25 February 2011

Disappointing Leftovers: Another Inception Year (Films of the Year 2010+)

These two leftover-from-a-previous-post titles - Another Year and Inception - were not bad 2010 films by any stretch. But both left me underwhelmed or disappointed. Inception, which I initially had marked as a high-level Top Ten Film contender, was perhaps more sci-fi style, less sci-fi content; it didn't have the forceful impact on me that I'd hoped it would. And I was very much looking forward to Another Year, but was shocked by what I found was an overvalued film with a rather uneven tone and some generally clunky scenes. I wasn't completely unaffected by it, however. It's just that, ultimately, the lasting feeling I got from it was one of empty sourness. Either way, here, for the sake of it and because when I compiled my original ten disappointments these two found themselves left out at numbers 11 and 12, are some scribbles on two leftover 2010 titles.

It goes without saying that a disappointing film is only (possibly, probably) a good film in waiting. In an ideal world we'd all surely see every film twice or more...

Above all the other titles Inception was the was one film which had so many ingredients mixed in to curry my favour - eclectic cast, sci-fi trappings, acres of mystery - but resulted in so few reasons to be gleefully satisfied come the end. It was all slick style yet little actual pizzazz. Clever technical showboating, yes, but hollow, somewhat po-faced and, despite some nifty interplay with its admittedly great score and some truly dazzling effects work throughout (the gravity-free dream hotel, the Escher-like stairs, Mirrored archways and crumbling nightmare cities being many visual wonders), a little on the flat side. For a film that probes the depths of the human mind to plant ideas intended to inspire fresh thought, it’s baffling that the film ended up being more than a little bit dull. And although I may not have wanted all-out monsters in Monsters, I did want better, more exciting genuine science-fiction in Inception. Call me hard to please, if need be. But, as I've surely mentioned on Dark Eye Socket before – this goes for Sofia Coppola’s films too – I don’t think I’m ever going to truly adore a Christopher Nolan film. C’est la vie. (More on Inception)

I’m back and forth, hit and miss, with Mike Leigh, so I went into Another Year with a healthy curiosity. You could say it was about a content, warm-hearted, near-retirement-age couple experiencing various ups and downs with a ragtag handful of troubled friends and extended family whilst settling into their golden years. Or you could say that it's about a self-satisfied pair of underwritten caricatures who condescend to the few friends (and sometimes family) they have around them in a very underhand way. I'm just saying. I debated this film with several people last year and we all had such wildly various takes on it, so let’s say the jury’s still out - the fact that the jury was buzzing in the first place speaks plenty about this divisive film. But overall it left me with a very sour cloud of feeling toward it. I'm unsure why, fully, but it might depend on how one sees Leigh himself fitting into the picture perhaps. I’m willing to watch it again (the winter section contained the heftiest emotional wallop and most sincere acting), only if I can shake off the nagging certainty that I’d never want to meet any of these characters in any capacity ever again. After each seasonal segment closed, I was left with very little absorbing insight into any of the characters’ lives, apart from the fact that things sure can be tough sometimes. And to paraphrase one of his older film titles, I'm not totally convinced it's actually saying anything more worthwhile than: Life Is Sad.

17 February 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Best Films

So here are my 10 selections for the best films of 2010. Well, it's eleven really, isn't it? (Two Wiseman films jointly took third place - they went perfectly together.) But who's really counting. It's taken its time, but it was nice to spend more time thinking about these films. (Although I did construct this list of eleven films roughly two months ago.) They operated within the highest positions in their fields and made me take full, proper and enjoyably excited notice of their singular attributes. In short: I liked them far more than any others last year. Obviously. I didn't see everything - and certainly less than over the last two years - but I did manage to see a fair few more than I would have expected this time twelve months ago. It was a solid year in cinema. Not the most abundantly fruitful, all told, but full of variable treats. One or two films, however, perhaps came close to perfection. But we'll see - these things are prone to change, aren't they? As always, the selections come from films released between January 1st and December 31st 2010. 

Here they are, 10-1:

10. Dogtooth / Kynodontas Giorgos Lanthimos (Greece)

Because: Let's get this right: Dogtooth is a unique little one-off. I was tickled that its very existence seemed to divide people. Confounding, bizarre at heart movies should do that sometimes. That an abstruse and uneasily unfathomable film about the family unit (albeit a very messed up and problematic family unit, but a family unit all the same) could be made in such a self-consciously cunning and precise way and still explore deeper, and often troubling, human desires and complexities - from a particularly punishing viewpoint to boot - challenges our boundaries of viewership is a good thing, no? There was a cruel yet ridiculous streak cutting through the arty bleakness here. So a black comedy of (t)errors it is - one with many family problems in its sealed-off environs. And a horror-drama of the most oblique kind, made to skew our sense of arthouse filmmaking comfort. Sounds like ideal viewing to me.

09. Carlos Olivier Assayas (France/Germany)

Because: From the outside in – or, indeed, from its outset - Carlos might feel like one of those prescribed good-for-you world cinema pills (although it’s more vital than that), but the 5½ hour version is the one to watch; the added visual mileage gives the saga of Carlos the Jackal - through the womanising, the radicalisation and the years of turmoil and terrorism - some heft and backbone, despite its loosely threaded, meandering narrative arc. It actually zips by with pulse-shifting fervour. (It’s essentially a three-parter, originally shown on French television.) I saw it in its three neatly divided sections, as it was intended. It had a monumental intrigue to it, plenty of cracking drama and some of the most precise and beautifully lustrous cinematography of last year. Without diving too headlong into the bigger picture right now – and all the contentious ins and outs the plot contains – Carlos was splendidly ambitious cinematic bravado. It stays with you for a long time after it has blitzed the nerves and the eyeballs with decades-worth of tumultuous imagery.

