Results for: Winter's Bone

“I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back” | Winter’s Bone (2010)

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Teenager Ree Dolly lives in a run-down house in the rural Ozarks with her mentally ill mother and her two young siblings. Her absentee father is on bail after being arrested for manufacturing meth-amphetamine. When he skips that bail and goes underground, Ree is informed that her family house was put up as his bond: if she cannot find him and convince him to volunteer himself to the police, she and her family will be homeless. In order to save her family Ree ventures out to track her father down among her disreputable and hostile extended family – including a drug-addicted and fearsome uncle named Teardrop.

This is the basis of Winter’s Bone, a 2006 novel by the self-described ‘country noir’ author Daniel Woodrell. It is a moody, atmospheric novel focused very tightly on its protagonist: a smart young woman desperate to escape the confines of her impoverished environment yet trapped by familial obligations. ‘She’s got to save their house and then she can get out of there,’ said Woodrell. ‘It’s about her quest to save her father. But she’s also got to deal with being a 16-year-old girl.’[i]

Not only was the novel a critical success, it was also adapted into a 2010 feature film. This was not the first time Woodrell had been adapted to the screen. In 1999 Ang Lee directed the civil war drama Ride with the Devil, based on Woodrell’s 1987 novel Woe to Live On. Winter’s Bone is, however, a much more accomplished and significant film. It was a darling with critics internationally, launched the career of its star Jennifer Lawrence, received four Academy Award nominations and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Winter’s Bone is a stunning film that belies its small production budget. It is a wonderfully haunting, beautifully characterised masterpiece. Once seen, it sticks in the mind for weeks after the fact.

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The film was directed by independent filmmaker Debra Granik. Granik was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and grew up in suburban Washington D.C. In the early 1980s she studied politics at Brandeis University, where the process of women documenting protests and rallies on videotape provided her first experience of working behind the camera. ‘It was a kind of a pleasurable way,’ said Granik, ‘to be introduced to the idea that your art is your weapon, or your media is your weapon, and that kind of suited me just fine. It was a quiet way for women to evolve in filmmaking, which was in some ways the low-key off the radar way, which is you just keep doing it.’[ii]

An early influence was documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, best known for her Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA. After graduating from university Granik started making short documentaries and educational films for trade unions. She subsequently enrolled in the graduate film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she directed her first narrative short film, Snake Feed, in 1997.

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Granik’s feature debut was the 2004 drama Down to the Bone, which starred Vera Farmiga as a drug-addicted New Yorker hiding her habit from her husband and children. The film was popular with critics, and won Granik the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival and Farmiga four separate acting awards.

After Down to the Bone Granik and her producing partner Anne Rosellini started looking for another film project to tackle, reading numerous prospective screenplays and novels provided by Granik’s manager. ‘Of course, the majority of stuff had female protagonists,’ said Granik, ‘but… I don’t know how to say it but [reading all these scripts] stoked a kind of disheartened misogyny within myself. [laughs] Because if [all these female characters I was reading] weren’t cutting themselves, they were collapsing psychiatrically; if they weren’t collapsing psychiatrically, they were having a bad time in a psychiatric institution; if they weren’t doing that, they had other devastating illnesses or pathologies. I mean, at the end, Anne and I felt like this big being female Homo sapiens.’[iii]

Granik and Rosellini’s search ended when they found Woodrell’s novel in May 2005. ‘And then along comes Ree Dolly,’ said Granik, ‘okay, and who couldn’t resist her? I mean, just even on the level of fantasy — a female hero, a girl with moxie? An old-fashioned kind of Western gal? She appealed to us literally on the level of relief and fun.’[iv]

‘Ree was a really attractive protagonist. She had an interesting way in answering people. Reading it I could really tell she was trying to figure things out. She didn’t have it all sorted out, but she knew how to use these resources. I was curious what made her keep going… she filled me with a lot of wonder. What would it be like to be this girl?’[v]

Granik and Rosellini deliberately wrote a close adaptation to Woodrell’s novel, taking great pains to maintain the same narrative, dialogue and overall tone of the book. The vast majority of the film’s dialogue was taken verbatim from the novel.

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In mid-2006, Rosellini and Granik delivered a first draft screenplay to producer Alix Madigan at the production company Anonymous Content. ‘It was a perfect draft,’ said Madigan. ‘It was a beautiful script right off the bat.’[vi]

While Anonymous Content agreed to join the project as its primary production company, it struggled to find a studio or distributor willing to fund the project. Most negotiations ended with demands for the project to sign on ‘name’ actors before a budget could be considered.

While this process went on, Granik and Rosellini started making periodic visits to Missouri to scout for locations and to get a more authentic sense of Winter’s Bone’s setting. ‘We had entertained the notion of doing it elsewhere,’ Granik admitted. ‘There’s a system of tax incentives in the US, and producers will shop around the different states to see if there’s a location that could stand in for somewhere. We were affiliated with a larger organisation at one point, and we were playing along with that, but it ended up sickening us. The novel describes a specific set of coordinates for a reason.’[vii] Tax incentives or not, Granik and Rosellini ultimately insisted on shooting the film in Missouri.

One key concern was how to represent the story and its background of Ozark Mountains meth manufacturers without tarring entire communities with unwanted clichés. ‘The Ozarks also has a history of having illegal substances cultivated in it,’ said Granik, ‘or manufactured. But again, that’s a complex thing. It’s an interesting complexity, not a reductive complexity. The film couldn’t get into that, so then you are left with this scary specter of stereotype.’[viii]

Original plans to shoot the film in 2008 collapsed when the financiers pulled their funding just two months before filming was scheduled to commence. ‘It was very hard to bounce back,’ said Granik, ‘because it had gotten so close. And then there was a whole period [when people would say], “If Keanu Reeves is Teardrop, maybe we can get you some money.”’[ix] Fresh finance was secured in late 2008 via an equity financier, so that the film could begin shooting in early 2009 on a budget of two million dollars. This was approximately half of what Granik and Rosellini had hoped for, but the deal came with no requirements regarding casting. Money could be saved by hiring comparative unknowns, and allowing the content and the tone of the film to sell it instead.

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Winter’s Bone was shot in the Taney and Christian counties of southern Missouri. Cinematographer Michael McDonough said: ‘The landscape was always going to be a major character in this film and we spent many months in the landscape before we ever brought an actor there. Debra shot many hours of video on location, getting to know the place, and we shot thousands of photographs of local people and places, as part of our research.’[x]

‘If we were going to attempt this,’ said Granik, ‘we knew it had to be there, it had to have local people populating the film visually. There is no chance that this film would come to life in any way that would be close to the book – or close to any anthropological sense of precision – unless we did it there.’[xi]

Granik explained that ‘the biggest thing was that we had a local man interpreting everything for us, and he was held in high esteem, he was trusted, he basically ended up vouching for us, you know? He’s like: “You fuck up, you betray everybody, it’s on you! You’ll lose your film and you’ll pretty much feel awful, because you did get peoples trust through me”. So it’s sort of like the line in that film: “It’s on you now”.’[xii]

Granik’s collaboration with local community extended to the film’s screenplay, where individual lines were regularly rewritten on location to ensure they rang true as part of a regional dialect. Ultimately eight extra people would be credited in the film for the additional dialogue.

