Top 25 Films of the Decade

December 18, 2019
As we come to the end of another decade, brave film critic CJ Johnson has put forward his 25 best films of the noughties.

A SEPARATION (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s unbelievably taut thriller of the emotions. The astonishingly rich and sharp script follows its own beautiful path, resisting any sense of formula or predictability.

It starts simply, and powerfully: a couple sit before an authority figure (a judge?) seeking a divorce, and a custody decision. She wants to leave Iran, perhaps permanently; he does not. We immediately get a strong sense of the nature of arbitration in Iran that will feel like chaos to a Western audience, both sides essentially bickering in front of us (we hold the arbiter’s POV) with little regard to any sort of formality. There’s no order in this court.

From here the story spins off in what seem like many directions until the real plot emerges, and when it does, it is vast and complex; suffice to say, two couples come into a legal dispute, and we see that much larger issues than divorce are also dealt with, in Iran, in the same way – still people arguing over the top of each other in front of a single arbiter: no jury, no witness dock, no order as we may conceive it. The arbiter must act as a detective as much as judge, and the case he faces here is, while simple on the surface, hugely complicated in its emotional, moral and religious shades.

It deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, as well as the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s fast paced, exciting, thrilling, edgy, moving, engaging, and – in its portrait of a foreign justice system – absolutely fascinating.

FORCE MAJEURE (2014)

A masterpiece by Swedish director Ruben Östlund. A well-off young family of four from Sweden are taking a skiing vacation at a high-end French resort. Something happens, and the ripples from that something are examined with nerve-shattering precision. Every scene is perfect.

Everything about the bond between Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is perfect… until suddenly it is not. As the implications of this one event ripple, magnify and, most disturbingly, feed upon themselves, these two best friends are suddenly and horrifically outed as strangers.

There are strong stylistic influences from Kubrick – in the magnificent locked-off shots of hotel corridors, which, while immense, trap our two victims within the frame; of the incredible steadicam skiing shots; and in the rhythms of the editing, which allows for imagery – snowblowers, mountaintops, chair lifts – to add emotional atmosphere to the main story. I also felt great resonance with the films of Haneke, particularly Caché but also his more overtly “horrific” films such as Funny Games. And, in the use of a very early, very unusual, very big dramatic incident to upend our characters’ lives, I thought of pretty much all the novels of Ian McEwan, but particularly Endless Love, with its fascinating hot-air balloon incident.

Besides the two leads, there are sublime performances from the two kids and from Kristofer Hivju as Thomas’ great mate who gets caught up in his great mess. What he goes through is what we, the audience go through – unbelievable, gut-twisting tension of the most intimate and realistic kind: social awkwardness that just makes you want to crawl away and die.

LOVELESS (2017)

Loveless, from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a masterpiece – a brutal, uncompromising, stunningly well crafted and extraordinarily observant depiction of modern life, relationships, parenting, and society. At every turn it is revealing and stunningly precise about the human condition.

Simply put, it’s about the final days of a relationship that’s gone very, very sour. Zhenya and Boris are a thirty-something, professional-class, attractive couple living in one of the hundred and twenty-five administrative districts of Moscow, an area of grey skies, snowy woods, and scores of identical grey high-rises, which are reminiscent of “projects” in the West but here are obviously considered desirable housing. One night, having yet another of those final, horrendously savage arguments couples have before they finally move apart, they set in motion events that are terrifying, deeply sad, and all too common.

They say conflict is drama, and Loveless has it in spades. They also say characters need to be likeable. That’s not always true; what they need to be is relatable. Zhenya and Boris are the opposite of likeable – they are despicable, and Zvyagintsev’s disgust for them is palpable – but they are totally relatable. Despite their awfulness, we can only hold them in contempt by also examining ourselves, and that’s part of the genius of the script, and the amazing performances of Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin.

