Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Rise of the Spin-Off Series

It seems we’re living in the age of the spin-off series. Intellectual property (IP) that has proven successful is now seeing a surge of either origin or ‘where-are-they-now’ stories surrounding established characters (Better Call Saul, Young Sheldon, the upcoming That 90s Show etc.), or shows providing more context on the show they are spun-off from (1883, How I Met Your Father etc.). No truer is that than in Disney’s wave of Star Wars limited series.

There’s no question that the Star Wars universe lends itself to this surge of content more than any other property available. That’s not to say that there aren’t other major IP’s that have the same possibilities, with the widely popular Game of Thrones set to see Kit Harrington reprise his role as everyone’s favourite, nothing-knowing Jon Snow.

But in Star Wars, Disney has a well with an endless supply of content, and one that the entertainment behemoth is unlikely to ever to stop drilling. From The Book of Boba Fett to the latest Obi-Wan Kenobi show, the last year has seen Disney already churn out two Star Wars-centric shows for two iconic characters from the franchise. And with a long pipeline of further shows to come —Andor, Ahsoka and Lando, to name a few— it looks like spin-offs are on the menu and Disney is ready to keep serving them.  

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka

That’s not necessarily a problem though. Even with a minority of fans that would like to see more shows in the vein of The Mandalorian than that of a bounty hunter whose fate was seemingly set in stone almost 40 years ago, there’s still lots of good to come with the bad.

The one big positive is the sheer amount of talent that has been involved in each of the shows. From less renowned directors like Rick Famuyiwa, Kevin Tancharoen and Bryce Dallas Howard, to more established directors like Taika Waititi, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau — the spoils have been shared across the board.

It’s in Obi-Wan Kenobi though, that Disney have managed to return to something so familiar and etched in Star Wars history. By allowing Deborah Chow to direct all six episodes of the show, there is a level of balance restored to the force (as it were) and the franchise. The singular vision of Chow’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is one that goes back to the roots of what made the franchise so iconic in the first place — George Lucas.

That’s not to say that the show is without its faults, as there isn’t much in the way of storytelling beats that you wouldn’t find in The Mandalorian. The premise is really similar to that of The Mandalorian (a hero thrust into the far reaches of the galaxy to escort a child home safely is hardly exciting) albeit that isn’t a fault of Chow’s given she didn’t pen the episodes. But to call this a shortcoming of Obi-Wan Kenobi isn’t a large criticism, given that The Mandalorian has offered the most compelling storytelling of all the current crop of Star Wars shows, so if any other Sci-Fi oriented shows are drawing from it, then more power to them.

Still from The Mandalorian

Unfortunately some of those shows include Paramount’s expensive adaptation of the beloved video game Halo which has had more problems than simply trying to emulate The Mandalorian‘s success. If anything really lets Obi-Wan Kenobi down it’s that it was always sold as a six episode limited series as opposed to something like The Mandalorian which will push three seasons next year.

There’s speculation that a second season of the show could happen, but one can’t help but wonder how much more refined the show could have been if it had stretched out its characterisation and storylines across more episodes. Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to be a success —after all, it’s ‘Star Wars’, and sees fan-favourites Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen return— so why take a limited series approach? To have people request a second season at the show’s conclusion anyway?

It’s understandable that certain entertainment companies will want to play it safe by taking up a limited series format and waiting for the public reception before greenlighting a further season. But Disney is the biggest entertainment company in the world, and Obi-Wan Kenobi was always going to do well. By limiting the show to only six episodes and cramming everything (including that long awaited battle) into these episodes, there really isn’t a reason to bring Hayden Christensen back for a second season even though he’d love to, and which will probably happen in some capacity anyway. Obi-Wan Kenobi would have benefitted from more episodes to give the character a more refined arc than simply a baby-sitter who finds strength and hope as a result of said babysitting.

Maybe I’m being too harsh as I do feel that Deborah Chow found her groove by being the sole director here, and it was a delight to see Ewan and Hayden put on the jedi-esque robes and Darth Vader suit, respectively. It might be my adulation for a show like Better Call Saul and its extraordinary writing, but if there is to be a second season of Obi-Wan Kenobi, let’s hope that it’s given ample time to develop further and does keep some mystery tucked away for later.

All six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are now streaming on Disney+

Top Gun: Maverick is the Perfect Sequel at the Perfect Time

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

By all accounts, the 80s were quite the decade for the pop culture scene with rapturous music, unique fashion, and iconic films that spoke to the sentiment of the times. It was also an era coming to terms with the aftermath of the Vietnam war which saw a plethora of action-induced, patriotic films being churned out and inspiring the youth of the time.

The most profound of those films is easily Tony Scott’s now iconic Top Gun (1986), a film that both turned Tom Cruise into the poster-boy for American patriotism, and also captured the hearts of audiences young and old with its dazzling displays of all things 80s Americana. It’s telling then that 36 years later, Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick (2022) has managed to surpass the awe of its predecessor, and at the same time, deliver a sequel to rival all sequels.

It might be that the last few years have left an uncertainty in their wake in the same way that the Vietnam war did in the many years after its conclusion. The state of the world today is wrought with turmoil including ever-ravaging wars, a pandemic that continues to linger, the propulsion of gun violence in the USA, and growing speculation of an incoming recession (like the early 80s Reagan-recession). Maverick feels like a response to these last few years, or at the very least, a banner of hope that audiences have embraced with open arms.

Perhaps that’s because Kosinski’s film places audiences into a two hour, jet-fuelled cockpit of escapism that pauses all the worries in one’s mind and creates an unnatural sensibility for what is being showcased. It’s a polished and daring display of practicality that sends goosebumps across one’s body as soon as Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ roars in the opening sequence — and that’s before any of the “out-there” moments even come to pass.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

Narratively speaking, Maverick follows Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) in the years after his short-lived spell at the Top Gun academy for aviation. Now in his mature years, Maverick has traded dog fights for test flights, taking some of the latest aircrafts and pushing them to their limits in the sky. It’s a fitting reintroduction to the character and the direction of his arc for the remainder of the film, as he himself becomes pushed to his limits in the events that unfold.

Most of the film revolves around reconciliation, or coming to terms with the past, with the clearest example being in the death of Maverick’s wingman “Goose” that continues to plague our otherwise steadfast protagonist. It’s through Goose’s son, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), that we see this internal struggle and guilt of Maverick’s, surface. The film rides this wave of reconciliation for its majority, but it works because there is no throwaway dialogue here. The screenwriters, helmed by a trio comprising Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and frequent Cruise-collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie, do a great job of balancing Maverick’s place in the world with the passing-of-the-torch to the young.

But even with all the side characters —including a short, heartfelt appearance by Val Kilmer’s Tom “Iceman” Kazansky— Maverick is still unequivocally Cruise’s. The actor has come a long way since his Risky Business (1983) days, even if there is a part of me that still craves to see more performances in the vein of Jerry Maguire (1996) or Magnolia’s (1999) Frank T.J. Mackie. Maverick feels like the first real film to see the actor come to terms with his place in cinema. For all the ‘old-timer’ and ‘relic’ lines that are thrown around, Cruise is still the biggest blockbuster name outside of the Marvel engine, and it’s no surprise that he’s being hailed as the last major Hollywood star.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

The actor shows no signs of slowing down here, in fact, if his last few films are any indication, he still has some fuel left to burn. It helps that he has a young supporting cast that almost mirrors the antics of the original cast (Glen Powell’s Hangman is a spitting image of Val Kilmer’s young and cocky Iceman). He also has a new objective: to prepare these young pilots for a dangerous mission in enemy terrain.

The details of the mission aren’t nearly as important as the actual flying and shooting, or in other words, the stuff that gets you your money’s worth. The bravado of the film is nestled in the spectacle of its third act, where the cast is crammed into their F/A-18’s and made to feel the full force of the turns and hoops that ensue. Kosinski, clearly in his element here, shoots these death defying air-scapades with a desire to achieve as much realism as he can, and realism is what he gets, with heart-in-your-throat level action that makes Marvel seem like a rusty kids playground in need of a major renovation.

