Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vintage Trailer of the Week 53

I've written here before about how I adore Elmore Leonard's Western writing; I think its his best material. Not nearly as dialogue-led as his Crime fiction - altough the dialogue is still tough and witty - his Western books and stories showcase his exceptional descriptive prose, fine storytelling and unmatched facility for creating brilliant villains and thoroughly impressive, capable heroes. My favourite of his Western books is Hombre, which was made into a terrific and seriously underrated film by director Martin Ritt in 1967.

Ritt and Newman were habitual collaborators at that time, with Hombre standing as their sixth - and last - film together (the most famous and celebrated of that series is probably the fabulous Hud (1963)). Ritt was a successful director for almost three decades but his reputation had declined since his death in 1990, perhaps because of the worthy, stolid nature of some of his more high-profile late work, particularly the likes of
The Front (1976) and Norma-Rae (1979) and the awkward stiffness of some of his earlier literary adaptations, such as The Sound and the Fury (1959) and the Newman co-starring Hemingways Adventures of a Young Man (1962). In this, he reminds me of Richard Brooks, a peer of his who liked risky literary adaptations (including films of Lord Jim, In Cold Blood, and The Brothers Karamazov) but whose gifts as a storyteller and technical expertise mean that his most lasting work is the genre material he occasionally lowered himself to, such as the Westerns The Professionals (1966) and Bite the Bullet (1975).

Similarly, Ritt's genre films are his most satisfying work. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965) is a brilliantly dour, grim LeCarre adaptation, and the best of his social issue films is the one with genre elements: labour dispute drama The Molly Maguires (1970) with its gripping undercover plot. But Hombre is a purer genre film and a tense, exciting, well-mounted cinematic experience all round. It has the classy cast and James Wong Howe photography of an Oscar contender, and a fine Newman performance at its centre too. Its one of the best Leonard adaptations - certainly the best version of one of his Westerns - which alone should make it compulsive viewing...

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Count for the Down: My 2010 in Cinema

Somebody asked last year why I never go for a reverse Countdown on my top 10. So I thought I'd give that a go this year. Enjoy the crippling suspense.
So: All 2010 UK releases, from 15 to 1, with some also-rans and interesting failures below:

15. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach) -
Opening with a mini Rohmer movie following a seemingly aimless young woman through the ordinary hours of her days, Baumbach's character study-cum-comedy goes on to introduce its titular character and becomes something else altogether. How many films devote so much time to creating characters flawed and loathsome the way Ben Stiller's Roger Greenberg is? And manage to remain interesting, funny and even moving? For while we may cringe and laugh at Greenberg's intractability and stubborn insistence on being awkwardly himself, he is a recognisable human being, his interactions brilliantly authentic and truly felt. I love how Baumbach textures his world - his use of pop music is fantastic, as the Steve Miller Band track which opens the film shows best, and Harris Savides' lovely cinematography presents an LA just slightly askew from the one we are accustomed to from a thousand tv shows and movies. Here LA is bright yes, but oddly bleak, as our protagonist is frequently isolated in big frames, most stunningly in the early shot finding him awkward and alone at a party in a big backyard.
Stiller is splendid, twisting his nervous energy into something sad and damaged. Some of the moments of comic awkwardness are masterful, and yet the central relationship is curiously affecting, despite Greenberg himself coming across, ultimately, as a bit of a heel. At least he's an interesting heel..

14. White Material (Claire Denis) -
Claire Denis' amazing hot streak continues with this study of the effects of an armed revolution in a Francophone African country upon some colonial plantation owners. As always with Denis, its breathtakingly beautiful, from first shot to last - she has a fabulous eye. But her storytelling here is less elusive than it has been on occasion; the narrative is still elliptical and oft dreamlike, but the plot moves at a fair clip, and there is an impressive sense of dread and tension throughout. Her use of a shuddery handheld camera in some over-tight close-ups in the early scenes throws you off and recovering any equilbrium is never allowed; with a flashback structure and shifts in POV maintaining the unease of the viewer. The subtle - and not so subtle - digs at colonial exploitation, and indeed native brutality - are impressively controlled, and Isabelle Huppert is exemplary, as ever.