Granik’s respect for the local culture and people extended to the film’s music. One of the key performers on the soundtrack was local musician and singer Marideth Sisco. She recalled: ‘The Winter’s Bone production team was in the West Plains area visiting Daniel Woodrell and scouting for locations, when someone expressed a wish to hear “Ozarks music.” Daniel, who knew a group of us played weekly at a friend’s house, brought them to hear us. They stayed a while, listened to the music, videotaped us, and left. Two years later I got a phone call from Anne Rosellini telling me they’d written a scene into the movie for me.’[xiii]

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Central to the film’s success was the casting of its protagonist Ree Dolly. While auditioning a range of young actresses, Granik was immediately taken with Jennifer Lawrence. The director said: ‘She had gotten a chance to read the script, so she came into an audition and did a really strong reading, and we were like leaning forward (laughs). She was really catching us in her truth. She has a mesmerising quality, and because she was able to read the script really gracefully… what I mean from that is she didn’t find the dialect exotic, she didn’t stop or mumble, she really had a Kentucky accent. She is from the neighbouring state of Kentucky and therefore, literally, she was not one of the actresses who had to ask “How do you pronounce that word?”’[xiv]

In another interview Granik said: ‘We knew straight away she would be invested in this. I’d interviewed an actress who you might call an “It Girl”, and the ambivalence on her part was so tense it was intimidating. We were doing a low-budget film on location in the Ozarks; you can’t go there with even an ounce of ambivalence.’[xv]

Jennifer Lawrence made her on-screen debut in 2007 as part of the cast of the TBS situation comedy The Bill Engval Show. Shortly afterwards she co-starred in the independent feature The Burning Plain for writer/director Guillermo Arriaga. ‘My mom read the book five, some six years ago,’ explained Lawrence, ‘and when she read it she said, “Jennifer, if they ever make this into a movie, you’d be perfect for it.” And you know, I didn’t listen to her, because she’s my mother, but five years later I got the script and the audition.’[xvi]

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For the role of Teardrop, Ree’s meth-addicted, frightening uncle, Granik directly approached John Hawkes and invited him to play the role without auditioning for it. Hawkes, then most famous for appearing in the HBO drama Deadwood, was attracted to the idea of playing such a complex and volatile character. Once he received the shooting script, however, he was shocked to find how much it had changed.

‘The Teardrop that I read the nine drafts later was a different character,’ he said. ‘He’d been softened, he’d been hacked off at the knees, I thought. He’d been filed down.’[xvii] Hawkes immediately called Granik and successfully persuaded her to return the character to the state in which he was when Hawkes had agreed to take the part.

‘In the case of John Hawkes,’ said Granik, ‘I think he feels challenged by research opportunities. Because he’s not so necessarily recognizable in certain circles he feels he’s totally free to go into a bar, hang out, listen really carefully to how people are talking, the humour that’s being used, the cadence, the sound. He’s able to pick up on stuff. He’s able to ask questions. He’s able to be in a place, to absorb it and make his notes. I think he relished the opportunity.’[xviii]

‘I went to places to look for Teardrop-like people to observe,’ said Hawkes. ‘Certainly in my little town growing up, there were plenty of those there, too. Rough people. People you’d be afraid of.’[xix]

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The character of Sheriff Baskin was played by Garret Dillahunt, who had performed with John Hawkes on Deadwood. ‘They called me about Sherriff Baskin,’ said Dillahunt, ‘and I was a little ambivalent about it because I wanted to play Teardrop but then I heard that John Hawkes was doing it and I wanted to work with him again. It was a good book, a good script, I wanted to work with John, and it fit into my schedule.’[xx] At the time of shooting Dillahunt was performing in the television drama Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. His Winter’s Bone shoot was successfully slotted into his shooting schedule between two episodes.

Ree’s youngest sister was played by six year-old Ashlee Thompson, who actually lived in the house where much of the film was shot. The casting aided Granik in forming a realistic performance with the young performer, since by using her own name and playing in her own front yard there was not too much of a deliberate performance to make.

According to Granik, Jennifer Lawrence worked hard to build a relationship with both of her young co-stars. ‘So Jennifer took it on herself as part of her actor’s work, or actor’s prep, to meet the two youths who’d play her brother and sister – the girl being the girl that lived on the holler that we were filming in. She and Ashlee had something immediately in common. Ashlee’s family was not raising horses, not breeding them, but they had horses. And Jennifer knew a lot about horses, and had been raised around horses in a whole different context, in a neighbouring state in which horses are not just a massive symbol but they’re really embedded in the culture of parts of Kentucky. So they had something very concrete, and Jennifer worked that – she made herself accessible to Ashlee, she made herself someone that Ashlee could talk to.’[xxi]

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Rebecca Hofherr was hired as the film’s costume designer. To develop an authentic suite of costumes she and her costuming team made multiple visits to the Ozarks region offering ‘clothes swaps’: exchanges of new clothing for second-hand pieces from local residents. The bulk of the film’s cast were them costumed in these swapped-out items of clothing. It was necessity that drove such an innovative costuming solution. Winter’s Bone costuming budget in total was only US$5,500.

‘We couldn’t do this with all of our characters though,’ said Hofherr, ‘especially Jennifer Lawrence because she needed doubles of her outerwear. Luckily I had a fantastic wardrobe supervisor, Lauren Schad, who aged Jennifer’s jackets to make them look and feel worn.’[xxii]

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Winter’s Bone was shot on location over 26 days from February 2009. A week prior to shooting Jennifer Lawrence moved in with the Thompson family to develop a rapport with their daughter Ashlee and to familiarise herself with the house and the surrounding community.

‘I’ve seen poverty,’ said Lawrence, ‘we all have. But I simply view the Ozarks as a lifestyle that is different from mine. I don’t feel sorry for them, I don’t feel sympathetic – this is their life. These are their families that are just different from ours. I was asked in an interview why Ree didn’t leave the Ozarks, and to be honest, I thought (and said) why would she? This is her home and this is her family, moving to a big city isn’t always the happy ending for everybody. Yes, we feel sorry that they live without nice cars and homes, but they get to have dinner with their families every single night. They maintain a fierce sense of loyalty that few people can understand. Again, it’s not worse, it’s not better. It’s different.’[xxiii]

In one striking early scene of the film, Ree demonstrates how to skin a squirrel for meat to her two siblings. A genuine dead squirrel was used for the sequence, with Lawrence cutting its body open by hand. ‘I should say it wasn’t real,’ she said, ‘for PETA. But screw PETA.’[xxiv]

Granik shot the film on digital video, partly due to the low production budget and partly due to the greater freedom the format provided when shooting on location. It enabled quick set-ups, and a fast shooting schedule. Town scenes were shot in Forsyth, Missouri, and inside the local public school.

