A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick is the kind of filmmaker whose ideas don’t quite develop in as much as they are gently presented on us as full-fledged philosophies. We don’t really witness the the inciting incident of his characters for the change came within them, but we see snippets of their lives as their beliefs are put to the test, challenged, twisted, and we hope the protagonists stay true to themselves. It was so with the stoic rebels of Badlands, it was so with the ethereal soldiers of The Thin Red Line, so it is in A Hidden Life.

In many ways A Hidden Life is Malick’s most accessible film. Often cryptic and too spiritual for the sake of mass audiences, his work is characterised by gorgeous nature shots accompanied by poetic narration that tangibly connects God to our soul to the planet Earth. These are long movies, with minimal plot and virtually no action. They go at their own pace, like they’re a poem written by a lonely priest. 

So it was a surprise that his new film had the semblance of a large central problem, one that builds the core and purpose of the 2 hours and 54 minutes it encompasses.

Set in a small village by the Austrian mountains, we follow Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his new wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). Strong members of their little community, Franz and Fani build their family, tend to their crops, attend the church, help their fellow neighbours and participate in every town tradition of the year. But with the rise of Nazism comes a rift between Franz and the rest of society, as he finds himself at odds with an ideology that doesn’t share his values. After a mandatory stint in the army, where he didn’t see combat, Franz becomes a conscientious objector with the support of his wife. Suddenly the Jägerstätters are not welcome in their own community.

Malick doesn’t try to develop Franz’s creed. He is who he is, and we want him to stay that way. Instead we see how the pressure progressively mounts on him and his wife. Every new character is given their own scene to try and convince Franz to stand by his country, from the Mayor who only wants the best for him, the priest who seems to understand Franz’s point of view but urges him to think of his family (“what good will did this do to your wife and daughters?”). There’s a tremendous scene with a judge (Bruno Ganz’s last role) who requests a private audience with Franz to question him about his intentions but gets no concrete answers – later he sits in the same chair Franz was before in a childish attempt to see the world through his eyes.

These moments are shot in the most impressionistic way. While the narration is always in English, the preaching and arguing is in a loud and (at least for me) indecipherable German. Usually there’s only one character speaking while the other paces up and down in silence as if trying to avoid listening to all the hate. There aren’t a lot of dialogues but these strange monologues muffled James Newton Howard’s marvellous score, and framed in Malick’s now signature steady-wide-angle-cam (this time the cinematographer is not the usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, but Jörg Widmer who worked before as camera operator in The Tree Of Life).

 A Hidden Life forces us to pose that quintessential question – if I was there, I wouldn’t have participated. It forces us to decide if we would be as resilient as Franz. How far do we go to stand by our morals, and is it worth going the furthest even if no one’s there see? For is an idea still an idea if it dies with us? Or even better… does it really die with us?

Near the end Malick captures his most earnest moment since he got a soldier to face his own judgement for killing a man. In here a row of men sentenced to death are given a piece of paper and pencil to write their last thoughts, a startled prisoner asks “what should I write?”. Later he breaks down in one last moment of brotherly comfort. The truth is, Malick, himself a storyteller, respects this introspection more than anything else.

The Best

A Hidden Life is an interior struggle that we, as the audience, can witness and understand, but may not completely and 100% grasp. The fact that Malick managed to translate that into a film is nothing short of a miracle.

The Rest

Saying this is his easiest film to digest since Badlands isn’t a lot to most moviegoers, but everyone should give it a try. Its calm and candour soothes and contrasts with the layers of The Tree of Life. But it’s also, in it’s own humane way, a kind film, and we’ve been needing one of those for awhile.

Honey Boy

It’s hard to make a movie about your life without seeming overly indulgent or seeking empathy at every turn. Honey Boy walks a fine line. Written and starring Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy takes no time to absorb us into his early life, and works as a meditative way of LaBeouf to come to terms with the trauma of his young childhood but also present his version of events that may not be known to the common filmgoer who wondered what happened to the star of Transformers in recent years.

The story centres on Otis (Noah Jupe in younger years, Lucas Hedges as the older LaBeouf personality), a young actor making his way in Hollywood. He is controlled by and managed by his father James, a crazed and failed former clown who uses Otis to make money and achieve the success he never could. That’s most of the story narrative wise. We see Otis as an older actor with great success but still emotionally stunted and taken to rehabilitation to seek the answers to the anger that lies beneath. He begins to explore his relationship with his father and the film becomes introspective, where we come to see Otis seeing his father’s flaws and coming to terms with his own life, insofar that he makes this very movie to explore it. Have you kept up?

What is excellent here is LaBeouf’s performance as his own father. Part performance art, part acting, LaBeouf embodies his father and no doubt comes to see sides of his subject likely softened his memories of him. He’s terrifying, his own ambition stunted and unable to escape this circle of disappointment. It’s a career defining performance that is also ground-breaking. Hedges is reasonable as the older Otis, who is filled with rage and explosive, but also slips back into his acting roots when he needs to impress or show others he’s progressed. Jupe is also superb as the younger Otis and you can feel his anger at all moments on screen. This is a role well above his years and he takes it in his stride.

