I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.
This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.
It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.
The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.
Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.
I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).
There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.
I’ve seen a range of different documentaries at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, and if this one fits into the rather more didactic end (which makes sense as a film best intended for public television), it’s no less interesting for that. Any documentary is going to succeed on the interest generated by its subject, and the Black American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey certainly is one such figure.
Not every film I go to see is moving or memorable because of its formal sophistication. This is a fairly straightforward documentary in that respect, blending people talking with archival footage, but the story it tells remains fascinating, being that of African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded his own school of dance (which is still going as we see them rehearse a piece for its 60th anniversary) and toured the world. Part of what I like, though, especially watching the old footage — part of what moves me — is just the form: there is nothing like dance and ballet that seems quite as much like magic to me. How the dancers can put their bodies into the form that they do for such a long time, so gracefully and seemingly without effort (though clearly it is a punishing endeavour), it’s remarkable when it’s done well and clearly here it’s done very well. So just to learn about Ailey’s life and work is moving enough, just to see extended footage of him and his company at work, and makes the film (which seems to have been made for TV and would fit that format perfectly well) a worthwhile one for anyone keen to learn about 20th century art.
Director Jamila Wignot; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.
I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.
This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.
Moving into the second week of Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month, I went to another fairly commercial film that I hope will be back here on big screens, though it’s already been released in most of the rest of the world. It’s a jolly American indie film with a single setting and that makes the most of its expressive actors.
The lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a mess, as a lot of people still at university in their early-20s tend to be, but this is exacerbated by the pressure and anxieties of being at a shiva (a mourning gathering) with her extended family and some strained former friends and lovers. In certain ways — the intense anxiety the film captures, by sticking to a lot of close-ups, moving through tight spaces with the threat of elderly relatives jumping out at any moment like a horror film, but most of all from the scraping dissonant score — this reminded me of Uncut Gems, but unlike that film, the cushion of family and the setting means there’s no real sense of physical danger as there is there. Still, there’s very much a sense of things unravelling at every turn, so the fact that it wrings plenty of laughs and humour from this situation is testament to the writing and the performances, from familiar stalwarts like Fred Melamed or the younger newcomers (I definitely want to see more of the actor who plays Maya, Molly Gordon). The characters might be confused and messy, but the film feels carefully controlled.
Director/Writer Emma Seligman (based on her own 2018 short film); Cinematographer Maria Rusche; Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.
The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.
Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.
I keep saying that I’m not going to any more Marvel movies, because what really am I getting from them? I certainly gave up posting reviews of them up here because they mostly just cover the same sort of arc (fun but empty, and was that bit where they destroyed most of [insert city here] really necessary?). I’m pretty sure I said no more after Avengers: Endgame, and I feel certain I’ve said it at other times too, but here I am, back in again (because, obviously, it’s directed by a woman). I’d sort of forgotten the main thing about the Black Widow character from that final film of so-called ‘Stage Three’ of the MCU (avert yr eyes, but if you care you know already: she dies), but this is a prequel and it largely eschews the other big stars of the franchise, so we get a fairly standalone film, which is I think the best thing about it. So yes, let’s get back into it.
At a certain level this is more of the usual Marvel sound and fury. Beforehand, I went to the Wikipedia page intending to spoiler myself just for fun but realised that I genuinely didn’t care about any of the characters at that point, so if the film achieves anything it’s that by the end, I did at least feel like there was something there, something to hold onto at a character level. As someone who was introduced to Scarlett Johansson back in the 90s in films like Manny & Lo and Ghost World, there was a little flicker of what she brought to those films, though she’s had a full career, a roller-coaster ride of decisions, so in 2021 the stand-out performer is of course Florence Pugh. She may perhaps be expected to take on Scarlett’s ‘Widow’ mantle in future and if so, it’s a canny choice, because one of the few reasons I consented to return to the cinema to see yet another MCU film was the presence of Pugh (and the director, Cate Shortland, whose style in her earlier, much lower-budget psychological dramas like Somersault and Lore, at times here manages to penetrate through the studio playbook). Of course, there are also the big explosions, the silly fights (there’s a lot that’s silly, both intentional and not) and the crashing of enormous things into the ground, but you’ve got David Harbour for the comic relief (who is very good at that), and some genuinely quite sweet scenes between Pugh and Johansson as sort-of sisters rediscovering their bond. Also, secretly, maybe the whole film is actually an allegory for #FreeBritney; certainly there is a message there that touches on conservatorship, I think, and about alienating women from choices over their bodies.
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Eric Pearson, Jac Shaffer and Ned Benson; Cinematographer Gabriel Beristáin; Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 10 July 2021.
I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.
Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.
Part of getting films into cinemas after a period of closure is that there are still a number of titles that probably would have gone straight to streaming which are still getting a shot, and this feels like one of those. Still, it looks good on the big screen, whatever other shortcomings it may have.
There’s stuff in this film that feels a bit programmatic and well-trodden, and when the script does get to the emotional sharing (right at the very end) it suddenly starts to feel like too much, but that’s because the rest of the film is an exercise in restraint that is made more precise and affecting by the quality of Robin Wright, the star and director, in this role. She has retreated to the wilds of Wyoming after some unnamed tragedy, but it quickly becomes clear it has to do with a death close in her family, and pursues a solitary life to varying success, eventually settling in. This process forms the bulk of the film as time slips away unnoticed until she becomes reacquainted, in a small way, with the comfort of fellow humans (in the form of Mexican actor Demián Bichir). The way that her isolated life and his incursion is played out is very nicely done, and it feels almost like a step too far that the script feels the need to wrap it up with a little moral lesson but even that feels earned by the slow, but never boring, pacing.
Director Robin Wright; Writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam; Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski; Starring Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 21 May 2021.