What’s true for Maverick is that it does feel like a polished playground of possibility, one that is set on pushing the limits of what’s possible for the cinematic medium. This has been true for anything Cruise related for years now, but with Maverick there is a bittersweetness in realising that films like this only get made because there is someone willing to push the medium to its breaking point and not play it safe — in that way, Cruise and Maverick aren’t so different.

Top Gun: Maverick is is currently screening in cinemas nationwide

The 5 Best Johnny Depp Performances, Ranked

Geoffrey Rush has hailed him as “one of the great character actors of our time, trapped in a leading man’s body” and whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Johnny Depp has cashed in some of the most unique and memorable performances of the last 30 or so years. From Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Donnie Brasco right through to Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Sweeny Todd  — there’s no shortage of the irreverent and iconic. These are Johnny Depp’s five best performances, ranked.

5. Donnie Brasco in Donnie Brasco (1997)
Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco

Directed by Mike Newell and based on a true story (‘Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia’), Donnie Brasco represents the first real instance where Depp plays a straight shooting, no nonsense character on the big screen.

Depp’s character, Joe Pistone, infiltrates the New York mafia under the guise of Donnie Brasco where he befriends Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) and works undercover to expose mafia leader Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).

It is through the Depp/Pacino on-screen dynamic that this film separates itself from simply being another cliched 90s gangster, mafia type ordeal. Pacino plays a much more heartfelt character while channelling all the qualities (loud voice, edgy movements, alluring eyes) that have underpinned his performances prior.

Depp compliments Pacino’s supporting role by matching him in those qualities while also proving that he has more reach as an actor should he be offered the right role to display it. He plays the anxiousness of this character so effectively and you can sense the difficulty of his characters position as an informant through this anxiousness.

4. Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994)
Johnny Depp as Ed Wood

The first of two Tim Burton collaborations on this list, Ed Wood is perhaps best known for Martin Landau’s Oscar winning support performance, but Johnny Depp’s portrayal as the titular cult classic filmmaker was just as profound.

Like the real Edward Wood, Depp has certain eccentricities that can come across as quite peculiar, and they have allowed him to play strange characters, like Wood, on-screen in ways that other actors would not have. Depp’s casting as Wood can be considered a “perfect fit” by Richard Dyer’s work on Star Theory, as his star image fits perfectly with all the traits of the character, and he leans into the strangeness of Tim Burton’s own unique vision to bring the character to life.

In this way, Depp’s performance as Ed Wood is the first real instance where the actor finds a balance between the humorous characteristics he would later inject into his performances to a greater extent, as well as the more heightened moments of ecstaticity.

3. John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009)
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger

Depp’s performance as the notorious American gangster/outlaw John Dillinger is perhaps the most contentious on this list. That might be due to the film in question, with Public Enemies being one of Michael Mann’s less layered works compared to say Heat (1995) or Collateral (2004), but it works because Mann is able to get the best out of his performers.

John Dillinger was evidently quite a misunderstood man by Mann’s depiction as he was more interested in taking from the state rather than from regular folk and found a certain connection to the people, and they to him. Depp can be seen as quite a misunderstood figure as well if not for his really uncanny demeanour, then definitely for the way he approaches his work and collaborations.

His performance as Dillinger is quite a strong one in that sense and it also represents a return to performances and films more akin to Donnie Brasco and a later mafia-esque film in Black Mass (2015).

2. Edward Scissorhands in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands is easily one of Depp’s best performances due to how well the actor brings Tim Burton’s interest in outsiders and outcasts to light. Burton has never been shy on exploring characters who separate themselves from the public eye (like in his Batman films) or characters immersed in strange, gothic settings (like in 1988’s Beetlejuice).

A large reason why films like Edward Scissorhands and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) work is because the synergy between Depp and Burton allows them to get to the heart of why these characters are the way they are.

There’s no doubt that Burton has nurtured Depp’s performances in ways other directors haven’t, but it’s in that very strangeness where Depp is at his best and can convince you that there could well be someone like Edward Scissorhands (figuratively speaking) out there. This performance is one of his best due to how well he uses his facial expressions, physicality and gestures, as the character rarely (if ever) actually speaks.

1. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2017)
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow

It wouldn’t be a ‘best performances by Johnny Depp list’ without the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow. Aside from the fact that Gore Verbinski’s original Pirates trilogy is one of the most audacious and well worked in cinema history, it simply wouldn’t be as memorable without Depp’s very individualised performance as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Depp not only imbued Sparrow with his own signature idiosyncrasies and oddness, but he also drove a majority of the creative choices around the character. From the Pepé Le Pew and Keith Richards inspired look/feel, to the very specifics of how he walked and talked — this character went against the grain of expectation that Disney had initially wanted.

Depp subverted the image of how pirates historically acted and carried themselves by playing the role in a very caricature like manner. He injected Sparrow with a certain flamboyance courtesy of his gestures, and gave him a drunken demeanour even when Sparrow was at his most sober. Depp went as far as to suggest that the character should walk normally when he is on the ship, while being off-kilter and erratic when on land.

All of these choices alongside the bravado with which Depp delivered them through his performative toolkit are what gave the Pirates franchise such clear bearings. There is no Pirates of the Caribbean without Jack Sparrow and there is no Jack Sparrow without Johnny Depp.

Notable omissions: Sweeny Todd in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), William Blake in Dead Man (1995), and Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999).

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Celebrates Nicolas Cage

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are actors and then there are actors, but there’s also Nicolas Cage, a thespian unlike any other who has long been swimming in his own pool of creativity, films and the characters left in their wake. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) represents a celebration of all things Nic Cage, serving as its own museum that displays (quite literally) some of Nic’s most iconic on-screen moments, characters and artifacts while at the same time offering an enjoyable buddy-up action comedy.

Out of all the odd and unique actors throughout cinema history, it seems fitting that it would be Nicolas Cage who would play a hyper-fictionalised version of himself to such an extent. The actor’s unrivalled commitment to exploring all aspects of his craft has seen him play some of the most craze-filled (Red in 2019’s Mandy, Caster Troy/Sean Archer in 1997’s Face/Off) and heartfelt (Robin in 2021’s Pig, Joe Ransom in 2013’s Joe) characters of all time.

What Director Tom Gormican has provided with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a service to all fans of Cage. With Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage) running short on money and struggling to balance his work and home life, he decides to take his agent’s (Neil Patrick Harris) advice to attend a birthday party for Cage superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) and get paid $1 million. What Nick doesn’t realise is that behind the lovey-dovey, Cage-admiring Javi, is a drug kingpin, crime family and a missing girl. Unbeknownst to Nick, CIA agent Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) plants a tracking device on him and soon informs him of Javi’s dangerous side. It is up to Cage to find the truth of it all by channelling his most iconic screen characters to save himself and those around him.

The film plays out like a pastiche on the body of Cage’s work while also offering something new in the way of performance. Cage has often spoken of his “nouveau shamanic” neologism as an approach to performance that tries to get to the essence of a character through a deeper engagement with one’s imagination — ultimately enabling a performance that is as true as can be. He has also said in a recent Reddit AMA (ask me anything) that playing Nick Cage was the most challenging role he has taken on, with the need to “protect a person named Nick Cage” and make sure that he “facilitated the director’s absurdist vision of so-called Nick Cage”.

Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

It’s no surprise then that even for an actor of Cage’s calibre, it would take more than a “nouveau shamanic” approach to performance to truly play Nick Cage. But play Cage, Nicolas Cage does, as he brings all of his signature idiosyncrasies to the table: explosive moments of rage, overzealous mannerisms, signature one liners and so forth. There is a level of self-awareness here that never borders on excessiveness as Cage plays into these idiosyncrasies in a way that would speak to Gormican’s absurdist vision of what a hyper-fictionalised version of the actor and his life would look and feel like.

