I’ve put together a top 10 movies list for every year since 1996 and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.  I had the chance to see 222 cinema releases over the past 12 months – the most since 2009.  This is largely due to the unusually high number of new releases.  With blockbusters absent for the most part due to COVID-19, it allowed a lot of smaller films (with an emphasis on documentaries and foreign-language films) to get a run.

It’s always tough narrowing the list down and so here’s a list of the movies which get honourable mentions (gradings of A-) which I couldn’t quite squeeze into my top 10 – The Dig, Dune, Titane, First Cow, A Quiet Place: Part II, News of the World, Girls Can’t Surf, A Family, Two of Us, The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Suicide Squad, The Killing of Two Lovers, Supernova, The Lost Leonardo, Mortal Kombat, Lapsis, Summer of Soul, The Dissident, Assassins, The Lost Daughter and The Scary of Sixty-First.

On that note, here are my top 10 movies of 2021…

10. The Power of the Dog (out Nov 11) is a Western set in Montana, 1925 and revolves around two brothers - one is softly-spoken and recently married, the other is a domineering figure with a chip on his shoulder. It needed a touch more tempo but it's still an interesting, performance-driven character study from director Jane Campion. The more I reflect on it, the more I like it.

9. The Worst Person in the World (out Dec 26) offers an interesting, insightful look into the world of a 30-year-old Norwegian woman who is still unsure about what she wants in terms of career and love. Great conversations are shared by all the characters.

8. The Dry (out Jan 1) is a wonderful addition to Australian cinema. It's the story of an AFP officer returning to a small country town to look into a murder-suicide perpetrated by a close childhood friend. Eric Bana is terrific in the lead role (love his placid demeanour) and the film is loaded with memorable, distinctive supporting performances. Writer-director Robert Connolly, drawing from Jane Harper's award-winning book, deserves praise for creating a credible whodunit.

7. The Truffle Hunters (out Feb 18) is a riveting documentary that fills your brain and lifts your spirits. It's about the elderly Italian men who search for one of the rarest foods in the world - the white Alba truffle (often selling for more than $10,000 AUD per kg). There’s no unnecessary narration and no talking heads. It's a simple, beautiful film that takes us deep inside this fascinating world and its curious characters.

6. Collective (out Apr 8) is a Romanian documentary that's riveting from start to finish. It reminds us of the importance of quality investigative journalism. It demonstrates how tainted one can become when driven by money above all else. It shows how difficult it can be to change “the system” when so many have a vested interest in quietly maintaining the status quo. No surprise to see this nominated for two Academy Awards.

5. Back Luck Banging or Loony Porn (out Nov 25) is probably the most bizarre film I’ve seen this year. Parents at a Romanian school try to have a teacher removed when a sex tape involving her appears online. Split into three very different chapters and framed as a dark comedy, it’s a wild, memorable ride.

4. The Sparks Brothers (out Jul 8) is terrific. While most music documentaries tend to focus on artists with massive highs and massive lows, this one looks at a gifted duo who have spent over 50 years in the business with middling success. Director Edgar Wright extracts oodles of humour from the many interviewees.

3. The Father (out Apr 1) has been nominated at the Oscars for best picture and it tackles the subject of dementia through the eyes of the sufferer. You're never quite sure what's real and what's not. Actors change. Storylines change. Small details within the apartment change. With the wrong actors, this could have come across as a gimmicky exercise but the two leads, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, are extraordinary.

2. West Side Story (out Dec 26) is an invigorating remake, with a few small changes, of the successful stage musical (and 1961 film) from director Stephen Spielberg. The amazing cast, the quality production values, and the iconic music make this a film to celebrate and remember.

1. Riders of Justice (out Sep 30) is a Danish dark comedy about an army man, a computer hacker, and two mathematicians who take on a powerful gang after a suspicious train crash. This is a brilliant, original, funny, surprising movie that flips the action hero genre on its head. The year’s best.

Dear Evan Hansen is one of two big musicals to be released in Australia in December 2021 (the other being West Side Story). I recently spoke with director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) about his new film…

Matt: I was fortunate enough to see the Broadway musical back in 2017 and there was such energy and emotion sitting there in the Music Box Theatre. What was your mindset in trying to recreate that for the 2D format of cinema?

Stephen: Like you, I was a fan of the show. I saw it at the Music Box and loved it. As a lover of theatre, and I have been for decades, I’ve always been fascinated by capturing that tone. How do you turn a 1,000-seat theatre into a dining room with 4 people in it?

