28 February 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #5: Two Lovers

Two Lovers (James Gray) USA, 110 mins.
with: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini

James Gray is one of the most interesting directors working in American cinema right now. He only has a thrifty four features under his belt in sixteen years: apart from Two Lovers, which is my selection for fifth favourite film of last year, he has made Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007). The first and third films here (The Yards is the one which has so far evaded me) have all contained much style and directorial flair, and are well worth seeing. But Two Lovers goes one better by being one of the very best American films of quite possibly the last few years. Set in and around the Brighton Beach district of Brooklyn (all of Gray's films have been set in New York; he grew up in Queens), it's the story of Leonard Kraditor, a suicidal and very likely bipolar guy who, after being rescued from a probable suicide attempt by plunging into the East River (following a tumultuous split with his fiance? - this detail is slightly muddy), goes back to live with his Russian Immigrant parents (Moni Moshonov, Isabella Rossellini) in their apartment block; there he meets flighty, already-attached party girl Michelle (Paltrow), but is also introduced to Sandra (Shaw), a more homely, Jewish friend of his family. Leonard becomes romantically involved with both women; the thrust of the film is devoted to how he copes with his life through their affections. Most likely, Leonard and either one of the two women make up the two lovers of the title, or it could be that the women are, collectively, his two lovers (the title has possible multiple meanings in the same way that Woody Allen's Another Woman (1988) was open to interpretation). But it's a romantic drama in the most oblique sense: a love triangle film but with one of its edges slightly worn away.

I actually put off seeing it for a while after I first read about it. My initial thoughts were that it was going to be another '(500) Last Kisses in a Garden State' (Two Lovers' plot outline reads dangerously close to any number of recent Zach Braff and co. drizzly indie flicks), and would therefore be nearly two hours of self-involved twaddle that I didn't need to see. I was worried that Gray had succumbed to this hackneyed trend and buckled under possible financial and/or studio pressures to lighten up and go with the flow. I should've had more confidence in him - Two Lovers is anything but self-involved. It stops from being egoistic just in the nick of time. In fact, what it does is it takes a character who is on the verge of disappearing into his own miserable existence, fishes him out, dries him off and guides him in another direction - that of hopeful, living possibilities.

It avoids tired and easy clichés and pulls back from total absorption in dour male whimsy to seek out a brisker purpose for the narrative. The film - and by proxy Phoenix's character - does on occasion muddle in moments of severe introspection, but these are positioned at just the right junctures in the film, and come loaded with insight through the way Gray's camera doggedly attends to every one of Phoenix's well-articulated gestures and mannerisms. We get to know Leonard closely by way of Phoenix's subtle and perceptive central performance (my favourite from a male actor in '09 - and I'd say a career best for him), and through Gray's and co-scriptwriter Richard Menello's expertise in writing real, absorbing characters - this extends to the entire cast, especially Vinessa Shaw's well-judged Sandra and Rosselini's gentle maternalism as Leonard's mother.

One of the most tremendous aspects of Gray's direction in Two Lovers is its ability to capture both the right tone of fleeting and furtive relationships, and to then let the relationship's crucial or most heartbreaking moments play out in surroundings which not only act as outward atmospheric mirrors to internal emotion, but also have an indelibly concrete sense of time and place. Two scenes come to mind: the first of two instances where Michelle telephones Leonard to meet her on their apartment's roof to update him as to their relationship status happens at dawn. (In a Braff et al film these updates would invariably be done via Facebook.) The camera glides right to left, observing the couple through gaps in a wall, with the Manhattan skyline barely visible beyond Brooklyn. This particular setting - in the crisp light of early morning New York, with the sounds of distant train whistles, gulls flying overhead and a cold wind blowing across the rooftops - beautifully assists in conveying how Gray's characters live theirs lives as if in a perpetual state of sleepless unrest, secrecy and avoidance of other people. (Odd, often unseen times of day are frequent).

Because Michelle is noncommittal at this point, and Leonard deeply lovestruck, the mood derived from the exterior locations evokes both characters' inner feelings succinctly without being at all trite. The second rooftop scene occurs at dusk, much later in the film (as the title infers, many events, scenes and characters come in twos or are somewhat visually doubled), after Michelle has committed herself not to Leonard but to her older lover Ronald (Elias Koteas), and where Leonard desperately tries to change her mind. Again, there's much meaning drawn from the atmosphere: mood is now aroused by returning birds, commuter trains and a fiercer wind cutting through the inky early-evening sky. This time the camera is placed slightly higher than before, now able to include in the frame segments of the surrounding borough below. The scene is emotionally cloudier, more narratively despairing than earlier, but a sign of possible hopefulness to come is indicated by the camera picking up on the sprawl of buildings in the outlying area, showing that the world is gradually opening up to include other people (other lovers in turmoil or at emotional turning points?), and that alternative possibilities exist elsewhere... Sandra's house is surely one of the many in the neighbourhood.

Sound design and, in particular, photography (fantastic work from cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay) are unobtrusively embedded in such emotive exchanges with a real sense of purpose and tonal accuracy. Gray and his collaborators use their medium to perfect cinematic effect in minute and evocative ways, allowing for a real sensory feel for the more defining, memorable aspects of the ups and downs of relationships. Many moments of well-observed drama, delicate humour and, more importantly, intimacy (such as the rooftop scenes above - and one significant late scene involving first the gift of a pair of gloves, then the discovery of them at a crucial point, which has a poignant, revelatory outcome) make Two Lovers a refreshing and standout film in its own right. It's a stunning, confidently-handled fourth film for Gray. It feels entirely personal, too, but without any pitying slides into turgid self-examination that often come as overloaded baggage with subjective explorations of love's bad turns and what they might mean.

Whether there's an autobiographical aspect to the film for Gray is open to debate, but his characters none the less feel truly individual creations, especially Leonard. It's essentially a film about one guy's problematic quest for love, with several added pitfalls thrown in. We've seen it all before in a variety of partially similar films over the last few years (Two Lovers' tone is notably similar to Todd Louiso's excellent exploration of love and grief Love Liza from 2002 - but it isn't at all diminished by the comparison), but Gray has a singular style that results in his film standing apart from the crowd. Two Lovers is a moving and enveloping film that lingered and rattled around in my head for many days after seeing it - and I'm glad that many wonderful images and moments still haven't shifted from my mind eight months on.

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #6: The Invisible Frame

The Invisible Frame (Cynthia Beatt) Germany, 60 mins.
with: Tilda Swinton

Back in 1988 filmmaker Cynthia Beatt documented actress Tilda Swinton as she cycled the 160km length of the Berlin wall. The journey, filmed from a West Berlin viewpoint, showed their particular view over the wall into East Berlin. The 30-minute film, Cycling the Frame (1988), depicted in poetic terms the city before the wall came down on November 9, 1989. Last year during June, and twenty-one years later, Beatt and Swinton made a follow-up film, The Invisible Frame, shot in 18 days and now double its predecessor's run-time. In it Swinton, again on her bicycle, retraces the line that the wall once made across Berlin. This second film picks up on Swinton's reflections made over two decade's ago, and adds new thoughts on what the wall meant, what it stood for and what Berlin is like as a place now. But The Invisible Frame isn't really a sequel. In Swinton's own words, it's more "the print of a second foot, twenty years and a wall's fall later".

