Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Cinematographers of the Decade

They're the men who make movies look as good as they do, but they often don't get the credit they deserve. There are some spectacularly talented directors of photography working in cinema today, and these are the ten who have done the most impressive work throughout the past ten years.

10 – Ed Lachman (Erin Brokovich; Far From Heaven; Import/Export; I'm Not There)
Ed Lachman's best work in this decade has involved adapting the styles of an earlier age and, along with director Todd Haynes, turning them into something new. He did gorgeous work on Far From Heaven, bringing the Technicolor world of the 1950's to lush, vivid life, and in Haynes' I'm Not There, his work was arguably even more impressive. That film's use of multiple versions of Bob Dylan allowed Lachman to shoot in a fashion resembling DA Pennebaker films, the Nouvelle Vague or Peckinpah westerns, but all of these disparate tones were skilfully blended into a seamless whole.

9 – Rodrigo Prieto (Amores perros; 21 Grams; Brokeback Mountain; Lust, Caution)

Alejandro González Iñárritu's stunning debut Amores perros was invested with real energy by Prieto's gritty and lively camerawork, and he carried over that sensibility into Iñárritu's more lugubrious follow-up 21 Grams. He switched styles, however, when he started working with Ang Lee, capturing the vast expanses of Brokeback Mountain in a sharp and composed fashion, before bringing a more intimate air to the same director's sexually charged Lust, Caution.

8 – Peter Andrews (Traffic; Solaris; The Good German; Che)
Yes, I know he doesn't really exist (Peter Andrews is the pseudonym Stephen Soderbergh uses as his cinematographer credit), but that doesn't make his work any less impressive. Soderbergh is a ceaseless experimenter, and his body of work in this decade bears that out. He gave Traffic's three narrative strands a distinctive colouring, and he aped the style of 1940's studio pictures in The Good German. His further experimentation has been facilitated by his adoption of the RED camera, with which he has shot films as diverse as Che, The Informant! and The Girlfriend Experience.

7 – Robert Elswit (Punch-Drunk Love; Good Night, And Good Luck; Michael Clayton; There Will Be Blood)
PT Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is a truly unique experience, and Robert Elswit's cinematography plays a huge part in that, with his use of primary colours and lens flares seeming to reflect the mental state of the lovestruck central character. Elswit later did extraordinary work on Anderson's There Will Be Blood, being rewarded with an Academy Award for his strikingly imaginative camerawork, and he took a novel approach to filming George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, shooting the film in colour and then converting the images to black and white in post production.

6 – Robert Richardson (The Aviator; Kill Bill; The Good Shepherd; Inglourious Basterds)
Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is a visual feast from beginning to end. He and Richardson toyed with the lighting to create a specific period effect for the early scenes, and his camerawork brilliantly captures the creeping madness and paranoia of Howard Hughes later on. His other key collaborator in this decade was Quentin Tarantino, and while I wasn't a fan of the director's Kill Bill films or Inglourious Basterds, I can't deny that they looked terrific, with Richardson and Tarantino's eye for composition proving to be a potent mix.

5 – Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later; Manderlay; Slumdog Millionaire; Antichrist)
Mantle is one of the most exciting young cinematographers around. His frantic handheld camerawork brought an immediacy to Danny Boyle's zombie film 28 Days Later, and he later joined Boyle in India – a cinematographer's heaven – to make the vibrant and thrillingly kinetic Slumdog Millionaire. But his most impressive work came just this year, with Lars von Trier's stunning Antichrist, one of the most visually striking films I've seen in years.

4 – Dion Beebe (Chicago; Collateral; Memoirs of a Geisha; Miami Vice)
If you want a lesson in how a visionary director can unleash a cinematographer's true talent, just compare and contrast the work Dione Beebe did with Rob Marshall and his work with Michael Mann. Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha are pretty and professionally shot, but there's no real life to them, not much imagination at work. When he began working with Michael Mann, however, Beebe produced some staggering images; he made LA at night glow with vivid hues, while his filming of Miami Vice is simply breathtaking. In that film, his handling of intimate sequences between characters is just as impressive as those extraordinary panoramic shots of a plane cutting through the clouds, or a boat speeding towards the horizon. It's a stunning piece of work, and one that I can't resist enjoying again and again on Blu-Ray.