It’s easy for films to poke too much fun at their source material to the point where they overdo it — like in This is the End (2013). Ultimately, there is a still a need to provide a plot that brings everything together and serves a purpose beyond the gimmicks, and fortunately Gormican manages to keep a level head amongst the excitement of it all. Gormican uses the situation that Nick finds himself in to prompt the action that follows while at the same time managing to bring it all back to the crux that is Cage. The fact that Javi isn’t an unlikable antagonist (or an antagonist at all really) also helps to keep it light hearted and grounded, even with the tonal shift that happens around the second act.

It is quite fitting that, out of all the moments of overblown absurdity, the most striking moment —Nick Cage French-kissing a young, Wild at Heart (1990) era Cage— would come from the mind of Cage himself. The film pays homage to outlandish moments like this from the actor’s career and yet the process of making this film has brought another intrinsically “Nicolas Cage” moment; this moment hits like the smell of sea salt as you make your way to the beach for the first time in the summer, and it’s a beautiful feeling.

Never short on pop culture references (any mention of 2017’s Paddington 2 is always welcome) and always set on celebrating the cultural significance of its star lead, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is everything fans of Nicolas Cage will have wanted it to be and more. While having massive talent might be unbearable, a film with Nicolas Cage playing Nick Cage is anything but unbearable — it might just be what cinema and the world has been missing.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens nationally from the 21st of April, 2022

Spencer sees Kristen Stewart Shine in a Royal Thriller Masked as a Drama

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the very moment Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021) opens, it makes sure to emphasise that the film is a “fable from a true tragedy”. In essence, the film isn’t a factual retelling, albeit many will see the truth in how this fictional drama around Princess Diana portrays her internalised trauma and struggle for a semblance of normality in an otherwise abnormal world.

From the films outset, Larraín establishes the very unsettling tone that will persist for the rest of its 105 or so minutes. We open to a convoy of army trucks driving to the grounds of the Sandringham Estate where the film is set, with soldiers unloading multiple boxes labelled with ‘Barrett .50 caliber’. Amidst this convoy is a dead pheasant on the road — a symbol that plays a big role later on — narrowly not being flattened by the large vehicles passing by. The soldiers situate these boxes in a kitchen where it is revealed some moments later that they are actually filled with food, not guns, but as the film progresses they may as well have had guns in them.

This brings us to Diana (played incredibly by Kristen Stewart) as she seemingly struggles to find her way to the Estate in time for a Christmas Eve dinner and weekend with the Royal family. The land is familiar to her as she grew up in the neighbourhood, but she is lost. It’s a well crafted opening sequence that really establishes the unnerving events that will take place over the course of the Christmas weekend in the film, as Diana begins to break away from the grip of the structured life she leads.

Spencer revolves around a short window of time in the early 90s when Diana and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) were growing increasingly estranged from one another (especially as news of an affair circulated). Larraín focuses on Diana’s response to this truth and crafts a series of spellbinding scenes that leave you wondering whether you’re actually watching a drama or the year’s best thriller.

One of those scenes occurs early on in the film as Diana reluctantly joins the rest of the royal family for a Christmas Eve dinner. Larraín masterfully captures the anxiety plaguing Diana as she is essentially made to share a space with the cheating Charles while wearing a pearl necklace that he has also implicitly gifted to his mistress. As the scene progresses, this necklace continues to tighten around Diana’s neck, and Johnny Greenwood’s pulsating score accentuates that tightness, ultimately extending it beyond the screen and wrapping it around you like a straitjacket — you can feel the suffocation taking place. Eventually, Diana rips the necklace off which lands in her pea soup, and she ends up stuffing her face with the peas and pearls. By this point, Greenwood’s score has reached a crescendo and is now dying down — it is experiencing the same relief that Diana is experiencing.

Kristen Stewart in Spencer

There are multiple sequences like this in Spencer that border the fine line of drama and thriller as various elements like story, sound, camerawork and performance work in tandem to highlight the anxiety Diana is experiencing. Larraín took a similar approach in his melancholic drama, Jackie (2016) — the biopic on the First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). The two films share various similarities including the focus on a glamorous public figure of a country, the aforementioned focus on the internal trauma and struggle that comes with that lifestyle, and the very sombre tone.

It is through Stewart’s performance though that we come to perceive how far from normal Diana’s situation was. Stewart plays Diana with a degree of verisimilitude (tapping into the very innocence of her gestures and expressions) and relatability that can be best quantified through Stewart’s own star persona and her very gentle, reserved demeanour in the public eye. Stewart wholly embodies Diana and gives her an added layer of complexity that may have escaped the public eye.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon (best known for shooting one of 2019’s best films, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) does an incredible job at capturing both the loneliness Diana experienced and the suffocating lifestyle of being a royal. She uses a Super 16mm camera for the most part and focuses on sprawling wide shots that frame Diana alone in the vastness of a world that overwhelms her; high angle shots that place an emphasis on the overbearing and watchful eye of those around her; and close-ups and extreme close-ups during interior sequences to heighten how confined and constricted she is in the artificial world she’s now a part of.

The film isn’t perfect though as Steven Knight’s screenplay is sometimes too on-the-nose and just not subtle enough which would make sense if this was a beat-for-beat retelling, but because there is a level of fictionalisation going on here, there could have been less obviousness in some of the dialogue spoken. The supporting cast is also quite unused but that actually makes sense in the wider scheme of things given this is focusing on Diana and is emphasising that distance between her and others which plays into the muted ambience Larraín is going for.

There’s a particular moment towards the films end where Diana ponders over how she will be remembered in the distant future. She notes that Elizabeth the first has been reduced to “The Virgin Queen” while George the third would be known as “The Mad King”. While the tragic circumstances of Diana’s life and death are known, if Larraín’s Spencer is anything to go by, Diana drives into the sunset on her own terms.

Spencer is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

Best of 2021: Arnel’s Picks

With another year having drawn to a close, Rating Frames is looking back at the best new releases of the last twelve months.

It was a difficult year for the medium, owing to numerous delays and cancellations – these retrospectives would be quite different had MIFF been able to run its full schedule – but there were still some excellent films released that we all wanted to celebrate.

In the last of our end-of-year articles, Arnel Duracak will be revealing his ten favourite pictures of 2021.

In arguably one of cinema’s most challenging years ever, 2021 surprisingly stood the test of time to become one of the best years for films and film lovers in the 21st century.

There were films by Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Denis Villeneuve, Todd Haynes, Edgar Wright, Jane Campion, David Lowery, Lana Wachowski, Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan, Shaka King, Zack Snyder, Sean Baker, Mike Mills, James Gunn, Lin Manuel Miranda, Adam McKay, and Ridley Scott (two from him) all coming last year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

My point is, as impacted as cinema was in 2021, there was a silver lining in terms of the films we got from the large pool of iconic filmmakers available. My list is a sum of my experiences with some of those filmmakers and their films, and here’s to a promising 2022.

10. The Last Duel

Having one new Ridley Scott film these days feels like a rarity that needs to be savoured, but two? Now that’s like seeing a UFO. But The Last Duel isn’t just rare because it’s a film from a legendary filmmaker in his later years, it’s also a film that doesn’t come around too often. In fact, this film is Ridley Scott at his directing best, all the while bringing in the grit and tension that make his films so enjoyable.

Through a chapter like structure, this film is about the closest thing we have to Scott’s iconic Gladiator (2000) as it keeps you engaged right throughout courtesy of some clever editing and writing, and it sees Jodie Comer deliver her best performance yet (even outshining her male counterparts Adam Driver, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck to a lesser extent given his minimal on-screen time).

The Last Duel is also memorable due to its practical filmmaking (incorporating practical combat rather than taking the easy route through CGI), well worked story, and captivating performances. Unfortunately, Scott’s other film of 2021, The House of Gucci, doesn’t hit the same high as this one but both are worth watching if not for want, then for the icon that is Ridley Scott.