An early scene where Ree meets with an army recruitment officer was invented by Granik and Rosellini for the film, and did not appear in Woodrell’s novel. ‘Army recruitment is very important for young people in that region for a way out, for tradition,’ Granik explained.[xxv]

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One instance in which Debra Granik stepped back from realism was in the presentation of a disused meth house. While a genuine abandoned meth house was found, the production team instead built their own out of an unrelated building. ‘That was a burned-out house,’ explained Granik. ‘That family let us use it. One of them we had was even more intense. It was probably a toxic waste site. The actual meth house that we were going to use, in the end, I felt grateful that we didn’t. Me and the DP traipsed around, but we had no telling what level of contamination was still there.’[xxvi]

This gritty air of realism is one of reasons Winter’s Bone is such an effective movie. There is a highly authentic sense of place. Everything – the locations, the actors, their costumes, the music – feels as if it belongs there. To a comparatively privileged viewer watching the film in a festival, or sitting at home viewing it on DVD, it seems a threatening and unwelcoming place. Despite this foreboding environment, it does feel as if it is presented with respect. While Ree encounters some unpleasant and actively unlikeable characters during her journey, the world in which they inhabit does seem presented with respect.

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There is definitely a sense of descending into an underworld in Winter’s Bone. To discover her father’s whereabouts Ree must bravely enter into an increasingly dangerous series of encounters.

This begins with Teardrop, her uncle, visibly capable of both fierce loyalty and frightening violence. John Hawkes plays the character on a knife-edge. Every scene Teardrop inhabits becomes a tense one, because at any given moment it seems impossible to decide how the character is going to react. John Hawkes is an extraordinary and versatile actor; it’s arguable that Teardrop is his finest performance to date. He is both loving and brutal, reassuring and utterly terrifying.

Rather cleverly, while Ree’s own descent to Hades has a definitive conclusion, Teardrop’s own journey is left on an ellipsis. We can see where he is going, and the screenplay acknowledges that we don’t need to see his denouement to know what is coming.

John Hawkes said: ‘People after Winter’s Bone would say, “I love how Teardrop changed. I love his journey, his dynamic, his trip.” And I would think to myself, he didn’t change at all. He was trying to protect his family the whole way through.’[xxvii]

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While Teardrop is a finely constructed and perfectly performed character, he takes a secondary position in the film to Ree herself. She is a remarkable protagonist. She is clearly a product of her environment, yet she authentically struggles to rise beyond it and become something better. She is clearly capable and intelligent, and has every opportunity to leave the Ozarks and make a new life elsewhere. Her army interview demonstrates that she’s actively considering escape, yet she does not, because more than capable or intelligent or doggedly persistent Ree Dolly is loyal.

She acts throughout the film to protect her family. She cares for her younger sister and brother because her father is absent and her mother is not capable. When her father’s disappearance puts their family home at risk she puts her own life at risk to secure it. At the end of the story, with the house saved, she still does not leave. She’s too protective of her family. I daresay in another five years she will still be there.

There is a real courage in what Ree undertakes in Winter’s Bone. She voluntarily goes to see Teardrop, even knowing what a volatile and dangerous man he is. She directly challenges a distant relative, the power drug baron known as Milton. She is badly beaten for it, but still gets up at keeps searching. By the film’s climax she’s on a boat in the middle of a lake, being forced to personally cut off a corpse’s hands to get what she wants. She may flinch and cry, but she certainly never stops.

Hollywood regularly presents courageous characters. They populate every action film or science fiction epic. They are people fighting crime, waging wars, or making extravagant heroic gestures. Courage is, as far as Hollywood generally presents it, a relatively banal quality. Genuine courage, expressed in small defiant acts of goodness, is rarely displayed as powerfully or believably as it is in Ree Dolly.

Jennifer Lawrence rises admirably to the challenge. Her performance is one of those rare revelatory experiences that has critics reaching for their thesauruses. The word I would personally settle upon is ‘transcendent’. It doesn’t feel like you are watching an actor perform. It simply feels like you are observing a human being.

I first saw Winter’s Bone at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010. I remember, halfway through the film, leaning over to my wife and whispering a prediction that Jennifer Lawrence would win an Academy Award within five years. She won one in less than three.

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Post-production on Winter’s Bone took approximately six months, after which time a close-to-final cut of the film was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. The festival accepted the film in November 2009.

During the festival, Anonymous Content sold the North American distribution rights to Winter’s Bone to Roadside Attractions. While they had received higher offers – one of which was almost double what Roadside had proposed – both Granik and Rosellini were impressed by face-to-face meetings with Roadside’s representatives, and felt their film would be in good hands. The deal was initially in the low six figures, with Roadside agreeing to spend at least half a million on promotion and advertising (P&A), but it also includes financial bonuses to Granik and Rosellini at a series of box office milestones.

Internationally the film was distributed via Fortissimo Films, touring to most major film festivals throughout 2010. By the time Winter’s Bone left Sundance it had won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Best Screenplay. By the end of the year it had appeared on more than 20 ‘top ten’ lists by professional film critics. In early 2011 it was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor (for John Hawkes).

Winter’s Bone is the perfect kind of film. It takes its audience to a unique, richly presented environment. It is populated with well-developed, fascinating characters. It tells an arresting, dramatic story with intelligence and heart. It does all of this through the eyes of one of the most impressive, memorable and well-performed protagonists in recent memory.

This film isn’t simply good, or great. Winter’s Bone is a masterpiece.

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References

[i] John Williams, “Daniel Woodrell: The Ozark daredevil”, The Independent, 16 June 2006.

[ii] Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Sarah Ginsburg, “How to skin a squirrel: Debra Granik”, She Does, 25 February 2015.

[iii] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.

[iv] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.

[v] Matthew Pejkovic, “Southern Chill”, Matt’s Movie Reviews (http://www.mattsmoviereviews.net/spotlight-interview-winters-bone.html)

[vi] Quoted in “Toolkit case study: How indie hit Winter’s Bone came to be”, Indiewire, 4 November 2010.

[vii] James Bell, “Meth and the maiden”, Sight & Sound, October 2010.

[viii] Sam Adams, “Debra Granik”, AV Club (http://www.avclub.com/article/debra-granik-42485)

[ix] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.

[x] Stephen Saito, “A spirited Q&A with Winter’s Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough”, IFC, 2 February 2011.

[xi] Terry Gross, “A saga in the Ozarks, suited for the screen”, All Things Considered, NPR, 16 June 2010.

[xii] Matthew Pejkovic, “Southern Chill”, Matt’s Movie Reviews (http://www.mattsmoviereviews.net/spotlight-interview-winters-bone.html)

[xiii] Chris Mateer, “Interview: Marideth Sisco discusses the Winter’s Bone soundtrack & the music of the Ozarks”, Uprooted Music Revue, 14 January 2011.

[xiv] Matthew Pejkovic, “Southern Chill”, Matt’s Movie Reviews (http://www.mattsmoviereviews.net/spotlight-interview-winters-bone.html)

[xv] David Jenkins, “Debra Granik: how we made Winter’s Bone”, TimeOut London (http://www.timeout.com/london/film/debra-granik-how-we-made-winters-bone-1)

[xvi] Gillian Mohney, “Survival of the fittest: Jennifer Lawrence and Winter’s Bone”, Interview, June 2010.

[xvii] Gary Cogill, “John Hawkes talks about his character in Winter’s Bone”, Lone Star Film Society, 20 December 2012.

[xviii] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.

[xix] Nisha Gopalan, “Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes on his Oscar nomination and Deadwood-inspired cussing”, Vulture, 22 February 2011.

[xx] Josh Youngerman, “Garret Dillahunt talks Winter’s Bone”, Examiner.com, 2 July 2010.