08. The Kids Are All Right Lisa Cholodenko (USA)

Because: Despite the obvious bias for me (being a long-time Julianne Moore fan), there was still a vast and assorted grab bag of hugely likeable elements to The Kids Are All Right: Annette Bening gave a career-best performance; the locations used were appealingly fresh and lit with immense flair; the narrative was expertly constructed – each scene very delicately dovetailed with the next - and the script was all-round solid and deftly balanced – Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg got the humour/drama quotient perfectly right: it was perfectly human. It felt as drowsily effortless as a spare day and as lived-in as a favourite shirt. And it came from a sincere and earthy place. The fact that it’s an easy film to like, nay love, makes the prospect of many more future viewings delectable.

07. The Headless Woman / La mujer sin cabeza Lucrecia Martel (Argentina/France/Italy/Spain)

Because: Martel may have taken elements of genre filmmaking (a mystery, a thriller - a thrilling mystery) and dissected and removed the key parts as if she were a keen surgeon. But she still managed to intrigue and surprise me every uncertain step of the way regardless. Her beautiful, complex film inspired much perplexed brow-furrowing in the process. A fetid and strangely alluring film, it was a mystery in constant flux – is Veronica (María Onetto) doomed to play out her guilt trip indefinitely? – and, in ways, unanswerable: Martel wants us to ponder the bigger picture through a blurred, minor event. She provides enough clues as to the purpose of her film, but elusively drip-feeds us with meagre contextualisation. It was a great 'head film', in every respect. And don’t forget the tender, high-textured imagery of hair and clothing throughout! It’s filled with such wonderful detail. Good advice is: don’t take your eyes off the screen for a moment. The only downside? Sadly there weren't any technically headless ladies on show. But as far as 'what the fuck?' movies go, it's a corker. A baffling, skewed, illogical and stunningly photographed corker.

06. Black Death Christopher Smith (UK)

Because: Christopher Smith is one of the most interesting horror/thriller directors working in the UK today. I’ve seen all four of his films so far; each one has been better than the last; all have been entertaining and curious affairs, cohesively made. There’s a solid, dependable sense of hard graft and perceptible passion for the job to the way Smith’s films come across. He knows his beans and dishes up a fine and grisly stew each time. There’s little fuss and zero nonsense. Black Death is a great distillation of his talents so far. A film with plenty of rotten zeal, hectic verve and a dark point to make - not just about 1348's England and the Pestilence, but about fanaticism full stop. I’d be highly inclined to leave wailing at the wayside any negative commentary anyone had to say about it. It’s better than what many genre film naysayers know. Plus, the casting is great, vital to its enjoyable impact even, and it has some salty dialogue and skin-pummelling scenes of raucous horror. Smith’s gradually eking a prime place for himself in British filmmaking. So... all ye lovers of slyly gruesome films, get thee to this plague-and-witchcraft film post haste!

05. Revanche Götz Spielmann (Austria)

Because: Revanche did what a skillful, thought-provoking genre film does best: deliver a sharp, compelling tale with high intrigue and A-grade entertainment factor. It’s a tragic drama shot through with moody heartache. Its structure is twofold: it sets up a classic narrative dilemma, and then plays it out. It questions whether the philosophy of ‘an eye for an eye’ actually works under scrutiny of the finer details. Lone non-hero Alex (Johannes Krisch) gets out from the seedy security business then gets back at the (accidental) resulting incident that tore his world in two; who he gets revenge on, and what for, are at the film’s psychologically muddied yet formally uncomplicated centre. I’ve heard a few ‘like Michael Haneke’ mumbles in regard to Revanche. Presently, Haneke could only wish he made a film so unlaboured and lacking blunt, this-is-serious-art-film speechifying. Austrian cinema has a another bold voice in Spielman. I wish he made films with more fervent regularity. Tricksy little numbers like Revanche are to be treasured.

04. The Maid / La nana Sebastián Silva (Chile/Mexico)

Because: As I’d mentioned in my top female acting post The Maid was the first – or at least most apparent - film where a periphery character I usually want to see more from is placed front and centre and given a voice, a full life and comes shaded with complexity. In many other films Raquel (the excellent Catalina Saavedra) would be seen or heard: either a voice off camera or a silent, bustling background presence (one of Veronica from The Headless Woman’s many “helpers” perhaps?). Silva’s emotionally resonant and immensely layered film skips along with utmost confidence. It’s apparent early on how much he loves Raquel, how knowledgeable he is of her world. He knows his angle well and mines it splendidly for all its worth. He also knows not to make things sentimental. There are several scenes that almost break your heart for the elegant underplaying of them. (Raquel trying on the gorilla mask, above, a having a wry smile to herself, being chief among them.) The Maid is a unique little gem. It should be seen by anyone who sees a seemingly superfluous character in a movie and thinks: I wonder what their life is like?