Their filmed tour makes stops in a series different locations in and around Berlin that are significant to the city's history. Roughly, in order of visit, they are: the Brandenburg Gate; the former border crossing at Invalidenstraße along the Spandauer Schifffahrtskanal (where Swinton passes a memorial stone laid in honour of Günter Litfin - the first escapee to be killed after the wall's erection); Invalidenfriedhof, a cemetery once divided by the wall; the fields of Lübars; the nature education trail at Eichwerder Steg; The allotments in the Brehmestraße; Pankow Park; former (now deserted) border guards barracks at Ruppiner Chaussee; the Eiskeller observation deck; a 1000-year-old oak tree at Schlosspark Sacrow (reportedly the oldest tree in Potsdam); an accessible S-Bahn crossing; a fenced-in section of wall at Rudow; high-rise tower blocks in Kiefholzstraße, former West Berlin; and dotted amongst all this we see assorted memorial crosses, electrical power substations, wheat and poppy fields, rivers, bridges, water treatment plants and houses - quite a collection of pit stops for just over two-and-a-half weeks. All locations visited are historically relevant places tainted with a deep and troubled history. Seeing them - as they are now - filtered through Swinton's and Beatt's moving and meditative film is a thought-provoking experience. It shows much of the city away from the Berlin usually presented and preserved on film - places we'd maybe not get to see elsewhere, outside of retracing Swinton's retracing of these places, which, after being fully taken with the film, is something I'd love to do myself.

Apart from being drawn to the film due to Swinton's presence (I'll gladly watch anything with her in), I was intrigued by The Invisible Frame for two other reasons: in April last year I visited Berlin for the first time; and during November BBC2 screened Matt Frei's excellent three-part documentary series, Berlin. My three-day trip took in some of the areas that I would later see Swinton cycle through in the film. (Namely, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe situated in Friedrichstadt and the Brandenburg Gate.) Matt Frei's films gave solid and expert context to the city's history, with riveting factual analysis filtered through personal recollections. (Frei is German by birth; his parents still live in Berlin.) Seeing these places, and more besides, later onscreen - and aptly summed up via Swinton's poetic and openhanded voiceover narration - added a retrospective weight to what I saw, and made me hanker for a second visit. The intelligent and thoughtful descriptions of these places, however briefly they appeared in the film, reminded me how truly significant Berlin as a city is: it's a vibrant, sprawling and forward-thinking place.

Beatt's knowledge of Berlin is watertight. Every camera move, directorial decision and individual shot feels organic and rightfully aroused by the various fluctuations of the tour. (Certain parts of it may have been pre-planned, others happenstance.) There is a plethora of meaningful detail contained in each image - such as that earlier memorial stone for Liftin being later referenced by a shot of Swinton reading a memorial plaque (for Marinetta Jirkowsky, one of the last people shot attempting an escape), and a poppy field which used to be the site of a death strip. Although these things aren't stated overtly by either Beatt or Swinton, but observed and picked up by the camera's gaze, and through natural collaborative experience. It's, perhaps, Swinton's simple instincts - blended with Beatt's extensive research - that make everything work harmoniously. Also, British composer Simon Fisher Turner (who worked regularly with Derek Jarman) has created staggering sound design and musical score by using original/found sounds from the travels. Each piece that accompanies the different stages of the journey finds a perfect rhythm in accordance with the images.

It is the most directly affecting form of documentary filmmaking: an openhearted and deeply moving literal document; film as a map of a city recorded in motion, with many pauses at opportune moments along the way. It flows freely, taking in sights and sounds all at once and in many directions, as someone does when they ride a bike. (Cycling is the right mode of transport for it - a car or train wouldn't have allowed the film half its freedom of movement.) The result is that we get a pure sense of the city as it is now, seen through the fog of its past. And it's a sensuous film in every way: our sensory faculties impulsively pick up, though obviously at a vicarious remove, what Swinton's do. History, a city and an actress on a bicycle, twice. These two films made just over twenty years apart make a simple and poignant point. Now, though, I'd love to see a third film. On yer bike, Tilda!

(For more information about The Invisible Frame, visit the film's website here)

26 February 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #7: Martyrs

Martyrs (Pascal Laugier) France/Canada, 99 mins.
with: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin, Isabelle Chasse

2009 was a great year for horror cinema. Some that I saw were largely staple, workmanlike - though still effective - genre titles (Rogue, Hush, Orphan, Splinter, The Last House on the Left), some were cultish and somewhat innovational (Embodiment of Evil, The Signal), one was cheap and derivative but endearing in its own way (Midnight Movie), a couple were like freakish, separated-twin movies (Timecrimes, Triangle), another couple were daft, hokey and mishapen, but much more interesting than the rather short thrift afforded them (Surveillance, Drag Me to Hell), and two were simply bold and original (Let the Right One In, Inside). But Pascal Laugier's astonishing second film Martyrs was by far the most individual of the bunch. (It shares a kinship to Inside in that both are French, feature predominantly female characters and hardly ever let up on the gore and bloodletting, and both are quite often (wrongly in my view) labelled as Gallic entries in the torture porn sub-genre of horror.) It stood out as one of the freshest, most grim and consistently surprising horrors I've seen in quite a while - and I do see a fair few during the course of a year.

The plot of Martyrs seems complicated from the outset and contains a fair amount of backstory. But this is hazily pencilled in and gets more and more narratively streamlined and precise; it sheds its earlier complexities like skin and strives toward a brutally pared down and acerose end point. But that doesn't mean it ever becomes simplistic. It abandons formulaic structures but still manages to become an intriguing, ever-deepening and determined mystery. The stripping away of the mechanics of plot by the end exposes the hard soul at the centre of the film. And the uncovered soul is what Martyrs is resolutely all about.

Whether a film steadily builds to a riveting conclusion or slowly breaks down to one, the pay-off needs to be worth the investment. Martyrs' pay-off is one of the most bold-faced and ruminative I've seen in quite some time. For me, it was comparable in its confounding what-the-fuck! ridiculousness to the last scenes in both David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) and David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) - two films with little comparatively or obviously in common with Martyrs, or indeed each other (apart from tones that hint toward science fiction as well as horror to make them like minded enough comrades), but have endings which forgo a clear-cut closure and instead open their ideas out further in their last shots, suggesting the possibility of the narrative continuing beyond the closing credits.

I'm deliberately withholding specific details of Martyrs' plot. Giving too much away, or even a little, risks breaking the culminative spell it weaves. And I care that a viewer new to its warped charms should enter into it unsoiled by any extended synopsising. But it's open season on the bare basics, the stuff that occurs either before the main thrust of the narrative or within its first five-or-so minutes: fifteen years after escaping prolonged abduction and torture (seemingly by an oppressive and shadowy medical establishment), two young women, Lucie (Jampanoï) and Anna (Alaoui), embark on a revenge spree to get back at those responsible - all the time trying to evade a strange, ravaged creature apparently intent on upsetting their plans.

Apart from the bookending scenes of back story set-up and final Super-8 end-credit footage, Martyrs is roughly sequenced as three distinct but interlinked segments: a blood-drenched house siege; an outside force's intrusion; and the resulting confinement. The narrative turns - at first baffling then astounding - of the ever-evolving plot always keeps you guessing as to what will happen next. Nothing is obvious or predictable, and the film never goes where you think it will at any time. I couldn't foresee the path it would take. (I actually watched the film twice on the same day and still found new moments to revel in.)