3 – Janusz Kaminski (AI: Artificial Intelligence; Minority Report; Catch Me If You Can; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
A long-time collaborator with Steven Spielberg, Kaminski began this decade with superb work on some of the director's most exciting films. He took Spielberg's vision to a starker, more shadowy place in Minority Report, while his work on Catch Me If You Can was exhilaratingly light on its feet. He also proved himself a remarkable storyteller with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which his camera reflected the experience of Jean-Dominique Bauby's paralysis. Few films in this decade have used the camera us such a vital component of the narrative as this one did.

2 – Emmanuel Lubezki (Y tu mamá también; Ali; The New World; Children of Men)
A brilliant cinematographer and innovator, Lubezki's chief achievements in this decade are The New World and Children of Men. In the former, he found images of indescribable beauty and captured the intimacy of John Smith and Pocahontas' love story, and all of this was done with the use of natural light, as is customary on Malick's films. In the latter, he was reunited with his Y tu mamá también director Alfonso Cuarón to shoot an atmospheric vision of a dystopian British future. Two scenes in particular are justly celebrated: the stunning long take as Clive Owen staggers through a war zone, and devilishly clever attack on a car which is filmed from inside the vehicle, using a specially created camera rig to capture the reactions of each passenger. This enormously exciting talent is currently at work on both Malick and Cuarón's next films.

1 – Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasn't There; The Village; Jarhead; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Originally, this feature was going to be a list of films displaying the best cinematography of the decade rather than the cinematographers themselves, but I quickly dumped that idea when I realised more than half of the list would be the work of just one man. In the past ten years, Roger Deakins has done more extraordinary work behind the camera than any of his contemporaries, and the variety of it is simply astounding. With the Coen brothers he has made films as diverse as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man; works of stunning precision, clarity and atmosphere. His work with other directors might not be as wholly satisfying as the Coens' films, but his camerawork is always exemplary; just look at Sam Mendes' Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, or M Night Shyamalan's The Village to see films that fail to live up to their images. But his greatest achievement is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a haunting and evocative lament for the past, in which every single frame is a work of art. Quite simply, Roger Deakins is the best in the business.

The Female Performances of the Decade

These are the actresses whose performances have stood out in the past decade of cinema, although the list could easily be twice as long. A special mention is merited by the following, who were all part of this selection at some point: Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream); Q'orianka Kilcher (The New World); Björk (Dancer in the Dark); Juliette Binoche (Code Unknown); Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love); Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake); Gillian Anderson (The House of Mirth); Amy Adams (Junebug); Diane Lane (Unfaithful).

Here are the final ten:

10 – Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko Wataya in Babel (2006)
Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel is a contrived and unconvincing film, but there's nothing false about Rinko Kikuchi's extraordinary portrayal of the film's most intriguing character. Chieko is a deaf Japanese schoolgirl, longing for some kind of human connection, whose desperate attempts to reach out to others result frequently in her own humiliation, her continued frustration, and her seething resentment. With no speech, Kikuchi does most of her acting with her face, and she expresses an aching vulnerability as a lonely girl completely cut off from the world around her. Her story is the only one of Babel's multiple narratives that feels real.

9 – Arta Dobroshi as Lorna in The Silence of Lorna (2008)
The performances in the Dardenne brothers' films are always superb. They direct their actors to give displays that are so natural and convincing that you forget you're watching actors at all. For their latest film The Silence of Lorna, they scoured Eastern Europe for a young actress who could take the lead role, and they struck gold with Arta Dobroshi. Lorna is a demanding role, one that carries the entire dramatic weight of the picture almost single-handed, but Dobroshi is flawless in it, bringing a quiet determination and sense of authority to the picture that demands the viewer's full attention. Even when she is surrounded by other actors, you can't take your eyes off her. Dobroshi has a remarkable screen presence, the kind that draws you in to a character's point of view, and in the final third of the film, when Lorna is placed in peril, the empathy that we have developed with her ensures our anxiety rises as the danger increases.

