28 January 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Best Films 30-11

Here are my top films of 2010: 30-21 films (without comments); 20-11 films (with comments).

Remember, this list is drawn up from films released theatrically in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2010. There may be a few tiny discrepencies or caveats here and there: last year's TV/DVD debuts and festival titles (with no future release date as yet set) are allowed - ditto the films which may have debuted in other countries the year prior, but have been given a release here, however limited. But on the whole I stick to the tidy start/end year cycle. I find it keeps things in some kind of order, more or less.

30. Women without Men / Zanan-e bedun-e mardan Shirin Neshat/Shoja Azari (Germany/Austria/France/Italy/Ukraine/Morocco)
29. The Hole Joe Dante (USA)
28. The Road John Hillcoat (USA)
27. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done Werner Herzog (USA)
26. La horde / The Horde Yannick Dahan/Benjamin Rocher (France)
25. Whip It Drew Barrymore (USA)
24. Gentlemen Broncos Jared Hess (USA) 
23. Brooklyn’s Finest Antoine Fuqua (USA) 
22. Catfish Henry Joost/Ariel Schulman (USA) 
21. Still Walking / Aruitemo aruitemo Hirokazu Koreeda (Japan)

20. A Single Man Tom Ford (USA)

Because: It was an arousing and exceedingly well photographed film, with a visual style uncommon in much of recent modest-budget American cinema, made by a confident first-timer unafraid to let their giddy side explode with a glad sensuality and subdued sincerity at once. Its detractors all moaned about "style over content", but think: if Ford under-styled it he would only have been wrist-slapped for being not stylish enough. A fashion designer directs a film and folk want it to be anything but sumptuous? I can't get behind that. Plus, Firth was excellent - his best role yet (inclusive of The King's Speech hoopla) - and Moore added great sozzled pathos. Everything else was nicely, stylishly sublime. I eagerly await what Ford does next.

19. [Rec]² Jaume Balagueró/Paco Plaza (Spain)

Because: It was a no-fuss, get-in-and-get-messy sequel with little more on its fetid mind other than a cranked-up and dash-fuelled visual assault which doesn’t like to wait for anyone. The first [Rec] was a splendidly serviceable and intimately shambling zombie flick; this follow-up shifts everything a click or seven higher whilst still maintaining an icky and contained atmosphere. 2010’s other trapped-with-zombies-in-public-housing movie La horde was great, but not on the frenetic level of Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s film. (I love that one year can have two such strong entries in this, um, unlikely field!) It is essentially more of the same as far as plot propulsion goes, but the filmmakers have the gall to pig-headedly expect our trust again (after the gangrenous gore the first time) and the insight to unsettle us in newer ways. On this evidence [Rec]³ will be like entering semi-detached hell.

18. Journey's End / La belle visite Jean-François Caissy (Canada) 

Because: Its unobtrusive documentation of the lives of people who we don't often get to spend willing time with - especially in the measured way Caissy specifies - came as a waft of fresh air. Many moons ago I saw a small Canadian indie film on TV called The Company of Strangers, about a broken-down bus load of pensioners who rest and bond by an unused lakeside house. Journey's End - somewhat similar in tone, albeit dealing with fact - reminded me of the happy memory of that film, which has since proven to be difficult to obtain and /or see again. A disparate collection of elderly folk again here gather in a once-abandoned building in remote stretch of Canada (it was formerly a motel; now a fully-operational retirement home). With simple finesse the camera merely observes their daily lives. It's a good-natured, and, in minute ways, rather beguiling film. A final tracking shot - which sees a lone resident do a full circle of the home on foot -  is both gently comical and beautifully filmed. A minor treasure. (More on Journey's End)

17. Shutter Island Martin Scorsese (USA)

Because: I liked that Scorsese decided to mine the anals of spooky cinema history for a filmmaking project that he interpreted into his own personal take on the haunted house - or, well, asylum - film. It was plodding, overwrought and full of bolshy visual grammar too bulbous to mention at times - and the titular island could barely take the weight of all his cinematic reference and grand flourish - but it thrilled me like no other Scorsese film has in recent memory. It felt alive to experience - however daftly rendered. The bombastic music, top-notch cast - all delving into creatively ridiculous waters - and caustic visuals all nodded in the direction of many old films I, and many other horror fans I'm sure, love. I was happy that Scorsese and co. showed they love them too. He shows his influence on his sleeve, but it's better than badly remaking an unnecessary classic. Let's call it Eclectic Shock Corridor, shall we?

16. The Crazies Breck Eisner (USA)

Because: Car wash of death! Small-town lockdown! Combine harvester of Terror! Garage/diner fight-off! And all the other good bits in between those good bits. Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell were one of my very favourite screen couples of the year: believable, likeable and resolutely unobvious in a subtle way. Plus they both have the genre chops to make a film liuke this shine. There was plenty of acute detail in the way director Eisner and his crew outlaid the panic of a virus outbreak and how its containment might very well play out - and all the time making it entertainingly thrilling, energised and evenly structured. The thrill of empty towns combined with desperate heroics was conveyed with gutsiness and juice. Sometimes that’s simply enough. More like this would not go amiss.