Many folks prefer their horror films to be subtly scary and more psychological in tone and content, rather than all-out gory with wall-to-wall blood and guts, people strapped to chairs going through relentless bouts of depravity, cut-up bodies, severed limbs and close-up evisceration, and the like. Indeed these two approaches - among many others - in horror cinema are essential staples. Martyrs has both, and more besides. It caters to the intrepid and the cautious in the audience. This is one reason why it's so effective and audacious in its aims and objectives. But then this could just be putting a fancy spin on what it achieves. On a pure level it aims to scare and shock in equal measure and succeeds wonderfully. But more than just merely being another entry in the torture porn canon, which a fair few people - critics and cinemagoers alike - have said, it's actually a painful and psychological exploration of guilt, vengeance and the effects of incarceration. Those that merely see a cast of (predominantly) female characters being put through a particularly grim ringer of assault and terror may be missing what is going on beneath the surface. It has a depth and perception of what a horror film is capable of that the likes of the - heavily male-centric - Saw and Hostel films can barely fathom, let alone fully grasp.

Laugier incorporates many incredibly moving moments amid all the grue and gore - with a sparsely-used and affecting music score, compassionate and fully committed performances from the main cast and, above all, a considerate and judicious placement of his camera, particularly in the film's brutally relentless final half hour - that result in a devastatingly saddening tone. In any viewing of Martyrs take careful note of how it is directed in the final stretch, particularly where the camera is positioned exactly where it is, and why. To me, it was never in question that Laugier wasn't revelling in the depiction of female suffering through exploitation, but investigating a sympathetically astute way to show how violence affects his female characters. But on the surface, and in the way many horror films of this ilk will often get lumped together as needlessly "sick", "depraved" or "horrific", people may very well miss the sometimes subtle and telling nuances that lay between the lines. Further to that, aren't horror films - whoever is on the receiving end of all the terror - meant to be horrific? It's right there in the name.

One way to identify some of its gender-based issues and intentions is to note that there are hardly any men in the cast (save for a father and son of an unfortunate family early on - and, more significantly, a hulking, near-faceless goon who is chief in inflicting physical violence near the end of the film). The main female players in the game are not just Lucie and Anna, but those that appear later on, such as the mysterious, elderly matriarch, known only as Mademoiselle (an excellent Catherine Bégin in crude red lipstick, tinted glasses and turban: a portrait of evil in full camp mode), who is the prime manipulator of events.

In fact - for good reasons or bad - it's women who make all the decisions here, and there's nowhere in the film where men aren't subservient to their demands. But ultimately it's a lot more blurry, a lot greyer with its morality than that. Extreme religious fundamentalism, the question of what death means and the very process and exploration of sainthood and suffering are all ideas that Martyrs delves into. This is partly what makes it so compelling and endlessly fascinating.

By nature, horror films are of course about death and fear - or fear of death, essentially: the bad folks want to inflict death upon the heroes or heroines; the heroes and heroines try to avoid being killed. That's the template that most, if not all, horror films follow. Martyrs is most singular in that it's the first time in a long time where a filmmaker has dared to explore (as its crucial, key theme) what those fundamentals of the genre are constantly striving to get at and find answers for. It zeroes in on the bullseye and asks: what is death? And what happens when we die? This, in all senses, is its ace card.

Hidden at the end of the closing credits, Laugier includes a fan's dedication that should make any committed horror buff reel with joy at the knowledge that Martyrs is a contemporary entry in a trusted lineage: pour Argento, it says. Outside of this dedication, if you doubt you'd enjoy a film so grim and horrific - one that is truly bold and, more importantly, something that simply doesn't back down and disappear into the market as another feeble retread - but don't have the stomach or the inclination to sit through it, then you'll have to just simply 'keep doubting'.

21 February 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #8: sleep furiously

sleep furiously (Gideon Koppel) UK, 94 mins.

Gideon Koppel's debut film sleep furiously is the first of two documentaries in my top ten list of last year (more on the other one soon). Neither are documentaries in the usual sense though; both are more akin to visual meditative sketches of a specific place (and the history inherent in that place) than deliberate examinations detailing facts or uncovering truths.

For a multitude of reasons there are a number of documentary films I often gravitate towards where, among other things, the filmmakers' aim is to plainly and often unobtrusively observe the people and places they document. Errol Morris' excellent Gates of Heaven (1978) (about a pet cemetery in Napa Valley, California) and his follow-up, the under seen featurette Vernon, Florida (1983) (observations on the titular town's eccentric inhabitants) are both key examples where the locations are crucial, the people chanced upon even more so, and the focus is on the evocation, more than the description, of a place. Last year Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread/Unser täglich Brot (2005), which merely sequentially charted a variety of means of food production and preparation, made my top ten. Ross McElwee's Bright Leaves (2003), Ron Peck's Fighters (1991) and David Lynch's web series Interview Project (2009-2010) also aptly fit this rather specialised template, too. All these films have simple yet spellbinding attributes about them, and wonderful idiosyncrasies contained within them. Koppel's film is another in this vein.

The film's curious and contrastive title comes from the grammatically correct but nonsensical phrase writer Noam Chomsky came up with 50 years ago: "colourless green ideas sleep furiously". It's about the small Welsh farming town of Trefeurig, situated roughly four miles north-east of Aberystwyth, and the day-to-day rituals and occurrences of its inhabitants - one of which is director Koppel's mother, who, along with his father, came to the town as refugees to escape Nazi Germany. Koppel was brought up in Trefeurig and the film is somewhat the product of his return home.

This points to a beguiling dichotomy in the way the film is shot and structured. It's evident that Koppel's relationship with the town and its particular everyday rhythms is strong, and is filtered through authentic knowledge and genuine fondness of the place. But there's also present a distanced yet inquisitive nature to what's being filmed. Parts of it feel like Koppel's camera is revisiting familiar locations, intent on capturing perhaps what made them important for him; and parts feel as if he's seeing things for the first time, finding small wonders in all the normality.

For example, shots of daily farming routines or the town's library van weaving its way over the expansive hills - shot from afar - have the wistful haze of nostalgia about them, but scenes of periphery folk in the community - whether they are parents debating the possible closure of the school or older residents sitting contemplatively in their homes - are shot from the perspective of a respectful but inquiring outsider, someone who's documenting these small events without wanting to intrude or comment directly upon them. The sequencing of shots - from shepherds herding sheep to a woman renting a Danielle Steele book from the van, and from Koppel's mother positioning of a stuffed owl in her house to a man (very amusingly) reading a poem about the redundancy of metal signposts - is structured in a piecemeal fashion and appear to be chosen seemingly at random, but they do roughly follow events recorded over the course of a year (the duration of the seasons is nicely conveyed, without much undue stress on the passing of time). The melancholic slant to the film is surely derived from the feeling that Koppel possibly sees Trefeurig as a disappearing way of life.

The film blends its varying approaches with a deft skill that consistently displays a feeling of real warmth and respect for Trefeurig - it should coming from someone so close to it. But it doesn't feel like a homely, parochial study. The way of life, and the people there, aren't necessarily sentimentalised because of his familiarity. I figured that the soundtrack of - alternately - gently piano-led electronic doodles, then more beat-driven, uptempo tracks, courtesy of Aphex Twin (and mixed with what feels like largely unaltered natural sound), goes some way in making everything seem much less hokey than it could have been in someone else's hands. It marks sleep furiously out as the work of a filmmaker who likes to explore contemporary means of depicting non-current themes; its aptly bucolic though not inferior or insular. This is a large part of why it's such a greatly charming film.

sleep furiously is a true one-off. A painterly film, made using the sparest of imagery yet honed with a sharp eye for composition. Each frame is carefully considered, but none feel overly or self-consciously arty for the sake of it. Familiar objects and locations are treated in a singular style to look uncommonly fresh: sound and image, the most basic of filmmaking equipment, work together in pure concordance with one another. Each shot is like a word that, strung together, make up visual song just as fractured and as delicately rendered as one of the lovely Aphex Twin compositions that score the film. And it's all as unfathomably intriguing as the Chomsky phrase itself. (The only bum note is that the title is apparently preferred written all in lowercase - a slight but rather precious decision if you ask me. Other than that, all is near perfect for a documentary of this kind.)

