The grief monster lives inside the house. Based on a 12-page short story by Stephen King from the 1970s that obscures the nightmare between supernatural and psychological, The Boogeyman (2023) is a lean and enjoyable 90-minute horror that is as good a theatre experience as you’ll find right now. There is no obscurity here, as screenwriters Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman begin with a horrific cold open that leaves little doubt about the threat at the centre of the film.
The Boogeyman follows a similar trajectory to most Stephen King stories – familial grief made manifest, a central car crash, overlooked teens, etc – but it’s in execution where the film thrives. After the sudden passing of their mother in a car crash, the Harper family of teenager Sadie (Sophie Thatcher), much younger Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), and father Will (Chris Messina) are struggling to cope in the aftermath, leaving them vulnerable to the presence of a looming spectre in the dark. The film is light on narrative invention, but has some of the most impressively creative horror set pieces that engages an audience far more than the story.
Emerging onto the scene with the impressively minimalist Covid horror film Host (2020), Rob Savage weaponised the familiar with Zoom calls and our collective sense of isolation during the pandemic that made it so effective. Given a studio budget and higher-level actors to work with, the filmmaker created an effective horror film that should stand as one of the year’s best. Savage’s impressive use of light and negative space that he flexed in Host (especially in its constraints), is heightened in The Boogeyman, especially through the use of unique light sources in the set pieces like Sawyer’s light ball, a PlayStation game, or the therapist’s red pulsating light pillar that ratchets up the tension greatly.
Looking for narrative invention and complexity in a film titled The Boogeyman is like searching for water in the Sahara, and Savage is acutely aware of this. The film’s narrative simplicity strips it down to its base elements of a grief-addled family and a monster feeding off their pain, allowing the set pieces and creative execution to thrive. Feeling much like a short story that hastily needs connective tissue to leap to its heightened moments, the film takes narrative shortcuts to arrive at its impressive set pieces. This is not uncommon in the horror genre, but in a post-Get Out (2017) world, its lack of self-awareness is surprising, especially in its very post-2020s setup of therapy and grief.
Supported by a solid all-around cast, Thatcher and Blair are terrific as the mourning sisters. Sophie Thatcher in particular, in her first lead film role since breaking out in the TV series Yellowjackets (2021), holds the movie together with a combination of teenage resolve and raw open nerve that is always engaging. Horror has long been a genre that’s allowed young actors to break out, and Thatcher’s performance here is one of the more impressive in recent years.
The Boogeyman is another in a long run of recent film and television centred on therapy, which while an important addition to culture to lessen the stigma, it makes for a collection of tired tropes with little insight. Will is a therapist, which certainly heightens his fear of opening up to his daughters about the sudden passing of his wife and their mother, but is hollow as a character (something not uncommon with adults in King stories). The depictions of therapists in the film, Will and Dr Weller (LisaGay Hamilton), are harsh and broad, ultimately hurting the characterisation of the profession instead of illuminating it.
Despite its narrative flaws and simplicities, it’s hard not to get swept up in the enjoyment and genre craft on display in The Boogeyman, from a recent emerging talent in Rob Savage. Comfortably levelling up to studio horror scale, Savage heightens every moment with creative set pieces that will thrill any horror fan seeking a new cinema experience.
Beginning, as most noir stories do, in a detective’s office. In enters the striking heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), seeking to hire the famed private investigator Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson) to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). These familiar beats are established efficiently and with a breeze of frictionless storytelling that makes for pleasant viewing to begin a film, but makes for a shaky foundation to build a twisty detective caper. Based not on Raymond Chandler’s series of novels, but the 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville, the film feels notably modern while inside the familiar world of the famed detective, making for a unique watch.
Marlowe (2023) has the presentation early on of a Sunday matinee theatre film, which makes the sudden shift with a quite gnarly sequence in its first act even more jarring. It destabilises the film, which could be an interesting choice to move the audience into an unexpected place, but these two styles run on parallel tracks throughout the film. L.A. noir stories are often about the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood system, so these juxtaposed styles could reinforce that concept, but in Marlowe they lessen the impact of each other completely.
The performances are solid all round, especially in the smaller side characters headlined by Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming, but is let down by a lacking lead performance by Neeson, who is still within his post-Taken mode that feels out of place for a Marlowe role. While Robert Mitchum’s performance of Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) was hard-nosed and rough as sandpaper, there was still the famed character’s wisecracking and philosophising that made him beloved. Whether these changes have been ground down with this much older Marlowe is unclear, as the film focuses on addressing his age physically, not emotionally or mentally. It’s difficult to separate the previous Marlowe performances here, but it’s those changes that flatten the film as a whole.
A causal change with this flat Neeson performance is the lack of chemistry he has with Diane Kruger, which should be the igniting spark for the whole film. An underwritten femme fatale part is a staple in the noir genre, usually buoyed by the filmmaking and dynamic chemistry with the detective, neither of which are serviced to Kruger, who should be the standout element of the film.
Philip Marlowe has always been a compelling literary and screen character throughout the years due to his iron moral backbone being constantly put up against the rapidly shifting immorality of old Hollywood. This is shown in flashes in Marlowe – it will never grow tiring to see the villain attempt to bribe the unflappable detective – but the portrayal here is focused on Marlowe’s desire to either retire or return to the police force for a more stable life. While unique for a screen portrayal of the character through its source material, this forces the film into a thematically inert corner that does not make for engaging cinema.