Currently streaming on Disney+.

9. Nobody

I can only imagine that screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s logline to get this screenplay green-lit was “John Wick but with Bob Odenkirk dialled up to 11”. Nobody is the John Wick (2014) of 2021 and this was one of the first films I saw in a packed cinema at the start of 2021. It was an exhilarating experience and one that got me excited to get back into the cinema.

With a relatively simple premise that sends Odenkirk on a revenge killing spree after his daughter’s Hello Kitty bracelet is nabbed during a failed house robbery, Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody is a joy ride from start to finish. While the film doesn’t capture the awe and suddenness that came with seeing a rampant Keanu Reeves in John Wick back in 2014, Nobody is still a rowdy 90 minutes at the cinema.

The closing sequence is one of my most memorable from last year with a shotgun wielding Christopher Llyod going berserk alongside Odenkirk — Doc and Saul Goodman really paint the town red here.

Currently streaming on Prime and Binge.

8. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

When adding films to my top of the year list, I kept asking myself “why does this film deserve a spot on my list?”; in the case of The Mitchells vs. The Machines the answer was pretty simple: there wasn’t an animation like it in 2021.

Michael Rianda does a stellar job with telling a story about family and the drama of family life, while also managing to tap into ever present fears around technology as it becomes more advanced. This animated road movie is essentially We’re The Millers (2013) meets I, Robot (2004) but it’s actually funny and it actually handles its subject matter quite well.

The animation style here has been spoken about a bit, and while it does take a bit of time to adjust to the striking style like with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), the animators prove that animation doesn’t need to be a cookie cutter process.

Currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.

7. Minari

The second of my two 2020 films seen in 2021 courtesy of Australia’s awful theatrical schedule, Minari is a compelling piece of storytelling by Lee Isaac Chung that focuses on themes of family, loss, the American dream (or whatever that means today), and the immigrant experience.

With a cast that gives it their all (comprised of Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, and Youn Yuh-jung whose performance won her an Oscar), a well written script, and excellent direction, Minari has a bit of everything for everyone.

Coming from an immigrant background with refugee parents, this film really hit home in terms of the difficulties families experience when moving to a new country and the struggles of growing up relatively poor. If you haven’t seen Minari yet, what are you waiting for!

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

6. The Father

The Father is a heartfelt and considerate film that provides a unique outlook on the struggles of dealing with dementia from the perspective of a character dealing with the condition.

Director Florian Zeller directs his play of the same name and he’s evidently had the look of this film down pat for a while — focusing on enclosed spaces with lots of mid-shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups and using space to his advantage.

With Anthony Hopkins winning his second Best Actor Oscar and making history as the oldest actor to win a Best Actor Oscar at the ripe age of 83, this film is all about the performance. It’s an interesting idea to look at the condition from the perspective of the patient, and Zeller does so by brilliantly playing with time through smart editing and staging (take note Nolan).

While this film is technically listed as a 2020 release (as is another on this list), Australia unfortunately has an awful theatrical window so I’ve had to adjust accordingly and this film deserves a place on my list. 

Currently streaming on Prime Video and Foxtel Now.

5. Dune

Having read Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name shortly before its release, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is blockbuster filmmaking at its very best that honours Herbert’s writing through visual splendour that only the cinema can offer.

The film has everything you want from a blockbuster: scale, mesmerising world-building, a lived in feel, a large ensemble, wondrous set pieces, a resounding score, and (for the most part) grounded storytelling.

Villenueve has once again proven his worth by tackling a piece of fiction and an iconic title often deemed unfilmable due to its scope and depth, and he’s left his imprint on it in the process. He incorporates his fondness for slow cinema with plenty of moments of recollection and contemplation to be had, and he sets the stage for a sequel that will no doubt have a lot more riding on it given the success of this picture (especially considering his 2017 feature, Blade Runner 2049 was a box office flop).

The film is not flawless given that characters aren’t all that interesting and the performances are quite mute (there’s not one that stands out from the other), but it’s a fitting first adaptation of half of Herbert’s novel and lays the foundation for a (hopefully) more spectacular part two.

Currently screening in theatres nationwide and will soon be on Blu-Ray.

4. C’mon C’mon

A film that was unbeknown to me for the majority of last year, C’mon C’mon is one of those cozy and warm films that you would just want to hug if it was a tangible object.

Mike Mills writes and directs this tender story of connection and self-discovery, with two resounding performances from the incomparable Joaquin Phoenix and newcomer Woody Norman. Phoenix plays Johnny, the uncle of Norman’s character Jesse, and the two of them spend the film together after Jesse’s mother leaves town for a week or so to tend to her mentally ill husband. What ensues is a sweet and earnest film that revolves around a shared journey of self growth as the two characters confide in one another and open each others eyes to the world around them.

The film is shot in black and white which works to its advantage as, even among the very colourlessness of the world, the two characters stand out like a sore thumb; in other words, by being in each others company and experiencing the world through unfiltered conversations (particularly from Jesse), these two become the most colourful parts of the world. Mills meticulously builds his story through the characters’ shared experience to the point where their bond and relationship leads Johnny to view the world in a different light and have a much needed awakening or wake up call.

Children and their world view is at the forefront of the film as Johnny interviews various child subjects due to his radio profession, but Jesse is his gateway to something more real, and Mills makes sure that reality is felt beyond the diegetic world. 

Releasing in select Australian cinemas on the 17th of February 2022.

3. In The Heights

In what felt like the year of the musical with West Side Story, Tick Tick Boom, Dear Evan Hansen, and Annette, it was In The Heights that reigned supreme in 2021. I’m usually not a big fan of the musical genre — with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) being an exception — but In The Heights rekindled my faith in the genre and in its future in cinema.

Jon M. Chu directs the hell out of this adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s first successful broadway musical,  which is filled with brilliant choreography and item numbers, a dedicated cast, an infectious energy that sucks you in the longer the film plays out, and a considerate, thought provoking perspective on gentrification and the Latino community at its core.

I must say, I’m yet to see West Side Story, but In The Heights was really the film to get me excited for everything else that would grace our screens in 2021, and it came at the right time during the despondent events that continue to plague the world. 

Currently available for rent on Prime and for purchase on DVD.

2. Pig

Michael Sarnoski’s Pig moved me in ways that no other film in 2021 had. With a simple yet gripping story and an emotionally charged Nicolas Cage cashing in his best performance in years, this film hit all the right emotional chords for me — leading me to rewatch it a few days after my initial viewing.

Pig doesn’t go down the conventional route of a revenge thriller even though it might appear that that’s the direction Sarnoski is heading; instead, the film is about reflection, mourning and a wider commentary on how we forgo what we love in favour of a life of conformity in a capitalist system where we ultimately lose sight of who and what we are.

There are so many layers in Pig for a runtime of around 90 minutes, and had Licorice Pizza not been released, this would have been at the tippity top of my list. 

Currently available on home-video and on-demand services.

1. Licorice Pizza

That brings me to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, or the quintessential film of 2021. It takes everything we know and love about PTA — his undying connection to the San Fernando Valley, the 70s period, characters that are larger than life, the themes that underpin his work, the formal devices from his cinematic toolkit — and meshes it all into one. The result is a heartwarming tale of self-discovery and companionship, and one that traverses the fine line of adolescence and adulthood while managing to bridge the two worlds together.

Acting newcomers Cooper Hoffman (Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s son) and Alana Haim (from the pop rock band Haim), deliver captivating and confident performances of youth angst and free spiritedness. Their chemistry is magical and infectious and it’s hard not to see bits of yourself in their performances (such is the magic of PTA’s screenplays).

Licorice Pizza was always going to be a shoehorn for one of my favourite films of 2021 due to the man at its helm, but it deserves all the praise it has received and it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.

Currently screening in select theatres nationwide.