[xxi] Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Sarah Ginsburg, “How to skin a squirrel: Debra Granik”, She Does, 25 February 2015.

[xxii] Lord Christopher Laverty, “Winter’s Bone: Rebecca Hofherr interview”, Clothes on Film, 12 January 2012.

[xxiii] Justine JC, “Interview with Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone”, ScreenCrave, 10 June 2010.

[xxiv] Johanna Schneller, “Thanks for raising me, but I’m going to take it from here”, The Globe and Mail, 11 June 2010.

[xxv] Kevin Carr, “Interview: Debra Granik from Winter’s Bone”, Film School Rejects, 19 July 2010.

[xxvi] Sam Adams, “Debra Granik”, AV Club (http://www.avclub.com/article/debra-granik-42485)

[xxvii] Gary Cogill, “John Hawkes talks about his character in Winter’s Bone”, Lone Star Film Society, 20 December 2012.

The Favourites of the 2010s: #25-1

This is it: my 25 favourite films of the past decade.

#25: Get Out (2017, USA. d. Jordan Peele.)

Jordan Peele made one hell of a directorial debut with Get Out, an effective and terrifying horror film with an awful lot to say about race relations in 21st century America – particularly about white left-wing people. The film is intelligent, stylish, and provocative. The casting is superb, including great actors like Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, and Bradley Whitford. Some parts are shocking, some inspire deep dread, and there is even room for unexpected moments of comedy. In terms of iconic scenes, which pretty much seal the long-term success of horror films, it is packed with memorable imagery. While Peele’s second feature Us (listed in an earlier column) does not quite hit the same heights, it still feels that a historic filmmaking talent debuted here. We shall hopefully seeing new films from him for many years to come.

#24: Your Name (2016, Japan. d. Makoto Shinkai.)

To my mind, the best anime of the decade. Two teenagers – a boy and a girl – wake up one morning having swapped bodies. After the initial shock, and some predictably childish moments about having new genitals, they begin to work at maintaining one another’s lives and communicating with one another in phone messages and notebooks. Then, one day, the boy awakes to find the swapping has stopped – and that is when the real creative genius of the film kicks in. Your Name has been an enormous commercial success, and has really cemented Makoto Shinkai’s place as one of the all-time great anime directors. The film is romantic, thrilling, tragic, uplifting, and deeply transcendant. It’s not just a fantastic anime; it’s a great film.

#23: Toy Story 4 (2019, USA. d. Josh Cooley.)

After Toy Story 3 wound up Pixar’s original franchise in such a neat and satisfying fashion, it was a real surprise to see the company announce a fourth film. It turns out it is the best one of the set: the third film left the beloved toys Woody, Buzz, and the rest in the hands of a new child, suggesting that – for the toys at least – the fun of childhood need never end. Toy Story 4 reverses that conclusion. Sometimes childhood does end. Sometimes toys can be left behind, or lost, or simply made redundant. Particularly strong in this iteration are Tom Hanks and Annie Potts as Woody and Bo Peep, engaging in a romance that is rather nuanced and complex for an animated film. It is all surprisingly melancholic, making this weirdly a children’s film aimed more at adults than at its ostensible target audience. Not to suggest the entire film is a misery, of course: Forky (voiced superbly by Tony Hale) is the comedic find of 2019. This is the best of the Toy Story films, and one of the very best things Pixar has ever made.

#22: The Looming Storm (2017, China. d. Dong Yue.)

The head of security (Duan Yihong) at a Chinese factory begins to obsessively track a suspected serial killer, despite the disdain shown to him by local police. This film is a hard one to describe, since it is a classic case of the film being more enjoyable the less one knows about what is going to happen. Dong Yue’s debut feature as director looks absolutely sensational, with a gloomy and miserable rain-slicked aesthetic. The further on it goes, the better it becomes. Characters expand or unravel. The semi-industrial setting grows more threatening and claustrophobic. The narrative snakes back and forth, becoming increasingly paranoid and inexplicable. In 2018 I was on the FIPRESCI jury at the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival; this is the film to which we awarded the FIPRESCI Prize.

#21: Spotlight (2015, USA. d. Tom McCarthy.)

Based on a true story, this film follows the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of investigative journalists, as they attempt to dig up the extent of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. It is a rivetting and tense drama, beautifully directed by Tom McCarthy – ever notice every exterior shot has a church lurking in the background? – and expertly performed by one of America’s best ensemble casts. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schrieber, Stanley Tucci, and others bring this to life. And most powerful of all is the real-life discoveries the team make. Extensive abuse of children. Decades of cover-ups. Moral corruption across the Church. This is one of the most horrifying films of the 2010s – horrifying because of the terrible extent of crimes that have been committed and not prosecuted, and horrifying because of the sheer number of victims whose ordeals were never revealed or apologised for. In Australia, where the highest-ranking Catholic Cardinal has been gaoled for the sexual abuse of two minors, this film feels more pertinent today than it did when it was made.

sweetc#20: Sweet Country (2017, Australia. d. Warwick Thornton.)

1923. Sam (Hamilton Morris) is an indigenous farm worker working for the obsessively Christian immigrant Fred Smith (Sam Neill). While Smith is away on business, an altercation with a neighbouring farmer (Ewen Leslie) sees that farmer dead and Sam on the run from the local police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown). To my mind, the very best Australian feature of the past 10 years. It is not simply that Warwick Thornton has directed an absolutely searing indictment of the white treatment of Australia’s First Peoples. It is that his outstanding screenplay has brought the absolute best out of everyone. The cast are uniformly superb. For one, it’s probably the best work that Bryan Brown has ever done. It is a film that is a riveting pursuit thriller, but also a political statement to make you sink with sorrow, and then boil with rage. It is truly outstanding, global-level cinema.

dunkirk#19: Dunkirk (2017, USA, UK. d. Christopher Nolan.)

The timing and subject matter of Dunkirk struck an unfortunate note, since it’s pro-British and patriotic tones appealed exactly to the wrong people in a divided, Brexit-era nation. Putting that aside, this is an absolutely brilliant exercise in narrative design: three plots, each told at a different speed so that by the climax they all finally intersect in the one place and time. It does not waste time – the whole film is less than two hours – and neither does it waste focus by showcasing anything other than a war zone. Hans Zimmer’s score is powerful and inventive. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is dramatic and immediate. There has always been a sense of technical polish to Christopher Nolan’s work. This is the first time he has stripped the story back so effectively so as directly highlight the achievement.

shoplifters#18: Shoplifters (2018, Japan. d. Hirokazu Kore-eda.)

This is, unless I have miscounted, the third film on this list directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (following Like Father Like Son at #91, and I Wish at #78). He is simply a modern master of screen drama, making unbelievably effective and captivating cinema every single time he applies himself to a film. Shoplifters is, to my mind, almost certainly his strongest achievement. It follows a destitute family of petty thieves whose kidnapping of an abused young girl leads into a series of revelations about their identities and behaviours. The film is deeply bittersweet and effective, built up from tiny moments of character, and presents simply outstanding levels of subtlety. This, to me, is the genius of Kore-eda: so much intimate, powerful drama, constructed out of the tiniest of moments and gestures.

gravity#17: Gravity (2013, USA, UK. d. Alfonso Cuarón.)