The film’s strange mixture of modern sensibilities (graphic violence, modern dialogue, handheld camerawork) inside of a period setting makes it a fascinating but not always engaging watch. The final act devolves into a strangely modern action spectacle – equipped even with the neon-drenched scenery – that has a stronger connection to last year’s Neeson action film Memory (2022) than The Big Sleep (1946). In theory this could all work as a form of adaptation of old Hollywood noir tropes through a modern lens, but in practice Marlowe ends up a mess of contradictions that complicates what began as a charming enough Summer noir for older audiences.
Guardians of the Galaxy have long been the under-appreciated Marvel gang of underdogs (now including an actual dog in Cosmo, played by Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova), that, against all odds, have formed a surprising trilogy of films that can all be put amongst the enduring enterprises very best. The three films are simple, emotional, and dynamic in ways that are becoming increasingly rare in the MCU – largely off the back of filmmaker James Gunn’s writing and directing style – but a great portion of credit should be given to their strong ensembles and creative art and production designs.
It’s been 6 years since the last stand-alone Guardians adventure, with Gunn being immensely busy in the interim. He has switched allegiances from Marvel to DC, first with his own The Suicide Squad (2021) film alongside a John Cena TV show, and now operating as the franchise’s own Kevin Feige overlord, beginning with his own Superhero rebirth story set for 2025.
What allows this new instalment, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 (2023), to thrive is its basic retrieval mission with crystal clear stakes, a divergence not just from recent Marvel plots, but from most third entries in franchises. When Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) crashes through Knowhere in a failed attempt to kidnap Rocket (Bradley Cooper) for mysterious reasons, resulting in significant injuries, the remaining Guardians must go back through his past in order to save their friend’s life. Where Volume 2 (2017) narrowed its focus to Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt, who is at his best here) backstory with his family, Volume 3 smartly focuses on the origins of Rocket Racoon. Cooper’s Rocket has always been the hipster pick for best performance in the MCU, and he is given an interesting role here as the tech genius Racoon is shown mostly in flashback for the film’s runtime, slowly becoming the grizzled vet we know today. Volume 2 excelled in the tertiary moments between Rocket and Michael Rooker’s Yondu, a formula Volume 3 follows similarly in this flashback origin structure.
Music has always been a heavy focus of the Guardians story from the 80s Yacht Rock focus of the first two films (with Peter’s beloved cassette player), to the introduction of the Zune player in Volume 3, allowing the film to have a distinct 90s flavour. Opening with a wonderful sequence on Knowhere with an acoustic version of Radiohead’s Creep, we see Rocket (Bradley Cooper) singing and moving amongst the ragtag community they have cultivated. It is clear that Rocket is now as closely attached to this Earth music as Peter, a connection that has slowly been growing across the three films. Volume 3 is scattered with outstanding music cues from The Flaming Lips, Beastie Boys, and Florence + the Machine, which surprisingly feels more cohesive to the film’s style than the built-in nostalgia of the 80s music that is so integral to the Guardian’s story.
The ensemble has grown to accommodate a few welcome faces, including Will Poulter and Chukwudi Iwuji as Adam Warlock and The High Evolutionary respectively. Poulter’s charming wide eyed emergence into the world as a young celestial is a wonderful inclusion, especially the two hander scenes between Adam and Ayesha (Elizebeth Debiki), which are the comedic highpoint of the film. Debiki’s devolution from a pompous ruler at the beginning of Volume 2 to a desperate lackey to a maniacal boss here showcases the actress’s comedic chops, breathing new life into a character that was previously given little time.
Iwuji does his best 90s action villain impression as twisted experimental scientist The High Evolutionary – the whole movie has a great ongoing Face/Off (1997) bit – that heightens his scenes, making him more enjoyable than recent Marvel villains. The film’s villain storyline closely resembles the arc of X-Men 2 (2003), with Rocket in the Wolverine role and The High Evolutionary in the role of Brian Cox’s William Stryker, the man responsible for his claws through unethical experimentations. With this close resemblance, an audience is able to settle into a familiar story, allowing the emotional stakes to become the focus instead of a convoluted plot that derails too many comic stories.
Where Volume 3 exceeds well above the previous two films is the wildly inventive world-building and production designs. The warm interiors of Knowhere feel like a home to these characters, which garners emotional weight when it gets put in jeopardy. Guardians has always been about its misfit community with Knowhere at its heart, so it is never a chore the film cuts back to the misadventures of the crew on board while the Guardians are away on a mission. But the inclusion of new locations in Volume 3, like the 80s Star Trek-styled organic security hub Orgosphere or Stepford Wives (1972) tinged Counter-Earth, feels wholly unique in the MCU. Gunn’s Guardians trilogy consistently breathes new life into the wider MCU establishment, with Volume 3 coming at a time they need a major kickstart.
Although the Guardians were integral to the plot of the later Avengers films, it is remarkable how cohesive this trilogy of films is when viewed together. Comparatively, the Jon Watts Spider-Man trilogy and Peyton Reed Ant-Man trilogy are tonally jarring when viewed as a collective story, instead being pulled and twisted into the larger MCU puzzle set.