The filmmaking is claustrophobic and unsettling, as the two timelines coverage and sound changes throughout. The scenes of his father and him are not glistened over like perfect memories, but raw and unflinching. But it’s not all doom and gloom, it has moments of comedy that outweigh the dread of scenes between the two. Director Alma Har’el has respected LaBeouf’s script and turns his life into a poetic story that is relatable to many people.

It’s also a peek into the life of an actor who succeeded so much but is now past his success and using his trauma and his acting ability to create an entertaining, insightful film that is also part of his recovery process. It’s not a documentary, but it is heavily grounded in reality. Yet it doesn’t feel like a therapy session, but a breath of air from an actor who’s running from his past and coming to terms with it.

It’s simplicity can also be it’s let down. FKA Twigs features as a fellow neighbourhood girl who has some impact on Otis, but we don’t know what exactly, and she comes across a more Manic Pixie Dream Girl than one would hope. Plus there’s Natasha Lyonne’s name in the credits who is underutilised in a minor, minor role. To top it all off, there’s also little closure at the end of the film, likely because LaBeouf isn’t completely done with this part of his life. He’s gotten to this stage, so perhaps that’s all that he will give audiences at this point.

The Best

LaBeouf should have received more recognition for his role. It’s cathartic and captivating. Good on him for also writing a script with punch and embodying his father, and all his flaws, in this unconventional family drama.

The Rest

FKA Twigs is underused and her character is pretty pointless. There is much more depth that could have been explored. It’s like going to a therapy session and only talking about one thing. We want more context and more time to see how he repairs himself. But maybe that’s not this film.

Underwater

Disclaimer: I refuse to use terms like ‘b-movie’ or ‘exploitation’ like many critics usually patronisingly use them when they want to recognise a genre film so unabashedly entertaining that it almost feels wrong for them to appreciate it. No, I use these terms with the endearment they deserve, because in my mind there is no purest form of cinema but than an almost animalistic urge to capture our attention. It’s how cinema started, and it’s what will keep cinema alive. Preconceived concepts of quality be damned, it’s all about passion.

Underwater is all this in spades. So recognisable I can describe it simply as ‘Alien at the bottom of the ocean’, and so simple I was impressed how it still went out of its way to cut down on the little padding it had. This film doesn’t really start as much as it slams itself unto its audience with the subtlety of a bowling ball to the face. It’s three minutes in, we don’t even know the name of our hero and barely registered the setting, there’s an earthquake, some people died, two others lived. I guess we’re in a film now.

But back to the basics. Underwater follows a group of scientists trying to escape an underwater research facility in the bottom of the ocean that it’s mysteriously collapsing around them. Norah (Kristen Stewart), the mechanical engineer, manages to make it out to a safer area with Rodrigo (Mamadou Athie) and join the rest of the surviving crew, including Emily (Jessica Henwick), the biologist; Lucien (Vincent Cassel), the captain; and Paul (T.J. Miller), the comic relief. Frankly all of this matters little. The writing team of Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad identify these characters with enough traits make them relatable and tenuously connected to a theme of loss and survival. They are more interested in getting it down to the nitty-gritty of their struggle, because in real life they wouldn’t take their time to get to know each other, they would just make do.

And yet they do look and feel and fleshed out characters that we just don’t get to know very well, mostly credit of the solid work of the cast, especially Stewart and Cassell that approach this project with thoughtfullness.

Not all works. The good intentions of everyone involved is undermined by little rays of lack of talent, especially from William Eubank, a passionate and talented director that here shows the cracks of both the lack of budget and his ability to compromise to a project with genuine aspirations. The action is often frantic and confusing, but not claustrophobic enough to be uncomfortable. The scares are few and not effective, and the monster deserved an iconic moment. For a film that takes so much out of Alien, there’s more from Ridley Scott that Eubank could’ve learned from.

That is until the third act hits and Eubank shows all his visual might with grandiose Lovecraftian insanity. It quickly ties down the thematic before getting down to a brave decision to reposition Underwater in a frame I was not expecting, but welcomed nevertheless.

The aforementioned themes of the film are treated lightly, like only a solid shlock movie would. I respect the clarity of its message and the conscious decision to keep the depth to a minimum. Ironic for a film called Underwater, but whatever it takes to make the bloody thing work.

The Best

Give Stewart every big budget movie she wants, she can do it all. An effective flawed script leads to a memorable third act. I’ll watch more of this fi they keep making them.

The Rest

Eubank was so excited to get to the end, he forgot how important the rest of the build-up was. I have to be honest, there’s a classic in the making here that is undermined by just a little lack of vision. It could’ve been scarier. It could’ve been more layered. It could’ve done so much more. Instead it’s just a solid piece of shlock, and that’s the right antidote to the drabness of the award season.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

I never grew up with Mister Rogers. My first peek into this American TV legend from 1968 to 2001 was in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which took a peek at the man, Fred Rogers and his life before and during his hugely successful TV program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This film takes on a different approach, inspired by the 1998 article “Can You Say … Hero?” by Tom Junod, it looks at Mister Rogers’ impact on one person and how his emotional connection with his viewers supersedes age and nationality. 

