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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review - Avatar

It has been almost twelve years since James Cameron brandished his Oscar statuette and declared himself "King of the World". It was a moment of remarkable hubris, but who could deny that the director has earned the right to make such an arrogant gesture? He had staked everything on Titanic, and won. The film looked certain to sink his career as the production ballooned beyond its original budget and schedule, and when it appeared in cinemas in December 1997 – a three-hour romance with no stars and a downbeat ending – it looked like the punchline to a bad joke. $1.8 billion and 11 Oscars later, Cameron had the last laugh. So it should come as no surprise to see Cameron confounding the naysayers once again with Avatar, his years-in-the-making adventure, which has been dogged by wild speculation and predictions of failure in the months leading up to its release. He has gambled and won once again. Avatar is a stunning film, and it deserves to be huge.

The King of the World has now become a creator of worlds, setting Avatar on the alien planet Pandora, which he has brought to life in amazing detail. It is a vividly realised environment unlike anything I have ever seen before, with every aspect of the planet's flora and fauna feeling like it has been clearly thought-out and is a key part of a gorgeous whole. From the floating mountain ranges around which the climactic battle takes place, to the tiny plants that spin into the air and glow when touched, Pandora is a visual feast from top to bottom, and Cameron lets us feel as if we are a part of it too, with the most immersive use of 3D I have ever experienced. You feel like you can reach out and grab what the onscreen characters are touching, and it plays a huge part in drawing the viewer into the story; a story that, despite all of the cutting-edge technology on display, is resolutely old-fashioned.

Pandora is home to the Na'vi, a peaceful race of blue, 10-foot tall creatures whose spiritual lives are deeply intertwined with the natural world around them. Their home is also the sole source of Unobtanium, a precious mineral that may provide the answer to Earth's energy problems, which is why a mining corporation and squadron of gung-ho marines have established a base there. Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed a programme that involves humans mentally controlling alien avatars, who can travel freely among the native population, learning from their culture and building bridges between the civilisations. This is the programme that paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) signs up for, but Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has other ideas for Jake. The corporation is getting impatient with Grace's diplomatic approach, and Quaritch wants Jake to act as a spy, gaining the Na'vi's trust and reporting back with information that will aid the inevitable attack.

Avatar's backstory is explained in the film's opening twenty minutes, although Cameron has to resort to some dodgy storytelling tricks in order to do so. Poor old Giovanni Ribisi suffers most in this regard, being forced to engage in an exchange with Weaver that acts as a laughably clumsy lump of exposition. Throughout Avatar, Cameron's writing – in terms of his storytelling and his political points – lacks a degree of grace and subtlety, and his penchant for cheesy dialogue is frequently exposed, but in his broad-strokes way he does quickly shape the film into a compelling and surprisingly thoughtful adventure. As soon as Jake makes his first trip to Pandora's surface, the film finds a momentum that Cameron rarely allows to lapse. When he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), the beating heart of Avatar flickers into life, and between them, these two characters give the film an emotional backbone that pays dividends in the final hour.

That's the great thing about Cameron. He has all of this incredible technology at his disposal, some of which he and his team invented during the course of the shoot, but you never feel like he is simply showing off his new toys; every piece of equipment at his disposal is there to serve the narrative. He may be a fairly blunt storyteller, but he is also an absolutely sincere one, who doesn't lose sight of the fact that the characters are the key here, not the effects. The performance-capture technique has been taken to a new level as well, allowing the actors to breathe a real sense of life into the giant blue creatures they portray. Worthington is nicely grounded as Jake, while Saldana is marvellous as Neytiri, appearing to be far more animated here than the real thing was in the recent Star Trek. The strength of these performances and characterisations is vital to help us drop any scepticism we may initially have about their rather outlandish appearance, and to simply buy into the story. Avatar really makes us care about what is happening to the Na'vi and their world, which is an achievement that is beyond mere technology.

