Jun 152017

Last Men in Aleppo

Set amidst the rubble of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, this tremendously powerful portrait of White Helmet civilian volunteers was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Though an unfortunate product of the Syrian Civil War atrocities, viewed as a work of vital on-the-ground reporting this is an extraordinary achievement. Not interested in glorifying the heroics, or showering a viewer with all the gruesome images, but in simply in telling it how it is, this film is humane, gripping and heartbreakingly sad.

As the Russian missiles fall across the Aleppo war zone – Syria’s largest city becomes the symbol of Bashar al-Assad’s war against the rebels opposing his government – the physically exhausted, unarmed and poorly equipped troupe of aid volunteers get the call to scour the rubble in search for survivors. It is haunting viewing (emphasised by the score) and director Feras Fayyad, in a collaboration with Danish filmmaker Steed Johannessen and the Aleppo Media Centre, records, via privileged and professionally dangerous access, the traumas and the emotional struggles of these brave everyday heroes. With the distressing coverage of the rubble scouring and the excavation of expired youngsters (mostly) we are offered intimate insight into the psychology of these men as they share dialogue and have rare moments of comfort to balm their stresses – with the next tragedy emerging from the horizon.

Fayyad achieves greatness here, by tempering a pair of dramatic arcs – the stories of White Helmets’ Khaled and Mahmoud – by balancing their desperate rescue efforts with details of their attempts to recreate a sense of normalcy. Khaled is a father torn between fleeing with his children and his duty to the White Helmets. Mahmoud visits a family that he help save from the debris, and at one point is caught up in an attack where his brother is almost killed. This harrowing and depressingly haunting document spotlights the courage and resilience of these men, whose personally-unfathomable optimism of a brighter future for Syria begins to be broken down with each fresh bombing raid, and who admirably maintain a sense of duty to the community and the city they remain proud to call home.

Roller Dreams

It was the year 1984, and on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, California, young people of colour were seeking refuge from the turmoil of inner city life. They would flock to the eclectic ocean community to create a brand new phenomenon: roller dancing. The talent and vibrant personality of this multicultural roller ‘family’ transformed the pastime into an art form and drew massive crowds of appreciative spectators. But politics and gentrification would conspire to end the dream. Australian filmmaker Kate Hickey’s energetic documentary turns the lens on this exciting subculture; injecting blast from the past archival footage with a respectful interrogation and colourful stylistic flourishes.

At the centre of the film – and the catalyst for the boom and the unofficial delegate for the eventual dismantling of the art at its height – is Mad, a smooth-moving, physically-perfect icon who took the eager youngsters under his wing, established a reputation of leadership and respect, and forged a culture of integration, collaboration and pride for the art. When the hotspot became a target of racially-charged police crackdowns, Mad was chief rebel.

For a large part of the film Mad remains a silent spectre in the background – there didn’t seem to be many videos of him and I expected that he had passed in the years since (I feared tragically) – as fellow skaters Jimmy, Larry and Sally and others tell their skating origin stories, and share their experiences with the man touted as the ‘Godfather’ of roller dancing. But, eventually, the film directs its focus to Mad – a man who has hung up the skates for good and never looked back. The loss of dancing has continued to pain him all these years, but he has applied his natural charisma and sensible wisdom to every endeavour in his adult life. Reluctant to revisit the past Mad is coerced into returning to Venice Beach to lead one final line with his former proteges. It is a powerful image; to see the man reduced to tears when confronted with the past, considering the life he never led.

Jan 022017

I spent a lot of this month catching up on a few 2016 releases I had missed, and making sure I caught all the essential theatrical releases in December. The result was surprising: only a few of these viewings left an impression on me. I remember last year seeing The Revenant, The Big Short, Carol and Spotlight in December. This year Jackie, Your Name and The Edge of Seventeen stood out, but I still have a number of the Oscar candidates to see – Moonlight, Manchester By the Sea, Hidden Figures, Silence, Lion and Fences. At this point last year I had seen all eventual Best Picture nominees save for Room. 

The absolute highlight of this month’s viewing was the tremendous Westworld. I was hooked after one episode, and for me this is a demonstration of the rarely-met potentials of TV. Layers upon layers of interconnected story arcs and thought-provoking ideas that utilise the 10+ hours. The intrigue is never relinquished here – the twists are shocking – and the writing, acting and production values are all exceptional.