The very best filmmakers to operate within this larger Superhero space have been those that have been able to wrestle with the large enterprise while maintaining their own sensibilities. Ryan Coogler was able to bring his political and empathic filmmaking chops from Fruitvale Station (2013)into his Black Panther films, while Gunn has been able to weave a satisfying and hilarious adventure romp that never lacks bite, qualities that made him such a compelling emerging filmmaker.
Gunn has a penchant for having his characters plainly express their feelings about any situation, which is a creative quirk that takes a while to settle into but can often lead to moments of immense emotionality. Much like Aaron Sorkin’s or Quentin Tarantino’s distinct writing style, Gunn trusts his audience to move to the rhythms of his character’s dialogue to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, accepting the occasional off-notes on the journey.
In spite of its long runtime and simple retrieval plotting, Volume 3 excels through the strong emotional connection that has been made with this world and its characters. Gunn has perfected his emotionally candid dialogue style, with an ensemble of quality performances, highlighted by Cooper, to create the most satisfying Marvel film in years.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is in theatres now.
In a normal year, this writer would have no difficulty whatsoever in listing his favourite feature-length releases from the past 12 months. But 2022 was not a normal year.
Having obtained full-time employment for the first time in his life, moved even further away from Melbourne than he was before and settled into a place of his own, no time was left for his one true love: the cinema. What few spare moments he did have were spent returning to old favourites, viewing classics from yesteryear, fixated on streaming services or – on the very rare occasion – watching a blockbuster at his nearest theatre.
What’s more, these limited opportunities for moviegoing meant that several of the year’s most-heralded films weren’t seen until awards season, including The Northman, Glass Onion, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchioand the eventual Best Picture winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once, among others.
As a consequence, the well-established Top 10 format of this website (as utilised by Arnie and Darcy in their retrospectives) has been eschewed on this occasion, with yours truly instead listing seven of the pictures he enjoyed most in a very busy, cinema-sparse year.
Oh, how people groaned when Warner Bros. announced they were rebooting Bruce Wayne’s adventures for the third time in two decades. “What,” they asked facetiously, “can this movie bring to the table that hasn’t already been done before?” In response came a dark and gorgeous spectacle that ranks among the best superhero blockbusters of all time.
There’s so much to admire about Matt Reeves’ picture, from an all-star cast that delivers fantastic performances across the board, to the exquisite cinematography of Greig Fraser, to the fusion of visual elements from Batman films past. And then there’s the exceptional score of Michael Giacchino, who borrows a simple four-note motif from Nirvana and utilises it to great effect. It’s not a perfect film – its screenplay lacks the narrative heft of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, for instance – but in terms of thrills, The Batman can hardly be faulted.
Every time Pixar appears to have lost its mojo, along comes a film that reminds everybody of their creative might. 2022’s reminder came from Domee Shi, writer-director of the critically-acclaimed short film Bao, who delivered a feature with a level of vim and originality not witnessed in the studio’s output for some years. And this is coming from a man who really, REALLY loved Soul (2020).
What particularly makes Turning Red delightful is how it forgoes Pixar’s hallmarks and tropes for a distinctive art-style, self-aware protagonist, rapid editing and energetic animation, all while delivering a resonant and timeless coming-of-age story. If anything, the picture serves as a convincing argument for Emeryville to take more risks with their material.
The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson
This would likely have made yours truly’s Top 10 of 2021, had it been released as scheduled – it was originally slated to premiere at the 69th Melbourne International Film Festival before a spike in Covid infections curtailed that plan, and its subsequent opening in theatres. Cinemagoers finally got a taste of what they missed in May – a Meat Pie Western that proved to be the best Australian production of the year, hands-down.
Juggling treble roles of star, writer and director, Leah Purcell (pictured) handles the grim and at times confronting material with confidence and professionalism. A stellar cast of familiar faces lend further gravitas to proceedings, while the acoustical score of Salliana Seven Campbell proves an ideal accompaniment, and Snowy Mountains a stunning backdrop. All of these elements ensure The Drover’s Wife as a fine addition to a rich, growing list of First Nations stories.
Top Gun: Maverick
It was the sequel nobody asked for that became a must-see cinematic experience and earned praise as one of the best films of 2022 – an acclamation that’s being repeated here. After all, when a picture boasts a bevvy of practical effects, impressive stunt-work, exceptional cinematography, fantastic sound editing and a diverse cast stacked with many likeable, talented actors, it’s hard not to fall in love with it.
What makes Top Gun: Maverick even more enjoyable is how it pays tribute to the first Tony Scott-directed production, via the opening credits and a touching cameo from The Iceman himself, Val Kilmer. Had it evoked its 1986 originator even further and added just a tad more cheese, it would have likely become this writer’s favourite picture of the year.
The Bob’s Burgers Movie
What a shame this had to be released the same week as Top Gun. Had it not, a much larger audience may have paid witness to a bright, wholesome and entertaining caper that ranks as one of the best film adaptations of all time. That’s no mean feat, given its Emmy-winning source material is considered one of the best television programmes currently on-air.
Many qualities carry over from its originator, including the terrific voice-cast, quirky tone and catchy songs, while adding exceptional animation and an intriguing mystery with some great turns. While it doesn’t quite satisfy every itch that fans have ever held, it does fulfil co-director and producer Loren Bouchard’s promise of being accessible to those who don’t watch the Belcher family’s adventures on TV. For that reason alone, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is worth a watch.
