Directed by Josh Mond
James White is, for lack of a better word, devastating. But in the absolute best of ways. A highly personal debut feature from Josh Mond, James White stays up close with the eponymous lead protagonist – phenomenally performed by Christopher Abbott – as we become familiar with his pain, anger, and inner conflicts at every moment. Christopher Abbott carries the film effortlessly, which is incredible considering what’s required of him. The supporting cast is also fantastic, with Cynthia Nixon giving perhaps the most brave performance of her career. Unflinching, raw and sometimes plain horrifying, James White escapes sentimentality for truth and realism, and it made me want to call my parents immediately. A brilliant film (with a brilliant soundtrack).
Directed by Ethan Hawke
Peering into the life of Seymour Bernstein, an extraordinarily talented New York concert pianist, Seymour: An Introduction serves as a honorary tribute to a man that decided to carve his own path. Citing extreme anxiety, Bernstein embraced his reclusive nature despite his talents, holing up in a small New York apartment to become a piano teacher. Instead of the typical rags-to-riches or mental downfall stories which are synonymous with these kinds of documentaries, we are instead treated to a story of a man that made absolutely sure that he could continue doing what he loved, who places his love for music above fame and above money. You may not be enthralled to see someone who has simply found happiness in their life, but by god is it refreshing.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
I saw The Assassin at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), and it was a strange experience on a few levels. Prior to this, The Assassin won Hou Hsiao-Hsien the Best Director prize at Cannes, so naturally the session I went to was packed out to the brim. Interestingly however, no other session I went to at MIFF had as many walkouts as this one. People were constantly trickling out of the door for the first half of the film. The projector in the cinema was certainly out of focus, but still – who’s to blame for the disparity? The film or the audience? The film plays out in 4:3 aspect ratio, and contains a certain stillness that one would assume Western audiences maintain an aversion towards to this very day. What do most audiences want when they pay their money to see a film? Do they want to be challenged, to be opened up to different cultures, or simply distracted from their own lives for two hours? Who knows. Regardless, The Assassin is by all means a different experience: one that pays tribute to an ancient history and tradition, with a stoic style and form that is as uncommon as you’ll find in today’s contemporary cinema. It may not deliver at an electrifying pace, but it’ll become a film that lingers inside the soul, with every frame filled to the brim with beauty.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
How do we attach our sympathies? Do we simply assert them onto those less fortunate than ourselves? How much do we need to understand about someone to deem them deserving of sympathy? Pablo Larraín has to be one of the gutsiest filmmakers working today, as The Club – his follow-up from the incredible and political film, No – proves with a quiet, but viciously acidic story of Catholic hypocrisies and sins. This is one of those films in which discussing the narrative would be a massive disservice to anyone who hasn’t seen it. One of it’s major strengths is how it plays the audience – or at least it played me like a fiddle – by withholding and giving information at very select moments, which made me constantly see each of the characters in different lights, going from sympathising with them, to hating, back to sympathising… on and on. This is a powerful film which explores the darkness lurking inside.
Directed by Christian Petzold
Phoenix is a testament to small-scale filmmaking with big ambitions. The ability to make a post-WWII period-piece on a budget of $4 million is borderline phenomenal, and Phoenix uses every last dollar to impressive effect in it’s production design and lighting. Phoenix plays out like an inverted Vertigo, with themes of identity, deception and manipulation at the forefront. Strong performances and a controlled sense of time and space grounds the film, as we feel our way through the haze with our characters, struggling to reconnect with what was lost in post-WWII Berlin.
Directed by Peyton Reed
Ant-Man, the film that could’ve been. The departure of Edgar Wright as director casts a massive shadow over Ant-Man, as the film functions like a chicken with it’s head chopped off. Riddled with holes in logic and story, it feels like the film plays out without any sort of real momentum, rather forcing the reluctant superhero story whilst stuffing in obligatory expositional dialogue to cover up its own tracks. It often became painful to watch the amazing cast deliver the lines fed to them: they deserve so much better. All fat with no skeleton, Ant-Man will unfortunately be remembered as that film that no one can really remember.
Directed by Asif Kapadia
Easily the most heartbreaking cinema-going experience of the year, Amy is a film made with a masterfully delicate touch, using exclusively archival footage and voiceover to transcendent effect. By the end of the film’s running time, I felt absolutely devastated by her story, simultaneously enraged, guilty and helpless by the tragic, true events that unfolded on screen. Amy doesn’t overdramatise Amy Winehouse’s death, but pays tribute to an artist, succumbing to the pressures of her relationships and the people around her. A beautifully rendered story about the destructive need for love, and a clear-eyed indictment on the way we treat others.
Directed by Pete Docter
A new Pixar release is a true cinematic event. Audiences everywhere sweat in anticipation to feel as much as they did when watching Up, Finding Nemo or Toy Story. Inside Out is a formidable entry to the Pixar canon, and lends itself to being probably the most fun way to educate children on their own emotions. Despite breaking new ground in storytelling, with brilliant performances and clever set-pieces, I couldn’t help but feel as though the film could’ve reached even higher with it’s narrative, instead of feeling like a massively-budgeted episode of The Magic School Bus. Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but left thinking it had much greater potential to explore.
Directed by Alex Garland
I’m forever a fan of Oscar Isaac. For me, he remains the best thing about most, if not all of the productions he stars in. The production design of Ex Machina does a stellar job in translating the stark coldness of the film, but I have to admit that the film never elevated beyond it’s sleek, intellectual exterior. For a film to discuss what it means to be human, it feels like a disservice to have Domhnall Gleeson’s protagonist character remain practically one-dimensional for the entirety of the whole film. Ex Machina is essentially the cinematic equivalent of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz: shiny and impressive, but lacking any resemblance of a heart. At least it still has Oscar Isaac.
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
It Follows is a success in many ways. As a clever take on the horror genre, it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but uses the genre as means for sharp social commentary. It succeeds in controlling and manipulating the kind of fear that most young people in this generation experience: anxiety (is it more terrifying to discover that you have an STI, or to be convinced you have it every single day for the rest of your life?). It does all of this with a budget of only two million dollars. I think I had my expectations high after reading all the hype about the film, and though it didn’t quite match those expectations, I still admire how far this tiny horror film has spread around the world, giving faith to independent filmmakers everywhere. Also, great synth soundtrack.