Continuing the single-paragraph reviews of films I have watched for the first time this year, we hit a rare perfect 10. Because I wanted eleven films, and not at all due to a numbering error, here are #21-31.
21. Elle (2016) – 9/10
Although sold as a thriller about a woman seeking revenge on her rapist, this is actually a much broader film about an older woman’s sexuality, how she uses it and how it affects her interpersonal relationships. As an offbeat thriller it is refreshingly unpredictable and suspenseful, but the film relies upon Isabelle Huppert, whose performance is enthralling throughout.
22. The Interview (1998) – 8/10
A taut Australian crime thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a police station as two overzealous officers try to extract a confession, while the audience questions whether they are watching an innocent man bullied or a devious criminal toying with his captors. Hugo Weaving plays both sides of the role to chilling effect. Often reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the budgetary restrictions on the scope arguably serve to aid the atmosphere, together with a sombre score.
23. Elysium (2013) – 6/10
Like District 9, South African director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore feature tackles social inequality through science fiction. A bigger budget adds star power in the form of Matt Damon and a ludicrously-accented Jodie Foster, while the film’s messages are delivered with even less subtlety than before. Blomkamp’s trademark effects work delivers up highly realistic technology from exosuits to near-future weaponry, making the dizzying shaky-cam action a particular shame. With a plot that rarely surprises, and a completely overwrought ending, this is ultimately a film that sells itself more on visuals than anything else.
24. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) – 10/10
Based on the talent involved, I expected to like this but I had no idea just how much. Starting with a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter by calling out the local police department, this is really a journey through multiple characters dealing with grief and exploring the effect of tragedy upon our relationships, emerging as anger, love and fear. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are stellar in portraying richly nuanced characters, and are accompanied by an excellent supporting cast. Many scenes are soaked with such powerful emotion, whilst avoiding sentimentality through use of raw drama and dark humour, that watching the film is a cathartic experience. Of particular note, it is rare and refreshing that we see a female character whose grief is expressed through violent, misplaced rage. Martin McDonagh proved his talent with In Bruges but has seriously upped his game.
25. Lady Bird (2017) – 8/10
An alternative coming-of-age film, the focus is Catholic high school girl Christine (who has adopted the name “Lady Bird”) and her turbulent relationship with her mother. This is an unusually well-realised mother/daughter relationship, in which they both know they love one another, yet their strong-willed personalities frequently grate. Saoirse Ronan deftly avoids portraying Lady Bird as quirky for its own sake, instead making it a believable element of her awkward teenage self-expression, whilst still anxious about the perception of her wealthier peers. Religion largely takes a back seat to the more human elements of the story, in what struck me as a female counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s films about male adolescence.
26. Now You See Me 2 (2016) – 3/10
The level of smartness of this sequel is evident from the fact they failed to call it Now You Don’t. Where the original was a surprise success with stylish sleight of hand distracting from its lack of substance, this movie fails to cover its tracks at all. The freshness is gone, but so too is the tension. The tricks are now overblown and ridiculous, to the point that each time one is revealed it induces a groan rather than amazement. There is no magic here.
27. The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009) – 7/10
Troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander becomes more nuanced in this sequel but the story suffers from separating her from journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Although they are following leads on a related series of murders, we lose the chemistry that made the original so memorable. Noomi Rapace’s performance still enthrals whenever she is on screen, but the more routine aspects of Blomkvist’s investigation are less compelling. Although still a good undiluted thriller, The Girl Who Played With Fire is inferior to its predecessor and is more reliant on the final instalment of the trilogy than being an effective standalone film.
28. Lolita (1962) – 7/10
The tagline was “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” and the answer is that they didn’t. With slightly altered ages we still follow middle-aged college professor Humbert as he becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old “nymphet”, played wonderfully by Sue Lyon. Yet, despite Nabokov receiving a screenwriting credit, we lose the lyrical language that elevated his novel, along with any real access to Humbert’s mind. The movie may still have been scandalous but it has lost any edge over time. To Kubrick’s credit, he does still allow the viewer to find a paedophile sympathetic (and later simply pathetic) while spending almost two and a half hours in his company.
29. Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – 9/10
With ten years spent building up characters, this is an event movie unlike any to date. Much like the first Avengers movie, I came away impressed firstly that it did not buckle under its own weight. In particular, the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy to the rest of the MCU cast works expertly, aided by James Gunn apparently writing their dialogue. Despite threadbare development to date, Thanos becomes a villain with whom one can sympathise, convinced his actions are necessary even as certain acts pain him. Although the number of fight sequences is exhausting, there is sufficient creativity and some memorable tag team moments. Infinity War stands up to a second viewing but whether its stature lasts will depend on how satisfactorily certain choices are explained by the final instalment next year. In assuming a working knowledge of the majority of the heroes, their backstories and their interpersonal relationships, Infinity War does not really work as a standalone film but it mounts a compelling argument that, for monolithic franchises, this may no longer be an appropriate test.
30. Gold (2016) – 7/10
Matthew McConaughey immerses himself deeply in the character of modern-day gold prospector Kenny Wells. Based on the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, in which the discovery of a massive Indonesian gold deposit turns out to be a fraud, there are overtones of The Wolf of Wall Street to this fictionalised account, albeit with a protagonist at once less charming but more sympathetic. Gold serves as a film as much about ambition as avarice, as we analyse Kenny’s motivations and trustworthiness.
31. OtherLife (2017) – 8/10
A challenging Australian indie sci-fi, this is a taut thriller in the vein of Ex Machina. Ren is a scientist/programmer developing a breakthrough biotechnology that allows for time compressed virtual experiences (“As far as the brain is concerned, reality and fantasy are chemically identical”). She is driven by the desire to cure her comatose brother, whilst her business partner is concerned by financial viability and a potential Government contract for virtual incarceration. Jessica De Gouw is fantastic in a typically male role, coupled with excellent cinematography that greatly elevates the production. Although much of the plot unfolds predictably, and despite a meandering last act, the overall result is impactful and thought provoking.