13. The Way Back (Peter Weir) -
Not for Peter Weir the spectacular, attention-grabbing money shot, no. His focus is solely on storytelling, and his mastery is unquestioned and exceptional. This historical endurance epic is beautifully mounted, gripping throughout its gruelling length, and refreshingly old-fashioned in its concentration upon characterisation and story.
Seven men escape a Soviet Siberian Gulag during the Second World War, and begin a long trek to freedom, thousands of miles across Mongolia and Tibet to India. The supporting characters - the likes of Colin Farrell and Ed Harris - are more interesting
than Jim Sturgess' lead, but Weir's understanding of this sort of Boys Own material is matchless, as Master & Commander and Gallipolli have proved in the past, and he makes this a great old yarn, immersive and intense, always intelligent and interesting, and magnificently well-made. He also makes some points about the horrors of totalitarianism and the comforts of faith and friendship, but never at the expense of his tale.
This is the kind of film that a 10 year old could enjoy just as much as an 80 year old, which is a rare quality these days, and Weir is one of the few Directors truly capable of making such Cinema. Long may he continue...

12. Centurion (Neil Marshall) -
If its genre thrills you're after, B-Movies are where its at. They do what they do without the bloat or pretension or excess of the bigger, more expensive Hollywood blockbusters. Neil Marshall's chase Western (replacing American Indians with Picts and Cavalry with Romans in Scotland) is a case in point. Roman legionaires flee Picts. 97 minutes. Thats it.
Yes, its full of cliches, but Marshall loves his cliches, embraces them, invests them with real feeling, and so they work. Yes, it rips off tons of other, better films, but Marshall understands why the elements he steals work, and he uses them cleverly.
Its a 70s-style allegory for whatever conflict you like - Vietnam/Afghanistan/Iraq - but really all its concerned with is forward momentum and butchery. The action scenes are incredibly bloody. Lead Michael Fassbender is something special - a great actor (see Hunger for proof) and also a leading man capable of credibly carrying an action movie, and he has the credible support of the likes of Riz Ahmed, a ripe Dominic West having a high old time and a dour Olga Kurelyenko as the implacable villainess.

11. The Social Network (David Fincher) -
Aaron Sorkin makes every story the story of a boys club. But he writes stories of boys clubs so well, I can't complain. Here he takes a modern subject - Facebook, the most modern subject - and sort of ignores it, concentrating instead on classical dramatic subjects: friendship, rivalry, greed, betrayal. In doing so he is able to comment obliquely on the way one geek made us all geeks, everyone reduced to staring at a computer screen. There are problems: halfway through the characters are all reduced to ciphers, it seems, the fast-talking semi-autistic Facebook crowd led by the wonderful Eisenberg, who I think makes Zuckerberg slightly less vile than Sorkin's script suggests, the wounded puppy dog of Andrew Garfield's Eduardo, who exists in the last act only to be hurt over and again, Timberlake's cartoon villain, but Fincher's slick, chilly stroytelling makes it all flash by in a ridiculously entertaining jiffy. Its major flaw - more apparent on a second viewing than a first, when its dazzle is so distracting - is the shallowness of its appeal. There seems to be little beneath Sorkin's wordplay and Finchers smooth control, little meaning, little meat. Its appearance at the top of countless Critics Polls may seem somewhat confusing, until one considers that this is a film about geeks and loners, concerned with geek hierarchy and vengeance. Critics and bloggers saw a movie about themselves, and they love nothing better...

