In finishing up our Year in Review coverage we look at films that didn’t get the audiences that they deserved at Australian cinemas this year. We’ve left of some of the more notable/acclaimed films that underperformed, like Snowpiercer, Under the Skin and The Rover, in favour of some of the smaller releases.
Conor Bateman: The Georgian coming-of-age film In Bloom (pictured in the header image) didn’t appear to be much of a box office draw here (despite its subtly striking poster art by This Time Tomorrow) and that’s a shame, because Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß have made a film that’s seemingly simple on a narrative level but which has powerful thematic implications, both in relation to its characters and the state of the recently independent Georgian nation in the 1990s. Natia (Mariam Bokeria) finds herself the subject of two different men’s affections, with violent results, and Eka (Lika Babluani), her best friend and our window into the narrative, is dealing with her own sense of identity within her family and the societal structures imposed upon her by way of her gender. The quiet yet powerful condemnation of traditional gender roles in In Bloom is one of its most admirable feats, Eka places herself at a distance from what is expected of her, juxtaposed with Natia’s uncomfortable transition to married life. This idea of acting both within cultural touchstones and rejecting elements of them is stunningly portrayed in one of the best film scenes this year, the “dance scene”, in which Eka, sporting a black eye, dances a traditional Georgian dance at Natia’s wedding party. In addition to this, the film plays off of the fear of violence in Georgia at that time with a Chekhov’s gun device, a weapon given to Natia near the start of the film must reappear, naturally. Here’s hoping that their follow-up film, the upcoming My Happy Family, also gets a release here. Ekvtimishvili and Groß are telling underseen stories of Georgian life with emotional power and nuance, and these stories are deserving of an audience.
Dominic Barlow: Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant is a short story about a literal giant who must share his land with children so that it can bloom. How Clio Barnard goes from that to the narrative in her adaptation is unclear on the surface, but her staggering talent demands the inquiry. The children here are no angels, but junk-scavenging bruisers named Arbor and Swifty, who have only each other as companions in the gray and impoverished streets of Bradford, North England. As for who the “giant” is, take your pick: the growling adults who pay them a pittance for their metal, the string of horses that run in chariot races, or the cooling towers looming in the mists and luring Arbor with a big steal. His temptation and Swifty’s desire for a better life makes for a potently tense and tragic story of friendship, and the stunning production design and direction endow it with absorbing realism. It’s a work fraught with mythic melancholy of Wilde’s text but made with absorbing verisimilitude, and it marks Barnard as a deeply original talent to be watched in the years to come.
Felix Hubble: Possibly this year’s most criminally underseen Australian film (with only a couple of screenings at Sydney Film Festival and a two-to-three week run at one independent cinema in each major city before being pushed out on VOD), All This Mayhem is a fantastic, well refined portrait of the rise and fall of Australian skateboarding greats the Pappas brothers, who at one point held the number one and number two rankings on the global skateboarding circuit. Fully deserving of its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, All This Mayhem feels a lot like a documentary about a few of your mates who fell astray – it’s a decidedly Australian story that had me in fits of laugher and tears throughout. Eddie Martin (the film’s director) has an uncanny knack for creating likeable characters, he had me fully behind Ben and Tas Pappas throughout the film’s runtime even though I didn’t necessarily agree with any of their actions as they reached their peak levels of stardom and began to fall off the radar. I don’t think I’ve been more invested in an on-screen duo all year, which is a shocking thought as this is not only a documentary, but one about two fundamentally flawed individuals. I went into this film without any idea of what transpires during the Pappas brothers downfall and I highly recommend experiencing the film this way if possible – All This Mayhem packs a very real emotional punch that I think would be diminished if you’re fully aware of the film’s outcome. Beyond the Pappas brothers, this is an extremely intriguing look at the rise of skateboarding in the modern consciousness and its packaging from a movement of balls-out rebellion into a more mainstream spectator sport and finally gimmick-ridden trash. There are (of course) cameos galore and incredible old skate-video footage throughout for skating fans however it’s so well crafted that I think it would work almost as well for people who didn’t grow up on a diet of pop-punk and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It’s rare for me to get behind contemporary Australian content because the “Aussieness” usually feels extremely forced and inauthentic; All This Mayhem is the exception to this rule – everything is raw and real and drenched in so much of the collective Australian experience. It’s another documentary that demonstrates that reality is often stranger and more captivating than fiction and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go out and get yourself a copy of All This Mayhem and prepare to be blown away.
Luke Goodsell: While the digital ink flowed to excess with thinkpiece folderol on David Fincher’s Gone Girl, perhaps the most devastating dissection of modern marriage belonged to Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s pitch-black jaunt. Certainly, it was the funniest. Unraveling against the high altitude blandscape of a ski resort in the French Alps, Force Majeure watches with glee as a controlled avalanche exposes the hidden cowardice of the male ego, and Östlund detonates his own marital explosives in icy compositions that would warm Michael Haneke’s heart. Depending on the distribution of your sympathy, this is the kind of film that’ll either have you squirming with discomfort or cackling deliriously—husband Tomas’s (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) breakdown is a highwire act of genuine pathos and comedy man-tears—with a bravura nail-biter of an ending that splits the difference to keep everyone hopeful, or miserable, or just smiling with nasty delight.