Zvyagintsev backs up the superb script with exquisite direction. The wide-screen cinematography breathtaking, rendering the Yuzhnoye Tushino District, often seen through the windows of the brutalist concrete high-rises, simultaneously deeply depressing and achingly beautiful – all slate skies, grey lakes, skeletal trees and shimmering snow. The interior production design is cold, precise, and startling; keep an eye out for the bedsheets of Zhenya’s lover, the cars the characters drive, the workplace cafeteria. Everything is there for a reason, and everything has something to say – about the characters, the situation, about modern Russia. And the score is divine; like the visuals, it is simultaneously gorgeous and distressing.

It’s a portrait of modern, urban, professional domestic Russians we don’t often get, or at least, with this specificity. They’re cursed with phones, social media, selfies and all their attendant false aspirations just as we are in the west, and, as with us all, these things are destroying their family intimacies. The film’s title, like the film itself, is brutal, but it’s brutally accurate.

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016)

Kristen Stewart became, in the mid-decade, Olivier Assayas’ muse, and he her most important director. They collaborated for the first time on 2014’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria; Stewart took home the César Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the personal assistant to a film star played by Juliette Binoche. In Personal Shopper, the even better follow-up, Stewart plays the assistant to another powerful and celebrated European celebrity – not entirely defined, but either a model or a bigwig in fashionbut this time Stewart’s the lead. It’s her finest performance to date and the film is up there with Assayas’ best work.

The movie is great value, because it’s at least three films in one: ghost story, American-in-Paris workplace drama and vaguely “Hitchcockian” thriller. We first meet Stewart’s character Maureen (such an intriguing, old-fashioned name for someone so young and hip; Stewart wears it beautifully, and a touch ironically) as she spends the night in a secluded house in order to see if it’s haunted. This scene, played straight – and with a ghost! – seems almost shockingly, literally “genre”; is Assayas really going there? The short answer is, he is, but he’s going other places too, and the movie keeps shifting gears with highly-engineered precision. When Maureen leaves the haunted house and returns to her job, shopping for high-end clothes and jewellery for the aforementioned fashionista, the film slides securely back into territory we’re familiar with from Clouds, and Maureen could almost be Stewart’s character from that movie; it would make sense, to leave Binoche and find a new, younger and more distant boss to service, and, if Assayas had made this a sequel, I would have bought it.

Halfway through, the third element – the thriller – enters the fray, and infects both the exotic workplace and the haunted house. The effect this shift has is electrifying, and the extended sequence on the Eurostar, where Maureen is stalked via text, will be deservedly admired and discussed for years to come – Stewart’s complicated emotional and psychological response to this series of events represents new levels of intimacy and vulnerability in her work, which some critics, in the past, have found cold and remote.

Assayas and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shoot Stewart, Eurostar, Paris, Europe, everything magnificently. Nobody shoots daily contemporary urban life like Assayas, with its bustling beauty, havoc and disparity. You don’t necessarily notice the camerawork – it’s not like a Scorsese picture – but the moves and, in particular, the framing are quiet perfection.

Easy answers to any of the film’s threads are not readily apparent by the end credits, yet the whole is immensely satisfying. It is a rich and hearty stew, nourishing for mind and soul.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Fury Road is everything you want from a Mad Max film. It’s got the action, the cars and the characters; more importantly, in allegiance with the first three films – and especially The Road Warrior, the classic of the series – it’s got the weird vernacular, the Australian-ness, and the complete commitment to its own unique and totally insane universe. It may have cost a studio hundreds of millions of dollars, but it still feels home-grown, hand-made, and completely deviant.

George Miller, supposedly directing not from a script but from 3,500 storyboards he has created over the last decades with Brendan McCarthy (2000 AD), Mark Sexton and Peter Pound, has delivered one of the most kinetic, energetic, vibrant and thrilling action movies ever made. Like Gravity and Avatar before that, Fury Road is a game changer, one of those films that has your jaw on the floor and your head spinning as you wonder just how in the world this thing possibly got made.

Don’t listen to the already often repeated cliché that it’s a two hour car chase. Fury Road has its ebbs and flows, a three act structure, and a storyline to be excited by and characters to care about. There is emotion, there are gargantuan stakes, and a very moving emotional connection is made between Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).