03. Boxing Gym / La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet Frederick Wiseman (USA)

Because: Wiseman is as much a film artist as any fiction filmmaker, and is often (quite rightly, in my view) held up as such. As ever, his mastery of the form is vitally apparent in both films here - especially Boxing Gym, which perhaps just takes the edge by being the more concise study. (Although La Danse perhaps contains many more beautifully frank and variably illustrative images.) Wiseman, with his signature visual dexterity, acutely captures key moments and exchanges which reach far beyond the activity at hand to reveal insights into contemporary French and American institutions big (the Paris Ballet Opera) and small (Lord's Gym, Texas). Boxing Gym made me wholly curious about each of its member’s histories and their everyday lives; La Danse gave me a fresh angle on an art form I'd perhaps previously underappreciated. In short: in good ways - the best ways - Wiseman made me think about two ways of life. A great double-bill. (More on Boxing Gym)

02. Mother / Madeo Bong Joon-ho (South Korea)

Because: Bong Joon-ho was on form from the off: he started to spin a few quality plates as soon as Mother started. Not just with his accomplished direction, but in the writing, acting (Kim was my female performance of the year; everyone else was just as splendid) and all technical aspects. He added a few more plates until, gradually but surely, he was in total control of what I initially thought might be too many darn, pesky plates to handle. But then, by the time the denouement was well in range, he spun a few more. The clever man. But that’s enough silly plate-spinning analogies. Bong upheld and sustained a filmmaking marvel. He excelled at the kind of often immeasurable – and unfathomably effortless and intricate – filmmaking detail that only come about via the hand of a truly seasoned film artist. Bong's someone who knows how to startle and entertain, often in the same split second. He's a consummately knowing (but never smug) and deft creative, in full control of his medium. It’s curious and baffling (to my eyes and ears) that Mother danced around the periphery of many people’s 2010 top lists, when it was clearly a dark wonder deserving high accolades.

01. I Am Love / Io sono l'amore Luca Guadagnino (Italy)

 Because: After one watch I was certain that I Am Love is destined to be a film to be long cherished. Those who have seen and enjoyed its bold elegance and fragrant flourish know that's all true. It's full to the brim - occasionally overflowing - with a wondrous level of cinematic substance (emotional and aesthetic, passionate and visually skilled) of the kind that doesn't come along all too often. It's a personal hymn to Italian cinema, a bold exploration of freeing oneself from imposed societal limits (and denunciation of constraining responsibility) and an open letter to all those that crave that little bit more... unbridled beauty in cinema, however florid or full of overblown evocation. It's a cryptically mysterious melodrama and an all-sirens-blazing celebration of love. But more than all that: I Am Love is a film that feels truly alive to sensory experience. And it's the best film of the year.  (More on I Am Love)

13 February 2011

At the Cinema: Hereafter

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood/2010) USA/129mins. ½

Clint’s new one, Hereafter, a human drama with a supernatural leaning, is out to prove that, yes, he can make a worse film than Gran Torino. It's uninspired filmmaking: lazy, largely pointless and ultimately lacking in any clear meaning. But mostly it's no fun at all. There’s an air of pallid stagnancy to every scene: each one appears dragged together in mournful fashion – one after another they clunk into a simplistic, rotational narrative which is certainly followable, but never satisfying. Three plot strands set, respectively, in the US, France and the UK see Matt Damon as a reluctant psychic, Cécile De France as a Tsunami survivor/TV host and a combination of Frankie and George McLaren as a boy grieving his newly-deceased twin deal with afterlife experiences in differing ways. We get shunted from one country to the next in tedious rotation; we get scene after scene of these dour people in dire need, moping around wondering what lies beyond the final curtain. Some scenes go on so long, and without much rhyme or reason that I suspected ol’ Clint had fallen asleep in his director’s chair: when Damon joins a cooking class we get lengthy digressions of him preparing food, which in each instance simply consists of slicing tomatoes with Bryce Dallas Howard; De France’s scenes at her workplace are merely padding and lead, by and large, to loose ends. And anyway, it turns out that these scenes are ultimately superfluous to the emotive thread Eastwood and scriptwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) have cooked up. Much running time is allotted to totting up characters’ histories, their reasoning for their actions, but the key element - that of any rich characterisation - is largely absent.

There’s surely no doubt that Clint had access to a sizeable budget, assistance from some top-tier Movieland friends (Morgan, exec. producer Steven Spielberg) and a crew more than willing to work with a certified cinema legend – and that all this has seen his film receive wide release and prolific coverage, of course. But does this ensure the end product is unquestionably interesting? Do we pay it attention based on his list of prior, obviously considerable, credentials alone? Is it worthwhile becaise it's Clint? I know some people are willing to blindly accept on good faith anything new from a long-proven, highly-regarded name, but should we simply shrug and let Clint indulge in an old man’s cinematic folly because of his advancing age? In short: no to all the above. Some filmmakers simply get worse in their late careers. Eastwood isn’t exempt from inclusion because of his iconic status.

As it is, the acting is fair (Damon) to ropey (the McLarens); its unceasingly dour pace is a dull, myopic trudge; its take on all things supernatural is both unoriginal (blurry spectral figures, pallid faces everywhere) and one-sided (all British mediums are hacks; American ones are genuine); and everybody speaks with plaintive reverence as if God is listening and cared what they all had to say. The crass appropriation of real-life events (the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 7/7 London bombings of 2005 – seemingly faddishly included and come with a topically shock factor) into the narrative has very little actual impact on the thrust of what Morgan and Eastwood are attempting to say; for all genuine or concrete bearing that those events’ have at the film’s close, it might as well have been a swimming pool accident and a firework mishap that propelled the plot to its inert, slipshod denouement. It doesn't matter what the tragedy is, as long as there is one. And it’s entirely baffling that somewhere along the way Hereafter morphs from a fairly maudlin supernatural flick into a particularly maudlin and misguided meet-cute.