Honourable Mentions: Encanto, Annette, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Matrix Resurrections

Paul Thomas Anderson Returns to Roots in the Delightful Licorice Pizza

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Set against the backdrop of the 70s San Fernando Valley, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021) paints a perplexing and wholesome picture of what it’s like to grow up as a youth in a rowdy 70s setting and go on to discover new emotions and experience new highs and lows like everyone else at the time, but unlike everyone else at the time.

Perhaps that’s because this is a film made up of ‘firsts’: PTA takes a swing at the coming-of-age genre for the first time; Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim take on their first acting roles; and the characters are constantly rolling with the punches while welcoming every new obstacle that comes their way as if it were a means to something greater and more real.

Those characters are the budding entrepreneur and smooth talking child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and the pessimistic optimist coasting by with a high school photoshoot day-job, Alana Kane (Alana Haim). The two meet at Gary’s yearbook high school photoshoot in what is easily PTA’s most inviting opening sequence and one that really sets the tone for the cruisy, laidback feel and tone of the rest of the film.

The two characters share a unique bond and find themselves traversing the valley and sharing each others company as they walk the fine line of adulthood and adolescence — each learning from their counterpart and ultimately bridging the two worlds together. The relationship between Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was much the same in that regard and this film shares much with that one in terms of scope and even scale as PTA relishes the intimate moments ahead of large scale ones.

Much has been said on the age disparity between the characters, with Haim playing a 25 year old and Hoffman being 10 years her junior in the film (12 years in real life), ultimately fluffing some progressive feathers. But PTA is too smart to buy into that criticism as he acknowledges that difference throughout, but never uses it for anything other than building a story based on a shared experience between likeminded individuals who happen to have some attraction in the mix as well.

If Boogie Nights (1997) was about how the porn industry finds and offers lost souls solace and interconnectedness by bringing them into surrogate families, then Licorice Pizza is about how free souls find each other and create families born out of friendship. PTA does a stellar job in guiding his characters through this lively world courtesy of his formal cinematic tools that have become so pertinent in his oeuvre — tracking shots, long takes, a classical narrative structure — while at the same time creating a sense of forwardness and momentum that never seems to slow down.

Bradley Cooper & Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

The characters embrace the ambiguity of their future and the unknown that awaits them, but they never dwell on it. In this way, Licorice Pizza also represents a shift in PTA’s interest in human unknowability and it instead sees him place an emphasis on living in the moment. This very much plays into the spontaneity of the characters in how they make decisions and approach their lives — Gary jumps between businesses while Alana is indecisive with what she wants from life as she moves from freedom to stability and back to freedom. Subsequently, PTA lets youths be youths at a time where hippy culture and its messages of peace and love were more embraced.

There’s no denying that PTA’s films from, and since, Punch-Drunk Love place a greater emphasis on the more intimate and subdued moments between characters. Whether that be the impenetrable relationship between Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell in The Master (2012) or the push-pull teasing between Reynolds Woodcock and Alma in Phantom Thread (2017); each of these character dynamics allow Anderson to entertain his fascination with characters whose connection works because it’s so strange, distant, and against the grain of expectation.

That’s why Licorice Pizza is so striking. PTA’s latest return to the San Fernando Valley sees his fascination with this character dynamic reach a climax, but the end product works to different avail.

The innocence of Hoffman and Haim’s characters breathes an air of freshness into a period that was already so fresh, alive and teeming with avenues for self-discovery and growth. Their performances as Gary and Alana exude a truth and understanding of PTA’s vision and his fascination with characters that would appear to be on opposite sides of the spectrum, but need each other to coexist because the universe would have it no other way.

Further to that, Hoffman and Haim’s performances echo the awkward muteness and hesitance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread whilst simultaneously capturing the charm and innocence of Adam Sandler and Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love. In this way, these characters are equally the same and different to all the PTA characters before them in that they’re bound to one another but also to the freedom that their youth offers — always following impulse rather than reason.

Alana tries to break that pattern of reckless decision making that her bond to Gary has brought by looking for different avenues for growth and something more stable. She finds herself in the company of esteemed actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn) and film director Rex Blau (played by a rapturous Tom Waits) before rekindling a past friendship and becoming an advisor of sorts to city council candidate Joel Wachs (a dapper looking Ben Safdie). Ultimately, she succumbs to impulse and realises that she is inextricably linked to a life with no measure of time and to people that share that outlook.

Theirs is a relationship that is neither wholly platonic nor wholly sexual and it finds its place in somewhat of a middle-ground as exacerbated by the tension between adolescence and adulthood. Earlier I mentioned that Gary and Alana are approaching everything head on as though that were a means to something more real (Alana running after the police car driving Gary away, Gary smashing the windshield of Jon Peters who Bradley Cooper steals the show as) and that’s precisely what the condition of their relationship is: as long as there is something to look forward to, as long as they aren’t encumbered in ways that PTA’s other duos are encumbered, then they can keep on reaching for the stars — wherever and whatever they may be.  

Alana Haim & Cooper Hoffman in Licorice Pizza

It has to be said that PTA is no stranger to the entertainment industry having been raised in a show business family, with his father Ernie Anderson working on the likes of the ‘Carol Burnett Show’, announcing on the ABC, and being close friends with comedian Tim Conway. Of the nine siblings and step siblings from two of his father’s marriages, PTA would be the only one to go down the road of show business.

Magnolia (1999) is the last film where Anderson explored the highs and lows that come with working in the entertainment industry (alongside that films’ more deep-rooted concerns), so it feels kind of bittersweet that he’s decided to draw back the curtain and look at the industry in a different light at a different time in his life.

It’s an intoxicating and alluring world that PTA conjures up and one where the backbone that is the script holds its own. What follows is an Andersonian ride filled with a level of zest and sincerity that hasn’t been felt since Punch-Drunk Love. You’d even be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a Richard Linklater trip instead — Dazed and Confused (1993) will cross many people’s minds.

So much of Licorice Pizza works because of the man at its helm; the film is truly as testament to just how well PTA wrangles his troops on set to create something special. It’d be hard to put it past an Oscars sweep this year with Johnny Greenwood’s pulsating score being a possible contender for Best Score (even with how little he actually did here), while PTA’s screenplay will undoubtedly be the script to beat for Best Original Screenplay.

PTA has crafted his most personal film yet, one that is born out of family and love, and one that takes all the best ingredients from his oeuvre and meshes them together. In a way, the film’s title is almost a perfect reflection of how two things that would appear polar opposites and that carry their own flavour can come together and just make sense the longer you stare at them. It has to be said then that Gary and Alana’s relationship is much the same as it also merges the sweet and savoury together — they are Licorice Pizza at its core.

Licorice Pizza is currently screening in cinemas nationwide

Ranking the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

It’s no secret that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most celebrated film directors of the past 25 years. After having spent the better part of 2020 researching and writing about Anderson for my Honours thesis, I’ve come to appreciate the intricacies, nuances and overlooked aspects of his oeuvre (like his fascination with damaged male characters and their function in his films). With the director returning to roots in his latest 1970s, San Fernando Valley set Licorice Pizza (2021), it seemed fitting for me to rank Anderson’s work before the film hits Australian cinemas this month (I will update this list after watching the film). This list is very much a subjective one, but it it is a sum of my time spent with his films and the various journal articles, interviews, and reviews that I have read when writing my thesis. Therefore, I hope that any controversial rankings are taken with a grain of salt as, for what it’s worth, Anderson is one of my favourite film directors so I very much adore all of his films in their own way.

8. Hard Eight (1996)

John C. Reilly & Phillip Baker Hall in Hard Eight

While the first film of a director’s oeuvre often sits on the lower end of a ranking list due the belief that directors just become better as they make more films, Hard Eight (1996) is deservedly in the number eight spot.

Originally titled Sydney, Anderson experienced plenty of headaches with then production company Rysher Entertainment, as he battled for creative control and control over the final cut. The film was ultimately re-titled to Hard Eight due to the name better suiting the sort of promotion that Rysher were looking for, but Anderson managed to send his final cut to Sundance which was a longer version than the one Rysher had cut, and the one that Sundance would showcase.