19 February 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #9: Sugar

Sugar (Ryan Fleck/Anna Boden) USA, 120 mins.
with: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ellary Porterfield

I think I can count on one hand the sports-related films I've actively sought out to watch (although right now I'm unable to muster up five great examples). It's not that I avoid them, but it's never really been a genre that's grabbed my attention. I did, however, make an effort to see Sugar, which concerns the efforts of a young, talented Dominican baseball player, Miguel 'Sugar' Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), who gets picked to travel to America to try out for the minor leagues; and needs to financially support his impoverished family back home. I'm glad I did because it was one of the most thoughtful and engrossing films I saw last year. But Sugar isn't necessarily all about sport itself, per se. Baseball is dwelt upon as a necessary structure that drives the narrative, and the film thoroughly investigates it with conviction (at least as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge of it - although I've read that the film's directors, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, conducted extensive research both in the US and the Dominican Republic, where they discovered lead actor Soto, a non-professional). But it's rather more about how the drive to do something at an expert level, whatever it is, can make a person, and how sustaining that level can possibly break them. There are few scenes of last minute scoring and no Rocky-esque triumph of the spirit-style montages. The film indeed ends on a low-key note far from the glory of the baseball pitch.

Fleck and Boden's research goes in depth to show the smaller, more personal details and events, both minor and major in narrative terms: the skill and intricacy involved in learning how to throw the ball in just the right way to create a perfect strike; the nervous hesitation of waiting to be picked for play, or the subsequent humiliation of being sent off; the long in-between hours of passing time on a tour coach; and the levels of adjustment Sugar (so named for his "sweet" way with the ladies) works through when he's posted in Iowa to live with a host family whilst he trains. All these events gradually accrue, leading to a plot turn that sees Sugar re-evaluate what he does and why he's doing it: is the slog of fighting for sporting greatness worth sacrificing old family bonds? And do the fickle ins-and-outs of off-pitch politics mean that he's ultimately expendable?

The film doesn't fall into clichéd territory anywhere. The family he stays with are warm-hearted and welcoming, and not, as is sometimes the case with sub-plots in the more run of the mill sports dramas, a cause of struggle and consternation. (Some of the nicest scenes are when Sugar interacts with the mother of the family.) And, despite his nickname, Sugar's tentative romance with the daughter of the (highly religious) family never truly blooms. Everything is closely focused on Sugar in a way that suggests the film is more a meditative portrait of a man evolving as a person than a typical examination of the rigours of life on the path to fame and success. One scene - a long tracking shot filmed over Soto's shoulder, reminiscent of the kind of thing Béla Tarr, Gus Van Sant or the Dardenne brothers specialise in - has the camera keep pace with Sugar as he casually walks through one location (a bar) to another (a bowling alley). Formally it's transitional, a shot that divulges seemingly immaterial information, but it actually speaks volumes about how Sugar feels about not fitting in in a foreign country. It works far better as pure image than a similar, more mundane scene full of expository dialogue would have. Many moments where the camera is intently focused on Sugar's face, seemingly casually observing him, give us a plethora of minute details about him and suggest what he is thinking; this is as much down to the natural and unstrained way Soto performs as it's due to Fleck and Boden's inquisitive camera. Soto is entirely captivating in the role, as are the whole cast. Fleck and Boden's easy way with actors is palpable and gets great results.

Sugar didn't receive the same level of recognition that Fleck and Boden's previous feature, Half Nelson (2007), did. (That film won twenty-plus awards and gained a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Ryan Gosling in '07; Sugar only received six award nominations.) But it may simply be a less easily classifiable follow up. But in the current climate of American indie filmmaking (whatever that really means these days), which sees many films trade on either novelty devices, quirky nostalgia or high concepts that are more attuned to watered-down mainstream films, it's encouraging, and something to celebrate, that Fleck and Boden are mining their own path. (Similarly to how John Sayles did several decades before.) On the strength of their films so far I'm eagerly looking forward to their next collaboration, an adaptation of Ned Vizzini's novel It's Kind of a Funny Story, which is currently in production. I'm sure their organic and improvisational mode of filmmaking will remain as fresh and engaging a fourth time out as it did here. Sugar is an invigorating and surprising film. I'll be sure to keep my eyes open for more sports-themed movies in future.

18 February 2010

Top Ten Films of 2009 - #10: Bright Star

Bright Star (Jane Campion) UK/Australia/France, 119 mins.
with Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox

The inclusion of poetry and/or poets in films can leave me a bit cold. Whenever a character opens their mouth to wax lyrical about their favourite poem, or, even worse, to actually recite a passage it can send me into convulsions. It's so often used as verbal shorthand for what a character is feeling instead of the filmmakers coming up with something relevantly poetic of their own. Woody Allen got it spot on in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). In the scene where Michael Caine buys an ee cummings book for Barbara Hershey it's apparent he genuinely adores the poet and that he fancies Hershey something terrible. A subsequent shot of Hershey staring wistfully into the New York harbour, preceded by a typical white-on-black title insert ("nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands"), with her voiceover reading cumming's poem 'somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond' from which that line comes, is enough to perfectly conjure up unrequited, desperate, passionate and indeed all varieties of love without any undue fuss. It's a beautiful moment.

Now Jane Campion, with her eighth feature Bright Star, manages a similar trick tenfold, albeit in a totally different register. She has always had one eye on all things poetic: The Piano (1993), her biggest film to date, positively blushed with all the poetical camera angles and heart-wrenching yearning going on (it was maybe a touch too in love with its own sense of beauty for me though); and In the Cut (2003) dispersed nuggets of poetic verse amid its story of an English teacher Meg Ryan caught up in a hunt for a serial killer. With Bright Star Campion has now put poets at the centre of a film. And it was nothing like I was expecting. Instead of a flimsy, prestige-hungry account of John Keats' (Ben Whishaw) later life (though not that late: he died aged twenty-five) and love affair with his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Campion creates an atypically romantic film featuring two like-minded souls who share a genuine love of words. It's first and foremost all about the words, not the heavily-scored need for theatrics that often accompanies similarly poetry-loaded, if way more overbearing, films. (I'm thinking of the drizzly spoutings in Pride and Prejudice (2005), the weepy emoting of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and worst of all the incessant use of iambic pentameter in Sally Potter's Yes (2005).)