Having floored the cinematic landscape with his debut feature Get Out (2017) and delighted just as much with his follow-up effort Us (2019), anticipation was rightfully high for Jordan Peele’s third directorial effort. Not only did he deliver yet again with another smart, engrossing horror flick, he also did the impossible: made a whole generation afraid of clouds.
Among the elements that make this film a winner are the impressive photography of the surehanded Hoyte van Hoytema; the spooky, ethereal score of returning Peele collaborate Michael Abels; the great performances of the entire cast; and an ingeniously-designed UFO – sorry, UAP – that’s bound to influence every science-fiction film that follows. Also, don’t be fooled by that lowly “M” rating – despite possessing less violence and blood than its contemporaries, Nope is nothing short of a scary and most terrifying feature.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
As one of the strongest years for the medium of animation in recent memory, 2022 gifted no shortage of great offerings, be they stop-motion, hand-drawn or rendered with computers. DreamWorks provided the metaphorical cherry atop a most delicious cake in December’s final days with a sequel that could not be more different to its predecessor.
Contained within Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a mature, pensive screenplay where complex, nuanced personalities grapple with conflicts that are usually reserved for adult-oriented dramas, not animated children’s films – a surprising and most-welcome move. Paired with these thoughtful musings is an art-style that, pleasingly, borrows just as many cues from oil paintings or storybooks as it does from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).
One of the best films from MIFF 2022 has finally arrived in theatres, Broker (2022)is a deeply complicated but always empathetic drama from a true modern master. Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have a certain sticky texture, maturing in your mind long after the credits roll. His films will always affect you emotionally, but their true power is the depths he is able to mine from a collection of characters.
Born out of a desire to work with legendary Korean actor Song Kang-ho, working with a large swathe of the Parasite (2019) production crew, Koreeda has crafted another thorny but deeply humanist portrait of an unlikely family, thrown together through unusual circumstances. Broker follows a pair of church volunteers Ha Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who sell unwanted babies that are left in the church’s baby box on the adoption black market. When a young mother Moon So-young (pop star IU), returns for her baby the next day, she catches wind of their schemes and forces the brokers to take her on their journey out of town to sell her baby to the right family.
Even for one of the greatest humanist filmmakers to ever live, this is an extremely difficult story to operate as an empathy machine for an audience, making it all the more moving when it does break you open. Most of the auteur’s films start with a sweeter taste, which then patiently develops into a more acidic and complex series of emotions and flavours. In Broker, however, Koreeda begins with his darkest and most complicated place to date. The film builds and develops on top of this shaky foundation, unmasking compassion and empathy in unexpected places that will leave you in pieces.
Where The Truth (2019) faltered in its execution of performance (French and Japanese styles are worlds apart), Broker is one of the best ensembles put to film in years. From Song Kang-ho’s heart of gold humanity in face of difficult circumstance to the detectives Lee (Lee Jou-young) and Su-jin (the always terrific Bae Donna) that are tasked with taking down the operation, the entire cast is pitched perfectly to Koreeda’s empathetic underpinnings that make his work so affecting. But it is IU (real name Ji-eun Lee), who really stands out and is transcendent in the role, vaulting her immediately into the top tier of pop star performances.
Broker operates closer in style to The Truth, the filmmaker’s big swing after winning the Palme d’Or for the masterful Shoplifters (2018), which was filmed away from his home nation of Japan and in a foreign language. Both Broker and The Truth has less of the documentary style of pacing and mise en scene that made him legendary in Japanese cinema, showcasing his adaptability not just in style, but in his ability to work with a cast and crew that speak different languages.
Broker, leaning into the more Korean style of cinema, is more forceful and plot-driven in its storytelling than Koreeda’s other films, that often stem from his documentary background. The film is quite astonishing and deeply felt, with perhaps the only false note being its loud, heavy-handed moments. These moments are further leaned on by quite an obtrusive and manipulative score by Jung Jae-il, especially by Koreeda standards, who usually allows emotions to develop more naturally in his films.
In most Koreeda films, a single location is used that is full of so much personality and attention that it feels like a whole world. In Broker, a road trip movie for the most part, that single location becomes the two central vehicles: Ha Sang-hyun’s laundry van with its broken back door but homely interior, and Su-jin and Lee’s detective sedan where they spend most of the film.
Themes of care in different forms permeate the film, with the notable motifs of rain and shirt buttons coursing through its veins. By weaving themes of care and compassion between Ha Sang-hyun and detective Su-jin through their clothing, Koreeda complicates his seemingly straightforward detective story through his characters’ shared connections. In these small moments, Koreeda excels and deepens his character portraits which have made him a modern master.
Perhaps the most emotionally overwhelmed you will feel in a theatre this year occurs in a hotel room with Moon So-young and the ragtag crew, with all the lights off, thanking them for being born. She is unable to say it directly to her child who she may never see again, so she says it individually to the whole group. This is a group who have felt discarded and left behind in their own lives, so to have a young mother saying this to them with the same care as she tells her own son, is profound. This is one of the most emotionally resonant scenes Koreeda has put to film, which is saying something given his extraordinary filmography.
Fellow filmmaker Kogonada once described Koreeda’s films as tasting similarly to the legendary director Yasujirō Ozu’s work due to its aftertaste. “When we leave his films we experience a similar aftertaste, which is to say, a deeper sense of life. And it turns out that the every day is a lot like tofu (which may explain why Ozu referred to himself as a tofu maker). It may seem bland in comparison to the spectacle of other dishes and desserts being offered, but if we happen to stumble upon a master chef capable of bringing out its subtle flavours, it will change the way we experience tofu forever.” In this case, Broker is perhaps Koreeda’s most complex dish yet, one that will stay with you forever.
