Dunkirk (US, 2017) by Christopher Nolan – 20 June
A second world war mission unfolds in three modes in this critically acclaimed blockbuster – in the air (in a fighter plane, with Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot) in real time, on the land over the course of a week (with Allied soldiers stranded in France fleeing the Germans), and on the sea over the course of the day (with Mark Rylance and Barry Keoghan as civilian sailors to their countrymen’s rescue).
By dividing a familiar historical myth – the evacuation of Dunkirk – into these three simultaneous chapters in different registers of time and place, Christopher Nolan does something genuinely innovative with the often-unimaginative war film genre. The result is thrilling, stressful and a technical marvel.
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (US, 2018) – 18 June
The Australian comedian’s difficult, brilliant standup storytelling arrives on Netflix. Comedy specials are the staple of the streaming service’s monthly deluge of original content, but this one, the first by a local comedian, really is special. In her much-praised show, filmed at the Opera House earlier this year and since touted by the New York Times as “introducing a major new voice in comedy”, Hannah Gadsby spins her own life story – encompassing the trauma of abuse and the isolation of rural life – into a clever, raging and confronting spiel against misogyny, homophobia and even the tired old tropes of comedy itself.
Honourable mentions: Mulholland Drive, Psychokinesis, Man Hunt, Jason Bourne (films, out now), Black Swan (film, 1 June), Muriel’s Wedding (film, 18 June).
Under the Skin (UK, 2013) by Jonathan Glazer – 12 June
Warm bodies, deadly women and desolate landscapes melt into an enigmatic science fiction story from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel. Scarlett Johansson stars as a mysterious alien who seduces working-class men into a fatal mating game. The plot is spookily bare and the atmosphere is one of dread. It is one of the most memorable science fiction films of recent years, engaging with the genre from an intimate, arthouse angle, rather than working toward a big-budget spectacle.
Che: Part One and Che: Part Two (US) directed by Steven Soderbergh – 19 June
This muscular two-parter brings the gritty sensibility of auteur film-maker Steven Soderbergh’s earlier work, Traffic, to the story of Argentinian Marxist revolutionary, guerrilla leader and intellectual Che Guevara. Rolling from 1955 into the early days of the Cuban revolution, Soderbergh has no interest in the usual dichotomised vision of Guevara as either a hero or a tyrant. Played by Benicio Del Toro, this Che is a doomed, dogged, complicated man, and the film – almost entirely in Spanish – sheds the format of a conventional biopic for something much more sprawling, difficult and interesting.
Honourable mentions: Logan Lucky (film, out now), 12 Years a Slave, Everybody Wants Some!! (films, 5 June), Strangerland (film, 12 June).
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (US, 2018) by Ryan Murphy – new episodes on Thursdays
The failure of the American dream has always made for juicy storytelling. Now, in the follow-up to The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, it gets the Ryan Murphy (Glee) treatment, spun through the tale of the assassination of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace in Miami in 1997.
Murphy’s American Crime Story series has always been pulpy, high-production melodrama; this season is no different, right from the luxuriously lengthy opening sequence that introduces Versace (Édgar Ramírez) and his agonised killer, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). The rest of the season works backwards from there as a period piece and police procedural that emphasises trademark Murphy themes of queerness, wealth and celebrity, spun through the lens of 1990s fashion culture, as well as the homophobia that inhibited the investigation. It is as satisfying and schlocky as we’ve come to expect from a Murphy production, and features Penélope Cruz as Gianni’s sister, Donatella Versace, and Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico, his partner.
Honourable mentions: Arrested Development season five (TV, new episodes on Wednesdays), Grown-ish (TV, new episodes on Sundays).
Compass: Lou’s Place (Australia, 2018) by Olivia Rousset – out now
An excellent half-hour TV documentary, centred on a daytime drop-in service for women in crisis called Lou’s Place in Sydney’s King’s Cross. It is a sanctuary for women like 27-year-old Kimberley, who has escaped a violent relationship and lost custody of her daughter. The documentary reveals the resilience of the women who staff the service and those who use it, but its real strength is the way it positions the issue as something greater than a crisis of housing, jobs and services – at peril is the dignity and esteem of more than 47,000 homeless women in Australia, in a wealthy society that disdains creating a network of care for them.
Honourable mentions: Making Child Prodigies (iView series, new episodes on Tuesdays), Festival Recaps (iView series, out now), Killing Eve (TV, all episodes out now).
