Film: Punch-Drunk Love (US, 2002) by Paul Thomas Anderson – out now
With his fourth feature film, Paul Thomas Anderson did more than rescue Adam Sandler’s career from production-line comedies. Indeed, as Barry, an executive at a novelty toiletries company, in besotted freefall after meeting a sweet businesswoman called Lena (Emily Watson), Sandler does turn in a surprisingly fine and subtly tuned performance – raging, sad, desperate, emasculated, child-like and lonely. But it’s Anderson’s refusal to bend to the usual narrative arc of easy romance, and the way he dips into purely abstract sequences of kaleidoscopic sound and colour (by video artist Jeremy Blake), that creates such a disorientingly accurate vision of the way a person’s small world spins out of control as they fall in love.
The beautiful ambiguity of this film is demonstrated by critics’ inability to even come to terms with its genre: it’s variously called a romcom, a thriller, a drama. Leaving behind the huge, ensemble world of his previous features, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, for something smaller, more intimate and infinitely stranger, Anderson created what he called an “arthouse Adam Sandler film.” Whatever it is, it’s a wonderfully woozy place to return to after all these years.
TV: Stranger Things 2 (US, 2017) by the Duffer Brothers – out now
Season two of the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix phenomenon takes us back to the imaginary town of Hawkins, Indiana, in Halloween 1984, a year after the cliffhanger of the first season, which revealed an entire world of monstrosity lurking in parallel to our own, called the Upside Down.
The going is slower this season – without the easy narrative goal of finding Will, the lost boy at the centre of season one, the pace and trajectory of events is unclear, with the sense that the first four episodes (which form the extent of this review) are heavily preoccupied in setting up the plot machinations for the discoveries come. Despite losing its clean narrative force, Stranger Things remains a loving pastiche to all things 1980s – a pulpy, enjoyable ode not to childhood but rather to the idea of your childhood after it has passed; to the nostalgia of adults looking back to a simpler time.
TV: Mindhunter season one (US, 2017) by Joe Penhall – out now
US law enforcement agencies in the 1970s inhabited a world bafflingly different to the one in which they were founded. FBI founder J Edgar Hoover’s era was marked with organised mob figures like John Dillinger and Al Capone, but the new Netflix series Mindhunter takes place in a period characterised by motiveless crime, in which post-war hopes of eternal social progress have fallen away toward something grimmer. Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is an idealistic FBI agent in his late 20s; his sociology-postgrad girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross) introduces him to the idea that criminality is the product of a sick society, and he embarks on a mission to introduce the basics of psychological theory to the stubborn, sceptical agency.
Fincher stories typically have a mosaic-like construction that combines a grand crime narrative with a smaller focus on the neuroses and obsessions of both the hunter and the hunted. With four episodes under his direction, this series has that same combination of the epic and the intimate, as well as the familiar Fincher visual style of grimy, urban spaces made from muddy khakis and shot with emergency mustard yellow. Though it seems like a typical crime show, Mindhunter has enough going on at both the level of ideas and visual construction to keep its trajectory compelling: the origin story of psychology and criminal profiling in the FBI, and the uneasy sense of a world that’s out of order, make for fascinating viewing and an imaginative addition to the crime genre.
Honourable mentions: Psycho, AI: Artificial Intelligence (films, out now); Inception (film, 19 November).
TV: SMILF (US, 2017) by Frankie Shaw – out now with new episodes weekly from 13 November
A somewhat slicker companion piece to Alison Bell’s new Australian show, The Letdown, SMILF is also heavily invested in the disappointments of motherhood. But while so far there has been nothing in The Letdown that’s as dark as its title, Showtime’s SMILF takes a franker approach: there’s weird nudity, unsexy nudity, failed sex scenes and lots of awkward silences. Writer and director Frankie Shaw plays Bridgette, an aspiring actress from a working-class family who is coming to terms with what it means to be a 20-something single parent to a toddler, with desires and needs beyond her status as a mother.