Most directors today would be more than happy to claim Hard Eight as their magnum opus should they have made it, but Anderson isn’t most directors. The simple fact is that Anderson’s later films are both more stylistically pronounced as they begin to reveal who Anderson truly is as an auteur (his stylistic signature, technical competence, and interior meaning by Andrew Sarris’ measure), they dig deeper into his thematic concerns, and they present much more complex characters that are some of the most difficult to grapple with in recent times.

Hard Eight represents a taste of what Anderson would serve up in larger doses in his films thereafter. The best example of this is the themes that penetrate the directors work like the absence of the mother figure, dysfunctional families and even isolation as explored through largely distant and impregnable characters — all of his films following Hard Eight went deeper with those concerns.

Hard Eight also marks the start of what would be frequent collaborations with Phillip Baker Hall (who Anderson was a fan of and cast in the short film that would inspire Hard Eight, Cigarettes & Coffee), John C. Reilly, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

The film also introduces audiences to the cinematic tools that Anderson continues to use today. For instance, there is a particular tracking shot and long take in a casino that tracks Phillip Baker Hall’s character as he moves through the casino and eventually lands at a gambling table. This is the first instance where Anderson applies the use of formal tools pertinent to indie cinema, in his filmography. This moment is significant as it marks the ever-present relationship between indie and more classical cinema (like narrative storytelling) conventions in Anderson’s work.

7. Inherent Vice (2014)

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice (2014) is one of those films that I needed multiple viewings to wrap my head around which isn’t new when it comes to an Anderson film — they’re made to keep you coming back.

Anderson adapted Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, a figure who has evaded the public eye for so long you’d think he’d write a how-to book on the subject. What Anderson conjured up was a neo-noir unlike any from recent time. The film marks one of the directors most dialogue heavy films and easily his most hilarious script which is peppered with so much twists and turns that you’d be forgiven for not seeing the full picture the first time around.

In response to the lengthy dialogue scenes in Inherent Vice, Anderson said, “Look, cuts are great, and they’re exclusive to movies, but when you have a lot of dialogue with ping-ponging back and forth, staying out of the way is always preferable” (Hemphill, J. 2014).

Staying out of the way is what Anderson ultimately does as he lets the stellar ensemble comprised of Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro and countless others, run the show.

The film is also Anderson’s second to be set in the 70s as it places a thriving Joaquin Phoenix in the mind of a hippy detective in what can only be described as perfect casting. With his mutton chops, sandals, long hair, notepad and blunt, the character of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is what Christopher Llyod’s Doc from Back to the Future would look like had he gone the route of peace, weed and inquisitiveness.

Placing this film in seventh position is a disservice to just how giving this film is upon multiple viewings. There’s always something new to decipher and there are plenty of moments that beg for your close attention and maybe even the pause button (like the recreation of the last supper but with hippies). My rating for this film gradually climbed to five stars and this placement is purely based on how I rated the films higher up in this list the same way after the first viewing. So, if that isn’t a sign of my feelings for just how near flawless Anderson’s filmography is, I don’t know what is.

6. Phantom Thread (2017)

Daniel Day-Lewis & Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

I’ll never forget the first time I saw this in a cinema comprised of a significantly older demographic; one gentleman in his 80s turned and said to me, “you’re here to watch a real movie” and boy was his right.

Phantom Thread (2017) is an interesting film for multiple reasons. For starters, it’s the last film Daniel Day-Lewis would perform in but it is also the first film Anderson would set outside of the US social milieu that has informed and even shaped the the stories and characters he has brought to life.

Anderson takes the thematic concerns that have become a staple of his work (absence of mother figures) and tailors them to a British setting, ultimately providing a nuanced account of a dressmaker, his muse, and the tense and strange push-pull condition of their relationship (with one of my favourite closing sequences in recent times).

The story came about through a moment where Anderson found himself sick and helpless, with his wife Maya Rudolph, tending to him; that was the seed of the story but it had to grow.

The film also marks a shift from what is often a personal endeavour for Anderson as he writes his scripts on his own, to something more involving with Daniel Day-Lewis. With Phantom Thread, “his [Anderson’s] star practically co-wrote their second film together, refining the script and even choosing the protagonist’s hilarious, yet dignified name, Reynolds Woodcock.” (Solem-Pfeifer, 2018). Anderson had worked in a similar way (co-authorship) with “Phil [Seymour Hoffman] on The Master”, however on Phantom Thread, “I had less than I had ever had before when coming to Daniel, which I found to be a really good way of working, actually. We had the seed of the story and the character, but it had to grow.” (quoted in Bell, 2018, Pg. 22)

The result is one of Anderson’s most mature features as he explores this complex and impenetrable relationship of which its conditions are too formidable to access (with the latter having first stemmed from The Master); he takes on the role of cinematographer for the first time in his career (with frequent collaborator Robert Elswit not being involved); and writes one of his most hilarious scripts to date (behind Inherent Vice).

To top all of this off, Vicky Krieps’ performance as Alma matches Day-Lewis’ portrayal as the set-in-his-ways Reynolds Woodcock. Krieps matches Day-Lewis through her own ability to capture Alma’s headstrong nature, and the result is two performers working at the top of their game.

5. The Master (2012)

Phillip Seymour Hoffman & Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

If the central relationship between Reynolds and Alma is one that is difficult to penetrate, The Master (2012) does a stellar job at rendering the viewer completely expendable when it comes to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) relationship.

With The Master, Anderson delves deeper into ideas pertaining to human unknowability and surrogacy by using Quell and Dodd to play around with form — ultimately creating a greater disconnectedness between the audience and the narrative.

As George Toles writes, The Master (along with Anderson’s two films before it) represents a “departure from traditional, readable narrative structure” which “seems to be a necessary corollary for Anderson’s deepening fascination with human unknowability” (Toles, 2016, Pg. 4). In this way, The Master is a film that is difficult to grapple with due to just how far it deviates from a traditional narrative structure to the point where Freddie Quell can’t be relied upon to help guide your understanding of the narrative or to build an emotional connection with — he’s as far from a protagonist as you can get.

The Master is therefore more akin to Magnolia (1999) in terms of wandering focus as Anderson anchors us to Freddie who himself isn’t anchored to anything — he’s detached from the world around him.

Anderson uses Freddie to reinforce the subversive form of the film whereby the character himself begins to represent formlessness at a structural level while Lancaster Dodd begins to represent form. When the two characters clash and reconcile at various moments throughout the film, Anderson is taking formlessness and form and throwing them at each other, ultimately experimenting in his own way with the two (like with the informal processing sequence). In a way, Lancaster believes that he can tame the formlessness of Freddie and this is where Anderson’s other, more recognisable theme of surrogacy intersects with the theme of human unknowability — Lancaster assumes a surrogate role.

By the closing sequence of the film, Lancaster relinquishes his attempts to tame and nurture Freddie and chooses instead to release him — to release formlessness back into the world.

What is fascinating is how multiple different story and technical elements are in a constant tension in The Master — both in isolated instances, and altogether. Whether that be formlessness and form (structure), human unknowability and surrogacy (themes), Freddie and Lancaster (character) or each of the elements (structure, theme and character) between each other — Anderson creates an experience that is unlike any he has before or since.

Ultimately, The Master either landed for audiences or it didn’t due to its impregnable nature, the ambiguity it revels in, and its unrelatable anti-hero Freddie Quell. When considered in relation to the four films above it on this list, it could just as easily be in one of those positions, however it retains a solid position as number five.

4. Magnolia (1999)

Tom Cruise & Jason Robards in Magnolia

Magnolia (1999) is easily Anderson’s most ambitious film. The film is comprised of multiple storylines that connect the characters to each other even if they can’t see that they are connected to the other characters in their suffering.