“Welcome back Mr Wick” (RIP the iconic Lance Reddick). The bravura American action franchise of the past 10 years, John Wick returns bolder, brasher, and more inventive than ever in John Wick:Chapter 4 (2023). The film, clocking in at 169 minutes with an immense 14 action set pieces, figures which on the surface would cripple most films, but in reality are remarkably well paced. Renown stuntman turned in-demand filmmaker (his IMDb page reads like a to-do list) Chad Stahelski has always focused more on individual moments than a wholly engaging narrative, which is still the case with the fourth entry in the franchise, but the attention to detail in these moments, along with an extraordinary ensemble that are all giving their best, makes the film as a whole immensely enjoyable.
The franchise has always focused on three central tenets: gloriously realistic fight choreography with one of the best to ever do it in Keanu Reeves, stunningly inventive visuals in all real locations, and minimal dialogue with an eye for larger world-building on the margins. These are all ratcheted up to extremes in Chapter 4, bringing the film closer in comparison to a David Lean film than whatever the Russo’s are producing on Netflix.
Following on from the events of Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019), John Wick (Reeves), down a finger and assumed dead by the High Table, must traverse even further reaches of the globe to take down the senior figures of the organisation. The major inclusion to the franchise here is the legendary Donnie Yen, and his presence is felt immediately as the blind retired assassin Caine, tasked with eliminating his old friend John. Caine’s story parallels John’s from the first film, a connection that is simple but effective in a film that knows when to expand the story and when to be quiet and let audiences bathe in the stylised action set pieces.
The franchise has been able to boast an incredibly varied list of cameos from Angelica Houston to Boban Marjanović, adding a sense of scale and interest to each sequence. Added here are Yen, Bill Skarsgard, Rina Sawayama, and Hiroyuki Sanada, all improving on an already impressive ensemble that is unparalleled in an action franchise. Yen in particular is incredible, adding a coy and aloof nature to one of the best fighters in cinema history makes for a constantly compelling screen presence. To be able to add a figure like Yen to the franchise after four films shows the filmmakers are never satisfied with what was previously achieved, always seeking a greater experience for audiences, which they have accomplished in spades.
John Wick has long been a quintessential YouTube clips movie, focusing on individual moments over a cohesive narrative. Chapter 4 is easily the most ambitious entry. Whether that is in its outrageous Berlin rave sequence, incredible Donnie Yen fight sequences, or a seen-to-be-believed false roof bird’s eye oner with explosive shotgun rounds that will have audiences with their jaws on the floor and an overwhelming desire to cheer in appreciation.
The best inclusion to the franchise introduced in Chapter 3: Parabellum (besides Halle Berry and her dogs) are the locations outside of New York, something that is being further expanded here in Chapter 4. Taking place in Berlin, Paris, and Osaka, this film is able to flex its muscles visually and tonally which adds important freshness to a world that could have relied on what previously worked instead of giving audiences a three-hour endorphin rush.
Connection to the entire franchise can be felt throughout Chapter 4, from its extraordinary Berlin rave sequence to Mr Nobody’s attack dog. These moments never feel like a tired repetition, but an evolution of form that makes this film the quintessential John Wick film. With the additions of location jumping and more convoluted plots, the John Wick franchise has morphed into a sort of John Woo-inspired, American Wuxia James Bond or Mission Impossible, with Keanu Reeves at its centre. The only thing it’s missing is the iconic score (although the music is always top-notch).
Among the best blockbuster theatre experiences this decade, Stahelski and crew have pushed every moment to its limits to put John Wick: Chapter 4 in the pantheon of action filmmaking achievements. Comfortably the best film in the series, Chapter 4 is a perfect culmination of everything that makes the previous films great, heightened and stylised to the highest degree imaginable.
Arnie, Darcy and Tom recap the 95th Academy Awards, including everything from Ke Huy Quan’s extraordinary journey to win the Best Supporting Actor award; his fellow cast member Michelle Yeoh’s Best Actress win; the biggest winner of the night in Everything Everywhere All At Once; All Quiet on the Western Front‘s underdog wins; and Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor win to cap off his run of wins — we have it all.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year if you’re a cinephile, and it’s just around the corner.
Yes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Night of Nights —otherwise known as “The Oscars”— will be taking place this Monday morning, March 13th (Naarm time) and the team at Rating Frames is as excited as ever.
As they did last year, our three resident critics have made their predictions as to what, or who, will be victorious in all 23 categories.
Below are the films that Arnel, Darcy and Tom are predicting will walk away with a coveted statuette at the 95th Academy Awards, and their personal vote, in each category.
“Please lord, make me the biggest star the world has ever seen”, our heroine Pearl (Mia Goth) pleads each night before bed, accompanied by a garish string accompaniment that draws immediate comparisons to the early colour cinema. A skilled director of pastiche, Ti West has crafted a Douglas Sirk-styled film within the dark and gory world he has created with muse Goth, that is sure to thrill old and new fans alike. Immediately following the release of one of 2022’s best horror films, X, it was announced West and Goth will be creating a trilogy surrounding these characters, here with the prequel Pearl (2022), and concluding with MaXXXine (2023), all following Goth’s characters.