Bafta 2011: Black Swan

Tonight it's the Baftas. I'm hoping that Black Swan waltzes away with at least a few gongs. Last month I was asked to contribute a piece on that film for the official 2011 Bafta brochure; you can read it by clicking on one of the two links below. It's available to view as an eMagazine, so click on the cover you like the most and read on...

Here is the link for the Film Awards 2011 page (with a link to the brochure).

Or, alternatively, here is a link directly to the page of my Black Swan piece.

Below, is the Black Swan cover, designed and illustrated by artist Adam Simpson (who created a set for all five Best Film nominees).

11 February 2011

Scoring Points for Film: the Hub Magazine Issue #1 Article (On Film Sound)

Here is my article on film sound, music and songs that I was asked to contribute to the first issue (Autumn 2010, pp 64-65) of new arts, fashion and culture magazine, The Hub (pictured left). The article was accompanied by two illustrations by London-based artist Ciara Phelan: see them here, at her website. I thought I'd post the article here, as the Hub's website, linked to above, is currently still under construction; outside of buying a printed copy, none of the content is available online.

The brief for the article was to (hopefully) entertain and inform the prospective magazine's broad but primarily art-/fashion-/design-based readership in regard to the three above-mentioned acoustical aspects of filmmaking. The article is reproduced below as it appears in the magazine and the films' years of production in parenthesis were required by the editors. For the Hub's second issue - themed by the idea of Renaissance - I have written about female film directors. It should be on sale over the next few weeks.

Scoring Points for Film

Imagine if you will Psycho’s (1960) shower scene without the accompaniment of its screeching strings. Imagine Saturday Night Fever (1978) sans the soulful Bee Gees strut. Imagine a silent Star Wars (1977): what would we have done as excitable kids without the opportunity to badly mimic the whooshing-clashing sound of a lightsaber fight? Playtime would've been duller than the Darkside without Darth Vader.

As consumers of the billion-dollar industry that is cinema, we often wax lyrical about our excitement in seeing the latest films, but, interestingly, less so about hearing them. Film is primarily a visual medium of course, though inherently collaborative: each craftsperson or artist - director, cinematographer, editor - contributes their slice of cinematic vision to uniformly converge on our movie screens for optimum effect. But integral to its impact are its aural particulars: the audio aspect. So, what of our relationship to the songs, scores and sound design in movies?

The more sharp-eared cinemagoer may notice the slightest of sounds - the bead of sweat hitting the alarmed floor in Mission: Impossible (1992), the carrier bag blowing in the wind in American Beauty (2000) - but we surely all love the magic that a perfectly-placed song or resonant score brings to a great film.

The evocation of memorable music in movies is essential to our enjoyment of them. Many film buffs may recall Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964), in John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s ‘50s-style diner dance-off in Pulp Fiction (1994), before they remember the violent gunplay. With acoustical ease Tarantino followed on from Pulp Fiction by introducing Pam Grier, as drug-trafficking air stewardess Jackie Brown (1997), as she is ushered along an airport conveyor belt to the smooth strains of Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street’.

Tarantino made a virtue of referencing the music of older cinema, particularly from the early 1960s French New Wave. But so, too, did Bernardo Bertolucci in his 2003 film The Dreamers; where he worked in snippets of Antoine Duhamel’s wonderful score for Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) for maximum nostalgic impact. By sampling many icons of the swinging sixties on the soundtrack - from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Edith Piaf and The Doors - Bertolucci successfully transports the viewer back in time to an era of unrivalled experimentation and civil unrest with a range of pertinent musical cues.

The use of songs - old and new, pop hits or instrumental tracks - to strengthen the impact of a scene is (very nearly) as old as cinema itself. From 1927 - and the invention of the “talkie” with The Jazz Singer - onwards, our ears have been treated to a multitude of celluloid audio delights. We need the sorrowful love songs, the comedy musical interludes and the ethereally haunting solos to pepper the soundtracks of our cinematic spectatorship. Perhaps above all other filmmaking components music is paramount in directly arousing our emotions.

Many of cinema’s directorial big-hitters have consistently attuned their ears to the crucial aspects of film sound. Stanley Kubrick memorably mixed the comical with the horrific in A Clockwork Orange (1971) via sped-up Beethoven and a dark nod to Singin’ in the Rain (1952). So evocative is Italian maestro Nino Rota’s ‘Main Title Waltz’ for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) that, every time I hear it, I have to check the bed for fear of finding a horse’s head nestled between the sheets. Although it was Federico Fellini who of course got on famously with Rota years earlier, using him consistently throughout his career; his delicate string arrangements seductively lead us alongside Anita Ekberg to Rome’s Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960). She was showered with water while we bathed in audio splendour.

Much of the intensity in Steven Spielberg’s films arrives via cleverly-orchestrated sound, or lack thereof: Saving Private Ryan's (1999) gut-wrenching opening Omaha assault relied as much on the sound of bullets piercing helmets as it did the sight of it (in some scenes you could almost hear a (grenade) pin drop.); and the ominous use of silence during many of Schindler's List‘s (1994) harrowing scenes tactfully imbued the film with a dreadful tension. Not to mention the pounding, water-rippling sound of an approaching T-Rex in Jurassic Park (1993), and the tonal five-note motif used by the aliens to introduce themselves in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

It’s worth listening out for the ways in which filmmakers are able to twist your ear to a good tune and alert your senses to subtle uses of sound - whether it’s a song you’ve never heard before or a long-time favourite played anew. Songs, scores and sound - in tandem with rich, memorable visuals, and harnessed by a musically-savvy director - can harmoniously work together to create the very best cinematic experiences

When we’re watching a film we know it’s essential to keep our eyes peeled for visual wonders, but it’s also equally worth keeping our ears pricked for the aural pleasures. You don’t want to miss a trick or, indeed, a track.