When her space shuttle is critically hit by debris in orbit, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is left to find a way of surviving and of somehow returning to Earth. Alfonso Cuarón’s space-borne survival thriller is, moment to moment, one of the most thrilling films of the decade. The crisis is small and personal – life and death, pure and simple – and the circumstances and technology involved is all well-researched and realistic. It is why I struggle with others describing this as science fiction: really there’s not anything here that could not happen tomorrow. What lifts the film from great to amazing, however, is the sheer intensity of Dr Stone’s ordeal. The stakes, the dangers, and the surreal simultaneous sense of claustrophobia and agoraphobia are all viscerally presented. This is the best film of 2013.

wanderingearth#16: The Wandering Earth (2019, China. d. Frant Gwo.)

Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) was a ludicrous exercise in Hollywood excess, sending a group of oil drillers to an asteroid in order to split it in two and stop either half from hitting the Earth. Somehow, miraculously, the Chinese film industry topped their American competitors with The Wandering Earth, making a film on a similar theme that is even more over-the-top, patriotic, and wildly silly. When the solar system’s sun begins to die, humanity straps a ring of rockets around the Earth’s middle and start piloting the whole pilot towards Alpha Centuari. When a miscalculation sees the Earth begin to be dragged into Jupiter’s orbit, a group of miners band together to restart the engines and get the planet back on course. It’s handsomely produced, remarkably ludicrous, and pretty much the most fun I had in a cinema in 2019.

longdays#15: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018, China. d. Bi Gan.)

Bi Gan’s follow-up to Kaili Blues surpasses it in every way. This is a gorgeously presented film with rich colour and beautiful mise-en-scene. Protagonist Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns home for the first time in years, desperately looking for the women he left behind. Huang is great, as are his co-stars Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang. The real highlight of the film, however, is a stunning 40+ minute dream sequence, assembled as a single long take, and shot in stereoscopic 3D. It is perfectly constructed for the film, easily justified in context, and allows it to stand out as the masterpiece it is. I am not a fan of 3D cinema as a rule, but I cannot imagine Long Day’s Journey existing any other way.

moana#14: Moana (2016, USA. d. Ron Clements and John Musker.)

Disney’s best animation achievement in absolutely years. Developed and designed with the participation of Pacific islanders, cast smartly with Polynesian voice actors, and carefully plotted into a tight narrative machine. The performances are great. The design is exceptional. In terms of story, dialogue, pacing, and imagery, it is the obvious work of two of animation’s best-ever director – Ron Clements and John Musker. The score and songs by Lin Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i are easily among the best the Walt Disney Anination Studio has ever produced. Forget “Let It Go”; “How Far I’ll Go” is where Disney ear-worms are at. It is, far and away, my favourite animated feature for the whole of the 2010s.

elephant#13: An Elephant Sitting Still (2018, China. d. Hu Bo.)

Likely the longest film in this entire list, An Elephant Sitting Still is a four hour-long Chinese-language character drama that has to be seen to be believed. At the two-hour mark the idea of only being halfway through seems like torture. By the time the credits roll, the idea of cutting a single scene feels unimaginable. Writer/director Hu Bo very sadly committed suicide before his film saw release, and it is thus not a surprise to find a deep melancholic sense of sadness throughout. It follows multiple plot threads, each with its own beautifully performed lead character, and the sheer length provides so much time to dig deep into their motivations, choices, and regrets. When it all pulls together at the end, it feels transcendent. It is so sad that Hu died. He left behind a tremendous expression of art and humanity.

#12: Beauty and the Dogs (2017, France, Tunisia. d. Kaouther Ben Hania.)

A woman’s experience being raped and her labyrinthine journey trying to report it to police is played out over a series of single-shot long takes. This is an emotionally hard movie, set as it is in a religiously conservative and odiously sexist environment, where the victim is in legal trouble just for walking alone with a man at night. Mariam (a superb Marian el Ferjani) has been gang-raped by police officers – we never see the actual assault – and her attempts to get tested with a rape kit end in failure. A private doctor refuses to treat her, and the hospital won’t run the test without a filed police report – a report that must be filed at the exact station that houses the officers who assaulted her in the first place. This bold, powerful drama does everything right. There’s not a hint of a male gaze. There is only defiant rage at a Catch-22-style nightmare that favours assailants over victims and treads ignorantly over the rights of women. As noted above, this is a hard watch but also a supremely masterful one.

#11: The Monkey King 2 (2016, Hong Kong, China. d. Cheang Pou-soi.)

Cheang Pou-soi’s first Monkey Film was a CGI-heavy charming fantasy starring a playful Donnie Yen as the immortal Sun Wukong and Aaron Kwok as a brooding, moody villain. Yen was unavailable for the sequel, so Kwok gamely switches roles. His monkey is darker and more cynical, which matches the much more darker tone of the film overall. This is a superbly written and shot blend of fantasy and horror, bringing in the familiar Journey to the West co-stars and adapting the White Bone Demon section of the novel (with Gong Li doing an astounding job in the role). The atmosphere generated in the film’s scarier moments is palpable. The comedic moments are fun and breezy. This is a large-scale populist blockbuster; arguably the best China has generated. Not only do I think this is the finest Journey to the West adaptation ever made (and there’s a long list to choose from), it’s the best fantasy film in the world from the past 10 years.

#10: Blade Runner 2049 (2017, USA. d. Denis Villenueve.)

I know it’s a dreadful stereotype, but the truth is that my all-time favourite film is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. When it was announced that a sequel was indeed going into production, I was 100 per cent against the idea. Why risk ruining the story by attempting to catch lightning in a bottle twice? The truth is, while Denis Villenueve’s Blade Ranner 2049 doesn’t quite hit the heights of the original film, it is still an absolutely exceptional exercise in world-building, predicting the future, advancing concepts from the original, production design, and narrative. It is superbly cast and features wonderful new characters, while the Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch score sounds like Vangelis mugged by a demolition crew and sewn back together with Nine Inch Nails. 30 additional years of experience let Harrison Ford deliver one of his best-ever performances, while new players Ryan Gosling, Ana de Arnas, and Sylvia Hoeks all completely nail their characters. This film is just tremendous.

leavenotrace#9: Leave No Trace (2018, USA. d. Debra Granik.)

A returned serviceman (Ben Foster) hides out in the Oregon national parks with his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie). When found by the authorities, they struggle to continue their lives together once forced into civilization. Debra Granik’s 2018 drama is an absolutely fantastic work of naturalistic drama. It has no antagonist or villain to speak of, there are no right or wrong answers to how the story develops. It is simply human drama played out wonderfully by a combination cast of actors and local non-actors (something Granik tends to do in all of her narrative features). Foster is fantastic. Newcomer Thomasin McKenzie is astonishing; a long career awaits, and indeed has already started with her major role in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit.

parasite#8: Parasite (2019, South Korea. d. Bong Joon-ho.)

Bong Joon-ho’s sly, unexpected thriller/drama is the best film of 2019; just in case you’ve been fruitlessly waiting for an actual 2019 year’s best and wanted to know. It is yet another creative smash hit for Korea’s current best feature director. A poor family ingratiate themselves one by one into the lives of a rich family – and then things spin wildly and unexpectedly out of control. As always Bong demonstrates a rich gift for blending and jumping between genres: moments of Parasite are thrilling, some are sad, some are gut-laugh funny, and others are deeply terrifying. He tells unexpected and unanticipated stories, no matter the subject matter or overall genre. He is one of the world’s best contemporary directors, and each film has been a pleasure to see. This is the most pleasurable he has ever made.

logan#7: Logan (2017, USA. d. James Mangold.)

