10. Skate Kitchen
Director: Crystal Moselle
The way cinematographer Shabier Kirchner captures skating in Skate Kitchen plays a huge role in the vibrancy of this absolute powerhouse of a film from Crystal Moselle. Yes, it’s a pitch perfect celebration of girls growing up, especially as they tear down gender stereotypes and raise a massive middle finger to anyone who challenges them. And yes, it’s a downright essential revisualisation of New York City, which is born again through new eyes. But, alongside Moselle’s great direction, the cinematography bundles all of it together in a way that simply electrifies the viewer. In a year where great women directors were passed over, Crystal Moselle stands as one of the most egregious omissions.
Director: Gabrielle Brady
Island of the Hungry Ghosts is not only the best documentary of the year, and not only one of the best Australian films of the year, but it’s clearly one of the greatest films of the year. Gabrielle Brady’s direction is measured and considered, reflecting the actions of the core subject, trauma counsellor for refugees, Poh Lin Lee. The subject material Brady is documenting is horrifying and alarming, but the way she presents it is entirely without histrionics. As Poh’s time on Christmas Island becomes untenable, we can feel through Brady’s direction that both her and her subject have become exhausted, reflecting the mood of a nation who has become exhausted and exasperated at continuous government inaction over asylum seekers.
8. A Star is Born
Director: Bradley Cooper
Oddly enough, throughout all my years of film watching, I had never seen a version of A Star is Born. Thankfully, it appears I chose a pretty darn great version to jump into, as Bradley Cooper’s indie aesthetic direction applied to a grand canvas helps turn what should have been a ho-hum affair into something truly sublime. Not only does Cooper coax a soaring performance from Lady Gaga, but he also offers up a perfect acting companion to bounce off, helping him craft arguably his best performance. The music is, expectedly, great, but it’s the emotions behind the songs that help A Star is Born linger long after the credits have rolled.
Director: Jason Reitman
It had been seven years since the last Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody pairing, and with Tully it’s clear that this is a duo that works in supreme harmony. Throw Charlize Theron into the mix, and you’re on the path to perfection. Tully is a simple poem to motherhood and the difficulties of raising children. It highlights the inadequacies of fathers, while also accentuating the immense difficulties that women face after bringing a human into the world. Changing bodies bring changing minds, and with those changing minds come the weight of post-partum depression. Charlize Theron’s depiction of a mother struggling will make you weep. I’ll always be partial to Young Adult, but I have to say, Tully is evidence of three immense talents working at their peak.
6. On Body and Soul
Director: Ildikó Enyedi
To call Terror Nullius an Australian left-leaning Ready Player One feels reductive, but it’s the most apt comparison out there for this 50-ish minute roller coaster of political punkery. For Australian film lovers, there’s a wealth of recontextualisation of classic cinema to embrace. For Australian politics fans, there’s a huge amount of nods to contentious politics. And for those who want to feel invigorated and revitalised, ready for the next protest event, then Terror Nullius has your back. Heck, any film that turns Skippy into a feminist hero needs to be applauded.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
A masterwork of madness from a filmmaker who has made it his life’s agenda to craft films about the human mind, Phantom Thread features a career best performance from Daniel Day Lewis, with a pitch perfect supporting turn from Lesley Manville. Yet, both actors are working in service of Vicky Krieps’ simply powerful and formidable Alma. I don’t say this lightly – Vicky Krieps gives the finest performance in a Paul Thomas Anderson film ever. Amplified claustrophobia is paired with delicious dialogue that carries the often manic narrative about fashion and mushrooms through to a heady conclusion. A year on from viewing this film, I’m still processing the imagery in my mind, trying to tease out thematic elements to roll over my tongue and consider, and I will likely be doing this for many years forward.
Director: Adam McKay
Adam McKay’s Vice is a gosh darn masterpiece of cinematic brilliance. Modernising the school of Bertolt Brecht, McKay paints a political picture that’s full of fourth-wall breaking quips, amplified performances, and Shakespeare-esque dialogue. What makes Vice work so damn well is the way McKay and his players – career best performances from Christian Bale and Amy Adams – to bend the form of cinema to comment on the subject matter of American politics. Adam McKay has you laughing as the apocalypse unfurls. It’s absurd, it’s ludicrous, it’s eccentric, it’s hilarious, it’s fucking unbelievable. But, as dramatised as the events in Vice may be, they did really happen, and that in itself it the most unbelievable thing of them all – that this farce that continues on in the guise of Donald Trump, the recent history of American politics is real.
Director: Alena Lodkina
When I stepped out of Strange Colours, I was shaking. I had entered the film not knowing what it was about other than it was an Australian film, and I left having had my world changed. Kate Cheel leads this quiet film about life in a country town, unassumingly giving the best performance of the year. What first time feature director Alena Lodkina’s film is one that looks at the comfort of loneliness. Yes, there’s a level of pain that comes with being alone – especially when the company you keep is the vast nothing of Lighting Creek –, but Lodkina’s catalogue of characters are all comfortable with living alone; that is, as long as they have a beer in their hands. When Cheel’s Milena tries to make a connection with the youngest bloke in town, Frank (a heartbreaking performance from newcomer Justin Courtin), he declines. Lodkina knows not to explain the pain that Frank is carrying, simply allowing Justin Courtin’s eyes to show a world of guilt and hurt. I’ve thought about Strange Colours every day since I first saw it, and if there’s one thing I know for sure, Alena Lodkina is one of the finest new talents Australian cinema is lucky to have. A genuine masterpiece of Australian cinema.
Director: Warwick Thornton
If Strange Colours is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, then Sweet Country is the summit. I’ve talked at length about the importance of this film in the pantheon of Australian cinema, but I want to stress that I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this film is quite simply one of the greatest Australian films ever made. Warwick Thornton is one of cinemas great unsung masters, and with a one-two punch like Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country, one has to wonder when the rest of the world is going to catch up to his genius.
What makes Sweet Country such a perfect film is not just the performances, or the direction, or the cinematography, but it’s the narrative that deeply explores Australian history in a manner that has never been done before in Australian cinema. Warwick Thornton holds a mirror up to this land and asks us all to look at the dried blood that is caked under the sand and dirt. He demands we explore the history of indigenous Australia, and to experience the horrors that were inflicted on the first nations people. There is no lecturing, there is no yelling, there is no obvious anger. This is a mere depiction of pain, a deep assessment of the scar that remains open in this land of ours.
Undeniably the finest Australian film of this generation. Every Australian needs to see Sweet Country. Everyone needs to see Sweet Country.