15. White Material Claire Denis (France/Cameroon)

Because: One of the many highlights of watching Claire Denis' latest was studying the multiple variations of frazzled emotion which emanate from Isabelle Huppert's endlessly watchable face as she frets and contemplates her way through the mysterious drama of the film. It was a heady, visually irrational and at times perplexing film. But with Denis I wouldn't want it any other way. It wondrously falls in line with disjointed, less cohesive work such as The Intruder (2004) more than it does with 2009's 35 Shots of Rum (incidentally my number one film last year). Denis is in full control of her brilliantly haywire directorial compass, but she's far from merely serving up another dose of predictable arthouse fare. She mines a singular path and finds ways to mess with the limits of what she can make the film frame do. Every one of her films is markedly different from the next; each new one contains the zest and openness of a first-time director. Beau travail indeed. More on White Material

14. Double Take Johan Grimonprez (Belgium/Germany/Netherlands)

Because: One of the best things about watching a lot of footage, or reading multiple accounts, on Hitchcock is the knowledge that he was rather a playfully cheeky old goat, just as much as he was a serious film artist. His refreshing trailers for his films and TV side projects showed his sly side off nicely. There's plenty of japery on display in Grimonprez's experimentally involving documentary/art piece, and plenty of intriguing content, too. The film veers off into odd unforeseen directions - so quite like the tricky narratives of some Hitchcock films themselves - to also make social and cultural points about the real-world time frame of Hitchcock's work. It utilises found footage, clips, trailers, specially-recorded inserts and adverts, plus much more, and splices in a visual essay on doubles and their meanings into the pot. The sheer barrage of intricately, oddly assembled visuals and the emotive thrill they induce is what makes this one-off fly. Ah, Hitch remixed. Encore?

13. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Werner Herzog (USA)

Because: It's Herzog's human aquarium. It's ridiculous, sublime, full of beauty and scum, and always only a few shades shy of absurdity. Actually, it embraces aburdity like a favourite blanket. People come, go, flirt with the central narrative and occasionally impact upon it: Val Kilmer, Irma P. Hall, Eva Mendes, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Xzibit, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Shawn Hatosy, Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon all metaphorically assist Cage in flipping the bird to orthodox performing. I was enthralled by the way events almost inconsequentially stumble along, not really finding a foothold on a solid narrative path. The plot, like Cage, gets sidetracked and veers off down enjoyably demented avenues, with pit stops for flashes of daft ingenuity - like an alligator's POV shot of roadside carnage, a freshly-dead break-dancing corpse, lots of iguanas (see above), and so on. Once in a while it's creatively healthy to let things casually break apart; Herzog, Cage and co. provide more than sufficient glimpses of magical evidence for Bad Lieutenant's duration. (More on The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.)

12. The Disappearance of Alice Creed J Blakeson (UK)

Because: The set-up, execution and resulting tension were all expertly handled. ( I like that it came from a new voice in British horror/thriller filmmaking, too.) J Blakeson clearly knows the scales when it comes to composition, colour palettes aptly reflecting desperate mindsets and the slow-release drip of suspense. (For those who've seen the film, think of the amount of time, between tense moments, that we have to ponder the patchy yet tantalising psychology of the three main characters' predicaments.) He also knows how to tease a viewer into expecting one thing, but embrace getting hit in the face with another. He knows pace; it's slightly skewed but memorably drawn out into something far more inspired than what you might have initially suspected. There are hints of Deathtrap, the play and film, and Shallow Grave here, but it's its own slender beast. There's a bold absurdity to this kidnap tale that the film takes on board in slyly piecemeal nuggets, which it then attempts to bronze into something fresh and involving. It succeeded incredibly well in my eyes.

11. Eyes Wide Open / Einayim Petukhoth Haim Tabakman (Israel/Germany/France)

Because: Something about Tabakman's openhearted and quietly involving film was incredibly thoughtful and all-round intoxicating. It was a tender, wonderful tale of repressed lust and blooming love. I want to say it's an orthodox Jewish take on the whole Brokeback Mountain thing, but that line of inquiry tends to posit the idea of easy mimicry within the film. It's more than that. It's on the same track, but the emphasis has shifted somewhat; the religious aspect adds a dimension which is at once timeless and refreshing. There was the documentary Trembling before G-d a few years ago, but as far as homosexuality and Judaism go there hasn't been much on offer that explores both so well in recent cinema. Both leads (Zohar Strauss, Ran Danker) were splendid and believable, and nicely aroused sensitivity in their respective roles. The limpid photography aided the aura of burgeoning sexuality and mutual lust through its use of uncommon palette, and the film had a corker of an ending: both heart-wrenching and appropriate to its themes. It's a shame that Eyes Wide Open didn't make the top ten.

30-11 films - quick-glance rundown, in order:

Women without Men
The Hole 
The Road
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
La horde
Whip It
Gentlemen Broncos
Brooklyn’s Finest
Still Walking
A Single Man
Journey's End
Shutter Island
The Crazies
White Material
Double Take
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
The Disappearance of Alice Creed
Eyes Wide Open

Next: top ten male and female acting, the top ten best films.

27 January 2011

At the Cinema: Abel

Abel (Diego Luna/2010) Mexico/82 mins. **½

Abel, the second directorial effort by actor Diego Luna (after the 2007 sporting documentary J.C. Chávez), was both a frothy fable-like tale centered on family loyalty and a minor polemic about masculinity in Mexico. It's the story of a boy, the titular Abel, who returns home from a stay at a psychiatric hospital to resume living with his mother and siblings – only to assume the role of patriarch of the house, brought on by his father’s disappearance years earlier. The family go along with the ruse in the hope that it aids Abel’s recovery.