What happens to them is a "shock and awe" campaign led by Quaritch, a terrific villain who is played by Lang as a cross between Dr Strangelove's Buck Turgidson and Apocalypse Now's Kilgore. The stage is set for an almighty climactic battle, which once again proves that Cameron knows how to bring a film to a close like few other directors. There are numerous exciting set-pieces in Avatar (Jake's escape from a rampaging beast, or his attempt to tame a flying creature) but they are mere teasers for the extraordinary finale. Quite simply, Cameron is a master at directing action sequences, and his orchestration of Avatar's various battles is magnificent. These sequences are dynamic and thrilling, frequently occurring on multiple planes of action simultaneously, but there is never a hint of confusion in Cameron's work. He directs and edits with absolute clarity and maximum tension. I can't remember the last time I was as excited and involved in a Hollywood blockbuster as I was in the last 45 minutes of this one.

Ultimately, perhaps that's what I love most about Avatar, the fact that it is a massive, effects-heavy blockbuster movie that dares to be different. It is not a sequel or a prequel, it's not a remake or a reboot. This is something new; a genuinely ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of what is possible in cinema while still providing a mass audience with an entertainment that is both action-packed and politically and socially engaged. On almost every level, I'd say Cameron succeeds, and he has instantly set an intimidating new benchmark for blockbuster filmmaking, which few will have the imagination or the sheer audacity to challenge. Will Avatar change the face of cinema? Only time will tell, and right now I just know two things to be true – this is one of the best films of the year, and James Cameron is still King of the World.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review - Where the Wild Things Are

Can you make a feature film out of a children's book that tells its slim story in less than forty pages, using only ten sentences of dialogue in the process? It's possible, sure, but maybe I should change the first word of that question to Should rather than Can. Not every work of literature needs a cinematic adaptation, and Maurice Sendak's seminal Where the Wild Things Are – which has delighted generations of kids thanks to the simplicity of its storytelling, its dark undertones, and the beauty of its images – has spent almost two decades being pushed and pulled through the Hollywood machine, as various parties tried to find some way of translating the magic to the screen. This poisoned chalice eventually fell to Spike Jonze, who began working with novelist Dave Eggers on the screenplay in 2005. Four years and $100 million later, the film has finally limped into cinemas bearing the scars of a deeply troubled production. There is little magic to be found here; the whole thing just feels so terribly tired.

The deflating disappointment of
Where the Wild Things Are rather crept up on me, as the opening sets the scene perfectly. There's a painful honesty to the sight of 10 year-old Max (newcomer Max Records) playing alone in the snow, being ignored by his sister and left in tears when a group of older kids gang up on him. With his intimate, handheld camerawork, Jonze captures the loneliness, the fear, and the need of a parent's embrace that defines so much of our childhood's most emotionally turbulent passages. It's a brilliant and affecting sequence, as is the subsequent scene in which Max is comforted by his mother (Catherine Keener), who is herself struggling under the pressures of work. These moments feel so honest and real that it comes as a genuine shock when Max's pre-dinner tantrum escalates into a physical confrontation with his mother, prompting him to run out of the house and into the night.

Max races away from suburbia, into the woods, and he stumbles upon an abandoned boat, which he uses to explore further. After get lost somewhere in the vast expanse of water he sails into, Max finally locates an island, and clambers towards the mysterious lights and sounds emanating from the island's centre. This, it appears, is where the Wild Things are, and Max initially watches from the shadows as the beasts lumber around arguing and smashing their surroundings. The Wild Things themselves are beautiful creations, and thanks to Jonze's use of puppetry rather than CGI, they have a real physical presence and weight. Jonze and his crew have done a wonderful job of bringing Sendak's creations to cinematic life; I just wish they had made them a little more interesting. The Wild Things all seem to have sprung from different aspects of Max's personality, so Carol (James Gandolfini) represents his destructive nature, KW (Lauren Ambrose) is his compassionate side, Alexander (Paul Dano) is the timid, nervous side of Max, and so on, but they're one-note characterisations, who struggle to hold the viewers' interest.