8 February 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Female Acting

With a slight bit more fuss and fanfare than the men (mainly because the word count here is a touch higher), here are my ten selections (though I cheated, so there are actually eleven: see #2) for the top female performances of 2010. Like with the men the other day, the usual 'also good' bunch (or next ten) are below too. So which women ruled the day? (All performances are taken from films released in the UK between Jan. 1st and Dec. 31st 2010)

Also good (or roughly 11-20, from top to bottom, but not in any real strict order):

Ursula Strauss Revanche
Nora von Waldstätten Carlos
Gemma Arterton The Disappearance of Alice Creed
Brenda Blethyn London River
Rose Byrne Get Him to the Greek
María Onetto The Headless Woman
Lauren Socha The Unloved
Olivia Williams The Ghost Writer
Keira Knightley London Boulevard
Jill Hennessy Lymelife

The Top Ten:

10. Marisa Tomei Cyrus

Because: Near the start of Cyrus, just after Tomei (as Molly, single mother of awkward teen Jonah Hill) has just introduced herself to him outside, she watches soon-to-be new boyfriend John C. Reilly from the edge of the room whilst he drunkenly embarrasses himself singing the Human League's Don't You Want Me Baby? to a crowd of hip LA onlookers. When it gets to the first female vocal Tomei steps in to assist Reilly in his flailing act. Her miming of "I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar..." feels both a friendly, heartfelt act of encouragement for a fellow soul adrift and a celebration of the kind of playfully daft, in-your-face nonchalance that older performers rarely get to revel in too often on screen. (And I'm not talking about Streep & co. flapping around in Mamma Mia! either.) It's a small, wonderful moment in a great, carefree performance. Tomei has recently been besting many of her peers, both old and young, in a range of films (The Wrestler, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are the best two recent titles) and in Cyrus she's still a vibrantly comical onscreen tonic. She looks and acts better than ever.

09. Kate Hudson The Killer Inside Me 

Because: I went to and fro on what I did and didn’t like about The Killer Inside Me, but ultimately I wasn't completely sold on it. (The Grifters and The Kill-Off are both better Jim Thompson adaptations in my eyes.) Hudson had a hard task in Michael Winterbottom’s intriguing, contentious film and should indeed be lauded for her bold work. She completely surprised me. Her performance came from a place I didn’t think she could reach after a string of weak efforts – Nine prime among them. (So much for underestimating certain actors.) As Amy Stanton, the legit girlfriend of Casey Affleck’s wrong-un sheriff, Hudson made great use of her wily mannerisms and smooth way with the odd turn of phrase. Whilst the politics are rucked up in Winterbottom’s directorial decisions and adaptational skills the acting itself was stellar, as too were the film's technical achievements. Hudson’s final scene was devastating; it takes someone made of hardy stuff to act out such horrific moments. Hudson deserved much more praise for her role than what was apparent during the film's release.

08. Claude Perron La horde / The Horde

Because: Perron’s performance in La horde is not one you could warm to exactly, but then again finding any joy in a largely abandoned tower block during a mass zombie epidemic was always going to be a futile pursuit, especially when the blood gush increases with each scene. But it is a performance to be rightfully aghast at, in a good way, and in full admiration of. It’s one scene in particular which cemented Perron’s position in this list: despite her Aurore being mostly a blank-faced, internal type early on, she somehow manages to very quickly and efficiently both turn her character’s survival odds around tenfold and annihilate a particularly pesky domesticated zombie. With a kitchen. Have you ever seen a woman finish a member of the French undead off with a fridge and a gob of spit (ejected harshly as if it's a spiteful full stop)? From that point on I was alert to anything Perron was capable of on screen. She owned all of her own, and most others’, scenes thereafter. She was an unleashed force of battle-toughened dementia – a ladylike wrecking ball. If there’s to be a sequel – hinted at by the filmmakers – then this might well be referred to as Perron’s Alien.

07. Gabourey Sidibe Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Because: Whilst I didn’t fully take all of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (it lost some momentum in its middle section) to my heart, I did adore Sidibe’s performance. It stood firmly out over many of the film’s other aspects. Plus, her character was far more psychologically involving than many of the others I saw in a wide range of films last year. How many times can we say we’ve seen characters like Precious on our screens? Characters like this, treated with able concern and conveyed through the exactly right performance style, don't often see the brighter side of a small, obscure festival run. (But it would've been different had the right people not spotted something worthwhile in the film.) Sidibe’s innate ability to subtly show many sides to Precious’ persona is evident in each of her scenes. She immerses herself in the role. It doesn’t feel like easy acting and her part – through the careful balancing of restraint and fury – never at all tips into pitiable mannerism. I’d love to see Sidibe do more intricate, intimate films where she can flex her talent and develop her inherent performance skills. Plus, come on, in the right, non-crazy movie world she should've claimed that Oscar without any question or deliberation.