Set in 1918 Texas during the Influenza pandemic, Pearl is the only child of a German immigrant family. Pearl’s father (Matthew Sunderland) is infirm, laying the burden of survival in a trying time with Ruth (Tandi Wright), Pearl’s domineering mother who needs to get her daughter to help out around the farm. Pearl, however, is desperate to become a silent film star and dancer, sneaking off to the picture house every opportunity she gets.
Pearl’s love of cinema and desire to be a star is established in X, something that ties her to Goth’s other character Maxine in that film, which is deepened here. Pearl is never more joyful than when she is at the picture house, watching the newest dancing features. Goth and West craft such an empathetic and archetypal image of a budding star hoping to break out, that her budding malevolence is allowed to boil under the surface.
The film is aware its greatest strength is a close-up of Goth’s expressive face, a cinematic world into itself. Enough can’t be said about Goth’s commitment to the performance of this character, beginning in X but truly flowering here to create a singular horror cinema performance. You can immediately feel Goth’s co-writing credit in the character, similar to Hunter Schaeffer’s co-writing credit in the Euphoria (2019) Covid special, Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob (the artistic peak of the show), where a performer has a psychic connection to their role that tears through the screen.
The saturated, Wizard of Oz (1939) inspired-yet-repressed world that Pearl inhabits can grow tiring at stages, but the final act is such a showcase for Goth’s magnetism as a performer and writer, that the film leaves you satisfied. West’s films often have an issue of peaking early through his deft skill at creating tension and dread compared to his bloody finales, an issue absent in Pearl.
The film’s setting within the Influenza pandemic whilst being a Covid-produced film has a simple charm to it, with all crowds in masks and characters bemoaning the difficulties of recognising people in them. Pearl’s yearning to be out of the isolation of her farm during this pandemic is a more relatable experience than you’d expect to come out of this film.
Pearl is a unique prequel in that it has the potential to be viewed before the original film, X, due to its focused character study of Pearl, a character you leave the first film aching for more details on. West and Goth feel acutely aware of the aspects audiences were craving more from in X, namely the Pearl character and a further relishing of Goth’s unique screen presence.
Where X focuses on its wide ensemble and 70s environment, Pearl is very much a character study. Aside from a compelling performance by Tandi Wright as Ruth, Pearl’s mother, we are not given many deeply written side characters, allowing the audience to narrow their attention to our star. Wright and Goth have a similar dynamic to Spacek and Laurie in Carrie (1976), a foundational text for the film, particularly in its latter stages. While West is focusing on the juxtaposition of the Cinemascope aesthetic with the gore, the true dynamism is achieved through Goth’s varied performance that gets stymied by Wright’s hard-lined determination to survive their struggling lives. The real climax of the film is not a gory showstopper like in X, but the culmination of Pearl and Ruth’s resentments colliding at a family dinner.
The West trilogy is soon to be completed with the upcoming MaXXXine (2023), the first A24 trilogy. Following on from the events of X, this second entry in this quickly produced franchise is a unique world that has been crafted by a pair of oddball filmmakers in West and Goth that is refreshing in the world of IP drudgery we find ourselves in the never-ending middle of.
No one manages to blend crime and action on the big screen quite like Michael Mann. From the sprawling cityscapes that act as their own character, to the attention-to-detail with each and every aspect of production, Mann’s films are distinctively his own. It seems fitting then to look back on his stellar oeuvre and try and rank his titles based on my sentiment towards them at this moment in time. This is especially the case following his recent novel and sequel to the iconic Heat (1995), which he co-wrote with Meg Gardiner, and leading up to his Adam Driver-led, Enzo Ferrari biopic, Ferrari (2023).
Of course, like with any list, opinions are different and feelings towards films change as time goes by and depending on where in your life you find yourself. But for now, these are his films ranked from worst (if you can call them that) to best:
11. The Keep (1983)
Whether it’s due to the fact that large chunks of this film were cut out, or because it’s the least Mann-esque title on the list, The Keep is what I like to call Mann’s brain fart.
His second feature following the brilliant Thief (1981) represents his first and clearest (as there are elements of this in his true crime thrillers) foray into the horror genre. It’s a film plagued by bland and uninspired performances; a nonsensical narrative involving Nazis, a devilish entity, a supernatural Scott Glenn and one of the strangest but best sex-scenes you’re likely to see in a Mann film or otherwise; an interesting production design; and a pretty neat synthy score by Tangerine Dream.
Given Mann has disowned the film because of Paramount’s treatment of it, one can only imagine what the unreleased director’s cut had in store — we can only hope it graces out screens someday.
10. Manhunter (1986)
Many might find my ranking of Manhunter to be completely against the grain, but this thriller revolving around capturing a psychotic serial killer just never resonated with me on a narrative level like some of the other titles on this list (and I still gave it 3.5/5).
Manhunter focuses on FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson), a detective who’s come out of retirement to help locate an elusive serial-killer with strange motives. His past experiences hunting figures like Hannibal Lecter (a subtle performance by Brian Cox) means he’s the perfect guy for the job.
Manhunter uses Will and the serial killer he’s hunting to create an interesting parallel between the mind of a psychotic man and the man capable of catching him. Its use of home video and the focus on truly seeing almost posits that these two men aren’t so different in how they see the world, but to different ends and outcomes.