Set in 1998, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) is sent to write a piece on Mister Rogers for Esquire’s Hero edition of the magazine. Lloyd is the character who most viewers align themselves with; he’s cynical, emotionally stunted and focused on his job to a damaging extent. His relationship with his father, or lack thereof, Jerry (Chris Cooper) is played as the key to Lloyd’s problems, but it’s upon meeting Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), he begins to take a look at his personal and professional life. Rather than stick to traditionally interviewing, Lloyd struggles with Fred asking him questions and wanting to get to know him. What eventuates is a story of one man helping another find his way again, and it’s this heart of the film that captures hearts. 

The film isn’t a biopic and it doesn’t feel like one. Sure Lloyd is based off a real person and the friendship they developed, but the film does a great thing of showing the impact someone like Mister Rogers had on one person, as well as millions through television. It’s not really about Lloyd but about Mister Rogers getting all people to think back to their own childhood, the learnings they had as children and continuing it in their daily lives. Messages of forgiveness and friendship oozes out and shows us as Mister Rogers’ amazing ability to be kind to people and get them to pay that forward. And the film doesn’t just try to show Fred’s impact on children, but shows his own history of teaching young children about anger, sadness, fried and death. It’s all addressed subtly by director Marielle Heller, who slowly but meaningfully takes us in and out of Mister Roger’s world, with Lloyd as the vehicle to understand him, but also makes us think about how we behave in our daily lives. On a visual side of things, Heller shows us scenes from the program as if we are watching them on an old TV and all exterior shots use the same miniature set that the series was known for. And it’s this that makes it feel more like a fable made up to teach us something profound. 

The film is affecting and poignant. Rhys’ portrayal as Lloyd is heavy, filled with anger and sadness that can’t be expressed. But it’s also not a star making performance, as the film isn’t about him. Rather Hanks is as magnetic as ever, smiling and empowering every moment he’s on screen as Fred Rogers. When he talks, his words of kindness and love, it touches something inside you that you haven’t felt since your younger days. One scene that sees him staring into the camera, matched with a silent sequence, is entirely beautiful and heartfelt. He is a surrogate father who is wanting us to once again embrace the beauty of life and creates an atmosphere where we feel coddled and understood. The film isn’t so much a character study but about the impact one man had on people around him.

Thematically the story of a cynical protagonist having a change of heart has been seen multiple times and is one of the film’s great faults. But it’s ability to make this approach feel totally different from past stories and transport us to the character on so many levels is a testament to Heller’s art. But it’s a film about understanding people and being reminded of kindness and tries to evoke that optimism we had as children and reminds us to get back to that. Our eyes are opened to the love and support that does exist in the world, even when it doesn’t feel like it. And that is a truly amazing, self reflective experience that is rare in cinema. 

The Best

The story follows a beat by beat teleplay of so many other films. You get a sense of where the story is going right away. But ultimately that is the foundation for the other parts of the story to come forward.

The Rest

The story follows a beat by beat teleplay of so many other films. You get a sense of where the story is going right away. But ultimately that is the foundation for the other parts of the story to come forward.

Bad Boys for Life

What do you call the feeling of acknowledging a memory without longing for it. Apathetic nostalgia? Disinteresting wistfulness? Whatever it is I had it during the two-hour run time of Bad Boys For Life, the third film of a franchise we last heard of in 2004. Whether you’ll enjoy this one or not depends on how you spent these past 16 years. 

Detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), still in action, now spend most of their time arguing about when and if they should retire. Marcus, out of shape and now a grandfather, isn’t cut out for this life anymore, while Mike holds on to the greater days that made them legends in the police department. When a mysterious hitman guns down Marcus in front of half the city, the boys get back together for one last personal hit. But this time things are different, police changed since 2004 (you would think were in a coma all this time to not see this one coming), and their car is slower than a Prius. 

The first thing that strikes me in Bad Boys for Life is how self-aware it is. It’s easy to see Mike and Marcus reflect Smith and Lawrence themselves, but the film itself, once a relic of late 90s opulent ‘Bayhem’, is now tame and cheap next to modern assessments. Between the cartoonish OTT of Fast & Furious, the brutality of John Wick and even the grittiness of the last Bond movies, Bad Boys is a little like Mike – respectful but past outdated – and its audience a little bit like Marcus – overweight and with a curfew.

That nostalgia gets us when the old logo for the Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer flashes on the screen, it continues when Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) is still there as their boss, as every reference from the old films winks past, and every time the film has to acknowledge its own time and space. 

The team of writers include the always prolific Joe Carnahan, a very effective and talented storyteller who has made his career trying to bring the action of our teenage years into adult life. That demeanor is in every scene, but it’s balanced by a refusal to grow into anything new. And I kind of respect that, even if the film overall didn’t work for me.

In an interesting twist our protagonists need to work closely with a new team of high-tech, forensic, politically correct, cops. Like CSI as envisioned by Elon Musk. In another film, part of the problem would be for them to embrace progress, and the new kids to learn some rough old-timey techniques. But in Bad Boys for Life both teams straight up acknowledge each pros and cons and go on to work together with barely any friction. Sounds boring but it is a bit refreshing and doesn’t distract from the main plot and the characters. And it’s because of the characters why we’re here.