Read my interview with Arta Dobroshi here.
8 – Anamaria Marinca as Otilia in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Gabita is the character who requires the illegal abortion at the centre of the story, but this is Otilia's film. She's the one who has to make the arrangements; she's the one who has to clean up the mess left by the foolish Gabita; she's the one who has to make terrible sacrifices and risk everything for her friend. Anamaria Marinca, who plays Otilia, fully inhabits the role and conveys all of her character's thought processes and inner conflicts with incredible dexterity. Her finest showcase is the incredibly taut dinner party sequence, where she has to sit and listen to the banality of those around her while her friend lies in desperate need of her help. Just watching Marina's face and body language tells us everything we need to know about her steadily mounting panic and dread.

7 – Nicole Kidman as Anna in Birth (2004)
In this decade, Nicole Kidman emerged as a truly great actress. Within the space of a few years she made Moulin Rouge!, The Others, Birthday Girl, The Hours, Dogville and Birth, and in doing so she showed herself to be capable of a remarkable variety of performance. For this list, I'm going to select Birth as the best among equals, not only because she has rarely looked more beautiful onscreen (although that doesn't hurt), but because it's a complicated, difficult role, and she carries it off with incredible subtlety and grace. She plays a woman whose life is thrown upside-down by the appearance of a mysterious 10 year-old claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband, and her performance is a wonderful mixture of confusion, apprehension and curiosity. Jonathan Glazer is smart enough to give Kidman the time and space she needs to develop her characterisation, and he exploits her performance superbly at times, notably in the striking opera house close-up, which says so much without words.

6 – Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Yes, Kate Winslet was long overdue an Oscar when she finally picked one up for her role in The Reader, but I wish the Academy had chosen to recognise the brilliance of this role instead. As the free-spirited Clementine, who enters the life of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and later leaves him heartbroken, Winslet provides us with one of the most memorable female characters of recent years. With her ever-changing hair colour and brash attitude acting as a mask for her vulnerability and insecurity, Clementine is a far more interesting character than she initially appears to be, and Winslet brings a depth of feeling and an almost dangerous edge to this chaotic figure. In her own words, Clementine is "just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind", but Winslet makes her into something much more than that.

5 – Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker in Far From Heaven (2002)
No other actress can play a woman who is barely keeping a lid on her emotions quite like Julianne Moore, and she is stunning in Todd Haynes' wonderful tribute to the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk. The performances in Haynes' film have the somewhat studied technique of the era the film is modelled on, but while Moore shows an incredible technical aptitude to master that acting style, she also imbues her role with real heart and soul. Cathy is the perfect housewife who is shattered by the revelation of her husband's indiscretions, and Moore gradually peels away the layers of artificiality that define her character to reveal the heartbreak of the woman underneath. Moore gave two Oscar-nominated performances in this year (she also excelled in The Hours), and while she didn't win for either, it should be clear to anyone who understands cinema that her work in Far From Heaven is nothing less than a masterclass in great acting.

4 – Charlotte Gainsbourg as 'She' in Antichrist (2009)
Playing a mother whose son has died, and who blames herself for his death, Charlotte Gainsbourg reaches new depths of pain and grief in von Trier's astonishing film. It's a remarkable transformation for an actress who has never really impressed me in any of her previous work, but whose display in this film doesn't contain a single moment that feels false or affected. The nameless 'She' is a character driven to violent extremes by both her own unstable emotions and the behaviour of her husband, who believes his therapist's approach can talk her round, and the ferocity of Gainsbourg's performance is so convincing we completely believe in it even as von Trier takes the film itself into more unrealistic territory. It is a lacerating performance; a display of sheer pain that is almost too painful to watch.