Virat Nehru: Indian writer/director/composer and man of infinite talent Vishal Bhardwaj completed his Shakespearean trilogy with the release of Haider – an appropriation of Hamlet this year. His earlier appropriations – Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello) received both critical and commercial appraisal. Striking an acute balance between an extremely competent standalone text in its own right and staying true to the Shakespearean roots of Hamlet, Haider is Bhardwaj’s strongest work till date. However, setting the film against the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict, with many scenes shot on location in the Kashmir Valley, made the film controversial. The ongoing Kashmir conflict is an extremely sensitive and complex situation and is a very touchy topic for Indian audiences. A widespread social media campaign to ‘Boycott Haider’ didn’t help the film’s chances either, and the severity of negativity surrounding the film hampered its limited run at the box office. This is a real shame because this film truly stood out this year. Bhardwaj chooses an age appropriate Hamlet – Shahid Kapur is absolutely breathtaking as the titular tragic hero and strains of an ambiguous Oedipal Complex are explored with lot of nuance and open-ended suggestions through the relationship between him and his mother Ghazala (Gertrude). Gertrude, as played by Tabu is the strongest and most complex female character portrayal I’ve seen all year. The original compositions as devised by Bhardwaj work exceptionally well in heightening the necessary narrative points. The diversity in composition and their individual use is something to behold. From a rock ballad ‘Aao Naa’ (Come, I Request) that plays as the ‘Ghost’ of Haider’s father returns, to the incredibly haunting vividness of ‘Jhelum’ – as Haider wanders in search of his father against the backdrop of the Jhelum river. ‘Bismil’ (The Wounded), which doubles up as the ‘play within the play’ is one of the most innovative and culturally distinctive picturisations of a song that I’ve seen in a long time. Basically, this film is a must have when it comes out on DVD/Blu-ray. Beyond all the controversy, this is an exceptional film that never got its deserved audience.
Felix Hubble: While it’s not some modern masterpiece and calling it “fantastic” or “intelligent” is a stretch I’m not willing to take, 300: Rise of an Empire is everything I ever wanted out of its visually striking but somewhat dull predecessor. This film holds no illusions about why its audience is watching; there is no facade of some sort of faux historical accuracy, and much of the tedious exposition and characterization that killed the pacing of 300 is thrown out the window in favour of more blood, more breasts, more abs, and more decapitation. Held together by a thread-bare plot involving sea battles, Eva Green as super mega all-women-are-evil succubus giving her most burlesque and over-the-top performance to date, and (I kid you not) suicide bombers, 300: Rise of an Empire spits in the face of its audience, providing pure, unabashed mayhem. Those past few lines could just have easily appeared in a negative review of the film but why should they? 300: Rise of an Empire is pure, glorious insanity, totally inane and stupid, and absolutely perfect. These elements are exactly what I want out of a modern sword-and-sandal spectacle piece and Rise of an Empire provides them in spades, in wonderful and actually fairly competent 3D. This is the film 15 year-old me wanted when I paid (what I assume was) $30+ to see 300 at IMAX in 2007, and I’m so glad we finally have it so that I can bask in its glory. Narrowly missing out on a place in my top 10 this year, I urge anyone with an open mind to check this out, so long as they are willing to evaluate it for what it is: a glorious spectacle of blood and flesh, a grotesque celebration of the ‘Murican way. Trust me, there’s a lot of fun to be had here if you shamelessly give yourself over to its ridiculousness.
Ian Barr: If Box Office Mojo is to be believed, The Missing Picture was the least-seen film to get an Australian theatrical release in 2014; no mean feat for an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Most of this can likely be chalked up to the heaviness of the subject matter, combined with the seemingly counterintuitive approach that director Rithy Panh takes; using an assortment of hand-built clay figures and painstakingly assembled scale models, alongside archival and newsreel footage, Panh creates a tapestry account of the Cambodian genocide as carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. The found footage makes for harrowing viewing, yet the reconstructed dioramas – occasionally superimposed over the former – offer a quizzical distance from the atrocities depicted. In spite of the latter effect, Panh’s method doesn’t undermine the tragedy so much as bring his inevitably imperfect memory of it to vivid life.
Jess Ellicott: I have somewhat of an irrational soft spot for Kelly Reichardt’s beautiful, unconventional Night Moves, which played at both SFF and MIFF earlier this year before receiving a limited theatrical release. I like it way more than I can properly justify, but its unassuming-yet-assured power has lead it to reside with me over the past several months since I saw it. Maybe it’s the refusal to offer a simple resolution, or the daring, unforeseeable shifts in gear; moving from thriller aspects in the tense lead-up to and immediate afterglow of the centrepiece ecoterrorist act itself, to the more low-boil drama of its final half (interspersed with elements of horror in that sauna scene). To me it proves the diverse range of what the already supremely accomplished Reichardt is capable of. It’s bolstered by cool, precise cinematography by DOP Christopher Blauvelt and editing by Reichardt herself, as well as by all-round strong performances from Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard and Jesse Eisenberg (whose earnest, sociopathic schtick can be grating but makes for an unusually good fit here). I have so much respect for Reichardt’s unshakeable integrity and commitment to independent productions, and I would encourage people to seek out Night Moves in addition to any and all of her previous films.