06. Carice van Houten Black Death

Because: With a deceptive presence and a bordering-on-the-ridiculous accent (extracted from her own Dutch tones and mangled with some ungodly witchy verbiage), van Houten cuts a calm yet deadly figure in Black Death. She’s more effective for being so manipulatively evil whilst actually looking like a hippy-ish housewife on a medieval role-playing weekend. Van Houten is a strikingly beautiful actress, and has an uncommonly adaptable look that she’s able to exploit incredibly well from film to film; she can play a wide age range, easily appear older or younger depending on the role, although she's only 34. This is perfect for her role as Langiva, a mysterious villager managing to ward off pestilence in a particularly unforgiving England of 1348. To say more about who she is, and what she stands for, would give away a bit too much of what makes Black Death so effective and van Houten so deliciously diabolical. Needless to say, she was entirely memorable and compulsively watchable all the way in the film. Hers is a small role, but oh-so crucial to what the film was saying.

05. Drew Barrymore Going the Distance      

Because: I don’t watch a great many rom-coms, but when I find one that I can stick with for more than twenty minutes I’m usually hooked, for the duration, on the story, however unlike my – yours, theirs, or anyone’s (but mostly mine) – life the romantic-comedic shenanigans on display actually are; and they’re usually so far removed from life that it practically becomes sci-fi anyway. But who cares, eh? That’s what’s so good about a successful rom-com; they take us to a ridiculous place full of funny things and lovely (hopefully) people. The best ones that do this do it slightly on a tangent. They sit to the left of the usual mainstream centre. Going the Distance did this well, in my view; and it’s largely down to Barrymore as Erin, a journalist dallying with long distance love with Justin Long. You get pure comic class with her in the film. She - and it’s apparent right from the start - walks all over the likes of Heigl and Witherspoon as a lovestruck lass. She makes Erin feel earthy, robust and just the right shade of sassy – and far more affable and complicated than the genre often allows. Why isn’t Barrymore the first port of call for all slightly alternative-leaning romantic Hollywood ventures? She can do it in her sleep, face painted like a cat, and still compel.

04. Catalina Saavedra The Maid  

Because: I’ve watched many films where I’ve seen a character – often a periphery role, someone in the background who may have a few lines and makes a minor impact on the main plot, but doesn’t hang around too long – and thought, Hold up, I’d rather watch their story. Let’s see where their lives take us instead, shall we? With The Maid/La nana, director Sebastián Silva must have seemingly heard my plea and given us Raquel, brilliantly played by Catalina Saavedra. She’s that peripheral figure, only allowed to now flourish in the midst of her own perplexing, messy and multi-faceted life story. Everyone else is dispensable. Almost. The pull of family and new, unforeseen connections are what concern Raquel. Although behind the blank, childlike expression hides a cunning woman, well versed in cheeky – and very comical – deception; she comes with a few tricks tucked in her apron pockets. But all this abides and Saavedra blooms to give us an intimate, fantastically nuanced portrait of a woman on the edge, both literally and emotionally. She broke my heart just a little bit in La nana.

03. Tilda Swinton I Am Love

Because: Our Tilda had a rollicking good time in I Am Love. Well, until she didn’t, when it all went pear-shaped. But then again, thinking about it, wasn’t it a bit pear-shaped for her all along? And that rollicking good time was just a wake-up call. Her Russian-born, Italian-adopted Emma Recchi dressed up to take a trip into opulently naughty cinematic sin but came out the other end a very different, dressed-down and let it all hang out kinda gal – and, to be quite frank, a better person for it. But a hefty price was paid in the process. That – without issuing too many spoilers – was the crux of her dilemma, however. To be who she needed to be, she had to lose everything but the one thing she couldn't give up. And if that last sentence sounds like a voiceover plea for the heroine of an adaptation of a gaudy-racy novel, then it fits marvellously into the vividly overblown scheme of I Am Love’s intentions. It uses rich, throbbing and unabashedly artful-crazy emotion like a waterfall uses water. Tilda is very good, we know this already, but she’s never been more open-hearted, venturesome or defiantly cracked as she was here. It's a staggeringly great turn; she worked on refining it for eleven years- each one of them shows in the film.

02. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore The Kids Are All Right (tie)

Because: More than any other recent film, I found it hard to decide which performance, Moore or Bening, affected me most. Both actresses were splendid and the film worked largely due to the pair’s stellar work together; they acted in wonderful accordance with each other (in the same way that, say, Sarandon and Davis did in Thelma and Louise). Also, with the Oscars looming and hundreds of other awards ceremonies dishing out gongs, it's become apparent Bening is getting the lion’s share of the accolades with only a mere handful of nods in Moore's direction. Both are deserving. It’s daft to single one of them out for praise and not the other where two inexplicably entwined performances are concerned. Neither actress really needs an Oscar to confirm their talent, but the award, or the nomination at least (Bening got one, alas Moore didn't), is still a tip of the hat from one's peers. Anyway, everything considered, the acting was all right.