Whether or not I was expecting a more conventional voyeuristic mystery-thriller in the way that Se7en (1995) or Rear Window (1954) are —where the killer feels like they’re an arm’s length away, only for the satisfaction of catching them to be snatched from you— is difficult to say (perhaps that’s what people love about this?), but I found myself at a crossroads by the third act. I hope my opinion changes on a second viewing.
9. Ali (2001)
On the surface, a film about Muhammad Ali seems like the farthest thing from a Michael Mann joint. There’s no mesmerising cityscape, no sirens or gunfire, no real suspense in the way that his crime films create suspense, and the subject matter doesn’t exactly scream ‘Michael Mann’.
But this film about the greatest boxer of all time works because of Mann’s interest in figures that don’t play by the rules. Specifically, Ali focuses on the period of time between Ali’s (Will Smith) first major heavyweight bout, the court case filed against him for refusing conscription for the Vietnam War, and his famous win against George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title.
Ali’s unilateral decision to not be conscripted was momentous for the fact that he was the heavyweight champion of the world, and making such a decision could affect his ability to box in his prime (which it did). He also reinvented who he was by changing his name and living on his own terms — a staple of Mann characters, but for different reasons. Often his characters are trying to protect others from who they truly are whereas Ali was trying to break away from the branding that others (white slavers) had given him and his people centuries ago.
The opening 15 or so minutes are also arguably Mann’s most compelling in the way that he establishes character, creates purpose and builds tension. At times there’s a suddenness to proceedings where the film makes abrupt leaps in time between the court case announcement, the Joe Frazier fight, and the George Foreman fight, but overall Ali is a portrait of one man’s journey to becoming in the face of adversary.
8. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Along with The Keep, The Last of the Mohicans represents a different sort of Mann.
Like with Peter Jackson’s first film experience with the classic King Kong (1933) and his eventual reimagining of that classic on his own terms in King Kong (2005), Mann’s first vivid film memory was of 1936’s The Last of the Mohicans.
Helmed by Daniel Day-Lewis as the adopted Mohican, Hawkeye, this period piece about everything from the damning effects of bureaucracy to the Tarzan-esque romanticism of the love affair between Hawkeye and Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), is the first Mann film to create a sense of scale that would have greatly shaped the way he approached his later films.
By that I mean Mann finds a balance between showcasing the wide and beautiful terrain of a primeval America against the harshness of the looming modernisation that threatens its existence. This translates onto how the characters react to each other, whether it be through Magua (a mesmerising Wes Studi) and his desire for revenge against the British (for what they took from him) as well as his forward thinking to help his tribe, or through the loud and rampant battle at Fort William Henry that threatens the peace of the land.
Guided by one of the greatest scores of any film ever by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman which at once evokes hope and sadness, picturesque vistas, and gripping direction that never falters, this Mann-epic is Mann at his most untethered.
7. Public Enemies (2009)
When it comes to famous outlaws, there are few that are as iconic as John Dillinger, especially given he was a man who wasn’t interested in stealing from regular people, but the state itself.
That’s partly why he’s the perfect historical figure for a Michael Mann film given his self-defined approach to life.
Public Enemies follows Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as he makes prison escape after prison escape, continuously evading capture and robbing banks before finding an added purpose in life in the form of one French-American, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
Like all of Mann’s anti-heroes, Depp’s Dillinger is charming and elusive all at once. He’s a character infused with an aura of mystique that Depp delivers with the casual suave that his own image beyond the screen has maintained.
But it’s in the reimagining of the period through a digital lens where Public Enemies really excels. The moody greys, dark passages and almost colourless world are so striking here that it creates a more profound hyper-realism — almost bringing the 1930s to life in a way that shooting on film wouldn’t.
6. The Insider (1999)
A film about a man’s grapple with doing what’s morally right or being forced into silence by forces greater than him; The Insider, in true Mann-style, is an exercise in patience — in waiting for the right moment to make a move before it’s too late.
Unlike Mann’s other thrillers though, The Insider doesn’t have vans of heavily armed forces hiding around the corner, but it instead puts its faith in the truth overcoming the odds. That truth is in the form of former tobacco chemical scientist, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the 60 Minutes producer looking to help bring his story to light, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). The odds are the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company who are trying to keep Jeffrey, and this story around what really happens to tobacco, silent.
Guided by Mann’s brilliant direction, a well-crafted script by Mann and Eric Roth, and a standout performance from Al Pacino in an unfamiliar but equally familiar performance, The Insider paints a perplexing portrait of the lengths to which vindictive multi-billion dollar organisations will go to in order to supress information. It brings various parties with differing interests together, and creates a wide web of uncertainty for all involved — with no clear contingencies, but everything to lose for everyone involved.
5. Blackhat (2015)
Michael Mann’s most recent film feels like a sum of all of his best parts (it’s also been eight years since it was released!).
The film follows hacker Nicholas Hathaway (a career-best performance from Chris Hemsworth) who, after a series of awry events happen by an unknown source, is released from prison for the purpose of helping discover the person behind these events.
Blackhat is where ideas meet, characters converge, and where the tangible coalesces with the intangible.
