Everyone loves lists at the end of the year, rrriggght ?
Here are the my top 10 films I’ve seen in 2018.
Lean on Pete
Review of Sarah Jacobson’s 1993 short over at Filmink and below.
A wild mix of fired-up feminist rallying and pitch black humour, this early ‘90s short from influential filmmaker Jacobson still packs as much of a punch as it did back in Riot Grrrl’s hey-day.
The ground-breaking underground film cost an estimated $1600, and has a grainy sliced-up look perfect for its gritty subject matter. Featuring ultimately serious comment and inquiry into patriarchal society (along with gruesome laughs amidst some decidedly non-professional acting) that is as relevant now as it was then, the 27min film is far more than merely a museum piece or passing curiosity.
To reinforce the darker dreams of the film, the grungy soundtrack features a song from the notorious cult leader Charles Manson. That piece plus tracks from ‘90s punk rockers Heavens to Betsy and underground stalwarts Gas Huffer merge sound and vision for a short, sharp shock to the senses.
This was Jacobson’s debut in a career tragically cut short by illness that also included the feature Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1996), which will screen with I Was a Teenage Serial Killer at the inaugural Paracinema Fest.
A memorable intro to her work, the film shows how a lasting statement can be made with a purely indie DIY approach to filmmaking.
Smartly funny You Might Be the Killer reviewed over at Filmink.
Taking its cues – and one of its stars – from meta-slasher comedies such as the Scream films and Cabin in the Woods, this is a clever and entertaining indie-flick perfectly suited to the geekier end of the horror-comedy spectrum. Offering a sideways take on the summer camp style of horror film – a mini-genre all of its own – the film scores highly for sardonic laughs and horror fan reference points.
Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods) stars as camp councillor Sam, a guy with a serious blackout and memory loss problem. He wakes up in the great outdoors, which soon become not so great as he discovers corpse after corpse. Luckily for him, he has a phone to connect with best friend and horror movie expert Chuck (Alyson Hannigan). Chuck runs through the various possibilities with Sam, including the fact that, yep, he might be the killer…
With lots of entertainingly envisaged death scenes and a few jump scares, this movie certainly has the requisite nods to the glory (and gory) days of summer camp slashers. But more than that, it has plenty of witty lines examining the state of play of that particular type of film. The tropes of cursed masks, lost loves and of course the ‘final girl’ are all closely looked at by Chuck – who just happens to be working at a comic book and video store – and calmly delivered to a bloody and near-psychotic Sam.
What initially sounds like an uninspiring premise scores highly for laughs and sheer entertainment. Simmons gets the tone just right, with a succinct and always funny script offering lots of scope for the performers to get the best out of it. Good support to the main duo comes from Brittany S. Hall as Sam’s romantic interest Imani and Jenna Harvey’s sweet natured Jamie. A repeated joke involving Steve ‘the Kayak King’ (Bryan Price) is also far funnier than it probably has any right to be.
On the surface, You Might Be the Killer takes simple ideas, jokes and scares and builds on them to create a highly accomplished horror-comedy. A top treat for any horror fan, the film is sharp, snappy and executed with a killer touch.
My review of the beautifully moving Lean on Pete is over at Filmink and below.
Andrew Haigh’s poetic vision of growing-up poor and neglected is a haunting and deeply moving look at a side of American life rarely given such detailed attention.
The film is a slow-burn of intense emotional upheaval, and brings a studied approach to its subject that makes the impact of the experience even more rewarding.
Going for careful and deliberate dramatics, rather than overplayed fireworks, the story is reserved, contemplative and, ultimately, heart-rending.
Featuring a powerful central performance from Charlie Plummer as the 15 year old Charley, Lean on Pete is a coming-of-age story delivered in the most compassionate of tones.
Charley, a likeable innocent, is tasked with survival on a daily basis. His father Ray (Travis Fimmel) loves his son, but is not exactly reliable. He has a habit of going from job to job and shacking up with new partners – including the married Lynn (Amy Seimitz) – as and when it happens.