Both Magnolia and Boogie Nights (1997) are the closest Altmanesque films we have from Anderson as they are very much ensemble pictures that offer the actors a degree of freedom that isn’t felt in the same way in Anderson’s other films. Unlike with Altman’s films like Nashville (1975) and Mash (1970), Anderson still retains a level of control that, while offering his ensembles more freedom (very much an Altman staple), allows him be more stringent when it comes to dialogue being delivered as written or characters serving clear narrative and thematic functions.

In this way, Magnolia is very much about a collective that experience a shared misery, but what separates it from Anderson’s other films is that this film prioritises character ahead of narrative. Essentially, audiences view one single diegetic day in the lives of these characters and the film is banking on the audience buying into “the passionate, melodramatic circumstances of characters living out another day in their lives,” (Sperb, 2013, Pg. 137).

This film explores the plights of these characters and, in a very Andersonian fashion, redeems and punishes certain characters by the closing sequence — which plays on the biblical ideas underpinning the film. The closing sequence is one of Anderson’s most poignant and philosophical as the raining frogs almost serve to allow Anderson to reach in beyond the diegetic world and inject it with this element of fantasy that alerts all the characters to a presence that makes all of their problems disappear, if but for a moment — leading some to certain realizations while punishing others for their wrongdoings.

Magnolia is an experience unlike any other with an incredible cast (Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Phillip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and countless others), multiple storylines that are handled so well, and even an item number where the characters are unified through a spontaneous rendition of Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’.

There’s nothing quite like Magnolia, and as with any other Anderson film, depending on the emotions you carry with you into one of his films, Magnolia could just as easily be number one on someone’s Anderson ranking list.

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

Part of the ensemble from Boogie Nights

The film that introduced me to Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights (1997) is an alluring, inviting, and intoxicating feature that draws you in the longer it plays. It would be superfluous to mention every aspect that made Boogie Nights as incredible as it is, after all this is a ranking list rather than a review, but here are some.

Set in the late 70s and early 80s Reseda, Boogie Nights paints a perplexing picture of the porn industry and almost dignifies it in a way as the ensemble of characters here find solace in their interconnectedness within the industry.

That approach sits in stark contrast to Magnolia’s characters who are connected without ever having met each other (for the most part, while some do cross paths), whereas in Boogie Nights the Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) household becomes more than just a ticket to an unconventional success story.

Keeping in mind that Anderson was 26 at the time, Boogie Nights is one of those films that a director like Quentin Tarantino wishes he had made but never did. Anderson makes you care for each of these characters while still exploring the business side of the porn industry (the need to adapt as video becomes more attractive and affordable than film) and weaving in concerns pertaining to surrogate families, family issues, and exotic danger.

Boogie Nights has plenty of incredible sequences (the ‘Jessie’s Girl’ sequence with Alfred Molina, Jack Horner’s new years party etc.), a mix of experienced and (then) young talents that all give it their all, and all the while managing to weave in its multiple storylines and provide a holistic viewing experience that continues to outdo itself.

Anderson clearly drew upon the work of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman while forging his own place in cinema discourse, ultimately putting himself on the radar as one of the most exciting directors to emerge in recent times.

The result is one of the most celebrated films of the 90s and one of those films that lends itself to multiple viewings. Boogie Nights could just as easily be Anderson’s number one film.

2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Emily Watson & Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love

My placement of Punch-Drunk Love (2002) in second position might be viewed as the most controversial ranking on this list.

To put it in Anderson’s own words, Punch-Drunk Love is “an art-house Adam Sandler movie” (quoted in Brooks, 2003) but it is also a film that goes against conventional rom-coms and their structure. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) pushes everyone away (and with due cause) and even his eventual love interest Lena (Emily Watson) refuses to allow the audience any access into the connection she builds with Barry.

Barry expresses himself in such odd ways yet it’s the only way he knows how. For instance, he tells Lena that he desires to smash her face with a sledgehammer during an intimate scene and he even uses physical violence against those who unintentionally hurt Lena while trying to get to him, both for the sake of protection but also to express himself to her through these acts of violence.

What’s peculiar is that Lena reciprocates these emotions to Barry by, for instance, also playfully expressing that she wants to “scoop out” his “eyes” and “eat them”. Yes, these are all playful albeit odd expressions, but usually in rom-coms, if a character is ridden with defects, the ‘other’ in the relationship is the explanatory character who is there to explain their attraction to a character like Barry, but this is not the case with Lena. George Toles (author of the 2016 scholarly book on Paul Thomas Anderson) reaffirms this by writing that for a “normative” character like Lena, the “attraction or gradual succumbing to the problem figure’s initially well-masked allure” is usually met with an “ample explanatory framework” (2016, Pg. 45).

Punch-Drunk Love is just unlike any romantic comedy out there due to the way its characters interact and due to the use of unconventional (long take, jump cuts, tracking shots, dreamlike blue filters that overlay scenes) formal tools. But more than that, Punch-Drunk Love is filled with striking moments of cathexis and their eventual release (Barry destroying his sisters glass window/door after enduring ridicule, the confessions of love between Lena and Barry, the flipping car). All of these qualities allow Anderson to really assert himself and to forge his own identity that go on to contribute to his auteur status (a term so misused these days, it’s baffling).

With Adam Sandler playing the role of Barry in such a Sandler-like fashion (the boyish charm matched with the sudden outbursts that render him socially inept), he ends up cashing in his best performance. To top this off, Sandler’s knack for playing largely comical and flimsy characters is essentially perfect casting here (or a ‘perfect fit’ by Richard Dyer’s measure) as it sits in line with the unexpectedness Anderson is striving for.

From the methodical patience it creates to the unexpectedness of intense moments that follow — Punch-Drunk Love is unquestionably Anderson’s own. As Anderson told The Sunday Times in 2003, Punch-Drunk Love is “referenceless. When you start out, you latch onto other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow— and I’m proud of that.” (Sperb, 2013, Pg. 152). But more than that, it is a rom-com unlike any other and one that sees Adam Sandler at the top of his game after some hits, misses, but overall enjoyable films prior to this one.

If There Will be Blood (2007) didn’t exist, Punch-Drunk Love would be a shoehorn for Anderson’s most Andersonian film and his best.

1. There Will be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood

Anderson’s magnum opus, the quintessential 21st century film, a classic before the fact — There Will be Blood (2007) is an achievement that feels as momentous and unreal today as it did 14 years ago.

I’ve mentioned that anything I write about these films is superfluous as there are countless reviews and analyses of Anderson’s films (including my own), but There Will be Blood was an event that really cemented Anderson in the pantheon of cinemas greatest directors.

With an Oscar winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the ruthless prospector-turned-oilman Daniel Plainview (one of the greatest performances of all time), a rousing score by the legendary Johnny Greenwood, exquisite cinematography by Robert Elswit, and a perfect screenplay and direction by Anderson, There Will be Blood is what happens when all of the ingredients mesh into something complete.

Anderson created the ultimate period piece with so many iconic moments (the opening sequence in the oil-well, the legendary explosion of the oil-rig, the bowling alley skull bashing) and such an incredible script (adapted from Upton Sinclair’s ‘Oil!’). The film eschews a traditional, readable narrative structure so as to allow Anderson to entertain his now heightened interest in human unknowability. I mean, what better way to explore that thematic concern than by literally putting forward a greedy, power-hungry character who shuns everyone (even after he begins to trust them like Henry) and goes against the very will of god and plays god in his own life and the oil industry — as exacerbated by the films religious undertones.

What is most profound about Daniel Plainview is how Anderson is able to make him one of the most loathsome anti-heroes of all time, yet one that you can’t help but sympathise with. It’s a testament to just how incredible a performer Day-Lewis is that he is able to practically keep other characters and the audience out of his life, but you still feel like there is justness to his cause.