3 – Oksana Akinshina as Lilja in Lilja 4-ever (2002)
Lilja 4-ever broke my heart within its opening ten minutes. When the Russian teenager is cruelly abandoned by her mother, she sits sulkily leafing through her magazine and refuses to kiss the departing parent goodbye. But when she is left alone, her demeanour changes, and she bolts out of the door after her mother, screaming "Don't leave me, please! I won't make it!", but she is just left collapsed in the mud as the car speeds away. In those few seconds between the mother's departure and Lilja's desperate, futile dash after her, the play of emotions that runs across Oksana Akinshina's face is extraordinary. Her open features carry us along on Lilja's terrible journey; we see her self-disgust as she turns tricks for cash; the sense of pride she has as she buys groceries with her ill-gotten money; her renewed joy at seemingly finding romance; and her fear and dismay as her dreams are destroyed. Not many actresses have made me care so deeply about a character's fate as Akinshina does in this devastating film.

2 – Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher (2001)
Isabelle Huppert is undoubtedly one of the finest actresses currently working in cinema, and this performance is perhaps the finest she has ever given. In Michael Haneke's clinical adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek's novel, she plays Erika, a stiff and repressed music teacher in her 40's, who still lives at home with her domineering mother. Erika's respectable veneer hides darker impulses, however; she secretly visits porn cinemas, and she cuts herself with razor blades in the bathroom at home. The film depicts her masochistic and destructive relationship with a student, during which she reveals desires that even she seems to be slightly wary of, and Huppert's performance is a marvel of minimalist acting. Haneke frequently films her in long takes, and she manages to transmit every thought and feeling her character experiences with the slightest gesture, or without even moving a muscle. It is a stunningly controlled piece of acting, with endless, fascinating depths.

1 – Naomi Watts as Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive (2001)
There was no contest. Naomi Watts has been positioned at the top of this list ever since Mulholland Drive was released in 2001. As soon as I saw David Lynch's masterpiece, I knew I had witnessed something special; an actress being handed the role of a lifetime and doing something magical with it. As Betty, the young ingénue who turns up in Hollywood with dreams of stardom, Watts radiates wide-eyed innocence, but throughout Lynch's labyrinthine nightmare of a movie, her character is taken down much darker avenues. Watts does an incredible job of switching modes at the drop of a hat, as shown in the amazing audition sequence, and as the film careers towards its disturbing climax, Watts brings raw emotion to the surface, depicting a woman consumed by an obsessive and unrequited love. It is a stunning, multi-faceted and ceaselessly impressive piece of acting; not merely the great female performance of the decade, but one of the all-time great screen performances.

The Musical Scores of the Decade

This is my choice of the decade's best film scores. Some of these are very traditional (The Lord of the Rings), while others are audaciously different (There Will be Blood), and some have taken on a life of their own, beyond the movie they were originally written for (Requiem for a Dream). All of them however, are memorable pieces of music, and they all contributed hugely to the atmosphere and impact of their respective films.
10 – The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Howard Shore (2001 – 2003)

9 – Solaris by Cliff Martinez (2002)

8 – Pan's Labyrinth by Javier Navarrete (2006)

7 – The Incredibles by Michael Giacchino (2004)

6 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma (2000)

5 – Far From Heaven by Elmer Bernstein (2002)

4 – Requiem for a Dream by Clint Mansell (2000)

3 – There Will Be Blood by Jonny Greenwood (2007)

2 – The New World by James Horner (2005)

1 – The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (2007)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Posters of the Decade

Having covered the best trailers of the decade, it's time to take a look at that other important marketing tool: the poster. Again, the vast majority of posters released are lazily produced, relying on big close-ups of the stars' faces and a few gushing quotes, but some are memorable works of art in their own right. Here are ten that stood out for me over the past ten years.

10 – Irreversible (2002)

9 – The Dark Knight (2008)

8 – AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

7 – Perfume: the Story of a Murderer (2006)

6 – Man on Wire (2008)

5 – Lord of War (2005)

4 – Bamboozled (2000)

3 – In the Mood for Love (2001)

2 – Funny Games US (2007)

1 – Walk the Line (2005)

The Trailers of the Decade

The art of a good trailer seems to be a secret held by a select few in the film industry. Usually, they give away the whole story, or they use tired old clichés to sell it, or they try to trick the viewer by making the trailer look like a completely different film to the one it's advertising (the worst are the trailers for foreign-language films that include snippets of English dialogue in the hope you won't guess it's subtitled). Sometimes, however, you do see a trailer that really takes you by surprise and successfully whets your appetite for a forthcoming film, although the finished product frequently doesn't live up to a great preview. Listed below are my favourites from the past ten years.