As we are introduced to father and son – and Haigh deliberately allows us a semi-documentary view of their hand-to-mouth lifestyle – we see the ramshackle rooms, missed meals and unhealthy living arrangements that make up their life. It’s not played specifically for sympathy – although that is there in abundance – it is more about showing the reality of young Charley’s existence.
This reality makes the discovery of a local horse track and the appearance of irascible trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) more of a bright note in Charley’s disjointed life than it otherwise might have been. The cantankerous old Del shows the boy how to work the stables and get the horses ready for racing.
It’s here that the eponymous horse Lean on Pete connects with Charley. The relationship between ageing animal and young human is showcased beautifully and simple scenes of the two walking back and forth with the boy intoning softly about whatever’s on his mind is quietly emotive.
Chloë Sevigny also has a role as a jockey who candidly warns Charley about getting too close to Pete. Both she and Del see the horses as little more than tools to make use of. When they become too old and too slow, they are cast aside and replaced. For them there is no other connection to make. Not so for the adolescent in need of a friend.
Plummer is on screen for nearly the entire two-hour feature, and manages to hold the episodic story together with his brilliant portrayal of youth in search of answers. It is his character and the cruel effects of impoverished despair that lend an epic struggle to the plot. This, plus the fantastically shot views of the American countryside help to put everything into clear perspective. The film offers a memorable viewpoint of a world seldom shown in such heightened and vivid colour.
“What’s your superpower?”
“Your superpower. What is it?”
“Oh. Well, if I concentrate really *really* hard I can create an even more intense level of personal discomfort. What’s yours?”
“I have the power to make the news both horrible *and* distressing. Every time a new nightmare.”
“Neat. Let’s have a cup of dreams.”
My review of Beautiful Boy is over at FilmInk and below…
A disappointing treatment of the best-selling memoirs of father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy aims to showcase the strength of the familial bond in the face of an overwhelming drug addiction. But rather than allowing the audience to work this out for itself, it is constantly shouted at how the love of father and son is unbreakable. An overly worthy and Oscar-bothering piece, the film features two powerful performances from leads Carell and Chalamet, but ultimately doesn’t know what to do with them.
There is a lack of clarity and resolution. It is concerned with drug addiction after all, an aspect of life not known for its focus or drive – and screenplay adapter, Australian Luke Davies (Lion) should know, as his own biographic script for Candyillustrates. But in the case of Beautiful Boy, it too often goes on a repeat of score drugs, get wasted, go into expensive rehab, go on the run, dad brings son home. And then repeat. Again and again.
The movie struggles to make enough of an emotional impact, which is undoubtedly its biggest failing. The tone is either bored and aloof or angry and dejected; the outright pain and sadness of losing a loved one to drugs is barely touched upon.
There is an overriding sense that this is a story not particularly well suited to the big screen. The revelations and personal thoughts might well inspire in written form, but as a cinema outing there is not the structure, or the detail needed to make it either entertaining or particularly informative.
It’s true that statistics are quoted about the disease of addiction during rehab scenes and at the conclusion, but these feel like facts thrown to a lecture theatre audience. And this overly solemn lecturing tone surrounds the whole film, making the experience more like a badly thought out social education lesson than a movie with emotional depth and structure.
Musically, the film often resembles an MTV docu-drama of sorts, with the soundtrack providing hints to father and son’s past memories. This is understandable, as music often holds the key to unlocking all sorts of forgotten dreams and nightmares. But in this case the slickness of one song going on to the next as a kind of intense playlist just feels forced.
Carell brings a guilt-ridden anguish to his role of beleaguered and hyper stressed dad. In Sheff’s attempts to understand his son’s malaise and addiction he even goes onto the street himself to score crystal meth. He ends up experimenting with the drug home alone, a scene that plays out as being weird more than anything else. The actor brings a detachment and cold anger to detail his experience of his son’s plight, but it rarely engages. Chalamet fares better, perfectly summing up the limbo of getting well and getting sick and manipulating everyone around in between.