The other major problem
Where the Wild Things Are has is that, for over an hour, nothing happens. Sure, the Wild Things, having appointed Max as their king, spend a lot of time smashing trees and building a fort, before their idyllic existence is undermined by petty squabbles and jealousies, but there simply isn't enough content here for a 90-minute film. The story just plods along down its meandering, repetitive path, and I'm not sure exactly what Jonze and Eggers are trying to say with this oddly alienating picture. They even struggle to keep the film visually stimulating; the sight of Max and Carol strolling through a desert landscape is spectacular when we first see it, but less so on its subsequent appearances. After the superb and potential-filled opening sequence, the only other part of Where the Wild Things Are that truly resonates is its moving climax, but you have to slog through a lot of empty noisiness to reach this point. Where the Wild Things Are is ultimately a hodgepodge of ideas and conflicting agendas; it has been made with real love and care, but it's cripplingly unsure of its own intentions. It may prove to be simultaneously too strange for kids and too simplistic for adults to truly embrace, although I suspect viewers of all ages may find it similarly boring.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Review - Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater must have leapt for joy when he laid eyes on Christian McKay. The British actor, who makes his film debut here, is perfect for the part of Orson Welles, and without his remarkable effort Linklater wouldn't have much of a movie. As it stands, he still doesn't have much of a movie, because McKay's pitch-perfect impersonation is rather undermined by some stodgy storytelling and a disappointingly uneven collection of performances. It's the Me part of Me and Orson Welles that is the film's biggest problem, with erstwhile teen idol Zac Efron failing to convince in his step up to more serious roles. He plays theatre-mad Richard, who is wandering through the streets of New York one afternoon when he happens to find a crowd gathering outside the Mercury Theatre. Orson Welles is just about to stage his legendary Julius Caesar, and we get to see how it came together through the eyes of this awestruck 17 year-old.

If Linklater had chosen to focus
Me and Orson Welles solely on the Mercury production of Julius Caesar, then I would have been a very happy man indeed. After all, in Eddie Marsan (who plays John Houseman) and James Tupper (Joseph Cotton) he has two actors who are capable of going toe-to-toe with McKay's barnstorming Welles without looking like also-rans, and the story behind the production that helped cement Welles' reputation as a theatrical genius – as with most stories surrounding this man – is a fascinating one. There are times when the film manages to whip up some semblance of backstage magic, and these occasions normally feature McKay's Welles in full flow. As well as looking and sounding uncannily like the great man, McKay beautifully expresses the arrogance, charm, wit and rampaging ego of Welles. We see him capriciously altering stage directions and cutting scenes from the text; we see him telling various cast members that they're "God-created actors" one minute, and threatening to fire them the next. In short, we see him doing whatever it takes to bring his play, his vision, to the stage, and creating in the process an atmosphere of chaos, constantly teetering on the brink of destruction, which appeared to be a state that inspired him like no other.

So we've got Orson Welles directing
Julius Caesar – who the hell cares about the romantic longings of a soppy teenager? Yet Me and Orson Welles spends a considerable amount of time following Richard as he woos ambitious theatre assistant Sonja (Claire Danes), before facing the inevitable heartbreak. In the shadow of Welles, this storyline feels so insignificant that I was itching for Linklater to cut back to the main event every minute he spent away from it. Claire Danes is pretty and effective in a slim part, but Efron appears lost and incapable of registering any of the changes his character undergoes. Disappointingly, Linklater seems to take his cue from his young romantic lead rather than McKay, and his direction is uncharacteristically lifeless. Only in the depiction of Julius Caesar's nerve-wracking but triumphant opening night does he inject the film with some verve, and in these scenes the picture briefly captures just a hint of the electricity that must have filled the theatre that night. That's the only time Me and Orson Welles lives up to its subject, though. A potentially great story about burgeoning theatrical genius has been watered down into a dull coming-of-age tale – and dull is something that no film about this man, set during this period, should ever be.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Review - The Road