It’s an amusing, sweet-natured look at how families are truly peculiar to themselves more so than to others. It gently questions the role of the patriarch in modern Mexican life and makes a few choice and aptly conveyed criticisms of male-dominated hierarchies. Though it plays all this with pleasant abandon, Luna handles the few slightly troubling darker moments with able care. With such an attention-seeking - and oddly quirky - narrative conceit, there are one or two moments which come close to being faintly embarrassing, but they stop from being crassly delivered; the overall humanistic tone lightens the film nicely. Luna and co. swerve anything too dramatically or tonally disruptive, and perhaps with it they unfortunately avoid any truly contentious pointmaking - although it scores well enough on the likeable front. If the ending seemed a bit easily arrived at, it was made up for by the wonderful photography and easygoing performances, not least a cracking turn by young Christopher Ruiz-Esparza as Abel.

This mini review has been adapted/altered from a piece for the LFF I wrote at The Film Experience

26 January 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Worst Films, Or Last Year's Top 15 Quality Dodgers

These are a list of 15 films which I liked the least, or did zilch for me, in 2010. In the spirit of fair play and to, shall we say, accentuate the positive (and to also underline the idea that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything much at all), I've not piled the hate onto the bunch of eye-offending works below, mainly because by being on the list in the first place it's inherent that I thought each one was terrible anyway. I'd rather expend the energy on writing up thoughts on the films I liked - which is what I'm currently doing. There are, however, fairly brief and all too daft Twitter-style sentences about each one:

15. Remember Me (Allen Coulter/USA)
R-Patz fizzles out in dour NY period drama. Gets the Massive Eye-Roll award for a laughably crass finale. Films like this - with wayward, where's-my-life-going? slant - used to come without hefty messages and bland acting. Cee-Lo Green said it best: forget you.

14. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer/USA) more here
Freddy Kruger played as an angry pork scratching. The best bits of original were left shredded on the cutting room floor; with literal rubbish spliced in their place.

13. The Book of Eli (Albert Hughes/Allen Hughes/USA)
Ponderous apocalyptic waffle with little keen insight into interesting depictions of a world gone wrong. Quasi-religious twaddle and a back-in-the-room Gary Oldman inserted in its place. Any film which features Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as cannibals and makes them dull is clearly on the wrong track.

The Book of Eli

12. Saw 3D (Kevin Greutert/USA)
I'm hoping, praying that they saved the worst of the bunch for last? (If this one is actually the last.)

11. The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock/USA)
This isn't the eighties and racism in movies doesn't require the paint-by-numbers treatment. Made to make people (very much like the Bullock character) who are incapable of individual thought feel, ya know, OK about their lives.

10. Whatever Works (Woody Allen/USA) more here
Woody often revisits themes, but here he's dusting off old scripts - and leaving in the cobwebs. David is unappealing. Film has very little charm or any actual genuinely funny comedy to speak of.

09. Give Me Your Hand / Donne-moi la main (Pascal-Alex Vincent/France, Germany)
Twin twerps trek to mum's funeral. Lots of inane posing & tediously illogical behaviour (conveyed in that way... just because?) Clichéd, pointless, boring.

Give Me Your Hand

08. Sex and the City 2 (Michael Patrick King/USA)
Everything everyone has said rings true. With such sleek and wow-worthy splendour on screen (clothes, locations, NY streets blah blah blah), it's a shame the cast & crew have made it all so ugly, thematically, visually, inherently. Reminds me how little I cared for this idea in the first place. Even Miranda's boring/conformist this time around.

07. Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton/USA)
It's more like Alice through the Windshield Glass. Crushingly ugly, slipshod and tediously infantilised. Burton adds another clunky entry onto his increasingly quality-deprived CV. Self-parody or empty ideas box, Tim?

06. The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson/USA)
Like Alice above, this was a film beaten with the ugly stick. Colour-clashed, dated and visually awkward imagery topped off with a central plot which wallows in cheap ineffectuality. The most egregious and alarming afterlife sob-fodder I've seen in recent times.

05. All Tomorrow’s Parties (Jonathan Caouette/UK)
I'd probably rather go to an ATP event than sit through a documentary that seems to take little interest in the people who do go/perform at/arrange it all. Didn't see the point of Caouette juggling often regurgitated footage with no clear or fun aim.

04. The Ape / Apan (Jesper Ganslandt/Sweden)
Gives off the illusion that there's more going on beneath its surface, when it's essentially a man going off the rails for no valid narrative purpose other than to allow the filmmakers to attempt profundity. Excruciatingly po-faced intentions, severe, non-captivating outlook and a highly derivative camerawork (he's seen lots of Haneke films!) combined with blank lead equals 80-plus long mins. of tedium.

The Ape

03. It’s Complicated (Nancy Meyers/USA)
Meryl Streep adding another bout of glazed mugging to camera, as in Mamma Mia! etc. Lavish, hazy, lens-smudged lives and events (that try hard to swerve the pensioner tag via blatant gross nudity and/or Botox), one after another, does not a fun film make. Nancy Meyers has literally nothing to say. But she says it in various beige hues all the same.

02. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz/USA) more here
I've heard mention of the 'dark, but hilarious comedy' of the film. That's only true if comedy were a needle and the characters' neuroticism the haystack. Forcibly ironic conversations come via bored-looking actors. The pertinent commentary many have seen and praised in the film were non-existent to my eyes and ears.