Between the live singing and, in some cases, the extended takes, we used the power of cinema. When he’s signing “For Forever” on stage, Cynthia Murphy is 50-feet away and you can’t really see her up close. Man, when you have Ben Platt singing “For Forever” and you can cut to a close-up of Amy Adams or Danny Pino or Kaitlyn Dever, it’s a completely different animal and becomes more intimate in a way.

Whatever we lost in terms of the live performance and communal aspect of it, we gained in the intimacy.

Matt: Hollywood musicals are often elaborate in terms of big, colourful, loud, well-choreographed musical numbers with huge ensembles. Dear Evan Hansen is kind of the opposite.  How did you approach that as a director in shooting the music scenes?

Stephen: Mark Platt was very helpful with this and he’s great at musicals. We were talking about each song and the aesthetic and grammar of each one. Basically, we looked at the songs as an extension of the scenes. To us, it was a drama with songs or a musical with a little “m”. We weren’t trying to be flashy. We were trying to be authentic and true.

Let’s say a character is talking and suddenly they break into song, it’s not like we switch microphones between the talking and the singing. It was all the same thing. It was an extension of the dialogue and that’s how we looked at every single piece. The exception was where it was an internal song like “The Anonymous Ones” or “Waving Through a Window” – that was slightly different.

The only time we did a “number” was “Sincerely, Me” which, by the way, was the most fun I had. Doing that number was a genuine blast. We got to be big and loud and funny and I loved doing it. But otherwise, like you said, it was a very intimate show and that’s how we designed it from the beginning.

Matt: It’s a great cast but I want to focus specifically on Kaitlyn Dever because I saw and appreciated her character a lot clearer than what I did in the original stage musical. What made her stand out for you?

Stephen: She’s a great, one-in-a-generation talent. I’m glad that you said that because I love Zoe. She might be my favourite character in the whole piece. I relate to her very much because my wife had some struggles similar to her growing up.  When there’s a child in the family who requires extra attention, sometimes the person who’s handling it gets overlooked. I really relate to that and I know Kaitlyn did as well with the way she approached the performance.

You’ve seen in the stage play… there’s a lot more kissing and a lot more other things. For me, we strengthened Zoe, and make her tougher, and more difficult to win over, and stronger, and not suffer fools, and be that amazing person that Evan sees. We get to see her at the dance and see her doing these amazing things. We had more room to do it.

On stage, you can’t flash back to her going to a homecoming dance with Evan looking at her and going “my God, look at her, she’s just so free.” We had every trick at our disposal and what was most fun for me was turning the beginning part of “Only Us” into a statement. It becomes a love song in the end but at first, it’s a statement of strength and purpose from Zoe. I love that song and I love what she brought to it.

Jon M. Chu Interview

In the Heights, a film based on the successful stage musical, is about to land in Australian cinemas.  I recently had the chance to speak to director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) about the fun film…

Matt:  Big studio musicals are few and far between these days.  What made you want to take on this project?

Jon:  I remember seeing the show over a decade back and remarking on the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Even though I’m not from Washington Heights and I’m not Latino, it spoke to my own upbringing in an immigrant community in California.  I knew what it felt like to be raised by aunties and uncles and have their hopes and dreams on your shoulders and to not know what to do with it.  It felt like the right time to tell that story now.

Matt:  As we know, a filmed musical throws up many more possibilities than a staged musical and we can see that here by making the neighbourhood such a big part of the movie.  What was your vision in making that transition?

Jon:  It was about taking the audience to Washington Heights and not the other way around.  It’s about embedding them on those streets.  Lin, who still lives in the neighbourhood, had written this amazing music but it had never been performed on the streets that it was about.  For me, it was about connecting the two.

There’s a language of music and movement that comes from this area and I wanted to capture the truth of these songs.  It’s not about us watching them perform the songs but rather, to experience their feelings and to yearn, to dream, to have hope, to feel down, to feel alone, and then to feel together.

Matt:  What sort of challenges does a musical bring that weren’t there on other films you’ve directed to date?

Jon:  There was a lot of pressure because it’s the first adaptation of a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical (laughs).  There are also logistical things.  For the pool in the 96,000 sequence, we had 600 extras and lifeguards to keep everyone safe.  We had people aged between 5 and 81.  We had fire marshals there because there were BBQs with fire.  We had the whole cast there are dance numbers that everyone had to do.  It was a lot!  But, ultimately, my job is to focus on the story and making sure that beyond the spectacle, we’re showing these people have dreams and it’s a “I want” song for the whole community. 

Matt:  Was there much that needed to be modernised?  For example, characters are carrying around iPhone and I think I heard a reference to John Wick at one point.