10 – Requiem for a Dream (2000)
One of two trailers on this list that develops as if it's selling one kind of film, before revealing its hand later on. This one has an dreamily romantic feel for its first minute, and then it only gives a brief glimpse of the horrors that await in Darren Aronofsky's film.

9 – Femme Fatale (2002)
An idea so ingenious and simple, it's hard to believe it had never been done before. This trailer for Brian De Palma's film simply holds down the fast-forward button and plays out the whole film in super-quick time, inviting you to see it again if you didn't quite catch it.

8 – The Incredibles (2004)
This isn't a scene from the film itself, but it's something even better, a hilarious self-contained skit that perfectly captures the tone of Brad Bird's superb movie.

7 – Sin City (2005)
This teaser was almost too good. Brilliantly edited together and full of striking shots, it set expectations far too high, and the sluggish, unbalanced film Robert Rodriguez eventually turned in was a massive disappointment.

6 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Everyone was eagerly anticipating the third instalment of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptation, and this suitably epic trailer – the longest on my list – did a superb job of stoking those fires of expectation. It's a grand, rousing trailer, and the final third still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention.

5 – Little Children (2006)
Another trailer that's far more impressive than the film it's advertising. It has been assembled in an extremely imaginative fashion, avoiding the standard trailer structure and slowly developing towards its climax, while the use of the train on the soundtrack is a masterstroke.

4 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
I guess it's hard to go too far wrong when you're editing together images shot by Roger Deakins and a score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, but this trailer is still a sublime piece of work. It beautifully expresses the style and tone of Andrew Dominik's masterpiece. Like the film, it's beautiful, lyrical, elegiac and mysterious.

3 – The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Another beautifully cut trailer and another opportunity to luxuriate in Roger Deakin's stunning cinematography. I love the fluid editing style of this one, the tender score, and the well-chosen snippets of voiceover; it hints at various elements of the plot without revealing too much, which is a trick too few trailers can manage.

2 – Red Eye (2005)
A very clever piece of sleight-of-hand. This trailer for Wes Craven's film seems to be selling us some sort of romantic comedy – yeah, whatever, we've seen it all before – but then it switches gears at precisely the right moment to show us exactly what Red Eye is all about.

1 – Comedian (2002)
I still haven't seen Comedian. This documentary about Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up work never did get a release in the UK, but this marvellous trailer certainly compensated for its absence. You may have noticed a common theme among my selections in this list, that none of them have that clichéd, gravelly-voiced narration that plagues so many previews. Well, this one does have plenty of that terrible voiceover work, but it's used to brilliant effect.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Best Films of the Decade: 20 - 11

This was hard. In compiling a list of the decade's best film, I set myself the rule of having only one picture per director, but even that didn't make it any easier, and I ended up losing a lot of films that would have certainly merited a place among such a collection. Here are a few that came very close to making it: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Atanarjuat; Yi Yi; The House of Mirth; Silent Light; Miami Vice; Ghost World; In the Mood For Love; Lantana; The Aviator; Bloody Sunday; Springtime in a Small Town; The Return; Time Out; Y tu mamá también; Ten.

That's a pretty good selection of films, but they ultimately weren't quite good enough, and here are the ones that did make the cut.

20 – Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
This is the best sequel of the decade. Nine years after they shared a brief encounter in Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine were reunited in Paris for this perfectly judged film. Unfolding in something close to real time, the film follows the two characters as they walk and talk, discussing that night in Vienna, cursing the time they have lost, and wondering if this chance encounter means they really do belong together. Linklater's direction is fluid and unintrusive, allowing Hawke and Delpy to carry the picture, with both actors being entirely comfortable in their characters' skin. Their unforced performances and tangible chemistry is the film's engine, and the conversation they share is witty, touching and true. At just 80 minutes, there isn't a wasted moment, and it grows unexpectedly compelling as the end draws near – will they finally take this opportunity to be together, or will they allow fate to dictate their futures once more? There is scope for a third Sunset film, but it's impossible to imagine how Linklater, Hawke and Delpy could improve on this film's perfect ending.