The plot is simple but elegant. Alone in the wasteland, Max is kidnapped and brought to the Citadel run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played The Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Joe’s lead driver Furiosa is about to head off and make a fuel run. In these opening moments of the film, we see a fully realised world that could only have been created by George Miller (and must have been driving him mad for the many years it took him to get them from his brain onto our screens). Every simple cutaway shot, every prop, every strange growl and weird squeak reveals a richly textured and highly specific cinematic universe.

Furiosa is meant to travel to Gas Town, but she has other plans. She’s stolen something very valuable to Joe and he’s pissed. A massive chase party is established and Max is used within it in a particularly ghoulish way. The stage is set, the chase is on, and 200 unique, incredible, mind-boggling vehicles careen across the desert.

The stunt work is astonishing: mind-blowing, game-changing, unbelievable. But there is so much more to the film. The depth of connection able to be achieved between the characters in the midst of all this mayhem is beautiful – as is the look of the film (the spectacular cinematography is by John Seale). It has been graded (colour corrected) phenomenally; the reds of the desert and the blues of the sky; the cast of Charlize Theron’s face; the blacks and greys of the vehicles and the bad guys – it’s a little richer and more vibrant than real life; it’s a comic book, a fantasy. It looks brilliant.

Miller is up there with Kubrick, Spielberg, Cameron and Jackson as one of the great conceptualists working on the largest possible scale.

SNOWTOWN (2011)

The most unsettling film ever made in Australia, based on the seduction of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) into the serial-killing gang of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) in the 1990s, Snowtown is relentlessly grim, brutal and engaging. At first, Justin Kurzel eschews horror tropes for miserabalist ultra-realism, drawing much of his cast from the depressed Adelaide suburb where the film takes place, presenting quietly desperate lives patiently. The arrival of Bunting goes without emphasis; the monster creeps up on us as he does his victims.

About forty minutes in, Kurzel adds brother Jed’s terrifying score, applies stylistic touches in the sound design and framing, and starts really messing with our heads, echoing Bunting’s desecration of Vlassakis’ mind. His, and our, descent into nightmare is irrevocable. We await the next grotesquery with dread and anticipation; it’s at least more interesting than the banal, tragic life we are rapidly leaving behind.

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Tarantino’s epic is one of the most unflinching Hollywood studio-level films ever made about America’s slavery system, while also being brilliantly entertaining.

KRISHA (2015)

Set in a roomy Texas house on Thanksgiving and taking place entirely within that day, Krisha is a serious, creepy, ambitious, moving, uncompromising and wholly successful cinematic work. Krisha, played by Krisha Fairchild, writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ aunt, returns to the bosom of her family – played almost entirely by members of Shults’ own family – for the holiday. The trouble is, under the welcoming surfaces, everything is cracked, and as the day progresses, the glass starts to splinter. It’s seemingly simple yet, in just 83 minutes, enormously, profoundly compelling and quite terrifying.

The film was shot in Shults’ parents’ home in nine days for around sixty thousand dollars, but it is fully realised as a piece of cinema, with bold, elaborate cinematography, astonishing creepy original music by Brian McOmber, and absolutely superb acting that deliberately combines pure naturalism with a heightened style as the film demands. It has won sixteen major awards including the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at South by Southwest and was nominated for the Critics Week Grand Prize and the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Krisha is similar in tone to a horror movie, set within the structure of a “home for the holidays” family drama, and entirely unforgettable.

PHOENIX (2014)

Christian Petzold’s masterpiece about the wounds of war.

THE TRIP (2010)

Just the funniest film since Airplane/Flying High, and unlikely spawner of the funniest film franchise ever.

BLACK SWAN (2010)

Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece about ballet, art and obsession.

THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013)

Paolo Sorrentino’s masterpiece about Rome.

GRAVITY (2013)

Never has a camera moved this way before. The opening shot, well over ten minutes, is breath-taking. The VFX are flawless and beautiful. And the 3D (and this film is absolutely made in 3D – don’t see it any other way) is, well, the best use of 3D in the history of the medium.