As much as it looks like they are all having a tremendous amount of fun, this time I didn’t feel the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence. It’s easy to forget that when the first two films came out they were both at the highest point of their career, and in Smith’s case a level of fame that frankly hasn’t been seen since. Now Lawrence has more or less been AWOL for the last decade, and Smith has been struggling to get a success like he’s used to – and it shows. Though it shows they’re having a good time, they failed to recreate what made that duo so special in 2004.

The new players are a bit better, especially the three young members of the special squad which includes a young go-getter that idolises Mike (Vanessa Hudgens), the cocky one that doesn’t see much value in the older generation (Charles Melton), and tall, strong, poindexter with a surprising past (Alexander Ludwig). Honestly I would rather watch a film about these three.

All in all Bad Boys for Life is a film that exists and I’m still not sure if it’s a good thing. It will please fans, and nothing else. Doubt it will rekindle the careers of both Smith and Lawrence, unless they keep making these as long as they are alive… oh no, the title is threat, isn’t it?

The Best

The new actors are fun a good breath of fresh air but I really like what the script tried to do and pit the old aesthetic of the 90s against the new trends. It’s cute but…

The Worst

Not enough. A weak villain doesn’t help, but it’s the lack of chemistry between Smith and Lawrence that made me lose interest. The last set-piece goes on for too long and barely registers more than a handful of yawns.

There’s already a fourth one in pre-production. Oh boy…

Bombshell

The choice of the title ‘bombshell’ is peculiar for Bombshell. Of course, it lends itself to the double entendre of being both an unexpected event and that of which you would call a very attractive woman. However, what it ultimately does in the case of this film, is reduce this relatively interesting story of workplace sexual assault, political power playing and the heroic actions of women in taking down a man who had gotten away with it for so long, to something of a spectacle. And that’s the problem from the outset.

Bombshell’s story is a perfectly manicured version of sexual harassment allegations against Fox New CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), focusing on some of the women who spoke out against him. There’s an older anchor in the form of Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who’s time at the network seems like a ticking bomb, and whom we’re introduced as she is already meeting with lawyers to take steps against Roger for demoting her. There’s a fictionalised millennial and newcomer trying to break into the scene in the shape of Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), who’s confidence oozes and we see her rise to the top, albeit knowing what it’s taking to get there. Then in the middle of it all is Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), renowned television presenter and main figure of the story, who we first see braving against Donald Trump in a televised debate. She walks and talks us through the Fox building and is the eyes through which we see the business. And of course, she has our trust from the outset – she attacks Trump for Christ’s sake! You must trust her! The rest of the film follows these characters as they navigate the internal work politics of Fox and find their own empowerment against a man who gave them so much but also made them endure so much to get there.

Bombshell is a contemporary film, there’s no doubt about it. It’s current and it’s Time’s Up attitude is clear, as it should be. But the main problem is that the tone is never consistent throughout and it feels a bit like an Adam McKay rip off. There’s the signature talking to cameras, quippy one liners, titles for the characters and flashbacks, but it’s neither provoking enough nor as damning as it thinks it is. Sure there’s the incredible scene of Rudi Bakhtiar (Nazanin Boniadi) and her voiceover when being propositioned by her boss which had the whole theatre roaring with laughter, but at the same time, we laugh about a woman who was a victim of sexual harassment and was ultimately fired for not bowing to her male superior. Moreover, we don’t hear or see from Rudi again. How does this film do justice to this real life woman’s story? Oh, but it’s ok, because Megyn “I’m not a feminist” Kelly is almost shown to be the saviour of all women at Fox.

So while the movie tries to pat itself on the back and stands with the women who eventually brought Roger down, it doesn’t say enough about sexual harassment and workplace politics. How did this man get away with it for so long? How had the company been structured to protect him for such a long amount of time? Instead it rather concerns itself with presenting these women who are victims of sexism, yet revel in it by working for a conversation news outlet that routinely denies allegations like these when they are against people they side with (see: Trump). And for that it glosses over a lot of the things that made these women problematic. Here Kelly is the champion of women, keeping an ear out for stories that sound similar to hers and not just taking on Roger, but Trump too (see this ongoing storyline for Trump being The Worst Ever TM so Kelly looks so great?). Gretchen doesn’t get enough credit for being the first one to speak out and put her reputation on the line, and she’s a formidable force that crosses the axis of sexism and ageism. Yet for both characters, we aren’t exposed to their offensive remarks said as anchors, and we forgive them for what they did for themselves, not even necessarily for other people as a character says to Kelly during the film.

The acting is solid on all fronts: Theron is the splitting image of Megyn Kelly, and leans into her more likeable parts. Robbie is superb in her minor role here, you can really feel her tears and her anguish in her key scenes. Kidman is underutilised and her typical tour de force performing isn’t here. Side characters played by the likes of John Lithgow and Kate McKinnon do well with their limited time on screen, and some fun cameos in the roles of more famous people are fun to watch during their scenes. It’s not a tour de force for acting, and a lot of the script doesn’t allow for high impact moments. In fact, it addresses sexual assault in the way that doesn’t entirely condemn Ailes, but its more a reflection on workplace politics and pushing back against any workplace trauma, whether it be bullying, harassment or more.