10. The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel) -
Lucretia Martel is a phenomenal talent, of the type that has seen her become one of the major figures in Contemporary World Cinema after only three films. This disturbing, unusual drama may be her best.
A middle class woman from the Argentine interior hits something in her car. Thinking it was a person, she drives on. But the psychological effect of the incident seems to shake her loose from the world and she floats in a haze of guilt through her affluent, privileged life, following her daily routine; going to work, seeing her lover, gossiping with her friends and family. Only all of it has been given a new tint by the car accident, the banalities of everyday life recontextualised by violence, death, deception.
Martel uses this to consider the morality of modern Argentine life - the way the class system forces servants into such an uncomfortable yet anonymous intimacy with their employers, and indeed, the very fact of the class systems existence, the cosy moral avoidances of a bourgeois Argentinean couple and what happens when they are confronted with a moral imperative they cannot ignore (sort of; turns out they basically ignore that too), together with a sidelong look at the strains and strengths of an extended families bonds.
Martel's visual style is astounding, her compositional sense isolating her protagonist in shallow focus to emphasise her widening distance from her servants, family and friends, her lighting generally painterly and lovely, her camera gliding smoothly through complex. That combined with fantastic sound design - many scenes contain almost nightmarish ambient soundscapes - make the film something of a darkly atmospheric headfuck that stayed with me for days afterwards.

9. I Am Love (Luca Gaudagnino) -
Its a wonderful thing to see a Director arrive fully-formed, and though this is Gaudagnino's third film, it feels so thrillingly poised and fresh that it is the first time the true extent of his talent has been revealed. A big, old-fashioned family saga, all of the elements are superb - a layered script full of ambiguity and telling observation, perfectly judged performances, lovely cinematography, dynamic use of some of John Adams' music, and most especially Gaudagnino's direction, which somehow combines both stateliness and sensuality. The story concerns the wife of a Milanese Magnate who falls in love with her son's friend and how her feelings - she is the I of the title - enrich her rigid existence and ultimately destroy her family. So yes, its a story about rich people enduring emotional crises in opulent surroundings, bourgeois cinema at its most bourgeois. But Gaudagnino is aware of the dangers of this type of tale, and his camera dissects these people, noting their flaws and prejudices as well as offering some sympathy for the pain the story inflicts upon them. His camera is a marvellous observer; attentive to every nuance in every scene and alive to the sensual pleasures of food and sex in a way I have never really seen before in cinema. He composes his frames intelligently and elegantly and always trusts his story - this is an unabashed melodrama, Adams' music only underlining its operatic dimensions. Swinton is magnificent, as she so often is.

8. The Road (John Hillcoat) -
Cormac McCarthy's book is perhaps the only novel of the last few decades that I can imagine being told as an oral story around a campfire hundreds of years from now. It has that sort of mythic heft and simplicity: a man and a boy walk through a ruined world. As such, I'm sure there will be other attempts at adapting it. But I cannot imagine any of them doing as fine a job as John Hillcoat does here. His film is beautiful and horrifying, grim, tense and moving. It is always enthralling. Joe Penhall had an easy job, in one way; all of the dialogue and narration come verbatim from the novel. Viggo Mortensen and the boy are both great, as is the photography and score, altough that does stray into sentimentality on one or two occasions. But most impressive is the fact that the film gets the book, and does it a sort of justice. Whether I can ever bear to watch it again is another story entirely...

7. The Secret In Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella) -
This slick and engrossing Argentine thriller somehow triumphed at the Oscars to win Best Foreign Language film, beating out the vastly superior A Prophet and The White Ribbon in what was an exceptionally strong field. And while its not a patch on either of those masterpieces, it is a fine film, combining its generic elements seamlessly with its emotional narrative of a love story that never-quite-was bubbling to the surface once again 25 years later. It stars the great Ricardo Darin and plays like a Classic Hollywood thriller made for grown-ups, only even better, because it has excellently drawn characters, a script rich in great one-liners and speeches and is full of finely-observed details. Its also brutal, dark, disturbing and finally quite moving. The manner in which it allows the awful realities of late 20th Century Argentine History to colour the plot is subtle and hugely important to the impact of key plot elements: this is a film which links politics to violence, but never explicitly or stiffly.
Whereas most Argentine films feel low or at least medium budget, this is classy and well-made throughout, Director Juan Jose Campanella showing some great chops, particularly in the amazing sequence where the police hunt a suspect at a Football match, made to seem as if it was done in one seamless awesome take. Darin, one of world Cinemas great Movie Stars, is, as ever, superb.

6. Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn) -
Unlike anything else I have ever seen, Refn's film is a Viking epic, an action film, a sci-fi tale of exploration and alien encounter, slow cinema, and a consideration of faith in extremis. It vaguely resembles much other work in one element or another: there are traces of Tarkovsky and Malick, and some of Herzog's Aguirre the Wrath of God and a little-seen indie from a few years ago called Severed Ways alongside the definite genre touches - Refn designs some scenes to play out like they are in a horror film, and his action scenes betray the influence of Kurosawa. It is also extraordinary: breathtakingly beautiful, maddeningly slow and obscure, sickeningly violent. Some will see it and find it empty and pretentious, others will sense greatness in its hypnotic visual poetry and Refn's slow narrative. I was utterly transported. Mads Mikkelsen deploys his movie star charisma in a wordless role and carries the whole thing along, and the sound design - that howling wind, the ambient music - is almost as arresting as the awesome photography. The only thing preventing it placing even higher in this list is the suspicion that Refn didn't really have much in mind when he made it, and it is immaculately executed but probably meaningless. But despite that, to quote an old Time Out review of Once Upon a Time In the West: Critical tools needed are eyes and ears. This is Cinema.

5. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lantimos) -
Funny, disturbing, oddly erotic, baffling allegory of, well, whatever you want. Political dictatorship, organised religion, the power of the media? A man and woman in modern Greece keep their (grown-up) children prisoners in their house through the propagation of a series of lies about the state of the outside world and its manifold horrors and dangers: cats are dangerous killers, airplanes are the same size as toy planes. The way this affects the development of the children is the meat of the narrative, but the frequently hilarious details of the parents deceptions are just as important. Such a simple idea, so well executed. The direction - controlled, patient, sometimes painterly - is inspired.

4. City of Life & Death (Lu Chuan)-
In his 1961 review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Holocaust drama Kapo, then critic (now much-lauded Director) Jacques Rivette did not summarise the plot or give a close reading of the aesthetics except to describe one scene and more specifically one shot: "Look however in Kapo, the shot where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbwire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing – this man is worthy of the most profound contempt."
Lu Chuan's City of Life & Death made me think of Rivette's criticism, which is raised whenever a Holocaust film or any film about real-life instances of man's inhumanity to man is released.
This film is a somewhat impressionistic portrayal of the rape of Nanking, one of the great war crimes of the Second World War and a source of continued tension between China and Japan to this day. The first half is an elliptical, almost dreamlike, floating account of the Japanese conquest of the city, full of ferocious battle sequences and unwatchable mass murder. The second half shows the way the Japanese ran the conquered, half-destroyed city: by executing hundreds of civilians, sytematically raping women and throwing children out of windows.
It is often difficult to watch so much unending brutality, and this is where Rivette's criticism is relevant, for Chuan's film is also incredibly beautiful. The sumptuous black and white photography summons up a series of indelible, unforgettable images: small boys playing war with abandon in the ruins, surrounded by corpses, mere seconds after the firefight they just participated in has ended; a chapel full of keening, terrified refugees shrinking from a handful of Japanese soldiers ; the tips of executed mens heads above the sand as their executioners dance around them, flattening the grave.
Chuan is a new sort of Chinese filmmaker, combining the depth and artistry of the 5th generation with the technical mastery of a modern Hollywood director, and his approach here is radical. He does not linger too long on any one character, his narrative always moving along, observing all, context developing as the story progresses. And yet he is even-handed - the film has been massively controversial in China due to the humanity it allows its Japanese characters.
I can't agree with that criticism or with Rivette. This is a profound, magnificent , difficult film.

3. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-Eda)
For a film by a leading Japanese filmmaker to so openly address the legacy of Ozu through a modern family drama with obvious echoes of Tokyo Story is a bold move. But Hirokazu Kore-Eda, a half-dozen films in to his career (most of them frustratingly never released in the UK) has an established, distinctive voice of his own, and he has made Still Walking an absolute triumph. So many films attempt to wring drama out of an everyday family gathering only to find themselves peddling in a sort of downbeat soap melodrama (Mike Leigh, I'm looking at you). But Kore-Eda avoids this by a quiet insistence on the truthfulness of his characters and their scenes together. Nothing much happens on a plot level, but the story is all in the pauses, the unseen facial expressions, the arguments which start but never climax, the non-sequiters and jokes, the misunderstandings and unspoken sentiments. The story follows a family gathering for the memorial of the death an adored eldest son twelve years before. His younger brother returns to his parents home with his wife, widowed with a young son, while his elder sister comes with her loud husband and children. Meanwhile their mother takes solace in religion and gossip and their father, a retired doctor, nurses resentments and gripes but never lets any emotion show through his grumpy facade.
They eat, chat, visit his grave, eat some more, bathe, chat. It is sublime. Delicate, always realist and more moving because of that, it is a snapshot into the life of three generations in all their tensions, frustrations and joy. Each of the Kore-Eda films I have seen has been rich with emotion, and this is no different. The cast all seem effortlessly real - testament to Kore-Eda's embrace of improvisation as well as the beauty of his script and understated, disarmingly simple direction. It came out in Japan in 2008 and he's made two films since, which is very good news if they ever get released here...

2. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard) -
Audiard's film is outstanding, a remarkable triumph. Somehow, here, and in his last two films, he has shown that he is capable of the rawest of realism and a you-are-there immediacy, and yet this film has some sublime grace notes, moments of silence and poetry and great beauty. Telling the story of a young man imprisoned at 19 for a minor offence who works his way up through the political criminal power structure inside through cunning and opportunism, it is gripping literally from the first shot to the last, the tension rarely slackening. It possesses all of the requisite qualities of the prison and gangster genres and yet is so much more. It functions as a criticism of French penal law, a riveting crime story with a couple of superb, brilliantly mounted set pieces, and an intriguing and sensitive character study. As such, debutant lead Tahim Raki is excellent. Charismatic, and brooding, he suggests the boiling, always whirling thoughts beneath the placid gaze of his young hero, and his intensity more than matches Nels Arstrup's moody Corsican gang boss. The prison itself is just as powerful and interesting a character in the film as either of these protagonists - vividly evoked by Audiard's roving, intimate handheld camera. Audiard has joined a small band of Directors who have made wholly satisfying genre cinema which is so fine it transcends its genre. A Prophet is that good.