01. Valentine’s Day (Garry Marshall/USA)
What's worse than Love Actually (in a world where there's little worse than Love Actually)? A film that - 6 years and little alteration or expansion later - attempts to retread its sap-oozing innocuous path, that's what.

Valentine's Day

Next: best acting (male and female), best films (30-21, 20-11 and 10-1)

21 January 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Surprises; Or Hold Up, I Actually Didn't Mind These

The ten films listed below, as with my 2010 disappointments list, are in no order. All titles surprised me in one way or another without, perhaps, stretching that extra mile to being actually solidly great films. These ten below certainly aren't world-beating masterworks, far from it, or really even great examples of cinematic exploration (and neither did they most likely set out to be), but they worked just a little bit of magic on me in small ways. I entered into them with no expectations and exited with the cheer of a decent surprise seen.

One of the first films I saw last year was Daybreakers. I was partway curious about it – vampires! with jobs! – but not banging at its door exactly. As it turned out I went to see it on my birthday, more for the fact that it was the one thing on that day which I could likely get a kick out of, and would act as a nice hors d'oeuvres to that day's later screening of Miike’s Audition. Anyway, I liked its world. I liked that the filmmakers clearly expended sufficient thought on creating and maintaining a semi-believable (yes, I know how batshit daft this sounds) environment for the undead inhabitants. And I liked the time I spent lapping up the techno-jumbled atmosphere. It was all blueish daylight, blood bags and flashy fangs. Fine, ridiculous stuff.


The world envisioned for those titular alien pests in Predators wasn’t quite so well brought alive on screen. It’s a jungle, frankly. They all look incredibly similar – that’s all we need to know. But I didn’t really care when there was a mud-covered Adrien Brody and a nimble Alice Braga (both utilising massive weaponry as if their lives depended on it) around to dispatch any invisible-alien wrongdoings that materialised in front of them. Plus Laurence Fishburne as a stowaway fruitcake doesn’t do any harm, either. With the diced spam of the Alien vs. Predator duo lingering in the mind, this reboot/overhaul of the Predator franchise was earmarked for bargain-bin birthday gifts, but it deftly clawed its way to the big screen and provided a solid night’s interstellar scraping. (More on Predators.)

The Joneses popped up suddenly and with no fanfare to speak of. It was one of those films which said more silently beneath its celluloid shell than it did outwardly through its dialogue or surface narrative. This approach nicely echoes the lives of the behind-closed-doors fake family who present a picture-perfect public advert to the world... or, well, their corner of high-end LA suburbia. The film was a diverting enough, and contained more than a few juicy moments of underplayed tension and grim awareness of the cost of living the phony high life. Plus Lauren Hutton was scary – Stepford scary – as a queen of the commerce drones. I would’ve ideally loved to see this script in Cronenberg’s or Carpenter’s hands, but as a general satire it displayed gumption. (More on The Joneses.)

The Objective initially sounded dubious. Then intriguing. Then baffling. I gave it a spin anyway - I was glad I did. Apart from the hasty and oblique ending it was an entertaining war drama-sci-fi puzzler hybrid. It came from one of the folk responsible for The Blair Witch Project and, although it often showed a loose interest in paranormal shenanigans, it ably maintained the intriguing momentum for its duration, give or take a few dicey moments here and there. But it didn’t have Blair Witch's innate creepiness, but it was well made and decently engrossing.


Someone who unexpectedly showed a bit more to their persona on screen last year was Mischa Barton in Homecoming, a film which had direct-to-DVD written all over it; and it was indeed on the small screen that it debuted in the UK. But it was actually, by and large, more diverting than many similarly harebrained thrillers regularly shown on the big screen. It was essentially Misery by way of Dawson’s Creek. If you can imagine a Hollywood A-list party girl going all Annie Wilkes, then the film is for you. Barton will clearly never threaten to topple Streep’s reign (wouldn’t it be fun if she did?), but she gave a bizarrely affecting performance – and the film maintained a nicely moody tone right up to its gleefully nutty, though obligatory, ending.

Both The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Skyline coasted along just fine on ridiculously derivative fantastical concepts – the kind of concepts which have been worked and reworked to the nth degree time and again. But still, in these two relatively cheap-and-cheerful efforts I found myself pleasingly entertained. Apprentice was perfect fodder for people like me who don’t have the time or inclination to invest in the numerous adventures of Harry Potter (I have no idea which Harry Potters I’ve actually seen... I know I've seen at least three) and like to sit back and enjoy Nicolas Cage being absurd from time to time. I also liked the nod to Fantasia, too. Skyline was straight-up B-movie cheese (I've said it here before) – but did it position itself as anything but? Nope. I don’t see why more folk didn’t ride its idiotically laughable vapour trail with a touch more humour. The majority of the reviews were so straight-faced that it took the fun out of any post-movie enthusiasm anybody might have had.

There are a lot of good things and a lot of bad things to be said about Salt. Most of them have been said already, however. And ten times over. But, apart from what I mentioned here I found it to be a dafter than daft ride, gleefully watchable and full of stupid, stupid instances of unfathomable cheesiness. Jolie likes appearing as the glamorously moody action heroine, and long may she trot her villain-kicking adventures for our amusement. I was also just glad Tom Cruise didn’t make the film like he was initially supposed to.