What is truly surprising and wonderful is how deft the storytelling is and how moving the film is, how much it has to say, how much feeling it has. Telling the simple tale of a couple of astronauts blindsided by a catastrophe while in orbit, Cuarón manages to take on Life, The Universe and Everything.

Sandra Bullock is the human heart of the enterprise and she is magnificent. I cannot imagine what bells and whistles she had attached to her while making this (she’s weightless the entire time) but she’s never chatting to the proverbial tennis ball on a stick. Fully present and fully emotionally committed, it’s the performance of her career.

Pure and true in every respect, it is a perfect movie, in that no element is out of place, no intention unrealised. Told almost in real time, in a taut ninety-one minutes, it achieves total unity of time, place and character. It is a work of the highest art.

LEVIATHAN (2014)

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s other masterpiece, about corruption and more in modern regional Russia.

HEREDITARY (2018)

Hereditary is the best American horror film since The Sixth Sense. The fact that Toni Collette is in both says a couple of things. That she can pick fantastic projects, and collaborators, absolutely. But also, that writer/director Ari Aster has impeccable taste along with a sense of history. To my mind, Aster knew, when he finished his screenplay, that he had written the best horror script since The Sixth Sense, and that – as when that film came out, revitalised the upmarket American horror film scene, and established M. Night Shyamalan as a “master of horror” – so too would all those things happen for Aster. They deserve to. (So far, so good; Midsommar is one of the best films of 2019).

Collette’s astonishing. She understands the intention of every beat, and that, while on the whole, realism is the order of the day, sometimes something else, something for the sake of the moment and the mood, is necessary. She’s never afraid, or embarrassed, that she’s in a horror film.

Aster honours horror’s past beyond the casting of Collette, and one of the most admirable and effective things about the film is how many established horror tropes it uses in fresh, inventive ways. The whole film could have felt like a stale pastiche, but it is anything but; indeed, it’s the opposite, feeling like a rebirth or an awakening. And it is; this is the dawn of a new filmmaker of consummate skill whom we must notice and follow if we care about horror cinema at all.

Aster’s judgement is confident, mature, unerring. The film’s casting is precise and evocative, and includes a striking find in young Milly Shapiro, playing Collette’s daughter. The cinematography is beautiful, unnerving and deliberate, emphasising shadows, moonlight and dusk (the film was shot in Utah) that evokes the feel of the great American horror cinema of the 1970s. The music is unobtrusive yet consistently effective, the production design immaculate and vital. Most satisfying of all is the pace, which is stately. Aster doesn’t rush a thing.

CONTAGION (2011)

Steven Soderbergh’s terrifying global epidemic thriller.

PHANTOM THREAD (2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, nominated for six Oscars, is a masterpiece – his second, in my opinion, alongside Boogie Nights. Besides their brilliance and mastery of craft, finding connective tissue between the two is tricky, which is further testament to Anderson’s brilliance. The depth of his palette is astonishing.

Working again with Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, which is an incredible film and which, for many, also deserves the ‘masterpiece’ title), Anderson creates yet another deeply layered portrait of a driven man, but this time adds a complementary woman, and delivers not a film about ambition, pride or hubris – though all those themes are represented – but about the greatest mystery of all, love, and the most mysterious human construct of all, marriage. It is also a mesmerising hothouse thriller, the best film Hitchcock never made.

The woman is played by Vicky Krieps, Luxembourg’s most prominent actress (!) Her performance is astoundingly good – the bulk of the film’s scenes are two-handers with Day-Lewis, with whom she completely holds her own – and it’s reflective of nothing, save her anonymity to most academy members that she wasn’t nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Day-Lewis, of course, was nominated, as was Lesley Manville for Best Supporting Actress.