1. Carlos (Olivier Assayas) -
Setting aside the politics, the approach to history, the glamour of the violence and the globetrotting for a moment, I love Assayas as a stylist. As befits a director who admires Michael Mann and Hou Hsiao Hsien and Vincente Minelli, Assayas is a stylist whose ability to infuse his scenes with a sensual charge is vital to the success of his films. The very first minutes of Carlos bear this out; the first shot is of a man rising naked from bed, a woman beside him. He dresses in the gloom and she sits up to smoke. You can smell that room, the chill on their skin, the warm sheets. The man meets a violent fate outside and that event is given weight by the reality of what has preceded it; this sets quite a tone for Assayas' Epic.
The next scene finds the title character arriving in Beirut, and again that city is beautifully, swiftly evoked, a whirl of colour, the back of a taxi drivers head. We are located in this narrative already, we are there with this young, cocky Venezualan who wants to head his own cell of terrorists in Europe. Almost 6 hours stretch before us.
And they are the quickest 6 hours of cinema I have ever experienced. Part of a small but important group of films seemingly influenced by the likes of The Wire (I would suggest that Soderbergh's Che and Fincher's Zodiac are other high-profile examples of this school of cinema) to adopt a sort of Epic Intimate Historical realism, cataloguing events with little authorial viewpoint made overly explicit, allowing the flow of history to develop its own rhythm and meaning, Carlos benefits by its superb, innately fascinating choice of subject matter and its classy pedigree.
The central passage - Carlos' 1975 attack on and seizure of the Vienna OPEC conference - is a riveting, pacy, brilliantly made mini-movie of its own, and it is often the tangents and solos of the material that bring its long stretches to life; Angie's escape from the "Revolution", Nada's fate, and Carlos' acquiring some middle-aged flab and bourgeois certainty in Budapest. But it is Edgar Ramirez's spectacular performance which holds the whole enterprise together. Ramirez portrays a complex man, passionate, intelligent and flawed, aware that sometimes he was shallow and weak but also vain and sensitive to his image. The scene in which Carlos first murders a man - a long, sweaty suspense set-piece - brings out the best in him as we see it all dance in his eyes through his mounting fear and exhilaration. But he and Assayas ensure that Carlos' private life is just as interesting as his "career". His many women and travels, his difficult relationships with various colleagues, all made human and grippingly real in this telling.
We are with his Carlos throughout, maturing from ambitious freedom fighter to symbolic legend and beyond. The rest of the cast match Ramirez all the way, and Assayas' direction is always calm and stylish, assured and flawless in its capture of tone and atmosphere. For such a big undertaking, its a remarkably coherent work, Assayas' use of a superb Post-Punk Soundtrack and his stylish storytelling giving it an easy accessibility surprising in a film with such a complex story containing multitudes of characters and locations.
A good sign; writing about it makes me want to watch it again, right now.

Almost, not quite, interesting but bad, or not good enough:

The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Chodolenko) -
Why has American comedy largely gone down the path it has? I mean the comedies made by Hollywood studios, with big stars and high concepts and a strange mix of leftfield and broad humour. The success of the big comedies of the late 70s and early 80s seems somehow to blame, and the major casualty is the adult comedy. That can be a difficult term, so lets say I mean the type of comedy which takes place against a real setting, in something resembling the real world, with recognisablly human characters at its centre. Woody Allen, to his credit, has been making adult comedies for decades now, as have the Brookses, James L and Albert. Not too many young directors seem to be emulating these men though. Lisa Cholodenko is. Her last film but one, the sublime and underseen Laurel Canyon, had moments of sharp comedy, but was a relationship drama. The Kids Are All Right treads more evenly between comedy and drama.

The Town (Ben Affleck) -
Another mournful Bostonion crime drama from Ben Affleck means another triumph: the Town is that rare Hollywood production; a genuinely classy and grown-up genre film. Affleck knows to hire strong collaborators: a cast including Pete Postelthwaite, John Hamm (whose handsome charisma balances the film, preventing it from becoming a wholesale glorification of the criminality it depicts), Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall and Chris Cooper; and photography by Robert Elswit mean that his film is always good to look at. It may at base be a load of old macho rubbish, but the script is solid, the characterisation meaty, plausible, and Affleck handles the action scenes surely so that they provide muscular surges of excitement. Engrossing and serious, the film creeps up on you; I was surprisingly moved by the ending, because without knowing it I had come to care about these characters. A critic (Guy Lodge?) wrote that if Eastwood had directed it, it would have been acclaimed as a masterpiece, and hes right. As it is, this is better than anything Clint's done in a long time...

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich) -
Pixar: Magicians. But: not as smooth in its storytelling as (the virtually faultless) Toy Story 2, for all that it is a tremendously moving experience. How they can engineer films that are so emotional, consistently funny - and funny in all shades, from slapstick to satire, and verbal wit to the broadest of stereotypes - while also delivering a steady rolling wave of incredible and inventive action sequences just about defies belief. We are blessed to live in this Pixar era.