2017 goals = unknown. With a baby on the way, I have no idea what kind of time I can dedicate to movies, TV, books and games. I expect I’ll still probably see in the vicinity of 200 films throughout the year, but very few will be at the cinema. Most will likely be on VOD catch-up. I have set a reading goal at 20 novels for 2017. This year I hit 40, so I think this is realistic.

After the jump is a listing of everything I watched in December. I needed 36 films to hit 365 films for the year. I wasn’t trying for this number, it just happened. I didn’t make it anyway, ending with 27.

Oh, and if you missed my 25 Favourite Films of 2016, be sure to check it out.

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Dec 282016

I love and loathe end of year list making in equal measure. I love it because there are SO MANY great films and I get to spend many hours reminiscing about all the fantastic art I have seen on-screen over the last 12 months. I loathe it because there are SO MANY great films, and its painful to narrow my favourites down to an arbitrary number. Anyone who says it has been a bad year for film, or the even worse “film is dead”, is just not really trying. This year I went for 20 films with 15 honourable mentions. These 20 stuck above the rest for various reasons – they amused, delighted, shocked, challenged, and wowed me.

My favourite 20: 1 of the films is the only film I saw twice at the cinema this year; 6 are directed by women; 2 are directed by the same director; 2 are animated; 1 is a documentary; Adam Driver, Jeff Bridges, Michael Shannon, Samuel L Jackson, and Joel Edgerton all appear in 2 of the films each; and 7 of the films I saw for the first time at the 2016 Sydney film festival.

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Dec 242016

After another year of 200+ new releases, one of the pleasures I take is reflecting on everything that I watched and creating a list of essentials. These feelings are subjective and ever-changing, so if I were to revisit this list in five years, having re-experienced some of these films and caught up with others I missed, it might look completely different.

Much was said a few months back about this year’s dire blockbusters, and documentary filmmaking hasn’t been as potent in 2016, but it has been a terrific year in other areas. Take animated films and horror films for example. Not only in terms of box office success, but the depth of inventive and high-quality releases. When you explore the list below you will notice there are several representatives from those genres. A few other obscure facts about the list: ten films screened at the Sydney Film Festival, five are written and directed by female filmmakers, four are divided into chaptered sections and three had first-run availability on Netflix.

The rules: simply, everything knew I saw in 2016 that had a release date somewhere in the world in the vicinity of 2016. Some of these films had a late 2015 U.S release, others have screened only at international film festivals. All were accessible (via an Australian theatrical release, film festival, SVOD service or TVOD service) to me in 2016 in one way or another.

Of course, I didn’t quite get through my watchlist. Some films I missed or didn’t get the chance to see include Tower, Camerperson, Things to Come, Neruda, Sunset Song, The Love Witch, One More Time With Feeling, My Golden Days and Evolution. There are also some films releasing in Australian cinemas in January and February that are amongst the awards discussion that I have not yet seen. These include Moonlight, Lion, Manchester By the Sea, Fences, Silence, Hidden Figures and Patriots Day. 

I apologise for the erratic lengths of the commentary. Some of these films I had written about already – so my thoughts, in often quite lengthy detail, had already been published. Others I was wracking my brain to find the words to describe how they made me feel. After the jump, check out my list of honourable mentions and 25 Favourite Films of 2016.

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Dec 232016

At the beginning of the year I pledged to watch 52 films by women as part of an initiative started by Women in Film, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting equal opportunities for women, encouraging creative projects by women, and expanding and enhancing portrayals of women in all forms of global media. For my challenge I decided that only first-time watches of feature-films directed or co-directed by women or trans filmmakers would count towards the total (which I easily achieved a couple of months back).

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Dec 192016

There are so many unwritten rules about making a Best Of/favourites list. Some of these were released in some place in 2015, and some aren’t necessarily feature-length films. The films on this list were released in Australia in 2016 in some format, or played here at a festival. They are the 25 films that I learned something from in some way or another. They each in some way challenge either sexism, racism, and classism; and they reinforce the importance that stories have in allowing us to challenge injustices in our world.

If there’s any that don’t make sense, hit me up or ask away. I’d love to talk about any thoughts you have on any of the films listed after the jump.

As always, I hope you dig – Chris.
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