The multiple thoughts, contradictions and emotions these actors are allowed to display under Anderson’s own watchful eye – it’s his first feature as a cinematographer – are mind-boggling in their multitude. Normally an actor, in any given close-up, gives us a single thing – a reaction, a decision, an emotion. Anderson’s cast will give us multiple combinations in a single shot. In particular, every time Krieps’ character Alma is dressed by her famous designer partner, a universe of complex, contradictory feeling traverses her brain, and we’re privy to it all, silently but unambiguously. This is great acting, great direction, great cinematography, from a great script. It is peak motion picture artistry.

Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous, lush score is allowed to be a character of its own, hugely present throughout, and, like every element of the film, enormously disciplined, precise, and bold. It matches the film’s two main locations, a house in London and a house in the Cotswalds, both of which we know intimately by film’s end, and both of which contribute endless richness to the story. Remarkably, both are real houses and the production actually shot in both; the London location, a Georgian townhouse in Fitzrovia, was, by all accounts, extremely challenging to shoot in due to the confined quarters, the size of the crew, and its stairs, but the authenticity it provides is undeniably, desirably tangible.

Supposedly, by his own proclamation, this is Day-Lewis’ last film as an actor. What a perfect vehicle to ride out on. Wearing no prosthetics, speaking in his native British accent (his first in a film since 1985’s A Room With A View!), shooting in the city of his birth, he looks entirely at ease doing the hardest job in show business: living up to his own reputation. He thoroughly succeeds.

THE BABADOOK (2014)

Simultaneously a perfect little horror film and a deeply felt drama about grief, parenthood and mental illness. An astonishing debut for Jennifer Kent.

COHERENCE (2013)

James Ward Byrkit’s perfect micro-budget sci-fi-adjacent thriller.

BEFORE THE FROST (2018)

Set in rural 1850s Denmark, it stars a magnificent Jesper Christensen as Jens, an aging farmer facing a ruined crop and rapidly diminishing prospects, who makes some increasingly dubious – and dangerous – decisions in order to keep food on the table and his family together. The film is impeccable in its period detail, offering an eye-opening window on the strange intricacies of Danish pre-industrial rural life, including the massive role played by the local Church, where the Deacon, it seems, also operated as the town cop, judge and mayor. Noer uses a handheld camera to keep up with the script’s relentless pace – there’s a lot of drama packed into the film’s one hour and forty-four minutes – and saves flourishes such as music for when the action starts getting really heavy. The result is realistic, aided by superb naturalistic acting from the entire cast, but also thrilling. Merchant Ivory this is not. Dark, moody and intense, you could get away with calling it Nordic Period Noir.

CUSTODY (2017)

Xavier Legrand’s debut feature film follows in the footsteps of the Russian masterpiece of divorce and dismay, Loveless. This is a leaner take; if Loveless took a meat cleaver to marriage and its aftershocks, Custody is more like a shiv. Which is to say, still sharp and lethal.

Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet play the separated couple waiting for their divorce; they have two children, but, as with Loveless, the focus here is on the impact their separation has on their eleven year old son, and it’s not good.

Loveless was, in its quiet way, an epic, a scathing indictment of modern humanity. Custody examines the day to day affect of joint custody and is far more contained and seemingly modest. Yet by the end, it has achieved momentous power. It is meticulously constructed, building with painfully specific intent. Ultimately, it is shattering. This is a film where strangers (at a general public screening at the French Film Festival) and I all checked in with each other afterwards, because we were all so moved, and shaken. A spectacular debut.

THE HUNT (2012)

Thomas Vinterberg is a supremely gifted storyteller. His 1998 Dogma film Festen remains, for me, a perfect movie, and that film’s screenplay is, I believe, up there amongst the best ever written. His film The Hunt is more measuredly paced than that frenetic masterpiece, but it is no less gripping. And at the end of the day it is perhaps even more gut-wrenching.

It helps when one of the world’s best actors is your lead. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a divorced kindergarten teacher in a small town in Denmark, who is falsely accused of inappropriate behavior by a girl in his charge, Klara. As the population turns against him, his life unravels. It’s like the Twilight Zone episode where nuclear panic turns a town into a mob, except here it’s told with realism and a seriously honed eye for the behaviour of modern adults (Vinterberg wrote the original screenplay with Tobias Lindholm).