Fox’s complicity is also conveniently avoided throughout, and the Murdoch brothers look like the best people on the planet. Fox is an easy target and perhaps that’s the problem here. Who is the movie for? It may be read as a way for your average citizen, politically impartial, to understand how a company handles misconduct and see conservative women come together to take down a real awful and evil man. But what comment is it trying to say more than this? And is the film doing wrong by only focusing on one issue without the context of everything else happening with these real life characters and the wider cultural issues at Fox? Maybe that’s a film for another time.

3.5/5 stars

The Best

Charlize Theron gives a great performance as Megyn Kelly. There are some scenes that really get you heated up and want to fight back against management where you work. Margot Robbie also does a decent job considering what’s she’s given.

The Rest

Nicole Kidman is wasted here! Plus oversimplified storytelling with a single message. Aren’t we more multifaceted than that? It’s easy to find some evil person to pin things on, but that’s not real life. That’s Bombshell.

Back Row's Films of the 2000s: Eden's Top 10

Wow, a decade has passed. And film has had its peaks and troughs. Netflix has solidified itself as a content machine to be reckoned with. Disney has grown and expanded more aggressively than ever before. Young Adult fiction was still making big money in the mainstream. But ultimately what we expect from films has changed and evolved. Genres have merged and evolved. Big name actors have moved to directing. Stories that have been at the forefront of social consciousness are now plastered across the screen. Female protagonists have come into their own, regardless of their likability or “reflection” of what women are like. But what the last decade has shown us is that there is no one path forward. Expect more changes and divergent in storytelling. And when new writers, actors, filmmakers and the rest are given more opportunities, watch how they transform the art and make it their own.

0. Bridesmaids (2011)

Centre stage: an unlikable heroine. She’s jealous and bitter. She’s impossible to sympathize with and you can’t see yourself in her. Annie (Kristen Wiig) had bad luck and things go downhill for her personally when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) tells her she’s going to get married. She’ll spend less time with her, she’ll have to finance a few wedding-related activities, and act like she’s totally fine. Enter Helen Harris III (Rose Byrne, in a career making comedic performance) who is Annie’s opposite. Rich, beautiful, likeable and potentially a replacement for Annie. It’s a heavy premise but the script is pitch perfect. It puts you in Annie’s shoes and makes you feel compassion for someone you’d hate. She’s not a typical victim. Paul Feig makes you slowly root for her, but also see she’s an awful person. Plus the conversation it has on female friendship is realistic and grounded in reality. Plus it’s consistently hilarious, heartfelt and is an unconventional love story about two best friends and coming to love oneself.

9. Get Out (2012)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is political and reinvented horror. By converging a horror film with a socially conscious theme underlying it, it has cemented him as a modern day Alfred Hitchcock, particularly with his explosive sophomore film Us. Here Get Out balances the expectations and modernity of interracial relationships and the ongoing paranoia of mixed race communities. Is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) just being overly sensitive to how these people are treating him? Or is his unease relevant? Even as his white girlfriend (Alison Williams, a fantastic portrayal) tries to keep him settled, you know there’s something wrong. Get Out is perfect as it balances frights, humour and satire that doesn’t try to evade the colour of its characters skin, but plays off audience expectations and what we know to be true in the real world. If one of the last scenes of a police car pulling up to Chris’ body doesn’t strike fear into you, you haven’t been paying attention. 

8. Her (2013)

The love story of a man and his phone sounds a bit ridiculous but this Spike Jonze written, directed and produced film is anything but. Sweet and full of soul, Her is a smart romantic comedy that plays with the future of technology and where we are at as a society. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is an isolated and depressed man who finds himself drawn to his virtual assistant Samantha (Scarlett Johannson) who turns his world around. His loneliness begins to disappear when he interacts more with Samantha, coming out of his shell and reflecting positively in Theodore’s writing. Here the transition from friend to Artificial Intelligence lover is natural as he “falls” for his computer. They try a sex surrogate to consumate the relationship and things begin to dissoolve from there. It’s a visually stunning film and a heartbreaking story about social loneliness and the need for connection, plus the story of love lost when it may not have always been found. Johansson was robbed of accolades for her voice acting and it’s bizarre but gentle story is something to be remembered.

7. Gone Girl (2014)

“I’m so much happier now that I’m dead.” It’s the line that stopped me in my tracks watching David Fincher’s Gone Girl for the first time. This psychological thriller based on the novel by Gillian Flynn who also adapted it, is the perfect mystery. With Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) at the centre of a mystery involving his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), this sexy and stylish film is dark and subversive. Fincher’s depiction of paranoia is superb, as is his ability to draw out two perfect performances from the leads. Everything from the script, editing, score and visual style is striking. Side characters played by the likes of Tyer Perry, Carrie Coon and Missi Pyle are fleshed out in their fleeting moments on screen. But moreso it’s an intellectual and post-modern narrative, one that is troubling but understandable. It gave rise to the idea of the cool girl and the ultimate revenge. And when the stakes get higher and higher, the very ending is a shock that feels like the ultimate betrayal. Not for the faint hearted, it’s a tale old as time about a woman scorned that will make you rethink what you know.