Jon:  Yeah.  The original Broadway show was set in the 1990s and was more of a period piece.  Times have changed really quickly and we made a conscious choice to make this post-gentrification.  There’s no fight against it and we’re not fighting the mayor who wants to buy all the buildings.  It’s happening and so what is our next move forward?  That was the spot we felt the whole world is in right now.  It’s changing and so what can we do to see our neighbours again and see them as human beings.   

Matt:  In The Heights has been with Lin-Manuel Miranda for a long time having written a first draft over 20 years ago in college.  We see appear in the film every so briefly but how involved was he in this film version behind the camera?

Jon:  We were shooting in his backyard because he still lives there.  Quiara Alegría Hudes, the writer, still lives there too.  When Lin gave me the tour, it was the best.  He was like “this is where I used to shoot my home videos” and I was like “yep, we’re shooting a scene there”.  He had other work on at the time but since he lives there, he would come after work and hang on the set.  He got a lot involved with the casting, the music and the editing and he was the perfect creative leader to look up to.

Matt:  A huge cast is required for the film but I’m particularly interested in Olga Merediz who I believe is the only main cast member reprising their role from when the show won the Tony Award on Broadway.  How did that come about?

Jon:  I was trying not have any Broadway cast members given how much time has passed since then but you can’t find anyone better than Olga.  She was obviously way younger than Claudia back then but now she’d grown into the role and she has more gravitas.  Honestly, I wanted to get it on tape forever.  I knew how special her performance was on Broadway and I knew she could add a lot to this movie.  We convinced her to come on in and she made everybody cry in the table reads and the rehearsals.  She embodied Abuela Claudia.

Matt:  Anthony Ramos has such a great screen presence.  He really do want to root for his character.  How did you settle on him for the lead role?

Jon:  Lin knew him from Hamilton and he did a stint of Usnavi in a smaller theatre version of the musical.  Again, I was trying to avoid going back to people who had played the role before and I auditioned a tonne of people, but when I sat down with Anthony at a coffee shop and he told me about his struggle growing up in New York and not knowing if he was worthy or not of becoming an actor, we cried.

I knew it wasn’t about putting him in a movie, it was about putting a movie through his lens.  It changed everything including the tone.  When other actors saw what he was doing, they were like “oh, we’re doing that.”  That set the course.

Matt:  As for the rest of the cast, how easy was it to find the right actors for each role?

Jon:  It was very difficult.  There are not a lot of roles for Latinx actors in the world and so you might not find them in the normal systems.  We had to search high and low.  We wanted people with high confidence because we think that’s contagious on the big screen and further, they had to be able to sing and dance as fluidly and as naturally as another language they spoke.  It takes a high-level craftsman to do that and we had to look deep to find those people.

Matt:  The film was shot in mid-2019 and now here it is being released two years later.  How much of an impact did COVID-19 have on the post-production and the film’s eventual release?

Jon:  It was hard emotionally to hang onto it for so long.  We were just about to finish it when COVID-19 struck but it gave us time to do some extra refinements with the sound mix.  In a musical, the mix is so important like what level do you hear the lyrics versus a door slamming behind the lyrics? In making it as real and visceral as possible, we had to find our balance and so we had extra time to make it right.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?

Jon:  We’re working on Wicked at the moment with Universal and I’m working with lyricist Stephen Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman.  We’re finding out way into that one and hopefully it’ll be huge.

Finn Little Interview

Finn Little, a 14-year-old from here in Brisbane, has a starring role opposite Angelina Jolie in the new Hollywood action-thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead.  I recently had a chance to speak to Finn about his biggest project to date…

Matt:  You’re a teenager from Brisbane starring in a Hollywood movie opposite Angelina Jolie. Tell us a little about your background. Have you always lived in Brisbane?

Finn:  Yeah, I’ve always lived in Brisbane.  Born and raised and I love it here.

Matt:  How did you get into acting?

Finn:  Mum got me into acting when I was younger.  She got me and my sister into Eisteddfod performances to help us with our public speaking so we wouldn’t be nervous.  She must have thought we were all right because she signed us up with an agent.  We did some commercials and then when I was 10 years’ old, I landed the role in Storm Boy.

Matt:  Have you always enjoyed movies growing up?

Finn:  Definitely.  It’s a great escape from reality to just watch someone else’s life for a bit.

Matt:  What type of movies do you enjoy?  Do you have an all-time favourite film?

Finn:  Um… I don’t know.  I love Saving Private Ryan and also Breathe with Andrew Garfield.  Those are both great films.