London Boulevard

I knew literally two things about London Boulevard before I saw it: it starred Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley and it was set in London. On some boulevard. Lack of front-loaded information worked wonder here. I thoroughly enjoyed every silly twist and turn of it. The variety of pans it received were unwarranted, I felt. It’s not a particularly stunning or life-changing entry into the British crime genre, but neither is it something to easily dismiss. (Isn't it more refreshing to get a new take on the subject rather than receive another half-arsed remake?) I’m fond of Farrell, more than many anyway, and this was the second film in which Knightley has surprised me in recent years (The Duchess was the first one) – Her low-key performance was one of the film’s highlights. Great back-up thesping from Anna Friel and David Thewlis made it an actorly joy, and although its pace was choppy, and its tone muddled, I actually thought it worked well enough for what it was. Let’s have a few more leftfield British bafflers as throwaway and as unpretentious as this, I say.

One of the main things that was so endearing about Going the Distance was that it was a straightforwardly enthusiastic exercise in relationship strife and joy. In fact, it was by far my favourite rom-com of the last few years. And I mean rom-com in the normal sense – with no ironic derivations required. It left the likes of The Bounty Hunter, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, It’s Complicated and so on eating its dust. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long – both actors I’ve always relished watching perform comedy on screen – made for an appealing, energised couple. Their characters appeared to go through identifiable enough problems mainly because both actors are skillfully reliable and experienced to a credible degree that they imbue them with solid personality; both were charming where many of their lesser-talented/higher-profiled peers are, more often than not, tiring. There were plenty of genuine laughs and a plethora of keen moments of playfully inspired character interaction. Connoisseurs of rom-com excellence might agree or they might well set me straight on its true merits (lord knows I’m no hardcore devotee), but when a film piles on the titters with such verve as this, I couldn’t care less if I’m off track or not. Barrymore for the win, folks. She’s great – you all know it.

Surprises - a quick-glance rundown (in alphabetical order):

Going the Distance
The Joneses
London Boulevard
The Objective
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Next up: technical/crew, male and female acting, worst films, best films.

20 January 2011

David Lynch: 65 Today

A wild at heart and weird on top Happy Birthday to David Lynch, who turns 65 today. When asked, I almost always respond to the question Which director's work grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you around the most? with his name. It's been that way ever since I first saw Isabella Rossellini, dressed in Blue Velvet, brandish a knife at sneaky Kyle MacLachlan. I thought then, as now, I want to see more from the person who created this image.

And here, short and sharp and to the point, is my favourite Lynch quote. Or, well, one of them anyway:

"The concept of absurdity is something I'm attracted to."

That's all I need to know. The rest is in the imagery. Many happy returns Mr Lynch, American visionary.

13 January 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Disappointments, Or Ten Good Films-in-Waiting?

These are the films which, before seeing them, I was certain I’d either greatly like, love or at the very least see something in them that would make me sit right up and take notice. Ultimately, I struggled to find much about them to praise in the end. For now. In short: I had expectations which were deflated by the titles below. But, as with any and every disappointing film (especially with end-of-year lists like these), a second or third watch one day might change my opinion of them. That’s optimism for you! So, here’s my list of either iffy disappointments, good films-in-waiting or just plain old regrettable sideline efforts – all dependent on whether you like to see it as a glass half full or glass half empty kinda deal. The films are in no qualitative order – certainly not biggest to least disappointing. They’re simply listed as and when they came to mind. Let the, um, disappointments commence...

The House of the Devil

I couldn’t have been more sure that I’d love The House of the Devil before seeing it, since the idea of a retro throwback horror containing all manner of devilry, a Halloween-esque vibe and a creepy support role for Tom Noonan sounded wickedly becoming. But, alas, it wasn’t to be. Despite its pleasingly creaky and period-savvy (late-'70s-early'80s) production values, I actually preferred director Ti West’s earlier, cheaper-looking horror, The Roost. Monsters, later in the year, was also set to be a sure thing sight unseen. A bare bones plot description had me intrigued from the off. But its listlessness and lack of any real prevailing atmosphere, matched with its fumbled potential, perfectly encapsulate why it sits with the other disappointments on this list, however sad that is to say. It was thin in most areas other than its generally glinting photography and director Gareth Edwards’ sheer all-round chutzpah with a laptop and a frugal budget (something to certainly be cheered), butfor me it missed many opportunities to actually be interesting. And, no, I wasn’t asking for monstrous wall-to-wall carnage either. Just better leads *cough* Paul Rudd and Anna Faris *cough* Yes, you heard right. (More on Monsters.) I generally had high hopes for Date Night. It could have been a new The Out of Towners or an updated, more harebrained After Hours. It had a great cast, all practised in various levels of comedic tomfoolery, and the atmospheric nighttime streets of New York at its service (a criteria which assures I’ll watch any film), but didn’t have a sharp enough script to make best use of those attributes. It could’ve been a solid mint comedy – had it not been so taken with being an ingratiatingly zeitgeisty hook, that cynically seemed to solely vie for the attention and cash of tired parents – but ended up merely intermittently amusing. Even now I’m struggling to recall many truly funny moments.