She infuses their relationship with very little pomp or gushing. When Keats' poems are read aloud they are done so in a tenderly heartfelt way, without doom-laden emphasis on all that woe-is-me stuff, but with a simple matter-of-factness. It's affection laid out bare, no fanfare needed. Indeed the invocation of his poems seems to get absorbed into the texture of the film itself through Campion's and cinematographer Greig Fraser's beautifully-rendered visuals: instead of it being just lovely imagery, the photography aerates the script and brings it to life. They make it seem like a breeze. The acting by the cast - particularly Cornish and Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown - are excellent, and Campion's semi-regular composer Mark Bradshaw's simple and elegant score enhances the film wonderfully. That same feeling of true wonder I got from that one scene in Hannah and Her Sisters is replicated here, and expanded across every minute of Bright Star. By avoiding the obvious pitfalls of the poetic biopic, Campion has made her best film to date. It didn't quite snare its due share of the current award season nominations (a token nod each from Oscar and Bafta, both for the costumes - and isn't costume design the easy vote in period films such as this?), but no matter, it's infinitely better than many of the fair weather gong-grabbers. This one will steadily pick up more supporters over time. Join in and champion this Campion.

16 February 2010

Year-end lists: 20-11

These twenty films (the ten in the 20-11 list below and the ten back-ups, or 30-21, below that) were all, in my view, great and diverse examples of what cinema was capable of offering up last year. All were worth special mention for being some of the best of '09. Not quite the very best but close to it.

20. The International Tom Tykwer (USA/Germany/UK)

A lot of folk I've read online dismissed The International for lacking excitement, or that it was trying too hard to be a Bond flick, or that an espionage thriller about dodgy international banking doesn't exactly raise the temperature. On paper, I can see that may be so, but I didn't think it needed the too-hectic pace of a Bourne film or to be another slick Bond wannabe (though I actually thought it was better and infinitely more interesting than Daniel Craig's last two 007 outings). It was engrossing enough without the need to be overly showy. As for brushing it off for not being exciting, I'd say look again. After all, The Third Man (1949) was essentially about a penicillin racket. Director Tom Tykwer does play down a lot of the dramatic exchanges and covert meetings in his film, but its in service of a story that filters events based loosely on political what-ifs and makes them work through sheer stolid determination. It's something to be somewhat admired in a genre which often prides hollow gimmickry over penetrating and distinct film craftsmanship. And Clive Owen, with his gaunt demeanor and in his tatty overcoat, makes for a nicely shabby (non-)hero. The Film's obvious standout moment, a tense late-in-the-story shoot-out at New York's Guggenheim Museum was one of the most expertly staged and executed scenes of the year. But all that came before it was equally exciting, too.

19. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman) USA

There was a lot to like about Synecdoche, New York despite a fair amount of frustration and brain ache involved. But the frustration paid off in the end. It had one of the most bizarrely emotive endings of any film I saw last year; the final fifteen minutes were incredibly affecting. Kaufman has snuck out from under the cover of his collaborators (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry) to create a debut that was far more interesting (and a dazzling mess in places) than some of their films. Synecdoche suggests that the films he wrote for them were like experimental sketches in preparation for his debut here (though that's not a slight on his collaborators' work - some were very good in their own right). He pours years worth of anguish, playfulness and thought (and a pinch of restrained surrealism) into the film. It feels very much like a grandiose culmination of his key themes, and therefore comes across like a weird signing-off film, a last statement from an image-soaked mind. Maybe, like many of the skewed and direction-bending ideas contained in his scripts, he's working backwards himself. Here's to a last film, sometime in the distant future, that has the energy of an eager and image-starved "first" film.

18. Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (Anders Østergaard) Denmark/Sweden/Norway /UK/USA/Germany/Netherlands/Israel/Spain/Belgium/Canada

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country was a late watch for the list (three weeks ago), but it deserves mention as one of the most important and fascinating documentaries of last year. It was a captivating look at the breakdown of politics within a tumultuous, and effectively sealed-off, country, and the small band of bold and impassioned filmmakers (self-named the Democratic Voice of Burma) who wanted (and needed) the rest of the world to witness for themselves the extent of that breakdown that they risked their lives to show it as it unfolded. The present day-set fictional inserts in no way diminish the unsettling and affecting documented images of the protests by the group of Buddhist monks at the centre of the upheaval (that infamously took place in September 2007). It's a shocking film, but essential and rewarding. And it's also the best example of the use of a camera as a journalistic tool in quite some time.

17. Triangle (Christopher Smith) UK/Australia

Triangle may have suffered slightly coming after the other similarly-themed and -structured loopy time travel film of last year, Timecrimes, but it stood out nonetheless by having some new things to say (particularly during the protracted dénouement) and including many inspired creepy moments (and with a fully committed and affecting lead performance from Melissa George). It's a pure genre pleasure from beginning to end: George makes for a great unlikely protagonist, the tension never flags and it has some unique and memorable visuals tucked away below deck - not least a chilling and surreal shot of identical bodies piled up on the bow of the phantom ship of the film's setting (though revealing the whys and hows of this particular image may spoil part of the plot). It's well worth seeking out on dvd, where I hope it receives the acclaim and the audience it deserves. It's a great mini gem of a film.

16. Let the Right One In/Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson) Sweden

Let the Right One In was rightly praised for bringing something fresh to the horror genre last year. It's curious story of a young vampire girl and the friendship she strikes up with a boy, set in an eerie Swedish block of flats, was played out against an early-'80s period backdrop of snowfall and bloodletting. The two child leads gave great performances and the imagery was nicely subdued; Alfredson's a director with a great deal of talent for subsuming all the grisly lore of vampirism into a story essentially about youthful bonding. I'm intrigued to see what he follows this original film up with next. It also got my vote for best score of last year, too; Johan Söderqvist's music for the film is truly beautiful, and works just as well outside of the film as it does accompanying its stark images.

15. Inside/À l'intérieur (Alexandre Bustillo/Julien Maury) France

Another bold and original horror of '09 (though made in 2007) was Inside, starring that dark French maiden Beatrice Dalle. She plays a woman, known only as La femme, who wants a baby so bad that she's willing to go to any extreme to get one; and to an extreme end she goes. To say that she's playing the world's worst midwife is putting it lightly. It's a relatively thrifty seventy-five minutes long, but makes effective use of its time. After a brief set-up the action is confined to a single location, a recently widowed mother-to-be's house. Dalle's introduction as a shape looming outside - spied through darkened windows or through the eyehole in a door - is incredibly unsettling, and the hazy, yellowish cinematography becomes more and more fogged, more womblike as the tautness of the situation turns more horrific (and more giallo-esque; red and yellow being colours synonymous with murder in Argento, Bava etc - likely influences). What Dalle does with knitting needles here would make granny shit a brick.

14. The Signal (David Bruckner/Dan Bush/Jacob Gentry) USA

I randomly chanced upon The Signal on dvd during the middle of last year (note: it's another sad case of a solid enough, but uncategorisable film finding its place on home rental instead of where it should have played, in the cinemas; it was leagues above many easy-fit theatrically-released horrors of the past year). A brief description and title alone was enough to get me intrigued. It's simple: a signal sent through the TV turns people bad. Very bad. Unoriginal? Perhaps. But it's what the trio of filmmakers (David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry) do with the set-up that surprises: forming a filmmaking trinity, they play a visual variation on the game of exquisite corpse, where each of the three filmmakers direct a roughly thirty-minute segment with its own style and tone, but narratively picks up where the preceding one left off. The first sees the inhabitants of an apartment complex, demented by the titular signal, go on a killing spree; the second, set in a house, features a morbid, highly staged siege scenario that borders on farce; and the third is a chase through a deserted city to track down loved ones and other survivors. The Crazies (George A. Romero/1973), 28 Days Later... (Danny Boyle/2002) and early David Cronenberg are all aspired to at various points, but The Signal still contains enough energy of its own to make it feel uniquely effective. There's more going on between the lines of what a simple synopsis offers, mainly how funny, terrifying and well made it is. Divergent paths in the horror genre should be celebrated, especially in an era that sees an abundance of remakes each year. I especially liked the odd arrangement in tone that The Signal experimented with. For me it worked wonderfully.