Matt:  Those Who Wish Me Dead is a big project. How did you become involved?

Finn:  I have an American agent and they told me about the role.  I did a self-tape in the lounge room at home with my mum and sent it through to them.  They must have liked it because they sent me to Los Angeles to interview with director Taylor Sheridan and Angelina Jolie.

Matt:  I’m sure there would have been a lot of people up for the role so to land it would have been pretty cool?

Finn:  Yeah.  I was quite nervous for the audition so to get the part was very exciting.

Matt:  Angelina Jolie is someone herself who started in the business quite young. Was there much you could learn from her in terms of acting and the movie industry as a whole?

Finn:  Definitely.  She’s very experienced and it was great to work alongside someone who also has an action background to help me through it.  There was a lot to learn and I think we had a great time with each other.

Matt:  Did you get to spend a lot of time off-screen with her as you did on-screen?

Finn:  Yeah.  We spent a few weekends together and I was with her kids doing stuff like airsoft, skate rooms, BBQs and swimming.  We got to know each other pretty well off-set and it was great to have that so we’d feel more comfortable on-set.

Matt:  There are some scenes in this movie that require some big emotions and the camera is right there up in your face. How easy is it to create those moments?

Finn:  I just think about school which is quite traumatic (laughs).  Nah, I just think about past experiences.  Everyone has some stuff in their past that’s changed them a bit.  I think of that and try to bring it onto the screen as best I can.

Matt:  You’ve done a couple of big movies now.  Do you find it gets easier now the experience is building up?

Finn:  Yes.  It was hard at first to get into that headspace but now I can turn it on whenever I need it.

Matt:  You touched on the subject of schooling.  How does that work?  Do you get home schooled on set?

Finn:  I do have a tutor on set who helps me with my school work while I’m away.  That’s all right I guess but I then come back and go to normal school.

Matt:  Those Who Wish Me Dead is rated MA in Australia which means you actually can’t watch this unless in the company of a parent or guardian. Do you get a laugh out of that?

Finn:  Yeah, a little bit.  It’s interesting that I’ve done the stuff on set and have lived it but I can’t watch it myself… but I have watched it on the big screen and it looks really great.

Matt:  On that note though, are there safeguards in place for a young actor like you on the set? This is a very violent, intense movie in places with much of it shot at night.

Finn:  There are a few little things that I have to stay in-bounds of.  Kids have a certain amount of hours on set that they’re allowed to work.  I can’t be overworked so they had to get my scenes done fairly quickly each day.  There were a few more rules but I was happy to follow them.

Matt:  This movie was shot roughly two years ago but it’s taken a while to reach cinemas due to the impact of COVID-19. I’m sure you’ve grown and matured a lot over that time. What’s it like for you watching this movie and judging the performance of your younger self?

Finn:  I hate it.  I can’t stand it.  It’s hard to watch everything I do because it’s me and I notice every tiny thing that’s wrong with my American accent and every little acting mistake that I make.  I still haven’t gotten used to it yet.

Matt:  Have you had the chance to show the movie to family and friends yet?  Did you get some good reactions?

Finn:  Yes I did.  We invited quite a few family friends to the premiere last Friday night at Palace Cinemas.  That was my first time watching it on the big screen and it was great. 

Matt:  I was a big fan of both Sicario and Hell or High Water which were written by Taylor Sheridan.  What can you tell us about his approach to this film as director and how he guided your performance?

Finn:  Taylor Sheridan is really great to work with.  He builds an environment for his actors to work in that helps them deliver a better performance.  With the fire scenes, he actually built a forest and lit it on fire.  He did that to help us actors get into a headspace of what the characters were going through.  It was a pleasure to work with him.

Matt:  Were there many stunts you had to do as part of the film?

Finn:  Yeah, there were a few but they were fun and I really enjoyed them.  Wade Allen was our stunt coordinator and he always made sure I was good on set.  Angelina is such a professional at all that stuff and so it was nice to work alongside her.

Matt:  What was the hardest part of the shoot?

Finn:  Maybe the altitude in New Mexico.  I might be wrong but it’s about 2,000 feet above sea level so the air is a lot thinner and it’s harder to breathe.  Anything I normally do might take three times as long but I got used to it after a while.

Matt:  How do you find the PR side of things? Doing interviews like this?

Finn:  It’s all right I guess.  It can be fun to talk to a lot of different people about the movie and I hope I’m doing all right. 

Matt:  Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?  Any projects you can tell us about?

Finn:  I can’t talk about too much at the moment but stay tuned and you’ll be surprised and pretty happy about what’s coming up.