6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

From the opening titles of Karen O, Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch’s’s rendition of ‘The Immigrant Song’, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo leaves you with an impression that’s hard to shake. Based on the famed 2005 novel by Stief Larsson, David Fincher takes center stage with a script by Steven Zaillian. With 007 Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Rooney Mara in a career making performance as Lisbeth Salander, it’s the second adaptation of the story, the first in English. Retaining the spirit of the novel, it’s a brutal and engaging thriller that would’ve been nothing without Rooney Mara. From the beginning you can feel her commitment to the role. The overall feel of the film is austere and anxious that grows bigger and bigger as it moves along. The Scandinavian landscape is shown as such a terrifying future throughout. The cinematography is unforgettable and the eeriness of the shots don’t leave you. Revelations come and go, but it’s a film very much carried by its lead stars.

5. 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Despite slavery being central to the history of the USA, Hollywood hadn’t looked at these horrors in such clarity until 12 Years A Slave with the help of director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, it is the emotional rollercoaster of a man taken as a slave and forced to work in the south, all because of one misunderstanding. It explored beatings and attacks, the suffering of the African American people. Using McQueen’s brutalism and raw imagery, it made a star of Lupita N’yongo and won the Best Picture Academy Award. It’s a tough film to watch not ripe for repeating, but it’s as impactful as ever. Every character throughout is bringing their best and moments of solitutde and quiet beauty are indispersed with torture and utter pain. The ending is a reprieve that is a bit Hollywood-like, but it feels like coming up for air after hours held beneath water.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

What a ride! This post-apocalyptic flick is a moving monstrosity from beginning to end. Opening with an exhilarating action sequence, it brings life to the post-apocalypse genre and is a spiritual sequel in the Mad Max series. Following Max (Tom Hardy), who works with Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as he tries to outrun a cult leader and army in an epic road battle. One would think such a film is lacking in the narrative department, but Fury Road looks at Max’s survival and the strength of one woman in Furiosa, who leads the revolt against the oppressors. The screenplay, stunts, humour and direction are impressive, as are performances from Hardy and Theron. It’s intensity and over the top action is a heart-pumping show that is radical and visionary. It is one of the best action films of the century so far and uniqueness is something to be praised. It’s not your conventional film and that what makes it so perfect. One for the books.

3. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

So many images stick out in my head when I think of this film. Eva (Tilda Swinton) being carried during La Tomatina, hiding in a supermarket against a wall of Campbell’s soups or Kevin (Ezra Miller) eating a lychee slowly in a way that mocks something that has happened to a family member. This psychological drama by Lynne Ramsay and based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, takes us inside the mind of a woman whose son has done something horrendous and unforgivable. We jump space and time to understand how things got to this point and the audience tries to piece together what has gone wrong. We see her breakdown and we feel the despair in her life. We understand that for years Kevin was slowly torturing Eva with his action and has a cruel streak that he enjoys inflicting upon her. Ezra Miller is the perfect psychopath, who loves his father Franklin (John C. Reilly), but wants to make Eva see and feel every bit of hatred he has for her. Eva’s daughter Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) also becomes a target for Kevin’s actions and leads the way to a cataclysmic finale that you saw coming. It’s a brutal story of a child’s transgressions and the relationship between mother and son, and what eventuates when one doesn’t always receive the love they deserve. It’s called We Need To Talk About Kevin because no body in the film ever has, Eva pays him no attention and seeks for a return to her own life. Tilda Swinton does a great job showing the shock and inability to take anything else. And in the end we begin to understand why Kevin did all these things and what his idea of revenge was for all the years. It’s so unsettling and masterfully done that you don’t know who is the worst person in the situation.

2. The Big Short (2015)

Who knew the Global Financial Crises could be so fun? The Big Short does the rare thing of being able to take on a serious, very complicated topic and make it understandable to the masses whilst still retaining comedy. It’s attention to detail and focus on the Wall Street crash of 2008, The Big Short does a rare thing by portraying the story of some who benefited from the crash of a nation’s economy. Directed to perfection by Adam McKay, its list of stars are too long the name but all equally as powerful as the next. And how can you deny the likes of Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain breaking the fourth wall to explain the concept of subprime mortgages? It’s a captivating story that is bettered by the comedic performances and the format that breaks Hollywood conventions. It comes across as smug at times, but it’s tone is ripe for a great time for audiences. But even at the end it comes back down to the truth of the situation and those who were affected. It’s a farcical story but it’s true! You can’t beat that one-two-punch that leaves you both entertained and horrified at the state of the world. McKay has tried to mimic this in Vice (2018) to middling success. This is the real success potion here.