13. The Class/Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet) France

I'm glad to see several school-set films in recent years avoid the 'chalk and talk' standard of showing teachers merely stand, write Big Important Quotes on blackboards and disagree with students. Maren Ade's excellent debut The Forest for the Trees (2003) and the politically-charged The Wave (2008) (even the parody TV comedy Summer Heights High got lots of the finer details right, amongst all the sharp comic details) have recently depicted a more truthful and explorative side to showing what happens in a classroom. Laurent Cantet's The Class - 2008's Palme d'Or winner - goes to further lengths in showing entirely real situations and the fraught, often PC-orientated issues sometimes involved in the job. The scenes of teaching - or instructing, lecturing, debating and so on - here are riveting. Each one is clearly closely drawn from reality (lead actor François Bégaudeau based the script partly on his own experiences as a teacher) and are - through Cantet's thoughtful use of his camera - as near to definitive bitesize approximations of what it's surely like to observe the process of learning (or not learning) that I've seen. The Class is quietly explosive and full of great moments of human connection.

12. Tokyo Sonata/Tôkyô sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) Japan/Netherlands/Hong Kong

Tokyo Sonata starts as one thing and ends up quite another entirely. The first part of the film (about a proud salary man who loses his job but keeps going in to work to uphold the pretense for the sake of his family) feels very much under the influence of an Ozu or Maruse film. But strange events encroach about an hour in and a comparison to Takeshi Miike isn't too far off. It's from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known mainly for horror films such as Seance (2000) Kairo/Pulse (2001) and Doppelgänger (2003), among others, and although it's a departure for him in many respects, it does still bear his signature fully. Kurosawa is a smart and incisive filmmaker. I've never noticed a single dull scene or wrong-footed moment in any of his films I've so far seen. The abrupt and rather oddly comical change of direction at the halfway mark perplexed me briefly, but after the remaining hour of the film comes to a close it's clear that he hasn't lost any of his deft skill for heightened drama mixed with firmly wedged social commentary. I enjoyed seeing him move away from all-out creepiness with Tokyo Sonata (though I hope he doesn't abandon the horror genre completely) and his actors (especially Teruyuki Kagawa and Kyôko Koizumi as, respectively, the husband and wife who are both thrown headlong into warped life changes - Kurosawa regular Kōji Yakusho puts in a brilliantly demented performance as a kidnapper) superbly take on their roles excellently; they all go through great shifts in personality throughout the course of the story. As the film gladly does itself.

11. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci) UK

After watching In the Loop I kicked myself for missing the TV show that spawned it, The Thick of It. It meant that I'd missed out (temporarily I hope) on seeing Peter Capaldi's character, prime minister's aide Malcolm Tucker, dish out more hilarious one-liners, aggressive insults and sharply-worded bon mots than in the time it takes him to straighten his tie. Capaldi is standout, but is almost equally matched by Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, Chris Addison and the rest of the cast. The real genius, though, is in the writing. Armando Iannucci, along with Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Ian Martin, created a script that perfectly sums up British-American political relations - with added petty jibes and scathing truths - as seen by people who know how comedy can bring out the best observations on such matters. It's a better satire than any I've seen in recent times - both in film and on televison - and never less than stupendously funny scene after scene. It's the kind of film that deserves repeated viewing just to catch every single word spoken. Iannucci should be called on to hone every British (or indeed from elsewhere) comedy script currently in the works.

Just outside the top 20, in no order:

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold) / District 9 (Neil Blomkamp) / Angel of Mine/L'empreinte de l'ange (Safy Nebbou) / Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat) / Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze) / Star Trek (J.J. Abrams) / Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke) / The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) / Splinter (Toby Wilkins) / Embodiment of Evil/Encarnação do Demônio (José Mojica Marins)

So that's twenty to eleven and a few more thrown in. Next up is my top 10.

15 February 2010

50 Great Films Seen in 2009

Jane Greer in Jacques Tourneur's excellent Out of the Past (1947).
The most recent film noir to go into my all-time favourites list

I wanted to chalk up a list of films, both feature length and short, out of the 322 that I saw for the first time in 2009 (and that weren't new releases during the year), which I considered to be my favourites of the bunch - or simply great examples of surprising, bold, enjoyable, moving or just exemplary filmmaking. There are 50 films in total, listed alphabetically - all of them worth every minute of my, or indeed anybody's, time.

English language, or most frequently used titles, are in bold; country of origin or significant alternative titles are in italics, followed by directors names and year in parenthesis.

All the World's Memory Toute la mémoire du monde (Alain Resnais/1956) * (s)

Axe Lisa, Lisa (Frederick R. Friedel/1977)
Beyond the Door 2 Shock/Schock (Mario Bava/1979)
The Big Heat (Fritz Lang/1953) *
Bread and Roses (Ken Loach/2000)
Calais: The Last Border (Marc Isaacs/2003) (s)
The Cameraman's Revenge Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora (Wladyslaw Starewicz/1912) (s)
Celine and Julie Go Boating Céline et Julie vont en bateau - Phantom Ladies Over Paris (Jacques Rivette/1974)
Chocolat (Claire Denis/1987)
Deep Red Profondo rosso (Dario Argento/1975) *
Doll Clothes (Cindy Sherman/1975) (s)
Elephant (Alan Clarke/1989) * (s)

Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner/1978)
Farewell My Lovely Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk/1944)
Felicia's Journey (Atom Egoyan/1999)
The Firm (Alan Clarke/1988)
Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock/1972)
Friday Night Vendredi soir (Claire Denis/2002) *
Go West (Edward Buzzell/1940)
Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple/1976)
The House by the Cemetery Quella villa accanto al cimitero (Lucio Fulci/1981) *
House of Bamboo (Sam Fuller/1955)
The House of Clocks La casa nel tempo (Lucio Fulci/1989)
Interiors (Woody Allen/1978)
Julia (Erick Zonca/2008)
Late Spring Banshun (Yasujiro Ozu/1949) *
Lift (Marc Isaacs/2001) * (s)

Love and Death (Woody Allen/1975) *
Maniac (William Lustig/1980)
The Naked City (Jules Dassin/1948)
Nothing But a Man (Michael Roemer/1964) *
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray/1952) *
Out of the Past Build My Gallows High (Jacques Tourneur/1947) *
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick/1957)
Patrick (Richard Franklin/1978) *
Presto (Doug Sweetland/2008) (s)
The Rain People (Francis Ford Coppola/1969) *

Sleepless Non ho sonno (Dario Argento/2001)
The Son Le fils (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne/2002) *
Squirm (Jeff Lieberman/1976)
The Stendhal Syndrome La sindrome di Stendhal (Dario Argento/1996)
Stereo (David Cronenberg/1969) (s)
Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster/1940)
The Swimmer (Frank Perry/1968) *
Torso I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (Sergio Martino/1973)
12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet/1957)
Unrelated (Joanna Hogg/2008)
The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker/1973) *
The Virgin Spring Jungfrukällan (Ingmar Bergman/1960) *
The Young Girls of Rochefort Les demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda/1967)

* denotes potential titles for my personal all-time best/favourite films list.
(s) denotes a short film

9 February 2010

Year-end lists: Worst and Most Disappointing Films of 2009

Here are my picks, 10 to 1, for what I saw as the very worst of last year's films. 2009, more than in previous years, didn't hold a great many major duds, but the ones that did irk, annoy and bore me all did it with bells on. Take a look below to see the extent to which these ten films rubbed me up the wrong way last year. And boy, did some of them ever appeal to my disgruntled side. But no worry, coming up after the negative swipes at the selections below, I'll be writing up my Best Films of Last Year. Things are a lot more rosy on that list. (Release dates are from January 1st to December 31st '09.)