It is never remotely suggested (or intended) that Lucas is guilty, which is the right choice: the movie is not concerned with “did he or didn’t he?” (and if the inevitable Hollywood remake is, I’m going to rip it apart). This frees Mikkelsen from having to play that false mystery; knowing he’s innocent, he plays it as an innocent man would – the huge caveat being that even innocent men, when faced with inconceivable and life-altering unfairness – can behave in ways that don’t necessarily help their own cause.

While no longer adhering to Dogma’s strict rules of engagement, Vinterberg is still an austere filmmaker: there’s no score for this film – no music at all, as far as I recall – and he has a knack for making gorgeous locations feel cold and threatening. But he utilises, in a profound and novel way, the zoom lens, to underline significant moments that, in lesser hands, may have seemed verbose; here, it is revelatory.

Part of the movie’s intense modes of engagement rest with its absolute accessibility: few films in my recent memory have prompted me to ask myself the classic “What would I do?” The falsely accused man of limited means is weirdly bound by his stuff: his home, his family (here represented by his son), his dog, his surroundings that make up his life. I thought, quite early, “Well, I’d just run.” But where? And how? And, most importantly, how would that look?

To call The Hunt gripping would be like calling Annie Hall funny. It is, but it’s also so much more than that. In some ways it’s a horror movie, but the horror is simply a real-life mistake, told realistically, and played out as it might actually play out, with literally terrifying results. I was shattered by this superb, impeccably crafted, brilliantly acted, and emotionally devastating film.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

Timothée Chalamet gives a superb, award-deserving performance as a seventeen-year-old “Jewish French Italian American” young man falling in love for the first time in Luca Guadagnino’s sensuous, languid, romantic and beautifully crafted Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet himself is American/French, speaks French fluently, and spent his summers as a boy in France, so his casting here represents a kind of divine providence. He is the right actor in the right role at the right time and he nails it.

He plays Elio, who lives in a gorgeous villa in Lombardia, Italy with his parents and a couple of household staff. Each summer his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) hosts a research assistant; this year – 1983 – it is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a brashly confident American scholar. Over the summer, Elio and Oliver fall in love.

This isn’t Brokeback Vineyard. Oliver and Elio are not – at least, on the surface – fumbling, self-hating deniers, and they’re untroubled by any tangible outside dangers, including bigotry. Indeed, they are both cool. Oliver enchants the whole town with his rather astounding physical presence but his cool goes deeper than that; it’s in how he walks, how he wears the subtly brilliant period-specific summer clothing. He’s deeply dorky when he dances ‘80s-style, but that just somehow adds to his cool. Likewise, Chalamet’s Elio starts the film awkwardly but Oliver awakens some inner cool within him, and soon he’s smoking cigarettes as suavely as the older man.

It is incredibly pleasant to spend a couple of hours with characters as unashamedly smart as this. It is rare these days to find English-speaking characters who revel in the pleasures of intellectual discussion, who celebrate each other’s braininess. Languages in this household freely intermingle and people lie down and read to each other; poets and philosophers are quoted and questioned. It feels like a universe away, a better place, and a most wonderful one for these two smart, intriguing people to come together.

The film feels too long for its story, which, while it may contain multitudes of feeling and intimate detail, is essentially a simple one. But it is charming in spades, and, as captured in Chalamet’s performance, an essential addition to the coming-of-age canon. The final shot lodges it there with amazing grace. And we need the time, perhaps, to fully get to know these people. Chalamet’s Elio is the focus of the story and carries the movie, but Hammer’s Oliver is devilishly complicated, layered with nuance and far more vulnerable than first suggested; Hammer plays him perfectly – again, the right role for the right actor at the right time, superbly cast and directed.

This is a film that stays with you. Its mood, its heart and its characters have been tickling my brain since seeing it. It feels nourishing and generous, like a meal that was delicious and has turned out to have ongoing health benefits. It’s briefly altered my perception of the world, reminding me that there is decency out there, somewhere. And I daresay, if I was a gay teenager right now, or even just a teenager, this would be the movie I needed. It may be one of those films that change many thousands of young lives for the better. For many, it will become a favourite, a classic, even a life-saver. It is sublime.