SMILF is often laugh-out-loud funny, with a tone that falls into the “I’m meant to be an adult, what am I doing with my life” trend of much contemporary anti-comedy, but with a particular kind of life experience that is still rarely seen onscreen. Raw, indie-inflected television.
Honourable mentions: Raw (film, 3 November).
TV: Curb Your Enthusiasm season nine (US, 2017) by Larry David – new episodes on Mondays
Nothing has changed in the ninth new season of Larry David’s go-nowhere, learn-nothing sitcom. And you wouldn’t want it to. If anything, in his role as arch antagonist-as-protagonist, the comedian/writer is more cynical and far-gone than ever before: he tells a woman weeping at a funeral to shut up; he yoo-hoos a judge; he shamelessly shrugs to his therapist that he’s never honest; he writes a new Broadway musical called Fatwa. And the show’s mandate is spelt out more clearly than ever: “You’re devoid of anything that’s remotely caring,” disparages his friend Richard Lewis.
In an actual plot development, sitcom veteran Ted Danson makes welcome ongoing appearances as Larry’s ex-wife Cheryl’s new boyfriend (a brilliant turn of character and plotting) and the smiling target of Larry’s renewed contempt. What you really learn is the extent to which, with Curb Your Enthusiasm, David perfected the sitcom blueprint he founded in Seinfeld: every episode arcs perfectly toward an ironic form of karmic comeuppance, in which Larry’s initial lie or misdemeanour comes back to him with vicious force. Terribly abrasive, blissfully misanthropic stuff.
Honourable mentions: Liberal Arts (film, out now), Personal Shopper (film, 1 November), Manchester by the Sea (film, 18 November).
Film: The Big Sick (US, 2017) by Michael Showalter – out 1 November
Producer Judd Apatow has always specialised in a particular brand of comedy: satire of pathetically immature white bros. In the past several years, he’s started branching out, supporting women like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer in comedy’s traditionally male-dominated culture, and now Pakistani-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani in this autobiographically drawn film. Destined by his family for an arranged marriage, Kumail falls for an Anglo grad student, Emily (Zoe Kazan), but they break up just before she falls into a coma with a strange illness.
What’s most fascinating is how easily a cross-cultural romance fits into the confines of a traditional romcom template: like Schumer’s Trainwreck, this is actually a terribly conventional film in the dilemmas and trajectory of its fated couple, and in a lot of ways, it’s all the better for those narrative inevitabilities. A really satisfying piece of popular cinema that pays its respects to some of the great romcoms of the past.
Honourable mentions: Logan Lucky, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (films, 22 November), A Ghost Story (film, 24 November).
SBS On Demand
TV: If You Are The One – revamped format (China, 2017) – out now, new episodes on Wednesdays
Host Meng Fei is so excited about Chinese dating show/extreme global cultural phenomenon If You Are The One’s revamped format he mentions it a dozen times in the first episode of the new season and says the production team have embarked on it with “courage and determination.” Quite rightly, too. The update brings an array of new rules that are far beyond my comprehension, but involve an impossibly humiliating and spectacular system whereby the 24 “girls” must prowl a catwalk in a light-filled stadium so that their potential suitor can cast them into two hierarchical tiers of preference: the Favourites area and the Observation area. The usual panel of psychologists and personalities trade insightful banter while the man is brutally cross-examined by the bevy of potential dates.
The first episode features Gu, a rather socially odd and terribly young music teacher who goes by the internet handles “Reformed Narcissist” and “Invincible Handsome Guy,” says he’s searching for a “cheerful, outgoing but cute girlie girl,” and hopes to be true to himself on the show. The Bachelorette (reviewed below) has nothing on this. Eternally wonderful and horrifying, whatever the format.
Film: The Hunger (US/UK, 1983) by Tony Scott – out now
A rather brilliant and often overlooked erotic arthouse genre piece in both Tony Scott and David Bowie’s oeuvre, which riffs on the vampire genre and shows how quickly his brother Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner imprinted itself on popular culture. Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) is an aloof vampire who lives with her partner, John (David Bowie), both posing as classical music teachers. They seek out Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who’s researching rapid ageing in primates to discover the secret to eternal youth, after John descends into a steep and distressing ageing process.