19 – Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
Given that it is based on the grisly true story of South Korea's first serial killer, it's not surprising that Memories of Murder is a dark, violent and twisted tale, but it's also really funny. That's the miracle of Bong Joon-ho, the young Korean filmmaker who has shown a peerless ability to blend disparate styles and tones into a single satisfying whole. Memories of Murder follows the ultimately futile investigation led by Detective Park (Song Kang-ho), a local cop facing his first big case, and Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who has been despatched from Seoul to lend his assistance. The characters are richly drawn – not brilliant detectives, not bumbling clowns, but something in between, something more real – and despite the foregone conclusion of the investigation's failure, Bong manages to develop a powerful sense of tension, which he occasionally deflates with some well-timed slapstick. It is effective as a thriller, as a comedy, as a social satire, and finally – most powerfully – as a study of ordinary people driven by an obsession that can never be satisfied; an obsession that is beautifully encapsulated in the film's stunning final shot.

18 – The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, 2000)
The longest film on this list is almost three hours long, while the shortest is a mere six minutes. Guy Maddin made The Heart of the World for the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, as a short to play before the main features, but when the festival was over, his film had made a bigger impact than most of the full-length works that followed it. A marvellously inventive tribute to Soviet silent cinema, the film is densely packed with incident from first frame to last, as state scientist Anna (Leslie Bais) discovers the world is dying of heart failure, leading to outbreaks of orgiastic hysteria, and prompting two brothers (Caelum Vatnsdal and Shaun Balbar) to fight for her love while there's still time. Maddin orchestrates all of this in his usual frenetic fashion, and it's hard to resist the flow of amazing imagery as he builds towards a genuinely rousing finale – Kino! Kino! Kino! I could have selected any of half a dozen Maddin films for a place on this list, but The Heart of the World is just such an exhilarating work, and it feels like the purest concentration of the Guy Maddin experience.

17 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes a little while to get going, but when it takes off, it really takes off. The first time a fight sequence is interrupted by one of the participants leaping up a wall and dancing across the rooftops is a truly majestic moment, and throughout the film, Lee's direction is as light and clever as his characters' footwork. His film is anchored by strong central performances from Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi (her breakthrough role, and she's never been better), and by two parallel love stories, and that solid centre allows him to adorn the story with a series of breathtaking action scenes. Lee's handling of the film's action has not been matched by anything that came afterwards; it is simultaneously thrilling and graceful, and each encounter plays a part in shaping our understanding of the characters and the story. It is a truly wonderful piece of filmmaking.

16 – Belleville Rendez-vous (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
I spent some time trying to decide which of Pixar's many fine films should earn a place on this list, but then I remembered Sylvain Chomet's magnificent French oddity, which instantly leapfrogged the animated competition. Years before Pixar cast grouchy old Carl as the lead character in Up, Chomet built his story around a little old lady with a clubfoot; a most unlikely hero for a most unusual tale. As she embarks upon an epic quest to rescue her kidnapped son, Chomet dazzles us with his unique and beautiful visual style, his deadpan humour, and a macabre streak that adds a real sense of danger to the plot (one scene is quite horrifying). The film is mostly silent, but Chomet compensates with a hugely expressive visual style and a catchy soundtrack, while his animation of the main characters is wonderful. The tiny old lady, her faithful fat dog, the horse-like son, the oblong mafia – these figures are painted in broad strokes, but we are instantly fascinated by them, and we quickly begin to care deeply about their adventure.

15 – The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)
The Coen brothers' tribute to post-war film noir features a group of talented craftsmen working at the very peak of their powers. As Ed Crane, the barber who finds himself mixed up in murder, Billy Bob Thornton gives a performance of remarkable understatement, barely displaying a flicker of emotion and yet remaining a fascinating protagonist. Behind the camera we have Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer, whose black-and-white work here is staggering, making brilliant use of light and shadows, and turning every shot into a singular work of art. But the greatest talent on show here, of course, is that of the Coen brothers, who produced an amazingly eclectic body of work in this decade. The Man Who Wasn't There is my favourite of these films for its rich atmosphere, the hilarious deadpan humour, the wonderfully eccentric supporting performances (Tony Shalhoub and Jon Polito) and the surprising emotional undertow that reveals itself towards the film's climax. Quite simply, it displays everything I love about their work.