SBS On Demand
Mad Bastards (Australia, 2011) by Brendan Fletcher – out now
Three generations of Indigenous boys and men struggle and strive for redemption in writer-director Brendan Fletcher’s debut film, an atmospheric meditation on masculinity in crisis. The plot crosses three fractured familial relationships across Western Australia. TJ (Dean Daley-Jones) careens into crisis after visiting his brother in a Perth prison. His estranged 12-year-old son Bullet (Lucas Yeeda) is sent to a camp for at-risk youths in the Kimberley region after his own slide into delinquency. And Grandpa Tex (Greg Tait) gathers up the disenfranchised in a rural men’s group, in a subplot that widens the film’s scope beyond the family to a society of Indigenous men in crisis.
It’s no surprise Fletcher has since gone on to focus mainly on making documentaries, as his fictional feature has the feel and sensibility of a doco, freighted as it is with the authenticity and naturalism of a cast of mostly non-actors. It’s not really about plot cohesion, but rather about spending time with a group of interesting people with real-life experiences that have been loosely, yet carefully, narrativised for the screen.
Love & Mercy (US, 2014) by Bill Pohlad – out now
It’s not exactly news that dramas based on original screenplays are endangered creatures in today’s franchise-based film economy. Love & Mercy is a rarity for another reason, too – it’s a biopic that creates an unconventional cinematic portrait of its subject. The film dives deep into the mind of Brian Wilson, the musical genius of the Beach Boys, at two points in his life: in the throes of early artistic growth and psychosis (as performed by Paul Dano), and then in middle age (performed by John Cusack), under the control of a sinister psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti).
He finds healing in a relationship with a kind woman, played by Elizabeth Banks, who sees through his brokenness. The film’s high point is a long sequence that goes beyond mere musical recreation to show how parts of the Pet Sounds album were recorded in the studio, letting us hear something new and sparkling in those familiar, classic songs. A redemption story told differently.
Paris, Texas (Germany/France, 1984) by Wim Wenders – out now
Is there ever a bad time to return to Wim Wenders’ classic view of the US from the outside in? It often takes foreigners to open up new understandings of a country’s myths, and here, the German auteur turns the failed marriage of Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) – an amnesiac emerging from years of wandering a south-west desert frontier to confront his partner and son – into a devastating and questioning reinvention of Americana. More than 30 years since it was made, Paris, Texas deftly dissects, then reassembles, the conventions of American cinema: the road film, the landscape of the western, the outsiders who roam lovelessly.
Potiche (France/Belgium, 2011) by François Ozon – out now
Catherine Deneuve stars as Suzanne, an ageing housewife who takes over the family business from her husband’s mismanagement after he falls ill (the film’s title translates as Trophy Wife). Much like in the 1980s classic 9 to 5, Suzanne’s savvy and empathy turns around a company’s fortunes, while she reignites her love affair with her ostensible enemy, Gérard Depardieu’s unionist parliamentarian. But the film is smart (and softly subversive) enough not to invest too much in Suzanne’s romantic successes – the film is hers and hers alone. A feminist comedy and 1970s period pastiche that dances through serious themes – women’s empowerment, union strife, disappointing marriages – with grace and effervescence.
Honourable mentions: Atlanta: Robbin Season (TV, entire season now available on catchup), Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Specials (TV, new episodes on Thursdays), If You Are The One (TV, new episodes on Sundays).
Sherpa (Australia, 2015) by Jennifer Peedom – 7 June
On DocPlay, a curated collection of documentaries, is Australian film-maker Jennifer Peedom’s fascinating insight into the Sherpa, a group of indigenous Himalayan people doing the invisible, underpaid groundwork for western tourists paying up to $75,000 to climb Everest.
Peedom accidentally documented a colossal avalanche that became the deadliest day in the mountain’s modern climbing history, in which many Sherpa died and many more went on strike demanding better treatment by overseas travel companies. With spectacular footage and in-depth interviews, Peedom’s film captures the sanctity of a dangerous yet delicate landscape under threat from industrial tourism, and the heart of the people whose livelihoods both depend on it and are subject to its whim.
And don’t forget Kanopy, a small but brilliant streaming service of art films. Though it’s little known, the platform is accessible using many public and university library cards. It has recently added such luminary arthouse titles as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Good Time, A Ghost Story, Paterson, The Trip to Spain and Toni Erdmann.