Friday, January 01, 2010

Fifteen from Two Thousand And Nine

This year, I defy the tyranny of the Top 10.
Partly this is because I've had a lot of trouble with this year's list. The perennial question of "Is favourite the same as Best?" seems to become more complicated by the year as my taste alters and evolves. Unquestionably I like artier material now than I did even three years ago. But the stuff I love most is generally the cinema that straddles the line between arthouse and multiplex. The great films of the Golden age of American Cinema in the 1970s made accessable populist entertainment which were also, to varying degrees, art films. Or at least they would be seen as such these days. But modern Blockbuster Cinema shuns anything too arty in its ravenous lust for that early teen demographic, and prestige "adult" pictures aimed at the Academy Awards are generally just so much nicely-photographed, middle of the road mulch. So the American Cinema I favour feels part of a dying breed, and more and more the only real pleasures are to be found in World Cinema.
Anyway, my Top 5 are neck and neck and I found it almost impossible to rank them against each other.
It is also worth saying that the best film I saw this year was Lu Chuan's incredible City of Life and Death, about the Rape of Nanking, which won't be released in the UK until April, so I can't include it here (though it and Audiard's A Prophet will probably make my Decade list, coming to this site in late January at my present rate of productivity).
So, a Top 15, some also-rans, and lots of words (all 2009 UK releases):

1. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
-If it had come out in the 1970s - or even in the 1980s - Hurt Locker would have been regarded as a pretty good little War Film for grown-ups. But it came out in 2009, which means that its regarded as an Indie, and the critical reception for it has been stunning. Which says more about the paucity of modern mainstream American cinema than it does about Bigelow's spare, muscular, outstanding action-thriller. Its reception suggests just how underappreciated Bigelow has always been. But she directed one of the best films of the 90s - Strange Days - and Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break are all tremendous too. The Hurt Locker feels like a step forward, however, as if her time away from cinema have given her a new hunger.
Its screenwriter, Mark Boal, is not a screenwriter by profession, and it shows. This film is a fluid, episodic beast, its structure not quite as predictable as much modern action cinema. You never know what will happen next, which undoubtedly works in the films favour in its desire to create a near-unrelenting state of suspense. Bigelow aims for immersion and she gets there - here are the streets of Baghdad, atmospheric, tense, paranoid, crowded, and here the sweaty dread of attempting to disarm a bomb, the physical impact and trauma of an explosion, lifting dust off objects and off the ground, the sudden violence of gunfire and the toll it takes. Bigelow's action scenes are predictably superb but she also shows a subtle command of texture. The few short scenes near the end set back home in wintry America are among the films best in their precision and articulate poetry. The three leads are all brilliant but Jeremy Renner is particularly great in what should be a breakthrough role for him. The highest praise I can offer, really, is to say that this film is as good, or even better - as dense, more gripping, as interesting and as believable but with the crucial added ingredient of a constant, awful sense of dread - as an episode of David Simon's awesome Generation Kill, with the added bonus of being shot by a truly gifted director who can stage a scene better than almost anyone else on this list. It may just be the last American masterpiece of the 00s.

2. White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
- I've always been impressed by Haneke but rarely loved his work. He obviously has an incredible gift for the medium itself. Each of his films feels impeccably made by a controlling intelligence that knows exactly what it wants to achieve - and this may be the problem with this work. There is none of the messy warmth of humanity in his work, it feels intimidatingly cold and austere. My favourites up to now have been Hour of the Wolf, his shell-shocked realist post-apocalyptic film, and Code Unknown, his version of the multi-character, multi-strand epic perfected by robert altman. The White Ribbon seems to me to be his greatest work, a masterpiece which feels like it possesses the weight and truth of a timeless myth. Focusing on the strange events in a small, rural German village in the year before the outbreak of the First World War, the film is shot - beautifully - in black and white, and narrated by the schoolteacher who is the closest we have to a leading character. He tells a tale which he suggests may help to explain what happened to Germany later in the century. His tale involves a string of mysetrious and shocking crimes in this town - a wire strung between two trees at a gate, crippling a horse and badly injuring a doctor, a barn set on fire, children tortured - and the story seems to indicate that the town's children are collectively responsible. But there is always a line of ambiguity through the narrative - key characters disappear without any explanation. The audience never sees clearly who is actually responsible for which acts, though Haneke leaves us many clues.
Most of his flaws and strengths are present - the absence of anything resembling a sense of humour, for instance, balanced by his uncanny ability to mount an appalling growing sense of dread in just about every scene. The script is clear, balanced, not without some poetry. There is a touching, sentimental little love story to leaven some of the darkness of the main plotline, which may be the reason I liked this film more than the majority of his work.
If it is sometimes a little too on-the-nose, then there are major strengths: the performances are uniformly great, none more so than from the many cherubic children, made terrifying by Haneke's direction, the lack of any score and shining greys of the photography.
Haneke is one of the masters of international cinema, working regularly at a level far beyond most directors, and here he has surpassed himself, making a film which is unsettling, powerful, thought-provoking and unforgettable. It utterly deserved the Palm D'Or it won at Cannes.

3. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
- Your average biopic depends on the life of the subject for its interest. But then your average biopic reduces even the most fascinating, relevant life into a three-act-structure-nightmare-of-emotional-beats-and-emotionally-underlined-"moments" which bears little resemblance to any real, actual, lived life, no matter how historically important and incident-packed it might be. "Che" is very different. It avoids the "moments" and shows us the off-beats, offers little in the way of a story arc or character development. And its amazing, a vivid, beautiful, subtle and intelligent portrayal of a human being, and of a personal experience of two political moments in Latin America during the Twentieth Century. The first film is all optimism - everything goes so so right, militarily, personally, politically; its a march towards a glorious victory. Soderbergh makes his points quietly, in the sight of Guevara becoming a leader slowly, becoming a true revolutionary only as he lives within the revolution and sees what it really means. He counterpoints the Cuban revolution with Guevara's own commentary, years later in New York, interviewed by a journalist and addressing the UN. As a portrayal of a guerrilla war, its taut and gripping and finely crafted. I was there, in that jungle with those men. I winced and jumped through the street fighting. It also contains the best and truest evocation of an asthma attack I've ever seen, which made my chest tighten just watching it. You can feel Terrence Malick's involvement (he wrote an early draft, was attached to direct, and was involved as a producer in some capacity before shooting actually began) in the way it approaches meditative moments, in its alertness to the beauty of trees, the mystery of people, the power of adroitly used voiceover. Soderbergh, acting as his own Director of Photography, as he usually does, under the name Peter andrews shot the whole thing on the Red digital camera, and it is beautiful. The first film glows with a sort of golden light - the jungle is all yellow-greens, warm and vibrant. The second, in obvious contrast, adopts a chilly blue-green colour scheme, and is visually darker, matching it's thematic and narrative gloom. For here is a warped mirror of the first part. Everything goes wrong for Guevara in Bolivia, the net tightening slowly, steadily. It is a painful march towards death, but just as riveting in its bleakness, in its frank violence. The climactic battle is brilliantly mounted and shot, the terrain as intsnatly familiar to me as my own palms due to Soderbergh's fine storytelling. The final moments are brutal, without dignity or pity. Only cheap and grubby, the way being shot in a hut in a Bolivian backwater should be seen. And yet the value of Guevara's struggle is suggested by the lives of the peasants he encounters, frightened, sick, starving, they trust neither Government nor Guerillas, their decisions made based on who they fear more. The presence of CIA advisors is noted, giving teh conflict more resonance for a modern audience.
Deltoro is astounding.

4. 35 Shots of Rum (Clare Denis)
- One of the things that french cinema does so well, and perhaps that for which it is most renowned, is a way with middle class drama, without any of the melodrama, gloss or contrivance of the Hollywood version of such. Here Claire Denis, who is on a stunning run of consistently great films, turns her hand to a version of the genre. And the result is stunning - a perfectly modulated, acutely observed, truthful portrayal of family life in a blue collar parisian suburb. Widower Lionel lives a nice life of comfortably warm domesticity with his lovely daughter Josephine, supported by a family-like network of colleagues and neighbours. However, he knows that his daughter will have to leave the nest eventually, and seems torn by his own feelings about this. From such simple raw material, Denis draws on Ozu for inspiration and fashions an elegant, visually lovely film where nothing is ever made obvious but everything is evident through the complexities inherent in the simplest transactions between characters. The performances are all virtually invisible in their artful realism, each character and conversation utterly convincing. Denis' sublime eye finds the beauty in the apartment blocks, the spreading Metro track junctions and the vast unknowableness of outer Paris, and her blocking and composition of every interior scene is peerless. There is, finally, an exceptional emotional charge as the film takes on its big themes - loyalty, belonging, generational relationships, the very stuff of life - without ever slipping into didacticism. All that and a great score by Tindersticks to boot. Denis' next, White Material, already shown at festivals, can't get here soon enough.