Survival of the Dead was by far Romero’s weakest Dead film. I hate to say it, especially as an utterly devoted, longtime fan of both Romero and zombie cinema, and I’ve not been nudged enough to say it so far (even after the rather dreary Diary of the Dead), but I’d be happy to see this film series die off now. Yikes, I said it. Now let’s move on to other things... Despite valiant efforts all round The Wolfman remake came in from the misty moors perilously under par. The cinematography was good, but some nifty camera angles and a smattering of foggy coverage alone do not a particularly great film make. Still, it wasn’t all bad: we did get to see Anthony Hopkins make manifest a half-werewolf, half-grumpy sea captain. He gave this year's Best Irritable Howler performance. Had I not seen the ripe and rangy original just a month prior the second remake on this list, Long Weekend, might not have fared so feebly in comparison. But it had faults beyond mere comparability and tonal misplacement – namely an overripe performance from Jesus Caviezel and the lack of some good animal acting/wrangling in a film which positively demands it. (Although the ominous animatronic sea cow was worth a titter.)


Heartless, the return to filmmaking of the very talented Philip Ridley (who made the 1995 forest-fury gem The Passion of Darkly Noon) after a 14-year gap, featured some memorable performances (Ruth Sheen was far better here than she was in Another Year; Eddie Marsan continued to grind Brit film acting cogs in terrific fashion; Jim Sturgess was nicely unassuming in the lead), but came close to succumbing to a tonal dithering which threatened to sink the ominous atmosphere it initially set up. But it had the guts to be bonkers enough in essence, and is probably the best disappointment of this bunch.* (Although 2009’s similar The Disappeared generally took a better stab at depicting spooky council estates.) Miguel Arteta made one of the most surprising and interesting comedy-dramas of 2002 with The Good Girl, so it was a shame to admit that Youth in Revolt, his belated follow-up feature, was quite the boring exercise. The attempt to (partially) reclassify Michael Cera into a twitchy debonair wit was an initially diverting concept, and temporarily halted the Cera-as-Cera role influx that’s been happening for the last few years, but even that lost its vague amusement factor through the film’s increasingly tedious narrative. Good job Cera (though still very much as Cera) was bearable and actually funny in a much better 2010 film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Jeff Bridges is always worth watching, and Crazy Heart was indeed worth the time spent on it merely for his full pelt gruff-bluster performance alone, even if it was – as with Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman – a ‘just because’ Oscar win. (Although I must say I had more fun watching him ape his Big Lebowski character surrounded by neon plains in TRON: Legacy last year.) The film itself, however, was uninspired and flat – watchable, sure, and not terrible by any stretch, but it didn’t entirely deserve the over-keen reception that it was greeted with.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Uncle Boonmee called – he wants his past lives back. He can have 'em, I say. The revered darling and Palme d’Or winner from last year – yes, Ol’ Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to give him his full title – contained several vivid moments of glorious, often playful, bliss (red-eyed hairy man-beasts in the forest, a spectral relative materialising for dinner, unusual swimming proficiency lessons with saucy Mr. Catfish) but long stretches were monotonous and repetitive. Elsewhere in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work (particularly in his two previous hothouse wonders Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century) the stasis within the transitional sequences nudged me to feel the wonder of the meditative, dazzling camerawork, whereas here it felt more than a bit like extended doodling, overly studied wonder made to fit arthouse expectations. Weerasethakul’s 2009 precursor/side projects, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantom of Nabua (both part of his vast 'Primitive' installation) served his core concerns better, and both in under 20 mins. each. (More on Uncle Boonmee.)

* The predominance of horror/supernatural films on the list is not a fault of the genres in any way, it merely points to the fact that, as my default genre setting of choice, I tend to watch more of them than almost any other genre of film.

Disappointments - a quick-glance rundown (in alphabetical order):

Crazy Heart
Date Night
The House of the Devil
Long Weekend
Survival of the Dead
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The Wolfman
Youth in Revolt

Next: Chin up, folks! Surprises of the year are on the way. Then: technical/crew, male and female acting, worst films, best films.

Great 2010 Moment: Closing the Door on Julianne Moore in A Single Man

George (Colin Firth) slowly closes the door on Charley (Julianne Moore) in Tom Ford's A Single Man (2009). This is our - and George's - last glimpse of his longtime friend and confidante. It's perhaps the saddest moment in an altogether inherently saddening film; the moment which most pertinently breaks through the hazy, slackened glaze of their sozzled LA lives to speak volumes about longing, friendship and that old mainstay of passionate cinema, unrequited love. It's one of the film's many wonderful instances where looks and gestures do the hard work. Moore's eyes tell everything. And Ford's camera – positioned, as it is, alongside Firth as he departs – lingers a beat longer than George to capture Charley's final heartbreaking gaze: she somehow knows, as of course do we, that this is the last time she will ever see him. Her world is reduced to a slowly diminishing sliver of light between two doors; then it disappears with a quick and – I like to think – reluctant edit. I hope Ford's follow-up film contains such intricate instances of visual perspicacity – along with, perhaps, more great eyework from Ms. Moore.

3 January 2011

At the Cinema: Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick/2010) USA/112mins. *½

Jake Gyllenhaal likes to put his hand on his own face...