1. The Social Network (2010)

This list has seen historical classics and modern day comedies. But is there a film that can capture the zeitgeist of the decade and but also reads like one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, anti-hero and all? The best film of the decade is The Social Network, a film that from the outset looks to be about the founding of the largest social media platform in the world – Facebook. Even when it came out in 2010, Facebook was still growing across the world, long before fake news and privacy concerns that have come to shape the business in the public sphere. From the first scene of Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara), talking rapid fast about becoming a part of a prestigious club at Harvard, it portrayed an individual unbelievably intelligent, arrogant and whom, with the correct opportunity, may put their own need to be accepted and admired above friendship and ultimately morals. It really is the birth of a villain, Mark Zuckerberg who gets his way and is “the winner” with “over 500 million friends”, but who has dug himself into this space whereby he is totally alone yet in control of one of the most powerful sources of information sharing in the world. It reduces its protagonist to a pathetic, petulant person hoping to impress women and act like something he is not. Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) comes out as the hero, the anti-tech bro that has his headlines for misogyny throughout the world. His victimization at the hands of Mark isn’t always about the individual itself but toxic masculinity, raw ambition and the culture of misogyny that is perverse across the world. It’s a work of art that is improved by the directorial eye of Fincher, with every scene of fighting, cross examination, corporate conversations and coding as cinematic as ever. It’s a glorious modern day epic that is grounded in reality that makes it even scarier. It’s about what happens when we breed individuals with these mentalities and they not only create their own empire, cutting down all those in their way and may have walked alongside them, but what happens when these people become in charge. It’s not as much a film as it is a dissertation on modern masculinity, the power of technology, corporate greed, entitlement and so much more. It deserves a rewatch every year.

Spies In Disguise

I have been a bit underwhelmed with animation of late. More drawn to the Pixar classics, I loved The Incredibles 2 but gave Toy Story 4 a miss (did I dodge a bullet?). So, to attend a screening of Spies in Disguise, a Blue Sky Studios – maker of Ice Age franchise and Rio – I went in with low expectations. And with such a lazy title, I expected the worst.

The story centres on one of the world’s greatest spy Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith), a cutthroat agent who works along all the time, with sharp fighting skills and deadly charisma. Back at the agency there is Walter Becker (Tom Holland), a wannabe inventor of gadgets who is opting for more friendly and less harmful weapons in the force. Namely ones that shoot glitter and the like. As their paths intersect, with a wild early twist that I personally did not see coming, it becomes a buddy comedy that plays off both Lance’s idea of what fighting evil means and Welter getting some experience in the field.

The animation is a first for directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno and you can tell at times. It has a quick pace, always moving to the next sequence and rapid action scenes, both mindless but effective. The colour scheme is bright and perfect for catching the eye. Unfortunately jokes throughout are paper thin, but it’s mainly a solid film for children, that satisfies around the school holiday times. Fortunately, the film is improved by its voice cast, both of whom are perfect for each role. The animation itself is a bit reductive, and there’s no hiding that it feels like elements of The Incredibles are here too.

But the key element here that challenges the norms is the underlying themes. There’s no denying that Walter is a pacifist, believing that in order to catch criminals and prevent attacks, there is a humane way that doesn’t involve serious harm or killing. It’s an anti-violence stance which is rare for an animated kids film to take, but it’s a strong opening for conversations for families to talk about the political persuasions. It also plays off a lot of 007 hyper masculine genre tropes, which is refreshing for the genre.

Unfortunately, while it pushes boundaries, it doesn’t break any. Its story is still a mainly predictable play by play. It does mock the genre but doesn’t go far enough. It could have done a sort of Spy for kids, but it doesn’t have the sharp comedy enough or the right tone to push it too much. While it succeeds in presenting a crazy premise and an alternative political messaging underlying the plot, as a story it simply doesn’t fly as much as it’s pigeon co-stars do.

The Best

Come for the buddy comedy, stay for the pacifist theme.

The Rest

It’s not as funny as it thinks it is and may have done well about 5 years ago.

Jojo Rabbit

This is a film about indoctrination. Jojo Rabbit, based on the novel Caging Skies by Christian Leunens, is directed and written by Taika Waititi, and is most likely the first Nazi comedy that’s as subversive as it is boundary-pushing.

Telling the story about Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis), or as he’s called Jojo, a young boy who is part of the Nazi Youth in Germany, Jojo Rabbit starts with a German version of a Beatles song played over real life footage of Nazi salutes and goes from there, middling together comedy against a story that many people are familiar with, but this time, with the charm of a Wes Anderson movie.

But the real drawcard and difference in Jojo Rabbit is the inclusion of Waititi himself dressed up as an “imaginary friend” of Jojo’s, who happens to be a fantastical version of Adolf Hitler himself. But things take a turn for Jojo when he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish girl in their home. Torn between his indoctrinated Nazi mindset and his familial values, Jojo comes to his own moral decision making.

It’s a fabulous cast with talent abound. Griffin Davis puts on one of the best child actor performances, with his touching moments and palatable anger at times. He makes you laugh and cry. You believe that this boy really does love the Fuhrer, but also see how this sort of fanaticism is a slippery slope to the events that the history books cover in detail. Johansson is also strong, in a role that I wish got her more exposure for her delicateness and subtle emotion. Waititi is also brilliant as the fantasy Hitler. Guest performances from Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen also add to the comedy of the story, though their broad performances err more on the over the top caricature at times. Jojo’s best friend Yorki played by Archie Yates is also superb in the role and a real highlight in a film full of them, as is Thomasin McKenzie as the Jewish refugee herself Elsa.

