58 at the time of writing.

Much like its predecessor Avengers Assemble, which I blogged about here, this Marvel comic book adaptation makes silliness into a virtue. It has all the wrong ingredients, yet somehow it manages to bundle them together into a witty, well-paced, ambitious and compelling story. You may even end up empathising with a talking raccoon and a fighting tree.

For me, this is the best Marvel film since Iron Man. Although I say that without having yet watched the other recent Top 250 entry X-Men: Days of Future Past. Meanwhile, the snob in me squirms at the readiness of the Top 250 list to embrace all of these brash big budget superhero flicks.

That snob impulse is mollified by the insider knowledge that director James Gunn cut his teeth making weird sexploitation films with Troma Entertainment.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

#123 at the time of writing.

I haven't seen many of director Wes Anderson's efforts. I recall not thinking much of The Royal Tenenbaums, but absolutely loving Moonrise Kingdom. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, his meticulous kitsch style reaches a pinnacle as he tells the story of a hotel and its legendary concierge, a delightful and quirky adventure through the stereotypes of interwar Europe.


When I walked out of the cinema the sensibilities of the film had rubbed off on me; I was seeing symmetry in everything, talking terribly deferentially and making only right angled turns.

A wonderful fantasy.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Lego Movie

#172 at the time of writing.

I was surprised to see this on IMDb's Top 250 - a brand cash-in flick just doesn't scream high expectations. But the trailer looked fun, so I went to see it with my wife yesterday (we are still children at heart).

So does it deserve the hype? Well... it's good... but I suspect it won't stay on the Top 250 for long. It's very high octane, with lots of laughs, and a sweet ending that caps it off nicely. The story follows a Lego construction worker, who always follows instructions in true Lego style, as he learns the value of occasionally throwing away the manual and unfettering his creativity.

Two things especially struck me: First, that the film is so fast and action-packed in its jerky Lego world that my head was left spinning (probably exacerbated by the 3D). A little too much for me perhaps. However, the amount of effort that the animators went to to make the world seem so expansive and... Lego-ey... is seriously impressive. The amazing attention to detail will be bliss for Lego geeks.

Second, the film is relentlessly po-mo, filled with references to other films, breaking the fourth wall, self-aware story elements and characters that knew they were part of a film, and shamelessly unsubtle cultural references designed to appeal to the cynical and surreal tastes of the Internet generation.

Nice to see that fifteen years later one of my favourite films, The Matrix, is still being parodied...

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Her

#125 at the time of writing.

Way back when I blogged about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I said that if I had to choose a personal top 250 films, it would be full of films like that one. Except there aren't any.

Now there's one.

I enjoyed Her possibly more than any film since Eternal Sunshine (which is my favourite film of all time). I love any film that takes a clever conceit and explores its consequences as far as possible - and then stretches it even further, until your imagination is blown. This film does that wonderfully, with plenty of heart and humour.

Eternal Sunshine was written by my #1 screenwriter (with the possible exception of Terry Rossio), Charlie Kaufman - and two other films written by him (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) were directed by Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed Her. So perhaps it's not surprising that this film reminded me of Eternal Sunshine; the two men apparently share a certain kind of quirky creative sensibility that massively appeals to me.

This near-future sci-fi romance tells of a heartbroken and lonely man (played by Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system. Their relationship evolves through highs and lows, and meanwhile the depth and complexity of the AI's consciousness evolves (in a charmingly flawed way, echoing the fallibility of its human creators), and simultaneously society's attitude towards this new kind of intelligence evolves. These three threads build and intertwine slowly and subtly without ever taking the focus away from those intimate human moments that define love.

To top it all off, this film has one of the most intense and endearing 100% platonic male/female relationships that I've seen in movies (the main character and his friend played by Amy Adams).

The voice of the AI was originally Samantha Morton's. She was present on the set with Joaquin Phoenix every day. After the filming wrapped and Spike Jonze started editing the movie, he felt like something was not right. With Morton's blessing, he decided to recast the role and Scarlett Johansson was brought and replaced Morton, re-recording all the dialogue.

Hey Academy, are you listening? Never mind Gravity, pay no more than lip service to 12 Years A Slave, and give this film some love. (Yah, they won't listen…)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

12 Years a Slave

#90 at the time of writing.

This is the only slightly embellished true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in the mid-19th century American deep south. Director Steve McQueen's wife noted that there are more films about Roman slave Spartacus than about the far more relevant and immediate Atlantic slave trade.

It's interesting that it took a British-helmed film to really get under the skin of what it was like to be a slave in America - an unsentimental and unflinching portrait. There's all the brutality and abuse of Django Unchained (which I saw last year), but with none of the ridiculousness.

I was perhaps a little reluctant to go and see this, which reinforces my suspicion that my favourite reason to watch a film is escapism. This is the opposite of escapism. I'm not in a rush to watch Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed previous films Hunger and Shame.

Monday, January 27, 2014

City Lights

#34 at the time of writing.

A tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl, and woos her with the help of an unreliable millionaire friend.

My reaction to this (American) film was pretty much the polar opposite of my reaction to Metropolis, a contemporary German film that I watched last year. Metropolis felt messy, overacted, unsubtle - but awesome, epic, stylish. City Lights is neat, gentle, sweet - but... well... just a little bit dull.

The movie calls itself out as a pantomime, and it certainly excels at that, with Charlie Chaplin's wonderful comic timing, choreography and pathos carrying the story along. I watched it with my nearly three-year-old daughter and she loved it.

Anyway, I am clearly in the minority with my under-enthusiasm. Orson Welles said this was his favourite movie; Albert Einstein attended the American premiere and George Bernard Shaw the British one. The American Film Institute ranks it as the 11th best film of all time.

This was Charlie Chaplin's first film made during the sound era. He faced extreme pressure to make the film as a talkie, but such was his popularity and power in Hollywood that he was able to complete and release the film as a silent (albeit with recorded music) at a time when the rest of the American motion picture industry had converted to sound.

Charlie Chaplin, ever the stickler, allegedly re-shot the scene in which his character the Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower-girl 342 times, as he could not find a satisfactory way of showing that the blind flower-girl thought the mute tramp was wealthy.