The film goes for big emotional hits, but ends up providing more of a limp hangover. A shame then, as the two leads give everything they’ve got to the film, but are hamstrung by odd directorial and writing decisions.
Review of The Plan… over at Flickering Myth and below…
The Plan That Came from the Bottom Up is an engrossing visual essay, documenting the never before seen inventiveness and energy of a group of factory workers who saw a different way to invent and engage. Rather than being a straight up historical documentary, filmmaker Steve Sprung conducts the whole project with a stimulating artfulness.
The film deploys edits of news footage, advertising and various media alongside personal interviews with those involved to offer a film that goes beyond a specific time and location.
That time that we’re going beyond is the 1970s and the location is Lucas Aerospace in the UK. It was here that a group of skilled engineers, when faced with redundancy, joined forces to suggest new ways to do business and new projects to concentrate on. These new designs included products made to be ‘socially useful’ and to offer ‘environmentally sustainable alternatives’.
Wind turbines, hybrid cars and an energy efficient home were all blueprinted and put forward as a responsible and effective alternative to the military projects the factory had previously been manufacturing. The Plan asks in two parts why the world is not more aware of the engineers’s story and why it was not taken further by the authorities of the time.
But the film doesn’t just stay in the 1970’s UK. It also contrasts that time with the present. Contemporary media of our own war-ravaged and environmentally fragile times highlight the need for different forms of thinking on this subject. And it asks, how might life have looked the group’s ideas been put into action?
It’s a compelling question, and The Plan also puts forward many others, asking the audience plenty of uncomfortable questions about the current climate (political and environmental). One such question never far from the core of the film relates to economics and capital. It could be summed up as ‘is the constant need for profit above all else an ultimately reasonable way to go forward?’
Almost all of the political establishment at the time – and a fair amount today – would say yes, growing profit is always desirable and essential. The Plan examines this notion closely with clear sighted view, and effectively and eloquently dismantles it. There was – and still is – a better way forward.
My review of Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop is over at FilmINK and below.
The power of food and travel is brought to life in this emotive drama from Singaporean director Eric Khoo. Exploring the cultural exchange between Japan and Singapore, as well as a glimpse of the troubling war time history, Ramen Shop explores the desire to understand more about personal history and identity.
The story centres on Masato (Saito), a Japanese Ramen chef driven to discover more about his parents’ past after his father passes away. Through a love of Singaporean flavours and cooking, and the following of Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) food blog, the young man takes swift steps to discover his family’s past, travelling to Singapore to find out more about his history and the country’s cooking styles.
The film delights in showcasing the various stages of preparing tasty looking dishes, but it does so with real purpose and becomes a lot more than just a food magazine show. Food and the meaning of culinary enjoyment takes on a wider scope here as Masato, with Mei Lian’s help, uncovers more of the truth and attempts to heal rifts caused by painful memories.
The pure value of food and cooking is proven as Masato finds out more about Ramen Teh – a blending of Japanese ramen and Singaporean bak kut teh, a type of tea made with pork bone. The mixture of the two nations is similarly part of his own life, with his father having left Japan for Singapore to become a chef. It is here that he met Masato’s mother (Seiko Matsuda). The couple’s relationship was not favoured by Masato’s grandmother, a proud Singaporean lady who experienced firsthand the terror of Japanese occupation during the war. Masato’s parents then left for Japan, where Masato was born and lived ever since.
It is this combination of personal history and the importance of food as a cultural signifier that makes the film both entertaining and informative. Ramen Shop does not shy away from difficult areas; an account of brutality witnessed during the occupation is heard during a visit to the city history museum, and the gravity of trying to understand history and its effects is given due gravity.
Effective too is the power of a love never known, in Masato’s case his mother’s, who became ill when he was still a young child. Her diary and notes speak to him across the void, and tells him of the soothing strength of nature and landscape. This is translated onto film in gorgeous style, with the breeze rolling across fields and meadows as her voice gently intones her poetry and life essence to Masato. Calming and thoughtful, Ramen Shop is a film to be savoured.