5. Adventureland (Greg Mottola)
- A couple of perfectly captured moments: a young man and woman driving at night. The Velvet Underground's sublime "Pale Blue Eyes" plays in the car as he watches the steel beams and girders of a bridge pass overhead in the night-light of the city. The director lingers on the shot longer than most would, certainly in this type of film. The same young man and woman watch a firework display light up the night sky above an amusement park on the 4th of July as Crowded House's lovely "Don't Dream Its Over" kicks in and they move closer to each other.
Some films feel like they were made just for you. Greg Mottola's semi-autobiographical film is that rare thing; an utterly accessible American mainstream art film. Part romcom, part teen comedy, part coming of age drama, its a pleasure from start to finish, with moments of keenly observed truth amidst all the 80s nostalgia. Jesse Eisenberg is always perfect in this kind of too smart, too sensitive role, and so it proves in this instance. Kristen Stewart matches him, and the support cast are funny and heartbreaking in turn.
It may be the adult ambiguity of characters and situations that helps this seems so fresh: Mottolla is a humanist - he judges nobody, seems to care about everybody, even Ryan Reynolds' two-timing liar. And he has more directorial style than most directors of teen comedies can dream of - here he lingers on the unexpected beauty of the amusement park after dark, on two young people kissing against a neon-lit sky.
The plot is a gentle meander through a summer working in a crappy job and falling in love with a smart, beautiful girl.
The soundtrack is fantastic: The Replacements, Big Star, the aforementioned Velvets and Crowded House, Nick Lowe, and the Cure...pure quality. Plus Rock Me Amadeus.

6. In the City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin)
- Film Studies 101: The Male Gaze. But here the form is the content, the substance dictates the style.
Or to put it another way: A young man returns to an unnamed European City after six years to find a girl he met there. He lingers in a particular cafe and watches people, sketches them, writes in a journal. He sees her, follows her through the city and finally confronts her. She is not the girl. He returns to his watching and sketching.
Guerin's treatment of such a premise makes of it a mesmeric and multi-layered masterpiece. It is a sustained consideration of the male gaze in that much of the film takes the protagonists view as its own, and we see the dozens of beautiful girls he watches. But Guerin switches between his subjective gaze and the more objective view of the camera itself. The subjective camera will linger upon the nape of a neck for a minute, then move on to the frown playing across the face of a girl listening to a friend. This consistent attention, and Guerin's insistence on patiently recording it, then returning to a more objective view, forces us to interrogate the images and their meaning, and the meaning of all such images, of men objectifying women. His later pursuit of "Sylvia" through the city underlines and amplifies this point, beginning as a romantic, almost charming gesture, and becoming something of a frightening stalk as it continues. And yet Guerin allows his film to be complex - the conversation between hunter and hunted, when it occurs, is its own sort of flirtation, not without its own romanticism.
This is the story of a man trying to recreate a memory, too, and as such it plays tricks with its own timeline. The final act could almost be a flashback, the other acts could be arranged in any order. If this sounds dry or pretentious, well then that may be so. And yet it is suffused with a sense of longing, an ache and melancholy, which gives it a weight and impact it might otherwise lack.
There are references. To films - Hitchcock (Vertigo, most obviously) and Godard. To literature and art.
This is also a great study of a European City (in fact Strasbourg) in summer. The camera follows these people through its boulevards, along its riverbanks, up its lanes and alleyways and onto its trams. We see faces recur in different places and at different times. We see forms merge through clever compositions, reflections ripple through the frame, figures appearing and disappearing within them (Guerin again playing with perspective). We see the same piece of graffiti in a half-dozen places. The life of a city stands revealed in Guerin's long takes. He seems to be attempting to faithfully replicate how it feels to wander the yellow backstreets of a beautiful city on a hot day, how it feels to ride a tram, how it feels to drink a beer outside a cafe, to lie in bed with a beautiful woman in the darkness. A film of such moments, done right, has an intrinsic value for what it says about the human condition, for what it suggests about life itself. And this film is done right - the sound design is superb, flip-flops on cobble-stones sounding just as you know they should, the chatter of a cafe, a pencil on paper. Visually it is lovely. Guerin's compositions are artful, clever and yet sensuous, and it is one of the best steadicam films in recent memory. And it is filled with beautiful faces. Lead Xavier Lafitte is just right; almost open but somehow mysterious. Perfect.

7. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)
- A black comedy of uncommon depth and visual style, this has a fair shout in my mind to be seen as the best thing the Coens have ever done. Yes, its that good. Following the rapid disintegration of the life of one Larry Gopnik, a Physics lecturer in a small Minneasota College in the 1960s, the Coens use their story to pose some big questions about faith, religion and our search for answers by touching on mathematics and the torah, Schrodingers Cat and Jefferson Airplane. That they manage to do this while maintaining a sort of white knuckle quality to their comedy is further proof of the immensity of their talent. Of course all the technical aspects are top-notch - the photography (by their usual DP, the great Roger Deakins), editing, music and acting each add to the peerless sense of smooth brilliance.
The details and vignettes are what mark this rewrite of the Book of Job out as a Coen movie. The bit-parts, every one inimitable and memorable. The baffling fable of the prologue, in Yiddish, in Olde Europe. The Rabbis "Goy's teeth" story.
That perfect, maddening ending, literally on the off-beat. But there is a warmth here absent in much of the Brothers' work - nostalgia, even, for the setting here is their own childhood environment, and its charm is never downplayed.

8. Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
- I knew this was special by how much my first viewing utterly befuddled me. It felt quite unlike any film I have ever seen. For here is an art film disguised as a Summer blockbuster; an uneven but coldly poetic story of the impossibility of true communication and of outrunning fate dressed up as a 30s gangster picture, all sharp suits and tommy guns. Mann doesn't play with convention, he utterly ignores it, it is an irrelevance. Hes after immersion, immediacy, a quicksilver study of the fleeting instant, and he gets that, alright, with his use of digital photography, with his shot-choices and passages of beautifully edited dreamy visual poetry. That controversial photography is not an issue. Mann is trying to change the way movies look, and yet he is capable of making this a film loaded with amazing tableaux, with breathtaking shots. That those shots are undeniably raw, feel as "real" as fictional feature films ever feel, is a massive part of what makes it all possess such a fresh tone. Mann's style has shifted and loosened in the last few years, with more and more handheld work meaning that his camera is always moving, and much of the beauty lies in this motion, in the fleetingly lovely glories it finds as it glides. That and the fact that there is little or no exposition, that the supporting characters drift in and out without explanation or introduction add to the odd, unique tone. And the fact that the characterisation avoids the usual spoonfeeding beloved of most Hollywood cinema in favour of trusting the audience to find these people themselves. When Dillinger gives Billie a potted summation of his life and likes ("What else do you need to know?"), it is as if Mann is daring the audience to go with him, promising that this film offers more than such reductive dialogue, more than tart, glib "explanations". What it offers is an impressionist trip through a fast brutal life, with death forever hanging overhead. It is an extended meditation on death, with multiple scenes of one man watching another die. Dillinger and Purvis even discuss it in their brief prison-set exchange.
But like all Mann films it is primarily a movie of great moments - like the many action sequences, particularly the nocturnal gun battle at Little Bohemia, the black of night starred with yellow muzzle flashes, the sounds of tommy guns and revolvers thunderous. Or the two sublime scenes of Dillinger in cinemas, watching himself on a wanted poster and in a fictionalised form as played by Clark Gable. Or that perfect ending with Stephen Lang and Marion Cotillard in a small room, when the emotional payload finally hits on three little words: "Bye Bye Blackbird". Or possibly the finest scene of all - Dillinger's sunlit stroll through the "Dillinger Unit" at police headquarters.

9. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
- Tarantino loves Cinema so much it can make you remember how much you love cinema, just watching one of his better films.
This is one of his better films. A sometimes silly, often camp WW2 fantasia set in a movie WW2 fashioned rather lke a Western, it offers many pure pleasures. The sustained tension of the opening sequence. Cristoph waltz's hilarious, chiling reading of a Nazi Colonel. The stiff parody of British films of the 1940s, all clipped posh accents and hard whiskey in large empty, old rooms. Ennio Morricone. Numerous onscreen scalpings and beatings and shootings, unblinkingly portrayed. Til Schweiger's brutally cruel face being put to perfect use, twitching with repressed violence. Melanie Laurent's hauteur and cool beauty and the emotional payload delivered by her story arc. David Bowies Cat People music, somehow, miraculously, working. Tarantino's penchant for God POV shots, the Searchers shot through the door, Samuel L Jackson's brief narration, Michael Fassbinder's cool, calm, kickarse response to discovery...The film within a film, Tarantino giving Eli Roth the chance to enjoy shooting pure WW2 combat in black and white.

10. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
- How can a film which features scenes of people bursting into flames, limbs and heads wrent from bodies, acid scarring, blood pouring from eyes and ears, animal attack and sundry neck-chomping still manage to be as, well, sweet as this film was?
This is a unique, special work, is the answer, its properties and effects just as unique and special. Director Alfredson sets the tone with an opening shot of quiet, haunting beauty. Snow falling in the night, perhaps lit by distant streetlights.
then we meet Oscar, a lonely bullied boy from divorced parents. All shot in tight close ups, the focus shifting so that characters will become fuzzy with movement, the negative space often a soft area of indistinct colour. It puts these people front and centre, emphasised by the intimate sound mix. When Oscar meets Eli, his new neighbour, Alfredson takes his time and allows the relationship and the story to develop. And develop it does. The genre moments are subtle, plays on that old Stephen King tactic of addressing horror chestnuts through the most banal and everyday situations. But they have their own peculiar nordic poetry here, a sadness underlined by the white of the skies and the snow-covered landscapes. There is wit too, and warmth - at its warm heart this is really the tale of two people falling in love, told intensely and movingly. But it is gripping, too, its climax a heart in mouth scene with a satisfying moment for the audience as its punchline. Somehow, bewilderingly, it also has a happy ending. The child actors are brilliant. In its way, its close to perfect.

11. Two Lovers (James Gray)
- James Gray abandons the over-familiar genre material and brings an old-fashioned romantic drama to the table. Only its suffused with the ache and dark mood of those genre films, with the grainy beauty of their photography, with the wintry New York locations and the claustrophobic family homes and the emotions bubbling up to the surface of every conversation and it features the star of the last two, Joaquin Phoenix, who is absolutely terrific here - perhaps the best he has ever been - as the damaged Leonard. The lovers of the title are lovely, quietly sexy girl next door Vinessa Shaw and glam party girl Gwyneth Paltrow. Its so vivid and powerfully felt from the off that by the end I found it extraordinarily moving, its characters believable, its emotions acute and raw, its cinematic power undeniable. For Gray makes bruised, muscular films, melodramas for men, male-odramas, if you will. Well written, in its fumbling conversations, its perfect reveals of dawning awareness, its portrayals of people lying to themselves, and beautifully shot in wintry and autumnal blues and greys, Two Lovers is Gray's best film and it marks him out as a singular talent.

12. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
- Jarmusch links film and music like no other director, and to such an extent that his best films feel like pieces of music. The Limits of Control is like a long workout, where what really matters is the tone and the groove, the journey rather than the destination. The mostly abstract story follows a near-silent Hitman, played by Isaach de Bankole, on an obscure mission in Spain, as he makes a series of mysterious meetings with contacts invariably played by seasoned character actors (John Hurt, Luis Tosar, Tilda Swinton) who exchange cryptic philosophies with our loner hero. Jarmusch channels Le Samourai and Point Blank (as well as Rivette) while referencing Hitchcock and Claire Denis, Bill Murray basically plays Dick Cheney, and the whole thing is utterly Europhile. But really its all about that groove and the musicianship - de Bankole's incredible presence, Christopher Doyle's beautiful cinematography, the backstreets of Madrid and Seville, the crunch of Boris and Earth on the soundtrack, Paz de la Huerta naked on a defies convention, refuses explanation, and yet is purest pleasure all the way if you are willing to take it on its own terms.

13. A Perfect Getaway (David Twohy)
- David Twohy, who made Pitch Black, here demonstrates that his understanding of genre dynamics extend to the more mainstream end of things - in this case a seemingly anonymously generic thriller. This self aware spectacle is all kinds of fun, twisting and turning through revelations and double crosses all the way through, beautifully shot and edited and nicely directed by Twohy. But it is built upon great characterisation and strong performances: Timothy Olyphant has a great time as a loquacious "American Jedi" ex-Special Forces soldier, Milla Jovovich thrives away from the numbing repetition of fighting zombies in video game adaptations, and Steve Zahn shows he has some range beyond quirky smart-mouths for perhaps the first time ever. There is more there too, if you want it - a telling, well-observed study of coupledom, its compromises and shared understandings, and a believable, authentic portrayal of the weird chemistry of a holiday encounter: instant bonds formed between strangers and the tensions that ensue. Only here that all ends in gunplay and knives flung through the air. I've been reading "Farber On Film" over the last few days and I reckon Manny would've loved it...