I desperately tried to sleep during Michael Jackson's This Is It (10). To me, never a fan of Jacko, it was overlong and hard work to sit through all the practice concert footage and dance rehearsals. It was clearly a fan-only, totally financially-instigated release, and the footage should've ideally therefore been included as a DVD extra or re-edited and embedded into a more interesting and explorative documentary perhaps. It felt rather like a cheap ploy by his then forthcoming gig's sponsors to recoup some of their money back (i.e. a way to make fans shell out more cash for any last minute glimpses of the "real" Jackson). It seemed entirely pointless to me. And I only managed to doze off during one song. Now I want my money back!

I feel slightly reluctant to dish out the bad on a film like Helen (9). I'm all for championing small, low budget British debut features, but this one left me baffled in a bad way. After a young woman is killed the police recruit a girl to act out her last moments in a Crimewatch-style reconstruction of events. The girl drifts through day-to-day events and we seemingly pick up on details about her own troubled life. Many thought that this was a minor gem, a film that stood out for the understated way in which filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor depicted with minimum fuss the kind of story that emerges between the cracks of a significant event. I truly couldn't understand what it was that got so many critics excited by this film.

There's kind of a plot, and kind of characters, but the story is too obtuse; one inert scene follows another, each one tediously played out by the actors with a thudding dullness; everyone delivers lines as if they're being slowly fed them through an earpiece (this got more and more irritating as the film went on). Why not dispense with the half-hearted narrative and tell the story through imagery alone? The design of the film was over-styled (endless shots of the vivid red of school walls and the girl's bright yellow jacket being heavily dwelt upon within the frame), so much so that it came across as obvious artfulness for its own sake - and amateurish to boot. By the end I was stunned by Helen's energy-zapping abilities. (Good thing that low-budget British filmmaking got much better later in the year - see #2 on the 'best of' list.)

Isla Fisher finds it hard to choose which of her 150 pairs of shoes to wear whilst confessing her shopaholic tendencies

Confessions of a Shopaholic (8) stands in as whipping boy for a whole host of other mundane Hollywood romantic comedies that all bored me equally in 2009, as well as for its own sins. The Ugly Truth, He’s Just Not That into You and New in Town could be easily put in at #8 and it would make little difference. But Confessions was a particularly vapid variation on the likes of The Devil Wears Prada or the Sex and the City movie, and another in an increasingly tiresome line of clotheshorse movies. It tries to say something about modern spending excess in its dying moments, but after an hour-or-so of ditzy Isla Fisher forcefully grabbing at bargain Jimmy Choos and crawling around on the floor like a demented catwalk model for off-the-peg Valentino "pieces", it became clear that the appeal was directed squarely at Heat magazine junkies and Z-list-wannabe fashionistas. It's a shopworn mannequin parading as a movie.

I've already mentioned the good Clive Owen-globe-hopping film of '09, now here's the bad one: Duplicity (7). Owen and Julia Roberts are a couple of corporate spies and ex-lovers who are hired to sniff out the wrongdoing of their respective bosses. It has something to do with a revolutionary new make-up product and something to do with high-level deceit in the workplace. Or something. The plot's structure is a fudged-up mess (ill-positioned flashbacks, corporate jargon in place of actual engrossing dialogue), the comedy is smug and the banter between Owen and Roberts awkward. Tedium set in early and, to be honest, I had to look up a synopsis halfway through just to make it through the rest of the film. It thoroughly tested my constitution for this kind of frothy star vehicle that lazy studios trot out regularly. The biggest revelation, for me, was that Julia Roberts hasn't actually made a great, or even good, film in over a decade: America's Sweethearts (2001), Full Frontal (2002), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), Ocean's Twelve (2004) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007) were all intolerable and stupefyingly smug vanity pieces (only Ocean's Eleven (2001) and Closer (2004) just pass muster). I've practically written her off as a screen presence who does anything worthwhile anymore. And it was a sad let down for Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy, too.

Since Uzak/Distant (2002) I've kept up with each successive film from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Leisurely paced and rather austere, Uzak took its time to make a full impact on me, but was worth the initial investment after some time. His follow up, Climates/Iklimler (2007), featuring the director himself in the lead role, was also a stark but engaging film. But last year's Three Monkeys/Üç maymun (6) was a turgid chore, despite a very promising opening ten minutes. Ceylan's signature gloomy overcast skies and general somnambulant visual fog seem par for the course here. They bore instead of evocatively illustrating the characters situations or moods in a constructive manner, as they have previously. The forced artifice of the photography adds little apart from simply making scenes look oh so artfully composed. Ceylan is much lauded for his visual style, but are we taking this style on blind faith? It feels as if he's stuck in a single visual mode to keep afloat his festival reputation.

One of the biggest minuses here is that Three Monkeys, much more than in his previous work, takes a very myopic and perplexing view of women, which lends it an unpleasant tone. Ceylan never really gets to grips with his female characters in any explorative way - here the character of the wife, played by Hatice Aslan, appears to either just silently cry or wail uncontollably over the duplicity of men. Everything feels far too repetitive of each of his other films, too. 'Man in Crisis' movies have never been high on my viewing list - a list that Three Monkeys sits near the top of right now.

See No Joy and Hear No Joy having a wild old time in Three Monkeys

Although many people have said it's a '00s update of Annie Hall (1977), I see (500) Days of Summer (5) more as a Garden State (2004) or The Last Kiss on uppers. It retains the hyper-quirkiness of those films, and others like it, but does avoid for the most part their tedious self-analysis. Filmmaker Marc Webb cuts up the narrative and reassembles key moments in Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Zooey Deschanel's year-and-a-half romance to give it more pep. Narratively chopped up or not, it doesn't seem half as clever as the filmmakers think it is; the scenes we get to see of the relationship still feature annoying twentysomething hipster types venting left, right and centre about their woes. It's just all a bit more sunnier. If the story were left as linear it would still be a tiresome exercise in cool for the sake of it.

Ever since High Fidelity (2000) - a genuinely decent version of the 'alt-romance' movie, one with several moments of truthful realisation in it - directors started rushing to write characters who unashamedly wanted to state exactly what cool music they liked as shorthand for inner depth, and then use it as some kind of badge denoting their alternative personalities. (500) Days takes this idea and runs with it (well, it nonchalantly saunters with it). It's akin to scanning an über-fashionable mate's vinyl collection - filed unalphabetically, of course - and finding that each album is emotionally tied to a painful break-up memory (a bit like High Fidelity then, but more tedious and certainly less appealing). I don't think any film where the main characters openly profess their love for the Smiths is ever going to win my vote anyway. I say let Jean-Luc Godard get his hands on it - he might be able to reassemble it into something really worth watching. He could call it (95) Minutes of Bullshit.