14 – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
The most gripping thriller of the decade, Cristian Mungiu's film brilliantly evokes the paranoid, claustrophobic atmosphere of life in Ceauşescu's Romania. Mungiu involves us in the drama immediately, as the arrangements made by Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) for Gabita's abortion begin to go awry, and he never loosens his grasp on the film's unremitting tension. It is a technically superb piece of filmmaking, with the director crafting his film through a series of expertly composed, beautifully paced long takes. The film is responsible for one of the decade's most memorable villains in Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), who pounces on the girls' first signs of weakness and indecision to exert his power over them, but the acting honours are taken by Anamaria Marinca. She makes us feel every emotion that her character experiences, from the agony of a protracted dinner party to the overwhelming fear of a late-night dash through the dark, threatening streets.

13 – Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
A three-hour film that takes place on a single soundstage, with the sets only existing as markings on the floor. It shouldn't work as cinema, and yet Lars von Trier's bizarre experiment turned out to be one of this mercurial director's greatest achievements. Divided into chapters and narrated by a droll John Hurt, Dogville tells the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young woman who arrives in the eponymous town and asks for shelter. She is initially taken into the community, but her innate goodness is eventually exploited in a vicious fashion by the townspeople, and this is where the point of von Trier's unusual set design comes into play. As Grace is raped behind an invisible wall, it becomes a metaphor for the way people willingly turn a blind eye to those in need around them, and Dogville becomes an incisive study of human nature. Many critics derided this first instalment of von Trier's USA trilogy as an anti-American piece of work, and while his more specific follow-up Manderlay was a mistake, I believe Dogville is far more universal in its outlook. The film is superbly directed, with von Trier making great use of his surroundings and staging a number of hugely imaginative sequences, and the performances from the ensemble couldn't be better, with Kidman giving one of the many great acting displays she provided in this decade.

12 – Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2004)
Nobody Knows views the world through the eyes of the children at the centre of its story. The four siblings are abandoned by their irresponsible mother early in the film and left to fend for themselves. Why did she leave? We don't know, because they don't know. For a while, they manage to get by on the money they were left with and the strength of the eldest Akira (Yûya Yagira), who takes control of the situation as best he can. Kore-Eda's direction is leisurely and the film has an unusual rhythm to it, in tune with the way the children's experience changes over time. There are moments of humour and sunny playfulness in the first half of the movie, but then it transpires that there is to be no happy ending for this family, and we are watching their slow slide into destitution, as the money runs out, the water and electricity is cut off, and food supplies begin to diminish. It is unbearably sad to watch, but completely compelling and full of humanity. Kore-Eda's keen eye for detail and observational style is perfectly matched to this material, and he gets heartbreakingly authentic performances from his young actors, especially Yagira, who won Best Actor at Cannes for this film.

11 – The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002)
Throughout much of The Son, the camera is perched just behind Olivier Gourmet's shoulder, peeking around his ear, and it stays there as he goes about his business. Olivier is a carpenter, who has taken a particular interest in Francis (Morgan Marinne), a young offender who has been sent there for rehabilitation. The relationship that exists between these two characters is gradually revealed over the course of the Dardenne brothers' masterpiece, and by the end of the film, we feel like we know Olivier, and we can understand all of the conflicting emotions he has been through. This is a serious study of guilt, sadness and the thirst for revenge, and the film's deep emotional complexity is handled by the Dardennes with masterful subtlety. Their typically direct approach draws us into Olivier's life, to the point where we are almost breathless with anxiety about the course of action he is going to take at the film's close. Few filmmakers deal with weighty themes with the adroitness of the Dardennes, and they are aided here by performances that are so natural and believable that you simply forget you're watching actors at work. An amazing piece of art, and a profoundly moving achievement.