14. Bright Star (Jane Campion)
- Jane Campion seemed somehow unmoored in her last two films, both set in the modern world, but here, back in period drama, her control and precision are as assured and lyrical as ever. The story of John Keats' relationship with Fanny Brawne, this film is a breathtaking study in the beauty of natural light. It is also a subtle and minutely observed love story, sensitively played by Ben Whishaw and the exceptional Abbie Cornish, which contains a sizable emotional charge in its latter stages. It is brilliant on the surprise and rapture of first love and on its agonies and bliss, due mainly to Campion's ability to find a visual language to portray such ephemeral modes - the film is full of great imagery. Campion also touches lightly upon the complexities of the poetic impulse and it all pays off with the final readings of some of Keats' most romantic work.

15. Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)
- Sorrentino is probably the greatest stylist of his generation, a director with an uncommon eye and sense of cinema. He could direct an episode of Country file and make it visually thrilling, elegant and atmospheric. Here he takes the life of Giulio Andreoti, seven-time Italian Prime Minister, and turns it into a bracing satirical black comedy with a brilliantly comic performance from Tony Srvillo at its centre. Much of the resonances of the plot were undoubtedly lost on me, with my rudimentary grasp of late 20th Century Italian politics. And yet, after a confusing first act it settles into a rhythm of observing Andreotti as he squirms away from the finger of guilt and complicity in a series of murders, added to accusations of corruption and mafia association. He is depicted as a sly, sphinx-like figure, unknowable and all-knowing, his voiceover presenting us with facts and no insight. He prowls his roman apartment at night like Nosferatu, hands knit together across his chest. Sorrentino's camera glides in his wake or before him, its every movement perfect, every lighting set-up beautiful, every music cue a stunningly apt yet somehow surprising thrill. Cinema this brilliantly mounted is exhilarating to witness.

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
I wasn't prepared for how funny some of the Wrestler would be. How much the ridiculous, cartoonishly operatic violence of the actual bouts would make me laugh. "Use my leg, Ram!": that was the kicker. And then by the final bout, you know the film has worked, because its not funny anymore. Its sad, an elegy for this man who has lost himself to his stage-name, who turns his back on a chance with a beautiful, good woman to relish the sound of the crowd one more time. Its all there in Rourke's face when he looks at the gap in the curtains and she's gone and he shakes his head, briefly, and you wonder if he knows just what hes done. Rourke is fantastic, the way his bloated features make him look like a villain from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy actually working for the role, his sausage fingers and strangely fragile walk giving him a terrible pathos. The way he denies everything but what he loves best. Tomei matches him in her scenes - she has become a great actress over the last decade. Aronofsky makes a film I never expected to see from him, and he makes a success of it.

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The pre-credit sequence announces a change of pace for Ceylan - this is a melodrama, almost a noir (later it will even feature supernatural elements). It also announces that he has been refining his talent, his storytelling instincts becoming more precise. Four shots set up the film: 1. a man driving a car at night, his face, plump with prosperity in close-up. 2. His car moving down a country road, picked out by its own headlights, then turning out of picture. We hear the screech of breaks. 3. a man running across the road away from a dark form at its centre. Another car pulls up in the background, a hushed conversation takes place, a licence plate number is noted and the police are mentioned, that car drives away and we see the man from the first shot, in close up again, panicked and sweaty, considering quickly, then driving away. 4. The body which is the dark form in the road. Ceylan's work as a still photographer has left him seemingly incapable of picking a shot which is less than stunning. His compositions are beautiful, the blacks positively glowing within every one of his frames. He is that rare director who has truly come to terms with digital cinema. It allows him an exactitude and command of detail which gives this film extraordinary texture: every scene is sensual, every room has a scent. The sound design is amazing in its capturing of a mans breath heavy through his nose or the tension of a trains noisy passage. The story - infidelity, murder and repression - is intense and tragic, and Cylans treatment of it is considered and dispassionate.

Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn)
The year's best opening scene: a man, naked, muscular and entirely bald - but for a theatrically pointed moustache - shadow boxes inside a cage, talking intensely to himself. Ugly red light washes the entire space. Music burns up onto the soundtrack in an intense drone, a coming storm in its slowly repetitive bass and synthesiser , flashes of something else moving within. The man is Tom Hardy, starring as Charles Bronson. The Music is the Walker Brothers sublime "The Electrician." Hardy drops to his front and does some rapid press-ups as Scott Walker croons "Baby its slow/when lites go low/ theres no help/ no" over that ominous soundscape. Then Hardy stands, doors open and as the song bursts to life in a lazy splash of drums a group of prison guards charge the cell. Hardy, cackling, enjoying himself, throws his body into the combat as Walker's voice rises in some form of ecstasy: "He's drilling through the Spiritus Sanctus tonight/ Through the dark he falls/ Screaming Oh You Mambos/ Kill me and kill me and kill me/ If i jerk - the handle / You'll die in your dreams" and Hardy falls beneath the mound of men, beaten, then turns and smiles up at them. Title.
Refn's cinema is usually restrained in its realism. The superb "Pusher" series is anything but ostentatious in its style. But here he showcases himself as director - its a Brechtian portfolio of technique and spectacular scenes. Hardy is outstanding, the film is never less than entertaining and often stunning. But its also curiously unenlightening. We emerge knowing no more about Charles Bronson than we did going in. His life is his canvas, his art, it seems to say. But it doesn't say it very well. But it is fun. Refn and Hardy enjoyed themselves, and so did I.

UP (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson)
- Another year, another piece of Pixar genius.
The early wordless montage sequence - you know the one, the one every single review mentions, so top marks to me for originality, the one on the life of a couple? - is just beautiful.

Outlander (Howard McCain)
- So another Summer passes, filled once again with Gigantic Fantasy Action blockbusters, each of which is entirely empty, stupid, pointless, incoherent and offensive and lacking in any beauty, inspiration or wit. But hey, they all had big explosions and loads of CGI. Aces! Meanwhile, this little gem snuck out in April and rapidly disappeared. But it shows those bigger films how this kind of material should be done.
The story : an alien ship crashes in Viking Norway. The single surviving crew member falls in with a local band of Vikings and together they try to stop the murderous rampage of the other crash survivor, a dragon-like "Morween". Beowulf with an SF trim, in other words. Crucially, this film knows what it is and what it wants to be. Its ambitions are limited. It wants to tell a good tale, and it does that, with fine characterisation and tense, gripping action scenes. The relatively low budget, though evident at times, is a hurdle handled very well. The production design and photography are good, with a nice attention to detail that makes all the difference with this sort of material. Jim Caviezel makes an appealingly grim hero and John Hurt and Ron Perlman offer stalwart support. It works, offering genre thrills in a pure, enjoyable manner you don't really see too much these days.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
- Certainly some sort of masterpiece, this dense and challenging film plays like nothing else I've ever seen. Defiantly complex and downbeat it sees Kaufman take on the biggest themes - death, sickness, depression, love, failure, the relationship between life and art, the passage of time - through his unique, brilliant sensibility and emerge with a polarising, controversial work of art. It is relentlessly grim in its insistence upon dwelling on death, decay and defecation, and yet it is often very funny too. It is extraordinarily moving at times, but never less than absolutely intelligent. It contains scenes and passages of beauty and wonder and brilliance, where Kaufman strikes upon some truth about the human condition, amidst its tricks with perspective and meta-fiction and chronology. And despite its dourness, finally I found it life-affirming in its emphasis on humanity, on love, and sex and friendship and brief, fleeting happiness, and on the messy complexity of a life, even one not quite lived, as such. The cast are all fine, Jon Brion's score is lovely, and the only thing, really, that has kept it out of the numbered positions here is the fact that I don't think Kaufman is a Director. His film is competently directed, I think, without any real style. But then I doubt any other director could have done his writing justice in this instance. Perhaps his understanding of the technical side of visual storytelling will develop if he continues to direct his own work - much in the manner David Mamet's has - and I hope so, because he is a unique talent.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
- The first half of this film, the documentary stuff, is sensational. Witty, disturbing, allegorical and topical, angry and thought-provoking, its truly great sci-fi filmaking. It smuggles its ideas in as jokes, asides, the exposition effortless, the lead character established instantly, the situation of the "prawns" sketched vividly. Its well-paced and gripping. And then the second half it turns into a big action movie. A really good action movie, with imaginitive staging and great effects and emotional impact and a dozen big thrills and jolts to the nervous system, but still just a series of fights and flights and escapes. The ideas which remain are obscured by all the smoke from the explosions, and though this was easily one of the best and most unexpected pleasures of the Summer, it seems a shame that what could have been a great film was merely a very good one.

