Doctor of Movies’ Top Ten of 2021

While the uncertainty of the pandemic continued to impact box office, with all but the biggest of franchise properties struggling to draw the numbers that they might have expected in a pre-Covid world, 2021 was none the less somewhat of a bounce back year for the movies. We saw the release of a number of the higher profile properties that had been held back from last year, the festival circuit offered up some interesting works, the big streamers continued to make their mark as an avenue for smaller dramas, comedies and genre pieces that find it increasingly difficult to find space in the multiplex, and the late year box office performances of No Time to Die and, in particular, Spider-Man: No Way Home suggested that perhaps it wasn’t all doom and gloom for theatrical distribution. 

On a personal front, while writing reviews was put on the back burner relatively early in the year, I continued to watch stuff and ended up seeing 57 2021 releases (plus a whole heap of older films). Here are my picks of the bunch…

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Review – Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Mamoa, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill, Ciaran Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane

Before you can appropriately assess the merits of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, you must first address the false premise under which the film has been marketed. When Warner Brothers’ 2017 superhero team-up Justice League fell flat with audiences and reviewers alike, it didn’t take long for online defenders of the franchise to apportion blame to director Joss Whedon. Zack Snyder, who had been central to Warners’ DC universe having directed Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, was forced to leave the project in post-production due to a family tragedy and was replaced by Whedon. It was reported that under Whedon’s supervision, Justice League underwent a substantial change in tone and while Snyder retained the director’s credit, some have suggested that as much as 70% of the theatrical cut was either shot or re-shot by Whedon.  Rumours began to circulate online that Warner Brothers possessed a near complete and vastly superior ‘Snyder Cut’ of the film, and calls to release it began to echo around certain pockets of social media. In May 2020, Warner Brothers announced that they were putting $70 million towards the restoration of Snyder’s original vision for the film, with the cut to be released on their streaming service, HBO Max.

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Review – High Ground (2020)

Director: Stephen Johnson

Starring: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Jack Thompson, Sean Mununggurr, Caren Pistorius, Ryan Corr, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa

The last decade and a half has witnessed a pronounced shift in Indigenous screen narratives, moving away from traditionally hard-hitting social-realist dramas towards the embracing of genre. One of the most interesting aspects of this shift has been the embracing of the Western. Through films like Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country and Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road,this classical genre, traditionally the site of nation-building mythologising, has been co-opted to serve as a site of cultural reckoning, negotiating the unresolved traumas of Australia’s colonialist history. While High Ground director Stephen Johnson is not himself an indigenous man, he has had a long career working with Indigenous creatives, and his long awaited sophomore film, produced by former Yothu Yindi member Witiyana Marika and made in consultation with the local Indigenous clans, continues this genre subversion. 

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Review – Promising Young Woman (2020)

Director: Emerald Fennell

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Alison Brie

As recent revelations of Joss Whedon’s abusive behaviour on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer remind us, the film and television industries have been at the centre of the #MeToo movement since it began. It therefore makes sense that the screen should become a place where these issues start to be tackled. Emerald Fennel’s dark satire Promising Young Woman subversively blends the revenge thriller with the romantic comedy to provide a searing critique of rape culture and a system that insists on giving the benefit of the doubt to boys who ‘will be boys.’ In the process, it might just have provided us with the first truly great #MeToo film.

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Review – Soul (2020)

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Angela Bassett

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked audiences and turned narrative cinema on its head when he killed off his protagonist Marion Crane only a third of the way through Psycho. He could hardly have imagined that sixty years down the track he would be one-upped by a kids movie that manages to kill its protagonist before the opening title card. Of course, Pixar has made a habit of challenging our expectations of kids films, but perhaps more than ever before, to call Soul a kids movie at all is some combination of reductive and misleading. 

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Review – Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Director: Roseanne Liang

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Byron Coll, Joe Witkowski

When approaching a patently absurd film like Shadow in the Cloud,rather than asking whether or not it is going be good, the better question is whether or not it is going to be the right kind of stupid. Because there is a right kind of stupid. We enjoy different films in different ways. While some want us to lean in and immerse ourselves empathetically, presenting us with believable scenarios and relatable characters, others need us to sit back and embrace the fiction. When a film with an incredible, silly premise thinks it is the former it can be tiresome and disengaging. But when it possesses the self-awareness to know it is the latter, to wink at its audience, allowing filmmakers and audience alike to embrace the absurdity, then the stupid can become sublime. It’s a balance that the Fast and Furious franchise managed to find by its fifth instalment, and one that the genre-bending Shadow in the Cloud nails instantly.

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Review – Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Director: Patty Jenkins

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal

In a year that has been, for obvious reasons, almost entirely devoid of genuine blockbusters, Wonder Woman 1984 emerged as a Christmas present for moviegoers desperate for some good, old fashioned, big screen spectacle. Warner Brothers decided, having sat on the film since its originally slated June release date, to take the plunge and simultaneously release it in cinemas and on their streaming service, HBO Max. As a beacon of hope and goodness in a genre largely populated by cynical wise-guys, it is fitting Wonder Woman is the character to try and draw audiences back to the multiplex. She’s the right hero for now. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t quite the right film, struggling to recapture the magic of the original.

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Doctor of Movies’ Top Ten of 2020

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As it was for many, 2020 was a disaster for cinemas. Doors were closed for much of the year and even when they opened, the major studios’ reluctance to release their big properties into a compromised theatrical market left them light on product. Depsite this, it has actually been a pretty good year for movies. The space created by the near total absence of mega-blockbusters allowed those small and mid-level films which had found a home on streaming services to enjoy more of the spotlight than they might have initially expected. 

While the demands of reworking curriculum on the fly for online delivery meant that I didn’t get to write as many reviews this year as I might have liked, I still got to see plenty of films. Here are my top ten for 2020…

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Video Analysis – Breaking Down the Classical Hollywood Style

While a year of pandemic induced teaching online has resulted in slightly less time for writing reviews here, it has seen me recording a lot more lectures and playing with the creation of video resources, doing on video what I’d usually be doing in the classroom.

Here is one in which I break down the Classical Hollywood or Continuity Style by analysing the opening scene of The Maltese Falcon.

Review – Rams (2020)

Director: Jeremy Sims

Starring: Sam Neill, Michael Caton, Miranda Richardson, Asher Keddie, Wayne Blair, Leon Ford

Who would have thought that a remake of a quirky Icelandic film about shepherds could end up being the film to best encapsulate the experience of 2020 in Australia? With Rams, a remake of Grimur Hakonarson’s 2015 film Hrútar (which is Icelandic for ‘Rams’), screenwriter Jules Duncan and director Jeremy Sims have managed to not only make the story feel organically of this place, but also very much of this time. 

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