From the outset, the idea of the film is to laugh at this young boy being so indoctrinated and imagining Hitler by his side, before the real drama of the ethical dilemma of helping someone he’s been trained to hate comes along. But is this enough to sustain the purpose of the film? I don’t always know. Is indoctrination funny? And while we look back in retrospect at the Nazi situation and laugh at how youth like this are indoctrinated into performing horrendous acts, does that stand as a comedy piece in itself?

It’s a complicated thing to balance, but ultimately Waititi keeps the humanism throughout the story as we see Jojo’s ascent to empathy and tolerance. Towards the end of the film, the funny parts evaporate and the heart of the story really comes through. While the end is a bit fraught and overall the story isn’t greatly original (with the exception of comical Hitler), it’s the moments between that really solidify it as a great film. Scenes are deeply affecting. But Waititi’s idea that a child can show us the way out of ignorance and prejudice may be of little value in the real world. At least we have the movies.

The Best

Waititi’s Hitler really is the drawcard here, but stay for Griffin Davis, McKenzie and Johansson’s superb performances. Don’t forget to bring tissues.

The Rest

It makes you sit up and think about what makes something funny. A Nazi boy filled with intolerance and hatred, indoctrinated by his society is not always the best way to come at a comedy. What if it was a KKK child in the US deep south? We can laugh at indoctrination, but if the underlying issues haven’t yet disappeared and there are still actions happening (though not to the same extreme extent), is indoctrination funny?

Little Women

It takes a lot to bring a very old piece of literature to life. Yet many directors continue to try and bring the stories of Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and the like to new audiences every generation or so, some with middling success and others rejuvenate the text on the page. Fortunately for Louisa May Alcott’s famed story Little Women, in the hands of an actress-cum-director Greta Gerwig, retains the spirit of the story but also makes it feel fresh for new audiences.

In the years after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris. Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore (Timothee Chalamet), a childhood friend. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson), is married to a schoolteacher, while shy sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) develops an illness that brings the family together. With the help of the other women in their lives, their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and their Aunt March (Meryl Streep), they navigate their environments and try to come into their own at a time where it wasn’t so easy.

Fortunately Gerwig isn’t overly protective of the source material and following it to a tee. Her own personal touches can be felt throughout. The way the story plays out, with it’s moving between timelines to draw connections between childhood memories and their results in adulthood, as well as how old feuds have affected new friendships, really highlights to the audience how these relationships have grown and changed over time. Gerwig underlines the female empowerment of its centre character Jo, and juxtaposes the creative boundaries that exist for her in the story (perhaps an allegory of Gerwig’s own battles in the industry herself). It is both one with the original source material, but goes one step further to bring to life the spirit of what Alcott wanted to explore – strong women and the familial relationship between them.

On the acting side, every performance is superb. Ronan brings passion to her portrayal of Jo and the audience is immediately drawn to her. Though at times her actions could have sidelined her from likeability, with Gerwig’s direction and Ronan’s acting, it is a mere quirk of her personality. She is wild and ambitious, rejecting the social norms of her time, making her so relatable to contemporary audiences. Pugh brings grace to Amy, avoiding the spoiled characterisations of previous outings. She is headstrong and the story also belong to her. Watson is a solid fixture in the story as Meg and Scanlen’s reserved Beth are equally as pertinent to the story. Chalamet again comes out at the romantic and charming Teddy, solidifying him as a contemporary heartthrob with sensitivity but brazen personality. I see this as his Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice (1995) moment. In the supports, Dern is the mother you’ve always wanted, understanding and calm, despite battling her own problems and Streep is the comical grandmother whose sharpness and old-fashioned values are reminiscent of the Dowager Countess of Graham Violet Crawley.

The script is excited and full of energy. The dialogue sounds true to form, but its delivery is excellent, evoking Gilmore Girls via Jane Austen. Costuming and art direction are both magnificent, drawing us into the period and adding an extension to the women’s personalities as well. The March house is a kaleidoscopic mess of bits and bobs, most of which the girls play with and entertainment each other with, but mainly it evokes warmth and glows as much as the characters. It’s the heart of the family unit and grounds the characters presence in the story.

It’s a beautiful film, it feels like a hug from a grandparent who has told stories to you throughout the years. There’s joy and pleasure to be had, coupled with strong emotions of losing one so close to you, but ultimately it’s the beautiful story of women, all types and personalities, their relationships, the bonds of love with mothers and fathers, creative ambition and battling the odds for something you believe in. The ending is true to the story, but subverted so that Jo’s creation is one of her many pride and joys, and remind us of the love of family and of how we grow to be who we are. To bastardize a quote from the HBO TV show Girls, “A friendship between sisters is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” And that’s never been truer than here.

The Best

Beautifully acted and expertly direction adaptation is the perfect modernisation of a classic story that we don’t deserve, but need. It’s heartfelt and uplifting. Perfect in so many ways.

The Rest

Let Gerwig direct the sequels to the original, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Or just give her a damn Oscar nomination!