The repeated acclaim Clint Eastwood has been getting of late for his directorial efforts has nonplussed me somewhat. Changeling (2007) sounded great in theory but in ol' Clint's hands it was dour and wretchedly over-melodramatic (so much so that I thought it was a shame that it didn't get made twenty years ago, with John Waters directing and Divine, instead of Angelina Jolie, as Christine Collins - imagine Divine screaming, "I want my son back! MY SON!!" and thumping her chest - for an idea of what a delight it could have been). Anyway, Eastwood followed that one up with what is reputedly his on-screen swansong, Gran Torino (4), where Clint's a grouchy racist who grows soft on his Hmong neighbours after a common enemy (pesky old gang hoodlums!) start bothering their street.

The idea of it sounded ok, but it perhaps would've been better had another actor-director made it. Clint seems to desperately want to put paid to any past accusations of, I don't know, too much right-wingedness? A lot of the film yells, Look how even-handed and ingratiating I am! I'll even make it extra mawkish so they'll hopefully throw Oscars at it. But in saying that, had Clint not got in front of his camera here we would've been deprived of one of the two best comedy performances of last year - the other being Meryl Streep, in Doubt (2008) - and the best worst closing credits song I've heard in ages. Maybe, like my never-gonna-happen dream of Waters remaking Changeling (though, hang on, Mink Stole is still with us), Abel Ferrara is the man to remake this tough little nugget. He might give us a bit more food for thought with the material. Anyway, for now Clint, here's a load of retirement home pamphlets. Give us your best narked old man grimace to camera...

Disliking Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (3) is an easy thing to do. It's garnered a lot of derision and hate already. But although some have tried to instigate a pro-backlash to the backlash. (Some folk, I've read, consider Bay to be a trash auteur... Paul Verhoeven is a trash auteur. Craig Brewer is a trash auteur. David Caruso is (maybe) a trash auteur. Bay? No.) It seems ridiculous to vainly attempt to see any deeper worth in something that sets itself up from the outset to merely be a cash magnet, made quickly and with little thought to coherence, directorial decision making or any real fun. A badly-made film is just that: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is rubbish and only rubbish.

None of this is any suprise whatsoever. But don't mainstream audiences young and old deserve something of a bit more quality to spend their money on? Case in point: District 9. The budgets for this Transformers sequel and director McG's near-equal timewasting exercise Terminator: Salvation (the two biggest summer event movies of '09) were both estimated at $200,000,000, and both received largely negative critical and public responses. Neill Blomkamp's rather nifty outsider District 9 cost $30,000,000 (again, estimated). Although all three recouped major box office, Blomkamp's film clearly had the best return and got a Best Picture nod and some inspired commentary/audience praise lavished upon it to boot. But considering the effects work, and refreshing plot turns and acting in District 9, I hope Michael Bay and McG came out of a screening of it crying. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is just unpleasant. It's like two-and-a-half hours of being fucked in the face by a tank whilst having a fit in a scrapyard.

If you like watching affectless twenty-or-thirty-somethings mill about, not-quite working at their unstressful jobs, take baths whilst wearing kooky goggles and a snorkel, sit about a bit - then a bit more - or hanging out at uneventful yet exclusive parties, then Hannah Takes the Stairs (2) should be a veritable treat for you. For me though, notsamuch. Before this, I hadn't yet seen a Joe Swanberg film, but I had watched a couple of previous flicks from other Mumblecore filmmakers, namely Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski/2002), The Puffy Chair (Mark and Jay Duplass/2005) and Quiet City (Aaron Katz/2007). Each of these, despite several annoying factors, contained some nice observations on the lives of drifting post-college, pre-career folk, even if they were a bit too hip and vacant to be truly engaging.  

Hannah Takes the Stairs was near insufferable. Hannah chooses one guy over another, then chooses another over the second guy. And a lot of not very much else occurs in between. But they do all take turns throwing a ball around an office at one point: the ennui was palpable! There's a lot of "real" and "natural" dialogue, but, due to the obvious slim difference between actor and character personas, it could be read simply as what they decided to say at any particular point the camera was rolling; it's less improvised (as this clearly requires some thought) as, er, just words spoken that may trigger conversation. It's like watching Cloverfield (2008) without having the monster ever turn up. And that's no fun. Why would anyone outside of that exclusively close-knit Mumblecore hipster collective (and their inevitable audience hanger-ons) want to watch what they do, day in-day out? This is the point that I give up on this inanely labelled Mumblecore lot. Hannah might take the stairs, but I'll take the exit, thanks.

8 out of 9 acting legends prefer Cabaret every time

Simply put, Nine (1) was utterly horrible. It's possibly the worst film musical I've seen. Terrible acting by everyone: Penélope Cruz (whiny, in knickers - see below); Judi Dench (asleep, but chain-smoking); Kate Hudson (barely bothered from the neck up, but furiously dancing from the knees down); Sophia Loren (seemingly wheeled in using the same upright gurney Hannibal Lector entered a room on); Marion Cotillard (bored); Fergie (made up to look freshly dead by the looks of it); Nicole Kidman (so beyond bored she's re-bored anew); and worst of all a hilariously hammy Daniel Day Lewis with an accent from the 'Allo 'Allo training school of Daft Ways to Talk All Foreign-Like™ - he plays, per the film's flimsy MO, one of those whinging, frustrated, irritatingly tortured artist-filmmakers who wafts about doing nothing, moaning about everything, then doesn't actually make a film out of all that nothing (but then, at the last minute, decides to make an impromptu film about a whinging, frustrated, irritatingly tortured artist-filmmaker).

The songs in between all the moping around are terrible, too. It's evident that director Rob Marshall is desperately trying to pull the same trick he did with Chicago (2002), but that did actually have one or two memorable songs in its favour. Watching all these famous actresses shunted on, wearing little but the embarrassment on their faces, for their five-minutes-at-a-time musical interludes made me think about how people may have responded to Nine had it been of an entirely different genre. Indeed, those who regularly moan about the prominence of nude women in horror films should take a second look at this pile of dishonest, misogynistic rubbish. Although, because it's a "frothy" Oscar-hungry Hollywood musical it'll likely get away with nary a comment on its dim view of women. (But, to me, just having Extraordinarily Big Female Names in the cast doesn't relieve the film of its barely-cloaked sexism).

Now, I'm in no way being puritan with my take on the film (my preferred genre of choice, above others, is after all horror), and surely it has been already noted, but it seems too easy to let the film slink away with its content unquestioned. And Hollywood does indeed sometimes like its double standards. For example, Penélope Cruz - a tremendously talented actress when she's working with Pedro Almodóvar - has recently received her third Oscar nomination for this, after winning one last year for playing a character (in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) incredibly similar to the one she plays here. It baffles me why, in a film year which has seen a massive surge in female filmmaking, a role such as hers is so widely recognised. Cruz performs a forgettable song, mopes, cries, flings herself at Day-Lewis, then attempts suicide because he spurns her (after this she's barely onscreen again). I have little time for a film featuring a group of talented women (plus Fergie) who wait around for a self-involved man. Nearly 38 years ago Liza Minneli strut her stuff on stage and film as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (Bob Fosse/1972). She grabbed an Oscar, set new standards, dallied, danced and deconstructed the men in her life, and did it all with a funny, fierce intelligence. She should've had a word with all nine involved here.

Also not for me, in no order (these weren't all necessarily terrible in my view, just either dull, bad in places or simply disappointing):

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee / Funny People / 2012 / Knowing / Away We Go / The Ugly Truth / Blackout / X-Men Origins: Wolverine / A Perfect Getaway / Joshua