RAW (2016)

Even at its grisliest (and it can be brutally grisly), French horror often has something to say. Raw, the debut feature from Julia Ducournau, certainly does. Within its perverse take on coming-of-age, it examines peer pressure, burgeoning sexuality, academic tradition, accepted modes of living and social acceptance, while also being a mesmerising, totally compelling – and, yes, grisly – thrill ride. It’s high-octane, thrilling, compelling stuff that had me transfixed and excited.

Justine (Garance Marillier) comes from a family of vegetarians who enrols in veterinary college and must endure, along with her fellow intake of students, a week of hazing. Her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already at the college, and the difficult dynamic between them during this intense and nerve-wracking time forms the spine of the film. Alexia’s split allegiances – to her sister and to her status as a higher-classman – are difficult enough, but there are deeper and vastly more troubling secrets she is wary of sharing.

Marillier’s performance is totally enthralling; she’s in every scene and navigates Garance’s jagged carnal awakening with both nuance and a sense of heightened, grand guignol performance when called on by the script, which is not afraid of lurid grotesquery. Rumpf is no less committed and compelling, and there’s also an excellent performance from Rabah Nait Oufella as Justine’s dorm-mate.

Ducournau goes all-out with her imagery and use of a fantastically creepy score by Jim Williams, who scored Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. She creates visual moments that immediately brand themselves onto your psyche and sequences that are simply unforgettable. The story, as it unfurls, simultaneously bears a sense of inevitability but is also constantly surprising, and packs a supremely satisfying climax.

VOX LUX (2018)

I won’t soon forget the first time I saw Brady Corbet’s 2015 debut The Childhood of a Leader. Baroque, operatic, mesmerising, intense, disorienting, moody and quietly terrifying, the film, which barely got released in Australia, deeply affected me. It gave me that intense thrill that a critic or film lover gets when they hear a powerful new directorial voice. It also gave me the chills. Here was a filmmaker who knew what got under my skin, through his idiosyncratic use of music, image, mood. The film really spoke to me.

So too does Vox Lux, Corbet’s far more commercial follow-up, which is not to say it’s commercial at all. Corbet has carried over his unnerving style to a straight up portrait of a modern pop singer, and the seeming clash of style to subject is part of what gives the film its unearthly pleasure. We’re watching an origin story of a Lady Gaga / Sia / Britney Spears, but it feels like a horror movie.

It’s all quite brilliant and unbelievably entertaining, while being thoroughly uncompromising. The first half of the film covers the younger years of pop singer Celeste, in this section played by Raffey Cassidy, as a traumatic childhood event gives birth to her talent as a performer. Corbet’s intense use of music and imagery here echo his work on Childhood of a Leader, keeping us unmoored and on edge, even as Celeste’s manager is introduced, and played by Jude Law, as essentially a comic character. The second half, featuring Natalie Portman as Celeste, all takes place in a single day, and shifts tonal gears, at times presenting as flat-out comedy, albeit in a gothic vein.

All the performances are sensational. Cassidy and Portman are superb versions of each other/Celeste, working in tandem to create the singer’s unique voice and particularly her physicality, which is deeply informed by events of the film. Portman’s use of her own body is exquisite, precise and alarming; her growing body of exceptional performances, including this, Black Swan and Jackie, really do place her in the very front ranks of working screen actors. She’s outrageously good. As for Cassidy, she and Corbet pull off a coup de theatre that made my jaw drop and which I will leave for you to discover. T

The songs, written by Sia herself, are superb, and Cassidy and Portman do their own singing. Celeste is a major talent and how these actresses live up to that expectation boggles the mind. Portman famously prepared for Black Swan by learning ballet, and she’s learned an entirely new universe of performance here. It all pays off, riotously, wonderfully, exuberantly, brilliantly, with integrity, grace and skill. If she toured as Celeste, I’d want to see it.

Leave a Comment