Alamar (Pedro Gonzalez Rubio) -
The closest of all these films to cracking that list of 15, this is a wondrously pure & simple semi-documentary rhapsody of the ocean, the love between a father and a son and the glory of the natural life. Absolutely beautiful, and quietly moving too.

Up In The Air (Jason Reitman) -
The most middlebrow film I've ever seen.

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe) -
Gaspar Noe and his relentless need to rub our noses in it. Hes never seen an aborted fetus in a bloody kidney dish he didn't feel the need to shoot in close up. Or a traumatised teen fellating a japanese salaryman in a fire escape he couldn't observe for a minute or so, or a sex scene he couldn't "improve" with a shot from inside the vagina. In saying that, this film is Pure Cinema, an awesome sensory experience, and has one of the best credit sequences I've ever seen. Noe is worth all of the unavoidable issues his films drag along with them, and this has to be seen, in the biggest, loudest screen available....

Ondine (Neil Jordan) -
Jordan's best in a long long time. Doing what he does best - an adult fairytale with a mystical sense of beauty and poetry mixed with pulp storytelling. Farrell - enjoying a renaissance since he started doing character parts and stopped trying to be a Hollywood lead - as good as he's ever been, Chris Doyle photography, Sigur Ros music and a happy ending. Shouldve been a bigger deal than it was.

Agora (Alejandro Amenabar) -
A cerebral, relevant and cinematic Epic from Alejandro Amenabar, Agora is that rare thing in modern spectacle cinema: a film of ideas. Amenabar examines religious extremism and piles up the parallels with our world while also devoting lots of time to issues of philosohy and astronomy. But his film never stints on its own Epic trappings, and it is a handsome and fascinatingly detailed recreation of Roman Alexandria without recourse to empty CGI showcase. The balance between the rhetoric of the scholarly debates and the violent action of the religious strife that sweeps all away is kept beautifully organic by a filmmaker always true to himself. Rachel Weicz is great in the lead.

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom) -
Casey Affleck confirms the suspicion aroused by Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone and Gerry thats hes the great American actor of his generation. And though Winterbottom gets as close as anyone ever has to a real adaptation of Jim Thompson, he still misses. Good though his film is, it lacks some of the savagery, some of the pain and queasiness of Thompson. Its a little too intent and deliberate in its period set dressing, in its gingham and vintage automobile glory, for Thompson's brute lyricism. But some things are always there with Winterbottom - his fine eye and sense of rhythm, his ability to capture what feels like the real world, Our world, and his way with actors (Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Simon Warner and Elias Koteas all lend Affleck fine support).

Black Death (Christopher Smith) -
in what would make a great double-bill with Valhalla Rising, Christopher Smith's medievel horror-western-thriller follows a group of knights during the black death in search of witchcraft and necromancy into a town seemingly untouched by the plague. Smith is a bright young UK genre talent and the accomplishment and power of this, his fourth film, really surprised me. It is thrillingly dark, unafraid to cover some weighty thematic ground, and yet founded on strong, clear storytelling redolent of classic Hollywood filmmaking. That the film also refers to Witchfinder General, The Devils, The Wicker Man and even Andrei Rublev - and yet always remains distinctively its own beast - is a testament to Smith's growing skill as a director. Each of his films has been a marked improvement on the last. Here he displays a great eye, finding some arresting imagery in his story, a good ability with his cast, and control over atmosphere which remains taut and eerie throughout. A film which deserved better than it got in the UK.

The Maid (Sebastian Silva) -
A lovely, perfectly observed little story of the maid to a bourgeois family in modern Santiago and her struggles with ageing, loneliness, unwanted competition and semen stains on adolescent bedsheets.