If you squeeze the infamously corny Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw tearjerker Love Story through the eye of an Up in the Air-shaped needle, you get close to what Edward Zwick is attempting to do with his latest film. But sobbing and cynicism feel like strange bed mates here; genre confusion reigns supreme. And not in a good way. Jake Gyllenhaal is Jamie, a flashy, flirty pharmaceutical rep, and Anne Hathaway is Maggie, a free-spirited waitress; they fall in love, and then in dire straits – her early-onset Parkinson’s is the true-love-questioning stone around both their necks, but neither initially sees that it needn't be. It’s set in 1996, as per the source material (Jamie Reidy’s book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman), but outside of the surrounding yet ultimately dispensable pharma-cute-ical subplot it doesn’t entirely ground itself in its period: cool glasses, kooky apartments, fast sports cars and a Friends-like coffee shop do not the ‘90s arouse. Its detailing of selfish lifestyles under scrutiny and odd, cheesy pop songs harks back more to the 1980s. It doesn’t just fudge its blend of ill-fitting genres – its entire tone is on the clunky side.

... Jake Gyllenhaal likes to put his hand on his co-stars' faces

The central story requires Gyllenhaal’s motivational career grabbing to be undercut by his feelings for sick Hathaway. It's a path it never veers from. But it doesn’t fully work when sandwiched between moments of strained comic banter and sprinkling of unfunny gags. It could’ve been integrated a whole lot better. But the script is content to be a precisely-orchestrated series of both inspirational and woe-filled platitudes with the sole determination to ‘uplift’ above all else. Everyone involved would’ve looked a whole lot more confident had the filmmakers actually picked a direction to go in. After all, what’s wrong with an honest, decent weepie? Or, on the flipside, what’s wrong with doing a There’s Something About Maggie with the material? One or the other: love, or the comedy drug? No one here is bold enough for a true genre mash-up. And why didn’t they draft in Charlie Kaufman, or a knowing but cheap knock-off, to doctor the script?

Anne Hathaway is wondering why Gyllenhaal doesn't have his hand on her face.

Hathaway, in the better role by a slim margin, is too talented not to perform her part without some display of gutsiness. Based on her faultlessly word-perfect and unwavering dialogue delivery, I’d say she’s a budding Julia Roberts if ever I saw one; she’ll get her Erin Brockovich one day. Gyllenhaal is all suited charm-'n'-smarm but, although he knows when to make best use of his hangdog eyes, he flounders and looks awkward in the moments of physical comedy. And I couldn’t help feel he was miscast – the role called for someone like Seann William Scott. (If there’s ever an actor I’d like to see attempt a genre turn-around...) In a screen romance like this truthful performances are essential. Ideally, they need to be faultless for it to fly. Love and Other Drugs is too concerned with the smart-alec and showy side of things to come close to being anywhere near properly affecting: here, a ‘pulling a bus over for an impromptu declaration of love’ scene feels like a cynically rote attempt at winsomeness; faux-emotive music is queued up like clockwork to wring from an audience tears that it doesn’t entirely earn. Overt knowingness and a lazy attitude to narrative can bring a film down – and down hard. Zwick and co. should try cleaning up their filmmaking act.

2 January 2011

Watched, And with Time to Spare: 5 Great Short Films from 2010

Would you class a short as a film done and dusted in under an hour? Or is it generally categorised as a film we move on from in a much shorter amount of time? Is there even a given rule on this? Does it matter? No, I doubt it. But I've always stuck to a (self-imposed?) guide that it's a short if it's done in under 60 mins. These five selections of short filmmaking below were the ones I thought the best made in and/or shown somewhere (usually online) during 2010. However, for all that under-sixty-min malarky none of them actually goes past the twenty-minute mark: short and sweet and to-the-point.

A still from Ira Sachs' wonderful short, Last Address. (from MUBI)

Unlike the many feature-length films I saw last year the short films I watched were fewer in number. I always like to see as many as I can, but it's often a case of limited availability, watch them if they're accessible. But thanks to YouTube, Vimeo, Ubuweb and the many, many other video-sharing websites, which host a wide variety of short films, documentaries, artist videos, and those genuinely belly-laugh-filled comedy clips, and of course the kind and creative people who upload and share them with others, it gets easier by the year. Great stuff all round.

The five films are in some kind of preferential order - there are only five, and they are short enough, it's not terribly difficult - and are fully clickable for everyone to watch. They all made me smile, think, watch closely and easefully ponder in their own equally perfectly-formed ways.

1. Last Address (Ira Sachs/USA) 8:36

I don't think I saw any other 8 mins. of short filmmaking (or indeed any other kind, whatever the timescale) last year which compactly aroused an openhearted thoughtfulness so well and so succinctly as I did in Ira Sachs' film. A simple, unfettered series of still shots (the sound is indelibly significant too - although no one need explain why) of the exteriors of the last homes of many New York artists who have died of AIDS (and lived in those buildings at the time of their deaths) over the last thirty years. Architectural stillness meets moving image, resulting in some of that old magical cinematic stillness (of the best kind); it's all simply, elegantly considered in Sachs' lovely, uncomplicated film.

Sachs' - who is, in my view, among the best and most interesting American filmmakers working today - own website is here; You can read more info on the film and also watch it here (www.lastaddress.org)

2. BIG BANG BIG BOOM (Blu/Italy) 9:55

Life and its evolution, composed of paint and patience. And any and every random object available, it seems. This short manages, in under ten minutes, to inject a hefty dose of freshness into short animated filmmaking, and by making it look like well-earned good time. Blu's and David Ellis' Combo from 2009 was great; this 2010 film is stunning. Wonderful invention, showmanship, innovation and endurance. And fun - just imagine a full-length monster movie made in this way. World problems. World joy. Banksy who? Watch Blu.