Marvel Studios made so many superhero movies between 2010 and 2019, which collectively earned billions of dollars, but ultimately the single-best film of the decade’s most popular genre was this: James Mangold’s superb farewell picture to Hugh Jackman’s Logan, aka Wolverine. Both Jackman and co-star Patrick Stewart (as Charles Xavier) give far and away the best performances in their respective roles. Newcomer Dafne Keen is immediately jawdroppingly good as the mysterious runaway Laura, whose safety becomes Logan and Charles’ final mission. This is an elegiac film, rich in sadness, regret, and pitch-perfect level of stubborn, old rage. It is the best of the X-Men films by a vast distance. It is one of the very best superhero adaptations ever, up there with Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This is a masterful film period, and my top pick for 2017.

assassin#6: The Assassin (2015, Taiwan. d, Hou Hsiao-hsien.)

After directing Flight of the Red Balloon in 2007, Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien took eight years to direct another feature. When it arrived, it was one of the greatest achievements of his entire career. The Assassin is an absolutely beautiful wuxia picture, with Shu Qi giving a career-best performance as a trained killer whose growing conscience sees her punished with one final task: to murder the ex-fiancee that she still loves. Everything is directed to perfection: the pace, the script, the tone, the visuals, the performances, everything. It saw Hou rewarded with the Best Director prize at Cannes, five Golden Horse awards, a BAFTA nomination, and eight Asian Film Awards. It is, in my opinion, the best film of 2015.

inception#5: Inception (2010, USA, UK. d. Christopher Nolan.)

I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan, and his absolutely incredible ability to generate high concept commercial cinema out of the most inventive and imaginative concepts. Inception is a monumental achievement, using an espionage set-up to create bold, surreal landscapes and eye-popping tributes to all manner of pre-existing action cinemas – notably the alpine Bond tribute during the film’s climax. Its Hans Zimmer score is so effective that other films have been copying it for the entire decade. The rolling hotel fight with Joseph Gordon Levitt is close to the best action sequence in the entire 2010s (see below for what tops it). To my mind, this is the best science fiction film of its time.

climax#4: Climax (2018, France, Belgium. d. Gaspar Noé.)

A group of contemporary dancers hire out an abandoned school in the middle of winter. There they undertake final rehearsals of their latest performance before shipping out to the USA. The rehearsal complete, they relax and party with a small buffet and loud music. Only someone has spiked the punch. All that happens in Gaspar Noé’s claustrophobic thriller is that some attractive young people have a dance, and then a bad drug trip, but the dance is stunningly presented and cuts to the soul and the trip is so immersive, paranoid, and frightening that it becomes an outright horror picture. This is a nightmare brought to the screen: it is confronting, horrifying, squirm-inducing, and actively upsetting. The constantly rolling camera work generates nausea in the audience, and the screaming soundtrack makes it all seem overwhelming. Despite most viewers most likely swearing off seeing it ever again, it’s actually a film that rewards multiple viewings. For something as simple as a film to generate such instinctive reactions is remarkable. This is the best film of 2018.

personalshop#3: Personal Shopper (2016, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany. d. Olivier Assayas.)

Olivier Assayas has been one of France’s most interesting directors for years, but for me he hits an all-time high with Personal Shopper. He re-teams with Clouds of Sils Maria (ranked back at #47) co-star Kristen Stewart, and indeed wrote the lead role specifically with her in mind. Stewart plays Maureen, a woman working for a Parisian celebrity as her personal shopper and assistant. Maureen has a connection to the supernatural, and refuses to leave Paris until her recently deceased brother makes contact. When unusual phenomena does start to happen, it is unclear if it is her brother or if she is being followed by something – or someone – else. This is the film I suggest people see if they still measure Stewart’s skills by the Twilight movies. She is absolutely outstanding here, in a film that is richly developed, mature, and deeply uneasy. This is the best film of 2016, and the most effective horror picture of the decade.

raid#2: The Raid (2011, Indonesia. d. Gareth Evans.)

Gareth Evans is a Welsh film director who, failing to get his films funded in the UK, wound up finding financiers in Indonesia instead. He started with Merentau, a superb little action flick starring unknown silat fighter Iko Uwais. They collaborated a second time on this: a thriller in which a police raid on an apartment building of gangsters goes horribly, fatally wrong. One cop (Uwais), unable to get out, has no other option than to fight his way to the top and take out the ringleader. If the premise sounds familiar, it is because Evans lifted it from Alex Garland’s Dredd when it appeared that film project had collapsed. Dredd is a great movie (I ranked it here at #273), but The Raid is an action masterwork. This is the kind of athletic, jaw-dropping martial arts last seen in Jackie Chan’s career peak – only here the combat appears to genuinely hurt. This is an eye-popping, wince-inducing, extended master work of action cinema. It is the decade’s top action film, and the best film of 2011.

wintersbone

#1: Winter’s Bone (2010, USA. d. Debra Granik.)

Released right back at the start of the decade, Debra Granik’s Ozarks-set thriller Winter’s Bone was simply never bettered. When her father puts up the family home as a bond, teenager Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must head into the dangerous and secretive world of meth-making dealers to track him down and have a chance of keeping the house for her and her two siblings.

I first saw Winter’s Bone at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival. The immediately and most overwhelming reaction was just how huge an impression Jennifer Lawrence made in the lead role. She is effectively perfect as Ree. She drives the movie, and dominates every scene. I remember leaning over to my wife at one point and whispering that she was going to win an Oscar within five years. It turns out she won one within three. Put simply, Ree Dolly is, I swear to you, one of the best written and performed characters in the history of film.

The second reaction was to John Hawkes as Teardrop, Ree’s terrifying and meth-addicted uncle who helps her search for her father. It is a masterful performance, and an immensely captivating character: deeply unstable and unpredictable, like getting helped by an exposed electrical wire. Hawkes has consistently been one of the USA’s most underrated actors and he is in top form here.

The lead actors overshadow the film because director Debra Granik spotlights them so well. It is a film of awkward pauses and nervous hesitation. There is a sort of jangling edge of panic from beginning to end, as Ree purposefully steps into a genuinely dangerous and secretive criminal world. Granik immerses her in Ozark culture and a densely packed world of forests and ramshackle collapsing houses. She uses a lot of local civilians in the film, allowing them to express an authentic sensibility rather than try and make trained actors look like locals.

The crowning achievement of Winter’s Bone is that it feels deeply real. A real setting, real people with real problems, and brought to life with everybody involved at the top of their game. When putting together a list of 350 films, and foolishly trying to actually sort them into an order of quality, this was the only film whose position was never in doubt. Winter’s Bone is the best film of the 2010s.

(A quick note: I put together this whole list back in late November. Since then I have seen a few more films that, had I seen them earlier, would absolutely have made the list. So please accept my firm recommendation for Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Favourite, Us, and Jojo Rabbit.)