Bowie and Deneuve, the latter styled much like Rachael from Blade Runner, form an immaculate, angular pair. Scott crosscuts between almost abstract shots of their bodies, faces and elegant gothic New York townhouse, and the film arcs toward a strange relationship between Sarah and Miriam, lonely and ever desperate for young blood in the wake of her lover’s decay. Narrative slips away often, and we slide into the textures and shadows of Miriam’s world, but are rewarded with a wonderfully satisfying conclusion that stays close to our expectations of a vampire film. How wonderful to see what happens when Hollywood genre and art cinema collide.
Honourable mentions: Boomalli: Five Koori Artists (TV, out now), Sunshine (TV, out now), Misery (film, 1 November), Finding Fela (film, 2 November).
Film: The Go-Betweens: Right Here (Australia, 2017) by Kriv Stenders – out 21 November
While Kriv Stenders is more famed for his family films (Red Dog, Red Dog: True Blue), this music documentary seems to come from a kind of parallel line against his box-office-busting career. Right Here tells the story of the Go-Betweens’ music, as well as the passionate and difficult relationships that fuelled their still-perfect melodies, based on the remaining band members’ own recollections. Even from 2017, you can hear everything from the band’s contemporaries (REM, Talking Heads) to their antecedents (Belle and Sebastian, Frente, Custard) in songs like Streets of Your Town.
Stenders creates a series of unusually cinematic, abstracted sequences that seem to flow directly from the band’s jangly, jaunty rhythms and unusual lyrical imagery: Robert Forster turning in slow motion against empty fields (of “cattle and cane”), watching as a giant bonfire rises up as the sunsets. Talking heads setups are used sparingly and evocatively with the band members alone on an empty, country verandah, so that voices approach us over the top of archival images of the band in motion: the effect is a kind of Go-Betweens collage, very much keyed into the music’s sensibility. Stenders has made something more like an extension of the lives of the Go-Betweens and their music than a traditional documentary. Crafted with thought, love and beautifully distilled creative intention.
Film: Waltz With Bashir (Israel, 2008) by Ari Folman – out 16 November
This classic arthouse film, featured presently in Docplay, a carefully curated VOD platform specialising in documentary, combines the forms of doco and animation to devastating effect. As a young soldier, director Ari Folman witnessed several key massacres in the 1982 Lebanon War, but has since eclipsed them in his mind. He approaches others who were in Beirut at the time, and the film winds itself open as a series of interviews with men who have tried to throw the past away.
Unlike many war dramas, it’s hard to construe this as patriotic: this is the nightmare of war come back to life. A critical trauma-of-war story, remarkably original for the doco genre, and with one of the most imaginative and shocking conclusions to a non-fiction film I’ve ever seen.
Honourable mentions: Art + Soul (TV, out now), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (film, out now), Finding Vivian Maier (film, 9 Nov).
TV: The Bachelorette Australia (Australia, 2017) – out now
Another year, and the irony-watching of The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise (est. 2002) rolls around again. This grand scam of fake romance is the soap opera of our time: Neighbours and Home and Away would do well to learn from the genius casting of ex-Bardot pop star Sophie Monk as a gloriously bogan, unlucky-in-love, would-be bride – she has entered the canon of all-time wonderful soapie heroines and Australian TV creations (perhaps an ongoing spot on Ramsay Street wouldn’t be a bad post-Bachelorette career move?).
It’s not the ridiculous suitors (my personal fave: 24 year-old, cartoon-chested, Queensland magician Apollo, an early fave who met his clueless end this week and is the next sad Bachelor) or contrived dates everywhere from yachts to doga classes (yoga + dogs = romantic doga), but the pervasive cultural narrative of love as an eternal, instantaneous one-hit wonder that animates the core mythology of The Bachelorette and everything it stands for. Though the finale has aired, watch back for LOLs ironically, contemptuously and critically.