3. Missoni (Kenneth Anger/USA) 2:32

Essentially an ad for the Italian fashion brand Missoni, and named thusly, the film is a kaleidoscopic barrage of toxic facial urges, torridly lovely colours and slow-warped figures set to a glitching, crunchy dance beat; it's like a 200-page glossy mag singed down to a two-minute fiery flicker. Taken on face value - and why should an Anger film be taken any other way - it works gloriously. It made me smile through a baffled brow... so I watched it three times in a row. I didn't think about clothes at all, however. Crap ad, great film.

4. Act Da Fool (Harmony Korine/USA) 4:38

It's deceptively daft, lightly moving, strangely cheering, has a simple near-poetic and effective sensibility and contains some great posing-to-camera and one or two sad and abandoned balloons. I liked the ramshackle sense of togetherness and deliberation. It's certainly one of the most interesting things Korine has yet made.

5. Lady Blue Shanghai (David Lynch/France, USA) 16:28

Part 1:

Part 2:

If truth be told, this film is on here because it's Lynch. Ever the faithful devotee, his extended Dior bag ad (short film work or advert - some filmmaking blends auteurism with advertisements these days, then) snags a spot because of all and any leftover thrill and goodwill for, and via, my irreducible love of Inland Empire. There are a few barely perceptible holdovers from his last feature in much of the slender narrative here, which sees Marion Cotillard and Gong Tao glamorously run around Shanghai, whilst the object of oh-so-marketable fashion itself, the blue Dior bag (treated much like the mysterious blue box in Mulholland Dr.), seems to guide their way or enter their unconscious. Or something. I paid little mind to mind-warbling fashionista trifles, but I did like the daft melodramatic gestures conducted in ridiculously glitzy locales. It is rather derivative of much better Lynch, and it is still only a trumped-up advert, but there's mood, however minuscule, in them thar sinister streets and nightscapes which Dave does so adore. Plus, it's miles better than his NYC rat problem ad from the '90s.

There were so many more short films that I watched, but I liked the idea of only including five. Maybe the blog will see more posts on short films during 2011.

50 Great Films Seen in 2010 (Not Including New-Release Films)

It's the start of a new year, a new film year here on Dark Eye Socket, so a quick look back to, oh, two days ago to last year and my pick of the 50 Best Films I Saw for the First Time in 2010 (not including new-release films), again in a handy list format just like last year's. As ever, it's for canonical fun and simply because I want to keep track of what films made the strongest impact on me over the years. It's also a quick and handy place to refer people who might ask for recommendations.

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Dracula: Prince of Darkness
one of my 50 Great Films of 2010

Of course, there will be the full 2010 lists in my Top Ten Films of the Year, along with the Worst Films of the Year, Female & Male Performances and the random grab bag of Nifty Surprises and Iffy Disappointments; these will start next week and run up until the end of January. But, for now, here's 50 thoroughly great films according to my 2010 viewing habits. To avoid the lengthy and arduous (and most often futile - these things change, and change frequently) process of having to list the films in any favourable arrangement, they are in alphabetical order. I guess I liked them fine all in the same way. But anything where Chrisopher Lee hisses at a priest then jumps through a window usually gets top place.

English language, or most frequently used, titles are in bold, significant alternative titles are in italics, directors' names and production year in parenthesis.

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese/1993)
The Apostle (Robert Duvall/1998)
Audition (Takeshi Miike/1999)
Le ballon rouge/The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse/1956) (s) *
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Eugène Lourié/1953)
Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray/1956)
Broken Embraces Los abrazos rotos (Pedro Almodóvar/2009)
The Car (Elliot Silverstein/1977)

Central Park (Frederick Wiseman/1989) *
Colin (Marc Price/2008)
The Conformist Il conformista (Bernardo Bertolucci/1970) *
Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer/1981)
Cycling the Frame (Cynthia Beatt/1988) (s) *
Daughters of Darkness Les lèvres rouges (Harry Kümel/1971) *
Deep Cover (Bill Duke/1992)
Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin/1995)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Freddie Francis/1968)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher/1966) *
The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder/1966)
Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller/1957)
Footprints Le orme/Footprints on the Moon (Luigi Bazzoni, Mario Fanelli/1975)
From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor/1973)
Funny Girl (William Wyler/1968)
The Gates (Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera/2005) *

The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino/1953)
Inferno (Dario Argento/1980) *
In Search of a Midnight Kiss (Alex Holdridge/2007)
The Intruder L'intrus (Claire Denis/2004) *
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel/1956)
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra/1934) *
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino/1997)
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray/1954)
Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock/1944)
Memories of Murder Salinui chueok (Bong Joon-ho/2003) *
Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur/1957)
Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan/2007) *

On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino/1952)
Park Row (Samuel Fuller/1952)
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald/2008)
Profound Desires of the Gods Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (Shôhei Imamura/1968) *
Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker/1967)
Rosetta (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne/1999)
Season of the Witch Hungry Wives/Jack's Wife (George A. Romero/1972) *
The Third Man (Carol Reed/1949)
Thirst Bakjwi (Chan-wook Park2009)
3 Women (Robert Altman/1977) *
The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman/1964)
The Trigger Effect (David Koepp/1996)
Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica/1952) *
Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger/1950)
While She Was Out (Susan Montford/2008)

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