See the next ten here.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Best and Worst of 2009

In previous years, I haven't done my best and worst list until the very end of December, but I've decided to call time on 2009 a little early this time around. I've also decided not to do my customary review of the year and to go straight to the Best Of lists, and this is because my review of the decade is just around the corner. Between now and the end of the year, I'm going to be looking back at everything that has happened on screen since the year 2000, and listing my own personal favourites, as well as announcing my take on the very worst the decade had to offer. Until then, consider this my final word on 2009.

Best Film

1 – Antichrist
A staggering work of art
2 – Love Exposure
Love Exposure may be twice as long as the average movie, but it's also twice as good

3 – Up
It is, quite simply, an astounding filmmaking achievement
4 – The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow takes control of this material and plays it out it in a masterly fashion
5 – The Class
There's hardly a single moment in The Class that doesn't feel completely authentic and organic
6 – A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale is bursting with ideas, incident and feeling
7 – Avatar

Avatar is a stunning film, and it deserves to be huge
8 – Wendy and Lucy
Everything about Wendy and Lucy feels natural and true
9 - The White Ribbon
Even by this filmmaker's intimidating standards, this is a stunningly well-made film
10 – Sugar
So superior to Boden and Fleck's previous effort, it's hard to believe that we're talking about the same filmmakers

Honourable Mentions
35 Shots of Rum
Bright Star
Fish Tank
Il Divo
In the Loop

Public Enemies
A Serious Man
Two Lovers

Worst Film

1 – The Spirit
The Spirit is empty of any logic, feeling or intelligence; it is visually and morally ugly
2 – The Reader
This is crass, manipulative bullshit

3 – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This is, by any measure, rubbish
4 – Crank: High Voltage
A sequel few people really wanted, and nobody really needed
5 – The Taking of Pelham, 123

How bereft of imagination this boring, unpleasant film is
6 – Rage
A silly and self-indulgent cinematic experiment
7 – Observe and Report
Nothing more than an empty provocation

8 – Paper Heart
A horribly twee faux-documentary starring the irritating Charlyne Yi
9 – Hannah Takes the Stairs
Unremarkable and faintly tedious
10 – Watchmen

Watchmen is so concerned with matching the look and feel of the comic, it has no life of its own

Dishonourable Mentions

Just Another Love Story

Monsters v Aliens
Rachel Getting Married

Revolutionary Road
Sherlock Holmes
Tony Manero
Where the Wild Things Are

Best Director

James Cameron – Avatar
Lars von Trier – Antichrist
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
Pete Docter and Bob Peterson – Up
Arnaud Desplechin – A Christmas Tale

Best Actor

Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker
Sam Rockwell – Moon
Willem Dafoe – Antichrist
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
Peter Capaldi – In the Loop

Best Actress

Charlotte Gainsbourg – Antichrist
Hikari Mitsushima – Love Exposure
Michelle Williams – Wendy and Lucy
Kim Ok-bin – Thirst

Abbie Cornish – Bright Star

Best Supporting Actor

Michael Fassbender – Inglourious Basterds/Fish Tank
Anthony Mackie – The Hurt Locker
Paul Schneider – Bright Star
Stephen Lang – Avatar

Gérard Depardieu – Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Best Supporting Actress

Mélanie Laurent – Inglourious Basterds
Rosemarie Dewitt – Rachel Getting Married
Marion Cotillard – Public Enemies
Sakura Ando – Love Exposure
Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler

Best Original Screenplay

In the Loop
The Hurt Locker

Bright Star

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Class
Wendy and Lucy
Let the Right One In
The Damned United


Best Cinematography

The White Ribbon
A Serious Man

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Best Editing

The Hurt Locker
The White Ribbon

A Serious Man

Best Original Score

Bright Star

Broken Embraces
A Christmas Tale

Best Costume Design

Bright Star
Public Enemies
A Serious Man
Broken Embraces

Best Production Design

A Serious Man
The White Ribbon
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Public Enemies

Best Cinema Experience of 2009

The Red Shoes in a stunning new restoration at the NFT
Avatar in IMAX 3D
Antichrist at a raucous midnight preview screening
Barry Lyndon seen in a new print on the big screen for the first time
Love Exposure as the four hours absolutely flew by