The Best Films of 2018

2018 was a pretty great year for feature films. I remember saying the same thing about 2017, and it’s true: it really seems to me that global cinema is going through something of a golden age. Personally I put much of that down to distribution: it has never been as easy or convenient to see the best films that the world has to offer. Online streaming through such venues as Netflix and Stan has a lot to do with that; while it may be preferable to see films on the big screen in a cinema, their availability via the Internet is to me a satisfactory substitute.

Streaming services may well be saving the foreign and independent films, since mainstream cinemas are more than ever being strangled by corporate content. 2018 saw Walt Disney release so much big-budget product that they effectively went into competition with themselves: no sooner had Solo: A Star Wars Story entered the cinemas that it was already having its business crushed by Avengers: Infinity War. 2019 looks to be even more squeezed by the House of Mouse, with the release of remakes of Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King, the sequels Toy Story 4, Frozen 2 and Star Wars: Episode IX, Marvel efforts Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home (made by Disney but released by Sony), and even original efforts like Artemis Fowl. 2019 is, of course, also the year that Disney and 20th Century Fox finally commit to their merger. Any film-goer not terrified by these developments simply isn’t paying enough attention.

My top 10 films of 2018 are not any attempt at a definitive or objective list. I am not a full-time critic, and there are numerous 2018 releases that either have yet to receive an Australian release or which I simply failed to find time to watch. If there is a great film from this year not on my list, it’s a solid bet that it’s missing for one of those two reasons. Films I loved this year that didn’t make my top 10 included Dying to Survive, Dumplin’, Little Forest, Believer, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, Menashe, Aquaman, Outlaw King, Creed II, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Tigers are not Afraid, Little Forest, Believer, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Number One, The Favourite, and A Quiet Place.

#10: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A 2017 release, this came to Australian cinemas in early 2018 where it made a tremendous impact on me. It was well-scripted, neatly directed, and represented an absolute powerhouse showcase for actors like Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelsen. More than a year on, and that impact lingers in the mind. It enjoyed its hype, and it survived the inevitable odd backlash that popular films of this kind always seem to receive.

In my review, I wrote: ‘The plotting is sensational, because McDonagh refuses to make obvious choices. That makes it a difficult film to predict. Things do not go the way the audience expects them to, or possibly even wants them to. A mid-film event turns the entire movie on its head, in a fashion that feels like it should have been disastrous – but instead it throws everything into a whole new direction.’

#9: 1987: When the Day Comes

South Korean history gets a stunning dramatic treatment in this real-life drama about government conspiracies, public uprisings, and torture. It takes a complex set of events and personalities and carefully replays them into a clear and gripping political and personal narrative.

In my review, I wrote: ‘Screenwriter Kim Kyung-chan does a superb job with an extremely difficult and complex subject matter. The film begins with a dead body in a small room. It ends with more than a million people taking to the streets of Seoul. As the story expands, so does its cast, and it is testament to the skills of both writer and director that 1987 never gets confusing and never becomes laboured under the weight of its constantly growing set of characters.’

#8: The Guilty

Asger is a benched police officer awaiting the results of an internal investigation while staffing an emergency response centre. When a woman calls from the back of her kidnapper’s car, Asger is left to coordinate her rescue from his desk – only things are not quite what they seem. The striking element of this fast-paced and intense thriller is that the entire film takes place at a policeman’s desk, with all of the other action heard over a telephone. It is a short, brilliantly written and performed play masquerading as a feature film.

In my review, I noted that the film ‘wisely utilises a slow build as a kidnapping turns into a murder, and that murder begins to ratchet up Asger’s own tensions about the killing of which he has been accused. It builds the facts behind the kidnapping like a jigsaw puzzle, as each revelation forces the viewer to reconsider what they have already heard.’

#7: Mary Poppins Returns

Simply a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, director Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins sequel came 54 years after its predecessor and managed the deft task of both honouring the iconic original and finding room for its own particular style. Emily Blunt performed the title role like an honest-to-god miracle. In my opinion this was the best studio-produced feature of the year.

In my review, I wrote: ‘It is a handsome production, with an excellent Marc Shaiman score supporting the songs and particularly eye-popping costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Visually it is a film that straddles two worlds, keeping one feet each in the aesthetic of its predecessor and a more dynamic, contemporary look. The visual effects and animation – both cel-based and CGI – are top notch.’

#6: An Elephant Standing Still

One of the year’s two great Chinese productions, and one particularly marked by tragedy: its talented writer/director committed suicide before post-production was complete, leaving An Elephant Standing Still as a roughly-hewn and lengthy rough cut for all time. It’s melancholic tone was remarkable, and it more than earned its widespread international accolades.

In my review, I wrote: ‘An Elephant Sitting Still presents a world of relentless dulled sorrow, where people suffer dreadful calamity, or jump out of windows to their death, or discover their loved ones don’t exactly love them back. It showcases sadness without escape, so much so that its creator wound up taking his own life. It is the kind of misery one simply cannot escape.’

#5: The Looming Storm

First-time filmmaker Dong Yue makes a phenomenal impact with this 2017 Chinese neo-noir, released internationally in 2018 to a shower of critical praise. For me it was neck-and-neck with An Elephant Standing Still, but as time goes on I’m thinking back on it with a more and more enthused reaction.

In my recent review, I wrote that ‘to a large extent The Looming Storm‘s final act is inaccessible to non-Chinese audiences, and English-speaking viewers will benefit by approaching it with patience and extensive thinking on the way out of the theatre. The Looming Storm does not simply deliver thrills to its audience. It wants to make us work a little in return.’

#4: Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda has spent some years as one of Japan’s most talented filmmakers, and in 2018 he completely knocked it out of the park with Shoplifters; a deft comedy that elegantly transforms over the course of the film into a heart-shattering tragedy at the same time. It is the kind of immensely viewable, and subtly complex films I have seen. I strongly suspect for Kore-eda it marks a career high – and his career already has had several of those.

The day after I watched this superb film at the Melbourne International Film Festival I got hospitalised by a massive amnesia-generating migraine that lasted for three days (purely by coincidence), and as a result I forgot to actually write a review of this. I’m waiting to rewatch it and refresh my thoughts once it’s available on home video.

#3: Sweet Country

Warwick Thornton’s long-awaited second feature is a brutally effective indictment on white colonialism in Australia, but at the same time it is also an impeccably staged, shot and performed Australian western with memorable characters, a harsh aesthetic, and brilliantly staged scenes of action. We have seen locally produced takes on the genre before – John Hillcoat’s The Proposition immediately springs to mind, but Sweet Country really is in a class of its own.

In reviewing it, I wrote: ‘Particularly impressive is Bryan Brown: this is one of the strongest performances I have seen him give. Sergeant Fletcher seems another monster of a man, but humanity leaks onto the screen in fits and starts. By the end of the film he has demonstrated enough facets and startling little moments to represent one of the most three-dimensional and realistic portraits I have seen an actor give all year. He is not likeable, but he is absolutely riveting.’

#2: Leave No Trace

Debra Granik is a master of small scale realist dramas, previously with Down to the Bone and Winter’s Bone. Leave No Trace follows an army veteran (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who live off the grid in a national park. The actions are small and intimate, but the emotion effect is a powerhouse. There are few American directors working today who are this subtle and effective.