Moore exhibited an open, joyful grasp of her character - skittish and amiably docile gardener Jules. Her ability to blend great comedic flourish with moments of keenly felt drama, within the same character, was exemplary, and not something she always gets praised for. She’s never fused these elements together so well; her foregrounding of the former aspect is exceedingly well realised. Her natural ease with all her co-stars throughout stand out – in particular her many scenes of daily routine with Bening and the fumbled speech in front of her family later in the film. Jules was a key role for Moore and should hopefully point to further expansion of her considerable craft in future roles. Bening, in what was essentially the slightly less central role, was tremendously wonderful too. It’s her best work yet. I’ve never really had her on my radar (apart from her great turn in The Grifters), but there wasn’t any one instance here where she wasn’t on absolute top form. She makes her character, Nic, a pleasingly cynical doctor, incredibly sympathetic, but doesn’t in any way lay it on too thick to gain unearned emotion. Bening manages to do a lot without actually outwardly seeming to demonstrate much (the dinner scene is a master class in the underplaying of a daunting realisation - and one of the most affecting in the film), and she crisply delivers her lines for maximum comedic impact (similarly as Moore does) to make each one count. Nic felt real, complex and seriously likeable through Bening’s performance: not one note was off. Indeed, both actresses gave peerless turns; and both should be lauded equally.    

01. Hye-ja Kim Mother

Because: There wasn’t any other actress last year who managed to do what Hye-ja Kim did. If there was, I didn’t see the film. She dances into Bong Joon-ho’s stunning, mysterious film, often dressed with immaculate style (and with a look that even from 100 yards states, ‘I don't take any shit’), as probably the most unlikely screen detective ever. Imagine Miss Marple taking it upon herself to investigate the town of Twin Peaks. In a quick, easy summation, that’s the general tone of the film. But through Kim’s layered performance both anchors everything perfectly and allows it to veer off into unchartered territory now and again; she goes to great lengths to create much of Mother's alluringly sinister yet somewhat kindly menace. Simply, she plays Mother, out to prove her near-helpless son’s innocence after he's accused of murdering a local girl. It’s essentially a character study of a strange, complex woman: Mother is a miasmatic Mildred Pierce, a fretful bag of nerves jostling with dubious dealings and discovering revenge tactics unusual to a woman of her meagre means. When Kim’s not snooping around town with a quizzical brow and a golf club, she’s fearfully quaking at the depths of the situation she’s got herself into; what she’ll do for family is the very crux of the matter. Hye-ja Kim’s performance is without doubt the best piece of acting I saw from a female all last year. She’s more impressive, still, for the fact that before Mother she only had a mere handful of screen credits to her name. And it’s greatly encouraging that at 70 years old there we're still likely to see more talented turns from her in the future.

Next: top ten best films of 2010

6 February 2011

Films of the Year 2010: Male Acting

Without too much fuss or fanfare, here are my ten selections for the top male performances of 2010. The usual 'also good' bunch (or next ten) are below too. So who's on the list? (All performances are taken from films released in the UK between Jan. 1st and Dec. 31st 2010.)

Also good (or roughly 11-20, from top to bottom, but not in any real strict order):

Colin Firth A Single Man
Mark Ruffalo The Kids Are All Right
Viggo Mortensen The Road
David Thewlis London Boulevard
Kayvan Novak Four Lions
Leonardo DiCaprio Shutter Island
Ran Danker Eyes Wide Open
Michael Shannon My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Vincent D’Onofrio Staten Island
Nicolas Duvauchelle White Material

The Top Ten:

10. Rhys Ifans Greenberg

Because: He's that dryly wizened soul always used by the main male character (in films such as this) to try and bounce his often all too woeful life-choice ideas off, and almost always only referred to in times of dire need. The immediate, disposable old pal and sidekick (last seen best embodied by Peter Sarsgaard in Garden State - the best thing about that film, as Ifans is with Greenberg here). In other words: he's much more interesting than the lead. But this time he's never been more right. It felt as if Ifans read the script, considered it, cast it aside, then delivered his lines like a guy unshackled from the fuss of typically demonstrative behavior and just gave off a vibe, a truthful feeling. He was in every way his own man. A miniature yet revelatory performance of unkempt goodness.

09. Ethan Hawke Brooklyn’s Finest

Because: In the last three or four years Hawke has made a trio of films where he's a guy stuck between a rock (crime) and a hard place (New York): Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Staten Island and this film, Brooklyn's Finest. He's excellent in all three. I'd love for him to in future get far more praise for his work than he has been presently - to my immediate knowledge anyhow. His role as NYPD fallout boy Sal Procida was electrifying in small ways. (The ways are small because he shared screen time with three other great performances.) The above-mentioned triple criminal threat on screen should rightly ensure the beginning of a sizeable comeback for Hawke. If it does, a big hurrah is due; if not, then a pity, but he'll still jack the screen up with a singular charge.

08. Eddie Marsan The Disappearance of Alice Creed / Heartless

Because: Marsan cropping up in a film you happen to be watching will be a great surprise. He certainly was in Heartless last year, which I knew mainly as the return to cinema of Philip Ridley more than for any casting choices. Marsan pops up some way in and jigs the film to life somewhat. He's the best thing about it - though it's not at all bad, just disappointing overall - and makes great use of his comic chops. In Alice Creed however, as elusive and perplexing ex-con and kidnapper Vic, he has a role to sink his teeth into. He utilises all of his best attributes - like some of the stressed-out, bordering-on-psychopath traits of his Happy-Go-Lucky character - but smooths them into something else entirely. Vic spends much of the film in a desperate state (see it to realise how much he's wound up), but Marsan never lets caricature or over-indulgence creep into his psyche. Any more information will run the risk of ruining the film's wily turns; know that both it and Marsan are excellent.

