Monday, February 5, 2018

That time I chose the Australian movie over the best picture nominee

I'm not sure if it's my commitment to writing reviews, my sense of duty as a critic for an Australian publication, or just my exaggerated tendency to write off a cinematic year once my year-end list is published, but on Thursday, I watched a new Australian movie rather than the best picture nominee that had just been released.

The best picture nominee directed by a man who had once directed my #1 movie of the year, if we want to tie that in.

Yes indeed, on Thursday night, for my first trip to the movies since I closed that much-discussed year-end list, I opted for Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country over Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread.

Not something I could have imagined myself doing five years ago.

Now, there's a logistical aspect of this that must be considered as well. Sweet Country had been out for a full week already, whereas Phantom Thread was debuting that night. If I still wanted to review Sweet Country, I needed to see it now or else forfeit the opportunity. Given the way movies tend to hang around at Cinema Nova, Phantom Thread will still be playing in early April -- though Sweet Country could be too. (That doesn't help me in terms of reviewing it, though. And Nova is only supposed to let us see it with our critics card within the first two weeks of its release.)

Anyway, if I had been thinking purely as a cinephile with a bias toward cinema with the most prominence on the world stage, I would have clearly opted for Phantom Thread. I'm sure that movie benefits from being seen on the big screen, as any movie with a strong visual sense obviously does (or any movie in general does -- discuss). Anderson makes epics that need to wash over us, or should, anyway.

But in this case I was thinking as a critic who believes that potentially one of the most important Australian films in a decade needs to be reviewed on our site, and my editor is out of town (has been for a month), so he's certainly not in a position to do it.

(Of course, I was also thinking as the same list obsessive, who could add Sweet Country as my second viewing of 2018.)

Even without having seen Phantom Thread yet, I can share with you how little I am disappointed with my decision. Sweet Country is a masterpiece, one that grapples with the soul of a country that has abused its native population in a way very similar to what the U.S. has done, and has an ongoing debate about whether we should get the day off work for Australia Day, which commemorates the arrival of Europeans in Australia. Not only is it an absolute triumph in terms of filmmaking, with terrific acting, cinematography and even arthouse editing, but it's something every Australian should see.

And I hope people other than Australians will see it, giving it the relevance on the world stage that theoretically gave Phantom Thread an advantage over it. It's just finished playing at Sundance, which means American audiences are likely to eventually see it, as well they should. As well they will want to. In addition to everything else, it makes for a great western.

As for Phantom Thread ... I may still see it in the theater, I may not. I have not loved an Anderson film since my beloved There Will Be Blood, my #1 movie of 2007. With the two I've seen since then and not loved, The Master and Inherent Vice, I saw one on the big screen and one on the small. Seeing it writ large may have made me like The Master more than I would have otherwise, but I didn't like either of those movies a huge amount, so I don't know if I owe Anderson anything in terms of this one. He may need to win me back, in a way. (I did like The Master, and probably owe it a second viewing; with Inherent Vice, I think I'm done after one.)

My Sweet County review should be up on the site and linked in a couple days. Read up on it, and look for it coming to a theater near you.

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