The American (Anton Corbjin) -
I love an existential Hitman movie. Echoes of Leone and Melville abound in Anton Corbjin's piece of designer pulp. Actually, it only gives in to the tug of convention in the last act, when the gunplay begins. Until then its quite spare and atmospheric, a 70s-style portrait of a lonely American enduring a European Winter with the help of a beautiful Italian prostitute. Yes, that is an unbearably cliched idea, but Corbijn's visuals are so lovely, the films pacing so languid and patient in its portrayal of star George Clooney's quiet routine, that it acquires a sort of hypnotic power. Clooney is perhaps the film's greatest flaw, dampening down his own charisma but unable to shake the baggage of his own persona - I kept on expecting him to grin. If I say that this is basically The Limits of Control minus any sense of humour, you will understand that I mean in as a compliment..

Monsters (Gareth Edwards) -
Forget the sci-fi element for a moment. What is most impressive in this low budget British film is director Gareth Edwards' superb eye. The long passages as his characters travel through Central America are illuminated by his ability to pull beautiful tableaux from out of the air. He observes reality, and enhances its beauty with his camera, an exciting talent in a young director. Meanwhile, his script and actors are fine, his high concept sells itself, and that climactic scene with the aliens at the Petrol station is genuinely awesome, and somehow, even moving.

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola) -
I love Sofia Coppola's aesthetic: her poetic realism is delicate, nicely observed and generally perfectly judged. Sure, her films are all studies of birds in gilded cages, but she is plainly intelligent enough to realise this, which is perhaps what helps her prevent them from becoming utterly insufferable. Here her subtle wit and the quiet, clever performances of her leads make this sketch flicker to life then snuff itself out again without leaving much impression beyond her command of atmosphere and visual style, though the ambiguous ending seemed exceptionally bleak to my mind.

Inception (Christopher Nolan) -
The great thing about Chris Nolan is his ambition. Warners give him untold Millions to make them a new blockbuster, and he spends it on a 2.5 hour maddeningly complex and personal action/heist thriller. Rather that than a third Transformers film for most people, I would imagine.
Nolan has the control and skill to enable him to bring his ambitious visions to the screen. Moreover he does it in the context of massive action spectacles, which is an odd but laudable position for a filmmaker to adopt. But it is a problem, too. Because Nolan is not a good director of action. Take, for example, the zero-gravity battle at the heart of Inception, between Joseph Gordon Levitt and a henchman, spinning and flying through the turning Hotel corrdiors. That should be an amazing, unforgettable scene, an action scene stuffed with images and ideas you have never seen before. Only its not, its just ok. The imagery is fine, but the action does not have the impact expected of spectacle at this high level. The later arctic battle becomes tedious within minutes. His Batman films suffer from the same problem, which is surely some sort of crime in a film about a character renowned for his combat acumen. Here, its a minor issue against the many other conversation points presented by the film. But it niggles at me, still.

How To Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders) -
Dreamworks Animation, from the inauspicious beginning of Shrek, has become a Studio producing
absolute top quality Heroic fantasy films for pre-teens. Kung Fu Panda was a joyous entertainment, and this is even better, stuffed with wit, filled with brilliantly conceived and executed action sequences, and peopled with memorable characters. Few of the blockbusters aimed at "adults" in the last year worked as well at delivering thrills and laughs as part of a satisfying narrative. Plus, this - reflecting the role played by Roger Deakins as visual advisor - looks totally beautiful throughout.

Also of Note:

Shutter Island, Solomon Kane, Robin Hood, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Winters Bone, Down Terrace, Restrepo, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Buried, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Sons of Cuba, Gentlemen Broncos, Four Lions, Lebanon, Splice, Black Dynamite, Police; Adjective, Secret of Kells, Repo Men, Revanche

Films I missed that might have figured in this list:

Certified Copy, Please Give, Our Beloved Month of August, A Single Man, Father of My Children, Scouting Book for Boys, Lourdes, Beeswax, Life During Wartime, 24 City, Vincere, Wild Grass, Gainsbourg, Mother, Cyrus

Labels: ,