07. Jemaine Clement Gentlemen Broncos

Because: Part of my initial reluctance to see this (I saw it very late in the year) was to do with Clement’s role in what could possibly be one of my all-time least favourite films, Eagle vs. Shark. I loathed his character and everything about the film. But having been told by many trusted folk that he’s stellar in Flight of the Conchords, I gave Hess’ third film a shot. It was my favourite of his so far. And Clement managed to wipe away all ill trace of his Eagle vs. Shark persona with his hilariously insincere and plagiaristic sci-fi author Dr. Ronald Chevalier. Spot on line delivery is one of the all-time daft arts of comedic perfection; Clement weaves wonders with his voice box and pin-sharp timing (he makes merely answering a phone turns into a minor stroke of comic genius). His is one of the most truly surprising performances of last year. And the most joyfully daft.

06. Zohar Shtrauss Eyes Wide Open

Because: Shtrauss plentifully adds to that great and often over-indulged conceptual cinematic sub-category, The Cinema of Looking, in a variety of ways. As Aaron Fleischman, a repressed homosexual ultra orthodox Jew, with a family on one side and a new male lover on the other, he does much pupil-based soul-searching and indulges in more furtive glancing than Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain combined. But he’s darn good at it; he does it so well that at times he communicates more because he neglects to open his mouth. It's, to my estimation at least, the best way in which the film's English-language title is defined. Hurrah to underplaying a part! Shtrauss’ acting is solid stuff and you can bet that his last scene a true heart-sinker.

05. Timothy Olyphant The Crazies

Because: If there’s an actor who genuinely deserves the star status that he’s often fallen shy of, and that many of his peers don’t perhaps deserve (mentioning no names), it’s Olyphant. I often gabble on about my favourite genre actresses, but Olyphant would come closer than most to topping a list of favoured male genre actors. His cool and collected sheriff David Dutten in The Crazies was everything a straightforward, no-fuss lawman almost single-handedly counter-managing a virus epidemic should be. He aced the action scenes, convinced in the emotional dialogue with Radha Mitchell and carried his solo moments of wry introspection with aplomb; and managed to supply them all with a droll humour subtle enough to be read as knowing, but never come across as overly ironically or misjudged. (Yes, this is possible in a fast, cheap remake of a genre B-movie title.) Every casting agent should put forward Olyphant as much as possible for, well, everything really.

04. Tahar Rahim A Prophet

Because: As far as I'm aware, Rahim came from nowhere - he was a (relative?) unknown - to do what he did in A Prophet. It was one of the most confidently balanced and astutely unpolished performances of 2010. I can't say I truly adored the film itself. It was an engrossing watch, but I don't see it as the modern masterpiece many do. Its true dynamite element was Rahim. It's clearly his film and he grasps it firmly and drags it to hell and back - and back around again for another circuit - with him. To have as your introduction to cinema a role such as Malik El Djebena - a technically illiterate, but technically smart pawn in a criminal world, both in and out of prison - is surely an ideal way to grab the cinema-going world's attention. Rahim is now in the spotlight for all the right reasons. Imagine what great roles he could and should go on to play?

03. Nicolas Cage The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans

Because: It's obviously Cage's film to wholly own, and own it outright he does: he's its over-emotional and fully energised epicentre. His performance is all over the place, but despite displaying some of his most outlandish actorly quirks yet, it's never a laughable performance (more laugh-with-able). He's a dervish of both bafflingly disturbing and entertaining outbursts - whether simply giggling, through drug-induced fogginess, at the name 'G' during an interrogation, threatening information-withholding pensioners with firearms or almost maniacally enthusing to Eva Mendes about a meaningful keepsake - that co-motor the film along with Herzog's wayward technical zest. Like the film itself, Cage gets sidetracked (by his own performance demons?) and veers off down enjoyably demented avenues, with pit stops to pause for flashes of daft ingenuity. He is, as this film quite demonstrably proves, watchable in everything.

02. Johannes Krisch Revanche

Because: Although we never get placed right within the psyche of Krisch’s character - ex-con Alex, now a security guard who, along with his prostitute lover Tamara (Irina Potapenko) flee the seedy stripping and crime scene, but sadly head toward tragedy – he makes us care about what happens to him; even making us tenuously implicit in his plight. (To reveal exactly what that plight is – it relates directly to the tragedy – would risk spoiling the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, so I’ll leave it hanging hopefully tantalisingly.) But we see Krisch in nearly every scene. He’s been toughened by rock-bottom unfairness and is duly a crumpled mess inside; his demeanour that of a wild creature withholding its constant suffering for fear of showing weakness. Krisch makes this superbly involving drama even more compelling with a truthful, world-weary focus.

01. Édgar Ramírez Carlos

Because: Over Carlos' startling, well-travelled and engrossing 5 ½ hours, Ramírez, with a great matter-of-factness and sheer energy, covers a lot of acting ground - as much emotionally complex ground as the plot literally takes in in geographical and time-span terms. It’s a defining and boundless performance, full of gritty, bolshy charm and vivid feeling - and just about a ton of similar vigorous stuff thrown in between all that stuff. He plays Carlos the Jackal as a multifunctional tower of masculine force - and makes him both curiously pitiable and strangely admirable in various ways. That Ramírez didn’t leap to the top of every critical list or grab, without question, every major acting award this season is plain barmy. (The probable boring snafu to do with Carlos being ineligible because it's ostensibly a work of television has much to do with this, but no matter.) He sauntered over every other male performance in 2010. And he did it with more ragged style, passionate commitment and straight-up electricity than any number of perhaps more obvious recent award-winners could muster in half the running time. I could barely take my eyes off him for even one minute of Carlos. It’s a clear top-level performance.

Next: female acting then top ten films.