Avatar (James Cameron)
- James Cameron's film is pedestrian sci-fi, but a visually ravishing, slightly unhinged, lovely Epic nevertheless with some genuinely awesome spectacle. The beauty of its A Man Called Dances With Run of the New World influence is the undeniably satisfying nature of that particular story: the invading Warrior seduced by the discovery of an Edenic paradise, by love, by communion with the true spirit of nature. It gives access to lots of epiphanies and triumphant moments and the second act here is full of them as our hero discovers Pandora and the Naavi. Cameron is a good storyteller and his action scenes are always impressive, if a little cold, and Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana both do good work. But - Cameron the writer is another matter. His dialogue is awful - cliche-filled, expository, clunky. His plotting is a little too predictable, as if he had recently read a Guide to Writing Screenplays as a refresher. Watching this I was reminded of JJ Abrams' Star Trek, which has a tighter, wittier script but is far less satisfying as a piece of visual storytelling, since Abrams is a writer/producer masquerading as a Director. Abrams and Cameron together on a Sci-fi blockbuster: now that would be an exciting prospect.

Red Cliff (John Woo)
Not the butchered cinematic version, which cut two two and a half hour Chinese films down into one three hour Epic, but the original versions, released in the UK on DVD in October and a tremendous reminder of Woo's gifts as a director. He harnesses the remarkable spectacle with style and aplomb, and of course his action scenes are all brilliant - explosions of a genius for staging and transmitting excitement which is still breathtaking after his Hollywood years had appeared to sap it from him. More impressively he displays a sureness of touch and delicacy with the intimate character scenes which gives his Epic heart and passion. The simplicity of the scenes where characters are established and built gives the story a mythic feel, and the actors - a range of stars from across Asia - each give the archetypes they play a real sense of life and truth. Tony Leung is, as ever, every inch the classy Movie Star. The cinematography, effects and music put most American Epics to absolute shame. this is how this sort of material should be done.

Also worthwhile:
The Hangover, Johnny Mad Dog, Moon, Lake Tahoe, Bruno, Zombieland, Goodbye Solo, Orphan, Wendy and Lucy, The Informant!, Star Trek, Drag Me to Hell, Where the Wild Things Are, Shifty

Films I missed that, you never know, might have made this list, but hey I have a life:
Broken Embraces, Sin Nombre, A Christmas Tale, Tokyo Sonata, Genova, Tony Manero, In the Loop, Sleep Furiously, Sugar, Soi Cowboy

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Blogger Beezer B said...

Yeah, woo, I read it all and lo it was good and it made me want to see like 70% of the films.
I honestly hadn't heard of half of them. Your taste must be improving as there were only a couple that I rule out entirely (I don't think my Michael Mann epiphany is getting any closer).

Uh, I saw Up and lo it was phenomenal. I liked Fish Tank and Wild Things a whole bunch. If I saw any other films then I have forgotten them. For shame. I now have a decent 'to watch' list. Ta.

2:43 am  
Blogger jamesinseoul said...

Thanks as always Dave, you given me lots of things to 'acquire' and watch in the next few months. And a great read as usual.

10:14 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

No-one in my shop likes Outlander. They think I'm nuts and poo-poo my opinion on other films based on me liking that, and 13th Warrior.

I got bored during Avatar. It felt like I was watching a cut-scene from a video game, only with worse writing. Stephen Lang was good though.

1:13 am  
Blogger David N said...

James: Thanks.

Beezer: There will never be a Michael Mann epiphany for you. Hes a love-it-or-hate-it kind of director and you aren't feeling the love. I didn't see Fish Tank either but I wanted too on the basis of Red Road. And Fassbender's presence.

Davey: Outlander doesn't have enough bells and whistles, I think, for children of the video game era. The cgi isn't good enough, the setpieces aren't massive enough, its too evenly paced...for me it plays like a really good 1980s video classic. I mean that in a good way, but for kids who grew up with Michael Bay films, it must seem awfully dull. But we should pity these people.

12:04 am  
Blogger Ross said...

I feel like I'm catching up, with only City of Sylvia, 35 Shots of Rum, Il Divo and the Perfect Getaway the only ones I've missed. And as I've seen 4 from your missed list we have equilibirum.
Oh, and Fish Tank.

Though I still don't understand the appeal of the Hangover, it drives a small part of me to despair. It's alright, but of the comedies released last year it isn't top dog, not even top three.

5:44 pm  
Blogger Maroussia said...

It will be great to watch Il Divo, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.

12:52 pm  

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