The supporting cast is also quite good (especially Paul Dano), but Day-Lewis outshines everyone and really captures the idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s characters. In turn, Day-Lewis transmutes everything you know about what an Anderson character looks, feels, and acts like, into something greater. Due to the performance and all of aspects of production, There Will be Blood ends up hitting a different level of ecstasy that is both frightening, and rewarding.

Everyone is at the top of their game in There Will be Blood and each scene plays out like a carefully crafted artwork. Had No Country for Old Men (2007) not been released in the same year (with both films having a relatively similar tone and setting), the 2008 Oscars would have been swept by Anderson’s once in a lifetime masterpiece. Even to this day, I vehemently believe that There Will be Blood deserved so much more than what it got even with the Coen Brothers having decided to make their own masterpiece in the same year. There are films and then there are films, and Anderson’s There Will be Blood is a lot of film to be had.

The Bow is Strung in Marvel’s Hawkeye, Now’s the Time to Shoot

We’re a couple of years down the track in Marvel’s latest Avengers spin-off series, Hawkeye — set in the bustling and Christmassy New York City in the years post-snap. It’s a fitting setting given the opening sequence of episode one takes audiences back to the alien infested, war-torn New York City of 2012’s Avengers in order to establish the character of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld).

That opening sequence quickly introduces audiences to Kate in her adolescent years as she experiences the fateful events of the Avengers battle with evil, from the ravaged apartment she and her family reside in. In the distance on the roof of another building, the shows eponymous hero, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) tusks it out with the aliens before eventually saving and inspiring Kate through a swift shot from his bow — changing the course of her life forever.   

We eventually fast forward to present day (which is a few years ahead of 2021) where Kate is now 22, living in her own apartment, and her mother Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) has become acquainted with Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton) following the death of her husband all those years ago. On the flip side we have Clint Barton who is living a more steady life with his family as he seemingly still struggles internally to come to terms with the aftermath of Thanos’ wrath. It isn’t until a gala auction event goes sideways, that the story begins to pick up. A Russian street gang known as the Tracksuit Mafia infiltrate the auction where among many items, a Ronin suit from one of the Avengers is present. Kate nabs the suit and legs it, unaware that her actions will bring her face-to-face with Barton, the Tracksuit Mafia, and further trouble.

These first two episodes are much more measured and simplified than Marvels other shows from earlier this year like Loki and WandaVision. Director Rhys Thomas takes a much more playful approach to the storytelling here, never really subjecting viewers to a myriad of complex information (timekeepers and worlds-within-worlds) and instead opting to focus on the banter and push-pull dynamic between Steinfeld and Renner.

To much surprise, that approach works in the shows favour as Thomas lays all his cards on the table from the outset and builds on Steinfeld’s energy and Renner’s reluctance to help her beyond the amount he requires. It makes for some amusing back-and-forths and on-the-nose one liners.

Hailee Steinfeld in Hawkeye

The plotting feels a bit inadequate in comparison to the actors chemistry as it’s almost built on a ‘as you go’ basis rather than as something worth stimulating an audience members curiosity. Essentially, not much happens that couldn’t be predicted by casual audiences and not much is left to an audience members imagination. For those that have read the comic, perhaps that approach works, but hopefully the episodes that follow will provide a little more intrigue, albeit not to the extent that Loki did (especially with the sublime Florence Pugh scheduled to make an appearance).

It has to be said that Renner is side-lined by Steinfeld who channels her teen charisma from Bumblebee (2018) & The Edge of Seventeen (2016). She injects the show with a Tom Holland-esque charm seen in the Spider-Man films, as she brings a likeable on-screen presence that is hard not to buy into. Renner plays that more reserved, subduedness that he carried with him in the Avengers films and it makes me realise how my desires for him to take the forefront in this show wouldn’t have worked to the shows advantage judging by these two episodes.

Both episodes keep you engaged through Steinfeld’s performance and the consistent humorous tone that has become a staple of Marvel, but rarely hits home. The fact that Thomas leans into that tone from the get-go while building our engagement with this peaceful, yet disrupted New York setting through the leads, means that the occasional comical comment from a Mafia henchmen for instance, doesn’t feel out of place. Too often a Marvel production will fluctuate tonally from episode to episode which can work given that no two directors are the same if multiple directors are directing, but Thomas has set a sound, but somewhat tilted foundation to build on from these two episodes.  

Marvel has always looked to the future with its work and for ways to pass the torch onto its new recruits, and Hawkeye will be no different in that regard. With Steinfeld playing the protagonist in a show about Hawkeye, it’ll be interesting to see whether that sentiment will carry true to its entirety or whether Hawkeye himself begins to play a more active role as the events of the show unravel. Either way, there’s plenty to look forward to in Hawkeye over the coming weeks.

Hawkeye is now streaming on Disney+

Red Notice is a Discount Indiana Jones & Mission Impossible Mess

Rating: 1 out of 5.

What happens when you put three lead actors, with completely different acting chops, on the screen together? The answer is a hodgepodge of nothingness. It’s hard to know whether that fault lies with the A-list trio of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, or whether it’s because Rawson Marshal Thurber’s Red Notice (2021) is a film wrought by the same inadequacies that have plagued similarly awful films before it.

Being one of Netflix’s most expensive films at $200 million (I believe Scorsese’s 2019 gangster film The Irishman might still hold that title) and their most viewed opening ever, you’d think that the next 115 minutes will be something that’s sure to be worth your time. Unfortunately, this film manages to look both expensive and cheap at the same time as it’s ridden with unflattering CGI, flat performances, and contrived storytelling.

The film wants to be a mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mission: Impossible (any from that franchise), but ends up becoming something more akin to Tower Heist (2011) and basically any of the films Johnson and Reynolds have been in prior.

It’s a film that centres on a historical artifact (instead of the lost ark, you have three golden eggs once gifted to Cleopatra) and sends three different, albeit similarly minded characters on a goose chase to locate all three eggs. The characters in question are John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), and The Bishop (Gal Gadot). Hartley wants to secure the eggs and put Booth and Bishop behind bars for their thevious crimes, while Booth and Bishop are out to find the eggs in time for an Egyptian billionaire’s daughter’s wedding for a large pay-out.

Ryan Reynolds & Dwayne Johnson in Red Notice

Honestly, the actual premise isn’t what drives this film into the dustbin of film history, it’s everything in-between. The filmmaking doesn’t have any flair and is really banking on the chemistry between the three leads who all seem to be playing the lead in their own movie here. Reynolds is channelling his inner Deadpool and really every character he has ever played with those cheesy one-liners and shtick that never lands; Gadot is popping up when you least expect her to and kicking everyone’s butt like Wonder Woman; and Johnson just seems to be there for the ride as the big stiff brute with zero charisma that reaffirms why his desire to be Bond would be a kick to action’s figurative groin.

The film is clearly inspired by the aforementioned films, with comparisons also coming in with the likes of the James Bond and National Treasure films, but Red Notice is also equally uninspired. It’s a film thwarted by all the cliches that subsume Reynolds and Johnson’s recent films: from a level of incessant self-awareness to the worn out buddy-cop plotline that should be retired at this point (I’m looking at you, the soon-to-be acquired Jason Momoa & Dave Bautista buddy-cop film).

Not to mention, that self-awareness becomes so intolerable that at one point Reynolds’ character even sarcastically calls the final egg in the journey the MacGuffin. If you’re blatantly going to point out the unimportance of a plot device that is supposed to be driving the events of the narrative, then you might as well break the fourth wall while you’re at it. In other words, the audience is treated like they’re the ones silly enough to watch this film — which I guess we are.

Netflix and the big studios have become too comfortable in churning out money for pop-corn cinema that really could have been used better in more capable hands. I’m certain that 60% of this films budget went to the star trio alone and in turn, you’re left with characters that don’t captivate you, performances that are drab, and a plot that deviates too much like a zig zag road. The recent Netflix feature Army of Thieves (2021) at least had something that separated itself from all the heist and artifact films before it, but Red Notice doesn’t even try to be different.

Red Notice is now streaming on Netflix