In my review, I wrote: ‘Behind the camera Leave No Trace is as close to faultless as a film can get. It’s beautifully shot and edited, and uses a wonderfully subtle and emotive score by Dickon Hinchcliffe. The locations are pitch-perfect, and Granik’s standard method of casting local non-actors in supporting roles gives everything a genuine sense of authenticity. Every aspect of the production works in union.’

#1: Climax

In Gaspar Noe’s thriller Climax, a contemporary dance troupe hold a party in an isolated building – at which the punch has been liberally spiked with hallucinogens. The ensuing drug trip is a harrowing and violent experience that not all present will survive. The film does not have the strongest story of the year, nor the finest performances (much of the cast are non-actors). What it does boast is the most viscerally effective experience of the year. Climax is inventive and visually overwhelming. Its camera work is so uncomfortable and unsteady that at times it is actively nauseating. Key moments are confrontational enough to cause offence. Noe makes a film that has a physical effect on the viewer, both positive and negative. The opening dance sequence is particularly strong, and when events then go all to hell, that strength is thrown back in a staggeringly difficult direction.

From my review at FilmInk: ‘The remarkable part is that Noé only needs to present something horrifying a few times for the audience’s paranoia to do the rest of the job for him. One spends much of Climax in a state of constant rising dread. It is a hugely uncomfortable place to be. The film is enormously uncomfortable and tense. In one middle sequence, you feel actively nauseous. For a film to generate such a physical response in the viewer is a remarkable achievement. Most viewers likely will not enjoy it. Some will probably object to its having ever been made at all. For those with an interest at just how far motion pictures can affect the viewer, Climax is the best horror film of 2018 to date.’

REVIEW: Leave No Trace (2018)

Debra Granik is one of the USA’s most essential filmmakers. She works slowly, directing just four films in the last 14 years, but every one has been both exceptional and unmissable. She is a superb social realist, grounding her films with a impeccably researched sense of place. She also tells deep human stories with the lightest of touches, and draws the most remarkable acting from her casts – including the breakthrough performances for both Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. With her fourth film Leave No Trace she demonstrates these strengths all over again. We are only halfway through the year, but it’s difficult to imagine this film not making more than a few critics’ Top 10 lists come December.

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a teenage girl living illegally in a national park with her army veteran father Will (Ben Foster). After Tom is accidentally spotted by a hiker, she and Will are tracked down by the Oregon police and assigned housing at a tree farm where Will can work as a farmhand and Tom can start going to school. When Will struggles to adjust with his new surroundings, he takes Tom away to hide in the woods once again.

Leave No Trace is such a wonderfully gentle film. For one thing there is no human antagonist: certainly there is an entire government bureaucracy that pulls Tom and Will out of their rainforest camp and back to civilization, but they are all sympathetic characters who clearly want what it best for the father and daughter. Everywhere they go, Tom and Will meet people willing to help them. The only point of crisis around which the film centres is Will’s inability to return to civilian life. The film is surprisingly light on the details why. We know that he was a soldier, and we know that something happened to badly affect his psychology. It is a smart move by Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini to limit just how much we learn about Will’s past: by keeping the details low it concentrates the audience’s attention on the effect and emotion of Will’s experiences, and not the back story. There is much more effect in seeing a man flinch at the sound of a helicopter in the air than there is in him explaining what he saw or did as a soldier.

Ben Foster plays Will brilliantly in what may be his career-best performance. He and Thomasin McKenzie also develop a tremendous rapport. They instinctively feel like father and daughter. They have a shared vocabulary and warmly familiar in-jokes with each other. It feels deeply intimate, and its development over the course of the film drives much of the story. Considered in isolation, Thomasin McKenzie is remarkable. She is wholly convincing and hugely sympathetic. After the success Vera Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence found following their own Granik productions, it is easy to imagine McKenzie following suit. She certainly deserves to.

Behind the camera Leave No Trace is as close to faultless as a film can get. It’s beautifully shot and edited, and uses a wonderfully subtle and emotive score by Dickon Hinchcliffe. The locations are pitch-perfect, and Granik’s standard method of casting local non-actors in supporting roles gives everything a genuine sense of authenticity. Every aspect of the production works in union. It may take years between films for Debra Granik, but when the results are so consistently perfect I for one am happy to wait for them.

Essays Index

For ease of navigating FictionMachine, this page provides a handy alphabetical list of all films featured in the website’s essays.

The Abyss (d. James Cameron, 1989.)

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (d. Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronomi and James Algar, 1949.)

Agora (d. Alejandro Amenábar, 2009.)

Alien(d. David Fincher, 1992.)

Back to the Future (d. Robert Zemeckis, 1985.)

Back to the Future Part II (d. Robert Zemeckis, 1989.)

Back to the Future Part III (d. Robert Zemeckis, 1990.)

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (d. Robert Stevenson, 1971.)

The Birds (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963.)

Black Swan (d. Darren Aronofsky, 2010.)

Casino Royale (d. Martin Campbell, 2006.)

Creed (d. Ryan Coogler, 2015.)

Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist (d. Paul Schrader, 2005.)

Ever After (d. Andy Tennant, 1998.)

The Ghost and the Darkness (d. Stephen Hopkins, 1996.)

Hellraiser: Bloodline (d. Alan Smithee, 1996.)

House (d. Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977.)

Humanity and Paper Balloons (d. Sadao Yamanaka, 1937.)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (d. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1996.)

It’s Always Fair Weather (d. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1955.)

John Carter (d. Andrew Stanton, 2012.)

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (d. Guy Ritchie, 2017.)

Labyrinth(d. Jim Henson, 1986.)

Ladyhawke (d. Richard Donner, 1985.)

The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese, 1988.)

Legally Blonde (d. Robert Luketic, 2001.)

Love Actually (d. Richard Curtis, 2004.)

Masters of the Universe (d. Gary Goddard, 1987.)

Meet Me in St Louis (d. Vincente Minnelli, 1944.)

Michael Clayton (d. Tony Gilroy, 2007.)

The Mist (d. Frank Darabont, 2007.)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (d. Brian Henson, 1992)

My Neighbor Totoro (d. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988.)

Paprika (d. Satoshi Kon, 2006.)

Primer (d. Shane Carruth, 2004.)

The Princess Bride (d. Rob Reiner, 1987.)

PTU (d. Johnnie To, 2003.)

Repo Man (d. Alex Cox, 1984.)

The Road to El Dorado (d. Don Paul and Eric “Bibo” Bergeron, 2000.)

The Ruins (d. Carter Smith, 2008.)

Singin’ in the Rain (d. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952.)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (d. Jack Clayton, 1983.)

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (d. Lamont Johnson, 1983.)

Speed Racer (d. Andy and Lana Wachowski, 2008.)

Sunshine (d. Danny Boyle, 2007.)

Tomorrow Never Dies (d. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997.)

28 Days Later (d. Danny Boyle, 2002.)

Unbreakable (d. M. Night Shyamalan, 2000.)

The Usual Suspects (d. Bryan Singer, 1995.)

Westworld (d. Michael Crichton, 1973.)

What’s Opera, Doc? (d. Chuck Jones, 1957.)

Winter’s Bone (d. Debra Granik, 2010.)

The Wolfman (d. Joe Johnston, 2010.)