In a similar way to Manhunter (but without the straining of classic thriller conventions) and Heat, this film once again depicts two sides of the same coin — Hathaway as the hacker-turned-FBI collaborator, and the unknown hacker blowing up coolant pipes and infiltrating wall-street. One is front and centre for the audience, while the other is kept faceless. While their intentions are different, they occupy a similar space like almost all of Mann’s characters do, but Blackhat is different to his past films because of how it bridges the characters worlds together and carries and communicates messages.
Mann uses modern technology to create a divide (the intangible), and forces his characters to embrace human interaction and connection (the tangible) if they are to overcome this threat.
His portrayal of the L.A. and Hong Kong maze of buildings and their bright lights speaks to the lack of personality or distinguished features in these settings, which fizzles down to the people who fade into each other like ones and zeros. It’s a wider critique on getting lost in the masses at a macro level, and getting lost in the code on a micro level.
Hathaway is the vessel Mann uses here to try and break through the code and by extension, this front that a world lacking real connections, has maintained — with Hemsworth using his size and stature to brilliant avail.
The closing sequence sees Hathaway concoct weapons and armour out of everyday tools, as though Mann is returning man to a primitive state before the world of data and technology became the guiding force. Hathaway gets the upper hand, and walks away in perhaps Mann’s most optimistic ending.
4. Thief (1981)
The OG Mann, Thief introduced audiences to this true-crime loving director who focuses on characters that take pride in the work they do, sometimes fall in love in the process, and live life on their own terms.
For expert safe-cracker and straight-talker, Frank (James Caan), he embodies the above perhaps more than any other character in Mann’s oeuvre. It might be because this is Mann’s most contained film in that it isn’t made up of major set pieces and crowded settings, but instead allows Caan to revel in the dialogue and the weight behind his words.
Thief is about a man on a mission to tick off his checklist of wants before cashing out. It’s also about a man refusing to bow down to the interests of others, instead taking it upon himself to shape his own destiny at any cost.
3. Collateral (2004)
Two guys in a car, strangers to each other, both operating on a routine, a structure that they rarely break from, moving as one through the luminous L.A. night but to different ends.
Collateral is a wonderous neo-noir that pivots two men with differing moral compasses against each other: Max (Jamie Foxx), a slave to his inhibition, to his failure to act and make a difference to his life; and Vincent (Tom Cruise), a man untethered, a multi-faceted nihilistic hitman who gets in, gets out, and keeps moving forward.
Much has already been written on Collateral, from its vivid imagery to the rawness of its digitised look — at once enticing and haunting. Vincent poses a threat to Max’s idealised vision of tomorrow, but also an opportunity to start making things happen and not idle by.
2. Heat (1995)
What does one even say about what, in the eyes of many, is Mann’s magnum-opus?
Heat is the sum of many parts, but it doesn’t work without its two key pieces: Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. The duo, reunited together on a feature for the first time (and for the first time ever in the same scene/s) since The Godfather Part II (1974), Pacino and de Niro are two sides of the same coin.
Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are like yin and yang — they don’t mix but they can’t function without one another. This speaks to Mann’s wider commentary on good vs evil, crime vs order which has been the focal point for 90% of his oeuvre. In Heat, Pacino and de Niro accentuate Mann’s fascination with these binary opposites to their full extent.
It’s as though these characters revel in the chase, of being the hunter and the prey, and they treat it like a drug that supersedes everything else in life. Mann brilliantly captures this through bright neon lights and the wider city which acts as its own sanctum that gives weight to the chase. Nothing is as beautiful as the city lights in a Mann film where cop cars race down the freeway in a storm of intensity.
But Heat is also made up of moments: the diner scene between Neil and Vincent is one of the greatest moments of character interaction in cinema history as these two men come face to face, pause the chase, and acknowledge each other; the downtown LA shootout where Mann shut down multiple blocks to shoot one of the most jaw-dropping scenes in any film ever; and the poignant finale where the two leads lock horns for the last time.
Without Heat, we may never have had The Dark Knight (2008), and that’s just one extra reason to watch this if you haven’t.
1. Miami Vice (2006)
I’m sure Miami Vice is a top-three Mann on anyone’s ranking of his work, but this bustling neo-noir about two under-cover detectives goes beyond the 80s show of the same name to become a gripping tale of people accepting that they’re living on borrowed time and learning how to manage the time they have left.
On the surface, Miami Vice is a buddy-cop thriller about two detectives infiltrating an offshore drug operation where they act as the middle-man between the international supplier and the local Miami buyer. Their mission is to find out who the buyer is, but the deeper they find themselves in the operation, the more they realise they’ll never have an opportunity like this again.
Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell are the two leads here and (while already the case with Foxx) they instantly fit the Mann-model of characters who don’t always play by the books, are good at what they do, and sometimes make rash, emotionally led decisions.
But it’s through Mann’s ability to capture the fleeting nature of life, the suddenness of a bust and the shootouts that ensue, where Miami Vice makes a case for his best film. There’s a dream-like tranquillity to the use of digital footage here that might just be the best example of creating evocative images in the digital format. From the bright hues of the nightlife and its clubs to the more intimate sensual moments, there’s a sense of liveliness and temporality mixed together in the film’s visual language.
Mann’s growing fascination with the commodification and expendability of the human body really started gaining momentum here as well. Whether it be in the film’s final shootout where bodies drop at a whim or the use of people as shields for getting what you want (drugs, cash, obedience), it’s an aspect of his films that really does speak to how precious those moments of human interaction are for his characters when they do have them.