I started to fear for The Road almost as soon as it started. The film opens with sun-dappled images of content domesticity, which is as far from the post-apocalyptic landscape conjured by Cormac McCarthy as one could imagine, although my fears were largely misplaced. This deceptively upbeat introduction is nothing more than a dream of a life long lost, and the film abruptly cuts back to reality, as a traveller known only as The Man (Viggo Mortensen) awakes into a far more desolate and hostile environment. In truth, The Road is a fairly commendable adaptation of a difficult novel. John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall don't try to put a positive spin on the material, they avoid lapsing into sentimentality, they don't attempt to explain the cataclysmic event that lead to this point, and their atmospheric representation of the book's world is remarkable. Aside from the slight expansion of some pre-disaster scenes involving The Man's wife, the filmmakers stick slavishly to the source material, so we are left asking the puzzling question – why does material that was so vivid and engrossing on the page often feel so flat on screen?

The Road is a simple tale of love and survival. A man and his son (Mortensen and the talented newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander through an ashen world, which has been forever altered by whatever disaster it was that bought mankind to the edge of extinction. All of their possessions can be contained within a single trolley, which they drag behind them as they move from one deserted location to the next, slowly heading southwards, towards the coast. The road they follow is fraught with peril, inhabited as it is by gangs of marauding cannibals, but the pair cling to the tiny sliver of hope that the coast provides, and to their own sense of humanity, in a world that seems to be without it. They're surrounded by darkness, but they're carrying the flame.

As written by McCarthy, The Road it is a harrowing experience, but thanks to the stark poetry of the author's language and the strength of the central relationship, it remains an oddly hopeful one. That core relationship is one thing the film gets unequivocally right, with Mortensen once again inhabiting his character – both physically and emotionally – with utter conviction. Bearded, emaciated and bedraggled, Mortensen plays The Man as a character who has gone past the limits of his endurance, but who is driven ceaselessly forward by the primal urge to protect his son, the only thing in the world he has left. Having been born into this world, The Boy has no knowledge of what came before, and he has retained a sense of innocence and naïveté. He is played in a refreshingly unaffected manner by Smit-McPhee, and between them, the two actors develop a powerfully authentic bond. In particular, Mortensen really makes us feel the unimaginable agony of a father who carries two bullets in his pistol, and who knows he may be forced to use one on his only son, to spare him from an even worse fate.

At one point, The Man holds the barrel of his pistol against The Boy's head and comes agonisingly close to pulling the trigger. This incident occurs during a particularly close shave with a group of cannibals, one of many set-pieces Hillcoat handles with confidence. In his previous film The Proposition, this Australian director proved himself skilled at establishing a richly involving atmosphere and at staging exciting, tense sequences; in fact, The Road is ultimately a collection of impressive standalone sequences. The filmmakers successfully portray The Man's relief when they stumble across a store full of supplies, or The Boy's perplexed delight at tasting a can of Coca-Cola (the first he has ever tasted). Likewise, there are great character turns along the way, with Michael K Williams giving appearing late on as a thief who is revealed to be every bit as desperate and vulnerable as the main protagonist, and Robert Duvall turning in an outstanding cameo as an elderly man they meet on the trail.

I can't help feeling that these moments never really cohere into a wholly satisfying film experience, though. In between those high points, The Road is sluggishly paced, and the flashbacks to The Man's past (in which Charlize Theron gives a perfectly fine, if superfluous, performance as his wife) are ill-advised additions that only serve to disrupt the film's momentum further. Other directorial choice are similarly counter-productive, with Mortensen's voiceover and the disappointing score failing to add anything of note to the package, and they all bear the hallmarks of a film that has struggled to find some way of expressing the depth and meaning of McCarthy's work in a truly filmic way. One always gets the sense that it's unfair to constantly compare a film adaptation to the book it has been adapted from, but what else can you say about a work that has not been made with enough imagination to allow it to take on a cinematic life of its own? It exists as a half-decent facsimile of a great novel, nothing more, and for all of its individually fine moments, Hillcoat's road ultimately leads nowhere.