Synedoche, New York 2008 ***


The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman left something of a gap; who else could play the central character of this bizarre Charlie Kaufman comedy drama? Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatre director who is a hypochondriac and also is struggling with his family relationships; his wife and daughter leave him to go to Berlin while he works on his latest theatrical opus. The production takes years, and while he’s holed up in a vast warehouse, Cotard begins to experience heath issues which he believes might be fatal. Writing and directing for the first time, Kaufman retains the quirks if not the good humour of his earlier work, aided by a strong female cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams. But ultimately it’s Hoffman’s portrait of a creative man at the end of his teacher that proves the most haunting; art and life are intertwined in this story, and in real life, tragedy caught up with Hoffman’s prodigious talent in the worst possible way.


Mary and Max 2009 ***



Writer, director and animator Adam Elilot won an Oscar for his short Harvie Crumpet; he followed up with feature Mary and Max, using Claymation figures to tell a grown-up story. Mary Dinkle is an eight year old Australian girl who has an unlikely pen-pal; Max Horowitz, a middle-aged, seriously depressed man who lives in a NYV apartment. Voiced by Toni Colette and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Mary and Max never meet, but their friendship grows through their unlikely correspondence. With vocal contributions from Eric Bana and Barry Humphries, Mary and Max is one of the few films to deal with both Asperger’s and depression in an adult fashion; there’s no quick fixes of magical revelations, but a patient consideration of the outward factors that lead to internal malaise.

Doubt 2009 ***


Plays like The Big Funk made John Patrick Shanley’s name; his cinematic output, from Moonstruck to Joe Vs The Volcano, is highly idiosyncratic. Adapting his own play Doubt for the big screen, he also turned director and coaxed excellent performances from Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for this absorbing drama. Set in 1964, Streep plays Sister Aloyisus the matriarchal school principlal who is alerted by Sister James (Adams) to the behaviour of a charismatic priest Father Flynn, played by Hoffman. Their concern is the attention that Flynn is playing to the school’s first black student; Shanley’s concern is not so much to investigate Flynn’s actions, but to consider the whole nature of guilt and doubt. The actors are more than capable of handling the long dialogue scenes, and Viola Davis contributes an explosive cameo as the boy’s mother.

State and Main 2000 ***


Although his background in theatre has made him something of a guru, David Mamet had enough experience of Hollywood to craft this ingenious, intelligent comedy about the business. He wrote and directed State and Main, which details the making of a fictional film called The Old Mill, with a film-crew descending on a Vermont town for an extremely troubled shoot. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Walt, the unfortunate writer who finds his words habitually and consistently undermined by the filming process, with Alec Baldwin sending himself up beautifully as Bob, a star with a penchant for teenagers, and there’s accomplished support from William H Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker and David Paymer. There’s a great plot twist involving an elaborate deception, and a super joke about product placement too; Mamet knows his stuff, but is patient enough to craft a sophisticated and comical drama that lets the audience in on the joke.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead 2008 ***


Sidney Lumet’s last few decades were disappointing in view of the consistently excellent quality of his heyday, from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon, but his final feature marked a impressive return to form. In a role that takes on uncomfortable resonance since his 2014 death, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a drug-fuelled real-estate exec whose marriage is on the rocks, and who convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help rob his father’s jewelry store. When the heist goes wrong, Charles (Albert Finney) is compelled to investigate the behavior of his own children, and discovers that Hank is having an affair with Andy’s wife (Marisa Tomei). An absorbing crime drama with great performances from a distinguished cast, Hoffman, Finney and Hawke are all at their best, while Tomei excels in a memorable if short appearance.